The Plains states turn out to be less plain

I have to admit that while we were in Jackson Center I was feeling a little dismay at the prospects for the rest of our trip toward home base in Arizona. We’ve covered this route so many times, heading both northeast and southwest, that it seems that there is little left for us to see. As blog stalker “insightout” commented, “How many times can you do it before you go insane?”

It is true that we have visited most of the major tourist stops along the way, but it’s perhaps a conceit to think that we have seen it all. Of course we haven’t. Nobody has seen everything in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Kansas, even people who live there.

The real trick for most people seems to be the flattish plains states, which form an unavoidable barrier from North Dakota through West Texas. Kansas and Nebraska particularly have a reputation for dull driving, but really they are all exercises in patience and opportunities for creative distraction. The latter is probably why Kansas boasts many things reputed to be the largest in the world, including a ball of twine, sunflower, and hand dug well. (Not to be outdone, Missouri has the largest golf tee and wind chimes.)

Our solution has been to wander a little off course and seek out state parks that we haven’t previously visited, which usually leads to a local attraction or other sort of tourist site. This idea led us off I-70 to Illinois’ Fox Ridge State Park, which is conveniently near the Lincoln Cabin State Historic Site, which is itself a fine destination for a few hours thanks to an excellent visitors center and a living history farm. I picked up a little knowledge about Dutch Oven cooking from talking to the historical re-enactors there. (It was particularly interesting to me because I’m currently reading “Team of Rivals” by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which is a great biography of Lincoln and his cabinet.)

From there we decided to wander further off the beaten path and meander through soybean farms up toward Springfield. There is a lot more “Lincoln” stuff to be seen in that region (reminds me of the Anne of Green Gables obsession in Prince Edward Island, but at least Lincoln is real). Our goal for the day wasn’t Lincoln but Wright—Frank Lloyd Wright, specifically his masterpiece Dana-Thomas House in downtown Springfield. If you are an FLW fan, this is definitely one to see.

Our camp in that area was Sangchris Lake State Park, about 30 minutes out of town. Like many state parks and Army Corps parks, the one was formed the damming of a river, and then development of a green and tranquil campground and other public facilities. We often are far from the action when we go to places like this, and cellular connectivity is a problem even with the booster and external antenna, but it’s worth the minor inconvenience for a quiet and scenic place to stay.

I was starting to get concerned about the amount of time we had been spending in Illinois, since Arizona remained 1,500 miles away and I do have deadlines that will force me back to home base soon. This wandering path was fun but I could hear the clock ticking. At the end of the month I have to have the Winter 2014 issue of the magazine at least mostly in the hands of my Art Director, and also head to Oregon to run Alumafandango. I’ve been working on both as we go, but it’s hard to stay ahead of ahead of the deadlines when you are also constantly on the move.

So after a half day in Springfield we pressed onward along I-72 through Illinois and into Missouri. This road eventually becomes Rt 36, a straight and quiet divided highway that parallels I-70 at a safe distance from major cities and Ferguson riots. We didn’t choose it because we were afraid to drive through St Louis, we were just trying to find a new path across Missouri. Alas, there’s little of interest along this route and most of the way we had very limited data service (Verizon “extended” network) so it wasn’t a huge hit with any of us, until we pulled into Pershing State Park that night.

Pershing, as you might guess, is in the middle of a hometown region of historical sites honoring General Pershing. I will admit I know next to nothing about the man, but we were all filled up with historical information from the Lincoln region and I was still anxious to make up some time, so the general’s legacy was lost on us this trip. Perhaps another time.

We surrendered to another inevitability however, dropping south to the tedium of I-70 through Kansas, just to speed up the trip a little. This brought us through Topeka and past signs for the Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Site. This isn’t nearly as compelling a name as “Sea World,” but in the grand scheme of I-70 it was enough to bring us to a halt. I’m glad we did.

The site interprets the importance of a Supreme Court decision regarding racial equality and also manages to explore some sensitive racial history and issues in this country without being preachy. We found it to be fascinating, and it also counted as a good piece of homeschooling for Emma. We spent an hour there and would have stayed longer if we had the time. The final stop on our self-guided tour was a pair of headphones, through which Emma was introduced to the music of Marvin Gaye, playing “What’s Goin’ On.” I think she liked it.

I think what I’ve learned is that the mid western plains states are actually less boring the more time you spend in them. It’s racing through that causes the fatigue, because then all you see are the billboards and plains. There are plenty of small things to explore if we can take the time, and I’ll be thinking about that next May when we do this trip again.

Comments

  1. Paul Hahn says

    Don’t overlook Iowa when next crossing the Plains states. Lots of surprises here (and you’re always welcome overnight at the Hahnstead!)