Exploring Concordia, Kansas: POW Camp, Orphan Train and Longest Brick Mural

One of the great things about full time RV traveling is the ability to have a flexible itinerary. We try to keep to a certain travel schedule, but sometimes we learn about interesting places and want to stay longer than planned or decide to change our route. This was the case while visiting Kansas. One of our first stops in the state was Liberal which has declared itself to be the “Wizard of Oz” town although it has no connection with the story or film. They had a nice visitor center there with brochures and one of them was on the German WWII POW Camp in Concordia. I had never given any thought to what happened to German POW’s and was surprised to learn there was a camp in Kansas. Actually there were several of these camps in Kansas as well as in many other states. This is the only POW camp that still has original structures remaining. I thought this would be a unique and interesting place to visit and Mark has done a lot of reading about World War II so I figured he would enjoy as well. Plus, there were a few other things of interest to see in Concordia. So, we ended up staying a little longer in Kansas then planned.

Guard tower above was built of stone by German POW’s who reportedly were ashamed of the shoddy wooden towers built by the Americans

Mark and I had our own private tour at the Camp with a knowledgeable docent named Paul. At one time this place was quite large with over 300 buildings, but almost all of them were dismantled years ago with a guard tower, warehouse, officer’s club and guard station remaining. The museum that we toured is in a warehouse building called T-9.

Warehouse building – T9

I would call this museum a “work in progress” as it has only been opened a few years. There are some good displays though and we spent quite a bit of time looking at everything. It only took 90 days to build Camp Concordia which opened on May 1, 1943. The Camp was completed with a 177 bed hospital, barracks, mess halls, administrative buildings and an officer’s club. Paul told us that the prisoners were accorded the same rights as American soldiers would be treated as far as food rations, sleeping quarters and other necessities. Treatment was fair in other areas as well. The POW’s had their own band and newspaper (called the “Barbwire”) and could take classes offered by the University of Kansas. They had a sports field and their own sport teams. A library was provided with reading materials in German. A PX was available where they could purchase items and the German officers had their own club.

Original kitchen prep table

The enlisted POW’s were put to work at area farms but officers were not expected to work. Remarkably, the POW’s even received a wage. Relationships were reported to be good between the prisoners and the local farmers. I watched a very good documentary on Camp Concordia called “Prisoners of Plenty.” You can find it on You Tube if interested. A letter sent by a POW to one of the farm families thanked them for their many kindnesses and how much he enjoyed working on their farm. He reminisced about the chicken dinners they fixed him. Good relationships were also made at the Camp with POW’s and American staff. One former worker reported that she corresponded for over 50 years with a soldier who also made visits back until he died. There wasn’t much concern that prisoners would escape since they were in the middle of the Kansas prairie with no place to go. But one incident that occurred was when prisoners were being trucked back to the Camp and at an intersection, two of them jumped out. Their absence was not noted by the guard who was in the cab until they reached the Camp. MIlitary police were sent back to town to look for them and they were found walking on a road about 1/2 mile out of town. They reported that they had stopped to get a beer and were walking back to Camp.

Some of the prisoners were quite talented and the museum displays examples of their artwork, sculpture and furniture crafting. My favorite is this picture of a horse above. It was created by a prisoner while sitting at a campfire. He picked up a piece of charred wood and drew this picture of one of the horses of an American sergeant. A drawing of his village in Germany is also in the museum.

Paul told a story about how he was able to develop a relationship by email with the son of a German officer and they even met in person. The deceased officer had a pair of boots that his son wanted to donate to the museum, although some family members were reluctant. Eventually, the boots were donated. It is amazing how far these boots have come – from many battlefields throughout Europe to Camp Concordia, then back to Germany and civilian life before finding a final home back in Concordia. The Camp closed on November 8, 1945. When I stood outside the warehouse building and looked at the many fields surrounding the Camp, I could imagine the area probably hadn’t changed much since the 1940’s. This still looks like a farming region where German POW’s would have labored.

Fire truck from Ebay

There are a couple of vehicles at the museum, but the best is this vintage fire truck that Paul found on EBay of all places. It was formerly in use at another German POW camp in Kansas. Paul was able to arrange the purchase of this truck and it came to Concordia. He turned on the lights and siren for us. I love this old truck………good old eBay!

Orphan Train Museum

I was interested to visit this museum since I have read some on the subject including a historical fiction novel titled “Orphan Train” by Christina Baker Kline. Located in the old Concordia train depot, while the museum space is rather small, it contained quite a bit of information. Having the museum near the train tracks added to the experience because as I was reading about these youngsters traveling out west by rail, trains would come rumbling close by.

Orphan train riders

A film and exhibits with letters, photos and memorabilia portrayed the lives of these young ones. The orphan trains sent children whose parents or legal guardians were either deceased, absent or incapacitated from New York City and other places in the East to families primarily in the Midwest. There were several organizations involved in placing these children with the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) primary. The belief was that these children were better off with families than left to fend for themselves on the streets (like in the photo below) or in crowded orphanages.

New York City youngsters sleeping on the street near a grate to keep warm.

The Orphan Train officially began in 1854 with a group of 46 boys and girls, ages six to fifteen who were sent to Dowagiac, Michigan. From there, 36 remained and 10 more went on to Iowa. Once the children were placed with families, CAS continued to monitor the children with agents visiting yearly, filing a progress report and maintaining written communication with the children and their new parents. The children were in a foster care like situation where the Agency could remove them and place elsewhere if needed. Foster parents were recruited and applied for these children. To identify them the child and foster parents were given a number so they could match up when pick up time came at the train station.

