Monday, August 31, 2009

Independence Rock

Monday, August 31, 2009
Little America, WY

We had all the hatches battened down, the toad hooked up, and the bus-house rolling out of our camp at Alcova before 9am this morning. Besides being a bit anxious to get going again we were motivated by predictions of strong westerly winds later in the day, and thought it'd be good for the diesel fuel budget to get as much of the drive in before the headwinds really kicked up.

But just about 26 miles from camp we found Independence Rock, a famous landmark used by westward travelers during the great migration of the 1840's, 50's, and 60's. WY-220 runs right past it and there is a large but little utilized wayside right at the Rock. We parked the bus-house and hiked over to see what we could learn.

From a distance it looks like the top half of a freshly baked loaf of bread. It's 1900 feet long, 850 feet wide, and about 130 feet high. Made out of solid granite, it's really the top of a mountain that was buried by erosional activities millions of years ago. Although not as high as some of the surrounding peaks today, it stands out because of it's shape and smooth, weathered, surface.

It became a landmark along the path of the westward migration trails (Oregon Trail, Mormon Trail, etc). There's some evidence that the name came from a band of travelers that arrived at the Rock on July 4th. More generally, it marks the almost halfway point between the Missouri River and the Pacific Ocean, and if the traveling party is going to be successful, they needed to be to the Rock by early July or they ran the risk of winter tragedy.

We walked out and around the Rock, finding many carved names and dates. Unfortunately, most of the legible ones were from recent years -- chipped into the granite by defacers, vandals, and high school boys trying to impress their girl with a promise of eternal love sealed in solid granite. I wonder how many of those girls later wielded their own chisels in an effort to remove all evidence of that "forever" relationship?

It's possible to climb to the top of the rock. The gently slopping sides make it relatively easy to scramble to the top -- a good photo spot at least. We both made the climb and have pics to prove it.

It wasn't a long stop but we're glad we did it. For us, on this leg of the journey, it was a kind of kick-off point for later travels on the Oregon Trail.

From Independence Rock we plodded southward to Rawlins, where we picked up another 75 gallons of diesel (2.57/gal) and headed west on the I-80 super-slab. What a contrast from sleepy US-20, but we've got to pick up the pace a bit to make our Portland area objective when we're needed.

Tonight we're at exit 68 along I-80 in Wyoming -- at Little America, which is a bit hard to explain. Little America is a town -- it has it's own post office, it's on most maps, and it has a small resident population. But it's really little more than a large truck stop, convenience store, motel/hotel, a couple of restaurants, and lots of parking. We're staying in their RV area tonight, officially for no charge. But after dropping nearly $40 for dinner, which was actually quite good, I think Little America made out OK on the TDHoch Expedition.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, we're taking US-30 to the Northwest toward Pocatello, ID. The Oregon Trail followed this general path and we hope to explore more of that history as we travel along.

T

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Best by a Dam Site

Sunday, August 30, 2009
Alcova, WY

The North Platte River has run through this mountainous and geologically active area for eons -- millions of years. Over that time it cut deep canyons into the surrounding rock as incredible forces uplifted, raised, the earth's crust. In the early 20th Century some of those canyons were used as dam sites, where a substantial dam could be built utilizing the canyon walls as part of the dam. That's just what happened here at Alcova Reservoir and just to the south, upriver on the North Platte, at Pathfinder Reservoir. We explored both today.

As I've written before, we're in high country. The surface of Alcova Reservoir is about 5,500 feet and the surface of Pathfinder is about 5,800 feet. And all around are exposed rock outcroppings of various colors and composition... red, tan, white, green... granite, an iron-rich shale, limestone and sandstone. Right here at Alcova Reservoir, there's a thick layer of deep red material... obviously an iron-rich shale that's stark against the more common browns, tans, and whites of limestone, sandstone, and granite. And these layers, which must have been flat, horizontal, during their forming, are now dramatically slanted and sometimes almost vertical -- caused by a powerful uplifting. From some vantage points high on the hills around here, it looks like the entire area is tilted. It's really quite a site to see.

We drove down to Pathfinder Dam first. After parking we followed a couple other people to a fenced walkway that led to the dam. In our post-9/11 world, I've come to expect that dams are off limits. Any large dam we've been to in the past couple years has high security, serious fencing, and it's hard to get anywhere near the thing without an act of congress. But little old Pathfinder Dam, which really isn't all that little, was open for explorers today. There were a few doors here and there that were locked, but for the most part, we could wander around, open gates, walk across the dam itself to the other side, walk along the edges of the canyon below the dam... and there wasn't anyone around at all. We had the run of the place. Hmmm.

This dam was built in 1905 and is made of granite. I don't think I've seen a granite dam before -- at least one built like this. The core is random chunks of granite mortared together into a single mass. The outer walls both on both the upstream and downstream faces are large uniform blocks of granite put together like a brick wall. It still looked good after more than a hundred years.

These dams, like most, were built for fresh water supply, flood control, and recreation. In this case, the main use for the fresh water is farm irrigation.

The canyons that were cut by the river and are still visible between the two reservoirs are simply incredible. I'm always in awe at the power of water to cut through solid rock... leaving narrow canyons hundreds of feet deep. We got some good photos of what I'm talking about.

After Pathfinder Dam, we took another route back to Alcova Dam... the back road. During the exploration today, we ranged from a low of 5,400 feet of elevation below the dam at Alcova, to a high of more than 6,300 feet at the high point above Pathfinder. That's nearly 1,000 feet in just a few miles.

The Alcova Dam was not open to the public... at least not today. There's a power plant here and it was making power judging by the turbine hum and the steady flow of discharge water. Maybe that's why they keep the public at a distance. In any case, the intense sun and our hiking and climbing around at various spots along the way cause a thirst that we quenched at the General Store in Alcova. Maybe an ice cream cone too.

