Monthly Archives: August 2014
Chuck Wagon races on a hot day in northeast Oklahoma
Haying season 55-years-ago on the great plains of Oklahoma had to be the most terrible summer job in the world and about the only available means of employment for high school kids trying to earn a few bucks for back-to-school clothes and spending money.
Square bundles, which were long ago replaced with huge round bales, were spit out of a moving baling machine which we followed behind on a flat bed trailer pulled by a tractor. Using a hay hook we would snag the bales from the moving trailer and heave them onto the trailer. When the stack reached head-high, we would unload the hay in a hot, dusty hay barn for winter cattle feed. Just shoot me and get this over with. Haying was the worst job of my life. I did it one summer and the memory is still vivid today as the worst job I ever had.
It was approaching 100 degrees with a light breeze that only served to distribute the hot, dry air and here we are gathered around an already harvested hay field near Oologah, OK., to watch chuckwagons.
Thankfully, we were protected somewhat from the direct sunlight with a canopy but the smell of fresh cut hay, the wide-open flat prairie and the hot air, unfortunately, took me back to those days in the late 1950’s.
The chuckwagon races were sponsored by the Cowboy Country Fellowship Church whose members hold services in an open-air structure and will use the proceeds from the event to help finance a new sanctuary. It’s probably the only church you will attend where everyone wears a cowboy hat and boots. Not suits and ties, for sure.
Chuckwagon races are popular in the midwest where the national championships recently held in Arkansas attracted 20,000 visitors. A race at Calgary, Alberta, Canada during stampede week offers $2 million in prize money.
The sport has its roots back into the 1800’s when chuckwagons and cooks that accompanied huge cattle drives from Texas to rail heads in Kansas would hurry from one camp to the next arriving in time to start preparing the evening meal for trail weary cowboys.
Cowboys and cowgirls drive small or large chuckwagons pulled by teams of mules, horses, small ponies or cross-bred animals such as a mule and a shetland pony and race around a circular trail.
We stayed to watch the small wagon competition but relented to the heat and left before the big wagons raced with too many bad memories of days working the hay fields.
Gloss Mountains are unknown to many in Oklahoma
“moving on down the highway, moving ahead so life won’t pass us by.” Jim Croce
For thirty years I tried to outrun old age. It started with three and five mile runs then reached marathon length during the crazy days. Distance made no difference. I never succeeded.
Looking back at those years, I’m not sure it was an addiction to running that kept me on the road seven days a week as much as it was the need to be alone. With the exception of marathon training when running with friends and carrying on a three to four hour conversation helped keep the mind off the numbness and absurdness, I was alone on daily 30 to 60 minute runs.
That may be why the 40-mile drive west of Enid, OK., to explore the Gloss Mountains, was such an enjoyable excursion.
It’s flat in most of Oklahoma, really flat, and because there’s nothing but openness in every direction, even this nice four lane highway which has few travelers, adds to that feeling that we’re once again alone.
We are almost seven weeks into a cross-country, 10,000 mile RV trip west out of Florida and spending a few days visiting family in Enid. Otherwise, we would have never found this isolated landscape gem on a near deserted highway heading west almost to the Oklahoma panhandle. Although I was born and raised in the rolling hill-country of northeast Oklahoma, I didn’t know the Gloss Mountains existed. Some people in nearby Enid have never visited this place.
Because of the flatness, our first view of the mountains came miles and miles away. Wow. Actually, they are not mountains but mesas and buttes that appear to stick-up into the sky out of nowhere. In flat Oklahoma, they’re mountains, despite the geologists.
Although a state park, it is unmanned and the only building is a restroom. We are the only visitors. We are alone. Well, almost alone. There are signs in the parking lot to beware of rattlesnakes. A nearby pond is named Rattlesnake Lake. Not where I want to take a swim or a hike. Plus it’s almost 100 degrees outside; another normal day in Oklahoma.
The spectacular scenery makes Gloss mountains a unique Oklahoma State Park.
The Gloss Mountains have a high Selenite contest that micmics a shiny glass exterior.
