Destination: Charleston, South Carolina

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Six years ago this week I traveled from where I was living in Tennessee to visit a friend in Charleston, South Carolina.  The drive there was the bad kind of eventful: that mysterious phenomenon peculiar to the coastal south where you’re just driving along, minding your own business, & out of nowhere it’s raining so hard that all you can see is the taillights of the vehicle in front of you.  Nothing to deluge instantaneously.  That trip was also the first time I ever saw an armadillo dead on the side of the road & I legit thought it was a dinosaur for a hot second.  My friend told me that Charleston doesn’t allow any buildings to be taller than the tallest church steeple, which gives the city a very open, down-to-earth feel since there aren’t any skyscrapers.

My first stop was to the history park at Charles Towne Landing, the site of the first English settlement in the Carolinas in 1670.  They have something for everyone – a reconstructed fort, a sailing ship, a historic home, & even a small zoo displaying native wildlife.  I was NOT expecting to see a huge alligator in the pond as I was exploring the gardens!

The next day I visited the South Carolina Aquarium and Charleston Museum, but my camera decided to completely break in between those two sites so I didn’t really get any pictures of the museum. 😦  The aquarium has this incredible ocean tank with a giant two-story window that their resident sea turtle likes to hang out in.  When I was there they had a special Madagascar exhibit with lemurs & they were really fun to watch!  Charleston Museum is packed with just about everything possible & keeps going forever, it would take multiple visits to even come close to absorbing it all.

On my last day I visited two historic forts – Fort Sumter & Fort Moultrie, both of which were in use for generations & saw many changes & renovations over several wars.  Fort Sumter was where the Civil War got its official start when Confederates drove out the federal troops stationed there.  It sits on a tiny island in the harbor, accessible by ferry for a 2-ish hour tour.  Its a really great museum, they even have the original flags that were flown over the fort in the 1860s.  Fort Moultrie takes you backwards in time – they’ve restored it to various periods, starting at the World War II entrance & going back to the Revolution-era log fort.  Most places like this are set in a specific time frame, so it’s really interesting to see these two forts actively embracing the changes & innovations that occurred.

Charleston is a very pretty city, & I wish my camera hadn’t broken so I would have better pictures of it!  My phone camera just couldn’t do it justice.  I was also sad to miss the H.L. Hunley museum – it’s only open on weekends.  There’s way too much happening in Charleston for a three-day trip to cover it all anyway so I guess I’ll have to go back!

Road Trip 2018: Stop 4

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Hernando, Florida to Sheboygan, Wisconsin, 1,360 Miles

Stop 4: Paducah, Kentucky, June 30th – July 3rd

Stop 1 | Stop 2 | Stop 3 | Stop 5 | Stop 6 | Stop 7

On Day 13 I left Nashville & made a quick drive into western Kentucky so that I could spend Day 14 exploring in Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area.  Unfortunately by the time I got there I’d been on the road for two weeks in weather roughly the same temperature as the surface of the sun so although it’s a huge park with lots of trails & stuff I was running out of energy for outdoor activities & didn’t stay long.  I’d like to go back though, maybe in the fall when it’s cooler & the leaves are turning.  The name is pretty literal – it’s a big weird peninsula trapped between two forks of a dammed river, so there’s lots of water for boating, kayaking, swimming, etc.  There’s also a wildlife lab zoo thing, drive-through bison safari, living history farm, a really nice museum at the visitor’s center, & some ruins of iron smelting furnaces.

 

On Day 15 I went wandering around in Paducah, where I found a tugboat with the same name as my dad, an art gallery, & a tree on the sidewalk where the roots somehow grew into a square (the square root, lol).  Then a short hop over the Ohio river to Metropolis, Illinois to take a picture with the Superman statue in the middle of town & walk across the street to the Super Museum, which is basically a warehouse jammed floor to ceiling with some guy’s Superman obsession.  If you’re around in early June they have a Superman Celebration every year!

 

Next stop: all of the Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois!

Road Trip 2018: Stop 2

2018.06.24.021Hernando, Florida to Sheboygan, Wisconsin, 1,360 Miles

Chattanooga, Tennessee, June 22nd – June 26th

Stop 1 | Stop 3Stop 4 | Stop 5 | Stop 6 | Stop 7

ALL THE BATTLEFIELDS.

Seriously I visited so many things related to the Civil War in the second leg of my trip.  On day 5, on the way from Forsyth to Chattanooga, I finally stopped at Sweetwater Creek State Park, another Atlanta site that I’ve been meaning to go to for years.  The park is beautiful but I was really there to see the ruins of the New Manchester Manufacturing Company textile mill which was destroyed during the Civil War.  The burned out brick building along the river is so picturesque that it was used as a film set in the Hunger Games.  The interior unfortunately is closed off but it’s an easy hike to see them & the museum at the visitor’s center has a model of the ruin along with several very nice exhibits of the machinery from the days when the mill was in use.

