ctsprinterlife: OTR 8.0: Mississippi Part 3

Muddy Waters

Clarksdale

After completing the final portion of the Trans America Trail we traveled to Clarksdale to begin our exploration of the Mississippi Delta. Clarksdale is generally considered to be the home of the Delta Blues with an impressive roster of musicians calling Clarksdale their home in their early years (see previous post: Street Art from the Road: OTR 8.0: Part Two: Clarksdale Music and Art at http://www.ontheroadwithmariastephen.net.

Clarksdale boasts live Blues music every day of the year at one or more of the local blues clubs, bars or juke joints. The town itself is a bit hardscrabble but please don’t let that keep you away. Even if you are not a fan of the blues we think you will enjoy the live performances that take place at the various venues in town, all of which are very intimate and, you will hear the real Blues. Typically, you will pay $10 – $15 for a show that will run from two to four hours!

Ground Zero Blues Club

We opted to stay in an apartment above the Ground Zero Blues Club which is convenient-unless you plan on sleeping before midnight. We were in town to hear the Blues, so we figured it was all part of the experience. https://www.groundzerobluesclub.com/

Clarksdale is also home to the Delta Blues Museum. We spent a morning at the museum and learned a lot about the history of the Blues, the musicians and the Blues recording industry. There is a treasure trove of artifacts at the museum including musical instruments and performers’ stage costumes. We highly recommend a visit to the museum when you visit Clarksdale. We don’t have photographs to share with you as they are not allowed in the musuem.

There are several excellent restaurants in town in addition to the customary BBQ. We highly recommend Hooker Grocery & Eatery which is a two minute walk from the museum. https://www.hookergrocer.com P.S. If you like pancakes make sure to try Our Grandma’s House of Pancakes.

Last, but certainly not least, we recommend a visit to Hambone Art & Music. We popped into this gallery for a quick look around and then spent several hours with the owner Stan Street. He is a transplant to Mississippi and was a touring musician before settling here and focusing on his painting.

Stan bought a vacant building and converted it into his gallery in the front, his studio in the rear and his apartment above. He also operates a small bar in the studio and has a stage for musical performances. We really like his artwork and we were amazed to find out that he is largely a self-taught artist.

Greenville – do not, we repeat, do not get your car washed!

We visited Greenville after reading that there is a state park there with a hiking trail along the Mississippi and a 60 foot tall observation tower that provides fantastic views along the Mississippi River. WRONG! The park was turned over to Greenville and the town has not maintained the park other than the small boardwalk when you first enter the park. This was our first disappointment with Greenville.

As we were leaving town we spotted a self service car wash and pulled in to hose the van off – you may have noticed in our photographs the Beast is in perpetual need of a wash. Immediately, a man told me he was an employee and would wash the vehicle – a minute later another man showed up and informed me he was going to help wash the car and then a third man showed up to help wash the car.

At his point we knew we had a problem – none of these guys worked at the car wash and that this was a shake down. We were able to persuade the third man that he was not going to get paid (although he hung around circling us). At that point, we told the two guys (taking turn hosing off the van) that we were good. The first of the gentlemen demanded $60.00 for the wash. We settled on a more reasonable amount and left town quickly.

Cleveland, or “fear the okra”

We stopped in Cleveland for coffee at Zoe Coffee. We met some nice folks at the coffee shop and learned that the coffee shop is affliated with Zoe Ministries, which focuses on providing clean water, orphan care, widow care, and education to communities in Kenya. https://zoeempowers.org/

Cleveland is also home to Delta State University. The mascot for the athletic teams is the Okra and the school chant is ”Fear the Okra!”. This is the best mascot and chant we have ever encountered! Look for DSU merchandise by the pool this summer. P.S. The men’s baseball team went 32-15 this year and is currently in Florida for the NCAA Division II regional tournament.

Vicksburg, or, it’s all about the war , no wait, it’s really all about the river

Vicksburg, MS is undoubtedly best known as the site of a major Civil War Battle which was a turning point in the war in favor of the Union. We were keen on visiting the Vicksburg National Military Park (VNMP) to gain a better understanding of this historic battle and see the battlefield.

The Mississippi River was a critical supply route for the Confederacy. Vicksburg sits on a bluff high above the eastern side of the river and was heavily fortified with artillery to stop Union forces from cutting off this essential supply route. The Union forces knew that taking control of the river would seal the defeat of the South.

After several failed Union attempts to take Vicksburg, General U.S. Grant laid seige to Vicksburg. Grant surrounded the city with over 77,000 troops. The 29.000 Confederate troops dug in to defend the city. Confederate attempts to break through the encircled city and resupply the soldiers and citizens failed. After 47 days, with all food and water supplies exhausted, the troops and citizens surrendered; the mighty Mississippi was under Union control. For additional information: https://www.nps.gov/vick/index.htm

In addition to the battlefield, there is a museum in the park which includes the remains of the Union ironclad gunboat USS Cairo. The Cairo was sunk by Confederate torpedos seven miles north of Vicksburg. It slipped back into the river after being beached and abandoned. Over 100 years later the ironclad was raised, restored and given to the National Park Service. For additional information: https://www.nps.gov/vick/u-s-s-cairo-gunboat.htm

Historic downtown Vicksburg is perched above the river south of the main artillery emplacements and battlefield. A number of excellent restaurants, rooftop bars and art galleries can be found there. The Jesse Bent Lower Mississippi River Museum, managed by the US Army Corps of Engineers, is on the waterfront and worth a visit.

The Mississippi River is still a vital supply route for the US economy. The Corps, one of the largest employers in the area, is responsible for commercial navigation, flood risk management and environmental stewardship.

A visit to the museum also includes the opportunity to tour the retired M/V Mississippi IV. The Mississippi IV was a tow boat used by the Army Corp from 1961 until 1993 when it was retired.

M/V Mississippi IV (Photo courtesy of Army Corp)

Our endless search for good coffee and tea took us to Highway 61 Coffee House in downtown Vicksburg. Highway 61 is a local coffee house with a cast of characters. We immediately ingratiated ourselves with the owner Daniel Boone – yes! – and his cohorts by making a donation to their poporn machine fund.

