The KCMetro Casita+ Owners Group began in 2015. Shortly after Christine and I purchased our Casita trailer we learned that there were a number of other owners of this relatively “rare” breed of camper in the Kansas City metropolitan area. In fact, there were at least 5 within a mile of our home.

Casitas, and other fiberglass “eggs” are unique in that they are usually sold only by the factories that make them (no dealerships), they are compact, efficient, very solid, and they retain a remarkable percentage of their original price on the pre-owned market.

After a few months of camping Christine and I connected with other local owners and used Facebook as a vehicle to establish the KC Metro Casita+ Owners Group. Since 2015 we have grown to over 65 members and we represent over 30 trailers. While most of the trailers are Casitas, our group also includes Scamp, Oliver, and Escape brands, and a “non-egg” Sprinter RV. All makes of campers are welcome, even non-owners who are just contemplating the purchase. The only requirements for membership are a love of camping and a willingness to participate in our activities.

Each year the membership joins for 4 group activities. In the Winter and Summer we gather for a “Pot-Luck” Supper that is hosted at a member’s home. In the Spring and Fall we meet at a pre-selected State or Federal Park for a weekend group campout. This year we met the first weekend of October at Missouri’s Watkins Mill State Park, located approximately 30 miles north of downtown Kansas City. What follows is a summary of this years Fall Campout:

A few members made camp on Thursday, but most arrived on Friday. The weekend promised perfect Fall temperatures, but we were operating under a threat of showers on Saturday. We numbered 14 trailers and 25 members present.

On Friday evening we descended upon the Wabash BBQ restaurant in nearby Excelsior Springs for dinner and a group campfire followed. The main activities began early Saturday.

Like the Boy Scouts, we embrace the motto, “Be Prepared”! We erected shelters while Ted began turning out his crowd pleasing pancakes. As with dinner to follow, this is a “Pot Luck” affair with members displaying their camp cooking culinary expertise.

It was our good fortune that the rains held off until breakfast and cleanup had concluded. When the rains came it was with a vengeance! Many of the campsites became swamps, but we were not to be deterred from our enjoyment of the day. At noon the Watkins Mill State Historic Site opened for visitors, hosted by an array of period-dressed reenactors.

Born in 1806, Waltus L. Watkins left his family’s farm in Kentucky at the age of 18. By his 22nd birthday this poly-math had become an expert weaver and machinist.

He moved to Liberty, Missouri in 1830, and in 1839 purchased 580 acres of land in northern Clay County where he and his wife established a farm. By 1880 his holdings had grown to 3,660 acres located in Clay and Ray Counties. In addition to farming he engaged in a variety of industrial operations that included a sawmill, grain mill, and brickmaking. Notwithstanding the energy that he dedicated to his commercial endeavors, Waltus found time to father 11 children with his wife, Mary Ann. Including workmen, boarders, and other family members the household usually numbered 15-20 people. The farm raised livestock, made butter, cheese, honey, and cured meats. During planting and harvest an additional 25+ hands were hired and fed.

In 1860 Watkins constructed his woolen factory which has been restored and can be toured for a nominal charge. Our afternoon did not include the Mill, rather focusing upon the special activities featured at the mansion, and nearby school and church. (The Mill photo and portrait are courtesy of Missouri Parks)

The Woolen Mill employed over 40 skilled workers and was powered by a huge 60 horsepower riverboat steam engine. The Mill closed in 1890, but over the 30 years that it operated it had produced many types of cloth, blankets, yarns, and clothing. Its goods could be found in every city and town within 60 miles.

Our tour of the home included visits to the various rooms which featured authentic period pieces, many of which were original to the Watkins family.

The home, started in 1850, took 4 years to complete. The rock-solid grand staircase had taken artisan carpenters 2 years to build and has not yet required repair.

Crafts on display included spinning, weaving, cider making, operations in the summer kitchen and a blacksmith at his forge. The well-arranged visitors center provided a wealth of information on the history of the Watkins Farm and Mill.

A short distance from the Watkins home are the restored Mt. Vernon Missionary Baptist Church (1871), and Franklin Academy School (1856).

The Church was active until 1917 and although there is no active congregation it is available for rental as a wedding venue. Its interior is original and authentically restored.

The octagonal brick school predates the public schools of the area. It was a “subscription” school where local families paid tuition which was based upon a family’s financial means. The desks are original… the teacher is not.

By late afternoon the grounds had begun to dry and campers had retired to their individual campsites to begin food preparation for the evening gathering. Our contribution would be a Dutch Oven Lasagna. Others prepared a dizzying display of salads, mains, sides, and deserts. There would be few leftovers.

Rather than set up on the still damp ground, it was decided to make use of the wide paved driveway to gather for dinner. The sky had cleared for a spectacular evening meal, campfire, and even some antics with a Hula-Hoop.

By the end of the evening we had already planned and scheduled our 2020 Winter “Pot Luck” and Spring Campout.

Peace Everyone. Pete

PS. Coincidentally, Christine celebrated her birthday on Saturday welcomed by these good friends and Medicare. Life is good.

During a recent camping trip I had occasion to watch a solo ant crawl zig-zag across the top of our small folding table. He touched a banana peel that I had placed on the table but did not seem overly interested in it. As I finished my banana, I resisted the urge to squash him. He presented no threat to me and I was certainly more a guest in his world than he was in mine. I continued to watch as he descended to the ground and then disposed of the peel.
Within 5 minutes the ant returned… at least I presumed it was him since one ant looks pretty much the same as another to me. This time he was closely followed by scores of his nestmates. A solo insect explorer was one thing, an armada of invaders was another. With a spritz of Raid and the wipe of a damp cloth I rendered the tabletop a less hospitable environment for further ant incursions.
I had just witnessed one insect on a mission of exploration communicate his discovery to others of his kind and then rally their support in furtherance of a greatly expanded enterprise. On a very small scale I had just watched a parody of humanity’s habits of exploration. Curiosity has driven us to extended our reach across every continent, into the depths of the oceans, and now out into the solar system… perhaps one day into the vastness of “Space, the final frontier… to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before”. Forgive me, but I am a lifelong “Star Trekkie”

Will we know life when we see it? NASA continues to struggle to develop a definition of life, fearing that we won’t know it when we see it:

“There is no broadly accepted definition of ‘life.’ Suggested definitions face problems, often in the form of robust counter-examples… defining ‘life’ currently poses a dilemma analogous to that faced by those hoping to define ‘water’ before the existence of molecular theory. In the absence of an analogous theory of the nature of living systems, interminable controversy over the definition of life is inescapable.” (Cleland, Carol E.; Chyba, Christopher F., Origins of Life and Evolution of the Biosphere, v. 32, Issue 4, p. 387-393 (2002)).

