The Accidental President

In January 1945 Harry S. Truman was sworn in as Vice President to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Three months later, on April 12, 1945, upon Roosevelt’s death, Harry Truman was suddenly the 33rd president of the United States.  Truman, a high school graduate without a college degree, once commented that he became president by “accident.”

DSC00066A visit to the Harry S Truman National Historic Site in Independence, Missouri is like stepping into a time capsule and returning to the 1950s.  Downtown Independence is like a modern-day Mayberry. (Referring to the old Andy Griffith Show.)  The visitor center, on the corner of Main and Truman, is located in a renovated 1928 Fire Station.  It is here that tickets can be purchased to tour Harry and Bess Truman’s home, the “Summer White House”; a short movie can be viewed catching a glimpse into the Truman’s life in Independence; souvenirs can be purchased; and walking maps can be obtained highlighting sights around Harry’s neighborhood.  Harry Truman was known for his walks about town and it is fun to follow in his footsteps; especially to Clinton’s, a drugstore where Harry worked his very first job.  Today Clinton’s is an ice cream parlor and a yummy afternoon treat.

DSC00062The ranger-guided Truman home tour is not so much a tour of a beautiful house than it is a tour of a family’s home.   Elizabeth (Bess) Wallace and her brothers and mother moved into Bess’s grandparents house at 219 N. Delaware Ave in 1904 shortly after her father died.  Harry S Truman married his childhood crush, Bess, on June 28, 1919 and moved into the Wallace family home.  Harry and Bess had one child, a daughter named Margaret, born February 17, 1924.  The close-knit family continued to live in the house on N. Delaware, returning often during Truman’s presidency.  In fact, Bess and Margaret stayed in Independence more than the White House.  (Bess never did like Washington D.C.)  Upon returning to Independence in 1953 after his second term as president, Harry goes right back to living a “common” man lifestyle.

The park ranger tells stories about the Truman family as he points out various items that reflect Harry’s surprisingly humble lifestyle.  There is only one indication in the entire house that Harry S Truman was ever President of the United States:  dishes in the cupboard with the White House seal.  The poor quality wallpaper in the kitchen reflects Harry’s frugal nature.  Harry and Bess would often sit on the back porch to read the paper and sip coffee and tea.  The Secret Service planted bushes and placed a fence around the property to protect the former president from the curious public.  Harry never did give up his daily walk around town.

Harry Truman lived in the house on 219 N. Delaware for over 50 years until his death in 1972.  He never forgot his roots nor his strong midwest family values.  “I tried never to forget who I was and where I’d come from and where I was going to.” – Harry S Truman


Ulysses is a Funny Name

What do I know about Ulysses S. Grant?  Ulysses S. Grant was the General who led the Union to victory in the American Civil War.  Ulysses S. Grant was a president of the United States.  And Ulysses S. Grant was buried in Grant’s Tomb.  (Although I discovered via Google that no one is buried in Grant’s tomb.)  And Ulysses is a funny name.  After visiting the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri, I now know much, much more about Ulysses S. Grant.

DSC00001Ulysses was stationed at Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis when Fred Dent, a classmate from Ulysses’ West Point days, wrote him a letter inviting Ulysses to his family’s home near St. Louis.  Ulysses accepted the invitation and was a frequent guest at White Haven, the Dent family farm.  On one of his many visits he met Fred’s sister, Julia, and quickly became smitten.  Ulysses asked Julia to wear his class ring as a promise to eventually marry.  He was gently rebuffed because Julia was afraid her father would not approve.  Ulysses believed slavery was morally wrong and Julia’s father, “Colonel” Frederick Dent, was a slave owner from Missouri.  However, Julia could not resist the charms of Ulysses and despite different backgrounds the couple married in 1848.

DSC00007In 1854, Grant resigned from the Army and moved his family to White Haven where he farmed the land until he was recommissioned into the Army during the Civil War.  Ulysses purchased White Haven from Julia’s father in the 1860s.  Although the couple lived in many, many places during Grant’s military career, and they lived in the White House during Grant’s two terms as president, Ulysses and Julia continued to have an intense emotional attachment to White Haven.

