Wednesday, June 12, 2013. Day 8: Around Gainesville

 

 

Another day with a lot of different , smaller nature adventures! We got up a little later than usual and had a lovely, leisurely breakfast with Susy and Kevin, since Susy was on her own schedule for the morning and could take her time. We then took off around 10:00, and started our exploration with a brief visit to the “Devil’s Millhopper,” a large sinkhole that has been made a geological site mostly by putting wooden stairs down into it so you can go down to the bottom. But it’s a fairly old hole so there is a lot of vegetation and it’s not very recognizable as a sinkhole, and doesn’t show the “abyss” / hole into the aquifer, so we just made it a brief visit—it was already quite warm and positively steamy at the bottom of the stairs, where it is supposed to be “cool year round” according to both Susy and the park’s website! 

We then made our way to Ichetucknee Springs, another state park that I remembered very well from my visit with the kids 7 or 8 years ago, so I wanted to show Mark what it was like. The park has a natural “lazy river,” for which we rented a double inner tube, and a little tram hauled us up to the launch station, from where you float gently down the Ichetucknee river for about 1 ½ hours, with cedars and other trees providing partial shade and the river nice, cool water. We saw turtles sunning themselves on logs near the banks, and the water was crystal clear, so we could also see the fish in the water and the long seagrass by just looking down into the water right in front of us. That was really nice, although the traffic down the river in inner tubes was pretty busy and there were lots of fairly noisy kids around. 

At the end of the tube trip, we had a quick concession stand lunch (polish hot dogs, basically) and then drove over to the park’s other entrance to find the actual spring for which the river is named, and swim there. It was also rather crowded there, but we did swim and snorkel there, and the water color and the sharp drop off into the limestone were awesome. There was also a turtle that swam very serenely among the many swimmers, and once I looked to the side with the goggles on, and there it was less than a foot away! The water felt cold at 72 degrees, so we didn’t swim for very long, but we walked to the second, minor spring just to see it and to dry off, and eventually also took some very nice pictures from the canoe launch site. 

After we’d exhausted pretty much everything we could do at the Springs, it was about 3 pm, but we decided to make one more stop at another little state park that we just saw on our map. It was called O’Leno and actually held a fascinating surprise – you could take a little loop hike of about 1 mile to a river, the Santa Fe River, that disappears into underground caverns at a “River Sink. “ It flows along at a pretty decent pace, as you walk by it, and then it seems to stop and just become a lake—but the algae on the lake move slowly in a circle over the spot where the river disappears into underground caverns. We didn’t get to hike to the “River Rise” three miles further ahead, where the river emerges again, but it was very cool nonetheless—especially since we discovered that the slowly spiraling “lake” had a lot of turtles floating around on it on tree trunks. Mark took photos of at least a dozen!

After the end of the hike, it was definitely time to go home, so we drove the 45 minutes back to Gainesville. We got back in time for another lovely, simple meal with Susy and Kevin, and then went for a special last nature treat—we went to the Bathouse and Batbarn, where 400,000 bats (mostly little Brazilian bats) spend the day sleeping, only to come out in huge droves a a little while after sunset. It was like watching an enormous swarm of insects, because they were so small and moves so fast – but Mark shot a couple of very good pictures. After we’d watched the bats for about half an hour and saw the sky go darker and darker, we decided to go home, have ice cream with fruit salad, and go to bed after just a little bit of chitchat. It was a long day! 

Thursday, June 13, 2013. Day 9: Gainesville to the Atlantic Coastline

 

We got up fairly early this morning (between 7 and 8 am) so that we could still say goodbye to Susy before she took off for work, and so that there would be ample time after breakfast to have Kevin show us the major building project he has been working on: a tiny house (I bedroom, living room, kitchen) with a fairly ramshackle second house/studio/garage that he has been fixing up so that they can rent it out to a student when it is all done—they bought the lot basically for the price of the land, but he is putting a ton of sweat equity into getting the little house into shape. It’s clearly a lot of work but also a great project that is really all his own. We duly admired his progress, and then it was time to say good bye to Kevin and go—we packed up the car and were on the road again. It was so nice that they put us up! 

