Have you ever wanted to sell everything you own and just "take off?" Travel the country's back roads, paddle down a meandering stream, experience breath-taking mountain views, walk among 100-year old trees, and just marvel at America's beauty? That is the dream that my partner, Betsy, and I decided to make a reality. This blog describes our adventure. The food we eat, people we meet, sights we see, and the enjoyment we find in traveling.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Black Hills of South Dakota

Rugged wilderness, scenic byways, breath-taking stone mountains, rolling hills with magnificent bison, and small valley towns describes the area known as the Black Hills.  Our travels brought us to the area to see the splendor of Mount Rushmore but we found ourselves in awe of the captivating natural landscape.  The radius around Mount Rushmore is filled with small towns waiting to attract summer tourists and provide them with all their vacation needs.  Fortunately we were there on the shoulder season.

We stayed at the Rafter J Bar Ranch RV Park which was the largest private rv park we have ever seen.  There was plenty of room to walk Spirit, but even better was the neighboring National Forest where we spent hours walking the logging roads, looking for mule deer, and saddened by the forest destruction caused by the mountain pine beetle epidemic.  And Spirit ran free.
Custer State Park is South Dakotas first and largest state park, established in 1919.
Mount Rushmore was spectacular but we wanted to see more of the natural landscape so we planned a day in Custer State Park.  The park is filled with some of the most picturesque landscapes - dense stands of Ponderosa pines rise grandly to the sky, the reflections of rugged rock outcroppings paint a mirrored picture in clear blue water, and rolling hills begin to move with roaming bison.  It wasn’t long on our drive through the park that an abrupt braking motion was applied when we saw the picturesque Sylvan Lake.  We were not content sitting in the car and marveling at the view.  We just had to get out and walk around the lake.  What was supposed to be a quick, easy walk around the lake turned out to be much more than that.  We found a spur trail that led us down a canyon (or so we called it) and over boulders.  The views were stunning and soon we lost track of time as we marveled at the crevasse we were in.  The decision to turn back was made when the boulders were too big for Spirit to navigate and I was pushing and pulling her over the mammoth rocks.  The hike back up was much more difficult and certain muscles that did not exist before all of a sudden did!
Sylvan Lake
"Little Spirit Big Paws" (our new name for her) did
well on the trail in the beginning where rocks and
steps gave her footing.
Somewhere through this rocky mess
is the trail.

We spent the rest of the day driving through the 71,000 acre park, stopping for walks, peeking in at historic buildings, browsing the visitor center, and eating a picnic lunch by a swollen stream.  The park is absolutely fabulous and offers many opportunities for visitors.  Thank goodness the state of South Dakota had the forethought to protect this land and set it aside for wildlife to live and humans to visit.  

The park wildlife loop is an 18-mile drive through beautiful rolling hills loaded with bison, elk, and pronghorn antelope.  
The drive on the Needles Highway will guide you through the mountainous region in the park.  The road is spectacular and an engineering feat.  The highway gets its name from the needle-like granite spires extending into the sky.
"Honk before entering" is the advice given when approaching this one way tunnel.  My advice to RV'ers - don't try it!
We went through in our car.  This spot is called "threading the needle"!
Approximately 1,300 bison roam free in the park and are a very popular attraction among visitors.
We were there during calving season and got to enjoy watching the young interact with their mothers and other calves.

