Thursday, September 20, 2007

#19 - The Home Stretch

We think Bonnie picked up a cold from a coughing waitress in Casper, Wyoming. By the time we reached Boise, she was starting to feel miserable. Ron started to feel the symptoms a day or two later. It was good timing since we were just a couple days from home. As we got further into the northwest, the weather became increasingly cloudy and much cooler. After wearing shorts nearly every day of the trip, Ron finally dug out a pair of jeans for the home stretch.

It's a respectable distance from Boise to Mill Creek and our comfort level is a maximum of about 250 miles a day. So, we plotted a course with two overnight stops. The first was Pioneer RV Park in beautiful Hermiston, Oregon. Most folks have heard of the famous Hermiston melons, but we had never been there. Frankly, we had low expectations of Hermiston, but we were impressed. It was a very nice clean well-kept town with a healthy city center and one of the cleanest RV parks we had encountered.

The drive down the Columbia Gorge was beautiful and we spent our final night on the road at the Mt. St. Helens RV Park in Castle Rock. We might have stayed another day or two for a trip closer to the mountain. Unfortunately, it was too cloudy so we got a good night’s sleep and cruised the final 135 miles home on Wednesday, Sept. 18. We unloaded the motor home, vacuumed, dusted and cleaned it up before taking it back to its resting place in the storage lot.

We had an excellent time on this extended 43-day vacation and hope you were able to follow along through this travelogue and share the experience. We saw many interesting things, stayed in a good variety of campgrounds and RV parks, ate some good food, saw lots of wildlife and met some interesting people along the way. Traveling at a slow pace in an RV is a good way to appreciate the vast expanse of our northwest corner of the country. It's larger than it seems and there’s no end of things to see and do. Every little town is different in its own way and has something unique to share with the passersby. We took a few books to read in our “spare time” but didn’t find much of that. We were too busy reading about the places we were visiting and the maps that would lead us to the next place. The 43 days gave us a good overview of several states, but there’s a lot more out there that we didn’t see or do. We still have a lot to look forward to in future trips.

Thanks for following along. We hope you enjoyed the ride.

--- Ron & Bonnie ---

#18 - A Tour of Boise

Our next major destination was Boise, but with an intermediate stop at the “Village of Trees” campground near the small town of Declo, Idaho. It was a very nice comfortable campground with a little grassy park and docks on the Snake River. It did have lots of trees and provided a nice oasis from the wide open expanses of farmlands along the Snake River Valley.

It was Saturday night and the guests were treated to a cheese and wine tasting party, hosted by a local winery. Many of the campers showed up, as did a local Southern Idaho motorcycle club. Everyone socialized well and had a good time. We had a chance to chat with some hardened "full-timers" and hear some of their travel experiences. One couple had been traveling around in their motor home for nine years and still loving it. They thought it was strange that we were going to Seattle in mid-September. They suggested that we turn south and spend the winter in Arizona. We're not ready for that. The tasting was followed by five members of a local church group who provided vocal entertainment, including an assortment of folk, religious and other music. It was well done but, unfortunately, not well attended.

Enjoying a sunny day on the Snake River.

It was a relatively flat and easy 155 mile drive from the Village of Trees to Boise. We arrived around noon and checked into the Mountain View RV Park, which is located in an industrial district sandwiched between the Boise airport and I-84. It was noisey but we did have a peek-a-boo view of the mountains.

Grandson Jaysen is a sophomore at Boise State U. Bonnie arranged a meeting with him at the local Del Taco. He gave us a tour of the Boise State campus and we all settled into the living area of his state-of-the-art dorm room to watch the first half of the Seahawks vs Arizona football game (we won’t mention the outcome of that game).

Ron keeps a bag of Costco mixed nuts nearby to snack on while he drives. The bag was empty, so Jaysen took us to the nearest Costco where we stocked up on nuts and plastic knives (hard to find), followed by dinner at Fudrucker’s. Jaysen showed us downtown Boise and the state capitol building on the way back to his dorm. Very nice city . . . about twice the size of Everett. We finally settled in for the evening and watched the Emmy awards on TV.

