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5/9/03

Jason Arrives

I had just finished mowing the yard & trails when Jason came up the drive. We sat on the deck drinking beer, eating Morel mushrooms & peanuts until the evening chill forced us inside. We continued drinking, listening to music and talking about stuff until Janie served up some grub: tossed salad, asparagus stuffing casserole, and a bottle of wine – followed by a piece of mom’s strawberry-rhubarb pie. Before long, we all started yawning and turned in around eleven.

 

We got up around seven and sat on porch drinking coffee while Janie warmed up last Sunday’s corn pancakes. It’s great having a woman to wait on us men. Eventually, we racked the bikes and headed to the Parade Ground in Letchworth. We were on the road biking around 10:30; went to the Great Bend overlook and were back by a little after one. It was too late to go to the Old Berg for lunch (they close between 2 and 5), so we went to the Portageville Hotel tap room. Janie had a fish sandwich, Jason had seafood bisque, and I had ham & cheese. All were accompanied by fries and coleslaw, just perfect for pre-picnic lunch. We got back to Naweedna around three. Janie picked asparagus, Jason showered, I took a power nap before we all took off to the picnic a little after four.

 

5/10/03

The Picnic & Bonfire

There was an eclectic group of alumni present: Jason Kahn, Colin McCabe, Bruce McClellan, Reyna Castillo, Scott Englert, Jessica Barone, Calvin Prothro, Andrea Warner, and, of course, the Sheldon’s. Who’d I forget? If I left you out, I apologize. I’m having trouble remembering that I was there, much less everyone else.

 

Colin had just returned from a stint in the Peace Corps (Morocco). Bruce, who was in the area for a Mother’s Day event. informed us that he works very near Dave Katz and Tiffany Hopkins down there in Houston TX. Reyna had disappeared from our radar shortly after going to GA for grad school. She was accompanied by her husband and young daughter. Holy shit, Scott Englert was there but neither Jen was present. Oh, you should know that 1) Scott graduated with JenO and 2) Scott works with JenM. So there was Scott, whom we haven’t seen since graduation, and no Jen. How does THAT make you feel, Jen? Jess Barone, who has a teaching position at MCC, showed up. It was great to see her, but she may never come back. It seems the Park Police stopped her on her way home. We don’t know what happened (some students reported it to us at the bonfire later), and we certainly hope it was an innocent (and inexpensive) encounter. Andrea Warner, who lives in the area, came to razz Brennan. She brought some class notes with comments all wrapped in plastic to share. Then there was Calvin. We haven’t seen Calvin since some computer thing in Syracuse many years ago. Other than adding a few pounds, Calvin hasn’t changed at all. If I ever get his email address, I’ll ask him to join the Saturday AM group. What a character. Who can ever forget him coming down the stairs at Sue’s wearing that multicolored fright wig – looking for all the world like a freaked out Tina Turner? Certainly none of us in this room.

 

We had some burgers (meat and vege), hots, potato salad, and Presbyterian Beans, then it was time for the awards. The best by far was Amy’s gift for Lindsay: recyclable toilet paper contraption made by Amy’s dad. For whatever reason, they decided to do us again. Janie got a guide for coping with my retirement and I got some sneakers with tennis balls on the toes. It seems Bethany & Gretch noticed that I tended to kick the wall before I started writing on the board or having a discussion in the hall. I do it, but I don’t know why. Maybe it’s a pacing sort of thing. Dunno. Anyway, the shoes with attached balls reminded me of the Professor Longhair song: Ball The Walls. I mentioned it to the assembled masses, but I don’t think anyone got the point. I did, and that’s all that really matters. The kids did some Brennan-isms and it was over. We gathered up the stuff and headed to Sheldon’s for the bonfire.

 

Brian had a large pile of wood all set up. He had soaked some string in a combustible substance all afternoon with the idea of using it as a “wick”. Unfortunately, there was a very heavy dew, so the “wick” was extinguished as soon as it started. No matter, he managed to get a roaring fire going and the heat was welcome as the cool night air settled in. Colin “Moha” McCabe regaled us with stories of his last year in Morocco. Some of the topics covered included burning dogs and as yet unidentified internal parasites. We sat around the fire for a while before someone said it was “only twelve”, which was us old folk’s cue to head home. Hugs all around and promises of future gatherings.

 

5/11/03

Jason Leaves – We Prepare

We got up a little late Sunday – around eight. Janie & I read the paper while Jason graded homework papers – it’s always amazing how much the students didn’t learn. I don’t miss grading one bit, no sir, not one bit. Janie whipped up a fine batch of Oatmeal Bannock with some strips of dead pig on the side, and the first thing we knew, it was noon . Jason had a long drive back so we said our goodbyes and another set of tail lights slowly disappeared down the drive. It is always sad to see a good friend leave. What a great guy; next time we get together, maybe we will get to meet J’Bro.

 

After Jason left, we set about finishing our packing for the trip to NE, I spent some time with Mom, and then we ate leftovers and waited for Brian to call. Before we left Sheldon’s last night, we discussed a camping/biking trip to Pine Creek – assuming we are still speaking to each other after two weeks in AK. Brain promised to call Sunday to pick some possible dates. He did and we are looking at some time in early to mid July. If Jason is free at that time, he may join us. That could be the “next time” that maybe we will get to meet J’Bro.

 

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5/12/03

Geneseo to Maumee Bay SP, Toledo OH

Up around six. We did some email, showered, finished packing, and were on the road around 8:30. We had been working on Nebraska destinations for a couple months. However, neither of us had thought about the start of the trip. For whatever reason, I decided we should go to Buffalo. It’s west, right? Once we got about half way, we realized that was a silly place to start. Why would anyone go to Buffalo voluntarily? Janie had me turn south on Three Rod Road . Three Rod Road is Sue Boyle’s turf, and we think we recognized the parent’s house as we passed by.

 

We were heading into a strong west wind all day, and we were pelted with rain most of the time. Although we managed to avoid Buffalo, we were forced to drive through Cleveland – a much worse fate. We have never had any success backroading in northern OH, so we decided to bite the bullet – and hopefully avoid being hit by one – and take I-90 through “The Mistake on the Lake”. Once we got through the city, just like all the other cheapskates, we branched off on OH 2 before the toll booths. Our destination was beyond Sandusky to a couple of wildlife places on the Lake Erie shore. This is THE time of year to do migratory birds. They tend to congregate on the south shore to rest and feed before heading across the lake to CN. It is called a Warbler Fall Out and it’s like some giant hand or mist net stops them at the southern shore. There is a seventeen acre stretch of marsh and woods that are just dripping with warblers – this time of year. I tell you, no bug is safe. The birds nervously flit about plucking bugs from the air, the bark of trees, and under leaves. The thrushes and catbirds are very aggressive leaf tossers. We saw an exhausted Tree Swallow just languishing on the ground. We hope s/he was just exhausted and not injured or diseased.

 

As it turns out, this was a most unusual day for birding. The strong winds forced the bugs and birds down from the canopy where they would normally be. Thus, they were flitting around snatching any bug that moved – practically at our feet. You know it is an unusual day when Black-throated Blues and Redstarts become ho-hum junk-birds. In fact, we saw more Canada warblers than Robins and Cardinals. Catbirds were the most common, and all the birds could be observed at close range – binos were optional. I kept thinking it was like a petting zoo – not that I’ve ever been to a petting zoo. There were lots of old farts like us all decked out in their birding gear. Most of them were pros or advanced amateurs and all were better than us at bird identification. We met a guy that was had seen 28 different warblers and was going for two more to make 30. A woman asked if we knew our Thrushes. She had one cornered and couldn’t say for sure what kind it was. I suggested it was a cold Thrush due to raw wind that was biting through my new parka. She laughed politely and continued to study the Thrush. It really was cold; I had to march back to the van to get my fleece jacket – Janie had the foresight to take hers from the get go.

 

Although this was a banner evening for elusive warblers, one of the most interesting sightings was a Bald Cyprus tree – complete with knees. Granted there was only one large one and a smaller one we saw later, but they were Bald Cyprus and totally unexpected in this part of the world. According to the tree book, Bald Cyprus extend up the Mississippi Valley to about southern IL. However, these were on the southern shore of Lake Erie. I suppose, like the warblers they have to rest before invading CN.

 

We spent around two hours on the boardwalk marveling at the birding. This is by far the easiest warbling we have experienced. However, it was now after six and we were in need of a campsite, so we headed down the road to Maumee Bay SP, which is literally on the outskirts of Toledo (east side). The sites were all $18 and that includes hook up – cheap by PA standards. For the day, we had had half a tuna-salad sandwich, an apple and a banana. For dinner, we split a can of beef stew and a piece of pita. When I asked if we were having more, she said, “You wanted to lose weight.” My reply was immediate and to the point, “Yeah, but not all in one day.” We chuckled over that – and a beer – for about a half hour. Yep, cheap dates, both of us.

 

5/13/03

Maumee Bay SP, Toledo OH to Coralville Dam, Iowa City, IA

The day dawned much better than it had ended. It was clear and it looked like a much better day ahead. We headed to the bathhouse for our morning rituals. It was so clean and unused that we decided to take a shower. That’s a real advantage to sharing a campground with retirees. They all have huge RVs, so they don’t need to use the public facilities. We get them all to ourselves. We finally were on the road around 7:30 and hunting for inexpensive gas. We found some right down the road for $1.39. Then we were off to negotiate Toledo while trying to find a bridge across the Maumee. We found a great little scenic byway that ran along the east side of the river for several miles before crossing to the west side. All in all, it was about fifty miles of river road with great views and very little traffic – a good start for the day.

 

Of course, there were several river-rat homes between us and the river. Some were loose butt types, but most were very nice – bordering on extravagant. One in particular caught my eye. Although it was located within spittin’ distance of the river, they just had to have a pond on the other side. Not just any pond, mind you. It had to be properly landscaped and furnished with three “sitting areas” each containing a set of those ornate wrought iron chairs and tables – all painted white. Has anyone ever actually sat in one of those things? They look like implements of torture rather than comfort. And they have to be mowed around and kept painted. Lordy, what an energy sink. Okay, I’ll bet you are saying, “Yeah, well what about you and your …”

 

After leaving the river, we ambled through the Pleistocene lake bed, which is now dotted with farms and homesteads. The region is fairly prosperous, and the properties are well maintained. I especially enjoy seeing the older farm buildings – the ones that proudly proclaim that Dave & Rita live there. There is just something so comforting seeing the names of the owners in big, well kept letters on the side of a barn. It just says, “Yeah, I own this, and I’m proud of it.”