As a child attending Catholic parochial school I was taught that humans were the sole form of intelligent life in the Universe. It has taken millennia for us to abandon the notion that earth was the center of that Universe. In my own lifetime science has moved from ignorance of the existence of other solar systems to an understanding that planetary systems are as numerous as the grains of sand upon all of the beaches of the world. Why should only one very tiny blue grain of that sand be selected by a Creator to host life?
The problem is that any attempt to define life necessarily derives from our limited frame of reference. We won’t necessarily know “life” when we see it if it isn’t “life as we know it”. I suspect that theologies which have historically taught that life only exists on Earth will struggle to adapt if/when there is an extra-terrestrial discovery of “something” (microscopic or otherwise) that is arguably “life”. If such a discovery forces us to accept that life exists beyond the confines of Earth then a likely response to protect our assumed uniqueness will be to say that our intelligence sets us apart as favored “in God’s eyes”.
Unfortunately, we have not done a very good job at acknowledging intellect when we encounter it in our own world. Examples abound that run contrary to our species-centric prejudices: Birds that make tools; Apes that learn language; Elephants that self-identify in a mirror, create art, and decades later remember distinct encounters with individual humans; Sea Mammals that have complex languages, show empathy for humans in distress, and pursue sex for pleasure; Orcas that elevate post-menopausal females into leadership roles because of their stability, maturity, and experience, thus enhancing the general welfare of the group (BTW, only 5 species are known to experience menopause, Humans and 4 species of whales); and of course a lone ant that happened to walk across my camp table.
We have often chosen to ignore or dismiss the existence of intellect in our own species based solely upon skin color, theology, or national origin. We remain poor stewards of our own environment, and we decimate our numbers in conflicts that prove that we do not learn from history. If an extraterrestrial species ever visits Earth it is entirely understandable that it may conclude Earth to be devoid of intelligent life.
Peace Everyone. Pete
PS: I have been generally absent from social media and my “Thoughts” since August. That does not mean that we have been idle or that I have not been thinking. We are making progress on the pursuit of our plans for a Colorado vacation home, I have returned to more serious bicycling, and we have been planning for more “next things”. We depart in November on a 30 day trip that will include a 3 week cruise around the southern tip of South America. A week in Cozumel off the Yucatan Peninsula has also been scheduled for February. Stay tuned for the travel commentaries to come.

Yesterday, August 10th, Christine and I joined longtime friends Greg and Rebecca for lunch at a very good brewery/restaurant “Fields and Ivy” located in Lawrence Kansas. Ours is one of those very special friendships that sustain beyond the boundaries of distance and time. My 45 year association with Greg warrants comment which I will reserve for later in this post.

Greg and Rebecca both follow our travels. At lunch Rebecca issued a mild reprimand to me… “So what happened?… As far as everyone who follows you is concerned you just disappeared somewhere between Salt Lake City and Denver.” It was a light hearted comment, but she is correct. My bad.

The drive from Salt Lake to Winter Park was largely uneventful, except that it coincided with Robert Muller’s testimony before two House of Representatives Committees. The proceedings were aired live on the NPR feed hosted on Sirrus Satellite Radio. The mountains effectively limit the use of FM radio, but the satellite broadcast firmly held my attention for most of the day’s drive. I doubt that one in a thousand Americans tuned in for the whole thing. I had nothing better to do and I found it captivating. No other comment is necessary lest I become just another talking head.

I overnighted in Winter Park and enjoyed my last Dutch Oven dinner and bourbon accompanied campfire of the trip.

I also savored the 40-50 degree night temperatures which will elude Denver and Kansas City until Fall arrives.

I arrived in Denver for a two night stay with our friend Kris. She lives very close to two paved bicycle paths that are a part of Denver’s impressive network of trails that cover scores of miles. I took advantage of the opportunity to get in a pleasant morning ride.
I was Kris’ guest to a couple of events, one of which was an evening gathering of a group of her long-time female friends. I was welcome, but I was also the sole male among the 14 in attendance. I mingled but also embraced being a “fly on the wall” with the opportunity to observe and consider how differently women and men socialize with one another in the general absence of the other sex. Something for me to “chew on” in the future.

The second event was an afternoon “Pot Luck” lunch hosted by the Denver chapter of the American Pilgrims on the Camino (APOC).

As one who has walked both the French and Portuguese routes to Santiago de Compostela Spain, and co-founded the Kansas City chapter of APOC, I was right at home with the group.

The night before my departure for Kansas City we went to dinner at a highly regarded restaurant in Denver’s Park Hill neighborhood. “Tables” is one of those rare finds where the food and service are exceptional, the price is moderate, and the very talented chefs/owners personally visit your table to ensure that the dining experience meets their standards of excellence.

Kris and I could also carry on a conversation without shouting at each other… a rarity in restaurants these days. It was Kris’ first visit and I imagine it won’t be her last.

It was time for me to bid an early farewell the following morning (Sunday the 28th). For her part, Kris had preparations to make for a backpacking trip later in the week. She and four friends were hiking the circumference of the base of Mount Rainier in Washington State. The endeavor over rugged terrain would take more than a week, cover over 100 miles, and accumulate over 25,000 feet of elevation changes. She is a strong and adventurous woman.

I had not intended to drive the entire 610 miles home in one day. Towing a trailer can be taxing, especially solo.

However, the Sunday traffic was moderate, the weather passable, and I had a favorable tailwind. Stopping only for gas, a quick lunch, and an occasionally for the bathroom (that is conveniently located in the trailer), I made it home well before dark. I knew I was really home when Christine and I were in each others arms. The solitude that really wasn’t had come to an end.

