Our Vacation. The Complete Tale, in Three Parts (3)

I’ve been trying to figure out how to do this blog. A select number of people got to read the following each day as my husband sent out an update; most of my legions of readers (stop laughing) probably haven’t.

As it’s our vacation, and as its old news a month later, it probably won’t interest you all that much. However, this seemed to be the best way to gather everything from the vacation and record it for us.

Each night, I uploaded photos and began editing, and Timmy wrote a little update. Timmy likes to write. There are no short updates. :)

Our Vacation was astounding, fascinating and beautiful!

(The photos I am putting with the updates don’t truly correspond, but that is because by the time I finished editing, there were 1469 photos on the website. I then broke them down, and felt that subject rather than day made more sense.)

For ease of reading I am breaking even this up into three posts. (This is definitely more for us, than for you, gentle reader, so it’s all good if you just skim!)

If you make it through, good for you!! :) If you like, please, comment!

Part THREE

“Day Eleven”
Trish started our vacation with a head cold, and she was sweet enough to pass it on to me, so I will attempt to keep this log entry short.
I also neglected to mention that as we crossed Wyoming last night, we had an eerie experience. With the wide open landscape, you can also see weather as it develops and moves, which is amazing in itself. As we moved east on I-80 we could see a thunderstorm brewing out in front of us, and with each speeding mile we closed the gap. Finally the skies were dark over us and the rain began to fall. The lightening flashes we had been watching in the distance now lit the sky with each bolt.
We passed the exit for Flaming Gorge and part of the highway tunnels through a mountain, once we emerged on the other side each flash of the storm quickly lit the terrain around us and the craggy rock formations loomed outside the windows like sentinels watching in the darkness. Overall it was slightly creepy but exhilarating as well.
Trish tried to capture the flashes and bolts with many different settings on her camera, but her noble effort proved fruitless. Can’t blame the girl for trying though; if it had worked it would have been a phenomenal shot.
This morning all traces of the storm had disappeared, and blue skies with white, billowy clouds were the order of the day. We also took note that Wyoming must be the wind farm capitol of the USA. We cruised past several large collections of turbines, and one was easily over a hundred units in size. Given the windy driving conditions we faced most of the day, I can see why this would be an ideal location for these graceful giants.
Once we crossed into Colorado the traffic took a marked increase, and we exited the interstate and headed for Estes Park, which is a community at the entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park. To say that Estes Park is a retail boomtown would be a massive understatement as stores, shops and various eateries line the streets almost all the way to the park entrance. The place was crawling with people like ants on a rotten apple, for what I could only guess was a last gasp of summer.
The road that climbs the rest of the way to the Park entrance is a beauty; cut into the mountainside, it mimics the path of the Big Thompson River. Cars can be found parked on many corners as sportsman enjoy fly fishing and hiking along the shallow, churning water as it winds down the rocky river bed. We dropped the top and soaked in the breeze as we rode.
After passing the entry gate, the climb to the sky begins in less than four miles. Trail Ridge Road zigzags up the evergreen filled mountains offering some stunning overlooks. One item that might be easily missed is the long sticks that are intermittently placed along the roadside. The road remains closed for “winter” snow from October to Memorial Day, and these sticks serve as markers so the plow drivers don’t run off the edge since most corners have no guardrails or barriers. The scary part is that these marking sticks are about ten to twelve feet tall. I don’t know how deep the snow gets up there but the markers tell me it might be severe.
The tree line drops away a little past 10,000 feet of elevation and the view opens up to panoramic proportions. The road continues to climb until it peaks at a bit over 12,000 feet, where the wind can gust up to 100 mph and lightening and thunderhead clouds can form in minutes from the rising thermal heat. I watched the thermometer in the dash of my car and the temperature dropped 24 degrees from when we entered the road until we reached the peak.
Beartooth Pass was a similar experience, and today we witnessed the same kind of remaining glacial snow and high altitude lakes, but the sensation was no less intoxicating.
The trip down the mountain yielded fruit for Trish as well when we finally spotted a young male Elk, who seemed happy to pose and give his best “The Hartford” profile.
We had dinner in the small town of Granby at the foot of the mountain, at a place called Maverik’s, and it was a hidden gemstone. True freshly prepared dishes with home cooked flavor, great service at reasonable prices. What more could you ask?
Granby was quite deceptive as a town, since the map shows it to be almost the same size as Estes Park. Given the bustling nature of Estes we assumed Granby would be similar on the western slope of the mountain. Not so.
Granby is a “main street” town and I didn’t recognize a single name as far as a chain retail business is concerned, not a 7-Eleven or gas station of prominent title. I would consider Granby to be the alter ego of Estes Park, small town solitude as opposed to retail blitz.
The sun set on our day as we crossed the mountains one last time through the Arapaho National Forest, which is home to some of Colorado’s famed ski resorts. All was quiet there for now, which is more than I can say for the insane traffic once we reached Denver. This place reminds me of the kind of lunatic fringe you experience on the DC beltway, and I was glad to finally get to a hotel.
Tomorrow we leave Colorado en route to St. Louis and the Gateway Arch.
Now for some meds and rest, it’s been a long day in the saddle.
Aurora, Colorado – 4253 miles

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PHOTO BREAK! On the Road Again

“Day Twelve”
Today was mostly a travel day, but this country never ceases to amaze even if you are just rolling by. Technically we weren’t in Denver last night but one of the suburbs called Aurora.
We grabbed breakfast at local spot named “Rosie’s Diner,” which was right behind the hotel (ain’t that convenient) The décor was 50’s style with lots of Elvis and Marilyn references, and a local car club called “Mile High Cruisers” had photos of members’ cars lined up around the ceiling. Excellent food and great prices as well.
I dropped Trish at a local quilt shop while I gave Ms. Ladyhawke a spray wash, and then we waved goodbye to Denver. I certainly won’t miss the crazy traffic, but once we were outside the beltway, the skyline of the city against the backdrop of the majestic Rocky Mountains made a beautiful image in the rearview mirror.
Coming into Denver the night before had required navigating several steep grades, and while leaving this morning wasn’t as dramatic, it was as if the mountains came to a dead stop and the terrain dropped to gentle rolling plains. This landscape continued all the way out of Colorado and across the entire state of Kansas.
The enormous vistas we witnessed today left me awestruck at the overwhelming amount of agriculture in this country. All the way across Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and South Dakota on our way out, and now half of Colorado and all of Kansas; the farmland reaches as far as vision will allow. I can only assume Nebraska is more of the same. I realize farming today has advanced technology and a great deal of equipment, but the sheer acreage I have seen alone seems impossible to manage, especially given the small number of people that appear to live in these sections of the country.
I was astonished to find that the entire state of Wyoming has a population smaller that Staten Island, NY.  While we may think of life today as being hugely advanced over how it used to be, that simply isn’t the case in every part of this country. Much of the wide open west still retains a frontier attitude, and for some parts they do so with good reason.
I-70 runs like a backbone almost dead straight across the Kansas countryside, and in many locations you can see it all the way to the horizon. Ms Ladyhawke was in her element here as we cruised at 75mph for hours at a time. Stop, refill fuel tank, repeat. Every tankful brought mpg figures between 27-31, and who can complain about that kind of performance? The only drawback was an incredibly brisk and almost constant crosswind all day. The occasional gust could nearly force a lane change, which made for great fun when passing the numerous trucks, and I say that with all sarcasm.
In a touch of irony of both technology and timing, I mentioned to Trish that Kansas should be the perfect place for a wind farm or possibly the wind capital of the country if these conditions were frequent. Only a short while later we came upon a collection of turbines, and I thought there surely must be more than just these few. After my next re-fueling stop we came upon the largest wind farm we had seen thus far. The number of turbines was staggering, and we began counting mile markers to get some kind of scale of just how big it was, over twelve miles passed with turbines at least four deep. I don’t know how much power such a facility is capable of generating, but it seems like it would be an impressive figure.
Despite the windy conditions, we had been blessed with clear skies for the whole of the day, and Trish expressed her hopes to see a huge sky of stars that evening. So we stopped at place called “Freddy’s” and enjoyed some soft serve ice cream as we waited for the sun to set, then Ms. Ladyhawke shined once again.
We donned our jackets, dropped the top, raised the windows, and lifted the mesh windscreen behind the seats. The result was a serene cockpit at a leisurely 60mph cruise speed, and my wife leaned her head back as she gazed at the heavens. At one point we got off the highway at one of those desolate exits with absolutely nothing around (and those weren’t hard to find), pulled to the side of the entrance ramp and switched off the headlights.
The result was simply amazing and wondrous to behold as stars that would otherwise be unseen sparkled behind the more prominent constellations. I turned down the brightness of the dash lights, and after your eyes had a few moments to adjust the effect was even more brilliant. These are the kind of simple experiences that stir the soul, and the kind of image that no picture will ever be able to do justice. While looking at such vast beauty is humbling by scale alone, it is also a strong reminder to me that I am not alone, and that a Higher Power works on an eternal scale. I am but a small part of that mosaic, like a thread in a tapestry or a brush stroke in a mural, there is an integral purpose to be served.
We landed just outside of Kansas City for the night, and tomorrow we aim for St Louis.
To rest, and soar on the morrow.
Lawrence, Kansas – 4838 miles

