Small Detour Means Big Fun at Big Piney Creek in Arkansas

A weekend expedition in the Ozarks leads to a nearly forgotten Wild & Scenic River

The first one caught me off guard. I was staring beyond my kayak deck at the milky turquoise waters of Big Piney Creek in the Arkansas Ozarks. Just sort of marveling at the fact it’s here at all — a Class II-III Wild & Scenic River smack in the middle of the country. A region, fun fact, also known as the Interior Highlands. After two and half days driving across the South with my wife (one of which felt like just crossing through Atlanta), I’d hopped from truck to kayak and couldn’t believe my luck.

On a Tuesday in mid-May, the lower four-mile run was basically empty. At the rapid below put-in, I’d passed three local playboaters doing the thing playboaters love second-most, which is hang out on shore talking about playboating. After that, it was just white splashy holes, cold blue-green water flowing from limestone springs, and me. Until a black water snake sprinted like a whip across the pool.

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A Trip Through Time in Desolation Canyon

I sort of knew what I was searching for and sort of didn’t. After rowing around a bend in the Green River, Rock House Canyon opened dramatically ahead. I tied my raft to shore and walked up a dry creek bed. Above rose buttes and fins of orange-brown rock, part of the Green River Formation. This geologic unit is comprised of crumbly shales and sandstones which were deposited millions of years ago when the region was flooded by the long-gone Lake Uinta.

The cliff faces shone brightly in the morning sun of early August. Somewhere near here was a Fremont Culture petroglyph panel—but I didn’t have any specifics about size, subject matter, or precise location. Also, based on the fresh claw prints in the beachside mud, there might be a nearby bear who shared my interest in rock art and amateur archaeology.

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An Ozarks Paddling Mission with a Photography Problem

The view was startling. By standing on an old stone wall, in a clearing just off the gravel shuttle road, Big Piney Creek was visible far below. It was making one of those photogenic meanders, a nearly circular 180, like the famous Horseshoe Bend in Arizona. But instead of slicing sharply into bare sandstone, this sweeping curve was etched over 500 feet deep into the densely vegetated Ozark Mountains, which rolled endlessly toward the horizon.

Ignoring the shattered beer bottles, crumpled wet wipes, and a tattered condom at my feet—my adventure detective skills suggested the previous visitors possessed a fascinating combination of traits, including drunk but hygienic, okay with littering and sexually responsible—this type of viewpoint was exactly what I’d been searching for. A wide overview of a typical Ozarks watershed to include in my upcoming paddling guide.

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Montana Couple Completes Source-to-Sea Expedition Down the Powell Route

Dubbed ‘One River, Many Voices,’ the 1,700-mile, 135-day expedition sought to connect with river canyons and residents along the way

It was September, about a month into the expedition, when Mike and Jenny Fiebig encountered their first challenging whitewater. The rapid was Hells Half Mile in Lodore Canyon on the Green River. And their boat was a custom dory built by Hog Island Boat Works in Steamboat Springs, Colo., and Eddyline Welding in Moab, Utah. The dory had a roto-molded plastic hull, expertly fitted aluminum decking, and one missing feature the Fiebigs were about to experience first-hand: Unlike other boats Mike had rowed during 20 years of raft guiding, this one wasn’t self-bailing.

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Searching for the real Sumner’s Amphitheater in Desolation Canyon

Part I: Solo trip or death sentence? • an eclipse on the river • just some regular old symmetry-focused topographic detective work.

On the beach at Sand Wash, I’d been chatting with a dude, let’s call him “Guy,” about the first expeditions down the Green and Colorado rivers. For over two hours.

“So you’re a Powell fella,” he’d observed. Our kindred spirits took it from there, as we chatted about books, theories, and favorite tales — all colored by Guy’s tendency to swear like a sailor at a spelling bee.

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A Nearly Empty Island

Bike-rafting Georgia’s Cumberland Island during the government shutdown.

It’s the morning of New Year’s Eve, and the exact moment I step out of my tent, I spot a dorsal fin. It rises briefly into the mist from the placid Brickhill River and vanishes. I blink sleep from my eyes. After 10 minutes waiting for a repeat appearance, I’m uncertain it was a fin at all. The tide is moving swiftly past, carrying a caravan of floating reeds. Maybe that’s what I saw.

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Bike-rafting to Georgia’s Cumberland Island National Seashore

The government shutdown inspires a weekend expedition to the Southeast’s wild national seashore

VHWIRRRR, through dense fog, the sound of an approaching motorboat rises.