 

 

On Day 6 I took a short trip my steam locomotive at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum.  Chattanooga was a rail hub of the south during the Civil War so a lot of the sites that aren’t battlefields have to do with trains.  Which are usually presented in their relationships to battlefields.  Anyway the train trip was fun, aside from the guy who made train noises THE. WHOLE. TIME.  At the opposite end of the tracks from the main rail yard the museum has a workshop where they repair historic trains from all over the country.  They also have a turntable which they use to switch the engine around & that was really cool to watch.  That trip was only about a hour but if you’re really into historic trains they also have an all day trip that goes all the way to Summerville, Georgia.  In the afternoon I went for a hike at Moccasin Bend National Archaeological District, where parts of the trail follow the original route of the Trail of Tears.  It was a sobering experience to walk on those paths.  (Be careful not to accidentally wander onto the grounds of the Moccasin Bend Mental Health Institute like I almost did!)

 

 

On Day 7 I took another short rail trip, this time on the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway, the steepest funicular railway in the U.S.  It runs at a 72.7% grade up the side of Lookout Mountain (home to a battlefield) with beautiful views of the city & surroundings all the way up the incline & from the observation tower at the top.  It’s actually a legit form of public transit used by locals, especially in the winter – it’s certainly safer than driving down the mountain in the snow.  Coming back down off the mountain I headed back into Georgia to the Chickamauga Battlefield (the Chickamauga & Lookout Mountain Battlefields plus Moccasin Bend, Chattanooga National Cemetery, & a couple of other properties collectively form Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park).  Chickamauga has like 762,000 monuments, pretty much one for every single regiment that came anywhere near the war.  I did the cell phone tour, where you drive around the loop & call in to hear the audio tour.  I didn’t stop to see every single monument but I did climb up to the Wilder Brigade Monument for a panoramic view of the whole area.  They also have an insane firearms collection at the visitor’s center, I’m not kidding when I say I think they have every type of gun ever made (at least up until the collection was donated in the 1950s).

 

 

Day 8 was dedicated to a totally different activity – a drive to Scottsboro, Alabama to the Unclaimed Baggage Center.  This place is A.MAZ.ING.  It’s like a garage sale, thrift store, junk shop, all rolled into one & on steroids.  It’s literally a huge warehouse full of everything that gets left on planes AND YOU CAN BUY IT.  HOW some of this stuff gets lost I will never know.  The walls have permanent displays of some of the weirder things – ethnic headdresses, musical instruments, priceless antiques.  I think those must be the things that airlines lose entirely (which is pretty wild, I mean how many people are flying with giant Alpine horns that nobody can reunite that with its owner?); there most be some intense angry airline customer stories behind some of it.  Then there’s the stuff that’s for sale – wedding dresses, cameras, laptops, jewelry, mountains of clothing & purses, it just goes on and on and on.  THEN, there’s a warehouse behind the main warehouse where they have clearance stuff & lost commercial shipments so there hundreds of rolls of toilet paper or a zillion tubes of toothpaste.  I bought a charger pack for my phone, a head band for my GoPro, & a practically new U.S. atlas for like $15.

 

 

Next stop: historic sites & wild animals in Nashville, Tennessee!

Road Trip 2018: Stop 1

2018.06.20.034Hernando, Florida to Sheboygan, Wisconsin, 1,360 Miles

Forsyth, Georgia, June 18th – June 22nd

Stop 2 | Stop 3Stop 4 | Stop 5 | Stop 6 | Stop 7

About 6 weeks after I graduated from USF I was offered my first job on an archaeological project & headed out on a cross-country adventure from my home in Florida to the job site in Wisconsin.  On Day 1 I drove a little over 350 miles from Hernando, FL to Forsyth, GA, with a stop in Thomasville, home of the Big Oak.  The Big Oak is just that, a 300+ year old live oak tree which has grown to a height of 68 feet & a trunk circumference of 27.5 feet.  I really developed my obsession with KOA cabins on this trip – I bought a membership & it really paid off, 10% off each night plus I earned enough points to get a discount on my way back to Florida & even another whole year of membership for free!  The one in Forsyth is pretty nice, & the location halfway between Atlanta & Macon was great for visiting sites in both cities & the surrounding area.

 

On Day 2 I visited the beautiful historic downtown area of Macon, which has several historic homes open for tours.  This time through I visited The Cannonball House, which is named after the projectile that came through the living room wall during the Civil War (even though it wasn’t actually a cannonball!).  A few miles away is the prehistoric mound site at Ocmulgee National Monument, which has a museum and recreated earth lodge built around an original 1,000-year-old floor.

