Twelve Mile Circle picks a different state for its vacation each summer, and concentrates on an aspect of it intensely. Previous examples have included Alaska, Utah, and Oregon. The ultimate purpose of these holidays is to focus on unusual or oft-overlooked sites within the United States while sprinkling-in a few of the more famous sites as well.
The state selected for the 12MC treatment in 2013 is KENTUCKY, specifically the far southeastern corner.
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Diverse factors went into this decision. Key amongst them was my lack of county counting coverage. I’ve driven Interstate 75 through the target area and I’ve also nibbled on its western edge. As a whole, however, my time on the ground there was minimal and my county count has been decidedly lacking.
Southeastern Kentucky also offers the ability to avoid airline travel. I am completely fed-up with the airlines. I am annoyed by overly-abundant airport security hassles, I am disgusted by a complete lack of customer service and I am tired of being nickel-and-dimed with an endless parade of airline fees, each one more outrageous than its predecessors. This summer, 12MC will give the airlines the old One Finger Salute by selecting an automotive destination. It should take about nine hours — a long but manageable single-day drive — which compares favorably to dealing with an airport, flying cross-country, grabbing a rental car, and driving to a hotel.
The target area I’m anticipating includes a 20-ish county area that avoids major cities as represented on my crudely-drawn map: Adair; Barren; Bell; Casey; Clay; Clinton; Cumberland; Edmonson; Green; Hart; Knox; Laurel; Lincoln; McCreary; Metcalfe; Pulaski; Rockcastle; Russell; Taylor; Wayne; Whitley. I won’t hit every one of those counties, and I’ll probably stray outside of those boundaries for the right opportunities (including into Virginia or Tennessee). I’m still early in the research process so it’s in flux. I’m using it focus my concentration for the moment and using it as a starting point, primarily.
The map presents several possibilities even in its embryonic stage. My attention has already been drawn to all things Cumberland (e.g., Cumberland Gap, Cumberland Falls, Lake Cumberland), as well as to the Daniel Boone National Forest and to Mammoth Cave National Park. I visited Mammoth as a kid and I want to return as an adult to see if my pint-sized memories hold true. Plus, my kids love going on cave tours and Mammoth is the king-of-kings for the eastern United States.
My 12MC Complete Index didn’t present an abundance of geo-oddities within the target area, although there are a couple. I’ve shaded the map in yellow and blue to split the target between Central Time and the Eastern Time. We’ll be bouncing between time zones like on the Dust Bowl trip and that always provides a level of amusement. Plus, a time zone anomaly exists within the target area with a chunk of central time farther east than a chunk of eastern time. I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to experience the anomaly although I’d probably do it for grins if I happened to be nearby for some other purpose.
Here is the part where I consult with the wise and all-knowing audience. You’ve come through for me several times in the past, suggesting great places to visit that I never would have learned about without your input. Some of those included Capulin Volcano in New Mexico, gas stations in Oregon where I could pump my own gas, Timpanogos Cave National Monument and the ATK Rocket Park in Utah. I am certain that there must be people in the 12MC universe who have either lived in or who have vacationed in southeastern Kentucky.
What "can’t miss" spots have I overlooked? You may see your recommendation mentioned in a 12MC article in July.
It’s good to be back home although I will always cherish my brief journey to the Dust Bowl territory of the lower Great Plains. I enjoyed and appreciated the beauty of the emptiness, the towns appearing fifteen miles distant first noticeable by their distinctive grain elevators, dodging and getting caught in clouds of dust, and tracking a history that runs deep, of Native Americans, of pioneers, of financial and ecological hardships during the Great Depression.
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People work hard here, making an honest living with their backs. They are farmers, truck drivers, oil workers, builders, wind turbine cowboys, and laborers of all stripes. I’ve never seen so many weathered, dusty, so very obviously workaday pickup trucks anywhere else. One also gets a sense that this land hasn’t yet recovered from the recession of the last decade and that times were probably tough for many of the folks even before that happened. I’ve never met a friendlier, more hospitable group of people though.
