Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Armadillos and other thoughts

Did I mention the armadillos? Nope. So, who knew there were armadillos in Missouri! Here we are, cruising through the Ozarks, picking up (and putting down) countless turtles, frogs and various and sundry insects and what do we see alongside the road (sadly, dead) today? EIGHT armadillos over the course of some 100 miles. Hope to see a live one some time…perhaps they’ll tiptoe through camp before we hit the hay some evening.

Did the math today…if we were to spend just one month in each state, it’d take us more than four years! Easy math, but not something I’ve ever really thought about ‘til today. And if you only vacation one month per year, at a rate of one state per year, well, I may not be traveling that long! And what about the REST of the world? There’s never enough time.

Laura's Last Stop

Sept. 23

It was so dark last night that we were a bit spooked by the river. Was it deep? Dark? Muddy? Were there weird critters in it?

Box turtle rescue - another turtle helped across the road
I woke just before sunrise this morning (that’s happening more and more often this trip – perhaps it helps that the sun is rising LATER each day!), and enjoyed a quiet sunrise on the river while the girls had a little lay in. The river is the first clear running water we’ve seen in more than a month (since Canada). It was a fairly shallow, wide section with a gentle flow of relatively warm water appearing mysteriously from the mist just a few yards upstream. It was almost T-shirt weather when I awoke, and the mist that enveloped our camp was a bit spooky, but there was enough light to really enjoy the effect. Tiny fish were jumping, so I practiced my fly casting until I snapped off one of my best flies (good thing I buy them in pairs).
Visiting Laura's house

Once the girls were up, we headed west to Mansfield, MO, the last home of Laura & Almonzo Wilder. We had a picnic in the grass at the parking lot, toured the home they built on Rocky Ridge, and visited the stone house their daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, purchased for them with her $10,000 book publishing bonus. (I know, Mom, you’re still waiting for a book of mine to pay for your trip around the world. Prices have gone up since Rose bought the rock house from the Sears catalog!) Hard to believe the Wilders couldn’t bring themselves to stay in this beautiful house on an even more beautiful piece of wooded land. They returned to their House on Rocky Ridge, for which they’d been homesick the eight years they lived in their gift home.

Kicking back in camp, Liberty, Missouri
We pressed on west again this afternoon in time to catch the George Washington Carver National Monument, but not in time to serve it justice, so we’ve camped in Liberty, MO, for the night and will return to the monument in the morning before pressing on. Westward Ho!

Travel plans were made to be altered

Sept. 22, 2008

OK, so we were SUPPOSED to head out today. Travel plans are supposed to be flexible though, right? We couldn’t take off without another visit to Forest Park. After all, there were things we hadn’t seen, not the least of which were the playground left to be explored, and the St. Louis Science Center which begged for our attention. Well, it would’ve been fine without our attention, but WE didn’t want to skip it all for the sake of moving on!

We rose bright and early (OK, it wasn’t sunrise yet, but you get the picture) so we could use the bathrooms before they were locked. Then we rolled camp to Forest Park where we had a picnic breakfast. (Why be normal?) We all enjoyed Wonderland Playground, including a fabulous drinking fountain that also served as a play place.

Then the hunt for parking continued. We found a place with no problem in the nearly vacant parking lot outside the Planetarium, but as we walked away, a security officer let us know in no uncertain terms that we could not park a trailer there, not even for the day while we visited the Planetarium/Science Center (they’re linked via an enclosed pedestrian overpass). We’d have to park “by the lake.” Turns out the curbside parking there was already taken, so we ended up spending 40 minutes driving up and down dead-end streets searching for the parking lot at the Science Center (on the other side of the freeway) only to discover they don’t allow trailers (or anything longer than a passenger vehicle). After I asked the attendant for some input on a parking spot and told her what we’d already done to find a spot, she took pity on us and called her supervisor. Once the supervisor saw our tiny trailer, they let us in so long as we parked WAY at the back of the lot. Done!

The St. Louis Science Center was certainly worth the parking hassle. While we’d intended to spend a couple of hours there at most, we ended up spending most of the day. There was a wide variety of exhibits which, by their nature, invited participation by all ages, and the frequent science presentations (particularly “When Science Goes Splat”) were captivating, entertaining and, yes, educational.

We couldn't leave the area without a stop at Ted Drewes for custard concrete, which reminded me a lot of the shakes I used to get with my best college friend in Salt Lake City - so thick you'd need a pump to suck it through a straw, and any combination of flavors and additions you could imagine. We also stopped at the storied White Castle to try the burgers. The verdict all around: ick!

Though we’d intended to spend the afternoon lounging about at Meramec State Park, we were tired of crowds and noise after our St. Louis “camping” experience, and we were running too late to really enjoy the park, so we carried on West, putting on some miles in the late afternoon. Our first good pitstop was at the World’s Biggest Rocking Chair, newly erected (April Fool’s Day 2008) in Fanning, MO. It’s silly, but pretty cool, and it got us to stop into the shop there and grab a thing or two that we may or may not have needed.

I was headed for an area in the Ozarks called the Devil’s Backbone, but dark fell earlier than expected, so we found ourselves camping on the shore of the Big Piney River. The fireflies are out – or are they firefly larvae? They look like lady bug larvae, but their tail ends glow. They certainly don’t fly (no wings), and look more like black, flattened pillbugs than beetles. Also spotted one of the hundreds (thousands?) of tiny tree frogs that are quite vociferous tonight. So glad to be back out with the sounds of nature!

St. Louis deserves a week - MINIMUM!

Sept. 21, 2008
St. Louis is a fantastic city! What a wonderful way to enjoy our last day of summer!

