Days 1-11 12-19 20-30 31-40 41-51 52-60 61-109
Day 20 - September 8, 2008
Hill City, SD
There's a lot of coal in Gillette, WY. They have an open pit coal mine on one side of the freeway with a tunnel to the processing facility on the other side. From there it is loaded on to freight trains and distributed throughout the west. The coal trains stretch for miles and we have seen them everywhere on this trip (now we know where they came from). In green-friendly California, we tend to forget that coal is still a big source of energy in this country.
Remember Devil's Tower from Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Well we got to see it in person today and it is very impressive. It rises 1300 feet up from the surrounding terrain and is an old granite volcanic plug or intrusion which has cooled slowly and produced the distinctive hexagonal jointing. (Other examples of this phenomenon are Devil's Postpile in California and the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland.) I guess the six-sidedness is the work of the devil! Rockclimbers are scaling the sides of the monolith. We hike up enough to get some decent photos. One of the highlights of the park are the prairie dogs (especially for us non-mid-westerners).
We cross the border into South Dakota and stop at the lovely Walmart in Rapid City for supplies and groceries. OK, full disclosure, I really dislike shopping at Walmart. I am definitely the Whole Foods and Nordstrom snob. I like my Target, but have never been a fan of Walmart or K-Mart, even as a kid. So it's with reluctance that I have to shop here. Unfortunately, I've been in enough of them that I know my way around. I have never been in a Walmart Supercenter though (Walmart and grocery store in one) and I am stunned at how big it is. I feel like the opposite of the country bumpkin who comes to the big city and is gaping at all the tall buildings. This place is huge! I didn't realize how big the boxes could get!
Hill City, SD is in the heart of the Mt. Rushmore area and about 45 minutes from Rapid City. The general area is very touristy and there are tons of billboards along the way advertising all sorts of family fun adventures. Unfortunately everything closes down after Labor Day, so all the fun stuff like waterslides, trams, and alpine sleds are out of commission for the winter.
We are staying at Rafter J Bar Ranch RV Park tonight. It is a very nice park, with lots of room between you and your neighbor. We have a big meadow in front of us -- good for 9 year old boys to run around in!
It's sunny today!! I don't think we've had a day this nice since Crater Lake. The nice weather is a welcome change. My parents are flying into Rapid City today and meeting us at the RV around lunchtime. They will be traveling with us from Mt. Rushmore to New Hampshire. Once they arrive we all go into Hill City for lunch. We find a tasty German restaurant called the Alpine Inn. After refueling we head to Mt. Rushmore. The sculptures are very impressive, but once we've seen them, there's not much else to do here. You can't touch them or hike on top of them. I feel like I'm just checking Mt. Rushmore off my list of things to see.
Pick a winner!
We drive by Crazy Horse, but balk at the $27 entrance fee. Mt. Rushmore was only $10 and sculptures are complete. Crazy Horse is massive but still under construction. Maybe Colin can take his grandkids to see the finished product.
My parents are heading to Devil's Tower today and we are heading to Hot Springs, SD to check out, what else, the hot springs. Evan's Plunge is a large indoor pool with naturally heated spring water. (Apparently competing Indian tribes once fought over control and ownership of this land.) The plunge also has a couple of waterslides, basketball, volleyball and monkey bar ring swings all in the pool. We swam here all morning, took a break for lunch and the mammoth dig site, then swam again for an hour before heading back to the RV.
The Mammoth Site is pretty cool. It's a private non-profit site that was unearthed 30 years ago. Bulldozers for a new housing subdivision scraped up some bones. They turned out to be mammoth bones. There was a pre-historic sinkhole in this location 26,000 years ago. Wooly mammoths, Columbian mammoths and a variety of other animals went to swim in the hot spring waters and then they couldn't get out. Their bodies fell to the bottom of the pond/sink hole and got covered with sediment. More bodies, more sediment over the next 500 years and eventually the sinkhole filled in. Fast-forward to 1974 and that sinkhole is now a hill (it's sediment was more resistant to erosion, so it is higher than the rest of the landscape.) The bones are not fossilized. They've discovered 55 skeletons so far and have at least 300 more feet deep to go. They've built a building over the dig site. I would recommend a visit if you are in the area.
We find a car wash in town and clean up the Mini. It is filthy; it's getting hard to see out the side windows. Being towed behind the RV and through the snow has taken its toll. Small pebbles are lodged in all the grooves on the front of the car. There are yellow jackets eating the cricket road kill on the grill. I had a clear bra installed on the Mini before we left. I hope it's working!
On the way back to the RV, we see more bison in the middle of the road. The novelty still hasn't worn off, but they are starting to be a nuisance. How quickly we are jaded! There is a lot of wildlife, even in the towns. Mule deer, antelope, prong-horn deer and bunny rabbits are pretty easy to spot. How much of a sport could hunting be?
