Life is Full of Surprises

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This nomadic lifestyle can be so surprising. We’ve just spent a week camping in a remote Bureau of Land Management campground in the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument several miles south of Taos, New Mexico. We occasionally warn our kids that we are heading to an area of the country that will probably not have cell service, but then we find that we generally have at least one bar now and then. We headed into this gorge expecting to have service, but we had no signals at all! No Verizon for the phones, no AT&T for the MiFi, and no TV channels. We spent eight nights here waiting for our campsite in Albuquerque to open up. The annual Balloon Fiesta packed the campgrounds there and the only available site was $100 per night at the KOA. No thank you! Despite having to learn to live with no connection to family, no way to look at a map online, or look up recipes, this BLM campground with water and electricity for $7.50 per night with beautiful canyon walls, the Rio Grande River whispering past and the occasional screech of a Golden Eagle was the perfect place to spend several days.

And yet, despite being so remote, we have found nuggets of surprise even here …

The winter of 2018-2019 was our first trip to the southwest. Our good friend Maureen flew to Albuquerque to see us for a few days, and we all visited the Acoma Pueblo in western New Mexico. The Acoma Pueblo is the longest continuously inhabited pueblo in the country and, despite it’s location at the top of a mesa with only one steep road up, there are still about 30 families living there. The Acoma people are famous for their pottery. It’s quite distinctive, mostly black and white with traditional Indian motifs like lizards, bears and kokopeli painted alongside beautiful geometric designs. The most intricate pieces are not just painted but etched with fine lines. It’s impossible to imagine the number of hours it must take to complete one pot.

A seed pot made by Sharon Miller of Acoma. (This is not mine, I borrowed this photo from the internet.)

In the spring of 2019 when we first visited the pueblo, I spoke with an Acoma woman named Karen Miller about her craft. She explained that potting is in the blood of the Acoma in the same way that weaving is in the blood of the Navajo. Karen’s mother and grandmother potted, and they taught Karen and her sister Sharon. Their own children were learning to pot as well, starting with simple coiled pots and progressing from there.

This year, because of Covid-19, when we attempted to visit the Acoma Pueblo we found it closed to visitors. (The pandemic hit the Indian nations hard. We saw hand-painted signs at the bottom of driveways in Navajo Nation reading, “NO VISITORS! FAMILY ONLY!”) The pueblos have closed their tours, and that leaves the Acoma people, who depend on tourists buying their pottery, in a really tough situation.

Fortunately, a local casino has allowed the Acoma craftspeople to set up tables in their parking lot. We found this by chance when we stayed the Sky City Casino RV lot for a night. Karen’s sister Sharon was at a the very first table displaying her exquisitely etched pottery! We stopped to talk, told her how we had met her sister and her father last time we visited the pueblo, and it was as if we had just reconnected with an old friend. She updated us on the latest family news (her father had been elected head of the pueblo and her sister took a job at a nursing home) and she even invited us to visit her, Karen and their families at the pueblo when it reopened to the outside world. All this warmth and friendship even before I purchased an exquisite jar from her! 😁

We had set up our campsite in this BLM campground in the early recesses of the great Rio Grand Gorge and spent about 6 hours coming to terms with not having any WiFi, cell or TV antenna service at all. You don’t realize how much you depend on your devices for news, information, maps and just reaching out to say hi to your kids until you have zero service!

Bob took this picture of a sunset rainbow. Not only did the sunset illuminate the gorge’s ridge, but it was the brightest double rainbow we’ve ever seen, even illuminating the clouds.

The following morning, instead of sipping coffee and reading the morning news on our devices, we sat out in the morning sun sipping coffee and listening to the mountain bluebirds and ravens greet the day. One lovely thing about this campground is that there is a strict rule: no amplified music of any kind is allowed. With newer RVs having outdoor TVs and audio speakers, its not unusual to hear music from other campsites … usually country music, but also the occasional thump, thump, thump of a woofer, which can quickly become monotonous. So, there we sat enjoying the morning sun and twitter of the birds bouncing off the canyon wall.

Then, around the corner like an apparition, a big green tour bus pulled into the campground and drove right past us. The bus stopped and regurgitated about 40 grey haired people in various states of mobility. Behind the bus were trucks pulling stacks of large river rafts. We sat there watching and wondering if we were caught on Candid Camera as several people gingerly toddled toward the restroom, some with canes. We concurred that there was no way those people could be going river rafting!

The tour bus.

After a while, a stocky, bearded man wearing a big black prospector’s hat rounded everyone up and said, “My name is Francisco Vargas Ladron de Guevara … people call me Cisco.” Sure enough, he proceeded to tell the folks about the river trip they were going to participate in, followed by the meal that would be served by the local Indian cooks who were already busy in the pavilion. “It may not be food that you are familiar with, but it’s all nutritious, delicious and organic.”

Cisco addressing his rafters.

After Cisco’s lengthy recitation of the rules of river rafting, the folks boarded the bus again and headed to a more northern put-in spot on the river. The river float is conducted by local Indian guides who give educational presentations of the river, it’s flora, fauna and history. We positioned ourselves on the river bank and snapped some photos of them as the rafts rounded the bend and returned to the campground with their appetites whetted for a meal of elk, bison, corn cakes, and other native specialties.

The rafts coming around the corner.

Seeing that tour bus pull in the first morning was surreal in this quiet canyon location. Since then, Cisco has returned with a tour bus several more times. His rafting adventure seems to be quite popular with the retiree bus tours of the southwest!

There are only about ten campsites in this campground, so you say hello to everyone; sometimes you get to know people who are staying longer than just one night. The campground host told Bob that he thought there was another camper here from Connecticut, so we hung our UConn Huskies flag out to identify ourselves.

Our second evening, as we sat outside enjoying the breeze and a beer, a wiry man of about our age wandered over. He looked at the flag and said, “Connecticut. What town?” (That in itself is unusual, as normally we’ll hear ‘Wow! You’re a long way from home!’) I replied, “Manchester,” and waited for him to respond that he was from Greenwich, Danbury, or some other far-flung town. Instead, he asked, “What street??” I said, “Devon Drive. And you?” He said, “Garden Drive.” Here we are in the middle of nowhere New Mexico meeting someone from home!

His name is Jan Lambert, and he sat with us for a couple of hours comparing thoughts about everything from neighborhoods, Manchester High School (he was in the first graduating class of the “new” school) and how the town has changed, to his escape from New England to UC-Berkeley, California life, and Elon Musk and the current state of the satellite industry, in which he spent the bulk of his career. We had a couple of very interesting conversations with Jan before he left for another campground in the northern reaches of the Rio Grande monument. Jan is a true nomad, living a very minimalistic life on the road without a plan, not a pseudo-nomad like us with a house on wheels and all the comforts of home. It was really great meeting him and we hope to cross paths again someday.

This campground is interesting just for the traffic that comes through. It’s a very popular camping spot with about 5 tiny campgrounds every half mile or so down the road. The pavement ends at a rough dirt road that crosses the river via a small suspension bridge and then zig zags up the side of the canyon until you reach the rim. The view is spectacularly rugged, and after following the rim road for several miles, you arrive at a beautiful large suspension bridge that looks too fragile, and when driving over it I had trouble looking down … we were VERY HIGH!

The Rio Grande Gorge National Monument runs 50 miles long and is 800 feet at its deepest point.
The Rio Grande Gorge suspension bridge.

Campers fall into two categories … the folks who hit each campground in succession hoping to find a site quickly, and the gamblers who drive all the way in and start with the furthest campground and work their way down to the beginning. We’ve seen campers pull in, check out the only site available, then leave to probably see if the sites are any better in the other campgrounds; when they returned fifteen minutes later, the site they had looked at has been snagged by someone else.

We saw all kinds of campers in this gorge — motorhomes, pull-behind campers, tents, camping hammocks and even car campers. The one that was most surprising was Ana, a diminutive woman who looked to be pushing 80 who pulled into a tent campsite one day and set up some utensils on the picnic table, then proceeded to find a nice secluded sunny spot near the river to sit in her lawn chair. We thought that maybe she was just visiting for the day, but when we woke up the next morning, after a frigid 31 degree night, her car was still there! We kept an eye on the car and decided that if we didn’t see movement by 9 am, we’d go see if she was okay. A little after 8:00, her passenger door swung open and two little feet popped out. A minute later, Ana stood in the sunshine and stretched, then headed for the restroom building. Later, Bob stopped and spoke with her. She said, “I go camping about once a month. I have a tent, but I just bought this car, so I figured I’d see how comfortable it is for sleeping.” She said that she might go for a hike, and when her car pulled out and headed up the road farther into the canyon, I told Bob she’s probably going four-wheeling up the dirt road to the rim. LOL.

I want to be Ana when I grow up!

Photo from a day drive into the Taos Valley ski area.

Today, we departed the gorge with some drizzle and 30 mph winds (the negative of not having any cell service … no idea about the weather forecast). We’re heading back to Albuquerque and looking forward to visiting with Bob’s aunts Diane and Bosha again!

A Most Amazing Experience

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On our first visit to the Southwestern states in 2019, I developed an interest in the history and culture of our native Indians (Bob was years ahead of me in his interest). We’ve visited lots of historical sites and read several books on the subject since then. And here we are again in the Southwest.

Our generation grew up with lots of Western TV shows … Rifleman, Roy Rogers, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Lone Ranger, Zorro, Maverick, and for those of us in the Boston TV area, Boomtown! In those shows, the cowboys were always the rugged “good guys” wearing a neatly pressed western shirt, bright red bandana, shiny six-shooters in studded leather holsters on each hip and the trademark hat shading their eyes from the bright western sun. The Indians, meanwhile, were portrayed as dirty dark men with greasy black hair acting as either bumbling fools, subservient to their “kimosabe,” or bloodthirsty savages whose main goal in life was to scalp the white man. Fortunately, we are now smart enough to know that these stereotypes are far from the truth. If only schools would teach our children the real story of the native peoples of our country and how their land was stolen from them through slaughters and ultimately relocating them to ghettos.

Before Europeans came to what is now North America in search of riches and religious freedom, there were about 10 million indigenous people living here in about six hundred tribes and speaking very diverse dialects. In many early encounters, the native people and settlers shared seeds and information, even grew crops together. But, the natives’ exposure to the settlers also exposed them to disease and many Indians succumbed to the illnesses that the Europeans brought with them. From 1492 until the Revolutionary War, trade was a central theme of communication between natives and Europeans. It began when the first Europeans offered textiles, glass, and metal products in exchange for beaver pelts and buffalo robes. It ended when the Europeans had virtually stripped the native people of the land that produced the pelts and whatever else the Europeans desired. To complicate matters, the native Indians were dealing with travelers from different nations with varied habits, cultures and languages. Spanish colonists developed a reputation for harsh treatment. The French were supposedly more sensitive to the culture of native peoples, but under their influence the Meskwaki Fox Indians were almost wiped out.