We woke up bright and early this morning, took advantage of the hot showers, then packed up our rolls from Panera (I’d actually planned ahead, can you believe it?) and headed out for the Metro light-rail. On our walk toward the casino (and on to the light rail station), a security van picked us up. (They run a shuttle from RV park to casino, but we’d missed it. I think the shuttle driver radioed for the security van to pick up the slack(ers). When we told him it was our first time to St. Louis, he said, “Well, I’m going to take you to the best view of the arch!” After we snapped our shots (and he took some family shots for us), he delivered us to the rail station.

The light rail here is remarkably clean, fast and convenient. There’s really no reason to have a car in St. Louis, particularly if you can find a Metro bus schedule and map (something we lacked). Our first rail stop was just across the street from the Riverfront Park, home of the Gateway Arch. We sat on the benches under the arch and munched on our muffins as we watched the Mississippi River roll on by. Then it was up to the top! I was afraid I’d be claustrophobic in the capsules, but the four-minute trip felt rather quick, the capsule was well ventilated and the muzak combined with the historical narration provided via loudspeakers were all soothing.

The view from the top is great, E said. “If I could have a doll house that looked like THAT, that’d be perfect!” She was referring to the entire St. Louis skyline, the Mississippi River and views east into Illinois! SHEESH!

We also visited the Westward Expansion Museum (Jr. Rangers AGAIN!?), Old Courthouse (home of Dred Scott v. Sandford), had lunch downtown at a comfortable, scrumptious restaurant (Caleco’s), played in a fountain downtown, and hiked through Forest Park.

Forest Park is an amazing park: hiking trails, pedestrian trails, bike paths, playgrounds, museums, St. Louis Zoo, boathouse, and woods, real woods! We’d spent so much time in town that we didn’t have enough time here. Actually, it would take a few days to have enough time to really enjoy it. If we lived in the city, we’d spend more than our fair share of time here. We managed to wander through the St. Louis Museum of Art (the bag/coat check lady wasn’t very nice about our “decision” to come so late in the day) where we saw Monet’s “Water Lillies,” Rodin’s “John the Baptist,” and countless others we’d read about or seen images of online or in books. These were the real deal. The museum was really fantastic even though it was between exhibits (the next, Pollock and the like, opens Oct. 10), and many of its galleries were closed as the museum gives itself a facelift.

The zoo was closed by the time we reached that portion of the park, so we continued on to Turtle Park, just across the freeway (don’t worry, we took the overpass) from Forest Park. V says, “I especially liked the huge turtles like the sea turtle because he had a pin nose and because his neck was like a slide. I also like the other big turtle because he had a great picture seat at the bottom of his neck.” E says, “And we met a boy and a girl we were playing with and we were sort of playing a mixture of Titanic and sailing through a sea of lava because we kept running into icebergs in the sea of lava. And then when we went in the water/lava we’d get hypothermia!”

It was starting to get dark, and we were depending on mass transit for which we didn’t have a great schedule, so we headed back across the park, past The Boathouse (tempting stop for dinner), and back on to the train.

Now another night in camp. Oh, and they’re closing the bathrooms for repairs for three full days beginning tomorrow morning at 7. Good thing we’re heading out! (Interesting way to run a campground.)

Gateway Ho!

Sept. 20

After our wonderful breakfast at Panera’s (and our last blogging session) we crawled back into the van for our last leg east. Our first stop of the day was Arrow Rock State Park, an intended camping destination until we let ourselves be talked into another day in Kansas City. We stopped in today for a picnic lunch and look around and really enjoyed it. The park is peaceful, beautiful and includes the community of Arrow Rock. The girls caught a turtle at our first stop in the park, so we made that our picnic spot and entertained ourselves by watching Yertle the Speed Demon run zigzags across the porch of the old courthouse. This would certainly have been the better camping spot. Next time…

As we headed into St. Louis, I handed back the visitors guide. The girls soon spotted Grant’s Farm and within minutes we’d set our course for the “free” tour of this park. Turns out it’s free after you pay for parking. If you’re driving a car, it’s only $10, but tow in a trailer of any size, come in an RV or any other oversized vehicle and it’s $25. Bummer.

The girls enjoyed the property, though, which is basically a privately held zoo (owned by the Busch family of Anheiser-Busch fame) that is open for public tours. Visitors first take a free tram through the 160-acre deer park and up the hill to the “farm” where handlers put on various animal shows, baby goats wait to be bottle fed or brushed (they prefer the bottles, or buttons from your clothes, hair, shirt tails, camera bag straps), and several exotic animals are on display. The handlers also provide animal interaction with visitors including opportunities to touch snakes, tarantulas, ferrets (we pet Salt, Pepper was still asleep), a giant tortoise. They may rotate in other animals on other days.

While we’d been planning to camp at Horsethief Lake in Illinois just a few miles outside of town, we opted to go for the spot that was just across the river, gated and fenced with security due to our proximity to big cities. For $22 a night, it’s the most expensive campground we’ve visited, and the sites are parking spots separated by no more than 6 feet of gravel. There are no fire pits, fire rings or BBQs, no picnic tables (or any other sort of table), but there are hookups. And while it’s related to the neighboring casino, the only restaurant is inside the casino where children are absolutely forbidded. Unlike Vegas, kids can’t even walk through the casino to access the food, and they provided no outside access directly to the restaurant when they rebuilt last year. OOPS! For heavy sleepers with a fully self contained trailer or RV and no children this would be a great deal. For us, it was still a better deal price-wise than any hotel we could’ve gotten, but I wouldn’t stay here again unless I won the lottery and had one of those sound-proof, $300,000 jobbers. Then again, if I won the lottery I could afford to stay in a downtown St. Louis hotel! 

Today V, who has been making wonderful twisted braids for some time now, made her first three-strand braid. She’s very proud.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Sunrise - heading out.