I swivel my head left and right, listening closely to place the direction. There’s no way they’ll see me at speed, I realize, slightly panicked. But if I paddle in any direction, even backtrack, I might move right into their path.

I’m floating in my packraft on the Cumberland Sound, part of the Intracoastal Waterway.

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A Return to Rafting for the John Wesley Powell Route

We were at put-in for the upper Gauley, and I was sorting straps like a medic in a war movie frantically searching for morphine. To say I felt out of my element was an understatement. After kayaking in the Ozarks and Southeast during the past decade, my six seasons of California raft guiding before that felt like a set of vivid but patchy memories…

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A new narrated guide blends the story of the 1869 expedition down the Green and Colorado rivers with modern explorations, landscape photography, and trip planning info.

FROM THE PUBLISHER (Falcon Guides) — On May 24, 1869, John Wesley Powell and nine crewmen in four wooden rowboats set off down the Green River to map the final blank spot on the American map. Three months later, six ragged men in only two boats emerged from the Grand Canyon. And what happened along the rugged 1,000 river miles in between quickly became the stuff of legend. Today, the JWP route offers some of the most adventurous paddling in the United States. Across six southwestern states, paddlers will find a surprising variety of trips. Enjoy flatwater floats through Canyonlands and the Uinta Basin; whitewater kayaking or rafting in Dinosaur National Monument and Cataract Canyon; afternoon paddleboarding on Flaming Gorge Reservoir and Lake Powell; multiday expeditions through Desolation Canyon and the Grand Canyon; and much more, including remarkable hikes and excursions to ancestral ruins, historic sites, museums, and waterfalls.

Paddling the John Wesley Powell Route is a narrated guide that combines a multi-chapter retelling of the dramatic 1869 expedition with stunning landscape photography, modern discoveries along the route, overview maps, and information about permits, shuttles, access points, rental equipment, guided trips, and further readings. Come celebrate the dramatic 1869 expedition by exploring the route and learning the story.


See more images from the route on Instagram by following @mikebezemek or clicking the image!


A lot of blank spots here • goodbye! (forever) • foreshadows of disaster • the first canyons • JWP’s triangulation face

On May 24, John Wesley Powell arrived on the recently completed railroad to a dusty Wyoming outpost of riverside shacks beneath a stark landscape of buttes and ridges. To Green River Station, Powell brought crates of equipment, rations donated by the War Department, four big wooden rowboats, and a goal to explore the last blank spot on the American map. Waiting for him was a ragtag crew of mountain men and ex-soldiers. None of these dudes had ever run a whitewater rapid, but they were preparing for the challenge like modern raft guides—by filling their own blank spots with every ounce of whiskey they could find.

The next morning, the crew felt a bit foggy while loading the boats on shore, as described by Jack Sumner, an ex-soldier turned mountain man who became lead boatman in Powell’s pilot craft, the Emma Dean. A few townspeople came down to the river to say goodbye (forever) to these hard-partying nutcases who were led by a serious one-armed Civil War major who was 35 years old and talked like a Victorian aristocrat. Said they were going a thousand miles all the way through the Grand Canyon? But everyone knew that river dropped over sheer waterfalls before plunging into the depths of the earth. A few townswomen may have crossed themselves and blessed these poor souls. A few townsmen may have called them idiots under their breaths, with a mixture of relief and regret they hadn’t been asked to come along.

Flaming Gorge, the first major canyon encountered by the Powell Expedition, as seen today from high ground.

The early days down the river were pretty fun. Sometimes boats ran aground on sandbars, and the men flopped in the water to push them off. Expedition camps were made in the willows. They gathered driftwood for fires and explored a barren landscape faintly dusted by spring grasses. Some of the men chased big horn sheep with rifles. They usually failed but occasionally got one for dinner. When the cook, a 20-year-old mountain man named Hawkins, alone carried in a sheep on day two, the others teased that he must have found it dead. Meanwhile, Powell scrambled around with a few men, looking for fossils amid crumbly slate formations, which the major thought resembled architectural forms and strange statues.

As the ten men in four boats progressed downriver, the bulk of the Uinta Mountains grew in the distance. There were occasional miscommunications between boats. Rowing the second boat, Maid of the Cañon, was George Bradley. He was a 32-year-old active sergeant from Massachusetts, who wrote the most thorough and complete journal of the entire expedition. In exchange for contributing his relevant experience in geology and running ocean fishing boats, Powell had arranged for his discharge from the U.S. Army. Joining Bradley was Powell’s younger brother, Walter, a former prisoner of war in South Carolina with lingering temper issues. On the second day, Bradley noted the pilot boat signaled danger, but he and Walter, “supposing it to be only a small rapid, did not obey immediately and in consequence [their boat] was caught on a shoal.” A minor incident, but one which foreshadowed later calamities.

