Saturday, July 28, 2012


Every year in June, we fly to the San Francisco area to visit our 3 grand-daughters.  This year, our oldest grand-daughter, Katherine was graduating high school, so we decided to make the drive from Chicago so we could see the country.  Also, it gave me an opportunity to visit with my sister in Auburn, California, in the gold mining country near the Sierras.

We loaded up the car with plenty of music--21 assorted CD's of all genres--Frank Sinatra, Kenny G, Shania Twain, Mariah Carey, even Rachmaninoff.  After this trip, I don't ever want to hear Mariah Carey again.  We brought five one-gallon jugs of water to fill up our water bottles at low cost.  We filled up the bottles with ice every morning.  We brought several bags of potato chips and crackers. Barbecue rib flavored chips.  We had books to read on the long drive across the Plains.  We were given 250 pages of Trip-tix from AAA, along with maps and guidebooks for each state.  We were well prepared!

We began our Great American Road Trip on Friday, June 8th at 5 A.M.. Dianne was ready to go at 2 A.M. because she was so excited.  If she had woken me, I would have left then.  We planned the first 2 days in advance.  The rest of the trip we would plan on the fly.  The only constraint was that we had to be in the Bay Area by Thursday, June 14 for the graduation.  We were ultimately gone for 17 days, drove 5800 miles, and were still talking to each other at the end of the trip.  We replenished our snacks at Walmarts at every overnight stop--Mountain Home, Idaho; Montrose, Colorado; San Ramon, California.  We stopped at McDonalds all across the country because of their clean restrooms.

For Dianne, the trip was significant for another reason:  After visiting Nebraska and Kansas, she has now traveled to all 50 states!.  Here are the highlights:

PINK ELEPHANT, DeForest, Wisconsin

A huge pink elephant wearing glasses is a well known roadside attraction beside a gas station just off I-94 on the way to LaCrosse.  There is no sign to indicate its significance.  It's just there and has been for about 30 years.  Don't waste your time stopping for it.  Next store, the gas station sells key chains and doodads with the pink elephant on it.

SPAM MUSEUM, Austin, Minnesota

Austin is a company town of 24,000 with a 24 foot statue of a cow in the center of town.  It is the county seat of Mower County.  Virtually everything of significance in town is somehow related to the George Hormel Company, a Fortune 500 company, headquartered there.  The 16,500 square foot Spam Museum was built in an old K-Mart building in 2001 to celebrate the products of the company.  Hormel developed Spam (spiced ham) in 1937.  It is the king of mystery meat--made from pig parts and secret spices.   During World War II, millions of tins of Spam were shipped to the troops because it didn't require refrigeration.  It has a shelf life of years.  On the battlefield, this is a good thing.

American troops ate the Spam, but they didn't necessarily like it.  Most troops, all the way up to Gen. Eisenhower had opinions about Spam, most of them negative.  Veterans come to the museum and say "I'll never touch that #$%* stuff again."  Personally, I've never tasted it.  They did not pass out free samples, although it was available for purchase in the gift shop for about 3 bucks a tin--it's cheaper at the Jewel near our house.  It comes in 14 different varieties including classic, with cheese, hot 'n spicy, hickory smoked, low sodium and even turkey Spam.  They make kosher Spam for the Israeli army.

Spam enjoys its greatest popularity per capita in Hawaii and also in Guam and Saipan in the Pacific.  During World War II, the native islanders obtained surplus Spam and learned to like it.  They refer to is as "Hawaiian steak".

JOLLY GREEN GIANT, Blue Earth, Minnesota.   

Built in 1979 using private donations, this is a 55 foot fiberglass statue built to honor the largest producer of corn and peas, known locally as Senaca Foods.   Over the years, the company changed hands several times, was owned by Pillsbury and is now part of General Mills.  Next to the statue is a small gift shop selling JGG memorabilia.  After looking at the statue for awhile, I thought of the Peggy Lee song, Is That All There Is?

