National Historic Site

A Couple of Weeks in the Rear View Mirror

The posts we are sharing here on our travel blog are on a delay with our current location; in other words, we’re behind with posting about our adventures once again!  I’m writing this from Flagstaff where tomorrow we pick up Claire & Kyle from the airport to commence our rafting trip down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon.  But a lot has happened between our last post and today that we’re trying to capture because this travel blog also serves as our personal trip journal.  Fred has some great photos and is finalizing a couple of posts on our visits to Great Sand Dunes NP and Rocky Mountain NP — places we’ve been in the past two weeks — but before we get to those, let me share a few of our other adventures, albeit viewing them in the rear view mirror.

Fort Laramie NHS — Yet another fort we have had the pleasure to visit, this one in eastern Wyoming, Fort Laramie’s history dates back to 1834 when it was established as a fur-trading post bringing trappers and traders together.  By the mid-1800s, as weary westward-heading pioneers followed the North Platte River along the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails, they found Fort Laramie a good place to rest, repair their wagons, and resupply for the next portion of their journey.  The fort was acquired by the U.S. Army in 1849 as tensions with Northern Plains Indian tribes grew.  Finally, it was abandoned in 1890 and homesteaders took over the upkeep of the little settlement until local public agencies came along to protect it permanently.  Today, Fort Laramie National Historic Site tells the story of commerce, westward expansion, and the Indian Wars; it is a blend of beautifully-restored buildings and foundations of what once was.

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Journey Through Nebraska and South Dakota

Ever since returning from our short “vacation from our vacation” in L.A. to see Garrison Keillor’s last show, we have been turning it up on national park and park unit visits.  We are taking advantage of the nice summer weather by spending the better part of July in the north central part of the U.S., a.k.a. the Great Plains grasslands area which, incidentally, we just learned is the largest ecosystem in the U.S. — who knew?!  Anyway, we are having a busy three weeks in Nebraska and the Dakotas before we make our way over to Billings, Montana, from which we will fly back up to Alaska to visit the final two [of the eight up in Alaska] national parks we missed during our trip up there last year.  But I’m getting ahead of myself — Nebraska and South Dakota first.

NPS Passport Cancellation StampI’ve decided to do something a little different with this post.  Instead of uploading photos from this Nebraska/Dakotas leg of our trip, I’ve decided to share drawings from my sketchbook.  For those of you who don’t know, the National Park Service Visitor Centers sell passport books and then each NP Visitor Center has passport stamps for inking into your passport book.  Instead of the traditional NPS passport book, I have created my own; I’m actually on my third book of sketches and stamps now — I figure I’ve drawn over 200 pages for all of the national park units that we’ve visited.

Here are my renditions of what we have seen in Nebraska and South Dakota:

My sketch of Scotts Bluff NMScotts Bluff National Monument – Gering, NE — The Oregon Trail represented promises of a new life out west.  The California Trail promised gold.  The Mormon Trail lead many seeking religious freedom to the Promised Land out in Salt Lake City.  All three trails brought early pioneers through Nebraska where, after weeks of travel across prairie grasslands, they met up with 800′ bluffs.  Thousands of wagon trains passed by the daunting bluff known as Scotts Bluff which was accompanied by a tricky climb through Mitchell Pass.  Also passing by here, in the short-lived era of the Pony Express [1860-1861], riders changed horses at the Scottsbluff station.

My sketch of Chimney Rock NHSChimney Rock National Historic Site – Bayard, NE — Before they got to Scotts Bluff, settlers saw this iconic rock monolith.  Visible for miles around in the flat Nebraska landscape, this eroded remnant of a butte reaches 325′ into the sky and was certainly a prominent landmark for the westward-bound settlers.

During our two-day stay in this area I couldn’t help but imagine what it must have been like to travel across the country in a bumpy wagon train — the dust from the dry tracks of the wagon trains that came before… the foul smells of the oxen… the unpredictable weather that no doubt included rain, sleet and snow… terrible terrible sickness and frequent death that beset travelers not up for such a strenuous trip… the list of unpleasantries goes on.  And yet in the name of “Manifest Destiny,” travel across the country these pioneers did, in search of a better life.  I guess I shouldn’t complain about my small closets in Charley, now should I…?


