"Could I have this dance for the rest of my life?" - Anne Murray

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Is it Just All About Football in Lincoln, Nebraska?

My first impression of Lincoln was that it was a town obsessed with football. When I went to the Haymarket district for the farmer's market on Saturday I found a neighborhood of about eight square blocks of historic warehouses converted to drinking establishments gearing up for the community experience of watching the Husker's games together on big screen TVs. Oh, while wearing the obligatory gear in red and white. (I can't even imagine what it must be like for a home game!) 

OK, so maybe I'm not a big football fan, but I appreciate the spirit of the town and the community commitment to the University of Nebraska team. But was that all there was to Lincoln?

I'm happy to report that it is not. While wandering around the Haymarket I stumbled upon an alley bedecked with art - a clue as to the stealthy alternative identity of Lincoln.

We had only three must-do things on our list for Lincoln, which did not include the obvious Huskers Stadium and Huskers' souvenir stores: The Nebraska Capitol, the Sunken Gardens and the Quilt Museum.  

The Nebraska Capitol

After lunch downtown at the best known steak house in Lincoln, Misty's, we headed over to the capitol building. Approaching the building on foot required a little creative navigating through reconstruction of the streets surrounding the building. Evidently it will be a large pedestrian mall with lawn, fountains, sculptures, etc.  

The finial sculpture atop the building is "The Sower," by Lee Lawrie, reflecting the importance of grain production to this prairie state. 

The exterior is decorated with symbols representing native American culture and Western philosophical principles of law, freedom and governance.

Sculpture by Lee Lawrie with Native American poem

The building is a remarkable Gothic structure, that feels more like a medieval European castle or cathedral than an American capitol. Although it is expansive like most capitols, it is dark and almost gloomy. Rather than containing artwork of religious symbolism like a cathedral, its walls, floors and ceilings consist of powerful and fascinating representations of cosmic, pioneer and agricultural themes.  

"The Homesteader's Campfire" by James Penney

"Gifts of Nature to the Man of the Plains" by Hildreth Meiere on the vestibule dome

Warner Chamber native themed doors

Hildrethe Meiere's evolution themed floor

The tiniest ancient elevator, tucked away in a dark corner of the main floor carries visitors up to the observation deck and Memorial Chambers on the 14th floors.  

Contemporary murals representing heroism of various sorts adorn the Chamber walls.

Stephen Roberts' mural depicting heroic people

Gothic observation deck like a castle's battlement

Ceiling of the Memorial Chamber, 14th floor, represents the night sky

This is the kind of building that deserves hours of time, and the tour would clearly be a fascinating and educational experience.

The Sunken Gardens and more

It's been a long time since we visited a garden, and it was such a pleasure to be amongst these thriving plants, juicy with life and practically dripping with chlorophyl.  The desert and the plains are grand places, but now that we've crossed over into the part of the country the gets enough rain, we're again appreciative of these botanical beauties that are the gifts of abundant water.

The Sunken Gardens are a 1.5 acre municipal garden originally created in 1930 and renovated in 2004. It is primarily designed with annuals, which were peaking during our visit, but also has  perennnials and water lily ponds.  Among the annuals were some of the largest specimens of taro I've ever seen - some must have been at least ten feet tall.

Lily pond with gazebo in background

Gazebo roof representing four seasons with Lincoln skyline

Across the street from the Sunken Garden are the Hamann Rose Garden, 

Rick really appreciated these benches, aesthetically of course

A fountain that captured the giddy joy of children playing with water

...the Rotary Strolling Garden, which the butterflies and bees loved...

...and the Bicentennial Cascade, or Teacher's Fountain.  

The Quilt House

My last artistic exploration in Lincoln was the International Quilt Study Center and Museum.  We'd visited the Quilt Museum in Paducah, KY and I was eager to see how this one compared. 

The Quilt House that houses the Center was opened just a few months ago and is quite impressive.

The Center hosts contemporary and traditional exhibits and has the largest publicly held collection of quilts in the world. It is part of the University of Nebraska, and offers a unique master's degree in Textile History. Currently there is an exhibit of Michael James' quilts that reflect a period of personal and intense mourning.  I found it to be a moving example of the current state of quilt art.