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PHOTO BREAK! Flora

“Day Thirteen”
Almost officially two weeks and we are closing in on home base. We got a late start this morning mostly because I took a strong dose of Ny-Quil before bed, so the cell phone alarm clock had little effect. We had breakfast at IHOP and got through Kansas City but the Ny-Quil hangover I was nursing still lingered. I pulled off at the Missouri welcome center overlooking Arrowhead Stadium, grabbed the neck pillow and caught a 30 minute nap. Sometimes it still amazes my wife what a little face washing and a half hour of snooze time can do, but I am a firm believer in not fighting droopy eyes behind the wheel.
The ride across Missouri was largely uneventful, and the hills got larger as we entered the Ozark Mountains. Gone were the massive vistas we had marveled at for the past few days as tall stands of trees now lined the roads on both sides.
It was somehow odd and bewildering to read the passing billboard signs. I don’t think I have ever seen such a public war being waged as alternating signs displayed Jesus, the adult book/toy stores, anti-abortion, adult clubs and so on. This advertising ping-pong went on for miles and I was forced to wonder how many better places so much ad money could be put to use…but that’s a whole other subject.
Overcast skies and occasional rain were also the order of the day, which always makes travel challenging. This is just enough weather to make many drivers think of it as insignificant and their aggressive habits near any sizeable city quickly show. We saw a state trooper pursue a large red pickup truck up an on-ramp and then weave wildly through traffic. I don’t know if the truck was attempting to run or if he was just so busy being stupid as not to notice the patrol car hot on his heels.
The old saying, “Timing is everything” certainly held true today as we rolled into St. Louis right about rush hour. The traffic thickened with every passing mile as we headed for the riverfront until we finally got bumper-to-bumper about a mile before our exit.
After a lap of the Gateway Arch grounds, we located a parking deck where an almost empty upper level afforded some great shots of Ms. Ladyhawke with the Arch rising in the background. We then hiked down to the Arch complex, which I had no idea was so extensive.
The entire visitor center is underground between the twin foundations of the Arch. There are souvenirs, theaters and an impressive interactive museum regarding the westward expansion of our country. The artifacts and displays are well laid out and I was both surprised and glad to see a major section devoted to the Native Americans. At least somewhere someone had the courage to display the quotes and tell the stories of how we broke treaties, promises and generally regarded them as less than human, or an obstacle that stood in the way of our progress that needed to be removed. One might expect to see such things in a facility on reservation land, but it was unusual to see since this was the National Park Service.
We considered taking the tram to the observation windows at the top of the Arch, but thankfully some wise person has placed a tram car in the lobby for you to test fit yourself. The quarters are quite cramped; squeezing five people into a cylindrical shape that looks like it could fit inside a Toyota Yaris coupe. The adjacent plaque clearly states the ride up is 4.5 minutes and the ride down is 3.5 minutes, and those with claustrophobia or motion sickness should not attempt the ride. I can see why since the tram cars use a swivel system akin to a ferris wheel in order to keep the car level as it climbs inside the Arch legs. Closed up inside this windowless sardine can for 5 minutes as it jiggled its way to the top was not at all appealing, so we opted for a film instead.
The documentary entitled, “Monument to a Dream,” was only 35 minutes long but quite impressive as it chronicled the design and construction of the Gateway Arch. This simplistic looking design proved to have many engineering challenges to overcome, and the means by which they achieved them seem archaic by modern standards. Nonetheless, they raised a gracefully beautiful edifice of stainless steel and concrete that is as glorious to behold today as it was when it was completed in 1965.
As an industrial worker myself, and with the modern emphasis placed on safety, watching the workers in this film bolt and weld steel sections 600 feet in the air with only a hard hat for protection was mind-boggling. Yet the film stated that not a single life was lost in the years it took to complete the project, despite wind, snow and summer heat.
When I walked back outside I closely examined the outer skin of the Arch at its north base, and the evidence of hand crafted workmanship is readily apparent. The welds that bind the massive sheets of stainless steel are not fillet smooth or laser straight, but slightly irregular with the close spatter never having been ground away.
As I looked at my hazy reflection, and then upward as the Arch soars high above, I could not help but think about the time frame of its construction. During the same years when man was reaching for the surface of the moon, this marvel was rising here on the banks of the mighty Mississippi River. This was a time when computers were infantile and feats like these were tackled with math, slide rulers and sheer brains, while the guts, muscle and skill of tradesmen shaped them into reality. I take nothing away from the magic that modern technology has made possible, but we stand on the shoulders of those who laid the solid foundation we build upon today.
We left St Louis as the sun sank low in the sky, and the orange glow brightly backlit the Arch as we crossed the Mississippi and it was a sight I shall long remember. We pressed on through southern Illinois and into Indiana, mostly for the lack of any available place to stop. I-64 through this section is as desolate a road as I have ever been on, and I easily could have counted the vehicles I passed on one hand. However, what was lost on traffic was made up for by the mass genocide of the insect community I committed with my windshield. I fear to look at Ms Ladyhawke’s front bumper in the morning, and I’m sure a spray car wash will be in order before we proceed any farther.
Google maps show us about twelve hours from home at our present destination, so we may make home base by tomorrow night. If not, then early Thursday should see Miss Ladyhawke get a well deserved rest.
Homeward bound.
Evansville, Indiana – 5312 miles

