May 17 … Wednesday … Naweedna to London ONT
We got off to a slow start and were on the road around 9:30. The road to where, you might ask? Well, the road to … Mikey & Mare's. It took us the better part of seven hours to traverse the 238 miles. Hey, we're on a trip, so we took the time to drive around and look at stuff (DALAS). We took our usual back roads to Buffalo, where we crossed the border with little difficulty. The CN border guys are ever so friendly, although this one seemed a little disappointed that we didn't have any guns or explosives. "No guns or explosives?" Nope, don't believe in 'em. "Oh, okay, you can go."
We took the same route along the north shore of Lake Erie that we had blazed on our return trip from M&M's a couple months ago. It is a really nice, leisurely drive with some great views of the lake. It is also the same route that passes a big ol' coal-fired power plant just before you get into a new wind generator area with 65 brand new wind-turbines - some of them were actually working this time. We stopped by a whirling one to see if there was much noise. There wasn't.
The most interesting feature we saw was ground fog. Apparently the air temp and ground moisture were just at the right point to generate little patches of fog. It was all concentrated on the recently worked fields; none on the undisturbed areas. It made it look like the fresh dirt was steaming.
We encountered several detours on our journey. One of them took us directly through the heart of St Thomas. But just before entering St Thomas, we passed a large, institutional-looking building. It was institutional-looking because it was … the St Thomas Mental Health Institution, er, Facility. It is no longer politically correct to use the word institution in that way. As we drove through the city, we noticed that all - and I do mean ALL - the people we saw looked sorta, well, odd, you know, just not normal. After a bit we found ourselves thinking: "escapees." Then we decided it was just a local gene-pool concentration phenomenon.
We arrived at Mikey's at the appropriate hour for an adult brewed-beverage, and, after a few more, it was the appropriate time to switch to wine. Mikey stirred up a batch of Alfredo with extra garlic, onion, heavy cream, and butter. He said he was trying to fatten us up before we starved ourselves with camping fare. Yummy, it was good, good, good.
May 18 … Thursday … London to Hiawatha NF, Brevoort Lake CG, MI
We bid goodbye to M&M around 8:30 - midway between the 8 and 9 AM rush - and followed Mikey's instructions - variable scale, no N arrow - out of town and headed for Sarnia and the border. Most "normal" people would take The 402, an expressway that goes right to the border crossing. We aren't normal, so we putzed around on back roads until we absolutely had to get on The 402 - about five miles from the border. That five miles was LINED WITH TRUCKS. It seems that trucks have to be in the right lane to cross the border there so they were backed up for … five miles. That's five miles of trucks sitting on idle for who knows how long. Five miles of truck drivers who are going to be very angry by the time they get through the border. Five miles of trucks on I-69 ram-rodding to make up lost time.
Both I-69 and I-75, which we took north to the Upper Peninsula (UP) have clearly posted speed limits: 70 Cars, 55 Trucks. We, as usual, set the cruise control on 55 (to save gas and make it easier to fight the gusty wind) and watched all those angry truckers go whizzing by. Fifty-five my ass - they were doing sixty-five at least. So much for the speed limit, which, as we've noted before, doesn't actually say it is an UPPER limit. In Canada, the speed signs are clearly labeled "Maximum", but in the good ol' USofA they just say Speed Limit, which of course could be either upper or lower. I guess you get to choose. Oh, not that Canada is so perfect. All their sings are bilingual - except the speed limit ones, which only contain a number and the word "Maximum". Ha!
Crossing back into the USofA means being questioned by a US border guy - or gal in this case. There was a bit of a backup, so we picked the left-most lane and pulled into a queue behind ten other cars. They guy in front of us was driving a Jeep with a Patrick sticker. Patrick is a Rochester dealer, so there we were behind someone basically from home. While we were waiting we took the time to read the signs and look at the flags. The main building had three flags on it: US, NY, and an odd one we'd never seen before. It had red stripes like the US flag, but they were vertical. It also had a rectangular field where the US flag has stars, but this flag had an eagle like the one on our money. So what was this vertically striped flag with a spread eagle? It must have been the flag for Home Land Security. The vertical striping looked really odd, sorta like jail bars, and the eagle looked like someone pulled a gun on it and said "stick 'em up."
We also saw a sign that said to avoid jail and penalty, declare all fruits, vegetables, and meat. Hmmm, declare your meat, eh? We got to chuckling about that one. Just before we drove up to be interviewed, I considered saying, "You want to see my meat?" Fortunately, for me, I thought better of the idea. The lady agent was nice and asked, "Where ya headed?" My reply was, "South Dakota." To which she queried, "What cha goin' there for?" To which I (almost) replied, "Because somebody has to" (but actually said) "To see some wildlife and just have a good relaxing good time." Then she asked if we were traveling with the car in front of us. "Nope, but I did notice they were from Rochester." We were waved on with a hearty, "Have a good trip."
It had rained most of the night, but the rain had stopped by morning. However, it started raining again as we were negotiating Flint - taking smaller state roads to avoid the construction delays Mikey had warned us about - M&M had just come that way driving a friend's RV from Portland to London (Ontario). It rained nearly all the rest of the day. And there was wind - gusty and in our face. Wind means RVan gets lower mileage and I have to work harder to keep 'er between the lines. The driving part is exacerbated by wakes from those big trucks. Nonetheless, we were pleased to discover that we got 17+ mpg when we filled up just outside of Flint.
Our goal was to grit our teeth and drive up the center of MI heading for the Mackinac Bridge. It was windy the last time we crossed the bridge - so windy that they had lead cars for you to follow so you couldn't go over 35. This time they were just issuing warnings telling you to drive slowly and use the outside lane - the one next to the very short railing which is actually closed for repair over the middle, and highest, part of the span. Whatever, we made it easily and picked up US-2 heading down the southern shore of the UP.
We found ourselves in a National Forest campground - Brevoort Lake, Hiawatha NF to be specific - around six. We'd run the gauntlet of I-75 and the main part of MI. Now we were off to the Great West. Oh, thanks to my Golden Age Passport, the NF CG was half price. That means I saved … $7. Yep, we are now paying prices like I remember from my first camping days/nights.
Oh, after we had registered for a campsite and were heading back to it, we fell in behind a little old man with a hat (LOMWAH - as Gunter calls 'em). He was driving very slowly and seemed to be taking notes. About three-quarters of the way around the loop, he pulled over to let us pass. When he did, we noticed the animated deer attached to his otherwise empty trailer hitch. As he was stopping, the deer sorta reared up and waved its legs in the air. We pulled up beside him and said, "Hey, we like your deer." That was a mistake.