Monday, September 17, 2007

#17 - Back to Idaho

On Wednesday, Sept. 12, we waved goodbye to the I-80 truck traffic and headed northwest on relatively peaceful US-30 toward southeastern Idaho. We found the lowest gas prices of this trip at a Flying J truck stop in Cokeville, Wyoming. We grabbed the opportunity to gas up the RV at $2.62/gal. before continuing north through the small Idaho towns of Montpelier, Georgetown, Soda Springs and Lava Hot Springs. Our next campground was Downata Hot Springs (no kidding).

Downata Hot Springs is located in a very quiet peaceful farming valley about three miles south of Downey, Idaho (pop. 615). It’s in a beautiful setting at the base of rolling hills with cattle and horses grazing all around and a nearby rail line for Ron’s enjoyment.

Since it was the off-season, the hot spring-fed pool and most other facilities were closed, which made it very quiet indeed. There were only three or four things we didn’t like about this place: (1) The hot springs pool was closed; (2) There was no on-site holding tank dumping facilities; (3) the bathrooms were old and poorly maintained; and (4) There was a minor infestation of box elder bugs which look somewhat like black with red trim flying cockroaches. They didn’t bite but they were everywhere and very annoying.

We stayed three nights at Downata Hot Springs to relax, take a break from the highways and enjoy a little down time. The first two nights we were almost the only ones in the campground. Bonnie heard a coyote howl in the middle of the night and a train went by. Other than that, it was unbelievably quiet.

A few miles up the highway was Red Rock Pass. It was an interesting side trip. The pass has an interesting history as one of the outlets of ancient Bonneville Lake (or inland sea) when it broke loose and spilled into the Snake River drainage. An historical marker provides information about that important occurrance. A Mormon monument and small family graveyard are also in the area and have their own history, although I don't recall the details. We hiked the long steep stairway to the monument, read the Mormon marker and viewed the rugged terrain at the pass.

We went into the nearby town of Downey for groceries. It has a small city center consisting of about two half-blocks. The grocery store was the main business, along with a beauty shop next door. The old Downey theater and a small restaurant shared the block but both appeared to be out of business. A small library and bank were across the street to the east and the City Hall and community center were to the south. The residential areas of town seemed to be in pretty good shape with very wide streets, lots of trees and a nice school and county fairgrounds complex. One of their signs proudly proclaimed that Downey has been a “Tree City USA” for the past ten years.

Downey is a nice little farming community, and not unlike many small towns throughout the country that have mature trees along friendly residential streets, classic buildings and unique histories. Similar towns are everywhere, but especially in these very rural areas. They have been nice places to live and raise families for generations, but many are now failing economically and slowly deteriorating and fading away as life in the fast lane passes them by. Sad to see, but a fact of life.

#14 - Mt. Rushmore & Keystone

If this #14 is out of sequence, it's because we got ahead of ourselves as we were blogging merrily along, and left out a couple important places. So, we'll fill in here.

Our primary South Dakota destination was Mt. Rushmore. We had been there before, but it was three or four decades ago so we weren't sure if erosion over that length of time had distorted the presidents or not. We were happy to find the mountain intact and fresh from a cleaning. The presidents haven't changed but the tourist facilities have been expanded significantly. The complex now includes a video theater, restaurant, gift shop, parking structures, stairways, elevators and boardwalks to viewpoints, an amphitheater and a promenade of flags of all the states. It’s pretty impressive and the park ranger did a great job of narrating a walk around the base of the mountain.

The small town of Keystone is just a few miles downhill from Mt. Rushmore. We happened to be there during their annual “Holy Terror Days.” The festivities began with a disappointing breakfast of scrambled eggs, slightly burnt potatoes, dry biscuits and warm apple juice, but improved from there. Later in the day they had an old time parade of mostly horses and horse-drawn vehicles of various kinds, along with a few cowboys shooting off their guns. It was a fun down home style parade.

