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As we drove west out of the Atlanta area to begin the first stage of our plan to tour the Dakotas this summer, we couldn't help but realize how incredibly fortunate we were to have been able to retire young and live this lifestyle that allows us to travel where we want, when we want, and stay as long as we want. Neither Diane nor I take this opportunity for granted. We are very thankful that we were able to implement a retirement lifestyle that we dreamed about and for which we prepared as much as we could during our working years.

Our first stop on the way to South Dakota was Tupelo, MS. When we looked at the various ways we could get to South Dakota it became clear that we could take a route that would let us visit some places that were on our list and had to do with Elvis. Neither of us were Elvis fanatics, but we were both fans and liked his music and were enthralled by the story of a poor boy who became a legend in Rock and Roll. Both of us had always wanted to visit Graceland in Memphis. So that became our route to get to the Dakotas.

Tupelo is located on the Natchez Trace Parkway that runs 444 miles from Natchez, Mississippi to just south of Nashville, Tennessee. It actually started as a trail used by Natchez, Chickasaw, and Choctaw Indians, and then by French and Spanish adventurers and settlers in the area. The French mapped the area by 1733 and showed a trail used by Indians. Ohio River Valley farmers started floating their crops and other wares down the rivers to Natchez or New Orleans. They sold their flatboats for lumber which meant they returned home by riding or walking. The trail indicated on maps provided the most direct route back to the Ohio River Valley and other points to the northeast of Natchez. The trail was heavily used until steamboat travel became popular and provided a quicker and safer means of travel from Natchez to Nashville.

It was along the trail, at milepost 385.9, in 1809, that Meriwether Lewis died of gunshot wounds. Some say he was murdered, but the prevailing story is that he committed suicide due to a deep depression. I'm sure we will learn more about Lewis and Clark as we continue our journey this summer. This was our first contact with the history of the Lewis & Clark Expedition to search for a water passage to the Pacific Ocean.

One can't help but feel a sense of history when standing in the place where Elvis was born.  I love stories about people who become famous, and especially people who came up from poor and humble beginnings. Vernon Presley borrowed $180 in 1934 to build a small house in East Tupelo. It was in this house that Elvis was born on January 8, 1935. Elvis and his folks lived in the house for three years until the house was repossessed when Vernon couldn't repay the $180 loan. They lived in other houses in Tupelo until moving to Memphis when Elvis was thirteen years old. When he became famous, he returned to Tupelo to perform concerts in 1956 and 1957. Elvis donated the money from the 1957 concert to the city of Tupelo to start a park, at which time the city purchased 15 acres that included the house in which Elvis was born.

He was no different than any other kid in his neighborhood. One of his friends told someone that "Elvis would pick his guitar and sing and tell us one day he was going to be on the Grand Ole Opry. We were all very doubtful of that, but we didn't say anything to him about it."

It actually all started one day in January 1946 when Elvis' mom, Gladys, went to the Tupelo Hardware Store to buy Elvis a birthday present. He wanted a rifle or bicycle, but after hearing from the store owner, F.L. Bobo, about the dangers of a rifle, and being afraid Elvis would hurt himself on a bicycle, she decided she wouldn't buy either of those things for Elvis. He was very disappointed and cried and said he didn't want anything else. It was probably at that moment that fate took over that would change the world of music forever.

Mr. Bobo suggested they look at a guitar. Elvis pouted that he didn't want a guitar, he wanted the rifle. Mr. Bobo brought the guitar out from behind the counter and convinced Elvis to take a look at it. The story goes that Gladys was getting a bit impatient with Elvis and told him he better behave or he was going to be in trouble. So Elvis humored his mother by sitting down and picking at the guitar. He was bright enough to realize he wasn't going to get the rifle and the guitar was his only choice, so he took it. Mr. Bobo was said to have told Elvis "You take that home with you and learn to play it. You might be famous some day." That guitar cost $7.90 and, as the cliché goes, the rest is history. What an amazing story.

From Tupelo it was on to Memphis and the Graceland RV Park located behind the parking area for Graceland. We walked over one morning to check out tour prices and decided to buy the platinum tour that gave us a tour of the mansion plus the museum, the car museum, and the two jet planes. We boarded the shuttle bus that took people up to the mansion and didn't realize the entrance was directly across the street. We totally missed it when we arrived in the area.