 

On Day 3 I finally made it to Georgia Aquarium!  After years of driving back & forth, each time thinking I’ll go see the whale sharks & then deciding I didn’t feel like dealing with Atlanta, this time I finally went.  It was AMAZING, I could seriously sit there & watch the whale sharks swim around all day, it’s very calming in the dark theater with the blue water & these super chill animals just drifting slowly around their tank.  Apparently they were shipped in from Thailand via UPS, just like all the junk I buy on Amazon.  They have tons of other stuff to see as well, including a dolphin show (avoid the first 10 rows if you don’t want to get wet), sea lions, penguins, & thousands of fish from a variety of ecosystems.

 

On the way back to Forsyth I stopped at High Falls State Park, which has some nice trails along a river as well as an abandoned ruin of a power plant.  It’s fenced off but the profusion of graffiti says that a lot of people ignore said fence.  It’s still really cool to see though.  On Day 4 I had lunch in Juliette (where parts of the movie Fried Green Tomatoes was filmed at the Whistle Stop Cafe & they never let you forget it) & stopped by the historic Jarrell Plantation, where all of the original buildings are open for visiting.  It was owned by the same family for 140 years before the founder’s descendants donated the property to the state.  Also they have goats to pet, & it just doesn’t get any better than that.

 

Next stop: trains & battlefields in Chattanooga, Tennessee!

Throwback Thursday: Cataloochee Valley

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Cataloochee Valley is my favorite part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  It’s far from any of the big towns or really popular parts of the park so it’s a good place to get away from the crowds at Cades Cove or Clingman’s Dome.  It’s got abandoned buildings that are still in pretty good shape and is also the only part of the park where elk have been reintroduced.

I went out there hiking one day in October a few years ago when I was still living in Gatlinburg.  The leaves were beautiful, the elk were out in the meadows, and I had the trails all to myself.  Lots of little creeks with tiny waterfall made for a very peaceful experience.  I had intended to hike out to a schoolhouse but I got started too late & didn’t want to be out there in the dark so I had to turn back.  I also kept meaning to stay at the campground there but never got around to it.  Hopefully I’ll make it back there someday & do those things.

Throwback Thursday: That Time I Tried to get to Munising & Ended Up in Grand Marais

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So it turns out that roads don’t cross each other in the Upper Peninsula. I discovered this when I decided to wander my way in the general direction of Munising to see waterfalls, with no real timeline or plan except to be back on Mackinac Island when I had to be at work again. I just kept going north, figuring I’d turn west on the next road. That road didn’t exist until Lake Superior appeared in front of me, & then it turned out to be a horrible, rutted logging road that I could only go about 10mph on lest it shake my car to pieces. The first civilization I came to was Grand Marais, a good 45 miles east of Munising.

Grand Marais is nice though. I got to see the Pickle Barrel House, I had the beach pretty much to myself (although I didn’t go swimming – Lake Superior stays about 55° year-round & I’m not crazy). I did get to hike out to a waterfall & to some sand dunes in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. All in all it was a nice little weekend jaunt, just not the one I had in mind when I started.

This Week (and Last Week) in Awkwardness

I read an article recently about a company that wants to build a huge complex on the north rim of the Grand Canyon complete with a cable car system capable of taking 10,000 people a day down to the bottom of the canyon.  The argument for this is that it would bring money & jobs to the local Navajo community, as well as allowing everyone to experience the beauty & serenity of the canyon bottom.  But if there’s 10,000 people through there on any given day, what beauty or serenity will be left?  Never mind the gaudy souvenir stands on the rim and the ugly slash of a cable car down the side – I shudder to think what the bottom of that canyon will look like once millions of people have been through it, tromping over the vegetation, leaving garbage everywhere, and carving their names all over the rocks.  If you destroy something in your effort to experience it, what exactly have you experienced?


Book Finished:

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

My Larson kick continues….

In the years leading up to World War II, American ambassador William Dodd and his family lived in Berlin, watching as the Nazis consolidated power, Jewish Germans lost their rights, and Hitler rose into a dictator.  Larson tells the story from the perspectives of Dodd and his daughter, Martha, using diaries and memoirs to give us a first-hand look at the New Germany.  I was surprised to find out how naive everybody seemed to be about what the Germans were really up to, as well as how sympathetic seemingly sane people were to the “Jewish problem”.  This was a good follow-up to Dead Wake, since that book deals with some of the attitudes & politics leading up to World War I, which contributed to the attitudes & politics leading up to World War II and was a subject that historian Dodd discussed a few times with his high-ranking Nazi hosts.

Favorite Quote:

“With few exceptions, the men who are running this Government are of a mentality that you and I cannot understand.  Some of them are psychopathic cases and would ordinarily be receiving treatment somewhere.”

– American consul general to Germany George Messersmith, in a dispatch to the State Department.


Added to the Travel Map:

Fort Hancock, Sandy Hook, New Jersey – an abandoned Nike missile site, now part of Gateway National Recreation Area.

Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – an abandoned prison.

The Corner House, Rīga, Latvia – former headquarters of the Latvian KGB.

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: 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, 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.

 

 

devils den

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.