Saturday, June 30, 2012

June 30 - T Roosevelt National Park and Medora

Friday was our first day exploring the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. First off, we stopped down at the visitor center for orientation -- the requisite film on the Park and a walk through the exhibits. The Park Service also has Roosevelt's first cabin, known as the Maltese Cross cabin, right here on the grounds of the visitor center. It's of log construction, built to Roosevelt's specifications, which make it bit more civilized than most of the other prairie cabins of the day... a very livable three room structure with a loft, wooden floors, and a high peaked roof. A ranger-guided tour got us inside.

Following orientation we meandered through the 36 mile scenic drive around the south unit of the Park... a marvelous confrontation with the North Dakota Badlands. It was a very warm day, intense sun and all, which probably kept the wildlife less active than otherwise. But we did see a bunch of bison, wild (feral) horses, prairie dogs, and a few pronghorns. Both whitetail and mule deer are also here, as are elk... but we didn't see any examples of them. The landscape is a "badlands" type... very similar to the Badlands National Park in South Dakota. Thick layers of ash and silt laid down millions of years ago have been eroded and transformed into the colorful and stark badlands clays, siltstones, sandstones, and reliefs we see today.


Never a couple that shuns a hike up a hill, we also walked to the top of Buck Hill, the highest point in the Park and took in a panoramic 360 degree view of the area.

In 1883, Teddy Roosevelt came west to hunt. He liked the area, it's rugged landscape and even more rugged characters, so he bought a small cattle operation... the Maltese Cross Ranch.  Later, he bought a second operation... the Elkhorn Ranch, where he had a larger cabin built that, for a few years, was his main home in the West. In the ensuing years he spent most of his time (except for winters) along the Little Missouri River... living the "strenuous life" of a rancher and ranch hand. He may have been the proprietor of the cattle operations, but he took pride in working side by side with the hired hands and cowboys. These were his formative adult years... where he toughened up, grew to appreciate hard work and effort, learned about human nature and nature in general, and developed an appreciation for conservation and the prudent use of our resources. TR said later in his life that he never would have been President if it hadn't been for his time along the Little Missouri in North Dakota.

This Park, if nothing else, is a monument to the President that began the process of setting aside vast areas of public lands as National Parks and for popularizing the notion of conservation and sustainable development.

On Saturday we went into the little town of Medora, which is the gateway town for the Park. It's a historic place, as it was the center of activity during the 1880s. Besides Roosevelt, there was another historic figure who saw opportunity in the cattle business out here... the Marquis deMores, a wealthy French nobleman and the son-in-law of the New York banker Louis Von Hoffman. He came out here in 1883, the same year as Roosevelt, started the town of Medora (named for his wife), and built a large house on the banks of the Little Missouri River.  His idea was to raise and slaughter cattle here and ship the dressed meat to the population centers around the country by means of refrigerated rail cars, a recent development.

However, events conspired against him, and the operation failed completely in 1886.  The severe winter of 1887 drove the final nail in the coffin of the cattle business out here, as about 80 percent of the herd did not survive.  Except for two short visits while passing through the area, the Marquis deMores and his family never returned to Medora. The house remained in the family and a staff was retained for almost 50 years to keep the house maintained and habitable. In the 1930s, the house and grounds were donated to the State Historical Society as a museum.

Medora struggled for many years but has come into it's own as a tourist destination for visitors to the National Park, the Chateau deMores, and the Medora Musical, a musical stage show that's performed nightly during the summer.

Go to our online photo collection to see more photos from our last few days of exploring.


Thursday, June 28, 2012

June 28 - Miles City to Medora

From Miles City we had a choice of two routes to Medora ND and the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The first, the shorter of the two options, was I-94.  The other was US-12 to Bowman ND, then north on US-85 to I-94 where we'd have to backtrack to the west a few miles before arriving in Medora. Any guesses what we chose?

Once again, US-12 didn't disappoint. We went through Plevina MT and Baker MT before crossing the ND border. The next town was Marmarth... the largest city in Slope County North Dakota. By the looks of things, the population of Marmarth has declined further since the 2010 count of 136 people... and this is the largest community in the entire county. Didn't see a soul out as we passed through, and the few commercial buildings looked abandoned and boarded up.

After turning north on US-85 we passed through Amidon, the county seat of Slope County. Notable for being the third least populous county seat in the nation, the 2010 census counted 20 people who claim they live in Amidon. This is my kind of country.