My sketch of Agate Fossil Beds NMAgate Bluffs Fossil Beds National Monument – Harrison, NE — Rich deposits of fossils have been found in this area by paleontologists suggesting that ancient but now distinct creatures once roamed in this area.  Given the volume of fossils here, it is believed that during a period of drought animals concentrated around the scarce watering holes that were available.  Over time they ate up all the vegetation around these few water spots, and then in the heat and drought grew too weak to walk farther out for food, thus they died by the watering holes, became covered in mud, and were then preserved as fossils.  Among the skeletons found here are strange looking creatures including a small rhinoceros, a carnivorous bear-dog, a land-dwelling beaver, a bad-ass hog, a tiny gazelle-camel, and other Miocene-epoch animals.  For over 100 years now paleontologists have been studying these fossils which has helped answer questions about the past.

A second part of this national monument is an incredibly impressive collection of American Indian artifacts given to one James H. Cook, a frontiersman in this area, by people of the Lakota (Sioux) tribe.  In 1874 Cook met Chief Red Cloud and the two developed a steadfast friendship over decades, during which time Cook received many gifts from the Indians.  Today the family’s collection belongs to the park and many priceless items are on display that tell of the Native ways of life.


20160717_185203Jewel Cave National Monument – Custer, SD — There are several cave systems in this area, including the nearby Wind Cave National Park — another Jolly Out There destination, of course — and each is known for something specific.  Jewel Cave is named for its gem-like calcite crystals that sparkle when illuminated.  These are just one of the many speleothems, or cave formations, that can be seen when touring the caves.  While Frostwork is the signature formation, others include Draperies, Dogtooth spar, Gypsum flowers, and even Popcorn and Bacon.

The only way to see the caves is through ranger-guided tours.  Jewel Cave offers a couple of touring options, but visitors only see a small portion of the 180 miles of mapped passageways; the rest of the cave has been set aside for research and is not open to the public.  Jewel Cave is the third longest cave in the world but it is still being explored and new passageways discovered by volunteer cave explorers.


My sketch of Mount Rushmore NMMount Rushmore National Memorial – Keystone, SD — What started as a preposterous idea to draw sightseers to the state of South Dakota became a work of art for the ages.  This is Mount Rushmore, the magnificent American symbol that honors our past presidents who were dedicated to the birth, growth, development, and preservation of our nation.  

Initially conceived to be a parade of Indian leaders and American explorers who shaped the frontier, the idea for a huge granite sculpture as a gateway to the West was met with skepticism and even hostility.  Undaunted by public opinion, champions of the idea called upon master sculptor Gutzon Borglum, a Danish (yay!) immigrant who was just beginning to achieve fame for his “big” work.  Borglum changed the location and even the subject of the initial idea, and in doing so elevated the memorial to a national cause.  

Calvin Coolidge dedicated the memorial in 1927 and work commenced.  It took 14 years to complete the four heads carved high into the granite outcroppings where the Black Hills rise from the plains [and incidentally, the original name of the rock Borglum chose was Mount Rushmore so the name stuck], but only six of those years involved actual carving on the rock face.  Borglum died in March of 1941 but his son supervised the final work which stopped in October 1941 on the eve of the U.S. entry into World War II.  Mount Rushmore overwhelmed its critics and continues to dazzle the world with over two million visitors each year.

My sketch of Minuteman Missile NHSMinuteman Missile National Historic Site – the grassy plains of SD — “At the end of World War II — the first and only wartime use of atomic bombs — the United States possessed only six nuclear weapons.  After the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb four years later, the arms race took off.  Within four decades, the global arsenal had multiplied to a peak of around 65,000 weapons.”  The display inside the Visitor Center at the Minuteman Missile NHS charts the world’s nuclear stockpile and illustrates how the United States , its allies, and its enemies went to the brink and back during the Cold War.

Fortunately for mankind most of the missile silos have been deactivated and destroyed, but a couple of these 1960s missile sites were preserved and turned into a museum where visitors can explore the significance of the arms race, learn about Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), and understand their role as a nuclear deterrent that maintained peace and prevented war.  Delta-01 is the launch control facility and a couple of miles away, Delta-09 is the old launch facility, both preserved in time.