Sept. 20

We rose early this morning to a beautiful sunrise here in Lee's Summit (the campground we've attributed to Kansas City or Blue Springs is actually in Lee's Summit, apparently). Having breakfast at a fantastic local coffee shop and bakery, Panera's, while taking advantage of their WiFi. We enjoyed our various pastries this morning and have collected a few more for tomorrow as well as a freshly baked loaf of bread. MMMM!

Heading to St. Louis today with a stop planned at Arrow Rock State Park, likely before many of you get to see this post.

For whatever reason, AOL won't load today, so I don't have e-mail access. Error message: "The page you are trying to view cannot be shown because it uses an invalid or unsupported form of compression.

* Please contact the website owners to inform them of this problem."

Er...tough to do without e-mail access! ;)

So, if you've sent us an e-mail and we've failed to respond, know that we're not ignoring you. We'll hope to see e-mail when we get internet access again in about a week.

Thanks to all who have sent notes and posted responses here on the blog. Looking forward to seeing you in October.

Two days in Kansas City

Sept. 19 –

Thought about carrying on east today, but at the encouragement of the local “Hitchhikers Club” (fifth-wheel trail owners) we stayed another day to explore further.

Spent the morning at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. Where we watched literally MILLIONS of dollars in bills go through a processing system which includes shredding up to $30 million in old, wrinkled, torn, stained or otherwise unfit bills EVERY SINGLE DAY! IMAGINE THAT! WHEW! The robotic cash retrieval system reminded me of my friend Kevin who was studying robotics (and attempting to create a chess-playing robot) while I stayed with him in England so many years ago. This robotic forklift system wa right up his alley.

Like so many of the other places we’ve been drawn in to see by brochures and visitors guides, we were a tad bit disappointed by one misrepresentation – we’d expected to be able to pick up (like, you know, in our HANDS) a gold bar as implied by their advertisement: “Pick up a gold bar.” But the $189,658 bar of gold is in fact locked in a case to which is attached a lever that you can pull to “lift” the bar. Still, I’ve never seen so much gold in one place!

Moved on to Hallmark Visitors Center and found ourselves at their mall where we had a disappointing lunch, then meandered through the mall before heading to the visitors center and much-touted kids hands-on area only to find out that they are closed for the ENTIRE month of September! ARGH!

Drove through the Lights district (this’d be neat at night if all this neon still works), the River Market district, downtown and along the riverfront before returning to camp to relax for the evening before packing up and heading east tomorrow.

As with so many other places along this trek, the girls found friends in the campground park. Alexa, 8, and Hunter, 5, seemed a perfect match - they played tag, taught each other new games, danced the tango and generally wore each other out. Too bad we (or they) live so far away.

Catfish morning, Cow Town afternoon.

Sept. 18 –

Lazy morning at Atchison State Fishing Lake near Atchison, KS. Great find, thanks to our “free camping” book. Some of the campgrounds are, in fact, free, but others charge up to $12. This one was free, and I opted to move on to test it out after finding Lewis & Clark State Park (MO) campground unreasonable – the $9 tents sites, for which we qualified because we desired no hookups of any kind, were at the far edge of camp not only far from the restrooms and play area, but immediately across a wood-slat fence from backyards of the neighborhood! Why would I want to pay to camp in a stranger’s backyard? Given that the camp was less than 50% occupied, I asked if we could park closer to the restrooms and campground and be charged the same rate if we just didn’t hook up to facilities. What frustrated me was that the camp “host” didn’t even give it a thought, perhaps look around at the ½ unoccupied camp, the late hour (6 p.m.) and the slim chance that a crowd was going to come in and need all those sites. Without pausing for breath, he said, “Have to charge you for hookups, then.” So, we moved on and it turned out to be a great thing!

Atchison Lake was relatively remote (about 4 miles down some dirt roads out of Atchison) and likely visited largely by locals. We pulled in shortly before sunset, after which one boat pulled off the lake and one family headed home leaving us to our own devices. We parked on a jetty designed for camping (there are half a dozen of these on the lake), made camp, had our campfire and enjoyed all the interesting nighttime noises here – different owls, a beaver or raccoon that splashed about, catfish that splashed into the night. Very peaceful night, and wonderful morning. Catfish for breakfast, boy are their skins TOUGH! Flat tire in Atchison, quick fix at Town & Country Tire which should be called the PitStop for their speed of service! WHEW!

Gates BBQ in Kansas City (mmmm), then National Trails HQ Museum. By its name, I expected a lot from this museum. It’s a warehouse with a decent display of journal entries, but otherwise fairly disappointing. The girls did have fun loading a wagon (on a scale which told them if they loaded too MUCH stuff) and their mule pack (three baskets, loaded and tied evenly on the packing tree). Drove by an amazing church which can be seen for MILES from Independence, MO. Locals call it the Corkscrew Church, though it’s the Reformed LDS Church, now called by another name. Ridiculously large.

Now camping at Blue Springs Campground, $17/night for electricity and shower in gated campground with a park and open space from whence we’re promised deer will show tonight to dine on the fruit in the various trees throughout camp (pears and other as of yet unidentified fruits).

Bugs, marvelous BUGS!

Sept. 17 –

If you want to see SUPER COOL bugs, do check out the Verdon Lake campground! WOW! What a great morning we had. Decided not to rush along, so had pancakes and bacon, boiled some eggs for lunch while the stove was on. Meanwhile, the girls began finding increasingly cool insects. It started with the black-and-yellow spiders with their big webs. Then V spotted a large (2”) grasshopper caught (and wrapped) in one of the webs. When I moved in to take pictures of the web and doomed grasshopper in the branches of a 3’-tall bush, we continued to discover more bugs: the praying mantis, mating grasshoppers, caterpillar, cicada and finally a locust.