As is still the case, the media presented the conflicts in the most sensational way to sell newspapers, and the colonists’ view of Indians as innocent neighbors soon gave way to an image of a violent group bent on the destruction of white colonists. Europeans actually had scholarly debates on if the Native Americans would fit into the New World. They believed that either the Indians would have to learn European ways, embrace Christianity and give up their traditions, or they simply would not fit. There was no thought to living side-by-side with such different people.

In 2021, we look down on nations who want to “cleanse” their land of less powerful, or less “pure” groups of people, but that is exactly what happened here for hundreds of years. All tribes weren’t warriors, there were tribes of very peaceful, even jovial, people who wished to just get along with these new settlers, but most white men couldn’t tell one tribe from the other. Their skin was dark, their languages were foreign and their world views and spiritual beliefs were beyond most white people’s comprehension. It was easy to consider them inhuman.

Way back in 1539, European soldiers laid siege on the Timucuan people who resisted the push into what is now Florida, overpowered them and promptly executed 200 warriors. This was the first of countless massacres of indians that would take place over the following 300 years. The massacres were brutal shows of European strength involving unspeakable acts, and the killings of Indian women and children far outweighed the numbers of warriors who were killed. Retaliation by the Indians was initially nowhere near equal to what the Europeans were capable of inflicting with their advanced weapons. In an example close to home for us, in 1637 Wongunk and Pequot warriors attacked a white settlement at Wethersfield, Connecticut. Six men and three women were killed and two children were kidnapped. In response to the Wethersfield attack, English colonists launched a night attack on a large Pequot village on the Mystic River where they burned the inhabitants in their homes and killed all 600-700 indians present, including the elderly, women and children. There was no regard given to the fact that Europeans were muscling in on humans who had lived here for thousands of years. They looked different, spoke differently, had habits and traditions that the Europeans did not understand, and certainly did not know anything about the white man’s Bible. That made them stupid savages who were very expendable.

After 300 years of the Europeans pushing the native peoples further and further west, there was no place left to push them. In the 1800’s, the US Army of the West initiated President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act, which called for the removal of Indians from their native lands by any means necessary, even if it meant total slaughter and extinction. By 1864, the Navajo were the last holdouts. Most Navajo who had not been killed or captured fled to the 100-mile long Canyon de Chelly (pronounced Canyon de Shay) in what is now Arizona and hid among the cliff dwellings that had been built hundreds of years earlier by the ancient Pueblo tribes. The Army demanded that either all Navajo would surrender and move to remote reservations for the remainder of their lives, or they would be assassinated. The buffalo had already been slaughtered, so when the Navajo continued to resist, the Army killed all of their livestock and burn all of their planted fields. The Navajo were starved into surrender. The remaining 8,500 Navajo were marched 400 miles in the middle of winter to a reservation in eastern New Mexico which they were told would be paradise. Two hundred died along the way. There, they continued to starve, freeze and succumb to white man’s diseases. And for what? In the case of the Navajo, the Europeans considered their land (modern day Arizona/New Mexico) to be the ugliest, most desolate place they had ever seen, and when gold wasn’t found they abandoned it. Stories were surfacing back east about the deplorable conditions in the New Mexico reservation. Wanting to save their reputations, four years after marching 8,500 Navajo to New Mexico the US Government agreed to send the remaining 6,500 Navajo back to where they came from. The legend is that the Navajo people lined up days in advance of the march, thankful to be returning to their homeland.

The Navajo people of today are all descended from the roughly 6,000 who made it back to their homeland. The word “Navajo” is a name given to them by the European settlers, not what they call themselves. This is probably true of most tribes. The Sioux tribes of the Dakotas call themselves the Lakota. Similarly, the Navajo call themselves Dine’ which means “the people.” They believe they came from the center of the earth, emerging into this land in the middle of four sacred mountains. Because they are from the earth, they are one with everything else that is from the earth … the trees, the rocks, the insects and animals. They refer to all of these things as “people” … the tree people, the insect people, etc. This gives them an appreciation for everything around them as also being born from the earth mother, giving them a respect for everything around them.

Canyon de Chelly was always sacred land, but it is even more so because of the actions that took place there when the Army found, starved and killed them, and also because they were allowed to return. The book Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides drew a very complete and unforgiving picture of the atrocities that took place on both sides of the US/Indian war and created such a living picture in my mind of the Canyon that I had to see it for myself.

We booked a four-hour jeep tour with a local Navajo guide named Ben of Beauty Way Tours. He was born and raised four miles into the canyon, a homestead now occupied by his aunt. He pointed it out to us as we passed. The backdrop of the property is the sheer red rock canyon wall containing a cave some 100’ high. The remains of an Anasazi dwelling with petroglyphs on the ceiling were visible. Since the floor of the canyon is covered in fine sand with water just a few inches beneath, four-wheel-drive vehicles are necessary, and driving is very difficult. I asked Ben how often his aunt left the canyon for errands and such, and he said only about once a month. This made me wonder how Ben, growing up in the 60’s and 70’s (he is about our age) went to school every day. We take for granted that the school bus will collect our children at the end of our driveways or very close by, but there are still people living in very remote areas!

Over the course of four hours, Ben gave us a very educational tour of the canyon, explained a lot about the beliefs of the Dine’, how the ancient Anasazi lived in their cliff dwellings, the meaning of petroglyphs, and how time and history can change a people. It was very interesting and satisfied my curiosity. We both highly recommend a tour of Canyon de Chelly to anyone interested in Native American history.

I guess the bottom line is that what happened to the indigenous people of America is what happens any time there is war … people die, and often those people are innocent citizens. It would be simple to say that this was no different than Japan bombing Pearl Harbor and killing 2,400 US soldiers and citizens and our retaliation by dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and killing 66,000 Japanese. I think it would be more like al-Qaeda bombing the towers, Pentagon, and US Capital, and then invading the country on foot killing everyone who didn’t share their beliefs and wasn’t willing to convert. Whatever way your thinking leans, there is no going back to the old ways for our Native people.

Pictographs showing antelope and a sheep. To the left is a human figure displaying a “welcome” sign (arms down).
The normally sandy canyon floor was muddied by rain the previous day. Only a 4×4 vehicle could drive here.
Cat Rock, an aptly-named nature rock formation in the canyon.
Millions of years of rain pouring down the cliffs have permanently stained the rock in beautiful ways.
Bob photographing ancient cliff dwellings.
Cliff dwellings were hidden everywhere.
A beautiful display of petroglyphs.
Navajo Nation is a “free range state.” Cattle, horses, dogs … all roam freely. Be careful driving!

Rocky Mountain High

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I have only been to Colorado once, and Bob had never been here. Back in the 1990’s I won a four-night trip to visit Keystone Resort. Those few days convinced me that Colorado is the most beautiful place in the world, and I knew I would return. It’s taken me almost 30 years, but I finally got back here! And I’m so glad that I got to share this with Bob.

We started off at a campground just outside of Colorado Springs. It was very nice. We visited Garden of the Gods, drove to the top of Pike’s Peak and hiked the Red Rock Canyon. But, Colorado Springs is a city, and there’s traffic and a lot of people, and after four nights there we were ready to leave.

Garden of the Gods is a collection of natural rock formations that you can walk around and explore. Unfortunately, there were so many people there that it was pretty difficult to take pictures without people.

We moved on to Cañon City, Colorado. (Cañon is Spanish for canyon … which is exactly how it’s pronounced!) What a lovely town this was! There’s a small downtown area with some great shops and restaurants, just big enough that you can walk from one end of Main Street to the other and back. This is also the location of the Royal Gorge with its walkable suspension bridge. I thought Bob would jump at the chance to walk the suspension bridge over the gorge, but he surprised me by saying he’d prefer to ride the old train through the gorge instead. So, we did! It was beautiful, but it was honestly just an introduction to the “wows” we would be chasing in Colorado. (That one is for you, Priscilla and Scott! LOL)

Bob, looking down into the canyon where we would ride the train. You can barely make out the train tracks.

After Cañon City, we moved on to a campground in the middle of nowhere in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado. This valley encompasses about 8,000 square miles with an altitude just shy of 8,000 feet. To give the folks back home a frame of reference, this valley is roughly the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, but the altitude is almost 2,000 feet higher than Mount Washington. The surrounding mountains, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east and San Juan Mountains to the west, fool you into thinking you are close to sea level … but a short walk up a very small hill tell your lungs otherwise! 

The last town with a gas station, Salida, was 31 miles behind us. We stopped there to fill up the motorhome but didn’t think to see how much gas was left in the Honda. Turned out we only had 1/4 tank. We now had to make a choice: either head back 31 miles from where we came (we already know what’s back there), or drive 29 miles farther ahead (unknown territory), because that is where the next gas station is located. We decided to venture ahead 29 miles to the town of Crestone, population approximately 141.

The drive to Crestone passed miles of high desert valley surrounded on 3 sides by mountains. We can’t see the mountains at the southernmost edge of the valley, as that’s all the way down at the Taos, New Mexico, plateau. We passed homesteads of small houses with various outbuildings and vehicles that have sat through a few seasons, each surrounded by hundreds of acres of scrub brush desert. The intersection where we turned toward Crestone comprised not one, but two, cannabis dispensaries and a Dollar General, but nothing else. For those of us from puritan New England, seeing cannabis dispensaries all over the place as well as greenhouse buildings surrounded by tall chain link fences (where you know they are growing it) is very, very strange! 

We finally arrived at the town of Crestone. The gas pump (single pump outside the Elephant Cloud Market) offered me 85 octane for $3.99 or 87 octane for $4.29 per gallon. We have never seen diesel fuel sell for less than gasoline, but it does in Colorado! We also found Crestone Liquors and, since we had nothing of that ilk for the next 4 nights, we stopped for some beer. Holy smokes! This store has a window at the front and a full menu of everything they sell posted on the front facade. You tell the man at the window what you’d like and he gets it for you, hands it out the window. The guy had lots of craft beers in addition to the local favorites and popular national brews, wines, hard liquors, you name it. What a concept! Owner operated business, no employees, low overhead, keep the profits!