About that “solitude”: I previously remarked that the act of writing these posts created an aura of companionship. I wonder if the effect is different when one writes entries in a personal diary. Does the expectation of an audience or of privacy change the experience of examining ones thoughts in writing? I have never been one to keep a private diary. However the impression that when I am writing I am “with” many other people is quite real… and comforting.
I also wonder if prayer brings comfort to the “faithful” out of the sincere belief that their words have the ear of God. Similarly, is understanding of this comfort lost on those who are non-believers?

Whether or not the Creator is listening is a different question than whether or not one BELIEVES the Creator is listening. In medicine it is the placebo effect that renders a sugar pill an effective remedy for pain… the belief, not the pill.

Peace Everyone. Pete

PS: In July 1974 I traveled to Kansas City to accept a position as a Missouri State Probation and Parole officer. I had just completed my undergraduate studies at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.

On my first day in the office I met Greg Tempel. Greg, also a new hire, had recently finished his undergrad work at Central Missouri State University. Greg was assigned one of two specialty caseloads. His duties included supervision of drug dependent offenders living in a half-way house. The other specialty caseload was assigned to me, supervision of alcoholic offenders living in a different half-way house. We quickly became friends and found that our approaches to caseload/client management were similar and a slightly out of step with more liberal sociological models that were then in vogue.

Greg and I shared an apartment for a time. In our third year working for the State, and without the other’s knowledge, we each applied to law school. We were each accepted and by pure chance ended up in the same classes throughout the first year.

Greg was an exceptional student with very disciplined study habits. He was also athletically inclined. Our friendship was flavored with a spirit of competition that called me to do better… although most of the time Greg came out ahead.

In our second year of law school Greg invited me to join him as his partner in a lawn service. It was successful beyond our expectations. We (literally) wore three sets of tires off of our two push mowers the only Summer we operated the business. The telephone rang off the wall with calls for our services the following year, but the requirements of the final year before graduation and the looming stress of the State Bar Examination ended our Student Lawn Service. I have no doubt that we could have grown that joint enterprise into a financially lucrative business.

Another thing that Greg and I had in common was the good fortune to marry well. Greg and his wife Rebecca moved to Colorado to pursue their professions and start their family. Christine and I had married the Summer that I entered law school. We had children born in both my second and last year of school. Greg and I remained in contact over the decades and seized opportunities to visit when they visited Kansas City and when we vacationed in Colorado.

At the end of a vacation in 2014 we met Greg and Rebecca for breakfast at a diner near Fort Collins Colorado. Greg mentioned that he was retiring in April the following year and that he and Rebecca would be moving to Lawrence to be closer to family and Rebecca’s KU Jayhawks. Until that moment retirement had only been an intangible for Christine and me. My facial expression must have revealed something to Greg because he exclaimed, “…and damn it, you are not going to retire before me!!” I retired in May.

Greg always brought the best out in me. My general ideology trends liberal while his trends conservative. We each respect the view of the other from his side of that fence. When we get together we have a beer (or two), we laugh about the past, we are grateful for the present, and we talk about the future that will be owned by our children and grandchildren. As I said… a friendship that sustains beyond the boundaries of distance and time.

I left at dawn on the 22nd from the US Forest Service “Cabin City” campground where 47 degrees was my morning’s greeting. While in the mountains this was one of the warmest overnight temperatures I have experienced on this trip. One morning was just below freezing. Kansas City has not been so fortunate.

It was a long driving day that took me half way to Salt Lake City where I planned to visit our friends Lena and Ron at their home. More on that visit later…

I took advantage of a truck stop to do laundry, catch a shower, and then I put more miles behind me before overnighting with the “Big Rigs” at an Interstate rest stop.

The morning of the 23rd was another early riser in order to time my arrival in Salt Lake City before noon.

As I drove south into Utah on I-15, I enjoyed an extraordinary panorama that must have cried “Promised Land” to the Mormon pioneers of the mid-19th Century. I had to mentally blot out the Interstate and the occasional sounds of 18 wheelers, large RV’s, and passenger cars pounding the pavement of this arterial highway.

The roadway was completed around 1990. The section that I traveled just south of the Utah/Idaho boarder was perched on a rise with a shallow valley to the west on my right. In the distance the crystal clear air revealed mountains to the east and a well laid out western town of a few hundred citizens down in the valley to the west. Perched upon the rise between the town and the highway was an equally well laid grid-work cemetery, the morning sun brilliantly illuminating the hundreds of white stone monuments. The grounds were obviously associated with the town. I guessed that the “citizens” in repose outnumbered the living residents of the town. A question was thus presented to me: Do those now living upon the Earth outnumber those who have gone before us in death? A stop for gas and a hurried consultation with Professor Google provided me with some answers.

First of all, I am not the first person to have asked the question. Secondly, our species (Homo sapiens) has been around for about 50,000 years. They did a terrible job of record keeping until the 1800’s. Demographers were left with a puzzle that had clues but no definitive statistics.

Earth is currently home to over 7.5 billion souls. We are replacing our dearly departed at the rate of approximately 20 births per 1,000 people. In and before the Middle Ages this number was likely around 80 per 1,000 people. However, factoring infant mortality the life expectancy of our species during and before the Middle Ages may have been as low as 10-12 years! Today the world-wide life expectancy it is around 67 for males and 71 for females.

Crunching the numbers, the Population Reference Bureau (“PRB”) has estimated that more than 108 billion members of our species have been born to date, and that approximately 7% of that number are alive today. That is approximately 14 dead for every person now living.

Kudos and a “tip of the hat” to Arthur C. Clark (author of “2001 as Space Odyssey”) who in 1968 estimated the ratio at 30-1 when the Earth’s population was just 3.5 billion. His estimate is consistent with the PRB’s.

In order for the number of living humans to exceed the number of dead ones the Earth must somehow support well over 100 billion living humans… pretty unlikely. “Whew!!!”

Back to Salt Lake City: Christine and I first met Ron and Lena in 2017 while camping on Sitka Island and traveling to mainland Alaska.

