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.

Friday, June 29, 2012

Deer Lodge, Montana

Deer Lodge is a tiny town with two attractions - the Old Montana Prison complex and the Grant-Khors Ranch National Historical Site.  We pulled into a KOA right on the Clark Fork River and set up camp for two days.  Spirit had a blast with the owner’s dog and was allowed to run free in the campground since there weren’t many people.  Free run of the place, a dog to play with, and a river to swim in – she was ecstatic!

The perimeter wall, built in 1893, is 24 feet high, 3 feet thick,
and 4 feet buried underground.
The Deer Lodge Prison Museum is much more than just an overused place of incarceration.  In fact there is a car museum, the Montana Frontier Museum, an old western town, a county heritage museum, a stunning collection of antique whiskey bottles, doll museum, and a few other buildings that we did not go in.

While this prison is not to the scale or awe of Alcatraz, it has a storied past and you still get that same creepy feeling when you step behind the bars of a prison cell or into “the hole.”  Built in the later part of the 19th century the prison was in operation for 110 years before it was closed and moved a few miles down the road.  Just across the street is the Montana State Prison Hobby Store where you can buy various items hand-made by prisoners.  I bought a dyed horse hair bracelet from inmate number 17278.  While I like his bracelet I don’t think I want to thank him in person!

Since there was no money for a prison in the state budget, prisoners were put to work and built the original prison .
The new prison had all the modern comforts 
The prison held over 1,000 prisoners.  Who knew the state of Montana had that many "bad" people?
View of the "big house" from the prison yard.
Betsy and her new friend.
The doctors/dentist office was pretty creepy.
Prison confiscated contraband
One of our favorite stops was the Montana Auto Museum.  How many car museums we have been to?  I don’t know but it seems like lots and we were ready to skip this one, except when we poked our heads in, we just couldn’t turn back.  The museum started as a Ford car museum but when the IRS caught up with the owner, all the cars went to auction.  It only took a few months for people to rally behind the now empty museum and started bringing in cars from all over the country to showcase them in the empty space.  The cars date back to the very beginning with the early Ford’s, through the Bel Airs and Thunderbirds, and on past the muscle cars.

A pop-up camper (circa 1920's)

REO Speedwagon.  I had no idea the musical band's name came from a vehicle.  Built in Lansing, Michigan, the REO was one of the most popular "speedwagons" of the 1930's.

Desert Johns Saloon has an extensive collection of whiskey bottles - some of which date back to the civil war.
The museum has an extensive gun collection and shows off the pride in Colt pistols.
Cottonwood City is a recreation of an old west town using historic buildings from the region.
The Grant-Kohrs Ranch NHS was a pleasant surprise as we are usually not all that enamored with living history sites.  This park service site commemorates the open range cattle industry and recognizes their importance to the American west.  The small contact station at the entrance provides a great overview of the ranch and increases your desire to see more of the 1,000+ acre ranch.  The National Park Service has done a great job of making this a very interactive attraction that offers wagon rides, hot coffee served up by a chuck wagon “cookie,” a demonstration of hay baling techniques, PowerPoint presentations, and various other demonstrations of life on the ranch.

The ranch was settled by Johnny Grant in 1859.  Later the ranch was purchased by cattle barren Conrad Kohrs.
Fields of hay ready to be cut and the beaver slide hay stacker (the tall wooden structure extending upwards).  The beaver slide was  a traditional means of stacking or bailing hay that is still used today.  
Visitors are free to wander the grounds and peek into the historic buildings.
The Thoroughbred barns.
Draft horses facing the Flint Creek Range and Mount Powell reaching 10,200 feet.

Hop on to the wagon for a narrated tour of the grounds.
The ranch house built in 1862.
We had a great time in Deer Lodge and found more to do than we thought.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Eight Peaches Along for the Ride

Since we live in a 40’ house, we don’t buy a lot of “stuff” for the house.  But sometimes there is a perfect something to go in that certain somewhere.  Our friend and artist Terri Brasher from New Orleans gave us the perfect painting for the kitchen.  It brightens the drab gray wall and reminds us of our good friends when we are far away.  Now, our fruit basket just doesn’t look that appealing compared to eight brightly colored delicious looking peaches.  Thanks Terri for brightening our motorhome, we hope you will come and visit “Peaches of Eight.” 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Pioneer Mountain Scenic Byway

The Pioneer Mountain Scenic Byway (in Montana) cuts through the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest and graces visitors with vistas of granite mountains, snow capped mountain peaks, dense forest stands, mountain meadows, and riparian zones lush in green growth from crystal clear streams.  The 49-mile trek has changed little since the late 1800's when the first settlers braved the harsh winters, dry summers, flash floods, and relentless swarms of insects.

