This morning we dropped off my son at West Point to begin Cadet Basic Training, a.k.a. “Beast Barracks.” This is a picture of him standing in line to get into Eisenhower Hall to begin his adventure. It was a bittersweet moment for all of us.
The drive from Mammoth Cave National Park to Charleston was very, very long, so Candy planned for to interesting stops along the way to break up the drive. The first was in Corbin, KY, where Colonel Sanders started his motor park. Eventually it became both Kentucky Fried Chicken and Days Inn.
They had some very interesting displays to enjoy while we waited for our food. One idea that was interesting was that Colonel Sanders felt that women made the decision on whether to stay at which motor lodge, so he placed the ladies restroom so that you had to pass through a model of his motel room to get to it. In this way, he thought the women would see how neat and clean his rooms were and be amenable to staying at his motor lodge.
Our next stop was at the Museum of Appalachia. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it was actually quite nice.
There were a large number of buildings from all over Appalachia that had been moved board by board and stone by stone from their original locations to the museum to form a sort of farming community. These included stores, barns, cabins, churches, and schools. There were also two larger buildings containing professionally presented displays of rural life and some famous people from Appalachia, including Sergeant York and Cordell Hull.
The people running the museum were very friendly. We bought a couple of AMAZING cookies that were made there. It was a worthwhile short stop to break up the long drive. We arrived in Charleston late that night and just had time to unpack the car and hit the sack. The next day we got up early for a two-hour walking tour of the historic part of the city.
Our guide, 7th generation Charlstonian, provided a very interesting and informative walking tour of the historic part of the city.
The city is quite picturesque. It had fallen into disrepair after the Civil War. In fact, the city was in such bad shape that there wasn’t even enough money to tear down the old buildings. In the end, this turned out to be good. Where in other historic cities, like Boston and New York much of the historical areas had been the target of urban renewal, in Charleston, the historical buildings hadn’t been torn down when money was finally found to rebuild.
This church was an Anglican (Church of England) before the American Revolution and was the official church in Charleston (and all the British colonies). When the Revolution ended, the Anglican churches became Episcopal churches. The Episcopal church reunited, North and South, after the Civil War, unlike many other churches. In the 1960’s this church left the Episcopal church and became Anglican again during the flap over the revision of the Book of Common Prayer. Lots of history there, but not worth describing in the posting. Many other churches have left Episcopal church in recent years for a variety of reasons, including heretical statements about the Bible by Episcopal bishops.
The old theater in town is still active, hosting theatrical shows, musical shows, and a popular chamber music series each season. It has been beautifully restored.
After our walking tour we walked around some of the shopping areas and had lunch, followed by a couple of hours in the hotel pool. Our hotel also has an interesting story. It was demolished in 1968 and was rebuilt in the early 1970’s to look on the outside like the original. It was a VERY nice hotel within walking distance of everything we wanted to see in the historical area.
That evening we walked around a few more shops and had pizza in a local establishment, Di Giovani. Trip Advisor said that the food was very good, but everything else “sucked.” They were right. The food was very good, but the service, ambiance, etc. were poor. It was one of those places where you felt they were doing you a favor to take your money.
We got up early the next morning for a boat ride out to Morris Island in the bay. The tour guide and his two assistants were excellent. Morris Island, site of Ft. Wagner (as seen in the movie Glory) during the Civil War, is largely barren today. Sharks teeth, shells, and occasionally bricks from Ft. Sumpter wash ashore.
Sam and Tom found part of the tooth of a Maglodon, a prehistoric shark-like creature. The sharks in the area are small, so the teeth were tiny.
We elected to skip Ft. Sumpter. Others who have visited said it is disappointing. The top 2/3 of the fort from the Civil War were rubbled and are gone. Much of what is there is from the Spanish American War rather than the Civil War.
After returning from the boat ride we cleaned up and checked out of our hotel, had lunch, and headed up to North Carolina with a quick stop at South of the Border. After checking into the Ft. Bragg guest house we had dinner and played miniature golf in Fayetteville.
The course was quite nice and had 36 holes. On the final 18 holes Sam won, which she says is the first time she’s ever won at miniature golf.