Because it was getting close to one of the big 4th of July weekends (the 4th being on Wednesday this year means we'll have camping pressure on both ends) we made a beeline through the main gate at Theodore Roosevelt National Park and 5 miles into the Park to Cottonwood Campground. A missed turn by the driver (your's truly) resulted in our having to unhook the toad and execute a U-turn (the first time we've had to unhook before arriving at our destination in our 5 years on the road), but we turned that into a plus in that Dar could go ahead, drive through the campground and snag one of the few spots we might shoe-horn into. That's exactly what we did... and got one of the last campsites that would work. Like most NPs, it's all drycamping (no hookups), but the solitude and feel of being in nature is a fair trade-off. The price is $10 per night. We'll be here until at least Sunday... or maybe November.

Of note... I walked down the camp road to pay for our stay and encountered a couple horses blocking my path. They were two of the hundreds of wild (ferral) horses that roam free in the park. We exchanged eye contact, I offerred a few spoken words to which they seemed indifferent (I've gotten used to this over the years), and, after that brief encounter, we all went on about our business.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

June 27 - Historic US-12 Through Montana

It was a big day for us... driving more than 360 miles. But that figure only begins to tell the full story of our drive today.

For the record, our route was a simple one... old US-12 from Helena eastward. For those who've forgotten, US-12 is a nearly 2,500 mile route that runs from downtown Detroit to the Pacific Ocean in the State of Washington at Aberdeen. Over the years it's been supplanted by I-90 and I-94 for much of it's length, but significant stretches of it are still ride-able and badged as US-12.


The first third, or so, of our day was positively enjoyable. Very little traffic and a fine road that took us through scenic Montana. Of particular note was a stretch through the Helena National Forest along Deep Creek... simply spectacular. It was slow-going, with twists and tight turns, but an absolute delight. We'll do that stretch again, and perhaps stay along the creek when we have our smaller rig... someday.

But near the town of Checkerboard things ground to a halt. Road construction! As we waited for the pilot car that would lead us through the next few miles of intense construction, a long (way too long) conversation with the flagger revealed they were totally rebuilding this section of road. Montana's way of doing road construction is to 1) rip up and remove the current road, 2) bring in the even bigger equipment to dig, drill, blast, load, haul, and dump material, 3) make sure the roadbed is rough, dusty, and barely passable, and 4) run traffic down through the middle of the roadbed-under-construction, one lane at a time, sharing the space with all the construction equipment. Oh, and if they need a new bridge... rip out the old bridge, build a temporary road around where the new bridge will be (off to the side, down through the creek, up the bank on the other side, and back onto the under-construction roadbed. The bus-house went places that day we thought we'd only go someday after we bought a jeep. But after about 9 miles we were back to pavement again.


But at that point the pavement wasn't a great place to be with an almost 9 foot wide vehicle. We then understood why they're starting to rebuild this portion of roadway. You see, each lane of the very old roadway was only 9 feet wide. And there was no shoulder. Not just a very small shoulder... there was NO shoulder. At the edge of the pavement began the slope down into the ditch. In some places chunks of asphalt with the painted white line were breaking off and falling into the ditch. Now I don't mind driving down narrow roads. It focuses my mind... it directs my attention... I become a precision operator of an expensive piece of equipment that just happens to be our home and contains what little stuff we value. It's our whole shebang! That can focus a guy's attention.

What I do mind is when a large full size semi-truck, with one of those mean-looking cow-catchers welded to the front end, belching black smoke from all 4 smokestacks, pulling a load of logs or a big wide bulldozer that's probably slightly wider than it's really supposed to be... when one of these things is barreling toward me at 70 mph (the posted speed limit on secondary roads in Montana) or more... well, I do begin to mind that. Let's see, the road is 18 feet wide. I'm almost 9 feet... and more if you count those big outside rear view mirrors sticking out a little further. The truck coming my way is almost 9 feet wide, with wider rear view mirrors, not to mention the questionable width of the load. Well, 9 plus 9 is still 18... and that means there is no margin for error, no allowance for a gust of wind, and certainly it's no time for one of those drivers to sneeze, or to be texting their girlfriend on the cellphone. If you think watching the Blue Angles flying team is exciting, you should see this show.

Sometimes you get lucky and the height of the outside mirrors on the truck are higher than ours on the bus-house... in which case, one passes over the other without making contact. But if the mirrors are at the same height, each driver learns to do a quick jerky jog to the right (and back) just as the mirrors pass one another. If that doesn't work right, you might "click" mirrors. And the worst case is that the mirrors tangle and are shattered in an explosion of metal tubes, plastic, and glass. Not a good day, bunky.

I feel sure that section of roadway, something like 60 or 80 miles long (I wasn't counting... was a little preoccupied) is probably one of the more historic along the full route of US-12. I'm confident it was designed, graded, and paved in 1926... and hasn't been touched since.