The Gloss Mountains, sometimes referred to as the Glass Mountains, was named for the crystals and fragments of gypsum that weather out of the shale and shine like glass. They sparkle in the bright sunlight but difficult to capture in a photograph. They are only about 200 feet high but look much taller because everything around them is flat. Geologist refer to Gloss as the badlands probably because of the rugged, high topped mesas that spring up from the flat land.
This area was once part of the dust bowl that covered the four state area including Texas, New Mexico and Colorado. Today it produces an abundance of oil and gas and thousands and thousands of acres of farm crops, a result of irrigation, and cattle.
Indians roamed this great plains country for centuries, probably following the buffalo herds. To the east lies the well-known Chisholm Trail where cowboys drove huge herds of cattle from ranches in Texas north to Kansas rail heads.
The Gloss Mountains are a place to spend an afternoon marveling at the landscape, clearing your thoughts and being alone.
The road less traveled–Highway 412 west of Enid, OK., and not a car in sight.
Crystal Bridges Museum
A stainless steel sculpture entitled “Yield” by artist Roxy Paine greets visitors to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
The first major art museum to open in the United States during the past 50 years is in the unlikely town of Bentonville, Arkansas, population 36,800 and home to Wal-Mart.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is the brainchild of Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton who originally sunk $317 million of her own money and convinced the Walton Family Foundation to pledge an additional $800 million for an operating endowment, acquisition and capital improvements. Of course Ms. Walton can afford it. Her net worth is estimated by Forbes at just over $33.5 billion. And since the original opening the Walton Family Foundation has increased its contribution to $1.2 billion, according to published reports.
The full-service restaurant and coffee bar at Crystal Bridges.
Located in the mountains of northwest Arkansas and not far from the Missouri border, we joined hundreds of visitors from throughout the world to tour the art work for which Ms. Walton paid tens of millions of dollars and housed in 217,000 square feet of galleries. Other than the Ozarks, there’s not much reason to come here.
Ms. Walton told an art critic for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram “We didn’t have museums when I was growing up. The most important thing to me is to bring opportunities to people that don’t have them.”
And together with Wal-Mart, Crystal Bridges charges no admission fee making it an affordable experience for everyone. A survey taken two months after the museum opened found 80% of visitors were seeing an art museum for the first time in their lives, proving Ms. Walton’s plan is working. I stopped in downtown nearby Springdale for a haircut and when the barber learned I was from out-of-town, he said “I’ll bet you are here to see the museum.” He acknowledged he visited the museum soon after its opening and added, “that was my first visit to a museum.” He was in his mid-60’s.
The museum celebrated its millionth visitor after being open just 21 months, which is remarkable since the area is not known as a tourist hub and doesn’t have a major airline servicing the community.
We are headed west to California to join a 31-day RV caravan tour of 12 national parks and stopping here for a few days was not an inconvenience since Bentonville is just 62 miles north off I-40 on I-540. Plus the drive north through Fayetteville, home of the University of Arkansas, Springdale and Rogers offered very impressive mountain views and a few challenges for the RV. Creek Golf and RV Park at nearby Cave Springs will be our campsite for the next couple nights.
Crystal Bridges opened in late 2011 to much fanfare among the art world. The complex includes a series of buildings designed by Moshe Safdie, not only for its massive art collection, but includes a restaurant, meeting and classroom space, a library, sculpture garden, gift shop and a full service restaurant and coffee bar. There are also outdoor areas for public events and nature trails.
We took advantage of the free audio tour of parts of the museum collection on a pre-loaded I-pod, which was available at guest services. We marveled at the museum’s centerpiece, a landscape entitled “Kindred Spirits” purchased purportedly from the New York Public Library for $35 million. I recall how the New York press called the sale an outrage when it was announced the artwork was leaving the city.
There are also two portraits of George Washington, one by Charles Wilson Peale and purchased for just over $6 million and the other by Gilbert Stuart, an $8.1 million purchase. A portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife by John Singer Sargent cost $8.8 million. There are stunning paintings of Native Americans by Charles Bird King among the collection. All are part of the museum’s permanent collection.
Fans of American Art will also marvel at Ms. Walton’s collection. It will be one of those museums to visit again and again.
We leave here and head through Okalhoma, visiting family in Oologah and Enid before moving westward into Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and finally California.