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PHOTO BREAK! Monumental

“Day Fourteen”
Today got off to reasonable start as we had breakfast in the hotel. An online friend of mine had recommended “Drury Inns” if we were anywhere in the Midwest, and it turned out to be good advice. The room was very nice, complete with a desk and ethernet connection if you chose not to use the wireless. No hidden charges and the morning breakfast was definitely above average.
The next order of business was a spray car wash, and we located one only a few miles away. The quantity of pummeled insects on the front of the car was staggering, and it took scrubbing with the foam brush as well as repeated spraying to get them loose. I was also saddened to find several rock chips that will need touch-up paint to repair. This trip has only served to reinforce how badly I hate getting anywhere near a dump truck on the highway. I know they are a necessary evil in order to perform many kinds of construction, but the amount of crap they sling all over the roadway is ridiculous.
I must confess I hate leather bras on the front of cars, but for this kind of trip I can see their value.
After finally getting on the highway, it wasn’t long before we were distracted by a unique discovery. It seems we located Santa’s summer hideaway in small, rural Indiana town discreetly named, Santa Claus, Indiana.
It took us tracking a few miles off the highway to find the place, but lo and behold, in the middle of cornfields, trees and farmhouses, this Christmas destination lies neatly tucked away. It has its very own theme park called “HolidayWorld”as well as Christmas shops, food stores and even a car care center. Proof positive that Santa loves his car guys and Ms. Ladyhawke posed for one of her many postcard shots.
We rolled away the rest of the day as we chatted, listened to music, sang along badly (as is required for travel) and stopped for drain and refill points. Once we crossed into Kentucky we were back in the Eastern Time zone and one step closer to home.
We soared across Kentucky, past the horse farms and back into the Appalachian Mountains, over the Big Sandy River and into West Virginia. Here I found that even a 75mph cruise speed (in a 70mph speed limit zone) was still too slow for the pace of traffic. This required a good deal of lane changing to let the zoomers run past, and they did so even through the work zones. Granted, all of the workers had knocked off for the day by this time, but I’ve already had my dose of double fines in New York State when we were returning from Chicago a few years ago. I won’t be that out-of-state fall guy anymore.
Once we reached Charleston, WV we finally hit our first full fledged traffic jam. Repair work on the bridge entering the city backed things up for several miles, but we only sat for a few minutes before moving through. By this time it was closing on 7:00pm so we stopped for dinner and considered our options. Trish had been checking emails and texts on her phone all day, staying in contact with her family concerning her father’s health.
Aunt Gael called during dinner, and being the “talker” that she is (God lover her) our stop took a bit longer than usual.
Afterwards, we hopped on the West Va. Turnpike and I told Trish she wasn’t going to like this part of the journey. The sun had set and the trucks were plentiful as we entered the northern section of the turnpike, which is rich with steep grades and tight turns. Trish doesn’t like these kinds of roads under good conditions, and she had handled Beartooth Pass and Trail Ridge Road quite well, but neither was filled with trucks or run at 70mph speeds.
Trish kept her eyes on the glowing light of her phone (her beacon of safety) as the West Va. Le Mans got underway. Ms. Ladyhawke and I dove, swooped, banked and climbed as the lumbering trucks were no match for her agility. While she might lack the torque for tough hill climbing, at 70-75mph her rpm stayed high enough, along with her momentum to bleed off very little speed. We made short work of the distance between Charleston and Beckley, and my back and shoulders let me know that little sprint, on top of all day in the saddle was enough.
We settled in Beckley for the night, about a 4 hour trek to home. So we take flight with the morning sun, and soar one last time to complete an adventure that will live with us for a lifetime.
Last flight for home.
Beckley, West Virginia – 5754 miles

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PHOTO BREAK! St. Louis

“Epilogue”
Sometimes the dichotomy of life really surprises me. Our stay in Beckley, WV was quiet, once we got inside the hotel. The parking lot was absolutely flooded with rental cars, minivans and company trucks. The front desk clerk informed us that there was a training session going on for mine rescue workers, which accounted for all the trucks and the fifteen or so guys hanging around outside.
At first glance one would have thought you were in front of a slightly redneck bar, with guys shouting and laughing while they smoked and drank beer. A roughneck looking bunch to be sure, but when you’re the guy who goes down a dark hole in the Earth to pull another guy out, I’m sure he looks like a God-sent angel.
I suppose it takes a special breed of human with titanium stones and a carbon fiber spine to do that kind of work, and I’m quite sure the mine workers are glad they do, and could probably care less what they do in their free time. Its just one more good example of not judging a book by its cover. However, I was very thankful they left the rowdiness outside, since we never heard a peep the rest of the night.
They must have gotten an early start since the parking lot was almost vacant when we packed up the car. At the suggestion of my dear sister, we ventured a couple of blocks north from the hotel to visit the Tamarack Center.
The striking appearance of this place is punctuated by the multi-peaked roof that lends the image of a king’s crown, but once inside this ingenious architecture permits generous natural light. The motif is carried over throughout the interior, which houses space for all manner of local artisans to display their wares.
Paintings, sculptures, quilts, hand crafted furniture, and exquisite glass and wood crafts are here in abundance. You could easily wander through the various sections for hours, and if you do, then not to worry because there is a quaint dining area manned by chefs from the Greenbrier Hotel. They were still serving breakfast when we arrived, and the food prepared for us was a delight. Everything was fresh and tasty, from the cinnamon fried apples to the golden, fluffy biscuits.
While we looked around we discovered another interesting feature of the Taramack Center. We had noticed large wooden doors on the outer sections as we parked. Once inside we found that these are work areas, with glass overlooks, where you can watch some of these fine artisans as they apply their skill. The simplicity of the tools and materials that you see make the talent of the artist all the more evident, especially when you look around at their already finished pieces.
Thanks Sis, for a wonderful way to have breakfast and kick off our final leg home.
The rest of our ride home was much like our other travel days, filled with talk and music while we roll away the miles. Sometimes I stop and think about how fortunate I am that my wife and I can still chat away for long periods of time about a wide array of subjects, even though we have known each other for ten years. I’ve heard some of my co-workers complain that they had to ride with their wives for an hour or two, so I assume a cross country vacation of two weeks would be out of the question.
Miss Ladyhawke was a wonderful companion for our trip, as she provided comfort, sunny days, starry nights, lively music and room for all our stuff. She took a truckload of bugs on her nose, but I cleaned her often so she could pose for her shots at the destinations she delivered so well. Our worst tank of fuel was 24mpg and our best was 34. Not too shabby considering the altitudes we climbed to and the stretches of high speed cruising. All told, we logged 6047 miles, start to finish and what an amazing trip it was in between.
At 5:19pm, she glided into her driveway spot for a well deserved rest. (and a bath tomorrow)

Home. 6047 miles.

To see all the photos, go to this link.

Our Vacation. The Complete Tale, in Three Parts (2)

I’ve been trying to figure out how to do this blog. A select number of people got to read the following each day as my husband sent out an update; most of my legions of readers (stop laughing) probably haven’t.

As it’s our vacation, and as its old news, it probably won’t interest you all that much. However, this seemed to be the best way to gather everything from the vacation and record it.

Each night, I uploaded photos and began editing, and Timmy wrote a little update.

Timmy likes to write. There are no short updates. :)  Our Vacation was astounding, fascinating and beautiful!

(The photos I am putting with the updates don’t truly correspond, but that is because by the time I finished editing, there were 1469 photos on the website. I then broke them down, and felt that subject rather than day made more sense.)

For ease of reading I am breaking even this up into three posts. (This is definitely more for us, than for you, gentle reader, so it’s all good if you just skim!)

If you make it through, good for you!! :) If you like, please, comment!