The next morning we slept in a little and then visited the 82nd Airborne Division Museum. Located along Ardennes Street in the middle of the division area, while small, it is quite nice.
Candy and the kids were pretty “museumed out” by this point, so we only stayed two hours.
Every time I come to Ft. Bragg I remember how much I liked being in airborne units.
Upon leaving Ft. Bragg we headed home to unpack the car, unpack our bags, return the rental car, and hit the sack early. It was a long vacation, but a good one. We completed all 50 states just three days before Tom heads to college. This is our last family vacation while we’re all living together, which for me is a sad thing.
We left New Orleans and headed to Columbus, GA, to visit Candy’s mom. The kids always enjoy visiting there, because they relax there, play games, and generally enjoy some “down” time.
The next day Candy and her mom had some errands to run, so I took Tom and Sam to a new attraction in downtown Columbus. We zip lined across the Chattahooche
e River to Alabama. Once in Alabama the kids negotiated an obstacle course. Though it turned out to be not too difficult, I chose to skip the obstacle courses because of my recent knee surgery, but I did do the zip lines with the kids.
Because our group for the zip line and obstacle course was small, we finished before Candy and her Mom completed their errands. I took Tom and Sam to the north side of Columbus to play a round of indoor miniature golf. For an indoor course it was surprisingly good and would have, in fact, been a good outdoor course. The holes were long and challenging, and the course was in good repair.
The next day we headed to Huntsville, AL, to see the space center.
We arrived at the space center a little after noon with the intent of staying until it closed at five. There was a lot to see. Candy and the kids were ready to leave before I was, and there are a number of displays I would have liked to spend more time visiting.
We have been to the space centers in Houston, Cape Canaveral, and now Huntsville. I find them all very enjoyable and a stark reminder of what this country can do when it sets its mind to something.
<Warning: political rant> I fear those days are behind us. We cannot have a reasoned discourse in this country about things that matter, and instead we focus on trivial social issues and the politics of character assassination of anyone who wants to tackle the important issues. Unlike Kennedy’s vision of going to the moon not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard, our “representatives” from both sides of the aisle focus on trivial issues like gay marriage, politically correct language, and symbolism over real action rather than important issues like fixing our economy, getting rid of a tax system that punishes success and fosters class warfare, and curtailing social programs that keep people in poverty. Where are the leaders who will create a coherent energy strategy for the nation? Where are the leaders willing to really take on immigration reform (like controlling the borders and expelling those here illegally) rather than merely masking amnesty policies with leftist rhetoric? When will the Supreme Court do its job of protecting us from an increasingly overreaching and unconstitutional federal government and stopping activist judges from legislating from the bench? When when will we get serious about stopping the decline of our educational systems compared to the rest of the industrial world? Where are the leaders who will attack the causes of the destruction of the middle class in this country instead of symbolic, and useless, measures?</rant off>
You cannot help but be both awed an inspired by the men and women who took us to the moon in such a short time, built two space stations, and are preparing to colonize Mars. They are doing what is hard to create new science, promote the pioneer spirit that built our nation, and generally advance America and mankind.
I learned quite a bit about the preparations for sending people to Mars. I have been a proponent of this since reading A Case for Mars by Max Zubrin. While NASA’s approach doesn’t follow Zubrin’s model, bit is nonetheless exciting and will involve setting up permanent habitats on the moon. NASA says that they already have thousands of volunteers for a one-way mission to colonize Mars but not return — to instead stay there. Now THAT is the kind of pioneer spirit that built America!
I don’t know what the climbing wall had to do with space, but hey, it was a climbing wall, so it HAD to be climbed.
In addition to all the static displays, there were a couple of really exciting IMAX movies. We saw the one on exploration of space that talked about the shuttle missions, the international space station, and culminated with information about a future expedition to Mars.
There were three organizations that were created or enhanced as a result of the Russian launch of Sputnik: NSA (to prevent strategic surprise), DARPA (to prevent technical surprise), and NASA (to win the space race). I have worked at the first two. Someday, I would like to work at NASA if the right opportunity arose. I watched Neil Armstrong step on the moon when I was in first grade and have been a sucker for space stuff every since. How amazing it would be to have even a small role in getting men to Mars!
