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August 2016

John J. Audubon Museum

by Richie
John J. Audubon Museum

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Henderson, Kentucky
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John J. Audubon (1785-1851) was a failure. He spent most of his life trying his hand at different businesses and failing miserably. He fled France using a false passport to avoid being conscripted into Napoleon’s army and landed in The New World with yellow fever. Quarantined with Quakers in New York, he learned to speak English and then proceeded to bankrupt every venture he tried. Audubon wandered from Philadelphia to Boston, Cincinnati to Louisville, and down to New Orleans without finding success. He was barely able to feed his family and often his wife provided support by teaching. All the while Audubon was sketching and drawing. He loved to paint wildlife and often joined hunting parties of both Indians and Frontiersmen, keen to document new American species.

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In 1826, at the age of 41, Audubon finally hit success in London with his series of woodland paintings. The exotic wilds of America were fascinating to Europeans, and Audubon sold expensive subscriptions to his monumental work, Birds of America.

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Printed as “double-elephant folios” (meaning extra large), Audubon’s birds were presented life size on hand-colored lithographs. The series made him a rich man, and today an original Audubon lithograph is worth a fortune.

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Audubon did not paint his birds from life – he painted them from death. He hunted and killed each of his subjects in order to study them closely. Which is why nearly every bird in an Audubon painting has a wobbly neck. It was deceased.

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A hundred years later, his museum was built in Henderson, Kentucky by the CCC as part of Roosevelt’s jobs program. Audubon had lived for some time in Henderson, and so the town claimed him as a native son.

Visiting here was a fine end to our Summer History Lesson Tour, and we hope you’ve enjoyed following the trip, too!

 

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Abe Lincoln’s Springfield

by Richie
Abe Lincoln’s Springfield

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Springfield, Illinois
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The Illinois State Fair, held in Springfield, is one of the country’s largest. We arrived too late to visit the fair, but took advantage of their large and mostly empty campground. I asked the camp hosts how the Fair was this year and they replied in unison, “Terrible!” It was in fact a disaster, qualifying for a FEMA rescue. On opening day the fairgrounds had 5 inches of rain in 90 minutes. There was so much rain so quickly it blew the manhole covers off the sewers. Carnival vendors and livestock exhibitors who were camped in a low-lying area had all their equipment destroyed by flood and the fair closed down for several days. When we arrived a week later there were still deep muddy ruts in the grass where RVs had to be towed out. TOMB

We started our tour of Abe Lincoln’s Springfield backwards – by visiting his tomb first. The fairgrounds is a few blocks from the historic district and we walked down tree-lined streets, past tidy houses built in the 1900’s, to Oak Ridge Cemetery where Lincoln’s tomb is located. The towering obelisk is flanked by enormous bronze statues commemorating the Armed Forces under Lincoln’s command – Calvary, Artillery, Navy, and Infantry. Sixty-five cannons left over from the Civil War were melted down to create these statues. The marbled interior of the monument contains Lincoln’s tomb and the resting place for his wife and several children. capitol

Downtown Springfield is a dozen blocks from the fairgrounds; a perfect motorcycle ride through shady neighborhoods into the State Capitol area. Straddling Sixth and Jefferson Streets is a large complex, the Abraham Lincoln President Library and Museum. We entered the museum, and I was expecting it to be yet another dusty yawn of facts and figures. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Without exaggeration, this is the best historical museum we’ve seen. The presentation and displays were lively, intimate, stirring, and clever. The museum drew us in and held our rapt attention for over two hours. The experience begins in the lobby where costumed docents wander freely to greet you. Lincoln’s history unfolds in a series of display rooms from his early days as a pioneer settler to his path to the White House. Life size figures are in fully decorated rooms that place you directly within the scene, instead of merely being a viewer. The windows blew a cold draft, the wood stove was warm to the touch, snores are heard from under the coverlets. And the figures were the best I’ve ever seen. You could nearly reach up and catch a tear falling from a slave’s eye.MUSEUM

Each diorama was staged down to the tiniest detail, such as scraps on the floor, flickering lights, and street sounds coming from the windows. One room presented the entirety of Civil War battles on an animated map, from beginning to end, in four minutes. I was quite moved with the funeral room, which recreated Lincoln lying in state in the Springfield State Capitol. There were also two theater presentations that were simply astonishing, including a holographic actor and theater seats that rumbled with sound effects. First class and better than Disney. AB HOME

Traveling a few blocks south is Abe & Mary’s two-story home where they lived for many years. Their house and the surrounding four blocks of the neighborhood are preserved as a National Park Monument. Free tours are available through the Lincoln home and 80% of the furnishings are original to the Lincoln’s. COZY

We stopped at a slightly more modern historic spot for lunch – Cozy Dog Drive In. This roadside diner was on the original Route 66 highway and claims to have invented the corn dog. We ordered six.