After the parade, everyone went down to the Big Thunder gold mine store for a cowboy barbecue dinner of spuds, beans and steaks. Entertainment was provided by the 7th Cavalry (Custer's group) Drum and Bugle Corps from Rapid City. It was a fun and relaxing afternoon. Due to limited seating and general fatigue from lots of climbing and walking around on a hot day, we skipped the dinner but listened to several numbers by the band.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

#16 - Rawlins and Beyond

On the morning of 9/11 we emptied our wallets to gas up the motor home and aim it in the general direction of Muddy Gap and Rawlins. The best thing about Casper was the lowest gas price we’ve seen so far, as low as $2.65/gal. at some stations.

State Route 220 was a long desolate 116 mile drive, punctuated with colorful rock formations, dilapidated homesteads and frequent sightings of deer, antelope and beef on the hoof. It was relatively flat with occasional long grueling grades. We crossed the Continental Divide twice and then another two times west of Rawlins. The passes were all around 7,000 ft.

The “Frontier Prison” is the main attraction in Rawlins (pop. 9,000). Formerly known as the Wyoming State Penitentiary, this impressive facility housed desperados from 1901 until it closed in 1981. Very little funding has been available for restoration so the prison is in pretty sad shape and largely the way it was 26 years ago. A small museum contained lots of interesting photographs and other artifacts from days gone by and the nearby prison cemetery holds the remains of many former convicts who were unclaimed by families.

We took a 45 min. tour, heard stories about the notorious inmates and got to see all the cell blocks, the cafeteria, showers, recreation yard, solitary and death row cells, gallows and gas chamber. It was a thorough tour and very informative and interesting. This was a pretty nasty place to be incarcerated. It was all concrete and steel, very dark most of the time, had a poor heating system and no hot water until 1978. The photos below show one of the 4-level high cell blocks, the gas chamber and Ron in the death row cell area.

After visiting the prison, we jumped on Interstate 80 for the 110 mi. drive to Rock Springs. This turned out to be the most difficult drive, so far. Since I-80 is a primary route between Chicago and San Francisco, it was a parade of 18 wheelers. The speed limit is 75 so everyone was probably going 80+, or so it seemed. Our Honda manual says to never tow faster than 65, so we try to keep our speed between 60 and 65, which made us, by far, the slowest vehicle on the highway. The only folks we passed were those going the other way. We were being passed continuously by big rigs that did their best to blow us off the road. Gusty winds didn’t help.

It was a relief to finally reach Rock Springs. We checked into a KOA campground and found a nearby Golden Corral for an excellent buffet dinner.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

15 - To Casper

Sept. 10 was a travel day so there are no photos in this offering, just text. After four days of short trips, sightseeing and other activities in southwest South Dakota, we decided it was time to turn around and begin the return trip. That decision was aided by an overnight temperature in the mid-30s and a forecast of snow flurries in the Black Hills. It was time for us to move on down the road. So, we hitched up the Honda and proceeded south on Highway 79.

We drove about 260 miles, which is more than an average day for this vacation. South of Buffalo Gap we turned west, passed through the town of Hot Springs and over the southern end of the Black Hills to Edgemont and on to Lusk, Wyoming. It was a beautiful drive with seemingly unlimited vistas of mountains and prairies, sage brush, picturesque rock outcroppings, occasional forests and rolling grassy hills with grazing cattle, deer and antelope nearly everywhere. Beautiful and never boring.

Nearly all highways that we’ve traveled have been excellent, even the routes seldom traveled through the back country. One unusual thing we noticed in South Dakota and Wyoming is that road crews seem to be overly cautious. It’s not uncommon to come upon “Construction Work Ahead” signs, followed by freeway traffic being shifted into one lane with orange cones continuing for miles, often with no sign of work being done. Somewhere in the middle a small crew might be patching a pot hole. It must take ten minutes to fix the hole and three days to set out and pick up the cones. It’s amusing to us passersby, but serious work for the road crews.

Some unusual sights broke up the scenery along our route. The little town of Shawnee, Wyoming appears to have gone belly-up. It now appears to be a ghost town but not yet advertised as such so there are no post cards available. Down the road a few more miles, we came upon the community of Lost Springs (pop. 1). We didn’t stop to see if he/she was home. Then there was the town of Douglas, home of the jackalope. They have a ten foot tall statue of the horned rabbit downtown and an even larger one on a hillside west of town, overlooking the freeway. We passed on the jackalope post cards.

