Thursday, September 29, 2011

Little Whale on the Prairie

The next two camps were just stops along the way to Minneapolis. Interstate 90 took us through the monotonous prairie lands of the midwest. At first it was mostly open range, broken only by the occasional clump of trees growing at some water source. Here and there we would see pronghorn "antelope", and also men hunting them. Cattle grazed out there as well. The landscape then gave over to farming, and we began to see enormous fields of corn, sunflowers, millet and milo. Pheasants live there, we're told, and people come from all over to hunt them. The crops are secondary.

We camped among the corn at a farm/campground in Mitchell, South Dakota. An island of trees in a sea of corn, the campground was sparsely populated and we had lots of elbow room. While in Mitchell we finally lost our frozen custard virginity! We've been hearing about this mid-west phenomenon of frozen custard. How rich and creamy it is, better than ice cream, better than soft serve. We found a Culver's in town and stopped by for a dish. Very good! Very very good! We're custard fans!

Camping in the corn:

We popped in to town to see if there was a kernel of truth to the rumor that the town is home to the corniest place on earth. It is: the famous Corn Palace dominates the classic American Main Street. It's an amaize-ing structure, cob-bled together in perfect hominy; patterns and murals from natural colors of hundreds of thousands of ears of corn. It takes grits to take on a husky project like this. We stalked around for a while...

As punned upon above, all murals and decorations are fashioned from corn cobs, husk or stalk:

Close up:

Rolling on down the road, cursing the constant bumps and jostling that I-90 subjected us to, we finally came to rest at a county park in the town of Worthington, Minnesota.

Our campsite was really nice, backed up to the water. The summer weather stayed with us and we enjoyed drinks in our chairs looking over the lake and at the first of the fall colors. Overnight, however, a front came through and brought autumn temperatures and lots of wind. It didn't stop us from taking a spin on the bike path that ran through the park, the town, and around the lake:

That wind and bumpy roads made the day's drive pretty miserable, as we headed northeast to be within striking distance of the metropolis of Minneapolis. That'll get its own post, coming soon...

Monday, September 26, 2011


It was a short and easy drive from Custer State Park to the Badlands. We arrived mid-day to pick our choice of sites at the National Park's Cedar Pass campground. All of the sites are just wide spots in the camp-loop road, which is lined with short pilings. It made for tricky parking. We're too long to simply pull in to the widening, so we had to parallel park The Whale. Once settled we gazed out at the Badlands formations that would be our horizon for the next few days:

As the sun set the heat of the day faded rapidly, as it is want to do in these dry, desertlike environments, but the splendor of the lightshow in sky and on rock was magnificent:

Mornings and late afternoons it was pleasant enough to be out and about, driving the park roads, hiking the trails, watching the wildlife...

Sunflowers bloom in this harsh environment:

Toby's fear of heights kicked in when he was dragged out a spit of earth high above the plains:

Nancy's fear of heights kicked in when she was dragged out a spit of earth high above the plains:

There are huge prairie dog towns in several places within the park:

And now, for something completely different:

Just north of the park, along the interstate highway, there are several relics of the cold war: Minuteman missile silos, discretely placed among the endless waves of grain, with cows grazing contentedly nearby. One of these is set up for viewing, but the "Welcome" sign seems like it was made in a different era:

Luckily, deadly force was not utilized, and with the bombproof reinforced concrete cover pulled back a bit, we were able to gaze down at what was once a weapon of mass destruction:

This intercontinental ballistic missile could have travelled 6000 miles in 30 minutes, and if it had, it's 1.2 megaton hyrogen warhead would have unleashed it's wrath of destruction sixty-six times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Yikes...

Speaking of bombshells:

We had one more notable experience while visiting the Badlands. They were having a ferret festival, in honor of the successful re-introduction of the Black-footed Ferret within the park. This wiley weasel subsists exclusively upon prairie dogs, so when our forefathers though it best to decimate the prairie dog population, these ferrets were wiped out along with them. Once thought extinct, a small colony found in Wyoming was captured and carefully bred for re-introduction. The experience we had was to go out at night, the only time these varmints venture above ground, to try to spot one with bright lights.

Nancy and I joined a couple dozen other people with nothing better to do, 45 minutes out in the park, down a washerboard dirt road, at 9:30 at night. We all stood around like idiots waiting for the park service guy to show up, which he finally did about 20 minutes late. Then we all discovered that this was just a convenient meeting spot, and that we would all pile into our vehicles once more and drive down more dusty road to a field at the other end of the enormous prairie dog metropolis. We finally got mobilized for spotting at around 10:30. We tramped across the prairie, trying to a) not step into a prairie-dog hole, b) not step into fresh buffalo poo, and c) see a pair of green glowing eyes poke out of one of the holes. We walked, and looked, and walked, and looked... until about midnight when we realised that this was aparently Ferret Beuller's Day Off, and trudged countless miles back to the truck. So, no ferret. Just a really long walk on the incredibly dusty prairie in the middle of the night...

