November 30, 2014

Farewell Missouri River, Hello Kansas

Although Tim and I had not yet reached the terminus of the Missouri River in St. Louis, it was time to change course and say farewell to the river we had been loosely following for the last month or so.  Why didn’t we follow the river all the way?  Because we were headed to Kansas to meet my friend Jane, whom I had not seen in over two years.

During our visit to the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, we happened upon a wonderful sculpture entitled “Silver Missouri.”  This beautiful work of art by Maya Lin, the artist who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., seemed a fitting end to our exploration of the Missouri River.

"Silver Missouri" by Maya Lin

We caught our last glimpse of the Missouri when we crossed the river into Kansas on October 29 and then stopped at Fort Leavenworth.  We had decided to visit one more fort, partly because Fort Leavenworth is the oldest active army post west of the Missouri River and was the army’s chief base of operations on the Central Plains.  The fort also houses the Frontier Army Museum, which presents the history of the frontier army from 1804 to 1917.  Given its mission, I thought this museum might provide a good wrap-up of the many forts we had visited.  Although that didn’t happen, we did enjoy the museum exhibits.  

Fort Leavenworth is an active military installation, and it was quite the experience entering the post, as all vehicles are subject to inspection at the entrance gate.  We had to get out and open the hood, truck and all doors of the car, as well as the hood and doors of the RV.  The inspector did seem to get distracted by the kitty and waved us in.

Grant Hall and Tower

My favorite part of our visit to Fort Leavenworth was walking around the historic core of the fort and admiring the beautiful brick residences. Many of the houses overlook the Missouri River, and we paused briefly to see where Lewis and Clark had passed through so many years before.  Those same residences are now homes to modern-day heroes and their families who are duty stationed and live here at Fort Leavenworth. 
Not a Bad Place to Live

Turn-of-the Century Houses at Fort Leavenworth

A Hint That These Houses May Be on an Army Post

Farewell Missouri River

From here we took the back roads toward Topeka, the state capital of Kansas.  We spent two nights at a county campground on Lake Shawnee, where we watched volunteers and county workers setting up the annual festival of lights display.  

Our main reason for the stop in Topeka was to visit Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, a unit of the National Park Service.  The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education ended legal segregation in public schools.  It is this story that is told at the park.  

The park is housed in the former Monroe Elementary School, which was one of four segregated elementary schools for African Americans in Topeka.  Linda Brown attended this school.  When she was refused admission to the school in her neighborhood, her father Oliver Brown and twelve other parents joined a lawsuit against the Topeka School Board in 1951, and the case became known as Brown v. Board of Education.  These parents and children had no idea that they would change history.  They simply wanted to be treated equally.

Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site

The exhibits and films at the park are extremely well done and very thought-provoking.  It’s hard to fathom that segregation was the law of the land when I was growing up.  It was a sobering visit, but so very worthwhile, and it reminded us that ordinary citizens can change history.

Learning About the History Surrounding Brown v. Board of Education

Interactive Exhibits Help Tell the Story

The Struggle Continues

We then made our way to the Kansas State Capitol, which is gorgeous after a ten-year restoration.  The dome has a new copper roof, but it will be some time before it oxidizes to its historic green patina.  Once we found the entrance to the capitol (it wasn’t at the top of the grand stairway), we wandered through the halls and admired the architecture and murals.  

Kansas State Capitol

Inside the Capitol Dome

A State Capitol Restored to Its Former Glory

Several of the murals were created in 1940-41 by John Steuart Curry, a regionalist painter and contemporary of Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton.  Curry’s most famous mural is “Tragic Prelude,” his interpretation of John Brown and the antislavery movement in the Kansas Territory before the Civil War.  Here, John Brown, with a rifle in one hand and a Bible in the other, stands between abolitionist and pro-slavery forces.  The mural helps tell one part of the story of “From Brown to Brown: Topeka’s Civil Rights Story.”  Who knew that this small Midwest city played such a pivotal role in America’s century-long struggle for civil rights?

"Tragic Prelude"

November 23, 2014

Connecting the Dots

Tim and I had talked about driving into downtown Kansas City to do a bit of touring, but we just never seemed to summon the necessary energy to tackle the traffic that goes hand-in-hand with any urban downtown center.  After cancelling our plans on Saturday, we finally got our act together and headed there on Sunday, October 26.  I know it’s not a big deal for most people, but we just don’t like to fight traffic these days.  Sunday, however, can be a perfect day to tour urban areas.

We started by driving by the new Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts to see what has become an architectural icon in the city.  What a dramatic building (I’m sorry I wasn’t able to get a photo). 

