Author Theresa L. Goodrich presents Two Lane Gems, Vol. 1: Turkeys are Jerks and Other Observations from an American Road Trip in serial form. Enjoy!
When I watched the videos from our trip there’s one thing that surprised me: we didn’t name the lady in the GPS. We should have. That gal was BOSSY.
“In a quarter mile turn right on Kansas 177 North. In a thousand feet turn right on Kansas 177 North. YOU’RE AT KANSAS 177 NORTH TURN RIGHT YOU FOOL WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU.
“Crap. You missed it.
“In a quarter mile, make a U-turn mumble mumble stupid drivers nobody ever listens to me.”
Kansas 177 North was an American Scenic Byway, and we took it through the Flint Hills until we reached Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, a microcosmic glimpse into what the Great Plains looked like a couple centuries ago. What used to cover 400,000 square miles was reduced to a few thousand acres, but parks here and there preserve this unique ecology, including the one we were visiting.
Jim and I stopped at Tallgrass because we had learned about the importance of this ecosystem when we visited Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in northeastern Illinois the previous year, which had been undergoing a massive restoration project at the time.
Many endangered species now have a fighting chance because a portion of the prairies that once swept the Great Plains is being restored. It’s a cooperative effort between the non-profit group The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service.
We knew this. We knew it was important. At that moment, though, all we cared about was that it was quiet. It was peaceful. It was beautiful. In March, the tallgrass wasn’t tall. It was a field of pale yellow that rolled and stretched, and the short grass bent with the wind.
We followed a gravel path past a cattle guard and saw bison in the distance. At the entrance to the park had been a warning that these great beasts had been feisty as of late so we kept our distance. We turned around, crossed back over the cattle guard and took a lone, solitary hike through the softly rolling hills.
The landscape looked so gentle, but underneath were minefields of limestone and shale. We didn’t mean to be gone long, yet our trek took nearly two hours.
We needed it. The next day we would be home. Reality would return. That day, though, there was time for one last walk in a wide open field under a clear blue sky.
Our path took us past the one-room schoolhouse, over a creek, and towards the Spring Hill Farm and Stock Ranch, including its 1881 house, limestone barn, and ice house, before leading us back to the parking lot where Mae was waiting for us.
We didn’t really want to go. We knew our next stop was going to be another hard one. We’d seen a few on this trip. Trail of Tears, Manzanar, Amache. We didn’t want to see another dark part of America’s past, but we were driving through Topeka. We had to stop at the Brown v. Board National Historic Site.
On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States of America declared that separate but equal was not.
Monroe Elementary School had been one of four segregated sites in Topeka, and Oliver L. Brown was a father who wanted his daughter to attend the school that was seven blocks from their home, instead of the segregated black school – Monroe – that was a mile away. He and twelve other plaintiffs took the school district to court in 1951, and lost.
But they appealed, and the Supreme Court combined their case with four others from around the country. What should have been an obvious overturn was delayed for another year because the court couldn’t state what was logical and right, but finally, finally in 1954 they came to the unanimous decision that the doctrine of separate but equal was unconstitutional.
Of all of the places we visited, Brown v. Board National Historic Site was the hardest. One of the former classrooms displayed videos of adults yelling at schoolchildren as they walked towards their school, just because their skin was a darker shade.
How does a grown person ever, EVER think that’s OK?
It was hard to watch, but I can’t even imagine what it was like to experience. And because that can never happen again, we did watch. We listened. We learned. We cried. And we hoped.
We hoped that this country was filled with more good than bad, that there’s more love than hate, that there’s more beauty than ugliness, and that’s what had been driving us, and we’d seen much more to buoy that belief than we had anything that would dissuade us. The horrors we’d seen were in memorials from the past; the optimism we’d experienced was present.
The people we’d met, from Doug in Eureka Springs to Sir Tom in Albuquerque to Yvonne in Yuma to Ranger Mike in Escalante, were kind and helpful. They were America.
That belief drove us home. We made it to Keokuk, Iowa, late that night. It probably was only nine or ten, but we’d driven a few hours in the dark and it felt like it was time for the bars to close.
We dragged our sorry, sore, tired selves to the front desk at the Quality Inn and a woman behind the counter greeted us with a “Hello, Theresa!” I was impressed. She remarked we were her last visitors for the night, so she couldn’t really lose. Still, after an eight hour and fifty-five minute drive that day, a month on the road, and finally arriving at the last place we would stay before returning to our own home, being greeted by name was a balm.
We slept in until eight the next morning. It was our last day on the road. We tried to explore Keokuk, but it was a half-hearted attempt. It was Sunday morning and the town was closed up, so we crossed the Mississippi River into Illinois and took the Great River Road the short distance north to Nauvoo.
This small town of about a thousand seemed an appropriate final destination. Originally the site of the Quashquema Sauk and Fox village, white settlers arrived in 1824. It was first called Venus in 1832, then Commerce in 1834, and then Mormons who had fled persecution in Missouri bought the town in 1839 and renamed it the following year.
The settlement swelled quickly, exploding to a population of about 12,000 by 1844, which was the same size as Chicago. This caused friction with the neighbors and tensions were so bad that Joseph Smith, founder of the nascent religion, and his brother Hyrum were killed while imprisoned in nearby Carthage for charges of treason.
A short while after their deaths, Brigham Young led a large portion of Latter Day Saints west, arriving in Salt Lake Valley in the Utah Territory on July 24, 1847.
Nauvoo, the departure point for those pioneering Mormons, was appropriate for this road trip because we had experienced so much of the impact of that migration.
The Joshua Tree was named by Mormon settlers due to its resemblance to a biblical character. Zion National Park, originally named Mukuntuweap National Monument, was christened Zion because that’s what the Mormon’s called the area. Ebenezer Bryce was a Mormon who built a road that ended at the amphitheater in what became known as Bryce’s Canyon.
I’m sure there are more, as the influence of those settlers can be felt throughout Utah and beyond.
After the Mormons left the banks of the Mississippi, the Icarians moved in. Dubbed “French Communists” on the historical marker installed by the State of Illinois in 1936, this was another short lived social experiment. Now the town is mostly dedicated to tourism and the historic sites are owned by the Community of Christ and the Latter Day Saints.
We couldn’t explore because the sites are closed to the public on Sundays in March, and we were fine with that. I was even OK with the fact that pictures were forbidden at the Joseph Smith Historic Site. I’d taken thousands of photos in the past thirty days, read scores of historic markers, walked dozens of miles. Home was only four hours away and we were so close we could taste it.
But first, we needed to taste some wine. When you find out the oldest winery in the state is in the same town you are, you stop and sip. At least, that’s what we did.
Emile Baxter had come to Nauvoo with the Icarians in 1855. After that colony disbanded in 1857, he and his wife Annette returned to the east coast, but they couldn’t stay away from the peaceful life along the river. He picked up some grape cuttings on the way back, and with the help of fellow former Icarians (who were French, after all), he planted the grapes and founded a winery.
Although it’s gone through a few name changes, Baxter’s Vineyards and Winery has stayed in the family the entire time. Emile and Annette’s great-great-grandson Logan Kelly and his wife Brenda bought the winery in 1987 and have been running it ever since.
We took a quick self-guided tour and did a tasting conducted by Brenda herself, impressed enough that we took two bottles home, squeezing them into the last empty space in Mae’s back seat.
It was time to go home.