Thursday, July 16, 2015


This past June, we completed another 5000 mile road trip, and I'll share some of the more interesting places we visited.  I'll leave out the larger cities like San Francisco, Las Vegas and Denver because the small cities and towns are less well known, but they have an American charm that I find comforting.  Most Americans fly over these places on the way to the West Coast, but they are missing out on some terrific sights.  The price of gas was relatively cheap, especially in Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming--in the $2.50's.  In Barstow and Baker, California, however, it was around $4.69 per gallon.

Driving through Iowa on US 18 and avoiding the Interstate, a State Trooper stopped me for speeding NINE miles over the limit.  I normally set my cruise control for 9 miles over.  the cop invited me to sit with him in the squad car while he checked his computer to see if I was wanted anywhere. He didn't put me in cuffs.  He told me some cops stop drivers for 5 over the limit.  I asked him "why would you bother with that--don't you have any real speeders here?"  He replied, "It's not the Interstate, so we don't get much business."  I told him back in Illinois on the Tri State Tollway, most cops don't even bother unless the driver is going 20 over the limit.  I left with a warning, and henceforth, I set the cruise control for 7 over. 


Mason City, Iowa was founded by members of the masonic order.  Its claim to fame was The Music Man, which was filmed there.   The city actively promotes the recognizable scenes from the movie, and we visited some of those sites.  The creator of The Music Man, Meredith Willson grew up in Mason City, and we stopped by his house, located next door to the performing arts center.  In The Music Man, the city is called "River City".  Music Man Square hosts concerts regularly.

Less well known in Mason City is an unusual outdoor museum, or garden, which does not appear in the AAA book or Chamber of Commerce literature.  I would describe it as a poor man's House on the Rock.  A man named Max Weaver brought together all types of junk, particularly relating to transportation, and assembled them without much rhyme or reason next to his house on the outskirts of town.  It's called Rancho Deluxe Z Garden.  Nailed onto the walls and rocks are tires, boats, bicycles, license plates and road signs, mostly scavenged from junkyards and the city dump.  Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, and anything can pass for art nowadays. 

Many of the locals refer to Mr. Weaver as Mad Max.  "Mad" as in crazy, but many believe he is angry at the world also.  He appears to be a professional gadfly, but, to the consternation of the mayor and some other council members, he was elected to several terms on the City Council and even ran for mayor (unsuccessfully).  Either you love him or you hate him. but the city officials and the Chamber of Commerce apparently fall into the latter group, because they either ignore him or discourage tourists from visiting his "garden".  There is nothing on the Mason City website about it.

The famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright lived in Mason City for several years, and the historic district contains quite a few Prairie School houses.  If the house wasn't designed by Wright, it was designed by one of his students.  Wright's statue stands in the main city park.  Across the street is a Wright designed hotel and bank building, and if you know Wright, it looks very familiar.  The historic Park Inn Hotel has guided tours daily. 

Wright lived a colorful personal life.  He was married three times, lived in sin at least once while he was married and carried on several documented affairs.  His long suffering wife was looking for Mr. Right, but instead she got Mr. Wright whom she described as Mr. Wrong. 

Wright's stepdaughter Svetlana (from his third marriage) was killed in an auto accident.  Her surviving husband married another Svetlana, the daughter of the Russian Communist dictator Joseph Stalin.  Ironically, Svetlana-2 walked out of the marriage because she couldn't stand communal living in a Wright community.  It reminded her too much of the Soviet Union.  Essentially, as Archie Bunker once said, "people living in communes are commune-ists."


Clear Lake is the home of the Surf Ballroom, well known to rock 'n' roll fans for the 1959 Winter Dance Party which turned out to be the last performance of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper.  Every February, they present a celebration called "The Day the Music Died" in tribute to the performers.  Although it is located in a remote part of Northern Iowa, it often attracts big name artists.