Our next stop was Union Station, which is celebrating its centennial this year.  Kansas City’s Union Station is just as grand as the one I had just visited in Omaha, although the Beaux-Arts architecture style here is much more traditional.  Union Station houses restaurants and shops, as well as a science museum and other exhibits, and is a civic center of sorts for Kansas City.

Kansas City Union Station

Freight House Pedestrian Bridge

We walked through Union Station and crossed the railroad tracks on an original freight house bridge that has been converted to a pedestrian bridge.  The bridge led us to one of Kansas City’s top five barbecue restaurants.  Jack Stack Barbecue is housed in a former freight house, and its soaring ceiling and beautiful oak bar were almost as noteworthy as the barbecue itself.  The ribs and burnt ends were divine, as were the cheesy corn bake and baked beans.  It was a perfect spot to get my barbecue fix.

Real Kansas City Barbecue

The main attraction for the day, however, was the Nelson-Atkins Museum, one of the top museums in the country.  We were there primarily to see a special exhibition entitled “The Plains Indians:  Artists of Earth and Sky.”  This groundbreaking exhibition was organized by the Musée du quai Branly in Paris in partnership with the Nelson-Atkins Museum to showcase Plains Indian masterworks gathered from both European and American collections. 

I had never thought of American art and artifacts, particularly Indian art, being housed in a European museum, but it only makes sense once I thought more about it.  In fact, many European collections have some of the best examples of eighteenth and nineteenth century pieces since French fur traders collected many items produced by Indian artists to ship home to Paris.

The 137 masterworks on view are some of the best examples of Plains Indian art in existence.  Spanning more than four centuries, they reflect the enormous changes in the lives of Plains people over their long history.  These works of beauty embody the cultural values and religious traditions of Plains Indian cultures. 

Painted Buffalo Robes Tell a Story

The individual pieces, as well as the collection as a whole, were astounding, probably more so to Tim and me because of our recent explorations in and around the country that the Plains Indians called home.  What fortuitous timing that this exhibition should be in Kansas City when we passed through.  Just think – if Tim had not wanted to see a World Series game, we may have skipped Kansas City altogether.  Our being able to see the exhibition was just meant to be.

I cannot explain how much I loved wandering from item to item, and being able to recognize what much of what I was seeing.  I usually enjoy art exhibitions, but rarely feel such excitement when viewing works of art.  I felt like a kid in a candy store – a store with lots of eye candy that is.  Because of where we have been traveling and all that we have been learning, I was able to really appreciate this exhibition.  I’m not sure it would have had the same impact on me six months ago.  It had so much more meaning to me now, and I felt so fortunate to be able to see these amazing items.

I think the items in the exhibition helped to connect the dots for me – pulling together so many of the things we’ve been seeing and places we’ve been visiting since we arrived at Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site and then started to follow the Missouri River.  I love making connections, and there were so many to make here.

For example, when we were in Pierre, South Dakota, at the Cultural Heritage Center we were disappointed that the showpiece of that collection, the “Horse Effigy,” was traveling – lo and behold here it was in Kansas City.  The “Horse Effigy” is the most famous of all Plains Indian sculptures.  Carved ca. 1880, it depicts a lunging horse in its last moment of life.

"Horse Effigy"

We also keep running into Swiss artist Karl Bodmer, who traveled to the Plains with German explorer Prince Maximilian.  The exhibition features an extraordinary buffalo robe painted by an artist ca. 1830 and collected by Prince Maximilian while he was in South Dakota.  Bodmer painted a woman, who was likely the artist, wearing this same robe.  The original watercolor is owned by the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, which we visited.  Connections, connections.

Robes Representing the Buffalo Collected by Prince Maximilian

Watercolor by Karl Bodmer Depicting the Buffalo Robe on Display
(Joselyn Art Museum Photo)

And let’s not forget Lewis and Clark.  On display is a buffalo hide that an artist painted and embroidered to make a dress.  The dress, which is decorated with materials from trade with Europeans, was collected by Lewis and Clark during their expedition.

Woman's Side Fold Dress Collected by Lewis and Clark

These were just a very few of the pieces on display.  The photos below include some of my other favorites.  I also liked that the exhibition traced Plains Indian art up to the present.  I never expected to see beaded shoes on display, but they were beautiful, even though I would never be able to walk in them!

Scalp Shirt Worn by Red Cloud
Beaded Adaptation of Designer Shoes

Beaded Valise Honoring Family History

The exhibition theme extends to the museum’s sculpture park.  Several tipis have been set up to share the historical importance and innovative qualities of this perfect form of architecture.  I also think they provide a wonderful juxtaposition to one of the museum’s signature sculptures, the “Shuttlecocks,” created by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.  Is it me, or is the shuttlecock reminiscent of an upside-down tipi?