Bison can weigh as much as 2,000 pounds.  They were a revered resource by the Native Americans that lived on the plains.  The Native Americans utilized all parts of the bison - the meat was used for food,  feet were boiled to make glue, hides were used for clothing and shelter, horns were used as spoons.
Every year in late September the park comes alive with stampeding bison as they hold the "State Park Buffalo Roundup."  Cowboys and cowgirls drive the herd of approximately 1,300 thunder bison into corals in order to prepare them for the fall bison sale and vaccinate and brand the herd. The sale of bison brought in over $300,000 in 2010.
This Civilian Conservation Corps building is used as a general store and gift shop.
The Chapel conducts non-denominational services on Sunday.  Behind it are just some of the many rental cabins that sit in a very picturesque setting by the Grace Coolidge creek named after President Calvin Coolidge's wife. 
The Peter Norbeck visitor center was one of the indelible marks left by the Civilian Conservation Corps in  the 1930's.  The center was named in honor of Norbeck - the states governor who was instrumental in the parks establishment.  The visitor center houses wildlife displays, information about the park, a gift shop, and ranger-led programs.
The State Game Lodge, built in 1920, is one of the historic buildings still in existence in the park.   It served as the "Summer White House" for President Calvin Coolidge in 1927 and was visited by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Lodge is used today for overnight accommodations for park visitors.  Accommodations range from stately lodge rooms to modern motel rooms and cozy cabins. 
The park is famous for its "Begging Burros." These gentle, but hungry, creatures cause many traffic jams in the park.  Many people bring food to the park specifically for the purpose of feeding these animals
Spirit looked out the window, sniffed the air, and then let out a growl - she was not sure what to do when the burro stuck its head in the window.  We did not feed them, but Betsy could not resist petting its muzzle. 
A little state park humor.  We have never heard chipmunks refered to as "Timber Tigers" before.
On our way home we stopped in Hill City for lunch and a little shopping.  We loved the whimsical metal sculptures!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Stone Faced

View from inside a rock crevasse.
Why do people visit the Black Hills region of South Dakota?  To see Mount Rushmore National Monument, of course!  Is that all there is to see?  Absolutely not, but more about other activities in another post.  Mount Rushmore was on Betsy’s bucket list so we slid our route eastward when we neared the South Dakota - Wyoming border and spent four days seeing the sights.  Wow, were there some sights!  And I have to say that Betsy was blown away by the faces on the mountain.

 We have all seen photographs of Mount Rushmore but there is nothing like standing at the base of a mountain and looking at four famous granite faces to make you say, “Wow!”  While most portraits are painted on canvas this one is done in stone and while the subjects faces are refined with delicate brush strokes, this one was done with jackhammers and dynamite.

The Avenue of Flags was established to celebrate the
American Bicentennial and is a reminder to people of their
common heritage, history, and ideals.

This was a monumental accomplishment in many ways.  The country was in the midst of the Great Depression, yet the determination of sculptor Gutzon Borglum and his team of 400 workers persevered through the hardships and completed the colossal tribute to four American great leaders in 14 years.  In case you forgot, the faces are of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.  Borglum selected the four men because he wanted the monument to communicate the founding, expansion, preservation, and unification of the United States.  Washington is the most prominent figure on the mountain – a well-deserved spot for the father of our country and who propelled us to independence.  Jefferson was not only the author of the Declaration of Independence but doubled the size of our country with the Louisiana Purchase.  Roosevelt, our 26th president, led the country into the 20th century, worked tirelessly to ensure the rights of the common man, and is credited for the Panama Canal.    Lincoln is considered by many as the nation’s greatest president and was credited with holding the nation together during the Civil War.

Carving this stone sculpture was challenging in many ways.  Not only did Borglum and other monument advocates have to secure funding but they had to pass a congressional bill granting permission to carve into South Dakota’s natural landscape.   It took three efforts before the bill passed.  The project was supposed to be completed in five years and at a reasonable cost of $500,000; instead, it took 14 years and nearly $1 million.  The government originally appropriated $250,000 and the rest was to be raised by private entities; however, private donations amounted to only $153,992 of the $989,992 total cost with the remainder eventually resting on the shoulders of the government.  

Gutzon Borglum, the son of Danish immigrants, was 58 when he began designing the monument but was already an acclaimed  sculptor.  In 1941 when final preparations were being put together for the dedication, Borglum died.
The jackhammer was one of the most
instrumental pieces of equipment.
Most of the work was done hanging from bosoms chairs.
Remarkably, no one was killed.