Crestone has a few cafes, several art galleries, a small hotel, rental cabins and yurts, a small grocer with the one gas pump, a small cannabis dispensary (of course) and the liquor store. There were lots of camper vans around, old hippie types, young dreadlock types, and hikers. It was fascinating! We drove up a road that headed toward the mountain and saw many small, colorful flags hanging randomly from trees. At the end of the road we found a driveway and sign announcing that this was a Taoist spiritual center, of all things.

Scenes from Crestone, Colorado.

That evening, I checked the internet for information on Crestone and found that the New York Times had written an article about the place in 2008. It’s fascinating!! And such a fluke that we just stumbled upon it!

“At 8,000 feet on the edge of the desert plains of the San Luis Valley beneath the Sangre de Cristo Range, this town and its environs have about 1,500 residents and two dozen different religious centers, including a cluster of Buddhist monasteries, a Catholic monastery, a Taoist retreat, a Hindu ashram, a Shumei center and several American Indian sanctuaries. This forested hillside haven, nestled on an enormous aquifer below the 14,000-foot Crestone Peaks, has long been considered sacred.”

Just a couple of weeks ago, we were listening to NPR in the car and someone mentioned having been to the UFO Watchtower in Colorado. Well, guess where that is located? Yes, indeed, it is in the San Luis Valley about half way between the RV Park and the Great Sand Dunes National Monument. And we were planning to visit the Great Sand Dunes … we had to check out the watchtower!

We are still not even clear about how this got started, but it has something to do with the woman who owns this land, and how there have supposedly been more UFO sightings in the San Luis Valley than anywhere else in the country. She built this “watchtower” (which is really just a platform elevated about 10’ off the ground). She has a “garden” of tchotchkes in front, a little gift store/“museum” and even invites RVers to stay overnight in her lot (for a fee). There is a 4” thick binder filled with photos and stores of sightings, which we browsed. We believe in science, and considering how this is not even the only galaxy in the universe, how can we possibly be the only living creatures?? That being said, we saw nothing unusual while we were there. Um … wait a minute … I’ll take back “unusual” and trade that for “otherworldly.”

The office/gift shop/museum of the UFO Watchtower.
Bob thinks he’s spotted a UFO!
It’s hard to tell … maybe he spotted something from the garden. I wonder what the aliens would think of us if they landed here?

We actually hated to leave the San Luis Valley. We could have stayed longer (and might return to do just that some day), but we had reservations in Durango so we headed on down the road.

Durango itself didn’t impress us much. The town obviously started out as a tiny hamlet at the base of the mountains, but it’s quaintness got the better of it and the town has now been developed to where it’s just a confusing maze of streets and highways. I went out to run some errands and was really struck by how difficult it is to find anything! The big draw here is the Durango and Silverton Railway. You can take a 3-½ hour train ride in an antique car through the San Juan Mountains to the old silver mining town of Silverton. You are given a couple of hours to poke around Silverton, then take either another 3-½ hour train or a comfy tour bus back to Durango.

Now, this train excursion has the potential to take up your entire day, and we have a dog to think about. It’s also pretty expensive — at least $100 per ticket. But, it is one of the most popular train rides in the world and I’ve been wanting to do this since I first learned of it almost 30 years ago! Bob came up with a solution — we’d buy one ticket for a round-trip train ride, one of us would take the train up and the other would drive with the dog; we’d meet up in Silverton, enjoy that together and switch places! Brilliant! Smart guy! 😉

I opted to take the train up to Silverton (8 am departure). We planned to meet in Silverton when the train arrived, around 11:30. Stroll, have a snack, etc., then Bob would take the 1:30 train back to Durango and Tessa and I would pick him up at the train station. We’d be home by 4:30.

WELL …my 8:00 am departure was delayed 15 minutes for reasons not divulged to the passengers. I thought nothing of it, until about an hour into our trip when the train suddenly stopped (on a ledge, mind you). The engineer made several short blasts of the train’s horn and the conductor came flying through the train cars toward the engine. We soon learned that there was a mechanical problem with our locomotive and it would need replacement. We slowly hobbled to the next station, where several hikers departed and we waited for our replacement locomotive to come up from Durango. [I have to commend the Durango and Silverton Railway staff, because they did an awesome job of keeping us informed, offering multiple options to both hikers (who often ride these trains just a few miles to start their multi-day hikes and summits) and tourists in an effort to alleviate stress for as many as possible.] Except for my not having any cell service shortly after leaving Durango and not being able to communicate with Bob, I had no pressing need to get to Silverton. So, I struck up a conversation with the couple behind me, Lana and Paul. It’s amazing how quickly you can discover common interests with complete strangers, but we ended up sharing the long ride and enjoying ourselves.

Top photo: locomotive that broke down (diesel).
Bottom photo: the replacement (steam).
Paul and Lana from Denver. Hope you two had a great vacation!

By the time we arrived in Silverton, Bob had been waiting a couple of hours! In any event, we both had the opportunity to ride the train, visit Silverton, and we made it home safe and sound … only about 13 hours later instead of 8!

But, honestly, it was worth it. We highly recommend the train from Durango to Silverton! What happened to us was very unusual, and the staff handled everything with absolute professionalism and helpfulness. We are really so glad that we didn’t leave Tessa home that day!

The next day, we decided on a whim to take a drive to Ouray, Colorado. Several people told us that Ouray is absolutely gorgeous. As it turns out, the road from Silverton to Ouray is called the Million Dollar Highway because every turn has a million dollar view. Once we arrived in Ouray, we found a great little brewery with delicious food and beer (Scott and Priscilla: Ouray Brewing Company, try the brown ale) and ran into Lana and Paul from the train the previous day! Imagine that!

Ouray is not far from Telluride, so we decided to do a loop … Durango-Silverton-Ouray-Telluride-Durango. “Wow” is the best word I can use to describe the Million Dollar Highway. This has to be the most beautiful drive in the United States. People talk about Mount Rainier, Montana, the Canadian Rockies, Alaska … but I just can’t believe that there is a place more beautiful than the mountains between Silverton and Ouray. If we stopped traveling right now, I’d feel confident that I’d seen the most beautiful place on Earth.

So, I’ll stop talking about this leg of our journey and just show you a bunch of pictures!

We sure picked the right time of year to visit Colorado! New England thinks it has the best autumn colors … we beg to differ!

Our time in Colorado concluded with a few days at Mesa Verde National Park, which is a location of ancient Pueblo Indian cliff dwellings dating from 600 AD to about 1200 AD. The park calls them Anasazi cliff dwellings, but Anasazi is not the name of a tribe, it’s a Navajo word that means “ancient enemies.” The Pueblo Indians were not the only cliff dwellers. A couple of years ago, we visited the Gila cliff dwellings in New Mexico which were inhabited by the Mogollon people, and next week we’ll be seeing more cliff dwellings in Arizona that were used by the Navajo.

The cliff dwellings were first discovered in the mid to late 1800’s by a local miner and rancher named John Moss who often explored this land. In 1874, a friend of his introduced him to pioneer photographer William H. Jackson, and Moss led them to some ruins that he had discovered. Jackson photographed the ruins. This discovery brought more explorers to the area, and more ruins were found. It took decades of petitions to the Smithsonian and the US Government, but finally, in 1906, this land was declared a National Park by President Theodore Roosevelt. 

Many of the dwellings are only viewed at a distance from the top of the opposing cliffs, but a few are accessible by ranger-led hikes. We didn’t realize that reservations were required for the hikes, and by the time we figured this out only one ticket was available on a hike to the Long House. Since visiting this house requires climbing ladders and I’m not good with ladders, Bob took that tour. I was very sorry to miss seeing it, but I did a self-guided hike to a smaller ruin called Step House. The biggest disappointment was that the road to the Cliff Palace and Balcony House was closed and we were unable to see those. Cliff Palace is the largest cliff dwelling in North America with 150 rooms. If you ever plan to visit Mesa Verde, I would suggest booking reservations for the hikes to the dwellings as far in advance as you can.

Bob at Long House dwelling.
Long House.
Cliff Palace dwelling from across the canyon.

And, so, this concludes our visit to the magnificent state of Colorado … although we only saw the southern portion! We’ll have to visit the northern part of the state some other time because … yes … snow fell overnight on top of those mountains last night!!! We’re heading south today!

Hey, Toto … are we in Kansas?

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The drive south from Grand Island, Nebraska, we never touched the interstate. We drove out of our campground, turned left on Highway 281 and two hours forty one minutes later we turned into Sylvan Park by Wilson Lake, half way between Lucas and Wilson, Kansas. Grocery stores can be a town’s bellwether — does it have a newer name brand supermarket with great deli and produce sections? A micro-regional grocery chain that serves up exactly what you need and maybe a surprise or two? Lucas has Troy’s Groceries and Post Office, and Wilson, well, Wilson Foods had more dust, but that’s about it. I needed eye drop tears because it gets so dry out here sometimes that I wake up with very dry eyes, so I looked on the map to see where the nearest Pharmacy might be. It was 26 miles to the nearest pharmacy. So, that’s where we were, in the middle of … west Kansas.

It was beautiful there! My goodness, in our drive from Nebraska, we drove past miles and miles of nothing. It’s kind of mind-blowing to see how far some people live from their nearest neighbor. Miles! Gas stations are few and far between in this part of the country, so you fill up when you see one.

While driving down that long stretch of road, we passed a sign pointing down a side road … it was the US geological survey marker of the exact center of the lower 48 states. Earlier in our travels, we had visited the center of the entire 50 states, now we can check off the center of the contiguous 48 as well!

The center of the lower 48 states.

When we passed through Lucas, Kansas about 8 miles before our campground, there were signs boasting a place called “The Garden of Eden” and a folk art cooperative nearby. Of course we drove back the next day to check it out.

There are two featured attractions here: The Garden of Eden and Bowl Plaza. We started with The Garden of Eden, an undertaking of a fellow named S.P. Dinsmoor. Born in Ohio in 1843, Dinsmoor served in the Civil War as a nurse for the Union Army, taught school in Illinois, moved to Kansas and became a farmer. Samuel Dinsmoor was a married father of seven, a Mason and a Freethinker. When he retired from farming at the age of 62, he moved from the farm into town and built a cottage out of local post rock with the sleeping quarters on the 2nd floor, kitchen and dining areas in the basement and first floor devoted to family living and entertainment with the forethought that eventually it would become a museum. Once the house was complete, the sculpting began outside. Dinsmoore was, at that time, 64 years old. The year was 1907.

Mind you, I am 64 years old and have no intentions of starting to sculpt at this point in my life!