What amazed us both was how small the mansion seemed as we were riding up the driveway and the house came into view. Of course, it really isn't that small, and it was huge by 1950s standards. It sat on a beautiful piece of property and up on a hill well back from the main road. The tour was done with an audio disc provided at the welcome center and was keyed to the different rooms in the house. At first, it seemed disappointing when we were told we couldn't see the upstairs. However, it turned out to be an excellent tour that included items brought down from the bedrooms for display in the lower level.

The tour was interesting and moving. It was pretty cool to hear Elvis talk about some of the things in the house as though he were right there with us. As I mentioned earlier, I wasn't a fanatic fan of Elvis, but I did like him a lot and I can remember how sad I was when he died.  He took me from age 12 to age 32 and I loved much of his music.  It is so sad and a shame that he isn't still with us.  He had it all.

I had been to St. Louis way back in the early 1980s for a conference and got to see the Arch one day. However, I didn't have near enough time to spend in the museum and vowed to return. Diane had never been there, so we decided to spend a week in St. Louis before heading to DuQuoin, IL for the Newmar rally. At this point, we started tracking along the path followed by the Paynes, who were traveling with his sister and husband, the Martins. They were following the Lewis & Clark Trail this summer all the way to the coast. We had no plans to follow the trail, but found that we would be on and off the trail as we made our way to the Dakotas, and as were touring parts of the Dakotas. The fact that Norm and Linda were out in front of us by several weeks was great because they sent us lots of suggestions for places to stay and eat along the way.

St. Louis was French and Spanish before it was American. It was originally home to the Mississippians, an Indian people who built mounds along the fertile river valley. The Mississippian culture disappeared sometime during Europe's Middle Ages. Earthen structures were found that lead to St. Louis being called the "Mound City". It was founded in 1764 by fur traders from New Orleans and named for Louis IX, also known as the Crusader King of France. Originally built in Spanish territory, France regained rights to St. Louis, as well as the west, in 1800. However, France never took possession of the territory and sold the Louisiana Territory to President Thomas Jefferson in 1803. It was in 1804 that President Jefferson sent Lewis & Clark to chart the new territory.

One of those places suggested by the Paynes was to stay at the Casino Queen campground in East St. Louis, directly across the river from the Arch. We checked out the prices and decided it was best to just spend an entire week there. It was a nice campground with full hookups and paved sites. However, I learned after we got into our site and hooked up that we should have told the folks in the office that we had a 40 foot motorhome rather than 38 feet. The sites in our area were not very big and we barely got our rig into the site. It was later that we realized the 40 foot and over rigs were going across to the other side of the campground. Some smaller rigs were there, but we figured  that was because they knew to ask for that side of the campground. Since we were all hooked up, we decided to just stay where we were. It was one of those live and learn things.

We spent most of a day across the river in St. Louis at the Arch. It's certainly not for the claustrophobic as the tram cars are small 5-seaters for a 4-minute ride to the top.  But the views were worth it.  And this time I got to spend enough time in the museum.  We bought the combo ticket for the tram ride and the IMAX Lewis and Clark movie.  We had seen the movie, but it was worth a repeat.  Great movie.  When it was said that the Lewis & Clark trek was like man's first trip to the moon, I couldn't have agreed more.  Actually, I think it was physically tougher for Lewis & Clark.  What an incredible journey.  Those were some tough men, and one woman (Sacagawea). We spent about half a day at the Arch and totally enjoyed it.

We walked around a bit, had lunch, and went to see the old courthouse. It was the site where the Dred Scott slavery trials began. In a ruling that blackens the history of our country, the United States Supreme Court, in March 1857, declared that all blacks, slave or free, were not and could never become citizens of the United States. At the same time, the Court also declared the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which was legislation that restricted slavery in certain territories, unconstitutional, thus permitting slavery in all of the country's territories.

