Monday, September 19, 2011

Walnut Valley Festival, Winfield Kansas

The Cherokee Strip Campground was our home for five nights while we attended the music festival. Just 3 miles north of the Kansas/Oklahoma border in Arkansas City ("Ark City to people around here) is only a twenty minute ride to the fairgrounds in Winfield, Kansas, the site of the festival. We arrived on Tuesday afternoon, but the performances didn't begin until Thursday. We used Wednesday to do our laundry and purchase a new tire for Mary Joan. We have one misaligned axle that is causing the tire on that axle to wear more quickly than normal. We also discovered that our spare tire was defective. At Rakie Oil Service in Ark City we purchased one tire to replace the one that ws wearing out and the good people at Rakie replaced the spare tire which was still under waranty by Goodyear.

My friend and colleague, Jerome who lives just omutside Kansas City, joined us Wednesday evening. Jerome is an excellent musician. He brought his fiddle and dobro. We stayed p late Wednesday catching up on current events in our lives and playing music together.

We got to the fairground at mid-morning on Thursday. I was not prepared for how the festival had changed since I was here nearly twenty years ago. There were at least three times as many people here than my last visit. There were now multiple campgrounds rather than just the one and RVs had mostly replaced tents. In addition, there were so many of them that negotiating the campgrounds was like walking in a maze.

The event still uses only four main stages. But, informal stages were set up in the campground area. As in the past, groups of friends would become divided as individuals chose to watch performances on different stages or take a break at their campsites. In the past, it was an easy matter to reconnect with friends by walking about until they were found. Now, cell phones are a necessity due to the number of people and the crowded conditions in the campgrounds. Another friend and colleague, Terri who is also from Kansas, is a regular attendee. Without our cell phones it would have been unlikely that we could have found each other.
Stage I

Beside the increased number of people, we also noted that the population had aged considerably. That should not have come as too much of a surprise, after all we have aged. However, once the weekend arrived the average age began to drop as more young people arrived.
A young cowboy

We enjoyed listening to some of the same performers that have played at Winfield for years as well as new talents brought in by the organizers. In its early years the festival was a venue for the National Flat Picking Championship where up and coming guitar players could compete for prizes and the title of the best Flat Pick Guitar player in the country. Since then, fiddle, mountain dulcimer, mandolin, autoharp, finger style guitar,hammer dulcimer and bluegrass banjo  contests have been added.I particularly enjoyed watching the mandolin contest. The competition was close, but Sarah and I correctly picked four of the five finalists and my number one choice actually took second place.

One of the wonderful features of Winfield is that many of the attendees also play one instrument of another. There are many pick up bands that form around campfires in the campgrounds. Jerry and I found a group of talented people at one campsite and played with them until midnight. By that time it had begun to get cold and we were getting tired. It had been a long day.
Second Place Mandolin Winner

The weather on Friday brought cold temperatures and drizzle. Jerry stayed until late afternoon when he had to  return home. After Jerry left, Sarah and I took a short break for dinner then returned to watch the rest of the evening's performances. We intended to return to the campground for more informal sessions at the campsites, but the cold drizzle drove us back to our warm dry trailer.

Thunderstorms arrived early Saturday morning so we didn't get to the fairgrounds until nearly noon. The parking lot was reduced to a muddy pit. We were allowed to drive in only because we had four wheel drive. Even with the all wheel drive, it was like driving on a skating rink. The weather continued to improve so that by mid-afternoon we had bright sunshine. However, by late afternoon clouds looming in the southwest overtook the fairgrounds and a tornado watch was announced. We decided to go back to the trailer and arrived there just as the storm hit. Fortunately, we didn't get much wind. But, Sarah's worst nightmare about storms came true. We got hail. The hail was about a half inch in diameter. But, because of the lack of wind and the position of the trailer under a large tree, the Tinwheeler didn't sustain any damage.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Oz, Almost Like Home. Denver to Winfield, KS

High and Dry

The ride from Denver was familiar to me. I attended Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas from 1972 until 1979. In the spring of 1973 I drove to Colorado Springs during spring break to join some Air Force friends who were stationed there for a week of skiing and camaraderie. I knew we could make excellent time across this high prairie. After being in majestic mountains, we enjoyed the grand feeling of spaciousness afforded by the vast dimensions of the great plains.