Well, it's time to pick up the pace a bit on our westward trek. Tomorrow, Monday, we're pulling up the jacks and heading down to Rawlins, right on I-80, then west on the super-slab to Western Wyoming where we'll try to find someplace to overnight before hitting the Oregon Trail on Tuesday.

T

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Into High Country

Saturday, August 29, 2009
Alcova, WY

We left Fort Robinson this morning and continued west on US-20. A few miles down the road we came upon a small town -- Harrison, NE. -- that was like so many other small towns we passed through out here. The official population of Harrison is around 200, but I think they're counting their pets too. The speed limit on US-20 slows to 30mph, but there's no stopping -- you just slow down a bit and roll through town. About the time you slow down it's time to speed up again. We're talkin' small!

But somebody in Harrison has a good sense of humor. Approaching town there's a large green sign, that's been done to look like an Interstate Highway information sign, that proudly states "Harrison -- Next Four Exits". It went by so fast we could barely get a picture of it. And Dar counted exactly four streets that intersected with the highway. Needless to say we were grinning big the next few miles. What a hoot!

From Into Wyoming

After crossing the line into Wyoming we stopped in Lusk, which is notable for being the County Seat of the least populated County in the least populated State in all of the USA. The whole county has 2,400 people spread out across 2,500 square miles. It's actually a very nice town that seems to have a population (albeit small -- 1,400 or so) that keeps the place neat and orderly. We sensed a vibrancy that probably comes from business activity... new buildings, busy shops, modern services. We stopped and walked around downtown. Everyone we met seemed happy and content... and greeted us in some way. Hmmm. Lusk may go on our list.

Continuing west we eventually met up with I-25, which follws the North Platte River, for the ride into Casper. After a missed exit and quick turn-around we found WY-220 which heads southwest -- again, following the North Platte. About 30 miles down WY-220 we arrived in Alcova and, after some effort, claimed a campsite. We're on the shores of Alcova Reservoir, a dammed up part of the river. Like most reservoirs in the west, it's used not only as a source of freshwater, it's a recreational paradise for anyone with a boat. And, at first glance, I think everyone with a boat in Casper is probably here. It's the weekend and it's busy. I'll have more to say about Alcova after we get a chance to explore a bit. We're planning to stay two nights.

From Into Wyoming

We're clearly moving into "high country" as we move west. We left Fort Robinson, at 3,800 feet elevation, and within the first 20 miles we were at almost 4,800 feet. Lusk is at 5,000; Casper at 5,400. So what comes with high elevations? Dry air -- the dew point right now is 35f and the relative humidity is just 22%. The nights chill down quickly -- tonight into the upper 40's, but the sun is intense if it's out. Daytime highs are expected to be in the upper 70's the next few days.

Another effect of higher elevation is increased pressure in all those sealed up bottles and food containers in the fridge and the pantry. For example, we try to be vigilant and "burp" a little extra air out of the ketchup bottle on those days we're moving higher. If you forget it's possible that you'll be treated to more ketchup than you'd really like the next time you fetch some for your burger. We haven't had any "food-explosions" from this effect yet, but I have heard of someone exploding their sleep-number bed on the way up the hill.

As for the toad, the car, it's handling the ride just fine so far. I noticed, as I was entering data into our log from the drive today, that we've towed it behind the bus-house almost 1,300 miles so far. Since it has just shy of 1,000 miles on the odometer, it's been towed further than it's been run. Hmmm.

T

Friday, August 28, 2009

Not Busy in Nebraska

Friday, August 28, 2009
Fort Robinson State Park
Crawford, NE

We thought we'd take it a little easier today. The past two days have been go-go and I, for one, needed a break. A feature of this lifestyle is that you don't have to be busy all the time... as long as you can get over the guilt that can accompany solitude and being not-busy. I know people who are busy all the time, at least that's my observation. They can't sit still for more than a few minutes without doing something... they join groups, they are active in any number of organizations, they're fixing this, cleaning that, going to the gym, shopping, they're socializing regularly with friends and acquaintances... it's run here, run there, don't stop to catch your breath. I wonder if these people are compensating for something that's lacking in their lives? I don't know, but I do believe that one should live by a rule of moderation in all things and that balance is a key to a happy life.

As an amateur writer and explorer I strive for balance, but it requires constant awareness and effort. My self-inflicted deadlines for updating our website's front page, for writing regular entries to my Journal, and then getting out there to explore and experience this big country so I have something to write about -- it all helps me with the balance thing. It's a cycle of exploring, learning, thinking, writing that keeps the physical and mental at least a little balanced.

But then there's the guilt, that word that set me off on this line of thought. While I don't think I've ever been accused of being the extreme busy one, I do suffer from occasional guilt when I'm not busy. What is this guilt? Although I fight it, I seem to notice it more when around others. Hmmm. If somebody sees me sitting here they might think I have nothing to do... that I'm lazy... and that would be bad.

Well, today, I was NOT busy. We did use our bikes to take a few more photos around the Fort that we missed earlier, and we did ride the White River Trail, a short 3 mile rails-to-trails recreation trail the runs from the Fort to Crawford. There was also a quick run to a grocery store and I found a self-serve car wash to hose off the poor old dusty toad. But besides that, I sat, I read, I thought, and I wrote. And I had a beer. And I'm not feeling guilty.

Oh, and after I wrote yesterday's Journal entry last night, we rode our bikes up to a rodeo demonstration on the other end of the Fort. A bunch of locals, staff, and a group of college kids working toward some national competition put on an hour long show -- not a real rodeo, but more a demonstration of the kind of things they do at rodeos. It certainly wasn't professional (the steers got more points than the cowboys), but it was a peek into a world I've had very little contact with. I've decided on the basis of this one hour that good rodeo people are tough as nails and very athletic. And the horses ain't bad either.