The ballroom still operates, hosting weddings and banquets.  You can see the payphone where Holly and Valens made their last phone calls--to their wives.  The "Green Room" backstage has wall to ceiling signed autographs of artists who have performed there--Waylon Jennings, Bobby Rydell, Righteous Brothers, Temptations, Ricky Nelson, Little River Band and numerous others.  The history of Rock is on the walls;  you can spend hours soaking it all in.  A Wall of Fame displays hundreds of photos of the many famous artists who graced the stage at the Surf. 

The Surf is on the corner of Buddy Holly Place and Ritchie Valens Blvd.  The artists' itinerary cris-crossed the upper Midwest by bus.  After the February 2nd performance, they had to travel to frigid Fargo, North Dakota for the next gig.  The tour bus was rickety and uncomfortable.  The heating system broke down in Wisconsin.  Did I mention it gets cold in February in the Northern states?   They did replace the tour bus with a school bus which we all know is not very comfortable either.  Holly, Valens and Richardson (the Big Bopper) were all Southerners not accustomed to cold weather.  The promoter hadn't considered the distance between the venues when he scheduled the performances.  The performers were run down and fighting off flu symptoms.  The Clear Lake gig was not on the schedule, but rather a last minute adjustment to pick up a few extra bucks.

Holly had recently broken off from the Crickets and assembled a new band consisting of Waylon Jennings on the bass, Tommy Allsup on the guitar and Carl Bunch on the drums.  Before they got to Clear Lake, Bunch was taken to the hospital in Ironwood, Michigan for frostbitten feet.  Valens, Holly and Dion diMucci took turns playing drums for each other.

Holly wanted to get a few hours of rest for his band, so he decided to charter a small plane which could accommodate only the 21 year old pilot, Roger Peterson and three passengers, Holly, Allsup and Jennings.    Big Bopper was suffering from the flu and asked Jennings for his seat on the plane.  Allsup and Valens flipped coins and Allsup lost the toss.  Holly joked to Jennings, "I hope your ol' bus freezes up."  Jennings' reply was "I hope your ol' plane crashes."  That quote has haunted Jennings ever since.   Dion elected to drive because he didn't want to pay the $35 for the flight.  The place crashed 5 miles North of Clear Lake in a cornfield.  It's on private property, but there is a signpost with a large pair of buddy Holly glasses.  The official cause of the crash was bad weather and an inexperienced pilot unskilled in instrument night flying. 


Grinnell, Iowa is home to one of the top small colleges in the U.S.  We spent the night in this town which has some distinctive the few blocks of downtown.  The old Merchants National Bank was designed by Louis Sullivan and displays large stained glass windows.  Today, that building is home to the Chamber of Commerce.

We like to visit college towns because they usually have trendy restaurants which experiment on new and creative dishes.  Grinnell was no exception.  We dined at the Prairie Canary Restaurant where our first course was tomato basil soup with feta cheese and vegetable cheddar soup.  The soups were delicious.   Then I had a salmon sandwich with yellow curry hummus and feta and lettuce.  This was gourmet stuff. 

Our waiter established an instant rapport with us. He was a young black man from my old neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago who recently graduated from Grinnell college with dual majors of French and economics.  He was earning money to begin his career--teaching school in France.  We were impressed.  There's not a big demand for French speakers on the South Side of Chicago, so I asked him if was of Haitian descent.  He said he wasn't--his father and mother were just working people from Chicago.  The young man was fortunate enough that somebody recognized his potential and sent him to prep school in the East and then to Grinnell College, and we wish him all the best.  I tipped him well.


We arrived in Sioux City in time to watch the Belmont Stakes and have a snack at the local Holiday Inn.  It was still light out, so we decided to drive the 100 or so miles to Norfolk amid severe storm warnings.  About 30 miles North of Norfolk, the storm hit.  It was about 7:30, a couple hours before sunset.  The cloudburst was so bad, we had to pull over to the side of the road along with other cars and trucks because we couldn't see.  The windshield wipers couldn't operate fast enough. 