We arrived in Casper around 4:00 pm and decided to look around town and find a place to eat. We drove all over town, from end to end, looking for a restaurant. We came up with a couple drive-ins and a couple run-down dumps, but not much else. Casper must have the fewest restaurants per capita of any city on earth. Bonnie finally suggested that we concentrate our search at a freeway interchange and, sure enough, we found a place that advertised “buffet”, which attracted Ron’s attention. It was the “Casper Cookery”, a sort of truck stop restaurant attached to a Flying J gas station. We went straight for the buffet, which was a major mistake. It looked like the left-overs from lunch had become the main dinner selections. The gravy was scabbed over, the pulled pork was mushy, the mashed potatoes were like thick paste and the fried chicken was crusty and dry. Ron grabbed a bun for his pork sandwich. It appeared to be a toasted bun, but he soon figured out that it was just stale, dry and brittle. He followed with a dessert of what appeared to be cake with cherries on top and chocolate drizzled over it. It looked good, but it was totally soggy. We concluded that it was really a pudding made to look like cake, but we were never sure. We both agreed that this was the worst buffet we ever came across. It was good to get out of there.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

13 - The Badlands

Neither of us had been to Badlands Nat’l. Park, so we decided to check it out. It was a 50 drive east of Rapid City to Wall, where we spent a couple hours at famous Wall Drug (free ice water). From there, a 60+ mile loop drive took us through a portion of the park. The visitor’s center provided all the literature we needed and a video to get us off on the right foot. It was a nice sunny day and the drive was very interesting, with lots of viewpoints to photograph the rugged landscape along the way. The terrain is pretty amazing. It's easy to see how it would slow down a wagon train. Since we're well into September, traffic wasn't a problem at all.

The park has a good assortment of wildlife. We saw some along the road and were glad we didn't encounter some of the others.

Just outside the park is a restored sod house and other outbuildings from an old homestead. It was very interesting, with chickens and geese roaming around and a white prairie dog town nearby. The house was built of sod, including the walls a roof, and had a dirt floor. The geese didn’t appreciate Ron taking their pictures, so they cornered him in a small shed and were threatening to attack until another tourist chased them away. Wildlife can be dangerous!

The geese didn't appreciate Ron taking their pictures, so they cornered him in a small shed, honked loudly and threatened an attack. Just as they were entering the shed to do him in, another tourist chased them away and Ron avoided getting seriously goosed. Wildlife can be dangerous if you're not careful!

12 - Black Hills & Deadwood

We finally arrived in South Dakota on Sept. 5 and checked into the Three Flags RV Park in Black Hawk, a few miles west of Rapid City. The park was conveniently located on a grassy hillside at the end of a short gravel road. It had a nice view of the Black Hills and Interstate 90 and, for Ron’s entertainment, a railroad line was nearby. However, there were only a couple trains each day so we didn’t lose any sleep.

Cloud formation viewed from our campground.

Our list of places to see included the refurbished gold mining town of Deadwood. The town is wedged into a narrow valley and has a colorful history of fires, floods, gold rush, gambling and lots of stories about such residents as Wild Bill Kickok and Calamity Jane. Hickok was murdered in 1876 while playing poker in a Deadwood saloon. He was only 39. Jane died about 1903 of a variety of ailments. Both are buried in Mt. Moriah Cemetery high on a hill overlooking the town.
Touring Mt. Moriah Cemetery.
Wild Bill Kickok's grave.

We did a tour of the town and looked at all the old buildings before getting stranded by a cloudburst. We ducked into the Silverado where we had a great prime rib buffet dinner. When we emerged, the rain was gone and the sun was shining. Weather moves fast around here.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

#11 - Devil's Tower

After three weeks of weaving our way through Montana, we finally left Hardin on Tuesday, Sept. 4. It was another hot day so we stopped for a couple hours to cool off in Buffalo, Wyoming. We looked around the historic downtown district and walked a short distance along the Clear Creek trail before coming to rest on a park bench under a shade tree. After an excellent lunch downtown and a quick tour of the local (air conditioned) museum, we were on the road again.

