Sunday, June 29, 2008

Lewis & Clark -- A Beginning and an End

Monday, June 30, 2008 -- near Edwardsville, IL

Yesterday, Sunday, dodging rain showers and flooded roads, we found the point where, in May of 1804, the Corps of Discovery -- The L&C Gang, as I've been referring to them -- more or less formally began their trip into the unknown western lands of the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase. They had wintered over on land near the L&C Discovery Center at the mouth of a small stream known as Wood River, or Riviere DuBois at the time -- Camp River DuBois as one of them wrote in their journal. Because the formal transfer of the Louisiana Purchase hadn't taken place yet, they stayed for the winter, here, on the Illinois side of the Mississippi (the western edge of the United States at that time) close to the mouth of the Missouri River.

For the Gang, Camp DuBois was a beginning. For us, it was an end. Our beginning was at their destination -- the mouth of the Columbia River, where the Gang stayed during the winter of 1805 - 1806. The path led us back up the Columbia, past what is now Portland, OR. and Vancouver, WA., past Beacon Rock, through the Cascades into the much drier and desert-like high plains of Eastern Oregon and Washington. Near today's Pasco, WA., the path followed the Snake River to it's confluence with the Clearwater River at Lewiston, ID., then up past our campsite in Orofino, ID, beyond, and into the area, the high Weippe Prairie, where they were helped by the Nez Perce Indians. Then up and through the rugged Bitterroot Mountains, through Lolo Pass and down the hill, following Lolo Creek, to a flat clearing near the Bitterroot River where they camped to rest -- the place they called Travelers Rest. Travelers Rest is their only camp along their entire path that's been positively identified as the exact site.

After crossing the Continental Divide we again picked up the trail at Three Forks, MT. -- at the point the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallitin Rivers meet to form the Missouri. From this point, for the rest of our L&C Tour, we'd follow the Missouri River -- from beginning to end. We'd see the Gates of the Mountains, the Great Falls, and the confluence of the Missouri with the Yellowstone River. It was along the Yellowstone where we saw William Clark's name, carved into the rock at Pompey's Pillar by the man himself during the return trip in 1806 -- the only physical evidence that remains of their passing anywhere along the trail.

We saw what was left of the Mandan Villages in North Dakota, where the Gang built a small fort in order to survive the winter of 1804 -1805, and where they added the interpreter Charbonneau, his wife, Sacagawea, and their 4 month old son, Jean Baptiste to the group. We visited the grave site of Sgt. Charles Floyd, the only person to die during the entire duration of the expedition. We closely followed the river along the border of Iowa and Nebraska, then Kansas and Missouri before it turns eastward, cutting through it's namesake State before dumping into the Mississippi -- near the point they started in 1804... and where we're camped today as I write this.

The abilities and skills of each of the members, and the way they developed into a bonded unit, got them through the many difficulties and challenges encountered along the way. But they were also extremely lucky. Jefferson, of course, would say that luck is 92% preparation. On their own in the rugged and wild west, where a broken leg or a snake bite was a death sentence, they spent two winters in small shelters they build for themselves, they encountered grizzly bear and rattlesnakes, walked for miles on prickly pear cactus with only moccasins for their feet, suffered many illnesses, and dragged tons of goods over numerous portages. Their transportation was powered only by muscle, with a little help at times from wind and water. They were an amazing collection of people.

So that's it. Our trip took us about 60 days and we stayed in 20 different camps between the Pacific Ocean and here. We've learned a lot about the L&C Gang, about Jefferson and the politics at the time, about the different forces forming the west, about the native peoples who lived on this land for thousands of years.

What we learned about L&C and the Corps of Discovery has stimulated interest in learning more about some of it's key members. I think I'll be looking for biographies on John Ordway, Patrick Gass, John Colter, and a few others who's contributions are continuously mentioned in the journals. This handful of guys must have been the core of the corps. So many of the others faded into obscurity after the expedition and little is known about them.

Our sense of completion is joined by the question of "what's next?". It's good to have a project... a sense of mission and purpose. There are some ideas rolling around up there but for the next month or two we're going to reconnect with our Wisconsin Family and celebrate with Justin and Kaytlyn before we settle on the theme for the next leg of our exploration of the USA.

T

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Harry Truman, Citizen

Saturday, June 28, 2008 -- near Edwardsville, IL

Traveling and touring have taken most of my energy the past few days, but I now have a little time to get caught up on the blog. So here' goes.

We left the Omaha/Council Bluffs area this past Wednesday and made the easy drive down to the Kansas City area. As much as I don't like big towns we surely seem to be gravitating toward them during this part of the trip. Why Kansas City? It's on the Missouri River and if we're going to follow the L&C Gang back to their starting point we've got to be close to the river. But there really isn't much Lewis & Clark stuff here in the immediate KC area, so we shifted gears a little and decided to spend one day visiting the Harry Truman Library and Home in Independence, MO, now part of the bulging Kansas City Metroplex.

I found an RV park right in Independence called the Campus RV Park. It turned out to be the perfect place to stay... just an easy walk to the town square, Harry & Bess's home at 219 N. Delaware, and the Truman Library. We'd stay here again if we're back in the area. This was a short stay -- only two nights. As we near Wisconsin the bus-house is "smelling the barn".