When Daniel Boone and his friends are not serving or drinking coffee they are the leaders of a local art movie house and amateur theater company. The popcorn machine that they have been utilizing for the last 14 years (on loan) for movie nights is going to be taken back by the owner.

Our donation to the fund earned us a private guided tour of the Strand Theater with Jack Burns – a board member and coffee shop regular. The Strand was a movie theater until it closed in 1963. The building remained vacant for a number of years until the theater group struck a deal with the owner to lease the facility for both live theater performances and screening movies. The interior was renovated by volunteers from the community who were very interested in having an opportunity to see art house movies and community theater. An excellent history of the building can be found at Urban Decay: https://worldofdecay.blogspot.com/2011/04/strand-theatre-vicksburg-mississippi.html Strand Theater: http://www.strandvicksburg.com/

While we might attempt to live on coffee, tea, and wine, we are reasonably certain that as pleasant as that scenario sounds it would not work in the long run. So, we went in search of victuals during our Vicksburg visit and found a gem just outside of downtown. The Tomato Place started as a roadside produce stand and evolved into a restaurant and mercantile in addition to a produce stand- all still sitting roadside in a collection of colorful shacks. The Tomato Place is a must when you visit Vicksburg. For more information: https://www.onlyinyourstate.com/mississippi/you-havent-lived-until-youve-tried-the-blt-from-the-tomato-place-in-ms/

Jackson, or hello, art minton

While in Vicksburg we decided to pop over to Jackson to see some minor league baseball. Jackson is home to the Mississippi Braves – the Double A affliliate of the Atlanta Braves. It also gave us the excuse to listen to the Johnny Cash – June Carter Cash version of the song Jackson for the entire ride from Vicksburg to Jackson. “We got married in a fever. Hotter than a peppered sprout. We’ve been talking bout Jackson ever since the fire went out. Oh, we’re going to Jackson.” Dang, that’s good music!!

The Natchez Trace runs just north of Jackson. We have driven the majority of the Trace during the course of several trips through Mississippi but had never done any biking as part of our travels along the Trace. Jackson provided a great opportunity to do so as the Chischa Fokka Greenway runs parallel to the Trace for a number of miles. It’s a great trail that cuts through Pine stands and farmland as you head north from Jackson.

Chischa Fokka Greenway

We enjoyed our brief stay in Jackson with the added bonus of meeting @art.minton. Art is a fellow van adventurer who lives in Jackson and we follow each other on Instagram. He spotted our van while we were leaving Pig and Pint after having just finished dinner—Serendipity—Very cool!

The road to Rodney

We decided to visit Rodney after reading an interesting article in Mississippi Folk Life about efforts by a local organization to preserve the remains of Rodney. The town was once a thriving Mississippi River port city. Migration from Rodney started in earnest after 1870 – Rodney had been bombarded during the Civil War by Union gun boats, enslaved individuals were emancipated and left the cotton plantations and finally, the course of the river shifted two miles west and Rodney was no longer a port city. For an excellent history of Rodney: http://www.mississippifolklife.org/articles/haunted-by-a-ghost-town-the-lure-of-rodney-mississippi

Getting to Rodney takes a bit of work. The only road to Rodney is a bumpy and muddy dirt road affair but you know we never say no to the chance for a bit of mud on the fenders.

On our way to Rodney we drove through Port Gibson. Like many other southern cities during the mid-twentieth century, Port Gibson’s elected leaders and businesses were still fighting against integration and equal rights for Black citizens. That eventually led to the Boycott of 1966. The photo below from a mural in town depicts the demands. ‘Nuff said! https://mississippiencyclopedia.org/entries/port-gibson-claiborne-county-civil-rights-movement/

We also happened on the Windsor Ruins after departing Rodney. The Ruins was an antebellum Greek Revival Mansion built (by enslaved African-Americans) for a wealthy cotton planter and his wife. Today, 23 of the Corinthian coloumns are still standing. The mansion survived the Civil War (the owner did not) but burned in 1890. It was the largest Greek Revival home in Mississippi. Today it is an historic site and there are plans to complete some restoration of the columns and the grounds. For more information: https://www.mdah.ms.gov/explore-mississippi/windsor-ruins

Natchez —— Steampunk anyone?

Natchez was our final stop before crossing the Mississippi into Louisiana. First stop, as always, was for espresso and tea and our research pointed to Steampunk. There we met Dub Rogers, the owner of this unique establishment. Dub Rogers was born in Mississippi but spent 30 years living and working in NYC in a variety of businesses.

Steampunk represents an amalgamation of Dub’s many interests. The shop and haberdashery sells fine cigars, coffee, tea, chocolate, conservas, mixology gear and hats (see Maria’s newest addition above) of which Dub has endless knowledge. Dub is a great host – and we almost forgot to mention that he personally renovated the handsome space that houses his boutique department store, apartment and patio.

Natchez dates back to 1716 when French traders built a Fort on the bluff overlooking the Mississippi. The French settlement came to an abrupt end when the Natchez Indians attacked the fort, killing several hundred people and enslaving a number of women and children The surviving French left the territory toute suite.

Future President Andrew Jackson built a trading post near Natchez in 1789. The trading post traded in African-American slaves. This set the course for Natchez to become a hub for slave trading – one of the most active in the South.

With the wealth accumulated from the slave and cotton trade Natchez became one of the wealthiest cities in America prior to the Civil War. Today many of the lavish antebellum homes are still standing and open for touring. Because Natchez was prized by both sides due to its location, the Union forces did not destroy it when they occupied the city.

You now know where to go for all your caffeine needs in Natchez. Here are a couple of suggestions for dining: Magnolia Grill, located in the Under-the-Hill section of town down on the river (formerly the vice district of town); and Fat Mama’s Tamales is the spot for excellent tamales.

Our final foray in Natchez was visiting one of the decidely less glamorous antebellum homes in Natchez. The house is named Longwood but also derisively as Nutt’s Folly. Haller Nutt was a wealthy plantation owner who had an octagonal house designed for him and his family. The house, if completed, would have had 32 rooms.

