Driving across Montana
After a couple of days at Yellowstone, we left to head east. We were heading toward South Dakota's Black Hills and Mt. Rushmore, but we decided (ok, I decided) to drive straight east and then down, instead of kitty-corner down to South Dakota. The reason for that is that I wanted to cross over the southwest corner of North Dakota. One of my goals after this trip is done is that I have been in all 50 states, except Alaska (that's another trip altogether). If I didn't hit that southwest corner of North Dakota, I would never again get a chance to be in that state. So we added the extra 100 or so miles to the trip, and I can now check North Dakota off the list!
Anyway, back to Montana. As we were driving through Rosebud County (don't you just love that name?), I was struck by the fact that all of the sudden, we were leaving the high mountains and entering the plains. We were at 2525 ft elevation and it was a balmy 60 degrees. There were a lot of green rolling hills, and the Yellowstone River followed us almost all across the state. The hills were full of Black Angus cattle (mmm... steak anyone?), along with lots of little calves (ok, forget the steak comment).
I noticed, too, that we didn't see any highway patrolmen almost the entire way. In the western part of the state, we finally saw one and he had pulled someone over. I figure with the 75 mph speed limit, you really have to be driving crazy to be pulled over.
I saw lots of rail cars, full of coal, as well as several natural gas wells. I guess all those dinosaur bones in the ground provides all kinds of fossil fuel.
We also passed by Little Big Horn, and saw the Lewis & Clark trail. We didn't stop at those since it was getting dark, but it was cool to see where all that happened.
There was mile after mile of tilled wheat fields. Very pretty. Then it started raining ahead of us (we never did drive into it). But there was a very brightly colored rainbow. Thought I'd share that with you.
The other thing that made that drive great was that the entire time, we had the ol' XM Radio on 60's music. Then I got really inspired when I heard "Get your motor runnin', head out on the highway, lookin' for adventure, and whatever comes my way.... BORN TO BE WI-I-I-I-L-D!" (OK, you have your fantasy, let me have mine). ;-)
My Little Corner of North Dakota
We stopped and got fuel in Marmarth, North Dakota (I think that adds legitimacy to my brief ND visit, don't you?). It was located near the highest point in North Dakota (3500 feet). Anyway, there was just a tiny little sad desolate town there, on a bad road, and I kept asking myself, why do these few people choose to live here? There was no grocery store or town of any kind for many, many miles. This has actually been a recurring comment throughout the trip, that is, wondering why people choose to live in these tiny little towns out in the middle of nowhere. I wish I could walk through the neighborhood and interview them. Oh well.
One thing that Michael noticed at this gas station was that you could fill up before walking in and paying for it (the entrance was on the other corner of the station). It's pretty sad, I guess, that we're so used to having to pay first, that we're surprised when we come across a place that actually trusts people to do the right thing.
The Very Cool State of South Dakota
We spent the night in the town of Spearfish, South Dakota, then drove on in the next morning to the Black Hills area. It was surprisingly beautiful. It was very hilly and full of pine trees. It reminded us of driving up to South Lake Tahoe (of course, that will mean something to only those of you who've been there). We stayed at this secluded little campground near South Dakota's highest peak (7200 feet). At various times, there were deer all over the campground, and they were tame enough that they weren't too scared when I wanted to take their picture.
The first place in the area we drove to was Deadwood. That's the old western town where Wild Bill Hickok was killed while holding aces and 8's (FYI, that's why it's called the "dead man's hand"). However, I was a little disappointed. It was a very well-preserved town, and I thought it would be full of cute little shops. However, they've turned it into a total gambling town. Something I didn't know was that in South Dakota gambling is legal throughout the state (not just on the reservations). Isn't that odd? We also drove over to its "twin city" Lead (pronounced like "led"), where there's still a working gold mine. It was also well-preserved.
After that, we drove through the hills and came across a little winery called "Prairie Berry Winery". The name was intriguing. Come to find out, they have won all kinds of awards for producing wine from the fruits that grow in SD, like chokeberries and cranberries, as well as some grapes in the eastern part of the state. Whoda thunk? -- an award-winning winery in SD! We also went to this house next door to the winery that was a year-round Christmas shop. I ended up buying a little pheasant ornament (the SD state bird), and decided that I'm going to try to pick up an ornament in the various states -- I had also picked up one in Montana).