About 10am on Thursday I found myself standing in Harry and Bess's home at 219 N. Delaware. It's been frozen in time, preserved by the National Park Service, pretty much as it was during their last years. An image I'll remember forever is the kitchen. I think more than any other room, the kitchen told me volumes about Harry. Even for the 50's and 60's, it was extremely unpretentious... the old green shiplap wainscoting, the wallpapered walls and ceiling, the single dim circular fluorescent light in the middle of the ceiling... the old kitchen sink with the drainboards on either side... the lack of counter space... the little table pushed up against a wall between two windows, just enough room for two, where they had breakfast and lunch every day. On that table was a toaster and a set of metal tongs.. the story goes that Bess never liked Harry using metal tongs to pull toast out of the toaster, for fear of electric shock. So she'd regularly replace the metal tongs with some wooden ones only to find the metal ones back a day or two later. The linoleum flooring was separating at a seam... right in the middle off the room. Instead of replacing the floor, Harry used roofing nails to stitch and secure the ragged edges.

Despite sounding like the simple life of a President prior to his public life, this was the life of Harry and Bess after Harry returned to Independence to live his last 20 years. After all the trappings of the Presidency, the most powerful leader in the world, hanging around with heads of state, Kings, Queens, traveling the globe, state dinners, having people ready to do anything he asked, go anywhere he asked... after all this, here's Harry and Bess, having breakfast in their little kitchen, Harry tugging a piece of toast out of the toaster with his metal tongs while Bess shakes her head.

When his stint as President was over in 1953 he said, "I tried never to forget who I was and where I'd come from and where I was going back to.... After nearly eight years in the White House and ten years in the Senate, I found myself right back where I started in Independence, Missouri."

Unlike some recent vacatees of the White House with big heads and inflated egos, who seem to believe that it was all about them personally, not the office of the Presidency, and have parlayed their public service into a personal wealth accumulation program, Harry wanted to go back to his previous life -- the life he valued more than any other.

Every day, Harry would take his morning constitutional... his legendary daily walk around the town of Independence. Every night, after dinner, he'd sit with Bess in their home library and read. There was a TV in the home, sort of tucked off in a corner, with no chairs facing it, and it was rarely used. He was a voracious reader; his home library is packed with books, as is his office at the Truman Library. After the Truman Library was finished in 1957 he'd walk to his office there most days. That office is still maintained as it was when he died in 1972.

We walked the streets of Independence that day, did the walking tour of the neighborhood, we visited the Library and Museum, had an ice cream cone at the Clinton Drug Store where Harry had his first job. It was one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling days we've spent recently. It isn't often you get this kind of glimpse into the life of someone that did what he did.

Days like today inspire me to read and learn more about people and events in history. I think we'll delay the Direct TV subscription another year.

T

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Council Bluffs

Tuesday, June 24, 2008 -- Council Bluffs, IA

The first Indians the Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery met were six Oto and Missouri Chiefs who were accompanied by a contingent of warriors. The meeting, or council, was friendly and took place in this area, actually about 20 miles north of Omaha, in early August 1804. Hills or "bluffs" line this part of the river and eventually the entire area became known as the Council Bluffs. But the moniker only stuck with the town across the Missouri from Omaha -- where we're now staying.

As he would do whenever he met with Indians along the way, Meriwether Lewis explained that these lands are now a part of the United States, that they, the Indian tribes, had a new "Father" in Washington, and that it was the new governments desire to make friends with the native peoples, to trade with them, and it wanted them to become a peaceful part of this new nation. The way it turned out, however, was a different kind of "bluff".

Unfortunately, the change that would befall the Indians during the following 75 years -- one man's lifetime -- was a sad, wrenching, jarring change, that would end a way of life that existed and evolved for thousands of years. The Indian population would be decimated, mostly by European diseases for which they had no immunity. Small Pox, for example, would progress through an Indian village and maybe only 10 or 20 percent of them would survive. Many others chose to fight for their way of life and died doing so... how many of us would have the strength and nobility to do the same?

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We're beginning to notice a correlation between being close to a bigger city and the number of weird people in the campground. This really applies only to public campgrounds -- state parks in particular. The park we're at now is an easy bike ride from Council Bluffs, IA and I can see and count the number of windows in the tallest building in downtown Omaha from my campsite here at Lake Manawa -- an Iowa State Park. We're close to a lot of people.

The park is populated by one weirds-mobile after another. Here's an example:

Sunday night both Dar and I are sleeping away. It's now summer and we like sleeping with the windows open. Dar is awakened by noise -- the sound of car-doors, coolers, and other things slamming. What's going on?? She looks out her little window -- the one right next to her head. It's the guy in the site across the road from us... nervously and jerkily walking around his campsite... obviously busy doing something. What's he doing?? The moon was bright and she was able to see better as her eyes adjusted. This guy is filling his "smokey joe" barbecue with charcoal -- and not being quiet about it. I should add that he's not a young kid... he's got his family including three kids with him, but they're not part of the activity at this point.

Dar thinks "what the heck time is it anyway??" It turns out to be 3:30am... that's right, 3:(friggin')30 O'clock in the MORNING!