Everything in the sculpture that surrounds the house reflects Dinnsmoor’s religious and political ideas. He was raised in a strong Christian household and was a Populist, someone who feels that the concerns of ordinary people are disregarded by elite groups. He had never sculpted before when he began to erect statues in his yard that tell a story. The story starts outside the front door and moves counterclockwise around the house. In his own words: “This is the tree of life. The angel is guarding the apples. Below is Adam and Eve. Two snakes form the grape arbor. One is giving Eve the apple. The Devil was in the Garden of Eden in the background. He has his fork poised on a little kid. My God would throw up his hand and save the kid.” And so the story continues around the house, until you arrive at his Populist conclusion: “Labor has been crucified between a thousand grafters (thieves) … I have put up the leaders – lawyer, doctor, preacher and banker. I do not say they are all grafters, but I do say they are the leaders of all who eat cake by the sweat of the other fellow’s face.”

Dinsmoor’s story starts to the right, the tree of life with the large birds on top, Eve and Adam below the sign, the serpent putting the apple in her hand. In the background above the word “Eden” you can see the devil about to throw a pitchfork at the little girl on the swing, left of “Garden.”
The story continues around the house involving soldiers and wolves and caterpillars as each group feeds off the group below it.
The story ends with “Laborers” being crucified by big businessmen.

The pièce de résistance is Dinsmoor’s mausoleum. His first wife, Frances, had died in 1917 and was buried in the local cemetery, but after the mausoleum was finished, he dug her up and moved her home where he encased her casket in concrete to make it hard for the “grafters” to remove her. A few years later, he married his housekeeper and fathered two more children … she was 20 and he was 81. He died in 1932 and was mummified and laid to rest in a glass-front coffin on top of Frances in the mausoleum. In his words: “I promise everyone that comes to see me (they can look through the plate glass and glass in the lid of my coffin and see my face) that if I see them dropping a dollar, I will give them a smile.” No, I did not take a picture of him!

The flag of the USA with 48 stars, is ready to be hoisted to the top of the mausoleum, behind the flag, by a turkey. Dinsmoor shared Ben Franklin’s belief that the turkey should have been our national bird.

After leaving the Garden of Eden, we drove through “downtown” and found Bowl Plaza. There are folk art sculptures everywhere – on the side of the road, hanging from light poles, in yards, etc. You never know where you’ll spot one. But, you can hardly miss Bowl Plaza, which is adjacent to the town’s “Civic Center.” (I know, you’re imagining a big “Civic Center” coliseum … no, this is a little corner office on the Main Street.) Bowl Plaza is a public restroom that was designed and built by artists of the local Grassroots Arts Center to serve a very real need (the town had no public restrooms) in a thoroughly artistic way. The entrance wall depicts a large toilet tank with an intricately inlaid “lid” surrounding the glass door and crescent shaped benches forming the “seat”. Within the seat is a circular swirl of blue water with all sort of objects that have apparently fallen into the toilet … a cell phone, goldfish, money, cigar, etc. A little dog stands at the edge taking a drink. Nearby is a huge concrete roll of “toilet paper.” As if the exterior wasn’t elaborate enough, you enter the building and find an explosion of intricate mosaic work everywhere you look. The “boys room” had matchbox cars, sporting equipment and a John Deere sign; the “girls room” has dolls, teacups and lots of jewels. In actuality, neither room is gender labeled, so you can use whichever you want. You could easily spend an hour in each room looking at all the different items lodged in the walls, most of which were donated by local citizens. By far, the most beautiful and interesting restrooms we have ever seen!

The Bowl … crescent-shaped benches area the seat, mosaic around door is the lid, and three hub caps comprise the flush handle.
Little doggie drinks the water that is contaminated with all sorts of stuff!
One wall in the “boys room.”
And a wall in the “girls room.”
A roll of toilet paper rests nearby, but sign asks that we please don’t climb on it!

The following day, we drove down to the town of Wilson, which was about 10 miles to the south of our campground. Wilson is called the Czech Capital of Kansas because it was settled primarily by Czech immigrants from Bohemia and Moravia. Many of the town’s 800 residents are descended from those original settlers, and businesses have signs in both English and Czech. There are colorful Czech eggs displayed around town in the same way Willimantic, Connecticut, has painted frogs and Saratoga, New York, has painted horses. The pièce de résistance here is the giant Czech egg.

The big Czech egg!

All this, and I haven’t even mentioned that Wilson Lake and the surrounding countryside is absolutely beautiful. Very popular for fishing and mountain biking, and Tessa loved being able to swim a couple of times every day. We could have stayed there longer, but there’s so many more places to see! And, so, after a few days at Wilson Lake, we moved on to Dodge City, Kansas. The location of one of our favorite TV shows of the 1960’s, Gunsmoke! This is also the real-life location of so many true stories of legendary characters of the Wild West like Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, and Doc Holiday. They have a really good museum in town called the Boot Hill Museum. If you’re ever in Dodge, check it out.

We stumble upon so many interesting things in our travels, but while in this museum, we happened upon what has to be the most incredible thing yet. We entered the Long Branch Saloon (Miss Kitty’s saloon on Gunsmoke) to the sound of a piano. There sat a young man who was having a grand old time playing. His parents told us that Cope, their son, has autism, is blind and is a musical savant. He has never had a music lesson. At a young age he heard a song, sat down at the piano and figured out how to play it. He is so good that he asked us to request a song and challenged us to stump him. We asked for music from Phantom of the Opera, Ray Charles, Beethoven, and he played them all with zero hesitation. If you stump him (which we were not able to do), he only needs to hear the song and he’ll play it. What an amazing young man. Cope and his parents live in Oklahoma and were on a vacation in Dodge like us. Gigi said they have pianos in almost every room at home, and also have a traveling piano that they take with them because Cope will play the piano all day long. It was one of the most incredible things we have ever seen and is surely something that we will never see again in our lifetimes.

Cope on the piano at Boot Hill Museum.

When we checked into the RV Park in Dodge, the front desk clerk gave me some brochures on things to do in town and asked if we enjoy walking tours. She gave us Charlie Meade’s number. Charlie is a retired Marshal of Dodge City and now gives visitors walking tours of the downtown area. Charlie is 86 years young and has enough stories to choke a Texas longhorn. Leading these tours almost every day is probably what keeps him spry! He got to know most of the cast of Gunsmoke, was particularly good friends with James Arness (Marshal Matt Dillon in the show) and Ken Curtis (who played Festus), and in 1966 was among a crew of cowboys who led a cattle drive of 100 longhorns 800 miles from San Antonio to Dodge to commemorate the millions of cattle who were driven across the plains in the old west. You can find him most days walking visitors around town dressed in his western clothes, spurs and cowboy hat with his trusty six-shooter on his hip and, of course, his Marshal’s badge (he was made a Special Deputy U.S. Marshal in 2006 and thinks he will retire from that in about a year). We so thoroughly enjoyed touring the town with Charlie! Another highlight of our travels! If you’re reading this and heading to Dodge to take a tour with Charlie, just make sure you put aside plenty of time … he told us the tour would last around 90 minutes, but it really lasted almost 2-½ hours!

Bob, listening to one of Charlie’s stories.

We had a great time in Dodge City. The Boot Hill Museum was fantastic containing all kinds of information, relics and stories of Doc Holliday, the Earp brothers, and lots of lesser known but equally interesting people. Since Front Street was the main drag back in the old days, they have a recreated Front Street behind the museum. In the summer months, shoot-outs take place there every day, and in the evenings they serve up a can-can show in the Long-Branch Saloon.

We also visited Dodge City Brewing twice and ended up having a great conversation with Sheri, the owner. Here’s another great reason to visit Dodge for a couple of days … this brewery! Not only are the brews great, but they serve up some delicious New York style pizzas! We left Dodge with a couple of growlers of their brew to keep us going.

After Dodge, we went a little further west to spend one night in the town of Ulysses, Kansas. They have a city park that was a very well-kept, cheap and a great place to stay for a night or longer. Come to find out, even this little town has an interesting history. Back in the 1800’s Ulysses was caught up in a voting scandal. The town was up for a vote against another town to become the county seat. The scandal, complete with charges of voter fraud, rivals the election of 2020! The bottom line was that the town had to be moved, so they lifted up the buildings and moved them on wagons. You cannot make these stories up!

And so, we continue on a westward course. Colorado, here we come!

Nebraska – Not So Boring After All

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We spent a couple of weeks driving west to east through Nebraska and finished that journey saying that Nebraska is the most boring state we’ve visited. In revisiting our stops for this blog, that really hasn’t been the case at all. The topography of Nebraska is kind of boring, as it’s pretty flat with not much to look at except crops and cattle. But, we really did find some fun and interesting things along the way.

We like to consult the website Atlas Obscura to see what unusual sites there may be in each state, and our first stop in Nebraska was the small town of Alliance to see Carhenge. The man who created this fun art installation, Jim Reinders, was born in Alliance and went to work in the oil and gas industry. He spent most of his career in the United Kingdom before retiring and returning to Alliance. Having done extensive study of Stonehenge while in the the UK, Reinders had the idea to recreate a scale model of it using old cars. He thought it might be a fun way to bring some tourism dollars to his hometown. With help from family and friends, Carhenge was built in 1987 on the family farm. As the saying goes, “if you build it, they will come,” and they did. About 100,000 people every year visit the site. In 2013, it was gifted to the City of Alliance. It’s free to visit, with the hopes that you’ll also visit the shops and cafes along the cute cobblestone streets of historic Alliance. Fun fact: there are two cars with their trunks filled as time capsules, one with World War II memorabilia, the other with 20th century items. One will be opened in 2044, the second in 2053.

Carhenge, Alliance, Nebraska
One of the time capsules at Carhenge.

Our first multi-day stop was in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. Anyone who played the video game The Oregon Trail in the late 90’s should recognize Scotts Bluff and Chimney Rock as two of the most important landmarks that helped travelers find their way west. Scotts Bluff is now a National Monument with a road and hiking trails that take you up to an observation point at the top. Chimney Rock is a State Monument that can only be observed from a distance. Standing on the top of Scotts Bluff and looking down at the deeply fissured land below, it’s mind boggling to imagine heavy wagons with wooden wheels being pulled through while trying to find the path to the west.

Scott’s Bluff, Nebraska.
The view from the top, through the smoke of western fires.
Chimney Rock, which we thought would be bigger!