The outbreak of the Civil War ended the construction of the home as Nutt’s financial position tumbled. Even if he had the funds to continue, work would have stopped because the majority of the craftsman completing the finish work were from Philadephia – they returned to the North as soon as the war began.

The family moved into the basement (originally designed for the house slaves). Nutt died in 1864 and his wife and children hung on to the house for many years with the help of friends and several wealthy relatives. The Nutt family sold the home to the Pilgrimage Garden Club of Natchez in 1968.

The photograph below shows the fingerprints of one of the enslaved individuals who worked on the construction of the home. The Nutt family owned 800 slaves prior to the demise of the family fortune.

Fingerprints of enslaved individual

We hope you enjoyed our final installment regarding our Mississippi exploration, thanks for reading.

Be seeing you!

OTR 8.0: Virginia (but first, Maryland)

Headwaters Presbyterian Church, 1890, Headwaters, VA (pop. 113)

Cumberland, Maryland

Savage Mountain, GAP

With a cool but dry forecast in front of us we decided to delay our arrival in Virginia and head to Cumberland for a couple of days to take advantage of the forecast and do some cycling. Cumberland is the terminus for two exceptional bike trails. The Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) connects Pittsburgh to Cumberland providing 150 miles of cycling. The trail roughly follows the course of three rivers from west to east: the Monongahela River, the Youghiogheny River and the Casselman River.

The C&O trail begins in Washington DC and follows the C&O Canal for 185 miles to its terminus in Cumberland. Based on a recommendation from some local bicyclists we rode west on the GAP. While the GAP has a better surface than the C&O, riding west is all uphill out of Cumberland. Of course the ride back takes about half as much time.

The scenery along the trail is spectacular as the trail ascends into the Laurel Highlands of Virginia. We definitely plan on going back in the future to ride additional sections of the trail.

Skyline drive

Skyline Drive sits within Shenandoah National Park (SNP). The road winds its way (north/south) along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains for 105 miles. Skyline is the only through road in the entire park. Additionally, you can only enter or exit Skyline Drive in four places. We accessed the road at the Northern entrance in Front Royal.

Driving South – Skyline Drive

While the highest elevation on the road is 3680 FASL the views are none the less spectacular. You are witness to broad green valleys reaching across to more ridgeline, and are able to view the Shenandoah River meandering through the valley to the west.

We had hoped to camp overnight at Great Meadows, which sits approximately 51 miles south of the northern entrance at Front Royal. We would then complete the remainder of the drive the following day. We also planned on hiking from the Great Meadows that afternoon. Alas, the campground was gated and we were unable to camp on the ridge.

We also had planned to hike to Lewis Fall from the campground. We still wanted to hike so we pushed on to a trailhead about five miles further south based on a recommendation from a park rangers.

The Rose River Trail is a loop trail that descends from a trailhead at Fishers Gap. The Rose River is just 8.8 miles in length but flows down from one of the highest points on the Blue Ridge until it converges with the Robinson River.

After descending to the valley floor,the climb back up to the trailhead was steep and a bit arduous as you regain the 1000 feet of elevation lost on the way down. The sights and sounds of the multiple waterfalls and cascades that are your constant companions on this hike more than compensate for the effort.

Highland County

After finishing the hike we made our way south completing the drive and heading west to stay in Staunton (pronounced Stanton). We had stopped in Staunton in March, 2020 on our way back to Connecticut after the pandemic cut short that trip – looking for coffee and food. We found an excellent coffee shop and roaster (Crucible Coffee) and an excellent restaurant (Table 44) that were both still operating. We have fond memories of our stop in Staunton as we had limited option in March 2020 – the excellent news is that our memories had not failed us and we again had a great dinner and excellent coffee and tea before heading west to Highland County.

The trip west to Highland is a spectacular ride on Route 250. The road is a twisting up and down affair as you climb up and over the crest of Shenandoah Mountain.

Hankey Mountain Highway -Route 250

Highland County is the least populated county in Virginia. While the county is 416 square miles the population is a mere 2200 people. The economy is dominated by agriculture – mostly in the form of beef cattle as the mountainous terrain and narrow valleys are not conducive to growing crops at scale.

Eastern Continental Divide, Allegheny Mountains

The Western border of the county is formed by the ridges of the Allegheny Mountains (see photo above of Allegheny Mountains as viewed of Shenandoah Mountain). The Allegenies at the western edge of the county also form the border with West Virginia. There are just three communites in the county; McDowell, Montery and Blue Grass. You may find other places designated on maps but they are just remnants of towns.

Beulah Presbyterian Church

We are drawn, as you know, to more remote locations to enjoy nature and solitude but must confess that part of our motive for this segment of OTR 8.0 was the Annual Highland County Maple Festival. The Maple Festival has been taking place for two weekends in March for the last 52 years.

Maple Dounts

What can we say – donuts, pancakes, pretzels, etc. – all made fresh by local residents with pure maple syrup from Highland County. The money supports local churches, civic organizations and businesses. More importantly it is all gosh darn delicious and the people are happy you made the trip up to ”Little Switzerland” from down in the Eastern lowlands!

The Curly Maple, Monterey, Virginia (pop. 130)
Blue Grass Mercantile, Blue Grass Virginia (pop. 144)
Episcopal Church of The Good Shepard, Blue Grass, Virginia

We enjoyed touring the valleys of Highland County and chatting with some of the local folks we met in the towns (even if one of them called us Yankees!) but we knew it was time to move on when we awoke to snow and howling winds.

Be seeing you!

P.S. As you may have noticed if you follow our blog on a regular basis our posts are not published on a strictly chronological basis.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP)

Hiking

GSMNP is a fantastic destination for hiking. There are 150 official trails within the park that provide over 800 miles of hiking opportunities. The Appalachian Trail also traverses the park.

We spent four days at the park. The mornings tended to be cloudy and foggy in the hollows and valleys so we auto toured in the mornings (after finding coffee) and hiked in the afternoon.

Hikes at GSMNP range from short and easy to full on backcountry. There are many connector trails allowing hikers to elongate or shorten hikes, or to create loop hikes.

GSMNP Trail Map

Because of the park’s topography, there are a multitude of creeks, streams, and rivers which make for many water crossings and provide the sound of rushing water as an accompaniment to the beautiful scenery. Additionally, waterfalls abound (especially in spring) providing hikers with plenty of ooh and ahh moments.