Then she smells the scent of charcoal lighter and the odor of charcoal being lit and starting to burn. Even if you had a hankering for a hot dog at 3AM in a public campground, wouldn't you have the common courtesy to be quiet about it??? Not this guy!

Well, now Dar is in total disbelief and can't get back to sleep. She keeps watching and he keeps cooking whatever it was. About two hours later I wake up and wonder what's going on and get an ear-full. All I know is that I had a yen for a hot-dog for breakfast and didn't know why.

I've got other stories to tell about our stay here, but I don't want to drag this on further. I think we'll be much more careful before staying at public campgrounds near big cities in the future.

T

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Floyd's Bluff

Saturday, June 21, 2008 -- just south of Sioux City, IA

The most notable thing to happen to the L&C Gang in this part of the country was the death of one of their most capable sergeants, Charles Floyd. He had become very sick in late July 1804, started feeling a little better, but then died on August 20th. No one can be certain but the best guess is that he died from a ruptured appendix -- a malady that had no cure in those days. If that's what it was he would have died wherever he was. One of the most amazing facts about the Lewis & Clark Expedition is that Floyd's death was the ONLY casualty from beginning to end. They survived disease, extreme temperatures and weather, accidents, encounters with less than friendly Indians, wild animals, and more. While they were very good at living and surviving in the wild, they were also very lucky.

The Corps of Discovery was traveling north and west up the Missouri on their way into the heart of the vast western lands known as Louisiana. During July and August of 1804, they were in this area where the river today forms the border between Nebraska and Iowa. In those days the river was a slow meandering stream that would change course from year to year as spring floods cut new channels and cut through meanders or ox-bows. As I write, we're camped on a small lake -- Brown's Lake -- that was part of the Missouri in 1804, but was subsequently cut-off as the river cut a new channel. There are a number of lakes formed this way near here.

We're at Bigelow Park on Brown's Lake, a small county park about 12 miles south of Sioux City. When we moved in on Thursday, the park was mostly empty. On Friday, it filled up completely -- all 40 campsites. A literal bee-hive of activity, we've enjoyed our neighbors and have spent hours sitting around the picnic table talking and getting to know them. They're good Midwestern folk -- not pretentious at all -- just people that work hard and want to enjoy a couple days at the lake over the weekend. At night, as the sun sets and the wind dies to nothing, the smell of campfires reinforces that we're at a campground, not an RV Park. And that's the way we like it.

During the past two days we visited a number of L&C sites. There's a very good L&C Interpretive Center along the river in Sioux City. There's a monument to Charles Floyd on a bluff about 200 yards from where he was first buried in 1804. Then south of our campsite we visited the Lewis & Clark State Park where there's a new Interpretive Center being built that will house reproductions of the boats of the expedition. Even though the building still is unfinished, two of the boats were tied up at a nearby dock and were available for inspection.

The primary vessel of the Corps was a 55 foot long keelboat, a flat-bottomed boat often referred to as the "barge" by Lewis. Two other boats called "pirogues" were about 40 feet long. They also used various canoes either traded for from Indians or made in "dug-out" fashion from logs.

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Photo: A replica of the 55 foot long keelboat.

The Missouri River is over 2500 miles long and the Corps of Discovery, as they trekked west, traveled it's entire length... moving against the current. There was no mechanized power, only muscle and, occasionally, wind. The primary means of moving these boats upstream was called "cordelling", pulling a boat upstream by a rope tied to the boat's mast. The L&C Gang had no animals to pull the boats at this stage of their journey so they had to do it themselves. Pulling from the shoreline if possible or by walking in the river if necessary, they'd still make 10 miles or more on most days. These were tough dudes.

Before I close this entry, another comment on Charles Floyd. This old boy may have traveled more after he died than before, as he was buried at least 5 times over the years. In 1804, he was buried by the Gang on top a bluff alongside the river just south of Sioux City. On the Corps return downriver in 1806, they found that wild animals had dug up the grave and scattered the remains. They re-buried what they could. Some 50 years later the river had taken it's toll on the bluff, eating away the mostly sandy soil and exposing the grave again. Citizens collected the remains and buried them about 200 yards east of the original bluff. After another intermediate move what was left of old Floyd was finally buried under a new monument in 1901. Near as I can tell, the original bluff which is long gone was right in the path of I-29.

Tomorrow we're planning a short move to the Omaha area.

T

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Pure Mid-America Corn

Thursday, June 19, 2008 -- Mitchell, SD

Here we are in Mitchell, SD. I had originally routed us closer to the Missouri by taking either 281 or 81 south from the I-90, going through Yankton, across the Missouri, and staying at a Corps of Engineers park on the south side of the river in Nebraska.

That was not to be however. A couple days ago we heard from another camper that the bridge in Yankton was being replaced and they had restrictions on travel over the old bridge. Through the magic of the internet I was able to find that the bridge wasn't only restricted, it was closed! They'd found significant deterioration in the structure of the old thing and weren't allowing any use until they figured out what to do -- if anything.