Part TWO

"Day Six"
We started the day by strolling around the main street, which is about the only street, of this quaint little town of Red Lodge. After a short walk we had breakfast at a local spot that was very originally called the Red Lodge Cafe. The interior was a rustic theme with a huge amount of frontier style woodwork trim, as well as some of the most robust wooden chairs I’ve seen.
Five elderly men were seated at a nearby table and they “shot the breeze” the whole time we were there. They told their stories and you couldn’t help but be amused by their cantankerous attitudes, and we simply assumed their wives had tossed them out of the house early in the morning.
Trish ordered a short stack of sourdough pancakes, and the plate delivered to her held two pancakes the approximate size of a Frisbee. Her eyes grew rapidly to a similar size as she gasped, "Oh my! You’re going to have to help!" I must admit they were quite tasty, but even both of us couldn’t finish them off.
After breakfast we fueled up and set out for Beartooth Highway, and Trish read some fun facts from a travel book she got from a fellow quilter. As soon as we entered the valley the scale of the view demanded we lower the top despite the cooler temperatures. We donned our jackets and hats, cranked up the heat, and Miss Ladyhawke spread her wings and began to soar. The ascent to the ridge was dramatic, and not from a speed aspect since about 30mph was all you could muster. The inclines were deceptive, and the S-curves and 180degree switchbacks (many without guardrails) kept you honest. Maybe someone who has traveled this road many times might attack it with verve, but the vistas are so spectacular that carguy playtime took a back seat.
We spent almost three hours covering sixty miles because we stopped so often to try and soak in the overwhelming sights. From the higher overlooks, the road coils below you like a folded extension cord, turning back on itself over and over again as it scales the mountainside. Once past the tree line, you can look down on the places where snow still sits in pockets, some of it pink in color. This comes from algae that grow briefly during the short summer thaw and then freezes and dies when temperatures plunge again. There are also small plateau areas where run-off from the melting snow is caught with no exit, and this forms glacial lakes that are a brilliant sapphire blue color. I had no idea such beautiful places existed so high in the mountain tops.
To stand on an 11,000 foot summit made me want to shout, "Top of the world Ma!" but I know Trail Ridge road in Rocky Mountain National Park is even higher than this one, so I’ll save that shout-out for then.
The Beartooth Highway carried us all the way to the western entrance of Yellowstone National Park, and once past the entry booth, all signs let you know that you are entering a wilderness and you are considered a guest. It didn’t take long for that advice to become reality as we passed Baronette Peak. Traffic came to a halt as a herd of Bison decided to explore grassland on the opposite side of the pavement. Once they broke up traffic started moving again, but with the top down, coming that close to a live Bison was a bit un-nerving.
We moved farther into the park where we had a late lunch at the Roosevelt Lodge. This is the same structure President Teddy Roosevelt had constructed in the early 1900s when he used to visit for hunting and horseback riding. The food was excellent, (I had the Bison chili) and we sat out on the huge front porch afterwards and soaked in the view that President Roosevelt had enjoyed so many times.
Then we moved on to the upper portion of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and Tower Falls. The walls of the canyon at this part of the park are incredibly steep, so just glancing out of the car window gives no hint to the breath-taking sight below. A short hike down some stairs puts you in front of Tower Falls, and the view is like looking over into paradise.
We turned our focus towards the northern section of the park, where some of the lands are still recovering from a large wildfire back in 1988 that consumed almost 800,000 acres. Grasses and sagebrush have returned to the forest floor, but the charred, almost limbless pine trees give the landscape a stark and eerie appearance, as if hundreds of huge arrows had rained down from the heavens.
Once near the north entrance, we stopped to see Mammoth Hot Springs, which is one of Yellowstone’s many geothermal wonders. Scalding hot spring water is forced from underground and it carries deposits of limestone and bacteria which build up terraces on the ground; the resulting hot waterfalls create brilliantly colored formations that resemble stalactites in underground caverns. The pools are a rich turquoise color where the spring steams to the surface and the residual bacteria fan out in brown and gold hues, then the deposits dry to a snowy white.
The overall formation is enormous, and the boardwalks that carry you to different vantage points include enough steps to rival an Aztec pyramid. The climb to the top was murderous, but like anything demanding high effort, the reward at the top was rich indeed. This the spectacle of nature that reminds us how small we truly are; with all of man’s technical achievements, he still cannot hope to rival the Power that wrought such an amazing, multi-faceted wonder as our Mother Earth.
I have stood on the pinnacle of a mighty mountain and marveled at the astounding work of The Master’s hand, and His artistic skill is what we try in vain to reproduce.
Tomorrow we return to Yellowstone for Old Faithful, other geyser areas as well as The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, and to take part in a tradition started in the park. It seems that sometime in the 50’s, a group of tourists were stranded in Yellowstone at the Old Faithful Inn by a freak snowstorm. In light of their situation, the travelers and inn workers decided to celebrate Christmas in August, so they decorated a tree and fixed dinner with all the trimmings. August 25th each year brings Christmas in Yellowstone, so maybe we’ll get to see Santa in some shorts and sneakers.
Until tomorrow!
Livingston, Montana – 2628 miles

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PHOTO BREAK! Some of the water features that we saw…

"Day Seven"
We are now officially one week into our vacation, and it has been filled with incredible sights and fascinating information. I find it a bit ironic that school field trips are designed to do the same thing, and here I am spending hard earned money to do it myself. I guess if you wait long enough everything comes full circle.  
Today was our second day in Yellowstone, and it was amazing from start to finish. We did notice one constant all day long, both in ourselves and many around us. If you asked a question on Family Feud, "What is the single word used most often in Yellowstone National Park?"
Survey says, "WOW!"
With all of the descriptors and adjectives available in the English language, and all of the superlatives that you can possibly think of, the first word that continues to fly out of your mouth repeatedly is "WOW!" It’s a reflex action, and Yellowstone is rich with wonders to widen your eyes and make your jaw hang open.
We re-entered the park through the north gate where the Roosevelt Arch stands. Dedicated at the opening of the park, it bears the inscription, "For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People." Those were wise words indeed, and they are as large and enduring as the massive stone arch they reside upon. Yellowstone is more than just another National Park, it is treasure chest of nature’s most precious gems, and it should be preserved for the generations to come.
The north western section of the Grand Loop is a drive that carries you on a visual tour-de-force. As you climb through the mountains, you are greeted by rock formations unlike any other in the Park. While Badlands was smooth by comparison to the spires of the Needles Highway, here segmented stones seem to have burst through the ground like enormous, jagged claws. The Grand Loop winds in between these imposing columns until it reaches Terrace Mountain, where a viaduct bridge has been constructed that carries you around a sheer rock face hundreds of feet tall. The view over the steep drop-off can raise your pucker factor exponentially.
This section of the park was also victim to the great fires, and the trees that have fallen dead litter the mountainsides. However, the remaining charred trees that still stand are budding with new green limbs, and they tower like protective parents over the thousands of young new trees that now cover the forest floor. A moving showcase of the renewing power of nature.
The road continues its ascent until it reaches a high plateau, which is covered in rich green and yellow prairie grass as well as plentiful sagebrush. Both Elk and Bison are abundant here, and seem completely unaffected by the presence of people and cars. This area of the park displays a unique relationship; lush and teaming with life of many varieties, it rests atop some of the more deadly natural forces known to man. This region of the park is the Caldera, which is basically the interior rim of a collapsed volcano. Hot springs and thermal basins reside hand in hand with the green landscape, and the rivers that the springs empty into are crystal clear, but the thermal pools themselves are a vivid rainbow of colors.
We learned that the color is actually like a natural thermometer, with the turquoise and deep blue areas showing the highest temperatures and deep holes where the hot spring finds it way to the surface. The residual deposits of limestone and calcite run from red to yellow to green, with red being the hottest at around 140F and then cooling down from there with each color change. While the geysers and thermal pools are a feast for the eyes, the sulfur content in the steam vapor make the area reek of rotten eggs. WOW!
One geyser basin we visited displayed colors so bright that the run-off looked like spilled mustard being washed away with gallons of Mountain Dew. Excelsior Geyser creates a waterfall that empties into the Firehole River, and the brown and yellow deposits on the rocks glow through the spray like paint. WOW!
I also discovered how you can spend days taking in the sights here, it isn’t the driving, even though attractions can be as much as twenty miles apart. The real time killer is the hiking you must do from the parking lots to the sights themselves, which average a half mile each. I saw so many people with flip flops on and I couldn’t help but wonder how many sore feet and blisters would be nursed the next day.
Christmas in August at the Old Faithful Inn was a sight to behold. The Inn itself is a magnificent structure, with a main foyer that rivals almost any grand ballroom. The rustic timber construction is elegant as selected curved tree branches were used for the gusset supports, and the cathedral ceiling lends a reverent aura to everything inside. Three balcony levels overlook the main foyer and they are lined with inviting wooden benches and chairs. On top of all of this grandeur and beauty, add a Christmas tree, a man playing carols on the piano on the mezzanine, children singing along from the balcony, the staff in Santa hats, fresh baked cookies being served to all who walk in, and Santa himself posing for pictures with guests. The whole feeling was festive and wonderful, and it drew you in with child-like wonder.
We grabbed a bite of lunch and made ourselves comfy on the oversized benches that are situated on the second floor sundeck. This ample area provides a first rate view of Old Faithful, and we enjoyed our food, relaxed, and watched the legendary geyser blast water and steam 300 feet in the air in another showcase of natural beauty and power.
The southern section of the Grand Loop was the last part of our day, and it didn’t fail to deliver on the word of the day. WOW!
Both West Thumb and Yellowstone Lake stretch out next to the loop road in an expanse of glittering, crystal blue radiance. Many were stopping for pictures as the sun began to set behind the towering evergreens, casting their shadows and making the glowing rays of sunlight dance on the water beyond. It was another picture of stunning beauty, but not the last of the day.
The south rim road of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon culminates at an overlook called "Artist’s Point," and it is a well deserved title. The view down the steep canyon walls leads the eye to the Yellowstone River below, and the Lower Falls at the far end. The fading sunlight gave its glow to the yellow and red colored rock face, and the end result was breathtaking. (Whisper, wow!) Trish set up her tripod and 500mm lens, and I’m sure the result of her work will be equally beautiful.
Our day finished with a glorious full moon as we made our way across the Norris highway, which is a cut-thru road at the park’s mid-point. Here I discovered another new truth; Bison are horrible drivers and give no heed to road signs. As we motored along heading for our hotel, traffic slowed to a near crawl, not for Bison crossing the road, but for one who seemed quite happy heading due west in the eastbound lane. I’m sure the next driver going in that direction was in for quite a surprise. It was a perfect punctuation point for a day filled incredible sights, and a solid reminder that Yellowstone belongs to the wilderness, and it never fails to deliver sights that make you say, WOW!
Tomorrow we head south to the Grand Tetons and on to Salt Lake City.
Soaring, on the wings of a Chrysler!
West Yellowstone, Montana – 2839 miles

