Okay, I promised myself I would do a wrapup on our winter trip, to look back on when we get old, and remember all the thing we could do when we were young. I’ll have to say, first of all, that it was surely the best winter of my life, simply because of the overwhelming number of new experiences in places we mostly hadn’t been before.
By the numbers: 64 days, 11,691 miles, 2 countries (see my note about Mexico below), 21 states, 36 National Park Service sites, 5 dead presidents’ homes/libraries (Jefferson, Hoover, Garfield, Clinton and LBJ), 8 dead authors’ homes/museums (Carl Sandburg, Flannery O’Connor, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Harper Lee, and Truman Capote), 12 non-NPS “museums” (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Blue Ridge Institute and Museum, World Golf Hall of Fame, Graceland, National Civil Rights Museum, Monroe County Court House, Ryman Theater, BB King Museum, Jim Henson Museum, the National Civil Rights Museum (including the room at the Lorraine Motel in which Martin Luther King was staying the day he was shot, just across the street), the Alamo, the Judge Roy Beam Museum in Texas—remember him, “The law west of the Pecos?”), and uncountable state parks and national wildlife refuges, including the Ding Darling Refuge and Aransas Refuge in Florida, where we watched whooping cranes, a lifelong dream for both of us.
We’re continuing our quest to visit all the national parks. We’ve visited all but four east of the Mississippi: Acadia, Biscayne, Isle Royale and Virgin Islands. We’ve been to 35 total of the 59 actual national parks, but 12 of the 24 we have left to visit are not part of the lower 48—eight in Alaska, two in Hawaii, plus American Samoa and Virgin Islands. I expect we’ll get to the 12 remaining parks in the lower 48 in the next year or two. That’s on my bucket list, and I’m getting old. There are about 300 other sites, such as battlefields, historic sites, seashores, preserves, etc., managed by the Park Service. We’ll probably not get to all of those, but our count is well over a hundred right now, and we’ll keep at it. For a complete list, go to the NPS website.
Before I talk about the highlights of the trip, let me comment on the people we met and saw. Our North Dakota license plate caused quite a stir. Most people we talked to from the south had never met a North Dakotan, and had never been here either. They’ve heard of us, and been reading about us, though, because of the oil boom. Most said, when they learned we were from North Dakota, “Wow, it must be cold there this time of year.” We generally replied that there is a whole country north of us, so it must not be that bad. They were under the impression we were where we were to get away from the cold. We tried to explain that was really not the case, we really do like winter in North Dakota. It’s just that we are gardeners, and there are only two times we can get away for such a long period of time—after the harvest and canning are done, in late September and early October (but then I hunt and fish most of the rest of the fall), and between Christmas and March 15 (that’s the date we start our garden seeds indoors and they need constant tending from then until sometime after Labor Day). Coincidentally, though, we wanted to see all the national parks in the south, and winter is the best time to do that, absent the heat, the bugs and the crowds prevalent the rest of the year.
We drove so many miles that we had to get an oil change halfway through the trip, and put on a new set of tires near the end of the trip. Our oil change stop was fortuitous in that the mechanic spotted a worn belt, which we replaced right there, rather than wait until it broke in the middle of the Texas desert or on some deserted road. That garage stop also led to one of the more humorous moments of the trip. We were sitting in an auto dealer waiting room while the belt was being replaced when a service manager came in to talk to the lady sitting beside us, a middle-aged black woman, dressed nicely like she was meeting friends for lunch somewhere. I overheard the service manager tell her that the wiper blade she wanted replaced would be about $75. That sent shivers down my spine—was the serpentine belt for our Subaru going to be $500? He went on to explain to the lady that the total repair bill for the other things that needed to be done would be about $7,000. She nodded, and didn’t say much, except that she wasn’t going to have all that done right now. She got up to leave as the service manager left, and as she walked by the rest of us in the waiting room, said to herself, loud enough for us to hear, “I’m never going to buy another Jaguar again.”
I can’t pick a single most outstanding highlight from the trip, but I can make a top ten list of highlights. Here they are, in no particular order.
- An hour watching the whooping cranes dancing at Goose Island Island State Park in Florida, just across a small bay from Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, where most of the remaining flock of fewer than 300 birds spend their winters. They were feeding in a pasture along with a small herd of cattle near the Gulf shore. Bucket List.
- Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. I’ve never seen anything else like it, and I’ve been to the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Glacier and the other cave national parks. You enter a visitor center at the end of a short road off the highway, get into an elevator, descend 750 feet, and when you get out you are in a concession area of a huge cave, probably 100 feet tall, 750 feet underground. You can get something to drink, go to the bathroom, and buy a tee shirt or a flashlight before you set off on a paved trail, with handrails, and benches for stopping to rest, for a mile-plus walk through a 600,000 square foot main room plus many rooms off the main room. Pretty much indescribable. Just go there.