My next thought was to travel west a bit from Yankton and take the road over the dam to the south side. The other Corps dams we've been to during the past few weeks all have a substantial road right on top the dam that could easily handle our little camper. But, for whatever reason, this dam -- Gavins Point Dam -- is restricted to vehicles under 10 tons gross weight. We're something like 16 tons excluding the weight of the toad.

Yes, we could have stayed someplace on the north side of the river, but another thought entered the discussion. If we stayed on I-90 we could overnight in Mitchell and visit the only Corn Palace that exists anywhere in the world! I know, it sounds corny. But this "a-maize-ing" place is something you won't find at Disney or Southern California or along the voguish East Coast. This is purely Mid-America.

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There's been a Corn Palace in Mitchell since the late 1800's. Originally built to hype South Dakota as the new farming mecca and to encourage migration into the State, the building known as the Corn Palace today is actually the third iteration. The first and second were built entirely of wood and were really just corn-shells -- dirt floors, no electricity -- just big decorated barns. The current building is more permanent. Built in the early 1920's out of concrete and steel, it serves as the Mitchell Civic Center where basketball games, conventions, large meetings, plays, and graduations are held. For almost 85 years old it's holding up well.

Every summer a small army of young people are hired to redecorate the entire outside of the building. Large murals are the focus and each year's theme is different. The only materials used are corn and other grains and grasses that grow in South Dakota. Almost all the materials used are grown on one nearby farm. The project could be compared to putting together a huge float for the Pasadena Rose Parade -- except this float doesn't move and corn is used instead of roses. About a dozen varieties of corn are used for their different colors and shades, and each of about 275,000 ears of corn are cut in half length-wise and nailed to the side of the building, following the pattern and instructions from the artist. It's a work in progress this time of the year and you don't get the full impact of the place until later in the summer.

If you're "corn-fused" as to why we'd want to see this place, let me explain. First, my Grandfather, who lived from 1885 until 1969, always talked about seeing the Corn Palace as a young man. It was something special for him and that fact alone made it worth the stop. But Dar and I also stopped here in the early 1970's -- about 35 years ago -- on our way to Yellowstone. And, like that spot with the big rocks along the Gallatin River in Montana, we had to check out how our memories corresponded with reality.

The Corn Palace changed a lot less than that spot along the Gallatin.

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What else do you have for lunch when visiting the world's only Corn Palace?

Today, Thursday, we're off again. We're hoping a small county park just south of Sioux City Iowa will work for us. If it does we'll stay through the weekend.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Open Space and Restroom Signs

Tuesday, June 17, 2008
More Musings From the Road

Solitude
Gertrude Stein wrote, “In the United States, there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is.”

As I travel through the West I'm continually in awe at all the land where nobody is. Mile after mile with no one around, no homes or farms or ranches. I'm sure most of it is part of some farm or ranch, but there's no one around... maybe a few pronghorn antelope or deer... but no people.

Some people need to be busy... need to have others around all the time... need to be constantly engaged in some kind of social activity. Others soak in the space and the "alone-ness", and revel in it. To be alone with your own thoughts; your own agenda... how wonderful that can be. The ideal is probably some mixture of the two, but in our society solitude is certainly under-appreciated.

From the journals of a soldier at Fort Buford in the late 1860's -- at the confluence of the Yellowstone and the Missouri -- near present day Williston ND... as winter approached and the river froze over preventing any further river transportation, the ONLY transportation, until spring... they looked forward to the "splendid solitude".

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Restroom Signs in Scotland
The other day, as I waited for my dearest to emerge from a public restroom facility, I took notice of the signage that was used to differentiate between the mens side and the womens side. They were those international symbols that showed the frontal silhouette of a man and a woman... the only real difference being the dress or skirt on the woman, and pants on the man. I'm sure you've all seen them.

But what do they use in Scotland... the land where even men wear dresses, or, as they're known over there, kilts?

I've got to believe there's a lot of confusion.

Thom

Monday, June 16, 2008

Pierre, South Dakota

Monday, June 16, 2008 -- Pierre, SD

Before I get started, let me bring up the pronunciation of the name of the city we're near... Pierre. Despite looking like it should be "Pea'-air", it's pronounced by locals (and those in the know) as "Peer". Don't ask why. That's just the correct South Dakota pronunciation and I wasn't able to find anyone that could explain it to me. But because there are only 15,000 people in the whole dang town, I'm sure there are more people in the USA pronouncing it wrong than there are saying it right. So what's right and what's wrong anyway??

After one of our longer drives in recent memory -- 285 miles -- we arrived in Pierre later in the afternoon yesterday, Sunday. It took a little effort to find just the right campsite but once we did we were backed in, jacks down, slides out, and setting up house until I remembered we didn't fill our fresh water tank. A lot of these old Corps of Engineers parks have electricity, but no water right at your site. You've got to go to one of a few water spigots around the park and fill the tank of the camper before parking. Our fresh water tank is 105 gallons and we usually try to travel with only maybe 15 or 20 gallons -- just enough for basic needs while traveling. Today, we were running low and certainly had to add some. So everything had to go back to travel mode so we could get the necessary water on board.

Once settled in the site for the second time it was getting late and we were hungry. There's a small restaurant attached to a marina not far from the campsite and, at least tonight, the vote was unanimous. Dar rationalized the expenditure on the basis that it was Father's Day.