Scottsbluff came with a surprise … we arrived just as the National Hot Air Balloon Championships were about to take place! We’d been hoping to be able to see the Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, but not sure if we’d make it to New Mexico by early October. This certainly isn’t as big, but it’s very important in the world of Hot Air Balloon competition as the winners of this event qualify for the Fiesta. There were 45 competitive balloons and a couple dozen others who were there for fun. The competition involves the balloonists reaching certain targets both in the sky and on the ground. Spectators were able to watch each balloonist navigate his or her balloon toward a large field with a target painted on the ground. They had to drop a small sandbag with a long tail from the air onto the target. The one who got the closest to the center of the target won that event. Of course, there are no motors or rudders to help the balloonists direct their vessel, they rely on their knowledge of the wind layers and currents. It was interesting to see different strategies with some balloons gliding down to just feet above the ground before dropping the sandbag while others stayed high aloft. There were also evening “glow” events where several balloons inflated at dusk and fired their flames to make the balloons glow in the darkness. So, Nebraska did provide us with a highlight event!

Filling a balloon using a large fan.
Heating the air to make it stand upright.
Evening glow.
Early morning, 45 competitive balloonists heading for the target in the field.
Getting closer to us and to each other.
Some balloonists dropped their sandbag from way up high …
… others came low and even bumped each other.
They were all aiming for this target.
Everybody took to the air for some flying time.

By the way, in case you were wondering if I was guilty of typos … the city of Scottsbluff is one word, but the county of Scotts Bluff is two, as is the monument … two words, Scott’s Bluff. Don’t ask me, they didn’t ask me to proofread. (OK, I am also guilty of typos sometimes!!)

Continuing east, we needed a place to stay for a single night so we checked our Harvest Host network to see if any hosts were in our path. That led us to the Golden Spike Tower in North Platte. This is an observation tower built alongside the largest rail yard in the world. Yes, in the world! This rail yard is about 8 miles long and 2 miles wide covering more than 2,500 acres and comprising 33 tracks. It’s a pretty amazing process to watch as a they sort the cars. Trains arrive, cars are disconnected, and then rolled down a slightly elevated “hump” track which is switched to send cars toward the correct train. In simplistic terms, if they have trains on their tracks destined for Santa Fe, Denver, Sacramento and Seattle, and a train arrives from Detroit with cars destined for those cities, the cars will be disconnected and rolled down the hump where they will be fed onto the track of the appropriate outgoing train. They can disburse four cars each minute using this method. Pretty cool!

Golden Spike Tower, North Platte, Nebraska.
Bailey Yard is so big that I couldn’t possibly get a picture of the entire thing, so here’s a picture from Google Earth.

The next day, we pushed on further east to the town of Grand Island. Seems like a strange name for a town in the middle of the country with no major bodies of water. The town was so named because of an island in the middle of the Platte River that was well-known to trappers in the early 1800’s. French trappers made note of “la grande isle” in this part of the wilderness, and “la grande isle” was subsequently noted on French maps. The name stuck. We were just here for a couple of days of rest and relaxation, but while here we discovered that the Nebraska State Fair would be held here in a couple of weeks. We’ll circle back to that later.

Back on the road, we spent a few nights in Lincoln, Nebraska, the state’s Capitol and home to the University of Nebraska … go Huskers!! It was move-in week and the city was bustling with red shirted teens and parents and bright red flags bearing an enormous N. The university is home to the International Quilt Museum, which I thoroughly enjoyed visiting. We had the best time checking out Code Brewing, where we had the pleasure of being served by the brewmeister, Matt. We had a great time exchanging stories with him and another couple at the bar, Lisa and Mike Cunningham. Being fans of the show Shark Tank, we were especially interested in learning that they have applied to be on the show as they make and sell a special duck blind. Not being hunters ourselves, we don’t know what makes their blind special, but they get orders from all over the place and would really like their product to take off. We would, too! We had so much fun talking with Lisa and Mike that they invited us to join them at a different brewery for one more beer. We had a great time in Lincoln. Even though it’s the Capitol of Nebraska, it’s a very approachable town, easy to find your way around.

The 9/11 quilt on display at the International Quilt Museum.
Pakistani appliqué quilt.
Matt, the Brewmeister, at Code Beer.
Lisa and Mike, who we just KNOW are going to get a deal with the Sharks!

After a few fun days in Lincoln, we moved on toward Kansas City. My daughter Laura’s boyfriend recently started a new job working for the National World War I museum in Kansas City, Missouri. As things tend to happen with us, like the hot air balloon event, we stumbled across a website about the Kansas State Fiddling and Picking Championships being held in Lawrence, Kansas. That was less than an hour west of Kansas City, so we headed to Lawrence for the night. Come to find out, this is the home of the University of Kansas, and it was also move-in time here. There were bright blue banners and flags welcoming the Jayhawks back to school.

Competitors in the fiddlin’ and pickin’ competition.

Laura and Jim joined us the next day for the fiddlin’ and pickin’ and we had the pleasure of spending the rest of the week visiting and touring with them. While Jim worked during the day, Laura and I went exploring. We found the town of Wamego, Kansas, with it’s claim to fame being the “home” of Dorothy Gale and her family. That name, Dorothy Gale, may ring a little bell in your head without actually reminding you who she was … Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz! Someone once asked exactly where in Kansas Dorothy was supposed to have lived. While no town was ever mentioned in the Oz books, one enterprising person in the town of Wamego said, “Why not here?” The call went out for donations of Oz memorabilia and the idea took off. A vacant store was turned into the Oz Museum, complete with a replica of the porch of Dorothy’s home, a dark, scary path through the Forest of Burzee, and life-size replicas of all the main characters. It’s very well done! Also in town is a yellow brick road and several businesses with Oz themes, such as the Oz Winery, Emerald Door Salon and Toto’s TacOZ. Even their water tower is painted to look like the wizard’s hot air balloon. Wamego sure deserves an A+ for capitalizing on something for the good of the community!

Laura outside … you guessed it … the Oz Museum.
Yes, that road.

After a great week visiting Laura and Jim, we headed back to Grand Island, Nebraska, for the Nebraska State Fair. Several years ago, Bob saw a show on PBS about the Indian Nations Relay Races. They take place every year in different states in the west, and after completing a circuit of racing, the winners compete at the national championship races in Wyoming. Ever since seeing that documentary, Bob has wanted to see these races in person. He got his wish!

The races are thought to date back at least a century as a form of entertainment and competition after tribes were taken from their native lands, which were often far from other tribes, and deposited on reservations in close proximity to each other. 

Before the race begins, a judge marks a number of boxes about 12 feet wide on the outer edge of the track across from the judges. Each racing team consists of four people: the rider, two holders and a mugger. Each team is randomly assigned a box, and the team’s horses are supposed to be kept within the box in the control of their holders. If a horse gets loose, the team is disqualified. There are different levels of races, from the beginners, who start on horseback and only run one lap of the track, to the pros, who start on foot, run to their horse, mount and run three laps. At the end of the first and second laps, each rider brings their horse to the team, where the mugger grabs the horse (usually still in motion). The rider jumps off and onto the next horse and takes off for another lap. Needless to say, there is a lot of commotion. You have young, fast, spirited horses, riders coming toward their teams full-bore trying to dismount and remount as quickly and efficiently as possible, and horses coming behind others. This is a dangerous sport! Here are a couple of awesome videos that Bob took, one of the start and the second of a change of horses. The third video shows how people get hurt.

The start …

This was definitely something that most people have probably never seen. If you ever travel out west, you should check to see if there are races taking place. 

Now, we finally head out of Nebraska and into Kansas for a few days.

Sensational South Dakota

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This is a good lesson to stay focused and to write every day. We left South Dakota more than two weeks ago and already I’m feeling like it’s a memory. The best writing happens during the excitement of exploration and discovery! I must be vigilant and write every day so that I don’t lose that explorer’s edge! At this point, I think I’m going to write a novel.

Looking back over the course of my life, I can’t remember anyone recommending a visit to South Dakota until we started RVing. Lots of RVers have visited South Dakota and many of them set up domicile here the way we set up domicile in Texas. Now, having spent a month touring the state, we wonder why more people don’t vacation here. It’s so diverse in both landscape and people. 

Between touring South Dakota and reading several books about the history of the west, an idea has come to me: the history of New England and the Atlantic coast is the story of westward expansion of Europe. By planting settlements in the New World, the hope was that a larger empire would be created for England, France or Spain, whichever country dug its claws in deepest. New England’s history is about our separation from England and King George III. From school trips to Old Sturbridge Village and Boston, those history lessons were repeated and shaped our view of the history of America. As students in New England, our understanding of the west was pretty much limited to Roy Rogers, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, etc. It was a cowboys vs. Indians fairy tale, the “Wild West,” where the cowboys wore freshly pressed shirts and bandanas and were the good guys and Indians learned their lesson and became subservient.

In the west, history is different. There are no Minute Men, tea parties, or conferences of men with powdered wigs and elegant discourse. The history here is more recent and raw. What I mean is this: my great-great-great grandparents were born around the time of the Boston Massacre — that’s 251 years and five generations ago. The history of the west — with Kit Carson blazing trails and American soldiers killing off the bison and the native people — is so recent that my grandparents were in their 20’s when Geronimo died. It was only 130 years ago that the Army massacred 150 Sioux at Wounded Knee! 

“History” in the west is recent, it’s palpable, it’s still mourned, and it is real. I can’t speak for younger generations, but we really never spent a lot of time on the history of the west when I was in school.

I could write an entire blog about the atrocities that were visited on the Native Indian people. As we traveled through the eastern part of South Dakota, I imagined nomadic tribes moving through the rolling hills of the plains in search of bison. The topography quickly changed as we reached the center of the state to a much flatter horizon, shorter grass, tiny cactus and then, The Badlands … fragile mountains of sandstone, lime, clay in multiple colorful layers. This area was named “mako sica” (bad land) by the Lakota people because of the rocky terrain, lack of water and high temperatures. So, when reservations were set up, where did the US Army send the Oglala Lakota people? The 2 million acre tract of barren, dusty land just south of The Badlands, of course! This was the tribe of Crazy Horse.

Continuing west, the terrain continues as a flat, dry prairie until suddenly dark mountains rise in the distance covered with Ponderosa pines and huge columns of granite, The Black Hills. Within these mountains, if you look closely, you’ll see remnants of mines that popped up during the gold rush of the late 1800’s, an event which led to huge wagon trains bringing tens of thousands of people to the Black Hills in search of gold. Few made their fortunes, but this expansion led to further atrocities against the native Indians who had lived fairly peacefully here for centuries. Originally, the Lakota were given this land by the US in the Treaty of 1868, but within months a gold nugget was found and we removed the Lakota to that barren tract south of The Badlands.

It’s a history that can’t be ignored when you visit a Walmart in the middle of nowhere and almost everyone you see looks to be of Native Indian heritage. I can’t help but wonder how they can live among us, the descendants of the “white men” who wiped out their ancestors, and not feel bitterness. 