I was astonished by the evident drought that eastern Colorado and western Kansas has experienced this summer. We drove past hundreds of miles of corn and milo fields whose crops were scorched and stunted. Even those that had irrigation equipment were similarly affected. The wells have run dry on many farms. I recalled reading in a history of the great dust bowl, The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan, that the source of water for this area is the Ogallala aquifer, a huge underground lake that runs from South Dakota to Texas along the borders of Wyoming and Nebraska, Colorado and Kansas, and New Mexico and Texas including the Oklahoma panhandle. The tall grass prairie that grew here and was the grazing ground for millions of American Bison has, for millions of acres, been converted to tilled land now used to grow crops that could not grow without pumping water from this aquifer. For many years, this land was used to grow wheat. Wheat could be grown here with irrigation needed only in times of drought. But, with the increased demand for corn as a fuel source, and with a number of 'wet' years providing good yields, many farmers took the risk of growing corn on this ground. The drought that occurred this year has shown the folly of this endeavor. The aquifer is being depleted. More water is being taken out than is returned by rain and snow melt each year. This situation is like the elephant in the room here in the west. Everyone knows that there is a crisis coming, but nobody is talking about it. The more the aquifer is depleted, the number of farms unable to irrigate their land will increase. The Great Dust Bowl was concentrated in a relatively small area compared to that overlying the Ogalalla Aquifer.

At Limon, Colorado we left the interstate and took the only road that brought us south-west and closer to Wichita, Kansas. U.S. 40 is a well maintained two lane road. It is heavily traveled by semi-trailer trucks. The speed limit is 65mph and we had to take the magnetic mounted CB radio antenna off the roof because the blast of wind by passing trucks blew the antenna from the roof. We were happy that we had such a substantial tow vehicle on this road. The apparent winds had to be over 150 mph, yet the truck and trailer held steady on the road.

After a long day, we arrived at Gunsmoke Campground in Dodge City, Kansas. The temperature was 101F. This well maintained campground has a swimming pool for which we were very grateful. When we arrived, we noticed two interesting motor homes. They looked like they could have been built by Airstream, but we know that Airstream never made anything like what we were seeing. These motor homes turned out to be Ultra Van, made in the 1960's in Hutchinson, Kansas. The original models used Corvair engines. Only a few hundred were made. The ones that we saw were part of a mini-rally at the Gunsmoke Campground. We spoke with Dr. Ron Zoutendam of Sheldon, IA. His Ultra Van is beautifully restored.
Ultra Van Rally
Dr. Ron

Because Winfield, Ks is a place that I visited each year while in veterinary school, the next leg of the trip, from Dodge City to Arkansas City felt like we were going home. The rolling landscape, straight roads and small towns don't appear to have changed over the last 30 years.

Getting off the interstate is always an adventure and usually provides unexpected curiosities. This diversion from I-70 was no exception. The most amazing place we found this day was on U.S. 400 just as we entered the town of Mullinville, Kansas. On each rise of the road approaching the town I could see movement on the north side. From a distance, it appeared to be flags fluttering. When we reached the town line, we saw that the source of the motion was hundreds of sculptures with moving parts in a field along the north side of the highway. What we found was a large installation of metal sculptures by the local artist M. T. Liggett. The sculptures are created from found objects and plasma cut sheet steel painted and accentuated with searing political opinion. Mr. Liggett spares no political ideology. We could have spent hours dwelling on these installations.
The artist's info
Mr. Liggett is very dedicated, and talented

We are now at the Cherokee Strip Campground in Arkansas City, Kansas, just 3 miles north of the Kansas/Oklahoma border. We are here to attend the 40th Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas just 15 miles north of here. Along with a number of my classmates, I came here each year while I was in school in the late 70's. We would have liked to stay at the fairgrounds, but dogs are not allowed. It may be a good thing because we have been told that the campground can be noisy until the very early hours of the morning.

We are excited about attending the festival and hearing some great music.

Stay tuned.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Montana to Colorado via Yellowstone National Park and Jackson, WY

Boiling Cauldrons
Yellowstone National Park was not high on our list since we had visited this park many years ago with the children after we took John and Audrey on a canoe trip down the White Cliff section of the Missouri River. But, we wanted to visit Grand Teton National Park, which is just a few miles south of Yellowstone. Yellowstone has changed a lot since then. The big fire of 1988 burned over three quarter of a million acres. It is remarkable how different the landscape looks. But, the forest is resilient and clearly on the rebound. The other reason for taking this route was to visit a friend and former colleague who lives in Jackson, Wyoming which is just outside the south entrance to Grand Teton National Park.
Boiling River