Speaking of Father's Day, both Dar and I had good conversations with our Dad's yesterday. I do find myself appreciating my Dad and Mom more and more as the years go by. The perspective I gain from added years and experience, of having gone through the complete father-cycle myself from birth to adulthood -- twice, and from wisdom and humility that seems to be correlated with age... I understand better now what a tough job it is and how well both my parents did. Thanks Dad and Mom. You are simply the best Dad and Mom in my world!

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Pierre is one of the smallest state capital cities in the USA... second only behind Montpelier, VT. It's only one of 5 state capitals not serviced by an interstate highway. It's the only one that sits right on a timezone boundary -- downtown Pierre is in Central Time, across the river in Fort Pierre and at our campground, it's Mountain Time. My suspicion is that most locals that live in the Mountain Time Zone near here probably are living by Central Time -- the same as Pierre. If so, this is clearly against all the rules and these people, if found out, could be in for some serious fines, and perhaps jail time. But I've also found that people in South Dakota, like those in other sparsely populated western states, pretty much do whatever they want to. And I do admire that spirit.

Today, Monday, after a quick trip to the grocery store to replenish our depleted stocks, we did a tour of the South Dakota Capitol Building. It's an impressive and handsome building, modeled after the Montana State Capitol in Helena. Though smaller than Capitol buildings I'm more familiar with -- Wisconsin and Illinois -- it's neat as a pin and feels official -- it exudes the importance of government.

We talked with another couple at the Capitol that was taking a year off to see all the National Parks and all the State Capitol buildings. I'd say they're putting on a lot of miles and rushing more than we've been. I got tired just talking with them. Wow.

Pierre has a series of biking/hiking paths along the river and around an island in the river just adjacent to downtown. After our Capitol visit, we pedaled around for a couple hours, then headed home to grill some vegetables and a pork loin. It was an exceptional end to a wonderful day.

Thom

Friday, June 13, 2008

Mandan Villages

Friday, June 13, 2008 -- Downstream Campground near Riverdale, ND

We took advantage of an all day rain on Wednesday to get caught up on paperwork and some inside chores around the bus-house. Then we designated Thursday, yesterday, as Lewis & Clark day.

In late October 1804, with winter approaching quickly, the L&C Gang arrived in this area, having spent the summer polling and dragging their boats upriver from St. Louis. Known as the Mandan Villages, this part of the northern plains held a series of villages that together had as many as 4 or 5 thousand Indians -- more people at the time than St. Louis or even Washington DC. It was a sort of trading crossroads on the northern prairie, where native tribes from all over the area would gather and trade what they had for what they needed, their surpluses for their shortages, their strengths for their weaknesses.

We're camped just a few miles away from the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn. If you've read this blog over the past few months, you'll know we've been to a bunch of similar museums along the way, or, as they're called today, Interpretive Centers -- most with a Lewis & Clark theme. I'm generally impressed with how well-done they are and the knowledge and passion of some of the people staffing them. We usually walk away with some new bits of knowledge as each one tends to focus on some local aspects of the expedition.

There were two tribes that made up the villages here: the Hidatsas and the Mandans -- both a friendly and peaceful people. Lewis & Clark knew of the existence of these villages before arriving, but in 1804 this was about the extent of knowledge about the west. Beyond this point, when they headed west in the Spring of 1805, they would travel into uncharted territory -- where no white man had ever gone before. But here, at least, they knew they'd have a place to spend the winter among friendly people.

Besides the Interpretive Center, we also visited a full-sized reproduction of Fort Mandan -- the fort built by the L&C Gang in November of '04 to be their quarters for the winter. Similar in design to Fort Clatsop on the Oregon Coast, the small structure was home to about 40 people during the tough winter that followed.

There are a few places in the area where evidence of the Mandan Villages is still visible. The dwelling of choice for these Indians was called the earth lodge -- earth covered domed structures about 40 feet in diameter that housed extended families of up to 20 or more. These structures were built mostly by the women as the guys were out hunting, playing sports, and keeping an eye out for danger (hmm, do you think we could have learned something from these people??). Earth lodges were sunk a few feet into the surrounding ground for better insulation from the elements and for the sod for the roofs. Where the earth lodges once stood now only circular depressions in the land remain. We walked through a field full of these depressions, where a thriving Indian village existed 200 years ago. We learned about their civilization and their culture. They'd been here for thousands and thousands of years. They didn't just live on the land. They were part of the land.

Thom

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Friendly Fulltimers

Friendly Fulltimers
Part of the "Life In 300 Square Feet" Series

I've noticed, during our first year on the road, that RVers, and fulltimers in particular are a VERY friendly bunch. Especially around parks that cater to those of the gypsy-variety, it's not uncommon to get to know all your neighbors within a few minutes of parking, putting down the jacks, and pulling out the slides.