Blue Earth is a prosperous town of 4000, and its other claim to fame is that Eskimo Pie was invented there.  In 1917, Walter Schwen obtained a patent for a ball of ice cream coated in chocolate and placed on a piano wire.  He charged 2 for a nickel and sold millions.  Then two traveling salesmen from Chicago claimed they had a similar product, the lawyers got involved, and four years later Schwen sold the patent to the salesmen.  One, Christian K. Nelson coined the politically incorrect name "Eskimo Pie".  The other,  a guy named Russell Stover decided to start his own candy company and was never heard from again.

CORN PALACE, Mitchell, South Dakota  

Billboards for hundreds of miles around Mitchell, SD promote this as the world's only corn palace.  After seeing it, I can see why nobody else would want to build one.  This place is corny, but it is world famous.  It was built in 1892 to showcase the rich farmland of South Dakota and to encourage people to settle there.  More importantly, the city fathers were attempting (unsuccessfully) to lure the state capitol from Pierre to Mitchell.  Amazingly, there were other corn palaces in the 1880's, in Sioux City, IA., and Gregory SD, as well as a grain palace in nearby Plankinton, SD. 

The Corn Palace is a Moorish Revival building on which the walls are decorated with murals made of corn, rye and whatever else they grow in the area.  Apparently they treat the corn with shellac or something so that the birds don't eat the murals.  The building is constructed of reinforced concrete, and the corn is glued to the walls.  The annual cost to decorate is $130,000.  In its defense, the murals are artistic and beautiful.  However, the nagging question to me was:  What do they use this place for?.  We were there near closing time and I spoke with the maintenance guy who told me they have concerts, flea markets and high school and college basketball games.  Essentially it's a convention center with a large gym.  They were running a craft show when we visited.  Chicagoans can compare it to a cross between the United Center and McCormick Place, but on a smaller scale.

Mitchell is also the home of George McGovern, a decorated World War II pilot and Senator who ran for President against Richard Nixon.  McGovern is now in his nineties.  The infamous Watergate break-in occurred during that campaign, and if the true extent of the Nixon cover up had been known, MrGovern might have actually carried a couple states.  He won only Massachusetts and D.C.  He was a nice guy, but, quoting former Cubs Manager, Leo Durocher, "Nice guys finish seventh."

CARHENGE, Alliance, Nebraska

This famous roadside attraction was built in 1987 by Jim Reinders as a memorial to his father who lived on the farm where it is located.  Reinders lived in England for a time and studied Stonehenge, taking meticulous measurements.  This "artwork" consists of 38 cars arranged in a 90 foot circle built to duplicate the same dimensions as the real Stonehenge in England.  The heel stone is a 1982 Cadillac.  Reinders conned 35 people from his family to help him build this thing in the Spring of 1987, and they dedicated it on the Summer Solstice that year.  They spray paint it every year in dull gray to cover up the graffiti.  In recent years other artists have added their works, using old cars and parts painted in bright colors, and the area is now known as Car Art Reserve.  But lets face it:  Carhenge is the hook here, not the Car Art Reserve. 

CHIMNEY ROCK, Alliance, Nebraska

Early fur traders from the East called it Chimney Rock.  The local Indians didn't have chimneys, so they didn't know what that was.  They called it the Indian word for "elk's penis".  This rock formation, along with nearby Scott's Bluff were familiar landmarks on the Oregon Trail.  This unusual sandstone monolith rises 325 feet above the valley, and used to be significantly higher, but erosion has worn down the sandstone.  The government built a nice visitor's center there and showed a movie about the Oregon Trail, of which the ruts can still be seen nearby.  For marketing reasons, they might want to change the name back to the Indian version.


This bluff is named after the fur trader Hiram Scott who died there in 1828.  He got very sick and his companions abandoned him nearby.  He made his way to the bluff where he died.  The bluff is very impressive.  It is over 800 feet high and dominates the surrounding plains.  The Civilian Conservation Corps, back in the 1930's constructed a road on the backside of it, with 3 tunnels,  leading to the summit.   We drove to the top for a spectacular view. 

The National Park Service built replicas of several covered wagons with fiberglass oxen pulling them, next to an asphalt path.  I wasn't previously aware that the Oregon Trail was paved, but surmised that it must have been a jobs program from the Polk Administration.