DSC00006A visit to the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site includes a short film in the visitor center that provides an introduction to Ulysses, a tour of White Haven that includes a “magic” mirror demonstrating the strained relationship between Julia’s husband and father, a quarter-mile loop path leading to outbuildings such as the summer kitchen and chicken house, and a museum depicting the many love letters that Ulysses wrote to Julia during their wartime separations.  What do I know about Ulysses S. Grant?  Ulysses S. Grant was a solid man of conviction and principal.  Ulysses S. Grant was a quiet man of passion and romance.  Ulysses S. Grant was a family man of discipline and love.  And Ulysses is a funny name.




Pictures of Pictographs

DSCN6827In the far northwest corner of Amistad National Recreation Area, near the confluence of the Pecos and Rio Grande Rivers, is a rugged and prehistoric art gallery.  Four thousand-year old pictographs are hidden within the rocky canyon shelters and overhangs in this desolate region of Texas.  The National Park System has partnered with Texas Parks and Wildlife to protect the priceless art.  Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site is a Texas state park located within the boundaries of Amistad NRA between Langtry and Comstock, Texas.  (Side note:  The Texas Visitor Center in Langtry is worth a visit.  Many, many brochures for all regions in Texas, a Judge Roy Bean museum with fun, interactive exhibits, Judge Bean’s original saloon, and an outdoor cactus garden are a few of the things to see here.)

DSCN6826A developed campground with flush toilets and hot showers, far, far west Texas seclusion, gorgeous desert sunsets, and views of the Pecos River that brings Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove series to life are just a few of Seminole Canyon State Park’s attractions.  However, the most unusual and unique attraction is the art work.  The Lower Pecos River has the most outstanding collection of ancient rock art in the world.  There are hundreds of pictographs (images painted on rock) in the region.  Although visitors are prohibited from entering the canyon alone, rangers offer two tours daily to view the pictographs in Fate Bell Shelter.  The tour is considered a moderate hike because of the steep, uneven stairs going down and the steep climb back up.  I gladly pay the $5 fee and join the 3:00 tour.

DSCN6833As our group of eight wind our way into the canyon, the ranger explains that the people who painted the pictographs were nomadic hunters and gatherers, therefore there was no need to build permanent structures such as those found at Mesa Verde. We arrive at the bottom of the canyon to view human-like, animal-like, and object-like images adorning otherwise plain canyon walls.  Various rock minerals were pounded and pounded to be used for paint, and animal fats and even urine were used to bind the paint.  Preparing to paint sometimes took longer than the actual artwork itself.  Do the primitive red ocher pictographs painted on overhangs and shelters tell a story?  Was the rock art in this shallow canyon in such a rugged landscape meant to communicate a message?  Not even the research scientists know the meaning of the pictographs.  It is very much like looking at modern art in modern galleries in modern cities.  We can guess at the artists’ thoughts and mood; we can interpret from our own perspective; and we can spin a tale from what we observe.  The meaning of the art is just that:  guesses, cultural interpretations, and tales.  The true meanings of the artwork have been lost with the artist.

DSCN6842Because of their nomadic nature, no current Native American tribe claims ancestry with the lost ancients of Seminole Canyon and the Lower Pecos River Region.  I touch a large boulder that has been touched for thousands of years by hundreds of hands and imagine my own interpretation of the artist’s work.  The pictographs tell me that life has always, since Creation, held intrigue and beauty.  For thousands of years people have tried to capture their observations and their stories.  People from cultures that spent every moment looking for food, shelter, and clothing still took the time to record their story in a primitive art form.  It’s easy for me to see that the pictographs are simply a 4000-year-old blog post.