They start to congregate as you're backing into your site, often offering suggestions... "a little more to the right... no, more to the left... no, STOP". Once parked, I've learned to keep the door closed (and locked) until we've got the basics of setting up house done. But once I open the door to hook up power, for example, we're inundated:

"Hey, Wisconsin, uh? Where 'ya from... in Wisconsin I mean? You know I have an uncle that lives in Occonomoc almost, just outside, you know. He's a big fan of Brett Farve's. Too bad he's retiring... Brett I mean. You know, I think he could come back yet... you know he hasn't officially resigned... in writing. Anything's possible you know. Hey, did you bring any cheddar cheese? Hey we're from South Dakota, not really from there, just the tags you know, no tax you know, we used to live in Kentucky, but sold the house, been fulltiming 7 years next September..."

Alright, I really like people and I love making connections with those doing the same thing we're doing. But what could possibly account for this overwhelming need to be so friendly... this gregariousness ... this desire to connect with others?

I've developed a theory, a hypothesis really, for all this warm sociable congeniality.

Simply put, after two people are cooped up together in three hundred square feet for hours or days at a time, they CAN'T WAIT to get out and talk to somebody, ANYBODY, NEW!

Being just a theory, I'm open to other explanations. But until I hear something better... It's my story and I'm stickin' with it.

Thom Hoch

Monday, June 9, 2008

Confluence of Yellowstone & Missouri Rivers

Monday, June 9, 2008 -- Williston, ND

Today we made the short drive from Prairie Acres RV Park near Williston to the Confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers. The State Historical Society of North Dakota has an interpretive center on high ground overlooking the point where the two rivers join. Today, the Yellowstone in particular was swelled from still melting snow and recent rainfall -- much of which we experienced when in Bozeman a couple weeks ago. The immediate area of the confluence is still natural and mostly undisturbed thanks to the US Army's use of the land as a fort and military reservation during the last half of the 19th century. If not for the Army it would have been a perfect place for a town.

Because the various river confluences along their way where so important to Lewis & Clark, and were so noted in their journals, we've made it a point to see as many of the important ones as possible. This one is even more interesting to us since we spent so much time along both of these rivers further upstream... the Yellowstone in Yellowstone Park and at Pompey's Pillar and the Missouri at Three Forks, Great Falls, and at the James Kipp Recreation Area. At this point, the Yellowstone is actually the larger of the two rivers. It's also the largest un-damed river in the USA.

The Confluence Interpretive Center also includes the historic site of Fort Buford about a half-mile down the road. Established in 1866 as a military post and supply depot, the fort lasted for 29 years. It also provided some measure of security to settlers and commercial ventures as they pushed west. Forts were often built along rivers as they were the main "roads" of the day. But as railroads flourished, the greater efficiency and reliability of rail travel pretty much killed reliance on the river. As that happened, Fort Buford went into decline and was eventually closed in 1895.

The most notable historic event to take place at Fort Buford was the official surrender of Sitting Bull in 1881. The original post headquarters building is one of the few structures that still exists and it was in this building that Sitting Bull threw in the towel.

Our guide around the fort was an actor named Arch who, when he's not working for the State Historical Society, portrays a number of historic characters in one-man shows. His passion for history coupled with a receptive and captive audience had him falling into character a number of times during our tour. What I anticipated would be an hour stop became three hours. But we both agreed it was a thoroughly enjoyable, unusual, and memorable stop.

About 4 miles up the Missouri from Fort Buford was the site of historic Fort Union. Fort Union was not a military fort, but a trading post where Indians would trade furs for trade goods such as beads, guns, blankets, knives, kettles, and cloth. For it's day it was designed and decorated to project an aura of grandeur and power. It existed from 1828 to 1867 -- so it pre-dated Fort Buford. In fact, many of the building materials used in Fort Union were scavenged and recycled to build Fort Buford.

All of this activity in the confluence area demonstrates how active the west was becoming in the years after the L&C Gang passed through here. With the fur industry seeing dollar signs and other settlers drawn by land and a chance at a fresh start, this was the century of explosive settlement of the west, of the promise of Manifest Destiny. All this activity would surely have happened with or without Lewis & Clark. But perhaps, at least in this iteration of history, the Corps of Discovery provided the spark that ignited the whole thing.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

What's Going On in the Showers?

What's Going On in the Showers?
Part of the "Life In 300 Square Feet" Series

What in the world is going on in the campground restroom and shower house every morning? This is one of those great unanswered questions that we, as first-year fulltimers have. Is it a card game? a meeting of some sort? people plotting the overthrow of the government?

I get up in the morning, usually with the sun. The first thing I do... (ok, maybe not the first thing)... is to make a pot of coffee. While coffee's brewing, fire up the computer and the internet router. Once coffee's brewed, pour a cup, punch up the list of blogs and news I like to read every morning, and read, sip coffee, and watch the goings-on around the campground.

Almost every morning, I see people... sometimes one or two and sometimes more... climb down out of their expensive campers and, with towel and some little bag in hand, head over to the public restroom and shower house building.

OK, what am I missing here? We have a lower end diesel pusher camper and ours came, no extra charge, with a complete bathroom. It's got a great shower, two bath sinks, a good reliable toilet, mirrors, cabinets -- and all of these things have one thing in common... they're mine. I know what's been going on with these fixtures, who's been using them, what diseases and maladies those using them might have. They're comfortable, you know how they function, and you know they're clean, and if they're not clean, it's your "not-clean".

