On the Santa Fe Trail
From April 16-25, 2018 we took a road trip heading southwest from Madison. We didn’t really follow the Santa Fe Trail but that seemed the best way to title this trip since we were more or less following much of the trail, especially on the way back. We took Maple along because one of the reasons for the road trip was to make up for leaving her for a year in 2017 when we were in China. For this road trip we wanted to stay off of the Interstate highways as much as possible and hit the off-the-wall, less well-known sites. Now one might think that there are few interesting sites in Iowa, Kansas, and Oklahoma, but you would be surprised what you can find if you drive slow enough! Another parameter was finding spots that were dog friendly since we did not want to go hiking and leave Maple in the car. We booked a couple Airbnbs for the first few nights and brought along our camping gear to be able to car camp in case we couldn’t find a room. Quickly we discovered that LaQuinta Inns all permit pets with no extra charge, or I should say that they build in charges for pets in their fees. It seems like almost everyone who stays there has a pet.
Effigy Mounds National Monument
Having just attended a talk about the effigy mounds in Wisconsin, we found out that there is a national monument just across the river from Prairie du Chien in Iowa overlooking the Miss. River. There are over 200 effigy mounds of different sizes scattered over the park. The mounds are thought to be 1000-2000 years old and most represent animals, though you need a good imagination.
After leaving the Effigy Mounds national monument on the Mississippi River, we drove to Cedar Falls where we had reserved an Airbnb. We were very impressed with Cedar Falls, which is essentially a small suburb of Waterloo, IA. It is the home of the University of Northern Iowa. The downtown was quite lively with a large selection of restaurants, cafes and coffeeshops. Unlike most small towns in the midwest, there wasn’t a single storefront that was boarded up. It was crowded on the Friday night that we were there.
Talimena Scenic Drive
We then drove slowly down to Tulsa, OK through IA and MO. The weather was wet and rainy so we didn’t make any prolonged stops except for lunch in Poteau, OK. We had originally intended to visit the Cherokee Heritage Center, but we discovered that it was not open on the Sunday that we intended to be there so we changed plans and headed towards southeast OK to Talimena State Park where we camped for 2 nights. Contrary to our expectations, this area of the state and of Arkansas is not flat, which provides the height needed for the Talimena Scenic Drive. This area is far enough south that there were a few dogwood flowers in bloom as well as some other spring flowers.
Marring our drive in OK was an unfortunate encounter with a speed trap in a small town. The last speeding ticket that I got was in 1968 so it’s been 50 years between tickets. The previous one was when I was driving cross-country across NM where the speed limit was lower at night than during the day. So at dusk outside of a small town there was a constant parade of police cars pulling cars over to escort them to the local judge to pay their ticket.
The other unfortunate incident for us on this trip was an encounter with a deep pothole on a small little-used road in AR. We learned two valuable lessons from the pothole. First, our new Hyundai Ioniq does not have a spare tire. Instead it has a sealant kit that is of no use when there is a large gash in the tire’s sidewall. Second, cell phones are equally useless when they are in airplane mode to save battery.
Fortunately, after about 20 minutes, a car came along that we flagged down and the women let us use their cell phone which did have service to call a service station in a nearby town. I was already beginning to look for a flat clear patch of ground on which to pitch our tent for the night. About 30 minutes later a tow truck arrived to haul us into town to fix the tire.
Cherokee Heritage Center
We then drove back up to Tahlequah, OK to visit the Cherokee Heritage Center. This is an impressive site dedicated to the memory of the native American Indians. It is staffed by quite a few descendants who demonstrate various Indian crafts and skills such as shooting bow and arrows, Indian games, arts and crafts. Our guide was a college student from the area, obviously proud of his Indian heritage. There is also a moving memorial to the Trail of Tears, as this was near the western end of the infamous march, one of many blights on our country’s treatment of the native people.
We camped at the Natural Falls State Park on the far eastern edge of OK. An unusual aspect of this park is that there is a collection of yurts that one can rent for accommodation during the summer. Apparently they are relatively luxurious fixings.