This guy started talking and telling us where he got it - in Key West as a birthday present. Then he proceeded to rattle off a continuous string of semi-connected statements: just taking notes for picking a campsite; bought a 33' camper; gonna pick it up next week and head up to the Porcupine Mountains; then back down here for a few days; that's why I'm takin' notes; how long you folks gonna stay; just retired a couple years ago; doin' a lot of traveling; this part of the country is beautiful; like the Dells; I'm from WI; the Dells are more crowded though; hey, you look like the guy down at the camp store; what's his name; I can never remember his name but you look just like him … it went on a bit more before we managed to get a moment of silence to interject, "Have a good one." Whew! Let's park this thing and have a beer. You know, beer and deer are very similar. We saw a hand-lettered sign advertising something for Deer Hunters. The "D" had an arrow through it, so it looked a lot like Beer. Yeah, you gotta watch those Beer Hunters ;-)
May 19 … Friday … Hiawatha NF, Brevoort Lake CG, MI to Ojibwa County Campground, WI
Our first day started at 9:30, our second day was 8:30, and today … 7:30. If we keep this progression, we'll be starting about the time we stop. Don't try to figure that out, just consider it clever and read on.
The morning drive down US-2 was beautiful. There was very little traffic, so I could putz along at a cool 47.5 mpg. The road has a broad, paved shoulder, so when someone came up behind me, I could just slow down even more, pull over and let 'em get on with their busy lives. We had lots of gorgeous views of the lake and enjoyed every one of them.
About halfway along the UP shore, we passed through the little village of Epoufette MI. We'd been through here before and apparently had a minor epiphany otherwise known as an epiphanette. We don't know what Epoufette means in whatever language it is, but we made up our own, somewhat whimsical, definition: "little fart." Oh, excuse me, she said touching her gloved hand to her pert mouth, I seem to have had an epoufette. Yeah, I'm sure that "little fart" is much better than whatever it really means.
You know how sometimes, while driving, you get sorta bored and start noticing odd names? After all, when you're driving, you are pretty much the type section of captive audience. Well, that sort of thing seemed to happen today. There is a company that distributes propane along the southern UP. It bears the name of its founder: DeCock. Every now and again you see these huge phallic-shaped propane storage-tanks emblazoned with DeCock, and you see these propane delivery trucks with DeCock. Your idle mind starts to think: What do you suppose Mr DeCock's first name is? You think of all the obvious ones like Harry or Dick or Peter but you eventually settle in on … Bob … Bob DeCock … more specifically … Bob Wayne DeCock like John Wayne Bobbit. An idle mind is a dangerous thing.
Just about then you hear a cacophony of thumping pops and notice that you've just driven through a swarm of midges. Oh no, they are now plastered on your formerly clean windshield - and skylight. Why do they cluster in certain spots? I'm sure it's not their intention to splatter their innards on the forward-facing surfaces of RVan, but that's exactly what happens. Too bad for us … worse for them.
Ah, time for lunch. Where will we stop for lunch? Ah, here's an NF campground/picnic area just off the road. We pull in and start reading the signs. It seems the NF has just instituted a $3 user fee for anyone using the parking or picnicking are. That would be $3 for anyone that doesn't have a GOLDEN AGE PASSPORT. You see, if we fortunately old people display our Golden Age Passport on the dashboard, we get in FREE. That's another $3 I've saved. Yay, me!
As we drive along the northern tier of MI and WI, we notice that we are far enough north to be experiencing the spring we left behind last week. Up here, the dandelions are just now blooming, whereas they were pretty much past peak when we left home. One spring, we will start in TX and follow the season north to ND … and beyond. Some day, that's what we'll do.
Another sort of time shift happened today: we crossed into Central Time. That means we get to live that hour all over again. It is sort of a Groundhog Hour, if you know what I mean. Ah, yes, we will have to give it back eventually, but until we do, we are going to revel in its uniqueness.
May 20 … Saturday … Ojibwa County Campground, WI to Sibley SP, MN
So did you miss your Saturday AM this week? Hope you weren't too distressed ;-)
The day dawned clear, calm, and cool. We were off by 7:30 CST tootling our way west on WI-70. Our only object for the day was to get to the SD border. However, just when you think you know what you're doing, Crex Meadows State Wildlife Area pops up. We'd been there on every other trip to the Dakotas; why not this one too?
We started seeing carpets of Trillium in northern MI, and they only grew more luxuriant as we passed through WI. Janie had just bought and planted several, hmmm, what's the plural of Trillium? Trillia? Sounds pretentious. We'll go with Trilliums. She paid $3 each for hers, and based on that, we've been passing a $gazillion worth. Certainly they wouldn't miss just a few, eh? Never fear, we didn't pilfer any … not us … we are true blue and honest to the bone ;-)
WI names its county roads with letters. So if the county has more than 26 roads, why don't they run out? They use double letters like AA or ZZ. Don't think there are any triple letters, though. In the past, we've tried to knit together a series of county roads that spelled something … like J-A-N-E … but were hugely unsuccessful. Today we found ourselves tooling down N when we came to an intersection with not one but two other county roads: U & C. Hmmm, what could you spell with N, U, & C? If we only had a … Y … we'd have … CUNY … and I'll bet you thought I'd say T, right? You and your adolescent mind ;-)
So we arrived at Crex around ten, unracked the bikes, and headed out in the glorious sunshine and mild weather. The bike ride lasted 3.5 hrs; the good weather lasted about 2.5 hrs. We had been noticing that the sky was getting increasingly cloudy and the wind picked up. When we turned and headed west, we found ourselves riding into a stiff breeze. When we turned north to get back to RVan, we found the wind shifted right with us. Crex is on the edge of the prairie and this was a typical prairie wind, the flat ground and open water offering very little resistance. We wanted a leg stretch and that is exactly what we got.
Bike Data: Crex 19 miles, 3.5 hours, 2.5 hours bike time
Some of the things we saw: Trumpeter swans, sandhill cranes, bald eagles, blue winged teal, Canada geese & goslings, bittern, RWBB, cowbird, yellow warbler, mallard, thrasher, kingbird, towhee, yellowthroat, raven?, ring-necked duck, dead green snake, one dead many live turtles, almost no people, flowers of hoary puccoon, lupine, Indian paintbrush, wood anemone, wood betony, and pussytoes.
We reluctantly left Crex around 2:30 and started a death march across MN. We took the most direct route, which took us right through St Cloud. No problem, we stopped for a Frosty - hey, we'd skipped lunch, okay - and a fill up of the cheapest gas yet ($2.69). After St Cloud the drive continued to get better, i.e., fewer people and smaller roads. We eventually got to New London where we found Sibley SP, named after MN's first governor. We pulled in and registered for the princely sum of $25, which bought us a shower and a campsite surrounded by weekenders - all with smoky fires and passels of kids. Hey, it's a state park, what do you expect? AND there was NO Sr discount.
