Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Musings on our Lifestyle

written Wednesday, December 31, 2008
New Years Eve
Rockport, TX

Tonight marks more than the turning of the calendar to a new year -- it's also the completion of 18 months of fulltiming in an RV for Dar and me. Wow, a full year and a half! It certainly doesn't feel that way.

When we started in July of '07 each of us had different thoughts about how long we could do this. Dar thought the minimum was five years and it'd probably be much longer. I was thinking, oh, maybe two years and, if things went well, maybe a year or two more. But after a year and a half it really feels like we're just beginning. We've made the big adjustments... being away from family for long periods; living in 300 square feet and without the clutter of so much landfill-destined stuff; having 50 different campsites during a year. I'm now more in synch with Dar on this question. We'll see how long the money holds out.

During 2008 our thoughts changed from "we're on vacation mode" to "this is our normal living mode". It doesn't feel at all strange to wake up in the morning, a little groggy, trying to figure out where we are. We know we'll stop traveling at some point but we don't pine for a traditional house -- not yet anyway. We're in the groove. This is what we have right now and we're enjoying it too much to think about alternatives. We're experiencing a real sense of freedom that's very addictive... if you let it be so.

There are so many things to see in the USA it's impossible to see them all. Our preference from the beginning was to focus on rural and small town America and minimize exposure to the big cities. I've found the feel of one big city is pretty much like the rest thanks to homogenous institutions like Outlet Malls, Starbucks, Network TV, and WalMart. In our explorations we prefer natural wonders and history. We prefer staying in wooded well separated campsites instead of RV Parks. You might say we want to experience the old, more locally focused, America.

One of my goals when we started was to find that place we'd like to live once our vagabond days are over. Looking back that goal was probably driven more by the weather than anything else. Foolish me. I've come to realize, over the past year and a half, that there isn't a single perfect place; that there are compromises everywhere especially when it comes to weather. I've also come to realize that in a lot of ways, like Dorothy said, there's no place like home. People... friends and family... are much more important than the weather. Well, what d'ya know, it took this guy 57 years to figure that out?? Just call me a slow learner.

T

Monday, December 22, 2008

Rockport Musings

written Monday, December 22, 2008
Rockport, TX

I'm in one of those unproductive periods that pop up every once in a while. Writing in the blog is easy when we're out exploring historic places, national parks, dramatic terrain, and the like. But often, when we park in one spot for an extended period of time, my mind takes a break and my writing muscles start to atrophy. A friend of mine claims there is no such thing as writer's block -- only laziness. That may be. But whatever the reason there's been a paucity of posts to the Sabbatical blog this month.

I thought it might be interesting to recount a few statistics about our lifestyle in 2008. These all relate to where we park the bus-house -- campgrounds, RV Parks, and boondocking -- and some statistics about the bus-house itself. And these are all for the year 2008:

Number of Camps/Moves:  59
Average Stay: 6.2 days
Longest Stay: 44 days (In Wisconsin for Wedding)
Total Cost of Camping: $4,911.10
Average Cost Per Day: $13.42
Most Costly Per Day: $31.00 (California -- where else?)

Bus-House Miles Driven: 9,941
Gallons of Diesel: 1,310
Miles per Gallon: 7.72 mpg
Cost of Fuel: $4,953.35
Average Gallon: $3.78/gal
Cost per Mile: 0.50/mile

Considering that my last property tax bill for one year in the western suburbs of Chicago was almost $8,000, spending $10,000 for camping and fuel, two of our largest expense categories, isn't too bad.

T

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Congratulations

witten Monday, December 15, 2008
Rockport, TX

Mom

Carol Mae Hoch is my Mom. This past Friday, December 12th, she officially retired after more than 30 years of service to the Meals On Wheels Program in Beaver Dam, WI. During those years, with high standards and a passion for the program, she was responsible for recruiting volunteers, scheduling, finding replacements when necessary, and generally making sure that all the hot meals prepared by the local hospital kitchen would be delivered around the city to those unable to fend for themselves. The program doesn't just deliver nutrition, it delivers human contact, it delivers hope. She and Dad also delivered meals for the program every week, something they'll continue to do in the future.

And, if you hadn't already guessed, she did all of this as a volunteer, getting "paid" only with the satisfaction of having helped those in need. She was honored during a luncheon this past Friday.

Congratulations Mom on a job well done!

Thom

Monday Morning in Rockport

written Monday, December 15, 2008
Rockport, TX

First thing this morning I'd like to remind readers that the front page of our website (www.tdhoch.com) is updated every day. As opposed to this blog, which is updated with a new post only when there's something interesting to write about or when I feel like it, the front page is a quick daily summary of our location, the weather we're experiencing, a brief "What's New?" section about what we're up to, and a photo or two which I try to make interesting. So if you have a link that takes you directly here, to the RV Sabbatical Journal, you may want to change that link so it'll take you to the front page first. Once there, the blog is only a simple click away.

Last week, on Friday, the front page had a tribute to my Mom for her more than 30 years of service to the Meals On Wheels Program in Beaver Dam WI. But I realized later that because the front page of our website isn't saved anywhere -- when it's updated the previous day is lost, gone forever -- there is no permanent record of that tribute. So to remedy that problem I'm going to do a separate post immediately following this one that covers the essence of what I wrote last week.

Life around the RV Park here in Rockport has been a little mundane and I'm falling into a routine that I'm not particularly proud of. First, I'm not exercising every day as I should -- and there's absolutely no excuse for it. Certainly not the weather. When we lived in Illinois I'd be out walking  sub-freezing mornings on snow covered sidewalks and roads, slipping and sliding my way to what I hoped would be improved health and longevity. Lately I've been sleeping later and when I do awaken, find myself stuck to the computer screen -- sometimes for hours. The massive amount of stuff that's available online is truly amazing and it's easy to blow great gobs of time chasing it. Each day I read large portions of 5 or 6 different newspapers. I carefully check the weather around the country on sites that contain detail and forecasting tools available only to professionals a few years ago. There are edgy news oriented blogs and online magazines with well-written articles you can't find anywhere else. There are online forums for any interest you can think of... I belong to a number of them that cover various aspects of fulltiming, motorhomes, and RV'ing. Then there are millions of personal blogs out there... I read at least 6 or 8 each morning.

Yikes! What am I turning into? What am I missing? I think I "need a life"! I think a few changes are in order.

T

Saturday, December 6, 2008

In Rockport Early

written Saturday, December 06, 2008
Rockport, TX.

It's way past time for an update. I think my last post to the blog was almost a week ago... way behind again.

In my last post we were getting ready to leave Texarkana and move south. Because our reservations in Rockport for the holidays had us arriving on the 12th, we had a good week and a half to kill along the way to the Gulf Coast -- about the right amount of time for a stop in Austin to see the State Capitol and the LBJ Library and Museum at the University of Texas.

So on Monday, December 1, we escaped from Shady Pines RV Park near Texarkana and headed south on US-59. The agreed upon route for the day had us picking up I-20 west near Marshall, to US-271 to Tyler, around the west loop to TX-31, which we could take all the way to a Corps of Engineers campground on Navarro Mills Lake, about 30 miles northeast of Waco. The plan was to enjoy the Corps park for a couple days, if it was decent, before heading down to the Austin area for the weeks main event. But fate intervened and the plan changed on the fly.

First, let me explain our thinking about the holidays. While our lifestyle is nomadic and most every week we're moving somewhere new, the idea of settling in for the Christmas and New Years Holidays makes it possible for Dar to exercise her drive to decorate the bus-house with colored lights, a small Christmas tree, and all kinds of other stuff. It allows us to get closer to a holiday family -- all the other campers here at the RV Park. And it allows us to linger in a place where there's a good chance the weather will be good and warmer than most of the continental U.S.

We really hit it off with the group at Sandollar Resort last year even though we were only here for less than a month. By the middle of January we were back on the road, heading west, and exploring West Texas and the Big Bend area -- and man-o-man, it was cold.

The entire state of Texas is tilted toward the Southeast and the Gulf Coast. Most all big rivers run from the northwest toward the Gulf in the southeast. Conversely, any route to the north and west is an uphill climb. For instance, in Rockport we're sitting at a few feet above sea level. By the time we got to Marathon in West Texas we were over 4,000 feet. And elevation means it's gonna be cold in the winter -- we hit a low of 6f degrees one morning in Marathon. It was all I could do to get Dar out of bed to make coffee that morning.

Anyway, back to our thoughts for this winter. Back in September we decided to do the Holidays in Rockport again and, if space was available, to spend up to two full months -- December and January. This would allow the world to warm a bit before setting off on further explorations in 2009. Sandollar Resort, like most RV parks, has some sites that they rent out monthly and others that are daily/weekly. Monthly sites are a much better deal at about half the cost of daily/weekly sites. Last year we had one of their weekly sites which are more available due to the higher price. When we made reservations earlier in the fall all the monthly sites were spoken for, so we reserved the same weekly site and put our name on a waiting list for a monthly.

Monday, as we were driving down TX-31 on the way to Navarro Mills Lake the phone rang. It was Sandollar Resort in Rockport letting us know that a monthly site had opened up and would be available until February 1. Perfect! After about 2 minutes of deliberation we let them know we'd take it and could be there in two days.

Where TX-31 intersects with I-45 I pointed the bus-house south and we pressed on to the town of Madisonville, TX where we overnighted in a WalMart parking lot.

The next morning, Tuesday, we continued on I-45 South to the Houston area, picked up the Sam Houston Toll Road, circled around the west side of the Metroplex, and caught US-59 West. After another hundred miles or so, we stopped in Victoria for the night.

Wednesday morning the drive into Rockport was 65 miles but complicated by strong gusty winds. By 1pm we had the toad disconnected had eased into our site. But with all the reunion greetings it took the rest of the day to get settled.

