Archive for October, 2009

Happy Halloween!

Posted on October 31, 2009 by 6 Comments

from the Strubbe’s house in Neenah, WI!

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A Three in Vermillion Opportunity

Posted on October 31, 2009 by 6 Comments

Next up was a long drive to Vermillion, SD. Never heard of it?  It’s the tenth largest city in South Dakota! Home of the National Music Museum! The “Berkeley of South Dakota!”

We’ve been through a few towns that call themselves the “Berkeley of so and so” and honestly, I think they should choose a higher standard. I can understand the gist of the comparison, but if you’ve spent much time in Berkeley recently (Bode was born there) – and when I say recently I mean the last few decades – you might want your town to strive for something else.

Up until the past few days, we’ve spent very little time on interstates – intentionally –  but there just isn’t much you can do at this point along the route. This particular day, we were glad to be on it because we got to help out another stranded motorist. We had already had our own car problems this day (a freezing side of the road tune-up and clogged fuel filter #2), so it was no biggie to stop and help someone else having a bummer of a day.

When you see a car with two kayaks on top with the emergency lights blinking in the middle of nowhere South Dakota, you know they aren’t were they’re supposed to be. We pulled over and met Tiffany. She was driving from Leavenworth, WA to Michigan – a pretty long and lonely haul – by herself. Anyway, she ran out of gas, despite trying to stop and fill up at the previous exit (gas stations close for the season around here too.) We carry a spare gallon and have already used it a few times, so it was no problem to dump it in and try to start it up. The problem was that 1 gallon was apparently not enough to get it going – a little surprising.

I think she was correctly a little apprehensive to hop into the old bus, but we did our best to not appear to be serial killers and she agreed to let us help her out. There weren’t many other options. Only 10 miles or so down the road was another exit with a gas station and we were able to return to the car, add another gallon or so, and get her on her way. Bonus – we later heard from her husband and he’s an IT guy at a ski resort – the second we’ve come across in the past week or so. You can have a technical job and ride 100 days a year. Why didn’t I know about this career option earlier? Double bonus – we now have an open invite to come snowboard near Leavenworth – a real Bavarian town we almost visited a few weeks ago for a big VW campout, but missed due to calendar mis-reading.

One more aside – when she hopped in we asked when she left.  Yesterday. This put things in perspective for us.  We left almost three months ago and she’s ahead of us.

Okay, so today’s drive was going to be 400 miles.  Our longest day yet. We broke it up with a stop at some sort of mini-church rest stop and the Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD. They grow lot’s of corn here too. This year’s theme for the palace was transportation. We circled the place looking for a corn VW bus, but no luck. The Segway was an interesting choice, though.

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Finally, we arrived in Vermillion late. We rarely drive at night, but this was an exception. Eric, a good friend of mine from way back when, is a professor of political science here and we came for a visit. We lost touch many years ago, but thanks to the internet, it was pretty easy to find him and reconnect. It was fun catching up and sharing how our lives have evolved over the years. He’s lived all over the US, Central America, and even India. He and his wife became so good at moving that when it was time to go, they could just put their old stuff on the curb, get in the car and drive away. True minimalists.

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We got the scoop on small-town life in South Dakota. Every place has it’s advantages and this one is that it’s stuck in time – like it’s the 1950’s – in a good way. One of the drawbacks is the obvious remoteness.  Granted, we don’t go to shows as often as we used to, but there aren’t many bands that roll through Vermilion on their world tour.

Eric and I stayed up late one night and poked through each others music collections and tried to figure out where our music tastes have evolved. We’re both all over the place and had lots of overlap, but also converged in oddly unique places.  Not many people have both Darondo and Nigeria Special on their music player’s “recently played” list – but both of us did. He also got me hip to The Mountain Goats and some various selections that should help our street-cred with the Mexican hipster scene later in the trip.