We started out by taking the road out to the Atlantic coast and heading just a tiny bit south to go to Fort Matanzas, a spot on an island down river from St. Augustine that became a small fort for the Spanish to watch out for attacks from the south (also, initially, the spot where the Spanish slaughtered a bunch of French Huguenots just before they founded St. Augustine in the late 16th century). There is a state park with a free ferry for about 30 people at a time, and we caught the 11:30 ferry just fine, got the ranger’s tour of the fort (complete with climbing on top for a view all around), and it was really interesting – but also already very hot, so I had to keep finding shade. After we got back to shore, we found a café on the way to St. Augustine to have lunch (salads for a change, but mine was a disappointment, because the dressing was much too sweet), and then we drove on to St. Augustine proper. 

We went along the beach route, which got us to the Lighthouse fairly quickly, and while we decided that it was much too hot for everything else St. A. had to offer, we did climb up the lighthouse tower for a beautiful view of the historic downtown, the waterway, and the Atlantic, and then spent quite a bit of time in the air-conditioned light-keeper house looking at the artefacts and cooling down. We took a 10-minute driving tour of Victorian monstrosities that Henry Flagler built in St. Augustine in the name of early Florida tourism (the massive Ponce de Leon Hotel is now the main building of Henry Flagler College; another of his massive projects is a museum—we already encounters his zeal for making money through tourism because he built the railroad to the Florida Keys that later became the tail end of the A1A, all the way out to Key West. Today, we were driving the very other end of the A1A up the coast.)

Then we left St. Augustine behind; our dashboard display claimed that it was 98 outside, and we were not ready to explore a city full of touristy crap (Ripley’s Believe It Or Not and such like) in this kind of heat! 

Instead, we drove on along the coast, stopping once at a public beach just to make sure that we could still dip our feet in, and going through a beautiful conservation area and then a number of beach towns – Ponte Vedra, Jacksonville Beach, etc. – none of which were appealing since they were rather urban. We could also see a storm coming and then drove through a downpour, so the hope was we might be a bit cooler if we drove on a bit more. Then we discovered to our great delight that there was this very cool ferry that connected the very tip of the A1A outside of these beach towns, in Mayport, to Fort George Island. It’s only a .9 mile trip, but it saves 28 miles of going around this entire complicated bay with a lot of little islands and estuary sandbanks and whatnot. Plus, we got to be on a ferry with our Prius! It was a lot of fun and took barely 10 minutes. On the other side, we kept on driving on the A1A (our road of the day) until we had gone across a couple of beautiful island preservation regions (and not-so beautiful resorts with golf courses), and gotten to Amelia island/Fernandino Beach. We had no reservations and just kept checking the roadside for the handful of motels (rather than condos/vacation homes) along the Atlantic shore, but we lucked out and got a coupon rate for the last room in a hotel that is really right across the street from public access to the beach! We were very happy; after putting our stuff away, we went to a restaurant right across from us, and ate at the bar (clam chowder and excellent onion rings for me; chicken sliders for Mark, and vanilla ice cream for desert for the both of us. Then we quickly shed our electronics, I put my swimsuit on just in case, and we went for a long-ish walk on the beach, looking out at the ocean or down at the shells. It is really beautiful at this beach, and after the downpour this afternoon, it cooled off just enough to make it nice as the sun was going down. I walked in for a little bit before we went back to the hotel room, but I was really not quite up for a swim. It was a long and eventful day, but with a very calming ending! Tomorrow, we can take our time exploring the rest of the island; we have decided to stay all day tomorrow and then another night before heading to Atlanta to see Mark’s brother.)

 

Friday, June 14: Day 10: Amelia Island

 

We had a wonderful, if initially VERY hot, day exploring Amelia Island/Fernandino Beach. We started out (after a very nice hotel breakfast) by checking out the state park at the island’s northern tip. Fort Clinch, unlike the Spanish Fort Matanzas, wasn’t even begun until this area was already firmly in U.S. hands, in the 1840s, and then only half-completed before the Civil War. It was only briefly in the hand of confederate militiamen, and then after 1862, a Union engineer’s unit was stationed there to complete the fort. We walked around and talked to the two re-enactors who were actually making coffee over a fire in the fireplace despite temperatures that were already in the upper 80s by 9:30. The fort wasn’t really used after the 1860s except for a very brief period in the Spanish-American war, but the location was sort of interesting and the little museum was fairly well done. We then checked out the fishing pier and the state park beach, and that was very pleasant – with our feet in the water it was a bit cooler, and that beach had some really awesome shells (we are very picky, looking for unusual shells like conchs, whelks and moon shells; I found a very beautiful new shell today that is called a banded tulip, as well as a couple of little conch shells, and I was very excited!). So that was a very pleasant walk. 