There is a remarkable amount of detail considering 90% of the sculpture was carved with dynamite.

Below the viewing deck is an amphitheater.  At night, there is a presentation and lighting of the monument.  The pile of rocks you see below the faces were the result of years of dynamiting and chiseling away the mountain to carve the monument. 
The visitor center explains the intricate process of carving the monument.  From developing plaster models, to transferring the models to the mountain, to placing dynamite charges in the appropriate places, and then the fine work of chiseling.
Early ideas for the monument were to carve the mountain with faces of famous western pioneers and explorers.  But Borglum felt that the monument should memorialize great Americans who symbolize the entire country's principles of liberty and freedom.
The artists studio originally built in 1939 - from where Borglum and his team planned and executed the year-round project.
One of the original plaster masks of President Lincoln on display in the artists studio.
Park Service geologists have an extensive monitoring program in place to analyze erosion and cracking.  The estimated  erosion rate is 1 inch every 10,000 years so the monument will be around for many generations to enjoy. 
Mount Rushmore has been described as American history, alive in stone.  The national monument attracts over 3 million visitors a year and has become a symbol of our nations history and strength.  It truly is a spectacular sight and an incredible accomplishment.  

Saturday, May 26, 2012

“Official Home of the Jackalope” – Douglas, Wyoming

Leaving Colorado Springs was hard, but we were excited about heading to South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore.  We stopped in Douglas, Wyoming along the way for a couple of nights to break up the drive and check out the town’s claim of being the “Official Home of the Jackalope.”  They lived up to their reputation because there are jackalopes everywhere – they may even outnumber the 5,200 residents.

Just one of many over sized jackalopes adorning the town.  Douglas celebrates the jackalope on the first weekend in June with the annual Jackalope Days Celebration.
The town’s history is not all that exciting.  It grew up around the railroad and served as a supply point for the military and cattle industry. There was a WWII POW Internment Camp that housed Italian and German prisoners and the town is the final resting place of Sir Barton (the first thoroughbred colt to win the Triple Crown).  Douglas is home to the Wyoming State Fairgrounds, has a Pioneer Museum, a racetrack and that is about it!  So let’s go back to the jackalope.

Did I mention there was a saloon?
For you non-animal types, this horned rabbit does not exist.  But, pranksters do a really good job of making you think they exist and they will even tell you so.  They will tell you that they are rarely seen because they are endangered – a result of them only breeding during lightning strikes.  You will be warned not to approach them because they fight back with their horns which is why they are called the “warrior rabbit.”  But if you dare try to catch one the best way is to lure it with whiskey, as they have an affinity for this drink. Once intoxicated, the animal becomes slower and easier to hunt. Why might you want to catch one?  Their milk is prized for their aphrodisiac quality which is also why they are nicknamed the “horny rabbit.”  One well-known fact about jackalopes is their uncanny ability to mimic human sounds.  When cowboys would sing around their campfires at night, jackalopes would frequently be heard singing back, mimicking the voices of the cowboys.

Douglas, Wyoming was voted one of the Best 100 small towns in the U.S.

You too can buy a jackalope - this one will set you back
The jackalope is a fictional cross between a jack rabbit and antelope.  According to legend, the idea for the jackalope was born by the Herrick brothers (of Douglas, Wyoming) that just completed a hunting trip for jackrabbits.  The two brothers had studied taxidermy by mail order as teenagers and concocted the crazy animal when they tossed a jackrabbit carcass next to a pair of deer antlers in the taxidermy store.  A new species was born!  The first jackalope was sold for $10 to a man who displayed it proudly in the La Bonte Hotel still operating in Douglas.  The jackalope was stolen in 1977 and shortly thereafter the Douglas Chamber of Commerce started issuing Jackalope Hunting Permits to tourists.  The permit is only good for one day: June 31st from midnight to 2 a.m. and the hunter may not have an IQ greater than 72.  (Remember June only has 30 days.).  The state of Wyoming trademarked the jackalope name in 1965. 