We cruise through a few small towns today. The first one is Lead (pronounced leed). The Homestake Gold Mine is located here. The mines shut down about ten years ago, but there was both an open pit and an underground mine (8000' deep). They used a lot of the technology developed at Empire Mine in Grass Valley, CA.
The next town we visited was Deadwood. This is the Black Hills town where Wild Bill Hickok was shot in No. 10 Saloon while holding the poker hand of black aces and eights (dead man's hand). The entire town in registered as a National Historic Landmark so the old buildings on Main Street look great, but they are all filled with casinos! There are 80 gambling establishments in this little town. It's easy to find a drink, but not real food. In the back of many casinos, you can get food, but your choices are hamburger, hot dog or something from the deep fryer - that's it! I would not recommend a visit here, except to experience how strange it is!
In front of Saloon No. 10
How many shades of black could there be?
The last town we visited today is Sturgis. Stugis is famous for the huge motorcycle rally that takes place every year in early August. The town swells from a population of 7,000 to 500,000 for a week. Don't bother showing up if you not riding a Harley. We walked down main street which was now very quiet a month after the event. In fact many of the shops were boarded up. I guess they made their money and won't be opening up again until next August. Not much to see here now but over priced t-shirt shops.
Sturgis during bike week. (Not my photo.)
The best town of the day is Keystone. It is about two miles from Mt. Rushmore and houses the Borglum Historical Center. Gutzon Borglum was the sculptor who created Mt. Rushmore. He was a popular artist at the turn of the 20th century who hung out with Rodin, Teddy Roosevelt and Helen Keller. Keystone is a very touristy town and we came across an old style blacksmith shop. The blacksmith hammered and forged Colin's name in an old railroad spike - for free. After dinner we drove on the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway. This is a trippy road with wood truss bridges, pigtails and one-lane tunnels blasted through solid granite. The view through one tunnel frames Mt. Rushmore perfectly. The trees are kept trimmed to preserve the view too. On the way home, we saw some mountain goats with long flowing white fur.
Colin on Lincoln's lap - A Borglum sculpture
Can hardly tell it's fake!
Tunnel view on Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway
On the way out of town, we drop off the rental car. About an hour after Rapid City we arrive at Wall Drug Store in the small town of Wall, SD. In 1936, struggling Wall Drug started offering free ice water to travelers. Today, the Drug Store is a 76,000 foot retail extravaganza, selling everything from western wear to donuts to fossils. They have a chapel, playground, giant roaring dinosaur, gold panning area and a restaurant. Every square inch of wall space is covered with something for you to buy or a family portrait. It is a tourist attraction of itself. The billboards advertising Wall Drug started back in Wyoming and increased in frequency the closer we got to Wall. My dad got free coffee and a donut (because he was a veteran) but the cup cost 21 cents. After lunch and a few souvenirs, we are on our way again.
They even sell jackalope at Wall Drug.
Once we leave the dry South Dakota Badlands and head into the prairies, the windshield bug count as well as the humidity skyrockets. We stop at the rest area that over looks the Missouri River. This rest stop is not like your average California picnic table and outhouse stop. Besides the bathrooms, it has a small Lewis & Clark museum and visitor information center, both fully staffed with real employees.
We are about half way across the country at this point. We stay in Michell, SD tonight - home of the world famous corn palace. Years ago, farmers would tack up their locally grown produce and corn to the side of a building to show how fertile the local soil was. Now the corn palace has thousands of ears of corn attached to the side of its building. The different colored corn forms a variety of mosaic scenes on the side of the building. The corn season is still winding down here, so the mosaics are under construction.
Here's something you don't see everyday - Mt Rushmore made out of corn.
I got to go to Walmart twice tonight. I forgot something the first time - yeah!
We are staying in the R&R RV Park, located behind the Super 8 Motel.
We drove in three states today - South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin. In Austin, MN we stopped at the SPAM museum. Hormel, the maker of SPAM, has a huge manufacturing plant here (one in Nebraska too). The kitchy museum is part tongue-in-cheek, part serious; after all, Hormel makes a lot of money on SPAM. According to the displays, we couldn't have won a war without Hormel canned meat. I'm not a big fan of processed meat, but when I'm in Hawaii I do as the locals do and have a spam "sushi" roll once in while.
We have been driving though corn fields for days now. I guess all our high fructose corn syrup and ethanol has to come from somewhere! All this corn is subsidized by the American taxpayers. Check out the movie King Corn to get an idea of how pervasive corn is in the US.