It was about 11 by then and we went to the historic downtown from the island’s boom period in the 1870s-1890s. We parked the car, by the harbor & tiny railroad depot , found ourselves lunch (I tried a salad with a special type of fried oyster that Bruce had recommended, but I was not impressed with the oyster taste, so there’s a seafood I can easily leave behind), and then explored the town a little. Along the main street (Centre Street) there are a number of Victorian stores and churches, and then in the side streets, quite a lot of beautifully restored Victorian homes that belonged to the great men of the town during the era of the railroad connecting the deep harbor of Fernandino across Flordia to, as it happens, Cedar Key, where we just were on Tuesday. A senator-turned-traitor-to-the-Union called David Yulee, who built this railroad and was mentioned in several displays and museums today, had helped develop Cedar Key and the area down by Crystal River that we also visited just a couple of days ago, and the old sugar mill ruins that we saw there on Monday were actually owned by Yulee’s. It’s interesting to make these cross-connections in Florida history, about which we knew almost nothing beforehand. We ended our tour of the area (which is very touristy, but in a quiet, classy way – not like St. Augustine!) with a visit to a frozen yogurt shop and to the local museum, which made us get even more deeply into Florida’s history and the connections with what we’d already seen – there was a little display about the local Indians, and also about the Spanish that first settled the area and actually, as late as 1820, platted this other part of town that they never finished, and of which only an empty plaza in front of a no-longer existing fort remains. I was also intrigued to find out that there was, in pre-segregation Florida, a beach for African-Americans at the south end of the island, purchased by an early forerunner of the NAACP, so that there would be a beach available for black tourists. The display about African-American history also talked about a black matriarch who was freed by her owner/common-law husband only to own slaves herself and participate in the slave trade that was possible legally until 1820 on the island because it was not under US rule at the time, but still under Spanish control. If we had more time here, I would have liked to go the plantation where she lived and ruled. 

We were good and tired after this much walking around in the heat (with intermittent indoor AC breaks), and drove back to the hotel for a nice cool rest before dinner (at the same place as last night, across the street right by the beach) and a nice 2-hour walk on the beach afterwards. We saw some storm clouds and were briefly drizzled on, but then also got to see a rainbow over the ocean and ended up walking in sunshine for another 45 minutes before the sun went down. It was a great day, and we are really glad that we decided to stay the extra night and take our time here. We’re only a stone’s throw from Georgia (the settlement and islands visible from the Fort and from the historic downtown are already part of Georgia), but I think we would have been rushed trying to explore that in addition to Amelia Island itself. 

 

Saturday, June 15. Day 11: From the Atlantic to Roswell, GA

 

Today was mostly a driving day. We got up around 7:30, had hotel breakfast and packed up, and around 8:30 went for one last walk along the beach right outside the hotel for 45 minutes or so, enjoying having our feet in the water for the last time. It was still cool and a bit breezy but sunny, not cloudy like almost every other early morning, so it was a very nice send-off. We then took off (after having noticed with pleasure that the hotel, which we really liked a lot all around, hadn’t even charged us the extra weekend rate that they had quoted us when we extended our stay to two nights), and drove the interstate up to Savannah, then across to Macon and Atlanta, with just one stop for a quick Subway lunch. The traffic was fine for the first five hours out of six or so, but around Atlanta we had several slowdowns despite the fact that we took the loop around Atlanta to get to Roswell, where Mark’s brother Jerry and his wife LuAnn live. 

We found their place without a problem and arrived around 4:30; sat around and chitchatted for a bit and then took off for a really wonderful dinner at a bakery / pasta place with really nice pasta and salads and a fantastic dessert bakery that had many dozens of European-style cakes and tarts on display. We finally settled on a turtle cheesecake (I had salmon on a bed of arugula salad for an entrée, and Mark had lovely stuffed shells), and it was very yummy. After dinner, Jerry and LuAnn took us on a little driving tour of their town, starting with their new house on the outer edge of the area in a semi-rural subdivision (we just drove by–we couldn’t go in; they close Tuesday, so it’s not officially theirs yet), and then moving on to LuAnn’s work place, a house that’s been converted into a hair salon. We went there mostly because a major storm hit the area a couple of days ago, and both the garage next door and a house across the street had been destroyed by huge, mature trees falling over. They have been sawed into chunks by now, but the tree across the street was clearly very old (160 years is the estimate we heard) and enormous, so the damage was impressive. We later saw other toppled trees in other parts of Roswell, as we got the tour of the historic part of town. There is a very cute restaurants-and-galleries upscale downtown that was packed when we drove through it, as well as some classic upper-class antebellum houses, including a (fairly modest, but well-preserved) plantation and a partly restored cotton mill/clothing factory that has been made into a park with a covered bridge and some nature trails. Just like in the South, I am a little bit uncomfortable with the fact that all these places are admired for their historicity and their beautiful architecture when what I am thinking about as I walk around is slavery and the reasons for the Civil War; the cotton mill that was restored was burned down by the Union soldiers because it was found to be making Confederate uniforms, but I never did find out whether it was employed labor or slave labor that kept it going. Likewise, the plantation had great documentation, but I couldn’t find signage for the “servants’ quarters” back behind the main building, the kitchen house, the well, and the guesthouse. 