I really enjoyed our brief visit and would like to return to take in more of the displays in a leisurely manner.
Our next stop was the Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. Mammoth cave is the longest cave system in the world, with the known tunnels measuring some 400 miles and more being explored and mapped each year. We took a four hour tour which only covered about four of those 400 miles.
The National Park covers more than 52 thousand acres.
Our Ranger was quite informative, stopping often to allow our long line of visitors to catch up and ask questions.
There were two rest stops with latrines during the four hour tour. These “modern” facilities were cut into the rock cave in the 1950s, with sewage pumped to the surface rather than flowing into the three underground rivers that flow in the fifth level of tunnels.
Being a mostly dry cave system formed when the shallow sea bed receded some bazillion years ago, Mammoth Cave is a largely dry system. Sandstone and other rock above, protects most of Mammoth Cave from having water seep into the Limestone, eroding it and also creating dramatic rock formations (stalagmites, etc.) that we saw in Carlsbad Caverns. There were a few areas where the protecting cap of other rocks had eroded away and there were some of those interesting formations.
By about three in the afternoon we were ready to do something above ground. We drove into Cave City and played some miniature golf, went down an Alpine slide, and rode in Go-Karts until a typhoon struck the area and drove us indoors. After dinner at a local restaurant (we typically seek local places, rather than chains, while on vacation), we returned to our hotel within the National Park.
While the kids played some Frisbee, Candy and I took a short walk to Sunset Point overlook the Kentucky countryside.
We finished our time at Mammoth Cave National Park with a game in our hotel room. The game was sort of Russian Roulette with jellybeans in which some of the jellybeans were good flavors but others were things like baby wipes, vomit, and skunk smell. The game ended when Sam got a vomit jellybean and spent five minutes with her head in the sink.
The hotel was built in the 1970s, but has a more nostalgic feel to it. Many pictures on the walls show tours of Mammoth Cave in the 1950’s with the typical attire of the time. For someone (like me) who thinks the pinnacle of women’s fashions was reached in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the pictures on the walls were entertaining.
Tom and I began the morning of day 6 with a short run through Petit Jean state park. When we returned, Sam was preparing breakfast in our cabin — pancakes and spam.
This was a leisurely morning, since this was just a travel day — from Arkansas to Vicksburg, MS.
After breakfast, we packed the car and headed to Mississippi.
We arrived in Vicksburg after the National Park had closed, and we found the one movie theater in town to watch Jurassic World, then had pizza in our hotel room.
We awoke bright and early and headed to the park.
Though my experience with licensed guides has been mixed, we rented a guide for a two-hour tour of the Vicksburg National Military Park. He was really quite good and had a lot of interesting anecdotes to share. The tour lasted about two hours, which was an hour more than Tom or Sam could handle. The entrance arch was built with money left over from the “hands over the wall” reconciliation reunion event in the 1940s. Apparently four days into the seven day event, booze got the better of the attendees. They began beating on each other with canes and bashing each other with their wheel chairs. After the second battle of Vicksburg ended, everyone was sent home early, and the leftover money was used to pay for the arch.
Before embarking on our tour, however, we first watched a cannon firing demonstration. The park ranger did a very nice job of describing cannon firing and walking the spectators through the process.
I was surprised at the number of monuments at Vicksburg. There seemed to be more than at Shiloh, and the number rivaled Gettysburg — at least on a monument-to-square-mile basis.
The pride and joy of the park is the USS Cairo.
The Cairo was probably the first ship in the world sunk by an electronically detonated mine. This mine was likely a glass jar of explosives and a blasting cap. The ship went down in 12 minutes with no loss of life. It was found in the 1940s by a park ranger but wasn’t raised until the 1970s. After many years of restoration, it is on display. You can read about these early ironclad ships, but seeing one in person you really get an appreciation for the size.
The smoke and noise must have been terrible during a battle due to the close quarters.
