Yellowstone – A Disaster & A Blessing

As we prepared to depart Swan Valley on Friday morning, we received a call from our dearest friend, Mel Morgan, with the sad news that the Delta flight bringing Yvonne & Mel to rendezvous with us in West Yellowstone the next day had been cancelled. While we talked about potential options (which Delta couldn’t offer), we finally agreed that there had been enough indicators (COVID, Yellowstone closed, flight cancelled) that we better listen and look forward to another opportunity to be together. And we have it – they will join us for Mountain Song Festival at home in September! Since we believe things come in 3’s – missing the Family Reunion, disaster at Yellowstone and a cancelled flight (not to mention COVID), we believe we are DONE with all this stuff!

We drove up the Idaho side of the Grand Tetons – and saw that iconic view of the majestic range.

The Grand Tetons from the Idaho Side

The drive along the Targhee National Forest was amazing. The roads in Idaho were wide, smooth and easy to handle. We arrived in West Yellowstone shortly after noon, having stopped at Howard Springs Rest Area for almost an hour so we didn’t arrive too soon!

The town of West Yellowstone is one of five entrances to Yellowstone National Park. The main warehousing of materials for Park administration and vendors is the north entrance at Gardiner MT – the site of the most damage with the main bridge being destroyed so will remain closed for the “forseeable future”. The northeast entrance, Silver Gate MT, is also closed. That leaves the East Entrance (53 miles from Cody WY), the South Entrance (57 miles from Jackson) and the West Yellowstone Entrance (1/10 mile from the park, also a major entry point). The expectations for this year were already stretching the capabilities of the Park and its contractors, as it is the 150th Anniversary of Yellowstone, the first United States National Park. The flooding and associated devastation has had a major impact on visitors and residents alike. A “normal” day in West Yellowstone would be 14K-15K people and while we were there, the number was ~2,500.

On Saturday, we enjoyed a day of caring for Contessa, including Mr. Wishy Washy cleaning the exterior. After we got our chores done, we jumped on our bicycles and toured West Yellowstone. Basically a 7 block square town of hotels/motels/cabins, restaurants, souvenir shops and a couple of interesting museums – including the Union Pacific Railway building.

We were determined to make the most of our Sunday adventure! With horror stories of up to 1 1/2 hour wait to get through the entrance gate, we were up early and thru the gate at 6:15a – with absolute ZERO traffic! It was a tranquil early morning with the sun up at 5:40a and 29 degrees. The 14 miles to the South Loop provided a peaceful beginning.

We had not been in the Park 30 minutes before we saw our first bison. Before the day was over, we had several encounters with this huge beasts, but the first few made our hearts stop.

Taken from the relative safety of our car!

We continued south on the Loop to Fountain Paint Pots – and over the course of the day would begin to understand the differences between springs, geysers, mudpots, fumaroles and paint pots.

We had targeted the Old Faithful Inn for a highly anticipated Sunday Buffet – and neither the Inn nor the breakfast disappointed! As a national historic landmark, Old Faithful Inn was built 1903-1904 with local logs and stone. It is considered to b the largest log structure in the world! The towering lobby rises five stories with a massive stone fireplace and a hand-crafted clock made of copper, wood and wrought iron.

We marveled that we could walk right in at 7:30a and have our choice of tables. Clearly the census was down at the Inn, as well. When people have limited or defined vacation times, the closing of the Park initially for an unspecified length of time drove many people to cancel vacations or head elsewhere for an adventure.

Our timing was perfect! We had a nice, leisurely breakfast and then walked out the front door, turned left and awaited the predicted Old Faithful eruption that occurred right on schedule at 8:40a!

As Old Faithful began to erupt, we could see the geyser. As it rose, the boiling water of the geyser against the cold morning air created a steam/mist shroud that totally enveloped the geyser itself. The column of steam rose hundreds of feet in the art, cooled dramatically and then rained on us!

From Old Faithful, there were numerous stops for geyser fields as we, once again, crested the Continental Divide (this time at 8,262 ft) and came upon the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake. Geologists have determined that Yellow Stone Lake, named by William Clark and others, was formed following the “previous great eruption” some 640,000 years ago that formed a large caldera. Part of this caldera is the 136 square miles, 110 miles of shoreline and average depth of 394′ that is Yellowstone Lake.

The lake drains to the north from its only outlet, the Yellowstone River, at Fishing Bridge. The first elevation change is known as LeHardy Rapids and then plunges over the Upper Falls and then Lower Falls and races north through the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

Along the eastern portion of the South Loop, we discovered the Black Dragon Mudpots and Cooking Hillside. The Black Dragon Mudpots were a “perfect” example of the organisms living in the hot geothermal environments that produce sulfuric acid, which destroys the rock, forming mud of varying consistency and color. Gases bubble and burst through the mud with a strange plopping sound, as well as a distinctive and unpleasant odor. (rotten eggs!)

In 1978, a forested hillside changed dramatically after a swarm of earthquakes struck the area. In spite of being jolted again and again, the trees remained standing, but met their demise soon afterward when ground temperatures soared to 2000F. Roots sizzled in the super-heated soil and trees toppled over one by one as steam rose eerily between the branches. No wonder the hill was dubbed “Cooking Hillside”.

As the day progressed, the traffic did build – and especially when wildlife chose to take over the roadways!

The Norris Geyser Basin, along the northern side of the Loop, included Steamboat Geyser and the Ledge Geyser. The Ledge is a continuous (and noisy) stream of steam from geyser below the ground surface, not to be confused with a fumarole, which is a steam vent only. Norris Basin is named for Philetus W. Norris, the second Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park from 1877-1882. He was responsible for documenting the Park’s hydrothermal features in detail. Under his leadership, some of the Park’s first roadways were constructed. Some of them remain as part of the Grand Loop Road (combination of North and South Loop) today.

We just couldn’t help ourselves! After a delightful conversation with a couple of Connecticut at Steamboat Geyser, we headed on around the Loop to return to Old Faithful! We had hoped to stop along the way at Fairy Falls to view the Prismatic Pool, but it was closed due to bear activity.

Right on time, Old Faithful “did her thing” and this time in the beautiful, warm afternoon, we could clearly see the geyser!

We were in the Park for 11 hours. We saw so much and learned so much – there is no way to include all the photos and feelings. As Bill’s Mom used to say – “There is so much beauty that it makes my eyeballs hurt!”

Swan Valley ID and the Grand Tetons

The day dawned bright, beautiful and clear with heavenly fresh air. The wind and rain of the day before had blown out all the haze and overcast. We were off early for a fuel stop (more than a little painful!) and then 220 miles north on two-lane roads to Swan Valley, Idaho.

The first 175 miles were peaceful and easy with wide lanes, minimal traffic and absent of road construction/repair. The reality is that the roadwork can only be done during the same season that all the visitors want to be here, but Highway 191 was devoid of any of that. It was a delightful ride with amazing views of the mountains of the Bridger Teton National Forest. We smiled as we thought of our good friends, Dixon & Anne Bridger! The valley floor was full of sagebrush, interesting wildlife and ranches that spanned thousands of acres.

The last 45 miles brought us to the first “real” mountain roads with 5-6% grades. Contessa does extremely well taking the mountains, and she really loves to run downhill. Captain Bill is an extremely capable driver and manages Contessa well.

We ran along the Snake River for miles once we go to the Valley floor and then turned a bit north of Swan Valley. The Snake River Roadhouse RV Park was certainly NOT what the materials and reviews represents – we heard stories of new owners and lack of care, but the shock of seeing the site reserved for Contessa – 44′ and 4 slides was not short of taking my breath away!

This site couldn’t hold more than a 25′ pop-up trailer!

With no one to be found in person or by phone, our only choice was to locate another facility for Contessa for the next 3 days. The first phone call was to an RV Park not 1/3 mile away – and Bobby said she had one site available for that period and only because the coach there had been forced to leave early due to a family emergency! The Park only had 8 sites – and we were blessed to get one of them. God does provide!

Contessa & The Captain at Sleepy Bear RV Park with a lovely view

Swan Valley is stunning and we settled in for three nights – our first time adhering to our 3-3-3 guideline of motorhoming (in by 3p, less than 300 miles per day and at every opportunity, stay for 3 days). With having to miss the Family Reunion in Dodge City, our first two weeks was purely just “getting to the Starting Point” for our next two months.

The following morning, we headed over the Teton Pass with an elevation of 8,432′ and 10% grade to Jackson and the Grand Tetons.

From Jackson WY (the town is Jackson, the area is Jackson Hole), we headed north 12 miles running along the Teton Range in the valley floor below.

On this first day, we chose to go to String Lake, which connects Leigh Lake to the north and Jenny Lake to the south. We planned to spend the second day on Jenny Lake, so traversing upstream seemed quite appropriate. A delightful 2 mile hike took us along the lake.

Just inside the National Park gate at Moose Junction, we found a real treasure! The Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration was built here in 1925, just one year before the cornerstone was laid at our own St. Philip’s in Brevard. Titled the “Spiritual Heart in the Park”, the church has continued to provide services and a sense of community for dude ranchers and visitors like. Two services are held every Sunday during the summer months.