So, here we are for nearly two months. Even during our extended stays in Vancouver, WA. and in Wisconsin, we have never been in one place for two full months. In a way, this will be an experiment -- the suppression of a need to travel and explore, to find what's waiting for us over the next mountain range. But I like Rockport. And Dar likes Rockport. Good People. It's not pretentious and there's something about being right on the Gulf. Two months will evaporate and we'll be off on new adventures before we know it.

T

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Ready to Move

written Sunday, November 30, 2008
near Texarkana, TX

If we accomplished nothing else during our stay in Texarkana it was to confirm that this "Ark-La-Tex" area (as they commonly refer to it) isn't going to be on our short-list of places to live someday. There's just nothing we saw that would cause us to delay leaving. A few years ago Mac Davis wrote a song about Lubbock TX that applies here, if I may paraphrase: "Happiness is Texarkana in my rear view mirror."

Yesterday, Saturday, the weather broke and a bad case of bus-house fever drove us out on a short exploration of the area. Just south of our RV Park is the Wright Patman Dam and Lake, another COE project. There are 4 COE campgrounds around the lake, one of which is top-notch and will be on our list of places to stay if we ever break down passing through this area in the future. We also explored the Dam, as I find these massive structures amazing in their scale and the amount of effort expended to build them. They will certainly be among those enduring things that'll survive our civilzation and give future archeologists something to study and wonder about.

The drive around Texarkana was just depressing. On the way into the central downtown area on Hwy 59 and 93, mostly the south side of town, there were more abandoned structures than inhabited ones. The lucky ones were boarded up, but all in various stages of deterioration -- eroding monuments to the natural law that things tend to move from a state of order to a state of disorder.

We'd heard about the Texarkana Post Office -- it's supposed to be the only Post Office in the United States that straddles a state line and has two zip codes. Since it's the main tourist attraction in the area we had to see it. It's downtown, right in the middle of Stateline Blvd. -- the road bends around the building, northbound lanes on one side, southbound on the other. OK, it was Saturday, but downtown was largely abandoned by everyone except questionable characters lurking about. After a few quick photos we drove up Stateline Blvd. to the north. As you make your way along this road Arkansas is on one side, Texas on the other. It was quickly apparent that the Texas side is "dry" as every liquor store we saw (and there were a lot of 'em) was on the Arkansas side. Throughout the South there's a patchwork of liquor laws that complicate life for people from Wisconsin and those who think a glass or two of wine in the evening is medicinal. We manage.

Anyway, the north side of town is somewhat better than the south. This is where the big shopping center is and most of the restaurant chains have located. We made a quick stop for a few supplies and headed back to the bus-house.

Today, Sunday, we're getting ready to pull out Monday morning. Our destination is another COE campground near Waco where we'll spend a few days on our way South. We have almost two weeks before we're scheduled to arrive in Rockport and we'd like to spend some time along the way in Austin to visit the State Capitol and the LBJ Library & Museum on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin.

T

Friday, November 28, 2008

A Rainy Spell in Texarkana

written Friday, November 28, 2008
Texarkana, TX

It's been a quiet couple of days here in Texarkana. Yesterday, Thanksgiving Day, we stayed in. Since it was cloudy and, at times, drizzly, it was a perfect day to veg, watch some football, and work on getting our big dinner ready. But the football game, Tennessee v. Detroit, was so bad I turned the sound down and used the glow from the TV only to help me see the crossword puzzle I worked on. The poor, sad Lions haven't won a game this year, and may well go win-less through this entire season. Whether it's business or sports Detroit doesn't seem able to get a break these days.  Maybe the Lions can be included in the auto industry bailout?

I wonder if the financial crisis we're going through is having an impact on professional sports? It only seems logical that it would as the support of business has to be critical to the various leagues cash-flow. It's not individuals that keep pro-sports going... it's business, and you can bet business has got to be cutting back on expenses that have marginal value, like pro-sports.

We whipped up a traditional Thanksgiving dinner which turned into quite a feat for such a small kitchen and very limited counter space. But we got it done and it turned out darned good if I do say so myself.

The rain is supposed to continue today so we'll see if there's something we can find to explore while staying dry.

T

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Crisis with our Economy and our Way of Life

written Wednesday afternoon, November 26, 2008
Texarkana, TX.

I've been spending some time every day reading and trying to understand this economic crisis we're all in. More and more people, including the new President Elect, are saying this is an immense problem of historic, almost biblical, proportions. While there's a tendency, a human need, to believe the future will be like the past -- reliable, predictable, and, hopefully, better -- it's looking more and more like this will change our way of life for many years into the future.

For your consideration:  First, this well written article by Tom Friedman of the New York Times. It's worth the five minutes it'll take to read.

(Link to Friedman column "All Fall Down")  Click to read

Next, here's an excerpt from an important article on Bloomberg.com. Written by Mark Pittman and Bob Ivry, it provides some information that few of us know and less understand.

(Link to Bloomberg.com article by Pittman and Ivry)  Click to read.

Once all that soaks in you'll be looking for the scotch bottle.

T

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Texarkana

written Tuesday, November 25, 2008
not far from Texarkana, TX.

Well, we're another hundred miles further South and determined to keep "running this play" until we find some warm weather. The cool Midwest Fall had the "freezing line" dropping South about as fast as we were moving the last few weeks, and while I'm not complaining too much, there's a growing need to get the shorts on and soak up some sun. Yesterday my Dad sent a copy of his own "out the window" picture from Beaver Dam. Yowzer! It looks like another early winter for Wisconsin. Last year they had record snowfall of over 100 inches. I really hope the sun comes out and it warms up for the rest of the winter -- they need a break.

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Meanwhile, further South, the drive down from Little Rock went well. I put 77 gallons of good old #2 diesel in bus-house today and, amazingly, paid the least per gallon since starting this endeavor in the summer of '07... just 2.56. I'm not celebrating too loudly as these low prices will not last long and they are really not good for our country in the long-term. The only way to stimulate development of alternative energy and wring more oil out of ever deeper places is to keep the price higher in order to make new energy projects work... to provide risk-takers with a return on their investments. Wildly swinging oil prices just add uncertainty and encourage investors to walk away. I'll gladly pay more for fuel if it secures a better future of our kids and grand-kids.

We set up camp at a very neat and clean RV Park here in the Texarkana, TX. The weedless lawns are edged and evenly trimmed. The roads and pads are all clean crack-free concrete. In fact, it's almost too clean and neat, and certainly a change from the natural woodsy Corps of Engineer Parks we've enjoyed staying at. But this is a case of "dressing up" for Thanksgiving. Variety is nice and we've learn to appreciate all kinds of places. It spices things up a bit. And it's also functional in some ways. It's been a few weeks since we've been able to do laundry, and having full hookups makes that possible. We'll be here through the weekend before continuing southward.

Tomorrow, Wednesday is supposed to be a little warmer and partly cloudy. I'm not planning anything.

Stay warm Mom & Dad!

T

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Biggest Dam Bridge of All

written Monday, November 24, 2008
Maumelle COE Park near Little Rock, AR.

Monday, Dar and I loaded our bikes onto the Toad and drove about 10 miles to a trailhead for the famous Arkansas River Trail. The good citizens of the Little Rock area have built this extensive trail system over the last few years and we were itching to "give it a go". There's something liberating and free about riding a good trail through a natural landscape, along a river, through woods or forest, or even a good desert. We do it whenever we can.

Throughout the country local and state governments have converted old abandoned railroad rights-of-way into these marvelous trails where one can walk, run, or bike through the countryside without fear of being run down by some old vision-impaired guy driving a 45 foot motorhome. Of course, before you send me hate mail, it's also possible to be run down by young mindless texting teenagers, or middle aged depressed drunk guys. I just don't believe bikes and trucks/cars/campers belong on the same road, and that's why we almost always ride on trails specifically for bikes and pedestrians.

This trail is about 20 miles in total length. It forms a loop that starts in downtown Little Rock, crosses the Arkansas River on a recycled railroad bridge to North Little Rock, proceeds upstream along the north bank through parts of town, an old abandoned rock quarry, a couple of large parks, and eventually to the site of the Corps of Engineers Murray Lock & Dam about 8 miles upstream from downtown Little Rock.

At the dam, a new bridge, opened in 2006, was built on top of the dam expressly to carry the trail over the river. Referred to as the Big Dam Bridge, it's the longest pedestrian/bike only bridge built for that purpose in the United States. At over 4200 feet long, it rises 65 feet above the river and 30 feet above the dam and lock. When we crossed over, which we did twice -- once each way, the wind was steady at 20 mph and gusting higher. Being that high in the middle of the river in those kinds of winds was a hoot. I enjoyed it thoroughly, I think Dar did too.

As the trail winds it's way back to downtown Little Rock it shares space on city streets in some areas. We didn't do that part, choosing instead to make a U-turn and head back over the Big Dam Bridge and back to our car downstream.

The Big Dam Bridge and the Arkansas River Trail... highly recommended! Some pictures from our day should be online in a day or so.

----------------------------

After more than two weeks in the Little Rock area I'm feeling like I belong here. I know my way around town, the airport, the big shopping centers. I have a local car mechanic. I know people at a car rental agency. We have friends here. I can get my way around downtown. Isn't it amazing how much you can learn in just two weeks?

We've enjoyed our stay in LR (we locals refer to Little Rock this way). I think we'll be back soon.

T

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Bill Clinton Museum

written Sunday, November 23, 2008
Maumelle COE Park near Little Rock, AR.

Back in the Spring of this year, as we traveled eastward from Oregon and Washington, our exploration theme was to follow the Lewis & Clark Trail. As I wrote yesterday, themes put some organization and objectives to our travels -- they help set a path and highlight obvious places that need to be checked out.

Since leaving Wisconsin in October, we have multiple themes for our travels. Seeing as many State Capitols (as we did Friday) is one. Visiting as many Presidential Libraries and Museums is another.