By the way, if we'd seen a ferret, this is what it'd have looked like:

A great visit to the Badlands, ferrets notwithstanding. From dawn to dusk the light plays upon the landscape here to amazing effect. It's the best baddest place we've ever seen:

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Custer State Park

The rolling plains of eastern Wyoming, miles upon miles of undulating land, criss-crossed with fencing, dotted with cattle, gave way at last to the Black Hills of South Dakota. We camped at one of the many campgrounds in Custer State Park, an excellent park rivaling our National Parks. We had a nice wooded site near a lake, with electricity. Our only challenge was that it was the most off-level site we've ever had, requiring every spare block at hand to get the left side of the Whale high enough. Also, it seemed that every pine tree in the forest had at least one red squirrel in it, and their chatter was constant. They boldly descended the trunks in full view of Toby, moving cockily just to the opposite side when he went on the attack. Eventually he just stopped caring!

Custer has a lot to offer: lakes, trails, lodges, horse camps... but what was really special was the wildlife. It was like being back at Yellowstone! The Wildlife Loop road took us through beautiful countryside, and then into the midst of the park's 1000 head of buffalo:

Parked at a pulloff along the road, a constant parade of bison moved past:

Shaggy, bearded old bulls, sleek (for a buffalo) young cows, fuzzy brown calves, they all funnelled into the roadway, causing a hoofed traffic jam:

It was great fun to have such close encounters with these animals:

Among the bison were a herd of another kind. Burros live here, descendants of those that used to carry people up the park's Harney Peak.

The burros are often fed by visitors, so they approach any open car window to check for food:

Just down the road from the bison and burros we came to a prairie-dog town. They were a bit far away for photography. We stayed to watch for a few minutes, but then the ever moving bison herd threatened to envelop us once more, so we moved on up the road...where we came across a small group of pronghorn - a half-dozen does looked after by this buck:

Another attraction nearby was Mount Rushmore. We hadn't planned to visit, focusing, as we are, more on nature's carvings, not so much on those of man. But it was too close to pass up, and a beautiful drive to and from, so we paid a visit. It was actually pretty impressive. Not only a super-sized monument to four important past-presidents, but also an extraordinary example of large scale sculpture. We're glad that we went.

From a distance:

George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln:

Another nice stop along the park road was Sylvan Lake, with its backdrop of needle-like rock formations:

I went for a bike ride, like I am want to do, but it wasn't very good. The trails were mostly used by equestrians, so the surface was pockmarked with hoof-prints. I got my exercise, and enjoyed the scenery, but the trails themselves were among my least favorite.

Speaking of least-favorite things, Nancy's back took a turn for the worse. She woke up on our last morning hardly able to move. We decided to go to the walk-in (or in her case, hobble-in) clinic at the hospital in Custer. A bright, young physician's assistant quickly diagnosed Nancy's condition as strained connective tissues and spasming muscles. She prescribed a muscle relaxant and a pain killer. Within hours of beginning this regimen Nancy felt improvement. The next day even more so. It was a good call to seek medical attention. Who knows how bad or for how long Nancy would have suffered.

A short drive will take us to our next destination: Badlands National Park.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Across Wyoming

Upon leaving Grand Teton NP we had some easting to do. We are essentially on our way back home now, with just a few target destinations left on our hit list. It feels a bit weird, a bit sad, but we also look forward to the many things we've missed about being at home. But in the meantime, the adventure continues...

Our lunch spot along the road:

We had a short drive from GTNP to the town of Dubois. I've stayed there now, and I still don't know how to pronounce it! Anyway, we pulled in to the Longhorn Ranch, which has a nice RV park along the Wind River. The small town had a touristy feel, all ranch architecture and kitchy shops. We went in for the modest grocery store, but that's it.

An old truck settles into the earth at Longhorn Ranch:

Dubois is backed up against Wyoming's badlands, and with the Wind River snaking through, there were plenty of places to walk dogs or go for a mountain bike ride:

A complex network of unmarked singletrack trails criss-crossed the badlands, and I worked on these for a couple of hours, pleasantly surprised as I always am when I find good trails in unexpected places. Came across this tiny horned lizard on the trail:

Along the short road ride from camp to trail I passed a house where there lived three dogs - two large and one small, all happily guarding their abode. As I pedaled over the imaginary line that extended from their property line out into the street they all burst from the garage, barking.
One, however, was faster and took his job more seriously: a Jack Russell terrier, a yapping white streak, he was on me in seconds, threatening to tear into my leg or tires! Thankfully I crossed the opposite imaginary boundary before his teeth were applied, and he stopped short and proudly returned to his post. That was on the way out. On the way back I anticipated his valiant attack. I built up speed, thankful for the slight downgrade, hugged the opposite shoulder, and laughed as I watched his futile attempt to reach me while I was still on his turf! I'm not sure if he felt pride or indignation as he skulked back to resume his watch - probably the former - that's the way these little dogs are wired!

