Rachel and Scott drove up from Boston to visit us in Eastport. They stayed in a local B&B and we fed them from our grill while they were here. It was overcast but otherwise nice and we spent most of the day outside talking.
Unfortunately the photos didn’t come out all that well. I’d like to blame somebody else but it was my camera and believe it or not these are the best of all of those taken.
We saw grasses growing next to the highway all through South Dakota. They weren’t weeds, but looked a lot more like escaped crops. It’s even possible that they had been planted deliberately because in several places we saw them being harvested and rolled up like alfalfa or other feed grains. Regardless, of how it got there it is apparent that the South Dakotans are very frugal and didn’t let it go to waste.
We saw these gates across the highways all through Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota. The highway on-ramps also had gates and signs that said that ignoring them would get you a $1000 fine.
They close the gates during the winter when the blizzards have dropped so much snow so fast that they can’t keep the highways plowed. And here we thought winters in New England were bad! We’re even happier knowing we’re going to be spending the winter far, far away from gates like these.
I visited Mount Rushmore on a cross-country trip with my family about 50 years (!!) ago. All of the buildings and walkways below that were below it when we visited have been replaced, probably recently still they all look new, and my first thought when I saw them was that they’d built a shrine. Well, I was right since that’s what they are calling it now, a ‘Shrine to America’.
I thought it was a bit over the top but then so is Mount Rushmore when you come right down to it.
There was a modestly-sized museum about the sculptor Gutzon Borglum that also showed how the monuments were constructed and the events of the time period that led to its construction. There were also a couple of stores where you could buy T-shirts, books and other souvenirs, a restaurant and a ice cream shop.
Mount Rushmore is an iconic piece of Americana and since Susan has never seen it before and it had been 50+ years since I had and we were in the area how could we pass it up?
We had entered Mount Rushmore from the south and left heading north. Almost as soon as we got outside of the Mount Rushmore monument property we passed through a town that was constructed entirely of hotels, restaurants and tourist traps of one kind or another. A bit further down the road was the Cosmos (a mystery spot type of place), a reptile farm, a dinosaur park, a bear park, Crystal Caverns and several mines with tours. We also must have passed a half dozen Mount Rushmore or Gutzon Borglum Museums (no admission fee!!) along the way as well. Overall, I’d say the whole area is an epic monument to Americana.
Still, we are glad we came and visited Mount Rushmore. There was an $11 parking fee and we’d give it an A- for handicap accessibility, dinking it only a bit because some of the wheelchair ramps were a bit steeper than they should have been.
The campground that we’re staying at in Spearfish, South Dakota had some suggestions for scenic tours of the area. They suggested that if you wanted to visit Mount Rushmore, to take a route that went through Custer State Park. The route included Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road, and this turned out to be one of the most interesting – and scenic – drives we’ve ever had.
Needles Highway was advocated and developed during the 1930’s by a local politician and conservationist, Peter Norbeck. It was specifically designed to complement the work being done at Mount Rushmore and has several views designed to frame the sculptures there. We didn’t know this when we took the route, just that it had been recommended as scenic.
To get there we first drove through Deadwood, which I suppose because of its history is now a big tourist attraction. There aren’t many old buildings however, but instead a lot of relatively new and faux western casinos, hotels and shopping malls. Deadwood is long and narrow because it is in somewhat of a canyon and it took us a while to get all the way through it. After that we drove quite a distance through forested and hilly terrain until we finally got to Route 87, which is Needles Highway.
At the start, there were several signs warning that the road was narrow with many tight switchbacks and hairpin turns, and that there were several tunnels that were only 8 feet wide and 9 feet tall. The road immediately started climbing rather steeply and we started seeing granite outcrops more and more frequently. The road quickly delivered on the sign’s promises with some of the sharpest switchbacks we’ve ever seen. The road itself was about 1-3/4 lanes wide so you had to be careful when there were cars coming the other direction. When we came to the tunnels they were only one lane wide so you had to sound your horn and look carefully before going through them. A little ways after going through the first tunnel we found ourselves in among the “needles”, which are small and large rock spires.
We are camped at the northern end of the Black Hills in Spearfish, South Dakota. We are here to see Devils Tower and Mount Rushmore. Devils Tower was featured in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, but I had heard about it before that. It is about 60 miles from where we are parked and yesterday we took the scenic route to get there.
The drive was through hilly terrain with green meadows and pastures in the valleys and very dark pine trees along the top half of the hills. Just after climbing a tall hill there was a scenic turnoff on the other side and we got our first view of Devils Tower, which was still about ten miles away at the time. It is very striking particularly since it stands among the hills all by itself. There are a few rocky hills north of it, but they’re just rocky hills and from the distance it looks like a large tooth sticking out of the ground.
The road to Devils Tower National Monument winds around it and ended up on the far side from where we first saw it. It changes shape a bit as you come around it.
A year ago we stayed at an RV park in Cody, Wyoming which is east of Yellowstone National Park. We were only able to make one visit into Yellowstone, and that was the obligatory trip to see Old Faithful. We saw some other sights along the way, but never had a chance to make a second trip into the park.
This year we are camped in Island Park, Idaho about 20 miles from the west entrance to Yellowstone and have spent the last three days making trips into the park. It still takes us about an hour to really get inside of Yellowstone, partly because they are re-surfacing the highway nearby which has backed up traffic, and partly because even after you get through the entrance there is still another 15 miles to go before you reach any of the sights.