Spruce Flats Falls

Auto touring

GSMNP provides plentiful opportunities to take in vistas and view wildlife while touring the park by auto. There are a number of designated tour loops and routes throughout the park. There are almost 400 miles of paved and gravel roads suitable for ordinary passenger vehicles. There are also a number of primitive roads for those equipped with 4wd vehicles with high clearance.

Roaring Forks Motor Nature Trail
New Found Gap

Park history

Cades Cove Primitive Baptist Church, 1827

GSMNP opened in 1940 about six years after being chartered by Congress. Much of the land within the park was previously privately owned. Many of the advocates for the park were attempting to stop the massive clear cutting by timber companies that was destroying the forest, and believed a national park was the best way to acquire and protect such a large tract of land (523,000 acres).

Henry Whitehead Cabin, Parsons Branch Road, c. 1895

Of course, in addition to the land owned by the timber companies, there were a number of small communities located within the proposed boundaries. Most of the residents were farmers.

Over a period of years the residents were forced off of their properties and the communities ceased to exist. Amazingly, many of the homes and other structures were not destroyed when the famlies relocated outside of the park.

Little Greenbrier School, 1892-1935
Little Greenbrier School

When we toured Mammoth Cave NP during OTR 7.0 we found the more typical situation – all the building and structures had been razed (except several churches and cemetaries) in order to erase the evidence of the communities and restore the land to its state prior to the creation of the park. We thought that practice was disrespectful and, fortunately, that was not the case at GSMNP.

We will skip the discussion of the displacement of the Cherokee Indians as we all know that story. Today, the Eastern Cherokees reside in a reservation just south of the park’s border in Cherokee, North Carolina.

There are over 80 structures still standing and maintained by the park service. The structures include, cabins, schoolhouses, barns, churches and a grist mill.

Cantilever Barn, Tipton Homestead

Pictured above and below is a replica of the original cantilever barn that was part of the homestead of William ”Fighting Billy” Tipton. The homestead still boasts the original two story cabin, blacksmith shop and corn cribs.

The origins of the cantilever barn are unknown but they are prevalent in this part of Tennessee. Historians generally agree that this type of barn was favored because it provided cover for the livestock from Tennessee’s abundant rainfall.

Cades Cove Missionary Baptist Church, 1842

Thoughts

We enjoyed our first visit to GSMNP and definitely recommend the park if you are hikers. Our caveats would be to avoid peak season – from talking with local folks, we understand that the roads into and within the park are jammed in high season. GSMNP recorded over 14 million visitors last year.

Also, we did drive through Gaitlinberg to find coffee – as a result we highly recommend entering the park through Townsend as we did. Gaitlinberg is crowded and uber touristy; it is the antithesis of the park. In our opinion there is no reason to visit Gaitlinberg unless you just cannot get enough of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museums!

Be seeing you.

Ctsprinterlife: OVERLAND adventure

CARSON NATIONAL FOREST

After camping in Chama, New Mexico, we followed Route 17 along the Colorado/New Mexico border to access the Carson NF for our trip south. Unfortunately, the heavy snow in the Colorado mountains had reached into northern New Mexico. After testing the road we decided that prudent risk taking required that we delay our start. As a result we traveled to Taos and spent several days exploring there (see posts Taos, The High Road to Taos and Taos is Art) while waiting for the roads to dry out and harden.

KML File

The above photo is from the KML file we overlaid on Google Earth to assist with navigation as we traveled through the forest and mountainous terrain.

Overlanding is currently defined as “self-reliant overland travel by vehicle where the journey is more important than the destination.” Overlanding has gained popularity in the United States over the last several years and particularly since the pandemic interrupted standard modes of travel.

FR45B

Our trips over the last three plus years have been a mix of overland adventures and standard touring. Overlanding is not for everyone due to the risks and the need for specialized gear (high clearance, 4wd, skid plates, winch, extended range, etc.) Overlanding also requires patience – it is often very slow going on rough, narrow, rutted roads and trails.

Case in point – the photo above is Forest Road 45B – after driving a number of miles down this rough and narrow route the trail became impassable. We we forced to back up the hill until we could turn the vehicle while causing the least damage possible.

EL RITO (pop. 808)

After two days on the trail we came out of the forest at El Rito on a crisp Sunday morning. We were hoping to have breakfast burritos at El Farito Restaurant but alas the restaurant was closed. We cannot vouch for the reported census – we met one person and one dog during our brief stop. We were surprised to learn that the Mars Polar Lander was designed and built here in town by a local scientist/artist!!!

Abiqui and south

We stopped in the town of Abiqui for diesel fuel and refreshments. Abiqui is the town where Georgia O’Keefe lived for many years on her ranch north of town. Many of her paintings include the surrounding mountains.

After refueling we headed back up into the forest to continue our overlanding trip south for another day – leaving the route near Los Alamos and then traveling to Santa Fe for much needed high quality coffee and tea.

Climbing towards Cerro Pedernal

The snow of the prior week caused us to shorten our time overlanding through the Carson National Forest, but it was a good trade off as the weather and conditions were much improved by the time we started on our overlanding adventure.

Be seeing you.

Follow the weather :Durango:chama:taos

Route 90 – Paradox Valley

After a brief but exhilarating visit to Moab (see post Moab = Fun and Adventure) we set out for Durango across Utah 46 which becomes Colorado 90 at the border. Colorado 90 is a gem – a beautiful ride up into the Southern Rocky Mountains within the Manti-La Sal National Forest. The pass at the top of route opens up to the panorama of the Paradox Valley. The majority of this route is very remote and we would not advise traveling this road in winter weather.

Climbing Route 90 Eastbound
Paradox Valley, Colorado
Descending into Paradox Valley

The Paradox Valley is a remote, thinly settled and beautiful place. The valley is approxiamtely 25 miles long running in a north – south direction. The width of the valley is between three and five miles. The paradox that led to the naming of the valley is the unusual east to west flow of the Dolores River which cuts across the valley, as opposed to running the length of the valley.