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The National Music Museum was an interesting stop and has a surprisingly good collection of unique and historic instruments. I think we’ll have to defer on reviewing the local eateries, but the park and playground were really fun. Bode and Sver also had a blast running around the house and tearing the couch apart to jump on the cushions. Cannonball!

Have You Dug Crazy Rushmore?

Posted on October 30, 2009 by 3 Comments

Bode’s been clamoring about Crazy Horse since last year, so it was first on the list in South Dakota. It was quite a site, and the visitors’ center was a maze of interesting stuff.

The sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski, who also assisted on Mt. Rushmore, received a letter from Chief Standing Bear saying “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, too.”  Only in his twenties, Korczak decided to dedicate his entire life to the project and began chiseling away at the mountain in 1948 with only a few hand tools. Today, his wife and most of his 10 children continue to work on it, but it’s unlikely to be completed in our lifetimes. Still, it’s the largest sculpture in the world.  You should see it.

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My land is where my people lie buried.

-Crazy Horse

The 4 presidential heads on Mount Rushmore could fit inside the head of Crazy Horse. It’s not so much that mount Rushmore is small, but that Crazy Horse is so BIG.  From the highway, those four old guys are dwarfed by their parking garage and visitors’ center. And, $10 to park the bus in what is otherwise the middle of nowhere – the National Parks Pass is no good here. Still, it was cool to finally see it up close, and we got to see some mountain goats up close too.

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We had some nice offers to meet up with some folks in Rapid City and had made plans to eat at the Corn Exchange, but we were driven out by a storm that turned the sky entirely black. We had finished seeing the giant heads, and it was still late afternoon and we could see some blue sky to the east. Since nobody wanted to spend all afternoon and evening in the bus ins a major storm, we decided to take off and try to beat it.  It was raining sideways and I swear I could see tornado clouds in the distance. Tornado chasing in a VW bus today and we’ll be sending Bode up in a balloon tomorrow. After about 30 minutes we were ahead of the storm and there were clear skies in 3 directions. Plenty of time to stop in Wall.

We dug Wall Drug.  Well, actually none of us dug it.  Wall Drug exists solely due to the foresight of a massively successful multi-state billboard campaign. We saw the first signs for Wall Drug in Wyoming, about 300 miles away on some dinky side road.  Not even a major highway.  The billboards radiate out into different states from every direction and pop up alongside every paved surface. No matter where you’re going, it’s on the way. Resistance is futile. You will stop.

It didn’t look like what I expected. The best part was that it was free.

-Bode, on Wall Drug

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Watching out for Jackalope

Posted on October 29, 2009 by 8 Comments

The jackalope is perhaps the rarest animal in North America, and Douglas Wyoming is the epicenter of all things jackalope related.  In case you didn’t know, there are two varieties to watch out for – the mountain jackalope and the prairie jackalope – noted by their distinctly different horns.

Douglas had the first sighting back in 1939 it’s still their primary claim to fame. Despite their rare status, Bode was able to get a Limited Non-Resident Jackalope Hunting License (limit one).  We looked around outside the Douglas Visitor’s Center and only found some smaller ones – probably less than a year old, as they didn’t have their horns yet and were certainly below the size limit.

It’s amazing what passes for entertainment when you are miles form nowhere.

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Douglas also has a really cool huge steam engine – it’s monstrous. I’m thinking this might also be the same train used on an old Johnny Cash album cover, but they didn’t claim it.  They should.

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Another interesting stop on the way out of Wyoming was the town of Lost Springs, population 1. I’m not sure how this person manages to have their own town, but it is remote.  From the looks of it, I think they might be exaggerating – the population must be at least double that.

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Angela was driving a shift through Wyoming until she felt a noticeable decrease in power…and we were going downhill. No problem, we pulled over into a driveway and I replaced the gas filter. It was all gunked up from little black chunks in the gas. Wyoming has had the cheapest gas of anywhere along our route so far, so I’m wondering if there’s a quality issue involved.

