Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Musings of Three Weeks with Big Sis

Well, the trip is over.  It doesn't seem possible that a trip of a year's worth of thinking and planning could already be over.  But it is.  We did the trip that many dream of--seeing many of the sights in the western United States.

I don't know exactly where to start.  The trip began in my mind when I read Nicolas Sparks' Three Weeks with my Brother more than a year ago.  It is a good book that chronicled a 3 week trip made by two brothers.  While the trip was good, the part that was great was the brothers' interactions and learning of their life growing up.

Bar and I were not friends growing up.  I don't think either of us hated the other, but I do know we didn't like each other.  Bar was definitely Daddy's girl.  I was definitely Mother's boy.  We had a clear division of parental favorites, and we both learned to work the favoritisms to our benefit during our growing-up years.

Bar was bigger and stronger than I was until I was about 13 years old.  I was a sickly boy, having hepatitis, and polio during the early years.  While neither caused permanent damage, I was not a match for her.  So, I learned to be more conniving and used trickery and lies to keep the score even.  Not a pretty situation, but we both were to be survivors and had to do what we had to do to survive.

When she left home and got married, I was in college (living at home), and we had little contact.  I got married a few years later.  Neither of our spouses liked our sibling.  So, we saw each other only at Christmas and Thanksgiving.  This was the situation for many, many years.  I hardly knew her as an adult.

In 1999, our brother, Jerry died.  I won't go into the circumstances of his death here, but it was a tragic event for the 3 remaining siblings.   I still miss Jerry terribly, and hurt for what he went through in the last year of his life.

His death, however, had the effect of bringing us closer together.  In the meanwhile, Bar's first marriage had ended, and she was married to her current husband, and very happy in her personal life.  A year later, my marriage failed, and, although single, and my life had become much easier and less stressful.  And, Bar and I were beginning to learn more about each other and found that we actually liked each other!

What a wild thing--two siblings who didn't like each other very much for most of our lives now liked each other and enjoyed spending time together.  What a shame that so many years were wasted...

In 2004, I had an opportunity to go to Alaska for a week.  I talked her into going with me, and we had a ball in a rented RV traveling all over the huge state, exploring the territory and learning that we actually had a lot in common.  It was a wonderful experience for me, and I believe for her as well.

We didn't go anywhere together again until last year.  We had talked about various trips, but had not taken the time and trouble to actually plan one.  Realizing that time was passing and we were both getting older and would not always have time to spend together, I talked her into going to New England last year.  We spent two weeks together and had a ball.

So, this year's trip was planned to continue our time together.  And we did.  It was very rewarding to realize that we had outgrown our childhood animosity and had grown to love each other.

I can't name one specific highlight (other than time with Bar).  I'll list some of the top highlights, in no particular order:  Carlsbad Caverns, Snow in Yellowstone, Park Ranger's talk at Grand View Point in Canyonlands NP, BUFFALOES everywhere, Mesa Verde, Roswell NM, Custer State Park, Grand Canyon NP, Needles Highway, and many more that I can't recall this moment.

There were two scares on the trip; the car that cut us off as we entered Oklahoma City.  It could easily have been a very bad wreck (particularly for the other car)  if I had hit them just a bit harder.  And the tornadoes in the Oklahoma City area.  Had we been 5 minutes earlier or later, we could well have been in one of them.  Both events really scared me.  The rest of the trip was non-scary.

We covered a lot of ground.  From my house to return, we went about 7,300 miles.  That was a little less than I had estimated, but still a lot of miles.  Add another 350 for Bar, and she went some 7,650 miles from home to home.  I believe we were in 17 states, most of which were new states for Bar.

We saw Whitetail Deer, Mule Deer, Grey Squirrel, Ground Squirrel, Coyotes, Buffalo, Hawks, Osprey, Foxes, Rattlesnakes, Ravens, Jackrabbit, Rabbit, Lizards and others that won't come to mind.  We did not see some animals we wanted to see, including Moose, Elk, and Wolves.  Maybe next time....

Our highest elevation was about 8,300 feet.  Lowest was home (about 12' for her and about 280' for me).  Temperatures ranged from 95 here to 21 in Yellowstone.  Most of the time, temperatures were really great in the mid-80s.  Coolest trip out west for me by a big margin.

I have posted some pics with this post; some of my favorites.  I am very pleased with the camera I used.  It's a Nikon s8000, and has a 10X optical zoom.  Some of the shots (including a few posted on the blog) were taken from quite some distance, and were done at a 5mp resolution.  I just wonder how they would have looked if they had been done in a 14mp resolution???  It's a great camera for snapshots.