In any event, the Oregon Trail Museum and Visitor's Center focuses on the 19th Century pioneers and their Westward expansion.  The museum showcases 63 works by William Henry Jackson, a painter and photographer of the Old West while he worked for the U.S. Government Survey. In later years he painted the murals at the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, and was also a technical advisor to the filming of Gone With the Wind.  He died in 1942 at age 99 as one of the last surviving Civil War veterans.  He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

At the Visitor's Center, I asked if there were any monuments honoring Hall of Fame football player Dick "Night Train" Lane (KENSUSKINREPORT, Sept. 24, 2007)  who played one season of college ball at Scottsbluff Junior College in 1947.  There isn't.  Lane had moved there to live with his birth mother for a year or so.  He left town and spent four years in the Army and never returned.  He is buried in Austin, Texas. 

The college is still there, but it's not called that anymore.  Actually Night Train wasn't called that either until he joined the Rams.  The college is now Western Nebraska Community College.  The ranger turned out to be a sports fanatic, and we had a great conversation about other local stars who moved on to pro ball.   But Night Train was a legend!  He still holds the single season record for interceptions--14, in his rookie season.  They only played 12 games at that time. 


This windswept knoll crowned with a large obelisk was formerly known as Custer Battlefield National Monument.  In recent years, there has been a movement to recognize the contributions of Native Americans, (Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Lakota, etc.) and they are given equal billing.  The war is described here as a clash of cultures.  The U.S. Government would sign treaties with the Indians, but when gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1874--on the Indian Reservation, the government was unable to prevent white gold seekers from swarming the area in violation of the treaty.  Essentially, the white man didn't have a reservation, but he came anyway. 

George Armstrong Custer was the bottom man in his class at West Point--he was almost expelled at least 4 times for pranks.  His aggressiveness during the Civil War earned him a promotion to brevet general at age 23, one of the youngest in U.S. history.  (The youngest was Galusha Pennypacker at age 20--KENSUSKINREPORT, Aug. 7, 2007).   Custer was not well liked among his peers because he insisted on going his own way and often neglected to follow orders.   Of course, that attitude is what got him and the 7th Cavalry in trouble here in Montana.  His critics including President Grant and Gen. Philip Sheridan asserted that Custer made several major tactical errors.  For example, he greatly underestimated the strength of the Lakota and Cheyenne led by their war chiefs Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, and he found himself surrounded.  Much of what we know about the battle was gleaned from later interviews with Mr. Bull and Mr. Horse and their associates.  Custer's bravery in battle was never questioned.  His good sense was. 

Actually, bravery--or recklessness--ran in the family.  Custer's brother Thomas was one of a select few who won TWO Congressional Medals of Honor--for his actions in the Civil War.  (KENSUSKINREPORT, Sept. 22, 2007)  Thomas was also killed at Little Bighorn along with their other brother Boston Custer.  When the smoke had cleared, 225 men of the 7th Cavalry, along with all the horses except one, were killed.  Markers are placed all over, indicating where the soldiers and also the Indians, fell.


Cody, Wyoming is a Western version of the Wisconsin Dells.  It is filled with amusements, trolley rides and roadside attractions for the kids.  The town was founded in 1895 by William F. Cody who earned the name Buffalo Bill when he obtained a contract from the U.S. Army to supply buffalo meat for the troops.  Spam wasn't invented yet, so buffalo was the answer.  Cody killed over 4200 buffalo in that time.  He organized buffalo hunts and certainly was the poster boy for the near extinction of the buffalo herds.  In later life, however, he became a conservationist and spokesman for saving the few remaining buffalo.  Most people don't realize he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his service to the military as a scout although he was a civilian. 

We visited the museum complex devoted to the life of Buffalo Bill as well as exhibits honoring the Plains Indians, Western art, natural history of the area, and a firearms collection.  Of course, not many would come except to see Buffalo Bill.  As museums go, this one gets rave reviews.  Incidentally, there are also Buffalo Bill museums in Golden, Colorado, where he is buried, and in LeClaire, Iowa where he was born.  However, his boyhood house is in Cody.