Bonnet from Marie who had Number 25 sewed on her bonnet

The museum shared a number of stories and pictures regarding individual children, their siblings and families. Many of the placements were deemed to have successful outcomes, but for some there were many difficulties and not all remained in their initial placements. Over a period of 75 years, more than 200,000 children were placed in all 48 states and even into Canada.

Orphan train rider Clara

In Cloud County where Concordia is located, you can find 28 sculptures paying tribute to an orphan train rider. I believe there are plans to continue to place more around the County. As I walked around downtown I spotted several of these statues, all of them had plaques with information about the riders. The statue pictured below represents two siblings, Elmer and Ethel who were placed together in a home in Iowa after their mother died in childbirth and their father could not care for them or their siblings. When Ethel died in 1990 at the age of 93, she had 197 descendants.

Elmer and Ethel, Orphan Train riders

Concordia has something else to be proud of – the longest sculpted brick mural in the U.S. The mural is on the wall of the Cloud County Museum/Visitor’s Center and is a real beauty. It contains 6,400 bricks and is 140 feet in length. The mural shows the history of Cloud County and was completed in 2008. One of the staff at the visitor center gave us a tour and explained how it was created and put together which was a real feat.

Standing by one small section of the longest sculpted brick mural

The mural is so long that I couldn’t take a photo of the whole thing without doing a panorma shot which shows the mural curved instead of a straight wall. But it gives an idea of how big it is.

It was a great day in Concordia but we had one last stop on our way back “home” to Salina. On the drive to Concordia I had seen a sign about a monument to President Lincoln’s little letter writer. As Mark drove I looked it up and read an intriguing story I had never heard of. While traveling, I have great fun researching things as we drive from place to place. There are always interesting tidbits of history we learn about! So, on the way back we made a stop in the very small town of Delphos.

This monument to Grace can be found in a park in the town’s tiny center. The buildings, few in number have seen better days with the park looking the best kept. Located on the monument are two letters inscribed in stone, one from Grace and the other from President Lincoln. When Grace was a girl of 11 and Lincoln was running for the presidency, she wrote him that he should grow whiskers as it would improve his appearance and help him get elected. Lincoln responded and the last sentence of his letter reads: “As to the whiskers, having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affectation if I were to begin it now.” After that, Lincoln did grow a beard and during his inaugural journey from Illinois to Washington D.C. he stopped in Grace’s hometown of Westfield, New York and met with her. Grace recalled the meeting years later: “Gracie, look at my whiskers I have been growing them for you and then he kissed me. I never saw him again.” In her adult years Grace moved to Delphos and lived here until she passed away in 1936 at the age of 87.

Next time finds us in Missouri in the home town of Mark Twain!

EB 1

#Bethsdriver here. I get a kick out of telling people “You know I really don’t like to travel.” I never have. But I always then follow up with “But I really like going places with Beth.” #Explorerbeth (too long to type so EB from now on) has always had her explorer heart. Travel and exploring has been a continuous passion since I have known her (married 43 years today!). So when it came time to think about retirement going on the road seemed a logical next step.

We have been on the road now about 21 months (643 days but EB likes months better). In that time we have seen and done a lot. We have taken over 36,000 pictures. I have gone through and looked at some of my favorite subject, EB. Me taking pictures of her taking pictures is a favorite pastime. So, I am going to post a few and hopefully they will be entertaining.

Her passion for this life we are living now is a delight. We both feel very fortunate to able to do what we are doing. Beth loves exploring and I love Exploring With Beth.

I’ll just put a few in no particular order. Can’t do too many because I constantly hound her to keep the articles short. But there may be more (You see the title is EB 1, to be followed by 2,3 and who knows?).

Banding humming birds in Arizona
On the Blue Riidge in Virginia
Well, Texas of course!
The desert
Sunsets,. one of her favorites
Waterfalls, another favorite
Saguaros, a favorite among favorites
Any danger for a good shot
My favorite. Frantically deleting pictures on her full phone to make room for the next.

I hope these have been fun. There are a lot more, I stopped at 100 in my album. Maybe I’ll post a few more from time to time.

We appreciate all you who take the time to check out the blog. EB puts a lot of effort, and really enjoys putting it out.

I have to hurry and get this out because she says she has one about ready to go and I can’t get in her way. Bye.

Exploring Grassroots Art in Lucas, Kansas

World’s largest souvenir travel plate made from an old satellite dish

During our stay in Kansas when I talked to people about visiting the town of Lucas, they would always say, “You have to see the bathroom in the public park!” I had never heard of a bathroom being so celebrated before, especially one in a city park which at times can be kind of iffy in quality. Lucas is proud of their public bathroom, but they are also proud of so much more in this tiny town. Known as the “Grassroots Art” town, much space, time and energy has been devoted to displaying art which can be viewed in different places throughout the town. While staying in Salina, I made a day trip alone to Lucas to discover what this town was about.

Garden of Eden house

My main reason to come to Lucas was to see the well-known “Garden of Eden” house. Some years ago I had read about this historic and unusual home and was curious to see it. Samuel Perry Dinsmoor, was a Civil War veteran who began building this home in 1907 when he was 64 years old. For 22 years he used tons of cement and limestone to build not only the house but also create 150 sculptures that surround it. His “log” cabin is actually made of limestone logs, a common rock found in this part of Kansas. When finished, he opened his home to the public giving tours until a few years before he died in 1932. Dinsmoor created the sculptures as his interpretation of society and religion, especially as seen through his populist party ideals. Topics such as war, work/labor and government are explored here.