It was a wonderful trip, filled with laughter, rememberences, some sadness, and togetherness.  I'm already looking forward to next year's trip to the Pacific Ocean states of California, Oregon, and Washington!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Home and Safe

Well, we got home Friday evening at around 6pm.  It was a fantastic trip.

This post is just to say we're home and safe, and to let any followers know that I'll post a wrap-up blog within the next few days.  Tired and resting for the next few days.

So, stay tuned and check in by mid-next week for the final post.  I'll post a few pics!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Day 16 and 17; Custer SD to Murdo SD to Cedar Rapids, IA

June 7, 2011  Not going to blog tonight.  Tired.  Grumpy.  Ain't gonna do it.

Car doing okay.  We're doing fine.  Just tired tonight and don't want to focus on the blog.

Maybe tomorrow night.

Stay tuned.

Ok, it is now tomorrow night, and I'm going to write some about yesterday and today.

Yesterday, we left Custer and drove the Needles Highway over to Mt Rushmore.  The Needles Highway is a one-of-a-kind road with many switchbacks and elevation changes, making driving or riding a motorcycle fun. It's a two-lane road with no centerline, side lines, or guard rails, in spite of many places where a car or rider could easily go over the edge.  You've got to pay attention to where you're going.

There are several tunnels along the way; one very short one and two longer tunnels.  All are one-lane, with traffic needing to alternate so each direction can get through the tunnel.  In past trips, I've witnessed a tour bus going through one.  It took about 30 minutes to get it lined up right, and I am sure there was not more than an inch space between the rocky, jagged walls and the bus.  They are very tight!  

Then on to Mt Rushmore.  I had been there once before, and it is definitely a sight to see.  Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln's face carved in granite is a magnificent sight.  The story of how the carvings were done, the hardships endured, and the preserverence to getting them carved is a story of the American will.  Bar and I both enjoyed the stop there very much.

Then on to the Badlands National Park.  This is a very unique part of the world, with a landscape that looks like some other planet.  Spires, ravines, plateaus line the area.  Very arid most of the time (my second visit), it had large areas of green, lush grass along the way.  I think Bar was amazed to see such strange land formations.  It's a place that I'd not want to be in after dark!

It's also home to the Lakota Nation of indians.  While they see the area as home, with all of the amenities of home, it is an area in which I would not survive.  Too arid.  Too hot, Too cold, Too remote for me.  The tribes once roamed from Canada, Minnesota and down into Mexico, they were driven out of their homeland to this area of the USA.  We should be ashamed of how we treated the natives in their lands.

Then on to the hotel for the night.

Today was a long drive to Cedar Rapids, IA.  The only special place seen or visited was the Corn Palace in Mitchell SD.  It's a touristy place where they decorate the exterior of the building with agricultural products.  It's a neat thing to see.  I think Bar was disappointed with it.

Today's drive was not difficult; riding along at 75mph on Interstates through rolling prairie lands and flat farmland.  The trip today was different from the trip 8 years ago.  It was cool and the grass was lush and green, with water in many fields from recent rains.  The other time everything was burned up from dryness and heat.  It's much nicer now!

We went through a big thunderstorm in Waterloo, IA and another storm hit Cedar Rapids after we got into the hotel.  We were glad to be in for the night.

No car issues today.

Slow Internet connection tonight, so I'm not going to post pics.  Will try again tomorrow night, so please come back later if you want to see pics!

Tomorrow--more driving to home!

Stay tuned.

Day 15; Gillette WY to Custer SD

June 6, 2011  Another great day!  Beautiful scenery and great weather.

The day started with a good breakfast at the hotel.  Whole wheat pancakes with Starbucks coffee got the day off to a good start.

We got back on I-90 headed east, then a state road northeast to Devils Tower Monument.  I had been there once before, but it's still quite a place.  The tower was featured in the movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" a good number of years ago, but is now used primarily as a place to do mountain climbing or to view.  We did the latter!  It is quite a place.

At the base of the tower, and maybe 1/4 mile away, a large colony of Prairie Dogs live, in Prairie Dog Town.  We took some pics of the cute critters.  I can see why the ranchers hate them; their holes are almost the perfect size for horses' hooves to go into and break the leg of a horse.