From Dubois we drove across the barren plains to camp in Casper, Wyoming, an industrial town with a lot going on with oil and rail. It had a rough, bluecollar feel, and the campground was not great - parking lot camping. The neighboring camp hosted a group of good ol' boys from Texas, contract welders for the oil industry. They were nice but spent the weekend drinking beer, grilling meat, and trading war stories. The camp did provide access to a decent trail along the river, and just a few miles south was Casper Mountain, abruptly rising 3000' above the plains, and with many trails. I headed up there for a mountain bike ride, spent way too long on wide ski trails searching for the singletrack I'd heard about, finally finding it as I was on my way back to the truck. Could have been a great ride if there had been a good trail map available. Good view of the city of Casper and the endless plains:

Not much else to report from Casper, except that we went out for sushi. Yes, sushi in the middle of Wyoming. It wasn't terrific, but it was a refreshing change from our in-house rotation, and tasted good despite being a far cry from Kitiyama quality. Next stop: The Black Hills of western South Dakota.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Grand Tetons

We caravaned with my parents for the short drive down from Yellowstone to Grand Teton National Park, stopping along the way for a picnic lunch. We pulled into Colter Bay campground where we were lucky to get adjacent campsites. Settled in, we went to the visitor center and then for a pleasant hike out along the lakefront. It was a beautiful, calm afternoon:

Put a pair of hiking poles in Nancy's hands and suddenly she's charging down the trail, leading the pack!

The next day was our only full day in the park, so we crammed a lot in. Unfortunately, the weather was unsettled. Much of the time the high peaks were hidden in cloud, and conditions were not ideal for photography. We drove the park road down to Jenny Lake where we gazed out across the water at the Teton Range (click to enlarge):

Then, closely pursued by a heavy storm cloud, we drove to the south end of the park, to the Lawrence S. Rockerfeller Preserve and got set up to have lunch. During lunch, however, the storm caught us, and we took shelter in the van while rain and hail hammered down. It was short lived, however, and left us in sun once more, perfect for the hike out to Phelps Lake. Mom and Dad stopped to identify plant species; Nancy with her poles tore up the trail!

Along the way:

Lake View:

At the end of the hike we took the time to step into the visitor center at the preserve. Not only was the architecture of the building stunning...

...but the displays within were top notch. A series of hanging video displays showed a continuous loop of nature and wildlife footage of the park, and a beautiful circular space...

...enveloped you in a 3 dimensional auditory experience of sounds of nature - a day in the park.

We made our way slowly back north, stopping to see two bull moose graze and nap by the river:

Then heading out along the Gros Ventre river and up to Antelope Flats where, sure enough, there were pronghorns-a-plenty:

More storm clouds played the late-afternoon sky:

We arrived back at camp on the late side, around 7:30, hungry and with only 1/2 hour of generator time left in the day - not enough to charge up for overnight. We munched pizza and went to bed, knowing that we were in for a cold morning. Sure enough, we shivered over coffee, waiting for 8:00 AM when our little Honda could come on, powering the furnace and restoring our living space to a more human temperature. Then it was time to pack up and say Goodbye, as Mom and Dad headed off to the airport, and we began our journey back east.

The Grand Tetons deserved more time than we gave them - time to contemplate their grandeur, hike their lofty peaks, mingle with their wildlife. We will return, someday, to this amazing part of our country.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


One of the many great things about our visit to Yellowstone National Park was that my parents joined us there!

Nancy and I made the quick drive in from West Yellowstone, meandering along the Madison River, through golden meadows and between old, worn down shoulders of the Gallatin Range. On this drive we got our first glimpse of the steaming ground of the caldera, and knew that this was going to be a landscape unlike any we'd visited before. We made camp that afternoon at Grant's Village, a huge campground of over 300 sites, thickly wooded and with decent site spacing. This would be our longest stay at a place without electric hookup, so we would be running our generator for many of the allowed hours from 8AM to 8PM. Thankfully the Honda 2000 runs as quiet as a small car at idle. Mom and Dad arrived later that day and got their rented minivan set up for sleeping. The stow-n-go seating folded to provide a flat surface where we squeezed in my air mattress and piled it high with bedding against the cold of night. The thing they loved best about sleeping in the van, though, was the level of protection against any man-eating bears that might snuffle about in the darkness!