Paradox Valley from Slip Rock Hill

A Canadian company proposed building a uranium mill in the valley in 2009. Fortunately, the project was abandoned in 2020. As much as we recognize the need for extractive industries it would have been a shame to alter the beauty and character of this place with a uranium mill and everything that comes with the extraction of radioactive materials.

Bedrock Store, Bedrock, Colorado (pop. 56)

We were looking forward to taking a break at the Bedrock Store (serving outlaws since 1881). The Bedrock Store was used in the filming of the movie Thelma & Louise. Unfortunately, the store was not open.

Durango

Taste Coffee, Durango, Colorado

We made a brief stop in Durango, CO enroute to New Mexico. Durango is a mountain town which sits just below 8000 feet above sea level and is a base for the alpine ski mountains in the areas. The town sits along the Rio de las Animas Perdidas which provides wonderful scenery for the bike path nestled on the bank of the river.

As you might surmise from the photos we were quite taken with Taste Coffee as well as barista and co-owner Mike Clarke. P.S. There is a narrow gauge railroad that runs from Durango to Silverton – which we did not ride because we left town to avoid a predicted snowstorm – but it looks like a lot of fun.

Aztec

With heavy snow predicted in the Western Rockies we re-routed due south into New Mexico – stopping to visit the puebloan ruins located in the town of Aztec, Colorado.

The Aztec Ruins National Monument is located in the town of Aztec, New Mexico. The ruins are 900 years old. We utilized the excellent self-guided audio tour to explore the ruins. This is an impressive site with over 400 rooms and an a restored Pueblo Great House. It is well worth the visit if your travels will be taking you to northern New Mexico. ( https://www.nps.gov/azru/index.htm )

CHAMA

Camping on the Rio Chama

Change of plans

Route 17 Colorado

After our overnight in Chama we traveled north and east across Colorado Route 17 to access the Carson National Forest for our planned overland trip from the border to Jemez Springs, NM. When we arrived we found the forest roads still covered in snow with mud underneath. This is a bad recipe for safe travel on narrow mountain roads so we decided to hold off on overlanding (no paved roads) until conditions improved.

Carson National Forest

Taos

We decided to visit Taos while waiting for better conditions on our overland routes. We will report on our stay in Taos in our next post.

Rio Grande Gorge Bridge

Be seeing you.

Moab = Fun and Adventure

A Brief History of Moab

Moab was a sleepy trading post and farming community for most of its history. Its settlement dates back to about 1829 when people traveling north on what is now known as the Old Spanish Trail would attempt to cross the Colorado River in Moab and the local inhabitants would sell their goods to the travelers.

A little over 100 years later uranium was discovered in Moab. Uranium was in great demand for use in nuclear weapons post World War 2, so the federal government stepped in and passed laws mandating that all uranium mined in the United States could only be sold to the federal government. The economy of Moab shifted to mining overnight and Moab became known as the uranium capital of the world.

Unfortunately, as must, all booms result in some sort of bust. By 1960 the federal government declared it had all the uranium it needed. Since no one else could purchase uranium the mines in Moab began to close; the last of the mines closed in 1980. The population which had reached 6,000 declined to 1,000.

Arches Natiional Park

Today, the Moab area draws tourists who come to mountain bike, hike, rock climb, drive off road trails and boat on the Colorado. Additionally, Moab hosts two unique national parks – Arches and Canyonlands

While the town is prospering, there still remains the issue of remediating the uranium sites. When a visitor enters town for the first time driving south on route 191, it is hard to miss the large mound of contaminated pilings near the road.This pile consists of the remaining contaminated tailings. Over 16 million tons of tailings were produced from the uranium mills in Utah. The tailings are being removed and taken by train to a permanent disposal location in Colorado. More than 10 million tons have been removed so far under the auspices of the Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) program paid for by the citizens of the United States.

Final note: many of the miners that worked in the Uranium mills were Navajo. There was little regard for their safety. The Navajo workers suffered significantly from lung cancer and other diseases. While the U.S. Public Health Service was aware of the effects as early as 1951, it was not until 1990 that the health impact was acknowledged. To make matters worse, the Navajo were not eligible for financial compensation until 2017.

Biking

Moab is certainly a mountain biking mecca – the good news is that for those of us in need of less demanding terrain, the town has developed a number of bike paths and bike lanes. One of the bike paths runs east along the Colorado River providing magnificent views of the river and red rock cliffs.

Camping with a view…

Camping on Ledge A: Hunter Canyon

Moab and the surrounding area offers scores of camping choices. Everything from in town RV resorts to remote primitive camping. We look forward to “boondocking” in Moab. We generally camp in a different location each night to enjoy different settings as well as the fantastic night sky and solitude.

4WD adventures

Kane Creek

One of the reasons we chose a high clearance 4wd equipped Sprinter was our desire to go places that we would never be able to see and experience without that capability. The Moab area provides a plethora of opportunities to put the Beast to the test. Above and below we have included a sample of several of our 4wd adventures.

Shafer Switchbacks
Shafer Trail

Moab Mural

Our favorite new Moab mural.

@skyewalker_art

Fine art

Artist Thomas Elmo Williams

Our trip from Salt Lake City to Moab usually involves a lunch and coffee stop in Helper, Utah. Helper has been undergoing a revitalization over the last several years and has become home to a number of artists. On this stop we discovered some wonderful paintings by Thomas Elmo Williams. Williams was a coal miner for 14 years before a mining accident put an end to that line of work for him. Williams started his new career sketching fellow miners and still focuses much of his art on the labor of working folks. He has a gallery in Helper.

Coal Miner Memorial, Helper, Utah

We love Utah and recommend that if you love outdoor recreational activities then a visit to Utah should be on your travel list, with a definite stop in Moab.

Be seeing you.

Southwest Montana

Pioneer mountains scenic byway

Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway
Wise River

The Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway is a spectacular drive. The route follows a paved road from Wise, Montana to its end near Dillon, Montana. The Pioneer Mountains have an eastern and western range. The drive winds through the meadows between the ranges providing incredible views all around. Interestingly, the two ranges are very different in appearance. The eastern range has tall, jagged peaks (think Grand Tetons) while the western range is more rounded. These are big mountains with several peaks above 11,000 feet.