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PHOTO BREAK! Hot Water…Yellowstone on Display

“Day Eight”  
Today was a travel day as we said goodbye to Yellowstone National Park. We left our hotel in West Yellowstone, Montana and had breakfast at a local place called the Montana Outpost. This was hands down the best breakfast we’ve had so far on the trip. Everything was prepared fresh, right down to the squeezed orange juice, and it was a wonderful way to start a long day.
We took a stroll through the shops on the main street, and like many of these small towns we have visited, everything has a frontier feel; wide streets where you pull your car in at an angle, almost as if there were a hitching post, covered sidewalks, and shop keepers who leave their doors wide open and never hound you when you walk in.
Our route south took us back through part of Yellowstone’s Grand Loop, which doubles as US 89. This takes you out of Yellowstone and directly into Grand Teton National Park.
After exploring the vast size of Yellowstone for two days, Grand Teton is small by comparison, but what it may lack in size it makes up for with grandeur and serene beauty.
The Teton mountain range towers over both Jackson and Jenny Lake, and the combination of pale blue skies, snow capped peaks, and shimmering, deep blue waters makes for a glorious vista to behold. Teton Park Road winds along the shoreline of both lakes, and is easily one of the most scenic drives I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. The drive through Badlands was amazing in a stark and barren aspect, but Grand Teton was like driving into a vivid landscape painting, and no photograph will ever be able to do it justice. Although I’m sure Trish will deliver a noble effort.
Jackson Hole, Wyoming is a small town that marks the southern end of the park, and I think you could call it “The Antler Art Capital of the World.” Antler arches welcome you into town, and adorn each corner of the downtown park area. This is obviously a place trying to preserve a frontier kind of feel, but has become so upscale with outlet stores and other toney specialty shops that the effect is artificial. We walked for bit and had ice cream, but we were soon on our way once again.
US89 took us southwest through the Wyoming mountains, and the route was dotted with small towns all along the way. Many of these communities were as small as 200 residents, and it makes one wonder how they make a living in such an incredibly rural location. Horse and cattle ranches were numerous along the way, but I never would have thought so many people still make a living that way. I guess its just one more showcase of how diverse this country truly is, and despite our advances in so many fields, some things have changed very little.
One other thing that has stood out ever since we reached South Dakota, and that is the prominence of the Iron Horse. I have taken notice of the wide diversity of people that have become part of the motorcycling phenomenon, and they are as varied as America herself. After visiting the places we have this past week, I can more fully appreciate the allure this area of the country has for this pastime. The wide open spaces, temperate summer climate and magnificent scenery make Northwest America a motorcycle haven. Being a “biker” has taken on a whole new image, and if sitting astride the Iron Horse is the modern homage to the cowboys who once roamed this vast countryside, then I bid them Godspeed, and a safe trip always.
We didn’t make it all the way to Salt Lake tonight, as the route through the mountains got very tiring after dark. The GPS found us hotel in Logan, Utah, and the sight of the lighted domes of the Logan LDS Temple let us know we had reached our rest for the night.
In the morning we set out for downtown Salt Lake, Temple Square, the Salt Lake Public Library, “This is the Place” Monument at Heritage Park, and the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Let’s motor!
Logan, Utah – 3160 miles

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PHOTO BREAK! The Salt Flats

“Day Nine”
Sometimes when you soar, you go where the wind carries you, and that might not always fit your plans. Such was the case today as we headed out of Logan, Utah ready for a full day.
Trish got her coffee and I found a spray car wash to give Ms Ladyhawke her de-bugging, and we hit the highway. Our initial plan had been to visit downtown Salt Lake first, meet up with Ed (a member of the Sebring message board) and then head for the Salt Flats for a possible sunset photo shoot. A quick check of the weather report changed all that, calling for possible thunderstorms and rain in the afternoon, so we bumped Bonneville to the top of the list.
The Salt Flats are just under a two hour drive west from Salt Lake City, and the trip is a surreal experience. For those of you familiar with I-95 between Richmond and Washington D.C, you know what a harrowing trek that two hour drive can be.
Try to imagine that same distance with only two gentle curves, a small mountain rise to go over, and about 90 miles of dead level road stretching all the way to the horizon. On top of all this, the speed limit is posted at 75mph, but most easily cruise at 80mph. Given these conditions, and the lack of anything flying close by for reference, 80mph actually begins to feel slow.
Obviously this is quite a problem for this desolate length of asphalt as there are many signs reminding drivers to stop and rest before fatigue sets in. The frequent tire marks that lead off the highway and plunge through the thin salt crust and into the soft mud below are evidence this problem occurs too often.
About forty miles before you reach the exit for Bonneville State Park, (which is also the Bonneville Speedway) only the mountains far in the distance can be seen in either direction, aside from that, only the brown and white layers of salt dominate the entire landscape. This geological anomaly is so vast that you can see the curvature of the Earth with the naked eye.
The road that leads into the park itself is clearly marked “No state maintenance,” and after about two miles the paved surface dead ends, and the only sight before you is the salt surface. The Bonneville Speedway itself is actually seven miles further out onto the salt, but because of the aforementioned curve of the Earth, the track is not visible from the end of the paved road.
I had initially considered taking the car out on the Salt Flats for a quick run and some photos, but after reading how terribly corrosive the raw salt is to anything metal unless it is quickly washed away, I chose not to subject Ms. Ladyhawke to that kind of abuse. I don’t know how these guys who race out there deal with the corrosion unless replacing belly pans and suspension parts is simply considered the cost of the sport. Then again, the long standing adage of racing has always been, "You gotta pay to play."
The weather smiled on us long enough to take some photos, but only just. I had no more looked at the review screen on Trish’s camera before the rain drops began to fall, and I quickly raised the convertible top before things got worse.
On the way back we hooked up with my friend Ed, and we cruised down to Murray, just south of Salt Lake City and had dinner at Olive Garden. There we chattered and laughed away the rest of the afternoon, so any other items pretty much fell off the list.
It all turned out to be for the best since the company was as good as it gets, and the windy thunderstorms set in to wash away any further ideas. We took advantage of the change of plan and checked into a hotel early, which hadn’t happened so far on this trip.
Trish and I relaxed and enjoyed the hot tub, and now here we sit across the table from each other, laptops open as I write and she uploads some of the multitude of pictures she has shot so far. I must sympathize with Trish as she steadily tries to process photos and get them posted, while each day the shutter of her camera clicks away until another memory card is filled. Her website, “The View from the Passenger Window” has more than earned its billing on this trip as she has shot more than 1200 photos. So for those who are patiently waiting to view her work, I beg for your patience since she is faced with a monumental task, albeit one she enjoys immensely.
Tomorrow we hope for better weather so we can walk some of the downtown areas of Salt Lake City. She has located a quilt store or two, so we have strong motivation to get an early start on the day. By tomorrow night we hope to be en-route to Colorado and Rocky Mountain National Park before setting our sights on St. Louis for the Gateway Arch.
The experiences of the trip so far have been nothing short of amazing, but now that we have made the turn eastward, we begin to feel the pull of heading home. There are still sights left to see and wonders to behold, but each one brings us a step closer to familiar ground. Ms. Ladyhawke knows the way, and I’ll hold her reigns across the high mountains and green valleys until she rests in our driveway once more.
Until we land tomorrow.
Salt Lake City, Utah – 3536 miles