We immediately hit it off with this like minded traveling couple. They were originally from Canada and each achieved their PhD, Ron in Chemistry and Lena in Social Sciences. They founded their own business that involved environmental issues and engineered solutions. They retired around 2000. In 2018 Christine and I were traveling through Spain on our way to walk the Portuguese Camino. I received a message from them. They had been reading my posts and damned if they weren’t in Madrid on the same day that we were! We joined them for a memorable evening with promises to get together again. Again came yesterday at their home in Salt Lake City.

Ron and Lena are in the process of downsizing and simplifying life. They have sold the remarkable 1898 home that they totally renovated.

They put aside their packing duties to entertain me with lively conversation, wine, lunch and dinner, and an amazing night overlook of the city.

Within 10 minutes of my arrival in their home we were talking about this year’s travels and “next things” for the future. Among those future possibilities are: An RV camping tour of the inner and outer coasts of the Mexican Baja Peninsula… A one-week sailing from Montreal to the Madeleine Islands of the St. Lawrence (Nanci and Tom I hope you are reading this!)… and a voyage to the Arctic up the west coast of Norway on the “Hurtigruten”, a mailboat with spartan passenger accommodations for the intrepid traveler (Hege and Jan-Cato I hope you are reading this!).

There are no definite plans, but “next things” have a habit of finding us, and so it seems with Ron and Lena. Beyond amazing is that Ron and Lena know our Denver friend Kris (my next stop as I am homeward bound), having met her in 2016 while walking a route of the Camino in France! Some things simply defy explanation.

Tomorrow I return to Winter Park for an overnight before arriving in Denver. In the meantime…

Peace Everyone. Pete

PS. Speaking of the “Unexplainable”. This morning, without any action on my part, my website re-launched two posts from our 2018 Europe trip, one about Norway and the other about Berlin which included a get together with Stanley, a gentleman with whom I had just exchanged email greetings yesterday. I remain convinced that our senses are inadequate to explain the experiences that befall us.

Tomorrow closes my third week on the road. At the onset I expressed my trepidations concerning a lengthy solo outing and the expectations of solitude. My concerns were rooted in the experience of embarking on a 2 week solo camping trip to Colorado in 1975. After a little more than a week I had succumbed to crushing loneliness that drove my back home to familiar faces by the 10th day.

In 1975 distance meant separation. There were few options to remain connected with loved ones… letters and pay-phones. Letters were a message in a bottle that would not bring a reply. Phone calls were expensive and thus hurried. If anything, these two means of communication did more to highlight solitude than alleviate it.

Fast forward to the 21st Century and we have, FaceTime, Messenger, Facebook, Skype, various social media platforms… and of course telephone calls via a mobile network that spans most of the country. We assemble our friends and family in a one touch directory that keeps them available at a moment’s whim, but perhaps with an unintended consequence (“Burial Rights in the 21st Century”).

I have been away from home for 20+ days, but there have been meaningful interactions with Christine virtually every day. Today it included “FaceTime” with her and 2yo granddaughter Lennon upon her lap.

We are not creatures well adapted to solitude. There are exceptions (see infra). There is a reason that solitary confinement has been a favored means of prison discipline. Indeed, it is recognized the such confinement for too long is a form of torture and amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Even Monks who voluntarily place themselves under a vow of silence remain safely ensconced within their monastic “community”. They live, work, and pray side-by-side in fellowship.

New friendships (which I have made on this trip), phone calls home, and even video chats are not a substitute for tactile human contact. I miss falling asleep with my arm over Chris. I miss the frequent gratuitous embraces throughout the day, and even just holding hands. However, the relaxed “what did you do today” talks have done much to belay the loneliness that once assaulted me 45 years ago.

An interesting aside: Christine has been reading my posts much as you do when we are on the road together. She has commented, “I really get it now! I understand why people look forward to your posts and enjoy them so much!” Cool!

Speaking of “what I did today…”. Up early, I fixed a big protein packed breakfast and readied my bicycle for a long ride.

The “Route of the Olympian” passes the campground a mere two miles away. It is a continuation of the rail lines that comprised the Coeur d’Alene and the Route of the Hiawatha, and can be followed for many miles as a part of a cross-Continent journey.

In it’s heyday the Olympian was a super-luxurious rail experience that took 4 days to cross country from coast to coast.

It compared favorably to all other exclusive train experiences, event the legendary Orient Express that linked Paris to Istanbul (BTW, in 1972 I was a second class passenger on that line from Belgrade to Paris).

Today the Olympian is just a memory, as is it’s rail bed. Where the Coeur d’Alene was 73 miles of well maintained asphalt and the Hiawatha was 15 miles of downhill coasting over adequately graded limestone gravel, the Olympian is a bicycle path in name only. To be sure there was beautiful scenery, but it was usually outside of my field of vision as I fought to keep my bike vertical on the trail that was surfaced with large aggregate made up of river rock.

Moreover, it was rutted and potholed. My eyes were glued to the area 15 feet ahead of my front wheel. I endured at a maximum speed of 6-8 mph for 12 miles, finally making it into the town of St. Regis. It was brutal, but I managed a few stops for pictures and even scored a souvenir.

A cold coffee latte in St. Regis brought welcome relief and fueled me for the 18 miles winding up into the mountains on the Old Mullan Road.

It was a hard but rewarding ride that left me and the bike so dust covered that I could no longer read the decals on the bike. Drinking from my water bottles on the ride was like taking in a mouthful of fine grit sandpaper.

Bike cleaned and clothes changed, I was in the car returning back up Old Mullan Road. When I was on the bike I had passed a gravel road that ascended the mountain higher that the road I had been on. Camp hosts Susi and Tom told me that it serpentines for 7 miles and ascends another 2,000 feet in elevation to the top of “The Camels Hump” and a Forest Service Fire Tower.

I drove up the gravel forest road until I reached to closed barrier gate. Continuing on foot I reached and climbed the Fire Tower and was rewarded by a 360 degree panorama that extended for scores of miles. I also met Don, the fire-spotter.