The story actually started some ten years earlier in 1847. Dred Scott was a slave who had lived in the free state of Illinois and the free territory of Wisconsin. He moved back to the slave state of Missouri and sued for his freedom. It took ten years of appeals and court reversals to finally get the case up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Chief Justice Roger Brook Taney was a supporter of slavery and wrote the majority opinion on the Dred Scott case. He stated that because Scott was black, he was not a citizen and therefore had no right to sue. Taney went on to say the framers of the Constitution believed that blacks "had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it."

It was no surprise that slave holders in the South welcomed the decision, but northerners were incensed by the decision. The Dred Scott decision influenced the nomination of Abraham Lincoln to the Republican Party and his subsequent election. That, in turn, led to the South's secession from the Union and the eventual start of the Civil War. After spending some time in the old courthouse, we walked back towards the Arch and over to see the old cathedral next door before heading back to the campground.

I had sent out a note telling folks what our path would be for the next several weeks. Stan and Betty Bober decided to hook up with us on their way out to the Great North American Rally in Hutchison, Kansas. They arrived at the Casino Queen Campground shortly before we returned and we got to chat for a while.  We were out of synch for dinner as we had a late lunch at TGI Friday's and they were planning an early dinner.  But we met  for the buffet breakfast at 10 the following morning (who the heck is up before 10 anyway?). We enjoyed a nice, long breakfast chatting away the time. It was nice to see them again, albeit only for a couple of days.

We enjoyed our stay in the St. Louis area. Besides the Arch, we got to take in a St. Louis Cardinal's baseball game (which made Diane happy); we rode on the great Metro Link a few times, which was very convenient to get to the Arch and the baseball stadium; and went to see Union Station, a train station that now houses shops and restaurants. What a great way to use an old train station.

From St. Louis we drove to Du Quoin, IL to attend the Newmar International Rally. We were scheduled to enter the fairgrounds between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. on Saturday, so we figured we would boondock in the Wal-Mart parking lot the night before. We had been in touch with Bob and Joy Silber to hook up and go into the rally together. They were at a campground east of Du Quoin and rode over to see if we had arrived at the Wal-Mart. While we were all inside the motorhome chatting there was a knock at the door. I opened it and didn't recognize the guy standing there. He introduced himself as Rich Williams and proceeded to tell me that he had just arrived to spend the night and go into the rally in the morning and that he recognized the mural on the back of our rig. I invited him in and he went on to tell us that he had been monitoring our web site and following our travels for the past few years and they were now new full-time RVers. We made plans to meet up during the rally to chat some more. Small world.

And here's yet another kind of small world story. When I worked in Atlanta, Bill Lanum was a colleague of mine. We worked together on a project for several years and had many great trips out to the San Francisco area where we both enjoyed eating on the Wharf many nights after work. To this day, San Francisco has remained Diane's and my favorite USA city. In a note to our website readers, I mentioned that we would be going to Du Quoin. I received a response from Bill telling me that he grew up in Du Quoin and I should look up his older brother, Ed Lanum. Unfortunately, Bill wasn't going to be there during the time we were in the area, so we missed seeing him by a couple of weeks. However, I called Ed to tell him we were parked at the Wal-Mart and he came over to visit with us. It was dinner time, so Ed took us down the road for some good barbecue at Larry's BBQ. We had a very nice visit and learned about life growing up in a small town,

Bob and Joy came over to the Wal-Mart on Saturday morning and we all drove over to the fairgrounds. The parking crew was very efficient and we were parked immediately. There was a short, but very heavy storm the night before, so some of the grounds were soft. We were lucky to be in an area that drained fairly well and had no problem getting parked. Later in that morning, we learned that at least one rig had to be pulled out of the mud by a tractor. Whew.  Lucky us.

Well, the Newmar International rally in Du Quoin, IL (population 660) is over and it's 7 a.m. on departure day as I write this.  Why am I up so early?  Two reasons.  First, the earliest I heard someone leave this morning was at 4:30.  Sigh.  The folks who go to bed and get up with the chickens started leaving in earnest around 6 and many had to pass right in front of our rig.  Of course, there were also the inevitable inconsiderate boobs who think it's cool to blow their air horns at 6 a.m.  So I figured there was no sense fighting it, and I wasn't going to get back to sleep, so I figured I'd get up and write this part of the travelog.  As a result, it is written in the present tense rather than the past tense.  Or maybe the tenses will be mixed.  Oh well, no one is grading my writing anymore.  ;-)  We won't leave until around 10 as we have some friends, Fran and Karl, who said they'd come over to say good-bye.  They are staying an extra day in the fairgrounds.