Springfield is a big town, population 117,000, but we were content concentrating on just the historic parts. It’s our History Lesson Summer Tour.

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Mark Twain’s Hannibal

by Richie
Mark Twain’s Hannibal

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Hannibal, Missouri
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The celebrated American author and humorist Mark Twain (born Samuel Clemens, 1835-1910) was raised in Hannibal, Missouri. A bustling riverboat port during the time of slavery, Hannibal had curiously odd residents who later became the inspiration for many of Twain’s characters: rough riverboat captains, desperate runaway slaves, riff-raff river boys, and prim townsfolk. His most famous books, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer were set in Hannibal and the characters were a composite of people Twain remembered as a boy.

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Today Twain would feel right at home, as Hannibal still has a river port with a steamboat and preserved turn-of-the-century downtown buildings. What Twain wouldn’t recognize is the proliferation of his name and image on every possible marquee, and he’d be astonished at how he has become a singularity in this town. It’s Mark Twain everything here. Which is why we’ve come!

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We started our tour at the Mark Twain Museum and I was overjoyed to find a dozen original Norman Rockwell paintings upstairs. Rockwell illustrated editions of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, and his sketches and proofs were on display, too.

The Clemens’ home is also preserved as a museum. Samuel’s father died at a young age (he rode through a storm on horseback and caught pneumonia) and his mother had to take in boarders to make the rent. In fact, young Samuel was forced to leave school at age 11 because the family couldn’t afford 25 cents per week to pay the teacher. Sam Clemens finished his education by apprenticing with a printer to set type (called a “printer’s devil”) and he credits that time spent proofreading with making him a discerning writer.

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On the hills spreading from downtown are the old residential areas. Victorian homes line the streets, some rather ragged and ramshackle. Above them all, on a tall cliff, stands Rockcliffe Mansion. This 14,000 sq. ft. home was built at the turn of the century by lumber baron John J. Cruikshank. It’s filled with art nouveau furnishings, Tiffany lamps, and period antiques. When Cruikshank died, his widow took her clothes and one favorite chair, locked the door and left for good. The mansion stood abandoned for 43 years and the Hannibal city council wanted to demolish it. But local citizens banded together to save the property and now it’s open for tours and overnight stays.

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About a mile out of town, high on a bluff above the Mississippi River, is Lovers Leap – a promontory where legend has that two Indian lovers from competing tribes leapt to their fate rather than be separated. This spot was featured in Twain’s novels and spurred three adventurous boys in 1967 to scale the cliff like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. Tragically they were never seen again, despite months of searching.

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Tim Sawyer & Barky Thatcher

Our campground was also filled with attractions including the Mark Twain Cave (where Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher got lost) and a one-man show by a skilled impersonator that kept us giggling as he recited humorous Twain stories. The cave was an unusual honeycomb of narrow passages, about elbow wide, and was discovered in 1819 by Jack Sims who chased a panther down a hole. In Twain’s time, the cave was an exciting adventure shared by all of Hannibal’s children who would pack candles and a picnic lunch and go exploring.

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We ended our tour to Hannibal with a riverboat cruise on the Mississippi. As the saying goes – It’s too thin to plow, and too thick to drink!

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Corn Rows

by Richie
Corn Rows

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Driving an RV through a major metro city isn’t on the top of my Fun List. So skirting around St. Louis on the secondary county roads was how the day was spent. From Carlyle we pointed north about 175 miles, and got a good look at thousands of acres of corn and the tiny farming towns in between. The roads were straight and smooth, and we made steady miles with hardly any traffic except the occasional tractor puttering from one field to another.

This flat prairie, with its predominant color of drying corn stalks, abruptly turned verdant green as we approached the Illinois River. The corn rows gave way to thick woods and rolling hills along The Great River Road of Illinois.

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Crossing over the Illinois River we stopped for lunch in Kampsville. There was a swell picnic pavilion with a good view of the free ferry running back and forth across the river. Why the ferry transits here in this one-lane town I’m not sure, unless it’s to avoid the ancient (almost one lane) bridge we crossed in Hardin nine miles downstream. That would be worth avoiding – kinda like St. Louis.

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Dam West

by Richie
Dam West

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Dam West Recreation Area
Carlyle Lake, Illinois
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In southern Illinois, we are once again enjoying the efforts of the tireless Corps of Engineers. Back in 1958, the CoE flooded the plains surrounding the Kaskaskia River to create the 26,000 acre Carlyle Lake as a reservoir. Two dams are located here, and we are staying at Dam West campground. It’s a splendid spot, with enormous camp sites, mature trees, and in full view of the sparkling lake.