May 21 … Sunday … Sibley SP, New London MN to Ft Sisseton, Lake City SD
We are IN SD … been so since midmorning. The western part of MN was showing signs of being SD: cock Pheasant along the road, rolling grass hills and intermittent ponds, and the occasional pickup driver giving us a "howdy" wave. The last "big" MN town we passed trough was Benson (population: 3376). It was really special - very western in feel. There were multiple train tracks right through the middle of town with "Main Street" on either side. There were grain elevators - working ones - at each end of the tracks in town. There were active shops and stores on either side of the tracks, which made for a nice big, broad central avenue - there just happened to be train tracks down the middle. Everything looked clean and prosperous - none of those ghost stores you see in so many of the marginal communities.
Just outside of town, we found one reason for the apparent prosperity - and working train tracks and grain elevators. There was a large, multi-story building going up. There was no exterior yet, so you could see the interior floors, which were tightly packed and loaded with exposed pipes. Just across the road we saw a low building with a tell-tale sign: American Agrifuels. The new structure is going to be an ethanol facility.
Next we saw a sign advertising a roadside rest ahead. Yeah, we were ready for a stop after, oh, what was it, maybe an hour of hard driving (45 mph) and lots of gawking (DALASing). The roadside rest turned out to be the Benson City Park and Campsite. We ARE in the west where many of the little towns have their own campground - some of 'em right in town. This one was on the outskirts, just on the west bank of the Chippewa River. The Benson Golf Course was on the other side of the river. This was a great little park. It had a paved nature trail that wound through the several acres of manicured garden. The campground was maybe ¾ full with weekenders. There was a dump station, which we used - thanks Benson.
Janie had read about the municipal campground. It is called Ambush Park because it marks the sight of a Chippewa ambush of Sioux. Usually it is the other way around. Or worse yet, it involves the Cavalry and Indians. If we had only known, we could easily have made it to this park to camp last night - instead of the overcrowded and costly SP we stayed in. We didn't know then, but we know now and it is duly noted for future use.
On down the road a bit, we came to Ortonville, which is the last town in MN. We'd been here before. Ortonville is right on Big Stone Lake, which marks the start of the Minnesota River, the boundary between MN & SD. Big Stone City is on the other side of the river, and in between the two you have Big Stone NWR, which is in an abandoned granite quarry. We've been seeing evidence of the granite industry since we left St Cloud. These are, in the industrial sense, fine-grained granites that vary in color from nearly black through gray to pink. Although they once were used as facing stone, they are now more commonly found as memorials and counter tops. At least there are still some active quarries, although we did notice some nice cut pieces being ground up to produce the currently more in-demand crushed stone industry.
We stopped at a geologic exhibit that displayed Paul Bunyan's anchor. More accurately, it was a large block of granite with large chains attached so it looked a lot like a coat hanger holding the granite block. There are some information plaques that explain the valley below. It is the remnant of the outwash channel formed when glacial Lake Agassiz drained. That's why the valley is so much larger than the, at this point, tiny Minnesota River. Of course, they've dammed the river, so the valley now contains a long, linear lake: Big Stone Lake.
We crossed the outflow of Big Stone Lake, the nascent Minnesota River, and we were in SD. We both breathed a big sigh of relief. It has been four days coming and we are now here. Time to sit back and do some real DALASing. We are now in the Coteau des Prairies. Geologically, glacial moraines (up to 400 feet of drift) with interspersed kettle hole lakes. The lakes are waterfowl magnets, so the Coteau is very much like the pothole region of ND, only with a bit more hummocky terrain. The Coteau is different in other ways also. Although western MN is very prairie like and displays a hint of the Coteau characteristics, the fields in MN are plowed and planted and you can see the familiar power lines and billboards. Once you cross the border into SD, that changes. The tilled fields become grassland for grazing cattle. The billboards fade away. And the power lines become intermittent and sometimes disappear altogether. We still can't figure out how these farmers/ranchers get power to their buildings, but they certainly do. It may actually be cheaper to plow a deep rut and bury the power cables than to import and implant utility poles. Dunno.
Another amazing difference: the speed limits. In MN, they are pretty much what we have back home: 55 on State Routes, 65 on Interstates. Not in SD (or ND, for that matter). The Interstates are 70, the State Routes are 65, and the County Roads (mostly gravel) are 55. Fortunately, there is very little traffic, so we can putz along at 45 and not be glared at. In fact, we caught up with an old geezer who was doing 35. I just backed off and followed him home from church.
The Dakotas are made for DALASing. You can tool along at slow speed, you can even come to a dead stop in the middle of the road, and nobody comes up behind you or, if they do, they stop to see if you have a problem. Nope, no problem, just looking at birds and enjoying this beautiful Dakota scenery. This is what we mean when we talk about "serenery".
And what do we see when we stop? White Pelicans and Black Terns and Great Egrets and Little Green Herons and ducks … lots and lots of ducks … and Franklin's Ground Squirrel, otherwise known as the Flickertail. We are here on the overlap between Eastern and Western species, so we are seeing Redwings and Grackles along with Yellow-Headed Blackbirds. But for today, it was the Pelicans that set our hearts aflutter. We found a dirt access road that went down to the edge of a kettle hole for a lunch stop. While eating we watched two groups of Pelicans take off and kettle around overhead. According to the bird books, they like to take off and soar around in the afternoon - for no apparent reason other than the pure joy of doing it. We shared their joy today. We also watched a skyful of Black Terns and Tree, Bank, Cliff & Barn Swallows all gorging on the latest hatch coming out of the lakes. It was not a good day to be a fledgling insect.
Speaking of birds and insects, and we were, we stopped at another little kettle lake and as we were oogling the waterfowl, we noticed a Barn Swallow fluttering near RVan - so near it actually touched the windshield. It was windy, so at first I thought a gust of wind had forced it to hit the windshield, but it kept coming back and touching us like an Indian counting coup. Eventually, we realized that it was picking the roadkill bugs off RVan. Pretty neat - and a great view of a Barn Swallow up close and personal.
The Pheasant is the state bird of SD, appropriately so. Although we did see a field with several turkeys, we more frequently saw Pheasants along the grassy margins of the road. The cocks tend to stand proud and let you see them in full view while the hens skulk away and disappear into thin air. Well, actually they disappear into the ankle deep grass. At one point, I saw some stacked hay about 50 yards back from the road. These were big rolled-up bales with a bottom row sitting upright and a top row with the cylindrical axis horizontal perched on top acting like a roof to shed rain. As we drove by, I noticed something sitting on top of the closest top bale. I stopped, turned around and pulled into a farm road so we could see what it was. I'd expected to see a hawk - Red Tailed or Swainson's - but, no, it turned out to be a cock Pheasant sitting up there croaking to proclaim his territory. While we sat there marveling at this sight, I noticed a car pull in behind us. There were two middle-aged persons decked out in the Sunday best glowering at us. It turns out this was not just an old farm road, it was their driveway. What are the odds that you could pull into what looks to be a little-used dirt drive and have it turn out to be a driveway - no house was visible - and have the owners come home as you were sitting there … in SD? Gotta be low odds, I'd say.