The farm buildings are rather picturesque. Each farmer has his own grain silo. They are rounded at the top and have two rows of checkerboard decoration near the top. The gamble-roofed barns all have distinctive cupolas at the top. The barns and silos have this style through most of Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Our camp tonight is at the Pettibone RV Park. It is on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River. This far north, the Mississippi looks nothing like I expected it would. No big flat muddy river. The cliffs around the river are high and the water looks pretty clear. The river is wide with lots of big islands and lily pads grow in the quiet inlets. Colin tries out the fishing - no luck.
We find a nice restaurant, Piggy's, in the downtown La Crosse riverfront area. I shuttle everyone over in the Mini. We appreciate the tasty steaks and fresh salad green mix. The restaurant has a live band right next to our table. Colin learns the song, "I Got My Mojo Working".
We stopped for lunch in Madison, WI today. We tried out the distinctive Ella's Kosher Deli and Ice Cream Parlor. Every square inch inside this place is covered with crazy decor. Motorized super-heroes glide across the ceiling, the Beatles are singing in a booth, Betty Boop in on a swing, each table has a scene under plexiglass, there's a carousel outside and birthday parties inside with balloons and massive bowls of ice creams. The waitresses hum Happy Birthday on kazoos. The food's not bad for a kid place. You can't help but to be entertained by it all.
We set up for the night in Milton, WI at the Hidden Valley RV Park. Martin, Colin and I took a ride over to Lake Geneva, WI. Martin and his sister Julie used to spend their teenage summers here at their uncle's house. Lake Geneva is an hour and a half north of Chicago and is a popular summer vacation spot. We know that Martin's cousin Eddie has totally remodeled the family house and we want to drive by and take a look and show Colin the lake where his dad used to hang out. To our surprise, two of Martin's cousins and his aunt and uncle are at the house. The house is located in a private beach community and most of the neighbors are somehow related through marriage. There's hardly any traffic and it's only a few yards to the lake. Neighbors stop in via the back door and the kids can roam around on their own. It seems like it would be a great place to grow up. The Burke house is still the hub of activity tonight. Aunt Georgine has just returned from a trip to Ireland with her siblings; friends and relatives are coming and going through the backdoor; Colin is playing fetch with the dog and we're all having pizza. The remodeled house looks great. I'm jealous of the huge basement. (Why can't those come stock on California houses?) After a quick visit, we bid Uncle Ed, Aunt Georgine, Eddie and Jimmy farewell and drive an hour through the rain back to the RV.
The Burkes - Martin, Aunt Georgine, Eddie, Uncle Ed, Jimmy
It finally happened - mechanical problems with the RV. We were ready to take off this morning and one of the stabilizers/levelers would not come up. After a few futile calls to the dealer and the manufacturer's tech support, Martin and my dad slithered under the RV on wet gravel and finally got it working. They solved the immediate problem, but we still need to find out why it is malfunctioning and get it repaired, so no stabilizers tonight. (The RV is extra bouncy and un-level without the stabilizers; it relies on the vehicles regular shocks and suspension.)
Both of Martin's parents are originally from Illinois. We stopped in Machessney Park, IL (near Rockford) to visit Martin's mom's sister. She cooked us a lovely lunch and shared photos, storied and geneaology of many of her relatives. I also got to meet two more of Martin's cousins - Dennis and Kathy.
Dennis, Kathy, Martin, Colin, Joanne, John and Aunt Jean in front
Chicago and the northern Indiana area have had a lot of flooding over the past few days - the tail-end of Hurricane Ike. Chicago had seven inches of rain in twenty-four hours; the record for a one day period. One of the major freeways near Gary, IN remains flooded for days and makes the traffic everywhere a little bit worse.
We are staying in Portage, IN because it is the closest RV park I could find to Chicago. We roll into Yogi Bear Jellystone Park after dark. It's located in an industrial part of town and we can hear the trains rolling by not too far away. We'll have to see what we've gotten ourselves into in the morning. We get pizza delivery for dinner. We did three states again today - Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana.
We figured out why Yogi Bear RV Park is only $20 a night; the freight trains start rolling by at 4:30am. They seem to be about a mile long and blast their horns at every intersection along the way. Plus all our neighbors who live in their trailers full-time start noisily going to work at 5am. Luckily we're only staying here one more night. We decided to stay in downtown Chicago for a couple nights to be closer to all the sight seeing. We got a great deal on Priceline for rooms at the Hotel Burnham. Portage is at least an hour away from Downtown Chicago.
We had some interesting logistics today. First we have to rent a car big enough for all five of us to fit in. The rental agency is located about 15 miles away. We all drive over there in the RV. My parents, Colin and I drive the big car into Chicago. After Martin drops us at the car rental agency, he has to drive an hour and a half east through cornfields to Elkhart, IN to get the stabilizers serviced. He's towing the Mini because he has no idea how long the service will take (hours, days?). Fortunately, the guys at Stuart's Service were real pros and replaced the faulty solenoid in about 45 minutes. We think that one of the solenoids has been defective since it was installed in California.
