[Before We Begin: Let the record show that the names of anyone mentioned in the following Tale who are actually real people are mentioned in gentle jest only, with no real malice whatsoever intended. With that in mind, please read on . . . . ]
It was in December 2009 when the 29 invitations were sent out across the state. Invitations to the 18th Annual Rural Leaders Retreat, sponsored by the Kansas Sampler Foundation, to be held January 19-21, 2010, at the Barn Bed & Breakfast near Valley Falls in Northeast Kansas.
Two of these went to Osborne. Two more, to Lucas.
The emails between the four went thick and fast over the next month. What seemed common sense suggested that all four travel together. The four decided to even go a day early, so that they would have some time to Explore Kansas on the way - call it a bit of relaxation before the seriousness of the Retreat.
Diving into a deep well of irrevelent fun they called themselves the Kansas Gazetteer Musketeers; even had t-shirts made up with a variation of the cover of The Kansas Atlas & Gazetteer on the fronts.
If the rest of the Sunflower State only knew, something might have been done - to waylay or somehow prevent such a gathering. But by the time anyone did, it was too late.
Amid heavy fog that would last all day the pair from Osborne set out south. As incentive they even played the Kansas Explorer Theme Song: "Kansas . . . Come and Get It!" Forty miles later they picked up the pair from Lucas. Luggage was packed, snacks were stocked, GPS receiver made ready for use, and the Four Musketeers were off on their eagerly anticipated expedition down State Highway 18!
They almost made Sylvan Grove before the paparazzi somehow found them amid the fog. The feat was managed by the same reporter who broke the Sugar Glider scandal at last year's Retreat. Quickly the following photos were emailed to Martha Slater Farrell's nefarious blog, Kansas Explorers Underbelly Pickapart, and so the news broke nationally to a startled public. Against all probable odds, the Four Musketeers had been allowed once again to roam at large.
Real Name: Laura McClure
Hometown: Osborne, Kansas
Age: None of Your You-Know-What Business
Profession: Proprietor, Riverbend Bed & Breakfast
Musketeer Secret Name: General Direction
In Charge of: Marathon Driving and Expedition's Getaway Specialist
Real Name: Connie Dougherty
Hometown: Lucas, Kansas
Age: None of Your You-Know-What Business
Profession: Director, Lucas Area Chamber of Commerce
Musketeer Secret Name: Princess Pee
In Charge of: All Snacks & Rest Stops and Expedition's Imperious Leader
Real Name: Erika Nelson
Hometown: Lucas, Kansas
Age: Why Don't You Just Quit Typing This Line
Profession: Director, Worlds Largest Collection of the Worlds Smallest Versions of the Worlds Largest Things Traveling Roadside Attraction and Museum (World's Largest Things, Inc.)
Musketeer Secret Name: Commodore Bacon
In Charge Of: GPS Location and Expedition's Bacon Specialist
Real Name: Von Rothenberger "Captain 8"
Hometown: Osborne, Kansas
Owner: of The Gold Standard, the Expedition's vehicle
Profession: Co-owner, Ad Astra Publishing LLC
Musketeer Secret Name: Count de Ice Cream
In Charge Of: The Princess' Court Affairs, The Royal Mop, and the Expedition's Confectionary Specialist
Apprised of the Musketeers' unchecked carousing across the Kansas landscape, officials at the Kansas Sampler Foundation frantically tried every means at their disposal (read: Facebook) to contact the vehicle, but the Musketeers were in a one-to-no-bars zone and so all electronic calls went unheeded. And without knowing the Fearsome Foursome's itinerary, there was no way for Sampler officials to warn unsuspecting towns and attractions of impending invasion.
Princess Pee had brought the GPS coordinates along to several geocaches she thought they might try to find that day on the way to Belleville and the Boyer Museum, their only clear destination. The first geocache was between Vesper and Sylvan Grove; unfortunately, no one quite knew how to work the GPS receiver just yet - trying to do so in a speeding car amid fog and clouds obviously had nothing to do with this, of course - and the Commodore was doing her best. The Count and then the Princess both read the manual trying to help. The Commodore finally discovered how to make the receiver report how fast their vehicle was currently going; the problem was that the receiver kept reporting that they were going east when they should be going west. They passed the first GPS stop, and so tried for one just east of Lincoln.
Somewhere around this State Historical Marker along Highway 18 east of Lincoln is a geocache. The Musketeers, unable to rely on an accurate GPS reading, tried to find it visually but without success. There might have been that one spot - but it was so frozen there was no way to tell. The ever paparazzi-conscious Princess Pee can be seen peaking out from around the marker; we trust this was not an official Rest Stop.