So yesterday, Saturday, Dar and I trekked back downtown and spent the afternoon at the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Center and Park. The building is set in a new city park hard on the banks of the Arkansas River, which was previously a run-down warehouse district. Because a theme of Clinton's campaigns and administration was "a bridge to tomorrow", the building was designed to appear like a bridge reaching out toward the Arkansas River. Some locals refer to the building as the "bridge to nowhere".

In the past few years I've become more aware and pay attention to architecture and building design. I'm certainly no expert but I have opinions. (ah, opinions, that great democratizing element of the non-professional. Like Jimmy Durante used to say about jokes, "I've got a million of 'em!") Have you ever noticed how you can often date buildings that were considered "modern" or "revolutionary" at the time they were built? There are some buildings built in the late 60's on the campus of the University of Wisconsin that were considered "cutting edge" and "the look of the future".

Photo of the Humanities Building on the U.W. Madison Campus.

Humanities on the UW Campus Madison

Now, after a few decades, it's clear they have failed the test off time. They look like huge expensive mistakes, they're not very functional, and there's a growing sentiment that these things need to be removed and replaced -- after a mere 40 years -- before future generations start asking "what were these guys were smoking?". They'll be a short-lived monument to an architect who was trying to exceed his/her abilities and had no sense of classical style.

Those glass encased things that tower over and dominate most big city skylines are further examples of this. There is nothing natural or beautiful about them beyond their shear size, scale, and cheap space -- in my humble, uneducated, opinion.

Anyway, back to Bill's Museum. As we drove onto the grounds and I got a good look at the structure, I pondered. (a friend of mine ponders a lot -- claims pondering is a largely lost practice. I've been trying to emulate him and ponder some everyday.) Will this building stand the test of time? In 40 years, or 100 years, will it be considered fresh and functional?... a classic structure that's pleasing to the eye?... that flows, fits in with it's surroundings, and will cause future onlookers to somehow NOT want to stop looking at it? Or will it be as out-of-place, dated, ugly, and abandoned as the old railroad bridge that currently sits adjacent to the property? I don't know. But my opinion is that it'll be dated and look out-of-place in the not-to-distant future.

Photo of the Clinton Museum.

Clinton Museum in Little Rock

All that building stuff aside, we both love history and spending an afternoon walking down memory lane at another of the 19 Presidential Libraries scattered around the country. These are not libraries in the traditional sense, but more repositories of the papers, records, and paraphernalia of a specific President's terms in office. They're really more museums than libraries.

The exhibits are usually designed in a time-line fashion, so you can walk, peruse, and remember your way through that President's life. Of course there's a lot of emphasis on the time in office -- world events, legislative initiatives, foreign leaders, and results -- all as seen and interpreted by the President himself. It's good to keep in mind as you journey through this history that there are other interpretations of what happened and why. Presidential libraries are one means that a past president can, in some ways, attempt to influence his place in history. They are a past President's after-the-fact campaign for a good perception in the minds of future generations. For example, there was only one small panel that referred to impeachment, and it was under a theme of "Power Struggle with Congress".

Often, these libraries bring in other, unrelated, exhibits to help draw people in. The Clinton Library was full of customized motorcycles, "choppers" as they call them, that are really more works of art than they are functional motorcycles. A few of them look like they'd be nearly impossible to ride, and if not impossible, very uncomfortable. We enjoyed seeing the diversity and imagination of the guys that build these things. They really are works of art.

We enjoyed the afternoon thoroughly.

T

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Arkansas State Capitol

written Saturday, November 22, 2008
Maumelle COE Park near Little Rock, AR.

On Friday, yesterday, Dar and I drove down to the State Capitol in downtown Little Rock. The day was clear and brisk under a bright blue sky.

For all the traveling we've done over the years, and especially since we started fulltiming in July 2007, we've only been to a handful of State Capitols. It didn't become a theme of ours, an objective, a goal, until this leg of our journey. Most fulltimers have what I call "themes" to make their explorations more interesting and to provide some structure and organization to their travels.

Here are a few themes fellow travelers have told us about: major league ballparks, National Parks, highest point in each state, over-nighting in every State, fishing the major rivers in each State, various lists of museums, and, of course, State Capitols. There are many more of course -- lists limited only by your imagination.

Invariably, there are standards or requirements that go along with these themes. For instance, with State Capitols, is it enough to just see the building?  To drive or walk around it?  Or must you get inside, take a tour, and snap some photos? It's up to you. Our State Capitols theme requires that we get inside, take a tour -- guided or self-guided, and take both interior and exterior photos. Our requirements for putting States on our list of places we've been to is that we stay overnight and perform at least two voluntary bodily functions. I think that's all I'll say about that.

This visit to the Arkansas State Capitol will be our 6th that meets our minimum requirements. Even after seeing this small number there's a similarity to most of these stately old buildings that becomes evident. The architects and builders of most capitols west of the Appalachian Mountains were influenced by the US Capitol in Washington DC, and it shows. Every State, with the exception of Nebraska, has a bicameral legislative branch of government which necessitates a large chamber, meeting space, for each. Invariably, these two chambers are placed at the extreme ends of the building. There's usually a rotunda under a central dome of some kind which provides a sense of power, importance, strength, and possibilities. The executive branch, the Governor, has a large chunk of space in each Capitol, as does the Supreme Court representing the judicial branch of government. Other functions are scattered around.

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It took the good people of Arkansas an amazing 16 years to build this building. Political wrangling, fiscal restraint, and weak leadership and vision caused a number of suspensions, stoppages, of the project. After the cornerstone was laid in 1900, progress stopped for three years. Governors came and went, contractors were hired and fired, the oversight board was replaced a number of times, architects changed. Other stoppages occurred for various reasons. If it weren't for problems (ceilings collapsing, water leaks, etc) with the old statehouse a few blocks away, where the business of government was housed since the 1830's, the project may well have been delayed even longer.

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I'm not an expert on State Capitol Buildings, having seen only 6 now, but my impression is that his one, while stately and impressive, is not very ornate and doesn't include much of the art or symbolism that we've come to expect and have seen in most of the others. The exterior is all light colored limestone. The interior floors are mostly light, almost white, marble. The walls are mostly the same marble. The ceilings provide some variation and break up some of the monotony. There are plenty of pictures of past governors and photo collages of the elected representatives and senators from each year. We could only find 4 small murals way up near the ceiling and had found no information about what they represent or who did them. Christmas decorations gave the building a spark of color that wouldn't be there the rest of the year. It's a building that's no-nonsense, that's all business, that reflects the practical nature of the people that directed it's design and construction, and indirectly, the hardworking, economical people of Arkansas.

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Incidentally, the Old Statehouse still exists, and we toured it after the State Capitol. That old building has a colorful history that includes war, murder, and the location of the election night party when Bill Clinton was first elected President. It's now a museum.

T

Friday, November 21, 2008

Solutions in Search of Problems

written Friday, November 21, 2008
Maumelle COE Park near Little Rock, AR.

The rental car I used the other day had a "feature" I hadn't come across before. There is no ignition key. There is no place to even put an ignition key. So how does one start a car without a key? Well, what you have is a fob, a "clicker"-thing similar to the ubiquitous keyless entry do-dads we've all been carrying around for years. I'm guessing that this is another example of the use of technology that finds it's way into our lives only after it becomes the low-cost alternative to the old way of doing something. In this case, all the electronics are probably less expensive than the mechanical keyed switches. I'm only guessing.

So, how does one start a car with one of these marvels installed? Apparently, the little key fob you carry around is somehow "sensed" when it's within a few feet of the car. Once it's sensed, it's possible to just push the "start/stop" button on the dashboard and the car is supposed to start on it's own.

When I picked up the rental car, someone drove it around to the front and delivered it to me -- with the engine already running. I drove off. The first time I went to start the engine myself, at the repair shop where the Blazer was being fixed, I was stumped. The car seemed to recognize the fob, I'd push the start/stop button, some dash lights would flash, but the car wouldn't start. Hmmm.

Feeling like the old geezer I've probably become, I had to swallow my pride and ask the mechanic for help. (Well, back in MY day, we had a simple key, you see, and you'd put this key in the switch and turn it and the motor would spin to life, By-Crackee!) It was probably the same way someone felt when confronted with a key and switch back when going around to the front of the car and hand-cranking the engine to life was the normal way to start a car. (These old-timers sure are good for laughs!)

So, what was this rube doing wrong? Very simple... I wasn't stepping on the brake. With this new system, it's necessary to step on the brake in order for the engine to spin to life -- probably a safety "feature" to keep kids from pushing the button and driving off while Mom is in the convenience store picking up milk. My recent cars, this ten-year-old Blazer included, will start without stepping on anything. I can reach in and start it without even being in the seat if I'd want to. I'm sure the mechanic rolled his eyes and shared the story with everyone at coffee the next morning.

So, was there a problem with the old keyed switch? Does anyone see an advantage to this new system? What happens when the fob-thingy's battery dies? Certainly the car ain't gonna start!  In the old key-switch days people would hide a spare key in a wheel-well or under the bumper so if the primary key is lost when someone steals your coat at the bar, it's possible to retrieve the spare key and still get home without having to call your spouse and having her find out you're NOT working late at the office. In the old days, if I lost a key I could go the hardware store where they'd make a new key for $3.25 -- I'll bet a replacement fob-thingy is a LOT more than $3.25. Why was it necessary to go down this electronic route?

Like so many other applications of technology in our life these days, many of them are solutions in search of a problem... answers to questions not being asked... complications of the simple. Just because it's possible to do something doesn't mean it should be done. I have a suspicion one of the reasons these things happen is driven by marketing and is done to sell cars. When your neighbor drives up with a new car and shows off this amazing thing that doesn't need those old fashioned keys anymore -- well, you'll be fighting an image war (you Luddite... you rube!) with yourself, your pride, and your family, until you, too, have one of the latest and most coveted automotive technology gizmos. It's only us old-timers who don't care about the latest fashion and fads.

Alright, I'm done with the rant now. I think it's time for my nap.