 

Let’s see, what else caught my eye today? Oh yeah, the DeLaughter & McKee Mortuary, Silver Lk, IN. I expect they don’t pronounce it De Laughter, because it is a mortuary after all. Just a few miles down the road we saw the DeLong Funeral chapel near Lake Village, IN. So there you have it. There wasn’t De Laughter for De Long at any funeral chapel.

 

It must have been raining for a while in this area. The streams were all bank full to overflowing, and some roads were closed due to high water. This must have been the first day some of the home owners could get out to mow their lush spring grass. Many had new looking tractors and seemed to be enjoying using them. Others, mostly older men, were using red rusty equipment that had that monochrome look, much like the rider. Certainly those mowers must have been colorful at one time, but years of use have rendered them all the same red rusty color. Nonetheless, they were purring right along and spitting out freshly mown grass with their much newer cousins. I just wonder what stories they have to tell.

 

We made it all the way to Iowa City today – that’s around 550 miles for the day, a very long day for us. The farther west we go, the bigger the farms become, and the greater the distances between them. Some of the smaller old farms had been amalgamated into larger ones, but the original buildings stood as monuments to the work of individuals. The abandoned barns and houses now stand in the middle of freshly plowed and planted fields. They are weathered silver and seem to be ghosts standing vigil over the terrain. The builders are long gone, but the product of their labor still stands like a grave stone of entombed memories. Like the rusty old mowers, they echo with stories of past glory and future folly.

 

Tonight we are camped (parked) in a Corps of Engineers campground on the spillway side of a large earthen dam. The dam is rip-rapped with large boulders and vultures are perched on some of the boulders. We purposefully picked the campsite that is nearest the roosting vultures. I don’t find them as repugnant as most. In fact, I respect vultures a great deal. Nature has given them lemons and they have made lemonade. We should all be so resourceful.

 

5/14/03

Coralville Dam, Iowa City , IA to Willow Creek SRA, Pierce NE

(PIC) Up around seven, followed by the now customary activities, except this time before going to the bathhouse for a shower, we went to the dump station so RVan could dump. We decided to head back to I-80 and beat feet to western Iowa, which we did in quick order. About three-fourths of the way across the state, we decided to get off the Interstate and take a parallel scenic byway. We knew it was our exit when we saw one of those big blue Interstate road signs that was completely blank except for Next Exit. We ambled along the rolling hills of western IA enjoying the rural scenery – nothing but one farm (ranch) after another – and local color on display in the small towns that dotted the highway. All is well in the central Midwest. (PIC)

 

Janie wanted to check out DeSoto NWR on the east bank of the Missouri . As we approached, we could see a large thunderstorm heading right for us. In the visitor center, there was a radio playing current weather warnings: large thunder cells with significant rain, hail, and high winds – but no tornadoes. Although there were several miles of bikeable roads, the approaching storm suggested we should move on. We decided the storm was heading east by southeast, so we headed north to get around it. We were successful and had a pleasant early afternoon poking around in the Loess Hills of westernmost Iowa . (PIC)

 

Loess is wind-blown silt associated with glacial margins. In this case, the Missouri was transporting copious amounts of glacial sediment downstream. During dry periods, the abandoned channels and dry stream beds provided sediment for the prevailing winds and piled it up on the surrounding terrain – up to 200 feet deep. The fine-grained nature of loess allows it to form vertical erosion surfaces – perfect habitat for bank swallows. Before human intervention, the loess was covered with prairie grasses – Lewis & Clark remarked on them and the abundance of prairie flowers they found in this area. Civilization brought suppression of wildfires and destruction of buffalo herds, which resulted in trees colonizing the Loess Hills and forming what is now the Loess Hills State Forest . There are still some small and discontinuous patches of prairie grassland, and we visited a small portion of it and saw some flowers we couldn’t identify – duh, we forgot to bring the western flowers book.

 

We left the Loess Hills and headed west across the Missouri and into Nebraska. The eastern part of NE is almost identical to western IA – rolling hills composed of glacial drift. The roads had more traffic and the speed limits were higher – slow to 60 in a construction zone was the first indication of any speed limit I saw. We managed to get to Norfolk where there is a trail head for a new bike trail. These things are always difficult to find and the pimply faced gas-station attendants don’t usually know anything about bike trails. As we were passing through town, we say one of those signs with a big question mark and the words Tourist Info. We headed in the direction it pointed but never saw another indication of the answer to the question mark – “Hey, Maude, we got another one of them tourists, heeheehee.” No sweat, the detour took us directly to the road to Pierce where we found the Willow Creek Recreation Area and a $7 campsite. We will check out the showers tomorrow and then head to town to see if we can get information on the bike trail. With any luck at all, we will be biking tomorrow. 

 

5/15/03

Willow Creek SRA, Pierce NE   to Merritt Dam, Valentine NE

(PIC) Happy second birthday RVan. Today RVan took us to THE SANDHILLS OF NEBRASKA. We got up early – about 5 EDT– opted to not shower and headed out (PIC) toward Bassett where we stopped to see a very nice woman at the Region II Parks and Game Commission Headquarters. I suppose she had not seen a real tourist in years. There was a wall full of brochures and she told us to take all we wanted. I said, “I’ve always wanted to walk into a place and say, ‘I’ll take one of everything.’” She chuckled politely. I’ve named her Evelyn. We bought a NE Recreation area permit for $14. We were illegal last night and this morning when we stopped at another recreation area to hove our oatmeal. Tonight we are in yet another one. Each day costs $2.50, so we have recouped over half of the cost. Oh, there was $0.35 tax on the $14 permit. Now, you tell me what the NE sales tax rate is.

 

Evelyn drew us a little map showing where we could pick up the Cowboy Trail in Bassett. Almost none of the landmarks on her map matched reality: “I put it here but it is really in the middle of the block.” Fortunately, Bassett is about 1800 souls with wide, western-style streets. We stumbled on the trailhead with no problem at all. It was 12 EDT when we headed down the trail and two hours and 19 miles later we were back. This is a small portion of a planned 321 mile trail along the Elkhorn River and points NW. Unfortunately, much of the trail runs adjacent to US-20 and/or US-275. We did the stretch between Bassett and Lone Pine. Then we had lunch in the Bassett City Park and headed off to Valentine to see the Fort Niobrara NWR.

 

The NWR is supposed to have herds of buffalo, elk, and long-horn cattle. It turns out the buffalo had been jousting with cars on the auto tour, so all but three had to be relocated to another area. Also, two years of drought has devastated their forage. The ranger suggested that we not try to bike the road because the two cows have calves and they are very protective. Hmmm, no one ever said anything about that when we were in TR a couple years ago. We also picked up a pamphlet with a drawing of a buffalo tossing a guy with a camera, and it says buffalos can be aggressive and run 30 mph – whoa! We did the auto route in RVan and saw all three buffalo, a group of six or seven female elk, and a pair of bucks with burgeoning antlers. (PIC) (PIC)

 

According to John McPhee, anyplace in the mid-continent that has exposed bedrock automatically becomes a state park. Well, that seems to be the case. We have not seen bedrock for days, so we couldn’t pass on the opportunity to see a waterfall in the NWR. By the humid East’s standards, it was a trickle of water, falling a total of 45 feet. Woo Hoo. (PIC) The really neat thing was the gorge. You could see the hundred feet or so of sand dunes piled on top of the Ogallala. Evelyn had told us the sand is a sponge – the locals are told to water their yards sparingly because it just soaks through to the Ogallala and heads to TX. The Ogallala is not a spectacular rock unit in any way except that it is THE aquifer for the arid SW.

 

The falls is located in a narrow gorge that runs North-South with the North end being where the stream flows into the Niobrara. The location and geometry of the gorge provides a unique ecosystem where eastern species meet western species. This is the westernmost habitat for paper birch and the easternmost for ponderosa pine, both of which occur side by side in the narrow gorge. Not to worry, poison ivy seems to be doing just fine everywhere.

 

A little information on the Nebraska Sandhills … they cover more than 20,000 square miles and there are only 17,000 people living in ‘em. The sandhills are the largest dune field in the Western Hemisphere. They formed after the loess, which means they are more recent than the last glaciation. There are primarily isolated and coalescing barchans; the isolated are transverse to the prevailing NW wind direction and the coalescing are parallel to it. All of them are heavily modified by recent erosion, but the dominant patterns are clearly visible from air photos we saw in the Roadside Geology of Nebraska book. The sand was derived from marine sedimentary rocks exposed to the west. The area averages about 15 inches of precipitation per year, which is enough to support a stabilizing cover. The nearly constant wind keeps the trees at bay – they only grow to full size in protected areas. We saw several stunted chokecherries but no mature ones like at home.  A prolonged drought will cause the dunes to start moving once again, and we’ve learned that there have been two successive years of drought in the area. If the drought continues, there will be fewer than 17,000 people in the Nebraska Sandhills.

 

It was now time to start looking for a campsite. Janie had found a couple free ones in recreation areas south of Valentine, so we headed that way. The first one was on a lake about a mile off the main road. That mile was all dirt – no gravel – and ended at the Big Alkali Lake Fishing Camp. There were lots of fisher-people there and it looked like most free campsites – totally disorganized and very messy. We turned around and headed toward Merritt Dam, which wasn’t free but only costs $4 – and has showers. We had two options for getting there: 1) drive the about 40 miles back to Valentine and then south on another road or 2) go west on this road which fades from very nice to un-maintained to dirt. We opted for #2 and here we are watching a Western Grebe and the sun set over the lake. It’s a full moon tonight and this very spot is well known for star gazing because of the high elevation (3000 ft), dry air, and lack of disturbing city lights – Valentine is 20 miles to the north.

 

5/16/03

Merritt Dam, Valentine NE to McKelvie NF NE

(PIC) We got up fairly early, but opted for relaxing in RVan with our morning beverages. Eventually, we made it to the bathhouse and took a $1 shower. Then we headed around the reservoir at a heady 35 mph. We were headed toward McKelvie NF, which is a bit to the west of the reservoir. It was an absolutely desolate road winding its way through the sandhills. I put it on cruise control at the lowest setting possible – 35 mph – and we slowly made our way toward the NF boundary. Soon enough we saw the sign announcing Entering Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest . Nothing strange about that, but wait, look again: There was exactly one tree in sight, and a small one at that – makes for an unusual NF, I’d say – and I just did. (PIC)

 

It was a beautiful drive to the NF headquarters and adjoining campground. Both are nestled in a grove of ponderosa pines (all hand-planted) in a low-lying area between coalescing dunes. We drove around the campground and fell in love with it. The wind was whistling through the pines, each campsite was pristine, there were no other occupants, and there was Blue Jay Trail – a 1.5 mile hiking trail through the surrounding terrain. Our immediate thought was to spend the day & night here. We decided to take the trail and see how we felt afterwards.

