Following the Paths of the Presidents

Hello from Abilene, Kansas, on the prairies of America’s Heartland.  This is the small hamlet in which President Dwight David Eisenhower grew up, home of his presidential library and museum and the final resting place for him and his wife, Mamie.  It is the most delightful little town, looking much like it did 50 years ago, when it’s favorite son served two terms as president.  Indeed, for two decades, “Ike” played a major role in shaping the history of our country.  Coming here and meeting the people of Abilene leaves with you the impression that he was a good and decent man, with strong values and a strong sense of God and country.

This is the fourth and final stop on our week-long adventure, which took us first to Austin, which served as our headquarters for three nights while we visited the LBJ Ranch to the west, President Johnson’s Library and Museum in Austin, and George H.W. Bush’s Library in nearby College Station, east of Austin.  Both were a treat.  This trip is not about politics, it’s about learning more about the men (and hopefully someday the women) who led our country.  The Bush facility was my personal favorite of the two, although LBJ’s ranch gave you a true feel for what the man was about.

Just before driving the three hours to Abilene today, we spent two nights in Independence.  This once small Missouri town is the home of Harry Truman.  During our stay, we “met” Harry.  Actually, Harry would be 125 years old if he were alive today, so his role is played by Mr. Niel Johnson.  At 78, he bears a remarkable physical resemblance to our 33rd president.  In fact, as he led us around “his” hometown, explaining how he met his wife Bess, showing us his childhood haunts, you felt as though you had met the president himself.  In 30 years of traveling around this great land, I cannot remember anyone creating such an incredible image of a historical figure.  Niel only dons his hat and steps on for tour coaches and special events, so individual visitors will never know of his talents.  But our travelers to Independence came away richer for having met him, and through him learned about a remarkably regular man who changed the face of history by his actions, and then came back to the small Missouri town that was his home and resumed his life.  It is said that when his term ended, President Truman and his wife Bess got in their car and drove out of Washington, boarding a train and arriving in Independence the way he had left, whistle stopping his way home, just as he had used the same route to the White House.

We have had a splendid time on this trip, a small band of dedicated and personable travelers, all dedicated to having a great time and learning along the way. Wish you were here.  And so it goes…

Pop’s, Rocks and Corn Dogs on Route 66

There is a certain beauty to retracing your roots, which is exactly what I did this past week, with a ride down part of the Main Street of America, Route 66. In preparation for our journey along the old highway next October, staffer Ryan Quinn and I flew to Oklahoma City to backtrack to Chicago. It’s my 13th journey down the old highway so it feels like going home. This is particularly interesting section of the old highway, with plenty of characters and attractions to visit en route.

First stop out of Oklahoma City is Pops. Open for two years now, it’s quickly become a modern icon of the highway. Like the name says, it’s a place to buy pop. Soda pop that is. Soft drinks in modern lingo I guess. At Pops, you’ll find every different kind of soda you can possibly imagine. Ryan and I each filled a customized six pack with goodies. Flavors like Marion Berry, Black Cherry Crème and Watermelon made my list, while Ryan, a connoisseur of Root Beer, found several different brands to sample. While Pops also serves burgers and sandwiches, I can’t imagine why you’d actually go there to eat. The food might be delicious, but the selection of “sody pop” (as grandma used to call it) just can’t be beat.

About 30 minutes down the road, past the Round Barn on the old highway, you’ll enter Stroud. This small hamlet is the home of The Rock Café. It’s been a favorite of mine since our first scouting trip back in 1995. But it’s a new day at “the rock.” You see, about a year-and-a-half ago, the restaurant burned to the ground, except for the rock facade that is. In a bit of good fortune, the burning building collapsed on top of (thereby saving) the old grill, which had been adding a special flavor to burgers for decades. But proprietor Dawn Welch refused to let The Rock go away. She has rebuilt a new restaurant, incorporating the curios of Route 66 with the best of modern day conveniences. The Rock has a new look, with about 20 more seats, but still lots of history lining its walls.

I might add that the pulled pork and brisket sandwiches were superb. It was nice to spend a little time catching up with an old friend on the highway, and hearing from Dawn the story of the fire and the decision to rebuild a landmark.

On through Oklahoma we traveled. The new Hard Rock Hotel in Catoosa (near Tulsa) served as our home for a night. Our travelers will stay there two nights on our trip next October. What a beautiful hotel, with several wonderful restaurants, a tasty buffet and of curse, the chance to tempt lady luck. Because dice and wheel games are against the laws of the state, the hotel’s owner have created a unique way to play craps and roulette using a unique deck of cards.