#48 and #49

#48 – Iowa.  #49 – Nebraska.  We have now visited 49 of the 50 states on our Out There journey!  Our last one will be North Dakota which we have slated to visit in July, but let me back up and tell you how we came to visit the Hawkeye and Cornhusker states and what we did in each one.

This past Sunday we left Mom’s in Wisconsin and began our journey west in Toad (the Subaru Crosstrek that we tow) to reunite with Charley, our RV, which we had left in Salt Lake City a little over six weeks ago.  [We decided to leave Charley behind — our longest separation from him to date — because we were spending a lot of our ‘visit back in the Midwest’ time in Chicago and we didn’t want the burden of figuring out where to park a 30′ motorhome in the big city; it just seemed easier, not to mention faster, to trek back in a car rather than an RV towing a car.]   So Sunday… after crossing through beautiful southwestern Wisconsin and enjoying the spring blossom season for the third time in 2016 — lucky us! — we joined up with I-80 which traverses the country from New York City to San Francisco.  Incidentally, on our journey east back to Chicago in mid-March, we learned at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum and Boyhood Home (that’s a mouthful!) in Abilene, Kansas, that we have Eisenhower to thank for our nation’s Interstate system!  Back to I-80… it took us through Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming before returning us to Salt Lake City and Charley yesterday/Thursday late afternoon.  So five days, several stops, and 1,600 miles later we are now back to living our gypsy lifestyle in Charley, and with two more states added to our tally.

In Iowa, we visited the following two national park units:

Effigy Mounds National Monument — is an area located along a scenic stretch of the Mississippi River in northeastern Iowa that protects a variety of ceremonial and burial mounds created long ago by the Native Americans who lived in this area.  Still considered sacred by many local tribes, some 200 effigy mounds are found here.  Many of these mysterious mounds take the shape of bison, birds, bears and other creatures common to the area between 1,400 and 850 years ago when it is estimated these mounds were created.  As we always do, we took in the overview movie in the Visitor Center before setting out on a short walk in the woods to see some of the mounds.


Herbert Hoover National Historic Site — preserves the birthplace of Herbert Hoover, the 31st president of the United States.  He was born in 1874 in a humble, two-room cottage which stands on the site today, along with some other community buildings which have been restored or replicated, including the 1853 one-room schoolhouse, the 1857 Society of Friends (Quaker) Meetinghouse, and a blacksmith shop that represents one like his father ran.  Although he was only in West Branch, Iowa, for the first ten years of his life (his father died in 1880 when “Bert” was just six and his mother died four years later, leaving behind three orphan children who were sent off to live with various relatives — Bert was sent to Oregon), Hoover was greatly influenced by his early years here.  The family’s Quaker religion instilled in him generosity, hard work, and service to others, and informed his life of public service as president (he served one term during the Great Depression) and in the years after his presidency (he lived until age 90) as he worked for social justice and worldwide peace.  Herbert Hoover and his wife, Lou Henry, helped plan what is now this national historic site with the intent of providing an understanding of the life and work of this great man who leaves behind a remarkable legacy.  They are buried together on the property, and his presidential museum and library are also found here in West Branch.


Talia, Katie & I in Lincoln
Talia, Katie’s daughter who’s a freshman at Nebraska, Katie and I

Katie P’s house — is the place we visited during our drive across Nebraska.  Katie is a DDD sorority sister who hails from Lincoln.  We met as 18-year-old freshmen at the University of Wisconsin.  We’ve stayed connected over all these years, and it was wonderful visiting with Katie, her son Jack, her daughter Talia, and her beau of about three years now, Mike.  Katie cooked us a great dinner, took us to a campus ice cream shop — does she know Fred or what?!? — and provided these two weary travelers with warm and cozy beds.

We were going to visit more of the great state of Nebraska, but the cold Fred developed in Wisconsin left him without any energy whatsoever, so we decided we’d have to visit Nebraska’s national park units at another time….  Just one state left!!

So many park units… so little time to write about them!