Later when we went out to dinner, we encountered two cars of the Outlaw Storm Chasers.  You couldn't miss them--the signs were painted all over the vehicles.  We pulled over to talk to them.  Randy "Outlaw" Hicks is from Missouri, and his hobby is to chase tornadoes all over Missouri, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska.  He has been featured on the Discovery Channel.  He has seen and photographed a few of them as they were being formed.  He has the scars to prove it, as well as scrapbooks with photos he is eager to share.  Occasionally he has run ins with cops and firefighters because if too many storm chasers come out, it causes a traffic jam.  Hicks had driven all the way from Missouri to see severe weather, but unfortunately for him (and fortunately for us), there was no tornado. 

Norfolk, Nebraska, a town of 24,000, is best known as the childhood home of Iowa born entertainer Johnny Carson.  Indeed, a portion of the main highway through town is Johnny Carson Boulevard.  We stopped at Johnny Carson's house located on his namesake street.  It is a modest wooden house with a detached garage.  It is currently being renovated and locked up.  I peeked in the windows.  There wasn't much to see.

Norfolk has a museum with a whole exhibit on Mr. Carson.  The admission fee is $6,  We didn't get to see it, however, because we visited on Saturday night and Sunday.  The museum is closed on Sundays and Mondays, as well as Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter (which of course is on a Sunday), and Yom Kippur.   Actually, I was kidding about the last one.  The point is that Johnny Carson is the biggest tourist attraction in town, and they're closed on Sunday, a day when many tourists would probably drive out to see it. 


This town of 25,000, once known as "Hell on Wheels" is the home of Buffalo Bill Cody and the world's largest railroad yard.  Personally, I was more interested in the railroad yard.  Yeah, I know Buffalo Bill has a football team named after him, but he actually lived in many places--born in Iowa, died in Denver, founded and lived in Cody Wyoming, as well as North Platte.  For tourist reasons, all these places lay claims to him.   Cody was a larger than life character and a terrible businessman.  He achieved fame when he killed 4260 buffalo in 6 months to provide food for the railroad workers.  He acquired the name "Buffalo Bill" in a 1868 buffalo hunting contest when he out shot Bill Comstock, another buffalo hunter.

Today, some would look at him as a one man ecological disaster, although in later life he campaigned to protect the species from extinction.  The US Cavalry had embarked on a policy to exterminate the buffalo in an effort to subdue the Indians who relied upon it as a food supply.  Cody made a lot of money beginning in 1883 with his popular Wild West Show, touring the U.S.  He made even more when he partnered up with James Bailey (of Barnum & Bailey fame) to tour Europe with the Wild West Show.   It was a huge success, but Bill pissed the money away in a series of bad investments. 

He invested in irrigation systems and mines, and financed friends and relatives, a recipe for disaster.  As an entertainer, he was considered an employer who treated his people fairly and paid them well, whether they were Black, White or Indian.  He chose to build his ranch in North Platte because of its proximity to the railroad which allowed him to move the Wild West Show across the country quickly and efficiently.  By 1911, he was broke and had to sell the ranch.  He died, essentially penniless, in 1917.


The Union Pacific Bailey Yard is a must for railroad buffs.  It is the world's largest railroad classification yard.  It was named, not after the Barnum & Bailey guy, but for Edd Bailey, a Union Pacific official.  The railroad built an eight story Golden Spike Tower outside of town in a cornfield, and for five bucks or so, tourists can go up to the observatory and watch them operate the trains by remote control.  You can compare it to your electric train set, except these are real trains. 