Click to enlarge pages 42-43 from Paddling the JWP Route.

As they moved south, Powell describes—in limited journal entries, plus his 1875 published account—a brilliant red gorge, about twenty miles distant, where the river dramatically entered a mountain range. But first, a few miles upstream at Henrys Fork, the men retrieved a hidden gear cache brought in overland a few months before. Here it’s worth mentioning an occasional misconception about the expeditions. While the southern parts of the route—especially the rugged Grand Canyon—were mostly unexplored by Americans, much of the canyons, basins, and native tribes above Marble Canyon were in country known to white Americans through exploration and trapping.

Inside what they named Flaming Gorge, the river entered periodic chutes and rapids as the current hastened. The boats often shipped (or filled with) water and were bailed in eddies below. Rowing the third boat, No Name, was Oramel Howland. At age 36, he was the oldest man on the expedition, one of only four crewmen to not serve in the civil war. With experience as a mountain guide and newspaper man in Denver, Oramel’s job was to prepare maps from their surveys. In one of two highly detailed letters to Rocky Mountain News, Oramel wrote those first descents felt like railroad speeds of 60 miles-per-hour, adding this would come to feel slow compared to later rapids. This tendency to exaggerate speeds, distances, elevations, and experiences was a common theme throughout all journals and later accounts of the expedition—especially John Wesley’s. Thus, all subsequent retellings, including this one, involve a great deal of interpretation as they try to unravel fact and fiction. Basically, these guys were natural whitewater boaters—certainly in their bravado and confidence, even if raw in the river-running skills.

See more images from the route on Instagram by following @mikebezemek or clicking the image!

The river soon wound into Horseshoe Canyon, carving through startling white formations of limestone and shale. Then came Kingfisher Canyon, where swallows swarmed like bees around nests tucked into cracks of a rock dome that resembled a straw beehive. Today, Beehive Point is mostly a forgotten name on a map, and paddlers may only float above the landmark buried beneath Flaming Gorge Reservoir.

Next was Red Canyon, with sheer sandstone walls, where the crew labored over the first few of about 100 portages and linings around increasingly challenging rapids. Here, Powell made a quirky discovery that may help distinguish his personality from most of the crewmen. As he’d been coming down the river, sitting in his armchair lashed to the deck of the Emma Dean, the major noticed how his perspective of approaching mountains shifted. When viewed straight-on, the inclination of the oncoming slope appeared to be excessively steep and the overall height seemed shorter. Not until the river passed beside the mountain, did the true slope reveal itself.

Click to enlarge page 101 and 178 from Paddling the JWP Route.

Somehow, Powell decided if he lay on his side, the triangulating effect between his two eyes allowed him a baseline to better estimate the true elevation of a summit. While the triangulation aspect seems questionable, Powell’s method of seeing the landscape anew has merit. By lying down to change his perspective, the altered vantage point could certainly have helped him estimate topographic elevations. It’s a method not unlike visual analysis techniques, where students are encouraged to rotate an image to help notice the details. Regardless, it’s somewhat comical to imagine that while Powell’s men were charging across the landscape after sheep, portaging massive rowboats around rapids, and eventually going hungry as rations diminished, they might have looked over and seen John Wesley, lying on his side in camp, staring sideways at mountainsides and jotting notes about topographic observations.

The 1869 adventure continues on page 56 with…


An oh-shit moment at Ashley Falls • a portal to glory or gloom? • yeah, it’s looking like the latter, boss • okay, who brought the whiskey?



— MORE ARTICLES FROM THE ROUTE at Canoe & Kayak: A week across Flaming Gorge, a weekend expedition to Red Canyon, a highwater descent of Cataract Canyon, searching for a packrafting loop in Glen Canyon, and a winter trip through Grand Canyon.
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Make Your Own Adventure on the John Wesley Powell Route

In the second week of August 1869, John Wesley Powell and his crew of eight—down one man who departed after the Canyon of Lodore—camped for a few days at the Little Colorado River. Today, this tributary in the Grand Canyon is best known for summer rafters who swim through turquoise waters when the creek is low. But during Powell’s expedition, the monsoon was in full effect and the LCR was running high and brown…

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Urban Overnight on the Lower American River

A plan B in Sacramento leads to an unexpected Weekend Expedition

As the three of us pushed off into the American River near the Nimbus Fish Hatchery, there was a slight hue of smoke to the pale sky. The result of late-summer forest fires still lingering across northern California. As summers went, mine had been full of plan Bs. Only a few months before, the motor on my ’99 Taco blew up on a cross-country road trip. My wife and I found ourselves semi-stranded in my hometown, a familiar land full of strangely expensive used vehicles…

Nantahala River Plus Appalachian Trail in a Day?