Or, you opt for a head mount at a mere $150.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Colorado Springs, Colorado

Garden of the Gods takes its place front of Pikes Peak and
the Rocky Mountains.
Colorado Springs is a very inspirational and patriotic town.  There is something about being at the foothills of the Rocky Mountains that is quintessential American.  Factor in the majestic Pikes Peak the mountain that spurred the song “America the Beautiful,” the spired metal chapel of the U.S. Air Force Academy where young men and women learn to soar, the U.S. Olympic Complex and Training Center where American athletes push their mental and physical limits for the chance to represent their country, and the Garden of the Gods - a remarkable rock formation created from the first Rocky Mountains that has been thrust upward over thousands of years.  And what could be more patriotic than the American cowboy and rodeo.

Our motorhome sits beautifully perched on the side
of the mountain.  The park is loaded with hiking/biking
trails and a great visitor center.  The only problem - dogs
are not allowed on hiking trails.
We arrived at Cheyenne Mountain State Park on a beautiful, warm, sunny day.  The park is a true gem!  It sits above the city on the side of the mountain and offers spectacular views – our hearts soared.  In the evening, the sun sets on the mountain and earthen colors reign.  Just as the sun starts to fade behind the mountains, the lights of Colorado Springs illuminate the valley.  While eating dinner outside at our picnic table one night we could not help but think that was the best restaurant view ever.  And that was not the wine talking.  There is not a bad site in the whole park.  We never wanted to leave the campsite but there was too much to see in the bustling town of Colorado Springs so we forced ourselves to get in the car and venture out.

Rock formation known as "Three Graces"
Garden of the Gods was our first stop in Colorado Springs.  I wondered, what is a Garden of the Gods?  When I think of gardens, I think of colorful flowers; instead, I saw huge red rock formations protruding from the earth.  The gardens were stunning and dominated the landscape with beauty and might.  This rock formation of sedimentary sandstone beds was conceived during the first (or ancestral) Rocky Mountains over 300 million years ago.  (Yes, according to geologists there have been two Rocky Mountains).  As the tectonic plates shifted and underground layers were thrust upward, these remnant sandstone layers were pushed upward.  Over time, softer material eroded and the harder material was left behind and that is what you now see.  Ironically, the name “Garden of the Gods” came from a previous landowners desire to build a beer garden in the area.  He proclaimed the beer garden in this setting was an area fit for Gods.  And I thought it was because there were going to be pretty flowers! 

"Cathedral Valley"
People enjoy walking around the gardens, especially climbing on "Balanced Rock" and "Steamboat Rock"
The Protestant Chapel with its 99-foot
high pinnacled ceiling.

I really like military history and had my sights set on visiting the Air Force Academy.  So we headed to the visitor center where we saw a short film, a few exhibits, and browsed the gift shop. From there we took the short walk to the Cadet Chapel – the most stunning and recognizable feature of the academy.  The campus is very impersonal, buildings are steel and shaped in right angles.  But the chapel and the mountain background give a bold personality to this military institution.  The chapel was built in the 1960’s and reflects the “modern movement” architectural style.  Seventeen steel spires rise towards the heavens. Twenty-four thousand pieces of stained glass light the inside with bands of color.  Italian marble adorns the alter.   Advocates of the chapels design and the use of aluminum and glass said that if cadets were going to fight and die in aluminum they could worship in it too.  We were not able to drive the tour route because part of it was temporarily closed (we think it was because secret service was preparing for President Obama’s visit for commencement - but that was not the story we were given.)

The ends of the pews were sculpted to
resemble WWI airplane propellers and the
back of pews are capped with a strip of
aluminum simulating the trailing wing of
a fighter jet.

