Shhh. Can you keep a secret?

We can’t. Well, maybe we can just whisper it in YOUR ear…

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The small town of Los Alamos, NM (population 12,019) was the ultimate travel secret for many years.  If you worked and lived there, it was a “zip your lips” place.

“Imagine you work in a city that isn’t on any map, in a house that has no postal address. You go to work each day not really knowing the purpose of what you are doing or how it fits into the jobs of the thousands of other people going to work each day around you. You don’t talk about where you live or what you do with anyone on the outside—and even on the inside the work conversations are kept within your own department. You always erase the blackboard after a meeting.” That was the Secret City of Los Alamos during the early 1940s. (http://bit.ly/2vabtRx)

Small town America is home to lots of “secret” places

The Tour has traveled tens of thousands of off-the-beaten-path road miles. Our favorite experiences are discovering secret little “hideaway” places that most people have never been to or seen…like Secret City. Here’s a quick roundup of several. Can you name them? We’ll give you a few hints.

This is the scene inside Russell’s Travel Center (NO, we don’t own it)

Actually, this is NOT a tiny town…

All we’ll tell you is that this gentleman owns an establishment named in honor of his mother. His restaurant is located in an area known for citrus farming.

Mermaids, apparently, need suds to quench their thirst in Longbeach Village.

Sgt. Pepper is featured at this iconic gallery.

Wine and classic cars featured in the bucolic Northwest Connecticut town.

And when those cotton balls get rotten…Located in the small town that hosts The Big Pig Jig (think BBQ).

Sam’s tree house has a connection to President Jimmy Carter.

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The Tour found harmony in Harmony…and some wonderful wine.

Bart made a new friend in a place called Old Town. Frank Lloyd Wright would have approved.

Rorie was always fascinated with super hero movies. Can you say rusty “Transformer”? Only a short drive from Music City to this small town. 

Shy pie? No. Shy server? Yes. Wonderful establishment just outside the city limits of Ft. Smith, AR.

Chile capital of the world.

The abbreviation for this small town is HdG. This is a water’s edge view of the Chesapeake Bay.

Bart, meet Bert, Bert, meet Bart. Iconic local waterside grill.

Sidewalk art from the grounds of the Gibtown Showmen’s Club.

Discovering small towns makes you work up an appetite – or makes you vulnerable to snack attacks. Salty, crunchy goodness found here, down the road apiece just over the railroad tracks.

Stay tuned for road reports about lots more “secret towns” in small town America.

We discovered a small town gem of a place…right in our own backyard

Editor’s notes: Rorie and Bart love #smalltowns. That’s obvious. But they especially love discovering awesome places when they’re only a stone’s throw (well maybe a 1 or 2 hour drive) from their home. They’ve reported on “Backyard Gems” before, spotlighting places like Micanopy, FL (http://bit.ly/2tCji5o) and Collinsville, CT (http://bit.ly/2tF06DO).

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We recently navigated our way to the town of Dunedin (pronounced DONE-EE-DIN) in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. Bart’s father “Buddy” often mentioned the place when reminiscing about his time in the Army Air Corps during World War II. He trained near Dunedin as a rear tail gunner on a night fighter before being deployed to the Philippines.

Today the town is said to offer some of the best dining in the Tampa Bay area, hosts the minor league Dunedin Blue Jays baseball team, and has art, culture and – according to some locals – the #1 Beach in America!  Your DSTA Tour guides focused on Dunedin’s quaint downtown village. What fun!

A patriotic archway “announces” the town’s retail district – The Shops on Broadway.  

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Colorful signs and sidewalk “ornaments” put a smile on our faces.

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The sweet tooth among us made a beeline for this charming sugar mecca. Check out some of its old school confections.

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To Rorie’s defense, she did take a pass on Sweet Treats’ Sky Bars, Charleston Chews, ice cream and other goodies that were calling her. But, that’s only because she knew what was waiting for her just a few blocks down the street…lunch.

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View from our counter seat

The Olde Bay Cafe is attached to the Dunedin Fish Market. Their seafood is fresh and just plain good. The views from our bar stools were spectacular. It was a hot day so we ate inside. In cooler weather the outside deck is where you want to be.