Ambiguity and Enigma: Recent Quilts by Michael James

Most of the exhibits are historical in nature. 

Some of my favorites are the crazy quilts made of scraps of clothing that quilters collect and exchange for generations then use with an aesthetic that escapes formulation or repetition. This is the kind of quilt that my mother and grandmothers made. They just say comfort and cozy to me, while preserving the memories of a family in the scraps of their clothing.

One of the exhibits was of African America quilts. This one is called "Mules" but looks more like pigs. Reminded me of Piglet.  Such a simple and powerful pattern.

This next one was my overall favorite. I love its seeming haphazard and erratic pattern that nonetheless holds together as a complete and meaningful whole.

It reminds me of our life on the road - a rich, joyful, colorful collection of images and experiences that seems to defy the patterns of normal or predictable life... yet somehow it works. 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Kayaking the Niobara in Valentine, Nebraska

While some states in the USA are known for their spectacular scenery, Nebraska is not. Most people see Nebraska as they pass through on I-80, and as a result it's thought of as flat cornfields.

But what we've found is that there is something of interest almost anywhere, and Nebraska is no exception.  When planning to pass through the state we did our best to find the most interesting places to visit. We started our Nebraska tour with an overnight in the very small town of Haysprings at the town campground  with full hook-ups for the very reasonable price of $15 ((pay at the town hall).  I circumnavigated the whole town on my bike in about fifteen minutes. Although not the most interesting of locations it was a nice example of very small town life, complete with a beautiful town park, swimming pool and a school with a rousing football game going on. I guess it's common knowledge that Nebraskans are big into football.

"Sunset" (Town) RV Park - Haysprings, NE

Our next destination was Valentine, known as a central location for accessing the Niobrara River.  Valentine is a small agricultural city in the midst of ranchland and hayfields. Not surprising, it has a theme of valentine hearts throughout the town.

On Main St. we found one of the most remarkable murals we've ever seen, on the Security First Bank.  It's actually called a brick relief mural and was created by Lincoln, NE artist Jack Curran. It depicts a longhorn cattle drive in the upper portion and local wildlife and the railroad on the lower. I apologize for the picture - it doesn't begin to do justice to the details of this work of art.

Our goal here was to kayak the Niobrara, so we took a couple of days to get oriented and gather information locally and online. Because parts of the river are closed off to any access at all, researching would prove important. It is very popular for tubing, with at least eight outfitters in town, none of which looked like they were operating now. There is a very helpful Niobrara National Scenic River Information Center right on Rt. 20 in Valentine, where we got advice and an excellent Park Services brochure with a map of the entire river. Basically, its an easy river to navigate, at least in open areas, but shallow at this time of year, thus no tubers now I guess. Because it has been wicked hot we expected some folks to be out on the water to cool off. 

One thing we discovered at the Center was the unique climate, geology and topography of this area, intersected by the 100th Meridian that geographically divides the eastern and western US.  The area is also at the intersection of northern and southern geography, resulting in major biological diversity. This cool diagram explains the characteristics of some of the vegetation along the Niobrara River Valley. "Six major ecosystem types converge in the valley, including northern boreal forest, ponderosa pine forest, eastern deciduous forest, tall grass prairie, mixed-grass prairie and shortgrass prairie" (from the US Park Service webpage.)

Here's how that looks in real life...

That also means that the bird watching could be great, so we took along our binoculars for the paddle.  We decided to put in at the Fort Niobrara launch just below the Cornell Bridge.  We planned to take out at Smith Falls State Park, so parked the truck there, about 10 river miles or 14 road miles from our put in location.  It was going to be another hot day so we set off early, paying the $1 per person launching fee.

Putting in at Fort Niobrara

As mentioned, it is a shallow river now, so we were especially grateful for our inflatable Advanced Elements kayaks. We scraped the bottom occasionally and one of us got caught up on the rocks a few times.