 

The trail wound around the lee side of a large dune that was covered with pine. All of the trees appear to be stunted in that they have much more massive trunks than their height should require. Nonetheless, there only seem to be two kinds of pine: alive or dead. The living ones look very healthy and are quite attractive contrasted against the starkness of the sparsely covered dunes. The trail played tag with a small stream, Steer Creek, that is at most two feet across and is the major drainage for the viewable area. We saw several wildflowers and a few birds. Appropriately, we saw a Blue Jay just as we were approaching the gate at the end of the trail.

 

We decided to spend the day & night here. It is just too serene and peaceful to leave. Besides, we can bike the adjoining roads. The campground is located on a spur road, which suggests it is not a through road; it is a road to the outside for the ranchers that live down this way and, consequently, there is essentially no traffic on it. So we have the campground and the roads almost all to ourselves. If we needed more convincing, we’ve been doing a lot of driving and it would be good to have a down day. We paid our $5 and put the paper on the post. (PIC)

 

The time thing is confusing because we are right on the Central/Mountain Time line, but we are still referencing things to Eastern Time. We decided to take a bike ride down the road, return to camp for lunch, and then take another ride back toward the reservoir from whence we came this morning. We started the first ride just after noon EDT, rode down an ill-kept but paved road for 4.5 miles then back to camp. (PIC) Janie made a great grilled cheese. Don’t know why it was better than at home, which is pretty good. Maybe it was grilling with a gas stove – Mikey always says they are best.

 

After lunch we headed back to a lake/marsh area we had seen on the way in. The day had started cloudy, but by early afternoon the sky was clearing. The bright sun caused temperature differences which beget wind and in the land of few trees, the wind has nothing to temper its movement. As we started out, we marveled at how easy it was. Sure the road was flat and straight, but this is EASY. Ah, the wind – it was to our backs. It should be fun on the return. The more we rode, the clearer the sky became and the stronger the wind got. When the road turned so we were riding into the wind, we had to peddle even on the downhills. It wasn’t that bad, just different from what we are used to. The ride was spectacular. We kept looking at each other and saying, “We’re biking in the Nebraska Sandhills.” (PIC)

 

We got to the lake, opened the gate, and wandered around seeing what we could see. There wasn’t much activity, which was okay. We took up residence on a log and just sat there soaking up the surroundings. Suddenly, there was a roar and a guy appeared on an ATV. He went by us slowly and said, “How ya doin’?” Fine, just fine – oh, by the way, did you see Deliverance? No, we didn’t say that, really. It seemed he was riding fence the modern way and we saw him a couple more times as we headed back to camp. Oh, on the way back I passed the 1,000 mile mark on the bike. Watching one of those new-fangled LCD displays change is not nearly as much fun as watching the old-fangled ones roll over.

 

We got back to camp and put the biking stuff away and got out the camp chairs. We actually put on shorts and sat in the sun for a while reading about the geology of the area (me) and writing postcards (Janie). It was a relaxing day and we felt good about the 1.5 mile hike and 23 mile bike ride – but now it is time for BEER.

 

5/17/03

McKelvie NF NE to Chadron SP NE

We got up, had our morning beverages, and headed down the spur road to Nenzel, population 18. If you think that’s impressive, after we got on US 20 heading West, we passed through Eli, population 13 – and everyone had at least one personal mailbox. Janie’s comment: “There were thirteen people in the Bannigan family; we could have qualified as a town in NE.” The traffic was reminiscent of ND – we saw no vehicles on the spur road (we did see a bit of Americana in the form of a metal cowboy sculpture highlighting the mailboxes for a ranch in the Niobrara valley) and there were very few vehicles on US-20. (PIC) We cruised at 45 on the spur and kicked it up to the legal limit of 65 on US 20.

 

While on the subject of population, I should mention that there is a road, US-83, that goes from Canada to Mexico through central ND, SD, NE, and points south. It is referred to as The Road to Nowhere. Now, that information is interesting in and of itself. However, you just knew there would be more. We passed through a small town, Ainsworth, that advertises itself as The Middle of Nowhere. Unfortunately, Ainsworth is located a few tens of miles East of US-83. Otherwise, the Road to Nowhere would actually go through the Middle of Nowhere.

 

We were heading to Chadron to see a variety of things and seek accommodations in Chadron SP. We were at the northwestern limit of the Sandhills, and the dunes were the largest yet. Before getting to Chadron, we left the Sandhills and entered the Plains. The Sandhills sit on the Ogallala. In the Plains, because there are no Sandhills, the Ogallala is exposed. Thus, the area is flat except where dissected by streams. The cattle ranches of the Sandhills changed to large farms like we saw in Eastern NE and Western IA. The Chadron area has actual rock exposures and looks a bit like the badlands, although much less colorful. The reason for the rock outcrops is the presence of some mineralized zones in the Ogallala and its affiliates. The mineralization makes it more resistant, so it tends to stand up above the surrounding terrain. Streams cut channels into these exposures leaving steep-sided gorges and spires. One of these mineralized zones extends for tens of miles to the east, forming Pine Ridge which connects Chadron to Ft Robinson SP to the west. Apparently there are MTB trails along the ridge and this area is NE’s mountain biking Mecca.

 

Before the Plains changed to the badlands-like terrain, we passed through Merriman, which, for whatever reason, is blessed with several isolated lakes and adjoining marshes. These wetlands support sporadic clumps of cottonwood, and some of them have large stick nests. We stopped at three. The first one had a nearly ready to fledge Swainson’s hawk in it. There was a Redwing flitting around in the branches above the nest seemingly enjoying annoying the young hawk. While Janie was watching the activity, I was standing behind the van peeing. At that moment, a car slowed and gradually pulled up beside us. In sparsely populated country like this, locals frequently stop to check on cars pulled off the road just in case you are in need of assistance. I assumed that was the case this time, so I told Janie to go greet them while I finished my business. They were not locals at all. It was a British couple who asked in a thick, decidedly not Nebraskan accent, “Are we on 20 or 61?” We thought they might be on drugs because it’s pretty hard not to know which of the TWO major roads in the area one is on.

 

The second nest we stopped at had no visible occupant. We assume the nestling was nestled down sleeping off a recent meal. As we passed the third nest, we noticed it had more than one head sticking up. We did another “K” turn – I’m getting much better at that – and headed back for a closer look. As we approached, a large bird flew off over the ridge beyond the nest – it was a Great Horned and the nest had THREE big-eyed (less than Great) Horned Owls in it. This was very reminiscent of the Great Horned family we saw along the road during our last ND trip. Things are going very well, very well, indeed.

 

There were four things on the Chadron agenda: a scenic drive on the east side of town, a fur trapper museum also on the east side of town, Helen’s Pancake House on the west side of town, and Chadron SP, with all sorts of additional activities, on the south side of town. We passed on the scenic drive – it was dirt, and how could it be any better than what we’ve been driving and biking through the last two days? We passed on the museum – although it was highly touted by AAA, it didn’t look open and there was Helen’s … we headed straight for Helen’s where Janie had two pancakes, a cheese omelet, and two sausage patties – the girl can eat. I had a (as in single) waffle with two eggs and three strips of bacon. Janie gave me some pancake to soak up my yolk and we shared some of each other’s meat. It was a welcome change. Oh, we decided to go to Helen’s partially because Janie added up our expenses and we had only spent $200 so far. That just isn’t enough, so we went to Wal-Mart after leaving Helen’s. We now have a replenished larder and some lard coursing through our system – we hope it keeps on moving and doesn’t take up residence anywhere – you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.

 

On the way out of town we found ourselves behind an old truck pulling a horse trailer. That certainly isn’t unusual for these parts. However, in this case, the truck was billowing smoke from the engine compartment – that black, sooty smoke that suggests burning oil. I had this vision of what was going on. You see Timmy’s father, a poor ranch hand, had just saved enough to buy a horse for his blind son – a therapy thing, you know. Timmy was all a goggle about his new playmate, and as they were driving home, the whole family sang That Palomino Pal Of Mine. Unfortunately, the huge billows of sooty black smoke were engulfing the horse trailer. By the time they completed the hundred mile return trip home, the horse had succumbed to black lung. That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

 

We ended up at Chadron SP where a very nice entrance lady informed us that there was no entrance fee today. Damn, we bought that special sticker just so we wouldn’t have to pay the $2.50 entrance fees when we go to NE recreation areas. She told us that they start charging next weekend, Memorial Day, and if we come back then, the sticker would permit us to enter … free. We picked out a campsite, unracked the bikes, and headed off to the park office to register and take a ride around the park.

 

There is an auto loop through the park, and after registering, we started around it clockwise. We were at the erosion surface level to start and had to climb to the top of the uneroded portion of the terrain. It was a long and steep climb but we made it. I always feel so wimpy when I’m huffing and puffing during a climb. Hey, I work out more than most people, I should be able to do this and whistle at the same time. I suppose it is the age, so I just tell myself that being in good physical condition means rapid recovery. Right. Janie reminded me that even though we are in the Plains, we are at an elevation of about 3000 ft, which could explain some of our huffing and puffing. Yeah, that’s it, elevation, not age. We took a spur road out to the park boundary where we picked up an NF road that took us to the Black Hills Overlook. (PIC) Yep, off in the distance, through the haze, you could barely make out some dark lumps on the horizon. Those would be the Black Hills of SD. We’ll be going up there in a day or so. Stay tuned.

 

The NF road ended at the overlook and a single track trail would take us back to the park. This is a real MTB trail: about a foot wide and in some places just as deep, crossing roots and large rocks, and over rock exposures that are solution fluted so they were as sharp as AA lava fields. Add to that, the fact that in some places the trail was about as wide as the ridge it traversed with bare rock falloffs on either side. Jason would have loved it – we tolerated it and ended up walking up the steeper inclines and down the more raging descents. The only screaming descents we make is when our brakes squeal. Oh, did I tell you about the yucca, poison ivy and prickly pear? They are a challenge when you are confined to a twelve inch rut … and wearing shorts. We did manage to see red-breasted nuthatch, violet-green swallow, and spotted towhee.