Tonight we find ourselves in Ft Sisseton SP, some fifty miles east of Aberdeen SD. The fort was built in 1864 during the Sioux Wars. There are a cluster of stone buildings surrounded by an earthen rampart and one large, wooden lookout tower. The area beyond the fort itself is dotted with large cottonwoods, and the campsites are located among those cottonwoods. It is all very western looking and feeling. We are parked on the western edge of the cottonwoods overlooking the rolling grass-hills that surround us. There is a kettle-hole lake a couple hundred yards between us and the setting sun. We are watching Black Terns and Swallows skimming the surface and the occasional Pelican soaring by. The air is clear with a gentle cool breeze. We've had the same weather for the last two days: clear and cool mornings followed by increasing clouds and occasional showers and then clearing in the evening followed by crisp, cool nights. Yeah, we are blessed ;-)
Ft Sisseton Campsite
Ft Sisseton Panorama
May 22 … Monday … Ft Sisseton, Lake City SD to Mina Lake SRA, Mina SD
Okay today was, pick one: 1) A Great Day or 2) The Greatest Day. I've been watching too much of The Colbert Report. Whatever, it was a great day for us. We had a leisurely drive over to Sand Lake NWR where we unracked the bikes and rode the auto tour route. We'd done this back in 2001 on RVan's inaugural ND & SD trip. We started out around ten CST and found we needed fleece and wind breakers. Soon, however, we stripped to more normal early spring garb, but we still needed wind protection. The sun was shining brightly but the wind was pretty gusty out of the SE. We had all day - almost all day - so we took our time and tried to ID every living thing we came across - and some dead ones.
So what did we see? We saw lots of things, but the most exotic was a life bird. The bird itself wasn't all that exotic, but anytime you get a lifer, you're doing well. It was a Sedge Wren. They are small, even for a wren, and have the almost comical characteristic of pulling their stubby tail up until it is almost over their head. They look very strange. So strange in fact that I first thought it was a leaf fluttering in the wind. Nope, it was a Sedge Wren with its tail cocked up and showing us its butt. Very picturesque - but I was too busy looking at it to take a picture of it.
We stopped at a platform overlook, and, while we were overlooking, we noticed some body parts down on the deck below. Hmmm, look like Muskrat parts: jaw parts with the extra long incisors showing, a foot with a naked bone attached, and a wad of fur. Kinda gross, but nature is that way sometimes. It was a fairly fresh kill, probably a bird of prey, maybe an owl, and the deck still showed the blood stains. Whatever did the deed did a good job of eating its kill. Just about then we saw a live Muskrat swimming out from the reeds just below the deck with the body parts of its mate, brother, sister, some close relation for sure.
Muskrat parts, Sand Lake NWR
We saw lots and lots of neat birds, but the thing we saw the most of was … Pheasants. We would see them standing in the road ahead. We would see them fly as we flushed 'em out. We could see them disappear into the grass. At one point we saw four of 'em right together. This seems to be good Pheasant habitat. Yay, us! Yay, Pheasants!
It's also good habitat for Pelicans, Great Egrets, Black-Crowned Night Herons (in broad daylight), Great Blue Herons, Ruddy Ducks, and Western Grebes. This is the place to see Western Grebes. They are the ones with long necks that dance when courting by literally walking across the water while stretched as tall as they can be. We were too late to see the dancing, but we did see a pair dipping in unison and intertwining their necks, which is all part of the bonding thing. Lots of bonded Western Grebes. Some of them might have been Clark's Grebes, which differs by having the bottom of the black cap stop above the red eye rather than below it for the more common Western. Who cares? They are all special.
Western Grebes, Sand Lake NWR
As we approached the spillway where Mud Lake flows into Sand Lake, we flushed out a large flock of Pelicans (White) that were feeding in the roiling waters generated by the spillway. Pelicans like to glide and soar. These were reluctant to leave this obviously fertile feeding area, so they winged up a few feet above the water and glided a couple hundred yards at stall speed, put their gear down, and skied to rest in the protective cover of a bunch of reeds. I love watching birds soar and glide. And these Pelicans are really good at it. The bigger males weight 16 lbs, but they carry that weight so effortlessly. It is beautiful to watch.
Carp Swarm, Sand Lake NWR
Pelicans, Sand Lake NWR
The Pelicans weren't the only things feeding on the nutrient-rich roiling water at the base of the spillway. There were dozens and dozens of carp swarming in the roiling water. These were climax carp - the biggest they can get in these waters - and they were all the same size as best as we could tell. It looked very strange and sorta primeval - and scary. Every so often a big carp on the Mud Lake side would jump out of the water. That was equally weird.
Bike Data: 19 miles, 2.75 hrs bike time, 6 hrs total time (we did a lot of looking)
Panorama, Sand Lake NWR
After the bike ride, we headed off to Aberdeen SD where we stopped to get a loaf of bread and some flat meat (lunch meat). We'd seen a sign for Kessler's, but we didn't know what it was. Shortly we saw it right there on the main road through town. It turns out Kessler's is a local grocery that is even more popular than Wegman's at home. It was around six, so everyone was shopping on the way home. Very busy place.
Let me say a few words about Aberdeen. It is located on the prairie. It is very flat all around and there are two US highways that meet at the town. The highways are the only obvious reason for this town to exist. Being on the plains means there's lots of room to build a town, so the highways are broad and lined with stores located a respectful distance away from the road. The outskirts are populated by important businesses like grain storage and processing and farm implement dealers. There were six or seven very large gravel pads filled with all sorts of farm equipment from the largest tractors down to the relatively small garden tractor. These were the largest farm equipment displays I've ever seen. All of the major manufacturers were represented - all nearly side-by-side - and, as you might expect, John Deere was the largest. Man, they had some BIG tractors. This is wheat country, so they have some huge tractors to pull a train consisting of plows, discs, planters, and, tagging along at the end, the nitrogen-infuser supply-tank.
Business must be good, because everything out here looks clean, neat, and new. The work areas around the farmer's barns and silos are gravel pads WITHOUT A WEED IN 'EM. The edges are straight and the grass around 'em is all cut close and nearly weed free. Sure, these guys are used to chemicals to kill weeds and grow grass, but these areas are manicured with a certain compulsive neatness that is just a little short of manic. I can only imagine what the lady of the house's kitchen looks like. Nope, none of those muddy, messy, farm yards littered with used equipment like we see back home. These guys (and gals) are compulsively neat. And they seem to be prospering. If this is the heartland, then there is hope for American's future ;-)
May 23 … Tuesday … Mina Lake SRA, Mina SD to Indian Lake SRA, Mobridge SD
This was another DALAS day. We headed west on US-12 to Ipswich SD to top up on gas (Super w/ethanol was cheaper than regular), then we took County-13 north out of "town". This was a marvelous road: 30 miles and exactly one car, one ATV, and one tricycle-style sprayer (the latter two were in an adjoining field). Then we took SR-10 to SR-247 up to a county road that was supposed to be paved but turned out to be gravel. Hey, it wasn't all that dusty - besides, the wind is so strong, maybe it'll blow the dust away. After about ten miles it turned into paved, or tarred, road as they say up here. We took the tarred road for another 20 miles over to SR-47, which we took back down to SR-10 and on toward US-83. Our objective was to pick up the 1804 Lewis & Clark Highway and drive down it to Mobridge, which is a literal concatenation of Missouri Bridge - the closest place we can get a bridge over to the western half of SD.