Even though this is pretty much peak season at Yellowstone and there was a fair amount of traffic, we found several spots along the way that had almost no visitors. Terrace Springs was a small hot spring and we were pretty much the only ones there. Although it was bubbling furiously in the center, there was very little steam coming off it.
A little bit up the road were the Artists Paint Pots. The hard-packed trail was about 1/3 of a mile and on the bumpy side so Susan got shook up a bit on the way back to them. There were a number of small pools surrounded by colored soil but it was really dominated by a series of hot springs.
We’ve been to the Painted Desert in Arizona and the Painted Hills in Oregon, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone was also strikingly colored, but for different reasons. In this case it was mostly because of hot springs bringing minerals from deeper in the earth and staining the rocks and soil.
We were about 50 miles from Arco, Idaho, pretty much in the middle of nowhere, when the air pressure alarm in the front console went off. Our motor home uses compressed air to power the brakes and a couple other things (like the suspension) so this wasn’t really a good thing. I pulled over and the alarm stopped. Whatever problem we were having with compressed air didn’t seem to be affecting the brakes so we traveled the rest of the way to Arco with the alarm going off intermittently.
The chassis of our motor home is made by Freightliner and I’d gone to the Freightliner Owners course in Gaffney, South Carolina two years ago. From what I learned there I knew that we’d have to go to a Freightliner repair center, and particularly one certified to work on motor homes, to have our best chance of getting the problem fixed. The closest Freightliner repair center meeting that criteria was in Twin Falls so I called them up and made an appointment.
Twin Falls is only a hundred miles from Arco, so we made the trip carefully. The alarm kept going off every once in a while but when I checked the brakes they were fine so we kept going. There is a KOA Campground less than a mile from the Freightliner facility which is where we ended up staying.
Our appointment was at 8 AM on Wednesday and we had unhooked our car and dolly the night before. I got up at 5:30 AM and got Susan up at 6:30 AM so we could make it on time. I used to get up at 5 AM for years so I could get to work on time but I don’t really miss that. We waited in the Drivers Lounge with a couple of truckers whose semis were in for repairs. After a couple of hours they told us the problem wasn’t the compressed air system but the pressure gauge itself (which is actually connected to the engine’s computer and somehow to the alarm, go figure), but they didn’t have the part and would order it and have it shipped overnight.
We came back the next day, and again after a couple hour wait (the repair facility always seemed to be running behind and they also seemed to have a very relaxed attitude about it but then we don’t frequent these kinds of places so we don’t know if this is considered normal or not) they had installed the new gauge and we were able to leave. For the last year, every time I started the engine in the motor home the air pressure alarm would go off and it always took a minute or two or three before it turned off. This time when I started the engine it beeped momentarily, the gauge jumped to its normal operating pressure and the alarm shut up immediately.
We were fortunate the problem was so simple and that we didn’t have to get towed (and what a nightmare that would have been!). Since this is the Fourth of July weekend we were also lucky to get a spot at the KOA Campground. We leave Saturday morning and will be heading towards Yellowstone.
We are staying in an RV Park in Arco, Idaho in order to visit the Craters of the Moon National Monument. The Monument is made up of the lava that erupted from a rift volcano and is the kind of lava you’d see on Hawaii. The name was given by the first photographer and explorer of the lava fields almost a hundred years ago and was publicized by an article he wrote for National Geographic. The eruptions have been going on for well over a hundred thousand years and the last eruption was only 2000 years ago. Although it is impressive in its own way this is not in any way a pretty park.
When we first saw it from a distance, it looked like the Idaho Highway Department had been dumping old asphalt here for years.
There were some more “traditional” lava ash domes but you only got to see these by traveling a distance into the park and it really dominated by the lava flows and lava debris fields.
When we were able to get a closer look much of lava still looked like piles of debris, but there were some areas where the molten lava had cooled in place, leaving the ripples frozen in place.
In looking ahead at the map of the area we were going to be traveling through I saw the John Day Fossil Bed National Monument. I tried to get a spot in an RV park near it, but it was a small park and there were no sites available. We ended up staying in Prineville, Oregon, which is about 50 miles west of the Painted Hills and 80 miles from Sheep Rock, which are two of the parts of the John Day Fossil Beds. It was drizzly, overcast day but the weather report wasn’t getting any better so we took the excursion.
When you think of Oregon you tend to think of forests and rain but the western part of the state is pretty dry. We went over two mountain passes on the way and went from dense pine forest along the first to a thin Juniper forest along the second, and then into mostly sagebrush and rock.
The Painted Hills were quite a surprise and far more colorful than we had expected. We’ve visited the Painted Desert in northern Arizona and were impressed but the colors of the rock layers there were relatively muted and this was pretty much what we expected. These hills most definitely deserve and lived up to the name Painted.
It was a shame it was an overcast day because on a sunny day they would have shown up even brighter. The hills were all created by volcanic ash, starting about 44 million years ago. The last major eruption in this area was about 15 million years ago. There were dozens and dozens of individual eruptions that put down layers of volcanic ash and basalt lava. The fossils come from between the layers of ash, and contain an extensive record of the plants and animals of the region during that time.
The reds come from iron, the yellows from iron and calcium and the black from manganese. Later, while traveling to Sheep Rock, we saw layers of red and yellow in the rock layers, but nothing as spectacular as the Painted Hills.