Front door entry into the house

The guided tour started inside the home and then continued out in the yard. I tried my best to view and understand the sculptures that are supported by cement trees around the property. It was amazing to see this work of one man who only used an assistant to help mix the cement. I liked seeing the house, but was not particularly wowed by it or the sculptures. Perhaps I was just not as inspired as others seem to be.

Adam and Eve sculptures

The craziest part of the tour was when the guide took me into Mr. Dinsmoor’s mausoleum. After his death he wanted to be laid to rest in a glass topped coffin so the public could continue to “visit” him. Photos of his body are not allowed. Upon seeing Mr. Dinsmoor all I could comment was that his face did have some similarity to the photos I had seen. I believe this is the first attraction in my travels where the deceased wanted to be continually viewed after death. It surprises me that someone would want to be seen by the public in this state of decay.

Mr. Dinsmoor’s mausoleum

After my visit with Mr. Dinsmoor I went over to the Grassroots Art Center to see their exhibits. The Center gives this definition for grassroots art: “A term describing art made by people with no formal artistic training using ordinary materials in an extraordinary way.” The Center also reports that Kansas ranks third in the U.S. in the number of grassroot art sites after Wisconsin and California. This was a fun place to visit, especially since the art was so creative and unusual. I was given a guided tour with stories about the artists and an explanation of what I was seeing. One installation was even hands on: The artist created a board with pictures, letters and other items to help you guess the first names of boys and girls. Each square represented a name and when you hit a button, it would light up the correct name on the bottom. It was fun to see how many I could guess.

Female name guess installation

My favorite piece was a car made entirely of pull top tabs from soda cans. These pull tabs are the old fashioned kind from the 1970’s and each had an extension on it that could be bent to secure onto the next tab with no glue or other reinforcement needed. The artist used hundreds of thousands of them to create this full sized vehicle. He also made the motorcycle next to it which took 179,200 pull tabs as well as a couple suits of clothes hanging on a nearby wall.

Car made from soda can pull top tabs

There was great variety in the objects displayed Including wood carvings, mechanical motion machines, carved figures inside narrow necked bottles, yard ornaments, scrap metal totem poles, recycled household items and limestone carvings. Inez Marshall started carving stone in the late 1930’s and created this horse and wagon sculpture in the photo below that weighs 1500 pounds. Among other objects she made was a one-fifth size Ford Model T.

I was surprised to look into a case and see displays of Betty Milliken’s chewing gum portraits. She worked for over 70 years creating hundreds of portraits and liked to use unconventional materials. One of her favorite mediums was using grapefruit rind also displayed here. I doubt I will ever again see art made from chewing gum.

A small tray of chewing gum portraits

After finishing with the Center, the guide took me a few blocks to the Florence Deeble home. As a young girl, Ms. Deeble watched Mr. Dinsmoor create his yard sculptures and became inspired to create painted concrete sculptures in her backyard garden. These became “postcards” of places she had visited on vacations and included Mount Rushmore, Colorado’s Rocky Mountains and the Arizona desert. The guide explained that this type of yard art made by a woman was unique for the time period. Unfortunately, I did not find the sculptures to be very interesting as they looked worn and colorless, really needing some refurbishing. I didn’t even take photos of them which is unusual, as I take lots and lots of pictures everywhere I go. (About 36,000 so far).

Garden of Isis

Although I found the backyard drab, the inside of the house now owned by the Grassroots Art Center was an explosion of color and activity by a single artist, Mri-Pilar, who calls it the “Garden of Isis.” The Center describes Mri-Pilar as having a vision to transform the Deeble House into a “recycled art installation.” The walls and ceilings are covered in silver insulation and Mylar. Almost every inch of the walls have items she has created from trash heaps, dumpsters and second hand stores. Many of these are old dolls and barbies so one wall has the title, “rebarb.” There are even displays on the floors, including this large figure I am standing next to. I feel rather overdressed and drab compared to her.

This place defies description and was something I had never seen the likes of before. I actually found it more intriguing than the Garden of Eden house. Yes, it was wierd and bizarre but also so quirky and interesting that I really liked it. There was so much to see that I couldn’t look at every piece, it would require return trips. The fact it is done by one woman in her spare time is incredible and how she comes up with these ideas is surprising as well. Since the items are for sale, she continues to make more and bring them over to hang wherever she can find a few more inches of space.

Garden of Isis

After my tour was over I walked to the Bowl Plaza to see the famous bathroom. The building is designed to look like a toilet tank with the seat cover. The curved benches in front are the toilet seat and the winding concrete path is toilet paper leading to a large concrete roll. I had a photo with the roll which is off the side of the building but I didn’t like the way it turned out, so am using this photo instead.

Bowl Plaza

Although the outside is great, the inside is even better. Every wall from the entry way to both men and women’s restrooms is decorated with stones, rocks, shells, gems, jewelry as well as different gadgets added for special effect. For example, one wall in the men’s has a large design of hot wheel cars. Our grandsons who are avid collectors of these cars would love to see this wall!

Hot wheel collage in the men’s restroom

The photo below is a view of the women’s restroom looking towards the outside door

Decorated walls in the women’s restroom

After many hours of work by artists and volunteers, the bathroom was opened in 2012. I read that in 2014, the Cintas Corporation sponsored the best public restroom in the U.S. contest and the Bowl Plaza won 2nd place by popular vote. I have to say that the restroom really was as neat as everyone said and deserves that award!