Earlier in this post I mentioned that we are not creatures well adapted to solitude. I mentioned that there is the rare exception, and his name is Don.

Don is about 44 years old. He moved to this area when he was 15, and in 2004 he began manning the fire tower. His predecessor died of a heart attack. (I wondered, but did not ask if he died on the job and how many weeks it took to find out that he was dead… Bad Pete!). Don is on duty 6 days x 24 hours each week except during the winter. While on duty the top of the tower is his home. No electricity, except solar/battery power. He has propane lamps, a propane refrigerator, a small stove/oven, bed, no plumbing, and the damndest view that money can buy.

He also has solitude. Don was friendly enough and welcomed me into his “home”, but he made the point that he liked it that visitors were a rarity. He has been at his solitary post for 15 years and looks forward to another 15 years. Don smokes unfiltered cigarettes. I hope he makes it. Don is a rarity and well suited to his duties. Good for him, and good for our forests.

Tomorrow I head toward Salt Lake City to visit friends Ron and Lena, then on to Denver to reprise my visit with Kris… and then home!

Peace Everyone. Pete

Less than two miles south of Wallace a life and death drama played out in late August of 1910. It was the time of the “Big Burn”, a conflagration that would consume over 3 million acres of forest and extinguish the lives of 78 firefighters and as many as 55 civilians. But for the heroics of Ranger “Big Ed” Pulaski another 39 souls would have been added to those grim statistics.

Born in 1865, Ed Pulaski completed his high school studies at the age of 15 and left his home in Ohio to seek fortune and adventure in the western United States. Prior to his arrival in Idaho he had become a skilled woodsman, rancher, miner, lumberman, surveyor and blacksmith.

He was an imposing figure at 6-foot-3. He hired on with the fledgling US Forest Service in the very early 1900’s and quickly acquired a reputation for intelligence, resourcefulness, and a driven work ethic. By 1910 Pulaski was in charge of forestry operations in the area surrounding Wallace.

The spring and summer of 1910 brought record drought with less than a half-inch of rain in June, and no measurable precipitation in July or August. Fires were sprouting up everywhere and Pulaski’s crews had the hopeless task of extinguishing them. Around the 20th of August near hurricane force winds stoked the many fires into one all-consuming inferno. Ed sensed that his region, and the town of Wallace was lost. He instructed his wife and daughter to leave there home in Wallace and flee to safety. His parting words were that they may never see him again. Ed then went into the mountains to assemble as many of his men as possible and lead them to safety.

Most of his crews were not locals and were unfamiliar with the area that they were working. It was common in the exigencies of the time to hire temporary workers and thus a number of the 78 deceased firefighters were buried as “Unknown”.

Ed knew of an abandoned silver mine that offered some small hope for survival if he could just get his men there. He rode his horse through the burning timbers, struggling to breath, yet yelling to be heard over the roaring flames. Ultimately, he was able to round up 45 of his crewmen and lead them through the wildfire to the mine. He personally maintained wet blankets at the entrance to suppress as much smoke and heat as possible. In the process he was blinded, suffered serious burns, and was rendered unconscious.

He and 39 of his crew survived the ordeal. Sadly, 6 perished. Until his own death in 1932 he personally tended the graves of those deceased, one of whom was an “Unknown”.

The route of Pulaski’s escape with his men is now a US Forest Service hike and is maintained as a shrine to those who lost their lives in the Big Burn.

The 4 mile round trip ascends 800 feet in elevation ending just above the mine entrance where the men sought refuge.

The trail is interpreted with over a dozen signs that tell the tale of the fire and Ed Pulaski’s heroics.

In February of 1931 Big Ed retired having reached mandatory retirement age. A year later(nearly to the day) he died of a sudden heart attack. Pulaski never fully recovered from his injuries. His eyesight and stamina were permanently compromised. He remained humble in spite of his fame among locals and his peers. He rarely spoke of the rescue and only once wrote the details at the insistence of his superiors.

Ironically, the monument that ultimately immortalized him was created by his own hands. In 1911 he fashioned and forged a long-handled tool that combined a single-bit ax with an adze-shaped hoe on the back. He improved upon the design and urged the Forest Service to adopt and distribute the tool as standard equipment to its firefighters. His invention caught on and soon became an indispensable tool for every “smoke-eater”. It’s utility was recognized by municipal fire departments across the United States and today the tool that Ed designed can be found in virtually every fire station and on every fire truck in America. The tool is known today as a “Pulaski”.

Peace Everyone. Pete

PS. Ed’s wife and daughter survived unharmed. Most of Wallace was leveled to ashes. The area’s forests were totally destroyed and thus virtually every tree that stands in this region today was one that germinated and grew after the fire… with perhaps one exception:

PPS. I leave Wallace in the morning and begin my return to Kansas City.

I had a trove of narrative and pictures from my July 17th ride on the Coeur d’Alene Trail yesterday, but the thing that I lacked was sufficient cell or WiFi signal to stitch them together and upload for posting. Undaunted, I set off west on I-90 to find the signal strength I required. Over 40 miles later (yes, 40!) my signal meter indicated 4 strong bars and I pulled off the nearest exit and into a Wendy’s parking lot to complete my mission. By the time I was back in Wallace it was after noon. I ate a quick lunch and then confronted the question of “what to do next”?

The weather favored a walking tour of the heart of Wallace, so armed with my camera and wearing my hiking boots I set off in search of the unknown.

I strolled the streets, visited a number of shops, and then set foot inside of the Northern Pacific Railroad museum.

$3.50 is the requested donation for admission to this treasure. Cindy efficiently manages the front desk and her smile is infectious.

I received a personal guided tour of this small but immaculately preserved facility from the early 20th Century. My guide was John, an expressive gentleman dressed in period attire who seldom fell out of character.

He delighted in my interest and knowledge of minutia that was relevant to his discourse. He is a retiree, volunteer, and actor in the local Melodrama Playhouse troupe. Among the visit’s highlights were the Ladies and Children waiting room with heat and its own private lavatory.

Men were not allowed as most were dirty mouthed, tobacco spitting, miners.