From Devils Tower, we drove back southeast to Deadwood, SD.  This is the town of cowboy fame, where Wild Bill Hickock was killed.  After parking the car, we walked out to Main Street and found the saloon where the event occurred.  After viewing the exact spot where it happened (supposedly), we drank a beer, I called Gary to wish him a happy birthday, and we went outside and walked up and down the street to get a flavor of the town.  It's pretty much a touristy place, with a number of bars, some small casinos, and a couple of hotels.  It's a neat place to visit.

From there, we headed south to the Chief Crazy Horse Monument.  I had talked this place up because it is, to me, an amazing place.  I was worried that Big Sis would not appreciate it the way I did.  It turns out that she was equally impressed with it.  The fact that is is being done to pay homage to what we did to the native population in the 1800s, the fact that one family is committed to doing the statue, the fact that they have and will not accept any public money, all make it an amazing accomplishment.

I had been here 8 years ago, and I could see some progress on the monument, although it is progressing very slowly.  But it is a huge feat, and will take a lot more years to finish it.  It is just amazing.  When we left, Bar said it was her favorite place so far (which she's said each day).  A great stop.

Then south to Custer State Park and the wildlife loop.  The park is nice, but the wildlife loop is my favorite part of it.  It's a route that always has some animals for viewing.  I've seen Buffalo, Prairie Dogs, Deer and lots of birds on a previous trip.  Today was no different, except that we saw Burros in addition to the usual animals.  I'm not sure if the Burros were "wld" or domestic; I had my window open, and one tried to stick his head into the open window!  When I quickly closed it, he (she?) licked the window.  I think it was looking for a handout... We took the usual pictures of the animals and enjoyed the 18 mile drive through the park.  The landscape changed from African-looking Savannas to steep mountains to prairie.  A neat place to visit.

Towards the end of the loop, I smelled anti-freeze from the engine of the car, and noticed that when we stopped, the engine temperature would go higher.  It had not done this earlier in the trip.  It never got really hot, but something is going on that is not right.  When we stopped for dinner (which was very good; we had a bacon, lettuce, tomato, and salmon sandwich with garlic roasted potatoes--delicious!), I looked under the hood at the engine to check for obvious leaks, but saw none.  Antifreeze level was low in the reservoir, but it was not empty.  So, I'll check it again in the morning before we leave for the day and, if I can't see any problem, we'll keep an eye on it.  We're 1,800 miles from home and don't need car trouble.

Tomorrow--Mt Rushmore, Needles Highway, and Badlands.

Stay tuned

Monday, June 6, 2011

Day 14: Yellowstone to Gillette WY

June 5, 2011  Not much to say today.  We left Yellowstone and rode to Gillette, WY.  Most of the drive was on I-90, necessary due to various road closings in and around Yellowstone.  We missed my favorite road in the USA; the Beartooth Highway.  I could never get a consistent answer as to whether or not the road from Yellowstone to the Beartooth Highway was open (deep snows in the area), so rather than to try and have to backtrack many miles, we went out the Western entrance and headed north to Bozeman, MT, and then I-90 East.

Riding through the town of West Yellowstone brought back some great memories of one of my most-fun trips ever; the snowmobiling trip of January 2010.  What a blast!  While Bar and I did not spend much time in town, just seeing the sights brought back a flood of fond memories on the snowmobiles.

Many parts of the drive to Gillette were very scenic, with the road being elevated above a broad valley.  Many snow-capped mountains across the valley.  No pics today.

Got to Gillette, found a hotel, had a good dinner, washed clothes, planned tomorrow's trip, and now the blog.

Tomorrow's blog will be better.

I promise....

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Days 12 and 13: Yellowstone

June 3-4, 2011.  It was an outstanding day in the park!  Oh, what a day…

It started with COLD; it was 21 degrees outside when I woke up.  Cloudy and overcast, with snow spitting from the skies.  But it was a very light snowfall, and the ground was warm enough that transportation was never impacted.

Coffee and a muffin in the Lodge, and then on the road in the park.  On our first stop, we learned that it was REALLY COLD and that we were not wearing enough clothes to stay warm.  The main problem was the wind; it was blowing pretty hard, and with a 32 degree temperature, I would guess the wind chill was in the low 20s if that high.  So, we had to put on another layer of protection from the cold.  With the extra layer, it was tolerable, although I got cold at every stop until lunchtime.