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“Day Ten”
Today got off to trying start, but turned out extremely well overall. We got out of the hotel early and headed into downtown Salt Lake, but we were forced to detour due to road construction, then new building construction, then roads blocked off for protest at the Utah Capitol building just a few blocks from the LDS Temple Square, which was our first destination.
Once we finally secured parking, a walk of a few blocks got us to the entrance gate and inside Temple Square. The wall around the complex serves to cut out the traffic noise, and it’s easy to forget you are downtown in a major city. If you didn’t know it was summer, you might easily think it was early spring as colorful flowers and lush green trees adorn the plentiful garden areas inside the square.
The missionaries there greet you with a smile and usually ask where you are visiting from, and they are more than willing to answer any questions you may have, but since I’ve long been a member of the LDS Church, I didn’t have much to ask.
We strolled around the dome-shaped Tabernacle, and walked around inside as well. The acoustics of this structure are so good you could almost hear a whisper from across the room. The seats for the famed Mormon Tabernacle Choir surround the massive pipe organ, whose tubes rise like stately columns and dwarf the keyboard below. I’ve heard recordings of this organ and choir many times, but to hear it in person, in this beautiful building could only be considered phenomenal.
We continued our tour with the gardens and reflecting pool outside of the Salt Lake Temple. This beautifully ornate building is easily the most recognizable icon of the LDS Church, and while it doesn’t compare in sheer size to the Washington DC Temple just outside of the beltway, it is no less reverent in appearance. Behind the reflecting pool is series of waterfall fountains surrounded by flower gardens, and the sights and sounds of these features deliver a soothing effect.
To top things off, a bride and groom were having their pictures taken on the Temple steps while their families looked on. The entire image was moving, as you saw the joy on these young faces, and you could only hope they would hold onto this moment forever.
A kind older gentleman suggested we take the elevator to the top of the Church office building on the opposite end of the Square. On the 26th floor, there is an observation deck that overlooks the entire valley and the view was magnificent. The Wasatch Mountains rise majestically to the east, and the city reaches out into the valley below for miles. The image of the Temple below next to the glimmering silver dome of the Tabernacle was a testament to the tremendous effort that went into constructing these two historical and central parts of Mormon history.
From Temple Square we moved on to the Salt Lake Public Library. If Temple Square was a reverent experience, then the Library was a contemporary version of inspiration. The building is an incredibly modern structure of glass and steel, but it is both useful and striking to behold. I could only wish a public library back home was as inviting and compelling in its design. The multi-floored atrium overlooks the foyer below and walkways along the curved façade support quiet reading areas as well as desks with internet access. The roof offers an outdoor garden area, and an adjacent park spans out in front of the building. This work of architectural art is one that should be complimented by being imitated in other cities.
Reality set in shortly afterward as we sought out a coin laundry to reboot our clothing supply. Limited trunk space aboard Ms Ladyhawke required that we stick to one duffle bag each, so we took an hour, grabbed some lunch, and got everything clean once again.
Trish took in a couple of quilt stores and got her fabric fix, and we set our sights on “This is the Place” Heritage Park. This area is home to many statues and monuments dedicated to the Mormon pioneers, and those who were instrumental in helping them reach the Salt Lake Valley. To stand and read the plaques while you attempt to soak in the stories of the hardships these people faced can be overwhelming. Yet you have to admire the intense fortitude, faith and determination it must have taken to make the trek of over 1300 miles and forge a new community out of the wilderness.
I still have a hard time coping with the concept of these intrepid souls who made the arduous journey with handcarts. With everything they owned loaded into a two-wheeled wagon, with load space smaller than the six foot bed of a pickup truck, they took hold of a wooden crossbar and assumed the role of the ox or mule.
When I think of the time, fuel and food we have consumed on our vacation so far versus the distance we have covered, I am awed and humbled by those who struck out on such a trip without the benefit of roads or support. I still stand amazed at how many completed the journey, and how quickly we forget how tough life truly could be.
Other monuments to the Mormon Battalion, The Pony Express, and the Shoshone Chief Wasatch, who befriended Brigham Young and helped the pioneers settle the valley and grow crops, are all present and carry inspiring stories of frontier life.
I have gained a whole new perspective on this vacation of the vast and rugged land that still exists today in this country, as well as a new respect for the Native Americans who lived in this demanding environment before we ever arrived. It took great effort and cooperation to forge this nation as it is today, and the spirit of those who poured their hearts and lives into it should not be forgotten.
Our track eastward has landed us in Rawlins, Wyoming, and tomorrow we head out for Colorado and Rocky Mountain National Park. The far reaching splendor of this country has been amazing to watch roll by, and I feel all the richer for the experience.
Time to fly!
Rawlins, Wyoming – 3856 miles

PHOTO BREAK! Salt Lake City

To see all the photos, go to this link.

Our Vacation. The Complete Tale, in Three Parts. (1)

I’ve been trying to figure out how to do this blog. A select number of people got to read the following each day as my husband sent out an update; most of my legions of readers (stop laughing) probably haven’t.

As it’s our vacation, and as its old news, it probably won’t interest you all that much. However, this seemed to be the best way to gather everything from the vacation and record it.

Each night, I uploaded photos and began editing, and Timmy wrote a little update. Timmy likes to write. There are no short updates. :)

Our Vacation was astounding, fascinating and beautiful!

(The photos I am putting with the updates don’t truly correspond, but that is because by the time I finished editing, there were 1469 photos on the website. I then broke them down, and felt that subject rather than day made more sense.)

For ease of reading I am breaking even this up into three posts. (This is definitely more for us, than for you, gentle reader, so it’s all good if you just skim!)

If you make it through, good for you!! :) If you like, please, comment!