A Weekend Expedition that redefines a classic North Carolina run
I was practically sprinting downstream in my packraft through dense fog, persistent rain, and increasing rumbles of thunder. Not only was this predicament unexpected, I wasn’t even sure I’d make it. But, to clarify, by make it I didn’t mean make it out alive. Or even make it to takeout before dark. By make it, I meant I wasn’t sure if I’d make it in time for a dinner date with my wife…


Weekend Expeditions: Red Canyon, Green River, Golden Opportunities

How many ways can you paddle this iconic river canyon on the John Wesley Powell route in northeastern Utah?
Can a paddler get too much of a good thing? I was wondering this as I started on my sixth overall pass–fourth on this early June weekend–through the startling sandstones and cliff-clinging pines of the Green River’s A Section in Red Canyon. It was Saturday evening and there were only a few scattered fishermen putting on, after a typical hundred-boater glut at mid-day. Like a magician, I’d saved the best for last–a bomber run in my Pyranha Machno. Though the real trick was convincing my worn-out wife to run this final shuttle down to Little Hole Rec Area.

Please click this link to read the story at Canoe & Kayak Magazine:

Red Canyon, Green River, Golden Opportunities

Weekend Expeditions: A Lees Ferry to Glen Canyon Loop?

The search begins for a new Colorado River adventure on the John Wesley Powell Route in Canoe & Kayak’s new series chasing two-day paddling adventures
I was in upper Ferry Swale Canyon, with packraft and camping gear on my back, following a sandstone ridge toward powerlines. The Colorado River was beneath the plateau and out of sight. In the distance, the golf course oasis of Page rose atop an orange hillside. I was definitely on track. But the deep sand I sunk into with every plodding step had fatigued my legs. Should I have just paid a hundred bucks for a backhaul motorboat ride up from Lees Ferry?

Please click this link to read the post at Canoe & Kayak MagazineA Glen Canyon to Lees Ferry Loop?

Haunted by the High Water of Cataract Canyon

In this installment of my paddling blog, Regular Paddler, Remarkable Waters, for Canoe & Kayak magazine, I explore the rapids of Cataract Canyon at high water. Please click the link below to read the story and see more photos by myself and a trio of awesome adventure photographers–James Kaiser, Justin Bailie, and Whit Richardson–who contributed to my new guidebook, Paddling the John Wesley Powell Route.

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Destination Kansas! (Part 3)

Part 3: The art at Truckhenge has matured… So, it’s not a museum about famous buses?… The world’s biggest critics of the world’s largest ball of twine… we meet Mr. Pigsley… Mr. Pigsley meets calamity… Symbolic realizations at the geographic center of the United States.


The next morning, after five days in Kansas, we met friends Woz and Delwen on the steps of the Kansas State Capitol. We toured the impressive building, with its polished marble walls, gilded columns, and colorful frescoes under an ornate dome. I’m not going to say the capital was trying to compensate for anything—but, oh crap, now I’ve done it.

I became particularly engaged by huge murals in the central hall. Painted by John Steuart Curry in 1940-41, they depicted Kansas history in a highly romantic manner. All the men had impressive deltoids and heroic postures. The women had slender waists and legs. The children were blond. The land was rugged and surprisingly colorful. The steam engines smoke-free and shiny. And the natives either fiercely hostile or docilely tamed.

Before showing us the signature attraction, Truckhenge, artist and owner Ron gave us the grand tour of Lessman Farm and Catfish Pond. Inside his home, a renovated aluminum hangar, Ron shared his rock collection and carvings. Countless floor, wall, and blanket murals depicted impressionistic human forms, female nudes, and other artworks by Ron.

About his many wood figurines carved from downed trees, Ron explained, “My bears look like pigs, my pigs look like dogs.” His collection included beer bottle walls, beer bottle trees, beer bottle towers. “We like to have a little fun around here,” he said.