But, for now I’ll push those thoughts aside and concentrate on the exploration of South Dakota! 

Our first stop in The Black Hills was Sturgis. What better time to see what this town is like than one month before the deluge of half a million motorcyclists? Talk about the dichotomy of “white America” vs. “native America.” We spent three nights in Sturgis, and it was probably two nights too many. The town of Sturgis is not much more than a bunch of bars, motorcycle shops and t-shirt vendors, and it appears that nothing much happens in Sturgis until August and the annual motorcycle rally. Despite all the bars in town, we were hard pressed to find any live music as the band listings didn’t begin until August 1. In the meantime, the bars’ websites promoted the upcoming bikini and painted body contests that would be featured during the rally. We walked to the historic Knuckles Saloon & Brewery and had a couple of average beers and some average food, but that was our only real outing in town. The rest of our time was spent driving to Deadwood, Spearfish, Lead and Belle Fourche. These towns all figure prominently in western history and movies, but are now pretty much tourist traps filled with souvenir shops and casinos.

The Knuckle Saloon in Sturgis. Lousy beer, average food. At least we can say we’ve been to Sturgis.
Historic Deadwood has, unfortunately, gone to the tourists.
The historic sites are now either souvenir shops or casinos.

The real beauty of The Black Hills is seen in Custer State Park!

Everyone you meet who has visited South Dakota says, “make sure you drive the Needles Highway,” and now we know why. The views are incredible, and the narrow winding road through the granite “needles” that stick up toward the sky, driving through multiple one-lane tunnels along the way, was impressive.

Four of the single-lane tunnels on Needles Highway in Custer State Park.

We spent hours driving around looking for wildlife, and after seeing a few bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope and millions of prairie dogs, we were itching to see something new and exciting. Well, we found it! Bison, probably a couple hundred of them crossing the road en mass! Wow! What an experience. Needless to say, cars had come to a dead stop while everyone watched with fascination as these monsters walked wherever the heck they felt like it. There was one bull who was SO big, he was almost as tall as a cargo van! Whenever a dog somewhere back in the line of traffic would bark, the mothers and calves would run to safety. Eventually, the park rangers had to come out and clear the road — one sat at the ready in his truck while the other stood in the road and cracked a bullwhip on the pavement to make the bison clear the road. It was a crazy experience. We’re so glad that we got to see that!

Look at the size of this guy next to the van!!
Mom and calf.

While across the country we’ve all been impacted by the smoke from wildfires in the west, it was even more impactful to drive through areas where forest fires have destroyed acres of trees. Fire is a very real concern in the west, and having traveled in the southwest before we’re used to seeing “burn ban” signs. We drove past an area of about 3 miles that was devoid of trees. I looked online and found that a wildfire had burned here a couple of years ago. It’s such a sad, desolate site.

Two pictures showing the destruction of previous forest fires.

Of course, we visited Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse monuments while here. Mount Rushmore was very crowded, so we didn’t go in any of the buildings except the artist’s studio to see the original scale model of Rushmore. Here’s some information in case it comes up in a trivia contest … originally, Thomas Jefferson was supposed to be the president furthers to the left, but during sculpting half of Mr. Jefferson cracked and fell away, so the monument was reconfigured. This is probably why the right side of George Washington’s head looks unfinished … that’s where Jefferson was supposed to be. Also, we had never noticed until visiting the monument that Mr. Washington is the only one with lapels. Mr. Lincoln has a collar, but that’s it. This is because the monument was never finished! Mr. Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor, had run out of money and was traveling to Chicago to petition donors for more money for the project when he suddenly died. Mr. Borglum’s son, Lincoln Borglum, was named head of the project. But, it was 1941, we were still recovering from the Great Depression and closely watching the war that was raging in Europe. Lincoln Borglum knew there would be no money donated … the project was broke and his father dead. He declared Mount Rushmore finished.

You can see President Washington’s lapel, although it is not exactly carved into the rock. If you look closely you can see a similar outline of a hand under President Lincoln’s chin. The hand is supposed to be holding his lapel. Also, the right side of George’s head is not finished, nor is the left of Abe’s head.
In this plaster cast by Gutzon Borglum, you see what the finished Rushmore monument was supposed to look like.

What we found even more inspiring than Mount Rushmore was the Crazy Horse monument. It’s been under construction for almost 70 years and it is nowhere near complete, and probably will not be completed in our lifetime. The sculptor of this monument was a relative unknown in the art world by the name of Korczak Ziolkowski. Born in Boston to Polish immigrants, Korczak was orphaned at age one. He grew up in a series of foster homes where he was very poorly treated. One of his foster fathers worked in heavy construction and brought Korczak to work with him where he learned to work very hard and gained the heavy construction knowledge that would serve him well in South Dakota.

Korczak, on his own by the age of 16, took odd jobs to put himself through Rindge Technical School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Rindge was a public institution founded through a donation to the town made by Frederick H. Rindge, a Vice President of Union Oil and director of Edison Electric, whose wish was that “the plain arts of industry be taught…for boys of average talents, who may in it learn how their arms and hands can earn food, clothing, and shelter…” Boys were taught firefighting, woodworking, drafting, and various other technical trades.

After graduating Rindge, Korczak became an apprentice patternmaker in the shipyards on the Boston waterfront. He experimented with woodworking, making beautiful furniture. At age 18, he handcrafted a grandfather clock from 55 pieces of mahogany. Korczak never took a lesson in art or sculpture, he studied the masters on his own and began sculpting in plaster and clay. At age 24, he used a coal chisel to carve his first bust of Judge Frederick Pickering Cabot, the famous Boston juvenile judge who had taken an interest in and encouraged Korczak as a boy in the foster system. Cabot’s philosophy was that what many delinquent children really needed was someone to believe in them and support them. Korczak never forgot. 

At age 31, another bust by Korczak won first prize at the 1939 World’s Fair. Korczak moved to New Britain, Connecticut, to begin life as a professional artist. Moving to West Hartford, Korczak launched a successful studio career doing commissioned sculpture throughout New England, Boston, and New York. When he realized that there was no memorial to the town’s native son, Noah Webster, he spearheaded a fund raising campaign, bought the materials and created the sculpture that still stands in front of the West Hartford Public Library. Two years later, he went to South Dakota to work on Gutzon Borglum’s Mount Rushmore project. That experience marked a turning point in his life. He came to realize that the Lakota people resented having the faces of four American presidents carved into their hills. He made a promise to the Lakota that one day he would return to commemorate a hero of the Lakota Sioux as well. In 1947, he returned to do just that.

Crazy Horse, as depicted by Korczak, is not an exact likeness, it’s more of an “Everyman” native Indian man, on horseback, pointing over the top of his horse in a southeasterly direction, to the land of the Lakota where many of his people died fighting for their land and way of life.

Three views of Crazy Horse: top is a close-up, next is a distance shot, third is a plaster cast of what the completed monument will look like by the artist Korczak Ziolkowski with the monument under construction in the background.

In addition to the memorial, there is the very impressive Indian Museum of North America, which houses collections from all tribes across the country, as well as The Indian University of North America. It’s a pretty impressive campus, and admission to the museum is free. We were very impressed with the size and scope of the museum and actually had to return another day to finish seeing it all.

I love this sculpture of a shawl dancer by Allen and Patty Eckmanmade entirely from paper.

After spending a week in the Black Hills, we moved a little farther south to Hot Springs, South Dakota. It’s amazing how many hot springs there are in this country! We’ve now been through several states that boast hot springs among their things-to-see. We haven’t bathed in a hot spring yet, because it seems every time we’re near one, it’s pretty hot outside and the thought of climbing into a hot bath doesn’t seem inviting! One day, we will try it. In the meantime, there are other things to see and do.

Hot Springs, SD, is the location of what is casually known as “the mammoth site.” This is a great story: a developer in 1974 was poised to build homes on a large tract of land that he purchased, when his excavator, George Hanson, turned up something that looked like a really large bone. Hanson, thankfully, stopped construction immediately and contacted four local universities, none of which was willing to come out and see what he had unearthed. Unwilling to give up, he and his son, who had taken some archeology classes at little Chadron State College in Nebraska, contacted a professor there who immediately went to see what they had found. A little more digging led the professor to believe that they had found the bones of three or four Colombian Mammoths. The development project was immediately abolished, and after more research was done, the developer donated the site to become the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs.

Excavation continued, and eventually a building was constructed around the site for protection. Archeologists have been able to ascertain that a deep sink hole had opened up about 140,000 years ago and filled with water. They believe, from fossil finds, that vegetation grew within the rim of the sink hole, fed by the water that had collected within. Mammoths, being vegetarians, were drawn to the lush green vegetation and some may have fallen into the sink hole as they attempted to graze. Once in the water surrounded by sheer limestone walls, those mammoths were unable to climb out. Over the next few million years, ash and blowing sand filled the sink hole leaving the remains of the mammoths trapped in the layers. To date, archeologists have found the bones of 61 Colombian Mammoths and 3 Wooly Mammoths. And excavation continues.

First thought upon entering: Wow!
Excavation continues.
Except for a few specimens which have been removed for research, they leave all bones and tusks exactly where they find them.
Those oval-shaped things near the center of the picture are teeth the size of shoeboxes!
Bob standing beside a juvenile Columbian Mammoth skeleton …
… and beside a replica of what a full-grown Columbian Mammoth would look like. Behind it is a replica of a much smaller Woolly Mammoth.

Needless to say, this was yet another highlight of our travels!

After leaving Hot Springs, we traveled south and then east through Nebraska. It wasn’t part of our original plan to visit Nebraska, but my daughter Laura booked a trip to Kansas City to visit her boyfriend, Jim, who took a job there. Being only two states away, it just seemed illogical not to head to Kansas City to see her! So, the next time we post will be from a more easterly point. Until then, I hope everyone stays cool, dry and flame-free from the excessive heat, hurricanes and wildfires that are plaguing this country right now!

Abandoned root cellar near Keystone, SD.
On the side of the road near Pringle, SD.
Pile of old bikes … art installation? In Pringle, SD.
Another beautiful sunset, Hot Springs, SD.

South Dakota – Unexpectedly Interesting

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Where to begin with South Dakota? This is not a state that was ever on my radar for travel until we started RVing, and then we started hearing about how beautiful and interesting it is. The past 3 years, we traveled in the winter which is NOT the season to head here since they can get 70” of snow. When we left Connecticut in June this time, we knew we had to head for South Dakota.