Part ONE

"Day One"    

The first day of our cross-country adventure ended at our hotel in Brownsburg, Indiana, just west of Indianapolis. Covering this kind of distance from our home in Virginia had been a tentative goal, so we are “on schedule” so-to-speak.  The weather was lovely for most of this leg of the journey, and there were couple of times we considered dropping the convertible top, but since we weren’t taking a leisurely pace, we focused on covering as many miles as possible.   While “Ms. Ladyhawke,” (our 2008 Chrysler Sebring convertible) has performed well so far, she struggled in the hills of West Virginia. Some of the long grades required 2nd gear to keep pace with traffic which threw engine rpms into the 4k range. That’s fine for short bursts but it’s a point of concern for the longer grades we are sure to face out west. Still, even under those conditions, our first top-off of fuel delivered 27mpg. Later, as we crossed the gentle rolling hills of south Ohio, where speed limits are strictly enforced (you can tell this when EVERYBODY drives the limit) at a steady 60-65mph our mileage on the next tank was an impressive 34mpg.   The scenery has been lovely and I’m sure that will improve as we go. The Appalachian Mountains are lush with green trees as the interstate highways and the West Virginia Turnpike crest over hills and carve their way through valleys to provide wonderful vistas. Once we reached western Ohio and into Indiana the landscape begins to flatten, and part of US Rt35 carried us through the small town of Eaton. Here was an image of classic small town America; two lane streets, modest houses and local storefronts were all indicators that you were in the country’s heartland.  The sun set as we crossed the Indiana countryside and we reached Indianapolis under cover of darkness. We opted to continue around the beltway to the western side of the city to avoid rush hour traffic the next morning, and it wasn’t until that point that we hit our first construction traffic jam. The bright orange sign of “Road Work Ahead,” can be a haunting sight while traveling, but considering how few we had come across so far we counted ourselves lucky.  Lots of music and small talk had helped us roll away a good number of miles for our first day, and even though the weather report says we’ll cross through a major rain front sometime tomorrow, we’ll wait and see how that affects the roads when it catches up to us.  We are off to great start and hope to make Sioux Falls, South Dakota by bedtime tomorrow night.   Time to fly :) 

Brownsburg, Indiana – 681 miles

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"Day Two"  
We covered another good chunk of ground today, and even though we encountered road construction in a few places, none of the traffic was bad.
Today also dashed some of the misconceptions I had about the geography of the country. The remaining portion of central Indiana and Illinois is some of the flattest ground I’ve ever covered. You can literally see for miles with virtually nothing to obstruct your view. The horizon is so wide open you can see rainstorms that appear to be in the next county as they move by in the distance. At one point we could see sheets of rain falling to the south while the road we were on was bathed in bright sunlight.
Misconception number two, I always thought of Iowa as the flat plains covered in cornfields. I was only half right, there is corn aplenty, but Iowa is NOT flat by any means.
Gentle rolling hills occasionally grow into aspiring mountains, especially in the western part of the state. As we drew near to Omaha, Nebraska, we came upon the wind farms and the sight of these giant wind turbines is a striking contrast to windmills of old. Silently they turn in a seemingly slow and lazy motion, but scale is deceiving as we later learned their diameter can exceed 300 feet.
We passed a flatbed tractor trailer carrying a single turbine blade, and the length made forty foot offshore racing boats look like bathtub toys. I hope they don’t have to turn a corner in any downtown area because the sidewalk café or the corner drug store won’t survive.
I was also in awe of the sheer acreage of corn and soybeans we passed. Three states boasting mile after mile of farmland where houses, barns and silos looked like dots in an ocean of yellow and green. In Iowa, the sloping hillsides were lush with green soybean fields and the winds blew ripples across the tops like waves on a lake…it was incredibly beautiful.
We stopped for a few photo ops as well as a lengthy break at a bookstore where I caught a quick nap in a comfy reading chair, so we only made it just past the South Dakota border tonight. Sioux Falls is less than an hour away come morning.
After breakfast, I’ll need to find a spray car wash since the fields of crops seem to be quite the haven for bugs, which are in turn drawn to the headlights after sunset. The front bumper of Ms. Ladyhawke is now a different color, and her windshield needs as much scraping as it does washing. But I take solace in the fact that I’m helping to control the insect population for our thriving farmers.
Ms. Ladyhawke continues to deliver a solid 30mpg even at 70mph speeds, and the Han Solo voice I downloaded for the GPS is proving to be great fun.
Falls Park at Sioux Falls will be our first destination in the morning, then on to Badlands National Park.
Time to roost, and fly with the morning sun :)
North Sioux City, South Dakota – 1362 miles

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PHOTO BREAK! Sometimes, I even have photos of people on vacation!

“Day Three” After a quick trip to the spray car wash, which looks like it may become a regular morning routine, we set out for Sioux Falls bright and early. Maybe I shouldn’t say "bright" since pea soup thick fog rolled in and made for slow going all the way to our exit from the interstate.
Falls Park turned out to be one of the most scenic parks in the center of a city that I have ever seen. The Big Sioux River cuts through the center of town much like the James River does through Richmond. While the many rocks you see in the James are worn smooth and round with a tan color, here the stones almost look like building blocks, with nearly clean, sharp breaks and a color that resembles red clay. The rocks have tumbled into formations that resemble stairs as the river finds multiple paths to follow. Foot bridges and walkways with overlook perches cross the multi-level falls at several locations and provide fabulous views while blending in with the rugged landscape.
The park visitor center had an observation tower that provided a beautiful overview of the entire area, and then we retired to the grassy hillside picnic area below. Large trees gave some welcome shade from the heat of the bright sun as we settled at a table for brunch of cheese and crackers. Trish also made sure to pack peanut butter and Nutella, because what good are crackers without Nutella? We packed up a short while later and headed for I-90 and Badlands National Park.
Traveling the highways in South Dakota was unlike any place I’ve ever been. I could see my tax dollars hard at work with virtually every bridge and over pass going through major concrete replacement. Yet even with all the construction, it didn’t really hinder our progress, mostly because here you SLOW DOWN to 65mph for work zones, while the speed limit normally is a brisk 75mph. Many if not all run about 80mph, and it is a surreal experience to sail by a state trooper at 80mph and not even flinch. In some places the concrete highway had been completely demolished in favor of pouring new concrete, and we’re talking 6 to 10 miles stretches of this massive undertaking. In some locations, the concrete road surface is evidently made from the indigenous red stone, giving the finished road a reddish hue, but it was as smooth as any asphalt road I’ve traveled.
I-90 is specked with tourist attractions which are hawked by untold numbers of billboard signs. We stopped to see the Corn Palace in Mitchell, which is a civic center whose exterior has been decorated in corn. As silly as this sounds, the pictures they create with different colored ears of corn are simply amazing. Each year the Palace is re-done since birds attack and eat the dry grain. We also saw a couple of fun sculptures including the world’s largest bulls head, and a life-sized metal skeleton of a T-Rex, being walked on leash by the skeleton of a man, which was my personal favorite.
The farther west you go on I-90, the more you are taken by the amazing vistas. Enormous open plains are so expansive that you can overlook entire towns, and the road stretches out in front you like a ribbon of concrete laid across the landscape all the way to the horizon. We crested a small rise and the Missouri River shimmered in the sunlight below like a brilliant blue crystal. Then as soon as you reach the other side, the landscape immediately changes into massive hills that lead up to a plateau. The view of the river from either side of the valley is stunning, and on the west side we stopped in at Al’s Oasis, which is essentially just that, since there isn’t any other fuel or food for miles.
One thing is unmistakable, South Dakota is cattle country; while the corn fields still exist in places, the hay bales dot the countryside like mini-wheats scattered over a carpet of green (very large mini-wheats on an even larger carpet) and the cattle cool themselves in ponds so big we might call them lakes.
Another amazing sight was fields of sunflowers planted in rows as crops. The yellow color blankets the hillsides and sheer size of the fields boggles the mind. I guess you have to do this somewhere to put sunflower seeds in every supermarket and corner store.
After crossing into the Mountain Time zone, late afternoon saw us reach Badlands National Park. I can’t believe we almost left this off of our “to-do list” because it is one of the most incredible sights I have yet to witness.
You stand on the plateau as the ground drops hundreds of feet to the grassy prairie below, but it isn’t just sheer cliffs. The closest I can compare it to would be the fiords of a jagged coastline as the multi-colored formations stand like crooked knives jutting up through the grasslands below. The tour road carries you down through passes to the prairie floor and the landscape becomes otherworldly. The still quiet is incredible, as you can hear people talking normally a hundred yards away. In their absence, you could probably hear an eagle from one of the craggy cliffs a mile distant. As the sun drops lower in the sky, the light paints the colored strata of the rocks in gentle hues, and the shadows cast on other sections take on an ominous appearance. We stayed until sunset, and the vast open spaces put on a show of magnificent grandeur. The fading light showed pastel colors in the stone you didn’t notice before, and the orange and pale blue sky gave way to purple clouds. The line of nightfall could almost be drawn across the Heavens as the moon chased the sun to the horizon beyond. Only God can use a paintbrush this big, and his artistry is unmatched by any human effort.
Trish pushed herself and her camera to the edge of burnout. She easily said "wow" forty-two times at every overlook, and it was one of those times when any other adjective or superlative simply escapes your lips.
I can hardly wait for tomorrow, as we climb the Black Hills to Mt. Rushmore!
Gotta Fly!
Rapid City, South Dakota – 1816 miles