After the tour of Roswell, we went back to Jerry and LuAnn’s current house (a rental, but with enough space for a guest room/study with its own bathroom, where they very kindly put us up), chitchatted a bit more, and went to bed around 10. 

 

Sunday, June 16, 2013. Day 12: From Roswell to the Blue Ridge Mountains

 

We got up around 7:30 and joined LuAnn and Jerry in the living room/kitchen for coffee and chitchat and the Sunday paper; Jerry and Mark called their dad for Father’s Day, and then we took off for an over-the-top sumptuous Father’s Day Brunch buffet at Pappadeaux, a Louisiana-style restaurant that is clearly hugely popular. We got there right around 10 am and met up with LuAnn’s daughter Timoree and her husband Andy, whom neither Mark nor I had ever met. (He works abroad for 3 months at a stretch, and just got home from a stint in Venezuela; in another week, he and Timoree take off again for another 3 months there.) We had a lot of lovely food (we should have treated it like breakfast food, but apart from Eggs Benedict I also had shrimp etouffee and dirty rice and cheese grits and other Southern food I never have. Not to mention halves of a lot of small desserts that Mark and I both wanted to try.) and chatted at leisure – while the waiting lines outside were getting longer and longer. When we left at 11:30, there were lots of people waiting outside for a table, and they actually had a temporary gazebo set up and served people ice water outside and had live music to bide away the time! 

Mark and I had packed up before we left LuAnn’s and Jerry’s house and took off right from the restaurant. We went to a REI store to buy some of the camping supplies Mark will need to next month’s trip to Madagascar, since LuAnn had told us that there was one nearby (in Nebraska, the next REI store is Denver’s!). I had never even heard of quick-dry underwear (although I knew about the camping towels and the UV-resistant “sun shirts,” which are also super lightweight). Mark also bought a waterproof Go-Pro that he wants to test a bit in the next few days, but then also take to Madagascar. After an hour, we were equipped and very much done with our shopping, and we left for our true destination, the North Georgia Mountains, glad to finally be a bit further from the buildup that stretches from the outskirts of Atlanta clear to the foothills. For today, our goal was just the very edge of the mountain region, a state park with a lodge that we discovered on the Internet yesterday while driving, with a lovely waterfall as the main attraction. It’s called Amicalola Falls, and apart from the waterfall also has the 8.5-mile approach trail for the very southern tip/tail of the Appalachian trail, which starts at 3782 feet on Springer Mountain. We checked in around 2 pm, There were a lot of visitors at the falls, but at least out here it’s national forest and not one house next to the other with green space in between. From our room we have lovely view of the mountains / rolling hills covered with mature forest, and they really do fade in layers from bright green vegetation to the misty blue that comes with the distance. 

We went for a little afternoon hike after we had settled in, and that was really lovely – we went to the top of the falls, and then down a set of many, many flights of stairs (allegedly 625 steps) along the waterfall, with a lovely view from the midpoint and then the bottom of the falls. Then the path went to the visitor center, and in a 1-mile loop back up at a longer, more gentle slope. We are readjusting to hiking up and down and maneuvering rocks and roots and windy paths, rather than walking along a straight line on a very flat, smooth beach, so we didn’t do more than just the two miles or so, but it was really fun. Beautiful landscape, very quiet on the second half, and gorgeous weather – sunny, but we were protected by shade trees, and it was just in the mid-80s at about 2800 feet. We then went for about a 20-mile drive to Dalonegha, the cloest town, and discovered that their cute litte antique-shop-and-restaurant downtown was just right for finding a little Italian place and have salad and gnocchi for dinner. (The lodge also had a restaurant, but they were still serving a Father’s Day buffet, and we were about done with that!). We walked around the downtown / village square for a few more minutes, and then drove back to the lodge, after we got some gas and had the Prius tell us, for the first time ever, that our full gas tank would get us 400 miles down the road. (When we were going downhill and the car was recharging its batteries from the downhill push, we suddenly got 98 mpg! We do have fun with this car.) We got back to the lodge around 7 and decided to just hang out in our room with the fabulous view until bedtime. 