The river has carved out steep cliffs in the sandy hills, so much of the river was shaded early in the day, thank goodness.

We were surprised we didn't see swallows, thinking they'd like these kinds of river banks, but I guess not. What we did see was many bald eagles. At least ten mature and one juvenile. And many belted kingfishers, one of my favorite birds.

This is one of the prettiest places to access the river and use the public restrooms. It's Berry Bridge and Berry Campground is right there.

After four hours on this fast moving river, with the wind at our back much of the time, we pulled into Smith Falls State Park. We saw only one paddler briefly at one location on the whole river.

These kayaks are about the most comfortable and easy to get in and out of that we've ever used. But I still need a little assistance most of the time. 

Nickols Landing is the name of the launch site at the park.

Valentine has a few other places of interest, including the Niobrara Wildlife Refuge where Honey and I saw a bison herd, one large male elk and prairie dogs.  This pond is on the Refuge, and the bison corral is behind it. Like many wildlife refuges in the western USA, they do a roundup annually and sell a certain number of their bison.

We took a drive to the Merritt Reservoir in the hopes of taking a dip to cool off a bit. The water was low, with lots of algae, so Honey was the only one dipping and cooling. Because it's in the sandhills, the beaches are all soft fine sand. That was nice.

Valentine also has a beautiful, shady, 40 acre city park, with about a ten "hole" disc golf course through the wooded hills and banks of the creek. Honey and I spent several evenings exploring the trails, spotting lots of deer as we romped.

Minnechaduza Creek in the Valentine City Park

The ranger at the information center also recommended Snake Falls, about 19 miles south of town. It is definitely worth the drive, but ask for directions before you try it. There's a bit of a steep sandy hike down to the falls so be prepared for that. We met people on the trail who had been cooling off under the falls.

While in Valentine we stayed at Fishberry Campground, about 4 miles north of town with nothing but ranchland for miles around. It was quiet, clean and simple, with long pull-throughs that were very close together. But we were often the only ones there, so it felt very spacious. 

So far Nebraska is offering us plenty of color, texture and adventure, challenging its unfortunate reputation as flat and boring.  Next we'll drive south through the beautiful sandhills and end up in Lincoln in a few days. Go Huskers!

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Badlands of Montana and North Dakota

Teddy Roosevelt National Park, North Unit

Who knew there were badlands in Montana and North Dakota? Not us! We always thought THE Badlands were in South Dakota, at Badlands National Park. But now we know that badlands is a generic name for a kind of eroded landscape of soft soils and clays found all over the world.  Interestingly, their color and shape vary depending on their geological history, mineral composition and local climate over time. Thus, the badlands here in Montana and North Dakota are rounded, in shades of grey, beige and yellow (above) while those in South Dakota are more peaked, in pink, gold and brown.

We are in Medora, ND now, having passed through eastern Montana and stopped at Makoshika State Park on our way.  Makoshika is the largest state park in Montana, and based on our visit, one of the best kept secrets in that state.  We saw only a couple of cars during our visit. There is a scenic drive that must be about 6 miles long, but we stopped about half way for a picnic lunch and then headed on our way east.  There is no big rig day use parking at the park, so we left the truck and fifth wheel in a K-Mart in Glendive just off I-94. The park is about 5 minutes from there.

Map from the Makoshia State Park website.

It has been smoky in Montana for weeks from the many fires in the western states, so our photographs are hazy and muted and the skies are always white, but you can still see some variation in the colors of the hills. 

Our destination was Medora and the Theodore Roosevelt National Park (TRNP). We are staying at the Red Trail Campground (which I wouldn't necessarily recommend) and we've been joined here by our good full-timing friends Lynn and Glenn.  The TRNP is another best kept secret, this time of North Dakota and the National Park system. 

Our adventures began with a journey to the North Unit of the park, about 1.5 hours north of Medora, but our first stop was the Visitor's Center at the Painted Canyon, just off I-94, where we were surprised by a herd of bison passing through the parking lot.  You don't get a photo of the national park sign like this very often.

Honey liked the bison too.