The rally was fun.  There were 869 rigs. The club president said was the norm for a Newmar International rally.  The Dutch Star was, by far, the largest contingent of rigs here this week, but there were also lots of Mountain Aires and, amazingly, to me at least, a lot of Essex units.  We got to see the new 2005 models: Dutch Stars around $250K+; Mountain Aires around $325K+; and Essex around $500K.  And they sell a lot of them.

We had four nights of entertainment, one of which was great, one was very good, one we left after about an hour, and the talent show where there is always a mix of "talent".  The food was good for the two dinners and two breakfasts they gave us, and we got to eat dinner at three local restaurants (Larry's BBQ, Alongi's (Italian), and Don Tequila's (Mexican).  We also had a great breakfast at BJ's where you could get a couple of eggs and toast for a buck fifty.  I had three slices of French Toast topped with two eggs for $2.50.  Hard to beat that.

Diane and I even got to see a movie (The Terminal with Tom Hanks) 20 miles down the road in Carbondale, home of the Southern Illinois University Salukis (that one's for you, Bill).

And, of course, we got to visit with old friends: Bob & Joy Silber; Karl & Fran Winckel and met new friends: Rich & Maude Williams; Phillip & Paulina Mitchell; John & Roberta Hirth. When we visited with Rich and Maude, I said we were eventually going to be at Hart Ranch in Rapid City, South Dakota. They decided it would be great to hook up there, so they made reservations for the same week we would be at Hart Ranch.

On our penultimate evening on Thursday, it was announced at the entertainment venue that something spectacular might happen, but not to panic.  The evening went on and we were in bed watching TV when, around 10:45, I heard a fire engine approaching.  It got louder and it became obvious that it was coming into the fairgrounds.  Thinking there might be a fire in one of the rigs, I got dressed and went outside.  It was no fire. A fire engine came down the road to my left and turned left onto our road and around the road circling the practice harness racing track in front of us.  Then I saw police cars and flashing lights of volunteer fire folks followed by a line of cars and pickups with folks making all kinds of noise and signs saying thanks for coming to Du Quoin and come again.  The town had concocted a plan to come to the fairgrounds to give us a rousing send off.  They circled the track and came down in front of the rigs on our street. Pretty cool.  Who knows.  The folks from Du Quoin may have set a precedent that will get around to other rally sites.  The International next year will be in Salem, OR.

Unfortunately, we also received some sad news while we were in Du Quoin. If you have followed our travels for some time, you may remember reading about Melva King and Linda Karr. Melva was a big part of the RVAMERICA bulletin board and the two Y2K parties that came out of that board. We learned last year that Melva lost her daughter to cancer. On June 23, she lost her own battle with that disease.

Linda Karr was a friend if mine from way back in the 70s. When we hit the road in 2000, we stopped in the Hudson Valley in New York to visit family and friends. It was at that time that I learned that Linda was fighting pancreatic cancer, which took my dad's life. She caught it early enough to have surgery and undergo treatments. Sad to say that Linda lost her battle on June 24.

Those two news items did put a little damper on the week in Du Quoin. They say that death comes in threes. A few weeks after the rally I heard from my friend Frank Gallo who has also been in several of our travelogs. We were boyhood friends and lived only a few blocks from each other on Long Island. He told me that his mom died on June 27. Although she was 84 years old, it was still sad news. I am not in the least bit superstitious, but the timing floored me as that was the third death in a short time span of people I loved in my life.

Back in 2000 when we were on our maiden "Friends and Family Tour", we stopped in Springfield, Illinois to visit Charlie Vrabel, another boyhood friend of mine, and his wife Dee. It would have been unthinkable to be so close and not visit, so we headed up to Springfield for a couple of days to visit and catch up. Charlie was now retired and totally enjoying the easy life. Dee was still working, but planning to retire in September. How nice it was to see them again. It was hard to believe that four years had passed since we came through the area, so we had four years to catch up on.