The figures are mind boggling.  The Yard, composed of 214 tracks spread over 3600 acres, accommodates 150 trains with 13,000 rail cars per day.  Over 3000 people are employed in the Yard. The Yard has two humps, an Eastbound and a Westbound hump which use gravity to sort 4 cars per minute into one of 114 "bowl" tracks--49 for Westbound and 65 for Eastbound.  A trainman manually pulls pins from the cars as they inch by.  The bowl tracks are used to assemble the trains, e.g. 40 box cars here, 50 tank cars and coal cars there, etc.  Then the trains head for destinations all over North America--both coasts and the Canada and Mexico borders. 

The Yard includes Run Thru's which are essentially pit stops for locomotives.  In an operation learned from watching NASCAR, a team of 4 can service a locomotive in 45 minutes without detaching it from the train.  The team consists of an electrician, a machinist, a fireman oiler and a car inspector.  It is set up to service over 8500 locomotives per month.  Additionally, the car repair shop can handle 50 cars a day, replacing  10,000 pairs of wheels each year.  They use ultrasound technology to inspect each wheel.  They can replace a set of wheels on a boxcar, using a hydraulic jack under the couplers, in 8-12 minutes.  Yes, NASCAR teams can do 4 tires on an automobile in 10 seconds, but rail cars can be over 50 feet long.

Union Pacific has described the Bailey Yard as an "economic barometer of America".

The railroad yard has another interesting history.  During World War II, troop trains would stop for a short time to take on water as they passed through North Platte.  The North Platte Canteen achieved fame, serving baked goods and refreshments to over 6 million servicemen over a 5 year period.  Today, there is no longer passenger service through North Platte. 


Last year we traveled to Gothenburg, Sweden, but now we got to visit the real Gothenburg, a town of 3500 in Western Nebraska, settled by pioneers of Swedish origin who worked on the railroad. 

Gothenburg has an intact Pony Express station, actually two of them, but one is only open on a limited basis.  The small log cabin houses a curator and a small gift shop.  Aside from the electrical service and meter in the back, it looks exactly like it did in 1860 when it kept fresh horses and housed riders from the Pony Express.  The cabin was originally a few miles out of town but it was moved to Ehmen Park in Gothenburg.  There were stations like this one every 75-100 miles to house the riders, and small relay stations every 10-15 miles to provide fresh horses.  The Pony Express operated 147 such stations across the West. 

The official name of the Pony Express was the "Central Overland California & Pikes Peak Express Company" (C.O.C.& P.P). Despite the everlasting fame of the Pony Express, it operated for only eighteen months in 1860-61, consistently losing money.  The promoters' only hope for solvency was to win the government's mail contract, but Congress gave it to another company.  The Pony Express went out of business right after the transcontinental telegraph was completed.  The greatest challenge to the riders was not Indians but rather bad winter weather, especially in the Sierras.  The greatest achievement was the delivery of Lincoln's Inaugural Address to California in less than 8 days.  The news calmed the fears of Westerners and kept California on the Union side in the Civil War. 


The impressive structure straddling busy Interstate 80 is the spectacular Archway, 308 feet long.  It was obviously built to attract tourists to a remote area of Nebraska.  It looks like a giant boondoggle and, by all accounts, it is.  It commemorates the American spirit of mobility and has interactive exhibits about the Transcontinental Railroad, the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail and the Pony Express, along with a Pawnee Indian sod house.  It was designed by a Disney team and built in 1997 by floating a $60 million bond issue which was snapped up by investors who have regretted it ever since.  The Archway has lost money every year, and it filed bankruptcy in 2013.  They have tried re-branding several times and recently created a cuddly mascot, Archie the Buffalo to try to sell this thing to tourists.  The problem is that it's hard to get to, and when gas is expensive, nobody wants to travel to the middle of Nebraska as a destination.  We visited the gift shop but elected not to pay $12 to look at the rest of this stuff. 