We elected to return to Jackson for a late lunch at a local brewery (imagine that!) and enjoy the town of Jackson. There is a year-round tourist season with hiking/biking/camping in the summer and skiing/snowboarding in the winter.

The next day was dedicated to the Jenny Lake region of the Park. We packed a picnic lunch and headed out early in hopes of securing a precious parking place. It was a spectacular morning for hiking, so we snagged that parking place and headed off to the boat shuttle that would take us across Jenny Lake to the base of Inspiration Point.

Jenny Lake is approximately two miles long and four miles wide with a depth of 256′ encompassing 1,191 acres. It was formed as the glacier pushed through the Canyon Pass and over thousands of years filled a portion the valley floor below. The Grand Tetons themselves were created by convergent tectonic plates, where the eastern plate moved under the western plate, forcing the western plate up. This accounts for the lack of “foothills” on the eastern slope such that the valley floor directly meets the mountain base. On the western slope, however, are 25-30 miles of foothills between the Idaho valley floor and the mountain bases. This differs greatly from the well-known California divergent plates where the plates move apart.

The first portion of the hike wound up a rather unique outcropping gaining about 200′ of elevation to reveal Hidden Falls.

From the base of Hidden Falls, we would climb another 300′ to above the precipice that creates the falls to Inspiration Point. This portion was decidedly more strenuous with rocky, narrow trails leading to the pinnacle and a glorious view of Jenny Lake – well worth the additional mile!

Jenny Lake was named for Jenny Leigh, a Shoshone Indian woman who assisted the 1872 Hayden Survey. Their mission was to document the geology and topology of the Yellowstone area, particularly the Snake and Missouri Rivers. Jenny and her husband Richard were expert guides, who knew Jackson Hole well from their summers spent hunting, trapping and gathering native plants across the area. In her honor, the Survey team named both Jenny Lake and Leigh Lake to the north.

We enjoyed the returning journey down the trail – encouraging others that it was well worth the effort, albeit not everyone we encountered chose to try it!

The afternoon was spent on a boat. Captain Bill would have been happier captaining the vessel, but alas, Kyle did a great job both of boat handling but also revealing the history and beauty of this amazing area. Originally from Albany NY, he “retired” from teaching at 23 years old and came west in search of snow-skiing. He’s been here 19 years doing just that – and entertaining visitors when there is no snow!

The native American Indians called this mountain range Teewinot, meaning Many Peaks. Teewinot Mountain is front and center of Jenny Lake. To the south of Teewinot is Nez Perce, also known as Howling Wolf. As we cruised up the lake, we could see “behind” Teewinot to Grand Teton. She is grand indeed at an elevation of 13,775′.

To the left, you can discern the “Howling Wolf” – on the right is Inspiration Point (looks short!)

As we reached the northern end of Jenny Lake, we found String Creek, which flows from String Lake that we had hiked the day before into Jenny Lake.

The “summer runoff” has not quite begun yet, according to Kyle. Beginning about July 1, the rocks we see here will be totally submerged, as will all the deadfall, as the “melt-off” from the winter snow begins in full force. By September, the water coming through String Creek will be down to not more than a trickle and one would walk across from bank to bank.

The deadfall to the left is, in large part, due to a wildfire in the mid-1990’s that burned approx 300 acres before it burned itself out. While it seems devastating, it is nature’s way of replenishing the forests. It takes ~1500 degree heat to allow the lodgepole pines to open their pinecones and distribute the seeds that will grow new and strong lodgepole pine trees.

We made our way back across the lake, stopping to admire all the people making the hike up Inspiration Point and then returning to the dock. A final drive over Teton Pass, a stop at Wildfire Brewing Co in Victor ID to quench our thirst and a return to Contessa to prepare for travel the next day finished our day. Tomorrow – Montana and the town of West Yellowstone.

To the Rockies We Go!

After a few “rocky days” of COVID for both Captain Bill and Admiral Jann – and those days being in the hot, dry plains of Kansas and eastern Colorado, the joy of feeling good again coincided with our first glimpse of the Rocky Mountains as we headed west from Limon, CO and then turned north to Cheyenne, WY.

We had spent two days in Limon in the absolute perfect spot for recovery. There is absolutely nothing to do in Limon, so there was no temptation to be out and about. Our campground, Trailing Edge RV Park, was an exceptionally clean and well-maintained facility owned by a husband and wife (Randy/Cindy) and their son, Colton. In 2017, Randy was working for the company building the then largest wind turbine field in the country just outside Limon. The company was having great difficult finding sufficient “housing” for their transient workers, who primarily live from construction site to construction site in their fifth-wheel campers. Randy and Cindy were approached by the company to build an extended stay camping facility and the company would guarantee to keep them full for two years. Cindy’s aunt had property ideally suited for the project, the city agreed to the plan, Randy/Cindy/Colton went to work and built the campground and the rest was history! Two and a half-years later, the build was done but the need for extended stay facilities continues on as they are consistently >90% occupied. An adjacent property became available; they tore down the house and added five extra long pull-thru transient sites – and Contessa fit nicely into Site #1.

Randy was able to salvage the top third of one of the wind turbines that had been struck by lightning and had to be replaced. Bringing the turbine to the site, adding a flag-hoisting pulley system and light were all probably easier than creating the gorgeous mural which was painted by three young ladies from Limon.

Trailing Edge Flagpole

“The place to go” in Limon is Scoops – the locally owned ice cream shop that was less than a 2 block walk from our campsite. You know things weren’t very pretty when we were there for two full days and neither of us felt like going!

Fortunately, Sunday, June 19 dawned a new day with the crew healthy, the weather perfect and the traffic light. Off we headed west and just before Denver turned north to Cheyenne, Wyoming. After a quick run through a Blue Beacon Truck Wash (yes, there are truck washes big enough to hold semi-trucks and Class A motorhomes WITH their toad attached), we cruised into Cheyenne at noon all shiny and clean.

A quick lunch and we were off to explore the capitol of Wyoming. With limited time and a wide variety of museum opportunities, we settled on the Cheyenne Depot Museum. The Union Pacific Railroad Depot, built in 1886, is the last remaining grand railroad station on the transcontinental route. Nothing but a small group of ranchers populated what is now Cheyenne in 1867, until the Union Pacific Railroad decided to make Cheyenne the hub for their construction of the transcontinental railroad. Between August 1867 and January 1868, the town grew from 400 to over 4000.

Cheyenne and Wyoming have blazed many trails throughout its history, including on December 10, 1869, granting women the right to vote and hold office.

Statue in Front of Depot Honoring Women’s Role in Blazing the West!

A large part of the museum is dedicated to an HOn3 gauge model railroad of the Union Central and Northern Railroad that ran into and through the majestic Rocky Mountains from 1872-1941. This meticulous artwork was the result of 30 years of research and dedication by Harry Brunk. The cars are HO gauge, but the track is the narrower n3 gauge to more closely represent the construction of the actual railroad it represents.

Mr. Brunk built the majority of this massive display is 65’x12′ mobile trailer beside his home in rural Nebraska. When the trailer began to deteriorate and Harry’s ability to maintain and expand the display became a reality, he gave the artwork to a friend, who in turn donated it to the Cheyenne Historical Society.

The amazing detail and life-like representations of the terrain and mountains, along with the reality presentations of towns and ways-of-life were captivating.

The bridge on the right shows from an “aerial view” the challenges facing the construction of these railroads across huge ravines and dramatic elevation changes.

The picture on the left shows the size of the train and track relative to a man’s finger. The picture on the right has that train moving down the track towards its next destination.

The museum also housed a wealth of information on the expansion of this beautiful country through the eyes and timeline of the growth of the railroad. The Pony Express, which delivered mail and messages utilizing a relay of horse-mounted riders from Missouri to California, reduced message travel between the east and west coast to about 10 days. While romantic and a major part of the western lore, the Pony Express only operated for 18 months from April 3, 1860 to October 26, 1861, when the first transcontinental telegraph was established.

The gold rush and the never-ending need of the American drive to seek new and untamed worlds drove the amazing push for a transcontinental railway. First powered by steam locomotives, these behemoths brought news, goods, tools and women to the Wild, Wild West. Steam engines gave way to diesel-electric engines and for almost 100 years was the primary transportation for east to west travel.

Restored Depot Terminal

Now the home of the Cheyenne Visitor’s Center, the ground still shakes as a train goes rumbled by immediately behind the depot. If I closed my eyes, I would almost imagine the feel of excitement and wonder of those long-ago passengers. The depot was gifted to the City of Cheyenne by the Union Pacific Railroad in 1992 and underwent extensive renovation to bring it back to its glorious state.

We took a self-guided tour of town and found a clean, pleasant environment. At the “other end” of Capitol Street (one end being the Depot), was the Wyoming State Capital Building and along the way was the Wyoming State Supreme Court.

Monday began early, as it often does! We have a real system on “move days” and things just seem to click as we ready both ourselves and Contessa for departure. We reconnected the toad and were on our way well before 8:00a MST – due west on I80 for 270 miles to Rock Springs, Wyoming. The topology certainly changed today as we climbed and climbed and climbed and then descended then climbed some more.