 

Monday, June 17, 2013: Day 14: From the Mountains of North Georgia to Eastern Tennessee

DCIM100GOPRO

 

Today, we ended up doing a whole lot more driving and less hiking than expected. But the day started with some “nature TV” of the best sort. Late last night, we were already watching some fabulous lightning in the sky over the mountains. Then, we woke up very early, before sunset, and watched the layers of mist between the layers of mountains from our big window—really beautiful! Since this was the first hotel night without a breakfast included since forever ago (Fort Meyers Beach, I think), we actually just had yogurt and almonds in our room. Then we checked out and, just before it began to pour buckets of rain, got into our car and drove off. Our goal was Brasstown Bald Mountain, the highest mountaintop in Georgia, but we were ready to explore this and that on the way. Our opportunity came where the Appalachian Trail (apparently “the AT” to the ambitious few who hike it) actually crosses the road and goes through a building near a place called “Neel’s Gap.” We checked out the historic trading post/resting spot that has been created there (they sell very modern camping gear, as well as AT t-shirts, including the one we should have gotten, “I hiked the entire [width of the] Appalachian Trail.” Because we also stopped at a trail head and hiked the glorious 0.7 miles of a trail that met the AT on its way to Blood Mountain (that would have been another 2.5 miles or so). So we did set foot on the real AT, and one day we do want to hike a bit of it. But not the 2,100+ miles from Georgia to Maine!

After our little AT adventure, we drove to the plateau at the top of Brasstown Bald and walked the 0.6 rather steep miles to the top of that (a shuttle could have gotten us there too, but we have our ambitions). It was very beautiful up there, at about 4,700 feet, which is high relative to the plateau from which the North Georgia mountains rise, but because the day had started out foggy and cloudy, we only could see a little ways into the distance and didn’t get the full, spectacular effect of seeing all the surrounding mountains. And because our standard idea of mountains is based on the Rockies, I am having a bit of a hard time thinking of these mountains as “high” because they are all covered with vegetation! Given that they rise basically from sea level, they never reach up to the tree line and they don’t have craggy or snowy tops, but look “round” and hilly to me.  Nonetheless, it was fun to go up there—and to top it all off, on the way out we actually saw a black bear cross the road! Of course, he was gone too fast for a good photo, but Mark managed to get at least “proof” with his cell phone. 

We then took off, again just as it started to rain, and drove through rather heavy downpours in search of lunch. We got to Hiawassee, a small, unassuming town by a lake / valley, and found a modest and super cheap little place with just the right kind of roadside Chinese food. Then we drove on, still mostly in the rain, determined to drive out from under it as we crossed into North Carolina and headed further west. We did manage to get back into the sun as we were driving northwest out of the mountain just south of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park (for which we just don’t have the time). What we discovered was that this particular road, the 129 through parts of North Carolina and Tennessee, is incredibly curvy—beautiful and very green, with the occasional glimpse of the mountains and, later, the Little Tennessee River, but without any good hiking stops and few pullouts of any sort. This is because a) everyone must be hiking inside the actual national park or on the Appalachian Trail, and b) this is Motorcycle Road. It’s actually nicknamed “The Tail of the Dragon” complete with gift shops and motorcycle-only campgrounds, because it is so awesome to drive on a motorcycle or in a sports car, and that’s what everyone was doing. We must have seen a hundred bikers, although there were only a handful of sports cars, on the 20-mile stretch that has most of the curves. 

When we came out of the mountains, we made one more stop along the Little Tennessee River, at a historic marker for a late 18th-century British trading post called the Tellico Blockhouse. It was just nice to get out of the car, and I was amazed how wide the Little Tennessee is; it is dammed, but even before it ever was, it was 600 feet across at this particular spot. Our only ambition for the rest of the day was to find some simple food for dinner (which we did at one of those chain-restaurant brew pubs: we split a salad and a personal pizza and spent a glorious $15.00 including drinks and tip. We are a bit tired of overeating, but I do admit to us having a McDonald’s sundae each later on.) and to reach the I-40, which we will be driving on tomorrow for many, many hours. We stopped just a bit west of Knoxville at a very new and comfy Comfort Inn right off the freeway, and settled in for the night fairly early. I tried to use the pool, since we had one, but it was practically by the roadside and really boring after all the lake, spring and ocean swimming—I am spoiled for pools now, and I came back after about 10 minutes. 