Cody was a tireless self promoter who organized an Extravaganza--Buffalo Bill's Wild West--which also starred Annie Oakley.  The show performed all over the world and made him rich and famous.  He employed hundreds of cowboys and Indians in the show which continued until his death in 1917.  Sadly for him, he wasn't a good businessman and lost most of his money in questionable investments.


Dianne and I have Senior National Park passes so we are spared the 15 bucks or so admission fee to enter the park.  You have to pass through Yellowstone because it's pretty much the only way to go from Cody to points West.  This park is huge--54 miles East to West and 63 miles North to South, and it takes about 3 hours to drive through it.  Motorists in front of you often stop in the middle of the road to watch buffalo and bears. 

The interesting thing about the park is that geologists recently discovered that Yellowstone is really an
enormous volcanic crater, often referred to as a Super Volcano.  Over just the past 2.1 million years, it has experienced 3 cataclysmic eruptions that were violent enough to affect the world's climate.  They occurred 2.1 million, 1.3 million and 640,000 years ago.  The next one is expected to be December 21st, according to the Mayas.  There have been small eruptions; the last was between 70,000 and 160,000 years ago.  The government closely monitors earthquake and volcanic activity in the park, not that it would prevent an eruption, but would give us time to evacuate major cities in the path like Omaha and Kansas City.

Yellowstone has a policy of letting forest fires burn themselves out except when they are started by people, usually (but not always) by accident.  On the average, about 35 fires a year are triggered by lightning strikes.  In 1988, about one-third of the total area of the park--793,000 acres--burned.  The burn policy was changed after the government spent over $120 million to fight the 1988 fires.  Our previous trip to Yellowstone occurred shortly after the disastrous fires, and we were pleased to see that the burned out areas have largely recovered with now mature trees.

Since we've previously visited the park, we didn't linger at the many tourist sites.  We saw some wildlife, bison, elk and mountain goats.  We visited some hot springs.  The boiling waters and geysers always amaze me.


Lassen is one of the lesser known national parks. It is located in Northern California, but not near any populated areas.  Unlike the larger national parks, there is no lodge to stay in, and we were concerned about accommodations.  Fortunately we found a historic hotel in Fall River Mills, CA, about 45 miles North of the park where we had an enjoyable dinner.

Our other concern was that the guidebook stated that the park doesn't open until mid to late June because over 600 inches of snow falls annually in the area, covering the roads. The day before we arrived, I called the ranger station to make sure we weren't wasting our time driving there.  We weren't, although the snow was 4 feet deep in some areas.  In the lower elevations, the roads were passable.

The  deal here is that Lassen Peak, a volcano, erupted in 1915, and until the Mt. St.Helens eruption in 1980, was considered the only active volcano in the continental U.S.  As volcanic eruptions go, this one wasn't a major one.  It devastated a few square miles and tossed hundred ton rocks around with a mushroom cloud of ash billowing 7 miles into the stratosphere   It wasn't of the magnitude of a Krakatoa, or even a Mt. St.Helens. 

There are several volcanoes in the park, along with active geothermal areas which, as at Yellowstone,  are closely monitored by the U.S. Geological Survey.  The park is a natural laboratory for scientists as they study how plant life has grown back in the Devastated Area--the area leveled by the eruption. 

NATIONAL YO YO MUSEUM, Chico, California

The National Yo yo Museum which occupies a large room in the back of a gift shop in downtown Chico, is a tribute to Donald F. Duncan Sr., an entrepreneur who also manufactured parking meters and founded the Good Humor Ice Cream Company.  He didn't invent the yo yo, but he perfected it in San Francisco in 1928 when he purchased the business from a Filipino wood carved toy importer named Pedro Flores.  Duncan was a marketing genius who created a craze in the 1930's which continued through the 1950's.  The highlight of the museum is a 256 pound yo yo which actually works.  It wasn't clear to me how you would work it--the average person can't even clean and jerk 256 pounds. Maybe they use a crane.