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This lake is a big draw for the region as a sailing spot, and the marina was all masts with nary a motorboat in sight. Other than Carlyle Lake, the surrounding country is a bit unremarkable, save for thousands of acres of corn and an occasional tavern at a lonely crossroad. Big Agra business is seen in the form of giant granaries and milling operations, most locally owned and family operated. We have crossed into what’s called America’s bread basket – the flat prairie that eventually yields to the Great Plains.CORN

 

 

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Corvettes & Confederates

by Richie
Corvettes & Confederates

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Bowling Green, Kentucky
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For a brief period of time during the Civil War, Bowling Green was the Provisional Capitol of the Confederate States of America. Despite the town declaring itself neutral and telling everyone to leave them alone, the CSA occupied Bowling Green for about six months. Then after General Ulysses Grant lobbed some cannon balls, the city fell under Union control for the next two years.

At Fountain Square Park you can still find Confederate memorials and stone archways engraved with the CSA emblem. So the rebels managed to leave an enduring mark on the city anyway.

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Back then Bowling Green was a bustling river port and railway center. Today the town is still hopping, fueled by the energy of auto and textile industries (Corvette and Fruit of the Loom) as well as a big injection of youth culture (Western Kentucky University).

This is a sprawling and prosperous city, and it kept surprising us at every turn. We came here to service the RV and ended up touring around town for two days, courtesy of Enterprise’s exceptional $19/day rental car rate and free pick-up service.

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We started our tour of Bowling Green at the National Corvette Museum. Its huge yellow Skydome, unmistakably visible from the highway, has beckoned us for years. Even if you’re not a die-hard motor head, this is a first-class museum worth the stop. And if you’re into cars, well, it’s nothing short of Mecca.

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There are scores of gleaming Corvettes on display, from antique and rare, to celebrated racers, and even futuristic concept cars. Gear heads can go deep into the descriptions provided for each car, reading about exciting details like “finned drum brakes with sintered metallic linings and forward self-adjusting mechanisms.”  The rest of us can just enjoy the beauty and artistry of one of the pinnacles in automotive design.

Corvette Cave In

You may recall that in 2014 the floor of the Skydome opened up and a giant sinkhole swallowed a dozen prized Corvettes in one gulp. It was a freak disaster and collectors around the world were in deep mourning. But the good folks at the museum rolled up their sleeves and got to work. They hauled crushed Corvette carcasses out of the hole, poured umpteen tons of concrete and steel reinforcement into the gaping cavern, and then put the cars…this is really unbelievable…right back in the same spot. A whole new wing featuring the Skydome Cave-In was added, complete with pictures, chunks of rock, and geological explanations. The new displays include a simulated cave hole where you can watch the showroom floor collapse accompanied by deep rumbling sound effects. You can even play a video game of a crane retrieving each crushed car. And inside the Skydome you can walk along the fault line marked on the floor with red tape and cry over the mangled muddy Corvettes in the center.

I truly applaud the museum’s ability to move forward from such a huge loss, especially since they are only funded by private donations. But I was also eyeing the floor a bit uneasily, watching for hairline cracks. So it was time to move along.

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After checking into a cozy KOA campground we hopped into our cheap rental car and discovered the Aviation Heritage Park just down the street. In the middle of a residential area, four military jets are unexpectedly lounging around a lovely little park. Each plane and pilot has been given a plaque commemorating their aviation accomplishments, and by tuning your car radio to a specific FM station you can hear additional history about the planes. We listened to a recording of Brig. Gen. Dan Cherry during an intense dogfight and the downing a MiG-21. It was a bit chilling, thinking that the enemy pilot probably lost his life during that sortie, but in fact Lieutenant Nguyen Hong survived the crash and years later was the guest of honor when Aviation Heritage Park formally opened. The story is chronicled in Cherry’s book, My Enemy – My Friend.

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The next morning we piloted our RV to a Camping World service bay. Tired of our own dogfight with the steering wheel, we are upgrading the suspension by adding beefy anti-sway bars to the front and rear. This should correct the white knuckle side-to-side roll on this coach. According to all the reviews, the modification will “make the RV handle like a family sedan and take curves smooth as butter.” We’ll see.

While the coach was in the shop, we tossed Coco into doggy day care, too. That gave us a whole day at liberty with the rental car, and the first order of business was a giant pancake breakfast at IHop. There were dozens of swell restaurants to choose from, but IHop was what we craved.

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Sufficiently fueled for adventure, we headed for another of Bowling Green’s signature attractions – Lost River Cave. This cave is toured by boat along a shallow but swift creek. Twenty of us piled into an aluminum skiff for a short ride through the dark, dank cave. Our guide explained that there are no bats here because this cave is not a hibernaculum. I liked that word so much I made her repeat it twice. Hibernaculum. We also learned more Confederate history – rebels camped at the cave and discovered a bottomless man-eating pond. And we heard another tall tale about Jesse James hiding out here after robbing a bank in Russellville of $60 grand.