I can only surmise that these people bought nice campers but chose to save a few bucks by ordering the fifth-wheel without bathroom fixtures. Or did they simply forget to ask and didn't realize until the check had cleared that there's no friggin toilet or shower in the motorhome? Huh?

I suppose it's possible that the bathroom fixtures are "in-op" -- not in a functioning condition -- busted. Or that they had been using the facilities normally until the tanks filled up and they haven't figured out how to dump yet? But it seems to be so many people. I don't think the "busted fixture" or "full tank" hypothesis are going to hold water. {rim shot} Wouldn't anybody prefer to use their own bathroom fixtures rather than those in a public restroom?

So my question remains... What's going on in the restroom and shower house every morning?

Thom

Saturday, June 7, 2008

The Fort Peck Experience

Saturday, June 07, 2008 -- Fort Peck, MT

As I wrote in an earlier post, Fort Peck is a dam, a lake, and a town. We've been here going on 5 days and we're getting to know the area pretty well. Here's a run-down of the high points.

The dam, authorized by FDR and the federal government in 1933, was a huge make-work project to provide depression-era jobs for thousands of hard-hit families and to build a dam for flood-control and, eventually, electric power for the area. At it's peak, the dam project employed over 10,000 people and it took 7 years to complete.

And it's a dam of note! Built along the upper Missouri River, it's billed as the largest hydraulically filled earthen dam in the world. It stretches for 4 miles across a shallow valley in the far northeastern part of Montana. It's 250 feet tall, 50 feet wide at the crest, and 3,500 feet wide at the base. It backs up the Missouri River for 134 miles creating Fort Peck Lake.

The central core of the dam was filled with dredgings that were sucked off the bottom of the riverbed, pumped through pipes and deposited in pooling areas in the middle of the dam as it was being constructed. As the water and riverbed slurry sat in these pools, the solids would settle to the bottom and the water would run off. These settled solids became naturally cemented together to form a very strong impermeable core to the dam. This process is what they mean by "hydraulically filled".

About 3 miles from the dam is a large concrete structure called the spillway. Most if not all dams have spillways... a place for water to be safely discharged from the lake to prevent high-water from over-topping the dam. It's a means of controlling water level as the lake fills. The Fort Peck Dam Spillway was made famous in a 1936 photo taken by Margaret Bourke-White that was used as the first cover of Life Magazine. The spillway is an amazing thing in it's own right. Sixteen huge gates connected to a concrete channel that's almost a mile long.

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Obviously, the Life Cover from 1936.

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And a shot of the Ft. Peck Dam Spillway today.

Photos of the dam itself aren't impressive. Since it's earthen and gently sloped it looks like an un-naturally flat ridge on the landscape. The spillway takes a better picture.

With tens of thousands of people in the area during construction -- workers, their families, and those associated with the other support businesses -- towns near the dam boomed. Fort Peck the town was designed and built as the headquarters for the project. A number of government agencies, USGS, Army Corps of Engineers, among others, still maintain offices in Fort Peck.

On Friday night, we attended a performance of the Fort Peck Summer Theatre in the historic Fort Peck Theater. This building was built during the dam project and was a center of social life in those years. Movies and newsreels were played 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. The show we saw was "Smokey Joe's Cafe" -- a musical with songs from the 40's and 50's. You wouldn't expect "A" list talent in a venue like Fort Peck, but the performance was fun and enjoyable. I always enjoy watching people pour their hearts into a performance for some applause, as long as it's not too high on the pain-o-meter. These guys & gals were respectable.

Saturday morning we treated ourselves to breakfast at the old Fort Peck Hotel. Built during the dam project as housing for VIP's and dignitaries, it's still in operation. The dark wood, creaky floors, and a lobby warmed by a fireplace are a throwback to the '30s. Very comfortable. And breakfast in the dining room -- the breakfast buffet -- was a bargain at 6.95.

We'll be leaving here tomorrow and heading to the Williston, ND. area. We've been in Montana for 22 days.

T

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Decision Making Process

The Decision Making Process
Part of the "Life in 300 Square Feet" Series

Living on the road, in close quarters, on a fulltime basis requires a lot of flexibility and tolerance. In addition, I believe it's important for you and your partner to have pre-arranged rules for how decisions will be made. Living together in 300 square feet makes a good decision-making protocol essential to harmony and a durable relationship -- not to mention a long life. Making decisions on the basis of who can yell louder, who's stronger, who's bigger, or who's better with a gun just doesn't work the way it used to.

When fulltiming, the two of you are also managing a big hunk of machinery. Whether it's a fifth-wheel, travel trailer, motorhome, or old school bus, these are big awkward pieces off equipment that require maintenance, upkeep, safe driving skills... and good decision making.

So after a few months on the road we established a decision-making protocol for our fulltiming life. Here's what we came up with. All five steps must be followed:

1) Either of us can propose something, but it must be stated clearly and in a form that can be put to a vote.

2) Since we're equals, Dar has a vote and I have a vote.

3) In the event of a tie, and because safety is so important, the Safety Director breaks the tie.

4) Dar is the Safety Director.

5) All parties will agree and be happy with the outcome.