Post Rock Scenic Byway

Part of my drive to Lucas was on the Post Rock Scenic Byway, a lovely drive through the Smoky Hills with pasture and farmlands fenced in with limestone posts. Pioneers had to use whatever materials were available for fencing and since there were few trees to work with on these plains, they often cut limestone rock for posts. At the Grassroots Art Center I found out about an artist that carved figures from some of these old posts. Looking at a map, I kept an eye out for them on my drive back and found this one which I thought was beautiful. Her name is Chelsea.

I made a couple more stops on my return. The first was a visitor center where you can purchase things made in Kansas. I was surprised how big it was and how many items for sale. I got the tip to come here from the Grassroots Center guide who told me the visitor center regularly made homemade kolaches, a Czechoslovakian pastry. After picking up a few of these I then drove to see the world’s largest Czech egg located in the town of Wilson, the Czech capital of Kansas. The colorful egg is sitting in a park and measures 20 feet tall by 15 feet wide.

Stay tuned for more Kansas exploration!

We Got the Heck Into Dodge

Traveling through Kansas while heading to the Midwest we decided to make a stop for several days in Dodge City. After all, it is one of the most famous old west towns and we wanted to see if there was anything interesting there. We found that the city had changed quite a bit since its long ago days of cowboys and gunslingers.

The historic Front Street buildings are gone, torn down to make way for newer ones and a parking lot. The downtown seemed subdued, not vibrant as other touristy towns often are. But tourism is still alive with its heart in the “Boot Hill” area. Much of Boot Hill is currently under construction to expand and revitalize. All around the downtown are reminders that Dodge City is the “Gunsmoke” town. Gunsmoke was a popular western TV show set in old Dodge City that ran from 1955 – 1975, one of the longest running TV series. There are numerous statues and plaques commemorating stars from the show as well as other famous former citizens. Even our campground was named for the show and had an old west theme.

Marshall Dillion of Gunsmoke played by James Arness

One day I decided to take a walk around Dodge City and soak up the atmosphere. I renewed my acquaintance with Doc Holliday who I first got to know in Tombstone. In that town he and his friend Wyatt Earp and the Earp brothers tried to bring law and order. Doc and Wyatt also spent some time in Dodge City. Doc seemed to like to pass much of his time playing cards and carousing, so fittingly the sculpture pictured below poses him in a card game setting. Wyatt became an assistant Marshall and of course he also has a statue downtown.

Doc Holliday statue

Although the old buildings are pretty much gone, I couldn’t help notice something that Dodge City has preserved – their red brick streets. I am a fan of cobblestoned and red brick roads, so was pleased to see these throughout the downtown. The streets were paved in bricks beginning in 1913 after the City decided to do something about their rutted and muddy roads.

Red brick streets in downtown Dodge City

The Longhorn Cattle statue honors the role they played in developing Dodge City. But before the Longhorns came, it was buffalo that kept the town busy. Before they were wiped out from the plains, the city was a major shipping point for hides and meat to the East. I learned that even in Britain, it was very fashionable to have a buffalo hide coat. The longhorns were descendants of Spanish cattle brought to Mexico in the 16th century. Between 1875 and 1886, over 4 million head were driven from Texas up the Great Western Cattle Trail to Dodge City where they could be shipped. Dodge City earned the nickname “Queen of the Cowtowns.” The days of the longhorn cattle drives ended when it was found they were transmitting Texas cattle fever through ticks.

While traveling, overlooks often give you a scenic view of the countryside or a nearby town or city. I drove several miles outside of Dodge to a different kind of overlook – an expansive view of the largest cattle feedlot one could ever hope to see. Although these feedlots are not that close to the overlook, people report that at certain times the smell can be pretty pungent. Signboards gave some interesting information to show that Dodge City is still queen of the cowtowns.

There are two beef processing companies here – Excel Corporation (6,000 cattle daily) and National Beef (4,000 cattle daily). I read that these two plants annually market enough beef to feed over 16 million people for one year. Other information was that Kansas ranks first in the U.S. in commercial cattle production. I have never been much of a beef eater, but after seeing all the feedlots while driving through the Texas and Oklahoma panhandle and now in Kansas, I am thinking of eating even less than before.

Local historian Charlie Meade

While in Dodge City I saw information about local historian Charlie Meade’s walking tours. I thought it would be fun to arrange one but unfortunately, I let the time slip away and didn’t get one scheduled. So I was surprised when Mark and I were walking in the door of a local restaurant to see a man who looked like Charlie just coming out. We struck up a conversation and he was more than eager to talk. This was after leading a tour of 3rd graders as well as two other walking tours that morning! Born in 1935, he was sworn in as a Marshall in Dodge City in 1965, which is what law officers were called at that time. Charlie told us so many stories that it was almost like having a private tour with him. He knew cast members from the Gunsmoke series and traveled around the country to promote Dodge City and Kansas history. It only makes sense that his ranch is located south of Dodge City on the famous Great Western Cattle Trail. Meeting local people and hearing their stories has been one of the nicest things about our traveling!

Boot Hill Museum – Recreated Front Street

After meeting Charlie and finishing our meal, we headed to the Boot Hill Museum complex, located at the site of the original Boot Hill cemetery. The name is because cowboys were supposedly buried here with their boots still on. This museum has set up shops and buildings to replicate ones that were once part of old Dodge City such as a saloon, barber shop, pharmacy, bank and general store. In various rooms were exhibits and memorabilia on life in the old west which were rather nicely done.