We crossed the Western Continental Divide between Laramie and Cheyenne at an altitude of 8,640′. We left Cheyenne at 6,063′ and finished the day at 6,388′ in Rock Springs. The scenery was absolutely breathtaking with wide open ranges and miles upon miles of scrub brush.

The Wick-Beumee Wildlife Management area was established in the early 1960s primarily to provide a winter range for elk that summer in the adjacent Medicine Bow Mountains. The area now totals 22,060 acres

Signage warning no humans from Dec 1-May 15 to avoid disturbing wildlife

The clouds, so close you felt you could reach out and touch them, added an additional dimension of shadows to the rolling meadows.

Elk Mountain, a part of the Medicine Bow Mountains, has a summit of 11, 156′

As we continued our journey west, the skies darkened and the winds continued to increase. There had been warnings of potential 60 mph crosswinds for all day today, which is another reason we try to travel early – both before the winds build and while we are freshest. Alas, the rains came during the last 45 minutes of our travel. With the intense winds primarily on nose, the driver side windshield wiper sprung off the windshield. Fortunately, it did not rip from the coach but was held tight against the rearview mirror. Again, another blessing, we were less than 1/4 mile from an exit, where Bill was able to pull off and repair the wiper – and the rain stopped during that time!

Back on the highway, the rain returned as we made our way to the campground at 1:00p. Not only did the dark clouds bring the wind and rain – it brought the cold. It was 47 degrees at 1:oop! When we checked in, the sweet lady said “it never rains like this during this time of year – and we’ve had three days of it” and three days ago it was 90 degrees.

Tomorrow we leave the interstate system and head north to Swan Valley ID and the Grand Tetons! The wind and the rain is gone and the forecast is for a high of 73 and sunny – PERFECT! We’ve traveled 1,950 coach miles, so we are closing in a third of our projected mileage.

Flexibility – or – Go With the Flow!

We often say “If you want to make God laugh, just tell him your plan!” That was certainly the case as we cruised into Kansas City on Monday morning. We had been successful with reaching both of the contacts our dear friend, John Brown, had given us to assist with the air leveling issues we were experiencing with Contessa. We had an appointment for 8:15a Tuesday morning and the second option on “stand-by” for the afternoon, if needed.

As we rolled through St. Louis on Sunday afternoon, we were ever-thankful that while it was a 440 mile day, we didn’t have to face St. Louis on a Monday! As we proceeded across Missouri that Sunday afternoon, Niece Christy (who we had visited with in Nashville on Friday & Saturday) texted that Chris had awoken Sunday morning with “the crud” and by evening, the dreaded home COVID test indicated a “slight positive”. He would proceed to a testing facility on Monday and advise.

Sure enough, Chris tested positive on Monday and by Tuesday afternoon, so did Bill! It began with fever & cough in the middle of the night Monday. So the Ratts Reunion in Dodge City will go on without the 4 of us. The good news is that the symptoms are rather mild (headache, body ache, chills & fever). Bill did get to Urgent Care on Tuesday afternoon, and while he is not a candidate for the anti-viral medications due to conflict with existing meds, his lungs are clear and his fever has responded well to ibuprofen/acetaminophen (Advil/Tylenol). Treatment plan is fluids, rest, ibuprofen/acetaminophen – repeat. Congestion is limited to head & sinus and his sense of humor has only minimally diminished!

The good news is that TransWest Truck/RV Service was able to diagnose the issue with Contessa’s air leveling system! Armed with the part number -it is now on order from the manufacturer (10 day delivery) and we have altered our travel to add a day in Missoula MT and arranged for installation there in late June.

So, we are gently proceeding across Kansas – Nephew Jim and I met this morning midway between Dodge City & Wakeeney KS, where we found the convenient (if not attractive) KOA Journey campground.

We exchanged the food I was bringing to the reunion and he brought the packages I had shipped to Dodge City. Shipping ahead to future destinations is a common solution to needed items. The drive both yesterday across the plains of Kansas and this morning were truly beautiful with the wheat in full bloom and ready for harvest. It is truly “amber waves of grain”.

Another major “flexibility opportunity”, of course, is the devastation to our beautiful Yellowstone National Park! The storms on Sunday forced evacuation of the entire Park and it will be days before the extent of the damage and any reopening plan can be determined. All we can do is proceed according to our plan and see what is in store!

From here, we head through Colorado and then north to Cheyenne, Wyoming and the Snake River. From there, it’s the Grand Tetons and see all the majesty on our way to Yellowstone on Friday, June 24.

Contessa and Toad – Along with The Captain and The Admiral – Are Headed West!

The long awaited and ultimately shortened adventure to the Pacific Northwest is finally underway! In 2019 and early winter of 2020, we eagerly anticipated that “trip of a lifetime” with a precious friends Tom and Peggie Perrotto as we charted our rendezvous in Bellingham WA and adventure to Alaska. Alas, COVID changed everything – and here we are, two years later, aching from the loss of our dear Peggie and determined to “do this” both for ourselves and also because she would absolutely say “go for it!”

We did take Contessa and the Toad to The Keys for a month during Winter 2022 – and after the first few days when Contessa explained to us how much she did NOT like the cold and snow of Western North Carolina – we had a delightful month reacquainting with friends and gorgeous waters of the Florida Keys. We eagerly anticipate returning for the month of March, 2023! But, the real adventure began last Thursday, June 9, when we headed down the mountain and pointed Contessa west in pursuit of family reunions and National Parks.

In our normal mode, our first day was a short day of 99 miles to Newport TN, which allows us to easily make the final transition and then “settle in” that first afternoon/evening. On Friday, we enjoyed a lovely 250 mile trip along I-40 west to Nashville TN to spend a couple of evenings with Niece Christy and Chris. It was a delight to spend an evening at their home after a day of hiking about J. Percy Priest Lake and our Campground.

Unfortunately, we also identified an on-going issue with the air leveling system on the bus. When we returned from Florida this spring, we had work done which we had hoped/thought had addressed “the issue”, but as is usually the case, there is often more than one issue.

So, we departed Nashville early Sunday, June 12 (before 7:00a) and broke our standard 3-3-3 rule of motorhoming (300 miles, in by 3p, stay 3 days) and drove 435 miles to just east of Columbia MO. There was a section of the day that was a drive along memory lane, as we crossed many of the waterways we traversed on the Great American Loop in 2015 – Cumberland River, Barkley Lake, Tennessee River, Ohio River and Mississippi River. What a joy to relive those precious times! Just after we crossed the Ohio River into Illinois, we stopped at a rest area in Metropolis IL – and simply had to have a photo of Captain Superman!

We reached Columbia and our destination about 4p, which has us poised to arrive in Kansas City mid-morning. We have contacted a couple of service centers recommended by a dear friend, John Brown, who lives in Kansas City and will be ready to follow-up with them first thing tomorrow. Keep your fingers crossed that we can get the issue addressed and keep with our plan to head to Dodge City on Wednesday for the Ratts Reunion!

Kentucky Bourbon Trail – and Beautiful Horse Country

The long-awaited and much-anticipated portion of our Summer 2021 Trip had finally become a reality with our arrival in Taylorsville KY on Saturday, June 26.

As we take this journey, it is important to KNOW what bourbon is! On May 4, 1964, US Congress recognized Bourbon Whiskey as a “distinctive product of the United States.” To be bourbon, it must be made of a grain mixture that is at least 51% corn, distilled to no more than 160 proof, must be aged in new, charred oak barrels, and may not be placed into the barrel at higher than 125 proof. It must age for a minimum of 2 years to be called Straight Bourbon and if it is aged for less than 4 years, the label must designate the duration of aging (the youngest whiskey in the blend).

We settled into our camp site and quickly set off for our first adventure into the World of Bourbon – Angel’s Envy Distillery in downtown Louisville. This is one of the newer distilleries on the scene in a very competitive world of bourbon. Louisville Distilling Company, a subsidiary of Bacardi Limited, was founded by Lincoln Henderson and his son, Wes that now also includes four grandsons and two more in the wings (still in high school). Lincoln had retired after 40 years with Brown-Forman, a major distiller creating Jack Daniels, Woodford Reserve, Old Forester and many others. Throughout our time “On the Trail” we learned how brands have changed ownership and distillers have moved between distilleries as years, successes/failures, Prohibition and other forces changed the market landscape.

Lincoln Henderson purportedly had “an idea” for years that he brought to the new venture – the finishing of bourbon into a used port wine barrel, thereby making it a finished bourbon. This finishing process in the port wine barrel lasts about 6 months. As we knew from our Scotch touring experiences, a portion of the spirits are lost each year during the barrel aging process – and that is known as the “Angel’s Share or “Angel’s Portion”. After Lincoln tasted his finished bourbon, he purportedly joked that he finally got a better deal than the angels – and Angel’s Envy was born.

The tasting here was exceedingly informational and we were so glad we started here. In addition to fine tastings as well as an interesting history of the Henderson family and Angel’s Envy, our host taught us the “correct way” to taste bourbon and it served us well throughout our time on The Trail! First, you “nose” the sample with your mouth slightly open, which allows the alcohol to be minimized and the sampler to detect the aromas of the bourbon. The first sip needs to be held on the tongue for 5-6 seconds, allowing the liquid to numb the tongue and throat, and feel that good “Kentucky Hug” has it burns into your chest! Once the numbing has occurred, the second and subsequent sips can be truly appreciated.