There are exactly FOUR places to cross the Missouri in SD, and they are, from N to S: Mobridge on US-12, Forest City on US-212, Pierre on US-14, and Oacoma on I-90. Oops, there is a fifth, I didn't see because it is almost in NE: Pickstown on US-18. That's FIVE total crossing in some 250 miles. How's that compare to back east? Hmmm, wonder how it compares to ND. Let's see …
Now, if you want to cross the Missouri up in ND, the first place you can do so is Bismarck on I-94. Then going N and NW, you can cross at the Garrison Dam on ND-200, at New Town on ND-23, and Williston on US-85. Whoa, that's only four crossings in more than 300 miles (because it's a diagonal). Enough geographic trivia, what about today's drive?
These were marvelous roads. On the paved roads, I put it on cruise at 35 - the lowest it will go. We saw way more Pheasants than people - something like one vehicle every 20 miles or so. The low population density and traffic volume means people are way friendlier - they wave. SD is the waving capital of the world. We've noted this phenomenon on previous excursions into SD. Although they still tend to wave spontaneously, some are talking on their cell phones, so waving is a bit of a problem. Nonetheless, cell phone or not, most of 'em wave. Maybe SDians should evolve a third hand: one for driving, one for the phone, and one just for waving. A few times, when there were two people in the front seats, they both waved. Hell, even the grass waves in SD. I tell you it's a waving state ;-)
I failed to mention the windbreaks. There are lots of windbreaks on the prairie. They consist of one or a few rows of substantial trees - often cottonwood or fast growing hybrid poplars. The problem with trees as windbreaks is, when they mature, their "legs" are bare and not real good for the intended purpose. So how do they address this problem? They plant shrubs at the base of the trees. Not just any shrub, they plant Lilacs. There are rows and rows of Lilacs in bloom - alternately purple and white. There must be hundreds of miles of Lilacs. So why doesn't SD have a Lilac Festival like Rochester does? Dunno.
We treated the drive as though we were on one of the auto tours in a NWR. And it was every bit as productive. We were driving through the prairie in a glaciated terrain, so there were the usual kettle lakes with a wide assortment of waterfowl - and wading birds this time. We saw the usual ducks, but added a Scaup to our growing list (96 species on the trip so far). We also saw Avocet, Greater Yellowlegs, Short-Billed Dowitcher, and some Sandpipers … of which there are many that differ in subtle ways beyond our ability to care.
The best thing we saw today was a Swainson's sitting on a fence post. It was on our side of the road, and, as we drove by, I noticed it crouched down and looking very stern. It was crouched down in part because of the stiff breeze. We turned around fully expecting it to be gone or at the very best fly as soon as we stopped to ID it. It looked so serious and compact, I thought it might be an Osprey, which isn't too likely in this habitat. Ah, but then we saw why it was so tenaciously clutching on to the post. It had a snake in its talons. We were rewarded for taking the time to stop because we got to see him pull the boney parts out of the body and wolf down big chunks of mostly-filleted meat. When he was done, I fully expected him to squirt a big stream and take off. Not this guy, he just looked over at us disgustedly, open his wings to catch the abundant wind, and soared off over the adjoining fields.
We passed a farmer out with his tractor and not one, not two, but three rollers attached. These are not the rollers we use at home. Nope, they were at least 15 feet cylinders for a total of minimally 45 feet of span … maybe 60 feet. He was rolling this huge hay field. As if SD weren't flat enough, they seem to want to roll the fields even flat. I'm guessing that they want them flat so it is less bumpy when the cut the hay. That's my best answer; let me know if you have a better one.
We eventually found ourselves in Eureka, which is famous for Kuchen, the SD state dessert. It is also famous as the Wheat Capital of The World and the home of Allen Neuharth, USA Today founder. All of that in a town of 1101 souls. SD is a fertile land in more ways than one.
A failed dream on the prairie
Prairie church, Eureka SD
Honoring wheat, Eureka SD
We had a bit of a misadventure as the morning wore on. We had been trying to avoid gravel roads, which is one reason we were heading for US-83. But when we got there, we discovered it was closed and we were directed to detour several miles East - the direction we had come from - and then even more miles North before being directed West, back to US-83. No real problem except these detour roads were worse than gravel roads. There is a fair amount of truck traffic on US-83, and these little county roads were not designed for those big rigs. Consequently, the once paved roads were reduced to a patchwork of broken pavement and gravel. Whatever, we muddled through and when we got the end of the detour, we found ourselves north of the road we were intending to take over to 1804. Hmmm, that meant we had to go north until we found a paved road heading west.
This little sojourn took us into ND and through Strasburg, the birthplace of … Lawrence Welk. Just yesterday, we passed though Roslyn. So what you ask. Well, Roslyn just happens to have the only Vinegar Museum we know of … and … it is the birthplace of Myron Floren, accordion player extraordinaire and a regular on the Lawrence Welk show of yesteryear.
This evening finds us just south of Mobridge, on the east side of Lake Oahe, which is what they call the dammed Missouri around these parts. We are 80 miles down US-12 from last night's campsite, but it took us 250 miles of driving to get here. Ah, the pleasures of DALASing in SD.
Panorama, SD Prairie
Oh, I wanted to say something about US-83. Get out your road atlas and check it out. It is called the "road to nowhere." It starts in South Padre Island TX and goes pretty much due north all the way to the CN border in ND. In doing so, it cuts through the middle of TX, the OK panhandle, the western part of KS, and central NE, SD & ND. Now you know why it's called the road to nowhere. One of my dreams is to drive this road from S to N chasing spring all the way to Canada. The road parallels a major migration route for things like Cranes and such, so we could just sort of tag along with 'em. Wanna join us?
Well, we just had an interesting visit from the Campground Host. She told us there was a tornado watch for the county. We'd noticed that the clouds were looking increasingly angry, but that seemed to be mostly to the west and north of us. We are in an unusual weather pattern with strong SE winds, so if the bad weather is NW, we should be okay, right? Anyway, she told us they would let us know if there was an actual tornado. In which case, we were to gather in the bathhouse, which is tornado safe. I asked if we'd all be in the shower, and her husband said, "That would be better than the other options." Right you are, buddy. So we look out our window and we see very dark, black clouds N of us now and absolutely clear, bluebird weather to our south and west. There is a rainbow over the bathhouse and what looks like it could possibly be a funnel cloud just to the left of it. But then, I'm not from around here, so I don't really know what a funnel cloud looks like, but if I had to say … it looks like THAT.
