Rough Start, Great Finish

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April 23rd 2018
Published: April 23rd 2018
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Smoky Garden Fishing Lake Park, Goodland, KS

Joan has a knack for finding campgrounds. I’m not sure how she does it exactly, but that’s her responsibility and she comes up with some, usually great, surprises.

As we drove up Kansas 27 from Tribune towards Goodland, the landscape became pretty much what you think of in Kansas - flat, no trees, and covered with farms. As I scanned the horizon I didn’t see a single landmark except for an occasional patch of trees hiding a farmhouse and barn. As we followed Gladys (the LandCruiser’s GPS) I noticed that the dark blue line just sort of ended, changed to light blue, and took a sharp left turn. Sure enough, as we approached a dirt side road that looked more like a driveway to some distant farmhouse than a road, Gladys announced that this was the end of her work and we were on our own now. She said something about our destination being off to the Northwest and we should just sort of follow the roads and the compass until we got there. It was only 2.5 miles away, she noted.

We actually drove past the road, not realizing that

Wildlife Viewing in Kansas
we were supposed to turn, so further on down the highway I located a wide spot and we navigated a U turn to get back to that strange dirt road. As if some kind of teaser to keep us going, as we approached the intersection, a herd of twenty or so antelope hesitantly crossed the highway. They were making sure we made the correct turn. The road quickly turned to washboard and we joked about how it reminded us of the dirt road to Chaco Canyon. Fortunately, it wasn’t near as bad nor as long.

After nearly a mile, we came on another, perpendicular dirt road and, noting the GPS compass pointing northward, we turned right. Now mind you, there are absolutely no signs indicating where we are, or where we are headed. But, somewhat sheepishly, we continue down this second dirt road. A little ways later, a huge pheasant flew right in front of the car - beautiful in its colors, startling in its sudden appearance. Then, further on, as we went down a hill into a slightly wooded gully, two wild turkeys ran off the road and into the bushes. Seeing movement on the otherside, we noticed two more of them running in the opposite direction. We were seeing wildlife in Western Kansas - who would have guessed!

We continued down this road another mile until we reached another dip in the road channeling into a dry creek bed surrounded by a few trees, cottonwoods I think. We saw a farmhouse off to the right, but closer in we saw picnic tables and shelters which we recognized as a park. Was this it?

As we got to the bottom of the road, a small sign identified the area as the Smoky Garden Fishing Park. So, yes, we had made it. Funny, though, the lake was gone - a dry hollow populated with grass and cattails. And, probably because the lake was gone, so were the people - it was completely empty - not a soul.

Cautiously, we drove into the unused lane that seemed to be the only access road. I was a bit nervous over the possibility that once I entered, I wouldn’t be able to turn around. But my fears ended up unfounded, this was indeed the campground and there were, indeed, campsites to be had - any of them, in fact, because it was 100% empty. We drove around the loop, which was really kind of an eery experience. I’m not sure when the last visitor had been here, but it was some time. The campground database Joan had used to find the place had said that there was electricity here, but if that was ever true, it was gone now - probably taken out when the lake dried up.

Tired and unwilling to try and find another spot, we decided to dry camp, found a good spot, and set up camp. Since no-one was here, the girls could run free, and they really liked that. Later that night, Joan spotted a small family of deer on the hillside who ran up to the top and were framed by the setting sun. Before bed, we took a walk along the lakeside and the chorus of crickets chirping in the grasses was louder, and more varied, than I think I’ve ever heard. And we had the entire park to ourselves. (Oh, and BTW, it was free!)

So the day ended on a real positive note. But it didn’t begin that way. In fact, we have a new set of problems on the second day of our trip.

After breakfast, exercise, and packing everything up, we started to head out of Lathrop State Park for our second day of travel. After driving not more than a quarter of a mile, I noticed that the TPMS (tire pressure monitoring system) was flashing a warning light. Sure enough, it was telling me that one of my vehicle tires was down to 25 pounds, or simply, flat. I drove back into the visitor center parking lot and got out to check the tires. The right rear tire was looking pretty low. I really didn’t need this, especially on the second day of our trip and a Sunday as well. For a while, I debated about driving on down the road to get to a gas station, but the fact that this was a Sunday meant that might be a disappointing gamble.

Now, it is possible for me to change a tire - I’ve even done it once on this vehicle. But that doesn’t mean its fun, and it would take me quite a bit of time because I’m not well practiced at it. It seemed that we might end up spending another night there which would, of course, cause some headaches for our trip plan. Plus, once I got the tire changed, I still had a bad tire to take care of. So I went into the visitor center and discussed with the office what the possibilities were in Walsenberg, 2 miles down the road. They said none of the gas stations did tires and the two tire places in town would be closed because its Sunday. One of them, though, apparently had a 24 hour emergency service and they could give me his number. They did and I called.

I talked to a guy named Chris Daniels who owns and runs Daniels Towing and Auto Repair. I want to give him a big shout out for going well beyond the call of duty. If you need auto help near Walsenberg, call this guy. Apparently he works on all the Sheriff vehicles and is fully knowledgeable about vehicles and highways. Now he did charge me, and the charge was considerable, but I definitely got what I paid for. He arrived about 15 minutes after I hung-up the phone, jumped out of his car, and began to release the spare from its holding chain. Within 30 minutes, tops, he had swapped out the tires and had inspected the bad tire, all without unhitching the trailer. Then, as icing on the cake, he suggested we follow him down to his shop where he would inspect the tire for us. He couldn’t fix the flat, because its Sunday, but he could at least let us know where we were so we could take care of the problem down the road.

We did that, and, with foamy water he showed me a quarter-inch gash on the sidewall. Unfortunately, according to him, that meant the tire would need to be replaced. And, because I have a full time four-wheel drive vehicle, that means all four tires need to be replaced. He said he could order tires for me, but I’d have to stick around until Tuesday. Or I could take care of it down the road, the option I have chosen. He did put a plug in the tire so that, in a pinch, I would have a spare until I could buy new tires. I asked what could have caused that and when, and he said, given what he was seeing, that it was a rock or stick puncture and likely happened within the last twelve hours or so. That means it likely happened at the campground itself.

So, yes, I did shell out a bit of money, but we were back on the road in an hour and a half, instead of several hours, or even days later, if I had done it. And I know what the problem is and have a plan to fix it. These were not new tires - they were on the vehicle when I bought it two years ago, and they weren’t new then. And we drive on dirt roads frequently, so the tires do take some abuse. Sometime in the next few days I have to find a General Tire store and buy four new tires for the Cruiser. Bummer, but there are just certain expenses that come with driving a vehicle and tires is one of them.

Have to add that things could have been unimaginably worse if my TPMS system had not warned me of the flat. Things would have been very interesting if I had discovered the problem driving down the highway at 60 mph.

Once on the road out of Walsenberg, we proceeded northeast to La Junta where we stopped for lunch at Boss Hogg’s, a roadhouse with a killer chicken fried steak- with mashed potatoes and gravy. While there, I ordered a Colorado Bulldog - supposedly the ‘iconic’ mixed drink of Colorado. It was interesting, but sweetened milk with vodka is good, but filling - you only need one! After lunch we continued zigging and zagging East and North through eastern Colorado and into Kansas.

This post is long now, but I wanted to talk about the prairie ecology that we saw yesterday. It is very interesting, especially as you cross into Kansas and the changes you see. I will, hopefully, get back to that tomorrow.


23rd April 2018

Kansas is pretty when the prairie grass is green. I've driving I35 in eastern Kansas lots.

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