T

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Mountains and Sucking Toads

written Thursday, November 20, 2008
Maumelle COE near Little Rock, AR

The day started clear and cool, and we were looking forward to our first exploration since coming down with colds the past week or so. The objective was to drive a scenic route on small back-country roads in a generally northwest direction from our camp to the area referred to as Toad Suck. It's along the Arkansas River and about 24 river miles upstream from Maumelle Park. The same destination using Arkansas's finest country roads would be over 40 miles away.

The first place we stopped was Pinnacle Mountain State Park. There we learned about the geology of the area. The center-piece of the park is a 1,011 foot high conical shaped peak that dominates the surrounding landscape. The river level is about 300 feet above sea-level, so the peak rises about 700 feet above that. (I know, not much of a "mountain", but it was fun nonetheless.)  After a quick stop at the visitors center where we learned of trails that lead to the top of the peak, we headed off to the trailhead for the West Summit Trail.

A sign at the trailhead said it'd take about two hours to complete the trek so we headed off (and up) at noon. At first, the trail was a well used path of crushed rock and dirt that ascended at a manageable rate. They've broken the trail into 10 segments and installed small signs numbered from 1 (near the bottom) to 10 (at the top) which allow hikers/climbers to monitor their progress. At about the half-way point, the slope increased proudly and the path changed to a primitive stair-like climb from one boulder to the next. The trail is well marked but it was still necessary to make personal decisions about which precise route to take. You're basically climbing up a pile of huge rocks, hopping from one to the next, following a general path to the top.

The hike/climb was a test for muscles that hadn't been used lately. Rubber-legs and all, we made the summit after about 50 minutes. We soaked in the view, the warm sun, the cold wind, and took a passel of pictures. The trip down was quicker and allowed different leg muscles to get their workout too. It was a good hike on a perfect day.

Since the assault of Pinnacle Mountain wasn't in our original plans, we hadn't taken any sustenance except water. By the time we were back on the road starvation was becoming a concern. I thought we'd surely find something along the remaining route to Toad Suck. But that was not to be. This part of Arkansas is very rural.

We proceeded up Hwy 300 through Roland, Monnie Springs, Little Italy, Wye, and Bigelow. The road was winding, hilly, and pleasing to the eye. But food was in short supply on that route. It wasn't until we were at the foot of the Toad Suck Lock & Dam where we found a small convenience grocery to ease the now-screaming pangs of hunger.

The Toad Suck area is near Conway, AR., a significant town of about 50,000 people. All the action must be in Conway, because there's little going on in Toad Suck. In fact, other than the Lock & Dam, a COE campground, and the convenience store, things pretty much suck in Toad Suck. We did stop for some pictures, including the requisite photos with the "Toad Suck" sign, before pointing the car in direction of home. Due to the lengthening shadows we chose a quicker but more frantic route down I-40 on the east side of the river back to Little Rock.

I-40 was a mob scene. It was packed with traffic, much of it semi-trucks rolling at 75 and 80 mph... cars going faster. Are lower fuel prices liberating people to drive as fast as they can, while they still can?  Poking along in the slow lane at 70 we had made it over half way back when, suddenly, the Blazer's engine just quit -- abruptly and completely decided to stop running! Man-oh-man! What's wrong now?

Regular readers know we call the Blazer our "Toad" (we tow it... towed... Toad... get it?). We speculated that the Toad didn't find anything humorous in going to Toad Suck, and, hearing what we both had to say about the place, decided to give us a little demonstration of dominance... a reminder of how critical a Toad can be to our happiness and well-being. We'll always remember that it was on the day we visited Toad Suck that our Toad sucked.

What would we do without cell phones? After bailing out of the Toad and getting ourselves well away from traffic, it took only a few calls to arrange a tow. Call it "good karma", or going with the flow, or luck, we actually felt fortunate that the Toad stopped breathing when and where it did. Considering the much less accessible places we were just earlier today, the time of day it happened, and the flow of events that brought us to a group of people (tow truck operator, mechanic, rental car company) that were concerned, helpful, personable, and professional, things could have turned out far worse.

Despite my initial concerns, I agreed to have the tow truck driver take us to a mechanic he works with not far from where we broke down. Even though the clock was well past 5pm, his normal closing time, the mechanic worked at diagnosing the Toad's problem. But even if he found the problem, parts wouldn't be available until Thursday and we'd have to find a rental car for a day. I found an car rental office not far away and the mechanic had one of his helpers schlep me over to pick up a car.

We got back to the bus-house about 7pm, where Dar had put a pork tenderloin and vegetables in the slow-cooker earlier in the day. So, despite a hic-up in the daily plan, we still had an excellent, albeit well-done, hot dinner waiting for us when we got home.

By the way, the mechanic did find the problem before we left but, as expected, parts would have to wait until morning. It looks like a problem with the ignition system -- an electronic module that controls the coil and spark to the plugs just up and quit. It looks like Toad will be back on the road by Thursday afternoon.

T

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Maumelle Park

written Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Maumelle Park near Little Rock, AR

Yesterday, Monday, we had planned to move from Burns Park, where we'd been staying for the past week, to Maumelle COE Park just 12 miles away. Because Dar was in full "capitulation phase" with her cold, we did consider delaying the move another day, but she decided all the activity with moving would help take her mind off the misery. Maumelle is a couple notches above Burns in facilities and maintenance, and it's right on the banks of the Arkansas River. Instead of just being parked in the woods, its being parked in the woods and on a river.

About mid-day, we broke camp at Burns, made the short drive to Maumelle, and found a very nice campsite near the river. There are more people here than one might expect -- the place is probably half full -- as snowbirds from the north make this an annual stop on their way south for the winter. The park is close to major highways but secluded and quiet. It's just about perfect.

Dinner last night was chicken soup for my sweetie (it can't hoit), and I boiled up some spaghetti so I could use up some extra sauce I had made last week. A Christmas cookie, direct from the cookie factory in Wisconsin this past weekend, served as desert. I'm not hopeful the cookies will actually make it to Christmas. I'm not even sure they'll make it to Thanksgiving!

No explorations to report on today. The sequential impact of this virus (first me, then Dar) is putting a crimp in our style. But we'll have most of a week to see the Arkansas State Capitol, the Clinton Library, and a few other adventures -- and the weather looks like it'll cooperate.

T

Monday, November 17, 2008

Little Rock Update

written Monday, November 17, 2008
North Little Rock, AR

Here's a quick update covering the past week.

We arrived here at Burns Park Campground in North Little Rock last Sunday afternoon. The campground is a nice enough place and is close to our ideal camping experience because it is heavily wooded, has clean asphalt roads, and well-separated campsites. However, some sites aren't very level and the park has a neglected feel to it.

Monday and Tuesday were rainy and Dar was getting ready for her trip to Wisconsin. It's become a tradition, with her Mom and Sister, to get together on a long weekend in November and turn the farmhouse into a Christmas cookie factory. I dropped her off at the Little Rock airport on Wednesday and off she went.

Unfortunately, as much as I was looking forward to the time alone and having ALL 300 square feet to myself for a few days, it turned out to be less than what I'd hoped. About the time Dar left, it became clear I was coming down with a cold -- a depressing thought as we've both stayed relatively illness-free since we've been on this journey.

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An observation... the phases of having a cold virus:

First, there's an awareness phase. This is that point in time where you're feeling "not quite right". Not bad, mind you. Just not right. You're becoming aware that something's not right.

Then there's the battle phase. Once you're aware a bug has invaded the sanctity of your body, you begin to battle it with everything you can throw at it... orange juice, vitamin C, tinctures of zinc, positive mental attitude, and various herbs, potions, and snake-oil that you've heard other people swear by. The objective is to fight it off... to beat it.

Third, is the capitulation phase. In this phase, the objective changes from one of fighting it off to one of trying to minimize the symptoms. Cold medications, cough medicines, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, decongestants. Most of what these things do is put you in a drugged stupor, which is maybe better living with the full-blown symptoms... I don't know. You hunker down and realize all you can do is let it run it's course.

Fourth, is the climax phase. A cold, like a good novel, usually has a climax... the point at which the block of concrete in your sinus passages is at its maximum, you have a Kleenex or two packed into each nostril, and no medication seems to quell the throbbing in your head. This usually occurs at night, keeps you from sleeping, and causes thoughts that there may actually be some benefits to death.

Lastly, is the healing phase. Once you've passed this "hell night", the healing phase begins. There are some lingering symptoms for a few days, but you feel hope and renewed zest for life that only grows stronger with every wad of yuck blown free from your nasal passages... with every ball of mucus coughed up and liberated from your lungs. For at least a short period of time, as the drug-induced stupor passes, you savor every moment of feeling good, of life, ... of NOT being sick.

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I reached capitulation phase on Wednesday night and then climax on Thursday night. Friday, another rainy day, I never stepped foot outside. I tried to read but mostly stared at the TV and felt sorry for myself. By Friday night it became clear that I was starting to heal. I slept soundly for 10 hours and woke to a new day, in more ways than one, on Saturday morning. The sun was lighting up the woods more brightly than any time since we arrived. I was actually starting to feel alive again. I took a long vigorous walk through the park. It felt great.

By the time I picked Dar up at the Little Rock airport on Sunday afternoon, I felt much better. Unfortunately, as we greeted each other near the x-ray machines in security, she informed me that she was in her own capitulation phase. She was somehow able to hold the virus at bay for most of her big weekend, but now the virus was winning the battle.

T

Monday, November 10, 2008

Toad Suck Daze

written Monday, November 10, 2008
North Little Rock, AR

After thoroughly enjoying a couple days with Bill & Sue near West Plains, MO., we fired up the bus-house and pointed her South again. We got back on Hwy 412/62 eastbound in Northern Arkansas until reaching Ash Flat. A right turn onto Hwy 167 southbound took us through Evening Shade, Cave City, Pleasant Plains, and Velvet Ridge. At Bald Knob we picked up Hwy 67 southbound, a 4-lane divided road that goes right to Little Rock.