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PHOTO BREAK! A quick overview of the parks we visited

"Day Four"
Today was dedicated to the Black Hills of South Dakota, which was part of the great western gold rush. While that part of history has long since past, the Black Hills of today are rich with treasures that are wonders to behold.
We began our day winding up mountain roads to a small town called Keystone, which looks like the remains of an old mining village that has been breathed back to life. While its population is a mere 311, the town bustles with activity since it is the gateway to Mount Rushmore. The entrance to the park lands of the National Monument is virtually at the town line of Keystone, and thereafter begins an intimidating ten percent grade climb over a thousand feet of elevation to bring you to the monument itself. The payoff is well worth the effort as the image of the carved mountain in the morning sunlight is as striking as it is majestic. The walkway leading to the grand viewing terrace is lined with the flags of the fifty states, framing the faces of the presidents with an impressive show of the people and places that make up these United States of America.
The view from the terrace itself is without obstruction of any kind, and the sheer scale of the mountain face towers high above you. The craggy peaks of the rocky Black Hills provide a sharp contrast to the smoothly carved faces of the founders of our nation.
A quick walk down a rustic slate stairway leads to the sculptor’s studio where the original model of the proposed monument still resides. Fashioned on a 1:12 scale, the models dwarfs you as you stand nearby, while the light cascades in through a huge, cathedral style window that looks out on the finished monument. The image of the two sculptures puts immediate perspective on the massive undertaking it took to create this timeless tribute to four men who helped forge a nation, and the spirit of an artist who dreamed of making it happen.
A small concrete platform outside the sculptor’s studio is an area called “The Historic View.” This was the original viewing area, and the change of angle to the east gives Washington more of a profile, and the gap between Roosevelt and Lincoln is almost completely obscured. The hike back up the staircase might be a bit taxing, but the pieces of history we saw were well worth the effort.
While Mount Rushmore is an awe-inspiring, man-made sight, the Needles Highway is man-made road that showcases the tremendous creative power of nature. The formations at Badlands resembled fiords jutting into a sea of grassy plains, but the Needles look like those same jutting rock formations pointed at the sky. The peaks slice upward with sharp crevices in between, as though the mountains had been visited by some enormous carving knife. Three different tunnels were hewn from existing rock formations, and as such only have 8ft 4in of width, so cars must carefully pass through one at a time. The rest of the road is not for the faint of heart, with 180 degree switch back turns that climb and fall as well as curves skirting drop-offs that measure in hundreds of feet; most with no guardrails of any kind. But I suppose if you "went over" you wouldn’t fall very far due to the dense cover of pine, cedar and aspen trees. In stark contrast to the plains and the Badlands, where trees are a celebrated rarity, the Black Hills are thickly covered with the aforementioned trees up to a few hundred feet of their rampart-like peaks. How so many trees manage to flourish on a mountainside that seems to bear so little soil is an amazing freak of nature.
The last stop of the day was the Crazy Horse Memorial, and while Thunder Mountain itself is a staggering sight, the Native American Museum and story of Korzcak Ziolkowski is both touching and incredible. I would go into more detail but my take on the visit would run on for great length, so I think I will dedicate a blog post to the subject. Suffice to say much of what I read and saw moved me to tears, and the daunting task of carving this colossal monument to a bold Native American leader is a testament to their enduring heart and strength of will.
The phenomenal size of the project is hard to take in, over twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty and the head of the warrior Chief surpassing the whole of Mount Rushmore. Once you add his outstretched arm and the charging steed on which he rides, you begin to digest the enormous undertaking that is going on before your eyes.
When finished, Crazy Horse will be the largest sculpted monument in the world. I hope I am still around to see that dream realized.
We returned to I-90 and settled for the night near the town of Spearfish (don’t ask me why the name, but possibly having something to do with dinosaur fossils which are found in abundance here in the Black Hills) and tomorrow we set out for Devils Tower in Wyoming, then on to Yellowstone National Park by way of the 11,000 foot high Beartooth Pass.
Time to nest for the night.
Spearfish, South Dakota – 2006 miles

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PHOTO BREAK! The wild beasts we encountered

"Day Five"
A good deal of ground covered today as we started off with rain and much cooler temperatures in Spearfish, South Dakota. The clouds quickly gave way to warmer sunlight as we crossed into Wyoming. Wide open spaces, expansive vistas and larger rolling hills were the order of the day. I use the term "hills" with slight reservation as the elevation in this area easily exceeds the highest of the Blue Ridge Mountains back in Virginia. Trees suddenly became sparse in sharp contrast to the heavily wooded Black Hills, replaced by plentiful sagebrush.
Devils Tower is only a short distance past the Wyoming state line, off the interstate on Rt 24. It is evident this area gets serious snowfall during its winter season with many roads (including I-90) equipped with barriers that look like railroad crossing gates. They are accompanied by signs informing you to turn around and go back to the closest town, I would assume until the road is either cleared or the spring thaw arrives.
The rock formation called Devils Tower juts over 1200 feet above the surrounding landscape and can be seen for miles as you draw near. From a distance it is an impressive sight, but the closer you get the more dominant it becomes. The loop road in the park affords some amazing views of this geological oddity, but the walking trail from the visitor center is up close and personal. The amount of stone that has shed from the face in combination with the rocks pushed aside as this hardened chunk of volcanic magma forced its way through the surface is strewn around the tower like a massive avalanche. Stones the sizes of cars litter the surrounding area, and are reminders of the tremendous power nature can exert. The flat area on the Tower’s peak is large enough to accommodate a football field.
A small plateau spans out below the eastern face and is peppered with holes, which are home to the community of prairie dogs scampering around the fields. You can tell the creatures have little fear of the tourists as they scurry about despite the people with cameras. If you stand by for a few moments they will congregate near a hole or mound, standing on their back feet like Meerkats, before darting away in several directions. They are great fun to watch.
We resumed our trek west on I-90 through Wyoming and into Montana as we made our way towards Billings to visit one of Trish’s friends. The incredible view of these areas test the limits of human vision, with miles to behold in any direction as you crest each hill, one can even see the shadows cast on the ground by the clouds as they move by. Some stretches of the interstate are so desolate that an exit ramp from the highway stops in less than a hundred yards and pavement becomes dirt roads.
Even more amazing was being able to see the Rocky Mountains in the distance, as if the "hills" we were crossing weren’t impressive enough, suddenly there was a backdrop of peaks so tall that snow could still be seen on their summit. They seemed to almost scratch the clouds passing above, and their dark silhouette dwarfed the red and sand colored rocks that cut through the pale green prairie grass below.
After a lovely visit and dinner with Trish’s friend and her family, we made our way south from Billings to a little town called Red Lodge, where our hotel desk clerk advised us strongly to not leave any food or drinks of any kind in our car, lest it be sought after by a hungry bear. Not the kind of information you get from a hotel clerk just anywhere you go.
Tomorrow we ascend the twisting road that leads to Yellowstone Park by way of Beartooth Pass. Trish took a quick total tonight and she has shot over 800 pictures so far; while I’m sure many will be simply deleted and others will require editing, it goes to show how impressive the trip has been so far…and we keep getting told the best is yet to come.
We shall see if those claims are true.
Red Lodge, Montana – 2437 miles

PHOTO BREAK!  Earth as Art

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