As we walked down Louisville’s Main Street, we started to understand why so many refer to it as World Headquarters of Bourbon, but Bardstown, some 40 miles south, has more than a little argument with that! We would be visiting Bardstown in a few days.

We stopped into the Evan Williams Visitors Centre. Our dear friend, Larry Weir, more than a few times spoke of spending a delightful evening with “Uncle Evan”, so we felt compelled to pay a visit and took advantage of their cocktail lounge to sample a flight of four of their offerings. Deploying our new found knowledge of tasting, we determined that while Evan was “nice”, we truly enjoyed Pikesville Rye Whiskey. You will recall that to be a bourbon, the mash bill (grain recipe) must be at least 51% corn. Anything less would be American Whiskey. In this case, Pikeville’s mash bill is 51% rye, 39% corn and 10% malted barley. Whiskey distilling is as old as our early settlers – and Pikesville is the last standing Maryland rye brand, starting in 1895. As with many brands, it changed ownership several times before becoming part of the Heaven Hill Distillery family from Bardstown, currently being produced in their Bernheim Distillery in Louisville. We would learn more about that when we visited Heaven Hill on Monday. We simply felt compelled to stop by the Gift Shop and acquire a bottle of the Pikesville Rye.

Now THAT is a glass of bourbon!

That evening, we found our way to Bourbon’s Bistro for a lovely dinner in the historic Clifton district of Louisville in a building dating back to the 1870’s. We arrived early, providing an opportunity to sit at the beautiful bar and chat with a very skilled bartender. One of the features of Bourbon’s Bistro is a selection of more than 130 bourbons – and a bartender that knows where every bottle is located on the barback. Their southern fare was extraordinary and the service was impeccable – we had a delightful evening and made our way back to Contessa.

Bourbon’s Bistro

Sunday, we returned to Louisville and enjoyed a few hours at the Frazier History Museum, which houses an array of information on Kentucky and its role in so many critical stages of American History. An affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute, there are permanent exhibits on Lewis & Clark, the Civil War and Bourbon Whiskey, as well as rotating exhibits that currently include Women Surrogates in Kentucky.

Another section of the Bourbon Whiskey history was that of Julian Proctor “Pappy” Van Winkle, who is nothing short of a legend in the bourbon industry. In 1893, he became a salesman for W.L. Weller & Sons, traveling around Kentucky & Indiana by horse and buggy peddling Weller’s liquors to taverns, saloons and other retail outlets. As is often the case, the salespeople make more money than the distributor/manufacturer, and ultimately he and another Weller salesman bought the firm and the Stitzel Distillery that produced most of the whiskey for the Weller business. They consolidated as Stitzel-Weller and were able to obtain a permit to produce whiskey for medicinal purposes during Prohibition (1920-1933), which was very precious and limited to a very few distillers.

By the end of Prohibition, dozens of distilleries had been shuttered as only 6-8 companies were able to obtain the medicinal purpose license for whiskey production. Stitzel-Weller opened a new distillery on Derby Day 1935, having not only been able to produce and sell during the dark days of Prohibition, but also to maintain their inventory from earlier production. The end of Prohibition was celebrated far and wide – and with a song on the lips of many – “Happy Days Are Here Again!”

Pappy & His Infamous Saying

He brought both his son Julian Jr, his son-in-law, King McClure (married to his daughter Mary “Rip”) and eventually his grandson, Julian III. Pappy stayed heavily involved in the distillery until his death in 1965. In 1972, the Van Winkle’s were forced out by the Board of Directors, as bourbon sales were declining in the US in favor of white liquors, ie. vodka, gin, rum. The distillery was closed and the brands were sold to a variety of distilleries, with the exception of the Pappy Van Winkle brand and mash bill, which was retained by the Van Winkle family. Today, Julian III and his son Preston own the brands and they are produced and bottled at Buffalo Trace Distillery under strict licensing and oversight. It is a very limited production — if you are lucky enough to find a bottle for sale, it could be in the $3,000/bottle range. Bourbon’s Bistro on Sunday evening had a bottle on their “top shelf” at $150 a shot (we did not partake!).

Pappy loved a good round of golf – with his trusted caddy!

We headed east about 25 miles to Shelbyville, to the home of Bulleit Distillery, for a tour and tasting experience. It seems a common theme that lawyers tend to start distilleries – whether it is because the profession has driven them to “the drink” or the profession has provided them the financial backing sufficient to pursue those life dreams might be questioned, but it is certainly a theme we hear often.

In 1987, Tom Bulleit left his law practice and “risked everything” to fulfill a lifelong dream of reviving the recipe of his great-great-grandfather, Augustus Bulleit, who made a high-rye whiskey between 1830-1860. Today, Bulleitt is known for both its high-rye bourbon (90 proof, 68% corn, 28% rye and 4% malted barley) as well as its rye whiskey (90 proof, 95% rye and 5% malted barley).

As we’ve mentioned before, bourbon has gone in and out of favor with consumers, so when Bulleit was ready to release their first bourbon, they chose to leverage their marketing of “frontier bourbon” with a stylized bottling reminiscent of the old west and not attempt to compete head-to-head with the wide array of bourbon distillers in Kentucky. They went west – to San Francisco and the California coast – marketing their bourbon to bartenders as a perfect bourbon for classic cocktails such as old-fashions and manhattans. It was embraced as its high-rye content provided the spicy component to these cocktails vs. a high-wheat bourbon, which would be sweeter.

We returned to Louisville for a lovely evening at the River House Restaurant overlooking the Ohio River. It was a bit warm on the deck, but well worth it to avoid the noise of the restaurant and enjoy the live music from the establishment next door (at least most of the time!).

The view of The Ohio River from our table on the porch

On Monday morning, we turned The Toad (Jeep) south to Bardstown, where there are no less than 11 distilleries currently in operation. We have already decided that the Kentucky Bourbon Trail deserves another visit, as there is simply no way to savor and enjoy all that there is to see and do in this beautiful part of our country.

Our first stop was My Old Kentucky Home, a totally restored and treasured mansion owned and operated by the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Originally named “Federal Hill”, it was the home of prominent judge and US Congressman John Rowan and his descendants. The main L-shaped mansion was completed in 1818 with 13’6″ ceilings and large 22’x22′ rooms that flank a central hall spanning all three floors.

There are records of John Rowan’s cousin, Stephen Foster, visiting Federal Hill and being totally captivated by her beauty and peacefulness. After visiting and drawing inspiration from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stephen Foster published “My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night!” in 1853.

Another family of means, they met with many of the maladies of the day, including 7 family members and 8 servants dying of cholera in less than 36 hours from drinking infected cistern water — to John, Jr’s young life ending in a tragic accident (walking out a window in the middle of the night while caring for a sick daughter), leaving his young wife, Rebecca, with 10 children and massive debt.

Rebecca removed all her children from school so that they could work the fields, and with time and determination – and funds from her father-in-law’s trust finally being released – she was able to stabilize the mansion, gardens, greenhouses and fields that made up the massive property.

On July 4, 1923, Federal Hill was renamed My Old Kentucky Home and ownership of the estate of transferred to the Commonwealth of Kentucky as an historic shrine by Madge Rowan Frost, the last heir of Federal Hill. Having married late in life and having no children, she wanted to insure its viability for future generations. This effectively became Kentucky’s first state-owned park.

By 1928, the popularity of Stephen Foster’s 75 year old song had continued to gain momentum and the Kentucky State Legislature voted to make “My Old Kentucky Home” Kentucky’s state song. Known as “the father of American music”, Foster wrote more than 200 songs, including “Oh, Susanna”, “Camptown Races”, “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair”, “Beautiful Dreamer” and many, many more. His life was cut short at the young age of 37, purportedly of an injury sustained from a fall while weakened from a fever. There is, however, much speculation whether the actual cause of death was self-inflicted, as suicide was a common occurrence during the Civil War.

Sometimes, the “have to” items on your itinerary don’t always measure up. Such was the case with The Old Talbott Tavern for lunch, but we certainly didn’t let that spoil our day – so off we went for more bourbon! Destinations – Barton 1792 and Heaven Hill.

We made what turned out to be a quick stop at Barton Distillery for a tasting of what we both agreed was a fairly non-descript but certainly enjoyable bourbon. Named for the year that Kentucky joined the United States as a Commonwealth, Barton 1792 Distillery was established in 1879 and continues today as the oldest fully-operating distillery in Bardstown. They offer a high-rye, a sweet-wheat, a small batch, a single barrel and what they market as a full proof. This was the only distillery during our 10 day Trail that we did not leave the distillery with at least one bottle for our future enjoyment! Oh, My!

But, never fear, there was another distillery yet to be visited! Off we went to Heaven Hill, the largest independent, continuously-owned, family-owned bourbon distillery in the America – and by definition, the world, as bourbon can only be made in America!

