Destination: Round Island Lighthouse

Round Island is part of Hiawatha National Forest, is entirely uninhabited, and really doesn’t have any tourism to speak of.  Occasionally someone will take a kayak across the channel, or we’ll see a bonfire on the beach, but for the most part it’s pretty forlorn, the lighthouse locked up tight, nobody around.  One day a year the Round Island Lighthouse Preservation Society, together with Boy Scout Troop 323 of Freeland, Michigan, open it up for tours.  The tour itself is free, but if you don’t have your own way across transportation from Mackinac costs $15.  First they put seven people into a smallish fishing boat, then they transferred us into two inflatable Zodiac rafts.  I wish I’d been wearing lighter pants, I was siting right in the bow and my jeans didn’t get dry the whole time I was there.

Nobody really took care of it from the time it was decommissioned in 1958 until a storm swept away a whole corner of the building in 1972, and people started to realize they might lose it forever.  They kept it from collapsing then but the interior is still in desperate need of reconstruction.  Holes in the walls, holes in the floors, but it’s a beautiful building.  Boy Scouts throughout the building talked about the history all the way up.  The first floor housed the two massive compressors that created steam to run the foghorn, the second and third floors were living quarters for the keeper, his assistant, and their families.  Some of the bedrooms had the foghorn right outside the windows – I’m sure that was fun to sleep through.  On the fourth floor there’s just a ladder up into the lantern room, and from there a tiny hatch opening out onto the deck.

While I was there a woman named Gertie came to the island.  She’s 90 years old, and her father was once the lighthouse keeper.  She spent a handful of summers living here as a girl, and sat for a long time telling us about carrying water up from the lake, the things her sisters found walking the beach, and making whatever fun you could in such a lonely place.  We moved into what had once been her bedroom, and while she spoke a floorboard broke out from under her daughter’s foot.

Going inside Round Island Light is a rare opportunity, and one that I passed up too many times.  I probably spend three hours wandering through it and listening to Gertie’s stories.  It would be nice to see it restored someday, but the money and effort involved with such an undertaking may be too much.  In the meantime we’ll just have to love it as a beautiful ruin.

Destination: Drummond Island

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Drive an hour from St. Ignace, to the very eastern corner of the Upper Peninsula, onto the Drummond Islander IV in De Tour Village, and land in paradise.

Paradise with nobody in it.

Paradise with cool abandoned stuff.

Paradise with lots of trees & wildflowers.

Seriously.

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Ferry passage for a car and the driver is only $14.  It was shocking how much stuff they put on that boat – cars towing boats, fifth-wheel campers, I even saw a semi towing a huge excavator waiting to board.  I spent two nights at the semi-rustic Township Park campground, a spot with electricity is $16/night.  The first night I couldn’t sleep, so I laid awake listening to loons call.  Bring a canoe or kayak if you’ve got one, there’s all sorts of little outlying islands, including Harbor Island National Wildlife Refuge.  There’s also plenty of hiking and four-wheeling trails.  A lot of roads on the map unfortunately are signed as private roads, so I couldn’t explore as much as I wanted to :(.  There’s no shortage of services here, the main intersection in town has a grocery store, hardware store, and dry goods shop that all seem to be owned by the same family, and there’s plenty of restaurants, hotels, and campgrounds.  I think the gas station had as wide a variety as our grocery store here on Mackinac.

Destination: St. Louis

 

St. Louis is, weirdly enough, the only city I’ve ever been in where I saw an actual tent community on an empty lot.  It’s also the only city I’ve ever been in where entire buildings were painted with murals and Roman columns.


The Gateway Arch

For anyone unfamiliar with St. Louis, the Arch is exactly that: a gigantic steel structure randomly sticking up from the bank of the Mississippi, holding up nothing.  It’s actually part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, which also includes the nearby Old Courthouse.  They’re doing some work on the museum underneath the Arch, so until that reopens the Courthouse is acting as the museum/visitor’s center/ticketing location.  I opted for the Arch + river cruise combo for $25 ($22 with a NPS pass).  After checking out the incredible dome and somewhat comical dioramas in the Courthouse I hopped aboard the not-so-imaginatively named Becky Thatcher for a narrated 1-hour trip up & down the Mighty Mississippi.  Our captain told us some of the history of the area and pointed out some interesting things along the way, including river traffic, abandoned buildings, and a casino that filled its basement with river water to comply with the law that all casinos must be “on the river”.  I guess it works.

