DNA X #27 The Peril of the Plains
Once again, the Great Plains spread out before us as we drive east on I70 into Kansas. The flat, featureless landscape is seldom peppered with trees or contour and one is subsequently attracted to any roadside sign, however tacky. The first in a series appears displaying tattered flags, faded lettering and slumping severely to the right. “See the Largest Prairie Dog in the World!” it announces. OK… doesn’t say where or any other possible relevant info. We drive on now slightly curious. Another sign appears, “Prairie Dog Town, Rattlesnakes!” “Live six-legged steer!” The next one says, “Pet the Miniature Donkey!” “Birds, Bison…” each subsequent sign looks even more dilapidated. We think Pip, our Prairie Dog would be interested so when the “You’re Here” sign arrows us to the right we pull in to a dirt clearing called the parking lot. The sketchy “museum” is a collection of shacks in various stages of decrepitude. A lone vehicle is parked in front of the entrance. Some blown down signs and unidentifiable debris litter the perimeter. No sign of the “Worlds Largest” anywhere and around back there is a fence probably hiding the advertised treasures. Jay and I glance at each other with that hesitant “should we?” look. The place looks dismal and the thought of paying (yes admission is $8.00 PP) for a freak show displaying mutant dead and live animals (and some in between?) did not fill us with glee. We drive around the assemblage to see if we can spot anything from the safety of Blackie. The parched land behind the fence reveals a lone bison standing in a grassless pen surrounded by a few prairie dogs, the mutant bovine collection, disparate fowls and numerous cages filled with animals. Grim, to be sure. Pip gives us the warning shriek to get out of there ASAP, so we obey happily. Later we look at the reviews of some of the previous visitors – “Roadside Horror”, “Don’t stop”, mix in with “Better than expected” and “Our favorite spot in Kansas”. This last one must have been written by a schizophrenic as she goes on to say – “It’s not clean… the goats tried to eat my pants… there’s goat and bird poop everywhere… it’s great!” Someone was a fan of this place, but why? Ultimately, we learn that the gargantuan prairie dog is of course a fake and pockmarked (from bullets) 25 feet tall concrete critter that looks more like a mutant mole.
Further on we observe some more advertised “attractions” like “Land of Oz”, a potpourri of all things remotely associated with the famous movie The Wizard of Oz. We are in Kansas after-all and proper homage is due to Dorothy and Toto, creepy witches not withstanding. However we veto any inkling to stop by for a visit here or to any other venue. To pass the time we listen to a radio program on prairie dogs, Pip insisted. The story turns ugly fast when we learn that in 1901 Kansas passed a law to promote exterminating all prairie dogs even when the property owners want to protect the animals on their land. County exterminators are allowed to trespass (for the good of the general public) and to poison the “vermin” with Rozol, an anti-coagulant (i.e. bleed to death) that not only kills the target animals but any animal that eats the dead or dying victims. Then the property owner is sent the bill. Just to keep the public interested in extermination there are even “Prairie Dog Hunts” where “hunters” can pay $150.00 to sit down next to their cooler, set up their riffles on a table or bi-pod and blast away keeping a tally of all the kills. There are a few farmers who really know the benefit of keeping an ecosystem intact and have protected the prairie dogs that provide food and habitat for numerous other species. They are the exception to the rule around here and just to be safe we keep Pip under the seat until we clear Kansas.
This brings us into Missouri, the “Show-Me” state. I am still not sure what the “show” is all about but I mention to Jay that the famous Gateway Arch in St. Louis is worth a look. As we enter the city I notice it’s not as neat and clean as the last time I saw it. It’s become very industrial (smog, factories, grunge…) over built and overall not very attractive. I70 curves through the confusion with heavy traffic and lots of trucks. Distracted by the maze we come around a corner and over a hill to see a cue of 10 highway troopers lined up on the shoulder. There’s so much traffic it’s hard to see but one by one the troopers peal off to apprehend the violators – speed trap!! The flashing lights are on behind Blackie and Jay’s face goes through a transformation with cursing accenting the scene. Other cars caught in the dragnet are veering off left and right. The officer gets out of his vehicle and somehow does not get run over by the three lanes of traffic coursing inches away from us. We’re on a corner, over a hill, on the shoulder by an entrance ramp – does this sound safe? The officer announces we are 11mph over the limit, can’t pay the fine now, can’t get it off your record as we’re out of state and he doesn’t know what the fine will be…? After his dissertation, we get underway before a semi-tracker trailer crushes us. Now that we’re paying attention we note that the speed limit in this area changes from 70 to 55 to 45 to 65 to 55 etc at least every half mile. The message here -? St. Louis has a well-oiled, clandestine money machine waiting to “show you” a ticket or two! As for that Gateway Arch? It passed by within the speed limit.
After a night on the road, we clear the plains and head for the mountains of North Carolina. This will be our last stop before heading home to Florida so we picked a favorite location to unwind from the trip. Asheville, NC is an eclectic city, a mix of a college town, artist enclave, retiree retreat and country living. It is also where you can find the largest private home in America. The Biltmore House (“house” just isn’t quite right) is on the 8000 acre Biltmore Estate once the private residence of the well to do Vanderbilt family. Built in 1895, this 250 room French chateau is now open to the public for tours. The estate has a working farm, winery, gardens, shops etc and the Inn on Biltmore Estate is where you can hang your hat and enjoy the secluded peace of life on the estate. There are “activities” galore including a Land Rover Driving School but we decide we better tour this winery so we can add it to our list. Since this one claims to be the “most visited winery in the US” (!) we think is only fair to compare. Sure enough as we walk in the door for the “complementary tasting” there is a line. Jay glowers at having to cue up to the counter but I point out that the “free” feature could have something to do with why this place is so popular (California wineries charge $5-$15.00 per three sips). The hostess states we can take all day and taste all we want of the 46 or so vintages – this could be dangerous! The tour is a success. Even when your enthusiasm is enhanced by the free samples, Biltmore really does make good wine. Watch out California! We’ll keep our eyes open on the way south for any other wayward wineries, just to be fair.