A young man employed there demonstrated some of the yo yo tricks I remembered as a kid.  He did "Around the World", "Over the Falls", "Rock the Baby", "Walk the Dog", etc, as well as the new and more difficult ones which I could never perform.  I asked him how much his yo yo sells for--$100.00.  When I was young, they came out with the plastic Imperial yo yo at one dollar which didn't sell much because most of us couldn't afford that.  We were happy with the 35 cent wooden yo yo.

The display cases showed the many Duncan yo yo models and the champion patches that the more skilled kids used to sew on their jackets.  I really enjoyed this trip back to my childhood.

HARVEY GIRLS, Barstow, California

What happens in Vegas starts in Barstow.  For L.A. people, this is approximately the halfway point to Las Vegas.  There was no Barstow until the Santa Fe Railroad arrived in 1888.  The town was named after William Barstow Strong, the president of the railroad. 

The main attraction in this sun baked town is the Casa del Desierto (House of the Desert), featuring the Harvey Girls.  I wanted to see it because I wanted to learn more about my late Uncle Harvey who was a renowned ladies man.  However, I learned, to my dismay, that it referred to Fred Harvey who created the first restaurant and hotel chain in the U.S.  Harvey, an Englishman, contracted with the Santa Fe Railroad in the 1870's to build restaurants and hotel at 17 stops in the Southwest between Chicago and Los Angeles.  They didn't serve meals on the trains in those days.  Harvey provided good food and service, with quality control and essentially civilized the West.

In 1883, Harvey instituted a policy of hiring young, well mannered, single, attractive Caucasian women to serve as waitresses on one year contracts.  This was the 19th Century version of the Playboy Club although their uniforms were not provocative--well maybe for that era.  The young ladies were subjected to a 10 P.M. curfew supervised by a house mother.  If they left the job before the contract was up (usually for marriage), they were docked half their pay.

The Harvey Girls are famous today because of the 1942 novel  The Harvey Girls, by Samuel Hopkins Adams.   The novel was made into an MGM musical in 1946 starring Judy Garland and Angela Lansbury.  The classic song, Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe was featured in the movie.

The Barstow facility was one of the most luxurious of the Harvey hotels.  It contains a large ballroom which doubled as a dining room.  Today it houses a museum which, unfortunately for us, is open only on weekends (we came on Monday) due to lack of funding.  We were still able to go inside, walk around and relive some of its past glory. 

CALICO GHOST TOWN, Yermo, California

Calico is a ghost town in the Mohave Desert, East of Barstow, with a suspicious resemblance to the one at Six Flags.  We've visited real ghost towns, but this is really an amusement park, but entertaining nevertheless.  It really was a silver mining town, built in 1881.  When silver lost its value in the 1890's, everyone left.  Walter Knott, of the famous Knott's Berry Farm bought it\in 1950.  At the time, there were five buildings left, and Knott restored them and built others in the Old West style which are now mostly gift shops.   In its heyday, the town had 3500 people with 2 lawyers, 2 doctors, 3 hotels, 5 general stores, and, of course, bars and brothels.  Now they charge you 6 bucks to get in and $3.50 for soft drinks.  There is not a lot of shade in Calico and you'll want the drinks in the 110 degree heat. 

MAD GREEK CAFE, Baker, California

Get us to the Greek!  This iconic Greek restaurant, painted in wide blue and white stripes, is located in the middle of the Mohave Desert near Death Valley. The town  is appropriately named Baker because it literally bakes in one of the hottest places in the country.   The tallest structure in town is a 50 foot thermometer which sometimes registers 125 degrees (52C)   It was only about 110 when we visited.on a warm afternoon.

I'm not sure why they call him the "mad" Greek, but the hot weather is enough to make anyone angry.  However, he does a land office business which probably cools off his temper.  This joint was jammed on a Monday afternoon, and he probably did enough business to bail out the troubled Greek economy.  The restaurant serves Greek and Mexican food and free ice water.   If you can get a table, you can rest and enjoy lunch amid colorful murals and photos of Greece.    We've eaten here several times before, but we always look forward to it. 


We spent four glorious comped nights at the magnificent Paris Hotel on the Vegas Strip.  This was the first time we've stayed there since we were in the real Paris (France) last year.  This Paris is a one-half scale model of the French one.  The employees all the way down to the Mexican busboys are instructed to speak faux French.  It just sounds like French.  There have been some changes since the last time we were there.  The Muzak no longer plays Maurice Chevalier 24/7 like it used to.  Now it plays soft rock like every other casino.