Disembarking from the boat, I headed back up the Grand Staircase (being sure to find the 33rd one, the high-water mark of past flood) and headed down into the heart of the Arch.  Getting in here only costs $3, but while the museum is out of commission there’s really only the documentary movie.  The cool thing to do is to head to the observation deck on the weirdest elevator ride in town, up through the leg of the Arch itself ($10).  The elevators are these crazy little round pods with 5 seats that tilt & ratchet themselves along with the leaning leg of the arch, with windows in the doors that offer a great view of the inner workings of the building.  The visitor’s center in the Courthouse has a sample one set up for anybody who’s not sure if they can handle the confined space.  It takes 4 minutes to get to the top, but only 3 to get back down (yay gravity!), and they run about every ten minutes.  The view from the top is of course spectacular, with one side facing out over the city and the other across the river into Illinois.  I stayed up there for a long time watching people and cars, and looking for whatever little oddities I could spot.  Click here for a short video I shot on the way down.  (It’s not the greatest, but hey.)


St. Louis Zoo

The zoo itself is free, but they charge a huge amount for parking in the lots.  I was lucky enough to find a single open spot on the street that I didn’t have to pay for.  It’s a surprisingly nice zoo for not costing anything.  I only had time and energy to cover about half of it.  I really liked the insect house, although I was careful to avoid the employee walking around with a hissing cockroach asking people if they wanted to pet it.  One of the coolest things was a display of ants: they had the ant nest on one side of the box and the food on the other side, with a winding vine in between that the ants walked on.  I could have stared at them for hours, going back and forth with their little leaf pieces.  I also enjoyed the indoor penguin habitat (bring a jacket, the climate is for the penguins, not the humans!) and the seal tunnel.  There’s a train ride through the zoo ($5) that I didn’t go on but I’m sure it’s fun.

Destination: Graceland (and a Little Bit of the Rest of Memphis)

 

I’m not a rabid Elvis fan (although I do appreciate some of his early work) but when in Memphis, visit Graceland.  It was smaller than I thought it would be but otherwise perfectly met my gaudy, ostentatious expectations.  What I didn’t expect was to find out that Elvis was such a nice, down to earth guy.  He apparently ran around paying off the hospital bills of strangers and driving golf carts on his front lawn.  He even bought the house partly to fulfill an early promise to his parents that he would get them a nice place to live.  The tour was a little different than my usual experience.  I bought my ticket ($36) across the street and got in line for a shuttle to take me to the house.  While I waited, someone handed me an iPad and a set of headphones, and John Stamos became my tour guide.  The iPad was interesting at first, each room had commentary, there were photos, videos, interviews, and 360° views of places that weren’t visible from the viewing areas.  The problems arose when they packed the house so full that it was impossible to stand in one place long enough to explore each section.  I ended up having to sit down in a random spot for awhile and just go through all the stuff I’d missed.  There’s a couple of outbuildings besides the house itself that hold a lot of his awards and more flamboyant costumes, plus horses on the grounds and of course the graves of Elvis, his parents, and his grandmother.  All in all it’s an interesting (if somewhat overpriced) place to visit.

While I was in town I wandered down Beale Street, with it’s bar-b-que restaurants and blues clubs, and made a quick stop to visit the famous ducks of the Peabody Hotel.  I drove by the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.  It’s now the National Civil Rights Museum and they keep a huge white wreath on the balcony where he stood.  It poured rain for a half hour or so and mist started rising off the Mississippi.

 

Destination: Little Rock

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Leaving the Fort Smith area I headed east on I-40, with a stop at Petit Jean State Park.  Miles of creek side trails and a big lake make Petit Jean a great spot for outdoor adventures.  One of the central features is Cedar Falls, which tumbles 90 feet into a gorge.  There’s a couple of vantage points above it that are easy to get to, but to see it from below requires a hike down into the canyon.  Another interesting spot is Rock House Cave, a petroglyph site.  Beautiful Civilian Conservation Corps construction on roads, trails, and picnic areas round out this gorgeous location.