We visited some Lincoln sites the last time we were here, so this time Charlie and Dee took us to see Rockome Gardens in Amish country. It was a place of unique stonework and large gardens created and maintained by two generations of the Yoder family. They used native rock and cement to craft fences, archways, large hearts, cups and saucers, birdhouses. There were also a couple of small "bottle houses" made from bottles. It was quite interesting and amusing.

Our final stop before entering the Dakotas was St. Joseph, Missouri. It was a town rich in history where the Pony Express began and Jesse James met his end. St. Joseph is located on river bluffs overlooking the Missouri River. Lewis & Clark camped in the summer of 1804 on the banks of what is now St. Joseph. The city was the starting point for wagon trains filled with pioneers seeking fame and fortune in the West.

Following Norm and Linda's lead, we stayed at the Beacon RV Park.  It was an okay park for a short stay, but there were lots of rigs that seemed to be filled with families staying there while husbands/fathers worked in the area. As a result, there were lots of kids and lots of noise, both from adults and kids. The sites weren't very wide so the noise was obvious. We are both might owls, so it wasn't very troublesome. We just shut the windows and turned on the A/C units to drown out some of the noise.

There were a few sites we wanted to see in the St. Joseph area. One was the Patee House Museum, which started as a luxurious hotel  built by John Patee in 1858. Today it is a National Historic Landmark for its role as headquarters for the Pony Express starting on April 3, 1860. That was the day the Pony Express sent off its first rider to Sacramento to carry mail to the western frontier. The Pony Express only lasted 18 months, but it became a legend. A larger-than-life monument to the Pony Express was dedicated in 1940 and located in the downtown area.

There were many interesting displays in the museum that kept us occupied for a couple of hours. One of the more famous people from St. Joseph was Walter Cronkite. His father and grandfather were dentists in St. Joseph for 78 years from 1893 to 1971. We also learned that Aunt Jemima (pancakes) started in St. Joseph.

The Jesse James Home was located next door to the Patee House Museum. Jesse was shot and killed on April 3, 1882 by Bob Ford, a member of the James gang, to collect a $10,000 reward. Jesse James was a ruthless outlaw for 16 years before meeting his end at the age of 34. At the time of his death, he was living with his wife and two children under the assumed name of Tom Howard. Usually very cautious and not trusting of people, Jesse turned his back on Ford to stand on a chair to straighten out a picture of his home. Bob Ford shot Jesse in the back. The bullet hole was still in the wall where it lodged after passing through Jesse's body.

Leavenworth, Kansas was the first city incorporated in Kansas in 1854. We drove down there one day to visit Ft. Leavenworth which is known as the "Post that opened the West". We entered Fort Leavenworth to tour the grounds and found security to be very tight. The soldiers asked to see both of our drivers licenses and asked us to get out of the car. A couple of guys proceeded to search the car, including under the seats, under the hood, and the rear. It didn't take very long as they were very efficient. After they decided we seemed okay, we entered the grounds of the fort.

We stopped at the Frontier Army Museum that tells the story of the fort. The fort was established on May 8, 1827 by Colonel Henry Leavenworth and 188 officers and men of the 3rd Infantry Regiment. Col. Leavenworth was ordered to build a fort to protect the wagon trains headed west along the Santa Fe Trail. We enjoyed studying the exhibits in the museum and then headed out to tour more of the grounds.

Our next stop was Memorial Chapel built in 1878 by prison labor. The chapel is still used as a house of worship. From there we proceeded to find the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails that passed through the fort.

The 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments were staffed entirely by African-American soldiers. These soldiers proved their bravery throughout the Indian Wars and won the respect of the Cheyenne warriors who named them "Buffalo Soldiers". A monument to these soldiers was the idea of Gen. Colin Powell. It is a 16-foot bronze statue of a soldier reining in his horse on the edge of a cliff. The monument was completed and dedicated in 1992.

We saw signs pointing the way to the Berlin Wall sections on display in the fort. However, we were told the sections were moved. We asked several people where they were moved to, but no one had a clue.

It was now July 1 and we were only a few hours away from our first stop on our tour of the Dakotas, the city of Vermillion where we would spend the July 4th holiday weekend.

Until next time, safe travels.....

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