Tag Archive | roadtrip

IOWA

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I decided to take a quick roadtrip through the Midwest this summer – the middle of the Midwest, the part where no one goes for vacation!  I drove across northern Iowa, then down its Western border, and continued following the Missouri River through its namesake state all the way down to its mouth in St. Louis.  I popped in to South Dakota and Nebraska, but Kansas offered too much traffic for me to brave.  You don’t think of traffic when you think of Kansas, do you?  

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In case you thought Iowa was nothing but corn, you can rest assured that there are soybeans here, too.

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This giant statue of Pocahontas, along with a lot of historic signs about the real “Indian princess,” filled the town of Pocahontas, Iowa. Yes, you are remembering history correctly: Pocahontas was a figure in early Virginia history, at a time when no one even knew Ohio existed, let alone Iowa.

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Somewhere around Oelwein, IA, the Driftless Area ends and the land flattens out. I was in foreign territory once I’d crossed the Wapsapinnicon… which became obvious as KwikStars gave way to Kum & Gos.

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Onawa, Iowa (that’s 2/3 vowels for those counting) has the widest main street in the world. According to the sign.

This wasn’t just a whim; I had destinations in mind.  When conceiving of the trip, those sites seemed disjunct, just a mix of places and things that I might be interested in.  As I traveled, though, the pattern became obvious.  I drove through cornfields to find prairies, through a modern metropolis to find an ancient civilization.  I was exploring the beginnings of the American West, the conquering of wilderness, the root of our national psyche.  There in the cornbelt, surrounded by the simple life, I found myself feeling that I was on the cusp of great excitement.  In the middle of nowhere, at the edge of everything.  Maybe Iowa should adopt that as its new motto.

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It really is corn as far as the eye can see, even in the rolling hills of Western Iowa, where the eye can see much farther…

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Somewhere in the western part of Iowa, the towns get farther apart and the road ditches fill with prairie.

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In addition to beans and corn, there is wind in

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Iowa. These windmill farms use different technology than some of the others I have seen.

Mammoth Cave

I found myself winding through the hill country south of Louisville as the sun began to set.  There was no need to get off onto side roads – the scenery was amazing from the highway (and the same was true on the trip back north through Lexington).  I was having trouble deciphering the Kentucky State Park campground information, so decided to spend the night at Mammoth Cave National Park.  After a sub-freezing night among the oaks in the campground, I decided to wake up early, pack up quickly, and get in line for the first cave tour of the day.  The second accidental detour of the trip was another wonderful experience!

The scenery at the Mammoth Cave NP campground is lovely, but if it would have been busier, the quarters might have seemed a bit cramped.

The scenery at the Mammoth Cave NP campground is lovely, but if it would have been busier, the quarters might have seemed a bit cramped.

The park was busier than I would have expected for a weekday in October, and the tour I was hoping to take sold out with the customer in front of me.  After chatting with the very helpful park staff, I decided on the “Historic” tour, which was also enjoyable.  After my limited experience, I would recommend that you not visit the park as I did!  Plan to spend two full days, and include some above-ground hikes and maybe two different cave tours, one each day.  It really is an amazing natural wonder, and worth a little bit more attention!

The lobby at the park was lovely - a brand new building that evoked some of the earliest National Park architecture.  The line for tours curled around one side, while the other had a small museum so you could get a geology lesson while you waited.

The lobby at the park was lovely – a brand new building that evoked some of the earliest National Park architecture. The line for tours curled around one side, while the other had a small museum so you could get a geology lesson while you waited.

Mammoth Cave, unlike many of the other “show caves,” is largely a “dead,” or dry cave.  That is, in most of the cave there are no showy stalactites and stalagmites, no pretty colors with minerals trapped in the calcite, or water dripping into pools.  In fact, as the Historic tour showcases, the cave was dry enough to have had many uses throughout history.  The cave was carved as a channel of the Green River passed underground, eating away at the limestone in the process.  Over millennia, the above-ground river carved a deeper and deeper passage through its valley, and the altitude of the underground portion of the river decreased accordingly.  This created several layers of passages, connected by vertical tunnels, and in the lowest of these, the river continues to flow today (in the cave, they call it the River Styx).   As a result, Mammoth Cave is, with 365 miles of known passages, twice as long as any other cave in the world!

Early visitors to the cave had to tour by the light of flares, which they used to inscribe their names in soot on the ceiling!

Early visitors to the cave had to tour by the light of flares, which they used to inscribe their names in soot on the ceiling!

Members of my cave tour ahead, in the dim light.

Members of my cave tour ahead, in the dim light.

It is possible to take a hike through the oak- and maple-dominated upland to the point where the River Styx comes out of the ground and re-joins the main Green.  I wish I would have taken that hike, as well as one to areas of the park which contain older-growth forest.  If you go, spend more time than I did, and tell me all about what I missed!