At the beginning, in 1867, Ogallala was a rowdy cow town, to say the least.  Cowboys drove their cattle to the railroad depot in Ogallala, got paid, and hightailed it for the saloons and brothels.  Gun control laws, if there were any, weren't enforced.  For a time, it was so bad that Ogallala acquired the nickname, "Gomorrah of the Plains".  They couldn't call it "Sodom of the Plains" because there already was one--in Hays City, Kansas, another cow town.   This was the bad old days of the Wild West! 

The local graveyard, Boot Hill was a busy place.  Today it is overgrown with tall grass, but you can see the wooden grave markers.  A couple years ago, we visited the more famous Boot Hill in Dodge City, Kansas, where Wyatt Earp sent several to their final resting places.  I've since learned there is a Boot Hill in almost every frontier town.

Eventually, Ogallala was cleaned up, and people built substantial houses.  We visited Mansion on a Hill, an 1886 restored Victorian style mansion with thick walls, high ceilings and a one room schoolhouse next door.  The local historical society displays many photos of a bygone era in a gallery in the house.


Grand Junction is located at the junction of the Colorado and Gunnison Rivers.  Until about 100 years ago, the Colorado was called the Grand River.  Whatever the case, we limped into Grand Junction after a long day of driving 525 miles through Utah from Las Vegas.  We stayed in the center of town at the Hampton Inn right next to the convention center.  The main street was blocked off for a street fair, with farmers displaying their fruits and vegetables, especially cherries which were in season.

Grans Junction, on the Western Slope of the Rockies, is a very livable town, and we would gladly come back to visit again.  The downtown area is very clean and the people are friendly.  They've erected statues and sculptures on every block.  We had our choice of many different types of food at the many restaurants.  We settled on the Rockslide Brew Pub which served the best fish and chips I've ever tasted.  The fish was salmon, not cod.  We walked around the town until late in the evening before turning in for another long day of driving. 


Driving on Interstate 80 West of Salt Lake City is about as desolate an area as you can imagine.  We're talking 30,000 acres of salt--nothing grows there.  It looks like snow.  The salt is packed so densely that you can drive on it, and anybody can do so.  It's at your own risk because this stuff can corrode your car.  Every year promoters of auto racing lay out the Bonneville Speedway track by running graders over the packed salt.   The races include different classes of vehicles, like motorcycles, electric cars and even solar powered cars.   The fuel used, for example, in Indy cars is methanol, or wood alcohol.   NASCAR vehicles use 110 octane gas which you can't buy in a normal gas station. 

The salt flats were named not after the car, but after Capt. Benjamin Bonneville, a U.S. Army officer who explored the area in the 1830's.  It became known for auto racing in 1907 when a guy named Bill Riskel and two businessmen tested it in a Pierce-Arrow.  The first land speed record was set there in 1914 by Terrible Teddy Tetzlaff, at 143 mph.   He earned his nickname because of his reckless driving.  In testing the limits of the vehicles, he crashed several cars and blew up engines but somehow survived.   He earned a second place finish at the Indy 500 in 1912. 

The land speed record at Bonneville was 622 mph set by Gary Gabelich in 1970 using a rocket car.  That record has since been eclipsed in the Black Rock Desert in Northern Nevada.  An Englishman, Andy Green drove his at 760 mph, faster than the speed of sound.  He said something about the police chasing him.     What's the fine for going 760 in a 65 zone?


We had lunch in a Mexican restaurant in Winnemucca, Nevada, a town which is a long way from anywhere else.  Other than Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada, the 6th largest state,  is pretty much empty desert and mountains.   To attract tourists to Northern Nevada, other than legal brothels and casinos, the city fathers enlisted the legacy of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid who had no real connection with the area other than robbing the First National Bank to the tune of $32,000 back in 1900.   We parked in front of the Hole in the Wall Saloon, across the street from the Buckaroo Hall of Fame (a few windows displaying Western gear). 