- Music museums. We started this trip with a day at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. I wrote about it in an earlier post. You get a plastic entrance bracelet after you pay your entry fee, allowing you to come and go. I was there on December 29. I’m still wearing my bracelet. I may never take it off. Lillian may someday have to pry it from my cold, dead wrist. After that, we spent more than half a day at Graceland, stopped for a couple hours at the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum on The Crooked Road in Virginia, home to the archives of bluegrass music (which we got to see, courtesy of the friendly archives manager). We got a behind-the-scenes tour of the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, the “Mother Church” of country music, but the Country Music Hall of Fame there was closed for renovation when we visited. We also stopped at a very nice little BB King Museum in Mississippi. And we had other musical experiences. We saw one of our favorite bands, the Avett Brothers, in concert in North Carolina on New Year’s Eve. We were surprised when Vince Gill took the stage unannounced for an evening of music at a club in Nashville. We had a drink at BB King’s bar on Beale Street in Memphis. Alas, 87-year-old BB wasn’t there—he was on tour. We’ll see him at the Bismarck Civic Center in May, though. We have front row seats.
- Food. We ate way too well. Food was the budget buster on this trip. For us, eating the locally grown/raised/caught food is one of the highlights of any trip. Initially, we planned to cook most of our meals in the campground on our little propane stove and grill, and we did plenty of that. Steaks, burgers, lamb chops on the grill, and lots of fresh shrimp boiled on the stove. But we spent a lot of nights in nice restaurants, even when we were camping. Probably our most decadent night was when we went in to Apalachicola, Florida, from our barrier island campsite, and ate a dozen and a half oysters on the half shell at a restaurant on the bay, and then picked up a pound and a half of fresh gulf shrimp at a seafood market on the way back to camp. Boiled ‘em and ate ‘em. Washed down with a bottle of wine. As I mentioned previously, Lillian said “It is not possible to eat too much shrimp.” In addition to probably 30 nights eating seafood, from Virginia to Louisiana, we ate barbecue in Tennessee, Tex-Mex in Texas, and the amazing pork chop sandwich I mentioned earlier in Mt. Airey, NC. And, on the way home, chateaubriand at a ski resort in New Mexico. Hamburger for us for a while.
- The two big presidential libraries in Arkansas and Texas, dedicated to Bill Clinton and Lyndon Johnson. Clinton’s, in Little Rock, was spectacular, right down to his daily schedule for every day of his presidency. At the LBJ Library in Austin, we got a behind-the-scenes tour of the multi-million document archives from the sister-in-law of our friend Bruce Anderson from Minot. Claudia Anderson is the senior archivist at the LBJ Library. We got a look at things almost no one ever gets to see.
- Carl Sandburg’s home in North Carolina. After Carl died, his wife Lilian lived there for a few years, and then sold it to the National Park Service for $300,000. They offered her $400,000 but she wouldn’t take it. The day she left she packed a suitcase and left everything just as it was when Carl died. Including the 15,000 books on the shelves. They are still there. The only place we saw more books was when we visited Lillian’s graduate school roommate in Arkansas. A librarian like Lillian, she said she had 21,000 of the books in her two houses catalogued, with a bunch yet to do. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s house in Alabama gave me goosebumps. Hemingway’s house in Key West is being overrun by tourists and really wasn’t much fun—there were probably a hundred other people in the house and on the grounds during the two hours we were there.
- Islands. Here in North Dakota we don’t get to do islands much. We made up for that on this trip. The most spectacular, of course, was spending a night camping on a 16-acre island in the Gulf of Mexico, Dry Tortugas National Park, 80 miles west of Key West by boat. But we also camped on a number of islands along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, riding ferries and traversing many, many long bridges to get to them and back. I’m pretty sure Florida has spent more on bridges alone than North Dakota has spent on its entire Interstate system.
- Blue Highways. To the extent we could, we drove back roads through the entire south, which is how we put almost 12,000 miles on our Subaru, several thousand more than if we had driven the freeways. We wouldn’t do it differently if we had it to do over.
- Natural hot springs. Two of them, in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and at Big Bend National Park in Texas. We soaked in both of them. At Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, we did the two-hour bath house experience, in the same historic facilities our grandparents’ generation used to visit, a soak in an oversized tub full of hot spring water, followed by a massage. At Big Bend, there’s a spring flowing out of the ground right beside the Rio Grande River, which forms the boundary between the countries of Texas and Mexico. 80 years ago or so, they built a crude rock tub, about 20 feet square, beside the river, to hold the hot flowing spring water at a depth of about 18 inches. The overflow from the spring goes right over the spillway into the river. If you step out of the tub on the river side, you can wade about a hundred yards across the river to Mexico. I did that. Just to say I did it.
- A chanced to spend 64 uninterrupted days and nights with the woman I love. Okay, that’s number one.