I really wanted to stay at a Corps of Engineer campground some 30 or so miles north of Little Rock at a place called Toad Suck Ferry. Of course, the only really good reason for wanting to stay there without seeing it first is the name. What could possibly be the origin of the name "Toad Suck"?

According to Wikipedia:
The legend behind Toad Suck is that long ago, steamboats traveled the Arkansas River when the water was at the right depth. When it wasn't, the captains and their crew tied up to wait where the Toad Suck Lock & Dam now spans the river near Conway. While they waited, they refreshed themselves at the local tavern. The dismayed folks living nearby were heard to say: "They suck on the bottle 'til they swell up like toads." Hence, the name Toad Suck. The tavern is long gone, but the legend lives on at Toad Suck Daze.

But reason won out over "childish desires" (we put it to a vote and the Safety Director had to break the tie) and "we" decided to stay much closer to Little Rock, but still right along the Arkansas River. But even though Toad Suck Daze is normally held in early May each year I may have to do some exploring in that area during the Safety Directors absence (She's going to Wisconsin for a few daze, er... days).

I may have to refresh myself while awaiting her return.

T

Panic Stop

written Monday, November 10, 2008
North Little Rock, AR

We left Branson on Friday the 7th of November. The destination was the acreage of a couple friends we met in Rockport last year -- Bill & Sue, who live near West Plains, MO. We've been emailing back and forth during the past month about our respective plans for the winter and they invited us to stop by, see their place, and check out this part of the Ozarks.

Driving in the Ozarks can be a challenge. The roads are little more than collections of curves, hills, and double-yellow lines. Not a lot of dirt was moved when these highways were built, and it seems they had no chain saws since the road seems to wind around any tree of size. There are precious few places where a motorist can safely pass a big bus-house that's poking along a few m.p.h. under the speed limit.

On the way to West Plains we did have one incident that caused me to stop breathing for a minute and utter a few carefully selected words. As we trekked eastward on Hwy 412/62 in northern Arkansas, I'd been following, for some time, an old filthy Lincoln Mark driven by a very erratic driver. At times he'd be plugging along even more slowly than my preferred speed for that type of road. At other times, he speed up and was a half mile ahead. There was no pattern or consistency.

As we trudged along we came to an intersection. A gas station/convenience store was on the left side of the road. The erratic driver was right in front of us, moving about 45 m.p.h. The road was normal Ozark-quality -- narrow, no shoulders, plenty of hills and curves ahead. I was following at a comfortable distance... until... my erratic friend suddenly decided he wanted to turn left into the gas station, but couldn't due to oncoming traffic. So... he just stops! No visible brake lights... only an old Lincoln parked right in the lane of traffic! Picture a 36,000 pound torpedo about to make a direct hit on the aft section of an old Lincoln "liberty ship". I'm sure my eyes were bigger than pie-plates as my right foot instinctively, thankfully, found the correct pedal and applied just enough pressure to warm the brakes up to a temperature normally found only on the surface of the sun. From the outside, I think, it all appeared calm and controlled -- except maybe for the long blast from my air horn. But on the inside it was a different story. This was our first, what-you'd-call, panic stop.

They say you learn by "pushing the envelope" or "taking it to the limit". We learned, happily, that both our brakes and sphincters functioned the way they're supposed to.

T

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Andy Williams Christmas Show

written Thursday, November 06, 2008
Branson, MO

All Right! I might as well get this out there right off the bat: I actually enjoyed the Andy Williams Christmas Show that Dar talked me into attending yesterday. Yes, I enjoyed it! With all my grumbling about the lines, the crowds, the traffic, aging performers, and all the other touristy hoopla here in Branson, probably no one thought I'd say that. I certainly didn't.

But I had a great time. First of all, you've got to admire someone who's doing what they love, and enjoying it so much that they'd rather work at their craft than relax, retire, and fade away. He doesn't say how old he is, but a little research found he's 81 years old. In person, he certainly doesn't look like an octogenarian. Even if he has a cosmetic surgeon on retainer (and he probably does), so what? Performing is his passion and looking good is a part of performing. Way to go, Andy.

We were seated on an aisle about mid-way back in the front section of the theater, which was only about half full. But the place holds over 2,000 people so half-a-house is still a good turnout at $39/head. Just after the performance started, an usher knelt down next to me and whispered if we'd like to move to front row center, where they had a few open seats. Of course! Why not? So off we scooted.

When sitting in the middle of an audience, further back, there's little or no intimacy with the performers. I often like that because I can really relax, maybe nod off -- catch a little nap and be thoroughly rested and ready for the drive home. There's a splendid anonymity to it, it doesn't matter if you applaud or not, you can just hide-out as part of that large singular mass of humanity.

But let me tell you, Bunky... being in the center of the front row is something else. The performers, I'm told, can only see the first few rows of the audience, and they usually form a bond with this sub-set for the purpose of feedback. There's an intimacy about it -- two-way communication based on eye contact, body language, and emotional reactions. Just like public speakers, performers crave that intimacy during a performance as reinforcement that what they're doing is working. I got absolutely no rest at all.

During the rest of the performance, Dar was often the subject of old Andy's  eye-contact. For example, in "Moon River", Dar melted when he looked at her while he sang "Oh, dream maker, you heart breaker..." You had to be there.

The Andy Williams Christmas Show

I wouldn't have been surprised if, at 81 years old, he'd only been on the stage less than half the time, singing a few old favorites, and mostly introducing other performers. But that's not what we got. I'd guess he was on stage 80% of the time, singing song after song and working with other performers. And this guy can still belt out a tune.

The show was reminiscent of his variety television show and Christmas Specials from the 60's and 70's. A strong Christmas theme, a mix of other performers, and a strong talented band. Reminiscent too, was his interplay with the audience, his mannerisms, and his self-deprecating style of humor.

I, we, had a great time.

Now, if we could just do something about that carnival outside.

T

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Branson Phenomenon

written Wednesday, November 05, 2008
Branson, MO

50 years ago Branson was a very small, quiet, fishing village along the White River, surrounded by the gorgeous wooded hills of the Ozark Mountains. There were two small motels with a total of 16 rooms available.

Today, many of the hills have been stripped of trees and leveled for theaters, restaurants, hotels, condos, time-shares, apartment developments, and sub-divisions. They're building a new airport capable of handling large commercial jets, and had to move two mountains to do it.

Here's a short list of what you see as your driving around town. "Sensory Overload" comes to mind:

Hollywood Wax Museum
Titanic Museum -- Experience a Titanic Christmas
Dinosaur Museums
Year 'round Haunted Houses
Worlds Largest Toy Museum
Go-Karting Tracks
Ripley's Believe It or Not
Family Fun Factory
Dinosaur Canyon Miniature Golf
Water Fun Parks
Dick Clark's American Bandstand/ Bar & Grill
Showboat Cruises
Magic Shows
Ride the Ducks
Huge upscale Branson Landing Shopping Centre
Traffic gridlock along "The Strip" and downtown.
Condos and Time-Share sales
Hundreds of Restaurants
Hundreds of Motels & Hotels
New Branson Convention Center
60 Theaters
80 Shows
Wow!

Except for solitude and gambling, there's something here for everyone.

T

Historic Election

written Wednesday, November 05, 2008 -- Branson, MO

On every Presidential election Tuesday for many years, I've made it a tradition to watch the election returns on TV. I'll get a comfortable chair adjusted just right and positioned for minimum reflection and best viewing angle, I'll pop some popcorn, open a cool adult beverage of some kind, make sure the remote control has fresh batteries, and settle in for an evening of results and analysis. I know, it won't change a thing. I could save a lot of time by just reading about it in the paper the next day. But the tradition continues and it will for the foreseeable future.

This election was historic for at least a couple reasons. First, and perhaps most obvious and notable, it was the first campaign to result in the election of a black man as President of the United States. Regardless of your politics and your opinions about it, this will be something that will start a new chapter in the history books for many years.

Second, I think this will be the first presidential election for which the campaigns raised and spent over a BILLION dollars. Sure, in times when trillions of dollars are being thrown all around in the name of trying to save the economy and our way of life, a billion doesn't sound like much. But it's still a tremendous amount of money that's being spent for a job that pays $400,000 per year plus room and board.

And presidential campaigns are getting longer, more protracted, and more mean-spirited. This one lasted more than two years and, in my opinion, reached new lows in dishonesty. In some people's minds, Ms. Palin kicked off her "Palin in 2012" campaign last night after McCain's concession speech. Please! Enough! Let it rest... let us rest for a while. If these politicians would work as hard for us as they work campaigning for themselves, just imagine what could be accomplished.

At any rate, I'm glad it's over. I'm really happy there'll be a short break from the pollution of campaign ads. I'm always hopeful that the new president will be successful, will make the right decisions, will bring our nation together. Unfortunately, I'm almost always disappointed.

But, at this point, I'm still hopeful.

T

Monday, November 3, 2008

Branson Missouri

written Monday, November 3, 2008 -- Branson, MO

How does something like Branson get started? Yesterday, I talked with an old-timer who's been coming here since 1959. In those early days, the population of Branson was less than 100 people, there were two motels with a total of 16 rooms available, a few fishing cabins along the river, and a sprinkling of other sleepy businesses. That was 50 years ago.

Today, the official population of Branson is about 6,000, but that grossly understates reality. Because so many people live just outside Branson's city limits, the real population of the area is more like 30,000. And when you throw in the number of people visiting (as many as 8 million every year), the number of people around here can be upwards of 65,000 on any given day. There are more than 50 theaters in the area with over 60,000 seats available -- more seats than Broadway in New York I've been told. This week alone about 100,000 veterans will be here for the annual Veterans Day celebration.