 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013. Day 15: From Eastern Tennessee to Memphis

DCIM100GOPRO

 

We left the hotel right after a 7:30 am breakfast, in the rain, and Mark drove us across Tennessee, past Knoxville and toward Memphis on the I-40 for many hours before it finally quit (really our first truly crappy driving day). We really couldn’t appreciate the landscape (visibility was lousy) but we were vaguely aware that it was hilly, lush and green. After we’d finally driven out of the rain and we were getting hungry for lunch, the I-40 conveniently went right through a state park (Natchez State Park), and we veered off to find the restaurant in the very middle of that park. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a big state park with so few people in it! We were admittedly very early for lunch, right at 11, but the entire lodge seemed deserted, and for the first half hour we were the only customers who were having the rather large, if simple, buffet lunch that they had decked out. (It wasn’t the prices—7.95 for an all-you-can-eat lunch buffet, even a simple one, seemed as 1970s as the décor of the lodge.) We didn’t want to leave right away, though, and with a bit of effort found a little hiking trail after lunch, just a one-mile loop through very lush green forest, up and down a ravine, with adorable mushrooms! It was in the upper 70s, and we just enjoyed being out and about for a little bit. Part of the park is completely covered with kudzu, and our trail seemed like it was about to be overgrown in many spots, so that may be part of what is making the park a destination that’s not exactly popular, but we just couldn’t quite figure out why it was so deserted. 

We then got back in the car, with about 100 more miles to go to Memphis, and tried to figure out on the fly what we wanted to do there, since neither one of us had the faintest idea except NOT going to Graceland (Elvis is not a favorite with either of us). Eventually we settled on the downtown area, and found the visitor center right off the interstate exit for downtown. That was handy because they told us to just park right there and take the trolley for a dollar and go see the sights that way. So we played tourists for an afternoon: we took the lovely ancient trolley that loops around to Beale St., where all the blues bars and bbq joints are. Since it was 3 pm, it was still pretty quiet, but there was some live music, and some kids called the “Beale St. Flippers” doing cartwheels for money. From there we went to the waterfront, and looked across the Mighty Mississippi and watched a riverboat full of tourists land. There was a lot of construction going on, since they are clearly improving and changing the riverboat dock/landing pier. We also checked out the downtown area, which looks a lot like a European pedestrian zone (it’s trolleys only), but features too few shops in proportion to banks and businesses, so it was pretty deserted. We dutifully walked to the Peabody hotel to watch the ducks walk out of the fountain back to wherever they go when they are not in the fountain, on a red carpet that gets set out for them every evening at 5 pm. I have never seen this many people watch with such fascination as four perfectly ordinary ducks walked out of a body of water and down a short flight of stairs! There must have been 200 tourists all over the Peabody Hotel’s sumptuous lobby just for those ducks and their “duckmaster” with his red jacket and his cane. Very silly! 

We walked back to Beale Street, had a very ordinary bar meal (pulled pork and a burger with a standard green salad), and watched the tourists trickle in. If we were REALLY good tourists, we would have stayed until the evening hours to get the full night-life impact, but we were tired. So we headed back on the trolley, which went back to the visitor center in a great big loop that included more of the downtown but then also the rundown tail end of the area, complete with a weird ultra-modern pyramid-shaped building that is clearly currently deserted or being remodeled. We looked across the Mississippi one more time, and then took off to drive over the bridge to West Memphis, AR, where a hotel room costs about a third of one near downtown Memphis. We are in a newly renovated, very clean and spacious Days’ Inn, and very much done with the day! 

 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013. Day 16: Mountain View, Arkansas

 

 