Popular Tennessee theater showing; camping on the Mississippi
Cooking dinner outside the RV on the Mississippi River at West Memphis, Arkansas.
A wide angle view of the Mississippi River from the Green Knight.
Although we have traveled this route in previous years, it is our first time to stay at Spring Lake RV Resort in Crossville, TN. We were pleasantly surprised with a very nice campground offering long, level, concrete pull-in sites and a well-manicured grass landscape. Most campsites surround a large lake. Some sites came complete with smokers or charcoal grills and covered patio swings. It is the nicest campground we have encountered on this cross-country trip.
There was not much on the to-do agenda during our three day stay here. We attended an afternoon showing of the popular and long running “Smoke on the Mountain” musical play and walked through Tennessee’s largest flea market, purchasing a half bushel of hard-to-find fresh cranberry beans before returning to the campground.
Martha wrote in her journal that after watching “Smoke on the Mountains, I left feeling like I had just attended a Baptist tent revival with good bluegrass or mountain music and lots of humor.”
As usual, we travel and keep an eye on weather conditions. RV’s are not safe and few campgrounds offer buildings suitable for tornado shelters. A big front is passing through Tennessee that has already spawned tornadoes in Arkansas but most of the worst weather will be north of us and will leave thousands in Knoxville without power and many downed trees and some structural damage.
We left early the following morning with reservations at West Memphis, Arkansas, 333 miles on I-40. We passed through milepost 300 and coasted downhill in fourth gear on a 5% grade for five to six miles as we left the Cumberland Plateau.
The 840 bypass was taken around Nashville then connected with I-40 around busy Memphis on the northside and over the big Mississippi River bridge, avoiding I-240 which has a height limit on the old Mississippi River Bridge. Unfortunately, construction on the newer bridge and west side of the river forced us into narrow lanes with large concrete barriers on both sides. It has been a long, white knuckle trip.
We arrived at Tom Sawyer RV Park in West Memphis, Arkansas, early enough to set-up the grill and cook Alaskan sockeye salmon and fresh vegetables for dinner on a picnic table with an unobstructed view of the Mississippi River.
Finding plenty of fresh veggies along the roadside
Floridians are accustomed to year-round fresh vegetables because practically every vegetable is grown here and readily available. The sunshine state’s tropical zone in south Florida provides vine-ripe tomatoes, green beans, squash and other perishables during winter months. Proceed north in March or April when the last frost is just a memory and the central and north Florida zones are planted and awaiting a crop to mature in late May and early June.
Before leaving our home base in North Florida, we always stock the RV refrigerator with fresh vegetables from County Line Produce, near Hastings and at least one 50-pound bag of fresh table grade Sebago potatoes from Robert Revel’s Farm near East Palatka. For more than 20 years we have been buying fresh onions from a grower in Vidalia.
As we travel north, farmers in the colder zones on the climate maps start bringing in their crops in July and August and Mom and Pop home-grown vegetable stands are appearing on the roadside. Finding a place to park a 40-foot RV with tow car alongside the highway to shop these stands is not always possible so we grudgingly continue on down the road, wondering what we passed-up.
Fresh vegetables find their way to the grill at a campground overlooking the Mississippi River in West Memphis, Arkansas.
Our travels on this trip will take us through Georgia, as the Vidalia onion crop is maturing and then into South Carolina for fresh peaches. We happened on a farmer near Beaufort, SC., who had a you-pick garden full of tomatoes and corn.
In Galax, Virginia, we shopped at a farmer’s vegetable stand just south of Hillsville who had at least two acres of various heirloom tomato varieties starting to mature, including the popular Cherokee purple. Corn, green beans, cucumbers and squash were also ripe for picking. It is mid-July.
Robert Sells, who owns Cool Breeze Campground in Galax, VA., has about a half acre vegetable garden that he opened to campers to “help themselves.”
A week later in Blountville, TN., we noticed a hand-made sign posted alongside the highway advertising fresh tomatoes and found a farmer who grew only tomatoes. He was harvesting a dozen varieties, including a yellow tomato that equaled the red varieties for flavor.
Last year we traveled from Florida to southeastern Canada and it was almost like we were following the combines north to harvest the wheat crop because fresh vegetables were coming in along the route at the same time.