As of this writing, we haven't explored the area yet. We just arrived yesterday afternoon, and after we got settled in our parking site at the Ozark Country Campground, we watched a little football and did some chores. But we had to drive through much of the Branson area in order to get to this RV Park and what I saw made me shiver and my eyes glaze over. Besides theaters, there's every imaginable tourist trap and attraction. There are supposedly more than 800 restaurants. I wrote yesterday in the "What's New" section of my homepage that Branson reminds me of a mix of The Wisconsin Dells, a touch of Las Vegas, a pinch of Dollywood, a notion of Nashville, and a sparkle of Disneyland -- and I'd add, the roll-call from the home for aging performers. Dar loves this stuff so, because I'm that kind of guy -- giving, compassionate, and willing to do almost anything to make my sweetie happy -- we'll be here until Friday.

The drive down was uneventful yesterday. But man-o-man, the hills in this part of the country are daunting. The closer we got to Branson the higher and steeper they were. And we were cutting across them, not riding a ridge or vehiculating a valley. Compared to driving the mountains of the west, the grades are certainly shorter but no less steep. We have 400 h.p. and gobs of torque with our big ol' Cummins Diesel, but it was working hard to get us up the hills, downshifting a couple of gears and slowing to 40 m.p.h. at times. Then, as we crested the top of the hill, we got the feeling you get on large roller coasters -- "we're going straight down and we're all going to die!" -- like being dropped out of a cargo plane without a parachute. Let me just say our PAC (compression) brake got a real workout as we encountered hill after hill coming into Branson.

I think it's wonderful how our presidential candidates are bringing us all together in the closing days of this 2 year long campaign. I can feel a unity, a bond, a common passion among people of every political stripe that may be almost as strong as those days of intense patriotism after the Twin Tower attacks in 2001. What's uniting almost everyone in the USA is that we're ALL sick and tired of this campaign, this ordeal, this torture. (I thought torture was illegal?) We're ALL preparing to breath a collective sigh of relief when its finally over, when the TV ads are gone, when we stop getting emails full of hate and lies, when all that's left to do is collect all the yard signs that have become so much litter. We're ALL so bludgeoned that we almost don't care who wins. And we're also of one mind that there's just got to be a better way.

T

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Harry S. Truman Lake and Dam

written Saturday, November 1, 2008 -- Thibaut Point COE Campground near Warsaw, MO.

I got off to a slow start on Friday and it was just after noon before we headed off to explore more of the big lake we're camped on. We had a surprise rain shower that lasted a couple hours in the morning but by the time we left camp the sky was mostly clear and the sun was out in earnest.

The Harry S. Truman Lake (or Reservoir) was created along the Osage River as the result of a large Army Corps of Engineers project that was authorized in the 1950's and wasn't completed until the late 1970's. It primary purpose is flood control, but electric power generation and recreation are among the other benefits. It took a long time to build as numerous roads, bridges, cemeterys, and complete towns had to be relocated above the new lake level. I wonder if a project of this scale could ever be done again in our litigous modern society. And where would the money come from?

On our loop around the lake we stumbled into a town named Tightwad. The unusual name is said by some to stem from an episode where a store owner cheated a customer somehow on the sale of a watermellon. As we drove into town I wondered out loud if they might have a bank and if that bank might be called the Tightwad Bank. We were still laughing about the thought when, around the next bend, there it was... The real Tightwad Bank! I couldn't believe it.

Tightwad Bank Sign

As we drove around Tightwad, we found the Tightwad Fire Department, the Tightwad General Store, the Tightwad Motel, and the Tightwad Bar & Grill. Whenever I settle down again, after this life of exploration, I'd give extra consideration to a town that had an unusual name... like Tightwad.

On down the road we came to the Truman Dam that created the lake. It's about 5000 feet of earthen dam and another 1000 feet or so of concrete gravity dam. The concrete part includes the spillway and the powerhouse. There's a very nice visitors center on a bluff overlooking the dam and lake where the vistas, especially with all the fall color still bright, are incredible.

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Today, Saturday, we're going to hang around the bus-house, working, reading, enjoying the 70f degree temps, and getting ready for our move tomorrow. Never having been to Branson before, I'm not sure what to expect. I've heard about congestion, traffic headaches, lines, and more. It'll probably be a stark contrast to our campsite here along the lake.

Oh yeah, and I'm supposed to remember to turn my clock back tonight. Now, if I can just remember where I put it. Hmmm.

T

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Unexpected Rain Show

Friday, October 31, 2008 -- near Warsaw, MO.

I heard a low rumbling... off in the distance. What was that?

It was 6:30am and I was just starting to stir from a good nights sleep. Then I heard it again. It's thunder. But it can't be thunder -- there was no prediction for rain. What the heck?

I hopped out of bed, fired up the internet router, turned on my computer, and made coffee while everything booted up. There's definitely lightning off to the west and there's definitely a storm out there, regardless of what the weather service predicted.

A few minutes later, with fresh hot coffee in hand, I was on the Weather Underground website (the site I default to for weather information) and, sure enough, there's one little line of showers, barely visible on the national map, right there in the middle of Missouri. There's not another radar echo from another drop of rain anywhere for a thousand miles around. But we are lucky enough to be in the one little spot of sporty weather.

In this case, I sincerely mean lucky. We were treated to a most amazing show of colors, contrasts, and sounds during the next couple hours. The sun was rising in the east while the storm was approaching from the west. The area where we're camped is covered with oak trees. Most oaks resist giving up their leaves in the fall and these are no exception. And these leaves, still on the trees, are the most amazing combination of bronze, brown, red, orange, and a bit of residual green. The color can't be easily described and it's all over, it surrounds you, it's everywhere. Normally, at sunrise or sunset, the reddish low sunlight, shadows, and colored leaves produce a show that shouldn't be missed. But throw in the dark clouds of a storm, the rolling, rumbling thunder, and the sound of rain and dislodged acorns hitting the top of the bus-house -- well, it was an experience I'll remember for a while. Who needs TV for entertainment when experiences like this are all around us?

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Yesterday, Thursday, we went into Sedalia exploring for a bike trail we'd heard about. Some years ago, the State of Missouri purchased a railroad right-of-way from the remains of the MKT Railroad. MKT stands for Missouri, Kansas, and Texas -- and it became known as the Katy Line -- get it, MKT --> KT --> Katy?

Anyway, the State had the tracks pulled up and a recreation trail put in. Known as the Katy Trail, it extends 225 miles from Clinton, MO to St. Charles, MO. For much of that distance it follows the Missouri River.

The trail runs right through Sedalia. We found it, mounted up, and rode about 18 miles toward the southwest. This is my preferred biking experience as I don't enjoy the tension that accompanies sharing a roadway with cars, trucks, and motorhomes driven by old blind guys. Give me a dedicated bike trail and I can ride for hours, or at least until my leg muscles lock-up.

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Today, Friday, we might go exploring for a small town that's just on the other side of the lake. It's named "Tightwad". It'll be worth the gas to get that picture.

T

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Southward to Missouri

Wednesday, October 29, 2008 -- near Warsaw, MO.

We've been lingering in the North for a long time because autumn in the Midwest is our favorite time of the year. But now that November is almost here, it's time to start moving South. On Tuesday, yesterday, we pulled our jacks, pointed the nose of the bus-house southward, left Iowa, and ended up in another Corps. of Engineers Campground on the Harry Truman Reservoir near Warsaw in Central Missouri. It was an almost 300 mile drive... a long one for us. But we found another great COE park near Warsaw, MO.

We like the solitude and peacefulness of this place so much we may extend our stay for a few more days. We'll see.

T

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Exploring for Ancestors

Tuesday, October 28, 2008 -- Winterset, IA

On Monday, yesterday, we drove over to Indianola, IA., to meet up with one of my cousins, Kevin, a contemporary of mine, who is the grandson of a sister of my grandfather. I'll pause here for a few seconds while that sinks in.

(Pause.)

Kevin grew up in Melcher, IA., just a few miles from Bauer, IA. where my ancestors settled in the early 1870's. Not only has he lived here in the area all his life, he's also done a lot of research and genealogical work of his own. He's a walking family-tree encyclopedia; he knows where all the bodies are buried and most of the stories about them. We couldn't have had a better tour-guide for the day.

The last time I was in this area I was 4 years old. In 1955, my Mom and Dad, Grandmother and Grandfather, my younger brother and I... we all loaded into Dad's Plymouth and set out on the biggest trip I'd ever been on. From Beaver Dam, it was a two day ordeal on two lane roads to cover the 300 miles. These were pre-Interstate Highway days, which were only someone's crazy idea at that point.

About mid-way, we stopped for the night at some road-side cabins. Six people in one car -- two of them squirmy kids -- probably had a lot to do with the decision to stop for the night after only 150 miles -- I'm guessing. Cabins were common in the early days of automobile travel as budding business people could easily get into the lodging business by building one or two small cabins for a reasonable cost. Then, as demand grew, they could easily add more. It was only after the Interstate Highway System was being built that someone had the idea to nail some cabins together in a line and call it a motel.

I have vague memories of the trip, mental snapshots of staying at someone's house in the country, next to some railroad tracks, standing in tall grass, grasshoppers jumping all over the place, a rickety-looking wooden bridge over the tracks, a summer-kitchen in the basement of the house where it was much cooler than the main floor, and a lot of happy and friendly people.

Kevin took us to that spot, which had been his grandmothers house. I stood in the grass, near the tracks, looked at the concrete bridge that long ago replaced the wooden one. I didn't see any grasshoppers this time.

We also saw the Hoch home place where my Great-Great-Grandfather and Grandmother raised their family of 10 kids. One of those kids, my Great Grandfather, took over the farm operations and raised his family of 7 kids in the same house-- one of which was my Grandfather who eventually moved to Beaver Dam.

Kevin had the connections to get us into the little de-commissioned Catholic Church that was so central to their lives -- where they came into the world and where they left it. Just down the road from the Hoch home place in Bauer, it was where they were baptized, worshiped, married, had their funerals, and were buried in the cemetery out back. We could have spent a day just going through the cemetery, but thanks to the magic of digital photography, we now have dozens of headstone photos.