Geothermal Landscape:

The next day, after a walk along the shore of Yellowstone Lake and a stop at the visitor's center for maps and advice, we headed over to the bustling Old Faithful area. We were prepared for Disneyland crowds, but were impressed by the park's semi-circular arrangement for viewing of the famous geyser. It was possible, easy, even, to look out upon Old Faithful without seeing any of the many hundreds of other people. But before we saw the iconic spout we had a treat: A nearby geyser called the Beehive, which erupts less predictably, put up a telltale that alerted the rangers that she was about to blow. And blow she did, sending a column of water and steam 200 feet into the blue sky!

This thundering blast continued for many minutes, raining hot sulfur water down upon those who were lucky enough to be gathered on the adjacent walkway. It was a tough act to follow for Old Faithful, which roared and spewed, right on time, but couldn't quite out-do the Beehive Blast.

After the "show" was walked the boardwalk through a landscape that was just amazing. Pools of boiling water in the earth's surface. Superheated steam venting out of crusty crevasses. Bottomless blue pools. Seething, bubbling cauldrons. Choking clouds of sulfurous steam. Jetting geysers making hot rain. The ground seemed ready to erupt all around. It was fascinating, and we gazed in wonder at the variety of geothermal features for hours on end. Here are a few photos:


Another big attraction for us at Yellowstone was sighting wild animals. Elk were easy as they were frequently seen in or around the campground. These majestic beasts were in rut, so the bulls with their great spiked antlers would bugle as both a mating call to the does and a challenge to other males. The bugling was an unearthly sound, starting like a squeaky door hinge and ending like a strained brass horn. Here is a bull elk with a mouthful of grass:

We took a drive up to Hayden Valley where we were understood the wildlife viewing to be particularly good. Immediately after the lakeside forests gave way to the rolling plains on the Central Plateau, we saw our first bison (buffalo). It was exciting to see these monstrous animals, from svelte cows with their curved horns, to the cowlike calves, and the massive 2000lb bulls with their giant shaggy shoulders, broad woolly heads and hanging beards. We saw several large herds, watched them graze, wade into the water for a drink, roll in dusty bowls, and engage in mock battle. It was great to see a healthy population of these great creatures that once roamed so much of the American plains.

Another very special treat for all of us was the opportunity to see wild wolves! These were much too far away for photography, but with our binoculars, and through the spotting telescopes of friendly fellow viewers, we were able to see several of a pack of timber wolves lounging or moving about lazily in the late morning sun. We watched a golden wolf bask in the sun, a white wolf move along the forest edge, and a black wolf trot though the amber grasses before settling down for a nap. It was a thrill and a highlight for us all to see these wolves, and sad to remember how our own species has so ruthlessly exterminated them so that they now occupy just a minuscule fragment of the country that they once ruled.

Other sightings that we enjoyed were of beaver, weasel, bald eagle and sandhill crane. At times it reminded us all of our time in Africa, driving slowly along, scanning the bushveld, watching for movement or the silhouette of a beast in the bush. Great fun.


Yellowstone's diverse terrain kept us oohing and aahing throughout our stay. The horizonless expanse of Yellowstone Lake with a haze of forest-fire smoke tinting the clouds orange; the serpentine waters of the Madison and Yellowstone rivers; rolling hills of golden grasses and sagebrush... and then there was the canyon. A short but strenuous hike down Uncle Tom's trail gave us a commanding view of 300 foot Lower Yellowstone Falls:

Actually, it was the hike back up that was strenuous. 310 steps up an expanded metal stairway clinging to the canyon walls, at an elevation of 8000 feet - that'll get your heart going!

Along the rim of the canyon, we had our lunch with this view:

Nancy hurt her back hoisting Toby's bulk into the car, so she did not hike with us out to Riddle Lake, which looked like pewter under the heavy skies:

Life Off-the-Grid:

Once the generator was turned off for the night the dry air quickly lost the heat of the day, and we all headed to the warmth of our beds. The first morning we awoke to dead batteries, which was very disappointing. From then on I switched to just one of the two for overnight, reserving the other to run our furnace in the 32 degree mornings. Clearly our batteries are no longer healthy enough for proper "off-the-grid" living. If we were to do this again I'd buy two new, high quality batteries, which would be able to power lights until bedtime and still keep the furnace running until the sun warmed us the next day. Thankfully we had enough warm bedding, and were able to work out a system whereby we had heat when we needed it most.

It was a great time at Yellowstone National Park. There was so much more to see, but only four days there. After long days out and about we enjoyed drinks and snacks, then dinner, a little talk, and early to bed. After the whale was warm and coffee brewed Mom and Dad would come in for breakfast, and we'd make our plan for the day. Our adventures continued when we all moved just an hour south to Grand Teton National Park. Check back soon to read all about it.