Standing on the street corner, we witnessed an accident in which a pickup truck hauling a large camper turned the corner a little too sharply and impaled the camper on a large SUV, a Ford Expedition.  The rear bumper was lying on the ground.  Nobody was hurt.  The driver of the pickup and camper appeared to be a rancher--he had a weathered sunburned face and wore a Stetson hat.  After examining the damage, he was able to disengage the camper, met with the owner of the SUV, also wearing a Stetson, and they appeared to settle their differences in a civilized manner before the cops arrived. 

Butch Cassidy, whose real name was Robert Leroy Parker, and Sundance whose real name was Harry Alonzo Longabaugh were bank and train robbers.  They wowed Hollywood into making a 1969 movie starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford which, despite terrible reviews, actually won 4 Academy Awards.  Roger Ebert was incredulous.   The movie portrayed them as Robin Hood types who robbed rich corporations and gave to the poor.  The truth is somewhere in between.  Their famous Hole in the Wall hideout was actually in the mountains of Wyoming. 


Speaking of Butch Cassidy, he was born in Beaver, Utah, where we had lunch.  We made it a point to visit Beaver, and we toured the 1882 Beaver County Courthouse which is now a museum.  I didn't see anything in town about Cassidy, probably because he never robbed the bank there.  What I came there for and did see was a lot of information about Philo T. Farnsworth.    Most people have no clue about the name, but he was from Beaver, and he invented television which grew out of drawings he had made when he was in high school chemistry class.   His statue is next to the Courthouse.

His famous quote about television was his profound words to his son, "There's nothing on it worthwhile and we're not going to watch it in this household, and I don't want it in your intellectual diet."    He relented when Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon was televised.  (See KENSUSKINREPORT, July 27, 2008). 


As we all know, California is experiencing a water shortage.  The Central Valley of California is one of the richest farming areas of the U.S., but it relies on irrigation for at least 6 months of the year.  The issues are complicated, but in a brief summary, California gets most of its water from snow which falls in the Sierra Nevada each winter.  Last winter, it didn't snow as much as usual.  In the summer, it almost never rains, although, ironically, on June 10th, the day we entered California, it rained all the way from Reno to San Francisco and set records for rainfall on that date in Sacramento and other cities. 

The Central Valley farmers are getting vocal and political.  Many of them have posted large signs on their properties criticizing government policies. "Dam or Train" is a typical sign.  Farmers would like a dam built for irrigation.  California is spending $68 BILLION of Federal and state dollars on a train to nowhere called the California High Speed Rail, which would ultimately shorten the trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco by about an hour.  The plan is to build the train in segments, the initial one from Madera to Bakersfield and then to Palmdale.  If you've never heard of those cities, you're not alone.  Most of the farmers believe there won't be a big demand to go from Madera to Bakersfield at 230 miles per hour.  Phase One (the $68 billion phase) won't be completed until 2029.

Another prominent sign declares "Carter is no longer the worst president".  Assuming he hasn't passed up Grant, Harding or Buchanan, we're assuming they are referring to our current president.


Truckee is a historic town of 16,000 about 20 miles north of Lake Tahoe, about 6000 feet up in the Sierras.  It is a few miles on the East side of Donner Pass.  Donner Pass acquired its name when the Donner Party got marooned there in deep snow in October.  Those who survived, didn't get out until the following spring.  This was no party for the Donner Party!.  Many starved to death, and the survivors were alleged to have survived by--well, you don't want to know. 

The town got its unusual name from the local Indian chief, Tro-Kay, or at least that's what the White settlers called him.  He kept saying "tro-kay" which was the Paiute Indian word for "everything's all right."  OK?  "Dobrze".  His son, Chief Winnemucca has a city in Nevada named after him. (see above)

Nobody starves in Truckee today.  The town supports quite a few restaurants--good ones too, along with saloons and museums.  The historic Alta Hotel has rooms for a dollar a night, at least that's what the fading sign on the side of the building says.  We spent the previous night in Reno at Harrah's and it cost us $11 for the night, but then Harrah's is a first class hotel.