We were not familiar with this range before a gentlemen in Shelby told us about this drive – thank you! This is one of the biggest ranges we had never heard of before. The range is within national forest – largely unspoiled – just mountains, forests, meadows and the the byway bisecting the range.

About 25 miles along the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway we came to a five mile dirt road that climbs up to the site of the ghost town of Coolidge and the defunct Elkhorn Mine and Mills. The road is fine for 2wd vehicles if it is dry.

Photo Courtesy of Western Mining History

The former mine and town sit at an elevation of 6601 feet. The mine produced zinc, lead and silver from 1875 until it was decommissioned in 1899 when the ore load was considered to be played out. The Elkhorn was the last mine in Montana to produce silver.

Work to reopen the mine under new ownership began in 1918. The tunneling work brought people back to Coolidge and a school and post office were established. The town even had electricity – no small feat at that time in such a remote location. Unforunately, by the time the tunneling was completed and the mine was actually ready to begin producing in 1923, silver prices plummeted and the mine went bust.

Subsequently, a dam collapse wiped out several sections of rail line and the town lost rail service marking the beginning of the end. The school and post office closed soon after.

The remains of the town are mostly collapsed at this point – not much to explore in that regard, but we think it is worth the visit – the scenery from the mine site is gorgeous and you walk away with a real sense of the what conditions must have been like when the mine and town were operating.

Bannack….Gold rush

Bannack School House and Masonic Lodge

After completing our drive on the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Highway we continued south through the Grasshopper Valley to visit the ghost town of Bannack. The town sits on the bank of Grasshopper Creek and was founded in 1862 after gold was found in the creek. The town is named after the Bannock Indians that inhabited this area at that time – the spelling with an a instead of an o was the result of a clerical error in Washington.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition first documented the creek in 1805 and named it Willard Creek. When the population swelled in 1862 after the discovery of gold, the miners renamed it Grasshopper Creek due to the abundance of grasshoppers in the area.

Bannack Methodist Church, 1877

In addition to the influx of miners (many from Colorado) prospecting for gold, the town became a haven for Civil War deserters and outlaws (in part due to its remote location). Within a year there were approximately 3000 people inhabiting Bannack. Almost all of the inhabitants were men. The handfull of women in town were mostly “saloon girls” who worked in one of the four saloons.

Saloon and Barbershop

As the population continued to swell (10,000 people at its height), the outlaws took full advantage of the opportunity to relieve miners of their gold. Miners frequently went back and forth between Bannack and the mining camp at Virginia City. By this point the outlaws had organized into several large gangs and routinely robbed and in some cases murdered the miners.

The town hired a sheriff (Henry Plummer) to stop the violence but he turned out to be the leader of the largest and most violent of the gangs. Dang!

As this fact became well known, folks of Bannack and Montana decided to take matters into their own hands, forming the Montana Vigilence Committee. Between December 1863 and February 1864, 24 men suspected of crimes were lynched by the Vigilantes. There were no trials! One of the most notable of the men hanged was Sheriff Henry Plummer, who was suspected of being a gang leader. Montana State Police still wear a shoulder patch with the numbers 3-7-77. The numbers supposedly represent the dimensions of the graves of ths suspected outlaws killed by the vigilantes. Three feet wide, seven feet long and 77 inches deep…and now you know.

As with many gold rush towns, the bust comes just as quickly as the boom. By 1870, the easy gold was dredged out of the creek and the population began to quickly decline. Bannack’s population dropped from almost 10,000 to just a few hundred by 1870, only eight years after its founding.

The town carried on until the 1940s due to several small gold booms, but they were not enough to sustain the town. The majority of the remaining population moved on during the 1930s and by the 1940s the one room schoolhouse and the post office closed. The town was effectively non-existent, although a small number of residents hung on into the 1970s.

Today Bannack is managed by the state of Monatana as part of Bannack State Park. The state has done an excellent job preserving the remaining structures as they were but is not restoring the buildings

The history of this short lived town is deep and fascinating. The town physically has over 60 structures remaining – the majority are open for exploration.

If you enjoy western history, Bannack is a fun and interesting place to visit. The Grasshopper Valley is beautiful but remote, so give thought with combining a visit to Bannack with other destinations in southwestern Montana and perhaps Idaho.

Darby rodeo

Bull Riding

Friday night rodeo is a weekly event during the summer in many ranching towns in the west. Kids begin competing at age six. Most high schools have rodeo teams and there is a collegiate circuit as well. Towns take great pride in their rodeo stadium.

The video below is of Cole Trexler, age 18, Montana high school all-around rodeo state champion. Cole will be riding at the collegiate level this fall. His brother Cash, 14, is also a budding rodeo star. He is the high school state champion bull rider. We met Cash and his mom. She told us that Cash “sat” his first horse at age three!

Cole Trexler, Covering on his Bronc

The Senior Professional Rodeo Association was in Darby for the weekend while were camping up the road a piece in Victor. On a gorgeous Friday evening we enjoyed watching the cowboys and cowgirls compete in bronc riding, bull riding, steer wrestling, calf roping and barrel racing (cowgirls only). The senior circuit is for cowboys and cowgirls forty and over.

The local rodeo is a big deal. The whole town turns out to support the riders. It is also deeply imbued with patriotic and christian themes. The opening ceremony includes prayers for the safety of the riders as well as the servicemen and servicewomen who protect our freedom. The prayers are also for our political leadership – that they make the hard decisions necessary to protect our way of life.

Bitteroot valley

Bitteroot Mountains

The photos below were taken at the Little Smith Creek Ranch where we camped for several nights. We were the only campers at the ranch during our stay. To say that the setting was idylic is an understatement. The ranch is located at the base of the Bitteroot Mountains on the western edge of the valley and our view to the east extended across the valley to the Sapphire Mountains. Plenty of deer wandering by as well. Wow!

Biking and hiking Bitteroot

Kootenai Creek

The Little Smith Creek Ranch, while remote with spectacular scenery, is only minutes from a good number of spectacular hikes into the Bitteroot.