I could have stayed a little longer, but by this time I was facing a mutiny, so we got on the road for New Orleans. We arrived in time to check into our hotel and then walk along the river and the street in front of our hotel.
Candy found a really nice — and crazy inexpensive — hotel in the French Quarter, close to the river, and near the center of all the shopping, called the French Market Inn. It appears to have been built over time by purchasing nearby buildings and combining them into a single hotel. The stairways go in all kinds of crazy directions. Rooms like this one were obviously part of an exterior wall at one time. The room was quite nice, and it was good to be within walking distance of just about everything we wanted to see.
As the hotel acquired nearby buildings to cobble into a single hotel, they created this nice interior courtyard with a small wading pool. It was a quiet escape from the hustle and bustle of the tourist trade outside.
So, here is a good place for a quick assessment of New Orleans: dirty and raunchy. It combines the worst of beachfront t-shirt shops, “homeless” people, pickpockets, and stench, with good food and zydeco music. All the tourist information warns visitors to travel in large groups and guard your valuables because of the gangs of thugs and pickpockets who roam the streets. While we didn’t see much of that, it just wasn’t my cup of tea. We were in the heavily patrolled tourist area, but you could easily wander a block in the wrong direction and spend your vacation dead. I’m glad we have visited in New Orleans, and I will probably return once to finish seeing the National WWII Museum, but otherwise, this city has little to interest me.
We were close to Jackson park, dedicated to Andrew Jackson, statues of Jean Lafitte, and this statue of Joan of Arc. The French heritage of New Orleans is everywhere. We wandered around, looking in stores, and sampling different types of hot sauces. We did not really sample the pubs, bars, and restaurants that featured live entertainment, but perhaps we will do that if we return.
Late our first evening, we began to get hungry, so we split a muffelata. These are enormous sandwiches filled with different meats, provolone cheese, and olive salad. Purportedly invented at the Central Market along Rue Decatur (where our hotel is located) by Sicilian immigrants, muffelatas are quite good. We had a chance to compare this one from a small street-side restaurant with the “original” from Central Market. Tom and my consensus was that we preferred the original.
A few years back, we visited the headwaters of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca state park in Minnesota. On this trip we came very close to where the Mississippi empties into the Gulf of Mexico.
The next morning we braved New Orleans traffic to get to Jean Lafitte Swamp Tours outside of town.
The four of us and another couple boarded one of these airboats and headed into the bayou in search of gators and Rougarou, the famous Louisiana swamp creature.
Our guide and his family have been involved in rescuing gator eggs, growing gators in captivity, and releasing them in the wild for many years. It was obvious that these guys cared about what they were doing, beyond the tourist trade.
After releasing a mature alligator (about four feet long), they try to ensure the gators have enough food to get them through their first winter as they learn to fend for themselves in the wild.
I expected to see gators and other wildlife from a distance. I didn’t expect to get this close.
This is NOT a petting zoo. These are wild gators in search of food.
When the travel brochure said we would get a chance to handle a gator, Sam wanted to know if it would be one with its mouth held shut or a “free range” gator. This is one of the gators these guys are raising for eventual release into the wild. We all got to hold him. It is surprising how soft their belly skin is.
After our airboat tour, we returned to the hotel to clean up and then walked to the National WWII Museum. This was originally the National D-Day Museum but is in the process of a major expansion. In four hours we probably only saw 30% of the collection. This is worth returning to New Orleans to see again!
The museum was quite large and getting larger. I don’t know for sure, but it felt larger than the Smithsonian Museum of American History. There were a number of interactive displays and some artifacts I’ve never seen in a museum before.
We walked back through town, traveling along Bourbon Street as long as we could stand it. To paraphrase Obi Wan Kenobi, it was a wretched hive of scum and villainy. I expected antique stores, small honky tonks with live music, and higher-end shops. Not so. While there is some of that on parallel streets, Bourbon Street was strip clubs, cheap shops with vulgar t-shirts, “homeless” people trying to get your cash, and smells that rival the trash compactor in Star Wars. All the trash is just thrown on the streets during the day and is picked up at night. This is not Disney.