When Prohibition ended on December 5, 1933, there were only 34 of the 157 pre-Prohibition distilleries that could afford the costs of reopening and adhering to the new regulations that came with the repeal. In 1935, Ed Shapira and his brothers, Gary, George, David & Mose decided to invest in a new distillery and eventually bought it outright. Each of the Five Brothers had a definite and critical role in what would become their heritage. They purchased land from a family named Heavenhill and an error in the paperwork created the name of their company and their first, bottled-in-bond brand.

The business grew both internally and through acquisitions, such as Evan Williams and Pikesville Rye that we enjoyed on Sunday in Louisville. We smiled as we realized that the Henry McKenna brand was a member of their family. Henry was a great friend of our dear friend and best man at our wedding, Wade Barber. And then, there is Larceny – a bourbon introduced to us by our great friend, Steve Joslyn, a gifted artist who has crafted the lighting for our back porch/room at Dry Dock.

The Larceny brand name is the story of a man named John E. Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was a bonded US Treasury Agent who had access to the rickhouses of Stitzel Distillery, where bourbon barrels were stored and aged. His position gave him the means and the opportunity to steal tastes of some of the best bourbon. Using his keys, he would let himself into the rickhouses, thieve bourbon from the best barrels and take jugs of it home for himself! When it came time to drill and dump the barrels, some were found to be unusually light – and exceptionally smooth. These barrels became known as “Fitzgerald Barrels”. Even when the brand was later sold to famous whiskey man Pappy Van Winkle, the Fitzgerald name – and his reputation – endured. What a great story and history for a “new” family of wheated bourbons introduced in 2012.

John E Fitzgerald’s Larceny

Under the stewardship of the second generation, led by Ed’s son Max, Heaven Hill Distillery has grown to become the sixth largest supplier of distilled spirits in the United States. In 1996, a fire erupted in Rickhouse 1, a wooden warehouse full of wooden barrels filled with alcohol-laden bourbon. Combined with high winds and significant fuel, it quickly spread to three others rickhouses and the distillery. In the span of 4 hours, Heaven Hill had lost one-third of a years’ production (over 100,000 barrels) and the ability to produce any more.

The brotherhood of distillers was stronger than the passion of competition and multiple distillers stepped up to assist Heaven Hill by providing their facilities to allow the Shapira Family to continue to produce their products and keep their business alive. That continued for almost three years until Heaven Hill purchased the Bernheim Distillery in Louisville in 1999 and combined their family of products to those of Bernheim. To this day, all the production of Heaven Hill Distillers in done in the Bernheim facility, while the rickhouses and Visitors Center is located in Bardstown.

Just a few days before we visited the Heaven Hill facility in Bardstown, they had opened their new Five Brothers Bar & Kitchen on the Upper Level. After our “standard” tasting, we were invited to proceed upstairs for a tasting of Five Brothers Small Batch Kentucky Straight Bourbon, released on June 18, 2021. A small batch blending of five ages of bourbon, Five Brothers Bourbon pays homage to the courage, dedication and solidarity of the five Shapira brothers who started it all in 1935.

The BarBack of Five Brothers Bar & Kitchen

Of course, we just HAD to make our way up the winding staircase to a lovely bar area that truly looked like it wasn’t open, yet there was a pleasant bartender and another couple at the bar. The bartender explained that the “official opening” would occur the following week when the public would be invited to enjoy the variety of bourbons, whiskeys and associated cocktails. He also shared with us that the management had decided to delay the opening of the Kitchen (restaurant) portion of the facility until next year. They were sensitive to the toll that COVID had taken on local businesses and did not want to introduce another competitor into their market until they had had an opportunity to recover. With that as a backdrop, and having enjoyed the smooth sipping pleasure of Five Brothers, we simply had to acquire an “initial bottle” for our collection.

We headed back to Contessa and spent another delightful evening by the firepit overlooking the small lake that was the centerpiece of this delightful campground. Purchased about two years ago, Gary and Mable are working hard to get it back into shape after having been closed, neglected and abused for 15+ years. The roads have all been resurfaced, the internet was to be active by the day we were to leave and the new pool is to be ready by fall. The sites closest to the lake, however, presented a few challenges with spacing and not sufficiently level for a coach of our size.

As we were enjoying the sunset and the firepit, Contessa attempted to re-establish a level position without success. Facing having to move her the next morning in an attempt to find a level spot, we elected instead to leave a day early (Tuesday) and head to Lexington to the Kentucky Horse Park Campground. It gave us the flexibility to leave at our leisure and get settled into our new site that we would call “home” for the coming week. Cousin Lee and Sandy Keen and Sister Sue and Rik Davis were due to arrive on Wednesday, so a little preparation (and perhaps give our livers a rest) was in order!

Everything worked out perfectly and by dinner time Wednesday evening, we were all together with steaks and vegetables on the grill! We enjoyed an evening of much conversation and laughter with anticipation of more bourbon experiences the next day!

Thursday dawned rainy – but it didn’t dampen our spirits. Off we went to Versailles, Kentucky – pronounced Ver-Sales, because, hey, you are in Kentucky, not France! It was a simply stunning drive through beautiful horse country with absolutely amazing vistas of fencing, frolicking horses and colts and barns/paddocks. As we drove (and drove and drove) by Winstar Farms, we saw a sign for “Funny Cide”, winner of the 2003 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. Little did we know that we would meet Funny Cide later in the week when we visited the Kentucky Horse Park!

We found a local brewery for lunch that, unfortunately, was suffering the same labor shortage that we have seen so much this summer. A restaurant full of patrons and one cook does not make for an expeditious dining experience. We gathered our wits about us and made haste for our 1:10p check-in time at Woodford Reserve Distillery. This is going to be THE Tour of the Trail!

Captain Bill gets to the check-in desk right on time – only to be told that the tour has just been cancelled due to bad weather that prohibits visitors walking on the property and into the rickhouses! Our choices were to receive a full refund or wait an hour for a limited tasting. After a few minutes of sheer disappointment, the Admiral just had to ask “any chance we could re-schedule?” Fortunately, they agreed to add some additional tours on Saturday and we were able to return for our much-anticipated time at Woodford Reserve.

On Friday morning, we set off for Lawrenceburg, KY – another 45 minute drive through beautiful horse country. Four Roses has a quite interesting history! As legend has it, when Paul Jones Jr, the founder of Four Roses Bourbon, became smitten by the beauty of a Southern Belle, he sent a proposal to her. She replied that if her answer were “yes”, she would wear a corsage of roses on her gown to the upcoming grand ball. Jones anxiously awaited her answer the night of the ball … when she arrived in her beautiful gown, she wore a corsage of four red roses. He later named his Bourbon “Four Roses” as a symbol of his devout passion for the lovely belle.

In 1884, he moved his thriving business to Louisville, where he opened an office in a section of historic Main Street called, “Whiskey Row.” Four years later, he trademarked the name Four Roses, claiming production and sales back to the 1860s. In 1922, he purchased the Frankfort Distilling Company, presumably at a fire-sale price as Prohibition had been gripping the industry for two years (with 11 more to come).

In 1943, Seagram’s of Canada purchased the Frankfort Distilling Company, to capitalize on the brand. In the early 1950’s, the market for bourbon was on a decline in the United States and Seagram’s made the decision to discontinue the sale of Four Roses Bourbon in the US and move it to the rapidly growing European and Asian markets. The Four Roses name unfortunately was transferred to a blended whiskey, made mostly of neutral grain spirits and commonly seen as a sub-par brand. Four Roses Bourbon would not return to the US market until 2002, when the Kirin Brewery Company of Japan would acquire the brand trademark and production facilities. Since its return and loads of work in regaining respect in the bourbon world, their Small Batch Bourbon has won several awards, including “Best Bourbon of The Century So Far” in 2020! And yes, we did acquire a bottle of the Small Batch (in fact, we acquired two – one to make into mint juleps that evening and one for our “collection”).

Lee, Sandy, Admiral Jann & Captain Bill

Another evening of great cousin time – with many sentences beginning “do you remember when….” Lee is Jann & Sue’s first cousin – his Dad was their Mom’s brother. It is Lee’s sister, Mary, who spent last summer at DryDock with her husband, Kevin, during COVID while their new home was being built. Lee & Jann are just a few months apart in age – and as children managed to get in all sorts of “interesting” predicaments.

But, all good things must come to an end – and at the end of the evening, we bade Sue & Rik so long for this time. They had been “on the road” for most of the last month and felt it was time to head back home and continue to settle in to their new home in southwestern Virginia.

Saturday morning was a picture perfect day and we were so thankful that our tour of Woodford Reserve had been postponed, as it was a perfect day for walking the grounds, touring the distillery and savoring the aroma of the rickhouses! Woodford Reserve was introduced in 1996 by Brown-Forman Distillers.

Our tour guide, Rob, was exceptional – his passion for the spirit and appreciation for Woodford’s approach was evident in everything he said. Located in the midst of beautiful horse farms, the distillery is nestled in a valley that provides the pristine limestone-filtered water that is such an integral part of Kentucky’s God-given advantage in bourbon making. The distillery itself is a National Historic Landmark, as the art of fine bourbon first took place on this site beginning in 1812. Many of the buildings are built of the gorgeous limestone and have been maintained/restored to their original glory.