Did you ever notice how tiny a bison's feet are? Look at those delicate little hoofers!

After that excitement we passed through the southern edge of the North Dakota "oil patch" where there is evidence of the oil industry in pumps, rigs, temporary housing and commercial enterprises that serve the people here to work.

A very comprehensive truck stop in an otherwise remote landscape.

The smoke was pretty heavy, as you can see in the next photo from an overlook. 

A smoky overlook at the North Unit of TRNP

Closer photos fared better. These are the cannonball concretions that are found within the eroded hills in some areas. The top photo of this post was taken from this location as well.

Another smoky view. Despite how it may look, the landscape is large, colorful and impressive.

Later that day, Lynn and Glenn arrived and we invited them over for dinner. Then I roped them into a full moon hike in the park with a ranger. Being good sports and usually up for anything, they agreed. We got really lucky on our drive to the trailhead and spotted this badger (a first for all of us!) in a prairie dog town.  Although he was really entertaining, running between prairie dog holes and digging around, we had a hike to catch so we headed on.

Then we saw these wild horses and had to stop and watch them. The horses are one of the most frequently seen animals here. In fact there are people who know them all, have named them and can trace their lineage. There's a book published and sold locally that documents them all with photographs and biographical data. 

We passed several bison in groups and alone, but the most picturesque was this herd.

Our full moon hike was a couple of hours long and was off trail most of the way, through grasses, dirt and lots of buffalo and horse droppings. There was some scrambling involved that I might not have tried even in the daylight, but we all got through just fine by helping each other over the rough spots. There were only about 20 people and we used no artificial lights at any time. Although the moon was muted by the smoke, it still offered enough light.   

Next day we loaded up in Glenn and Lynn's truck and headed out for the South Unit Scenic Drive, a loop of about 30 miles. Our first stop was the Visitor's Center and Theodore Roosevelt's Maltese Cross Cabin out back. Teddy Roosevelt began coming to the area for hunting, but then retreated to his ranch to recover from the loss of his mother and wife. There are many stories about his time here. After his death the park was eventually created and named for him.

The park has two units, North and South, and both have scenic drives for easy access. There are many  trails, from easy to strenuous, criss-crossing the park.  There is no major elevation change in the park, so the hikes are not like in the Rockies or Sierras.

One of the most visually interesting short hikes is at Wind Canyon, in the South Unit (above and next three pictures)... 

Rick and Lynn on Wind Canyon Trial

...with gorgeous views of the Little Missouri River Valley.

These golden asters line all the roads.

Another rewarding and easy (though hot and without shade) hike is the Boicourt Trail.

Lynn, Glenn and Rick on the Boicourt Trail

Glenn, Lynn and Rick at the summit of the Boicourt Trail

View from the Boicourt Trail

The Boicourt Trail and Overlook both offer quintessential views of the badlands and rolling hills and valleys that are typical of TRNP.

After that hot hike we were ready to head home for an easy cook out and good night's sleep. Then, after a wicked overnight thunderstorm, we finally had blue skies again!!! It seems like ages since we've seen the sky and breathed clean air. What a relief. 

Of course we had to visit the cutesy Western town of Medora several times. The RV park is walking or easy biking distance from town. There are several restaurants, but we only tried the Badlands Pizza and Saloon, twice. We liked their pizza, especially when we asked them to cook it just a tad longer.  The whole town has a Disney feel to it, as much of it (including the Medora Campground, which I would recommend) is owned and operated by the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, committed to maintaining the town of Medora for happy visitors. Many employees and volunteers come from around the world to work here during the summers.

Scenes of Medora

In addition to pizza, we had a little good clean fun in Medora.
Rick & Glenn get serious

Lynn finds a new friend

No visit to Medora is complete without taking in an evening at the Medora Musical, a surprisingly high quality Disney-like musical review production in an impressive outdoor setting.  This year they celebrate their 50th anniversary! More good clean fun that leaves you feeling darn good about North Dakota and the USofA.

Lynn and Glenn left this morning but we will stay another couple of days and see what else there is to see here before heading south again. 

A final image from Medora