The GPS receiver was checked again, but the Commodore reported that it still said that they should be heading the opposite way. Grumbling at faulty equipment the four moved on east to the next geocache stop: Tescott City Park.
Here in the Tescott City Park the GPS receiver was still spouting nonsense and the Musketeers had to once again resort to visual inspection of every inch of the very nice park - and once again came up empty. It was around this time that the first snacks were broke out to soothe wounded prides.
On east on State Highway 18 and then north on State Highway 106 brought the four to the next geocache site, 2.79 miles south of the city of Minneapolis, where the road passed through a sandstone cut. This time the GPS was working! The Commodore and the Count followed it up the road . . . a little further . . . still further . . . almost there . . . three feet . . . two feet . . . one foot . . . right here!
Only there was nothing there, at the foot of the rock cut. They went all over the site, searching in every crevice of the rock, but to no avail. Muttering Drat and Dagnabbit and Well, Poop they finally gave up and went back to the car, agreeing that they would tell everybody that the cache must be under ice and snow. That was their story and they are still sticking to it.
They headed on north into Minneapolis, taking a brief tour of the great architectural homes in the city. By then it was noon and a hungry Princess decreed a Lunch Stop. So they pulled into KT's Grill and Pizza and only took two wrong turns before finding the front door. Sigh.
This was deemed by all an excellent place to partake a luncheon meal. Above can be seen the Count's order of Tater Tots and a tasty Texas Burger, complete with Bacon Strips.
The Commodore hid her raging jealousy of the Count's Bacon by ordering a pork sandwich, which she noted looked somewhat like the state of Texas. Or was it Ohio? At any rate, all had a great lunch and naturally some ice cream was happily devoured on the way out the door. Note the architecture of the church seen across the street in the window.
The Musketeers then drove north on a paved county road past the Virginian Bar & Restaurant on the north side of Minneapolis and on to the town of Delphos, which the Princess had not been to in years and so decreed that it be part of the royal tour. They drove the entire town, checking out the grain pile at the elevator, the large "P" on the large building in the north of town ("That would hold a lot of pee, Princess" was the inevitable lowbrow comment), the Methodist church where Gunsmoke's Milburn Stone was married, and so on at several other Explorer-fascinating places. And then it was once around the town square.
Which evolved into driving a second time around the town square, as not everyone in the vehicle got to see all the sites - Parkers on the Square which was the store for everything from beer & groceries & ice & wireless Internet & a large number of other things, the working town water tower without a top, the Gracie Bedell Monument, the I.O.O.F. building that Count de Ice Cream's great-grandfather worked on in 1910, the old city jail (seen above), and the Second Street Cafe which a guy had just come out of and was watching the unfamiliar car continually cruising around the town square.
Then General Direction announced that while EVERYONE ELSE had seen the square, that because she had been busy driving she had not, and so it was a third time around the town square. This time a second guy had come out to join the first guy in watching the unfamiliar car continually cruising around the town square.
It was at this point that the Four Musketeers spiralled down into that state that Sampler Officialdom had feared ever since the news had broke of their unforeseen Early Expedition: the State of Unbridled Silly Humor.
In the photo above Delphos' Second Street Cafe can be seen on the right. But it was the name faintly seen on the grey building to the left that proved to be the catalyst. Legend states that it was none other than Princess Pee who read aloud the name Dr. Donald Yowel and simply could not help herself, that it was she who abruptly unleased a YOWELLLL!!! into the foggy January air.
It was like a dam had burst. Commodore Bacon followed with a YOWELLLL!!! of her own, joined by the General and the Count. As the subsequent howls echoed through the Delphos streets the Count noted that the men previously outside the cafe were not to be found and the streets had suddenly emptied. Everyone's a critic.
The State of Unbridled Silly Humor only momentarily contained, the Musketeers decided that it was time to head out of town pretty much as fast as possible before the next of many such fits came on. They followed paved county roads north and east to U.S. Highway 81, which the General swung onto and raced them north to Concordia. It was at this point that the General commented that she had been laughing so hard her sides hurt - the first of many, many times she would make that comment over the course of the next several days.
It was also at about this point that the Princess commented that if she laughed much more there would be a need for the Royal Mop. And so the second of the Count's responsibilities came into being.
The news clattered over the Sampler Director's laptop: the Musketeers had been sighted! They had descended onto Concordia's Cloud County Tourism Office, leaving the place in breathless chaos. Pale staff members reported that the four were last seen storming Main Street and taking no prisoners. The Sampler Director herself paled, thinking that she had just informed the Governor that she had the situation contained and therefore there was no need as yet to call out the National Guard.
