The Great White Stamp
For every addiction, there's a program that offers help. When you're hooked on National Park Passport Stamps, the only relief is to get more stamps. With that in mind, I decided to get the remaining 7 states I needed for the Iron Butt National Park Quest. Getting the 50 parks proved to be relatively easy. Obtaining the 25 states proved to be more difficult for someone who lives in Florida. Maybe I should move to Missouri.
A special thanks to my buddy Mike Cornett who makes this friendly competition fun and provided my link to the rest of the world.
Thanksgiving Day and the weather determined the initial direction for the trip. My plan was to be at the Gulf Islands Park when it opened at 8:30am. This required a 2:30am start. Sleep! We don't need no stinkin' sleep.
I refused to wear any heavy duty clothes on the first leg of the trip. Things would get much worse up north and giving in to the cold now would set a bad tone. Hey, I'm a man, I can take it. Within 1 hour of leaving my house I was in a rest area putting on all of my electrics. Mommy? The temps in the panhandle were in the 20's. This, coupled with 85 mph speeds created some seat puckering wind chill factors. At 8:30 I pulled into the Gulf Islands Visitors Center in Gulf Breeze just as the ranger was putting the key in the door. This would be my last Florida stamp, not counting the Dry Tortugas which requires a plane ride.
If you've never been to this part of Florida, the national and state parks are wonderful. There are huge sand dunes and a nice campground at Fort Pickens. The wave action creates little pools in the gulf which are isolated from the rest of the gulf water. Just relaxing in one of these little pools is extremely therapeutic, but that would have to wait for another day. The effect of getting a stamp was starting to wear off. I WANT MORE!!!!!
Back on I-4 and west to New Orleans. This is a very satisfying section of freeway because the states fly by. Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and you're in Louisiana. The weather was fantastic. Highs were in the 60's and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Did the storm front, predicted for the area, change directions? That would be too much to hope for.
New Orleans has always intimidated me. The river dictates street direction and the river curves. If that isn't enough of a challenge, the local officials have decided that no street will keep the same name for over 1 mile. I'm sure that's written down somewhere. Maybe it's on Huey Long's headstone. With the help of a couple of local residents I made my way to the Farmer's Market.
Finding a parking spot was an adventure. The parking lot did not allow motorcycles. Could this be true? To make matters worse, the lot was at the end of a one-way street. What sadistic politician decided on this rule? It must have been the same guy that designed the street names. I parked on the street and hoped for the best.
I was immediately hit with the sound of jazz band playing for the lunch patrons. Heavenly. The music drifted over me like a sweet, warm breeze and I was recharged. The visitor's center for Jean-Lafitte National Park was hidden down an alley way just across the street. The park is composed of 9 different units throughout the state. Each one focuses on the culture of the area. It seemed to me that each area should be it's own national park. Time for lunch. We'll be right back after this musical interlude.
Around Lake Ponchatrain and up I-55. I was tempted to take the bridge over the lake, but time was of the essence and Vicksburg awaits. A metal hauler had overturned in the north bound lane earlier. The only way to clean up this mess was to bring in front-end loaders. Oil was all over the road and the footing was treacherous, but paled in comparison to the thought of a jagged piece of metal in a tire. Apparently my luck was holding.
I'm not a big fan of military sites which means I usually pop in and out. Vicksburg was different. The roads through the park were a mini-version of Deal's Gap. I could imagine what it would be like to have the road to myself with no speed limits. The sight of rangers using RADAR in the park convinced me that this was not to be. I enjoyed the road nevertheless.
This was the first military park I've visited where the layout of the troops was so well defined. Mile after mile of Union troop embattlements came first followed by Confederate sites. This was one nasty site to have a battle as there are lots of hiding places for the enemy, whoever they may be. To add to the situation, the Mississippi River is nearby and the Union Navy had warships stationed there. One of the warships has been uncovered and is in a parially restored state. It's the USS Cairo and is a fascinating exhibit which has it's own stamp! Preserving the remaining wood hull is a never ending process that requires the help of the surrounding universities. This is a must see site.
I continued on to Monroe, LA and called it a night. It looks like rain. 1030 miles.
The Weather Channel showed that I stopped just before the rain bands the previous night. I was not so lucky this morning. It was pouring and cold. Who cares, I was going to Hot Springs which is one of my favorite places. Hwy. 15 in La. is under construction and the rain caused mud to spread across the road in many places. Visibility was minimal.
Hwy. 7 in Arkansas is one of my most well-liked roads. Having never been on the southern section, I was really looking forward to the day. Where it is not as spectacular as it is in the northern part of the state, it is still a nice road. Just north of I-30, it drives through De Grey Lake Resort State Park and the vistas as marvelous.