We left West Memphis pretty early (around 7:30) and drove the 3 or so hours to the little town of Mountain View, in the middle of the Arkansas part of the Ozarks. Initially, the drive was a bit blah (flat landscape, straight roads) but then the terrain got hilly and there were patches of forest, so that was really nice. In Mountain View, we took a brief look at the town square and its older, stone-built cafes and “antique” (= junk) stores (the town of 2,700 lives mostly off tourism), and paid an equally brief visit to one of its two claims to fame, the Ozark Folk Center State Park. There is a little “village” of shops and huts where you can watch people do various crafts, including blacksmithing and coppersmithing, but we only had time for a brief look around and a very simple burger/ salad meal at the snack shop, because we were really headed for the area’s second claim to fame, the Blanchard Springs Caverns. There are of course any number of caves in this area (2000 in Arkansas, and another 4000 in Missouri!) but this is one of the top ten caves in the country, and the forest service runs it, which is great. Because I have a friend who works at the cave, I had been there once before, 20 years ago, and definitely wanted to see it again. We had reserved a 1.5 hour tour through a big back area of the cave, and it was really neat, with great formations both at the very beginning and the very end of the tour (and a bunch of huge caverns with water running through them in between). Apart from the usual formations (stalagmites, stalagtites, “soda straws” etc. we also saw these really cool “upside down tables” where the ground has eroded under the columns that eventually form from the –tites and the –mites, so that surface area from which the –mites grow hovers in the air. There were also flow stones of various sizes, including one that almost plugged the hole that originally caused it to exist, and another that was carved out at the side for a path, so that we were walking through the interior of the flowstone. Very cool. We also learned about “cave popcorn” (a coral-ly looking formation) and about bat guano!

When we were done with our tour, Tony, my friend who has worked at the caves for over 25 years, was already waiting for us. We said hello and, since she had been able to take off the afternoon, drove to the Blanchard Springs and had a look at where the water comes out of the cave. Meanwhile, Tony also told us a bit more about the cave explorers of the 50s and 60s that first figured out the dimensions of this cave, and who, unbelievably, brought a group of boy scouts down through the sink hole with the 70-foot drop that was the only entrance to the cave at the time. Rope ladders! I am glad we had an elevator, and handrails. Then Tony drove with us to the place a few miles off where she and her husband Billy bought a piece of land and have erected a big metal building for an artisan brewery that they will start there. Billy has been brewing and selling his bear for several years now and is ready to get to it on a bigger scale, and Tony might retire from the Forest Service next year and help out as well. 

Eventually, we drove, convoy-style, to Billy and Tony’s house in the boonies—Mark was really sweet and drove the Prius on his own so that Tony and I could drive ahead and catch up—we hadn’t seen each other in nearly 20 years, although I had sent friends their way several times (my sister and my friend Sly have both visited them), and we exchanged Christmas Cards every year. It was especially nice of Mark because on the 3 miles or so of dirt road that is the last bit of road to their driveway, we kicked up a lot of red dust that he had to maneuver! Billy and Tony gave us the house tour—they have build every bit of the house they have on their 40 acres from scratch, and even after 25 years of living there, it is still an ongoing project. They have constructed a HUGE sloping roof for their new addition, all with wooden beams and slats from their own trees! Then we hung out on the porch and talked some more while there was chicken on the grill, and had a great meal with chicken and pasta salad and fruit. I crashed at about 10 pm, and we all went to sleep pretty early—but I did unfortunately wake up at 5 and could not go back to sleep! The nice thing about that, however, was the view from our futon into the woods was gorgeous and that the trip to the outhouse (the snazziest outhouse one could imagine—built with cedar and with a picture window looking out into the woods!) at 5 am meant that I heard this incredible bird call from one of those active-at-night birds, a chuck-will’s-widow (related to the whippoorwill, as we learned). 

 

Thursday, June 20, 2013. Day 17: From Mountain View, Arkansas, to Kansas City, Missouri.

 

The others did not wake up quite as early as I did, but by 8 am we were sitting at the kitchen table with coffee, fruit, and muffins fresh from the oven that Tony made from scratch, talking until almost 10:30 before Mark and I packed up and left. (He also played with his camera some more and caught some of the many hummingbirds that visit Billy and Tony’s porch.) It was really fun to catch up with Billy and Tony after so many years. They were old friends of the Andersons’ and I had last visited them in Mountain View in 1993! Wow; time passes so quickly. 

We then drove north through the Ozarks (very beautiful but zipping by fast!) into Missouri and all the way to Kansas City, about 320 miles, with just a short break for roadside Chinese food (avoiding the hideous Branson brouhaha by way of a handy bypass). We were pretty tired when we got here, but determined to find a motel that was relatively near the Country Club Plaza, where we wanted to eat tonight, and near the art museum we want to visit tomorrow morning. Thankfully, the Holiday Inn had a fairly decent rate with AAA, and so we ended up in walking distance from the Plaza area and the museum. 