Very cool cash register in the General Store
Mark waiting at the bar of the Long Branch Saloon for his …… Diet Coke

I liked the old pharmacy with its shelves of medical cures. What really caught my attention were the orange and blue glass show globes near the window. I read that these globes were a pharmacy symbol and have been used for centuries to help illiterate people identify this as a drug store. It also showed the customer that the pharmacist knew what he was doing as it took some skill in those days to create colored water.

Old time pharmacy with show globes

It seems in every old west town there has to be a historic jail and Boot Hill is no exception. I don’t pay much attention to them any more, but the story behind this one caught my interest. This 1865 jail once belonged to Fort Dodge, located several miles from the city. The local Jaycees wanted that jail for the Museum but were told that it couldn’t be given to them because it was located on Federal grounds. However, government officials and those in charge of the grounds saw no problem with it being stolen. So on November 1, 1953, the Jaycees and their accomplices, masked and on horseback rode out to Fort Dodge to “take” the jail. We were told by a woman working at Boot Hill that one of those thieves was none other than Charlie Meade.

Jail cell at Boot Hill Museum

One night at our campground I found out that Kansas has great sunsets. I will close with a photo of one.

Exploring White Sands National Monument

I was exploring dunes of pure white sand – so bright that it hurt my eyes without sunglasses. Made up of tiny gypsum crystals, they are constantly shifting and changing. Located in the southern part of New Mexico, this dune field is very special as it is the largest of its kind in the world. Walking on these dunes is a not to be missed experience. I decided to take a hike on one of the trails – the backcountry loop. It would be easy to get lost, so the park service has put orange stakes up to identify the route.

I thought walking on the edge of the dunes was fun and although I didn’t try it, some make it even more fun by sledding down on saucers. There are also walk in camping sites and I saw a few tents. I think it would be so interesting to wake up in the morning to this sea of white.

This was our second visit to White Sands. When we first came about eight years ago it was during a full moon. I walked on the dunes under the moonlight, a very cool and memorable experience. Some places have to be revisited and after coming here the first time, I knew I wanted to make a return trip some day.

With all this white, it was a surprise to come upon the pink flowers of sand verbena which blooms from late April into May. It was the only type of flowering plant I saw on my walk as little can grow in such a stark environment. Near one verbena I came across a small, pale lizard almost the color of the sand. Animals living here have had to adapt and some are much lighter in color than their counterparts that live in the nearby desert. I tried to take a photo of him but he scurried into the verbena too fast for a good picture.

Sand verbena

The soaptree yucca is rather common here and I have always found them to be a beautiful desert plant. It was an interesting sight to see a yucca completely covered with only its tall flowering stem protruding from the sand. One of the casualties of moving dunes!

Soaptree yucca
Soaptree yucca covered by a sand dune

Even though there were orange stakes to mark most of the hiking route, I still got a little lost coming back. But this was a great spot to be lost in. After this trek it was off to another area in the park for the ranger led sunset walk. I did this walk when we visited before and found it to be very informative.

Ranger led sunset walk

On this visit our guide explained some interesting things such as why the sands don’t just blow away. What is holding them here is the water table which is not far below the surface. He showed us a hole with a stick inside so we could see where the water table began. These dunes remain moist even during the longest droughts and this moisture prevents them from blowing away. We walked to the top of a dune and stood next to a cottonwood tree. We weren’t standing by the tree’s trunk but near the topmost branches. The whole trunk was covered by a sand dune with only branches and leaves protruding.

Cottonwood tree

We learned about a phenomena that helps plants survive in these sands. Plants like the skunk bush sumac create pedestals by binding gypsum sand grains into a compact mass around their roots, branches and trunk. They also grow dense, deep roots that help form the pedestal after the dune moves on.

Pedestal formed by a skunk bush sumac

The evening light cast beautiful shadows, perhaps the best time to walk these sands.

My favorite part of this evening walk was doing it barefoot. Our ranger told us this was a “safe park” and suggested we might want to go barefoot as long as we didn’t mind leaving our foot wear unattended. A couple of us shed our shoes and the sand was delightful! This damp sand is cooler and firmer than walking on other dune sands. I hadn’t been barefoot in any kind of sand for some time and it was like a healing massage to the feet, a great way to be in touch with nature.

We watched the sun go down and it was nice, but not spectacular. I took the photo below looking toward the Sacramento Mountains which had a nice rosy glow.

Visiting here was a lift to the spirit! Put this place on your bucket list if you haven’t been. Take a walk on the dunes in your bare feet and experience this wondrous place.

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Until next time in a new state.

Portal, Arizona – A Birding Hotspot

Portal’s Main Street Great Horned Owl

Before coming to Portal for the birds, I researched the best places to see them. One book mentioned a walk down Portal’s Main Street as a good birding opportunity. I was surprised when we arrived to find that Portal’s Main Street is far from looking “Main.” It is just a short narrow road with about four businesses and several residences. Portal is tiny with one cafe/lodge, a doctor’s office, post office and library. We dropped in to the post office and met the postmistress who reported that she has worked there for 40 years and wants to retire, but is afraid they will close the building once she leaves as there is no one to take over.