I'm probably being slightly over-dramatic here and I appologize -- just having a little fun for effect, you know. To make a long story slightly shorter, we managed to get through the day with outside rear view mirrors intact and with the bus-house staying out of the ditch. But we did have to endure 3 more similar stretches of construction on US-12 today before we finally tossed out the anchor in Miles City. That's right, a new record total of 4 significant construction sites, about 30 miles of gravel roadbed, in one day. Oh, and the toad looks like it's been through the Baja 200. It was a day to remember, for sure.

One other event of note:  As we passed just to the north of Billings we could see the massive columns of smoke from a huge 10,000 acre wildfire... perhaps 10 or so miles away, it seemed like we were right on top of it. Looks like it's going to be a long fire season up this way.

Since it was getting late we opted to stay at Camp Walmart in Miles City. The parking lot was relatively level, and surprisingly uncongested by the time we got there. And despite hitting the night they sweep the parking lot at 2am, we slept pretty darned good.


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

June 26 - Montana State Capitol

This is our 24th visit to a State Capitol Building, and I've got to say... it's beginning to feel a lot like the experience you have when looking for a new house with a real estate agent... after five or six... or ten... they all start to look alike. But we can't stop now... we're almost half way through the list of 50.

"Buck up, old boy... you can do it!"

Unlike many States, this is the only building Montana ever designated as the State Capitol. Admitted to the Union in 1889, they did the right thing by initially meeting at the old territorial capitol, at hotels, at bars... wherever there was a space large enough to get a quorum and conduct the business of State. Some might feel that's the way it should have stayed, but about 1896 a group of legislators felt it was time to create a decent Capitol... a Capitol that would stand up well to the Capitols of surrounding States... a building the people of Montana could feel proud of... a central place you could go and find the bastards responsible for the issue you feel strongly about.

So, in 1896 the first Capitol Building Commission was formed and sought plans and bids from architects across the nation. The winning entry was one from St. Louis architect George R. Mann. Unfortunately, that plan, and the first Capitol Building Commission was scrapped and disbanded when it was discovered that it's members were planning to scam money from the project. So a second Capitol Building Commission was hastily formed and the plan selected was from the architects of Charles Bell and John Kent. An interesting side-note... three years later, George F. Mann's original plan was re-worked and selected as the model for the new Arkansas State Capitol.

It was constructed between the years of 1899 and 1902. Wing extensions were added in 1910, but the building has remained basically the same since that time. A unique feature is that the chambers of both legislative bodies, the House and the Senate, are located in the same west wing of the building... haven't seen that before.

Like many other Capitols, this one was subjected to a lot of abuse during the middle part of the 20th century, when the notion of the day was to paint over those decorative details, rip out those sky-lights, jam more cheap office space into nooks and crannies here and there... all in the name of keeping it cheap and efficient. If efficiency is what we're after in a seat of government, we'd all have a State Capitol like Florida's... a high-rise office tower that reminds me of the Communist tenement apartments we found behind the iron curtain in the early 90's. It didn't work for folks living in those drab concrete towers... and it doesn't work for a seat of government. There must be elements that impart the feeling of unity... of history... of the struggle and efforts that went into achieving statehood.

Thankfully, also like many other States during the 80s and 90s, the State of Montana decided to refurbish their aging but stately relic... and to bring it back to the condition it was just after completion. There are art works that reflect the early people who had an impact on the State... the Native American... the Mountain Man... the Miner... and the Cowboy. There are sculptures of native Montanans who made significant contributions to the State.

Charles M. Russell: "Lewis and Clark meeting the Flathead Indians at Ross' Hole"

The most significant piece of artwork we saw was the Charles M. Russell masterpiece entitled "Louis and Clark meeting the Flathead Indians at Ross' Hole". It's a massive work, stretching 25 feet by 12 feet and covers the west wall of the House of Representatives. The story goes that Charlie had to expand his cabin/studio in order to fit it in during the creation process. Standing up to the test of time, it's considered the apex of Russel's work... and it's right there in the House Chamber for all to see... and not in some one-percenter's private collection or in some obscure museum.  HoooRaaaa Montana!

After our tour, and while we were wandering, lingering, around the magnificent structure, a glance out a north-facing window revealed that the big wildfire from the day before had re-stoked... and appeared to be heading right for our camp. We decided to head back to the bus-house and forgo lunch downtown.



June 26 - A Hot Time in the Capital City

Locals here in Montana are telling us it's much warmer than normal for this time of year. And the wind has been a strange bugger too, although I can't say if that's normal or not.  As you picked up in yesterdays post, a fire got started in the hills northwest of Helena yesterday. Driven by 40+ mph winds out of the west northwest, it blackened the skies and burned more than 1400 acres before the winds died down last night and firefighters were able to get a grip on the beast. The latest reports are that 5 homes have burned and many other outbuildings as well.

