On this Labor Day morning, we are heading west across Kansas where the early morning sun is chasing us, splashing its burnt orange light on the world. We left New Hampshire August 22 which was six weeks to the day from Peter’s hip replacement surgery. His recovery continues to amaze everyone, including his surgeon, and after years of chronic and increasing pain, he is reveling in the reality of being pain-free. In light of the priorities for his recovery and healing, we did two major things before beginning our westward journey.
First, we invested in a heavy-duty bed slide for the back of the truck which completely eliminates the need to climb into the truck (and potentially twisting in ways that a new hip-replacement isn’t supposed to go). The slide pulls out 70% of the way so the things that we regularly need when setting up camp will now be easily accessible without the gymnastics of climbing up and in. With the help of friends and family, Peter was able to build some shelves around the edges of the bed slide in the front and along the sides of the truck. This provides storage for items we don’t always need in a campsite.
The second thing we did was to re-plan our original route, eliminating a side trip to visit family near Toronto and cutting back on the total miles driven each day. These shorter driving days mean we are able to arrive at our series of mostly one-night-stand campgrounds around 3:00pm. Since we do not unhook, we have time every day for some hikes/walks and Peter has plenty of time for his physical therapy and strengthening exercises. When possible, every three days or so, we are staying in campgrounds with full hook-ups, making our lives much easier.
On our first stop after leaving Keene, we spent four days visiting our dear friends in upstate New York. Jim helped Peter re-organize the contents in the back of the truck and they secured the items on the shelves in the most efficient way. From there we stopped in Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ohio and then to Jackson Center, Ohio and the Airstream factory where we had a failed exhaust fan replaced. We also picked up a set of pink flamingos (a kitchy Airstream thing, the flamingos are still made in Peter’s boyhood home town of Leominster, MA). We stopped in Prophetstown State Park, Indiana at a gorgeous campground without the chance to tour the nearby Tippecanoe Battlefield. Next time. Then we spent our last night east of the Mississippi River in Chandlerville, Illinois in a place called Jim Edgar Panther Creek State Park with lovely open prairies and lush green grasses from the summer rains.
We crossed the Mississippi at Quincy, Illinois on our way to Missouri and our next campground a commercial site called Cottonwoods RV Park, in Columbia, Missouri, a perfect one-night stop with easy access to I-70. We were surrounded all on sides of this completely full campground by folks gearing up for the big football game the next day between University of Missouri and Missouri State. We were grateful that this was night before the game, and not the night after because no matter who won, there would most definitely be some festivities.
There are two things to mention here about this late-summer crossing. By the time we hit Missouri we realized that we had been looking at corn and soybean fields for about eight hundred miles, that’s right, eight hundred miles! When you live most of your life in the northeast, it is easy to forget the fecundity of this country’s midwest. The agriculture and farming is so deeply ingrained in this region that local TV and radio broadcasts include weather reports and soil conditions routinely.
Along US 30 we noticed assorted farm vehicles – from small back-hoes to parts of irrigation systems to fertilizers – with For Sale signs on them, every few miles along the road. When we asked, we learned that this is the time when most farmers are selling their crops and have income and are more likely to buy equipment they found they are needing for next season.
The second thing we noticed as we crossed Missouri and headed into Kansas were the miles and miles of wild sunflowers, millions and millions of them, along the highway. Unlike fields of cultivated sunflowers that we saw in North Dakota, these untamed varieties have arranged themselves in clumps and clusters along the roadside and then, hopping the guardrails, create great swaths of brilliant yellow as they rush into open fields and ravines.
We landed for two nights at one of our favorite Corps of Engineers campgrounds, Tuttle Creek Lake, in Manhattan, Kansas. Even though there were fellow campers here for another football game between Kansas State and Central Arkansas State, this place was much more sedate.
We spent a couple of hours on a very warm late-morning hiking the Konza Prairie Nature Trail in the beautiful Flint Hills. We discovered the Flint Hills when we were here last year and fell in love with the place. Konza Prairie was closed then because of heavy rains so we looked forward to returning to hike in this 8,600 acre tract of native tall grass prairie. Purchased originally by The Nature Conservancy in 1977, the tract is managed by the Division of Biology at Kansas State University.
Along the trail one can see the limestone outcroppings of the Flint Hills that have preserved the largest untouched natural tallgrass prairie in the United States. The soils are shallow and the layers of limestone so thick that the land was not able to be plowed. The dominant tallgrass species are big bluestem, Indian grass, little bluestem and switchgrass and we learned that the big bluestem, in a good year, will top 10 to 12 feet in height while its root system can reach the same depth into the soil. Asters, goldenrod, sunflowers, globe thistle are in bloom.
Thick stands of bur oak and something called chinquapin oak, American elm, and cottonwoods offered welcomed cool spots on the mostly open trail. The remains of a Swedish homestead (1898) sit nestled in a ravine under towering oaks.
While we did not see them, there is a bison herd of about 200 here in the preserve, continuing the legacy of the herd that once filled this tallgrass prairie. To this day, the preserve is periodically burned, mimicking nature’s way of managing the vegetation and nutrient value of the food source for migrating animals.
This was a peaceful respite on our journey west and as we head toward Colorado and Wyoming we invite your company. Bet you can’t wait to see these plastic beauties set up as accessories to T2 at some future campsite, right? We’ll post pictures.
Peter and Liz resume their pilgrimage to here in their Airstream, crossing the great Midwest onto their next destinations in Colorado and Wyoming.