Mark relaxing at the Post Office

Although in a remote area, Portal’s cafe and lodge is bustling with visitors and seems to be the heart of the town. This is a popular area for birders who come to see the hummingbirds and many other birds that flock to the Chiricahua Mountains with Portal situated at their base. Some of the town’s residents have opened their yards to birders and diligently keep feeders stocked. Some yards attract certain kinds of birds and word gets around among the birders where to go see them. When we asked several visitors where we could find a Crissal Thrasher, we were told Bob’s yard would be the best opportunity. Although we visited twice, we never saw one, but we did see many other birds like the Gambel’s Quail below.

Ms. Johnson’s yard in the photo below has a welcoming gate for birders and chairs arranged in different parts of the yard for viewing. She came out and sat with us for awhile, pointing out some of the birds we saw. Some yards have donation boxes to offset the cost of seed but she didn’t have one and refused to take a donation.

Mark checking out hummingbird feeders

On one fun day of birding we visited three different yards including Dave Jasper’s pictured below. Cave Creek Lodge was another great spot and the perfect vacation lodge for birders. It has a beautiful location under rocky cliffs and plenty of places around the property to see the birds at feeders.

Dave Jasper’s welcome sign and gate to his birding yard

The Chiricahua Mountains are grand and mysterious with their rocky cliffs and spires. Although we had hoped to visit Chiricahua National Monument as well, since it was a bit of a drive over a horrible road and we were enjoying so much birding, we decided to spend our time in the Portal area. Besides, we were experiencing some of the same beautiful scenery here. I took the photos below after walking a short trail to a viewpoint.

Mark and I got tips from two different people that we must go and see the Whiskered Screech Owl. The first tip was from a birding guide who told us where to stop on the road when we saw two large sycamore branches hanging over. We drove to the spot and diligently searched but no luck. The next day when I visited a small visitor center and asked the volunteer if there were any birding hot spots, he said that we should definitely check out the Whiskered screech owl and gave very detailed directions on how to find it reporting it had just been sighted that day. Ever persistent, we drove back to the road and followed his directions. After a great deal of searching where two other birders saw us on the side of the road and joined in, we gave it up. I wanted to see this new “life” bird but the Whiskered screech owl would have to remain for another place and time. (Just like Mark’s official Chiricahua National Monument stamp).

Our stop near overhanging sycamore branches to find an owl

We visited the Southwestern Research Station, a biological field station where scientists, naturalists, teachers and students come to study the plants, animals and birds of the region. This is a diverse environment from low deserts to alpine meadows, home to many different species. The Station is affiliated with the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. While there, we talked to a group from the Bronx – high school students doing field projects. One of their leaders showed us photos of the owl banding they had done the previous night. We spent quite a bit of time at the hummingbird feeders which were buzzing with activity. We were able to see about seven different species, including the largest hummingbird found in the United States – Blue-throated and the second largest – Magnificent (Rivoli).

Rufous Hummingbird
Broad-billed Hummingbird
Black-chinned Hummingbird coming in for a landing
Magnificent (Rivoli) Hummingbird

We really enjoyed our brief visit in the “town” of Portal and the Chiricahua Mountains area. In the next post I will be exploring one of my favorite national monuments! (And for those that might be getting tired of bird posts and photos, there will be no birds mentioned – smiley face).

Our Most Remote Campsite in Rodeo, New Mexico

Before leaving Arizona I was interested to see Chiricahua National Monument, located in the far southeast corner and close to New Mexico. I also wanted to see the town of Portal, located at the base of the Chiricahua Mountains and known for great birding. So I was excited to find a campground called Rusty’s RV Ranch in Rodeo, New Mexico which was next to the Chiricahuas and close to Portal. Unfortunately, the entrance to the National Monument was on the other side of the mountains from Rodeo and not just a few miles away as I thought. This was our most remote campground in 20 months of full time RVing. The town of Rodeo borders Arizona and is tiny, with only a couple of functioning businesses – one or two art galleries and a new cafe/market. The small grocery store in town recently closed. To do any shopping you have to drive about an hour and a half to either Wilcox, Arizona or Douglas, Arizona. The nearest gas station is in the very small town of Animas, New Mexico 15 miles away. We had no cell phone service and WiFi was poor most of the time. People in Rodeo are really living off the grid, but they seem to like it that way.

View from our campground of the Chiricahua Mountains

Rodeo is situated in a long desert valley between the Chiricahua and Peloncillo Mountains. When we checked in, the owner told us that New Mexico time was an hour ahead of Arizona. Since we went to the Chiricahuas to do birding, we often found ourselves shifting between two time zones. It was here we had the longest camp site we had ever seen. At 200 feet, it was about four times the length of most places we have camped.

We soon learned that people stayed at Rusty’s for mainly three reasons. They came for birding, riding ATV’s, or star gazing. Our first night we enjoyed looking at the moon through a telescope of one of our neighbors. Another neighbor is big time with his astronomy hobby. He rents a special site on the property where he built a small building equipped with a sliding roof for his telescope. He informed us that this valley has the darkest skies in the United States. Having really dark skies at night can be a novelty, even when camping as RV parks and campgrounds can be near populated areas or have lights around their properties. At Rusty’s there are none of the above. We enjoyed sitting outside and really seeing the stars in the darkest sky. This was an unexpected pleasure I hadn’t counted on before coming here. A highlight was getting to watch the full or almost full moon rise in the sky several nights in a row.

Several miles down the road was the Chiricahua Desert Museum, a reptile museum with a special emphasis on rattlesnakes – not your every day attraction. They even have a pretty cool rattlesnake sculpture out front.