At 6pm tonight, Dar has signed us up for a "Chuck-Wagon Dinner". We meet over at the activities building and they'll take us and 30 or so of our closest new best friends out on the prairie somewhere and cook us an old fashioned, trail-side, off the back end of the chuck wagon, dinner. It was only $9 a head so expectations aren't high. Considering the budget problems most State Governments are having these days there probably won't be much of a contribution from Nebraska either. I'm having trouble shaking my memory of the campfire scene from "Blazing Saddles". With some luck, it'll be more than just beans. Since I'm writing this and publishing it before we leave, I'll have to report on it tomorrow.

Not busy in Nebraska...

T

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Toadstools and Gravel Roads

Thursday, August 27, 2009
Fort Robinson State Park
Crawford, NE

Today was one of those days when I felt like I'm finally getting my act together with this web site and blog stuff. Before retiring last night, I updated the front page of our website as well as an writing an entry in The RV Sabbatical Journal. As a result, this morning I didn't have to start the computer -- or as I'm lovingly calling it these days... the "confuser" -- at all. Instead, we got up early and went out for a morning walk, to commune with nature, and to go get a hot breakfast at the little restaurant in the main Park office. OK, I'm sure the calories we burned during our walk were more than replaced in that egg, sausage, and hash brown breakfast, but it just felt good to get outside and not have to deal with any electronics for a while.

After breakfast we loaded up a very light picnic lunch, some portable water for hiking, all the necessary cameras and gear for a day of exploring, and headed out with the car to see some things a bit further away than we can bike. Our first exploration was the Smiley Canyon Scenic Drive, part of which we actually did explore by bike yesterday. It's a 6 mile long scenic drive through the hills and buttes to the west of the park. The State has a herd of bison out there, and there are antelope all over the place. Between the wildlife and the scenery it was a cool place to explore.

Then, the big exploration of the day... the Toadstool Geologic Park about 20 miles to the north. Located in the Oglala National Grassland, Toadstool is an area of "badlands"-like land that looks like you'd imagine the surface of the moon might. It's actually an accumulation of soft material called "claystone" with a harder sandstone above it. The claystone erodes much faster than the sandstone and leaves strange formations that look a little like toadstools... thus the name of the place.

From Toadstools

We took a self-guided hike through the middle of it all and took some very interesting pictures. Despite warnings to keep an eye out for rattlesnakes we pushed on, undaunted. What else would intrepid explorers do? The landscape is unlike anything I've seen before, with unusual shapes and formations wherever you look.

They've dated these rock layers to about 30 million years ago. There are places they say you can see the ancient footprints of early animals -- locked in time as the mud hardened into rock. OK, if they say so. My untrained eye saw what they were talking about but it looked like pockmarks, holes punched in the rock. I suppose experts know more about these things than we do, so we'll go with their explanation.

From Toadstools

To get out to Toadstool we had to drive about 15 miles on gravel and dirt roads... each way. That, combined with other exploring we did on gravel roads earlier around Valentine and in Iowa has left the new car looking a bit weather-beaten, dusty, and sad. The next time we have freshwater hookups at our campsite I'll have to wash the poor thing. It's performing (and towing) like a champ, but exploring can be hard on a toad.

We got back to Fort Robinson in plenty of time to visit the Fort Robinson Historical Museum, where we learned why and how this facility came into being. It was an active Fort from 1874 until after WWII -- a period of more than 70 years. At first it's role was to protect early settlers and keep peace with the Indians. Later it was utilized as a cavalry "remount" facility, where horses are trained for use with the cavalry. During WWII it served as a canine training facility and was a prisoner of war facility for about 3,000 German POW's. It's durability had much to do with the fact that the Chicago & North Western Railroad came right through the fort, which made it relatively easy to get people and supplies in and out.

So that was our day. At this point we're thinking we'll stay here until Saturday and take a break from exploring tomorrow. This little corner of Nebraska is called Pine Ridge and we're both feeling good about the area. I think we'll make it a point to be back for further explorations on a later leg of our journey.

T

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Through the Sand Hills

Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Fort Robinson State Park
Crawford, NE

On Tuesday we made the enjoyable drive from Valentine to Fort Robinson State Park. Once again, US-20 didn't disappoint. There was amazingly little traffic and the road was in good condition -- and we savored the views of these ancient sand dunes -- the Sand Hills -- that have been stabilized by layers of soil and prairie plant growth. The Nebraska Sand Hills cover an area about 20,000 square miles... about a quarter of the State of Nebraska. Much of the area has never been plowed and, as such, is mostly intact natural habitat. As you drive along lonely US-20, as you look to the left or right, you're seeing what early pioneers saw well over a hundred years ago.

Beneath the Sand Hills is one of the largest aquifers in the world, the Ogallala Aquifer. Most of the water in this underground reservoir is from the last ice age. Since it recharges very slowly and discharges are increasing, mostly for irrigated agriculture, it's a resource that's depleting... that's slowly going away. How about a little balance? Huh?

Many of the schools in Nebraska are back in session. As a result, the parks and campgrounds are nearly empty. We pulled into Fort Robinson and had our pick of almost any site we'd like. And as we explored the park today, it felt like we're almost the only ones here. There are three separate camping areas. One is an RV Park-like area with no shade trees, closely spaced sites, but with full hookups. It's perfect for most motorhomers, but not for us. We chose a secluded site in the older traditional campground with big shade trees, more widely spaced sites, and electric-only hookup. Sure, we had to top off our fresh water tank but it feels like we're camping. The third area is for horse-people and is up by the stables.

Today we biked over to the Trailside Museum of Natural History. This is a facility operated by the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and is dedicated to the paleontology of the local area. The main exhibit is the skeletal remains of two ancient mammoths, each larger than an elephant, that died with their tusks locked together... in all likely hood the result of a battle over some female. Hmmm. It was found back in the 50's just a few miles north of here. Other displays discussed the geologic history of the area that fit together to explain some of the natural history. It was time well spent for a couple explorers trying to learn more about what we were seeing around here.