Woodford employs several unique methods in their bourbon creation. In the fermentation room, they ferment their mash for a full 7 days, while most distillers have said their fermentation is 3-4 days. They ferment the mash in open, hand-made cypress vats. While these are extremely expensive to make, Rob indicated that they actually have a longer life than the stainless vats used by most other distillers and Woodford believes they add to the smoothness and flavor of the mash. They also return about 10% of their mash back into the next batch, making it a true sour mash – much like a sourdough bread and insures continuity in production.

The mash fermenting in cypress barrels for a full 7 days

From the fermentation room, we moved to the Still Room – and we felt like we had been transported back to Scotland! Here were three signature copper pot stills and a spirit safe. Woodford does a triple distillation, while other distillers hold to the standard two distillation process. There is the beer still, the high wine still and the high spirit still. Each still allows maximum contact of the vapors to come in contact with the copper, which they believe provides the silky smooth texture and flavor of Woodford Reserve. Many of the other distillers use a column still, which gives them much greater throughput/production and a “better” product. And who is to argue – there are many great bourbons. Captain Bill, however, certainly agrees with the Woodford approach!

The Stills were made by Forsyth & Sons in Scotland
The Spirit Safe is along the back wall, used by the Master Distiller

Another unique component to the Woodford creation is that Brown-Forman owns its own cooperage, where the new white oak barrels are made. This gives them increased flexibility in the creation of the barrels and charring, allows them to “experiment” and maintain the proprietary information in that creation. What Rob did share with us is that they “toast” their barrels before they “char” them. For their Distiller’s Select Bourbon, the barrel is toasted for 10 minutes and then charred for 25 seconds. For their Double Barrel Bourbon, the second barrel is toasted for 40 minutes, charred for 5 seconds — and then the bourbon is in that second barrel for up to six months.

As we mentioned earlier, we already have a list of places we want to visit during our NEXT Kentucky Bourbon Trail, and top of the list is a Cooperage. So much of the flavoring and all of the color of the bourbon is from the charring of the new white oak barrels and the processes/timing as the liquid transitions through the char as the barrel expands and contracts during temperature changes. Woodford also heats their warehouses, so that during the winter months when bourbon in Kentucky usually just rests, they can warm and cool the barrels, forcing the contents to transition through the char multiple times during the season.

Charring barrels – photo complements of the Kentucky Cooperage

As with many of the distilleries we visited, Woodford is expanding their production capacity in order to fulfill the demands in the 180 countries and 3 blends of Woodford available today. They were not currently bottling on Saturday, but when in operation, it runs at a rate of 100 bottles/minute!

Lee, Sandy & Captain Bill preparing for a delightful Tasting!

On Sunday, we headed in a direction other than bourbon – The Kentucky Horse Park, which was just next door to our campground.

We were greeted with a handsome bronze statue of Secretariat, undoubtedly THE outstanding thoroughbred of the second half of the 20th century. He won 16 of his 21 starts, including the 1973 Triple Crown — winning the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes while setting new track records in each race.

Secretariat in the Winner’s Circle at the Kentucky Derby

While there were many statues throughout the park, the one that spoke to all of us was Staff Sergeant Reckless of the 5th Marine Regiment – 1st Marine Division. SSgt Reckless served valiantly with the US Marine Corps in the Korean War. During the pivotal five-day Battle of Outpost-Vegas in late March 1953, she made 51 round-trips in a single day — most of them solo — from the Ammunition Supply Point to the firing sites. She carried 385 rounds of ammunition totaling more than 9,000 pounds, and walked over 35 miles, through open rice paddles and up steep mountains, as enemy fire exploded at the rate of 500 rounds per minute.

Reckless provided a shield for front-line Marines, carried the wounded to safety, and was wounded twice. But she never quit until the mission was complete. She wasn’t a horse – she was a Marine!

She is buried at Camp Pendleton, Stepp Stables , where she spent her final years before her death at age 20 in 1968.

Staff Sargent Reckless

We walked the grounds and made our way to the Circle of Champions, where we saw Funny Cide, of Winstar Farms – that gorgeous horse farm from earlier in the week.

We then spent a delight 45 minutes being entertained by the Master of Ceremonies at a presentation of 3 of the Outstanding Horses living at the Kentucky Horse Park.

Go for Gin, at 9-to-1 odds, won the 1994 Kentucky Derby
Go for Gin then had close seconds in the Preakness & Belmont
Retired due to injury, he is the oldest living Derby winner at 30 years
His offspring have earned more than $20 million!
Point Given was the 2001 American Horse of the Year winning
Preakness, Belmont, Haskell Invitational & Travers Stakes
becoming the first horse to EVER win four $1M races in a row
Western Dreamer is an American Standardbred
Won the US Pacing Triple Crown in 1997
Western Dreamer is the only gelding of any breed to ever win
a Triple Crown
A Pacing Horse moves both legs on the same side of his body together rather the left front-back right and right front-back left
A Gelding is a castrated male horse – a difficult decision to make for a racehorse re: future stud fees but there are often reasons/benefits

We were fortunate to have an Arabian Horse Show being held the day we were there. Knowing absolutely nothing about judging horses, we still enjoyed the pageantry and marveled at the control the riders had over their horses. It was clear we had no knowledge of judging, as none of the horses Sandy & I chose won!

Monday was to be our last day together, so we had a leisurely breakfast outdoors with our traditional Lox and Bagels. Neither Lee nor Sandy had never had gravlox, so it was a joy to share with them – and they were good sports about it all!

Then it was off to our last distillery – Buffalo Trace in Frankfort. Every distillery we visited over the past 10 days has been about a 30-40 minute drive, but with all the beautiful horse farms, it has not been a problem!

The definition of a “buffalo trace” is a path or trail made by the buffalo as they roamed this part of our beautiful country in the 1700’s. In this case, the trail led the buffalo down to the Kentucky River for clear, fresh water. In 1773, Commodore Richard Taylor, an engineer and cousin of Zachery Taylor, was sent to survey the Kentucky River for navigability. He found it to be shallow but useable during most seasons of the year. The ability to move goods and services through the frontier to the port of New Orleans was an essential part of the development of the country, including barrels of whiskey both from upstream and from the surrounding area.

By 1858, Daniel Swigert builds a small but “up-to-date” distillery, using the existing warehouse and access to the river. In 1870, Colonel Edmund Haynes Taylor Jr. purchases the distillery and christens it “O.F.C.” for Old Fashioned Copper Stills, in the belief that the finest whiskey was produced in OFC.

Having grand plans, E.H. Taylor invests a “small fortune” ($70,000) as he builds a new distillery on the site. The fermenters in the original distillery were lined concrete and held 22,000 gallons in each of six fermenters. Taylor’s plan was much grander, so he filled in the concrete vats with dirt and built a concrete pad and building on top. During excavation years later, the original fermenters were saved and have been restored for historical value only.

In 1882, lightning strikes and burns the O.F.C. Distillery and is rebuilt immediately in an even grander manner at an additional investment of $44,000 (after insurance), including a large mashing (cooking) and fermenting wing which remains intact today.

In 1897, Albert B. Blanton, not wanting to be a farmer, joined the company as an office boy at the age of 16. He would spend the next 63 years working every job at the distillery, becoming President in 1921 at the beginning of Prohibition and navigating the company through that and many others challenges (including the Great Flood of 1937) until his death in 1961.

The grounds are beautiful, as is the statue of A. B. Blanton
He is buried over the hill at the site of his home

It seems as though every distillery had a claim of being the first to do something and often there is no way to verify or question those claims. However, tongue-in-cheek, the Distillery (now known as George T. Stagg Distillery) introduces Blanton’s in 1984, the world’s first single-barrel bourbon!

As we have heard time and again, with the exception of Heaven Hill, ownership of the distilleries has changed hands many times due to leadership, consolidation, Prohibition and vision. Today, this is a family-owned business after the purchase by the Sazerac Company in 1992.

By 1999, distillery had gone through another major renovation and is rechristened as the Buffalo Trace Distillery. The Distillery’s new flagship brand – Buffalo Trace – is launched.

Buffalo Trace currently has one continuous copper still and 13 fermenters that hold 93,000 gallons of mash each, along with all the rickhouses co-located on the banks of the Kentucky River. They are in the midst of a $1.2 billion expansion, including acquisition of 400 acres a few miles away to build additional rickhouses, that will double their production! What an investment – when you realize that the beginning of the return on investment is at least 7 years away when the first bourbon will be drawn from the barrels and available for sale!

The existing column still is in the background, the new still will be right beside it
Captain Bill & Cousin Lee were certainly attentive for the tasting!

Tuesday morning brought the departure of Lee and Sandy – and Primrose and Maggie (their four-legged family). We had a fabulous week with them and are hopeful for other rendezvous opportunities in our NEAR future! They headed out promptly at 8:00a – with the recipe and all the fixings for Mint Juleps to share with their friends.

Nothing better than time with Family!

After all the TV advertisements on The Ark Encounter and recommendations from several friends that had visited, we set off for – you guessed it – a 30 minute drive, this time north to Williamstown, Kentucky.

Out in the middle of Nowhere sits The Ark!