We went to a series of geyser vents, each different and amazing.  Huge clouds of steam obscured many of the details as to color and shape; picture a hot cup of coffee open to the air at 32 degrees and a good wind.  Then make the coffee at boiling (which was the water temperature), and it creates a lot of steam.
I had been in the park about 1.5 years ago, in January, 2010, and even though the entire park was covered in snow then, I believe the vents were putting off more steam this trip than the earlier one.  Not sure why, but it seemed to be that way.

On our second stop, we spotted 2 buffalo near the entrance.  Camera time!  Little did we know then that we’d see probably another hundred during the day, including one walking straight up the yellow line in the middle of the road!  Had to stop and then slowly go by him, giving him the widest berth I could safely do.  They were numerous throughout all of the areas of the park visited.

We stopped at almost every turnout or parking area and took all of the side roads, trying to see as much as we could see.  Unfortunately, the steam was so dense that we couldn’t see the aquamarine blue-green waters from the springs.  The color of some of the springs is just beautiful, but we could not see the water in some of them.

Lunch at the Canyon Visitor Center.  A salad with soup was very good and filling.  Then a little shopping before leaving for the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.

The canyon is beautiful.  While nowhere near the size and scope of the Grand Canyon, it was beautiful with its steep, yellow and red walls descending to the raging waters below.  And the Lower Falls were outstanding, with more water than usual due to the snow melt taking place this time of the year.  Breathtakingly beautiful!
By now, the weather had moderated and the clouds were breaking up, with big patches of blue showing as the clouds danced in the skies.  The wind was still blowing (as it has the entire trip), but it was comfortable outside.  As the day wore on, the clouds became fewer and the sun brighter, leaving each of us with a light sunburn from its rays.  It became an absolutely beautiful day outside.

Then on to Mammoth Springs, in the northern part of the park.  By this time, the cold had moderated to about 45 degrees, and we were very comfortable there.  Mammoth is a good word to describe the thermal actions going on in this location.  From bottom to top, it’s probably 600 vertical feet of climbing stairs or walkways to see all of them.  And we did!  I noted that a lot of the thermal features I saw with Gary several years ago had now dried up, but there were some new ones to see.  I’d say, as a whole, that there were fewer thermal features on this trip than the earlier. 

At the end of the top walk, we came upon a small herd of mule deer, feeding on new grass.  One was within about 10 feet of the walkway, and seemed perfectly comfortable with us taking pictures as he grazed.  It’s the closest I have ever been to a deer!  We took many pictures and then walked back to the car.  Mammonth Springs is a place not to miss!

Then back to the cabin.  I’ll digress for a moment to describe our cabin.  When I was trying to make a reservation for the trip, the only thing available was a “Frontier Cabin”, so I took it.  I don’t know how old they are, but I’m sure they date back some time.  Each building has 4 “cabins”, square buildings, arranged so that each cabin has its door opening in one of the 4 sides of the building.  The cabin is one room with a single and a double bed, a small desk with chair, and a hand sink.  There is a very small bathroom with toilet and shower.  It has a heater (thank goodness) that worked well enough to keep it toasty inside.  No phone.  No TV.  Two electrical outlets.  It met our needs, but was quite spartan.
We had a good dinner in the cafeteria in the lodge and settled in for the night.  I spent the night doing some maintenance on Bar’s computer, so I was too tired to write and post a blog.  Hence, this one is another twofer edition.  I’m actually writing this at 5:45am on Saturday, June 04, 2011, and hoping to post it tonight.  It’s 19 degrees outside as I write!  But today’s high should be in the 50s, which is more normal.
Today, more exploring my favorite national park. 

We got up, got breakfast and coffee, and headed out to the eastern side of the park (yesterday was the western side).  The weather has moderated, with the current temperature of 66 degrees (it’s about 8pm local time now).  It was an absolutely beautiful day.

We drove around the shore of Yellowstone Lake, looking out onto the frozen surface.  It is pretty much frozen from shore to shore, but there was a rim of thin ice around its edges where we were traveling.  I don’t know about the other side.  The thicker ice looked to be about 3” thick, based on some ice we saw broken in one place.  Not at all like we have at home!

For the most part, the eastern side is more calm than the other side.  We went to only 2 or 3 sites where the volcanic action was predominate.  The most interesting was the Mud Volcano area, where the steam was bubbling up through mud, causing a different sound and throwing mud up into the air.  It was something to see.  And it was another significant climb to see it all there.  But the scenery was worth the work.

We could not see the eastern entrance road due to snow issues.  The road is open only from 8pm until 10am due to the risk of avalanches.  So, we could not explore that area of the park.  And the road that connects the middle of the park to the northern part is closed due to snow, so we could not see that road.  The park got 200 more inches of snow than usual this winter.  Beartooth Pass got over 20 FEET of snow this winter.  So, they are late digging out this year.