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Our Dunedin explorations – and chow down lunch – were terrific. But the day wasn’t over….Here’s where things got even more fun.

Normally we start our #smalltown “tours” with a specific destination in mind. But, invariably, we discover random, really cool places that weren’t on our radar. And that’s what happened in nearby Largo, Florida.

Thanks to some good road signage, we noticed a sign that caught our attention.

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The screeching sound you may have heard was Bart making a sudden U-turn to get back to the entrance of The Florida Botanical Gardens. Oh my, what  wonderful discovery.

After parking (the place was deserted because of the heat), we headed out to explore the park. The first thing we noticed was this rather amusing sign.

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Needless to say, we had no intention of either feeding or molesting a gator. Whaaaat?

The Gardens are a maze of beautiful walkways.

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It’s also an extraordinary venue for weddings.

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There are plantings of every kind imaginable around the grounds. They’re stunning.

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Pictures may be worth a thousand words, but our ability to capture the amazing beauty of the Gardens was extremely limited. All we can say is, if you’re ever in this area, put The Florida Botanical Gardens on your bucket list!

And while you’re there you MUST take in Heritage Village. It’s literally right next door to The Gardens. This 21-acre living history museum features 31 structures, some from the mid-to-late 19th century. It averages 4 1/2 stars on #TripAdvisor for a good reason.

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This wonderful recreation of a #smalltown village includes a school, church, railroad depot, sponge warehouse and general store as well as a variety of historic homes.

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We will be back to spend more time exploring the sights and smells of the village of Dunedin, The Florida Botanical Gardens and Heritage Village. Maybe we’ll see you there!

 

The Tour discovers “real-deal” Greek food, found and eaten in a small MD town where the Army tested the bullets that killed JFK.

After experiencing hellacious traffic getting through Atlanta, we had a quiet night’s stay in Norcross, GA (The Peach State)The Tour continued through South Carolina (Home of The Gamecocks) on our way to Durham, NC (The Tarheel State), where we stopped to see our daughter Sara and meet the newest member of the family.

Say “hi” to our new grand dog, rescued Lady Jane, LJ for short, who Sara (right) recently adopted.

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Sara made us THE BEST EVER slow cooked pork loin dinner. Her recipe was from a web site called Gonna Want Seconds. Bart wanted (and had) thirds. OMG. Here’s a link to the recipe. DO NOT MISS THIS ONE: http://bit.ly/2gufusr

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The next morning we made tracks through VA (Virginia is for Lovers), the Nation’s Capital and on to the small town of Aberdeen, MD (Maryland is for Crabs). The town is home to baseball legends Billy and Cal Ripken, and former resident and musician Frank Zappa. 

Hall of Famer Cal Ripken, Jr. holds the record for consecutive games played (2,632), surpassing Lou Gehrig’s 56 year run of 2,130 that many believed was unbreakable.

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Aberdeen (pop. 15,130) is also notable for the presence of the U.S. Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground, where Bart’s career Army Uncle Joe Harrington was stationed for several years. It’s also where ballistics tests were carried out on the bullets that killed President Kennedy.

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Our hotel for the night was located in a most unusual – and cool – location…attached to Ripken Stadium. The Stadium is home to the Aberdeen IronBirds, Class A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles. The team has sold out every home game since it began playing there in 2002.

This is the view from our room.

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After checking into our hotel, we dropped our luggage and then immediately headed out again to explore the nearby town of Havre De Grace, MD (pop. 12,952). Positioned on the Susquehanna River and at the head of the Chesapeake Bay, the city was named one of America’s 20 best small towns to visit in 2014 by Smithsonian Magazine. If Smithsonian says to visit…we go.

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There is so much history here, ranging from the British invasion during the War of 1812 to the town’s role as a primary stop for escaped slaves on the Eastern Route of the Underground Railroad.

Walking along the waterfront boardwalk (or as they call it…a promenade) we passed what was once the stately brick Bayou Hotel, now condos.

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Continuing on, we passed the Decoy Museum, (duck hunting and artisan carved decoys are still big business here) and the historic Concord Point Lighthouse, which marks the mouth of the river.

