The town of Nicodemus was a planned community devoted to Black settlement in the years after the U.S. Civil War. Founded in 1877 by a White town planner and a Black preacher, Nicodemus was settled primarily by freed slaves from Kentucky. The harsh living conditions and climate were overcome for a time, and the settlement grew to include two newspapers, three general stores, at least three churches, a number of small hotels, one school, literary society, ice cream parlor, a bank, a livery, numerous homes and more.
When the railroad failed to come to Nicodemus the town’s population began to dwindle. Current residency in the town is less than 40 individuals. However, the town has been designated a National Historic Site.
We drove through Nicodemus and it wasn’t much. Actually more like a ghost town – we saw only one other person. The old historical buildings were abandoned and disheveled. However, we did get some good photos of the buildings and some old rusty 1950s cars.
We must open this letter with an apology. Our snide comments in the last letter were directed towards Arkansas and we should point out that they were meant only towards EAST Arkansas. The Ozarks of West Arkansas redeemed the state.
A thunderstorm hit us while traveling northwest through the Ozarks and we decided to pull off the road at a little place called Blanchard Springs Caverns. Turns out, this little place is one of the top three National Caverns in the nation – up there with Sonora Caves in Texas (ofcourse they’re bigger) and Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. Our tour guide through the caves was an insane pony-tailed man who had been doing tours for 14 years. He could have been a character from the show “King of the Hill”. Yep. That’s right. Yep. The caves had some unbelievable rock formation – 100 foot rock curtains and an amazing “soda straw” room which was a labyrinth of stalactites and stalagmites. And oddly enough, the place had an incredible lighting design by the same guy that did the lighting for the Met in New York and the Boston Opera House. What brought him to the holes in the ground under Arkansas I have no idea. But he did a good job.
Our next stop was Branson, Missouri. Yes, THE Branson. Having lived near Tennessee’s version of kitsch city, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, we was a bit disappointed. Branson is kind of like a poor man’s Pigeon Forge. Yes, it does have its unique aspects, such as the Ray Stevens theater and the World’s Largest Banjo and Fiddle. But even those were a bit of a let down. The Ray Stevens theater didn’t have a 100 foot neon, bobbing Ray Stevens head outside like I would have liked to have seen. And the Banjo and Fiddle were fake. They had neon lights for strings and were made of fiberglass. Now if you are going to make claims about having the World’s Largest Banjo and Fiddle, you better have real ones. Don’t make me go get Dean Kain from “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” to come kick your butt (note that he is also Scott Peterson in the TV movie of the Laci Peterson case, so yea, you better be scared).
After driving through the traffic-jammed Branson and eating at a Country Buffet (which could have easily gotten away with the title “Deep-Fried Buffet”), we headed into Oklahoma. We set up camp in the hills of the Osage Indian Reservation as a storm was brewing up in the west. At 1AM we were awoken by cracks of lightning and a torrential rain. I believe in Oklahoma they say it was “raining polecats and prairie dogs”. The heavy rain continued until 7 in the morning and at 5:30am we were forced to abandon our tent as it began taking in water. We slept the last couple hours wet and cold in our car.
The Osage campground wasn’t a completely terrible experience. On the way out, we stopped and photographed several wild deer and turkey in the park. The deer let us get pretty close to them but once the pimp-daddy buck showed up sporting his “bling-bling” set of antlers, they began making some scary, loud nose-blowing-like sounds. That was our hint to give them some privacy. Now the turkeys were great. Every time I honked my horn at them they would all let out a chorus of gobble-gobbles. I felt like a conductor and nature was my symphony. I’d honk my horn and get a “gobble-gobble” from the turkeys followed by a nose-blow from the deer. This went on for 15 minutes until my loving wife’s patience had grown thin. I could have gone another 15 though.
The Great Salt Plains were our next odd stop. 11,000 acres of barren land covered with a layer of salt. Because of the storm the night before they didn’t exactly have their shimmering white look, but it did make it easy for us to dig for crystals. Yes, these salt flats are the world’s only place where you can dig for selenite crystals. Why is that so great? Quite frankly, I don’t know. Apparently it is a favorite Okie past time and they even have contests every year to see who can dig up the largest ones. For the non-geologists, selenite is formed when a concentrated saltine solution combines with gypsum. Anyway, we dug around a bit, and got a ziplock bag full (great cheap souvenirs to hand out to the friends back home – yes that’s you).
The highlight of the last two days was our stop at the Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas. Back in 1907, Samuel Dinsmoor built this concrete cabin and filled its yard with an elaborate web of concrete sculptures. They all have some sort of religious or political significance and it is really a sight to behold. If you get a chance, hit the website, where I’ve put up several photos. I really can’t do the place justice with words.
So that sums up the last two days. Sorry for the length of the email but apparently the Osage Indians don’t use cellphones so I couldn’t send out Monday’s email. Those of you that read this far congratulations, you’ve won yourself a selenite crystal.
Samuel Perry Dinsmoor, a retired schoolteacher, Civil War Veteran, farmer and Populist politician, began building the Garden of Eden and Cabin Home in 1907 at the age of 64. For 22 years he fashioned 113 tons (2,273 sacks) of cement and many tons of limestone into his unique “log” cabin with its surrounding sculptures. A corner of the site contains Dinsmoor’s mausoleum, within which, at his request, his body remains visible through a glass-topped coffin.