The station office contained its original furnishings, including working telegraph (operators could send and receive at the rate of 40 words per minute!), the original Oliver typewriter,

a press duplicator that could make up to 5 images of an original bill of lading by pressing onion skin paper under the original and leaving them in place overnight. Low tech,but it worked.

There was even an original candlestick telephone that was still wired into the network. My guide produced his cell phone, apologized for being out of period, and “dialed” the 100 year old phone. He and I then held a brief conversation… he using 21st Century technology and me the early 20th Century tech. I was amazed by the clarity with which the old phone reproduced his voice.

The office also contained the original station safe, which was specially manufactured for the Norther Pacific RR by the Diebold Company of Canton Ohio.

It was structured with laminated layers of steel and concrete, and there was even a high security safe within the safe for keeping silver bullion. If one unsuccessfully attempted to open the internal safe the mechanism timed-out before allowing another attempt.

He was especially proud of a Hartmann Luggage Company (still in business today!) steamer trunk that had been owned generations ago by one of the town’s dignitaries. It weighs over 100 pounds empty, and contains a drawer for jewelry, a mini-bar (that came with decanter and glassware), and a compact electric iron to press clothing.

John explained that the station had been moved about 200 feet from its original location to make room for the construction of I-90. He continued to explain that in the early 1970’s the Idaho Department of Transportation proposed to build the Interstate through the heart of Wallace. Virtually the entire downtown would be condemned and demolished in the interest of transportation progress. The citizens instituted litigation and obtained injunctions that prevented Idaho from going forward. However, after 20 years in the Courts, Idaho prevailed… sort of. Final judgments were rendered in favor of the State, but during those preceding 20 years the citizens, largely through the hard work of one woman, secured a designation for the entire town that placed Wallace on the Register of Historic Places. The State was forced to build the Interstate ABOVE the town, and in the case of the Depot, move it unharmed to a safe location.

My tour of the station ended and I proceeded on foot to another tour that had been recommended to me.

The Sierra Silver Mine had a storied history that began with miners and hand tools exploring a silver vein in the area known as the richest silver producer in the world. The men dug for 7 years yet made less than 100 feet of progress with their shaft. Later owners using pneumatic drills and dynamite would make similar progress with a small crew in only 4 days. Subsequent operators expanded the mine to thousands of feet of tunnels on many levels but never found the “mother lode”. As it turned out another mine, digging from miles away, extended its shafts horizontally 1,800 feet below the Sierra and struck rich oar that produced over 50 pounds of silver for every ton of ore. The best that the Sierra had done was a few ounces of silver for every ton of ore.

The Sierra could not extract silver from the ground, but its modern operators learned how to extract silver from the pockets of tourists, me included.

For $14 (with senior discount) we customers were driven to the mine in a trolly bus. We were met at the mine by a retired miner, in this case “Fast Freddie”.

Freddie had dedicated his entire working life to the mining profession.

Taking us below he explained the workings of a silver mine and then demonstrated with the actual machinery. The experience was both delightful and deafening.

Freddie showed how miners had once worked assisted solely by candlelight, then by carbide lamp, and finally by modern lithium powered LED lit hard hats.

I have previously toured coal, gold, iron, and even salt mines, but this was the best such tour by far. Again, I was not a silent observer. Like the train station guide, Freddie became happily animated by my questions and interest. It doesn’t take much for my child-like wonder to kick in.

Tomorrow is my last day in Wallace. Who knows what tomorrow may bring?… not me.

Peace Everyone. Pete

I arrived in Wallace Idaho noon on the 16th. It’s a quirky town of about 1,000 souls that holds itself out as a major tourist destination, and the only town in the US that is listed in its entirety on the National Register of Historic Places.

One intersection in town declares itself to be the “Center of the Universe”. Who am I to say otherwise… I’m writing this missive within its confines.

“Quirky” may also describe the Wallace RV Park where I am situated for the next 4 nights.

It is not a typical camp selection for me. It sotmewhat resembles a parking lot, but there is some grass and a creek bubbling behind my trailer.

It’s just that there are no picnic tables, no fire grates, and few children. There is an abundance of retirees, large motor homes (we call those “sun-blockers”), pets, ATV’s, and cigarettes smokers. It’s just a different camping group than I am accustom to. This sounds like a complaint so let me clarify: There is a terrific brew-pub located at one end of the park, the Trail of the Coeur d’Alene (“CdA)” is located about 200 feet outside the park, and the heart of downtown (and the Center of the Universe) is just a 2 block walk. I really like this place! What’s more, I have full hook-ups (electric, water and sewer) for only $35 a night. Wallace RV Park is popular and rightly so.

On my first night here I walked 2 minutes to the City LImits Brew Pub here in the park and enjoyed a “flight” of beer samples.

All were top-notch craft beers. The burger I ordered was excellent as well. Outside on the patio I had the pleasure of hanging out with fellow campers Kathy (a solo camper from Michigan) and Donna and Terry, a couple from MIchigan also staying in the park. The three had met for the first time here and rode the Route of the Hiawatha the same day (the 15th) that I did. Terry and Donna rode the CdA early on the 16th and paid an unfortunately high price for the shuttle back to Wallace.

My plan had been to ride from Wallace to the west end and transport back. I had been told that the cost was one dollar per mile. What I had not been told was that the miles include the drive to deliver me to my destination AND the shuttles drive back to Plummer… over $150!! I was taken aback, but I still intended to go forward the plan on the morning of the 17th.

Kathy piped up that she was heading to the west end of the CdA where she had a camp reservation at Heyburn State Park. She offered to take me and my bike with her and I could then bicycle the 60+ miles back to Wallace. What a stroke of luck for me to find a Good Samaritan! It was agreed that we would hit the road in the morning.

The morning arrived cold, a bit dreary, and with a mild threat of showers. True to her promise, Kathy made room for me and my bike. We set off on the nearly 2 hour drive to Heyburn which included a stop at Walmart and a fuel up. We said our goodbyes at Heyburn State Park and I was spinning down the CdA by 11:30 a.m..