You see, with a simple, but effective decision-making process like this, you'll never have any arguments and will always be in complete harmony. Dar is certainly happier and has fewer of those moody spells she used to have from time to time. She also thinks the process is so useful that any couple could use it whether or not you're living in an RV.

I've been taking a lot more late night walks, which we've decided are good for my blood pressure.

Thom Hoch

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Rural Montana and Fort Peck

Wednesday, June 04, 2008 -- Fort Peck, MT

On Tuesday we made the drive from the James Kipp Recreation Area to Fort Peck Montana. Heading north on Hwy 191, it was about 70 lonely miles to Malta -- no traffic, no towns, no rest areas, no wide spots in the road, no place to pull over to pee; just 70 miles of narrow shoulder-less asphalt that we had all to ourselves -- and a few pronghorn antelope. It crossed my mind to simply stop the bus-house, right in the middle of the road for a few minutes to take care of business, but the way my luck runs that would be precisely when other traffic would show up. Another thought I had was that this would be the perfect time to exercise the "flying driver change" -- switching drivers while on cruise-control. Needless to say the safety director nixed both ideas out-of-hand. As my bladder filled to near capacity I was re-thinking my long-held desire to get away from growing towns and congestion. There are, after all, some benefits to overcrowded areas that hadn't occurred to me before.

In Malta I found a section of road that was wide enough for a momentary stop before heading east on Hwy 2 -- the road locals call "The Hi-line". Hwy 2 was only slightly busier than 191, but it was wider and had good paved shoulders. It was really the kind of road we've grown to prefer... little traffic, smooth and well-maintained roadway, and a few real towns along the way. In other words, everything an Interstate Highway isn't.

I get the impression that most of these small towns are struggling to survive. From an economic standpoint it seems the only thing going on is either agriculture-related or small retail businesses that serve the shrinking population. We stopped in one small town -- Hinsdale, I think it was -- where the town council was there to greet us, take our picture for the monthly town newsletter, and offered us the key to the town if we'd agree to stay. A tempting offer but we are on a mission!

Continuing eastward through Glasgow to Nashua, we turned south on Hwy 117 to Fort Peck. Fort Peck is a town, a dam, and a lake. During the depression, the US Government funded the building of this massive dam on the Missouri River for the purpose of flood control and to employ a large number of people during a time when jobs were hard, if not impossible, to find. The dam created the lake and the project created the town. These days, the Army Corps of Engineers manages the dam and the associated recreational facilities which include a marvelous campground.

In the last few days I've written about the kind of places we like to camp and the Downstream Campground here at Fort Peck is another that ranks up there with the best, in my humble opinion. While it doesn't have "full-hookups" (here, we have just electric) we have the capability to be totally independent for a week or more. But the sites here are widely separated, good level asphalt pads, and plenty of trees around to provide that "camping" feel. We also have both whitetail and mule deer that are regular visitors to our campsite. We ended the day with a dramatic sunset and a good campfire.

I have a feeling we'll be here for a few more days than originally planned.

T

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Note to Readers

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

I'd like to thank all readers of the RV Sabbatical Journal for stopping in from time-to-time to check out what's going on with us. Having readers makes writing so much easier and rewarding.

But I see many readers are coming directly to this Journal and by-passing our website Front Page at www.tdhoch.com. Our Front Page is updated regularly, includes a couple recent pictures, a "What's New" area that's updated more often than the Journal, and links to our photo collections, maps, and some links we find useful. We don't subject readers to advertising so our only interest is for readers to have a more complete experience while following along on our trek. So stopping in at our Front Page once in a while could add to the overall experience.

Thanks again for coming along as we explore the USA.

Thom and Dar

Monday, June 2, 2008

James Kipp Recreation Area

Monday, June 02, 2008 -- James Kipp Recreation Area in Central Montana

Finding campsites that appeal to us can be tough. Near centers of population, whether a huge town like Chicago or much more modest places like Great Falls, MT., it seems the selection is often limited to commercial RV Parks.

RV Parks are essentially places to legally park your RV while in town. In general, there are few if any trees, a lot of gravel or asphalt, and very close spacing with your neighbors. What little grass there may be is fighting a loosing battle for survival. Sure, we could find a more acceptable campsite maybe 30 or 50 miles from town, but the cost and hassle associated with commuting means this isn't really an option. So when we've got to be in town, we try to select an RV Park with the best balance of cleanliness, safety, and price.

But when we get out of town we look for places that are best called campgrounds. You know, the places that have widely separated campsites, with lots of trees, campfire rings, and, hopefully, a lot of peace and quiet. Often these places are State Parks, Corps of Engineers (COE) Campgrounds, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Areas or Wildlife Refuges, but occasionally we find a commercial campground that fits this mold too.

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The James Kipp Recreation Area in Central Montana turned out to be one of those places we like to be. Right along the banks of the Missouri River, about 100 miles east of Great Falls, it's managed by the BLM and it's the perfect place to find some solitude -- we had no TV, cell phone, or internet service at all. You find out things about yourself when there's no phone, no internet, and no TV. I highly recommend trying it from time to time.

We'll stay here for two nights before resuming our trip east on Tuesday.

T