Hot Springs has always been an unspoiled, jewel of a town to me. That is, until, I took Hwy 7 south of town. I had always come in from the north, east or west. From the south, there is mile after mile of strip mall and suburbian blight. Unfortunately, this has become the real America. Hot Springs will never be the same for me. I was 1/2 hour early and waited in the cold and rain for the visitor's center to open.
I took US 70 out of town and soon got bored. There were some squiggly looking lines that looked interesting on my map. 369, 26, 329 and then back on US 70 west. Oklahoma has 65 mph speed limits on back roads!
On Oklahoma 3 it was absolutely necessary to do the ton and the miles melted away. Before I knew it I was in Sulphur, OK and at Chickasaw National Recreation Area and staring at a river crossing! Inside the park is a one-way loop to the visitor's center. This leg of the loop requires crossing a swollen river disguised as a road. I pulled up to the river and stared at it. Rain had been falling for two days in the area and the water was running fast. I stared some more. Maybe if I stared long enough, the water level would drop. Well, this wasn't working.
I turned around and talked to some people who had come from the center. It was still several miles down the road. ARGH! I went and stared at the river some more. Yep, still there. To hell with it. Once again, I'm a man, aren't I? What would a real man do? Charge! I put the flashers on and went the wrong way around the loop. Whew, no rangers were on the road.
The river I saw earlier runs under the visitor's center which reminded me of Frank Lloyd Wrights 'Falling Waters.' The park itself looked like so many other state parks I've seen. I would have liked to have seen some of the flying squirrels which are indigenous to the area, but alas.
I've got to believe that Oklahoma has more toll roads than any place else in the US. The Chickasaw Turnpike toll booths didn't like my quarters and I set off all the alarms. Is anyone looking? Am I on Candid Camera? The booths are unmanned and off I went, but something was wrong. This was a turnpike, but 1/2 the lanes are missing. It's a two-lane turnpike! I paid for this? I got off the turnpike onto a free four lane highway and took US 270 to McAlester where I picked up US 69 (a freeway for the most part) to I-44 and called it a night in Miami. That was as close to Florida as I could get. It rained all day! 700 miles
The plan was to get up to Fort Scott, Kansas when it opened. Unfortunately, I didn't know when that was, so I planned on being there at 8:30. Once again it was raining and I was on Hwy 69 north. The road was pretty boring and my mind ached for blue skies. It's times like this that National Public Radio helps pass the time. I spent the morning listening to a guy talk about his self-starting car and TV. No, he didn't want them to be self-starting.
Fort Scott was open at 8 which proved to be an important fact later. It was 36 degrees and the weather forecast was predicting snow. I had to get moving. It's times like these that you realize just how lonely some park rangers are. You might be their only visitor this time of year.
"Would you like to watch our 20 minute video?"
"No thanks lady."
"We have this nice tour of the area."
"Uh, it's 36 degrees, snow is predicted and I'm on a bike. I'm leaving, but thanks anyway."
Back down that same boring road. I had hoped to get into Nebraska and Iowa, but the weather looked pretty awful that way.
On the positive side, Missouri had 4 stamps in the direction I was heading. Stamp 1 was at George Washington Carver's birthplace. It's not much of a park, but I found the tie in with Booker T. Washington in Virginia interesting. You'll just have to go to each to see how they are related.
Stamp 2 was Wilson Creek National Battlefield in Springfield. As I said, battlefields aren't my thing. On to St. Louis and US Grant's Farm.
I walk into the visitor's center and the ranger shouts "Hi Greg." I was flabberghasted. She went on to say, "Did you like Fort Scott?" What is going on here? Oh, I've been set up by Mike Cornett. He had been there on the previous day and told them I'd be coming. The ranger knew more about me than my wife. I laughed for an hour after that. I'll get you for that Mike. :-)
Stamp 4 is at the gateway arch. If you've seen the arch from a distance, but never visited the site, be ready to be pleasantly surprised. Under the arch is a museum and a tram that takes you to the top of the arch. The place is huge, but you'd never know it from above. An understanding guy let me park at the cathedral near the site which is not allowed. Riding a bike has its privileges. Hey, it's getting late and I have to be in Springfield by 5pm.
Being the fastest thing on a freeway on a holiday weekend is probably not the smartest thing I've done, but I was posessed. The storm front was moving east and I had to get out of the area. The park closed 10 minutes before I got there. Now what? Remember how I said that Fort Scott was open 1/2 hour before I got there? Maybe the storm would avoid Springfield and if it didn't, how bad could it be. This is the only stamp in Illinois, so I stayed the night. Dumb, dumb, move......a whole bunch of miles (get the idea that I didn't write it down?)
Picture a child awakening on Xmas morning and walking downstairs to the Xmas tree. Picture the look on that young child's face as he or she sees the presents before him or her. Now, imagine the exact opposite of that and you'll be able to picture the look on my face when I pulled open the curtain. The storm landed right on top of Springfield. There was 3+" of snow on the bike and under that snow was a layer of ice. All the controls were frozen. I hadn't bothered to cover it because it was so filthy from the trip. I chipped away at the controls and the bike started right up. These RT's are wonderful. So, the bike is running, now what? I can barely stand up in the parking lot. So, if I have to stay a day, I'll stay a day.