It was surprising to find a museum of this size with such a collection in the middle of nowhere. Inside, they have the largest exhibit of live rattlesnakes I have ever seen. I really had no idea there were so many kinds of rattlers in the U.S. – the museum has 34 species.

There are also reptiles on display outside where large enclosures house Gila monsters and Bolson tortoises to name a few. In the desert garden are a variety of cactuses, trees, a pond and stream where some lizards, snakes and tortoises are free to roam and can be seen up close by visitors. Most of them were hiding away, but this Eastern Collared lizard native to the valley was perched on a rock and had no problem being looked at or photographed. He even opened his mouth and let me see his “tonsils” (smile).

Besides live animals, the museum houses all things pertaining to reptiles, especially snakes. One of my favorite things were some beautiful snake paintings done by a single artist covering an entire wall.

Panchita, a Native American living in Sonora, Mexico created the “many snakes” basket especially for the Museum. She made it using material from the elephant tree and natural dyes from roots found in the desert.

Although many artifacts here are from the southwest, some are international such as aboriginal hand painted turtle shells.

When I saw the giant elephant bird egg on display I wanted to send a photo of it right away to my son Matt, but no cell service! The elephant bird which lived on the island of Madagascar has been extinct for many, many years, but some of its eggs have been discovered. This bird laid eggs 150 times the volume of chicken eggs, the largest of any bird. Matt and daughter-in-law Emma lived in Madagascar for six months while serving as volunteer nurses on the Mercy Ship docked there. They were delighted to be gifted an elephant bird egg and made arrangements for it to be brought back with a friend to the U.S. No such luck as apparently it is not legal to take an elephant bird egg out of the country and it was confiscated at the airport. So their precious souvenir was gone and Matt says he still mourns the loss.

Thanks for checking in……until next time!

More Arizona Birding and Coronado National Memorial

Mary Jo’s parking lot has space for about six vehicles

Sierra Vista in Southeastern Arizona is considered a Mecca for birders. Since it is close to Northern Mexico, many birds seen in that country can be found in the nearby canyons here. There are also different habitats such as mountains, grasslands and deserts that attract a variety of birds. Since eleven years ago I had been on a birding trip here with my parents and uncle, there were a few places I wanted to return to. One of those was Mary Jo’s home in Ash Canyon. Mary Jo has been opening her yard to birders for many years. She puts out dozens of different feeders and attracts lots of birds. It was so easy to bird here – no craning of the neck looking into high trees or scurrying around to find some bird I thought I saw fly by. It was relaxing to sit in one of her chairs and just watch them come. Sometimes Mary Jo comes out to chat with the birders and sometimes she stays in her home.

Mark watching for birds at Mary Jo’s place

On my previous family birding trip we kept lists of the birds we saw each day and then voted as to our favorite birds of the trip. The winner was a Scott’s Oriole and we saw those orioles here. On this trip I was looking forward to more views of this striking black and yellow bird.

Mary Jo’s dish of jam draws the orioles

Orioles are some of my favorites as their colors are so bright and we saw other orioles including the Bullock’s and Hooded.

Bullock’s Oriole
Hooded Oriole

Lots of other birds entertained us such as Lazuli Bunting, Acorn, Gila and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Mexican Jays, White-breasted Nuthatch, Spotted Towhees, Lesser Goldfinch and Yellow-rumped Warblers. Using his long lens, my driver got some great closeups of the birds.

Gila Woodpecker
Spotted Towhee
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Ladder-backed Woodpecker

Ramsey Canyon is perhaps the best known birding location in the Sierra Vista area. People have been coming to see hummingbirds here for years and 15 species are possible different times of the year. When Mark was living in Tucson as a teenager, he was acquainted with the former caretaker of Ramsey Canyon in the 1970’s and visited him there. Today it is run by the Nature Conservancy with a visitor center and gift shop on site. The area is beautiful with tall canyon walls, a rushing stream and large sycamore and maple trees. A trail goes up the canyon and there are several spots where benches have been placed near hummingbird feeders. I spent a few hours birding the canyon and checking out the feeders. It was not a particularly productive day but I really enjoyed the scenery.

Ramsey Canyon hummingbird bird feeders

South of Sierra Vista and right on the Mexican border is the Coronado National Memorial operated by the National Park Service. The Memorial honors the journey of Francisco Vazquez de Coronado, a Spanish explorer and conquistador who in 1540 with an expedition of 1,000 people traveled through this area looking for the ”seven golden cities of Cibola” with riches they hoped to find. The expedition went as far as the state of Kansas before turning back. Although Coronado did not find what he hoped for, he brought a new culture to this land, introducing Spanish ways to the native population and also introducing Europeans to the culture of the natives. The Memorial notes that the influences of Spanish, American Indian, Mexican and Anglo cultures blending together began as a result of Coronado’s expedition.

During the expedition, the most common type of armor used by the soldiers was chainmail which protected them from close contact fighting. The fine mesh of the linked metal rings prevented swords or other blades from penetrating. The National Park visitor center has chain mail and helmets that visitors can try and it is surprising how heavy the chain mail is. I could not put it on or take it off without Mark’s help. We estimated it must weigh about 40 pounds and I found it to be pretty uncomfortable. I was more than happy to take it off as well as the heavy and cumbersome helmet.

View of the winding dirt road up to Montezuma Pass

The Park has a scenic road that travels to Montezuma Pass on a steep grade with switchbacks. At the top are magnificent views into the valley below where you can see in the distance the wall separating Arizona from Mexico. You also get an idea at how immense the valley was that Coronado and his men had to travel through.