We drove on down to Custer SD where we visited the Flintstones Park! It was a crack-up. It used to be a "camp ground and amusement park", but now it's closed and run down. It was still hilarious to see (from in front of the fence) all the stuff they had there. I've put some pics on my photosite (for your reference again, it's at http://semitte.photosite.com).
On Down the Road
From Custer we drove on to the Wind Caves National Park. There are all kinds of caves in this area, and this one has been preserved as a national park. They give tours of the main cave, but it's started every two hours, and we had just missed (by 15 minutes) the most recent tour. So we decided that we wouldn't stay for that tour. By the way, they had several different tour packages available during the summer season. One of them was a 4-hour crawling tour. In other words, it was 4 hours spent in all the spaces so tight that you had to crawl through them. Hmm, I think I'll pass on that (!)
But my favorite part on the Wind Caves grounds was the wildlife. They had buffalo, deer and rabbits. But best of all, they had hundreds of prairie dogs! There were miles of hills, and when you look across them, you see dozens of "pocks" where the prairie dog holes were. We saw a lot of them outside their holes, both running around and standing up on their little hind legs. They are skittish little guys too. I decided that I wanted to try to get a closer picture of them, so we stopped the truck. I opened the door and tried to get out as slowly and quietly as I could. All the prairie dogs but one immediately ran into their holes. I figured out that he was the sentinel. As I was slowly walking toward him, he was squeeking and pounding his tail about once every couple of seconds. And as I got closer, it was about once a second. It wasn't too long before there was no more squeeking and pounding, and he also dove into his hole as well. They certainly were cute little guys!
We drove on down to Hot Springs where we went to the coolest thing ever -- an active paleontological dig! (OK, I'm a science nerd). There's a place called The Mammoth Site where they have actually found 55 Columbian Mammoths to date. These aren't the 9 ft wooly mammoths, but these were the biggest mammoths in history at 13 ft tall. What happened was that in the late 70's a builder had bought this property in Hot Springs to develop some new houses. There was a hill in the middle of the property, so he brought in the bulldozer. In no time, they started digging up big bones, so they stopped. They brought in an expert, who did a core sample about 65 ft down, and found bones all the way. The community got together and formed a non-profit organization to protect the site, then brought in trained paleontologists to do the very slow and painstaking digging. They built a 100' x 175' building around the site to protect it from the elements and to support the dig. They've been digging all these years, but are only about half way down. It's so slow because they can only dig, by hand, about 1/4" at a time. What they figured out was that many, many years ago, there was an underground cave that collapsed and formed a sinkhole. It filled with water from the local hot springs, and some of the mammoths fell in and couldn't get out. They just died there in the hole. And here we are, many years later, seeing their bones. The whole experience there was awesome!
Hail to the Chiefs
We finally made our way to Mt. Rushmore. We came in the back way, so we're winding through the hills, and all of the sudden we look up, and there were the presidents! We walked into the amphitheater area in front of them, then also down on the walking trail underneath them. It is such an amazing thing to see how huge these guys are, and to imagine that someone actually carved them! (How does one get the proper perspective dealing with that kind of scale??). While we were there, we came to realize that a movie was being filmed there. You know there was a new Nicolas Cage movie this last year called (I think) "National Treasure"? Well, they were filming the sequel to it. As we walked into the park, there was a sign there that said something to the effect that if you walk in, you are consenting to be in the film. But darn it, we won't be in the film. They were kinda wrapping up when we walked in. It will be cool, though, to see that film in a year or two, and realize that we were there on the same day (ok, so it doesn't take much to excite me). ;-)
On to Nebraska
We headed south out of the Black Hills, and the landscape changed quickly. There were lots of green, rolling hills, and no people -- just cows! Over the next several hundred miles, I've never seen so many cows! Well, I guess all that beef and milk have to come from somewhere, huh?
We were told that we should go down the western side of Nebraska since it was prettier than the rest. And yes, I guess it was with its rolling hills. We even drove through the Nebraska National Forest (huh?). There were some hills and some pine trees. It was pretty, but I certainly wouldn't consider it a national forest.