A colorful plate of grilled vegetables including squash, tomatoes, onions, peppers plus a baked potato and wild Alaska sockeye salmon.
Jonesborough, TN, capitol of the State of Franklin
From the second floor balcony of the historic Chester Inn built in 1779 in downtown Jonesborough, TN
We’re visiting Jonesborough, TN., today. It’s Tennessee’s oldest town and was once the capital of the State of Franklin. It’s a little known fact outside this area that this part of east Tennessee almost became the 14th state to be admitted to the Union but failed to get the necessary two-thirds votes in Congress for admittance. Jonesborough (also Jonesboro) was its capital city at the time.
With the RV under the watchful guard duty of our Golden Retriever (mostly shoes) , we take the tow car for about a 30 minute drive to Jonesborough for a self-guided tour of the historic little city.
The colorful Main Street in Jonesborough, TN has numerous antique and other shops, an old building that once served as the post office and a bank chartered in 1886.
Although once hopeful of being a burgeoning capital city, Jonesborough retained much of that period during the Revolutionary War and gladly shares with visitors. Today it is the seat of government for the county. Among its historic sites is the old Chester Inn., which housed many important people who visited this area in the early 1800’s and still stands today as a tribute to the city’s restoration efforts. Also the Christopher Taylor house, built in 1777 , the area’s oldest surviving structure.
A tourism information sign posted in front of the Washington County Court House in the Historic District of Jonesborough, Tennessee marks the Great Stage Road route which came through the town and carried visitors here from Washington D. C., and Nashville, TN. and points in between.
The Great Stage Road brought visitors to Jonesborough from as far away as Washington D. C., and Nashville, TN.
For those wanting to hear storytelling at its best, Jonesborough is also home to the International Storytelling Center and is located next door to the Chester Inn.
Wet weather follows us into east Tennessee
The storms came drifting across the Great Smokey Mountains from the west like they always do, dumping a bunch of rain on the western area of Virginia then stalled and made our day more interesting as we herded the Green Knight into east Tennessee on truck-choked Interstate 81.
It was wet when we left Galax and wet and muddy when we settled into a KOA 118 miles later in Blountville, TN. We asked for a drier site and management complied–except this one was a back-in with low hanging trees that scraped the top of the RV. The attendant climbed on top of Green Knight and with a chain saw, sawed off a couple of hanging limbs and we backed into the site without incident.
Our neighbors on both sides were young Texas families who were in Blountville installing a new natural gas pipeline. This place will be their home until November when the job is completed. Their futures beyond November are unknown.
Their small children lined up outside their fifth wheel camper and marveled at Heidi, our golden retriever, who takes over the cockpit chair while Martha and I are handling set-up duties. The kids and the dog can’t wait to get acquainted.
Heidi had playmates for two days before we moved three days later to a drier waterfront site on the Holston River near Bristol.
NEXT: The State of Franklin
WHERE WE ARE HEADED: This trip started in Florida, traveling almost 10,000 miles in four months through Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah and Colorado.
Bikes are for older folk who can’t run anymore
Life has gone full circle for the Hughes’s as it has for many baby boomers in this country. As youngsters, the Huffy bicycle (Schwinn if you could afford the higher price) was our most dependable and convenient source of travel around the neighborhood. It had two wheels, a handlebar and fat tires with red inner tubes. We filled the tires with free air from a gas station where the owner would also patch a punctured inner tube as a courtesy.
While most of the Creeper Trail between Damascus and Abingdon, Va., is under a shade tree canopy, this section near Alvarado Station at mile post 9 is open as the trail passes through private residences.
It has been at least 55-years, when I last climbed onto a bicycle–a little less for Martha. In between, we ran a few marathons, traversed to walking when the knees quit working and on advice from the doctor, have started moving back to bicycles. It was a fun ride while it lasted.
We are in Abingdon, Va., a great little city we have visited several times in recent years and with a little planning, manage to find our way here whether heading north or west out of Florida. It’s the beauty of RV travel–there is no such thing as “out of the way.”
A huge tree is carved-out for a flower bed along the Creeper Trail.
While we hate to backtrack, we will for towns like Abingdon. The town has several historically significant sites; was once part of the Cherokee Nation before the forced removal, and is also where the famed frontiersman Daniel Boone led settlers across the mountains to new lives in the western wilderness.