Secrets of Amistad

DSCN6848Surrounded by the dry, rocky, cactus-filled terrain of Mexico and South Texas, clear, deep Lake Amistad was created when the muddy Rio Grande River, separating Mexico from the United States, was dammed.  The project is an ongoing partnership between the two countries.  In 1969 Amistad Dam was completed creating a reservoir for flood control, water storage, and power generation.  The lake became an oasis for cool, refreshing recreation in a hot, desolate, desert area of Texas where water was once a scarce commodity.  Houseboats, sailboats, and fishing boats dotted the dark blue waterscape.  Scuba divers, snorkelers, and swimmers cooled off in the amazingly clear lake.  In 1990 the National Park Service took over managing the United States side and the Amistad was designated a National Recreation Area.  For years, the lake continued to be an active, fun spot for respite from the South Texas heat.  However, in recent years active drug cartels and illegal border crossings have scared away many visitors.  In 2010, a jet skier was shot and killed by Mexican pirates.  Forever Resorts, the National Park concessionaire at Amistad, packed up and moved their houseboats to other, safer, regions of the U.S.  The marinas were abandoned by all except the most daring fisherman.


DSCN6853With a little trepidation and a lot of curiosity, I begin my exploration of this “dangerous” border area of Texas.  Amistad National Recreation Area, near Del Rio, Texas, has five campgrounds located around the lake.  Although primitive, all campgrounds are suitable for both RVs and tents.  Governors Landing Campground, 15 sites located on a narrow ridge above the lake, offers gorgeous views of the lake on both sides of each site.  Sites are first-come, first-served so I choose a site and quickly set up camp (takes ten minutes with the T@G!) and head to the Visitors Center.  I watch the out-dated film, look at the current exhibits (including a really cool computer table like they have on the TV show CSI), and shop in the small bookstore.   Armed with literature, maps, and brochures I strike out to discover the secrets of Amistad.

DSCN6861Amistad National Recreation Area extends 81 miles up the Rio Grande, 14 miles up the Pecos River, and 25 miles up Devils River.  There are many well-maintained dirt roads that lead to nooks and crannies all over the park.  I have so much fun getting lost on these back roads of the lake:  watching two scuba divers explore the clear water in Diablo East, hiking a short trail in the Figueroa Trail area, discovering a pizza place still operating at Rough Canyon Marina and enjoying an outdoor sunset dinner overlooking the lake.

The next day, a sunny, warm Sunday in February, is a perfect day for a Talk And Hike Ranger Program.  Because of my natural abilities to become hopelessly lost on solo hikes, I prefer to have a guide.  And National Park Rangers are the best!  At the Visitor Center the ranger gives an excellent powerpoint presentation about Amistad Dam and the Lake Amistad Area.  After a Q & A and a bathroom break our small group of three grab our packs and hike the 3-mile round-trip out-and-back Sunrise Trail.  The trail begins at the NPS Visitor Center and ends at Spur 454 near the San Pedro Campground.  Along the way the enthusiastic ranger stops often and shows us many different native plants.  We are a willing audience so he takes us a bit further as we discover barbed wire fences and abandoned water cisterns from early South Texas ranching days.

DSCN6864As the day progresses, the peaceful, private park begins to change.  The morning quiet has turned to afternoon entertainment.  The soft buzzing of insects is drowned out by the pleasant sound of music, laughter, and the sizzle of barbecues as people enjoy the gorgeous weather with picnics and fun in the sun.  The festive, friendly atmosphere encourages me to visit the dam that created this lake paradise in a desolate landscape.  The Amistad Dam is maintained with the cooperation of both Mexico and the United States.  Half of Lake Amistad is in Mexico and half is in the U.S.  One of the most interesting and fun experiences of visiting Amistad National Recreation Area is the dam.  Although there are no tours, the dam is an official Port of Entry and a valid passport is required to cross.  But you do not have to go all the way into Mexico.  Approximately 2.5 miles from the Port of Entry, there are parking spots and a turnaround area.  Here it’s possible to stand with one foot in Mexico and one foot in the United States and gaze at Mexico in one direction and the United States in the other.  Cars arriving from Mexico, cars arriving from the U.S., the mix of Spanish and English, and the double eagle memorial make it easy to understand the friendship and the connection between the two countries.