Not to fear, it all dissipated and the sun is shining and the Western Kingbirds are back catching the spring's hatch of bugs. Things are looking pretty normal.
Tornado clouds and rainbow
Sunset after the storm
May 24 … Wednesday … Indian Ck SRA, Mobridge SD to Shadehill SRA, Shadehill SD
Oy, the wind is relentless. We now have a better feeling for those early prairie pioneers who went mad because of the constant wind, wind, wind. It was out of the SE the previous two days. We asked a couple locals about that and they confirmed that SE was an unusual wind direction. All the trees are bent as you would expect for a prevailing westerly wind direction. Well, last night, after the tornado scare, the wind died down, but this morning it was raining and the wind had returned … this time from the WNW. It is more than gusty; it is a strong wind … difficult to stand in. Guess what direction we are heading today … WNW. That should make for some good gas mileage, eh?
We took our time this AM 'cuz we are crossing the Missouri, which is the CST-MST time line and we will gain another "Groundhog Hour". We took morning showers and drove around Mobridge for a while; got some 10% ethanol gas; and looked at the Lewis & Clark Memorial Bike/Hike Trail (a couple of miles long between Oahe Reservoir and Mobridge proper). Not surprisingly, it didn't look well used. Must have been a government grant associated with the bicentennial commemoration of the L&C Expedition (1804-1806).
Mobridge SD from the western shore of the Mighty Mo
Then we were off across the bridge. The Standing Stone Sioux Reservation occupies all the land between the Missouri and Shadehill, where we are tonight. As you might expect, shortly after turning onto the reservation, we came to the Grand Casino and Lodge. We passed that by on our way to see the Sitting Bull and Sacagawea monuments. While the monuments themselves were decent, the surroundings and general display accouterments were depressing … and a bit of a disgrace for the notable persons being honored.
Sitting Bull Memorial
The paved road ended at the monuments, so we backtracked to SD-20 and turned into the wind … heading for what I've been calling the "Empty Quarter." The NW corner of SD is very empty. Empty of people. Empty of paved roads. Empty of towns. We are taking a calculated risk going into this Empty Quarter. We are now in the only camping facility listed in our camping guide, and only one of the crossroads with associated buildings had what might have been a filling station. I say might have been because I never did see any pumps, although it was a repair garage with greasy guys standing around holding wrenches. The emptiness is one of the things that draw us to this area. You see, the dreaded weekend is approaching: Memorial Day. That means people are going to be out and it will be difficult to find a campsite what with all the reserving going on these days. Our nights of sitting alone in campgrounds are about to end - at least for the next three to four months.
Our Memorial Day Fears were realized as soon as we got to the campground. Just about every campsite had a tag on it with ominous writing: Reserved 5/25. Yep, these people are starting their long weekend on Thursday. And this place is quite literally in the middle of nowhere. Shadehill, the town, is a cluster of two or three buildings. The nearest town of significance is Lemmon - ever hear of it? Me neither. We are at least 100 miles from anything that would constitute a city (Sturgis, Williston, Mobridge) and there are 52 campsites here - all but four already reserved. Those four are overflow sites and located on the farthest fringes (without even scrub trees to knock down the wind and shade the sun): A, B, C & D. They aren't even worthy of numbers. We are in site D. All of the sites have electric, so you don't have an option on that. There are maybe ten other campers here - all of them with very large rigs - the campground host's rig is the biggest I've ever seen. You could fit TWO RVans inside it.
So here we are being rocked by the wind. In this case the RV adage, "If this rig's rockin' don't come knockin" doesn't apply. Speaking of rockin' the van, we've traded our now familiar Pheasants for Western Meadow Larks, Horned Larks, and Lark Buntings. How does that relate to rockin' the van? Hmmm, let's see, we are on a Lark driving through one of the grandest Meadows around and gettin' Horny. How's that ;-)
The exchange of bird types is the direct result of a physiographic change. We are finally out of glaciated terrain and into the fringes of the high plains - the Cenozoic sediment apron shed from the ancestral Rockies and Black Hills. There are only a few streams (the North and South Forks of the Grand River, in this area), and they have dissected the plains leaving flat-topped buttes like the Lightning Butte and Thunder Butte we passed today. These flat tops remind me of the men's 50s hair styles. The open range is still green with grass cover and teeming with cattle (we saw one longhorn, but they are mostly black and red Angus), sheep, and pronghorn. Yep, we saw our first pronghorn today. We are in the west for sure.
Except for the strong headwind, the drive was very pleasant. One of the things that made it so enjoyable was … are you ready for this? … ROAD CONSTRUCTION. A 26-mile section of SD-20 is being resurfaced. We studied the sign for a long time. It read: Road Construction - Loose Gravel Next 26 Miles. What are the alternatives? A 60+ mile detour on two US highways. The gravel road looked good; it had just rained so dust wasn't a big issue; what the hell, we can always turn back, right? Well, just about the only other traffic on the road were the trucks hauling gravel to the construction site. AND only about six miles of the road was actually gravel; the rest was the old pavement, which was a bit rough, but at 35 mph, not bad at all. We felt comfortable enough to go slowly and stop whenever we saw something. It was another of those wildlife tours, courtesy of the SD DOT.
The wind brought tumbleweed and tumbleweed brought the thought of western music. We bring all our music on these trips - have Maxtor, will travel - so we just sit DALASing and listening to our tunes. Eat your heart out Mahoney ;-)
While completely immersed in the grassland of the empty part of SD - and remember SD is pretty empty in its "populated" parts - and listening to our potpourri of musical genres, it became pretty obvious that some types of music just don't fit in terrains like this. For example, a head-banging track came up and we just had to skip it. It didn't go with what we were seeing and feeling. That got me to thinking about the regional affiliations of music.
Country & Western certainly work well in this area. However, Hip-Hop doesn't. Rap has no place here. It can't be tolerated. It is completely out of place; it has no relevance; it is just noise; the high-pitched hum of the wind-strummed barbed wire is preferable by far. Similarly, C&W doesn't always fit well in the inner city, the home of Hip-Hop. Cajun works in Cajun country, but it is a bit of a stretch out here. Blues isn't even that comfortable here. Sure country blues or, better yet, Hank I singing "Dear John (I Sent Your Saddle Home)" fits, but Delta Blues, not so much. Big Band is okay if it isn't too "pop" and jazz seems to work if it is fairly standard, not avant garde. Classical, I suppose some classical would work and certain show tunes like Oklahoma, but only a select few. And maritime music, well, that just doesn't go at all. "Arrr, dead 'til I gets me coffee" is even a stretch. Carlos Nakai (Canyon Trilogy) works, as does anything with a yodel or a yip-yip-yippy-ti-o. But the other stuff just seems out of place.