We walked the grounds, which doubled as a concert and event venue. A newer piece was Boathenge, which included six motor boats elevated at 45º angles and covered in graffiti. Woz climbed aboard a vessel and spray-painted his name.

Finally, we arrived at the most famous installation. Over the years, Ron had plenty of run-ins with Shawnee County officials. They considered Truckhenge to be a public hazard should flooding carry the trucks downstream. In his defense, Ron pointed out that each vehicle was anchored by 21 tons of concrete. He described once digging a trench with a backhoe around inspector vehicles in protest.

In the mid-1990s, the county told him to pick up the many old trucks on his property. So, Ron elevated them in two parallel lines, taking inspiration from Carhenge in Nebraska. For his creative efforts, Truckhenge was designated a Kaw Regional Art Park by the Association for Shawnee County Recycling and Preservation in 2006.

“My wife says the art has matured,” joked Ron. “But the artist hasn’t.”

Our next stop at the Greyhound Hall of Fame, in Abilene, offered a welcome break from driving through rain. Approaching, my wife noticed a racing dog statue and blurted, “I thought this was about the buses!” I imagined a depression-era Supercoach on rotating pedestal. Perhaps a 1970s Americruiser with a gold medallion strung across its grill?

A museum host greeted us somewhat warily, eyeing my camera, perhaps feeling us out as animal activists. She introduced us to her two tail-wagging greyhounds, making a point to explain how happy they are. A house-made documentary featured an owner crating her greyhound to prevent injury. “That’s their security,” she said. “They would rather be in that cage than in a field.” The four of us glanced at each other. This defied everything we’d ever learned about dogs.

I strolled through the Hall of Fame, where the greats—like Lucky Pilot, Rooster Cogburn, and Kunta Kinte—are immortalized. Of note was Miss Whirl, with her “amazing ability to foresee and avoid trouble on the track.” Her $108,000 career earnings were a record for over a decade. She made the All-America team three times and was team captain twice—she would have been captain a third time if not for losing the vote to fellow hall of famer, Westy Whizzer.

My wife skimmed through a copy of Retired Racing Greyhounds for Dummies, which offered suggestions for managing the many injuries of retired racing dogs. Meanwhile, I noticed a disturbing drawing, possibly the work of some greyhound-obsessed mad scientist. On the left, a standing human skeleton. On top, a greyhound skeleton on all fours. On the right, a greyhound skeleton standing on hind legs. And on bottom, a human skeleton on hands and knees. I gathered the others. Woz suggested departing before this maniacal plan, to flip the human-dog hierarchy, came to fruition.

After watching a refurbished steam engine transit the town, we drove a rainy two blocks to the Museum of Independent Telephony to examine a collection of old telephones and exhibits about non-Bell telephone companies. At the welcome desk, a friendly woman in her 80s described how Cleeson Laverne Brown started a company here in Abilene that later became Sprint.

“I’m actually a distant cousin of Brown,” she said. “But most don’t believe me.”

I looked at her sagging eyes. “I believe you,” I said. She shrugged and bid me goodbye. Her shift was over. Outside, she climbed into a black Mustang convertible and peeled out of the gravel parking lot.

Nicknamed the Smithalo, a 60-ton concrete buffalo rises from a hilltop near Longford. Built by Ray Smith, it’s supposedly visible from ten miles, but after only a half mile the clay road turned to slop. Woz’s tires began to spin. Retreating to the highway, our two vehicles dripped with mud, and we realized all remaining destinations must be accessible by pavement.

On I-70, we passed a road sign: “If you die today, where will you spend eternity?” My wife shrugged off the easy question. “Kansas.”

Created by artist Erika Nelson, we find the World’s Largest Souvenir Travel Plate to be a painted satellite dish that’s hole-pocked and faded from a recent hailstorm. The plate features local attractions around the town of Lucas, the Grassroots Art Capitol: Wilson Lake, the clearest in Kansas; Florence Deeble’s Backyard Mount Rushmore; and the Garden of Eden, a concrete sculpture garden resembling an MC Esher painting. We decide to visit the latter site.

Created by S.P. Dinsmoor during the early 20th century, it depicted a highly impressionistic biblical and political history of the world. Next door, we stumbled across another outdoor attraction, the World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things. Truth in advertising, these glass-encased miniatures even included a two-inch miniature of old friend, Big Brutus.

Arriving to our next stop at the World’s Largest Ball of Twine, we found a crowd of fellow quirk-seeking pilgrims. A young couple was taking a break after a year of grad school. A road-tripping family. And four guys from Ohio who carried with them a porky statuette named Mr. Pigsley. Woz took their photo with porcelain mascot in front of the town’s centerpiece.