Interesting sounds last night: raccoon? Beaver? Ducks? Catfish? The lake was active. At 4:30 a.m., I heard something that may have been owls. We finally tore ourselves away from camp and headed for St. Joseph, Missouri.

Something terrible has happened to this once vibrant town. The beautiful, historic buildings of downtown are largely vacant, and while some sort of revitalization effort is taking place one one block, I wonder if it will be enough. The residential neighborhoods near downtown weren’t much better off. Still…we enjoyed our visited Pony Express Museum (best kids area we’ve seen in any museum along this trek) & Monument, Patee House (too late in day), Jesse James House. Oh, and while downtown someone approached us and asked about our trailer. He asked if he could buy it, but wasn’t really interested in paying the price.

Headed to Lewis & Clark State Park to camp. It’s pretty hot and we’re tired.

Introduction to the Underground.

Sept. 16 –

On our way out of town we ran some errands: groceries for all, new shoes for me after receiving Steve’s blessing during his visit, gas for Tawny.

Next stop, Mayhew Cabin & John Brown’s Cave in Nebraska City, NE. This was the girls first real introduction to the Underground Railroad. Before we arrived, I gave them a little history. They knew about the slave trade, but we hadn’t discussed it at length. We talked about the penalties for attempting to escape, or helping someone in such an effort, then the underground movement. The Mayhew Cabin and caves are a reconstruction of the real deal in this spot so many years ago.
Then it was on to a more pleasant and purely entertaining stop at Arbor Day Farms, owned by the Arbor Day Foundation. We took the tractor-pulled wagon tour around the property which includes countless apple trees (many heirloom varieties saved as a “bank” of seeds), experimental walnut groves, wood lots and more. For those of you considering a visit here, while the property is beautiful, I’m not certain the “Discovery Ride” is really worth the extra cost. Then we explored the trails, treehouses and, best of all, the outdoor classroom. The girls decorated one treehouse with scarves – E made hammocks for us all and I created a hammock “roof” for her intended long-term stay. There were natural art areas, a small water play area that would be great for the preschool set, and wooden marimbas that caused more than a few adults to pause, too.

With the help of that Free Camping guide, we found ourselves at a Nebraska State Fishing Lake just outside Verdon, NE. We are just off the two-lane highway and we can hear the train across the little lake, but the park is otherwise relatively quiet. There’s a playground, plenty of tree shade, fire rings and picnic tables. The pit toilets do the trick.

Do the zoo!

Sept. 15 – As we planned this trip, nearly everyone we knew who’d ever been to Omaha told us about the zoo. It’s THE place to be for families visiting Omaha, and for good reason. After a morning at the Mormon Trail Museum & Winter Quarters (with the every-so-child-friendly Sister Maxfield as our guide) the girls finished off the PB&J supplies (oops, not enough for me!) while I tried out a cheeseburger at Zesto which claims to have “the best cheeseburger in town.” Well, I haven’t tried all the burgers in Omaha, but I can tell you it was a pretty darn good burger!

The zoo was extensive, and the best part was the Desert Dome. At first glance it doesn’t look very large; tall, yes, expansive, not hardly. But enter the glass doors and you find yourself on a winding path through desert flora and fauna. It took us a few turns to realize that those mountains weren’t just sculptures, but additional exclosures for high-dwelling desert critters. We saw plants and animals from our own California deserts to Australian lands. While we didn’t read every sign, we did manage to spend more than an hour in this portion of the zoo, enjoying the winding path and the creatures here.

The zoo has also made great use of the basement of Desert Dome. Downstairs is the Creatures of the Night exhibit, another winding path with somewhat spooky nighttime lighting. The animals downstairs all believe it’s night, so they’re quite active. Those we’ve seen sleeping at other zoos were running, climbing or flying about in a relative frenzy. My favorite were the flying squirrel type creatures. They sounded likely squeaky toys as they wrested with and chased each other. E’s least favorite, but a fantastic display, was the swamp area complete with wooden boardwalks raised a foot or so above the alligator, nutria, beaver and other animal enclosures. Imagine walking through the swamp setting at Pirates of the Carribean, only without the friendly restaurant and banjo music and with live animals lurking in the dark. Fantastic!

We stayed at the zoo until closing, walking our legs off and still not covering it all. The girls and I would certainly return to this zoo if we return to Omaha again.

We wandered the streets of Old Market and enjoyed looking in some shops, then dinner on the raised sidewalk before heading back in the dark along surface streets. It was a bit spooky being in a “big city” after having been in small town America for so long. (Bismarck is big, but doesn’t have the same feel as Big City America.)

We’re back in camp, toilet paper has been replaced though the lights still don’t work. Looking forward to moving on tomorrow.

Poor Sgt. Floyd!

Sept. 14 –

WHEW! Sioux City, Iowa – talk about a transportation nightmare! The streets and highways are a jumble here. We’d intended to spend more time here, but wasted a lot of it just trying to get from point A to point B. Case in point, our first stop: the Sgt. Floyd Museum. The museum is located along the shore of the Missouri River between the river and a major freeway. The only problem – there were no signs indicating just how to get there from any of the directions we tried. We passed the museum four times before inadvertently finding an unmarked sidestreet which led us under the freeway and finally to the museum. WHEW!

But the maze game was worth it. This was among the best of the museums we’ve visited so far along this route. The museum, named for the only member of the Corps of Discovery to die on the trek, is almost entirely hands on and the displays encourage adults and children alike to get involved. The museum also houses galleries (two of which housed photo exhibits during our visit) and a theater for presentations. We made lunch in the park and enjoyed it in the shelter (from today’s brisk wind) in Junior. Nice to have the shelter and the space to stretch.

