Vacation 2015: A Look Back (Part 2)

This post looks back on a vacation to Rogers, Arkansas, for the 2015 Automobile License Plate Collectors Association International Convention. It included stopovers in Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma.

The Arabia Steamboat Museum is an enthralling experience. The Arabia sank in the Missouri River in 1856. All 192 crew members and passengers survived, though the cargo did not. By morning’s light no one could reach it. In 1899 a man dug up a small portion of it, but he really was just searching for whiskey. In the mid-1980s a man, his two sons, the owner of a refrigeration business and another man determined to unearth the cargo.

Over the years the course of the river had changed, and with detection tools they found the cargo under a cornfield. Pumps ran 24/7 for weeks to clear the groundwater. Then they were rewarded. Barrels and barrels had been claimed by the river and slept undisturbed for over a century. Staples of frontier life – dishes, tools, shoes, food, and more – stayed in good condition due to the particular nature of the sinking and the geological conditions. One of the men even ate a pickle from a jar, and the museum displays perfume that guests can smell.

The crew saved the hull of the ship and suspended it with wires. The museum staff is made up of preservationists and they are actively restoring more pieces. In one sock they found a porcelain doll with a fable attached. The story goes that the girl wanted to be the belle of the dance and refused to wear warm clothing over her dress. The cold night caused the girl to freeze. A sad real-life story involves a mule who was found tied to a post. A skeleton of the mule is the only evidence of loss of life on the Arabia.

When I travel, I love to go to minor league baseball games. I feel it’s a terrific way to get a sense of a place, and sometimes you have unique experiences that you wouldn’t get at any other ballpark. The first evening in Arkansas, I see the Northwest Arkansas Naturals face the Midland Rock Hounds.

The Naturals’ mascot resembles a cave dweller with a hairy body and a long, flowing brown beard. In my section a fan heckles the other team constantly. Six of the Naturals’ first seven hits are doubles, and the fan yells things like “We OWN second base!” When the Rock Hounds hit a double, the fan blurts out “Why don’t you rent it from us?” Another fan responds, “Why don’t you shut up?” The crowd responds with a laugh and round of applause. We hardly hear from the heckler after that.

The next morning I visit the Clinton House Museum in Fayetteville. The Clintons moved to the house in 1977 right after getting married. Bill had bought the house while Hillary was overseas, and when she came back, he said “Hillary, I got you your dream house, now you have to marry me.” (She had already politely declined Bill’s proposals on at least two other occasions). The couple soon moved to Little Rock in favor of Bill’s political ambitions, and eventually University of Arkansas purchased the home and turned it into this museum.

The Botanical Garden of the Ozarks is worth mentioning for its imaginative and charming Children’s Garden, and for the Butterfly House, a gazebo-style structure in which hundreds of butterflies delight guests.

At the War Eagle Caverns I walk with 13 others past a quiet river set against a lush hillside with a canopy cover. The temperature inside the caverns stays a modest 58 degrees regardless of the weather outside. The caverns were formed by water so powerful that it turned over the ocean floor. In other words, you can touch the ceiling and realize the remnants of the ocean floor, as evidenced by fish fossils. Jesse James and his gang once hid out in the caverns. Some families found refuge in them during the Great Depression, drinking freshwater from the underground spring that flowed through the cavern.

The tour guide turns out the lights at one point. He explains that if you were to stay in this condition for several weeks, you’d come out blind. And when on the tour watch out for “Headache Rock,” so called because of people’s tendency to hit their heads on it. A woman on the tour actually does hit her head on it.

The tour-extravaganza continues at Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, a sanctuary for tigers and other creatures. The stories are sobering. The most common involve individuals who breed them and try to sell them on the illegal market, and quickly are overwhelmed; people who think it will be a neat idea to have one as a pet; and roadside zoos that fail to create safe and sustainable living conditions for the animals. Other inhabitants come from other refuges which have to downscale or don’t have the capacity for a certain animal’s habitat.