Our next destination was the Black Hills of South Dakota, but we stopped for the night in Gillette, Wyoming. We set up camp in the Wal-Mart parking lot, along with six or eight other RVs. Wal-Mart is friendly toward travelers and most of their stores welcome overnighters, so we thought we'd give it a try. The stay wasn’t as comfortable as an RV park. We were parked next to a landscaped island with a malfunctioning sprinkler that squirted straight up and another that just pumped water onto the asphalt, creating a small lake. Three guys with hot motorcycles entertained (annoyed) us for a while with their loud biker antics and trick riding. The parking lot lighting was so bright all night that we couldn’t tell if it was morning or not. But it was free and, as Bonnie says, “You get what you pay for.”

We left Gillette early the next morning and drove to Sundance where we parked the RV at a gas station, uncoupled the Honda and drove the 27 miles to Devil’s Tower Nat’l. Monument. It was a perfect day and the scenery was beautiful over the rolling hills with scattered ponderosa pine forests. The only obstacle we encountered was a house being moved down the narrow highway. The house was wider than the road and it took a while to find a spot wide enough to allow traffic to pass.

Devil’s Tower was more impressive and interesting than we thought it would be. We walked the trail around its base, shooting pictures from all sides and taking in the views of the Black Hills and valleys below. Very nice. After a few hours, we continued into South Dakota to our next campground in Black Hawk, just outside Rapid City.

Trail around the base of Devil's Tower.

Monday, September 3, 2007

#10 - Little Big Horn and Sheridan

The first day of September promised to be another hot one but it was time to visit the site of Custer’s last stand. We got an early start and were among the first cars to arrive at the visitor’s center of the Little Big Horn battlefield. We toured the exhibits and watched a 17 min. video that explained the background and events leading up to “Custer’s Last Stand.” We also spent a little time at the Custer National Cemetery.
Custer National Cemetery

Lt. Col. George Custer took on more than he could handle on June 25, 1876. The 200+ man cavalry unit that he led into battle was totally wiped out by a much larger band of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapahoe warriors. The hillsides are dotted with white markers where his men fell and red granite markers for about 18 of the Indians. Most Indian remains were picked up earlier by their families so only the few without families were left on the battlefield.

Markers of fallen soldiers on Last Stand Hill.

Other markers scattered over the hills.
A memorial to Custer's Seventh Cavalry was erected on Custer Hill in 1881 atop a mass grave. It records the names of the troops, Indian scouts and other attached personnel who fell on the battlefield.

For the bargain price of $5, we took a tour of the area on a small air-conditioned bus. A local Crow Indian woman narrated the tour. Her great grandfathers fought in the battle and she provided a very interesting and personal perspective of the encounter, as well as bits of information on Indian history, culture and customs. The Spirit Warriors sculpture is part of the Indian Memorial at the battlefield.

Major Reno and Captain Benteen commanded other companies of the Seventh Cavalry and were involved in a separate battle not far from Last Stand Hill. They couldn't get there in time to save Custer's company but many of them did survive. A Reno-Benteen Battlefield Memorial was placed near Reno Hill.

The next day we drove down to Sheridan, Wyoming (about 80 mi.). Nearly all businesses downtown were closed for the Labor Day weekend. So, with our walking tour map in hand, we walked up and down Main Street admiring the historic buildings, many of which were built in the 1800s.

We spent an hour or so at the Sheridan County Museum and couldn’t pass up a self-guided tour of “Trail End”, a restored 14,000 sq. ft. mansion. John Kendrick built this amazing house in 1913. It’s three stories plus basement, with a ballroom on the top floor. A unique feature was a central vacuum system, very unusual for that time. John was a successful cattle rancher. He assembled several ranches in Montana and Wyoming into a 210,000 acre spread. He eventually became Governor of Wyoming and a U.S. Senator. The mansion was eventually abandoned by the family and nearly torn down in 1968. Fortunately, the local historical society was able to dig up enough grant money to purchase the house and its several acre site for $35,000, restore it, furnish it and get it onto the National Register of Historic Places. Great job!

The Kendrick estate includes a preserve for bison, elk and other wildlife. Bonnie stopped to chat with a friendly elk. He appreciated her offer of greener grass from the other side of the fence.