by Dahna Branyan
Home is the sailor, home from the sea
And the hunter, home from the hill
– Robert Louis Stevenson
It was hard to leave the Black Hills and our new friends Sheila and Hoad, but home was calling. Wait, that was Patty, our dear friend and house sitter making sure we would be home by our agreed upon date. There was a little edge to her voice that meant the tedium of country life was wearing thin.
Leaving took us back down through Wind Cave National Park so we had time to say goodbye to the bison and pronghorn along the way. Beyond Wind Cave, lay the town of Hot Springs (Does every state have a Hot Springs?) It is a lovely old town with wonderful historic red sandstone buildings. People still come to bathe in the warm waters, but from the looks of the architecture, it must have had its heyday in the late 1800’s. There is a nearby Mammoth site to explore and a wild horse sanctuary. What a shame we were hauling the trailer and had reservations down the road. Clearly, Hot Springs is more than enough reason to return soon to the Black Hills.
Having left the hills, we spent the day driving through the rolling short grass prairie of Nebraska. It was an easy drive, but the lack of diversity in the scenery made it seem a rather long one. We reached out campground at Lake McConnaughy State Recreation Area late in the day. Being midweek, we practically had the place to ourselves.
Fishing at Lake McConnaughy
Northern Flicker – Yellow Shafted
It’s a large campground that eventually filled up as the weekend approached. The problem with filling up is that the water pressure is very low- too low to shower. We opted to fill our fresh water tank and use the 12 v. pump. Lake McConnaughy is huge and a great spot for boating and fishing. So, bring a boat. There’s not much else to do. The beach is sparse and buggy and there is no fishing pier. That was okay since we were content to lay about reading and taking Sacha for long walks. But, as another birder commiserated, the water birds had not yet arrived and most of the passerines had already passed through. I know that overall bird populations are down (30% since 1970), but this seemed unnatural during migration season. I hope it was just a timing issue. I did see some familiar flutter-bys.
Belted Kingfisher With A Snack
Below the dam there is another smaller lake, Lake Ogalalla, with its own campground. I cannot recommend it. Going into town, we drove over the dam while they were releasing water from Lake McConnaughy to the lake below. They were releasing from the bottom of the lake where the water is anoxic and loaded with hydrogen sulfide. So, they release in a fan spray to aerate the water, but the hydrogen sulfide smell is gag-inducing over a broad area. It is so pungent that we could smell it wafting over to our campground later that day. No wonder there were few birds.
Wilson Warbler Pair
We did have a bit of excitement during our stay. The long rolling prairie provides a lot of fetch for thunderstorms to barrel across, building as they go. One came up during the night with gale force winds rocking and rolling the travel trailers and tearing limbs from trees. Sacha did not like the light show and thunder that accompanied the rain one bit. I can’t say that I enjoyed it either. It did, however, make for a lot of camaraderie among the survivors the next day as folks were retrieving their camping gear that blew away. Our neighbor told us about a storm that stripped all the siding off his uncle’s home the week before. Yikes! With another storm threatening in two days, we opted to head for Kansas a day early and miss a repeat performance.
Immature Red-headed Woodpecker
Wilson State Park was more to our liking. The lake was smaller and the terrain was more pleasing. The camp hosts drove up while we were setting up and invited us over for a beer later. Now that’s hospitality. Steve and MaryLou gave us the skinny on area services and attractions. The next evening we wondered if we were having a redux of the Appointment In Samarra as we watched the ominous vertical development of a storm heading toward us.
Kildeer at Wilson Lake’s Edge
Fortunately the storm skirted the lake just missing us, and Sacha had a peaceful evening. Whew! The next morning we headed over to the nearby town of Wilson for laundry and gas. It’s a nice Czech farming community and they are proud of their heritage. The town features the World’s Largest Handpainted Czech Egg. We have enjoyed the trend of small communities that decorate their towns with local icons – pelicans in Seabrook, TX, bears in Grants Pass, OR and Buffalo in Custer, SD. Wilson decorated their town with large eggs, hand-painted using traditional kraslice designs and methods. The charming eggs grace Wilson’s street corners with cheery reminders of their Czech heritage.
World’s Largest Hand-Painted Czech Egg
Across from our campsite there was a lovely non-denominational open air chapel overlooking the lake. Steve and Mary Lou had recently renewed their vows there. I think it is the site of many weddings. And what a lovely spot for it.
The next day we headed in the opposite direction for the town of Lucas. A prominent feature of the local landscape are the stone fenceposts along the road. Here, where trees are in short supply and limestone is plentiful, post rock limestone was commonly used and still stand today. A half dozen have been carved by an artist-in-residence, and though we were on the lookout, we did not spot one of them among the hundreds we passed.
Limestone Fence Post
There must be something in the water in Lucas that produces such an eclectic blend of artists and fun-loving folks. Since the early 1900’s people have been drawn to Lucas to see S. P. Dinsmoor’s Garden of Eden. Mr. Dinsmoor, a self-proclaimed artist, free-thinker and Civil War veteran, built a wonderful home combining fencepost limestone and dovetailed log home construction. He then spent several years decorating it with imaginative folk art in the form of cement sculptures. He invited the public to tour his art and home, creating a nice little income stream. It is now a museum.
He admitted he was ‘bughouse’ crazy and Pat, who refused to get out of the truck, concurred completely.
Garden of Eden – Lucas, Kansas
Lucas is also home to the Grassroots Art Center, which houses an amazing variety of local art. If that’s not reason enough to visit Lucas, another roadside attraction resides here.
World’s Largest Collection of the World’s Smallest Versions of the World’s Largest Things (Step Right Up)
We’re saving that for our next visit. You can’t leave town without a visit to Brant’s Meat Market (according to the vegan gallery staff person at the art center). Aside from having an excellent fresh meat selection, Brants has been turning out delicious smoked meats and sausage using the family’s old Czech recipes for five generations. The ring bologna is amazing and…Oscar Meyer it ain’t. So is the pepper sausage. We’re going to have some more shipped to us this winter.
To accommodate the tourists, Lucas needed a handicapped public restroom. So why not make it the World’s Largest Toilet! They invited local artists to contribute to the mosaic walls. It’s a must see bathroom – inside and out.
Bowl Plaza – Home of the World’s Largest Toilet (note the World’s Largest Toilet Paper Roll to the Right)
It got to be a kick to live in a town of 400 people who can create all this. It is a hidden gem.
Pat Admiring Street Art in front of the American Fork Art Exhibit
American Fork Art
After spending our last night enjoying a campfire and drinking a beer with Steve and Mary Lou and their neighbors, we packed up and headed for Lake McMurtry in Oklahoma the next morning. It’s an older park and the sites were designed for much smaller rigs than ours but we shoe-horned the Arctic Fox into place. It sat on an narrow elevated pad with a steep drop one step beyond our steps. Yikes! We had to use the bedroom entrance to make sure we didn’t fall. When we arrived, the park was empty, but Friday night it filled up completely. It seemed odd that no one appeared to be doing any sort of recreation except the Boy Scout troop in the tent campground. Saturday night the campground was dark and silent. Then it dawned on us that folks had just come in to go to the football game at OSU in nearby Stillwater. Gosh, we didn’t even get invited to a tailgate party.
Osprey Digesting His Catch
And with that we headed for Comanche and home. Sacha raced excitedly around the house, yipping on the go. Riley, happy with her house sitter, just ignored me. Patty was waiting for us with a fabulous steak dinner. Ahh, it was good to be home.