DSCN6868Although Amistad National Recreation Area is not the vibrant, exciting, fun-filled place it once was, it is being reinvented.  Increased border patrol, stricter laws in both Mexico and the U.S., and public awareness are improving citizen safety.  I never felt threatened or insecure.  There have been no incidents within park boundaries since the unfortunate jet skier.  Private houseboats are slowly coming back for leisurely weekends, scuba divers are returning to explore the depths of the lake canyons, fisherman are competing in tournaments almost every weekend, and snowbirds are gradually returning to flutter in the mild winter climate of South Texas.  Amistad is Spanish for “friendship”.  After four days of exploring, discovering, and digging into the heart of Amistad, the national recreation area became my friend.

Dreams, Goals, and Toys

IMG_0084I am thrilled to announce that my wonderfully sweet thoughtful husband has better equipped me for my travels!  In September we traded in a Toyota Camry for a Mango Tango Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk.


DSCN6675       The Trailhawk has 4-wheel drive and towing capabilities.

IMG_0060The towing package is important because in November we bought a Little Guy T@G Teardrop Trailer!  The T@G has a small galley with a sink, two-burner propane stove top, and a refrigerator.  The cabin contains a double bed, an AC, a TV, and a DVD player.  Now I’m traveling in complete luxury!

DSCN6871With such fun toys, I have no excuse to delay dreams.  Follow along as I visit all 405 National Park Sites.  Join me as I traipse across America hiking, paddling, camping, and experiencing the history, beauty, and wonder of the the U.S. National Park System.


Palo Alto Battlefield

DSCN6672Way down south, directly on the pointed tip of a very large state, is Brownsville, Texas.  A Spanish speaking border town, Brownsville has a rich Mexican heritage with tons of excellent TexMex restaurants, a world-class zoo, and the only National Park Site dedicated to the Mexican American War.  Just six miles from the Mexico border, Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park preserves the site of the first major battle of the U.S. Mexican War.

Mexico never accepted the loss of Texas resulting from the Texas Revolution.  When Texas became the 28th state of the United States, Mexico challenged the annexation, particularly the boundary of the new state.  U.S. President Polk campaigned on a promise to extend the United States to the Pacific Ocean.  Polk saw Mexico’s balk at Texas’ annexation as an opportunity to fulfill his promises.  He sent General Zachary Taylor and 4,000 soldiers to Texas.  Many Americans challenged Texas’ claim of the Rio Grande and President Polk risked criticism and loss of favor with the American voting public. Polk ordered Taylor to stop at the Rio Grande River where the American troops faced Mexican General Mariano Arista’s Army of the North from across the disputed boundary.  Polk’s plan was to provoke the Mexican army into crossing the river which could be portrayed as an invasion into America.  Polk’s plan was successful.  Arista, believing that the U.S. troops were on Mexican soil, marched his troops across the Rio Grande.  Eleven U.S. soldiers were killed and Polk seized the opportunity to push for war.  On May 13, 1846, Congress voted to declare war on Mexico and the United States and Mexico entered a two-year conflict that ended with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe  Hidalgo.  The treaty forced Mexico to accept the Rio Grande River as their boundary with the U.S.  Mexico also had to sell the vast land west of Texas.  Polk fulfilled his dream of expanding the borders of the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Today the Mexican/American War can be explored at Palo Alto.  A film in the Visitor Center explains the importance of Polk’s strategies as well as the resulting conflict.  Excellent maps portray the land acquired from Mexico.  A short walk along a paved path leads to the Palo Alto Battlefield where lines of American and Mexican flags wave in the wind revealing the positions of both troops.DSCN6673

Experiencing Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Site takes only about two hours.  However, the Battlefield represents two years of conflict between two very different cultures.  The conclusion of the conflict resulted in a much larger, much expanded United States and added to the various cultures represented in a diverse America.