We are on a tear — ten national park units in nine days!  We’ve seen so many wonderful park units on our drive from Salt Lake City to Chicago!!  We were very excited to travel through Colorado where we visited the Colorado Monument, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Curecanti National Recreation Area, Old Bent’s Fort National Historic Site and Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site.  And then there was Kansas where we visited Fort Larned National Historic Site and the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site.  Next came Missouri where we visited the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site.  And finally we made it to Illinois where we visited the Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Lincoln Museum, and the Old State Capital State Historic Site.  Although not a national park property, we also visited the Dwight D. Eisenhower National Presidential Library, Museum and Boyhood Home in Abilene, Kansas.  And finally, we traveled on or over several national historic trails including the Santa Fe Trail, the Lewis & Clark Trail, the California National Historic Trail, the Oregon National Historic Trail and the Underground Railroad Freedom Network.  Yes, that’s a lot of places to visit — I hope I remembered them all!

It’s killing me, but I’m not going to have the time to write specifically about each of these fabulous park units, but they do each deserve attention.  The forts were wonderfully re-constructed and we loved seeing how they were appointed with period-appropriate pieces, props, and supplies.  We had dinner with NPS ranger friends April and Cris when we visited Curecanti NRA — such a treat to see them again in a different park from when we first met each of them last August!  We spoke with and learned from several other incredibly knowledgeable and helpful interpretive NPS rangers at several of the other sites who made their pieces of history come much more to life — too many to name and thank, but we know you and remember you and thank you!  [Dexter A. at Brown v. Board — we look forward to seeing you up in Denali in July!]

Alas, we are in Chicago now and there’s so much going on here as we prepare to celebrate Fred’s big birthday, see friends and family members, and celebrate the upcoming wedding of daughter Claire and almost-son-in-law Kyle at two bridal showers in the coming couple of weeks.  These incredible park units are now in our rear view mirror but we loved visiting all of them and we would recommend each and every one of them for making our country’s history come alive.

Where are the Jollys heading next?

National Park Unit Visit Status - 3/14/16
National Park Units — pink highlights are those we’ve visited as of 3/14/16

This is a map we have hanging up inside Charley, our RV.  It shows all of the national park units, and the pink highlights show which ones we’ve been to.  Can you tell what area of the country we haven’t visited yet?  Well that’s about to change as we make our way back to the Midwest for a few family events here in late March and early April.

We’re routing through southern Colorado, Kansas and Missouri, then up through Illinois on our drive east, then when we return to Salt Lake City [where we left Charley] in mid-April we will travel through Iowa, Nebraska and the northern part of Colorado.  This trip will get us to three of the four remaining states we have yet to visit on our Out There trip — Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska — and we expect to get to another 12 or so national park units, including another one of the big Parks — Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

This summer we’ll pick up our remaining state, North Dakota, and we’ll visit all but one of our remaining national parks by the end of September.  We’ve saved the most difficult park to get to — National Park of American Samoa — until Spring 2017 after the rainy season down in the islands.

Expect lots more miles by our end-of-the-month tally, and watch our Out There By The Numbers counts continue to go up in our other categories, as well.  And on we travel….

Three National Park Units in Oklahoma

As we look to wind up our two-turned-into-two-and-a-half-year road trip in October of this year, we are now paying more attention to routes, remaining national parks (16 at the time of this post), missing states (five) and figuring out how to efficiently get to all of our remaining sites before turning Charley back to the Midwest and calling our trip “complete.”  It was with this in mind that we pointed north to Oklahoma.  Being in Texas, we were close, and we weren’t sure how we’d loop back to this area in these next several months if we didn’t do it now.  So with that we drew up our plans to visit Oklahoma, our 46th state.  [Our remaining states now include only Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and North Dakota.]

We took in all three of the national park units in Oklahoma during our time there, each being very different in place and purpose.

Chickasaw NRAPublic art to honor the Chickasaw in Sulpher, OKChickasaw National Recreation Area — Located in the town of Sulpher in Southern Oklahoma, this NRA preserves natural mineral springs and nearly 10,000 acres of forest land and recreational lakes.  Initially preserved as Platt National Park, it is today Chickasaw NRA in honor of the Chickasaw Indian Nation and in recognition that the lake as a recreation area serving northern Texas and southern Oklahoma.