This fire is very close to our RV Park... at it's nearest, it was only 1.6 miles away. We could see the flames from our camp... could see mature trees give up the fight and explode into flame from bottom to top. And, as I said last night, suddenly the wind shifted. Within just a few minutes it changed from blowing hard out of the northwest to blowing hard out of the south. I'd never seen anything like it before... an almost 180 degree change in just a few minutes. That change in direction was a good news/bad news thing for the folks fighting the fire. The change in wind started blowing the fire back over much of the area it had just consumed... so there wasn't much left to burn. But it also blew flames into an area that hadn't burned yet... and into some houses that would have been spared had the wind not shifted.

After dark we walked outside to our fire-viewing spot and saw the most amazing thing. The tall hillsides that had been burning much of the afternoon were no longer in flames, but were now, in the dark of night, covered with red-glowing hot spots... a blanket of hot cinders... like thousands of dying campfires... clearly, brightly visible from almost two miles away... just waiting to erupt again. That sight was another thing I hadn't seen before... at least not on this scale. Our visit to Helena is certainly giving us some memories.

We woke this morning to almost no wind at all. Only hints of smoke from here and there on the burnt hillsides. No giant plume of smoke either... it all could lull a spectator into complacency. Helicopters were patrolling the area and dropping water on hot spots. But it looked to be over.

As we drove into town for our Capitol visit, I noticed a few flags... hanging limp or just barely moving. There was virtually no wind.

As our Capitol visit was ending I looked out the window to the north and could see the wind and the fire had started in where it left off last night. In the time we were inside, maybe two hours, the wind started in, again, with a vengeance. Steady wind of 30 to 40 mph and gusts to more than 50. We hustled to the car and back to the RV park... just in case smoke or threat of fire meant evacuating.

Luckily, the wind was carrying the smoke slightly to the south from camp so we didn't have to deal with that. But we did batten down the hatches, pulled in a couple slides, and waited it out while rockin' and rollin' like a boat on a stormy sea.

By 7pm, the wind had backed off slightly and the fire, once again, looked like it was less mean... less threatening.

Dar has a few more photos of the fire in an online album. Check them out if you have time.

Tomorrow we're packing up and heading east again. We'll be driving out of the Rockies and onto the high plains of Eastern Montana. The weather looks OK for the next few days but I think we'll be running the generator and the A/C a little more than normal to beat the heat.

I'll be doing a separate post on our Montana State Capitol visit... may even get it up tonight.


Monday, June 25, 2012

June 25 - From Trout Creek to a Capital Fire

It was a slow, easy morning, this. And we didn't get rolling out of Trout Creek until just after 10am. We accomplished a lot during our short stay at this marvelous little campground/RV park... including a little laundry, a few words in, and a few more out. The bright clear morning just begged to have a motorhome running down the road splitting the scenery, and that's exactly what happened. We continued our journey eastward (for the most part) and along the Clark Fork River toward Missoula.

It's over a hundred miles to Missoula. We arrived about noon, found some reasonably priced diesel fuel (3.66), found lunch at a Montana Wheat Store, and dropped into the congested zoo known as Bretz RV, one of the big RV dealers in this part of the world. I really don't feel like carrying-on about it... but... why dealers in the RV industry find it so necessary to pack every square inch of their sales lots, their parking lots, the road outside their stores, and the gravel field across the road with, more 'for sale' RVs of every description and size and make and model than they can possible sell in 10 years... and they make customers run the gauntlet of trying to maneuver and turn and twist through the maze... just to find a few square feet of space to park the rig for a few minutes... so we could go inside and purchase a water pump at inflated prices from staff who doesn't know their liver from second base? To keep it short... I got my water pump but I won't be back, at least until they can provide some comfortable roomy parking for paying customers. Bah! This is why RVers with half a brain buy parts and accessories online. Buying from a dealer, RV or otherwise, should be a pleasure. At Bretz, it's a pain.

This Boeing 737 will have logged more than 2,000 miles on the rails before its first flight.

By the time we were ready to head out again, it was almost 2pm. I really wanted to get to Helena as the weather there looked better for the next few days than it did in Missoula. So off we went, forgoing our planned continuance on MT-200, opting instead for the faster but well worn I-90 Interstate at least as far as Garrison Junction, where US-12 heads eastward to Helena. It's only about 40 miles from the junction to Helena, but a traveler must cross over McDonald Pass (6,299') and engage the slopes on either side. To complicate matters, the State of Montana, in their effort to "chip seal" anything that even resembles asphalt pavement, was in the middle of "chip sealing" the Pass... which meant long waits in long lines while we queued up for the pilot car that would guide us poor travelers so we didn't interfere with the technical magic of laying down tar and dumping small stones on top of it. I know it has a purpose, but it's a real pain in the ass.