Our next stop was among the best forts we’ve visited. Fort Atkinson just outside the town of Fort Calhoun was supposed to be open, but the visitors center was locked. No worries though. We were a bit museumed out, and the fort grounds were open. So we enjoyed a walk along the concrete path that looped through the tall grasses to sculptures representing the first Native American Council west of the Missouri River. Then we wandered through this enormous fort which at one time housed 1,000 people and served as the westernmost fort on the American frontier. We took a nice walk down the historic banks of the river to the riverbed, now farmland. At this point, Lewis & Clark noted the river was between 3 and 7 miles wide. Today, that area is farmland and highways with the subdued river occupying only a fraction of the basin.

Tonight we pulled into camp at NP Dodge Park in northern Omaha. The park is extensive. The campground is relatively quiet, but the restrooms and maintenance could sure use some attention. (Toilet paper, anyone?)

Goodbye, Daddy!

September 13 –
Today we took Mr. B to the airport. It felt strange to ditch him there, but he didn’t want us to hang out there for several hours. Rather he sent us ahead to carry on with our plans.

After about an hour’s drive, we stopped at Spirit Mound State Park for a stretch. We enjoyed a really nice walk about ¾ miles through tall grass prairie then up a steady, mellow incline to the top of the mound. Native people are said to have told the likes of Lewis & Clark that little people, no larger than 18 inches, haunted the hill and would shoot arrows at anyone who approached. Visiting with tribes being one of their duties, Lewis & Clark of course opted to investigate and found nothing but relatively expansive views, plants, bugs, birds and a stiff breeze. We found the same, including a wide variety of native grasses, wildflowers, bugs and frogs; we caught about a dozen frogs on our way up and ultimately held a frog race with the last pair we caught on our way out.

Then it was off to the Ice Cream Capitol of the World, LeMars, Iowa. I know, I know! Lewis & Clark didn’t travel here, but with a name like “ICE CREAM CAPITOL of the WORLD” do you really think we’d pass up such an opportunity? Turns out this is the home of Blue Bunny Ice Cream, maker of lots of your favorite popsicles and if you live almost anywhere in America, several of your favorite ice cream flavors as well. We enjoyed a walk through the Visitors Center (though we did expect it to be at the factory rather than downtown) topped up with some ice cream at the adjacent ice cream parlor. The best thing about working there, we noticed, was the unlimited supply of ice cream provided the teen employees while on duty. One strapping teen football player took a break with his own three-scoop combination complete with multiple toppings. The other kids teased him about his “hourly ice cream break,” but he took it well…hey, he had the ice cream in hand!

Rather than carry on, we opted to camp in the city park. The campground there is lovely, and complete with hot showers, giant Cottonwood trees and two ponds that served as a resting spot for southbound Canada Geese. On our way into camp we noticed a smalltown rodeo kicking off, so we set up camp, then walked to the campground where we caught the last barrel racer and a couple dozen bullriders.

A nice day in a small Midwestern town.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Catching up (and making up)

Well, if you've been following along, you've probably noticed that I've been pretty lax with the details lately. We've just been hummin' along, and getting on the computer has fallen by the wayside, so the details don't make it to type here. Fortunately for all those enquiring minds, I forgot to put our laundry in the dryer tonight, so I have a bit of extra time while the troops sleep and the clothes dry to catch up with YOU!

First, let me take you back as far as Bismarck where we enjoyed the Dakota Zoo. We discovered a MYSTERY surrounding their alligator exhibit, or perhaps only one alligator. While taking photos of Regie's cousin (ala LA Zoo Regie), I discovered the camera was taking black pictures. Just black. But ONLY when I took a picture of ONE alligator. All the other gators were fine with their photos being taken, and the shot of E worked out just fine. I even manually changed the camera settings to WIDE OPEN, as LONG as I could hold it still (a long fraction of a second) and still, not much came through! Hmmm...the Mystery of the Dakota Zoo!

The mystery of the turtle is answered in the captions (added tonight). We were headed down the two-lane paved county road toward Bridgeport, NE after a wonderful farm stay when I spotted a rock in the middle of my lane. Just as I was about to straddle it I discovered it had an oddly turtle shape to it. So I pulled over, walked back and discovered this poor little sand turtle with his legs all pulled in and only the tip of his head out, his eyes searching for the next opening for his highway crossing. Clearly I understood when he piddled all over my hand when I picked him up to share with the girls, then to set him off the road, away from the road. Sure hope he was going that way! :)

The donkeys are wild and live in herds at Custer State Park. The park is full of wildlife, but these are the only that approached to be hand fed and pet (once they were fed). The burro colt liked motorcycles better than cars, so we weren't able to get close to him.

Today we began our day with a visit to the Ingalls Homestead just south of DeSmet, SD. We spent half a day there even though they didn't have their summer activities going. With calves, colts and kittens to pet, machinery to experience, structures to explore and a trail to walk, there was no lack of things to do. Only hunger and the need to continue south drew us away.

Now we're in Sioux Falls, SD enjoying a waterpark in the hotel, hot showers, laundry (ahem!) and comfy beds before sending Mr. B to the airport tomorrow afternoon. It's been nice having him with us this week, and the girls were especially thrilled to hold Daddy's hand, sit on his lap, hike with him, eat with him, just BE with him. We all look forward to getting home, though as E put it, "there's still so much we want to see!"

The girls and I continue on our Lewis & Clark route now, meet up with my Uncle Jerry and Aunt Kathy in Oklahoma soon, then will be home in time for V's birthday in October.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Patriots Day in DeSmet, an All-American City!

September 11, 2008

Last night we found ourselves camping in Washington Park on the west side of DeSmet. We walked to dinner. What a fantastic community! The people are so friendly here and the small town (pop. 1,200) is entirely walkable. We haven’t found any graffiti, and since we’re here out of season I suppose, people keep approaching us and asking, “Are you tourists?” Then they want to know all about us, and tell us a bit more about the town. Last night at dinner it was a farming family native to the area. Today it was first a man in his late 70s (a native) in an electric wheelchair out for his morning fresh air. He had a lot to share. Then it was a local artist who lives in the three-story structure that was once the town’s hospital.