Crossing over into South Dakota was notable in one particular way – they have TREES! We made our way up to Custer to find… “closed for the season” on most campsites and attractions. We were really only there to see some big heads anyway.

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Tetons!

Posted on October 28, 2009 by 8 Comments

We slept in until 10 am, and woke to find it snowing. Giant fluffy snow! Funny thing is, both Bode and I woke up in the middle of the night because we were hot. The dangers of over-dressing to sleep in sub-freezing weather.

The park ranger at Old Faithful had told us that the moose were mostly in the Tetons. They preferred old-growth forest and since Yellowstone had a major fire in 1988, there weren’t many to be found. The tall charred old-growth trees are still abundant, sticking up 50 feet or so higher than the new growth.

Early in the trip we had proclaimed that we would find a moose no matter what. Canada wasn’t any help, Yellowstone was no help, so we went south to the Grand Tetons. We followed the road the ranger had recommended, but I had a hard time looking for moose. The mountains were so beautiful. The clouds covered the very top of the Tetons, but the views were still breath-taking.

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We hit the Visitors Center at the south end of the park to see what gives…no animals spotted. They directed us to a route just south of the park. We pulled out maybe 100 feet from the Visitors’ Center there were two beauties just standing there waiting for us. Success!

We took this as a good sign and kept driving the recommended route. About 5 miles later, herds of bison in the distance. Check!

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Then, as we headed back up around and toward the north again, a herd came right across the road in front of us. We sat through it for a while, but then there was a small break in the bison and Jason decided to drive through. I had a few fears that the van would be gored, but luckily they just looked at us. Also, bison = buffalo.

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A few more of Bode’s shots from this day:

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Since we’d seen all the wildlife on our checklist, we decided to hit the road. Outside of the Yellowstone, the trees go away and the rest of the way across Wyoming saw the occasional painted hill, but otherwise there wasn’t much. There’s a lot of road between Yellowstone/Tetons and South Dakota.  A LOT OF ROAD!!!! We did witness a real cattle drive and cowboys, right on the highway.

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We had to make the executive descision to bypass Colorado, where we hoped to visit some friends, but maybe we’ll swing back through before we head south of the border. It’s on the way from Texas to Mexico, right?

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Still Faithful

Posted on October 26, 2009 by 10 Comments

After a few stops for supplies, we headed south towards Yellowstone. There’s not much between Bozeman and the West Yellowstone border, but there is some really nice scenery.  We headed straight for the park and on cue, we happened upon some elk wandering around. One male with 30 females… that’s pressure. On hikes, we felt like experts identifying the independently-movable dual-hooved tracks because of our prior elk education.

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It’s places like this that make me wish I was a fly fisherman…Montana and Wyoming must be the fly-fishing capitals of the world. Since it’s pretty late in the season, the fly fisherman were about the only other folks around. In the distance, you could see guys just quietly casting in the river while a herd of elk grazed around them, steam vents blowing the distance. Kind of other-worldly.

1000 Yellowstone wonders are calling, look up and down and round about you!

– John Muir 1898

Yellowstone was the nation’s first national park. They have more hydrothermal features than anywhere on Earth – geysers, steam vents and bubbling mud pots everywhere. Fun fact – there are 500 geysers in the world and 300 are at Yellowstone. And, a bubbling mud pot sounds exactly like you think it should sound.

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Old Faithful was a required stop and certainly worth seeing. The parking lot and visitor’s center dwarf the actual geyser, but that’s the way it goes, I suppose. There were maybe 30 other people around to see it go when we were there. She was faithful within 4 minutes.  She now blows every 90 minutes or so and the rangers advise visitors on eruption times within 10 minute intervals.

Bode has been itching to use the ‘good’ camera more and more and we’ve now fully handed over the reins. He’s got a unique perspective on things from 3 feet off the ground and many of the past photos have been his. The photo of Angela and I below is probably one of our favorites of the trip. Sure, he cut off our heads, but he insisted it was the only way to get the shot of the geyser he wanted and include us in it. There’s something about it – we just like it. Symbolic maybe. You just never know how things are going to turn out, but it’s usually pretty great.