I also learned that coal mining was an important industry in this area for about 25 years in the early 1900's. The opportunity for land and farming brought German immigrants, the mines brought Welsh and Croatians. But the coal didn't last long and the farm land is so hilly, rocky, and creased with streams that it was difficult to farm efficiently. Today, I'd say the area is surviving buy not thriving. It's a comfortable place full of friendly people who often must drive to larger towns 30 or 40 miles away for work.

Kevin also arranged to have the Mining History Museum in Melcher opened for us -- it's normally open just on the weekends. There we learned a lot more about those old mining operations as well as how people lived and the things that were important to them. The original organ from the church in Bauer is in the museum. It's operated by crank -- there was no electricity in those days so if you wanted organ music it was a two person job -- one to play and one to provide the power by cranking. It still works so Kevin, who is an accomplished organist among his other talents. played a song while I, yours truly, provided the cranking power. The sounds that came from the organ were the same sounds many of my ancestors heard. It was another sensory element that made me feel closer to them.

Kevin and Thom play the old Bauer Church crank organ

This was an important day for me. Putting more meat on my memories from more than 50 years ago. Being in the same places these ancestors lived. Seeing the same hills, streams, gravel roads they saw. Being in the same little church that was so important to them. For a while I was in the same three dimensions they lived in, separated only by a fourth dimension -- time. The images made up by my mind before that day morphed into the reality of the place. The images I gathered that day will remain with me for the rest of my life.

T

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Iowa Statehouse

Monday, October 27, 2008 -- Winterset, IA

The "exploration for the day" on Sunday was the Iowa State Capitol building in Des Moines. One of the multiple themes of our travels these days is to see as many of the statehouses as we can. They're full of history, usually very ornate and rich with art and symbolism, and there's an aura or feeling of importance, orderliness, and solidness -- after all, it's the place our state laws are proposed, legislated, and adjudicated.

The Iowa Statehouse is the only Capitol in the United States that has 5 domes. The main dome rises 275 feet above the first floor of the rotunda and it's exterior is covered in gold leaf -- thin sheets of pure gold. Because the gold is so thin, it must be replaced every 30 years or so. It was last done in 1998.

Interesting factoid: 250,000 sheets of gold leaf would form a stack only 1 inch high. So while you might think it'd take tens of millions of dollars to cover a dome this size with pure gold, the total cost of re-gilding in 1998 was $482,000 -- and that includes labor. A mere pittance of two-bits per man, woman, and child in the State.

Over the years the building grew tired and wasn't maintained to a high standard. In fact, layers of paint were applied on top of all kinds of things... marble columns, stenciled walls, gold-leaf detailing, etc. Maybe some governor or influential senator had a relative in the painting business?... I don't know. But about 10 years ago, a project to revitalize the place began with the goal to restore it to it's original grandeur. The job is nearly done and it looks magnificent -- even to my untrained eye.

We joined a guided tour, with a positively delightful tour guide, who took us places the public doesn't usually go and told us things the public doesn't usually hear. The "high point" of the tour was a climb up hundreds (or was it thousands?) of steps to the balcony at the top of the dome.

Construction on this building began in 1871 and was completed in 1886, which makes it almost 125 years old. To me, it looks like it'll easily make it another 125 years, and at that point it'd still be considered new in Europe.

What is it about the American psyche that, it seems by default, wants to constantly replace the old with something new?

T

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Small Towns & Covered Bridges

Sunday, October 26, 2008 -- Winterset, IA

Living in Winterset is easy and comfortable. To me it feels like a different country compared to trying to survive in a big city, as we did for so long. I know, Winterset is in the middle of Iowa, which is the middle of America, and in many ways most Americans, who live in big metroplexes and along the coasts, probably consider it a foreign country too. The great middle of the United States is often the brunt of jokes, is considered boring, and not "with it". But as I've aged and have re-oriented my values, I like the simpler life of places like this. People have few pretensions, they're friendlier, come across as more genuine, and seem to be more about enjoying what they have rather than worrying about something they don't have. The pace of life seems more natural, at least to me.

The other day we needed a few grocery items. Winterset's only grocery store is a nice sized Fareway Store situated, not out in a strip mall on the edge of town, but right downtown. We've been in grocery stores all over the country and I make it a practice to compare them, focusing on selection, prices, and the general feel of each place. This one impressed me from the moment I got out of the car. It was quite busy and they had what seemed to be a small army of people hustling every customer's groceries out to their cars. And I mean they were hustling. Once inside, there was another army stocking shelves, checking, and bagging. They have a meat counter with real, live, meat-cutters, butchers -- and I mean professionals who looked, acted, and sounded like they knew what they were talking about. The store wasn't huge by today's standards, but with enough room for a great selection of at least the things we normally look for. And the prices were very reasonable... as low or lower than WalMart in many cases. If you lived almost anywhere in this town of 5,000 people it's possible to walk to the store. For a town this size, it's much more than I expected. What a nice experience!

During our first few days in town we've been dodging rain showers to get out and see the local attractions. Over the course of three days we got out to see most of the famous covered bridges -- five of them that are original. Built in the early 1880's, most by Benton Jones, they are substantial wooden structures that have lasted over 120 years. In those years almost all bridges were made of wood and weather was hard on them -- usually lasting about 10 years before major work or replacement was necessary. The idea of the covered bridge was that it's less expensive to maintain a roof that protected the bridge than to replace the bridge itself. So the hard-working, frugal, people of Madison County decided to pay a little more for covered bridges that would last much longer and be a better deal in the long run. They're about 15 feet wide -- wide enough for two lane horse traffic, but probably only a single lane for farm equipment or cars. All of these bridges have been replaced by modern bridges that by-pass the original structures, which are open these days to pedestrian traffic only. There is one bridge, the Cedar Bridge, that was rebuilt in 2004 after being destroyed by arson a few years ago, that's possible to cross with a car for the experience.

There aren't many of these things left. See them while you can.

T

Musings from the Road

Sunday, October 26, 2008 -- camped in Winterset, IA

I've read the past few days that the credit crisis is easing and banks are starting to give loans again. Now that the economy looks like it's heading for the dumpster, the stock market is down 40%, and unemployment is rising fast -- the real trick may be to find someone who wants a loan.

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Not only is the stock market down almost half, but plain old gasoline is almost half the price it was just a few months ago. How do investors in new energy technologies view this? Why would anyone invest in a new energy idea when the price off the old one is so volatile? How do you predict a return on your investment?

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On November 5th, with any luck, we'll know who the next President will be. Once all the spending on campaign ads ends, there will have to be an impact on the economy. Is it possible to just stop almost a billion dollars of campaign spending and NOT have an impact on the economy?

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If the majority of people in the United States lived like Dar and I do the economy would collapse and daily life as we know it would end. And I'm not talking about living in a bus-house. We have no loans or debt, spend very meagerly -- only buying what we need (and we don't need much), and just generally don't participate in the consumer-driven culture that's become the cornerstone of our culture. Since there's no chance we're going to change, I hope everybody else starts buying stuff again so we can get out of this recession everyone's talking about.

T

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Winterset, IA -- The Home of John Wayne

Thursday morning, October 23, 2008 -- Winterset, IA

Winterset is the County Seat of Madison County Iowa. Only about 30 miles southwest of Des Moines, this small town of abut 5,000 people is an example of what I imagine as an ideal place to live. It's a great combination of small and intimate -- large enough to have it's own school system, grocery store, restaurants, and services, and small enough to be free of congestion, crowds, crime, and hype. If a person needs the amenities of a larger city, Des Moines is just a half hour drive away. According to the last census, it's barely growing (+1.6%) so people have come to adapt to a steady-state environment. Everyone we've run into is open and friendly. As with most small places we've experienced it's the norm to wave at people that you see along the way.

We arrived at the City Park Campground here in Winterset early Tuesday afternoon. Dar handled the driving chores today from jacks-up to jacks-down. The weather was good and we had a tail-wind most of the way. The City of Winterset maintains a campground with about 30 RV sites to help support local tourism. The attractions are the covered bridges of Madison County (refer to Robert Waller's 1992 best-seller book) and the birthplace of John Wayne. Apparently there are enough old coots like me that get a kick from stuff like this to keep the campgound open.

On the way to Winterset we drove out of clear sunny skies and, as I write this, haven't seen the sun since. There's a pesky, persistent, low pressure system just to the southwest that's been producing bands of rain for almost two days now, and is supposed to produce more until Friday night. But I've increasingly learned to just take it as it comes... to enjoy the conditions that exist and not wish for something different. Well, OK, most of the time.

We did get out a little yesterday, Wednesday. We had lunch at a little cafe on the Courthouse Square, drove around and familiarized ourselves with the town, saw John Wayne's boyhood home, and checked out two of the closest Covered Bridges. Now that I'm caught up on blog posts, I'll be writing more about all this and more in the coming days.

We think we'll be here until Monday or Tuesday. Besides the local explorations, we want to visit the State Capitol in Des Moines (part of the State Capitol Tour) and do some exploring around the Bauer, Melcher, and Lacona area just to the east of us, where the Hoch side of my family settled in the 1800's.

T

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Herbert Hoover From West Branch, IA

Tuesday, October 21, 2008 -- near Iowa City, IA

Yesterday, Monday, we pulled up the jacks and left Grant River COE near Potosi and pointed the nose of the bus-house southwestward. US Hwy 151 was our route for most of the journey to our next stop -- Colony Country Campground just north of Iowa City, only 112 miles away. This will be a short one night stop as we're squeezed between our desire to see the Herbert Hoover Historic Site and Museum (part of our "Dead Presidents" Tour) and the reality of the weather later this week, which is projected to be really crummy from Tuesday night through Friday. Checking our list of things to explore, there much more to do around Des Moines (I know... who'd 'a thunk!) so if we're going to be someplace for a few days with poor weather, the Des Moines area would be our preference.

Once at Colony Country, we unhooked the car, backed into a suitable site, locked up the bus-house, and immediately drove off to West Branch, IA, the home of the Herbert Hoover Museum. Arriving a little before 2:00pm, we had three hours to explore and learn about "Bert" Hoover.