The backstories are heartbreaking, or at best confounding. The animals are often de-clawed by the owners, causing them to suffer because without their claws they develop serious foot and leg problems. One owner routinely forced a full-grown tiger into a barrel like one you see on playgrounds designed for small children. A large number of residents were rescued from a lady wanted for animal abuse in several states. A rich man owned a cougar for which he had veterinary records and a history of proper care, but when he died the family donated the cougar to the refuge. A couple had a tiger which they kept locked up in a pen for up to 23 hours a day. When the man would come home from work he’d wrestle with the tiger. Eventually the tiger became too large to handle.

In their present spaces, they take turns being out on the grass but otherwise are confined to a singular area known as “lockdown.” Don’t let the name mislead you, though – the animals here, even though they may never return to the wild, are in most cases living far better lives than they did before arriving at the refuge. And with round-the-clock care and easy access to veterinary treatment, they’ll never again endure unnatural suffering. The individuals who work at Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge are nothing short of heroes and I am humbled and appreciative of their efforts.

The day closes with the dam overlook at Beaver Lake; the “Little Golden Gate Bridge,” suggested by an employee from the caverns when he found out where I was from; and Pea Ridge Military Park, site of a key Union victory in the Civil War.

The day in Oklahoma begins with a visit to the Tulsa Zoo. The highlight is a giraffe feeding. The giraffes have really long tongues and the higher we hold up the leaf the more of the cool, slimy tongue is visible.

Big Anthony’s Barbecue serves up fine fare – several long, meaty ribs with a crusty exterior and cooked to perfection, delicious baked beans, mashed potatoes, and a can of Wild Cherry Pepsi.

The Philbrook Museum of Art is housed in an elegant villa that once belonged to an oil baron. It is situated in an area of rich, beautiful homes, and contains selections from many styles and years. My favorite piece is Alexander Hogue’s Erosion No. 2 – Mother Earth Laid Bare (1936).

At the end of my day’s excursion, I watch the Tulsa Drillers play the Arkansas Travelers, double AA affiliates of the Dodgers and Angels, respectively. Late in the game, a movie montage, featuring scenes from Network, Hoosiers, The Goonies, and others, gets the crowd pumped and the Drillers win the game with a walk-off single.

At every ALPCA International Convention I attend I get goosebumps seeing so many tables of license plates at once. The schedule for the convention includes a social event on Wednesday evening, an auction on Friday night, a business meeting on Saturday, and an open hall for buying, selling, and trading plates, generally open for business hours.

Amongst the better finds is a Kansas vanity plate with a buffalo in the background and the phrase BUFLO B (Kansas is unique in that vanity, or personalized, plates have a design different than the general issue).

I also go to a couple of junkyards, including one in Purdy, Missouri, where I pull an equal bounty of Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma plates on a very hot day. At one point I come to a small lake consisting of muddy water and dip my hands in to cool off. I race the clock to the end, pay a nominal fee, and walk away with some 60 plates as a reward for the toiling in the sun.

At the annual meeting in the morning, they have the usual menu: a welcome speech by the President, recognition of first-time attendees, recognition of the longest streaks of attendance, Hall of Fame inductees, the awards ceremony, and any new business or comments from the members.

After a long day of disappointing sightseeing on the way back to Kansas City, I spend time at Crown Center, a shopping, dining, and entertainment complex, often just people-watching as heavy luggage restricts me from really doing much else. Then I take the skywalk to Union Station, and gasp. The station is lit up in a beautiful shade of purple. Once there, I view an area made out like a museum detailing the station’s history. It reads like that of some other train stations across the country. Union Station was built in the early 20th century, reached a peak with railroad travel, slowly declined all the way into ruin and abandonment, then was restored and reopened to fit the needs of the modern traveler.

Souvenirs from the workers had been trapped in the walls and were recovered during the restoration. A photo depicts the station covered by a giant bubble, like the Metrodome in Minneapolis. The cover protected people from falling ceiling tiles and other debris. Since the grand re-opening in 2001, Union Station has become a center not just for transit, but for museums, art exhibits, restaurants, and civic offices.

This ALPCA vacation is one of many which make me so grateful to be a part of this club. Without the convention, I wouldn’t have experienced compelling conversations with strangers on a train, paid homage at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, witnessed a cathedral of carousel history, viewed the relics of a sunken ship, seen heartbreak and hope at a wildlife refuge, enjoyed a gorgeous transit station lit up in purple, and much more.

Go to Part 1

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