We toured some of the properties here in town that are related to the Ingalls family, including the Surveyors House where the Ingalls spent a winter before homesteading their own place just a mile south of town. We also saw the house that Pa built later in town and which served as Ma’s final home. There’s a replica of the schoolhouse where Laura taught, and the original schoolhouse the Ingalls kids attended here in town. The curator was fantastic with the girls, keeping their attention and keeping them involved in the discussion.

We also stopped in to Loftus Store, and had lunch at Ward’s. (Mmmm…Tater tot casserole with caramel-cinnamon-apple cake for dessert – all homemade!)

A Corny Entry

September 10, 2008
Good choice on the drive yesterday! We woke this morning and used what WOULD have been drive time to sort out the trailer and van and reorganize. Between the things the girls brought, the things Mr. B brought for the girls, and the things we’ve collected along the way, some areas of our living and transportation quarters had become nearly unmanageable. Still, we had time to play in the playground at the campground, check out the beach on the river shore then take a 1-mile drive to our first stop of the day: Akta Lakota Museum.

The museum on the site of the St. Joseph Indian School was very nicely organized. It followed a timeline from pre-horse day of the Sioux people to modern Sioux life. The most amazing thing I saw was a beaded story stick that followed nearly two decades of tribal news in the mid 19th century, all represented in the tiniest beads you can imagine.

From there we continued east to Mitchell, S.D. at the suggestion of several friend, relatives and others who learned we’d be in the Midwest. Mention the Dakotas and many who’ve been here will tell you Mitchell Corn Palace is worth the detour! Well, it was pretty impressive! Every May they begin scrapping off the murals from the prior year then, using this year’s corn, they create brand new murals all over the outside of the structure. The corn is not artificially colored, but raised these different colors. There are also murals inside. The facility includes a sporting venue (basketball court which is also used for wrestling matches) that can be used for large events (graduations, etc.) and a very large stage plus comfy seating.

On to Laura Ingalls Wilder Territory – De Smet, SD!

Donkeys in Custer, Dust in Badlands

Having spent an extra day just lounging around Center Lake, hiking to a high point nearby and catching tiny fish by hand, it was time to move on today. We’d planned to spend two days in the Badlands of South Dakota, but instead had today.

The Badlands are colorful and certainly unique, particularly in that they appear to rise from the plain. But having spent quite some time in the enormity of Southern Utah, they were a bit anticlimactic. We took a short fossil hike, listened to a long-winded ranger (the 15-20 minute talk became a 65-minute talk in the heat of the day, standing), then headed to the visitors center where V completed her 14th Junior Ranger program of the trip. (E opted out of this one.) The camp we were planning to use was under construction (it’ll be quite nice when they’re finished later this year), and the one near the Visitors Center was less than exciting. Then again, it’s tough to go from the trees and hills, lakes and streams of the Black Hills into the dry, flat prairie campground with little shade and threat of Prairie Rattlesnakes! So, we all agreed we’d rather carry on and put on the miles today that we’d otherwise face tomorrow.

Ended up in Chamberlain camping on the banks of the Missouri River. Now THAT’s more like it! 

Center Lake - we're not movin'!

September 8, 2008
Can’t bring ourselves to move. Stayed here at Custer playing in the creek, Center Lake and hiking around a bit. Would like to spend a week here.

Even quicker!

September 7, 2008
Mt. Rushmore – more time than expected, lots of rain. Moving camp to Custer State Park.


September 6, 2008

We opted for a girls’ choice day so: Maze, Storybook Island Park, Reptile Island. E and Mr. B agree that the maze was the best! Rain: mostly on. Snow in Hill City while we were out playing. (We’re camped about 300 feet in elevation above Hill City)

Summer’s officially over

September 5, 2008

Mr. B came today. On our way to the airport (we had the day to explore) the girls and I tried to visit Storybook Island Park (closed ‘til the weekend) and the South Dakota Maze (ditto). Instead we enjoyed fabulous views at Dinosaur Park, then wandered the streets of downtown Rapid City, which is remaking itself as the City of Presidents with bronze statues of American presidents on nearly every corner, 31 so far with several more per year in the works ‘til it’s complete.

We were all really happy to see Mr. B. I think he was happy to be on the ground after a VERY long day (three flights) of travel.

It’s raining tonight. It’s been raining off and on, mostly on, since an hour before Mr. B landed.

Sad Farewell (Thanks Bob & Celeste!)

September 4, 2008
After morning chores, it was, sadly, time to head out. None of us wanted to leave, and with the girls getting the chore schedule under their belt, I’m not certain our hosts wanted us to leave either! They gave us an open invitation to return whenever we can. Hmmm…

Hoping to set camp and make life easy for Mr. B tomorrow, we stopped in at the ranger station on our way into the Black Hills. The ranger there recommended three back country campsites. We found our way to Castle Peak Campground, about a half-hour drive from Mystic, SD on a dirt road. Nice, quiet spot, but quite remote for tourists visiting the area. Not a soul here (besides us and the squirrels).

Friday, September 5, 2008

Miller Place

September 3, 2008
The girls joyfully awoke to complete their chores today. E milked the most prolific nanny (3/4 gallon) by herself while V and Celeste finished off the rest.

We had hoped to take a wagon ride out to the Miller place where Kathy lived, but we were having a tough time getting in touch with the new owners, who keep the property under lock and key. So we opted to ride down to another creek, run through a cornfield, have a picnic, then return home. But as we headed out, the owner of the property happened to come up the county road! We turned around and headed back toward the Millers’ after he agreed to open the gate for us.