Once we got down to the interstate, we started heading east. Besides all the cows, I was very impressed with all the rail cars either full of coal, or coming back empty after delivering coal. These trains each had between 100 and 150 cars, with a couple of engines on the front and one on the back. I guess I've never been aware before of all the coal movement around these parts.
An Oasis in the Sandhills
We drove through some sandhills, then there was a sign, "Welcome to Alliance, an Oasis in the Sandhills." It was just this junky little town, but I had to laugh at their self-confidence! But the best part about Alliance was that it was the sight of "Carhenge" -- that's like Stonehenge, but with cars! We drove into town, then out into the country about 3 miles, and lo and behold, there was Carhenge! Someone (who obviously had wa-a-a-y too much times on their hands) had created a Stonehenge-like circle out of old cars. The trunks of the cars had been buried as a base, then they were all painted gray. It just made me laugh so much! I laughed because I couldn't believe someone actually decided to do this, and then pay for a billboard on the freeway, and I also laughed because it was so whimsical and ridiculous! They didn't even charge to look. It was kinda behind their house, and you just walked back there. They did ask for donations, though -- and I donated so they could pay for the billboard so someone else could go get a laugh too! There are more pictures on my photosite.
Continuing eastward down the interstate, there was feedlot after feedlot, with hundreds of cows each. It got to be pretty funny, because you'd see one up ahead and knew that you had to hold your breath for a while. We got pretty creative with that one -- but it was definitely necessary!
We also passed mile after mile of either winter wheat or fields read for planting corn. So any time going forward that I eat wheat or corn or beef products, I'll think fondly of Nebraska.
We stopped at little Gothenburg because they had the country's first Pony Express Station. It was just a little log house that they had built a park around, but it was cool to see this little station built in 18?? that was used to deliver mail to the rest of the country. I put the picture on the photosite.
Lincoln and Omaha
We were planning on driving as far as York, then turning south to head straight down to Oklahoma City. However, as we were looking at the map, we realized that Lincoln was only about 45 minutes away, then Omaha, another 45 minutes. So we decided we wanted to see those two cities while we were this close.
Lincoln is both the state capital and the home of the University of Nebraska. We saw both the capital building and the UN campus. It was cool to see UN's Memorial Stadium, which holds about 100,000 people for their famous football games. The campus was well-maintained and pretty traditional-looking. The rest of the city was a little blah -- no personality, surprisingly.
We then drove over to Omaha, and it was very impressive. Very dynamic, growing and pretty. We went downtown where they have an old town shopping area and a park down on the Missouri River. The national corporation ConAgra has their world headquarters right down next to the River, and it's a beautiful campus with a lake, fountain, etc. If I lived in Omaha, I would definitely like to work in such a beautiful working environment.
Since we were down near the river, we decided to drive across the bridge into Council Bluffs, Iowa. Wow, what a crappy little town! The only thing decent they had in that town was a nice welcome sign, then a section where Harrah's and a few other casinos were located. I'm not sure if gambling is legal in all of Iowa, or just along the river, but there were several casinos there. We left the town quickly.
Just another funny thing. After we got back to the trailer that evening, we fixed dinner and decided to eat out on the nearby picnic table. We had already sat down our full plates and glasses, and Michael had sat down. When I went to sit down, we didn't realize that the table was on uneven ground, and the table just about flipped over. Amazingly, both of us were able to grab our plates in midair, and I was also able to grab my glass. Only one glass hit the ground, as well as our forks (don't worry, the "glasses" are acrylic for such situations). It was quite a surprise, and we learned a lesson. Check out the picnic table before you sit down!
On the Road Again
We headed out of Lincoln, and on down into Kansas. Most of the way was more of the same -- fields of winter wheat and fields ready for corn. Kansas is a little prettier than Nebraska -- a little more lush and green. We've passed the hugest grainery we've ever seen, which speaks to the amount of grain produced around here. Just out of Salina, we also surprisingly passed a huge natural gas refinery, with lots of gas wells just interspersed throughout the crops (huh?).
We'll be getting into Oklahoma City tonight, where we'll see many of my family members. We'll probably be here for a few days, so I'll catch you up later.
Thanks for making it to the end of this blog! Now that we're going into the eastern part of the country, I shouldn't have to go so long without electricity and/or internet and can keep this up more frequently!