We had a nice experience on the Video Poker machines late on our last night in town.  Dianne and I were both playing Deuces Wild.  I hit the 4 deuces for 1000 quarters and five minutes later I hit it again on the same machine.  Within a few minutes, Dianne, playing in the same bank of machines, also hit the 4 deuces for another 1000 quarters.  So we're talking $750 within a short time.  We needed a front end loader to carry the quarters to the cage.  The odds of hitting 4 of a kind in general are about 650 to 1, but 4 of a kind of a specific number is about 8500 to 1.  So hitting it twice on the same machine within 5 minutes is in the millions.


We stood on the edge of sheer cliffs 2000 feet above the rushing waters of the Gunnison River in a scene reminiscent of the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote.  This is a narrower version of the Grand Canyon.  The canyon walls, by and large are about 1500 feet across although in one spot, the Narrows, the canyon is only 40 feet across, while the rock faces there are 1750 feet high.  Because of the steep walls, very little sunlight can filter down to the river, hence the name "Black Canyon".  You don't want to go whitewater rafting here.  The river which is strewn with boulders fallen from the cliffs above, drops 480 feet in two miles, one of the steepest drops in the world.  By contrast, the Grand Canyon in Arizona falls only 7 feet per mile on the average.  The South rim road winds along a ridge punctuated by several overlooks, each a several hundred yard hike from the road to see them.  Believe me, it's worth the hike to see this scenery.  This is not a well known national park, but it should be. 


After a long and winding trip through the Sawatch Range on the 2-lane Highway 50, we reached the summit--Monarch Pass, at 11,312 feet, the Continental Divide.  The Continental Divide is the topographic feature dividing the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  Everything to the West flows to the Pacific, and everything to the East flows to the Atlantic or the Gulf of Mexico.  The Gunnison River is to the West and the Arkansas River is to the East.  You can take a tram up to the 12,000 foot level for a better view, but we elected not to.  The gift shop was a good place to stop for ice cream and postcards and photograph the sign.

ROYAL GORGE, Canon City, Colorado

We were expecting something like the Black Canyon--a National Park.  Instead, it is a giant amusement park with a suspension bridge spanning the gorge, almost 1000 feet below.  The bridge was built in 1929.  You can zip line across it also.  They charge 25 bucks or so to enter the park and go across the bridge if you dare.  Seniors save 10%.  Not enough!  We didn't go. 

BOOT HILL, Dodge City, Kansas

Dodge City became famous because of a biography of Wyatt Earp by Stuart Lake which became the basis of several Western movies and the television series.  In fact, in later life, Earp was a consultant to a Hollywood studio where he met and inspired the young John Wayne, among others.  Dodge City was a wide open town in the 1870's, the days of the cattle drives.  Its heyday lasted only 10 years, but Dodge City was called "Queen of the Cow towns".  It filled up with cowboys and buffalo hunters who liked to have a drink or two and gamble with their newly paid wages.  Boot Hill Cemetery was their last resting place after a night of carousing which often ended in gunfights. 

Boot hill was closed in 1878 and, according to the museum guide, "it was never an official burial ground, but was used primarily for the bodies of buffalo hunters, drifters and others who had no family in the area.  No one famous was ever buried here."  The last person, and only woman buried there was "Squirrel Tooth" Alice Chambers.  The Wild West reputation was probably exaggerated, as a scan of the 1878 newspaper shows far less crime than we find today on the South Side of Chicago. 

Wyatt Earp had a checkered career.  Starting out on the wrong side of the law, Earp came from Western Illinois where he was arrested for stealing horses.  He escaped from jail by climbing out through the roof and fleeing to Peoria.  His address there was a brothel.  He was either a pimp or a bouncer, nobody is sure.  Certainly he was a gambler, and he traveled around Texas playing faro, a card game.  There, a frontier dentist, Doc Holliday saved his life in a gunfight, and they became lifelong friends.  Earp followed his brother Jim to Dodge City where local citizens respected his shooting ability and appointed him U.S. Marshal. 