The CdA is a 73 mile long 10 foot wide ribbon of well maintained asphalt that was created in the 1990’s by a partnership between State, Federal, and Tribal governments and the Union Pacific Railroad. It is a recreational trail reserved solely for use by bicyclists, inline skaters, and pedestrians.

The CdA is one of the true jewels of America’s Rail to Trails movements. It was not created out of an abiding love for recreational cyclists. Rather, it was created out of the expediency of remediating an environmental catastrophe.

Between the Idaho towns of Mullen on the east and Plummer on the west is a 73 mile stretch of highly toxic earth. Beginning in the late 19th Century the Union Pacific Railroad had been transporting mining ores along this stretch of track. The ores were lead, zinc, and silver. The ore cars leaked a soup of acids, heavy metals, and poisons that permeated the earth along the rail line. The Union Pacific wished to abandon this section and the price was partnering in its cleanup. Options included the monumental task of removing the effected rock and soil or encapsulating it on-site by covering it with a barrier to protect the public. A layer of untainted gravel, covered with asphalt was the answer that created the Coeur d’Alene Trail. One is reminded that it is an imperfect solution as cautions abound to remain on the trail, don’t drink from surface water sources, clean clothes and equipment of any dust from the trail…

The CdA Trail nearly spans the Idaho panhandle from Washington to Montana. The west end lies within the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation. From Heyburn State Park the Trail crosses the 3,100 foot long Chatcolet Bridge and Trestle.

As the CdA extends east it follows the Coeur d’Alene River past marshes and many small lakes.

In the east it begins to gain elevation as it wanders with the railbed through an area once populated with mines and small mining communities.

There are 20 trailhead access points and 17 waysides with picnic tables, benches, and some with toilet facilities.

Today I bicycles from Heyburn State Park to Wallace. 60 miles, otherwise known as a “metric-century” (61 miles = 100 kilometers). It was a nearly perfect day for the ride. 71 degrees, and overcast. There were spits of drizzle now and then and a breeze piped up that was as often a head wind as it was a tail wind. For 4.5 hours I rode that ribbon of asphalt and enjoyed the eye-candy of lush wetlands, waves of grasses, wildlife, and the surrounding mountains.

I crossed a number of trestles, Not the high trestles of The Hiawatha, but sturdy low bridges that dated to the start of the 20th Century.

With the exception of the beginning and end this was a flat ride. There was no coasting, but then there was little hard peddling too.

There was a brief stretch through a couple of towns that passed industry, a trailer park, and that Walmart,

Otherwise, this was a ride of remarkable beauty.

Unlike the Hiawatha, I did not stop to read the information signs as I felt pressed by the threat of rain and the need to finish by late afternoon. There were picnic tables and pit toilets at appropriate intervals and even bicycle repair stations that provided tools and a tire pump.

I enjoyed a midpoint rest for lunch at one such trailside spot. The sandwich and trail mix I packed provided a needed energy reboot.

The trail deserves a relaxed rather than a frenetic approach in order to allow one to savor the sights that unfold along the way. I witnessed an Osprey swoop and pluck a fish from the lake adjoining the trail. The bird was faster than the fish… and my camera. I also missed by minutes a moose in the waters by the trail. I encountered the occasional beaver lodge, a menagerie of birds, an abundance of waterfowl, and the usual assortment of small mammals.

Again, I found myself very pleased with the versatility of my new bike. I intend to do more riding on the CdA while here in Wallace. I only hope that I can find adequate cell/WiFi coverage to upload this post and the images of the day. If you are reading this I succeeded.

Peace Everyone. Pete

In 1905, after exploring nearly 1,000 miles of options, The Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad settled upon creating a route to the west through the Bitterroot Mountains at St. Paul Pass, located at the border between Montana and Idaho.

To be suitable for passenger and heavy freight service the grade through the mountains had to average 1.7% or less. In other words, for each 100 feet traveled the change in elevation had to be less than 20 inches. The rugged Bitterroot presented a daunting obstacle, particularly the 15 miles from St. Paul Pass to Avery Idaho.

Engineers devised a solution in the form of 10 tunnels boring through the mountains and 7 tall trestles bridging the river valleys.

The grandest of the tunnels, the Taft Tunnel, would be 8,771 feet long, its east portal in Montana and its west portal in Idaho, and 1,000 feet below the summit of Roland Mountain.

It was also a literal tunnel through time as the Mountain and Pacific time zones change midway through the tunnel.

The trestles presented a different set of challenges, spanning wide and deep rifts. The Kelly Creek Trestle stands 230 feet above the valley floor and extends 850 feet end to end.

This was a railroading on a grand scale.

It the “golden years” the Hiawatha was a world class passenger train that sported gourmet dining, and futuristic accommodations for travelers crossing the continent.

Unfortunately such varied circumstances as the opening of the Panama Canal, the Great Depression, corporate mismanagement, and the growth of the trucking industry created an environment that eventually brought an end to the rail system that had come to be known as “The Milwaukee Road”. It’s last of 3 bankruptcies resulted in the sale and/or salvage of all of its assets between 1981 and 1985.

In 1986 the Bitterroot section of “The Road” was acquired by the US Forest Service, and in 1998 the Route of the Hiawatha Rail/Bike Trail opened. Today it is acclaimed as one of the finest such bicycle experiences in the nation.

For the cyclist the experience begins at the Lookout Pass Lodge where one purchases a trail day pass ($12) and if in need can rent a bicycle, helmet and light.

There is a restaurant and comfort facilities on site. During Winter this is a ski lodge. I couldn’t resist taking a picture of the “Urinal Instructions for Snowboarders”.

Pass in hand I drove 5 miles east to the gravel access road that takes one up to the east portal of the Taft Tunnel. It is here that the 15 mile downhill journey begins. Lights are mandatory as the Taft and other of the longer tunnels are pitch dark. Moreover, they are cold, wet, and muddy.

The trail is not for road-bikes and their narrow high pressure tires. Unlike many of the rail to trails that use fine limestone “chat”, the surface is rough gravel… think driveways and country roads.

My recently purchase Surley “Long-Haul-Trucker” proved to be an excellent compromise for the ride. It is very road capable, yet quite at home on the rough gravel surface.