We biked around the rest of the Fort to see what's here and found an impressive mix of original and reconstructed buildings. Established in 1874, the Fort was a critical presence of authority in protecting early settlers and maintaining order. Things didn't go well for Native Americans and often, they drew the short straw. Crazy Horse, the famouse Ogallala Chief, was killed here in 1877 in an unfortunate incident.

There's more exploring tomorrow.

T

Monday, August 24, 2009

A Valentine Day

Monday, August 24, 2009
Valentine, NE

So far, we've found our stay at Riverside Campground to be quite acceptable. It's an old decommissioned KOA Park, like a few others we've stayed in around the country. It's not the most modern but it's quiet, and there's the extra benefit of being right along the Niobrara River. We stopped at a couple other RV Parks in Valentine and we think we made the right decision. The only other one we would have considered was 3 miles north of town, out on an exposed hilltop with no mature trees or the resulting shade. The lack of refuge from the wind and sun convinced me we're at the right place -- for us.

We don't stay at the new KOA's (never have, probably never will) as they're expensive and really aimed at families with kids who want to swim in the heated pool, whoop and holler it up on the playground equipment, and take part in organized activities. We don't need, or want, any of that. We seek out quieter venues that we can use as a base for our explorations and for educating ourselves about the geologic, natural, and cultural histories of the area. Different strokes for different folks.

Sunday was dedicated to exploring. First up was breakfast at Palmer's. Tipped off that this is the best place for breakfast in town we treated ourselves to "breakfast out" in celebration of, well, let's see.... hmmm... making it into the West? Yeah! That's it. Reasonably priced and reasonably delicious, it was worth the almost $12 price for two.

Next up, a stop at the First National Bank of Valentine just a few blocks away. The attraction here isn't the low interest loans or the high interest savings accounts... no sir. What we and others come to see is an amazing brick relief mural on the front of the building that depicts a couple scenes -- one a longhorn cattle drive that spans the full width of the building on the upper portion and the other a celebration of area history. Nebraska artist Jack Curran created the murals in 1992. The amazing thing is that the scenes are made up of individual bricks, each one formed by hand with the necessary texture, color, and thickness to make up one of the many "puzzle-pieces" of the larger mural. When assembled the result is an impressive and long lasting piece of art that must be seen to really be enjoyed. Looking at it you just know you're now in the West. Oh, and the bank itself? It's been here and locally owned since 1884 -- the year after the town was formed.

From Bank Mural, Falls, Trail

Remember, you can click on these images to enlarge.

The bank is on a north-south street, facing east. We tried to time our visit for late morning so the mural was still lit up by the sun, but with some shadows to provide a bit more contrast. Here's a close-up photo of the detail. Dar has more on our online photo collection.

From Bank Mural, Falls, Trail

After the bank job we drove about 5 miles east to the site of old Fort Niobrara. The Fort was established in 1879 to protect a growing population of settlers from Indians and outlaws. The Fort is long gone, but it's location and the surrounding area is now the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, home to herds of bison, elk, and various other animals native to the area. We drove through miles of shortgrass prairie on a narrow gravel road -- didn't see bison or elk as they favor even less accessible parts of the refuge. We did see colonies of prairie dogs and many miles of uninterrupted prairie, the way it must have looked to settlers heading west for the first time. We also hiked a short ways to Fort Falls, another one of the many (100+) falls along this stretch of the river.

A bit further downriver is Smith Falls State Park. After paying the daily admittance toll it was a short hike down the hill, across the river, and up a small valley on the other side to Smith Falls, Nebraska's tallest waterfall. Not as impressive as other's we've explored, but enjoyable and picturesque just the same. The layers of rock and soil that make up the 70 foot height of the falls represent millions of years of geologic history and change.

From Bank Mural, Falls, Trail

Then it was back to Valentine and just a short ways south, along US-20 and not far from our camp. There we connected with the Cowboy Trail, the nations longest continuous recreation trail. Stretching 320 miles from Norfolk in the east to Chadron in the west, it's a "rails-to-trails" project that follows the grade of the old Chicago Northwest tracks. Of particular note is the large old railroad trestle that carries the trail over the Niobrara River -- it's a quarter mile long and 148 feet above the river. As it was getting late in the afternoon, we only had time to unloaded the bikes for a ceremonial ride across the trestle and back again, taking a bunch of photos along the way.

'Twas a full day! And remember that Dar has many more photos from the day in our online photo collection.

T

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Crossing Into the West

Saturday, August 22, 2009
Valentine, NE

Yesterday, Friday, we were rolling early. Having made most of our pre-move preparations the night before, it was easy to have a semi-leisurely morning -- coffee, check email, etc. -- and get moving before 9am. The day started out cloudy and still windier than I'd like when driving a big "billboard" down the road. But as we progressed west the clouds gave way to mostly sunny skies and the wind subsided a bit. Overall it was an enjoyable and easy drive.

We followed NE-16 and NE-35 to Wayne and then NE-15 north to US-20. I've written this before, and probably will again, but traveling on these old main roads through the west is, in my humble opinion, the best way to go. For the most part, these roads are in reasonable shape, have very little traffic, and go through interesting places and towns that the faster Interstate Highways avoid. There are more hills and valleys than their modern counterparts but the travel experience is more relaxed; and it seems like you're a part of the landscape rather than just watching it out the window like a TV show.

We'll be following US-20 now until at least Casper, WY., when we have a decision to make. But we'll leave that for another day.

Along the drive today we crossed from the Midwest to the West... at least that's the way it felt. The Midwest is farms, corn, soybeans, tractors, combines, fences, rich moist soils, rain, humidity, county fairs, and more people. The West is ranches, grass hay and grazing land, cattle, horses, few fences, poor soils, less rain, little humidity, rodeos, and far less people. Somewhere just east of O'Neill, NE., is the dividing line. To me it was almost this stark. I think if I could study it more I could paint a line across the road and say this... this is where the West begins... at least in Northern Nebraska.

