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Heading Home


Moving On:

Seniors on the Road in the West
Part 3: Heading Home

  by Robert Demaree

In April 2005, my wife and I set out from central North Carolina, two 67-year-olds in a 2000 Buick, bound for Arizona, armed with what the poet Donald Hall calls “a pleasure of place,” and disposed to enjoy what lay between here and there just as much as what we found at our destination, to go places we had not gone and see things we had not seen. Part 1 gave an overview of the entire 5,000 mile trip, Part 2 covered the first half of the journey, from southeast to southwest, and this final installment covers the journey eastward through Nebraska, Missouri and Kentucky.

“There was nothing but the land: not a country at all, but the material out of which countries are made.” – Willa Cather

The tenth day of the trip we're out of the
Rockies and into the high plains of eastern Colorado, headed home. The most direct route would have taken us through Kansas, but we’ve been there. Nebraska is new territory, and we want to see the new Missouri River Basin Lewis & Clark center in Nebraska City.

The cattle drives of the Great Western Trail ended up at the railhead in Ogallala, Nebr. Cowpokes, looking for fun and trouble after a long, hard cattle drive, gave the town a rough and ready reputation in the 1870s. There’s a cemetery in town that was described to us as “a boot hill but not the Boot Hill.” Front Street is a recreated Wild West town, with a free museum, a petrified wood gallery and, at night in summers, a staged shoot-out and musical review.

At Gothenburg the first Pony Express Station is a small museum in a city park, reached through a pleasant residential section, a memento of a short but important chapter in the opening of the West. There is a sod house museum, not yet open for the season, that appears to be about sod houses but not, as far as we can see, an authentic sod house itself.

I-80 follows the Platte River east. We had expected the Platte to be more scenic but in this part of Nebraska there really wasn’t much to it. Instead we found a succession of farm ponds, much larger than those in the East, fed from underground sources, some with docks, an attractive blue on a bright, clear morning.

Prairie Companions

Bosselman’s Travel Center in Grand Island is a massive truck stop, with a food court and an enormous convenience and souvenir store, the kind of place one often finds at interstate exits in the West. Reminds us of the rest areas on the New York Thruway, except that people are playing keno.

Also in Grand Island is the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer. Accredited by the American Association of Museums, the Stuhr is a well researched and attractively mounted presentation of the role of the Nebraska plains in the country’s westward expansion. The main museum, in a building designed by Edward Durrell Stone, has a social history emphasis. There is also the Fonner Rotunda, featuring Native American culture, and a 200-acre collection of buildings and villages, a prairie version of Shelburne, Vermont. Here you can tour the Railroad Town, 60 buildings including the Henry Fonda birthplace, a village bypassed by the railroad, with the striking Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church, a Pawnee earth lodge and a train with a 1901 steam locomotive.

In places that are new to us we always try to find one museum that offers a considered presentation of the essence or genius of a place. The Stuhr does this admirably. There are any number of museums in Nebraska dealing with plains and prairie culture (including one that straddles the interstate), just as there are at least three Route 66 museums in Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri. If anyone thinks we picked the wrong ones, we don’t want to hear about it.

East across Nebraska on I-80: elevators and silos everywhere, cattle grazing, corn fields between seasons. The route of the Mormons and the beginning of the Oregon Trail. I-80 is still the most traveled east-west route in America.

Across the Wide Missouri

We are delighted to find the Missouri River Lewis & Clark Interpretative Trails and Center on summer hours and open at 9:00 a.m. Sunday. This new facility is very education and kid-oriented, with a special interest in natural history, the flora and fauna identified by Lewis & Clark. One especially nice touch for seniors: laminated cards illustrating plant life have bar codes which, when scanned, project in bright, large print on a back-lighted monitor. I don’t know if this was the intent, but it is a great service for the many senior tourists with partial or impaired vision, a lesson for the museum world in general.

We loved the river view, the keelboat, the animal exhibits, complete with sound effects, and we kept wishing that our grandchildren were with us. We found a few educational gifts for them in a bookstore which was several cuts above the average park site souvenir shop.

We cross the Missouri and pass through a corner of Iowa to pick up I-29 south. In Missouri, we cross briefly back over into Nebraska to see Brownville, a quaint river town we had found in the Website of the National Register of Historic Places. In front of an attractive old brick store a group of people sit in a circle, and there’s a sign saying “Lyceum.” I guess if we were a little more curious and forward, we would have found out what they were talking about. Brownville , Nebr.

The Lewis & Clark expedition spent the night of July 15, 1804, near Brownville in Nemaha County.

Back on I-29 to St. Joseph, then east through the prosperous-looking farm land of northern Missouri, a cross between Nebraska and Ohio. In the towns just off U.S. 36 lie the childhood homes of famous people with possible stops for interested visitors: at Hamilton, the J.C. Penney Museum; in the village of Laclede, a state historic site honoring General John Pershing; and further along, the house at Marcelline where Walt Disney lived between the ages of 5 and 11. It is privately owned but one may walk down a path to a tree where Disney did some of his very early drawing. My guess is that one day there may be a Walt Disney Museum. Too saleable a commodity for entrepreneurs to pass up.