The wagon we first took out had car tires. As we passed the Rodgers place heading BACK toward Millers’, we discovered a VERY low (ok…nearly flat) tire, so we headed in and traded wagons. Then it was off for an 8-mile wagon ride to the place, the Picnic Grounds along the creek, the Nunn place (tiny rock home that once housed an 11-member family), and fantastic scenery. What a day! Riding in the wagon was so relaxing! We traveled along, but not so fast that we could miss anything. It was easy to stop and get out along the way, the hop back in and carry on. And Bob tended to off road it a bit. He’s been driving these wagons for a while, it was clear!  The girls and I each had turns driving, too. What a kick!

Round 'em up!

September 2, 2008

Today Bob had to take a steer in for their winter meat supply and a pair of cows and calves for sale, so while the girls milked cows, collected eggs and socialized puppies, Bob & I saddled up and headed out! It was great to ride freely again. It’s been years, and I’d forgotten a lot; not about riding in general, but details like how to open gates while still on horseback, or letting GO of the horses head (rather than pulling up to “help”) when he trips. Still, we got in some good miles, fresh air and brought in the Longhorns and the other cattle without incident.

After separating out the cattle he needed, I fed a Longhorn steer. BOY was he big! Charlie’s head was ENORMOUS, and his horns were intimidating! Even Bob was careful when he fed treats to this hand-raised beast.

The horse herd for whatever reason was up close to the barn rather than out on grass, so Bob and I walked out and drove in a pair he wants tomorrow for a wagon ride. Wouldn’t you know that when we WANTED to pet them, some were standoffish and when we wanted to shoo them out, they all wanted a treat!

Celeste and the girls and I spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing on the front porch claiming to socialize puppies, but really napping with them, brushing them and “teaching them to walk up and down stairs.”

Tonight the Rodgers took us to a friend’s shop near Chimney Rock, then to a wagon ride and chuckwagon BBQ dinner. It was a pleasant evening, and the girls got a kick out of riding in the driver’s seat, each with a turn at the reins as we traveled along a section of the Oregon Trail.

Hog heaven...

September 1, 2008
What a fantastic day! The girls and I are in hog heaven with chores to be done, more than 50 horses with which to fiddle, goats to milk, puppies to play with, dogs, cats and cattle, too. This morning Celeste showed us her daily routine and we picked up the chores when we could. The girls are particularly interested in milking goats (there are 6 to be milked daily, and the girls were pretty good at it for a first time out), and caring for the chickens, including collecting eggs.

Celeste also raises Pomeranian dogs. It may seem an odd fit for a farm, but Bob’s “hobby” is raising and training the horses. Celeste’s involves these very friendly little dogs. They have three puppies left from the last litter and the girls really enjoyed playing with them, teaching them to follow on a leash and snuggling with them on the front porch.

After chores, Bob brought in the horse herd. At this time of year, they graze freely on most of two sections (almost 1,200 acres). He brought them in to collect a pair of riding horses he’ll need tomorrow to bring in cattle. What an experience to stand in a corral with a few dozen horses, all wanting attention, people-friendly and most saddle ready. (The stud colts are in a different pasture for the next few weeks.) Bob led the girls around on Ned and Sidney before we all headed in for a late supper.

Farm life here we come!

August 31, 2008

The lake was, in fact, shallow for a good 50 feet from shore. It’s a fantastic spot for boating campers, many of whom anchored just offshore, or ran their personal watercraft up onto shore for the night. The folks were friendly, and we enjoyed a nice dip before heading east into Nebraska where we were welcomed by Celeste & Bob Rodgers.

Bob & Celeste were good friends of Kathy’s when she lived here near Bridgeport. Norman managed the Miller place back then, and up until recent years the Rodgers ran cattle and otherwise farmed on the Miller place, their own sections and Coulter sections to the north and east. That’s a lot of land! These days, they’re sizing down and enjoying a quieter life managing fewer cattle, growing wheat, millet and alfalfa (this season), and raising horses for saddle and wagons.

Big Trips = distraction!

August 30, 2008 – This morning I woke us all up bright and early and we headed to Devil’s Tower where we pulled out our chairs and watched the groundhogs while we ate our breakfasts. Then a walk around the tower, which is pretty incredible, and some time spent watching some climbers we’d talked to in the lot that morning. It seems it takes only 90 minutes to 2 hours to reach the top of the tower, and many climbers do more than one climb each day at the tower.

The girls introduced themselves to bouldering here, and used the spotting scopes first to find the climbers, then to search for each other.

The girls again earned Junior Ranger badges after completing their hike, activity packets and answering questions given by another incredibly kind, patient, kid-friendly parks ranger

Since we’d gotten such an early start, we were able to hit Register Cliffs (near Guernsey, WY)

and the Oregon Trail Ruts (also near Guernsey) before the day was done.

We pulled into camp here at Guernsey State Park after dark. It appears this is the weekend for the family parties at the lake. LOTS of ski boats here! I look forward to getting in the lake in the morning before the boats really get going.

North Dakota's Badlands

August 29, 2008

This morning we explored the park, including the entire loop road around the park, various pull outs and a one-mile nature loop trail hike. It’s a beautiful place, somewhat like Canyonlands but on a MUCH smaller scale and without all the color. But it had a greater variety of wildlife than I believe we’ve seen in any other park. We saw elk, deer, squirrels, chipmunks, wild horses and caught a horned toad, garter snake and frogs.

Through Dad we were able to get in touch with Kathy’s friend, Celeste, in Nebraska. I was hoping she might show us around Kathy’s old stomping grounds or at least point us in the right direction as we passed through the area. I’d set aside one day for this. But she invited us to stay on the ranch, enjoy the horses (55 of them), help with the goats and dogs and generally make ourselves at home. Well, how could we resist?