As with many old national park units, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) had a hand in building many of the picnic shelters, campgrounds, dams, and bridges here.  It is, indeed, a beautiful area — from the town’s public art that honors the rich Native American history to the Travertine Nature Center built over Travertine Creek to the hiking trails, springs and lakes.  We are, once again, grateful that many saw fit to protect this special place.



Oklahoma City National MemorialOklahoma City National Memorial — This solemn place remembers April 19, 1995, when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was destroyed by a bomb in the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in U.S. history.  One-hundred sixty-eight people were killed in the attack and now 168 chairs sit empty next to the reflecting pool representing those who died.  The memorial also remembers the survivors, the rescue workers, and all those who have been forever changed by this event.  A survivor wall, memorial fence, children’s area, and old elm tree that survived the blast also sit on what is now sacred soil and make up this memorial.

Written on one of the twin Gates of Time, “We have come here to remember those who were killed, those who survived and those changed forever.  May all who leave here know the impact of violence.  May this memorial offer comfort, strength, peace, hope, and serenity.”  Amen.

Oklahoma City National Memorial



Washita NHS
Washita Battlefield National Historic Site — The word ‘battlefield’ should be removed from the official title of this national park unit; this was a massacre, not a battle, of an Indian village full of defenseless women and children by the U.S. Army who was directed to make war on the Cheyenne people.

In the mid-1800s, decades of conflict had been playing out across the southern plains that are now Oklahoma.  In the name of Manifest Destiny, early settlers moved westward though these lands, assisted by the newly-laid railroad lines that brought more and more people through the area.  Feeling threatened by the Native Americans who were protecting the land that rightfully belonged to them, tensions increased as fundamentally different cultures clashed over who should live on these lands and how they should be used.  As the U.S. government attempted to force Native American tribes to reservations, inter-tribal battles took place as did rebellions by revenge-seeking young Native warriors avenging the attacks against their ways of life.

Washita NHSWhile the exact events of the morning have been debated, it is a fact that peace-inclined Chief Black Kettle, his wife, and scores of Cheyenne woman and children were killed in a surprise attack at dawn’s early light on November 27, 1868 at the hands of Lt. Col. George A. Custer and his men.  In a particularly brutal move, Custer also ordered the slaughter of some 800 Indian horses and mules, a move which crippled the remaining Cheyenne communities.  Washita NHS protects this sacred site, and while it is not a busy park unit, it is a very important place for reflecting on the price of progress and the cost of peace….


For a more in-depth accounting of this tragedy, read here.

“I still believe in a place called Hope.”

Clinton House NHSClinton's First Home

In his 1992 Democratic National Convention speech, William Jefferson Clinton ended where it all began for him — in a place called Hope.  Arkansas, that is.

He was born William Jefferson Blythe, III, in 1946.  His father died before he was born, forcing his mother to go back to school to support them.  While she was in nursing school in Louisiana, Little William lived with her parents in Hope.  It was in this, his grandparents’ modest home, that he spent the first four years of his life.  Virginia and little William moved to Little Rock after she finished school and that city claims him, too, but it was here in this place that he learned many of the early lessons that defined his life and his presidency.  After his mother remarried, Bill changed his last name to Clinton to honor the man who raised him as well as have the same name as his half-brother, Roger, with whom he was very close.

You know the rest of the story… Bill Clinton married Hillary Rodham, became the Governor of Arkansas, and went on to become the 42nd president of the United States; he was elected to two terms — 1992-1996 and 1996-2000.

Inside the Clinton House Visitor CenterHis grandparents’ house where he got his start is now the President William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home National Historic Site — indeed, it’s a mouthful!  We visited it as we passed through Hope — it’s a small town that’s just a mile off the interstate in the southwest corner of Arkansas.  The home is normally open for public tours, although a recent fire closed it off, so we visited the Visitor Center in the house next door.  Also on the property is a memorial garden dedicated to Clinton’s faithful and hard-working mother, Virginia.

Three More National Park Units to Start 2016

After nearly two months of holidays, family visits, Fred’s Toura Obscura and Laura’s trip to Europe, we are now back in the saddle of visiting national park units once again.  We have tallied up three more park units in the new year, all of them in Arkansas, and really enjoyed all that we saw, did, and learned in these places.  Here’s the story of our first one:

Little Rock Central HS NHS

Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site

Separate was not equal in schools nor most places back in the 1950s, even though it was supposed to be according to the Supreme Court ruling of Plessy V. Ferguson back in 1896, where, after slavery was abolished, the Court established “separate but equal” doctrine.