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The Chesapeake Bay views along the Promenade Walkway were spectacular. It was dusk, there was nearly a full moon and this kayaker had “the joint” all to himself. Very serene.

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What a great spot to sit and take a load off.

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We can’t think of single boat lover who wouldn’t want this gig – Havre de Grace Harbor Patrol.

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Driving out of the waterfront downtown area, we passed gracious inns decked out for Christmas, and restaurants and shops overlooking the bay. Havre De Grace is a very cool, old-fashioned town where the surrounding river and bay draw folks to enjoy coastal living.

The Vandiver Inn, a charming Victorian-style B&B near the banks of the Susquehanna River.

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After our waterfront walk in the brisk (okay cold) air, we definitely worked up an appetite and knew just the place to go…Georgia’s Carry Out, a local mom and pop Greek restaurant we read about.

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The minute we walked in we knew we made a great choice. Nick, who owns the restaurant with his beautiful wife, greeted us, asked us if we’ve had his home made soups, and when we said no, he immediately brought each of us 3 samples of the best soup ever.

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A couple at a neighboring table, Tim and Sandy Brooks, really helped us decide what to order. Thanks for the great suggestions.

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This is a small Greek Salad which could have fed at least 3 people. The stuffed grape leaf melted in our mouths. The feta cheese was fresh and creamy, and all the veggies were perfectly ripe and crisp. But wait, there’s more.

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Owner Nick ladled our “sample” soups. Bart loved the homemade pea soup so much he ordered what they call “a bowl”. Had to be a quart of that liquid deliciousness in his “trough”.

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Rorie got a gyro (pronounced “YEE-roh” Nick insisted). As the old saying goes, “It takes two hands to handle a whopper”. This was a whopper and it was delicious!

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Tim and Sandy told us about another small town eatery they thought we should take a look at, even if only for the kitschy decorations. It’s called Mamie’s Cafe (http://www.mamiescafewithlove.com). This is what ABC News had to say about the place: “The hand written sign spells out Mamie’s…and underneath you see, ‘With Love.’ When you go inside, its like your family album came to life…While waiting for your pot roast, shrimp salad, or free desert, take a look up on the wall and you will see a history of East Baltimore.” Did someone say free dessert?

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Mamie’s walls are covered with old pots, pans, washboards and nostalgic photos from years gone by…

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Full beyond words, we headed back to our place of rest for what we hoped would be a great night’s sleep.

This was the reading on our odometer when we left Georgia. We’ve put quite a few miles on our buggy, under our belts and on our buns, with 2,000 more to go.

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The next stop on the second to last leg of our coast-to-coast, round trip Tour: Connecticut. Time to bundle up.

The Tour takes on small town TX, Loo-zee-an-uh and Miss-iss-i-ppi

NOTE: Some may think the Tour is too focused on food, but we’ve found that the townies we meet love to “tell us where to go”. Plus, discovering great local eateries brings us to cool parts of the towns we’re visiting AND introduces us to hometown folks with great inside info and stories to tell. Read on…


After a long, grueling ride from Abilene, TX, through towns like Clyde (pop. 3,734 – Bart’s Dad’s middle name), Cisco (pop. 3,899 – birthplace of  Darrell “Dash” Crofts of the music duo Seals and Crofts), Terrell (pop. 15,816 – where actor and musician Jamie Foxx lived and graduated from school), we crossed through small Louisiana communities like Rustin (featured by Jack Kerouac in his book On the Road), site of the annual Rustin Peach Festival.

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We continued on over the Mississippi Bridge to our final stop of the day – Vicksburg, MS (pop. 23,856).

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Vicksburg has an interesting history as a strategic Confederate site that was practically impenetrable because of it’s location on a high bluff and on the Mississippi River. General U.S. Grant was ordered to capture the City, and during the Winter of 1863, he put his Army aboard transports and moved downriver from Memphis. Floodwaters prevented Grant from marching over the land from the river against Vicksburg, and Confederate cannons on Vicksburg’s bluffs made it impossible to move the army by boat past the city to attack from below.

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Eventually, Vicksburg surrendered during the 47 day Siege of Vicksburg. The surrender of the City by Confederate General John C. Pemberton on July 4, 1863, together with the defeat of General Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg the day before, marked the turning point in the Civil War in the Union’s favor.