It seemed to track closely with populations of the various towns on our circuit:
- Clayton, NM – population 2,980
- Ulysses, KS – population 6,161
- Dalhart, TX – population 7,930
- Lamar, CO – population 8,869
- Guymon, OK – population 11,442
Clayton and Ulysses practically rolled out the red carpet. Lamar and Guymon didn’t much notice our presence. Dalhart fell somewhere in the middle. I can imagine that a group dropping into town, occupying a bunch of hotel rooms on a random weekday in late winter, buying meals, and filling gas tanks would give a small town a nice little financial bump. Then our circus would head to the next small town and drop another windfall.
The Water is Down in Clayton Lake Reservoir
Every town, every hamlet, every place we wandered, people mentioned the drought. Examine the U.S. Drought Monitor and one will understand why. All of the towns we visited were considered "D4 Drought-Exceptional" or nearly that, and have been in a difficult situation for a long time. The conventional wisdom, the oft-repeated phrase in each town where we stopped was, "we’ve had less rain lately than the Dust Bowl years." I don’t know if that’s true or not although people living with the dry spell every day certainly believed it.
Those who settled here in the 1920′s and 1930′s were sometimes called "next year people" because they held a certain faith that conditions would improve, that rains would come, that life would get better if only they could last one more year. One person I spoke with suggested that the expression might have to be changed to "next decade people" because a single year didn’t seem like it would cut it anymore. We’re save from a new Dust Bowl only because of improved soil management techniques, center-pivot irrigation and millions of acres of restored grasslands.
I found I could track my travels via Google Analytics. I don’t get a lot of 12MC visitors from this very rural corner where Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico come together in such close proximity. I took a screenshot covering the five days we roamed the plains. Those are my dots. Maybe my recent travelogues will attract a few new visitors from these parts and I can begin to fill-in the map a little more.
Twitter seemed to work. I know that many of you subscribed to my new Twitter feed so you could follow along. I hope that you enjoyed watching the adventure unfold in near-real-time and getting a sneak peek at photos and stories that would be appear in more detail a day or two later on 12MC. Often I could send a tweet from literally the middle of nowhere because mobile phone coverage was surprisingly good. Every town had at least one cell tower and of course there weren’t any topographic features to deflect their signals; just flatness to the horizon.
Thanks for riding along.
The Dust Bowl Adventure articles:
An odd feature of my Dust Bowl trip is that I drive for hours with little or nothing to see beyond the awesome natural beauty of the Great Plains until it’s punctuated by a tightly-bound space overflowing with geographic anomalies and historical sites. One such place is Morton County in the far southwestern corner of Kansas.
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I’ve marked my path in case anyone would ever wish to replicate it. Alphabetic markers on the embedded map correspond to sites listed below. It’s based largely on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Sea of Grass brochure.
(A) Morton County Historical Society Museum
We began our afternoon at the Morton County Historical Society Museum in Elkhart. Apparently they don’t get a lot of foot traffic on random middle-of-the-week days in the late winter (imagine that). The docent, quite friendly and happy to see us, turned on the heat and all of the lights so we could walk through the surprisingly large facility. I’ve noticed on this trip that that citizens of these small communities seem to have an exceptional interested in preserving their heritage. Nearly every county, no matter how small has at least one museum. Many of them exhibit a level of quality befitting cities of much larger size. These museums have been a joy to visit. I’ve made sure to stuff a few extra dollars in their donation boxes to do my part.
Elkhart is the gateway to the Cimarron National Grassland. It’s a fine place to start an adventure.
Buffalo, well Bison actually and my older son would admonish if I uttered otherwise, once roamed the vast grasslands of the Great Plains. That’s a thing of the distant past now, largely relegated to specialty ranchers and museum exhibits. Farmers moved into this part of the plains in large numbers around the turn of the last century, then practiced poor soil management in an area generally receiving less than 16 inches of rain per year, and triggered the horrific 1930′s "Dust Bowl" disaster. The places I’ve driven through track closely with Ken Burn’s Dust Bowl documentary. The legacy runs deep out here.
The Federal government purchased depleted lands from many of the destitute farmers and restored grasslands in several locations. The Cimarron Grassland alone stretches more than a hundred thousand acres.