Wyatt Earp was considered a fearless gunfighter who stood his ground with the bad guys.  He stayed in Dodge for about 3 years, survived and moved on to Tombstone, Arizona with his brothers, where a 30 second gunfight--OK Corral--defined him for the rest of his life.  Although Earp was never even wounded, many desperadoes made threats against his life.  When things got hot, he moved on and lived in several other boom towns across the West and even went to Alaska for the gold rush.

He married Josephine Marcus and lived out his days in Southern California.  He was made honorary deputy sheriff of San Bernadino, CA.  Earp died in 1929 and is buried with his wife in Hills of Eternity, a Jewish cemetery (Josephine was Jewish) in Colma, California where, not surprisingly, his grave is the most visited in the cemetery.

The re-enacters in Dodge City play the different parts.  We sat on wooden bleachers in the 106 degree Noonday heat watching the  actors stumble out of the saloon and stage a gunfight while the dance hall girl cheered them on.  It was fun entertainment.  Dodge City, which was named after Civil War General Grenville M. Dodge (and not the car), has a Walk of Fame honoring famous actors who put the town on the map.  Henry Fonda and Hugh O'Brian both played Wyatt Earp.  Errol Flynn starred in Dodge City which was the first movie to premiere outside of Hollywood, in 1939.   Don't forget Sheriff Bat Masterson, a gambler and saloon keeper who lived out his days as the sports editor of the New York Telegraph.  He was honored in Damon Runyon's Guys and Dolls (Sky Masterson, played by Marlon Brando). 


Presidential museums are magic for me, and there aren't a lot of them outside the Eastern states. 
I like to visit them whenever possible.  We've been to Hoover's in Iowa,  McKinley's in Canton, OH, William Henry Harrison's in Vincennes, Indiana and even Ronald Reagan's house in Illinois.   Ike's wasn't on the radar for us until we got close to Abilene and saw the signs. 

It was 111 degrees when we arrived in Abilene on a warm Sunday afternoon.  The Ike complex was easy to find; signs all over town read "I still like Ike".   A mile or so from the Interstate we found the Visitor's Center, the museum, Ike's boyhood home, the library building, and the Place of Meditation (graves of Ike and Mrs. Eisenhower).  A large statue of the General, wearing his coat, looked out of place in the summer heat.

Abilene, like Dodge City, was originally a cow town located at the terminus of the Chisholm Trail where it intersected with the Kansas Pacific Railroad.   The cowboy era lasted only 5 years and ended when wheat farmers began fencing in their land.  The town thrived from a diverse economic base, and Ike's family moved there in 1898 when he was a young boy.  The Eisenhower home is a sprawling white clapboard Victorian house, located on its original site with furniture and other items owned by Mrs. Eisenhower, Ike's mother.  The house would be unremarkable except that Ike grew up there.

The museum was largely a tribute to the fighting men of World War II and the popularity of General Eisenhower who mingled with the troops as they prepared for D-Day.   Ike was meticulous in his preparations, as he agonized over the details of the operation and the foul weather.  He even prepared a statement for the press in the event the invasion failed. 

The gift shop sells Ike memorabilia including posters with Ike and Truman together because of the relatively close proximity of the two presidential museums.  The posters are ironic because Ike and Truman did not especially like each other--at Ike's inauguration, he and Truman barely spoke to each other.  Maybe it was political, but until Ike was elected, he was essentially apolitical.  Nobody knew if he was a Democrat or a Republican, and both parties courted him to be their standard bearer in 1948.  Truman even offered to step aside if Ike wanted to run for President as a Democrat. 


I've always admired Harry Truman who, before he became president was a regular guy.  Among other things, he went broke in the menswear business (he repaid all his debts).  He was the last president who never attended college.  Although Truman was personally honest, he was considered a front man for the corrupt Kansas City political machine.  As a result, he was underestimated and disparaged by the Eastern elite.  He know right from wrong, and brought his rural Missouri values to the White House.