We checked in with Scott Nelson at the historic Eisler Brothers store in Riverton, saw the Rainbow Bridge in Baxter Springs, both in the tiny strip of the old highway that nips the corner of Kansas. Time was our enemy as we raced across Missouri, stopping only to sample the heavenly concoction called frozen custard at Ted Drewes in St. Louis. Forget ice cream, because there is nothing on earth like Ted Drewes custard. I recommend blueberries mixed in…How can anything taste that good?

Finally, on the third afternoon of our journey, we stopped in Springfield, Illinois, the Land of Lincoln. But old Abe’s landmarks were not our purpose on this day. You see, Ryan loves corn dogs and it just so happens that the place where the corn dog was invented…yep, right there in Springfield at the Cozy Dog Café. After a Corn Dog fill up (the fries are the best at the Cozy Dog, REAL potatoes), we were happily on our way to Chicago stomachs and arteries full of dogs and fries.

There’s nothing like a trip on The Mother Road to rekindle your traveling spirit. It’s the original off-the-beaten-track destination. And it still brings a smile to by face, stopping off to see old friends like Dawn at The Rock Café, Sue at The Cozy Dog and Jeffrey at the Hard Rock. Because there’s nothing quite like the spirit of the old road. It’s alive and well, you just have to get out and see it. We’ll travel Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica (or Oklahoma City, your choice) next October. There isn’t a finer adventure to be found anywhere. And so it goes…

On the road in search of Mystery (and discovery)…

california - born in the usa mystery tourAs I return from another successful “scouting trip” across this great land, I come home with the knowledge that another of our popular Mystery Tours is going to be a big hit with our more adventurous travelers. For the past five days, two of us (Ryan Quinn, the man who is redesigning our web site and updating it to be as user-friendly as possible, served as navigator) have wound our way through two states, in search of the perfect additions to our spring Mystery Tour, Born in the USA.

We found some wonderful places to eat, things to see, places to discover. But since it’s a mystery tour, I can’t tell you about them. At least not completely. But what if you could spend a week on the road (ok, technically 8 days) and learn how things are made, how our country grew to take it’s place in the world, and be treated to a variety of cultural and fun experiences along the way? What if I told you you would stay in one of the finest and most exclusive resorts in the country, enjoy the chance to sample wonderful foods and see things you never knew existed? Would that spark your interest?

Mystery Tours are an interesting concept. Give someone a lot of your hard-earned money, and trust them to take you someplace fun and interesting. We’ve been offering these trips for 27 years. They are our most popular travel product. Our travelers trust us to come up with “never-visited-before-places” all across the country. Born in the USA, at the end of April, is no exception. Take the plunge and discover mystery touring. You missed Lewis and Clark’s expedition, you didn’t sail with Columbus, but that doesn’t mean you can’t go in search of discovery…

Welcome to Abilene, Kansas, home of President Eisenhower and Glenda, The Good Witch

Hello from The Land of Oz, also known as the state of Kansas. While my father lives in a Kansas City suburb on the Kansas side of the border, and our Route 66 tours cut through a tiny southeastern corner of the state; I confess my travels here have been limited. My loss has become my gain.

While on a scouting trip last week to finalize plans for our upcoming Paths of the Presidents tour, we made a stop in Abilene, Kansas. A town of about 6,000, it has the distinction of being the hometown and the final resting place of President Dwight D. Eisenhower (his wife Mamie was also laid to rest in Abilene). The first thing that strikes you about Abilene is that it is definitely a “Main Street of America” town. It has that wonderful small town feel. As you drive through the main residential area, you find beautiful modest homes, each looking like it came from the 1950’s (indeed, many did). It’s as though time has stood still in Abilene, and that’s not a bad thing.

A stop at the Convention and Visitors Bureau office turned out to be a treat. We were warmly welcomed and our questions about potential dining spots for our small band of travelers in October were discussed. That’s when we Met Glenda, the Good Witch. Actually, she’s Glenda Purkis, Director of the CVB. On her desk, next to her business cards, is a miniature reproduction of Glenda, the Good Witch from the Wizard of Oz. After all, this is Kansas. Glenda and her staff turned out to be a wonderful find. Restaurant recommendations were made, a short guided tour of the town was added to the itinerary and my mind was made up. His is someplace we will visit more than once.

The campus (and that’s what it is, a 22-acre campus) at the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum is beautiful. On the day we were in town, the weather was perfect, with just a tiny hint of fall in the air. In addition to a nice visitor center with a video presentation, you can spend time in the museum and even the library if you wish, before paying respects in the chapel where the Eisenhowers were put to their final rest.

Thanks Glenda, for the warm welcome. We’ll be back soon.