Little Bert was born right here in West Branch in 1874 to a blacksmith Father and an intelligent educated Mom. Both were leaders in the little community and their Quaker church. For the first few years of his life, he lived in the little two room house that still exists here on the grounds of the Historic Site. There were 3 kids and he had one older brother and one younger sister.

Disease and death were always lurking in the shadows in these little growing frontier towns, and when Bert was only 6, his Father died. Then, tragically, when he was 9, his Mother died too. As was common then, the three orphans were taken in by other family. Eventually, when Bert was just 10, a decision was made to send Bert to Oregon to live with an uncle, whose own son had died a year earlier. So, with two dimes sewed into his pocket, and a small suitcase containing clothes and a few small memories of his Mom, he boarded a Union Pacific train headed west alone with his memories of the past and his fears of the future.

In Oregon he thrived in school and his native intelligence became apparent. School wasn't as structured in those early days and he didn't complete high school -- but he was accepted, in 1891, at age 17, to the first class ever at Leland Stanford Junior University (now Stanford University) in California, where he graduated in 1895 with a degree in geology. His interest in mining lead him to work for the next 20 years or so all over the world. He devised new methods and procedures that earned him a partnership in a London-based mining company. By the age of 28, he was making $34,000/year -- compared to the President of the United States who was earning only $10,000.

The fortune he made in mining made it possible for Bert to pursue other interests in public service. From the outbreak of WWI he led various efforts to assist refugees of war and feed the hungry of war-torn Europe. Always a proponent of volunteerism, he gave of his time without pay and donated much of his wealth to help others. During the 1920's he served as the Secretary of Commerce and was widely seen as  the most effective cabinet member during the Harding and Coolidge administrations. His experience in business and public service around the world made him a top-notch administrator.

Less than a year after being elected President in November of 1928 the stock market crash of 1929 marked the beginning of the Great Depression. He became a scapegoat and bore the brunt of blame. The reality is that the course leading to the depression was set many years prior. In response, he started some of the public works programs aimed at getting people back to work and righting the economy. I couldn't help but draw parallels to the current state of the economy as I read through the information on this period.

He languished in obscurity from the time he left the Presidency until the end of WWII. In 1946, President Truman called Bert back to service to determine the status of food supplies in war-torn Europe. In subsequent years he was an adviser to Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy. During his life he also wrote 16 books. He was an effective and compassionate leader.

Herbert Hoover died in October of 1964 at the age of 90. In a similar fashion to Truman, he wanted to return to his roots and be buried where he was born -- West Branch, IA. There the US Parks Service maintains the large, park-like, Herbert Hoover National Historic Site and the National Archives and Records Administration maintains The Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum -- one of the 12 Presidential Libraries in the United States.

There's a line in the theme song for the old TV show "All In The Family" that goes "Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again."

T

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Sunday Drive in the Country

Monday, October 20, 2008 -- Potosi, WI

Yesterday, Sunday, we drove a loop from Potosi, through Dickeyville, across the river into Dubuque, up the Great River Road on the Iowa side to Balltown, then to a ferry crossing the Mississippi from Turkey River, IA to Cassville, WI, and finally back to Potosi. It was a warm sunny day -- just right for that last autumn drive to see fall colors in their full glory.

The ridges and valleys of the driftless area take some getting used to. Both sides of the river are full of them. As you travel, the car's motor is straining, struggling, shifting gears, and smokin' to climb the steep grades, or it's brakes are white hot and smokin' to keep your speed in check as you're coming down to the 35mph curve at the bottom. Sometimes not the most pleasant drive, like when you've got a loaded dump-truck three feet behind your rear bumper on a steep downgrade. During the last year or more we've driven through much of the western USA and have experienced a lot of different landforms. But these hills are as steep as many we've encountered along the way. They may not be as long, as elevation changes are usually not more than 400 feet or so, but they can be steeper than most in the Rocky Mountains.

In Dubuque we planned to stop for a few hours at the National Mississippi River Museum, right on the riverfront downtown. This location used to be the Dubuque Boat and Boiler Works which, from 1905 to 1972, built dozens and dozens of tenders, excursion boats, and towboats. The museum is a world-class facility with indoor and outdoor exhibits that educate kids and adults about the river, it's history, and it's importance to the people who live along it's banks or work on it or recreate on it. And while we don't think about big rivers as transportation corridors much anymore, there's a steady stream of barge tows that float huge quantities of commodities both up and down the river, and railroads that take advantage of the relatively flat riverbanks for efficient movement of containerized cheap plastic stuff from China.

If we think we've tamed the Mississippi, we do so at our own peril. The river is unpredictable, dangerous at times, to be respected, has a personality, is integral to the lives and livelihoods of many people, and is full of history. People come and go, the river just keeps rollin'.

It's easy to spend a full day at the museum, but once the old Blazer had cooled off enough, we headed north into the hills of Northeast Iowa, following the Great River Road. We traveled through Sageville, Sherrill, Old Balltown, and then Balltown (I assume newer than Old Balltown?), which I guess is where they all went when they got fed up with Old Balltown. Balltown is something to see. It sits on top the highest ridge in the area. There are clear views for as far as the eye can see... all the way to the horizon... in all directions. I hypothesize that the reason it's named Balltown is because of the steady weekly re-supply of balls necessary to keep kids occupied. Baseballs, soccer balls, basketballs, dodge-balls, and yes, even whiffle balls... every ball, sooner rather than later, get away from it's owner and once that happens, down the hill it goes. It's a small town but more balls go rolling 500 feet down the steep ridge-sides each year than there are people in town. It makes Christmas pretty boring as kid's pretty much know what they'll be getting. Balltown... remember it... a cool place.

Once the motor cooled off from the climb up to Balltown, it was time to warm up the brakes as we came down the hill, squealing our way down to the ferry landing at Turkey River. The city of Cassville owns the ferry that runs sometimes between Turkey River and Cassville. The rest of the time it doesn't run at all. This time of the year it runs from Thursday thru Sunday... unless it doesn't. During the winter, it pretty much doesn't run as it's pulled out of the water and sits in a park near the water. It's a small ferry, a barge really, able to hold from 9 to 12 cars in 3 tight lanes. Power is provided by a tug which is attached to the side of the barge at a pivot point at the front of the tug and a large latch on the side. After loading and backing off the sandbar they call a ferry dock, the tug-driver releases the latch holding, say, the right side of the tug to the side of the barge, the captain applies a little power and rudder, and the tug pivots 180 degrees so it's now going in the other direction, finally re-latching the barge to the left side of the tug. Here in Wisconsin, especially along the river, we do things a little different than folks do elsewhere.

Shadows were growing long by the time we got back to Potosi. It was a long day and I was in need of a little electrolyte replacement therapy -- also know as Snake Hollow IPA -- which happened to be on tap in adequate quantities at the Potosi Brewing Company. Then it was back to camp where we told stories and laughed with the neighbors around a warm campfire.

Man, this is the life!

T

The National Brewery Museum

Monday, October 20, 2008 -- Potosi, WI

From the earliest days of settlement in America, brewing beer was a common and highly valued skill that most wives possessed... right up there with cooking. Because stream and ground water was often unsafe to drink, brewing beer was a way of producing a drinkable liquid that was safe and contained natural preservatives. The fact that it contained alcohol and made one feel good may have been a convenient side-effect. Benjamin Franklin once said "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to have a good time".

As immigration increased and communities formed, commercial breweries popped up in almost every town and village, especially those of German heritage. The area of Wisconsin where Dar and I grew up was a classic example. In Beaver Dam and almost every surrounding small town, there was at least one brewery to meet the demand of people who considered a couple'o beers after a full day of work nearly a right. Dar's Mom remembers from her childhood on the farm that it was essential to provide beer to threshing crews, who would go from farm to farm in the fall to separate grain from the stalk with big threshing machines. These hard-working crews got a ration of beer at noon and again at the end of the day.

In Potosi, WI., one of these small breweries was the Potosi Brewery. Started in 1852, the brewery supplied beer to a growing population in Southwest Wisconsin for many years. During the 1910's and 1920's, they grew to become a regional supplier and shipped, by barge and truck, their product as far as Chicago, Minneapolis, and Des Moines. But, as with most breweries, a combination of prohibition, depression, wars, and inability to compete with more efficient and technologically savvy larger brewers. As a result, by the end of World War II, most of these small town breweries had gone out of business. Some struggled to hang on and survived a while longer -- like Potosi, who produced beer until 1972. But economics were against them and they nearly all eventually went out of business.

In the last few years, a group of local business people formed the Potosi Brewing Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving the Potosi Brewery and the heritage that went along with it.  The old brewery buildings were remodeled, a restaurant and brew pub added, they started micro-brewing beer again, and they attracted the National Brewery Museum, winning out over other beer towns like St. Louis and Milwaukee.

Even if you're preferences run more toward history than the beer itself, a visit to the National Brewery Museum should be on your short-list of things to see. Housed in the upper two floors of the remodeled Potosi Brewery, this excellent collection of American Breweriana -- various cans, bottles, advertising, signs, photos, and other brewery collectibles -- included many items from Ziegler's Brewery right there in my home town of Beaver Dam. I was fascinated by items from other nearby towns that I hadn't known even had a brewery. It was a way of viewing history through the lens of an industry that filled a need to a growing population and provided so much for so many.

In the last few years, a growing number of people have grown tired of the large scale offerings of the major breweries (Bud, Miller, etc.) which seem to be more about making an inoffensive product that anyone can drink and marketing the heck out of it, than making unique and richly flavored beers. Small brew pubs and micro-breweries have sprung up all over the place to meet this growing demand for something different, something with taste. I think this is a positive sign that we, as consumers, don't have to put up with mass-marketing, large scale manufacturing, and tepid, watered down, highly profitable products. This is America after all -- we're perhaps learning to celebrate diversity, uniqueness, and choices.

T