Vicksburg’s historic architecture is stunning. Cedar Grove, built in 1852, is one example.

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During the War, Cedar Grove was struck by a cannon ball, which is still lodged in the parlor wall. The house is one of many in town that’s said to be haunted.

The Beck House is another example of Vicksburg architecture from the Antebellum period.

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The Old Vicksburg Courthouse is now a Civil War museum.

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After checking out the gracious old buildings, it was getting late and finding some good “Vicksburg Vittles” was foremost on our mind.

Rusty’s Waterfront Grill is a great southern comfort and seafood restaurant right by the Mississippi River at the end of the historic section of downtown Vicksburg. Another example of a wonderful recommendation by a local.

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All that was left of a bowl of jalapeño hush puppies and chipotle mayo dipping sauce. We were trying to make sure we achieved the RDA for the “grain” and “dairy” groups on the food pyramid.

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You can’t be in MS and not try some gumbo loaded with sausage and local seafood. Well, you could pass on it but why would you want to?

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Rorie opted for this behemoth Gulf shrimp po’ boy. She would like it to be clear that she did not eat the roll…like that really matters!

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Bart went the healthy and safe root with fresh grilled Grouper accompanied by sides of mayo-laden dipping sauces. Yes, it came with fries (not pictured).

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Dry-docked Mississippi River boat across from Rusty’s.

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The downtown historic section of Vicksburg is really beautiful and all decked out for Christmas. Loaded with museums, historic homes, brick paved streets and oozing Southern charm, it’s definitely a wonderful place to stroll.

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Tomorrow: Leaving cool Vicksburg for Hotlanta…

From AZ to El Paso to Abilene…a whole lot of nuthin’ going on, except ghosts and snakes

We left the comfortable surroundings of our beautiful Scottsdale, AZ digs for the last 2 days with some uncertainty and trepidation about today’s journey, and ultimate destination – El Paso, TX.

The drive through AZ was uneventful, but we stumbled onto a way off-the-beaten path (we’re talking dirt road) place that was really cool…Shakespeare Ghost Town in Lourdsburg, NM (pop. 2,665). The Tour-mobile took gravel roads to get to the place where the “streets” were trod by Billy The Kid, John Ringo, Curley Bill, The Clantons and other famous gunslingers.

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This remote outpost isn’t a tourist destination. There was no one to be seen for miles…

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We read a little about this spooky place with the interesting past, and hightailed it out of there before we got rounded up by a sheriff’s posse. Can’t even fathom how these outlaws found this place to begin with.

The route between Las Cruces, NM and El Paso, TX is  called Dairy Row and for good reason.

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More than 30,000 cows live in 11 farms located one after the other and trust us, we smelled them long before we even saw them.

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Our next stop was Deming, NM (pop. 14,090), where Rorie continued to calm her nerves and satisfy her dairy needs with some medicinal sweets…

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Fully reenergized, we completed the last segment of the day’s itinerary and arrived in the border town of El Paso, TX. El Paso is a pretty prosperous city, so it was really startling to see the shacks and crumbling “houses” perched along the bank of the Rio Grand River 50 yards across the small bridge in Juárez, Mexico. It was sad for us to see how simply being born on the wrong side of a bridge sentences someone to a different quality of life.

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We freshened up at out hacienda for the night, and headed out in search of some good local BBQ. Oh boy, did we ever find it at the Rib Hut.

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Wednesday is “rib night” at the Rib Hut ($2.25 apiece for humungous beef ribs) and lucky for us, it was Wednesday. We were excited to try real Texas BBQ. The vibe in the place was great, the food even better. Bart KNEW it was gonna be his kind of place when he walked in and saw paper towels, Tabasco and jalapeños. Rorie KNEW it was her kind of place because there was a sale on ribs.

People were seated family style and we got a primo space near the fireplace and this wonderful couple, Richard and Leticia.

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They were fun and informative about the area, and told us what to order at this joint, which they go to once a week. We enjoyed meeting them as much as we did feasting on our fabulous, heart-healthy meal of ribs, brisket, sidewinder fries and coleslaw.