The photos above and below are from our favorite hike. The Kootenai Creek Trail follows a fast flowing creek with waterfalls and pools up to the North Kootenai Lake – a distance of about ten miles to reach the lake, and no – we did not make it all the way to the lake!

Soothing Sound of Rushing Water, Kootenai Creek, Bitteroot Mountains

Clark fork of the columbia river

The Clark Fork of the Columbia River is a 310 mile long river originating as the Silver Bow Creek in Butte. It carries water from a substantial portion of the Rocky Mountains into the Columbia River Basin, which makes the river an excellent choice for white water rafting.

We ran a number of rapids which were mostly class 3. Early spring produces the biggest rapids -class 5- due to snow melt while by August most of the rapids are class 1 or 2 due to the reduced flow of water.

I am not sure if it was due to our senior citizen status or not but we had three guides on our raft! Regardless, were glad to have the two additional paddlers when we went into the bigger rapids.

Fika and art: Missoula style

After our stay in the beautiful Bitteroot Valley we drove north to Missoula. We had hoped to do some more bicycling in addition to river rafting but the heat was too much for us to manage the cycling side of the equation.

We did stay for a couple of days and spent some time at two local coffee shops and visited the interesting (but small) Missoula Art Museum (MAM).

Southwestern montana…hidden gem

Southwestern Montana did not originally factor into our initial planning but after conversations with several Montanans we decided to vector to the region and we are pleased that we did. The southwest corner of Montana is well known to fishing and hunting aficionados, but it’s not found on the standard tourist itinerary.

We had a piece of the planet to ourselves (well, at least regarding other humans) for stretches of time as we drove through the Pioneer Mountains and the pristine Grasshopper Valley. We will definitely return to the area for a more extended stay in the future – lots of hiking, ghost towns and backroads to be explored and dispersed camping under the dark sky.

Be seeing you!

Montana Prairie…Sun, Heat, Wind and Beauty

After a brief visit to Billings (see previous post) we set out due north to traverse the Great Plains of central Montana before turning west in the Northland parallel to the Canadian border.

Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge (CMR)

Missouri River, CM Russell NWR

Our first stop on the journey north was the CMR. Once again we found ourselves crossing the mighty Missouri River which so dominates the history of this part of the country with its integral connection to the Lewis & Clark expedition.

We crossed the river within the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge consists of 1.1 million acres which border the river from the Fort Peck Dam on the east to the Missouri River Breaks National Monument on the west – a distance along the river of about 125 miles.

This protected area is primitive and essentially looks as it did when Lewis and Clark journeyed up the river. There is a rough auto road that drops down to the river level and follows the river before looping back to the highway.

We drove the road and were able to see some of the Missouri Breaks (rock formations) as well as a number of the remnants of abandoned praire homesteads. It is hard to fathom how hardy people must have been to homestead in this rugged terrain – most failed.

The refuge is named after Charles M. Russell – an artist known for his western landscape paintings, many of which depict the refuge, and as an early conservationist.

Auto ROAD, CMR

american prairie reserve (APR)

Bison at American Prairie Reserve, Sun Prairie, Montana

The APR is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and expanding the prairie land of central Montana. It is estimated by the APR that a land area of three million acres (5000 square miles) is necessary to preserve the Great Plains in perpetuity. The APR is buying prairie land from private owners and leasing land from the federal and state government which is contiguous to existing public lands (including CMR) to create the reserve.

The APR has also established a sizeable bison herd which freely roams within the reserve. When we were completing our research on Montana we learned that we could camp within the reserve among the bison (at our own risk obviously).

We were definitely up for the camping on the prairie. Adding to the adventure was the need to navigate across 60 miles of prairie devoid of signage and without the aid of satnav. Since we are writing this post you are correct in concluding that our navigator was more than up to the task.

We enjoyed our journey through the prairie and our overnight camping with the bison despite the triple digit temperatures, 30 mile per hour winds and accompanying dust. The opportunity to see these magnificent animals roaming the prairie freely, as they did until the late 1800s, felt as if we had the privilege of traveling back in time.

Of course, we probably all have read about the near extinction of the bison at the hands of Euro-Americans to supply the east with fur and hides. The slaughter of the bison also served to deprive the Native Americans of their way of life.

The Native Americans of the plains not only killed bison for the meat – they used every bit of the bison to make shelters, clothing, weapons and tools. The Native Americans worshipped the bison as it provided so much of what they needed to live.

“When the buffalo went away, we became a changed people… The buffalo was everything to us. When it went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. —Plenty-Coups (Crow) 1880

When we decided to visit the APR we did not know that the Montana ranching community is adamantly opposed to it. We had the opportunity to speak with a rancher when we stopped for fuel and provisions on the trip to the APR.

The cattle ranchers are concerned they will not be allowed to continue to use the land that the APR buys and leases from the government for grazing. They are also concerned that the APR wants to let the bison roam freely throughout the reserve and not be managed as stock; which could lead to transmission of Brucellosis to cattle, causing spontaneous abortion in pregnant cattle. Bison in Yellowstone National Park have been infected with Brucellosis in the past. How real the concern is we do not know.

In the end though, much of the opposition is to what the ranchers view as a land grab by the federal government. Ranchers have a deep animosity towards the federal government and as you may recall, this has manifested itself in violence on a number of occasions.

The Montana economy is primarily agricultural and extractive – cattle, sheep, barley, wheat, copper mining and fossil fuel. Therefore, any partnership by the government (in this case with the APR) to de facto acquire more land (which ends up off-limits for agricultural or extractive purposes) is going to be controversial.

Hopefully, the ranchers and APR can work things out, although presently there are several lawsuits in progress.

The montana hi-Line and Sweet grass hills

We departed the APR traveling north through another 50 miles of dusty prairie until we reached the town of Malta and our first paved road in several days. At Malta we turned west to travel on Route 2 to reach Chester and then head north into the Sweet Grass Hills. The area from Route 2 north to Canada and from the North Dakota border on the east to the Idaho border on the west is known as the Montana Hi-Line.

The Hi-Line is emblamatic of Montana – rolling grasslands, cattle ranches and mile after mile of wheat, barley and cannola fields under seemingly un-ending blue sky. This area known as the Hi-Line was sparsely populated until the late 1800s.