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Right smack in the middle of Arkansas is its capital city: Little Rock. Once upon a time this was the place everyone was talking about as nine black teenagers struggled through the integration of all-white Little Rock Central High School. The school itself still operates so you can’t just go wandering around in it (although there are tours occasionally, see the NPS website for info) but the grounds are open and the National Park Service operates a very nice (and free) visitor’s center kitty corner to the school. I was there in the afternoon and watched for a bit as the students were heading out for the day. Black, white, sixty years after the National Guard was used to keep out the Little Rock Nine everybody mingled together and it didn’t seem to matter a bit what color anybody’s skin was.

Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, Little Rock, Arkansas
Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, Little Rock, Arkansas

The River Market District is a beautiful section of the city packed with restaurants, shops, and historic buildings.  I stopped for lunch at Ottenheimer Market Hall where stalls offer just about any kind of food you can imagine.  Pizza, ice cream, Asian, Middle Eastern, soul food, nobody could possibly go hungry in this place. While I was there I saw everybody from bankers to construction workers chowing down.  I was basically eating with the Village People.  Wandering along the street I came to the Old State House, where Arkansas seceded from the Union on May 6th, 1861.  The free museum inside covers every aspect of Arkansas history you can think of.  There were big sections on governors, civil rights, the history of bicycles, movies with any sort of tie to Arkansas, there was even a whole room of dresses worn by governor’s wives.  When my feet started to hurt I hopped on a trolley; for $1 it meandered through the river district, over the Arkansas River into North Little Rock, and back again while the driver pointed out interesting things along the way.  North Little Rock holds T.R. Pugh Memorial Park which contains The Old Mill.  This was never actually a mill, it was created purely as a picturesque ruin, but it is pretty enough to have made it into the opening scenes of Gone with the Wind.

Continuing along I-40 there are three different archaeological parks to visit. These are mound sites, created hundreds of years ago by the ancestors of modern Native American tribes. Some of the mounds have fallen victim to farming over the years but several are still visible. Toltec & Parkin have trails going out to their mounds, but Hampson is just a small museum dedicated to a site that remains privately held and can’t be visited. The ranger at Toltec told me that they had excavated one mound for study and when they rebuilt it they had to bring in 18 dump trucks of dirt. Imagine doing that by hand, carrying the dirt in baskets.  Village Creek State Park also resides along this corridor and has some nice trails.

I really didn’t expect Arkansas to be so incredible, but I’m already scheming to go back.

Destination: Northwestern Arkansas

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Arkansas has been a place of cultural clashes for at least the last 200 years. Westward expansion, the Trail of Tears, the Civil War, civil rights – it’s intense. With that much history it’s no surprise that the state is packed to the brim with memorials and battlefields.  If you think of Arkansas as a square divided by a diagonal line the northwestern half is rugged and mountainous, with winding roads and fields of cows in the valleys, while the southeastern half is flat and wet, containing many small towns surrounded by cropland. I don’t know if Arkansas just has better parks than other states or what but all the ones I went to were stunning, and by some miracle free of charge, so it doesn’t cost a thing to get out and experience the incredible beauty on display here. They don’t call it The Natural State for nothing, and I was super happy to be out in the woods again after so many months of dirt & rocks in Arizona.


A Journey

On the very western edge of Arkansas, right on the border with Oklahoma, is the town of Fort Smith, once the very last outpost before you left the United States and entered the frontier. The infamous Trail of Tears passed this way heading out to Indian Territory. The fort itself once imprisoned the ruffians that made the West wild. Major clashes of the Civil War were fought nearby as the Confederates tried to make some headway on the border state of Missouri. It’s almost overwhelming trying to take it all in.

Fort Smith National Historic Site consists of a large park on the Arkansas River as well three buildings from the second incarnation of the fort: the gallows, the commissary, and the courthouse.  The courthouse holds a very nice museum covering the long and varied history of the fort, the frontier, and the Trail of Tears.  In those days this was the end of civilization, with Indian Territory just a few steps away.

Heading north on Scenic Byway US-71, I stopped at Devil’s Den State Park is a great place for hiking or swimming.  Caves, boulders, cliffs, and waterfalls dot the forest.  I never did figure out which one was the Devil’s den and which was the Devil’s ice box, or why people insist on giving these Satanic place names.