With full bellies, we went “home” and called it a night. The next morning we were greeted by plummeting temps. Time to put away the flip flops, t-shirts and shorts. Ugh!

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After packing the car – again – we started what we knew was going to be a long journey to Abilene… and immediately ran into snow.

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Bart was nervous because the route we were taking required us to go over some steep mountains and the last thing we needed to hit were icy roads. About 20 miles out of El Paso, in the mountains, we were surprised to come to a Border Patrol Station in the Town of Clint (pop. 941). We rolled to a stop and a member of the border patrol approached the Tour-mobile. He was menacing in his full face ski mask that looked like this…

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Bart asked the agent where we were and he said “You’re in hell, and it just froze over”. Hard to know if he was kidding or not but we didn’t hang around long enough to figure it out. After asking if we were U.S. citizens and of course answering “yes”, we moved right along. Glad to know that one little question keeps us safe from terrorists and aliens!

Bart used to work with a guy in DC who was from West Texas (San Angelo) and he always said it was a God forsaken place, where in many places there’s nothing but tumbleweed. Well, Bill Bivens, having spent a week one afternoon driving through the region and actually having a huge tumbleweed blow across the road and get stuck under our car, I think you understated the desolation that is West Texas…

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Further ahead we came to Fort Hancock, TX (pop. 1,713), which is a classic example of a place “where there’s no there there”.  We did stop at this place, happily not to eat but for a quick fill up at the adjacent gas station. There was a sign on the the station (which we forgot to take a picture of) that said it all, “Open 25/7“. You do the math!

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The town of Ft. Hancock is really struggling.

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“Outpost” says it all…

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With our tank filled, we continued today’s journey. Rorie was quite relaxed…

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We passed by, not through, the Texas towns of Van Horn (pop 2,063), Torah (pop. 92) and Pecos (pop. 8,903), Big Spring (pop. 27,291) and Colorado City (pop 4,821) before arriving in Sweetwater, TX (pop. 11,415).

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Sweetwater is the home of the annual (and world’s largest) rattlesnake roundup. Rorie wouldn’t get out of the car. You’ll understand why when you notice what’s hanging around the top left side of the sign.

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The event began in 1958 and is run by the Sweetwater Jaycees.

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Rorie and I thought of our neighbors the Lakes who are involved with the Longboat Key Kiwanis Club, and wondered whether they might want to organize a snake roundup in their/our Gulf Coast community. We hear it’s a great fundraiser.

World Poker Tour legend Doyle Brunson is from Sweetwater…Bart is a big fan.

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John Wayne was in the 1932 movie King of the Pecos, in which Sweetwater was the home town.

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Enough with our Sweetwater fascination. Onward to Abilene, where we settled in our room and grabbed a bite to eat. During dinner we met an interesting woman from Blanket, TX (pop. 342) with a great life story to tell.

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Chyrl Bradfield was raised by her “Mamaw”(Grandmother), who had 11 kids of her own. All the kids in town went to K-12 in the same little schoolhouse. She is part of the McClain Family which holds awesome family reunions each year. As the Welcome to Downtown Blanket sign says, she was what they call “friendly folks”.

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Tomorrow’s destination…Vicksburg, MS. Join us!

Frank Lloyd Wright had the right stuff… Scottsdale’s public art, food “to die for”

When we’re on the road we prefer to support small town, locally owned businesses, including Airbnbs, etc. If none are available we like to stay at Marriott properties. This Scottsdale hotel may have been THE best Courtyard Marriott Hotel we’ve ever experienced. Here’s what we posted on TripAdvisor…http://bit.ly/2hc6nOP. Not only was the facility amazing, but the staff, particularly Kristy and Desiree, were the epitome of customer service…stellar! This is the first Marriott-branded hotel on U.S. tribal land, and they’ve done a great job of preserving the culture and history of the local Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian community.

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Hot times on a cool night but sadly…no marshmallows.

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Courtyard hosts this amazing 14 year old singer, Lelea Fonua,  who was accompanied on bongos by his dad laying “live chill music”. What a voice. In addition to singing solo and playing guitar and a uke, he’s in a band called 3 Nations (http://lelea.org/3-nations.html).