The research and execution of this project was absolutely mind-boggling. We would really like to go back, perhaps some early November, when it is cool and children are in school. While we were thrilled to see the huge number of families visiting a Biblically-based “attraction”, the sheer volume of people, strollers, backpacks, scooters for grandparents, etc made every step of the journey a challenge.

With tickets in hand, it took us over an hour standing in 90 degree direct sun to get the ticket exchanged for a wristband and get on the bus that would take us from the parking lot to the site. There is a tremendous amount of reading that tells not only the Story of Noah and the Ark, but also the research and decisions that were made to bring the Ark to reality in today’s world.

What started as a “what if” discussion in 2002 led to the purchase of land for development of the Ark site in April, 2010. Official groundbreaking for the construction occurred on May 1, 2014. The first beams were set in place on June 15, 2015 and the ribbon-cutting ceremony opening the Ark occurred on July 5, 2016. Compare that to what we “know” about the timing of the original Ark construction, by people much smarter than I am, who estimate it took 75 years to build it!

The creators of the current Ark attempted to build the structure to the specifications as God gave them to Noah – 500 cubits x 50 cubits x 30 cubits. But, first, one must determine what is the length of a cubit! A common measure in ancient cultures, it was the length from a man’s elbow to the tip of his longest finger, estimated to be 17.5″-18″. However, there was also a royal cubit, which added the width of four fingers (approx 3″) to make a royal cubit in ancient times equivalent to 20.4″-21.6″; they elected to utilize the more conservative number of 20.4″ cubit. That makes the Ark 510′ long, 85′ wide and 51′ tall and by volume 1.88 million cubic feet or hold approximately 450 semi-trailers.

While there clearly are no records on how Noah, his wife, their three sons and their wives dealt with the animals (watering, feeding, exercising, waste disposal, etc), the creators of this Ark represented methods that could have been used. There are representations of vessels for water capture and dispensing, feed/grain storage, and waste disposal. Workshops they would have needed to maintain the shop, as well as a blacksmith shop are included with cages holding replicas of a wide variety of animal pairs, both extinct and animals we recognize today.

The children were absolutely captivated and it really was enjoyable to watch their eyes light up as Mom and Dad explained what they saw. They seemed to be enamored with the door – where Noah loaded the animals into the Ark, two by two.

We departed mid-afternoon and headed back one last time to the Kentucky Horse Park Campground that had served us so well for a delightful week. We stowed the lights, rugs, grill and trapping that happen when you are somewhere that long and prepared for our departure on Wednesday morning.

Off easily just as planned! Adhering to our target of less than 300 miles per day, we stopped mid-afternoon and had a nice walk around the park. Thursday morning was an easy “Hitch the Toad and Go” and we were home safe and sound by noon, ready to unload and thankful to be home.

Contessa will be idle for at least a couple of months as Bill has knee replacement surgery (right knee – making accelerator and brake a challenge afterwards), but you’ll know when Contessa and The Toad Get Hitched again!

SO Missouri and Branson

The Ozark Mountain region provides beautiful landscapes, canyons, caves and people! We were so thankful that we elected to depart our family a day early. Weather did move in, as predicted, which would have made the mountain roads much more interesting (read challenging). As well, when we arrived in Branson on Sunday afternoon and were disconnecting the Toad, Jann noticed that the right side connection joint of the Blue Ox baseplate was loose. This baseplate with its two connections points are where the Toad hitches to Contessa and it is essential that these two points are solid and secure. If not, the Toad can cause major damage to people and structures!

This is the second time this joint had failed since its installation in mid-July 2017 when we acquired Contessa. Once again, we were so blessed to find good service providers. This time it was Thomas and Sons in Springfield, MO (35 miles away) that was a very knowledgeable Blue Ox distributor and service center. Bill contacted them on Monday morning and the Toad was in their service bay before noon. After a very short time, they determined that the baseplate had been installed improperly in 2017, which is what led to the initial failure in 2018 in Houston and again to the “repair” that was done at that time.

Within about an hour, we had a new baseplate assembly on order (to be received and installed the following day) and on our way in a loaner car, so that we could enjoy our time in Southern Missouri! Every single person we dealt with at Thomas & Sons was amazing – like their #1 goal was to solve any issue we might have and as though they were the owner of the business.

So, Tuesday morning, we set off to Dogwood Canyon, about 45 minutes southwest of Branson. On a hot day in southern Missouri, escaping to a 10,000 acre preserve of cool waters and luscious greenery was perfect. The preserve began with the purchase of 2,260 acres in 1990 by Johnny Morris, CEO of Bass Pro Shops. It was opened briefly to the public but was then closed for restoration and expansion. Over six years, construction of roads, bridges and infrastructure occurred that supports both the use and protection of what is now the home to long horn steer, elk and bison as well as bald and golden eagles and an amazing amount of rainbow trout.

Dogwood Canyon reopened to the public in 1996 and is now part of the Johnny Morris Foundation. There are hiking trails, bicycle paths, opportunities for both self-guided and guided trout fishing adventures, horseback riding and segway & tram tours.

It is an amazing preservation of a beautiful piece of the world. Johnny Morris has had a major impact on Southern Missouri, having founded Bass Pro Shops in 1972 in 8 square feet of space in the back of his father’s liquor store in Springfield, Missouri selling fishing tackle. He is truly an example of the “American Dream” where hard, honest work is rewarded – and is given back! That humble beginning is now a vast enterprise of destination stores, boat & ATV manufacturing, resorts & outdoor destinations and conservation projects.

We spent a delightful day at Dogwood Canyon and as soon as the two-hour tram tour completed, we headed back to Springfield to retrieve the Toad, with her shiny new baseplate. It was ready just as promised, at exactly the price they quoted – what a pleasure to do business with these people!

On Wednesday, we had the extreme pleasure of visiting the College of the Ozarks, located in Hollister, MO, just south of Branson. Their Mission is to “provide the advantages of a Christian education for the youth of both sexes, especially those found worthy, but who are without sufficient means to procure such training.” Their Vision is “to develop citizens of Christ-like character who are well-educated, hard-working and patriotic.”

Known as Hard Work University, all students at the college work, rather than pay, for their education. No full-time student pays tuition, but rather works at campus jobs. The college openly discourages debt by not participating in any kind of loans and allows students to the opportunity to graduate debt free. Additionally, they gain four years of valuable work experience.

It was founded in 1906 by Presbyterian minister Reverend James Forsythe as a high school called The School of the Ozarks. In 1956, it was renamed The College of the Ozarks as a junior college (closing the high school portion) before becoming a four-year bachelor’s program in 1965. In 2012, they re-opened the high school component and in 2015, implemented a kindergarten thru middle school component. They now offer complete K-12 and 4 year degree programs. There are over 50 majors available to students, who will graduate with a Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Science in Nursing.

While the Keeter Center is the largest “employer” on campus with an historic hotel, meeting facilities and dining room that serves lunch & dinner daily to the public, there are 100 work experiences from dairy to landscaping, stain glass to farming, greenhouses to candlemaking and millworks.

We had the opportunity to speak with many of the students as they worked in the various shops and dining room. It certainly renewed our faith and outlook in the “younger generation” as they spoke of their country, their commitment to their own future and their education. Our server at lunch is entering her junior year in nursing; she plans to work 2 years in ICU/Emergency Room Trauma and then return to school to pursue a degree as Nurse Practitioner.

As we mentioned, the Patriotic component of the education at College of the Ozarks is very prominent. To the left of the main entrance is Patriots Park, where Memorials are honorably presented, maintained and visited by the student body and visitors.

World War II Flag Plaza

COVID certainly took a toll on the town of Branson, as many of the entertainment venues, as well as motels and restaurants were boarded up or closed. The draw for us to Branson was not the entertainment, but we did decide to spend a couple of our evenings supporting the local establishments. One evening was “New Jersey Nights” – a local rendition of The Jersey Boys, which was quite well done. The second evening was The Six, a group of five (originally six) brothers that have been entertaining in Branson for over twenty years. Billed as one of the best shows in Branson, we left disappointed but glad that we had supported the local economy!

Our campground was extremely convenient, located literally downtown and right on Lake Taneycomo, which looks much more like a river, which connects to Table Rock Lake, a large recreational lake of Southern Missouri. Branson Lakeside RV Park is run by the city, is well maintained and very convenient for everything we wanted to see in the region.

We thoroughly enjoyed our days in Southern Missouri – then we headed back east toward our much-anticipated Kentucky Bourbon Trail. Over the next several days, we were in campgrounds that did not have wifi services of any type, so this blog entry is much delayed. We are currently “on the Trail” sipping Bourbon and taking many notes! You’ll hear from us again in a few days!

Ratts Reunion – What a Joy!

It’s hard to imagine that when, 22 years ago in May 1999, Jann’s father said “I don’t want this family to loose each other” as we sat in the living room of his brother Leval’s home in Salem, Indiana (his last living sibling). We had just left Uncle Leval/Grandpa’s Memorial Service – and we were all feeling a bit lost and the beginnings of adrift at sea. “The Farm” with Uncle Leval & Aunt Mary had been where we had ALL gone when we needed to “go home” and now they were all gone – first the farm, then Aunt Mary and now Uncle Leval. It was the farm that our collective great-grandfather had cleared and the anchor we had all clung to all our lives.