First stop was Sioux Falls, the largest city in South Dakota with a population of about 190,000. That’s about 10,000 more people than Providence, but while the latter is condensed in about 18 square miles, Sioux Falls is 78 square miles large! What a neat city it is, too! We were in a state park about 20 minutes from the downtown area, and encountered no traffic at all, driving in. As a matter of fact, if we turned right out of our campground, we could take the three-mile dirt road that got us into the city faster!

The dirt road, East Maple Street, that took us from our campground to the city of Sioux Falls.

Our main reason for stopping here was to take care of some maintenance issues. First, our A/C quit on us. We’d been relying on fans to get us across the country in 90+ degree heat, and some repair shops told us we’d have to wait until August or September. Schapps RV Traveland in Sioux Falls offered us the earliest appointment, was happy to take care of the warranty paperwork and, most importantly, fixed the problem. We were on our way with no bill at all, and we’re grateful to them for taking good care of us.

The Honda made up for the motorhome’s $0 bill. Our emergency brake cable had broken and Bob, who is the handiest man I know with plenty of car repair knowledge, was unable to repair it himself or even put a bandaid on it until we got to the shop. We had no choice but to tow it from Victoria, Minnesota, where the failure occurred, to the Ford dealer in Sioux Falls. You could hear the cable banging around in it’s housing and I knew it would be bad. We ended up with quite the unexpected bill for this, but we know that as full-timers things like this are bound to happen once in a while. Let’s hope we got it out of our system early in the game!

So, we had time to explore the city, and it really quite nice. The downtown historic district area of South Phillips Avenue has tons of shops, restaurants, salons and an art installation showcasing sculptures from artists around the country. We enjoyed the stroll and breakfast at a local bistro, Josiah’s Coffee, Cafe and Bakery.

The best part of our Sioux Falls stop was seeing our friends Dawn, Doyle and Winky, who we met last winter in San Antonio. Dawn and Doyle recently sold their home in Alabama and became full-timers. They had just left the San Juan Islands in Washington state and were heading for Michigan’s upper peninsula. We loved catching up and helping to celebrate Doyle’s birthday and look forward to more fun when we see them in San Antonio this winter.

Dawn, Doyle, Louise and Bob; Dawn and Bob practice guitar together.

We made a quick stop in the tiny town of Chamberlain on the banks of the Missouri River, then headed for the Badlands.

We’d been looking forward to this stop since the start of the trip. We weren’t just coming here for the Badlands, we were coming to visit Rene, the daughter of Bob’s best friend. A culinary school graduate, Rene has had the travel bug at least since college. After graduation, she treated herself to a trip to Europe and has been itching to travel ever since. She scratched that itch a few years ago by taking a six-month position at Deadhorse Camp in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska on the Arctic sea where she whipped up all kinds of delicious baked delights for the truckers and loggers who stopped to eat at the camp. Now, Rene has taken a summer position at the Badlands where she manages the front desk at the lodge. She’s doing a great job, getting to see the country, making friends and building skill sets. We’re so glad that we’ve been able to spend time with her!

Visiting Rene was absolutely the highlight of this stop!

As for the Badlands … wow! The striking rock formations got their start about 75 million years ago when there was a shallow sea covering this portion of what is now North America. Over the course of millions of years, various types of sediment mixed with volcanic ash to create layers of shale, limestone and clay as well as vegetation that was covered by ash. Eventually, with the movement of tectonic plates, the earth began to push upwards and the sea began to disappear. As a sea became rivers, then streams, erosion of this very fragile rock wore it away causing the folds, fissures and formations that are visible now. Erosion continues at the rate of about one inch per year. Compare that to the erosion rate of the Black Hills in far west South Dakota, which is about one inch per 100,000 years! Someday, the Badlands will disappear completely.

The Western Interior Seaway covered this entire section of the continent millions of years ago.
Various images of the terrain in the Badlands showing layers of sediment.
I always love rocks that look like “things,” in this case, Alfred Hitchcock and Cruella de Vil!
There must be millions of prairie dogs here, and you can see millions of prairie dog dens as you drive.
Sunset at the Badlands through smokey air from the Oregon wildfires 1,300 miles west.

There is not much in the way of wildlife in the Badlands because it’s a pretty harsh landscape with little water. Bighorn sheep, mule deer, a small herd of bison, porcupines, snakes (including rattlesnakes) and a few hearty birds are pretty much all you’ll see. And the bighorn sheep are a pretty common sight — they almost seem to come out and pose for the cameras.

Wildlife, from top left going clockwise: Prairie dog, cliff sparrow, bison, bighorn sheep, mule deer and magpies.
Bighorn sheep coming down the rocks. Look at the narrow ledge he landed on!

The RV park we’re in is in a great location … we’re 3 miles from the Badlands North entrance and less than a mile from Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, which educates about the Cold War and pays tribute to the tens of thousands of women and men who worked on the Minuteman project in all of its facets as well as the United States citizens who prepared for nuclear holocaust and lived in fear of the end of the world. It’s a small but well-planned exhibit with a very interesting 30-minute film. A few miles down I-90 is the Delta-09 Silo containing a decommissioned missile which anyone can peer down into. Also nearby is Delta-01 Silo where they take one small group of six persons each day down an elevator into the control chamber. Get tickets well in advance for that — there were none available the week we stayed here.

Bob leaning against the 5 ton door to the Delta-09 missile silo. Each of the 1,000 missiles planted in the Great Plains carried a 1.2 megaton nuclear warhead.

And so we’ll finish up our week in the Badlands, enjoy Rene’s company, and then continue westward!

Corn, Corn, Soybeans, Corn

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Once you clear Joliet when traveling west through Illinois, you find yourself in the corn belt. I’ve heard people talk about driving through states like Iowa or Kansas: “it’s just a lot of corn.” Well, that is an understatement! We have never seen so much corn in our lives! It’s more than acres upon acres, even more than mile after mile. It’s really difficult to describe. From the passenger seat, I kept trying to capture the vastness of the corn fields through the window and it was just impossible. Even this picture, which I found on the internet, doesn’t really do it justice.

If it’s not corn growing in the fields, it’s soybeans. I’d say maybe one field of soybeans for every three of corn. There aren’t really a lot of cattle or dairy farms out here because the land is devoted to growing these two crops. In Iowa, there are currently 86,900 farms, most of which are family owned (only 3% are corporate). Around 90% of Iowa is farmland. In 2019, Iowa farms harvested around 2.5 billion bushels of corn from 13.1 million acres of land. It isn’t the sweet corn we wait patiently for every summer, this is “field corn,” primarily used for livestock feed, ethanol production and manufacturing, as well as corn cereal, corn starch, corn oil and high fructose corn syrup. Corn is in more than 4,000 other manufactured products like shampoo, toothpaste, chewing gum, marshmallows, crayons and paper. I won’t even get into how much corn is exported. In 2020, corn production in the United States was a $75 billion industry and in Iowa the majority of farmers are over the age of 60; only 9% are under age 35, which is a real concern — who will continue to farm this land in the future? If young people don’t become farmers, who will grow America’s crops? Will we end up buying them from other countries?

We have been traveling for a few days past the corn. Looking at this map of the corn belt, the red dot farthest to the right is Joliet, Illinois. You can follow the red dots and arrows west along our approximate route. We’ve visited Tiffin, Iowa (just outside Iowa City), then northwest to Mason City, Iowa, further northwest to Victoria, Minnesota, back down southwest to Jackson, Minnesota and finally landing in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Although this map illustrates the amount of corn production, you can also consider it a reflection of the density of corn fields.

Hard to see, but connecting the dots from right to left: Joliet, IL, Tiffin, IA, Mason City, IA, Victoria, MN, Jackson, MN, and Sioux Falls, SD.

The Iowa City area was a real surprise. It’s a good sized city, but there are no high-rise buildings so it looks like the midwestern city you’ve seen in geography books, sort of caught in time. It’s growing, though. That’s evidenced by the interstate construction taking commuters to a lot of new housing and retail developments in neighboring towns.

Just outside of Iowa City is possibly the most beautiful park we’ve camped in yet. I know, I said that about Letchworth! F.W. Kent Park is equally beautiful, but in a different way. This is tallgrass prairie, where the rolling hills used to grow tall grasses and wildflowers that thrived on the rain and snow melt. F.W. Kent Park is over 1,000 acres of rolling prairie with a lake and nine miles of hiking and biking trails. It’s incredibly well-maintained. There’s an accessible fishing dock, a beach, multiple private picnic pavilions, a developed walking path around the lake with historic bridges and an 84-site campground that is entirely first-come, first-served with electricity (no water at the sites) at a cost of $20 per night. It was just beautiful! I booked only one night here, and am sorry that I didn’t book a week. We’ll definitely visit this park again!

The pond at F.W. Kent Park, Tiffin, IA.
One of seven historic bridges that were moved from other parts of Iowa to this park.
Our campsite at sunset.

Mason City, Iowa, was just an overnight Walmart stop … a place to get some sleep for free before moving along. Just before departing the next morning, I happened to take a look at one of our favorite websites, Atlas Obscura, to see if there were any sites worth seeing nearby. Believe it or not, we were about five miles from the site of the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and The Big Bopper! There’s a memorial set up on the side of a gravel road beside the corn field, and about ¼ mile into the field is another memorial at the actual crash site. The field is still privately owned and they still grow corn, but there is a path to the memorial. We couldn’t leave Mason City without paying our respects!

Memorial to Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper,
the day the music died.

You might wonder why we bothered to jag northward into Minnesota. We were here to see Paisley Park, the home and recording studio of Prince.

I’d never been a huge fan of Prince’s music … I liked a couple of songs, but most weren’t my cup of tea. Then, in 2013 some friends invited me to a concert of his in Connecticut. We ended up in the seventh row center. I have to say that Prince put on the most entertaining concert I’ve ever seen. He’s an incredibly talented guitarist, band leader, dancer and showman. I am very glad that I got to see him live.

This past spring, we caught a 60-Minutes story about Paisley Park, Prince’s studio outside Minneapolis and, more interestingly, his vault which is supposed to contain somewhere between 7,000 and 8,000 songs that he has written and, in many instances, recorded. We were curious and wanted to learn more. The story of Prince is so much more than that crazy artist who dropped his real name and used a symbol — the guy really was a musical genius. He played almost every instrument on his recordings, he wrote the songs, arranged, mixed, edited and produced them all. He wrote songs under pseudonyms so that nobody would know it was him, songs for Patti LaBelle, Cyndi Lauper, Chaka Khan, Madonna, even Kenny Rogers. You wouldn’t have known it by looking at him or watching him perform, but he was only a year younger than me. He was obsessed with looking youthful and worked hard at it. It’s such a shame that he fell victim to opioid addiction as so many others have.