So today we started booking south so we’ll have time to play on the farm. We found a camp in Wyoming’s Black Hills (no, not a typo…the northernmost Black Hills are in Wyoming) and called it a day.

Need more time - so much to do!

August 28, 2008 – I really am so fortunate to have such smooth-traveling kids. They entertain each other (and me) every day. Today, they had a knit-in in the backseat to pass the time on what was SUPPOSED to be a short day on the road.
It was supposed to take us only about an hour and a half or two (tops) to Theodore Roosevelt National Park near Medora, ND. Well, that was before we spotted Salem Sue, the world’s biggest Holstein, and other side trips.

and the tallest scrap metal sculpture – “Geese in Flight.” I knew this was the first of several such sculptures, and the girls were duly impressed. They wanted to see the rest, even though it meant a detour, so we veered south off US 94 onto “The Enchanted Highway.”

The modern art project began in the 1990s. It was the brainchild of a former school principal with no welding or art experience. He was from Regent, ND, a dying farm town. He wanted to create something that would draw people to the town, to breathe life back into it.

With the help of farmers and others throughout the community who donated or leased (cheap) sites for the sculptures, provided materials and labor the project has gotten off to a rip-roaring start. The seven sculptures are all fairly artistically done. (Hey, they’re made of crushed oil barrels – and I’m not all THAT into modern art.) They’re entertaining for the whole family. And they all have easy access and ample parking. The girls particularly enjoyed the rocking grasshoppers and climbing structure at “Grasshoppers in the Field.”

Since the idea of the project was to support the town, we opted to eat at the CafĂ© rather than enjoy our PBJ lunches at one of the sculpture pullouts. The pattimelt I had was PIPING hot and the girls didn’t look too disappointed in their grilled cheeses. We picked up some ice cream down the street and meandered through the gift shop before hitting the road again.

Just before dinner time we arrived at Theodore Roosevelt National Park where we discovered the back door of the trailer, the ONLY door into the trailer, wouldn’t open! It sounded like the lock was releasing just fine. And the knob seemed to be working fine as well. Still, the door just WOULDN’T open.

I was fiddling with it when Jeff Kyllo, a North Dakota farmer and business owner, crossed the road to offer his help. He was equally baffled. Next problem – the trailer was locked tight as a drum (all windows closed and locked, top locked down) because we’d been in the Big City (Bismarck). So there was no way in, really, except to remove the door (impossible without destroying it given the bumper construction) or to remove a window. I really didn’t want to remove any windows because that’s one thing I’ve never done and I had NO idea, really, how they worked. Further, the side windows don’t leak, and I wanted to keep it that way.

On the other hand, the front window leaks already when we’re going down the road, and there is no locksmith anywhere near Medora, according to telephone information. When I mentioned that the SIDE windows didn’t leak, we got to talking about the type of leake the front window may have. Finally, Jeff said, “Well, let’s take that one out, get the back door open, the we’ll seal up that front window before we put it back and solve two problems at once!” Well, sounded like a plan. (Good thing I carried a new tube of silicone with us!) I knew these were, for certain, my people when his wife grabbed this shot of me breaking in.

Once inside, we discovered that the striker plate, which had been a problem earlier in the trip, had again come loose, and the stripped out screw that let it all loose had slipped across the divide and was wedged between its spot on the door and the lock hole in the door frame. We were able to jimmy it all loose! WHEW!

Jeff helped me reinstall the front window (after applying a healthy ring of silicone). I’m hoping it won’t leak. But, hey, if it does it won’t be any different than before, and at least NOW I know how to replace (or remove, seal and reinstall) my windows!

We managed to get all that done in time to take in the 8:30 p.m. performance of the “Medora Musical.” I’d heard bits and pieces about this performance that includes local history and comedy, music and family-friendly fun. But I had NO idea the EXTENT of this facility and show! We pulled into the parking lot and were welcomed by two escalators down into the amphitheater which features North Dakota Badlands as its natural backdrop. The audience was friendly, the music was well performed and all of us were thoroughly entertained.

Bismarck - CLEAN livin'!

Sorry for the delay. Finding internet on the road (in a hurry) isn't as easy out here as you might think, particularly if you're not cruisin' the big cities. :)

Here's what we've been up to!

August 27, 2008 – After generally spoiling ourselves with modern frills, laundry, swim and baths yesterday we were ready to see Bismarck today, and I wasn’t too interested in rushing our day so we could move on to another camp. So, we opted to keep our hotel room for the night and meander through town.

First stop, Dakota Zoo. The zoo isn’t particularly large, but its enclosures are more spacious than I’ve seen at most zoos, and there were many feeding opportunities not just in the farm animal section, but throughout the zoo.
The highlight for us all was feeding the White-tail Deer buck, two does and four fawns!

We fed a Sandhill Crane (the closest any of us has ever been to one)ducks, geese, ponies, pigs, goats, Clydesdales and myriad other animals with food from the animal-food vending machines in the park.

After a few hours in the zoo, we opted to head out for lunch so we could make it to the paddlewheel boat ride on the Missouri River. We were pretty disappointed to learn that all tours for the remainder of the day (until the 8:30 p.m. sunset cruise, one hour of which is in total darkness) had been cancelled due to lack of ticket sales, though they were unloading 17 folks for which they’d taken a special, off-schedule trip. The captain said, “Come back tomorrow.” Well, we had other plans for “tomorrow” and they didn’t involve Bismarck.

So, we explored the riverside parks instead, beginning at Pioneer Park (lots of space to run), then Keelboat Park (complete with a full-size keelboat replica parked in the park for all to explore),
and then up the hill to the Mandan Village Site which had a commanding view of the Missouri River Valley in all directions. This was the best view of the river we’d seen.

We returned to the room to get another comfortable night’s rest in the hotel before hitting the road again.

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