But, God does work in mysterious ways! Her Dad’s proclamation included not only what he didn’t want but what he did – a reunion to be held the following June, on Father’s Day, at Shirley Ratts’ Home in Memphis, TN! As we all sat in shock, Shirley “kind of” nodded yes – and the Ratts Reunion was born!

Now 22 years later, we have connected in Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, North Carolina, Florida, Arkansas, Tennessee – some multiple times and some multiple places. We’ve grown and we’ve aged – we’ve lost and we’ve added – the circle of Ratts just keeps getting bigger and crazier!

Leslie and Pam Ratts Cooper hosted this rowdy bunch at their Little Slice of Heaven on the White River near Norfork/Mountain Home, Arkansas – the first time eight years ago and again this Father’s Day Weekend 2021. We have grown from ~17 people that year to 35 this year! We had 7 that hadn’t been able to attend in close to 10 years and 11 that attended two years ago but unable to do so this year, so it is an ever-changing group. As always, it was a bit like herding feral cats.

The Ozark Folk Center is very well done – and deserved a full day, but the Brewery called us!

Saturday was “on the White River” – and with temperatures in the upper 90’s, even the frigid water temperatures were welcome!

After an exhausting day in the sun, Riverside Retreat (one of four properties housing the reunion) provided a wonderful environment for our final evening of cookout, conversation, laughter, games and sharing.

With many hugs and memories made, we bid each other “God Speed” on Sunday morning (some departed VERY early) – with prayers for safe travel and excitement for a Ratts Reunion 2023 in Dodge City, Kansas!

Taken At PJ’s Waterfront Restaurant Friday night – with our Traditional Ratts T-Shirts!

The Captain & The Admiral hitched The Toad to Contessa a day earlier than planned and headed to Branson, Missouri on Sunday about 11:00a. She had been in a prime location on Pam & Leslie’s property, but rain was forecasted for Sunday night & Monday. We did not want to risk having a 45,000 lb vehicle sink into the lovely lawn!

It turned out to be an extremely positive decision! Details in the next entry!

Our World Begins to Return to “Normal”

How could we have ever envisioned when we arrived home from California a year ago last April, that we would just now begin to really feel like “normal” is within reach. We have been so blessed in our cocoons – but the butterflies are more than ready to emerge!

We did take Contessa to the west coast of Florida for most of the winter, but like everything else in this world, it was strange and limited. Contessa did her part on our way down – when she had an issue with the transmission, she made sure it was within 25 miles of the absolutely best place on the eastern seaboard to resolve the issue! What could have been disastrous was instead a pleasant and prompt resolution and we have found the right people to service her in Savannah for the foreseeable future.

January, February & March was spent near St. Petersburg and Anna Maria Island which allowed us to have socially distanced visits with a few friends and relatives. Our site at the Tides RV Resort was lovely and while many were open for partying, we kept our distance, which seemed really strange but necessary. We truly tried to keep a balance between safety & sanity!

We returned to DryDock for the spring – and on Thursday, June 10, we “sprung the lines” (that’s a boating term) and pointed Contessa west. Having missed the Alaska Adventure last season, we originally thought we would make that our 2021 trip. As we looked at “things” in January, which is when planning had to occur, there were so many unknowns about traveling, Canadian border limitations, time away from home, etc. that we decided to savor a shorter trip this summer – and target the Pacific & Canadian Northwest in 2022.

So, this Adventure is the Ratts Reunion & the Kentucky Bourbon Trail! We’ll spend a weekend with Niece Christy & Chris in Nashville TN before heading to North Central Arkansas. We’ll spend most of a week there on the property of Cousin Pam and Leslie Cooper, where some 35 Ratts Cousins will converge!

One thing you NEVER do on a boat is to leave on a voyage/trip on Friday. It is simply bad “juju”!! With Contessa, we also plan our first day to be a short one, allowing us to easily close up the cabin, finish any preparations, make sure everything is right with the coach — all without stress and pressure. So, we launched on Thursday, June 10.

We packed the “final” load into the truck to take to Contessa across the river and started to pull up the driveway, only to be met with a wall of trees!

A storm the previous night evidently was all the old maple tree could handle. Unfortunately, as she came down, she took a tulip poplar and part of a rhododendron with it. So, back to the cabin for work clothes & gloves, loppers and chain saw. About an hour and a half later, we had the driveway cleared. Bill was able to cut the trunk of the maple such that we could roll pieces to the side of the drive – as there was no way we could pick them up! Thankfully, our reliable friend Kim Bishop & Crew will finish the job while we are gone. They have the equipment to handle it and we don’t have to face it when we return.

We were able to depart Brevard at 1:00p and, with our shortened schedule (~100 miles & fuel stop), arrive at our first overnight destination before 4:00p. Bill says it is always the last mile that is the challenge of every day and this one was low hanging branches & power lines. He navigated around them and we got to our site without issue. The leveling system on Contessa had her workout, but was able to level on a fairly steep site – all is good!

The next morning we delayed departure to avoid “rush hour” traffic thru Knoxville and arrived Nashville at 2:15p CDT. We’ll be here until Monday visiting with Christy & Chris and enjoying the hot but exciting city of Nashville!


View from Contessa’s front window of J Percy Priest Reservoir

We can certainly relate to Dorothy!

“There’s no place like home!”

Contessa pulled into her home port yesterday (Saturday) about 12:30p. And, oh, it is so good to be home, even as we enjoyed the adventure of sheltering in place with the shelter moving.

We had a very productive 4 days in Tampa. All the Dr appointments and tests occurred on the modified schedule, with both of us feeling very safe with the precautions that the medical facilities had implemented. On Thursday morning, the culmination of the week was with Bill’s Hearing & Balance specialist, located at Tampa General Hospital. There was a palpable pall hanging over the entire facility. Medical personnel in scrubs walking purposely toward a long day – with their heads down and not making eye contact with anyone.

Before Bill could enter the building, they took his temperature – which provided again a reassuring sense of protection. And the results of the MRI — the tumor on his audial nerve that we have been chasing for 12+years has shrunk since the last scan! This is such amazingly good news – his specialist (who was unexpectedly in the office) said that unless he begins to exhibit any of the symptoms we have watched for – primarily balance & right side facial muscles, there is no reason to return! He said “Go have a good life!” Now, that doesn’t mean he has or will regain any of the hearing in that ear, but our concern of additional and frankly more life-impacting effects has been all but erased! Thank God!

We did a little jig in the parking lot of the hospital – and then immediately headed back to Contessa, who was all closed up and ready to head north. We got out shortly after 11 and traveled about 120 miles to Starke FL for the evening. We stayed at a lovely little KOA Campground – totally quiet except for the trains that we love to hear.

We were out at first light on Friday – just anxious to get going, even though we were not trying to make it all the way home in one day. As we crossed the Florida-Georgia border heading north, we saw the barricades on the south bound lanes where Florida State Patrol had set up a total roadblock for all vehicles except semi-trucks. At 8:15a, the back-up was minimal, but we later heard reports of 5-6 mile back-ups. They are interrogating every vehicle, querying specifically those entering from New York/New Jersey/Connecticut. They were taking license/car/phone information and the destination of the passengers – and demanding 14 day quarantine and assuring the passengers that they would be checked on! We missed a similar experience coming into Florida last week – by just a few hours.

With our early departure, we got to our destination for the evening by about lunchtime – HomeStay RV Park near Orangeburg SC (off I-26). What an absolutely fabulous spot for our last night on the road! It is .6 mile down a dirt road to a 40 acre slice of heaven. The owners are building their dream of an event center (barn) and a few campsites (ultimately 10-12) in a several acre clearing around a stocked bass pond. They currently only have one site – so we fundamentally had the place to ourselves, except for the owners in their barn/house.

Saturday dawned bright & beautiful and we savored the many colors of green as spring has definitely come to the Low Country. As we headed north, the dogwoods were in bloom, the red buds were gorgeous and the wildflowers danced in the wind.

We pulled into Brevard about 11:30a Saturday morning, stopped just east of downtown to disconnect the Toad – and we headed up the mountain. Admiral Jann stopped by St. Philip’s to get our Palm Cross and admire the Palm Cross on the front of the church.

Since we arrived home, we have been settling in – which means moving all the stuff off the coach (and from the CA casita) into the cabin. That not only requires multiple trips with the Jeep & F-150, but it means figuring out where to put all the “stuff” into a cabin that is already full! By this evening, almost everything is in its place – or at least a temporary place.

So, now we will shelter-in-place like all of our friends & family have been doing. We have enough food for a month – and enough work on the property for at least twice that long, so we will be fine and will have no problem being bored!

It will probably be mid-late May before we learn whether our Alaska Trip will happen – but if not this year, then next. If it happens this year, we’ll need to leave by June 1 in order to be in northern Washington State by June 24. So, we’ll pause the blog until the next time Contessa & The Toad Get Hitched.

Please take care of yourselves and savor this very special Holy Week! Y’all are always in our thoughts & prayers!

Much Love,

Captain Bill & Admiral Jann