In 1954, the Supreme Court overturned “separate but equal” in Brown v. Board of Education stating that black and white educational facilities were “inherently unequal.”  The first significant test of this ruling came at Little Rock Central High School where nine brave black students enrolled in a white school and thus forced desegregation.  These six young women and three young men had to each find his or her own way to keep going despite unrelenting verbal abuse and physical harassment by racist locals as well as some of their white classmates.

Little Rock Central High SchoolAt the start of the 1957 school year, The Little Rock Nine, as they became known, were the only black students who volunteered to be the first to go to an all-white high school in what was to be a planned gradual integration in Little Rock.  But Orval Faubus, the populist governor of Arkansas, was more concerned with reelection (sound familiar?) than upholding the new desegregation law.  Crying “states rights” and claiming violence would erupt if blacks went to the white school, Faubus called in the Arkansas National Guard who blocked the black students from attending.  Barred from school, the Little Rock Nine studied on their own for a couple of weeks but harassment continued and the issue didn’t go away.  Two weeks into the school year, a court order by Federal District Judge Ronald Davies ruled against Faubus’ use of the Guard and had the troops withdrawn, leaving only local police to protect the students and handle the angry crowds.  

Central HS gains national attentionAs timing would have it, the Little Rock crisis occurred in the infancy of TV and it was among the first news stories to be filmed.  Now getting unwanted daily publicity on the national news, images of mobs screaming at one of the black female students and others of the beating of a black newsman prompted President Eisenhower to act.  The nation was becoming embarrassed by these scenes that cast American society in a negative light.  Eisenhower backed constitutionally-granted judicial and executive authority by federalizing the Arkansas National Guard and sending in 1,200 troops from the 101st Airborne Division three weeks after the school year began to restore peace and allow the students to return to school.  The next day the Little Rock Nine entered the school with the escort of these federal soldiers.

While life continued to be difficult for these students, they showed tremendous commitment and courage as they rode out the school year together.  Eight of the nine completed the entire school year and the one who was a senior graduated with his class at the end of the year.

Little Rock Central HS NHSBecause LRCHS is still a fully functioning high school with more than 2,000 students attending, the Visitor Center is across the street and the school is closed to site visitors except for pre-arranged group tours.  Also part of the property is the Magnolia Mobil service station which became the impromptu press base from which reporters covered the story.

American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”  This is certainly the case at Central High School in Little Rock.

Inside the Visitor Center at Central HighAfter visiting the Visitor Center and stepping back in time to take a much deeper dive into this story, I couldn’t help but reflect on the status of equality, or lack thereof, in some of our schools today.  As a Chicago resident for 14 years and a prior board member of an organization working in the inner city Lutheran schools, I’ve had the opportunity to be in several Chicago schools.  I have also shared stories with friends about their children’s experiences.  From my own personal observation, segregation still exists, as does a very wide gap between the wealthy mostly-white suburban schools and the mostly-minority city schools.  So while progress has been made, the struggle for civil rights still continues to this day….

For additional information and much more detail about the pivotal role this school and the town of Little Rock played in the struggle for civil rights in our American history, click here.

Fred’s Toura Obscura

The gladdest moment in human life, me thinks, is a departure into unknown lands.                              

Sir Richard Burton


On December 3, 2015, Laura and I embarked on a trip, albeit to different destinations. Laura was heading to Amsterdam to meet up with our niece who was studying abroad in Grenada, Spain, and who was able to take a long weekend to spend time with her aunt. Having left Charley in San Antonio at our friend’s ranch, driving Toad I dropped Laura at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, started traveling west, and began what I would soon refer to as my Toura Obscura.