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I think we crossed the Continental Divide 4 times on way down to our campsite at the southern tip of the park. It had been snowing and the temperature was dropping. It was interesting to see a distinctive line where the trees were flocked along a thermocline in the distance.

The best part of visiting in October is that there is no one here. Yellowstone – one of the most visited national parks – all to ourselves. Zero people at our campsite. Camping at Yellowstone with no reservations and no neighbors. Cold, but recommended.

After dark, one person rolled into camp. Probably a fisherman who was just sleeping in the truck before an early start the next morning. We could occasionally hear the distinctive creak of an ice chest opening in the distance and that was the only sign of another person all night. We also heard a very loud owl.

The rangers told us that any downed or dead trees were fair game for firewood and I imagined a raging campfire this evening.  It turned out that the ground had been scoured clean over the summer and there wasn’t much other than remnants from other campsites. Not a problem – we still had a nice fire and roasted marshmallows after a chilly chili dinner.

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Bozeman Dinosaurs

Posted on October 24, 2009 by 7 Comments

Parker recommended Bozeman, so off we went. We passed through Anaconda, home of the big Smelter Stack – the tallest (585 ft) and possibly largest free-standing masonry structure in the world. An interesting note is that the Washington Monument would easily fit inside. We had been warned of the Anaconda swine flu outbreak, so we stayed in the car, and admired the big phallic structure  from the highway. I thought it would be bigger ;)

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Butte, Montana was the pit stop portion of our drive. Jason wanted to get the tires balanced and rotated, so he left Bode and I to entertain ourselves at an empty mall. The tire rotation took so long that we didn’t get to see the town’s main attraction, a toxic waste dump that you actually have to pay $2 to see. Jason seemed to have the more interesting day waiting next to a bleached blonde woman in heels, dressed to the nines. An old friend of her’s walked in and during the catching-up she explained she was now a roofer. Her friend asked if she was scared of being up on the roof or swinging a hammer. No way, she loved it! We don’t know a lot of roofers, but Jason guarantees he’s never met one that looked like her in California.  “It’s fun! I’m not afraid of being up high.  I’m not afraid of anything,” she said.

Many years ago on a particularly blizzardy day in South Lake Tahoe, Jason and I lounged in bed watching the mountain ski report to see if we could make it up the hill to snowboard. The ski-dude weatherman introduced us to the term “Snain” – half snow, half rain. An appropriate term for what we drove through over the Continental Divide on the way to Bozeman. Another often-quoted phrase from that snow report… “Did you see that guy on a bicycle in the blizzard this morning?  He doesn’t have a car!”  Tahoe weathermen are awesome.  You had to be there.

No worries. Once down the pass, the weather cleared a bit. We stayed around Bozeman for 2 days and took  care of a few of the things that really bore you on a vacation, like laundry and shopping.  It wasn’t really raining, but Bode  loves umbrellas. In fact, at one point it cleared up so much we noticed there were still mountains around us.

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Bode and I snuck away to the Museum of the Rockies, one of the world’s largest collection of dinosaurs.   Very cool. These smaller feathered dinos actually clawed their way up the big dinosaur to kill and eat it. If Bode would give me a little more time at each exhibit, I could read the displays and learn more. I’ve learned that reading at museums is futile and that I just follow along with him running around looking at stuff.

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We talked to a guy at a restaurant here and yet again we heard the now familiar story. He came to Montana and loved it so much he stayed. He did mention that they had 80 days without snow this year. It stopped snowing in June and started again in September.  80 days.

We’re currently in The Badlands (I just love saying that). We’ll be heading through SD on 90 to visit friends in Vermillion, so if you have any great pit-stops let us know!

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Filed Under: Montana

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