Tipis and a Shuttlecock

This exhibition has been one of my very favorite things we’ve seen since setting out on the road.  Although Tim and I rarely feel compelled to explore larger cities, I’m sure glad we made the effort in Kansas City.

November 21, 2014

Kansas City, Here I Come

As I mentioned in the last post, Tim had been casually following the fall baseball season with the idea that since we were headed south along the Missouri River, and Kansas City happened to be on the Missouri River and the Kansas City Royals were doing very well in the American League Playoffs, it would be a wonderful experience to attend a World Series game in Kansas City.  Of course, he would have to root for the Royals. Well, Kansas City did win the American League Pennant.  Tim casually mentioned his idea to me, and I was all for it.  After all, how many times do you have the opportunity to go to the World Series?

A quick dash down the interstate from Council Bluffs had us arriving in Independence, Missouri, in the early afternoon of October 22, just in time for Tim to take a nap before leaving for Game 2 of the World Series.  We had picked Independence because of its proximity to the stadium, but the city is also close to Kansas City and the other sites that we thought we might visit.

The very friendly owner of the RV park where we were staying hooked Tim up with a couple who also had tickets to the game.  When Tim introduced himself, they invited him to ride with them to and from the game.  RVers really are a friendly bunch.  Tim made it to Game 2, and the Royals won 7-2.  Of course the home fans were ecstatic, and he was, too.  (But, the San Francisco Giants did win the series.)

A Sea of Blue

A New Royals Fan

It wasn’t all fun and games while we were in town.  We also had to take care of a “check engine light” that popped up on the RV on the way to Kansas City.  Luckily, Kansas City has two service locations for Sprinters.  The Mercedes-Benz dealer was booked for the next week, but the Freightliner dealer offered to squeeze us in on Friday.  It was a very early morning for us, and we arrived at Freightliner before 8:00 am.  I think that must have set a record!

We shared the drivers’ lounge with the big rig truckers and couldn’t help comparing it to the Mercedes waiting areas we’ve become accustomed to. Although this lounge didn’t have free cappuccino and cakes, it did have a washer and dryer.  I guess I should have brought my laundry.  Luckily, the issue with the engine was minor, and the RV was back in tip-top condition for just $150.  We were out the door by noon.

Independence, Missouri, was the home town of President Truman, and we paid a visit to the Harry S Truman National Historic Site.  On our tour of the house, we learned about Truman’s life, as well as his political legacy.  The “Summer White House,” as it was called, is preserved just as it was when his wife died in 1982, ten years after her husband’s death. We have visited several presidential homes during our various travels, and I find that they help me get a real sense of the man behind the president. Truman lived a very simple life, and his Midwestern values are apparent in his home.

Harry S Truman National Historic Site

Walking with Harry

Independence capitalizes on its most famous citizen, and other sites connected to Truman are scattered throughout the city.  Our favorite was Clinton’s Soda Fountain, the site of Truman’s first job.  We enjoyed sitting at the counter and watching our milkshakes being prepared. Yummy!

Sampling History at Clinton's Soda Fountain

There are quite a few museums throughout the country devoted to telling the story of the historic westward trails.  Although I had just visited the center in Council Bluffs, I decided to check out the one in Independence while we were there.  The National Frontier Trails Museum chronicles the history of five of America’s western trails – Lewis and Clark, Santa Fe, Oregon, California and Mormon trails.  Independence was a starting point for several of these trails, and the museum tells the story of the challenges and heartbreak faced by pioneers through artifacts, diaries and hands-on activities.  The museum was worth a visit.

Tim and I also ventured eastward a bit along the Missouri River to Fort Osage National Historic Landmark.  The site on which Fort Osage was constructed overlooks the bends of the Missouri River and was first observed on June 23, 1804 by Lewis and Clark as a likely spot for a fort. After the expedition William Clark, acting as the Indian Agent for Upper Louisiana, established the fort in 1808 as a trading post with the Osage Indians.  Reconstruction of the fort was begun in 1948, and an impressive education center was opened in 2007. 

A Fort on the Missouri River

Fort Osage National Historic Landmark

I'd Rather Sleep in the RV

I also broke down and bought a new camera during our stay.  My old camera had a few issues, and I wanted one with a longer zoom.  Although I love to take photos, I’m not a serious photographer and have no desire for a sophisticated DSLR camera with multiple lenses.  A good quality point-and-shoot that will fit in my purse is more my speed, and that’s what I got.  So far, I’ve been happy with it.