Started in 1953, creator Franke Stoeber coiled 1.6 million feet of sisal twine into a sphere 11-feet wide, before his death in 1972. Since then, the town has added to the ball with a twine-a-thon every August. In recent years, estimates indicated 7.8 million feet sum to a diameter of 13 feet and weigh about 20,000 pounds.

My wife and Delwen seemed unimpressed. Raggedy, my wife noted. An odor of mildew. Being out of round, it’s more of a twine gumdrop than a perfect circle. Delwen was disappointed by the shelter over top. Seemed like cheating. Apparently, when put together, the two ladies were the world’s biggest critics of the world’s largest ball of twine.

Driving north, we passed collapsed barns and saw more old cemeteries than people. At the end of an empty road, on a slight hillock, there was a landscaped campus with a picnic shelter and play structures. From a flagstone, with marker plaque, rose the American and Kansan flags. A family was lunching, while two boys frolicked through the grass. We’d reached the Geographic Center of the Contiguous United States.

We wandered past a small chapel to an abandoned motel, windows painted gray. We pondered its original purpose. A presidential retreat? A contiguous cult center? A domestic listening station, to catch the tenor, literally, of middle America?

The Ohio guys arrived, having suffered a minor calamity. While buckling Mr. Pigsley into their SUV, he fell to the pavement, breaking off an ear. They laughed while delicately setting the maimed Pigsley on a bench.

“I can fix this,” I said, returning to my truck for double-sided duct tape. I reattached his porcelain ear with medical precision.

“I didn’t even know double-sided duct-tape exists,” said one thankful Ohioan. “I’ll have to pick some up.”

Meanwhile, Woz was feeling playful. While we chatted, he wandered over to an old steel rocking horse atop a coil spring. He turned his ballcap backwards and hopped on, swinging forward and back, trying to touch the hat bill to the pavement. The nearby boys stared, enthralled. After Woz tumbled off, the boys stepped forward and mimicked the action.

The Ohio guys explained their next stop was in Nebraska. Delwen wondered aloud what that state looked like. “Like this,” said one fella, gesturing at the horizon.

At the very center of our country, our week in Kansas felt slightly symbolic. Like we were no longer explorers in a strange land, but citizens in a familiar one. Our trip wasn’t over quite yet. We had another day with a Czech egg. A giant easel. Impassable roads which would deny us access to the chalk formations at Castle Rock and the dugout hole where the killer of John Wilkes Booth lived. Still, this central point felt like a finale.

We all dispersed. The Ohio guys, with porcelain pig went north, continuing their kitschy pilgrimage toward the original Wal-Drug. The family with young boys went east toward home. I put the truck in gear, finally realizing what a week-long vacation in Kansas felt like. Holding my breath underwater. A fun thing to do, and not just for novelty reasons. I was ready to surface, move on to something else. But happy I’d done it, aware I’ll probably do it again someday.

We returned to I-70. Drove west at 80 mph toward Colorado and the setting sun.

Destination Kansas! (Part 2)

Part 2: Maybe I am from France… tourist or local boy?… no disputes about barbed wire… post rocks and mushroom rocks… this salt museum is not no nonsense… Velveeta the health robot… symbol of patriotism with a side of cereal grains.


A reconstructed Old West town and museum in Dodge City, Boot Hill offered about 20 false-front buildings and over 60,000 objects, photos, and documents from the 1870s to 1920s. Its name comes from a common moniker for Wild West cemeteries, like the one underfoot, where gunslingers were said to be buried with their boots on.

The museum documentary celebrated the simple and heroic times of early Dodge City, including the strategic slaughter of the Buffalo, which was designed to stop the terrible bloodshed of the Indian wars. We leave the theater feeling like we’ve been unwitting guests at a Manifest Destiny booster event.

Wandering the exhibits, we toured a recreated frontier home. We viewed an old beauty parlor with water-stained corset that could strangle a swan. A collection of posters demonstrated Hollywood’s fascination with Dodge City as a setting for westerns, including Gunsmoke, which coined the phrase, “Get the hell outta Dodge.”

In the replica saloon, the barkeep told me he’s a 5th generation purveyor of spirits and ales, though the museum’s top offerings were now sarsaparilla and Budweiser. He explained Dodge City started as a watering hole for the dry Fort Dodge, nearby. The barkeep suggests we visit old Santa Fe Trail wagon ruts 10 miles west. But our intended direction is northeast, toward the state capitol in Topeka—a choice I once would have considered crazy. This close to Colorado, we’re turning back into the heart of Kansas.

I asked about Fort Larned, pronouncing it lar-NED. He gave me a look, like I was from France.

“LARN-ed,” he spat, like tobacco into a spittoon.

Despite my foreign mispronunciation, the barkeep continued our conversation, explaining Dodge City is known all around the world—not so much for things that actually happened here but more for things that didn’t.

Across the street, the combo Kansas Teachers Hall of Fame and Gunfighters Wax Museum is sadly closed. On the drive outta Dodge, we passed oversized trucks transporting 116-foot windmill blades to the spreading wind farms that rise from the fields like a new form of row crop.

At Fort Larned, we wandered the grounds and stone buildings, now managed by the National Park Service. Operating from 1859 to 1878, Larned today is the best-preserved fortification on the Santa Fe Trail, a 900-mile route between Missouri and New Mexico. The forts were built to police the bloody conflicts between settlers and natives, as America increasingly claimed territory west of the Mississippi. Eventually, the forts were used in post-Civil War military campaigns against Indian tribes. Later, as distribution points for tribal annuities. And with the relocation of Native Americans to reservations, plus completion of the railroad, they were no longer needed and abandoned.

In the gift shop, I ended up the third wheel in a conversation between a local woman chatting with a ranger about how travelers that detour south from I-70 discover how much history there is in Kansas.

“But they don’t even know what milo is!” The woman laughed haughtily, like it was the funniest thing in the world. The ranger rolled her eyes, and I shook my head.

“Tourists,” I joked, like a local boy. “Just a feed crop.”

They both replied with knowing nods.

The woman at our next stop seemed surprised when we entered, the only visitors of the day. Not only was LaCrosse home to the Barbed Wire Museum, it was also the headquarters of the Kansas Barbed Wire Collectors Association and the undisputed—who would dispute this?—Barbed Wire Capitol of the World.

The museum housed over 2000 types of barbed wire. Many were used for inexpensive fencing during American settlement of western Kansas, which offered little in the way of natural materials. Highlights included a display copy of Barriers: An Encyclopedia of United States Barbed Wire Patents, a glass case of wire cutters from around the world, and a whole wing devoted to fence stays.

In one corner, I found the Barbed Wire Hall of Fame, established 1974, to honor hobbyists who have made major contributions to the collecting of barbed wire. Near the lobby, there was an installation of artwork made from barbed wire, including a chess board, a tornado, and a sunflower, the official state flower.

We wandered next door to the Rush County Historical Museum. Waiting for us inside was a lifelong resident, an avid barbed wire collector, and the friendliest, most endearingly nervous museum curator. He toured us through a collection of frontier antiques, ladies’ dresses, military uniforms, and buffalo skins. Plus, black and white photos showing dusty pioneers in hats posing next to brick buildings against an empty horizon.

We followed the curator to another building, the Post Rock Museum, the most popular local attraction. We learned that American settlers arrived to central Kansas, finding a treeless land of prairie grass. Seeking supports for grazing fences, they dug under the grass to cut posts from bedrock limestone. I’d noticed these weathered rock posts on the drive in, interspersed with more typical steel stays and cut branches. But at one time, the post rocks alone lined up like angular chessmen stringing barbed wire across a landscape about to be forever transformed.

Some places yield exactly what’s expected, and so it was at Mushroom Rock State Park near Brookville. Here, a pair of giant mushroom rocks bathed in setting sunlight. Glancing at a green landscape more typical of the east, I realized we’d re-crossed the 100th meridian. A form of hoodoo, the upper formations are concretions of highly-resistant Dakota sandstone cemented by calcium carbonate, with the biggest cap being 27-feet wide. The underlying stalk eroded from a softer, whiter sandstone, now covered with carved initials and dates.

At five acres, this was the smallest state park in Kansas. The formations were often used as a landmark and meeting point for Native Americans and European pioneers. A wooden sign explained the Fremont trail passed nearby along with the first overland stages, “until they were forced to a northern route by”—and here the world “hostile” was scratched out—“Indians.”

One morning, we departed our shoreside campground at Kanapolis Lake and headed south. Just outside McPherson, we passed through an industrial campus filled with elbow pipes,  chemical tanks, and railroad tracks. Glancing at my fuel gauge, I realized we were almost out of gas. In the middle of an oil refinery. I scanned for an outlet hose to beg some gas from, but no luck. We coasted with a welcome tailwind into town.

At the Strataca Underground Salt Museum in Hutchison, the cashier told me that Strataca is a nonsense word invented by management to re-brand the Kansas Underground Salt Museum. The rebuilt 2007 facility had the feel of an amusement park, plus it’s an active salt mine and climate-controlled vault and storage facility. Nearby posters promote Murder in the Mine, an interactive mystery dinner theater presented 650 feet underground. We purchased the Blast Pass for three underground adventures.

Wearing hardhats, we descended in complete darkness while our jovial tour guide explained we were in a hoist. “Not an elevator, not a lift, a hoist.” No one argued. “Raise your hand if you want the light on,” he joked.

Our first adventure was a self-guided tour of the cavernous space with striated walls and ceilings of highly-compacted sodium chloride deposited 275 million years ago. We can touch the salt, but don’t lick, climb, or pick, we’re told. Our second adventure was a tram ride through dark mine passages. Occasionally, the driver shined a flashlight on points of interest, like a collapsed ceiling or abandoned front-loader. The third adventure was a ride on an old narrow-gauge railway which once transported rock salt ore and miners. Today, it took us through parts of the mine as they appeared 60 years ago, including a trash pile—mostly fast food packaging from the 1950s.

Because the mine’s atmosphere is always 68º with 40% humidity, everything is preserved as left. For that reason, unused portions of the mine were converted to vault storage in 1959. Salt mines are often considered for nuclear waste disposal, or, conversely, as safety bunkers from nuclear apocalypse. We completed our tour at the vaults gallery, where Hollywood film reels lined the shelves. Rest assured, if ever a war destroys America, our culture will be preserved through the timing print of City Slickers 2 and the extended cut of Striptease.

The Kansas Learning Center of Health in Halstead, home of Valeda: The Talking Transparent Woman, was the next stop of our whirlwind afternoon. “Why’s there a health museum in the middle of nowhere?” I pondered aloud, realizing a town of 2000 in a sprawling rural county is probably where it’s needed most. Still, this was a perfect set-up, given our trip had finally devolved into endless one-line banter. “It’s Kansas,” replied my wife. “Everywhere is the middle of nowhere.”

On the lawn, the center’s neon sign flashed valuable messages toward an empty intersection. “Fresh fruits & veggies are 74 to 96% water!” “Adults should aim for at least .5 hr of physical activity per day.” “Monday is Memorial Day.”

Inside, we sat for a presentation by Velveeta—excuse me, Valeda—one of only three transparent talking female health robots in the world. Rotating on a pedestal, the anatomically correct Velveeta—excuse me, Valeda—displayed 6.25 miles of glowing wiring that simulated 60,000 miles of veins and arteries. One by one, Velveeta—crap, I’m sorry, Valeda—described her inner organs, which illuminated in a colorful representation of the human body. An employee explained that Valeda offered two programs: one for adults, another for children, with the latter excluding all discussion of the reproductive organs.

At the Mennonite Heritage Agricultural Museum in Goessel, home of a Liberty Bell Made of Wheat, a curious door sign explained: “THE MUSEUM IS NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR ACCIDENTS.” Despite the warning, we forged fearlessly ahead into a remarkably safe museum depicting stories of Low-German speaking immigrants from Russia who settled nearby in 1874. We toured preserved Mennonite homes and displays of frontier cabins, period dress, and homestead certificates. A wall mural depicted Mennonite farmers hurriedly containing a grass fire as a tornado crested the horizon.

Made of turkey red wheat straw, the replica Liberty Bell was commissioned by the Smithsonian Institute for the 1976 Bicentennial.  Taking 2000 hours and 80 men, aged 10 to 80, to complete, the bell is 6′ by 6′, weighs 80 pounds, and cost $51.

An evening hike in Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, near Strong City, provided vistas of how the plains once looked. At one time, tallgrass prairieland spread for 170 million acres. During the first generation of white settlers, most was plowed and developed. Today, only 4% remains, with much of it found here in the Flint Hills. The reason for the preservation is revealed by the region’s name. Flint is a sharp, hard variety of chert, which speckles the landscape and destroys plow blades. A bonus. As we returned to our car, we spotted a rare yellow Cardinal flitting among some bushes.


The Destination Kansas! adventure concludes in part 3, with:

The art at Truckhenge has matured… So, it’s not a museum about famous buses?… The world’s biggest critics of the world’s largest ball of twine… we meet Mr. Pigsley… Mr. Pigsley meets calamity… Symbolic realizations at the geographic center of the United States.