We did get to see both Upper and Lower Yellowstone Falls today.  I had not seen the upper falls before, so seeing it was good.  I learned that the lower falls is the highest and prettiest. And I learned that the South rim is the best viewing point for seeing the falls.  Just outstanding!

Coming back to the cabin, we drove to the western side and repeated yesterday’s afternoon route.  Again, lots of buffalo, but nothing else in the way of interesting animals.  There are reportedly some 3,000 buffalo in the park, and we’ve seen large numbers to substantiate their claim.

Back to the Yellowstone Inn for a drink.  I had a beer and she had a drink and we decided on some hot wings (yes, they were HOT!) and then a burger and fries for dinner.  The Inn is beautiful and so unique. 
From there, back to the cabin and blogging.  She went shopping while I blogged.

Tomorrow we leave the park and head to Gillette WY.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Day 11: Green River, WY to Yellowstone

6/2/11  It was another great day!  It doesn't seem possible, but it seems that each day brings so much beauty.  Our nation is a beautiful place; I wish all of my family and friends could see some of the sights I've seen on trips.  Having Sis along is a special treat and makes the sights even better.

We left the motel and went back into town to get gas and breakfast.  The Buckaroo Family Restaurant was the right place to stop.  It was definitely a mom and pop place, and the food was excellent.  The decor included a real lariot, a Elk trophy with antlers probably 6 feet wide, and many other localized items making the place feel homey.

We had decided to take the road less traveled (as we often have), with a road following the Green River and Fontenelle Reservoir due north towards Jackson (otherwise known as Jackson Hole).  The road had almost no traffic, a 65mph speedlimit, and sight distances in miles.  While the scenery was not as good as I had thought it would be, it was okay, and it changed often as we drove along.  It was an easy ride.

Along the way, we saw a number of small herds of Antelope off to the sides of the road.  They were just grazing in the huge pastures along the way.

We arrived in Jackson and basically traveled through town without stopping and on into the Grand Tetons National Park.  Bar had been pining over not seeing big mountains, but she was satisfied with the Tetons being real mountains and being a part of the Rockies.  They were snow laden, with snow in all of the crevices, making them grey and white.  They were beautiful.

On the way to the park, we had encountered several snow showers, mixed with rain showers.  Not enough to wet the car or the road, but making the ride more exciting as we wondered if we'd see any snow sticking on the roads.

We rode through the park, seeing what we could see.  Lots of pictures were snapped at various points of interest.  We were riding along and saw a number of cars stopped on the shoulder.  Knowing that they were seeing something, I whipped over to the side, too.  About 50 yards away, a smallish Grizzly bear was walking through a pasture!  We took pics until it was too far away to snap a decent shot.  This was the first Grizzly bear I have seen close enough to see it clearly without binoculars!  Terrific!  A little further down the road, another cluster of cars stopped on the side of the road.  We wheeled in again, and there was a calf moose with its mother.  We could barely make them out, and the pics are not great, but it was neat seeing them.  Further down the road, Bar spotted a group of 4 Mule Deer.   A good game day!

Entering Yellowstone, it started snowing pretty hard.  The temperature dropped to 35 degrees, and it was so neat to see the snow falling and the temperature so cold on June 2.  The sides of the roads are lined with snow pushed up by the plows.  In some places it was about 10 feet high, and was at least 2 feet everywhere. Most places had snow about 5 feet deep.  All of the forested areas are covered in snow, with no ground showing at all.  The lakes are all iced in, with no water showing at all.  It's like being in another world up here!

As we were about to exit to go to the Old Faithful Lodge Cabins where we're staying, a herd of Buffalo had the traffic stopped where they were crossing the road.  They were about 100 feet in front of us.  As we were snapping pics, a bull stepped out of the woods about 6 feet from the front of the car and calmly strolled across the road in front of us!

We drove on to the lodge and got registered.  Then we watched Old Faithful burp, emitting huge clouds of steam vapor in the cold air.

The day was a wonderful one.  Animals galore, up close and personal.  Good driving.  Snow falling and covering the sides of the road and woods.  A good dinner.  The day was just too good to describe properly.

Tomorrow--exploring the park.

ps:  I was successful in tethering my phone to the computer to post this blog.  I'll try to post some pics, but the connection may not let me.  If no pics, come back in a few days and they should be added by then.