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These feet are made for walking, and walk we did. Can’t miss us.

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We saw this concrete sidewalk imbedded with glass and other materials outside of the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, and thought it would be a great idea for either inside or outside our house too. Rorie sees a reno project ahead…again.

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Bart wanted to give a shout out to his colleague Dale Rogers, who’s a public art champion and who himself has designed some amazing large-scale pieces, including his Big Dog sculptures seen around the Country (http://www.bartonrussell.com/dale-rogers). Scottsdale would make him proud…

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The Scottsdale Civic Center Mall, which is actually a magnificent park, is filled with public art including this famous sculpture by Robert Indiana. We spent a few hours meandering through the gardens, art, fountains, shops and restaurants. A wonderful space to spend a beautiful afternoon.

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A war hero/Minister and his suffragette wife.

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No clue what this art represents (Teepee maybe?) but we loved it anyway.

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What a cool little merry-go-round made of fabric strips for kids and adults alike.

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Hotels, restaurants and shops in buildings saturated with color line the park.

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Wild horses couldn’t drag Rorie away from this huge Christmas tree in the park, even though she thought it was missing just one thing…tinsel.

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Bischoffs Gallery near the park has beautiful Southwestern art both inside and out.

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Bart was in his Clint Eastwood persona. “Stay away from my warrior buddy and no one gets hurt”.

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The Tour heads East, but first: coyotes, cakes and cookies…

Before leaving sunny CA to make our way 3,oo0 miles plus to New England (the next BIG leg of the Tour), we got up bright and early for a power walk in a nearby Pasadena neighborhood. This “dog”  was running across the street in traffic, so Bart took several steps toward the critter to see if it was wearing an ID on its collar. The “dog” it turned out was a coyote. Stunned, and a little freaked out, we decided to step up our pace and head in another direction – pronto!

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After returning to the hotel and cooling down, Rorie decided the only way to settle her nerves after our encounter with this wild beast was to go in search of some medicinal sweets. Using Yelp, we were led to the 5 star rated Eagle Rock Italian Bakery on Colorado Boulevard in LA.

Joined by Rorie’s sister Darcy, we parked and walked – no trotted – to this dessert mecca. If you know Rorie and her sisters and brother, you know nobody messes with them in the presence of cannolis, Italian cookies and other sweet pastries. Body language tells it all. For them, this selection process is serious business.

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The possibilities were endless, the choices overwhelming, the decisions agonizing.

Thank goodness they had their wonderful and amazingly patient guide Desiree to help them through the decision-making process (otherwise we’d be there all day). In reality, “the girls” decided on taking practically one of everything!

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Success…$70 later…pounds and pounds of goodies; pounds and pounds of weight gain!

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We left Pasadena after a quick breakfast and got on our way to Scottsdale, AZ. Our route took us to the iconic town of Palm Springs (pop. 44,321), which has a reputation as the 50’s home and playground of the rich and famous from that era. Think Frank Sinatra, Loretta Young, Liberace, Dean Martin, Marilyn Monroe and other Hollywood hot shots.

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Unfortunately, their mid modern digs are now privately owned and we  couldn’t get near them. Luckily we were able to experience the outdoor shopping and dining  attractions of La Plaza, a quaint historic setting in town.

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Leaving Palm Springs we passed the Town of Indio, home to the annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Paul McCartney, Pearl Jam, and Leonard Cohen are among the many headliners who’ve performed there.

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Continuing on we passed miles and miles of places where there’s no there there. Take the Town of Desert Center (pop. 204), for example. Years ago, it was a busy stopping point between Los Angeles and Arizona. Today it feels almost like a ghost town. The downtown has some old buildings, a cafe and a post office which also serves as a community center. That’s all folks.

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Nearby Blythe, CA (pop. 19,832) has a little more going for it, but don’t pick up hitchhikers there.

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We could get you a really good deal on land in this barren region in the middle of nowhere…

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We think you get the picture. The landscape between LA and Scottsdale is pretty desolate. Nevertheless, after several days of fun and sun in the big city, we actually enjoyed the peacefulness of the open road. Rolling into Scottsdale, we began planning what discoveries we could make during our explorations there. Stay tuned.