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Just outside the small town of Fayetteville, where I wandered into a farmer’s market in the town square and spotted a local chef buying his produce for the day, is Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park.  There’s not a lot left of the original landscape, but there is a nice museum and a walking path with buildings from that era.  The interesting thing about Prairie Grove is the driving tour through town.  Pick up a flyer or buy a CD at the visitor’s center for the information pertaining to each stop, and try not to ogle people’s front lawns too much.  They’ll start to think you’re weird.

Stop at the Daisy Air Rifle Museum ($2) in Rogers for a quirky history lesson and more Red Ryder than you can handle.  I had no idea the history of air rifles was such a long one, but they’ve got guns dating back a few hundred years.  Some of the memorabilia is way hyper-masculine but I guess that’s their demographic.  Confusingly incongruous with being called Daisy though.

Just a few miles shy of the Missouri border is Pea Ridge National Military Park, where the land has been maintained much as it was during the decisive Civil War battle that was fought here.  The only remaining building is the Elkhorn Lodge, and even it is a rebuild from shortly after the end of the war.  The driving tour supplemented with foot trails takes you through the battlefield, onto the ridge above it where soldiers hid from their enemies, and to a couple of memorials placed later by veterans from both sides of the conflict.  As much interest as I have in historic battlefields, I struggle to really understand them.  Some group from some place with a certain number fought with some other numbered group from a different place.  Eventually one group left.  Yay.

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This part of Arkansas is incredible and it’s definitely a place I’d like to explore further in the future.  It’s just too pretty.  I can’t stand it.

Destinations: Albuquerque & Santa Fe

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For a while now I’ve been sort of fascinated by the culture, style, and architecture of New Mexico, a state that I’d only been through on a train.  I finally had an opportunity to visit, and it didn’t disappoint.

I actually stayed between the two cities in Bernalillo and spent a day in each place. Rather than driving, paying for gas, dealing with traffic, and figuring out where to park, and paying for that too, I took the New Mexico Rail Runner commuter train. It’s really cheap (the hour-long trip to Santa Fe was $9, downtown Albuquerque only cost $4), convenient, and the scenery can’t be beat. Train tickets also get you onto the city buses at no extra cost, just show it to the driver.

The station in Albuquerque is right downtown, but a couple of miles from the Old Town section that I wanted to visit, so I hopped a bus and rode through the city. Old Town is arranged around a central plaza with a large church on one side and surrounded by many shops and tour options. I never got into Breaking Bad but apparently it takes place and/or was filmed in Albuquerque and they do everything they can to capitalize on that fact. I found a sign advertising a funeral procession for Walter White and I one point I saw a tour bus with what appeared to be a meth lab in it.

Leaving Old Town, I got back on the bus and headed over to the Albuquerque Botanical Garden. The garden is half of the ABQ BioPark, the other half being a zoo. $12.50 for one or the other, $20 for both, and a small train runs between them. The garden also contains an aquarium, so the one ticket includes plenty of animals along with the plants. The gardens are beautiful of course, with a farm section, a Japanese garden (my favorite), a lake, two greenhouses, a butterfly house (summer only) and model trains. I didn’t even know garden trains were a thing, but I guess it’s a pretty serious hobby. There’s also a playground shaped like a castle, complete with tunnels, giant flowers, and an ivy-covered dragon.

 

I really liked Santa Fe.  It was a little more desertish than my ideal but there were grassy parks about every ten feet to make up for it, and it’s at a high enough elevation (7,200 feet) to have plenty of big trees.  Some of the oldest buildings in the country are here, so I was surprised by how many high end shops there were and how artsy the town was in general.  I guess I figured it would be a little more traditional or something.

The beautiful Cathedral Basilica of Francis of Assisi dominates a whole city block and can be seen all over town.  I happened to be there on Good Friday so things were closing up all over the place for people to attend the 1:30 service.

The proximity of the Los Alamos labs to Santa Fe also piqued my interest, but I didn’t have time to visit the museums dedicated to that particular aspect of this region.  Central New Mexico is definitely interesting, and a place I’d like to explore the history of further on another trip.