So, we put on more miles than we usually do in order to make it into Yellowstone. We enjoyed the scenic drive from Missoula on US 191, entering the park at West Yellowstone then camping for the night at the Madison Campground. The next day, we drove to Colter Bay Campground in Grand Teton National Park. We stopped  at many of the highlights along the route, of course Old Faithful was one of them. While we waited for Old Faithful, we had the service station next to the visitor's center rotate the tires on the truck. I didn't ask how much it would cost, but I had neglected to do it at the last oil change so I was willing to accept the punishment of high prices in such a place. I was very happy when I returned for the truck to find the price no more than I would have paid at my dealer.
Old Faithful

Colter Bay on Lake Jackson is another beautiful place in our National Parks. Despite a number of lodges and a large marina in the village, this place still has a natural and rustic appearance. Like other campgrounds in highly popular areas, we didn't have much privacy or scenic campsite. I suppose that is the price to pay to stay in a place so scenic that millions of others want to experience it each year also.

The person at the entry gate suggested we stay at Colter Bay because it had a number of hiking trails that began right in the village. The next day we hiked to Hermitage Point, a 10 mile hike with only about 950 of elevation rise along its length. We were rewarded with stunning views of the Tetons as well as varied woodland and open field flora. In some places we found shallow ponds filled with lily pads, and verdant grassy areas at open depressions in the forest. Further on toward the point we crossed high desert land studded with dry grasses and sage brush. We were a little tired upon our return. Despite the easy terrain, we were feeling the effects of hiking at 7,000 feet above sea level.
The Tetons

On the way back, we stopped at the general store across from the restaurant, enticed by the 30% off all frozen goods sign. We scored chicken, swordfish and ground turkey at almost give away prices. The chicken was the first onto the grill. Simple rub of olive oil, rosemary, salt and pepper then cooked over the coals of an open fire with potatoes aux gratin avec onion. A simple camp dinner.

With the Tin Wheeler in tow, we left the Colter Bay campground and headed south bound for Jackson. Like so many other scenic national park roads, this one took time to transit owing to the numerous beautiful vistas revealed at the many pullouts along the way. However, this road demanded that we leave Mary Joan in a trailer parking lot in order to drive on the narrow winding road to the top of Signal Mountain from which we had magnificent views of the Tetons and the vast valley below. At the top of the mountain were information plaques describing the geology and history of this place. One plaque included a brief history of the first exploration of these mountains by the photographer William Henry Jackson with photos taken in 1878. I was happy to see that the amount of snow on the mountains today was not unlike what Jackson found 130 years earlier and that the smoke of forest fires was also present back then.
Jackson Lake

On September 8th we arrived in Jackson, Wyoming. We stayed at the Virginian Resort RV campground, the most expensive of all the parks we have stayed at. Fortunately we had made reservations because the campground was completely filled. Jackson is the quintessential tourist town owing to its beautiful scenery and the numerous recreational opportunities available for nine months of the year. However, there is a wonderful brewery there, the Snake River Brewery. Great beer and very good food.

Mary Joan Decal at the brewery

We met my colleague, Kathrin, and her spouse, Joe at the Rendezvous Bistro. Coincidentally, this was their 10th wedding anniversary. We were not able to attend the wedding, but felt privileged to share this major milestone in their relationship. In talking with them prior to our arrival, we asked if they could suggest a hike nearby that we could do. They made arrangements to pick us up at our campsite the next morning for a day hike. I should have remembered the criticism leveled at Kathrin by other friends when she had planned hikes for us in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We were quickly reminded of that criticism as soon as we were on the trail. The Hanging Canyon trail is not on any map. It rises steeply from the western shore of Jenny Lake at about 6,800' to Ramshield Lake at 9,500'. We all enjoyed the serenity and beauty of this lake as well as our accomplishment in reaching this wonderful place. We really appreciate Joe and Kathrin sharing this wonderful place with us.
Hanging Canyon
Ramshear Lake
Replenishing our water
Yes, that's snow in the background!

The smiles hide the pain. Thanks Joe and Kathrin

With Winfield Kansas still three days away, we left early the next morning. Our plan was to continue south on US 191, but construction and lack of signs in the construction area caused us to take US 26 to US 89 just south of Jackson. These roads went due south along the Wyoming/Utah border rather than southeast toward Denver. We didn't discover our mistake until it was too late to turn around. However, this error added just 100 miles to our day's trip. But, it lived up to its designation, by our road atlas, as the most scenic route in Wyoming. We won't disagree. We thoroughly enjoyed the ride. This reinforced the overriding theme of our journey, despite how much it sounds like a cliche, it's not about the destination it's about the journey. 