I stopped for diesel fuel in O'Neill. The price seemed right at $2.66/gal and not knowing what the price/availability will be further west, I don't want to see the tank much below half. We took on 58 gallons.

People in the West just seem more friendly than people in more congested parts of the rest of the country. As I was putting in fuel a trucker pulled into the next island, started filling, and he struck up a conversation. Most of the time truckers won't even make eye contact with you. This fellow wondered what kind of fuel mileage I was getting... and before you know it we were trading info on engines, horsepower, the roads... with a little more time we might have gotten into politics and religion. He was a genuinely nice guy and wished us the best on our travels.

When we arrived at the Riverside Campground just south of Valentine, along the banks of the Niobrara River, we had added another 250 miles to our trek. We selected a campsite and set up before happy hour.

Dar tells me there's a lot to see in the Valentine area.

T

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Algona to Pender

Thursday, August 20, 2009
Pender, NE

First, let me fess-up that yesterday was Dar & my anniversary. It's been 37 years since we tied the knot and we're still going strong. If there's any question about our compatibility and ability to be flexible, communicate, and to keep things in perspective... living together in 300 square feet for over two solid years without killing each other should say it all. A new theory of mine is that if you're truly compatible you can live together in any sized space, even a smaller space than the bus-house. But if you're not compatible, a 6,000 square foot mansion wouldn't be large enough.

Yesterday we pulled up the jacks in Algona and continued the trek westward. Dar had a very fruitful exploration of the history of her ancestors from her mother's side of the family, culminating in the discovery at the library of a parish history from the small town of St. Benedict near Algona. This is the area where her ancestors settled and this narrative is a gold-mine of information that's got her so pumped full of adrenalin that it'll be weeks before she stops vibrating.

Leaving Algona, we drove south on US-169 to Humboldt, where we stopped at Dodgen Industries, the manufacturer of high quality Born Free class C campers. About that time the skies opened up and it rained heavily for the next hour or  more, so it was a good place to kill time anyway. We met the owner, John Dodgen, who, at 83 years of age, is still directing the business on a daily basis. He's an affable gent who approached us to say hi and see what our interest was in Born Free. All the people we ran into there were very friendly and helpful, and went out of their way to make sure we were taken care of. Our idea, at some point in the future when we have a fixed base (home without wheels) again, is that we'll downsize the RV so we can continue to explore the smaller and more out-of-the-way places we can't go with the bus-house.

From Humboldt, we took IA-3 west to Cherokee, and then US-59 south to US-20, the general path we want to take through Nebraska. Just a few miles after crossing the state line into Nebraska, we caught US-75/77 south a few miles to NE-35, which is a winding road through the higher-than-expected hills and ridges of northeast Nebraska. Near Emerson we dropped south on NE-9 to Pender.

Pender is a small town of about 1,000 people. It's also in the middle of the Omaha Indian Reservation, which is causing some issues with local business owners who don't want to pay the recently imposed 10% tax on sales the tribe wants to collect. It's all in the courts and will be for years, I'm sure.

We checked into our site at Blue Ox and before we knew it a couple friendly guys came over, talked with us about what we'd like, and took our towbar back to the shop for a good going-over. I'm having a couple other small additions made to the system which should keep us towing happily and safely for the next few years. I'm really impressed with the energy and attitude of the Blue Ox people. Hmmm. There seems to be a pattern forming.

We're staying here until Friday, mostly so we can get caught up on laundry. We haven't had full hookups for so long we can't remember. Blue Ox isn't charging us to camp here because we're having some service done. But the park is open to anyone at the low price of only $15/night, full hookups included. You gotta like that.

To celebrate our anniversary last night, we went out to the finest dining establishment in Pender -- Welch's Pizzeria and Bar on Main Street. We found a couple stools at the bar, ordered a pizza and a beer, and got to know the owner, Tom, and his son, Dusty. Tom has owned the place for 30 years. The conversation was far-ranging and enjoyable. We told them we'll be back every time we pass through Pender.

As I write this mid-day on Thursday, the sky is cloudy and the wind is hawking at full-gale our of the northwest. The cold-front that passed through last night dropped the dew point and temperature enough that we may be able to register a wind-chill if we tried. Travel conditions will  be better on Friday.

T


Monday, August 17, 2009

The Road to Algona, IA

Monday, August 17, 2009
Algona, IA

We pulled up stakes at Myre-Big Island State Park this morning and were rolling down I-35 into Iowa by a bit after 10am. Conditions were great for driving today with mild temps and winds. At Clear Lake we made a bend to the West on US-18 which took us the 50 miles to Algona.

Algona is the County Seat of Kossuth County, the largest county in Iowa geographically speaking. If you check out a county map of the state you'll see how orderly and equally sized all the Iowa counties are... except for Kossuth County. It appears someone forgot to draw the line dividing it into two so it'd match the rest. I haven't discovered the reason for that yet.

We found a really nice County Park about three miles north of Algona called Smith Lake. It has about 40 campsites and can handle our size camper. No full hookups, but we do have 50amp electric -- not that we need it.

The reason we're here is to do some research on some of Dar's ancestors. After quickly setting up camp we drove down to the Courthouse where Dar found stacks of records in the County Recorders Office to keep her busy the rest of the afternoon.

To help her out (and speed the process a little), I set out with the car and found an old church cemetery where many of her ancestors are buried. There I walked, shot photos of pertinent monuments, and, alone, pondered our short life here... and how quickly most of us are forgotten. We're looking for information on Dar's great grandfather, and it's tough to find good facts or anyone who knows anything, much less any history of his life. And he died just a hundred years ago.