 

About halfway along the single track portion, there was a narrow ridge that extended out away from the main trail. The ridge was literally capped by a narrow trail. I suppose some younger MTBers would have not hesitated careening down the ridge. However, it was essentially straight down on either side, so one small error and you would be cut to shreds by the sharp rock and worse yet, your very expensive bike would be a few hundred feet below you in a steep-walled gorge that you would need climbing gear to get into and out of. We tied our ponies to a blown down tree and walked along the ridge. When we got as far as discretion would allow, we discovered that we could see the campground. There was RVan sitting with cold beer in the frig waiting for us to return. (PIC) (PIC) (PIC)

 

When we got back to camp, we took advantage of the very nice showers … just before a much larger, natural shower hit us. We were clean and sitting in the van when a moderate-sized thunderhead dropped its load on us. Ah, much better than in a leaky tent. Dinner, no movie, and in bed by 11 EDT – 9 MDT. (PIC)

 

5/18/03

Chadron SP NE to Ft Robinson SP NE

We are having a great trip. We’ve never laughed so much. I’m beginning to wonder about what might be in the water. Last night, as we were lying in bed, we remembered a Far Side cartoon showing a person being chased around a table by a wolf. The caption read: Louposlipophobia – the fear of being chased around the kitchen table by a wolf while wearing socks. That got us going and when we started “editing” the sentence, we were both laughing so hard we couldn’t breathe. Who or what was wearing the socks? Was it the woman, the wolf or the kitchen table? We also remembered that Time article about phobias and the one for the fear of gravity, the term for which neither of us can remember. OMG what do you do if you have a psychological fear of gravity? When you think about it, there wouldn’t be any louposlipophobia if it weren’t for gravity, so I guess they are related.

 

If that weren’t enough, I found myself pondering the exact meaning of scatological. I then posed this question to my most intelligent wife: does scatological refer only to shit or does it include other shit too? That struck our funny bones also – uncontrollable laughter is not recommended while careening down the road at 65 mph.

 

Even without the laughter, this is one of our best trips ever. I’m thinking it is because we are retired, and we started out at a high level of satisfaction and all we are seeing and doing is building from there. Another thing is that we most definitely are into the little things. Ninety-five percent of the population would think what we are doing is BORING. Hey, if you’ve seen one sandhill, you’ve seen ‘em all, right? Well, not so for us. I found myself a little down when I realized we were out of the sandhills. Simple pleasures and very few people to get in the way of our enjoyment of them – that’s what we are doing. As the travel literature says, “Anyone can love a mountain; it takes soul to love a prairie”.

 

As we’ve progressed westward, the population density had decreased. As the number of people decreases, the incidence of waving increases. We’ve been getting lots of waves as we drive through the sandhills and plains of NE. There are different styles of waving. There’s the casual, one-finger signal of recognition. Then there is the full fledged wave like howdy. And like we’ve been seeing here in NE, there is the whole hand version of the casual finger

wave. Like the finger wave, you do it with you hand draped over steering wheel, but in this case you sort of fling your hand out like you were sowing seed. That one has become my favorite. Even if there aren’t any people, the grass waves to you. There are seas of grass with each stem bending in rhythmic pulses to the ever-present wind. The grass is glad we are here, and we sometimes wave back at it.

 

So here we sit on the banks of Soldier Creek in the Ft Robinson SP remembering what we’ve seen today. We arrived here around 9 MDT. As is our normal routine, we started by visiting with one of the nice ladies at the Visitor Center. We had noticed a nice rail trail heading out of Crawford, and the lady confirmed that we could pick it up over by the campground. We parked in the picnic area and prepared for a ride. Before we could start, I had to repair a flat tire (my front). Never did find why it was flat; I just put in a spare tube and put it back on the bike.

 

Before heading down the trail, we had the pleasure of meeting up with a middle-aged couple from Rapid City SD. He works construction and she appears to hold a toy poodle for a living. You all know how I depend on Janie to fill in the necessary details for my conversations. Well, this guy was worse than me with details and unfortunately, the wife was nearly as bad. Every sentence started with, “We were over by that place, you know, the place with the thing, what’s it called, the place where they do that stuff, the stuff you like, what is it, you know the place with the University, the place where there’s nothin’, just down the road from that other place … you know … like over at Yankton.” This went on for at least fifteen minutes. They were very nice, and I expect if we had talked to them much longer, they would have invited us to visit, some place or other. I’m just glad I didn’t bust out laughing while he was trying to tell us about biking through the tunnels on the Mickelson Trail through the Black Hills. I was silly enough to ask if you had to turn on your lights. In a very serious tone, he said, “No, but over at that other place, you know, by the place you didn’t like, the place where they do that thing, over by that place they have tunnels so long they give you a flashlight, you know the place, the one where …” My kingdom for a tape recorder.

 

Eventually, we got on the trail. It connected Ft Robinson with that other place down the road … Crawford. (PIC) It’s only three miles, but it certainly was productive. Here is what we remember seeing: badger, turtles (13 on one small log), bobcat, kingbird (bashing a freshly caught grasshopper against barbed wire), magpie (and their incredible nests), chat (three at once), lazuli bunting, probable prairie falcon attacking a redtail, a pair of kestrels (mating in the tippy-top branches of a cottonwood), kingfisher (beating a freshly caught fish against a branch), spotted sandpiper (bob-bob-bobbing), bullock’s and orchard oriole, red-shafted flicker, pronghorn antelope, longhorn cattle, burros (one with a HUGE erection), and a girl in a bikini sunbathing on the trunk of her car. Oh yeah, when we parked there was a van with a guy sitting behind the wheel looking like he was reading. When we returned several hours later he was still there. Janie noticed his vanity plate: D CREEP. Okay, we moved on, picked out a campsite, registered, and had some lunch.

 

After lunch, we had planned to bike the six miles up Soldier Creed Road into the back country and try out some of the single track trails. We could see a storm passing to our north, and we were hoping it would miss us. Nope, we got hit by it. We took refuge on the

porch of one of the rentals that are converted officer’s houses from the time this was an active cavalry fort. I read the park pamphlet while Janie read The Voice of the Sandhills – a newspaper-like thing with stories from local history (the sheriff was shot three times, twice in the lung. He rode for several hours to get to the doctor, who was drunk. When the doctor didn’t do anything he asked, “shouldn’t you do something about these holes in my chest?” “Ah, you’ll be alright in the morning,” the doctor said. We passed the time trying to imagine what it must have been like to be here in the time this was an active fort (1874-1948). Hell, they even had 3,000 German POWs here. This place must have blown their mind. It cleared, there was a nice rainbow (we could see the short wave-length blue and violet, which you usually don’t see in the humid east), and we started down the road again. Once we cleared the buildings, we could see more storm clouds on the horizon. Hey, it’s seven thirty our time, let’s go have a beer and eat something. That’s exactly what we did, and now it is time for bed. (PIC)

 

5/19/03

Ft Robinson SP NE to Cottonwood Springs Campground, Black Hills SD

(PIC) Yesterday’s rain was the warning shot for what was to follow. It rained off and on during the night – nothing heavy, just occasional rain. We awoke to clear skies with small, puffy white clouds and a strong NW wind. It was cold – not cool – cold. It was just too windy and cold to bike or do anything outside for that matter. How cold was it? We’re not sure, but it was only 53 inside, so I’m guessing it was in the low 40s outside with a considerable wind chill from the 20-25 mph wind. Okay, when you are given lemons, you make lemonade, so we decided to practice for AK by drivin’ around and lookin’ at shit.

 

We thought we should check out the Soldier Creek Road we had hoped to bike. Ft Robinson is at the head of Soldier Creek Valley – where it flows into the White River – and the road winds its way up the valley for about six miles where it ends at a bunch of trailheads. It was a beautiful drive as long as you didn’t want to get out of the vehicle. We felt like wimps, but it was not pleasant to be outside. We saw longhorn cattle, pronghorn antelope, western kingbirds, and more kestrels than mourning doves … or most anything for that matter. (PIC) (PIC) (PIC) As expected, the farther back the road we went, the narrower and more problematic it became. Yesterday’s rain had softened the ground, so when our tracks became pronounced, we decided to turn around. We like driving around lookin’ at shit a lot more than being stuck lookin’ at the same shit for hours?, days?, weeks? Full exploration of the whole road and adjoining trials will have to wait for another time. 

 

We decided to head toward Harrison where Janie had read about some birding spots. The town of Harrison (pop. 321) is the only incorporated town in the county and hence, the county seat – we found out later that Harrison is the ONLY recognized town in the county. Another claim to fame is the fact that Harrison is at a higher elevation than any other town in NE – 4,500 feet higher than the population. We took the state route to Gilbert Baker Wildlife Management Area, where we saw the rare and elusive NE Goldfinch – and three ticks crawling up our socks. Enough of that, we backtracked through Ft Robinson to Crawford, which had gas at $1.59 – the one gas station in Harrison didn’t advertise the price because it didn’t have to; you just pay what it costs or go without.

 

From Crawford we headed to Toadstool Geologic Area. It is just north of Ft Robinson, but there are no roads over the ridge, so you have to drive all the way around to get to it. Unbeknownst to us, Toadstool was located on a dirt road some 14 miles off the main highway. After yesterday’s rain, I expected lots of water and mud. Fortunately, my expectations were only partially realized. Toadstool is strange, as you might expect for such a remote location. There is a ten-site campground at the entrance. A reconstructed sod house, and a gate that leads to a mile-long guided trail through the rocks. When we got there, there were two other vehicles. One was an SUV from GA with what we learned later was two young couples as occupants. The other was a NE government car with a strange looking youngish guy who either sat in the car and smoked or slowly walked around the car looking down at the grass and occasionally bending over to pick something up – and smoked. Remember D CREEP from yesterday? Well, we decided this was his son.

 

It was lunch time, so Janie grilled some cheese sandwiches while I walked over to look at the sod house. About halfway to the house, I discovered a 4-5 foot long snake crossing the road. I was surprised at its agility given to low temperature. Guess you have to tough it out in this climate. We don’t have a reptile book with us, but if I were home, I would say it was a corn snake. Whatever, it disappeared in a hurry into the grass.

 

After lunch, we took the nature trail through the rock formations. Calling them rocks is a bit misleading because they are mostly young mud and siltstones capped by a more resistant sandstone. The caprock forms the top of the toadstools as the softer mudstones erode from beneath. This is a true badlands terrain, but not as colorful as those in SD & ND. It was interesting nonetheless and we took a few pictures to share. Oh, as you might expect, it was even windier in the badlands terrain. How windy was it? Windy enough to blow the snot out of your nose. Ya had to ask, didn’t ya? (PIC) (PIC) (PIC) (PIC)

 

Once we got back to the paved road, we were about equidistant from Ft Robinson and the Black Hills. We decided to head to the Black Hills and hope for more amenable weather tomorrow. (PIC) Janie had found a little 18 site Corps of Engineers campground two miles back a dirt road. The road was good, and the campground was even better. There are flush toilets, a playground, and fishing. Best of all, it is very clean and doesn’t start charging until May 23. There is only one other camper – a fifth-wheeler – who appears to be a fisherman. They are set up for the duration with a fairly large flagpole complete with fluttering flag and a satellite dish. So here we sit drinking our beer and watching the sun set over the western rim of the Black Hills. The wind seems to be dieing down and all seems to be right with the world. Wonder what terrible news stories we are missing – or not missing.