The weather was crazy during our week in Independence with temperatures in the 80s.  It was hard to believe it was almost Halloween. I knew it would be cooler by the end of the month, but still pleasant.  We didn’t feel compelled to head south just yet.

November 19, 2014

Visiting Council Bluffs and Omaha

On October 18, Tim and I decided to make a stop in Council Bluffs, Iowa. There were several reasons.  Council Bluffs was a good stopping point, it had a direct connection to Lewis and Clark and it was across the Missouri River from Omaha, Nebraska, which we also wanted to visit.  

In a journal entry dated August 3 1804, Lewis and Clark recorded their now-historic meeting with Otoe-Missouria Indians at the “council bluff” above the Missouri River.  Several decades later a city developed there, and thousands of pioneers made it a crossroads to the west.  In 1853, the city was renamed Council Bluffs after the title given to the region by Lewis and Clark.  Council Bluffs quickly grew into a prosperous rail and river town.

We typically don’t spend much time in cities, but when we do we look for an RV park as close to the city as possible.  Although these parks typically lack the scenic qualities we prefer, proximity usually trumps scenery since we don’t want to spend our time commuting back and forth to a campground.  In Council Bluffs, our only option seemed to be Casino RV Park, which was no more than an asphalt parking lot with electric and water hookups.  This RV park, however, worked out just fine, and it was close to every place we wanted to visit.  

Mostly, it seemed that we (or I) visited museums – ones about historic trails, railroads, art and history – quite a large number of quality facilities to educate and entertain us.  While Tim watched football, I headed to the Western Historic Trails Center, which interprets the Lewis and Clark, Mormon, California and Oregon trails.  Outside the center is a very cool sculpture, which represents a cross-section of the topography from the Mississippi to the Pacific.  Inside, I enjoyed the 200+ sculptures that create a series of vignettes about various aspects of life on the trails.  The displays also carry the idea of trails into the twentieth century with a section about the lure of the road and trips to the west by car.  It was a small interpretive center, but it provided a somewhat different perspective about westward migration.

A Vignette at the Western Historic Trails Center

Since I’m a railroad buff, I also visited the Union Pacific Railroad Museum, located in the historic Carnegie Library in Council Bluffs.  The museum’s exhibit “Building America” quickly refreshed my memory about the significance of Council Bluffs in railroad history - Council Bluffs was the eastern terminus of the transcontinental railroad and was where the Union Pacific Railroad began laying the tracks that would finally meet those of the Central Pacific at Promontory Summit, Utah. 

Although that exhibit was cleverly presented with interactive displays and video-game technology, I preferred “America Travels by Rail.”  I loved gazing at the various railroad china patterns, as well as the posters and other ephemera produced by the railroads to entice passengers to travel to the western national parks.  It was especially fun to see some of the same items that I have in my own collection.  (That collection did make it into our storage unit, in case you’re wondering.)

Lots of Railroad China
Winged Streamliner - My Favorite China Pattern

A Union Pacific Dining Car
Railroads Promoting the National Parks

Tim and I also spent parts of two days in Omaha, which turned out to be a very interesting historic city.  Our first stop was the National Park Service Midwest Regional Office, which also houses the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail visitor center.  Here we met Tim’s former colleague Heather Young, the curator for the Midwest region.  Tim and Heather have been in touch since his retirement, and it was Heather who advised Tim of the opportunity for the cataloging project at Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site in North Dakota.  We had a wonderful lunch in one of the historic buildings in the Old Market area.  I loved getting to know Heather and learning a bit about her life in Omaha.

The Old Market District

Tim and I also checked out the beautiful Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge, which crosses the Missouri River and is the longest pedestrian bridge to link two states.  It was a beautiful day to walk across the bridge.

Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge

Approaching the "Bob"

It's Like Walking on Art Suspended Over the Missouri River

We returned to Omaha to visit the Joslyn Art Museum, which is housed in an amazing Art Deco structure.  The Joslyn is world-renowned for its extensive body of works by Swiss artist Karl Bodmer.  We had first learned of Bodmer at Fort Union, and it was a treat to see some of the original watercolors he painted during his 1832-34 journey to the Missouri River frontier with Prince Maximilian of Germany.  Perhaps even more fascinating, however, were several of Prince Maximilian’s original journals that were also on display.
Prince Maxmilian's Journals and Karl Bodmer's Prints

Karl Bodmer's Watercolor of the Bijoux Hills on the Missouri River

In the museum’s outstanding “Art of the American West” collection, we discovered other artists who were painting in the Upper Missouri during the era of exploration.  These pieces helped us gain a broader understanding of the places and events that we had been learning about during our travels down the Missouri.  The Joslyn was definitely the highlight of our visit to Omaha.