Then Martin got to drive an hour and half back to Portage, take off the Mini, park the RV, then drive another hour into Chicago in the Mini. Today was kind of a hassle, especially for Martin, but the whole stabilizer system works properly now. We treat ourselves to an excellent dinner at Rosebud Prime. They have phenomenal steaks and service and they're just a block from the hotel.
Our hotel building is 113 years old. It was designed by the well-known Chicago architect Charles Atwood. It was originally known as the Reliance Building - a precursor to the modern glass and steel skyscraper - and is now included in the historic Chicago architecture tours. It is located in the Chicago loop and is only a couple blocks away from Millenium Park and the El (elevated "subway" train).
We went up the Sears Tower this morning. It was built in 1973 as the headquarters for Sears & Roebuck and is the tallest building in North America. They sold the building 20 years later, but it still retains the moniker. The weather is clear today, so the views are great. We see lots of watertowers in the distance for all the towns near Chicago; I'm expecting one to say Save Ferris.
We walked down Jackson Boulevard, past the Chicago Board of Trade and went to the Art Institute of Chicago. We had lunch at the museum cafe and then checked out their collection. We saw American Gothic, Nighthawks and the Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (which is huge). My mom was very interested in the historically accurate miniature Thorne rooms. They were very impressive, especially the quantity of them - 68 in this museum alone. The museum also had a hands on kids area. Colin made a cool Joseph Cornell style box.
Some real life Art Vistas.
Then we walked through Millenium Park. Millenium Park houses some unique outdoor art installations. There are two 50' tall glass block towers that have water cascading down the sides and giant lighted faces on one side. There is a Frank Gehry designed bandshell and a sculpture shaped like a giant mirrored bean. There is also a restaurant and an ice rink in the winter.
In the evening we went over to Navy Pier for dinner. We watched the boats go by and went on the giant ferris wheel.
Today we reluctantly checked out of the Hotel Burnham. I enjoyed room service, a level bed, no trains, a bathtub and stepping out of the shower on a clean bathmat instead of the RV park's "fungified" bathroom floor. (We have a shower in the RV, but it is small, hard to clean, steamy and being used for storage right now. So we use the showers at every RV park we go to.) My parents are headed on a bus tour of Chicago today and we are off to LegoLand and a ball game. At a mall in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg, Lego has built a Discovery Center. It has an Indiana Jones themed jungle walk, mock lego factory, 4D movie, dragon ride and an area where the kids can build and race lego cars. The life-sized lego characters and creatures are amazing. They have areas for birthday parties and a surprisingly scaled down retail store. I'm sure more of these will be popping up in malls across the country.
Next we drove over to Wrigley Field for a Cubs game. We miraculously find a parking spot a few blocks away - love that Mini! The Cubbies are playing the Brewers today. It is a big rivalry and the Cubs are only a few games out from cinching their division title. The Cubs haven't been to the World Series in 100 years. Wrigley Field is old, small and enveloped in a neighborhood. The energy in the park is great and it's cool to actually be here and soak it all in. The rooftops of the residential buildings surrounding the park are know for hosting viewing parties. I always thought it was a few guys with lawn chairs and a case of beer. Well, they have certainly evolved. The buildings all have professional bleachers, open-windowed bars with plasma TVs, and highly visible web addresses of where to book your tickets. They've gone "corporate", but it looks like a fun way to go for a day! The Cubs end up winning the game in the 12th inning (and cinched the division title a couple days later). The town is a buzz about the new Eddie Vedder Cubs song and the Go, Cubs, Go song which is their good luck charm this this year.
We left a little early to beat the traffic. We end up taking Lakeshore Drive through town and pretty much all the way to Indiana. It was a great way to see the city one last time and beat all the traffic on 90, the toll road. The tolls are waived near Indiana because the other freeway is still flooded. It seems like some poor urban planning putting the freeway intersection at the low part of town; it's been closed for almost a week.
We rendevouz with my parents at the lovely Yogi Bear RV park. They scored some Garrett's popcorn on their tour today - cheese and caramel mix, Oprah's favorite.
Martin and I went to Valparaiso to return the car. We discovered the old part of town and it has a handful of cute restaurants with outdoor dining and innovative menus. This was the gem of this small farmtown with more than it's fair share of big box stores. They have Guinness on tap and I have a nice steak - love my protein!
After dinner we hit Target for a few items. As we're checking out, I realize that 50% of the women all have the same haircut, how weird! It's a short wedge in the back and long and straight in the front. I nickname it the Indiana Soccer Mom cut.
The trains rumbling the RV lull me to sleep at Yogi Bear's private hell.