 

5/20/03

Cottonwood Springs Campground, Black Hills SD to Daugherty Gulch Trailhead

(PIC) It got very cold last night. The temp in RVan was 41, so I’m guessing it was in the low 30s outside. Not to fear, from our bed we can reach up and turned the furnace on. When it got up to 60, we got up. It was early and we were anticipating an early start on the Mickelson Trail (114 miles of rail-trail) – and some good birding. The sky was clear and we had a good view of the waning moon. One cup of morning beverage and we were off to the Minnekahta Trailhead on the southern end of the trail between Edgemont and Pringle. Although cool, it was a splendid morning. We headed south traveling over the limestone plateau toward the Jurassic redbeds and Dakota Sandstone hogbacks. We saw a couple kestrels, mountain bluebirds, and several western tanagers. The trail was great, we were going down a gentle slope, and there was no wind. The scenery was marvelous. The limestone plateau is covered with grasses and the Dakota Sst was well displayed in Sheep Canyon. The soft sandstone provided a ready substrate for historical carvings. We saw one dated 1-17-0VIII, which we interpreted as 17 January 1908 . The unusual way of registering the date got me to thinking about Roman Numerals. It is a base ten system with no zero – kinda weird. Another thought: at what date does a name/date on a rock/table/tree/whatever become historical and interesting rather than just graffiti and irritating? (PIC) (PIC) (PIC)

 

Physiographically, we were on the southern snout of the Black Hills uplift. After about eleven miles, we reached the southernmost end of the uplifted area. Conveniently, there was a nice bench to look across the plains toward Nebraska where we stopped to have a midmorning snack. On the way back we were adopted by a smallish dog with one blue eye – the other one was … brown maybe, at least not blue. The damned thing followed us for the last three miles, all the way back to RVan. It would have followed us INTO RVan if we had let it. We had lunch, packed up everything and headed north toward Hill City , which is a little over half way on the trail. School had just let out, and let me tell you, the youth of Western SD are no better or worse than those anywhere else. Modern telecommunications has homogenized the population.

 

Oh, on the way to Hill City, we took a little detour through the town of Pringle – just to check out the trailhead. Pringle has a population of 135 with the normal gas station, convenience store, bar, and private dwellings. The main thing that makes it stand out is it only has dirt streets. There was not a paved street to be seen. Sure, there is a big ol’ US highway that goes right by it. Sure, the roads that connect the town with the highway are paved. But the streets of the town are dirt. We’d never seen such a thing before.

 

Just north of Hill City , we pulled into a trailhead and started biking north into the central core of the Black Hills . Janie had seen a neat picture of someone biking the Mickelson Trail past the Chief Crazy Horse Monument . After about three miles, we realized that the picture had not portrayed this portion of the trail sufficiently. Yes, it did have a great view of Crazy Horse (PIC), but it also had a great view of a busy highway. And it was soft gravel and uphill into the wind and the sun coming back. We cut the outing short and headed back to RVan.

 

We wanted to bike the crystalline rocks of the uplifted basement metamorphic and granitic rocks. It seemed to us that would be where there are tunnels, so we headed farther north toward Mystic. Unfortunately, I had misread the map yet again. I thought there was a paved road to Mystic. Nope, it was nine miles of dusty gravel – good road but very dusty. We were looking for an NF campsite that was supposed to be six miles west of Mystic. The map showed no roads going west out of Mystic, and if there were, that would be yet another six miles of dusty driving. When we came to a hiking trail trailhead, we stopped to investigate. Hell, backpackers park there overnight, why can’t we? Also, there was a short access trail to the Mickelson. We pulled in and parked in the levelest spot we could find. I’ll let you know if we get run out.

 

5/21/03

Daugherty Gulch Trailhead to Pactola Reservoir NF Campground

(PIC) Well, we didn’t get run out of our parking place or anything. We did wake to frost on our bike seats, however. (PIC) It was a toasty 42 in RVan, but the furnace brought it up to 60 in a hurry. We had our coffee and tea, then some oatmeal, and we were off down the Mickelson. It was a four tunnel day – there are only four tunnels on the trail and we got to do ‘em all. (PIC) The morning ride was cool, almost cold, but we were rewarded with marvelous scenery. As we peddled through the Mystic ghost town, we spooked an Osprey from its roost. (PIC) Yesterday, at about the same time, we spooked a Turkey from its roost. A bit further down the trail we saw a Cooper gliding through the valley looking for a target of opportunity. (PIC) (PIC) (PIC)

 

As the morning chill wore off and the sun began to fill both walls of the narrow valleys, we were forced to strip off layer after layer of clothing. The rack packs that started empty were filling up fast. As has been the case the last two days, the clear morning sky gave way to strata-cirrus, which in turn became strata-cumulus. Today, we reached the strata-cumulus phase early, so after lunch at the 14 mile mark, we started putting our layers back on and headed back to RVan, where we arrived after 28 miles, 4 hours of bike time, and 6 hours of real time. (PIC) (PIC) (PIC)

 

These two morning rides have been excellent. Yesterday was primarily open grasslands and a couple narrow gorges cut in the plateau. Today was more mountainous with steep-sided valleys studded with pine, spruce, and occasional pockets of aspen. The two rides were very different, but we are hard pressed to say which is better. We seemed to have lucked out and picked two of the best parts of the trail. Although we did 56 miles of biking, we only did 28 miles of the 114 mile trail. Although a small percentage, we were rewarded with an excellent return for our effort. We hope to find more trails like this in the future.

 

We readied RVan for traveling and headed on down the dusty dirt road toward Rochford. As it turns out, Rochford is THE place that forgetful man we met at Ft Robinson was talking about – you know, that other place, that place with the University, the place that has nothing – it’s Rochford. The “town” has a population of 25 souls and about that many dogs. The first thing of interest was Wanda’s Wonder Works, which consisted of what looked like a plastic covered clapboard cocoon around an old trailer. The door was standing wide open providing a direct view of the clutter inside. Then we saw a rather well-kept small building with the words “Rochford University” on one side and “Norsk Annex” on another. This must be what the guy was referring to when he said, “You know, the one with the university.” There were TWO saloons: Irish Gulch & Moonshine Gulch. Two saloons for 25 people sounds like a lot, but remember, this is a college town. The last building was a square dilapidated-looking construction with letters that were way too big for the size of the structure – and the letters read: Rochford Mall. A few of you will recall Study Butte in TX. Well, this was a carbon copy.

 

After Rochford, what could be left to do? Ah, Spearfish Canyon, that’s what. It is one of those scenic byways in the Black Hills area and supposed to be a good place to do birds – especially the American dipper (water ouzel). That would be a life bird for us, so we were eager to check it out. When we got to the falls where the Dippers were supposed to be, there was a big ol’ pickup truck parked smack in the trail. Housed on the pickup was the necessary equipment to operate an arc welder, and they were welding a fence to keep people for falling into the plunge pool of the falls – stupid people, let ‘em fall in, I say. Do you know how much noise a portable arc welder makes? Way too much for dippers, I’m sure. We poked around a bit and headed on down the road, still dipper-less.

 

When we got to the end of Spearfish Canyon, we were on the NW side of the Black Hills and we wanted to be on the SE side. What to do, what to do? We got on I-90 and went right around Deadwood and exited at Sturgis – yep, the Sturgis of the annual motorcycle extravaganza. There was the strangest NF road heading out of town. It had an official exit on I-90 – Exit 32 – but it was dirt for about a mile before turning into a very nice paved road with lines and broad shoulders like a regular road. It was almost like they left the dirt part to discourage tourists. Well, we have navigational equipment AND paper maps – all of which showed the road was paved shortly after the exit. HA!

 

It was getting late so we took small, but paved, back roads toward an NF campground on the shore of the Pactola Reservoir, which was supposed to have showers – and we were in need of a shower or two. We’ve never seen an NF campground with showers – and we still haven’t. There are showers, but they are at a camp store about a mile down the road. Hell, this place has pit toilets, no dump station, and we can’t find a trash can anywhere. The campsites are very nice, and every one of them is already reserved for Memorial Day weekend, but paying $17 for a campsite with NO facilities is disturbing. Your tax dollars not at work. It is very quiet now, but just wait a few days and this place will be a jumpin’.

 

5/22/03

Pactola Reservoir NF Campground to Custer SP

(PIC) This was a drivin’ around lookin’ at shit day. It rained during the night and remained cloudy all day. Because we were changing elevation, it varied between comfortable and cool. We were in the popular portion of the Black Hills – Mount Rushmore, Custer SP, and two scenic drives of historic significance – and Flintstone Bedrock City with all the associated concessions. The best thing we saw from a cultural point of view was a street named Dead Broke. The residents appeared to be living the legend. The natural scenery was amazing. I was expecting hoards of people pointing and gawking. The weather and the fact it was just before Memorial Day kept the numbers to an acceptable few. We didn’t have it all to ourselves, but the OTHERS weren’t too offensive.

 

We started by taking the Peter Norbeck scenic drive. It seems ol’ Pete walked and rode mules through these hills and eventually was charged with the responsibility (as senator & governor) of putting a scenic highway right through the Precambrian granitic core of the Black Hills . He refused to blast away the rock to make gentle road grades – people should get out and walk. Rather he had his engineer, C. C. Gideon, design clever alternatives called pig-tail bridges. These are the ultimate switchback where you switch back so far you actually go over the portion of the road you were just on – you can look down and see where you’ve been. These helical pig-tails are unique also because they are made of logs cleared during road construction. There are also tunnels, and Pete oriented them so when you emerge, you have a view of Mount Rushmore. (PIC) (PIC) We didn’t actually go to Rushmore; we just used the zoom lens and took pictures from Pete’s pull outs. The road was beautiful; Pete did a fine job. Too bad there are so few Peter Norbecks to make roads like this.

 

After spending so much time in the Sandhills and Plains, being in a mountainous terrain seems a little strange. Nonetheless, we managed to acclimate just fine. After the Norbeck drive, we entered Custer SP. There is an 18 mile wildlife loop road, and it was like being on safari. Right off the bat we saw some old bachelor bull buffalo hunkered down in the cool of the Ponderosa pines chewin’ their cuds and looking real big and gnarly. Then we saw some female Pronghorns and shortly after that, a group of very frisky males. (PIC) (PIC) (PIC) They were play butting right in the middle of the road. Then they walked over to our side to lick the rock exposed in the road cut. It was Jurassic red stuff, so maybe they were getting some salts from included gypsum or whatever. Watching the young males cavort around reminded me that at one time in the distant past, I felt like that.