Joe had advised us to check the weather before taking I-80. This stretch of highway is notorious for violent winds known to set semi-tractor trailers on there sides. Fortunately, we experienced calm winds as we repeatedly climbed to 7,000 feet above sea level, descended a thousand feet and then rose again. All along the way, we were continually amazed at the changes in the geography and geology.  

While Sarah does a lot of driving, she has been most responsible for finding a place for us to spend the night. On this day she chose a National Forest just east of Laramie, Wyoming as a possibility. The Medicine Bow National Forest has a campground, Tie Campground, just east of the city close to I-80. We arrived to find the campground closed but, with a large and mostly empty parking lot. The view was beautiful so we decided to boondock here for the night. We couldn't have picked a better place. 
How High Can We Drive - 8,578 feet
Boondock view
Tie Campground parking lot, Medicine Bow National Forest
The next morning joggers, hikers and bikers showed up

Then next morning, I realized that there was a shorter way to Denver than the interstate. With a short backtrack of only ten miles, we took SR 287 south to Fort Collins. It was the hypotenuse of the right triangle we would have had to take. Best of all, it was newly paved and extremely beautiful. We saw mule deer early in the morning and pronghorns all the way. 

The previous evening, we re-assessed our time schedule as well as looking at the Colorado Rockies Baseball schedule and decided we should stop in Denver to catch the baseball game at the city's very attractive ball park. We bought tickets for the 1:10PM game and found an RV park just 10 miles from the ball park. We arrived at Prospect RV Park in Wheat Ridge at 11:00 AM and left just an hour later for the game.
Opening ceremony at Coors Field on 9/11

Coors Field is a wonderfully designed ball park. Home plate is at the south end of the park so all seats have a view to the north and those right of the plate can see the majestic mountains. The opening ceremonies were in keeping with the anniversary of the World Trade Center terrorist attack. After the singing of the national anthem the 120th squadron of the Colorado National Guard flew four F16s over in a tribute to the remembrance occurring on this day.

Watching the Rockies win under clear blue skies and warm sunshine playing America's game seemed to be a fitting way to spend this, otherwise, sorrowful day. 

Now, we are off to Kansas.

Stay tuned.


Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Return To Missoula, MT

Before buying The Tin Wheeler, the obvious first decision we had to make was how large did the trailer need to be. Besides the desire to have enough space to be comfortable and have enough room for storage, we learned that many national parks cannot accomodate trailers more than twenty five feet in length. We were happy that we knew about this when we arrived at Fish Creek campground. The area of the campground that the ranger recommened had pull through sites that were very tight. Numerous trees with bark scraped off warned us to be careful. The truck had to pass within a few inches of the trees to allow Mary Joan to avoid removing even more bark. While there were other areas in this campground that could acomadate much larger rigs, they all had water and electricity which costs a lot more for each day's stay. While we have frequently made use of capgrounds with such ammenities, we usually try to be self sufficient. After all, with batteries, water and  holding tanks we are completely self sufficient.

Our original plan was to stay just two nights in Glacier National Park, but the truck was due for an oil change so on our way to the park we made an appointment with Columbia Falls Auto Service. The service center is right on the main road just about fifteen miles from our campground. Just a short distance away is a coin-op laundry. I dropped Sarah off at the laundry, left the truck at the servie center, re-joined Sarah at the laundry and together we walked a short distance to the Night Owl Cafe for breakfast. Shortly after returning to the laundramat I got the call that the truck was ready. I left Sarah to finish the laundry, picked up the truck and took it to the truck wash where it got a much needed exterior cleaning.

After returning to the campground, we started to go for a hike, but just 20 minutes on trail we heard thunder and saw the clouds of an approaching storm. We retreated to the trailer. Scout no longer enjoys long hikes, so we leave him in the trailer. But, he is also very afraid of thunderstorms and can become destructive if left alone when one occurs. Fortunately, Scout was not too upset by the storm when we arrived back at the campsite. We gave him some Valium just to let him settle down.

The storm brought heavy rain so Sarah and I decided to drive to the town of Coram where we found the Stonefly Lounge. The Red Sox vs. Yanikees game was on the big screen TV so we settled in with a large pizza and watched the game. Scout was happy in the truck. He could sit up on the front seat and see us through the window. The Red Sox won and thus ended another perfect day. We have found perfection doesn't necessarily mean that everything goes as planned. Rather, it is a perfect day when we can look back and say that we made the most of what we were given.