One attraction of the Hiawatha for experienced and neophyte cyclists is that the outbound ride requires very little peddling. It is almost entirely a downhill coast through magnificent mountain scenery.

The ride could easily be accomplished in an hour, except for stops to take in the breathtaking views and to read the nearly 50 informational signboards that provide information on the history of the route, the trains, and other relevant details that add dimension to the experience.

Here is a link to a site where these signs can be accessed on-line: Hiawatha Trail Signs

This is just one that I found particularly interesting:

The ride is definitely family friendly, with parents and children alike sharing in the experience. At the end of the 15 miles there is a shuttle service ($10) that will transport you and your bike back to the west portal of the Taft Tunnel with the parking lot only a short ride back under the mountain. This is the line for the shuttle.

I estimate that less than 1% of the folks who bike the Hiawatha elect to turn around and bike the 15 miles back uphill. I was among those few.

It is an entirely different experience. Virtually no coasting and constant peddling. There is a constant flow on oncoming “traffic” to contend with, but then there would be no sense of accomplishment if it were “easy”. It took me over 2.5 hours to ride downhill because I stopped to take pictures and read the informational displays. Uphill took less than 1.5 hours.

This was not an “adrenaline” experience, but I can’t imagine a better way to have spent this day. Tomorrow I leave for Wallace Idaho in the morning where I will be camped for 4 nights during which I plan to bicycle the 73 mile long Coeur d’Alene Trail.

Peace Everyone. Pete

I made it to Missoula Montana last night, but struck out trying to find an available campsite late on a Friday. This area north and west of Missoula is extremely popular with campers this time of year. I did a fallback to an overnight in a huge Pilot Truck Plaza. On the positive side I got all my laundry done for less than $3.00, and there was a terrific stand-alone bar & grill restaurant where I enjoyed an excellent dinner and a breakfast the following morning. I also had a good cell signal and the opportunity to research camp options for the two nights before my reservation in Wallace Idaho.

I found that there were a number of US Forest Service campgrounds on the route to Wallace. None of them take reservations, which is a plus on an otherwise busy weekend. I elected to head 90 miles up the road to one named Cabin City.

22 campsites, water, picnic tables, fire pits and pit toilets. With my “geezer pass” the cost was $3.50 per night!

Cabin City is located a little over 2 miles off the expressway in a dense pine forest. The park road is paved, the sites are level, and all facilities are spotless thanks to Susi and Tom, the volunteer campground hosts.

Susi and I engaged in a lengthy conversation about the area. The campground is a mere 20 minute drive from the “Route of the Hiawatha” bike trail, and is actually a more convenient launching site for that bike ride than my reservation in Wallace Idaho. She also shared that just 5 miles down the road is the remarkable Savenac Historic Tree Nursery. I would have probable passed on it, except that Susi (who was a former volunteer there) was so insistent that I not pass it up. It was my good fortune that she pressed the point.

Elers Koch was a man who loved trees and who had vision that spanned beyond a human’s life-time. While on his honeymoon In 1907 he came upon an abandoned homestead located along Savenac Creek and the original Mullen Road which was built between 1859 and 1863. This was the first road engineered in the northwest, connecting Montana, Idaho, and Canada. It later morphed into the Yellowstone Trail… a portion and bridge are still visible.

Koch determined to build a forest nursery on the spot. Work began in 1908 but tragedy struck in the form of the “Big Burn of 1910”. A number of smaller forest fires, aided by drought and tinder-dry conditions grew to become a single conflagration that ultimately consumed the nursery, nearly 4 million acres (roughly the size of the State of Connecticut), and snuffed out the lives of 79 Forest Service Firefighters.

The fires of that season created similar catastrophes in other parts of the United States, most notably Michigan.

With the ashes still smoldering Koch began clearing his nursery of the charred detritus and readied the land for replanting. He was determined to reforest the region. Soon the Savenac Nursery became a pioneering research facility creating innovative ways to propagate and harvest trees for replanting. By the mid-1930’s Koch’s nursery grew to become the largest producer of tree seedlings in the United States, shipping over 3 million trees annually. In 1935 200 men from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) cleared land for expanded operation and built the facilities that can be seen today at the Savenac Historic Tree Nursery.

A number of the buildings are available for rent, including the “Bunkhouse” which sleeps 28 and “Cookhouse” which sleeps 9. It currently costs less than $95 per day (not per-person!) to rent each of these facilities.

The oldest building on the grounds was built in 1930 and is available for use at no cost…it is an outhouse.

The Nursery grounds are impeccably maintained by volunteers such as Andrea and her husband Walt.

She serves in the Administration building which features a museum for the Nursery and also the Big Burn.

Within the museum is a photo reproduction of the daily log entries of the CCC workers in 1933. Clearly idle hands resulted in some artistic entries that were not necessarily relevant to the Nursery.

Walt tends the grounds and physical facilities. Today he was aided by two young volunteers as they readied for the coming week’s “Passport in Time” event.

Each year over 40 volunteers assemble for the week, and much like the CCC of old they lend their muscles and talents toward maintaining this treasure. It is not all work as there are communal meals prepared for the workers, they sleep on-site (either in the buildings or their own campers), and each evening there is a grand campfire gathering and just maybe some liquid libation to go around.

There is professional staff as well. It was my good fortune to spend time talking with Erica, a very personable mother of 3, wife to a “smoke-jumper”, and holder of advanced degrees in Cultural Anthropology and Archeology.

She also has a “take no prisoners” handshake that one won’t soon forget.

The Cabin City campground and the Savenac Historic Tree Nursery may just be the top finds of this trip. I have decided that after my four days in Wallace Idaho I will retrace my steps back this way and spend another couple of nights here as I head down to Salt Lake City and then east back to Denver.

Tomorrow, weather permitting, I bicycle the Route of the Hiawatha, it’s tunnels, trestles, and through the 8,765 foot long Taft railroad tunnel. Until then…

Peace Everyone

PS. Don’t be surprised if in the next couple of years the “Family Schloss” children and grandchildren all join here to take advantage of the bunkhouse… or Christine and I decide to lend a hand at a Passport in Time gathering!