(B) Colorado – Kansas – Oklahoma Tripoint
I bagged the first tripoint of the trip at the edge of the Cimarron Grassland, at Eightmile Corner. The roads were rather descriptive here. From Elkhart I drove down Stateline Road, a route separating Kansas from Oklahoma, and arrived at the tripoint eight miles later. That’s the spot where Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma all join together, as marked by a 1903 windmill. Actually the true spot is found under a brass plate in the middle of the road. That’s not nearly as photogenic as a windmill so that’s what I’m posting.
Tripoints are usually abbreviated by their state initials represented alphabetically. That would make this one COKSOK, a rather unfortunate acronym that sounds more like a method to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Anyway I photographed COKSOK. We backtracked from there towards Elkhart, stopped briefly to examine a prairie dog village about a half-mile closer to town — lots of burrows visible although no cute or cuddly creatures saw fit to pop from the holes for our amusement — so we continued onward.
The windswept terrain seemed vast and empty. The situation changes just below the surface.
The mighty Ogallala Aquifer, more a shallow underground sea actually, hides directly below the High Plains all the way from South Dakota to Texas. Anyone flying over this feature can see the results, the thousands of lush green cropland circles watered by center-pivot irrigation systems in an otherwise semi-arid climate. Its presence can also be tracked through the ubiquitous windmills dotting the plains, dipping straws into the aquifer and pumping water to quench the thirst of grazing livestock. This particular specimen is known as the "Miracle Well" where the aquifer comes so close to the surface that it sometimes seeps from the ground naturally without a pump.
This might be the real Miracle Well. Oil pumps seem to sprout everywhere in the Dust Bowl more common than weeds, set amid farmland fields or in the middle of town or in all sorts of unexpected spots all pumping away. This one was located within the physical boundaries of the Grassland. Wells within the park are operated by private companies as concessions with royalty payments going to the government. A Federal law designates a portion of the proceeds to pertinent local governments. This well helps fund road maintenance and public education in the two Cimarron Grassland counties.
There are about 500 oil pumps on the Cimarron Grassland as opposed to 200 water windmills according to the Fish and Wildlife Service brochure, just to give one an appreciation of their frequency.
(D) Santa Fe Trail – Cimarron Route
The Cimarron Grassland contains history much older than the Dust Bowl. The Cimarron Route of the Santa Fe Trail passed directly through the park. The trail traveled from Missouri to New Mexico, splitting into two options; one to the north through the mountains and the other to the south through the plains. They both terminated at Santa Fe. The Cimarron Route was the southern path, both shorter and flatter than the northern route. One might wonder why many people avoided the Cimarron Route since it was such a remarkable shortcut.
The Morton County museum described it as "Direct but Dangerous." The Cimarron Route had little water, and what existed was often intermittent or difficult to find. There were few natural landmarks so it was easy to get lost especially in the early years before wagon wheels cut ruts into the ground. Native Americans also weren’t thrilled with a constant, steady stream of travelers traipsing through their homeland. Finally, if that were not enough, both man and beast could break a leg stepping into prairie dog burrows while daydreaming along the tiresome trail.
The trail is clearly visible in a couple of different places in the Grassland. The best spot is probably on Route 16 (see wagon ruts in Satellite View). Notice the granite marker in the foreground and a limestone marker a little further back on this photograph.
(E) Point of Rocks
Point of Rocks was one of very few easily visible, completely recognizable natural features. It became important for all who lived in or traveled through the plains, from the time of the Plains Indians all the way through the Trail years. From the FWS brochure:
Native Americans possibly scouted for buffalo from this third-highest point in Kansas, and in 1541, Coronado’s expedition made not of the formation for future explorers. During the days of the Santa Fe Trail, Point of Rocks served as a major landmark.
Middle Spring was located nearby, the only reliable source of water for a 40-mile stretch along the trail. This made it a common, practically mandatory stopping point for any wagon train that rolled the dice by taking the Cimarron Route.
It’s difficult to imagine the hardships of early pioneer travelers as one zips along in an automobile, covering the entire feature in a couple of hours.
The Dust Bowl Adventure articles: