I left Michigan on a Friday afternoon, needing to drive 700 miles to Cameron, Missouri to start the trip sightseeing outside Kansas City the next morning. The drive went smooth for the first half, and the clouds over Illinois’ endless prairie were incredible.
About 50 miles from the Missouri border, however, the skies turned very dark and torrential storms rolled through. It was so fierce that I was forced to pull over and wait it out a couple of times. By the time I crossed the Mississippi into Missouri, I was a couple hours behind schedule and in need of a break from driving, so I stopped in Hannibal, Missouri, a rivertown famous for being Mark Twain’s hometown, a the setting for many of his novels.
It was late in the evening, so all of the Twain related sights were closed for the evening, but I did stroll the historic downtown, and also walked out to gaze upon the mighty Mississippi. I had dinner at Mark Twain Brewing Company. There were few businesses in Hannibal with some reference to the iconic American author.
The following morning, I visited my first National Park of the trip, when I took a tour of the Harry S. Truman National Historic Site in Independence, Missouri. Truman and his wife Bess lived in the house for over 50 years. I took a tour of the house with an informative NPS Ranger (unfortunately no pictures are allowed inside the home, a mind-boggling policy).
Since I was in Kansas City, I took the opportunity to get some famous Kansas City BBQ for lunch. Since it was still morning, the only one of the famous restaurants that was open was Gates BBQ. I ordered the burnt ends and tried all of the sauces. They were all excellent, although the hotter sauces were way more than I like.
After the long, flat drive across Kansas, I came to Fort Hays State Historic Site late in the afternoon. The fort was one of the inspirations for the movie Dances With Wolves, and was an important frontier outpost during the Indian Wars in the decades that followed the Civil War.
That evening I spent camping at Lake Scott State Park in Western Kansas. The park, which wraps around a spring-fed lake, also contains the ruins of the most northernmost pueblo in the United States, El Cuartelejo. The ruins are from the late 1600s, when some of the ancestral Puebloan people fled the Spanish Conquistadors and set up a short-lived refuge here.
On my third day on the road, I arrived early at one of the National Park System’s newest units, Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in Eastern Colorado. In November 1864, U.S. Army Colonel John Chivington led a force of American troops in violent massacre of more than 100 Cheyenne Indians, most of whom were women and children. The site is still under development, but the power of the story, and the need to preserve this dark part of American History comes through in the site.
My second stop was at Bent’s Old Fort NHS, along the banks of the swollen Arkansas River. I’d visited this reconstruction of the mid-1800s fort back on my initial National Parks trip in 2003, and the place had some sentimental value as I still consider it the first NPS site visited after I’d come up with the idea of trying to visit all the sites in the lower 48 states. I visited on a crisp spring day back in 2003, this year it was a baking hot day where the high level of the river led to a very active populations of bugs. This site, which was more a trading ‘post’ than a fort, is a fantastic reproduction of a commercial venture and meeting place founded by two Americans, Charles and William Bent. It was a safe haven for those traversing the Santa Fe Trail, and also an outpost for both traders and the native population to exchange commodities.
The last stop of the day was at one of my favorite National Parks, Great Sand Dunes. My dad and I visited the site back in 2009 and knew very little about it going in. It ended up being one of our favorite stops on the whole trip. As I approached this year, I could see storms both north and south of the park. I knew my visit might be limited, so I headed down to Medano Creek, which runs next to the eastern edge of the dunes, and is a popular spot for people to wade in. I had intended to camp in or around the park in the evening, but all the local campsites where full, so I headed to nearby Alamosa. The town, more than a mile above sea level, was a pleasant enough place to spend an evening.
The next day I headed south to New Mexico’s two largest cities. The first stop was in the historic, modern day capital of Santa Fe. I didn’t bond with Santa Fe- despite having some really great old churches, the city seemed like a tourist trap near the downtown area.
In the afternoon, I headed to Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest city. The main goal of the evening was to take the aerial tramway up to the top of Sandia Crest, a local mountain. The observation points at the top gave sweeping views of the city to the west, and, to the east, the flat plains. In the evening, I visited two of Albuquerque’s up and coming brewery scene, Canteen and La Cumbre.
Some of the longest driving days of the trip were over- 2,000 miles in 4 days. It was time for me to head into the desert….