The Joslyn Art Museum (Yes, We Also Toured the Andy Warhol Exhibit)

One final stop was on my list, and that was a visit to Omaha’s historic Union Station, one of the nation’s first Art Deco train stations.  The station has been beautifully preserved and now houses The Durham Museum.  I was more interested in the incredible architecture of the station, but I did take a quick tour of the exhibits that chronicle Omaha’s history.

Omaha's Union Station

Council Bluffs was a good place to check off a few errands that are much easier to take care of in a larger city.  The Subaru got a quick oil change, and Tim purchased a new smartphone.  Verizon had just announced a promotion that would double the data on our plan, and we jumped on the offer.  Even though we rarely download movies or books, we do need a substantial amount of data for our internet needs.  With the double-data plan, we will no longer have to worry about exceeding our monthly limits.

During our stay in Council Bluffs, Tim’s thoughts turned to baseball.  The Kansas City Royals had just clinched a trip to the World Series, and we were only 200 miles north of Kansas City.  When Tim finally said something to me about the World Series, I immediately encouraged him to look into tickets.  It didn’t matter how expensive they were – we were just too close to Kansas City not to take advantage of what might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend a game.  Tim couldn’t make the first game, but we could leave on Wednesday and arrive in time for him to make Game 2.  We quickly tossed any other plans out the window and made a beeline to Kansas City.  I’ll tell you all about it in the next post.

November 5, 2014

Loess Hills Scenic Byway

After approximately two months, Tim and I left the Dakotas behind on October 17 and crossed into Iowa.  We had a short drive to Stone State Park near Sioux City, which we planned to explore that afternoon.  Sioux City sits at a wide bend in the Missouri River and figured prominently in the expedition of Lewis and Clark.  It was near here that Sergeant Charles Floyd died, likely from a ruptured appendix.  Floyd was the only member of the Corps of Discovery to die during the expedition, and his burial place is marked with a white stone obelisk.

Sergeant Floyd is a major focus of the Sioux City Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.  My favorite exhibit, however, featured animatronic figures - Captain Lewis’s dog Seaman barking at a little prairie dog.  I wish photos had been permitted.  That was fun.  Tim and I have visited several Lewis and Clark centers, all of which have done a good job of interpretation.  It has been interesting to see how each center presents the story of Lewis and Clark, and we have been surprised to find much less overlap than one might expect.  Although we have enjoyed each one, my favorite was the first one we visited in Washburn, North Dakota.

We also visited the Sergeant Floyd Riverboat Museum next door to the center.  The museum and welcome center is housed in a decommissioned inspection boat of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and presents the transportation history of the Missouri River.  We only had a few minutes to spend there since we arrived just before closing, but we especially enjoyed the scale models of the many types of vessels that once were common on the river.

Segeant Floyd Riverboat Museum

Captain Tim at the Helm
That Captain Looks Familiar

Sioux City served as our jumping-off point to explore the Loess Hills National Scenic Byway, a day-long meander along the rural roads of western Iowa.  Although I had heard of the Loess Hills, I really knew nothing about them, so we started our journey at the Dorothy Pecaut Nature Center within Stone State Park.

Fall Color at Stone State Park

Glaciers, wind and water are the primary forces that created the Loess Hills, an area approximately 200 miles long and up to 15 miles wide within the Missouri River Valley.  Loess is wind-blown silt, and it can be found along major river valleys throughout the world.  Iowa is one of the rare places, however, where loess deposits are thick enough to create their own land form.  The Loess Hills of Iowa have some of the thickest loess accumulations in the world, with deposits ranging from 60 to 200 feet.  Only in China are there loess deposits as deep as these.

We spent the day driving through the area’s picturesque farmlands, forested hills and vast grasslands, as well as fall colors.  The many twists and turns of the byway were very well marked until we came to an ominous sign – “Road Closed to Thru Traffic.”  Uh-oh.  Luckily Google Maps came to the rescue, and Tim found several dirt roads that would get us around the bridge that was being replaced.  We were back on the byway in no time.  

Farmlands Along the Byway

Now, What Do We Do?

Should We Take This Road Instead?

A roadside stand caught our attention, and we stopped and purchased a gallon of homemade raspberry cider.  Apples were the featured fruit, but we had just recently purchased a large bag and had no room for more. We resumed our journey and pulled into Council Bluffs, Iowa, at the end of the afternoon.  Council Bluffs would be our base for exploring that city, as well as Omaha, located just across the river.

Apples and Cider

Terraces in the Fields