We arrived in Helena, a small town (pop. about 30,000) for a Capital City, and proceeded to the Walmart (only a little more than a mile from the Capitol building), where I had the mistaken notion that we might be able to tuck into a corner of their parking lot for a night for free. Well, that wasn't in the cards. The lot was packed with traffic and cars and other RVs... and I didn't even drive in. It was another unpleasant maze as far as I was concerned, and two in one day is just too much. So I found a spot to do a little research, made a few phone calls, and decided we'd stay at the one, the only, RV park in the Helena MT area that answered their phone at 4:30 in the afternoon. About 8 miles north, Lincoln Road RV Park turned out to be an acceptable spot for a couple nights, albeit a bit pricey at $38 per night.


The side-story here is that while we were dropping into the Helena area from McDonald Pass, Dar noticed smoke off in the distance and wondered if it was a wild fire. When we later arrived at the RV park, we found the sun blotted out by the smoke from the fire... which happened to be two or three miles distant, growing quickly and, of course, upwind... which meant the fire was headed right for us. Talk about disappointment... can you imagine how I felt that I had just laid out $77 of our hard-earned nest egg... and we might be asked to evacuate. Well... do I get a refund???   Will I be made whole???  Where will we go??? I need to know.

Well, to make another long story short, we were out in our lawn chairs, with a big bowl of popcorn and an adult beverage, keeping an eye on the fire closing in on us... and the wind shifted.  That's right, the wind shifted... literally (and without exaggeration), within about 5 minutes...the wind changed direction... from blowing directly toward us, to blowing directly away from us. It was amazing, to say the least. We think the wind-shift probably helped the fire-fighters too.

I'll have more to say about the fire tomorrow... when we learn more from the local press. But for tonight, I think we'll sleep OK and smoke-free.


June 24 - Goodbye Spokane... Hello Montana

The last couple days have been a blur. Yes, a blur... but an enjoyable blur. It's an overused cliché', but time really does fly by when you're having fun.

Our good friends Jimmy and Julianne... what can I say? They not only made space for us at the property where they're house-sitting this summer... they offered a 15 amp circuit for the bus-house batteries, they fed us, made camp fires for us, had adult beverages available, sparked both thought-provoking conversation and enjoyable nonsense, and had a parade of their friends pop up here and there to spice things up even more. We did a rails-to-trails bike ride and fueled it with the biggest hotdog I've ever seen. We had some alone-time for our work but really enjoyed the together-time around the campfire every night. It was a wonderful visit. Thanks so much you two.  We'll see you somewhere in the Southwest this next winter.

But the journey calls. And we didn't want to wear out our welcome. I think it was Ben Franklin who said that both fish and guests start to smell after three days... and since our allotted time was drawing to a close, we planned to hit the road again this morning... Sunday morning... weather permitting.

I could have predicted it. As a matter of fact, I think I did predict it. About 4:30am a crack of thunder startled me awake... and a downpour followed. Hmmm, travel day... of course.  And the rain continued pretty much continuously until about 9am. The Northwest has been getting more than it's fair share of rain this Spring, and every few days it seems like we've had to adjust for it. (It's especially not fair since the Midwest has been dry as an Arizona desert... a serious shortfall in rain that has everyone concerned.) Checking out the radar and the forecasts... which both suggested conditions might be improving as the day wore on... we decided to pull the plug, fire it up, and go anyway.

So, by about 11am, we had things hooked and humming, hugged good-byes, and got back on the road. The route today was US-2 to Sandpoint ID, ID-200 to the border with Montana where it turned into MT-200, which we took to Trout Creek MT... our camp for the night. Miles for the day?... an easy 134.

The drive today took us around two sides of Lake Pend Oreille (pronounced: pond-o-ray), the fifth deepest lake in the country. It's a big lake, about 150 sq. miles, and is believed to have been formed during the last ice age. A couple years ago, during our trip across the country on US-2, we camped at Riley Creek campground (COE) on the shores of the big lake.

We found this wonderful small RV park in Trout Creek... Trout Creek Motel and RV Park. The owners clearly take pride in their business, as everything is neat, clean, manicured, fresh, and every detail covered.  The RV park is almost like a campground... large long and wide spaces with fire rings, picnic tables, big trees all around, and all of it neat as a pin. As an example of the little things they've covered... I spotted a pair of reading glasses on the check-in counter which I learned were there for the benefit of people who come in to register but forgot their own glasses. The whole place reeks of passion and caring, and we loved it. Oh, it's a Passport America park too... so a great value. By all means, when coming through this part of the country between Missoula and Sandpoint, stay off the big bad Interstate highway... get over onto Highway 200, and stay at the Trout Creek Motel and RV park. You won't be sorry.