The first class entered the academy in 1955.  Cadets live by the
honor code "we will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate among us
anyone who does"

The architects originally planned 21 spires to lead cadets into the 21st century; however, funding
cuts dictated there would only be 17 spires.  The chapel cost $3.5 million to build.  The furnishings, pipe
organs, liturgical fittings and adornments were gifts.
The Catholic Chapel is dominated by the reredos behind the alter - an abstract glass mosaic mural depicting the Annunciation and flanked by two 10-foot marble angels.  
The Chapel soars 150 feet into the Colorado sky.  The Chapel provides worship for all faiths with specific chapels for the Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Buddhists faiths.
Visitors are greeted by a statue of athletes holding a globe
to symbolize the international competition.
One of my favorite attractions was the Olympic Complex and Training Center.  With only a couple of months until the summer Olympics and team try-outs still going on, this place is buzzing with dedicated athletes.  The tour starts off with a movie highlighting the U.S. effort in past winter Olympics and the excitement surrounding the upcoming London summer games.  After the movie, you are led on a tour of the grounds and get to peek into some of the training area scattered throughout the complex.  Athletes live and train here year round so you always have the opportunity to see athletes training.  Our tour guide was a young weightlifter who was not selected to go to London but has already set her sights on the 2016 games and competes year-round in other international competitions.  Her input made our tour so personal.

The grounds are adorned with flags from all countries participating in the Olympics and Paralympics and cut-outs displaying all the sports of the game.

American gymnasts in action.  The gymnastics team has not been selected so training is very intense.
 The center is the home to USA Swimming and Shooting teams, but features many other sports as well. The shooting center is the largest indoor facility in the Western Hemisphere and third largest in the world.
The 45,000 square foot aquatic center has cameras underwater for training purposes.  For synchronized swimming, music plays underwater as well as above water.
The top 10-15% of athletes are selected to live year-round in the housing provided at the training center. The facilities
can accommodate more than 500 athletes and coaches.
Weighlifters preparing for the summer games.  Weights are color-coded so it is easy to determine how much weight is on the bar.
We could not leave Colorado Springs without visiting the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame and learning about the men and women who ride some of the meanest bulls, hang on to bucking broncos, rope steers, and speed past barrels….all for buckle bragging rights (and some pretty good payouts).  Talk about a truly American sport. The orientation video enlightens rodeo virgins about each of the seven official rodeo events and how they are judged.  It was good for us to polish up on our rodeo since we are going to the Cheyenne Frontier Days (the country’s largest rodeo) at the end of July. I love going to rodeos and have great childhood memories of going to the Old Fort Days Rodeo in Fort Smith, Arkansas. There is nothing like walking about dusty fair grounds, smelling horses, and eating cotton candy.  We used to love to cheer on my Uncle Johnny when he competed in the rodeo’s wild cow milking event.  By the way, that is not an official rodeo event!  Rodeo started in the in late 1800’s as a friendly competition of cowboys showing off their skills.  Many towns claim to be the birthplace of rodeo – Deer Trail, Colorado; Pecos, Texas; and Prescott, Arizona – but some say rodeo was not born, it just grew.  A trip out west and you will see that rodeo is definitely not a thing of the past.

The bull on the left is "Skoal Pacific Bull."  In four years and 150 rides, only five riders stayed on him to hear the 8-second bell.
The museum recognizes rodeo clowns which are some of the most important and entertaining participants in the rodeo.
The outdoor area is decorated with bronze statues displaying various rodeo events, including a favorite steer wrestling.
A statue of Casey Tibbs is featured outside of the museum.  Tibbs was crowned the "World All-Around Rodeo Champion" twice and was a 6-time Saddle Bronc rider.  He rode his first rodeo at 14 and became the youngest man ever to win the saddle bronc championship.  He suffered 44 broken bones throughout his long career and was the on the cover of "Life" magazine in 1951.
Exhibits feature a plaque of each inductee and memorabilia from their career.
Even the Rodeo Queens have a place in the Hall of Fame.  How do I get one of those hats?
I almost forgot to mention...we went to one of the top 10 dog parks in the country and Spirit played her heart out.  We loved Colorado Springs!

I think one of those dogs is Spirit.