Up until this point, getting stamps had been fairly easy. This would be the last state I needed. It was somehow fitting that the last stamp would be the most challenging.
An hour goes by and I'm climbing the walls already. I've got to get south before more snow comes in. Maybe I can teach my classes by phone if I have to spend the winter in Springfield. The salt trucks have been out and the roads look passable. That doesn't matter anyway, because I can't get out of the parking lot! Another hour passes. To heck with it, I'm heading out!
I grab the bag liners and head for the bike. It would be nice if the keys went into the bags and even nicer if the locks would work. Are we having fun yet? I walk down the street to buy some lock de-icer and that seems to work. Here goes nothing.
Guess what, slush is darn slippery, but the bike is staying upright. One bonus of the storm is that all the road signs are covered with snow and are unreadable. Thanks heaven I was at the site the previous night and I found my way back. With a stamp in the book I headed south. Yippee.
I was headed toward Vincennes, In. which meant backroads all morning. With the signs covered, I was running blind. "So, pull over and wipe off the road signs," you say. Did you forget about the 3" of snow on the ground? Hmmmmmmmm? Like a magnet, Vincennes was drawing me, and I didn't make any wrong turns. Man, it's cold. Southeast of Effingham the snow went away.
The George Rogers Clark site in Vincennes was a huge shock. Who would have expected a monument of this stature in this area? The monument was built between the the times the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials in Washington were being built. It has the same style with large Doric columns and a round footprint. Photographs show cherry trees in bloom at the site in the spring. I've was very impressed. In the visitor's center, a ranger taught me how to start a fire using flint. I told him I write him from the hospital while the burns on my hands were healing.
Amazingly, I run into a guy from Atlanta who owns an R11RT. He's in his car now, but is coming to Tampa (where I live) next week. It's a small world. Onward to the Lincoln Boyhood home and a very nice section of road near the site in Lincoln City. The home site was covered with copper as a memorial and the visitor's center is built out of native Indianan materials such as sandstone and cherry. The building was very pleasing to the eye and contains two halls which are used for gatherings and weddings. Lincoln's mother seems to be as much of a focus here as is Lincoln. Perhaps the thing that impressed me the most was the way the local school children donated pennies for construction of the building. Their names are all contained in several ledgers.
The William Howard Taft home in Cincinnati was the next stop, but a 4 o'clock closing and a time zone were working against me. I headed to Cincinnati for the evening. If you must be on a freeway, I-64 in southern Indiana would be my choice, especially when the leaves are changing color. North of Louisville, the bike turns 50,000 miles.
I'm at the Taft site when it opens at 10 am. This is too late and I can't stay long. Get directions before you go to this site as there are no signs. Back to Louisville and on to the Lincoln Birthplace. I'm beginning to sense a re-occurring theme here.
The site in Hogdenville contains another large memorial building. I'm continually amazed at how many of these buildings are sprinkled throughout the country. Contained within the memorial building is a reconstructed Lincoln cabin. When Lincoln became president, the cabin gained historical value. A gentleman took the cabin on tour for 9 years. He would load it in a box car and reassemble it throughout the country. I guess that's where the phrase 'Lincoln Logs' came from. Some of the wood in the cabin might be original, but no one knows for sure. The memorial is filled with symbolism which you'll have to discover for yourself.
There are some GREAT roads in the area, if you discount the occassional cow in the road. The sun was out and it was warming up slightly. I was having a great time. Before I knew it, I was in Tenn. at the Stones River Battlefield in Murfreesboro. Getting to the site requires driving through some nasty city traffic for several miles, but stamps is stamps.
With my last stamp for the trip in my book it was decision time. Where should I stop for the night? Should I just drive home? It was getting too cold for that and I was sick of being cold, even though the electric suite was a great help. I'd at least have to get to the other side of Atlanta, or face rush hour in the morning. On the way south on I-75 near Atlanta a state trooper, who was ahead of me, put on his flashers and instantly cut across the freeway in front of me. To my horror, there was a pallet of boxes that must have fallen of a truck in the middle of the high speed lane. That trooper probably saved my life. Slowing down, I was able to squeeze by as the car behind me nailed the pallet. If the pallet didn't get him, the air bag probably did. I think my heart is still racing. In Atlanta I was fortunate enough to get caught in Monday Night Football traffic and I stopped south of town.
There are flurries in Atlanta! Go away! But, 3 hours later I was in Florida and the electric suite was packed away. Yes, it's 70 degrees down here and it might be the most beautiful day I can remember in a long time. Now, where is that next stamp?
Greg "Bounce" Pink
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