Ah, you say... there was little written record of people's lives back then. Record keeping was poor. They wrote wonderful letters to each other but many of those have been lost. Surely, with the help of technology and electronic records things will be different for us.

Not so fast, oh hopeful one. Too much information may be as bad as too little. A hundred years ago a family could probably keep every photograph ever taken of them in a small envelope. We have a few of these precious visual records of a few family members, and they speak volumes. They're so powerful as you look deeply into the eyes of these people, long dead, and wonder what they're lives were like... what they were thinking about... what was important to them. Having your photo taken in those days was a monumental event, something to be dressed properly for so you'd look your best. They were probably aware that future generations would see these pictures and they may have wanted to tell us something. Photography was so new.

Today, we take hundreds of photos in one day. People have digital albums of tens of thousands of photos, during a lifetime, perhaps hundreds of thousands. Besides pictures, there are electronic records of everything you do... what cereal you buy at the store, your preferences in magazine subscriptions, what TV shows you watch, what you had for lunch, where you travel, and what you bought with your credit card. The government has vast records on each of us. Our insurance companies have even more. Health records, bank records, phone records, real estate transactions... it boggles the mind. And, of course, you're nobody if you don't have a blog or facebook page these days. The amount of information on a typical person has exploded exponentially in just the past hundred years.

My guess is that the pile of stuff on each of us is so vast that no one will want to take the time to go through it. How do you start looking at a hundred thousand photos? And besides, they'll be busy making their own pile of information, which, ultimately, no one will care about either. Is this living? What's become of us?

T

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Day the Music Died

Saturday, August 15, 2009
Albert Lea, MN

A little over 50 years ago, early in the morning of February 3rd, 1959, a small plane crashed into a frozen field a few miles north of Clear Lake, IA. All four people aboard died. Besides the pilot, Roger Peterson, 21, they were all early pioneers and stars of the rock and roll movement in music that was beginning to take the country, and the world, by storm. They were Buddy Holly, 22, Ritchie Valens, 17, and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson, 28.

They were on a Midwest tour called the "Winter Dance Party" which was to include concerts in 24 Midwestern cities in about three weeks. Joining the three stars was Dion and the Belmonts, and various other band members. On February 1st, they performed in Green Bay, WI., and then bussed it over to their date the very next night at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake -- a distance of more than 300 miles. I wonder if they drove right through Beaver Dam en route?

Apparently all the travel by bus in the middle of a Midwest winter was taking a toll on the troupe, especially after the bus's heater broke down. A few of them decided to charter a small plane for the next leg of the trip, from Clear Lake to Moorhead, MN -- another 300+ mile trip -- in order to arrive early, get some good sleep, and prepare for the next event. As hatched, the plane trip was to include Buddy Holly and two members of his band "The Crickets" -- Waylon Jennings (yes, that Waylon Jennings) and Tommy Allsup. But, as fate would have it, Jennings gave up his seat to J.P. Richardson, who had developed a case of the flu, and because Valens had never flown in a small plane, Allsup agreed to flip a coin for the remaining seat. Valens won.

When Holly found out that Jennings gave up his seat on the plane he joked with Jennings, saying "I hope your old bus freezes up." In return, Jennings shot back "Well, I hope your old plane crashes." -- a statement that haunted Jennings the rest of his life.

After the Clear Lake Concert, about 1am the morning of February 3rd, the three boarded the small Beechcraft Bonanza (tail number N3794N) a few miles from Clear Lake at the Mason City airport. The weather was reported as light snow but conditions were, in fact, worsening. After the plane took off, the owner of the flying service that owned the plane watched it depart and, after just a short time, descend and disappear. The next morning the wreckage was discovered in a farm field about 5 miles from the airport. All aboard were killed on impact.

The official report of the accident cited poor weather conditions and pilot error as the cause.

Both their youth and the tremendous impact they had in the music business and with the minds of kids from the Baby Boom Generation made this accident much more important than it otherwise would have been. Don McLean, a singer/songwriter from New York, memorialized the event with his most famous song, "American Pie". He referred to it as "The Day the Music Died".

From The Day the Music Died

Saturday Dar and I made the pilgrimage to Clear Lake, IA., about 30 miles South of our camp. We first found the crash site and I was kinda' surprised at the steady stream of visitors. It's out in a farm field along a gravel road. The land owner has apparently conceded a strip of land about a half mile long to facilitate the flow of pilgrims, who would otherwise certainly trample crops while seeking out the shrine. At the point where the path begins along the road, there's a marker made of concrete and steel -- a depiction of Holly's famous horned rimmed glasses. The path follows a line fence about a half mile further into the field to the spot the wreckage came to rest. There's another small marker at that point, along with all kinds of offerings from the faithful -- framed poems and music, album covers, business cards, coins, a wallet containing gift cards (one can only assume they were all exhausted), and much more. I'm sure strong winds help keep the pile to a minimum.

From The Day the Music Died

The next stop was the Surf Ballroom just down the road in Clear Lake. Our GPS helped but was off by a block or two. At first it didn't appear to be open and there were very few cars parked nearby. But intrepid explorers usually find a way to their goal and before long we were inside. What a place! The original Surf Ballroom was built in 1933 and was one of the premier ballrooms of the Midwest. All the Big Bands and other famous musicians of the 30's and 40's performed here. In 1947 the ballroom caught fire and burnt down. The next year a replacement was built -- the one that's here and still active today. This is the place where the "Winter Dance Tour" performed on that night in 1959... on this very stage. The walls of the halls and gathering areas are all lined with autographed photos of the hundreds (or thousands?) of artists that have performed here over the years. It was fun just finding and recognizing names we hadn't thought about for ages. There are also displays of the newspaper story from that day in 1959, which included rather gruesome photos of the accident site. This place is loaded with memories and musical history.