Driving into Concordia (which took them six hours to get to from Osborne, only 90 miles to the west), the Musketeers decided to give geocaching one final go. They had coordinates to a cache in Hood Park, on the city's east side. The GPS now working perfectly, the Commodore and the Count braved snowdrifts and icy water in their search.
And they found it! (That's it above.) The Horns of Jericho sounded as they opened up the geocache and each took a momento from the contents, as tradition holds. Tradition also dictated that they replace these objects with something of their own.
Flush with their victory, the Musketeers proceeded to the Dairy Queen for a well-deserved celebration. Then it was a stop for gas before the Fearless Foursome beheld Concordia's newest attraction: The Longest Sculpted Brick Mural in the United States!
The wall tells the history of Cloud County and the general region. It also fronts the Cloud County Museum Annex and the Cloud County Tourism Office. The folks manning the Tourism Office were their usual happy and engaging selves as the Musketeers enjoyed the many exhibits and bought products from the Tourism Office store. You can see their side of the story at http://www.getconcordia.blogspot.com/.
Afterwards the Princess, having already decided that she needed a crown and a sceptre, took her entourage into the Catholic Thrift Shop, located just down the street west of the Tourism Office, to search for suitable materials with which to create these items. Heeding the Princess' unspoken decree that all members of her court must display 'proper' outward signs of their status, the Count went into Dan's Antiques and to his satisfaction found an authentic 1960s red plastic-handled ice cream scoop.
Feeling somewhat poorer but satisfied with their shopping finds, the Musketeers headed north on US Highway 81 to Belleville, where they stopped at the Visitors Center, leaving brochures and buying Kansas products.
Then it was on to the Paul Boyer Museum of Animated Carvings, a recent nominee for the 8 Wonders of Kansas Customs. For over a quarter century Boyer has been carving fantastic "motion sculptures," fantasy figures operated by small electronic parts that you can see working. One of Paul's daughters was gracious enough to come down and open the Museum just for the Musketeers, who bought souvenirs and expressed their admiration at her father's artistry.
Here are some photos of Paul Boyer's artwork. He usually completes an item in only a few days. Buttons on the wall start up the electric motors, causing the sculptures to move in astonishing ways. You simply have to go see it to believe it.
As the Musketeers still had a long ways to go before their evening's rest in Hiawatha, the Princess decreed a mad dash cross-country eastward through the enveloping fog on US Highway 36. Would they make it to Marcon Pies in Washington before they closed?
And they just made it. At the Marcon Pies factory (one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas Commerce) the Musketeers bought one Rhubarb and one Cherry Pie, to substain them through the next few harrowing days, of course. Then it was another mad dash eastward as darkness descended and the fog increased. Finally they reached Hiawatha, where the Count had to tame a very friendly bassett hound guard in order to gain entrance to a closed coffee shop, where he obtained vital information from the uncertain shop owner with the paint roller in her hand on directions to the nearest grocery store. In his absence the others perused the nearby grounds of the Brown County Courthouse, noting that while there were brass plaques at the foot of the trees in the square, there was not a name on any of them! Yet another mystery in this strange land of dark and fog.
Armed with the Count's new knowledge, the Four then raided the city's Thriftway Store for food and other overnight supplies. The cabin that they were staying in lay somewhere to the northwest just outside of Hiawatha. Interrogating the grocery store clerk gave them firm directions, which led them west and then north on a paved county road in the fog and darkness. Mounds of snow several feet high bordered the road as they reached Country Cabins at last.
And then it took nearly a half hour to settle a new quandary: Which cabin was theirs?? The Princess' name was to be on the door of theirs, but it could not be found! After searching all the cabins and nearly getting the overloaded vehicle stuck on a slippery slope in the ice and snow, they thought to try the farmhouse across the road. Turns out they had a house for the night and not a cabin, a small oversight the owners neglected to mention. Sigh.
So at 7:28 PM, after choosing which rooms to bed down in, the tired travellers solved the mystery of the luminous eery blue light exuding from the refrigerator (they closed its door) and settled down to a meal of Brants Meat Market (one of the 8 Wonders of Kansas Commerce) sausage and cheese, other assorted food items, and of course slices of Marcon Pie ala mode. They then watched a video on the Paul Boyer Museum they had purchased and tried Internet and other electonic services, all of which were too weak to work in this remote location. Then it was to bed and get ready for another full day of travel in Kansas.