Coronado Peak Trail

From the parking area is a trail that heads up to Coronado Peak. From the peak the views extended in every direction, a vast landscape that Coronado explored so many years ago. What a great place to stand and think about the past!

Views from Coronado Peak of Arizona (left) and Mexico (right)

Camping With the Birds and Hummingbird Banding


After five weeks in Tucson we headed to Tombstone Territories RV Park, an hour and a half east and located between the towns of Sierra Vista and Tombstone. This campground was a big change as it was no longer in town but out in the middle of nowhere. Cell service was nonexistent and WiFi was weak. We were staying in this area for the birds. Sierra Vista boasts great birding in the nearby canyons and along the San Pedro River. We also had fun birding at our campsite where we placed a few feeders. Since traveling, we have had great bird encounters at a number of our campsites such as St. Augustine, Florida; Corbin, Kentucky and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, but this was the best yet. I counted 16 different species that came regularly to our site. Several of my favorites were the shy pyrrhuloxia also called desert cardinal, the little black throated sparrows, the curved bill thrasher and the cactus wren.

Black-throated Sparrow

The cactus wren turned out to be the most mischievous of the group. At times I saw him running around the outside of our truck, checking it out. One day Mark left the truck door open and when he went back, the cactus wren was inside the truck on the dashboard where he left a little “deposit.” A few days later, I left the truck door open as I was loading things up. When I went back there was the cactus wren on the passenger seat. I wish I would have had my camera with me, but I wasn’t expecting a photo moment.

The mischievous cactus wren

We had another curious visitor in the evenings – javelinas. We were warned the first day we got here not to leave our dish of seed on the ground as the javelinas could get into it. We forgot about it and they came and licked it clean. I could hear them outside but when I grabbed my camera they were walking away and it was too dark anyway to get a decent photo. Another evening I watched as two of them left our campsite and started trotting toward the campground office as if they were on a social call. Mark had a close encounter with them when they walked by him as he was sitting outside. There were walking/hiking trails outside the campground that went into the mesquite scrub and once I attempted to walk one of them. But the scrub was thick and since I was afraid of a close encounter with a javelina I turned back.

Curved-bill thrasher

Our first day birding the area took us to San Pedro House, a birding center that is next to the San Pedro River. We walked along the river scanning the tall cottonwoods for the many birds that live here.

San Pedro River

Although we did see birds, we saw a lot more of something else – tent caterpillars. There were many, many gray sacs hanging from the trees and the caterpillars were dropping from the sacs in the thousands. Every where we looked they were crawling about and we could hear a constant soft patter as they hit the ground. Unfortunately, they were also dropping on us and we were frequently flicking them off our pant legs, shirts, hats and hands. It was really getting to me, but I still wanted to find the birds so we pushed on.

Tent Caterpillars

In spite of this annoyance, we found some birds including colorful ones like the Yellow warbler and the Vermilion flycatcher which is always fun to see with its bright red and black markings.

Vermilion Flycatcher

When we had first arrived to the San Pedro House in the morning, we found out there would be a hummingbird banding at 3:00 in the afternoon. This was something I definitely wanted to see. It turned out to be a very interesting and informative event. I had never been to a bird banding before. This one was organized by the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory (SABO) staff. The public is allowed to participate including carrying captured birds to the banding table and holding birds before they are released.

Broad-billed hummingbird at feeder

In order to capture the hummingbirds, traps are set up at the feeders so when they come to drink, a release mechanism is triggered dropping a curtain around them. They are then removed, placed into a small mesh holding cage and carried to the banding table.

Carrying a captured hummer to the banding table

A hummingbird expert did the banding and checking of the birds while two other staff recorded the information. If a bird has not been banded before, it receives one with its own number which is recorded in a database. As can be imagined, the bands are very tiny and have to be put on with special pliers. Some of the birds that were caught had been banded previous years, so information collected is entered with their already assigned number. The birds were weighed, measured, checked for sex, possible age and species. In the photo below, the expert blows a little air from a tube onto the hummingbird to move the feathers and check the condition of its body.

While the expert completed her examination of each bird, she talked about what she found with the audience. She explained that the average life span of a hummingbird was five years, but one was found on this date that was eight years old. I learned that determining the age of a hummingbird can be very difficult and only happens if a bird is caught and banded the first year of life when they have shed their first feathers. While examining one bird, the expert Sheri Williams noted that it had suffered a bloody nose, possibly from hitting a cactus or other sharp plant. Most of the birds caught were Black-chinned hummingbirds like the little guy in the photo below, showing his bright purple throat. A few of the birds were caught twice on this day, one three different times.

We learned that banding the birds provides valuable information as to migration habits, life span, reproductive cycles and health of the bird population and habitats where they live. One question is whether banding is traumatic for the birds. Sheri explained that hummingbirds are fierce and intelligent, not prone to stress when captured like other birds. Because of this and their small size, they are easier to work with. I was able to hold one of the birds before it was released. Each bird was first given a drink of nectar from a feeder so hopefully it would be full and not head right back to the trap. Then the bird was held close so I could get a good look. This little hummer below is a female Black-chinned.

The hummer was then placed in my hand for release. The heartbeat of a hummer is so fast that one cannot feel it. Some hummers stay for a few seconds when let go, but the one in my hand took off like a shot.

It was a great day with the hummers! I will close with a photo of a Western Screech Owl which has taken up residence next to the San Pedro House. It was sitting in a heart shaped knot high up in the huge cottonwood tree.