Under the category of  "3 seconds of excitement"... I think I saw a moose today. We were a few miles outside of Trout Creek when I saw it... standing right at the edge of the forest alongside the road... more in the trees than in the clearing. It happened so fast I couldn't say anything to get Dar into the game either. My first thought was that it was a horse... but it wasn't a horse. It just wasn't the right place for a horse to be. The animal was very dark and tall legged. It's head was hidden by a low tree limb so I couldn't confirm by means of a distinctive head or antlers... and it didn't move during the few seconds I saw it. I asked the folks at the RV park if moose are around this part of the country, and they confirmed they are. So I'm left with an uncertain sighting... which is still pretty darned exciting.

In a few minutes we're getting things running again and heading for Helena by way of Missoula. It's Montana's turn to have their Capitol visited by these two explorers.

(I'll add photos to this post in the next day or two.  Check back)

Thursday, June 21, 2012

June 21 - Over the Cascades... and the Monashees too

Anticipating a big travel day, we had the big wheels turning by 8:10am. Deteriorating weather would catch up with us if we tarried too long and both Dar and I wanted the full effect of white snow-capped peaks against a blue-sky background during the drive today.

At Newhalem we were camped at 500 feet of elevation. There are two passes along WA-20 as we cross the top of the Cascades... Rainy Pass, 4,875' and Washington Pass, 5,476'.  They're about 35 miles down (or is it "up") the road and about 5 miles apart. So I guess we got some climbin' to do!

The bus-house was functioning as it should and made easy work of the task. We ran into patches of snow alongside the road at 3,500' and before we reached either summit it was a complete heavy few-feet-thick snow pack. But the temps were mild, the sun working hard, and water running everywhere... drips to trickles to torrents. And light traffic made being here all the more enjoyable.

On the way down the PAC brake (engine compression brake) got a good workout, keeping everything smooth and under control. Going down mountains without this thing would certainly be more stressful and much slower.

Along the way we passed through the towns of Winthrop and Twisp in the Methow Valley, then back uphill and over Loup Loup Pass (4,020') before dropping again, this time into the Okanogan Valley. Good roads and good weather continued as the route took us northward along the Okanogan River before bending to the east again at Tonasket.

At this point the Cascades were behind us. But another sub-range known as the Monashee Mountains lie between the Cascades and the Rockies, and we've got to climb over them to get to Spokane. The town of Wauconda was followed by our fourth pass of the day, Wauconda Pass (4,310') and some miles later the fifth and lass pass of the day... Sherman Pass.  At 5,575', Sherman is the highest year-round pass in the State of Washington. The road through here is a narrower road than what we experienced over the Cascades, and in most places, there is little or no shoulder at all.

All day long we saw bicyclists who were riding... sweating... pumping... up the same passes we were climbing. These folks have my admiration, but on narrow curvy roads with no shoulders, they seem to be putting themselves at considerable risk. I'm not planning to follow in their tracks... at least on this road... anytime soon.

Down the other side we found the Kettle River, a short river that drops out of Canada and feeds into the Columbia. The Kettle is un-dammed, one of a very few natural flowing rivers in the Northwest. A few miles later we stopped at a Walmart in Colville, WA., to pick up a few supplies and a fill-in prescription for some medication.  At that point we were only a little over an hour away from where our friends Julianne and Jimmy are watching over a property for the summer. A quick phone call confirmed they were there and a great moochdock spot confirmed for the next few nights. (Link to Julianne's website)

For the day, we did a little over 300 miles in about 9 hours, including stops for fuel/lunch and supplies. With all the slower than usual mountain driving, and the fact that we don't drive to set land/speed records, we thought it was an enjoyable and productive day of travel.

[check back... more photos will be added a bit later]

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

June 20 - North Cascades National Park

This is going to be an unusual report. I'm going to write about North Cascades National Park without our ever actually being there. We were close... made it to the visitor center... camped in the Park Service campground... could see mountains inside the Park boundaries... but never actually stepped a foot inside. You see, there's a several mile wide buffer along WA-20 that is not part of the National Park... I'm guessing an accommodation to the Seattle Light power utility that owns three dams along the Skagit River which the highway follows through the mountains. We consider this two night stop our "survey course" of the place, and fully intend to get back here to explore with more vigor in the future.

The Park's purpose is to preserve the wilderness and to provide back country hiking and backpacking opportunities for the public. It's very remote. Technically, there is one little unpaved road about 10 miles south of camp that takes jeepers to a trail head a couple miles inside the Park. But other than that, there is no vehicle access.