When I looked at Atlas Obscura a couple of months ago and realized that we would be passing just an hour or so from Paisley Park, there was no question that we would stop and check it out. This is a 55,000 square foot facility that looks more like a commercial building than a home and studio. We toured the first level which comprised 4 recording studios, offices, a basketball court/dance rehearsal studio, a sound stage and nightclub where he would occasionally invite the public for private concerts. Security was incredibly tight, with tall fencing around the perimeter, guards, etc. They even made us turn off our phones and place them into little locked bags which were unlocked just before we left the building. Needless to say, it was pretty interesting.

Clockwise from top: Exterior of Paisley Park, entrance to first floor recording studios, and the nightclub where he’d perform for neighbors and the public for free.
Standing only 5’3” tall, Prince wore a lot of costumes with long coats to give an illusion of height. He also almost always wore high heels. Hard to see in the bottom picture, but this is how his security detail got him into concert venues: he sat on a little bench in an empty wardrobe locker and they wheeled him in!

While in Victoria, we stayed in a large and lovely park called Lake Auburn/Carter Park Preserve. The park is huge with miles of trails for hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding plus a beautiful paved bike path and a 27-acre totally fenced dog park where Tessa could run free. The campground only provides electricity at sites, bring your own water or fill up at a community spigot. This is the first campground we’ve ever been to that does not provide a shower house for campers! So, while it’s a lovely park, plan accordingly!

Tessa enjoying the huge dog park and relaxing at our campsite.

We left Victoria and headed back southwesterly to Jackson, Minnesota, for a Harvest Host stay. Fort Belmont is a recreated prairie fort that was used by civilians in the mid 1800’s when they were threatened with attacks by Indians. This was not a military fort. We were met by Doug, who was beyond friendly and gave us a personal one-on-one tour of the museum complex. All of the buildings on the property were lifted off their foundations in other parts of town and relocated here on flatbeds except the sod house, which was built by historians. It’s a pretty cool place that I recommend to our Harvest Host RV friends, especially those interested in history.

Clockwise from top: Civilian fort and blacksmith’s shop, the church which was moved on a huge flatbed, and sod house.

There was a bonus to staying at Fort Belmont … a music festival! The Rhythm on the River festival was a day-long concert by various local artists. Although we had reservations at a campground to get to, we made sure we stuck around for a couple hours of live music!

Rhythm on the River Music Festival.

And, finally, we arrived in South Dakota, which has been our first goal of this trip! We’ll be touring this state for a few weeks, so until the next blog post . . . Be well!

Not Our First Rodeo

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It feels like a long time since we visited upstate New York, but it’s been just over two weeks. That shows you how experiences can matter more than dates on a calendar!

We left beautiful Letchworth State Park and continued west. We’ve been enjoying traveling on local roads instead of the interstates. Sure, it takes longer to get to your destination, but you can relax more on the drive and see so much more along the way. We traveled on route 20 along the southern shore of Lake Erie through western New York, the Pennsylvania panhandle (I never realized that PA had a panhandle before), Ohio and Indiana. Yes, we’ve been on the move!

Our first stop was a Harvest Host called Arundel Cellars & Brewing in a town called North East, PA. (That could get confusing … “Where are you from?” “North East, PA.” “But, what town?” “North East.” Sort of like Who’s on first!) Usually, when you arrive at a Harvest Host there is a very brief sign-in procedure followed by instructions on the best place to park for the night and an invitation to go in for some refreshment. When I entered this place, there was a woman behind the bar, so I stepped forward and introduced myself: “Hi! We’re your Harvest Host guests for this evening!” She seemed a little frazzled and detached and replied, “I’m a little busy right now, so … you can just drive out past the dumpsters and there’s a field out there. Park anywhere out there.” 

Since this isn’t our first rodeo, we knew better than to blindly drive our class A motorhome with an attached car down a narrow dirt road and into an unexplored field! Besides, there was already another class A that had arrived ahead of us and they were not in the field, they were in the parking lot off to the side. We decided to park near them and take the dog for a walk down the dirt road to investigate. 

Before I go further, you should know that RVing and trains are a running joke between the two of us. Its amazing how many campgrounds and RV parks are built near railroad tracks. We’ve gotten used to hearing the occasional train rumble by at night, we’ll hear the horn and go right back to sleep. So, when we stepped out of the motorhome at Arundel and the first thing that happened was the very loud “WHAAAAAAA-wa-WHAAAAAAAAA” of an approaching train, we started laughing. We walked down the dirt road past the dumpsters and found ourselves walking toward the field and the train tracks! As we walked, another train announced itself and passed. Within the first 15 minutes of our arrival, we counted SIX trains! 

The field looked soft, unmowed, sloped down from the dirt road and there was a hidden culvert pipe that anyone could get stuck on. That field was a hard no for us! We would have been calling a tow truck to pull us out of there the next morning! Plus, instead of being 600 feet from the tracks, we would have been 100 feet. No, thank you! We stayed put in the parking lot. 

Fortunately, the train activity slowed down at night. We tasted some of Arundel’s offerings, had a bite to eat and managed to sleep fairly well that night. The next morning we moved on to another Harvest Host location.

Rainbow Farm in Madison, Ohio, is a vegetable and fruit farm with a cute little market store. It’s in an interesting location, tucked into a neighborhood, their fields go way back with a dirt road winding it’s way past pick-your-own currants, gooseberries and strawberries. We were parked between fields of newly-planted strawberries and pepper plants just starting to blossom. In front of us were squash and pumpkins, and we could see a blueberry patch a little farther up the road still maturing. A couple of other rigs arrived and were parked in a different part of the field so everyone had space. We watched the field hands lay irrigation pipe while the baby Killdeer birds chased their parents down the rows begging for food. It was pretty peaceful. I visited the farm store and bought some fresh eggs, but it was too early in the season to be able to stock up on fresh veggies. After a leisurely breakfast the next morning, we hit the road.

Most of the time, our campground stops are good, but now and then there is a disappointment. Our next stop was one of those. East Harbor State Park sits on a peninsula just east of Toledo, Ohio. It juts out into Lake Erie and boasts a few hundred level asphalt campsites, a beach, a dog beach and a hiking trail along the lakeshore. Because of its location, this park is very popular and gets booked quickly, so I had spent a good amount of time searching for the right site for our class A. I often don’t have much to go on … I read all the reviews I can find, look at any campground maps and photos I can find online and use Google Earth to see what the sites look like from above. Sometimes, unfortunately, that just isn’t enough.

We arrived at the campground two hours early because I mistakenly read that check-in time was 1pm … wrong, that’s check OUT time. The gatekeeper told us that we’d have to wait until he received word that our site was ready. Understandable. While we waited, I went out for groceries while Bob took Tessa for a walk. 

When I rejoined Bob, the rain started … pouring rain! Of course, that was when we were told we could proceed to our site! We arrived at our site only to discover that it pitched down 12” making the site impossible for us to use. (We would have had to park our rear wheels on top of several leveling blocks, and we are not willing to use that many blocks.) Fortunately, the woman in the office was super helpful and we were able to move to a site that was much flatter.

Ultimately, although we had booked two nights at this campground, we left after one. There were just too many things wrong at this place. The sites were narrow, the fire rings were very close to the neighbor’s rig, our walk on the lakeside path was a mine-field of goose poop, we tried and tried but never did find the dog beach. Our neighbor on one side had parked right up next to our site and when Bob knocked on his door asking him to move it, he was told “not until it stops raining” (we had been standing out in the rain trying to figure out how to get into the site, so that didn’t fly with us). The deciding factor was when our other neighbor’s fire, on a very humid night (humidity not allowing the smoke to rise into the atmosphere) smoked us out forcing us to close our windows for the entire night … East Harbor State Park just wasn’t for us.

Our neighbor’s fire ring about 12 feet from our windows.

Fortunately, most of our campground experiences are positive, or at least neutral. We rarely find ourselves in a park that we really don’t care for. This was one of the rare instances.

We moved on, pushing west through Ohio. Fun fact: Ohio’s interstate rest areas have RV parking lots with about a dozen spaces and electric hookups! If you’re looking for a place to sleep, for $20 you can plug in, get something to eat and a good night’s sleep without even leaving the highway. It worked well for us, and the next day we arrived in Elkhart, Indiana.

Elkhart is the RV Capital of the World. Many of the major RV manufacturers have factories there, as well as all the smaller companies that supply parts. We saw flatbed trucks filled with RV doors, axles and chassis frames. The reason we came here was to replace the sofa in our motorhome, which was starting to deteriorate. We purchased two swivel recliners from Bradd & Hall furniture. The recliners are made by Lambright, which is an Amish furniture making outfit in nearby Shipshewana, Indiana, where there is a large Amish community. We love the recliners! We also had a rock chip fixed by the RV Glass business that was right next to Bradd & Hall, so Elkhart is sort of a one-stop shopping place for everything RV related.

Out with the old, in with the new!

We really enjoyed our stay at Elkhart Campground. It was clean, well-maintained, and the staff was very accommodating when I asked if they could relocate us from a site in full sun to a site with trees. Elkhart also has an RV museum, which was a lot of fun to explore.

The first “motorhome” – 1916 “Telescoping Apartment” on a 1915 Model A Ford. The kitchen and wardrobe compartments “telescoped” out from the sleeping compartment. Warm water for a shower was produced by radiator heat for the engine. The unit sold for $100.

Our last night in Elkhart, Bob returned from walking the dog to say that he had met a couple who invited us over to sit outside and strum guitars. It could have been the craft beers we were sharing, or the great music and conversation, or it could be that there are some people you just “click” with. We had a great time meeting Priscilla and Scott! We found that we have a lot in common. The funniest thing was when we discussed our various stays with Harvest Hosts, and Priscilla said that they had recently stayed at a winery where a previous guest had posted to be careful if they tell you to park in the field near the train tracks … that was Arundel Cellars and my review that she had read! LOL. We hope to meet up with Priscilla and Scott again on our travels.

Priscilla, Bob and Scott. It’s great making new friends!

We left Elkhart behind and continued west. On I-80 south of Chicago we crossed over a massive chasm that had been cut into the earth. It looked like a quarry, and a little research proved that it isn’t just any quarry, but one of the largest aggregate (i.e., sand & gravel) quarries in the world, Thornton Quarry. It was startling how large it was, and that the interstate crossed right over it. I tried to take pictures from the motorhome, but of course they didn’t do it justice, so here’s a bird’s eye view from Google Earth.

Still heading west, heading for the Hawkeye State! Stay tuned!