 

We saw some turkey and a couple mule deer, but it was the antelope that dominated our day. We keep seeing small groups of them all along the drive. We also saw a large herd of buffalo, mostly females with calves. The calves don’t look much like the adults – they don’t have the hump and they are a reddish tan rather than dark brown. We were glad the mothers and calves were placidly grazing on the hillside because I guess the mothers get a little defensive about the young ones.

 

We drove through all the campgrounds checking prices and accommodations. We ultimately settled on one of the more expensive because it is right next to the loop road, which we planned to bike in the afternoon. But first, we drove the other scenic highway called Needles Drive. Although there are no pig-tail bridges on it, there are three tunnels that were made for Model Ts. The skinniest one was only 9 by 9 feet. We are 8’3” by 7’ (including the mirrors). A year ago I would have been white-knuckling my way through. But now, I just gritted my teeth and listened for scrapping of metal against granite. For once, RVan was the biggest “dog” on the road. We wonder what happens if some fool in a real RV decides to take the Needles Hwy. They would have to back down if they were too big to fit through the tunnels.

 

The granite is closely jointed and the joints weather preferentially forming tall thin needles. In one place, two needles are joined at the top and bottom forming what is called The Eye of The Needle. The whole outcrop is on the order of 200 ft tall, and we saw a picture in the visitor center showing a climber spread-eagled in middle of the eye. We should have bought it for Jason. Instead, I climbed up the jumble of rocks next to it and took a picture. (PIC) (PIC) (PIC)

 

It is totally amazing to have this mountainous terrain – and skinny little mountain roads with no guardrails or shoulder. It seemed like I was always on the outside lane when we met up with one of those big stretch pickups. These are definitely mountains, but from the look outs, you can see the plains below. Like they say, the Black Hills sit like an island surrounded by the sea of grass. If it weren’t for the commercialism and the people it attracts, this would be a stupendous place. As it is, it is just spectacular and approaches stupendous if you can avoid or ignore all the other crap.

 

We plan to head for some “out of the way” places to avoid the onslaught of Memorial Day vacationers – it seems all the schools let out at this time, except for those in the east and far west, so there will be hoards of bored looking pre-teens in addition to the retired and college-age fellow-travelers we’ve been encountering. We are hoping none of them have planned a weekend at Lacreek NWR in south-central SD – just over the SD-NE border and between the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Indian Reservations. Yes, THAT Pine Ridge.

 

Speaking of Indian Reservations – Native American Homelands – the Black Hills are sacred to the Lakota (Sioux) and at one point, the government ceded the Black Hills to them. Almost the next day, gold was discovered and miners immediately broke the treaty and started working claims in the area. The government tried to run the miners out but they were unsuccessful, so they ran the Lakota out … to the badlands. Geeze, to go from the Black Hills with all the pine and babbling brooks to the badlands must have been horrendous. We’ll be passing through the badlands tomorrow, so we’ll check it out.

 

Ah, but before we leave today’s activities in the dust, I need to tell you that we went back to Hill City to get provisions and gas – and call home. I’ve not been able to get a cell phone signal for two days. One of the rangerettes told us that cell phone coverage is awful in this area, so nobody even uses them. I couldn’t get a signal in Hill City, but when we got close to Custer – Custer City they call it, to differentiate it from Custer SP – I managed to get a full strength signal. We had pulled into the parking lot of a rock hound shop – that must have been why I could get through.

 

After the shopping, we came back to our preferred campground, unracked the bikes, and headed off down the wildlife loop drive. It was still cloudy and fairly cool, fortunately. We managed to get 8 miles down the road before the thought of climbing the next long uphill – and the lateness of the hour – forced us to return. We did manage to get in 16 miles and all in all, it was quite pleasant. Once you summit a long climb, you get to careen down the backside. We managed 36 mph on one fairly steep grade. Since buffalo can run at 30 mph, that would have been the only way we could have escaped a charging bull – fortunately, they were all more than content to sit chewing their cuds and ruminating on their day’s activity. Much like I’m doing at this moment. (PIC)

 

5/23/03

Campground to Custer SP to Badlands NP, SD

(PIC) We broke camp early in hopes of seeing some Burrowing Owls over at the prairie dog megalopolis. We were there, but the owls weren’t, so we just took a leisurely drive along the wildlife loop – just lookin’ at shit. We made notes for future biking – where the long uphill climbs are – and decided to check out some of the dirt roads that crisscross the loop. Wow, this was heaven. The dirt roads were much narrower, but well maintained – don’t try it if it’s wet – so the trees and wildlife are close to the road, and there are no cars. This would be a great place to bike. We went back one of the roads that ended at the French Creek Wilderness area. When we got to the end of the road, we decided to just park it – in the road – and have a bowl of granola while enjoying the splendid tranquility. It was so peaceful, we both started feeling sleepy. Ah, nature, the great stress reliever.

 

It was time to leave the Black Hills and head for Badlands NP. Unfortunately, we had to go through the real badlands of Rapid City to get there. Shortly after leaving the outskirts of the city, the traffic dwindled to a very few and we had nearly open road and Great Plains scenery. We watched the Black Hills recede in the rear-view mirrors as we traversed the pediment surface laid down by erosion while they were being uplifted. That pediment was dissected by the Rapid River, which flows into the Cheyenne. The base level of the Cheyenne is 500 feet below the surrounding terrain, so soon after crossing the river, we descended into the badlands formed by tributary streams cutting down to the Cheyenne level. These are nice badlands, but for the most part not as colorful as some we’ve seen. (PIC)

 

We had the option of taking a dirt road shortcut to the badlands loop road, but opted to do the round-about paved road instead. We got to the loop road around two and managed to stretch the twenty mile road – 40 out and back – into a four-hour outing. Along the way, we had lunch and a 3:45er, if you know what I mean. Whatever, we decided to stay in the Cedar Pass campground, which turned out to be a very good idea. There is not one tree in the entire campground, which consists of two loops: Butte and Agate. We didn’t like the idea of staying in the Butte loop, so we are in Agate as I type. (PIC)

 

It is Friday of Memorial Day Weekend, and the campground is nearly full. There is an interesting collection of fellow campers – many more than we have been experiencing. There are the old, retired couples who travel with their dogs, and there are the younger college-age set. We are ensconced between a sampling of each group. There are almost no families with children. The most interesting are the three teenagers from IL next to us. Watching them takes me back to my first camping experiences. Three boys in a compact sedan with one two-man tent, a cooler, a couple packs, and that’s all. Their campsite is the cleanest in the campground because they don’t have any gear. We watched them heat a can of Chef Boyardee over a can of sterno. After they were done, there was only a small garbage bad and a bottle of water at their site. One of them seems to be sleeping in the car, and they all turned in before dark. Oh, they were drinking Dr Pepper. Go figure.

 

Speaking of turning in, we witnessed a great sunset. I had to keep telling myself that this is SD not AZ. The surrounding terrain glowing in the light of the setting sun looked so much like AZ. While we were watching the sunset, a young couple passed by and I said, “We are thinking of starting a new religion.” The guy responded, “Good idea, but it wouldn’t be new.” Ah, an intellectual exchange, oblique though it may be.

 

5/24/03

Badlands NP, SD to Lacreek NWR (Little White River SRA) SD

We got up early, prepared coffee & tea, and headed out of the campground. We were one of the first to leave. Sitting in a crowded campground was not likely to contribute to a peaceful morning – especially with my voyeuristic tendencies, which is why live concerts are a waste on me – so we headed down the loop drive to find a nice quiet place to enjoy the interplay between morning sun and bare rock. That was a much better way to start the day.

 

Eventually, we left Badlands NP and headed toward Lacreek NWR. It was only a two hour drive. On the way, we stopped at the White River to make a second cup of morning beverage and watch cliff swallows building nests under the bridge. We got to the turn off for the NWF and followed the six miles of DUSTY dirt road to the entrance. On the way, we nearly ran over a snake, and later, in the road along a quarter mile stretch, we found three dead that were not as lucky. They all appear to be bull snakes. That heralded the beginning of a reptilian day. Oh, we are in SD, but not by much. We can see the Sandhills of NE just south of the refuge.

 

We found an information kiosk that, as it turned out, was the “back door” to the refuge. We drove more dusty roads until we arrived at a turnout featuring – pelican islands. The turnout was on top of the dike that formed a large lake with two small islands in the middle. The islands were white with nesting pelicans, and the few trees had heron and/or cattle egret nests in them. We had our granola while reading the sign and watching the birds.

 

A little further down the road, there was another turnout. This one was for a large prairie dog town. Janie had an epiphanette – Prairie de Chien. As usual, we scanned for burrowing owls, and viola, we found one. It was standing on a prairie dog burrow and occasionally, it would fly up and snatch a bug out of the air. We could even see the bug. While we were watching, a middle-aged woman and her mother drove up. Apparently, they had come from IA to photograph burrowing owls (“That’s what we came to do”) but somehow had forgotten to pack the tripod (“God Dammit”). When we left, the mother was walking down the road to get closer to the mound were the owl was.

 

Seeing the owl in midmorning resulted in a search for the meanings of nocturnal and its opposite, diurnal. Nocturnal, of course, refers to night. However, diurnal turns out to be a bit more ambiguous. There are two meanings: Relating to or occurring in a 24-hour period; daily. 2. Occurring or active during the daytime rather than at night. Since a 24-hour period includes night, the distinction becomes a bit muddy. Whatever, the burrowing owls are diurnal, no matter which meaning you use.

 

The headquarters and visitor area was at the other end of the road. When we got there, we discovered a 4.5 mile loop road – yippee. We drove the loop very slowly – it took us a couple of hours. (PIC) By the end of the day we had had identified fifty-two species of birds, including an avocet on the nest – and we saw turtles. There were painted turtles out on every available surface just soaking up the sun as if they hadn’t seen it for a while. There were turtle noses poked out of the water like teeny periscopes. There were snapping turtles, some very small – palm sized – crossing the road from one pool to another. And there were large adult snappers, some languishing in the mud and others looking like moving rocks as they crawled up shallow channels. About halfway around, we passed a couple of pickups with two men and a pre-teen girl fishing. We waved, and as we passed by the second truck, we could see a large snapper they had stuffed head-down into a five-gallon bucket. The turtle was so large, only the head and forelimbs fit in the bucket. All they other appendages (including the tail) were flailing away at the air. I suppose, like coyote, snapper is always in season.

