Smoke from Utah fires fills the Wyoming sky as Tour de Heartland comes to a close.

Larry Farmer loves his job! It’s been 44 years since Larry started collecting small change in return for a view of prairie dogs and a bobcat on the family farm. Today, he’s an iconic figure in Americana tourism, collecting somewhere around $9 a person to visit one of the most eclectic collections of animals and, of course, the world’s largest prairie dog.

Countless times we’ve passed by the Oakley, Kansas zoo on I-70 without stopping at Prairie Dog Town. A friend reportedly visited the big prairie dog in a garage one winter day.  But today we shelled out $25 (with a friendly discount from Larry) and actually felt pretty good about it.

Talking with Larry is worth the price of admission. He’s proud of what he’s done with Prairie Dog Town. Proud of the t-shirt he gave Al Roaker, the stories in Wall Street Journal and the parade of visitors from around the globe.

The pit of rattlesnakes starts the tour, Outside, the yard is pocked with prairie dog holes. Russian boars roll around in the muck while goats flock to the fence for handouts. Geese roam freely while the five-legged and six-legged steers rest next to each other.

At the far end of the park you can see the bright white belly of the world’s largest prairie dog, freshly painted and standing 17-feet high - all 8,000 reported pounds. It’s like a lifetime achievement to come to Prairie Dog Town, posing for pictures with the giant dog.

Yah, it’s corny. But it’s America. Promoters like Larry Farmer are, sadly, becoming a thing of the past. But 44 years later, his energy, passion and twist-your-arm tourism are still bringing people to Oakley for a little break while driving the flatlands of Kansas.

Frankly, the world would be better off with a few more attractions like Prairie Dog Town and entrepreneurial promoters like Larry Farmer who simply love people.

Lunch in Topeka

Carole is back to imaginary jump roping.

Son Chris and his family have a wonderful life at their new home in Black Swan Lake outside Shawnee Mission, Kansas. It’s a short walk through the woods on a wonderful trail to the lake where the boys swim, fish and canoe in an idyllic setting. It’s a very relaxing outdoor environment for a close knit family.

North Star Homestead Farms, with its Farmstead Creamery & Cafe, has become another new gem of an attraction in the Hayward, Wisconsin area. Situated in the Chequamegon National Forest 20 minutes east of Hayward, it’s a working farm managed by mom and two sisters. Opening in 2012, we discovered it on a trip a few months ago and made it a point to stop back during the Cable Hayward Area Arts Council Art Crawl.

The farmstead sells its organic products regionally and brings them all together in a wonderful cafe. In our visit this week we were able to visit with local artisans including photographer Stephen Ross. During lunch, the Farmstead’s Laura Berlage took a break from serving lunch and homemade gelato for a weaving demonstration.

The Farmstead is located just east of County A, between 77 and B, not far from the Chippewa Flowage - an easy and scenic 15-20 minute drive from Hayward.

The Northwoods of Wisconsin are a magical landscape, with vibrant scenery at every turn. It’s been over 30 years since we ventured to the northern reaches of the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest to hike to St. Peter’s Dome and Morgan Falls. The Dome presents an amazing vista with forest and farms all the way to Chequamegon Bay on Lake Superior over 20 miles away. Morgan Falls cascades 70 feet through colorful moss-covered rock. Great hike with the grandkids! (c) 2013 Tom Kelly #tourdeheartland

CHARAC Art Crawl took us to Dragonfly Studio, home of friend and metal artist Sara Balbin. What an amazing place! Not only did we get to see Sara’s magical workplace, but a nice hike in the Northwoods forest to adjoining Picture Lake. (c) 2013 Tom Kelly #tourdeheartland

Daylight in the Swamp! Some of my favorite places in the Northwoods are the bogs and swamps along rivers and lakes. On crisp late summer mornings, the dew point rises in the humidity and misty fog rises from the water. Each of the images here were created within a mile or so of each other in the Totagatic drainage coming out of Nelson Lake. A very enjoyable and productive way to spend the dawn hours in Hayward, Wisconsin. (c) 2013 Tom Kelly Photo #tourdeheartland