We arrive in Hannibal in time for a walking tour of the place that etched small-town life permanently into the American consciousness.  

Way up-river from New Orleans

Down the Mississippi  

There is lots to do in Hannibal, for Mark Twain buffs and others: the interpretive center, with meat for scholars as well as tourists, two museums, the Becky Thatcher House and of course the whitewashed fence. We find out why the Becky Thatcher House is free—the downstairs is a shop. Upstairs a bedroom and parlor are restored, and a manikin, presumably Laura Hawkins, Becky’s real-life model, will talk if you put a coin in the machine. Add to this the cave, south of town on Route 79, the riverboat, the Tom & Huck Statue, the Planters Barn Theater with “Richard Garey’s Mark Twain Himself”, not to mention the inevitable dioramas and wax museum, and you have life on the Mississippi .

But Hannibal is also a beautiful river town with a wealth of nineteenth century architecture. If you enjoy, as we do, walking and shopping in river towns such as Fredericksburg, Va. , and Madison, Ind., you’ll love Hannibal. The two tours laid out by the visitor center can also be accomplished by driving slowly, not hard to do on a weekday in April. You may want to take in Rockcliffe, a turn-of-the-century mansion which Mark Twain visited on his last visit to Hannibal in 1902.

South of Hannibal on Missouri Route 79—the Great River Road—views of the Mississippi which were thrilling for people whose experience of the river was in the state of Louisiana. There one drives along the river road but does not see the river for the levee, large ships going by ominously overhead. We check out a couple of river towns Jensen had mentioned. Louisiana, Mo., which he described in 1996 as “Hannibal without Mark Twain,” still has a ways to go before becoming a venue for destination weddings, but restoration projects are in the works. We found Clarksville, ten miles south, very appealing, with a quaint business street that goes down to the river.


We return to U.S. 61 by county roads, skirt St. Louis, and proceed south on I-55 to Sainte Genevieve, settled in the 1740s, the oldest European settlement west of the Mississippi. We enjoy walking up Main and Merchant Streets, with 18th century French Colonial houses beautifully restored. The two Bolduc houses, La Maison de Guibord-Valle and the Felix Valle State Historic Site are examples of the charm and beauty in this, the “ Illinois district” of old French Louisiana. Reminded us of another favorite town, Natchitoches, La.

Oeniphiles will enjoy a tour of five wineries in the area. With one modern motel and any number of B&B’s, Ste. Genevieve would be a great overnight stop.

Just south is St. Mary, Mo., where we spend some time at the enormous (77,000 square feet) St. Mary Antique Mall, located in an old wallet factory and reached by way of two unlikely-looking residential streets. We had not designed our trip as an antiquing junket, but I hate to pass up a chance to add to my collection of old postcards. Travelers from the east will find a lot of big malls like this one in the Midwest , but far fewer in the West, where the collecting interest tends toward native arts and crafts. Still, seniors who love the “thrill of the hunt” may enjoy these places we found along the way: Antique Village, Crossville, Tenn.; Route 66 Antique Mall, El Reno, Okla.; Wild Rose’s Antiques, Moab, Utah; Georgetown Antique Emporium, Georgetown, Colo.; Finders Keepers Antique Mall, Percival, Iowa, Show Me Antiques, Hannibal, Mo., and Nancy Dee’s Antiques, Sainte Genevieve, Mo.

We cross back over the Mississippi at Chester, Ill., home of the creator of Popeye, and make a short northerly detour to see the Menard House, a French Colonial structure that looks like it belongs somewhere below Baton Rouge. More nice river views south of Chester, then east to I-57 and I-24, and across the Ohio River into Kentucky: back in the South, if not the Confederacy.

Pierre Menard House, Ellis Grove, Ill.

Old Kentucky Homes

Between Hopkinsville and Bowling Green, Ky., a monument to Jefferson Davis looks suspiciously like a miniature Washington Monument. On the side of a barn, a sign promoting University of Kentucky athletics, “See Cat City,” parodying the old “See Rock City” signs that used to cover the South.

A rainy day, the first of the trip, does not mar a visit to the austere beauty of the Shaker museum at South Union, Ky. The original intent of the Shakers was probably not to leave behind stunning tourist venues, but they are not to be missed as you travel near the six major sites, four in the Northeast and two in Kentucky.

Rain continues along the Cumberland Plateau; dogwood and redbud still in bloom but fading fast. At Corbin, the Col. Sanders Café and Museum—you could put together an interesting trip around museums related to icons of American pop culture.

We pass through Cumberland Gap, going the opposite direction from the route of our ancestors in the 1780s, across the mountains of east Tennessee and western North Carolina, and back along I-40 to our starting point. Cars from Iowa and Colorado pass us, headed, we hope, for places they had not been before.


Robert Demaree is a retired school administrator, poet and essayist whose collection of poems, Fathers and Teachers, will be published June 2007 by Beech River Books.

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