 

Eventually, we got back to the headquarters. Like all modern NWRs, the headquarters building has a visitor center part. However, it was Saturday, so it was closed and all the employees were off vacationing – in the Black Hills, I suppose. We noticed a bird walk, so we started out on that. Before we even got to the beginning of the trail, we saw a cute little thirteen-lined ground squirrel attack and successfully subdue a dandelion seed-head. It was very dramatic. We had a little more drama at the beginning of the trail where we saw bits and pieces of a green snake that had been sliced and diced by the mower. About fifty yards down the trail, we scared out a large bird of prey. It was either a red tail, Swainson’s , or great horned. We didn’t find a nest, so we don’t think it was an owl.

 

The trail formed a loop around a small canal fringed with cottonwoods. We had walked the length of the canal on the windward side and were reluctant to try the lee side for fear of being attacked by the black flies and gnats that were kept at bay by the wind. I went across the little dike and spillway at the head of the canal to see what the trail on the other side looked like. As I crossed the dike, I heard some scratching sounds behind me, and when I turned to see what it was, there was this HUGE snapper crawling off the dike wall and into the water. This was easily the largest turtle of any type I have ever seen. We looked it up later, and it says they get up to two feet across the shell. This one was every bit of that. Honestly, it looked to be the size of a car tire. It was so large, it nearly filled the outfall channel that it swam and crawled along to get back to open water.

 

The trail on the lee side of the trees looked closed in and likely populated with biting insects just licking their chops at the sight of us. We decided to turn around and walk back the way we had come. The experience with snakes on the road had me watching the grass. We had only gotten about half way back when we saw a large – four to five foot – bull snake in the middle of the trail. I clapped my hands and s/he slithered into the grass. About ten feet down the trail we were greeted by another bull snake semi-coiled in the grass along side the trail. Bull snakes make a rattling hiss that sounds very much like a rattlesnake. We could see that the snake wasn’t completely coiled, although its midsection was arched up in a very strange manner. We never did see the head or tail, but we heard it and it did not sound happy. Bull snakes are constrictors and based on its aggressive nature (compared to the placidity of the other one) and its strange body contortion, I’m guessing it was in the process of dispatching some prey – maybe one of those ground squirrels.

 

We continued on down the trail to be greeted by yet another snake. This time it was a western garter snake. There were blue-bottle flies on its head and it wasn’t moving. However, if something had killed it, it was a very recent event. If it weren’t for the presence of the flies, it could easily have passed for living. Very strange, especially when we hadn’t seen it on the way in. Ah, maybe it had been captured by the hawk we scared off. But would it have attracted flies so quickly? It’s a mystery.

 

By the time we got back to RVan we had decided to spend the night here rather than drive on and risk getting stuck with full and/or obnoxious campsites. We had already looked at the primitive but free campsite adjacent to the refuge – it was clean and totally empty, go figure. I relaxed on the bed while Janie fixed us some lunch, we ate, and then we relaxed for a while. Around four (EDT), we unracked the bikes and headed out for a ride.

 

We biked back to the prairie dog/burrowing owl place and watched the owl do its bugging routine again. We also saw two badgers pop their stripped heads out of a burrow. It must be very unsettling for the prairie dogs to have carnivores like owls and badgers living right in their town – next door, in fact. Nonetheless, they didn’t seem the least bit concerned with anything but us – as if we were the least bit dangerous.

 

Then we went on to the pelican island site and marveled at seeing pelicans in the prairie. We biked along the dike and were rewarded by seeing three beaver. It is tough for a beaver to build a dam when there are so few trees, but these have managed with cattails and mud. As we biked back to the headquarters, we saw our first – and likely our last – jack rabbit. They look so gangly, like they were put together by committee of comedians.

 

Next, we biked the loop road to get a closer look at the birds we had seen earlier. We also saw several more snappers plying the channels with their backs out of the water and looking like moving rocks. Usually you see water flowing around rocks; this time we saw “rocks” moving through otherwise quiet water. It’s a little disorienting until you realize what’s going on.

 

It was around nine EDT, so we decided to head for the campsite. When we got there, there was a man and two boys fishing from the dike. Then a car with two couples of young Native Americans stopped in to use the restroom – the two women. They were drinking Bud, so I was getting a little concerned that this might be the Saturday night party place. Shortly after they left, a Sheriff’s car drove through. That could be good or bad news. The good news is that they patrol the camp. The bad news is that they feel that they have to. A bit later, a small SUV came in with one post-college aged guy. We had seen him at the NWR spending a lot of time taking pictures and lugging around heavy camera equipment. It was good to know that we weren’t alone, and with any luck at all, he isn’t a mass murder – if he is, look for some really good photos in the Police Gazette. (PIC)

 

We watched the sun set over the lake. It wasn’t nearly as dramatic as last night’s, but in its subtle way, it was equally rewarding. It is now time to finish my beer, floss, and go to bed. (PIC)

 

5/25/03

Lacreek NWR (Little White River SRA) SD to Ponca SP, Ponca NE

It was six (EDT) when they started yelling. It was a stretch pickup with several young bucks hooting and hollering like they were herding cattle. I never did figure out what they were doing – skinny dipping, fishing, dunno – but it involved beer and a lot of yelling. The sky was just beginning to lighten and the waning moon was still bright in the eastern sky. We got up, heated our water, prepared our morning beverages, and headed for the NWR. Oh, I was able to see the license of our fellow camper – Colorado.

 

The washes, gullies, arroyos, whatever you wish to call them were filled with mist. It looked really strange to see light fog overflowing onto the prairie. We were at the pelican overlook when the sun crested the horizon. It was beautiful. Janie scored a bunch of black crowned night herons and some bitterns. We went to the prairie dog town and Janie was able to pick out the fluffy head of a burrowing owl just peering out of its burrow. Good morning, Mr./Mrs. Owl. Hope you have a good day bug hunting.

 

We drove slowly around the loop and pulled over onto a dike about halfway around. We sat there long enough to have a bowl of oatmeal and prepare our second cuppa. We watched a killdeer sorta practicing sitting on a nest. They nest in gravel, so she would walk down the road a bit and squat down. We watched her repeat this three times before we were distracted by willets and avocets loudly fluttering overhead. It was a great morning. Between the pullouts we saw male pheasants glowing brilliantly in the slanty dawn light.

 

While we were sitting there, we remembered that this was the day after graduation. Bethany and Gretchen are now officially alumni. Congrats to them and everyone else. Here’s hoping their future will be at least as good as our past. Cheers to you, kids. Thanks for the memories – let’s make some more.

 

Around nine we bid farewell to Lacreek NWR and headed back the dusty road to civilization. It was bittersweet because we know we want to get home, but we aren’t looking forward to running the gauntlet of the eastern badlands – overpopulated cities. We entered the Sandhills shortly after leaving the refuge and returned to US-20, the same road we had taken through most of NE. We looked for the horned owl nest but didn’t see it. The Swainson’s nest was clearly still occupied. When we got to Valentine, we took off on NE-12, the Outlaw Trail Scenic Byway that follows the Niobrara River to its confluence with the Missouri River and then along the Missouri toward Sioux City .

 

We stopped at Ponca SP, just about twenty miles west of Sioux City. It is Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, so we were afraid of being crowded out of a campsite, especially in camping areas near the Missouri. We saw a sign saying that the “electric campsites” were closed due to park improvements – sounds like a real improvement to us. Thus, there were only tent sites, so we thought that maybe the weekenders would select another park to invade – and most of them did, it seems. There were still a few campsites left when we arrived around six (EDT). Part of the improvement was repaving the roads, so the new pavement was about six inches above the shoulder, which had not yet been groomed for use. Thus, getting into the campsite – T-1 on the primitive loop – was a bit daunting. I was only concerned about the bikes dragging, I knew RVan could handle the offset just fine. Everything worked out okay, and we are now sitting in our site enjoying a couscous concoction a la Janie and homemade chutney, also a la Janie.

 

Today we covered about 350 miles and passed through the Sandhills, High Plains, and table land, and we are now in the loess along the western edge of the Missouri . The changes were rather abrupt and made us realized how much we had enjoyed being in the big open spaces of western NE and SD. No more Sandhills. No more pheasants. No more BIG snappers. No more ranches measured in square miles. The open-range cattle ranches have been replaced by cultivated fields and stockyards. They need the stockyards because most of the open areas are planted in crops, so there isn’t enough room for range-fed cattle. Oddly, they cultivate the fields to produce feed for the stockyards. Why not just let the cattle roam and forget the cultivation part? Yeah, I know, because much of it is for cash crops and feedlots are more efficient if unsightly.

 

Once we made the descent off the table lands and into the stream valleys, we noticed an increase in the number and variety of trees. The ponderosa and cottonwoods of the west have been replaced with oak, maple, linden, walnut, and the other types we are familiar with in the east. It is also noticeably more humid. And the population density has picked up considerably – and we are still in NE. The population will continue to increase with every mile as we head east. I miss the open roughness of the west. It is big-boned country where you have to do without many of those things you’ve learned to need. Oh, it is also obvious that the obesity factor increases with population density. I don’t recall seeing any local obese people in the west. Sure there are some big, burly people, but they are not morbidly fat like several we saw today. You know, the ones that look like their legs start at the knees. I’m not making fun of anyone. I’m just trying to describe what we’ve observed.

 

The obesity seems to be related to population density. Only higher populations can support franchise restaurants and highly-processed, mass-marketed foods. For example, we saw very few McDonald’s, Wendy’s, or others of that ilk in the west. Rather, we saw cleverly named local establishments like the bar we saw today in the Sandhills: The Sand Bar. There were only two “name brand” purveyors that were even remotely ubiquitous: gas stations and grocery stores. Even then, some of the gas stations were unique to my experience: Pony Gasoline. In other words, if the local economy is not sufficient to support McDonald’s and the like, those that live there learn to do without these cosmopolitan necessities – and they seem to be healthier as a consequence. Just an oversimplified explanation for a casual observation, but food for thought – so to speak.

 

Tomorrow we hope to take back roads through IA and then it will be a day of running across IL and IN to OH and then home.