But the views are stunning... towering jagged snow-covered peaks, tall lush green forest, steep vertical rock faces with melt water falling everywhere... literally hundreds of waterfalls. The park contains more than 300 named glaciers tucked among the rugged peaks which, like most glaciers around the world, are shrinking due to warmer global temps. We encountered very few people compared to the frenzy common at other more popular NPs. The roads aren't crowded either and it was easy to feel like we had the place nearly to ourselves.


Today we explored by car along the Skagit River. The aforementioned three dams are Gorge (the lowest), Diablo, and Ross (the highest on the river). Each creates a pool used for electric power generation (for Seattle Light) and, secondarily, recreation. The pool behind Ross Dam is Ross Lake, which stretches 24 miles north of the dam into Canada. In keeping with the remoteness theme of the area, there is only one drive-to access to Ross Lake which involves an epic journey into Canada, hours of travel, long stretches on a gravel road, crossing the border for a second time to get back into the USA... just to launch your boat on the lake near Hozomeen. You can lug a canoe or kayak down steep trails to reach the Lake if you're motivated.

We learned of a floating resort on Ross Lake appropriately named Ross Lake Resort [link] that's rather unique. The only access to it is by boat, as it's built on large cedar logs and floating out in the lake. It's been here for many years, and peaked our interest as a get-away destination where you can really get away. There is no cell phone access, no TV, and only two phone lines used for running the business and for emergencies. The accommodations run from basic to modern... they do have electric power and fresh water.

It's possible to drive across Diablo Dam, and we did. On the other side we found the Diablo Lake Ferry, part of the transportation link to Ross Lake Resort, and the North Cascades Institute and Environmental Learning Center. The day we visited one of the dam spillway gates was completely open and provided some good photo opportunities.

I can't overstate the good feelings we developed for this part of the world. With much of our family being in the Northwest I can see a lot more time will be spent in and around North Cascades National Park.


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

June 19 - Into the American Alps

This morning, Tuesday June 19, we found a hole in the clouds, danced around a few rain showers, hooked up the toad, and headed into the mountains. The past few weeks have been much wetter than "normal" (whatever normal is...). In fact, the weather guy on TV said we had the full month of June's "normal" precipitation... the FULL months worth... by the 10th. And the rain continues.

The route today took us north on I-5 to Arlington where we caught WA-530 through Darrington and up to WA-20, which took us all the way to Newhalem. Once we got off the I-5 racetrack the drive was relaxed and agreeable... quite the contrast with the craziness of the big cities and three or four lanes of concrete full of traffic going 80 mph. We were ready for the change.

Other than knowing we have to cross the Cascade Mountain Range as we head east, I'm not very familiar with the lay-of-the-land in this part of Washington... and was a little surprised to find the elevation of Newhalem was only 500 feet. I thought we'd climbed more than that. The two passes we will traverse as we cross the top of the Cascades, just a few miles further up the road, are almost 5,000 feet. It appears we've got some serious climbing to do when we leave here on Thursday.

We first pulled into the North Cascades National Park Visitor Center RV parking lot so we could learn more about the place and see if we might fit in the campground just a short walk from the Visitor Center. The unusual thing about this NP is that the Visitor Center is not actually in the National Park, nor is the Campground, nor WA-20 itself. The National Park is divided into two units, north and south, split by WA-20 along with a significant buffer on either side of the highway. There is effectively no road access into the National Park at all... only hiking trails. It's wilderness... it's very steep and rugged country... and it's purpose for being is to preserve the wildness for future generations.

This is spectacular country. Some refer to it as the American Alps. These craggy mountains span the border between Washington (USA) and British Columbia (Canada). The Skagit River runs through Newhalem carrying rain and snowmelt from the peaks and surrounding high country... and this Spring the flow is strong. Back in the 40s and 50s, Seattle City Lights, the electric power utility for the City of Seattle, was able to gather support for a series of three dams to provide hydro-power for the city. The three dams are still operational and provide almost a quarter of the power consumed by Seattle-ites. The little village of Newhalem is a company town, populated entirely by employees working for the utility or the hydro project.

We found the Newhalem Creek Campground to our liking (lots of big trees, space, and few campers), and, perhaps more importantly, to the bus-house's liking (big paved sites, level, and no clearance issues getting the big old camper back to a site). So we snagged site 37, paid for two nights, and kicked back to enjoy a quiet evening.

Our campsite in Newhalem Creek Campground

Look closely... you might see a very relaxed bus-house driver.