So sit back, close your eyes, and imagine yourself in various physiographic provinces. Are you there? If so, see what kind of music seems to fit your mental image. I'll bet you can conjure up some clashes between musical genres and environmental settings. Go ahead, try it.
Oh, I almost forgot. We took a little walk around the campground late in the evening after the wind had died down a bit. When we got back to our campsite, we saw a five foot Bullsnake crossing the road … FROM our campsite to the one across the way. It was one of those light yellow with black blotches types you see out here in the west - in the east they are darker and called Pine Snakes. Their claim to fame is that they have a tough plate on the tip of their nose and they use that to dig into the ground after burrowing mammals. I believe they also hunt and kill Rattlesnakes. As I recall, the cowboys used to catch Bullsnakes and put them in their bedrolls at night. Probably an old cowboy wives-tale, but interesting nonetheless.
May 25 … Thursday … Shadehill SRA, Shadehill SD … Day Two
Apparently the wind got where it was going. Today dawned clear and CALM. We decided to take advantage of the fact that we are located on the northern edge of the Grand River National Grassland and bike the gravel roads that lace through it.
We got up early by chance, unracked the bikes, filled our water containers, made some lunch, put on our sun block, and headed out for the grassland at 7 AM. We looked like we were on safari, which is exactly what it turned out to be.
Okay, let's play the Colbert game again: Great Day or The Greatest Day? It was truly a day for the record books. The fact that there was only the most gentle of breezes, clear skies with only the occasional fair-weather cirrus cloud, and moderate temperature (60 to start and 85 by mid-afternoon). It was a great day of biking, birding, and absorbing the grandeur of the prairie.
We had to bike about 6 miles to get to the grassland, but that was glorious in itself. We hadn't done but a couple miles of the grassland road before we had scored a Golden Eagle, two Kestrels, and a Loggerhead Shrike. Shortly after that we saw a Red Tailed Hawk wafting around above a coulee when it was attacked and chased off by a male Harrier. The Harrier must have had a nest around there somewhere. We found the Eagle while looking at some exposed rocks on the side of a little butte. The rocks were festooned with the pottery-like nests of Cliff Swallows. We were scanning the butte and ridge crests for birds of prey. They like to catch some early rays while they wait for the thermals to build. Sure enough, there was a Golden Eagle that had just launched himself from the caprock.
We eventually got to the Hugh Glass memorial. This Hugh Glass saga is a great story of our pioneering forefathers. Hugh was a real man back when men were men and some of the women were men, too. It would be well worth your effort to read the Hugh Glass saga we scanned from the Lemmon Aide tourist brochure. Hugh Glass Link Next time you think it is too hot, too cold, too rainy, too anything to do something, just ask yourself, "What would Hugh do?"
Old Hugh Glass Memorial, Grand River NG
New Hugh Glass Memorial, Grand River NG
Looking across the reservoir toward the Shadehill Campground
All along the road, we scared up Lark Sparrows, Lark Buntings, Horned Larks, and the ubiquitous Meadowlark. These Western Meadowlarks are more assertive than our timid eastern ones. They tend to sit on poles and chirp and otherwise chatter as we bike by. We noticed that the Western Kingbirds seem to prefer treed areas - like the last two campgrounds we've been in. Eastern Kingbirds line the fences out in the open grassland and jump up occasionally to snatch a bug out of the air.
We stopped at a Prairie Dog town and watched the little rascals while they barked out warnings of our presence. Alas, we saw no burrowing owls, but we did see a few Willets picking bugs from the nicely manicured lawns of the dogs.
We stopped at an overlook to see if we could pick out our campground on the other side of the reservoir. As we started down the road toward the overlook, we were serenaded by a very verbal Brown Thrasher sitting in the tippy top of a juniper growing beside the trail. He was there when we came back some ten hours later. That was his territory and he wanted everyone to know it. As I was taking a picture across the lake, Janie picked out a Spotted Towhee in the scrub just below where we were standing. I thought I'd heard an odd-sounding Towhee adding his part to the dawn chorus that woke us up this AM. Now I know what it was.
Brown Thrasher proclaiming his territory, Grand River NG
Panorama, Grand River NG
Our view of the reservoir afforded a long-distance look at a raft of Western Grebes. They are elegant looking birds. We also saw a couple White Pelicans and the usual Canadas, Mallards, and Blue-Winged Teal. But over there in a quiet spot was one we hadn't yet seen on this trip. A Canvasback.
We scared up a few Pheasant, a bunch of Killdeer, and a group of four Sharp-Tailed Grouse. We also got a good view of several Upland Plovers. They are easy to ID, if you can see them land. They have the unusual habit of holding their wings up as soon as they touch ground. It's like "Stick 'em up, buddy" and they respond appropriately.
We were coming out of a gulch and climbing a fairly steep slope when we heard something squealing on the hillside above us. We looked up and what did we see? We saw Zorro … Mr Fox … catch himself (or more likely his pups) a nice fat ground squirrel. He was BIG and very healthy. I first thought it was a Coyote or maybe even a Wolf because it looked so big. But the coloration was definitely fox … black on red with a white-tipped, bushy tail. This was definitely the largest and healthiest looking fox I've ever seen. He was totally focused on catching the squirrel, but when he'd done the deed, he looked at us, wheeled, and bounded up over the crest of the ridge like it was flat land.
Shortly after we saw the fox, Janie heard and eventually located a Grasshopper Sparrow. They are appropriately named because they sound like grasshoppers. I can no longer hear them, but she can. We also saw our first Red-Shafted Flicker for the trip. And, right there, squished in the road, was a 13 Lined Ground Squirrel. How the hell he managed to get run over when there is essentially NO traffic on this road we'll never know, but he certainly did. We told all the vultures we saw about him, but they just ignored us.
By far the strangest thing we saw in the entire outing was a Nighthawk roosting on the ground. We were stopped to look at something else when Janie saw a blob up on the hillside. She figured it was a rock or more likely a lump of dried cow pie. But being the thorough birder that she is, she put her binos on it and it turned out to be a Nighthawk just sitting there amongst the scruffy grass and stunted yuccas. We'd seen Nighthawks working the sky in the evening. They have a distinctive bounding flight and show two prominent wing bars. We looked 'em up in the bird book and learned that they only weigh … 2.2 ounces for chrissake. Two point two ounces for a bird with a 24 inch wingspan. No wonder they bound about in the night air. Nighthawks are in the group called Nightjars, otherwise known as Goatsuckers. The book says they spend the day perched on branches with their long dimensions parallel to the branch, rather than perpendicular like other birds. This one apparently couldn't find a tree so it just squatted on the prairie. Then again, it may have been a female sitting on a nest. Whatever, it was a most unusual sight for us. I didn't take a picture because, frankly, you would have just seen an indistinct blob surrounded by equally scruffy prairie.