Along the way, we passed picturesque scenes like this one that hint at the grandeur of old New Orleans.
We also stopped in Cafe du Monde for a beignet.
It was a good visit, and we got to see all the things I wanted to see — a swamp tour, a little of the French Quarter, and the WWII Museum. Other than wanting to spend more time in the WWII Museum, I think two nights were plenty. Tomorrow we will head to Columbus, GA, to visit Candy’s mom for two nights.
We began Day 4 with a visit to the Overholtzer Mansion in Oklahoma City. It was built in the early 1800s and remained in the same family until it was turned into a museum in the 1950s. Interestingly, through three generations, almost nothing in the house had been changed (other than the kitchen) since it was built.
The old television is one of the few updates to the house.
Our next stop was the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. We had been here once before when Tom was young and “before Sammy.”
There were some very nice displays of western themed art as well as excellent static displays on Indian life, ranching, the Army in the old west, and the Indian Wars.
One are that was neat was a recreation of a typical western town street. Each of the buildings could be entered and had nice staging with props. There were not plaques or explanatory signs. At first I thought this was a bit funny, but I guess those signs would have broken the ambiance of the street.
There was also a large area dedicated to Western movies.
The displays about the life of the cavalry and infantry on the plains were quite good. This is one of the few places I’ve seen any real mention of the infantry in the Indian wars. Most of the focus is usually on the cavalry.
After this museum we headed down to the stockyards district and had huge hunks of cow before heading out of town toward Arkansas.
We began Day 5 at Fort Smith in Arkansas. The fort’s history goes back to 1803 when two companies of the US rifle Regiment established the fort to try to quell unrest between Osage and Cherokee Indians. We didn’t expect to spend much time at Fort Smith, but there was enough to see that we stayed two hours.
By the time of the Indian Wars, Fort Smith was the major supply depot for the various forts in the Indian Territory (what is now Oklahoma). It was also the Federal Courthouse for a huge region of untamed territory. As such, Judge Parker’s court, assisted by hundreds of deputy marshals who scoured the Indian Territory for outlaws, dispensed sure and swift justice.
The visitor’s center has a nice movie about the history of the fort and a number of very interesting static displays. The recreation of the overcrowded jail facilities was quite interesting.
There was also an interesting display of the commissary, from which supplies were distributed to Indian reservations, Indians traveling the Trail of Tears, and the various US Army forts within the Indian Territory.
We then travelled to Petit Jean state park, Arkansas. Though a state park, Petit Jean has the feel of a National Park, including a grand lodge, hiking trails, boating, fishing, etc. We stayed in a “rustic cabin” that might be nicer than our house.
After checking into our cabin, we hiked to Cedar Falls. It was only two miles, but there was quite a bit of elevation change, and the humidity was terrific.
After our hike, we had dinner in the lodge restaurant. The food was excellent and very reasonably priced. We bought a bottle of muscadine grape juice and toasted to the fact that when this trip is completed we will have been to all fifty states as a family.
After dinner we spent a couple hours at the pool, staying until almost dark. Then we returned to our cabin to relax for the evening.
Tomorrow we are off to Mississippi.
Those who follow these blog postings know that we have had a goal to visit all fifty states as a family before Tom goes off to college. These next few blog posts will document this summer’s vacation and our last seven (or so) states toward that goal. We will complete this quest three days before taking Tom up to West Point to begin “Beast Barracks,” a.k.a. Cadet Basic Training.
Day one was just a travel day. After working four hours Wednesday morning, I packed, and we headed to the airport. After three flights and a Whataburger in the Dallas airport, we arrived at Ft. Bliss, TX, for the night. The next morning we drove from Ft. Bliss to Carlsbad Caverns, arriving around lunchtime. We had a pretty good lunch in the snack bar and then headed into the caves.
There are two self-guided tours of the caverns. The first begins at the natural entrance, shown above. We descended about 750 feet through a series of switch backs and trails through interesting rock formations. We’ve been to other cave systems, and some of the Venturers have even done crawl-through-the-mud spelunking, but the shear size of these caverns is hard to imagine until you see it yourself.