Something Great in the Hoosier State (after all)

I left northern Wisconsin after a half-day of work, hoping to arrive in northern Indiana before making camp for the night.  I picked a spot on the map that was both far enough from the Chicagoland area to mean I was really on vacation, and that had a little campground symbol.  This place was Tippecanoe River State Park, and it turned out to be just far enough out of urbanity that my eyes had trouble staying open by the time I got there.  It also turned out to be a pretty cool stopover.

Large oaks in an open woods

Large oaks in an open woods

 

Arriving in the middle of the night, this state park did not seem very promising, from an “experiencing nature” perspective.  Although a Tuesday evening in October, the campground was quite busy.  Busy with large RV’s, generators running because temperatures were near freezing, and decorated for Halloween.  Apparently there is some sort of annual competition for the best Halloween decorations at this park.  And by “decorations” they apparently mean copious lighted objects, string lights, flashing lights, and other light-type apparati in the orange-and-purple spectrum.  Think your neighborhood’s obnoxious Christmas decorations… in October… in a campground.  Not that appealing for those of us in a tent, but so be it.

By morning light, though, the party lites lost their luster (and got turned off), and there was time for a quick walk to stretch the legs before getting back in the vehicle and driving south.  Turned out to be not so quick, partly because the trail system was a little bit confusing, and partly because it was so darn

Uh...what?

Uh…what?

cool.  The park had a variety of ecosystems, from floodplain forests along the Tippecanoe, to a wetland impoundment, upland white oak woods, grassland, etc.  Most of my hike meandered through the oak woods, and even into a (very) small section of “barrens.”  A few white pines grew here and there in the area, at the southern end of their range, and white oaks grew alongside post oaks near the northern end of their range.  The barrens had many of the same trees and wildflowers that we see in sandy soils of central and northern Wisconsin – neat to see, a few hundred miles to the south.  From a land management perspective, it was immediately apparent that the park staff were doing an excellent job of maintaining an open woods, and keeping invasive plants under control.  Go Hoosiers! (Might be the first time I’ve said that).

Barrens habitat and changing fall colors... several weeks behind northern WI!

Barrens habitat and changing fall colors… several weeks behind northern WI!

Wetland at Tippecanoe.  They had drawn down the impoundment, so only shorebirds were using the mudflats... but I was a little too late in the year for shorebirds!

Wetland at Tippecanoe. They had drawn down the impoundment, so only shorebirds were using the mudflats… but I was a little too late in the year for shorebirds!

If walking around a labyrinthine trail system in deep sand looking at trees isn’t your bag, I’ve heard from a friend that the Battle of Tippecanoe historic site is also in that area.  I missed it in the middle of the night, but if I had it to do over again, I would want to stop there.  Check it out and let me know how it is!

Birding is Fun After All!

October 30-31, 2010

Brazos Bend State Park, TX

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I rolled into Brazos Bend State Park just before Halloween.  I had struggled with the decision, wondering whether it was worth stopping in just to see a few more alligators, which the park is known for.  I decided to visit for a couple hours, take a short loop hike and check out the ‘gators, than head north.  Instead, I wound up staying all afternoon, overnight, and half of the next day… and discovered how cool waterfowl could be!

They say that pictures are worth a thousand words, so I’ll just limit the narrative here to captions:

Alligator Retreating

Trees overhanging the trail
Swamp cedar roots sprouting from the muck

The alligator really was this close… and this big! But it wasn’t moving too quickly…
White Ibis
Fulvous Tree Duck – these were not only funny-looking but funny-sounding too, as they called to their flock of chicks! 
Black-crowned Night Heron
Ibis, Egrets, and Louisiana Herons       

Cormorant
Common Moorhen (Gallinule)
The whitetails down in Texas are naturally much smaller than our big bucks up north!

Wildlife on the Texas Coast

October 27, 2010

Miles 7901-8080

Padre Island, TX to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, TX

After leaving Padre Island, I headed north up the coast, stopping for seafood in a small town.  Unfortunately, their bay wasn’t opening for oyster harvest until the coming weekend, but I got to sample some other local specialties, with a side of hush puppies.

Fresh water at Aransas

That afternoon, I got to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, where I was hoping to spot some of the early Whooping Crane arrivals.  While one pair had indeed arrived that week, they were staying deep in the refuge, in an area inaccessible by the casual visitor (as I was).  I drove the loop road, though, and got out to walk at every opportunity.  With the continued strong winds, only larger birds were flying, and they were staying low.  From an observation tower, I got to watch ospreys fish in the ocean and herons on the adjacent flats.  And… I came across a few alligators!  It was a fun experience, but I’d like to go back sometime when the rest of the birds are aloft…

Green Heron

Great Blue Herons at Aransas NWR

Heron bathing in the Gulf

A variety of habitats