Texas White House

IMG_0555Lyndon B. Johnson was a President that enjoyed power and control and would often use both to persuade others to see things his way.  LBJ was most comfortable and felt more in control of his surroundings at his home in Johnson City, Texas.  Perhaps that is why he spent 25% of his presidency at the “Texas White House” where “all the world is welcome”.  Visiting the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park gives an honest insight into the life, character, and personality of the 36th President of the United States.

Visiting the LBJ Ranch District portion of the National Historical Park is a bit confusing.  The tour begins at the Visitor Center of the LBJ State Park and Historic Site in Stonewall, Texas, 14 miles from the Johnson City District in Johnson City, Texas.  The Texas State Park operates this visitor center and it is here where we receive our free tickets to experience the self-guided driving tour of the Ranch.  My daughter and I view the 30 minute film that gives a unique introduction to the Ranch.  It is an old TV program of an interview with President Johnson as he escorts the interviewer on a tour of his ranch and home.  After watching the film, we are ready for our own tour following in the footsteps of LBJ.

President Lyndon Baines Johnson was a man “larger than life” and his ranch along the Pedernales River in the rolling hill country of Texas was a perfect home for his personality.  Johnson had a strong sense of family and deep roots planted in this parcel of land where he was born.  He bought the land and lived here with his wife, Lady Bird, and their two daughters.  It is here, in Texas, where he was most comfortable and would return time and time again during his presidency.  He would invite cabinet members and dignitaries to his ranch where they would stay in assorted houses, such as the President’s grandparents first home, on the property.  Johnson would take his guests on tours of the ranch in one of his many convertibles, top down, cowboy hat resting proudly atop his head.  LBJ would conduct political business, share anecdotes, and even use scare tactics to “convince” his guest to see things his way.IMG_0573

President and Mrs. Johnson donated the LBJ Ranch to the National Park Service in 1972, stipulating that the ranch remain a working ranch and not a “relic to the past”.  Johnson died in 1973, but Lady Bird lived here until her death in 2006.  During her lifetime, tours were conducted by shuttle bus.  The current self-driving auto tour passes the one-room Junction School where young Lyndon learned to read.  It is in this building that President Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.  The tour continues past the LBJ Birthplace, rebuilt by the President in 1964 to be used as a guest house.  After stopping briefly at the Johnson Family Cemetery were President Lyndon Baines Johnson was buried on January 25, 1973, Madeleine and I take the one-way road passing pasture land, barns, and the ranch foreman’s house.  The leisurely drive ends at an airplane hangar and the Texas White House.

IMG_0574The highlight of the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park is the actual home of President and Lady Bird Johnson.  Tours are guided and $3 tickets are purchased at the visitor center/hangar.  This visitor center is operated by the National Park Service and tours are conducted by park rangers.  Our park ranger guide was excellent.  Relaxed, young, and fun, he told lots of stories and anecdotes about LBJ as well as pointed out particular points of interest.  Johnson would always sit in the most comfortable chair in the room and there are photographs proving this fact.  Televisions and telephones are everywhere.  Johnson always had an eye on the news.  There is a telephone mounted at the head of the dinner table where LBJ sat as well as the kitchen table, bathrooms, and LBJ’s bed.  LBJ and Lady Bird had separate rooms because one morning Lady Bird woke up to discover President Johnson was conducting a meeting in their bedroom!  Lady Bird’s room is large, airy, and feminine.  My favorite part of the tour was entering her bathroom and viewing her wardrobe through the plexiglass “doors” of her closet.

IMG_0570Experiencing both parts of the LBJ National Historical Park takes a full day.  Other activities include a living history farm with a one mile nature trail to explore, exhibits at all three visitor centers to study, gift shops at all three visitor centers to peruse, and of course, National Park Passport cancellations to obtain.  Although my 21-year-old daughter, Madeleine, would have preferred a very long day of urban shopping, we enjoyed our day together stepping back in time and learning a little about a President of the United States who had an ego as large as Texas, a First Lady who was as gracious as she was smart, and the Texas White House they both called home.