The caves are inhabited by hundreds of thousands of small bats that come out at night to hunt (more on that later). Their daytime perches are well hidden up in the “rafters,” because we never saw any during our four hours underground.
At the “bottom” of the natural entrance self-guided tour, is the “big room.” This includes a snack bar and souvenir shop as well as latrines. The latrines were interesting. You walk down what looks like an unimproved cave “hallway” that ends in modern, porcelain facilities. This area also has elevators to take you back to the surface — emptying you in the gift shop.
The second self-guided tour begins here and is of the “big room.” This is where you really get a chance to see how big Carlsbad Caverns are.
The park ranger we met while descending into the caverns said that Carlsbad Caverns are the largest “rooms” of any caves known in North America. The longest cave system (measured in number of caves? linear feet? hammerdoos?) is Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. Serendipitously, we are going to see Mammoth Cave later in the trip and will provide our comparisons of the two.
It is difficult to see the scale of these caves, but they are at least 100 feet tall here.
After our four hours in the caves we checked into our hotel just outside the national park in White’s City. The hotel was next to a small “water park,” which was included in our room rate. We spent a little time on the giant water slide and in the pool before heading to dinner. There is one restaurant in White’s City and Yelp destroyed it, so we went to Happy’s half way to the city of Carlsbad.
Happy’s was the kind of local hole in the wall we like to take in while on vacation. There was a lot of kitschy stuff on the walls and scattered around. While you sat in booths, you ordered at the counter. The woman behind the counter cracked me up. Sam wanted a small steak. When I ordered it, she just looked at me and shook her head. “You’re out of them?” “No,” she replied in a conspiratorial voice, “They’re small, thin, purchased at Walmart, and the chef doesn’t know how to cook them.” So, Sam had the chicken fried steak instead. The “normal” hamburger that I had was 3/4 pound and excellent. This place wasn’t much on ambiance, but the food was great!
After dinner we went back to Carlsbad Caverns for the night bat show. Every evening about dusk, those hundreds of thousands of bats swarm out of the cave entrance for their nocturnal hunting.
See a nice video here.
Day three was mostly a travel day to get from New Mexico to Oklahoma City. Along the way we made a couple of stops to break up the long drive. Despite rain of Biblical proportions in the evening we arrived safely in Oklahoma City — to find out there was a mix-up at the hotel and our rooms hadn’t been cleaned. We had to wait almost a half hour in the lobby while they called the chief maid back to prepare our room.
One of my favorite fast food places is Wienerschnitzel, which specializes in hotdogs. Their chili dogs are excellent. These are all over Texas, and we used to frequent one when we lived in College Station. I just HAD to stop and have some Wienerschnitzel chili dogs and their “Polish sandwich” as we passed through Lubbock.
Outside Amarillo, we had to stop at Cadillac Ranch. For some unknown reason these cars have been buried nose down in the mud just off of I-40 West of Amarillo. People go out and spray paint the cars. What was kind of interesting as “pop art,” looks a little junky with all the used and partially used cans of spray paint strewn around.
Our last stop on our way through Amarillo before racing arks carrying pairs of animals to Oklahoma City was a real gem. Just outside Amarillo is Jack Sizemore’s Traveland RV Museum. These folks claim to be the oldest RV retailer in Texas. Jack Sizemore has been collecting and refurbishing RVs for years. He decided to devote some of his lot to erecting a metal building and turning it into a museum to give his customers something to do while waiting for their RVs to be repaired or serviced.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but this was a real pleasure to visit.
One thing that was nice is that you can enter almost every trailer. They all have period-appropriate props and decorations. Except for one or two things marked with “do not sit” or “do not touch” signs, visitors are free to go where they want. There are no docents or guards.
This is an example of how visitors are allowed to interact with the various displays. I found it amazing that there weren’t a bunch of rope lines to keep you away from the displays.
All the displays have signs in front of them to explain a little of the history of each trailer.
As I mentioned earlier, this little museum was originally built to give waiting customers something to do. Look at this map showing the homes of people who have visited the museum. Like Old Pioneer Village in Nebraska, this was an unexpected treat.