We got ourselves tidied up a little and took off to explore the plaza, with its interesting Seville-inspired architecture and its many decorative tiles and spires. It would probably have struck us as hideous and kitschy if it were brand new, but this area is actually one of the oldest “outdoor mall” areas in the country, dreamed up by this developer with a truly new idea for a shopping district with a theme. Future developers kept with the style, so the visual impression (although I am sure not anywhere like real Seville) is uniform and the little segments of roof tiles and color roof tiles as well as the various spires and arches actually work together pretty well. We kept looking at various restaurants, but then settled on the Cheesecake Factory. We had two of their light meals (good, too), but made up for it by sharing a piece of Godiva chocolate cheesecake. It was a lovely dinner. We walked back through a little park to our hotel and were very glad we got a hotel nearby and didn’t have to do any more driving! We went to our room and just rested a bit more, but tomorrow, there’s only 200 miles left until Lincoln. 

 

Friday, June 21, 2013. Day 18: Kansas City and home!

We slept really well last night and got up fairly early, walked to the nearest Starbucks for coffee/juice and scones, and then got ourselves packed up and checked out before going to the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum. We were able to leave the car at the Holiday Inn and just walk the block and half there, which was wonderful, especially since it was still relatively cool and we had time and leisure to look at the lovely sculpture garden that is part of the museum. It is pretty lavish and has a large number of Henry Moore sculptures everywhere, as well as a very fun Claes Oldenburg set of gigantic badminton shuttlecocks (four all in all), inspired by the fact that the sculpture garden reminded him of a gigantic badminton lawn, with the museum itself as the “net” in the middle. There was also a gigantic stainless steel tree that I liked quite a lot. 

We went into the museum right at 10 am, and spent about 4 hours there, including a half hour in the lovely atrium café, where we had salads and sandwiches. Their permanent collection is very nice and strives to be representative—there was a little bit of everything and everybody, and we sped up and slowed down just as we liked things. The ancient Egyptians and the Romans (including a beautiful Egyptian-Roman portrait painting on wood, and this very striking head sculpture of a man who looks like he has had a stroke) and then the late nineteenth century were more interesting to us than most of the paintings in between, although there were some interesting pieces of decorative art. 

The modern/20th century collection had some cool pieces as well, as did the photography section, and the special exhibit, the only part of the museum for which they charge a fee, was really intriguing. It was an exhibit of paintings by Frida Kahlo, Diego Riviera, and modernist / contemporary Mexican art. There were some very striking pieces there, including paper doodles by Frida that I had not seen before, as well as a number of the classic surrealist self-portraits that she kept doing. I thought that the contrast between Kahlo’s and Riviera’s art was intriguing, and a few of the more recent pieces were as well. The most entertaining and eye-catching modern artwork was a video composed of security-camera films taken at the National Portrait Gallery in London that capture a fox that an artist let loose in the gallery. It was really fun to watch the animal try to figure out what to do in this space (eventually, he curled up on a table and slept), but of course it also has exactly the effect it should have—made me realize how much we really run around in these exhibit spaces like trapped foxes, pacing them restlessly, checking out things, wandering on, always watched by the cameras. 

After the special exhibit and the moderns, we did dutifully look at the second floor, with US-American art and the museum’s Asian collection. Mark really likes Chinese art and statuary, and there were some very beautiful (and very old) pieces that I would have liked to have learned much more about, especially because there was a whole room dedicated to the Buddhist/Indian influence/influx into China and I couldn’t even say when all of this cultural meshing took place. But we were really getting a bit overloaded and decided that we just needed to come back to KC some day for another visit to the Nelson-Atkins and also to the Kemper museum of contemporary art across the street. That one delighted us by having a smaller version of Louise Bourgeois’ mother spider in front of it—after we had seen the giant version in Hamburg last year. 

But for today, we called it quits after 4 hours, walked back to the hotel/car and took off for Lincoln around 3:00 pm. We got back without a hitch around 6 pm, unpacked and started some laundry, and had a light dinner at Panera Bread across the street. And now we are done with our road trip for the year – almost exactly 5000 miles, and some wonderful adventures, both planned and unplanned. We both had a great time, learned and saw a lot, and really had absolutely no hitches anywhere along the way—from the car cooperating to the weather only getting in our way for perhaps a day and a half, from spending time just by ourselves to socializing with friends, it was just fabulous. The tiny bit of sunburn at the beginning faded soon, and so chigger bites from Arkansas and one lost chapstick are really the only hitches that came our way. We loved the ocean and the mountains, the hiking, swimming, and the driving as well, and just like last year, we just did so well traveling as a couple—we made a great travel team, and Honeymoon # 2 was a great time. We’ll just have to have a third honeymoon next summer.