 

5/26/03

Ponca SP, Ponca NE to Fairport SP, Fairport IA

(PIC) We waltzed across Iowa today. We just took our time and made steady progress. At one point we were only eleven miles from Early IA , made famous in Greg Brown’s song of the same name – “They sure named it right.” By taking the back roads – almost all were state and county routes – we got to pass through lots of little towns and had a blast comparing them. We started with Ponca City. It has a gas station right on Main Street, and the pumps are built right into the curb. They even had the old style dial-your-pressure air hoses. (PIC)

 

Nearly all of the towns have sayings like Biggest Little Town In The Country and Small Town Big Heart. The sign announcing that you were entering Lake City said, “Everything But A Lake.” The official humor was much appreciated. Hey, if you can’t laugh at yourself, you’ve got a real problem. Lake City was easily the nicest town we were in today. It was extremely clean and all the buildings looked like they had just been renovated. The focal point was a very nice town square with a great bandstand and large, ornate fountain. The fountain had life-sized great blue herons squirting water into the surrounding pool – squirting water out their MOUTH, fool. (PIC)

 

One town, we don’t recall the name, had a much less ornate adornment to its town square. The town was only about 5 blocks square and the road marked the southern end of town. When we looked down what must have been Main, we could see a fairly large windmill like those for pumping water for cattle. Could that be the other side of town? We turned down the street and sure enough, it was right in the middle of town. Only the main street was paved all the way through; the others were gravel except for a couple blocks where they connected to the road. So there you have it: a town in central IA with at least half the street being unpaved. We got very close to a town called What Cheer, but turned onto a different road before actually entering it – now we wish we had continued just to see What Cheer. Many of the cemeteries were bedecked with full-sized flags. The smaller ones had the flags around the perimeter; the larger ones had them lining the main road through the cemetery. It was pretty spectacular. This is truly the heartland.

 

All the roads we took were lightly traveled until we got to the area south of Iowa City. It was mid-afternoon and the holiday weekenders were heading home. Even then, there wasn’t that much traffic. All the roads were well maintained and scenic. The only exception was the one scenic byway we went out of our way to take. It was undoubtedly the least scenic and worst maintained road of the day. I’ve decided the scenic byway notation is a political thing and has little bearing on reality. Or perhaps so many roads in Iowa are straight that one with any curves in it is considered scenic. As soon as we got off the official scenic byway, it became nice once again.

 

Tonight we are on the Mississippi – I could throw a stone in it from the campsite, if I were a younger person and could throw a stone without having my arm hurt for the next week. The last time we camped next to Ol’ Man River, the mosquitoes were horrendous. This is not the case this time. The weekenders have left, the cleaning crew has passed through, and the place is quiet, peaceful, and mercifully, almost bug free.

 

Yesterday I noted that the cattle ranches had changed to farms and the farms were getting smaller and smaller. Today is the first time I recall seeing houses in the country that were not part of a ranch or farm. These were houses like yours and mine. They were in the country, but they were just houses; the owners worked elsewhere. Certainly, from here on it will be like home – except we still have to negotiate Cleveland, Akron, Canton, Youngstown, and whatever megalopolis occupies the NE corner of OH. Ah, but that is a day away. Tomorrow we will waltz across IL and IN and likely be in western OH for the night.

 

5/27/03

Fairport SP, Fairport IA to Van Buren SP, OH

(PIC) Our waltz across IL & IN turned out to be a slow waltz. Our destination was simply to get to OH. However, there are no campgrounds right on the border – go figure. We had to drive a bit farther than we really wanted – and then there was that very large dark cloud that we had to drive through to get to Van Buren SP, which is where we are now parked.

 

This is the most unusual SP we’ve been in. There is a private campground all along the front of the park, so it is difficult to tell exactly what is private and what is public. There is an entrance to the park on both sides of the private campground. The first one we came to didn’t say a mumblin’ word about camping. The second one only listed group camping. We headed down that and saw a sign for the park office. They should have information or at least a map at the park office, right? As it turns out, the park office is at the other entrance and is connected to the turn off that we entered by a road that goes along the back side of the private campground. We managed to drive completely around the private campground before we figured out where the SP was.

 

While driving toward the park office, we managed to stumble onto the campground. There are forty sites and only three of them are occupied. This is in sharp contrast to the private campground, which is chucky-jam full with RVs and trailers packed cheek to jowl. How can they stand sitting there looking at each other’s butts? It is a curious behavioral trait that I will never understand.

 

We drove around the campground but could find nothing about registering. There were four posts evenly spaced around the campground, and we assumed they would have information about registering. Nope, they were all the same: little metal containers filled with plastic mutt mitts and instructions about cleaning up after your pet. Hunh?

 

There were a couple retirees sitting under the awning of their camper, so we stopped to ask about registering. “Oh, you just go to the park office, get one of those packets, put your money in it, and stick the tag on the post.” And the park office would be …? “That away.” Okay, we have now made a full loop around the private campground, and I’m too disgusted to eat.

 

We find the park office – it’s a barn – and see a door. Between the storm door and locked interior door are announcements and two racks of pamphlets. One rack contains the registration packets and the other had brochures for the park. The instructions said we were to go pick out a site, fill out the form, put the form and money in the envelope, put the envelope in the slot in the door, and put the “occupied” sign on our campsite post. Right! We are not driving back around the campground to get a site number. Write is so it can’t be read and let’s get on with our lives.

 

The sites cost $11 and $12 w/pet or $12 for a “holiday” campsite and $13 for a “holiday” campsite w/pet. What is it with the pets thing? We put our $11 in the envelope and registered for site xx. On the way back to the campground, we saw a very nice sign welcoming us to the park and announcing that the Ohio State Park System is America’s #1 State park system. It seems to be a system based on pets – and cleaning up after them.

 

Since we’ve had a lot of hours just sitting in RVan and watching the country go by, we’ve had some time to reflect on our experiences and observations. As I’ve noted on the outward portion of the trip, we’ve seen some unusual names for funeral homes, and today we had a similar experience: Stackhouse & Moore Funeral Home. It reminded us of that GA crematorium that never actually incinerated the bodies; rather, they stacked them in buildings and when those were full, they put them around the grounds – Stackhouse & Moore, get it?

 

We spent most of our time in the lightly populated western portions of NE & SD, which are states that aren’t that populated to begin with. Thus, we are sensitive to the changes as we proceed eastward. Somewhere in mid Iowa, we started being able to see more than one farm house at a time. It was about that time that we started seeing billboards. After going several days without billboards, you quickly discover that they are not only ugly but distracting and consequently, dangerous.

 

Also, about halfway across IA, people stopped waving. I miss the waving. We’ve always waved at people sitting on their porches or standing in their yards. I like waving; there is something very humane about it. Of course, the farther east you go, the more trees there are, and they start to crowd the roads. The right of way around the roads is much smaller than out west where land is plentiful. In the west, they actually bail the grass that grows along the road. In the east they cut it and spit it out onto the road. The narrower ROW means trees and buildings are closer to the road. The roads have pretty much the same speed limits – which no one pays any attention to whatsoever – so in the east, where there is much more traffic – everything goes zipping by and if you aren’t careful, you get a little disoriented.

 

Another significant change involves the flotsam on and along the road. Out west it is things like dead rabbits, snakes, and turtles. In the east, it is primarily human debris that litters the road – along with raccoons, skunks, and the occasional family cat. While I don’t enjoy seeing crushed turtles, I do prefer them to hubcaps, shredded tires, and McDonald’s trash. Oh, did I mention the plastic bags clinging to trees, bushes, and fences?

 

One of the things we miss most about the west is the village parks that offer free camping – often with hook up and dump station. For whatever reason, the western people actually want you to stay in their parks. In the east you see signs saying “No Parking” or “No Camping” rather than “Welcome To Our City Park – If You Stay Overnight, Please Leave A Donation In The Box.” As we drove east and actually needed a city park with overnight camping, all we found was “No Camping” signs. It has to do with overuse and abuse I’m sure, but still you just don’t get that warm welcome feeling when you read “Welcome – Pay What You Think It’s Worth.”

 

One thing that I found annoying about the wide open west involved lookouts. They are forever proclaiming how many states you can see. Who cares how many states you can see? For the most part, state boundaries are not determined by physiographic distinctions, so where they border on each other, states tend to look exactly the same. Also, the number of states you can see depends entirely on where you are. There is no point high enough in AK for you to see any other state at all. Does that diminish the view in any way? I think not. Also, if you are at the four corners in the SW, you could be lying flat on your face and still see four states. So what’s the big deal? Yeah, the big deal is that you can see far, and saying you can see x states makes it seem ever so much more important. But it is just a gimmick and I tend not to stop at places that make such statements. I’m happy seeing just one state, as long as it is a good view.

 

5/28/03

Van Buren SP, OH to Naweedna

We took our time this morning. We needed to complete our morning ritual and empty the holding tanks in preparation for home. Janie managed to knit together state roads all the way to what used to be NY-17, which we took to NY-36, then NY-63 and home. It was a long day, but we knew we had a “campsite” at the end, so we just poked along trying to make the best of an urbanized morass. As usual, we were struck by the “ruggedness” of WNY. In comparison to NE OH, WNY is wilderness. However, we did notice that they had to put signs along NY-17 announcing “Natural Area”, which looked exactly like the rest of the terrain. I suppose some people think the other areas are painted on something “unnatural” like huge billboards or something. Whatever, we only stopped in Salamanca to get gas at the “Tribally Owned” gas station. The gas and cigarette (smokes) prices are considerably less because they don’t have to charge tax. The station attendant was Bode, who was the first apparently gay Native American I’ve conversed with. Bode: “Which pump are you at?” Me: “The one with the white van.” Bode: “Oh, it’th nithe looking, cute. Here’th your change. Now, YOU have a nithe day.” Me: “Thanks, and you, too.”

 

Then we stopped at the Burger King to get a couple chocolate shakes. Janie made the order to what appeared to be a first-day-person. The girl actually took Janie’s money, gave her the change, and said, “Thank you, and have a nice day.” Ummm, what about the milkshakes? “Oh, yeah, hee, hee.” A little more training, please.

 

We got home around eight and took a walk around the house. Lordy, it is so green. We had a beer and a bite to eat while sitting in the dark and reflecting on our trip. We have had a great time. We biked for over 150 miles on the High Plains, Sandhills, and Black Hills . It seems odd to travel thousands of miles to bike less than two hundred, but you gotta do what you gotta do, and you gotta go where they gotta bike trail. We’ve enjoyed it, and this has been the most laugh-filled trip ever. We enjoyed that place, the other place, and reading about that guy and what’s his name. Then there was the night I was getting ready for bed and put the wedge-y cushion across the seats to barricade the door. I was feeling a little full of myself that I had done all the nightly ritual stuff with great efficiency – and found a use for that wedge-y thing. As I crawled into bed, I felt compelled to say, “I think of everything”, which was followed by peals of tear-inducing laughter from my bride. Yeah, I had thought of everything – except turning out the lights. And yesterday, I managed to get the toilet paper stuck in my pants, which Janie thought was hilarious. It isn’t easy being me, sometimes.