Will Rogers Memorial Museum
When I discovered that the Will Rogers Memorial Museum in Claremore, OK was near our route, I was overjoyed to have a chance to visit the museum of one of my childhood heroes. He is the most famous person from Oklahoma unless you are a basefall fan and think that Mickey deserves that Mantle. Will Rogers was a native American who was born and raised on Cherokee land. He’s probably the only person in the world who started his career as a trick rope artist and parlayed that into being one of the most well-known personalities in the country. He did not finish high school but went to work on a ranch as a cowboy. After a few years in the US, he went to work on ranches in Argentina, South Africa and Australia. During these years as a cowboy, he honed his roping skills which eventually led him to shows on the vaudeville circuit. In one famous incident that first brought him to the attention of the public, he managed to lasso a wild steer which had escaped and was climbing into the viewing stands.
During his rope tricks, he began to ad lib jokes about the day’s events, poking fun at the politicians and aristocrats at the upper echeleons of society. This led to a highly successful career as a comedian, journalist, radio commentator and movie actor. He worked in both silent movies and ‘talkies’ which were just coming out at this time. By the end he appeared in more than 70 movies in which he essentially played his own character: an “aw shucks” common man skewering the politicians. A famous line that he often used while twirling his lasso in his cowboy outfit was “Well, what shall I talk about? I ain't got anything funny to say. All I know is what I read in the papers." His collection of sayings should be required for all people running for office. He is truly a great American, though I have no doubt he would be ashamed to be associated with this country and its Liar in Chief now.
Route 66 memorabilia
Along this stretch of OK, we tried to stay on route 66 as much as possible. Since the Interstate does not follow the same route, most of the establishments have faded away except for the occasional nostalgic site. We stayed one night in Oklahoma City in a LaQuinta Inn in Edmonds and another night in Amarillo, TX where we decided to go all in on the Texas experience and went to a big steak house, The Big Texan Steak Ranch & Brewery. This is a kitschy, saloon-style, route 66 experience where you can opt to take the challenge which is to eat a 72 oz steak within one hour. If you succeed, the dinner is free. If you fail, it costs $72.
The terminal of our road trip was Santa Fe, NM since we had to leave some time to drive back to Madison. We found Santa Fe to be a delightful city with an impressive number of museums and art galleries and surrounded by fine southwestern mountain hiking. We stayed in an Airbnb in the Lake Cochita area which turned out to be just the right place to hike the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument which has a number of sandstone slot canyons and hoodoos. Since dogs are not allowed on the trails, we were able to leave Maple in the Airbnb while we hiked in the morning. We also hiked in Diablo Canyon which was interesting for the chance to watch some rock climbers. The Museum of International Folk Art was also quite unusual. It has a section with many many dioramas from all over the world,
On the way home we stopped for a short time in Taos, NM which is a short drive from Santa Fe. We only had time for lunch and then a stop at the Taos Pueblo, which is the only living Native American community designated both a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and a National Historic Landmark. It has been continuously inhabited for over 1000 years.
Dodge City, KS is one of the most famous old cowboy towns. It became propserous with its position near the Santa Fe trail when millions of heads of Texas longhorns were driven past on their way to the railroads that would take them to the Eastern markets. Many of the most famous cowboys of the era lived here: Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Bat Masterton. The town has a central portion with a reconstruction of Dodge City circa 1880 with a saloon, hotel and Boot Hill. We were there too early in the season for any of the activities to be open.
Pony Express Station #1
Our last stop was in Marysville, KS, where they have preserved one of the Pony Express Stations to commemorate the memory of this short-lived but famous enterprise. The Pony Express was the only transcontinental mail service at the time (1860). It consisted of 120 riders, 184 stations, 400 horses, and support personnel to deliver mail in 10 days between St. Joseph, MO and Sacremento, CA. It only lasted 18 months as it was replaced by the transcontinental telegraph line. In Marysville there is a Pony Express Museum and a bronze statue of a rider.