From The Day the Music Died

On our drive home Dar found Don McLean's "American Pie" on our MP3 player. It was quite a day.

T

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Security?

Saturday, August 15, 2009
Albert Lea, MN

Dar and I were talking this morning, prompted by recent photos she was processing, about our explorations the past few days. We hit on an interesting observation.

When visiting the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul, I was surprised at the lack of security... no metal detectors, no guards... just walk in any door and look around.

But when visiting the SPAM Museum in Austin, the first thing we encountered on entering the parking lot was a uniformed guard in a checkpoint style guard shack. We stopped, he asked our business, we said we'd like to visit the museum, he said that'd be OK, and told us where to park. I guess we passed the test.

I wonder why the SPAM Museum needs guarding while the State Capitol does not?

T

Friday, August 14, 2009

The SPAM Museum

Friday, August 14, 2009
Albert Lea, MN

How do you "top" seeing the State Capitol of Minnesota? How about the SPAM Museum?

We've heard about the SPAM Museum in Austin for many years, but have never had the chance to visit. My attitude was that it might be very nice but I'm just not going to drive very far out of my way to see a museum dedicated to a luncheon meat that keeps the coronary bypass industry so busy. But with us being camped just 20 miles west of Austin the time for a visit had arrived.

So on Thursday, I popped an extra statin, grabbed the camera, and we headed off on this unique exploration.
From Spam Museum

What we found exceeded my admittedly low expectations. It's a nicely done history of the Hormel Company and it's interesting flagship product, SPAM. The facility is clean and neat. The displays are professionally done and are effective in telling the story. The museum staff was friendly and fun.

Some facts: there are two plants in the USA that produce SPAM, and together they produce up to 44,000 cans per hour! Four other plants around the world also produce it. I had no idea the product was still that popular. It's been produced since 1937, and since that time more than 6 billion cans have rolled off the line. The current production rate adds another billion every 10 or so years.

During WWII, SPAM was a staple for soldiers and civilians especially in war-torn areas of the world. Because it requires no refrigeration, stores for long periods of time, and provides a good dose of calories (not to mention salt), SPAM was important in keeping people fed during very difficult times.

The adjoining SPAM Store is a good place to stock up if your supply of SPAM is running low. And there aren't too many places on this planet where you can get an official SPAM T-shirt.

If you're driving through Minnesota on either I-35 or I-90, take a hour or two and stop at the SPAM Museum in Austin. We enjoyed our visit -- it's one of those places that should be experienced once. And maybe once is enough.

T

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Minnesota State Capitol

Wednesday, August 12, 2009
Apple Valley, MN

Yesterday, Tuesday, Jim, Dar, and I made the trek to downtown St. Paul to see the Minnesota State Capitol. Sue had other plans for the morning.

This would be our 9th Capitol that we've explored. Since the legislature is not in session things were pretty low-key around the building -- no problem finding a shady parking spot and little congestion.

Built at the turn of the century and opened to the public in 1905, the architect and construction supervisor was Cass Gilbert, one of Minnesota's own.

The building is a grand neo-classical design built of a steel frame and clad on the outside with white Georgia marble and St. Cloud granite. The exterior detail is rich in symbolism and numerous statues of important figures of early Minnesota history. Dominating the center roof line is an immense golden quadriga -- a four horse chariot. There are two figures holding, controlling, the four horses which represent the classical elements of nature: earth, air, fire, and water. The two figures holding the horses represent agriculture and industry -- the forces that allow man to control nature. The figure on the chariot represents prosperity. The entire sculpture is coated in 24k gold leaf. During our tour we were able to get on the roof right next to the sculpture and see it up close.

One unique aspect of this Capitol is the arrangement of the chambers for the House, the Senate, and the Supreme Court. In every other Capitol we've seen so far, the Senate and House are housed on the opposite ends of the building, with the Supreme Court tucked in somewhere in the middle. Not here. The Senate is on one end, the Supreme Court on the other, and the House is in the middle, in it's own wing behind the rotunda.

Another interesting observation was the lack of a security checkpoint for visitors. Every other Capitol we've seen recently had airport-type security with metal detector and armed guards. Not here. When I asked the tour guide about this she said the decision was made after 9/11 to keep the building completely open, in part because of the expense. In my opinion, I found this refreshing. While I understand the desire for safety, shouldn't it be this way everywhere? Every time we go through a security checkpoint I feel that, in some small way, the terrorists are winning.

If I had a ranked list of the 9 Capitols we've visited so far, the Minnesota Capitol would be near the top. For me it works in expressing the reverence to the founders, the hard work of people through the years to make what we have today, and the importance of the rule of law that balances order and freedom for all.

After our exploration of the Capitol, Jim took us to Morelli's Market, an institution in downtown St. Paul. Offering fresh meats, wine, liquor, and some unique grocery items, this store is pretty much the way it was 50 years ago. Narrow aisles, bustling activity, organized disorder, and great deals on quality goods make it a favorite for people from many miles around. What a neat experience.

During the afternoon we joined Sue at the house and continued our vigil to nature on the screen porch. Neighbors Bill & Jan came over for a while and joined in the conversation too. For dinner we grilled steaks and sweet corn and more. What a great way to end the day.

Since we're leaving in the morning, we said our good-byes. Thanks Jim & Sue for a wonderful visit.

T

Monday, August 10, 2009

Lake Minnetonka

Monday, August 10, 2009
Apple Valley, MN

It's time to remedy another long pause in this Journal. I suffer from a tendency to procrastinate at times and before I know it there's an 4 day hole that must be filled. So let's get to it.

We left Beaver Dam on Sunday the 9th of August, and headed northwest to the Twin Cities of Minnesota. It's been almost two years since we visited our good friends Jim & Sue at their home in Burnsville and with our westward travel plan this year we just couldn't pass up the opportunity to spend some quality time with them. We met these folks more than 20 years ago when we happened to buy a house right next door. Although we only lived in Burnsville for one very short year our friendship has endured for many more.