Monday, June 18, 2012

June 18 - Our Northwest Visit

Since my posts have been sparse the past few weeks, I really should bring the record up-to-date. My last post really wasn't very informative... maybe this will help.

We spent a total of just over a month in the Northwest, weaving ourselves into the life-fabric of our "west-coast" family. Our daughter and son-in-law, our two grand-sons, our son and daughter-in-law, and all kind of extended family, friends, pets, and more... they all reside out here in the great Northwest.  And we love these Northwest visits almost as much as we love our nomadic lifestyle these days. We get involved with home improvement projects, repairs, kid-sitting, running errands, more kid-sitting, taking kids to school, picking kids up from school, parties, shopping, and so many other things it just boggles my mind.  We wouldn't have it any other way. 

Some years we only get out here for a month... one time in a year.  The last 12 months we've been here twice... last fall and now this spring. The gap between visits was much less and felt about right, as we pretty much just picked up right where we left off last fall. If there was some way to arrange our travels to improve the family-balance we're looking for... hmmm.  We'll have to work on that.

We ended this visit without any idea when we'd be back. We're only loosely planned out through the summer... into the fall.  But after 5 years on the road we're ready to mix things up a little... to change the annual travel circuit we've been running between the Northwest, the Midwest, and Texas. Just don't know yet what it'll be, but something's going to change. I'll advise you, dear Journal, as soon as I know.

We left the Portland-Vancouver area on Thursday June 14 and dieseled 200 miles north to an RV park in Bothell, WA... in the Seattle metroplex. There we spent our last weekend out here with son and daughter-in-law JT and Kaytlyn. We worked on a few home improvement projects... adding stairs to their outside deck... straightening and squaring an old sagging lawn-gear shed... touching-up a few spots the previous owner missed when painting the house a few years ago... you know, stuff like that. We also shared a few dinners, had some good conversation and laughs, and bonded with these two as a couple... something we really hadn't had an opportunity to do before.

It was a busy but very enjoyable month. But the time has come to hit the road again.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

June 13 - Willy in my Head

The month has evaporated... like a puddle in the desert... and it's time to get back "on the road again".  It certainly doesn't feel like we've been here a full month already, but the calendar doesn't lie. And at the risk of repeating myself for about the 8th time... there's both pain and joy in leaving. It's sooo hard to say good-bye to family... but it's sooo exciting to think about what might be around the next bend or over the next hill as we explore places we've not been before.

The plan at this point is to move up to an RV park not far from JT and Kaytlyn's new home near Kirkland, WA. (Seattle area). We're staying for the weekend and helping them with a couple projects. It'll also give us a little more time with these two. They both work full-time and weekends are about the only time we can really spend good quality time together.

Monday, if the weather gods cooperate, we'll then point the nose of the bus-house east, and start the trek back to Wisconsin. Charting out a new coarse is always our preference, and this time we're hoping to knock off a couple more National Parks and State Capitols along the way. The rough goal is to be in the Cheese State by mid-July.

Goin' places that I've never been.
Seein' things that I may never see again
And I can't wait to get on the road again.

Friday, June 8, 2012

June 8 - Well, This is a First

In an effort to stay somewhat close to the run-away technology train... I've recently taken delivery of a small tablet computer (or "device" as some call it). It's a Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0... a little 7 inch tablet running the Android operating system. Unwilling, up to this point, to unwrap my fingers from a $500 bill for a real IPad (remember, I'm the guy who still owns, uses, and loves a "flip-phone"), I jumped at the first full-featured tablet for under $250 that came along. The little Tab is getting reasonably good reviews from the technology press and I reasoned that if I didn't make the move now I might be forever relegated to the ancient laptop (remember the abacus?) for the rest of my life.  And, for now anyway, I'm still resisting the tempting dixie cup of Apple Kool-Aid.

But I should add that in composing this post I'm not using the integral screen keyboard ubiquitous to all tablets out there... I mean, that's one of the things that make a tablet a tablet... no hardware keyboard... just the software imitation. On a small 7 inch tablet, the built-in screen keyboard is pretty darned small. It works fine for a little input here and there, but for a writer with lengthier ambitions and little time to spend poking at a smooth screen with no tactile feedback whatsoever, a real keyboard is, well, the key. So this short post is being punched out on my son-in-law's Logitech wireless (bluetooth) keyboard. And after almost two paragraphs my impression is very positive. The Logitech feels right. There's no substitute for that tactile feedback from the intersection of mechanical key and fingertip. The only thing I'm struggling with now is the tablet itself.

So during the next few months I'll continue to play around with the Tab to see how it fits into our lifestyle. The "instant-on" feature is nice, as is the ultra portability and GPS capability... and I can see it following us out on explorations... almost anywhere we go.