President Roosevelt barely knew Truman and didn't brief him on anything in the 82 days Truman served as Vice President until he assumed the Oval Office.  However, when confronted with some of the most significant decisions in U.S. history, he said "the buck stops here!"  He was decisive, he made the decisions, and by and large they were the right ones.   We're talking the atomic bomb, the Marshall Plan, the founding of NATO, the Berlin Airlift, the containment of the Soviet Union--the Cold War.   The firing of General MacArthur (for disobeying orders) was controversial at the time, but Truman took the heat, declaring that the military takes orders from the President, not the other way around.  Truman looked like an unassuming guy, but he didn't let himself get pushed around except maybe by his wife.

One of my poker buddies, Norm, who served in the Pacific in World War II, credits Truman with saving his life by dropping the atomic bomb on Japan.   Thousands were killed, but millions more (on both sides) were saved.  Today, historians consider Truman one of the 10 best presidents in U.S. history.

Beside his public persona, the museum examines Truman's personal life.  He romanced Bess Wallace whose mother thought he would never amount to anything.  After they got married, he and Bess moved in with the in-laws who could have just as well been out-laws.  Truman's mother-in-law never changed her opinion about Harry even after the Trumans moved into the White House.  Bess was never comfortable in Washington and she spent much of her time back home in Independence, Missouri.   Her brother, George Wallace, was not the former Alabama governor.

Truman's daughter, Margaret was a singer and entertainer.  When a critic panned her performance, President Truman's response was a series of unprintable epithets.   He was photographed playing the Missouri Waltz with the beautiful Lauren Bacall sitting on the piano.     Truman played poker, swore and drank, but, by all accounts, he was a faithful husband.

The museum showed the famous picture of Truman holding up the 1948 Chicago Tribune with the headline, "Dewey Defeats Truman".  Though not many expected it, Truman handily defeated Dewey, and also his other two opponents in the election, Huey and Louie.

MARK TWAIN MUSEUM, Hannibal, Missouri

Hannibal, MO is the home town of Samuel Clemens, a/k/a Mark Twain, one of the most prolific and beloved American writers in history.  His boyhood home and in fact the historic area of Hannibal is very popular with tourists.  Across the street is his father's law office and next door the home of Becky Thatcher, his childhood girl friend.  Next to the Clemens home is the famous "Tom Sawyer fence" with a can of whitewash and a paintbrush where I was photographed displaying my true talents.  Behind the house is the Huck Finn house where Clemens' friend Tom Blankenship lived.

It wasn't clear to me if all those buildings are in their original locations or whether they were moved.  They are all on the same block.

Mark Twain acquired his pen name when he earned his riverboat pilot's license in 1859 after a two year apprenticeship studying hundreds of miles of the Mississippi River.  The term "mark twain" signifies that the river is deep enough that the steamboat will not run aground.   Clemens' brother Orion owned the local newspaper, the Hannibal Journal, and young Sam started writing articles for it.    During the Civil War, they relocated to Virginia City, Nevada by stagecoach, and Clemens began writing articles about his travels which eventually encompassed the world.  He was born the year of Halley's Comet (1835), and he predicted his own death when Halley's Comet returned.  True to his word, he died of a heart attack in 1910, one day after the comet was sighted.


This is an iconic truck stop  just down the road from Funk's Grove which is 4 miles past Shirley on Old Route 66, just off I-55.  So you know where it is now--and don't call me Shirley!   The truck stop was established in 1928 as a small snack shop and garage on the road to St. Louis.  There was no Route 66 designation at that time.  The truck stop has expanded several times over the years, and it's huge.  We stopped there, as we have in the past, because they have some of the best fried chicken in the country.  The country buffet has the fried chicken, pork chops, fried walleye, mashed potatoes, bread pudding and lots of other filling food.  If you're on a diet, don't bother stopping there.  The other thing they have is the Route 66 Hall of Fame, with pictures from the old days.  Back in the 1930's, Dixie had a cattle pen in the back where the cattle would get their exercise while the trucker ate lunch.  Dixie Trucker's Home was recognized by the Route 66 Association of Illinois for its contributions to the character of Route 66 which was, sadly, decommissioned by the government in 1977.