Our visits with Jim & Sue revolve around doing something outdoors and eating. On Monday the four of us put their boat in on Lake Minnetonka, probably the largest lake in the Twin Cities metro area. This was a first for us as we've never been on this lake before. The weather was sunny and warm, and the wind calm enough to keep the waters relatively still. The lake is really a maze of bays and connecting channels -- it'd be tough to navigate without good knowledge or a GPS. We had both aboard the boat that day.

The long and winding shoreline is dotted with a few of the older cabins and modest houses that used to line the lake a few years ago. But increasingly those small places are giving way to homes that could only be described with superlatives: huge, monstrous, ostentatious, showy places that are fun to look at but don't even spark a glimmer of desire on my part. I think I've become fully converted to the simple life.

The highlight of the day was lunch at Lord Fletchers, a local dining hot spot right on the lake. And as luck would have it we hit the right day -- it was "Manic Monday". They were grilling 1/2 pound burgers on the deck for only $4 and bottles of Miller beer were only a buck! What a deal. Thanks Jim & Sue for lunch and the boat trip around Lake Minnetonka.

As evening descended, we sat on their screen porch, had dinner, and talked smart until it was time for bed.

T

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Paradox

Thursday, August 6, 2009
Beaver Dam, WI

We're down to our last few days here in Beaver Dam and in Wisconsin for this year. We've done a lot in our time here... clearing land and installing an RV pad at the farm, shopping for and buying a new car, getting the new car ready for towing, selling the old toad, and being with family and friends. It's this last one that makes it hard to leave.

Of course, there isn't enough time. We knew when we got here what we'd like to accomplish during our short visit but we'll leave Sunday with things undone. It seemed that as we finished one thing, another one or two would be added to the list. There are still people we wanted to see, but time has evaporated faster than spit on an Arizona sidewalk. Perhaps one of these days we'll learn that people are more important than stuff and the tasks that come with having stuff.

Our histories are deep here. This is where both of us grew up. This is where we met each other. This is where both of our Moms & Dads call home. And this part of Wisconsin will always be home to us too, regardless of where we are or where we eventually settle again someday.

The future hold so much uncertainty, yet, at the same time, so much certainty. It's a paradox of our existence. I feel the tug of the road whenever I'm in one spot for more than a few days or a week or two. But I also feel a latent desire to have roots and routine when I've been wandering and exploring for a stretch. Life is complicated and simple at the same time. Things we do, choices we make, can magnify this paradox. Suppose we feed the simple side and avoid complications -- at least as much as possible?

Distance will keep us from our Wisconsin loved ones for a while. But we're also feeling the tug of loved ones in the Northwest. Yes, it's hard to leave. But it's easy to arrive.

T

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Is it August Already?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Beaver Dam, WI

Both of us were happily surprised at how much fun we had at the EAA AirVenture show in Oshkosh last week. Despite being camped in an open field, without any hookups and closer to neighbors than we'd normally prefer, the overall experience surpassed our expectations. We got caught up with all the latest activity in the aviation world. We saw the best in areobatic flying. We saw WhiteKnight2 and the Airbus A-380. We got to know new friends, reconnected with old ones, and enjoyed time with family members that visited the show. Everyone was in good spirits, sharing an interest in aviation, and enjoying the creativity of people with a passion.

Because we were camped almost a mile from the flight line there was no lack of exercise last week. I'll bet we often walked 4 or 5 miles a day. And while the weather was not hot and humid, as it often is in early August in Wisconsin, being outside, on your feet in full sun can sap some energy too. The result was a couple tired bodies by mid-week when we slowed down a bit and found a new way to see things... by wandering around at a much slower pace. Hmmm, sounds like a microcosm of our lifestyle, doesn't it?

We struggled with the load of stuff we wanted or needed with us as we visited the show each day. Things we'd like to have with us included chairs, our big Canon SLR with the big telephoto lens, binoculars, hats, sunglasses, water bottles, and a diddie-bag for all the little things. On the other hand I hate being burdened like a pack mule, especially when it's for a full day. So we'd compromise, taking the big camera some days and not on others. We took chairs some days and sat on the grass on others. I never took the big binoculars. From watching others we learned about a folding chair/backpack called the "WearEver" chair. It's a nice sized comfortable chair that folds up flat, has shoulder straps like a backpack, and has a sizable covered pack built into the back of the chair. It looked like the perfect solution for those long days at the show. I think we'll have a couple of these before next year.

Our last full day at the show was Saturday. On Sunday, JT & Kaytlyn came down from Appleton, and Dar and Kaytlyn drove to the Milwaukee area for a baby shower. Justin and I wandered around the flight line for a few hours taking in the displays and the constant comings and goings of old and unusual flying machines. He hadn't been able to get down to the flight line before this and we really enjoyed the time together.

The campground was emptying quickly and by the time we walked back to camp about 2pm, the bus-house was nearly all by itself in the middle of the big field we were parked in. The bus-house had already been made ready for travel so in a few minutes we, too, were rolling. The drive to Beaver Dam is only about 50 miles. After stopping at a county campground for a bus-house fluid exchange we arrived at the farm and backed onto our pad by 4pm. We'll be here for a short week before heading to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area on Sunday.

Yesterday, Monday, I had to roll out of bed early and get over to Juneau, WI where I had an appointment with a mechanic/body shop to install the base plate on the new toad. This base plate is the hard fixture that the tow-bar connects to and makes towing the car possible. During the process of attaching this device much of the front end of the car must be disassembled. Between the base plate and some wiring that's necessary for the taillights to work properly when towing, it was a full day job. Except for a little clean-up wiring that I'll do myself today, the car is now officially toad2 and is ready for towing. I'm planning to do a test run with the bus-house later in the week to make sure all systems are "go".

T