I usually sleep very well, but for some reason I awoke sometime in the early hours before dawn. When I was working I would frequently wake up and dwell on the problems I faced at work. In those days I rarely could get back to sleep. But that has not happened on this trip. This night, I lay awake and enjoyed the sound of the rain on the roof of The Tin Wheeler, knowing I would fall asleep sooner or later and didn't have to go to work deprived of sleep.

We stopped in Columbia Falls to refuel. While in the service plaza, I checked the tires pressures. One was very low. I had Sarah drive forward very slowly while I examined the tire for a puncture. It wasn't hard to miss. A large screw had pierced the tire. Removing the bad wheel and tire and replacing it with the spare is a simple operation with a tandem axle trailer. I simply made a ramp using our leveling blocks, drove the good wheel onto the ramp. This lifted the the defective wheel off the road for easy replacement. The spare tire was a little under-inflated so I only had to pull the trailer to the air compressor station at the service plaza to get it up to proper pressure. We were back on the road in less than 45 minutes.
No Jack Needed

We decided to make The Grand Teton National Park our next destination on our way to Winfield, Kansas for the Walnut Valley Festival. That takes us again through Missoula so Sarah called her sister Jennifer, who had joined us in Alaska and asked her if she would like to meet us at Jennifer's daughter's house. We had parked Mary Joan in front of Grace's house on our way north. Jennifer readily agreed to meet us there.

Once again, we parked in front of Grace's house in the lovely city of Missoula. The next morning I took advantage of overcast skies to wash and dry the Tin Wheeler. Washing a shiny Airstream in bright sun leaves ugly water spots on the aluminum skin. Mary Joan was quite dirty and in need of a good washing. 
You Don't Need to Go Far to See Wildlife

I took the damaged tire to the trusty people of Roemer's Tire Factory ( It was 4PM, but they said they could fix it right away. Should only take about 20 minutes. Sarah, Jennifer and I drove the short distance to the Kettlehouse Brewery (, another fine micro-brewer that makes Missoula a nice place to visit. We no sooner finished our pint when Roemer's called and said the tire was ready. Another great experience with these people. Prompt, friendly service at a very fair price. The next evening we returned to Bayern Brewery ( with some friends of Grace then returned home to cook a big filet of fresh wild caught coho salmon.

The next day we prepared two turkey breasts for smoking by soaking them in a brine and herb solution then slowly smoked them on the new Weber grill that Jennifer bought for Grace. We were joined by a number of Grace's friends, including Josh, who gave me fly fishing lessons the last time we were in Missoula, and his wife, Jamie. We all got a little shaved off the top after sharing a bottle of Moonshine from Flathead Distillery of Montana.  

With Grace off on Sunday, we drove about 40 minutes north of Missoula to the National Bison Refuge. The day was clear and bright. We enjoyed a short hike to the highest point in the park and learned about the great Missoula Lake that existed here at the end of the last ice age. The size of the lake was beyond comprehension. It was formed by glacial ice blocking the outflow to the west of these huge mountains. But, when the ice dam melted, it released a torrent of water whose flow exceeded the volume of all the rivers currently flowing on earth. This huge mass of water helped form the great Columbia Gorge and raised sea levels significantly. The small ripples of sand that we typically see in our lake bottoms near the shore were evident here too, some thousands of years later. Only, these sand ripples are 15 feet high and 90 feet apart. The wildlife was abundant, mule deer, bison and prong horns (antelope) were the main attractions. 

The Entire Valley Was A Huge Lake

Mule Deer (notice the big ears)
Often Called Antelope, A Pronghorn
Over 6' at the shoulders and up to 2,500 lbs, don't mess with him

Returning from the Bison Refuge, we stopped at the Ewam Garden of 1000 Buddhas on the Flathead Reservation of the Salish and Kootanai peoples. Jennifer and I had read about the project in the New York Times ( a number of months ago and wanted to see it. The relationship between the Native Americans and the lama spearheading this project is very interesting and the progress at the site has been remarkable since just ten months ago. 
The Garden Under Construction

The Great Wisdom Mother
Buddhas Waiting To Be Installed

Our next stop is a brief stay in Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks before visiting with a former associate and her family in Jackson, Wyoming. Stay tuned and be sure to check out all the new pictures by clicking on the Bambi at the top of the page.