Toura Obscura because my plan was to hit a number of lesser-visited places as I made my way from Texas up to Chicago to rendezvous with Laura before Christmas. During my 11-day trek I made a total of six stops and took in many interesting sights. My first stop was Roswell, New Mexico, of Area 51 fame (a flying saucer was said to have been moved to this secret military instillation in 1947 after it crashed in the desert), and while I did not see any unearthly beings, a tour of the International UFO Museum and Research Center was fascinating and does make one think about what might be out there. From Roswell it was on to Lincoln to walk in the footsteps of William Bonney, aka, Billy the Kid, and tour the jail and courthouse from which he escaped and in the process gunned down two sheriff deputies. On this trip my route also took me through Missouri and the stomping grounds of Harry Truman in Independence, and Samuel L. Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, in Hannibal. How wonderful it was to revisit these two individuals and the significant contributions that each of them made to our country.

I spent a day in each of the above places, but there were two other spots where I spent the most time: Carlsbad Caverns National Park and Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. The below posts about my visits to these two places, including photos, are on our website: To find these posts and photos, along with our other New Mexico posts, simply go to our website and select “New Mexico” under the section, “Where We’ve Been,” on the right side of the home page.

Dante’s Realm

Humorist Will Rogers once described Carlsbad Caverns as, “The Grand Canyon with a roof on it.” Laura and I had visited this rather off-the-beaten-path national park in New Mexico in March of last year, but I wanted to go back to take another shot photographing it. The caverns are one of the most extraordinary sights that one will ever see and were easily one of the highlights thus far of this odyssey for me. I ended up spending three days on this return visit deep in the caverns photographing one incredible vignette after another.

Since the elevator into the caverns was not working, I had to walk a 1 1/4-mile trail that winds down into the earth and leads you to what is called the Big Room. As noted by Will Rogers, this room is big, really big. I had read that 10 football fields could fit in it, but after walking around it a number of times, I think that underestimates its immense size. However, it is not just the vastness of the area that makes it spectacular, but also the incredible calcium-carbonate formations that fill the chamber. The many shapes and sizes look otherworldly, and the park service has done a wonderful job of accentuating them with perfectly positioned soft lighting.

Of course, what goes down must come back up, and while I certainly did not have to travel through Dante’s nine levels of hell to reach the surface, it was still a heck of a hike to the entrance of the cave, and one challenging cardio workout. But all in all, well worth the journey.

The Birds of Bosque

It is cold and there is very little sound coming from the darkness in front of me. But I know that they are there because they landed there at sunset the night before. As the first quiet light touches the sky behind me, the gathering of large birds begin to talk and ready themselves for another day in the fields. There are some 4,800 sandhill cranes currently in the refuge on this December morning, and a large number of those are in the pond before me. The number of cranes that migrate to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge each winter can number as many as 17,000, but numbers are down this year due to the warmer winter up north. The birds simply do not have to fly as far south to find optimal wintering conditions.

As the glow of the sun behind the mountain in the east slowly intensifies, the activity of the cranes begins to ratchet up as a large swarm of snow geese converge on the pond and circle above it, frantically darting up and down and left and right, and slowly descend toward the water and land among the large birds. The clamor generated by the cranes and geese is deafening. An instant before sunrise the snow geese “blast off” as one and fly directly over my head in one giant wave and fly toward the sun and the fields of corn in another part of the refuge. While the number of geese at this time of year is less than the 50,000 that will typically migrate to the refuge later in the winter, it is still quite substantial. As the morning dawns, the cranes also begin to lift off in small groups and circle toward the fields. This will continue for almost an hour until all of the birds are gone, and the pond will then sit empty until that first crane returns at the end of the day.

This was actually my second trip to the wildlife refuge, which is located outside of San Antonio, New Mexico, as we had visited the refuge during the annual Festival of the Cranes back in November, 2015. With both of these visits, I was up at 0415 each morning to get into the refuge well before sunrise to catch the “fly out,” and was also in the park until after sunset to see the “fly in” when the birds return to their night roosting spots. Both the fly out and the fly in are truly extraordinary spectacles to experience.

So this was my Toura Obscura. A 2,000 mile trip undertaken by Toad and me over 11 days in early December to parts unknown between America’s southwest and the “city of the big shoulders.” While I did not see the world’s largest frying pan or largest spool of twine, or tour Graceland or gaze in amazement upon the palace made of corn, I did venture off of the beaten path and see a slice of this incredible country that most do not have the opportunity to experience, and it has only left me wanting more.