The Grasslands Road, Grand River NG
Janie looking for birds, Grand River NG
Cattle on the range, Grand River NG
Panorama, Shadehill NG
A draw, Shadehill NG
The grassland road winds around in … the grassland - duh … and eventually comes out on SD-73. We were within a couple miles of that point when I noticed a dead calf out in the grass. Although this is National Grassland, it, like National Forests, is leased to locals for their use. We'd been passing dozens of heifers and cows with calves, so seeing a dead one wasn't all that unusual. It was nonetheless a little off-putting.
We got another half mile beyond the dead calf when a stretch Dodge RAM pickup pulling a cattle trailer turned onto the grassland road. These were obviously his cattle and he was delivering a couple more for pasture. We pulled off to the side to let him by, but, true to the western custom, he stopped to ask us how we were doing. An hour later, we were back on our way. Here's what we learned in that hour.
His name is Mr. Schmeckenbacher. His grandfather came over from Norway. His grandfather's name was Olson but the people at Ellis Island changed it to Schmeckenbacher - why, not even he knows. We'd guess that he was in his early seventies and had apparently lived all of his years in the immediate area, although he would like to spend a winter in AZ - it gets damned cold out here. He was thin, healthy-looking and wearing a tattered cowboy shirt over a white tee-shirt that had a few holes around the neck. He was missing a few teeth and wore a stubble of beard, but was probably clean-shaven every Sunday. He had a black felt cowboy hat with the expected tear in the brim - but no bullet holes that we could see.
When he first stopped, I asked him if these were his cattle, and he said they were. I asked if there were any mean bulls in the herd, and he assure me that there were not. I quickly added, "Just you, the mean bull, right?" He laughed and heartily agreed. I then asked him if he cared that there was a dead calf back there. He said, "Not really … what color was it?" I told him it was white. He said, "Oh." He sorta warmed up to Janie and asked her if she liked to dance. She said she did, but I didn't dance, so it's been many years since she's danced. He told us he used to go up to Lemmon (about 12 miles north) and dance. He was too shy to talk to the girls, but he could dance with 'em. Then he asked why I didn't dance. I claimed the usual no talent and tried to change the subject.
We got on to politics and SD governors - generally a bunch of mama's boys and all around crooks. He wanted to know where we were from. He didn't have a visual image of NYS at all. I told him there are more people in Monroe County than all of ND. He wasn't too impressed. We tried to tell him that we had biked from the campground across the reservoir, but I don't think he ever really got the picture. Rather, he wanted to know what we had done before retiring. Our being college teachers sorta put him off. However, I gotta say, he was very well spoken and knowledgeable - especially about SD governors and politics. He said, "College teachers … you must have a lot of money." I told him you don't go into teaching to make money. We don't have kids, and that's why we could retire so early.
Right out of the blue he asked about our house. Hunh? You mean our camper? Nope, our house back in NY. Well, err, ahh, it's a ranch style, but not like around here. We have a steep roof to help shed the snow, it isn't big, just 3 bedrooms, not really much, just enough for us. Hmmm, why would he want to know about our house? We never figured that out.
Once he understood that we were camped over on the other side in the recreation area, he told us that the reservoir took his ranch. He used to have a nice ranch out in the valley, but the governor built that damned reservoir and flooded it. He said it was a "sore topic". We read that the damn was built in 1951. That means he lost his ranch shortly after that. That was a while ago.
While we were talking, an SUV drove around us by pulling out into the prairie and back into the road. He looked at them and said, "Not from SD." None of us could see the tags, but they must have been from some western state to be so confident about just driving across the prairie. I know I wouldn't have done it. He asked us what we taught, and we told him geology. He said, "What's that?" We told him it was the study of rocks and the history of Earth. He seemed to think a minute and then he said, "What about Mt St Helens?" Whoa, that was back in 1980. He said, "Yeah, we got pelted with ash all the way over here." That was the beginning and end of the geologic discourse. It was also the end of our conversation with Mr. (Olson) Schmeckenbacher. He really warmed up toward the end; I thought he was going to ask Janie to dance. He did ask her what she liked, waltz, jitterbug or "that hippie dancing". What a great guy. A gnarly veteran of many SD winters and still working hard. He told us they wouldn't put bulls in the pasture until June 20. That way there won't be any calves born before the bad weather breaks. I suppose I should have known that, but, hey, I'm a college professor. I don't have any practical knowledge ;-)
On the way back, we took a close look at a greasy patch of road kill on the tarred road into the campground. We'd passed it on the way out in the morning but didn't take time to actually have a look. It was a badger. They prey on prairie dogs - among other things - and we'd actually seen them with their living heads sticking up right in a prairie dog town. But that was a few years ago in a different NWR. This one wasn't preying on anything but asphalt. However, it was a badger. They do (did) exist.
We got back to RVan a little after six. It wasn't as late as it sounds because we are so far north and west - it doesn't get dark until way late. We took some time to transfer drinking water from water sacks to more easily managed water bottles. And, more importantly, we refreshed our stock of beer - transferring full ones from the storage compartment in back to the box under the bed … just one step from the frig and an even shorter step to our lips. I racked and bagged the bikes, and we headed off for a much needed shower. All the sites here have electric, so we had done the most unusual thing of leaving the A/C on while we were out. As a consequence, RVan was a cool and dry 75 when we got back. Ah, that felt good, but not as good as the cold beer we had before our shower - and one after the shower too. Hey, we had quite a day … we earned it, right?
The whole day out on the grasslands we only saw Mr. Schmeckenbacher and the SUV that pulled around us, three teenagers in a sedan, and an older couple in a Forester. That's it. Oh wait. We stopped for lunch and a rest at one of those outback campgrounds - although this one was huge and by far the most sophisticated of any NF or NG campground we'd ever seen. It had a full hedge-row of lilacs and lots and lots of half-grown cottonwoods. There must have been at least twenty sites - all totally empty. The teenager we had come across earlier said they'd camped there that night. And while we were resting, a couple pickups with the now usual fifth-wheeler and boat pulled in. We took that as a sign to leave, and that's exactly what we did. We headed back to our campground where the holiday weekenders were streaming in from near and far - mostly far cuz there ain't much near. As I sit here typing this, several pickups with a fifth-wheeler and boat attached have rolled by, and I'm sure that will continue on into the night. People will have taken Friday off, so they are leaving after work today, and they'll get here when they get here. We will be leaving for parts unknown tomorrow. We're hoping to find something to see us through the damned Memorial Day Weekend. Stay tuned.
Bike Data: 40.3 miles, 11 hr total, 5.5 hr bike time
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