With more bravado than common sense, our first serious bike ride was a 17-mile “jaunt” along an old converted rails-to-trails route from Damascus to downtown Abingdon. More experienced and probably younger cyclists, will ride the entire 34-mile Creeper Trail route. starting in Whitetop and also ending in Abingdon.
A poor excuse for a selfie at a trail display in Damascus, Va.
A trail outfitter in Abingdon provides mountain bikes (the fat tire variety), helmets and transportation to Damascus. I asked for a bike with a gel-covered John Deer tractor seat.
The Virginia-Carolina Railroad Company started carrying stacks of freshly cut spruce from the forests of southwestern Virginia on a new rail bed through the communities of White Top, Damascus and later Abingdon, Va., around the turn of the century. No doubt some of these mountain top trees were destined for area furniture factories and lumber yards. At the time, Whitetop, Va., became the highest standard gauge rail station east of the Rockies. There were 100 trestles bridging gorges, creeks and a couple rivers.
Locals called the train the “Virginia Creeper” after a native plant that grows wild along the route. “A steam engine laboring up mountain grades with heavy loads of lumber, iron ore, supplies and passengers was also a “Virginia creeper in every sense of the word,” quotes a historian.
The last steam train was retired and replaced with diesel in the mid-1950’s and in 1974, the Norfolk and Western Railroad Company abandoned the line and the portion from the Virginia state line to Damascus was secured by the U. S. Forest Service. The cities of Damascus and Abingdon added the western portion and the Virginia Creeper Trail system was born.
On a previous trip to Abingdon, we walked five miles of this trail while bicyclists whizzed by announcing “bike on the left” as they approached from behind. Today it’s our turn to holler “bike on the left.”
As planned, with a tiny hard-shelled seat and a bike with at least 15 forward gears and handlebar brakes, we were dropped off at Damascus by the outfitter to begin the 17-mile trip down the mountain to Abingdon.
Initially, the route seems a little downhill, requiring brief moments of pedaling and frequent coasting. The one or two percent downhill grades change to one or two percent uphill often. This is not a 100 percent downhill trail. The trail follows a river for miles then ducks back into a tree covered canopy where the air temperature seems to drop at least five degrees. We pedal over old railroad trestles, pass through private farm lands where cattle and horses are grazing and huge vegetables gardens that are starting to bear fruit. Bikers are sometimes tempted to help themselves to fresh vegetables, says one gardener, despite signs asking them to respect private property alongside the trail.
We stop a couple of times for water breaks and enjoyed the high bluff scenery before reaching the Alvarado Station at mile post nine which has a railroad and train museum and the Old Alvarado Station, a private business serving food and drink to trail users. Further along where the trail cuts through a large open pasture, another farmer offered a bucket full of fresh vegetables to trail users.
A few miles from the end of the trail at Abingdon, the trail turns upwards–nothing serious, but noticeable after about 14-miles of pedaling. Sometimes the uphill grade is hardly noticeable but pedaling is almost constant. There is no coasting. We are both sweating and find ourselves taking more frequent water and scenery breaks.
Finally we arrived in downtown Abingdon and celebrate with a couple pictures of an old steam locomotive and a half block later, return the bikes to the outfitter.
This is an easy 17- mile bike ride even for baby boomers like us who haven’t been on a bike in years. Not sure, however, that we’ll do it again any time soon.
Our choice of eateries in Abingdon, VA
THE TAVERN: This quaint downtown restaurant is located in the town’s. oldest building. It dates back to around 1779 and was originally used as a stagecoach inn and tavern. The steaks are excellent and so is the rack of lamb.
DON’T MISS THIS: The Barter Theatre is also located in downtown Abingdon. It opened in 1933 and is one of the longest-running professional theatres in the nation. Check this website for current show schedules and tickets:
DANIEL BOONE’S DOGS AND THE WOLVES: Almost across the street from The Tavern is the Cave House, now home to a local group of artisans. Behind the house is a cave where legend says wolves emerged and attacked Daniel Boone’s dogs. The cave is below an old barn and only visible through a piece of lattice. But it’s something that will impress the grandkids.