We arrived in Lucas just as the Garden of Eden was closing. Lucky for us, we caught the girl before she headed out. She let us in and wow – insane is hte only word to describe this place. The man who built the place has some serious issues. He was obessessed with building with concrete. Everything on and around the house was made of concrete. Most of the sculptures had religious conotations but some were political statements.
Great Salt Plains claims to be the world’s only location where people can freely dig and mine for selenite crystals. We gave it a try but couldn’t figure out what the big deal was. We found a dozen or so, but they were small and dirty. Just seeing the place was great – the size of the Salt Plains was unbelievable.
A densely wooded park nestled in lush, rolling hills, this area was once an Osage Indian settlement.
Wow, was this a rough stay. We got to the campground before dark and set up our tent. Ate some Pork & Beans and pretty much went straight to bed. Then at 1am a HUGE thunderstorm hit us. The rain came down in buckets until 6AM. At 5:30am we were forced to abandon the tent because it was filling with water and we spent the last bit of the night sleeping in the car. Whew. We’re feeling the lack of sleep today.
On our way out of the park in the morning, we saw several deer and a flock of turkeys. The deer let us get pretty close to take pictures before prancing off. The turkeys were awesome – the would respond with a chorus of “gooble-goobles” every time I honked the horn. (yes, I honked it a lot)
Mosquitoes, rice, and potholes. That would sum up what Heidi and I have unanimously agreed (all two of us) is the worst State in our glorious country (wave your little flag, hand over your heart). Arkansas is full of mosquitoes, rice, and potholes – and nothing else.
Now I must give the state the benefit of the doubt and mention that we have only traveled across half of Arkansas thus far. Meaning… that if there is not one more pothole and not one more grain of rice, then the state is only half as bad as we are making it out to be.
But on to brighter things and better states….
In Alabama, we stopped to visit the world’s only Coon Dog Cemetery. I know you were sure there were a couple others, but I’m here to tell you no. We saw the world’s only. There were over a hundred gravesites of coon dogs. The first, Troop, was buried in 1937 and the most recent one we saw was 1999. Quite a variety of both names and grave markers. Some made professionally in marble and granite, others were pieces of wood with an epitaph painted on, and still some were chunks of rock or cement with words of affection carved in. Troop, Old Blue, Ruff, Moma, Queen, Track, and my personal favorite Dr. Doom were among the deceased. This stop was quite a find, well worth going 20 miles out of our way to see.
Our next big stop was at the legendary Crystal Shrine Grotto in the outskirts of Memphis, TN. Back in the 1930s, a Mexican artist named Rodriguez created this large cavern out of cement and crystals. It stands in the middle of a cemetery and resembles a large tree stump. Around it is a “stone” garden with benches, walkways, and landscaping all made of cement. Inside the grotto are a dozen or so murals and sculptures of the life of Christ. And my favorite part, a large plaque that says “The Most Beautiful Head in the World” and has an image of Jesus with a halo. Sorry Christopher Walken, title taken.
In Memphis we stopped on the banks of the Mississippi at Mud Island Park. There we saw a miniature scale model of the Mississippi River that you can wade in; and its waters are actually from the real river so it’s like you REALLY ARE wading in the river. Who comes up with this stuff?
One more slam on Arkansas. Last night we stayed in a motel in Newport, AR; the enthusiastic, chain-smoking front desk attended was quite excited to inform me that “We even have a continental breakfast” Oooo, I was mildly impressed – yes, partly influenced by that tone in her voice, you know, that tone a 3-year old has when he proudly announces, “I went potty all by myself.” So we wake up this morning, and head down to the lobby. Now I don’t know what you think of when you hear the word “continent”. I think of something big. This road trip, for example. We are traveling across the continent. 3000 miles. Quite big. Now I know when it comes to motel breakfasts, North America is not the continent they have in mind. Australia maybe, a decent size. But someone needs to inform the poor people of Newport, Arkansas that Key West is not a continent. The continental breakfast for the entire motel was as follows: 7 danish pastries, half a pot of coffee, and a pitcher of liquid meant to be some sort of orange juice substitute. People of Arkansas, hear my cry, review your world maps and realize that Australia is the smallest continent after which you can model your breakfasts.
Today we head on to Branson, Missouri to see the World’s Largest Banjo and Fiddle. Yes, we can hardly contain ourselves. Then this evening we camp in Oklahoma at a State Park. The game plan for tomorrow is to see the Garden of Eden in Lucas, Kansas – yet another insane artist who was obsessed with concrete in the early 20th century.
The sun was going down and we wanted to get to our campground before dark so this was a quick stop. Oddly enough, though it was out in the middle of nowhere, there was a liquor store and tatoo parlor there. Everybody needs ’em, I guess.
Branson is a unique combination of neon and nature where the stars in the theaters are as luminescent as the stars in the expansive night sky.
Branson ended up being a bit of a let down. To me it just seemed like a poorman’s Pigeon Forge. We stopped to see the World’s Largest Banjo and Fiddle, but they turned out to be fake with neon lights for strings. We ate lunch at a Country Buffet with an indoor minigolf course that was extremely decorated to make it look like it was outdoors. Why not just make it outdoors?
The Blanchard Spring Caverns were an unexpected stop in Arkansas. While driving through the Ozarks, a huge storm hit us and we decided to pull into the Blanchard Springs area. A tour just happen to be starting when we arrived, so we took it. Definitely worth it. The rock formations in this place were unbelievable. They said these caverns are ranked in the top three of the nation along with Sonora in TX and Carlsbad in NM.