Around this time James Hill, a railroad executive, began the construction of the Great Northern Railroad (GNR), envisioning a railroad extending from St. Paul, Minnesota to the Pacific Ocean. He envisioned this railroad as a trade route ultimately extending to Asia. The construction of the railroad through northern Montana brought multitudes of ranchers and farmers into the area. The railroad brought supplies to the towns that popped up along the railway and moved their crops and stock to market. Today the railroad and Route 2 run side by side through most of this area.

The photos above are from our stop in Chester – our departure point from Route 2. We had fika at Well in Chester and met several local farmers and ranchers. The coffee shop owner is also the local pastor, a firearms dealers and a substitue teacher – apparently not unusual in this part of the world based on our conversations. The town is tiny at 311 acres and a population of 1099 and it was obvious that there is a real sense of community here.

After our stop in Chester we were on our way north. We were surprised when we turned onto Route 409 North that is was paved but as so often happens here, the pavement ended abruptly in just a couple of miles and we were back to traveling on dirt roads once again.

The Sweet Grass Hills are dominated by three buttes – West, Gold and East. The buttes stand at about 7000 feet and they can be seen from a significant distance because of the gently rolling grasslands around them.

The Buttes of the Sweet Grass Hills

We spent the remainder of the day touring the Sweet Grass Hills following Route 409 and Route 552. While that sounds straightforward – we assure you it is not – the 409 and 552 are meandering and unmarked routes crossing other dirt roads and forking off in multiple directions (with many of the trails not shown on our maps).

Nonetheless, this backcountry tour was amazing. This is remote country inhabited by cattle and a handful of ranchers. The wind apparently never stops on the prairie adding to the sense of isolation and remoteness – we felt it in just the day traveling through the area.

West Butte
Whitlash Community Presbyterian Church

Whitlash, population 15, was the only named place on our tour of the hills. We did not see anyone at this bend in the road called Whitlash. We stopped for a “pop” at what we thought was a store based on a sign for cold pop. Upon entering we found a coin operated washer and dryer and a soda machine but no people. When was the last time you purchased a 12 ounce cans of pop for 50 cents?

About three miles east of the terminus of Route 552, the road became paved once again and we cruised into Sunburst in search of a well deserved chocolate milkshake.

We had the opportunity to chat with several life long residents of the area while enjoying our shake. We learned that this tiny town which is just eight miles from the Canadian border was once home to the largest refinery in Montana and one of the largest in the states when it was in operation.

Sunburst sits in the aptly named Kevin – Sunburst Dome, a significant deposit of oil and gas. The refinery was purchased by the Texas Company (Texaco) in 1929. During World War II the refinery was a major supplier of aviation fuel for the U.S. military.

Texaco closed the refinery in 1962, concluding a 30-year run of prosperity for the town. Subsequently, the refinery was leveled, the site remediated and the town returned to its agricultural roots. The only vestige of the refinery today is the road sign declaring that Sunburst is home to the Sunburst High School Refiners athletic teams.

First Peoples Buffalo Jump

We wrote above about the literally life sustaining importance of the bison to the Native Americans of the plains. Traveling south from Sunburst we visited a buffalo jump used by Native Americans to kill the bison that so sustained their way of life.

A “buffalo runner” disguised in bison hide would lead the short-sighted herd towards a precipice, sometimes running for days to bring the herd to the jump. Other members of the tribe would follow behind, agitating the herd. The agitators would usually be disguised as wolves.

Once the bison went over the edge the rest of the tribe went to work. Any bison not killed by the plunge were quickly dispatched. The entire bison was disassembled – blood and meat for immediate consumption. The remainder of the bison was set aside for making tools, clothing, teepees and weapons. Meat not eaten during the ensuing feast would be dried for consumption after the last of the fresh meat was eaten.

The photos above show the cliff at First Peoples Buffalo Jump – thought to be the largest of the 6000 known buffalo jump sites in North America.

Thoughts on the Prairie

We thoroughly enjoyed our trip through the prairie and grasslands of central and northern Montana. It is unquestionably beautiful country, but it is also without a doubt a harsh environment. We experienced many days of temperatures well over 100F. There is little to no shade, the wind never stops blowing and it is dusty, dusty, dusty.

Visit, but go prepared for extremes in weather, keep your fuel tank full and carry as much water as you can if you are going to venture deep into the backcountry.

Be seeing you!

Visiting the U.P. Doesn’t Make You a Yooper

Fika at Velodrome Coffee in Marquette was our first destination as we returned to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for the first time in over two years.

Pictured Rock National lakeshore

The Pictured Rock National Lakeshore (PRNL) was created in 1966 to protect a 42 mile section of coastline along Lake Superior. The 15 mile stretch of sandstone cliffs rising as high as 200 feet above the water is the real attraction here. The total protected area is around 71,000 acres which provides a buffer zone between the lakeshore and commercial logging.

We toured the lakeshore by boat. While there are a substantial amount of hiking trails throughout the park which lead to the cliffs the best views of the various formations are from the water. We would recommend a boat tour if you are going to be in the area but would not recommend PRNL as a multi-day destination unless you are going to camp in the park and kayak from the beach through the formations.

Iron mining

While iron ore mining and production is very often portrayed as nonexistent today in the United States, it is still quite active in parts of the Upper Peninsula and Minnesota. In fact iron ore mining has been ongoing here in the Marquette Iron Range since 1847.

The completion of the various shipping canals and locks throughout the Great Lakes facilitated the efficient movement of iron ore by lake freighters to ports further south-close to major manufacturing operations for steel and auto-making.

More to come on iron mining when we post from Minnesota where we will be traveling through the Iron Range.

Iron Ore Loading Dock, Marquette, Michigan

Iron ore heritage trail

Carp River

The Iron Ore Heritage Trail (IOHT) is a winding and hilly 47 mile trail that utilizes the former rail lines that were used to bring timber and iron ore to Lake Superior. The trail runs through many wetlands and wooded areas as well as a number of closed and abandoned mines.

We rode the trail from the west to east (from Ispheming towards Marquette) which means a long uphill climb as you return from Marquette to your starting point. One of our favorite trails to date because of t