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We killed some time at a groovy comic book store and then stumbled across a Popsicle joint where they hand-make frozen treats from local produce. (I had the raspberry/basil version and it was divine.) By mid-afternoon it was time to retrieve the dog from the kennel and fetch the RV from the dealer.

There’s a lot more to Bowling Green that we’ve yet to discover, so I think we’ll mosey back this way again. Hopefully without “rolling” into town!

 

 

 

 

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Steady Bee

by Richie
Steady Bee

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The corn top’s ripe and the meadow’s in the bloom…

According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, this week marks the official end to the Dog Days of Summer. So there’s hope that these hot, hazy, humid afternoons that fog our windows and send us galloping indoors to the depths of central air-conditioning may be dwindling down to a temperature more in the range of what a human can reasonably tolerate, without risking heat stroke just by walking to the car.

 

hoverflyThis has been the summer of Steady Bees. The steady bee is a small insect with a yellow and black striped body that mimics a bumble bee. But unlike a bee, they have no stinger and only two wings, which technically makes them a fly. (Bees have four wings.) The peculiar talent of the steady bee is to hover about an inch off a flat surface, which is usually your arm, leg, phone, or any other object in your immediate vicinity. Occasionally the steady bee will land and take a momentary rest, again on your arm, leg, or coffee cup rim, but mostly they hover in place. In fact, the real name for these manifestly annoying insects is the Hover Fly. And we are full-up with them this year.

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Steady bees hover around anywhere there is a slice of shade. Under the gazebo, beneath the steps, below the door handle, around the carport. These are all the places that we hover around too, and so we are persistently swarmed by steady bees.

 

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A quick flick of the hand will disperse a posse of steady bees long enough to make an escape and sprint into the house or hustle into a car. And since we are always doing these kind of things, entering the house for instance, or standing under the gazebo which is the only source of shade for a good part of the day, we are in a constant state of herky-jerky arm flailing. If we had flags in our hands we would be sending semaphore signals to the fleet.

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As it is, the Great Steady Bee Battle is only a small part of our ongoing war with a vast and insidious onslaught of painful and loathsome rural insects. There are horseflies and wasps, hornets and yellow jackets, bumble bees and sweat bees, and the invisible evil twins chiggers and turkey mites, who launch themselves unseen from the tall grass and burrow under your skin, usually in places unmentionable and terribly tender. And then there’s the ticks. Big ticks and little ticks. Dog ticks and deer ticks. And teeny weeny micro-ticks that are so small they can easily masquerade as a freckle until you realize, often unhappily days later, that you’ve been a warm meal for the little bloodsucker since you walked across that unmown field last Tuesday.

Come to think of it, maybe I’ll just stay on the porch with the steady bees.

 

 

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Axtel

by Richie
Axtel

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Axtel Campground at Rough River Lake
McDaniels, Kentucky
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Kentucky is blessed with a multitude of lakes and waterways and most of these places are the product of the peerless Army Corps of Engineers. Their mission is to “Deliver vital public and military engineering services; partnering in peace and war to strengthen our Nation’s security, energize the economy and reduce risks from disasters.”  

corpsThe Corps of Engineers, first commissioned by Thomas Jefferson, has a long and notable place in history. From the Panama Canal to the Normandy landing, the Washington Monument and Kennedy Space Center, the footprint of the CoE is everywhere. And perhaps most well-known is their management of dams, locks, and waterways. The CoE is the lead federal flood control agency, and delivers one-quarter of our nation’s hydroelectric power.

And here on Rough River Lake, far removed from battle plans and disaster relief, we are benefitting from the CoE’s secondary mission as a “leading provider of recreation.” Axtel campground

Axtel campground on Rough River Lake is a Corps property, and as always I was suitably impressed with the thoughtful layout of the camp sites and how well they are maintained. In our area, CoE camps are always superior to state parks, and that’s the difference that federal funding makes.

We spent a swell weekend camping at Axtel with friends, two things we hardly ever do – camp with friends and go to a lake on a busy summer weekend. Every camp site was occupied but folks quieted down nicely at night. No drunken yahoos here. 

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We enjoyed lots of lolling and strolls around the campground. Tim & I took a float in the water while Todd & Em kayaked around the cove. Big steaks were grilled over an open fire on a clever tripod device, and then a guitar lesson was held in the RV. 

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It was a good getaway for the weekend and an easy-peasy ride to get there. I’ll have to put Axtel on my favorites list because I’d sure like to come back.

 

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