Granite peaks reach elevations of 10,000 feet.
Betsy and I loaded up Spirit and headed south out of Wise River (where we are staying for a week with our good friends from New Orleans-more in an upcoming blog) to venture down the byway.  It wasn't long out of the starting gate when we realized the beauty of this drive makes it worthy of being designated a "Scenic Byway."  The smooth road cuts through the rugged mountains and leads you into the "big sky" of Montana.

The Wise River flowing north to the Big Hole River
Hike along the Sheep Creek trail
On one of our hikes, Spirit met a horse that lived next to the National Forest.  She said it was the biggest dog she has ever seen.
Winter snow attracts downhill and cross country skiers as well as snowmobilers.  Afterwards, warm your muscles with a dip in Elkhorn Hot Springs.
The grave sites of Joe Maurice and his family - one of the first settlers who moved to the area in the late 1800's.  Joe's wife and two kids died not long after moving to the area.  Despite loosing his right eye after being kicked by a horse, he stayed in the area by himself and lived to the age of 98.
The largest town along the byway is Polaris, just a small dot on the map.
Lavender-colored fields and snowy mountains frame the ponderosa and lodgepole pine forest.
Lupine in bloom
The mountain pine beetle has severely degraded many forests throughout the American west.   Pine beetle populations are normally kept in check by cold winters; however, recent mild temperatures have allowed them to survive and kill millions of trees. 
The rust colored pine trees in the background have been killed by pine beetles.  In the foreground is a field or lavender lupine in full bloom.
The Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest is Montana's largest National Forest topping out at 3.3 million acres.

Granite boulders line the trails and decorate the mountains.
Lily pad pond that has been invaded by a black lab 

We stopped at the ghost town of Coolidge where a 2.5-mile round trip hike will take you through the remainder of the town.  Named for President Calvin Coolidge (who grew up in the area), this remote mining town is now mostly in ruins and scattered over the ground.  It seemed to me the buildings in the best shape were the outhouses - go figure!  Silver ore from these mines eventually made it to San Francisco where it was processed.

We spent two days on the byway exploring the trails and enjoying the serenity and scenery.  There are numerous Forest Service campgrounds along the byway and we highly recommend at least a drive down the byway.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Missoula Club, Smokejumpers, and Elk

What you do not see in this picture is the colossal
milkshake Betsy had to accompany her burger.
During our brief time in Missoula, we found some interesting places to visit and another good burger dive (so we’ll start the post there).  While browsing through Barnes and Noble while still in New Orleans, we came across a book that peaked our interest - “Hamburger America.”  Since we are crisscrossing America and Betsy loves her hamburgers, we may as well be eating at the countries best (or unique) burger joints.  We put the Missoula Club on our list but forgot about it until we saw it unsuspectingly while driving around downtown.  Betsy pointed to it and immediately we both started drooling and looked at our watches to see if it was a respectable time to head in.  Locally known as the “Mo Club” this is no ordinary bar.  It is decorated with sports memorabilia and loved by locals as well as young college students putting on the freshman 15.  They have been serving hamburgers since they were introduced at the 1903 World’s Fair in St. Louis (also where the ice cream cone was invented).  Betsy swears that it’s one of the best burgers she’s ever had because of the taste of the meat.

The menu (listed above the cooks head) is
pretty simple - burger, cheese, grilled onions.
But, do you want 1, 2, or 3 patties? 

The place opens at 8 am and locals start falling in.

After our cultural experience at the Mo Club, we were off to sight see and answer the question, "Who would be crazy enough to jump out of an airplane, crash through the trees, and land in a remote wilderness on fire?"  The answer is smokejumpers. So we were off to the Missoula Smokejumper Visitor Center to learn more about these elite fire fighters that risk their lives to attack fires before they become out of control.  Once safely on the ground, they pack up their parachute gear and attack the fire using hand tools.  They may work for 10-14 hours a day for days on end trying to contain the fire.  Once it is out, they pack up their 100+ pounds of gear and begin walking to a pick up spot which may be 10 miles away.  It is no wonder rookie trainees have to pass a test carrying 110 pounds in 90 minutes.  Most smokejumpers have been fighting fires for 5-10 years before they even have the guts to apply to this elite team.  Smokejumpers date back to 1940 when it was realized that devastating fires could be avoided if caught early.  It was recognized that many fires start in remote wilderness areas inaccessible by firefighters. 

Smokejumpers parachute with two parachutes (just in
case), a bag of personal gear, helmet, padded suit,
and an orange bag to stuff their jumping gear into.
Once safely on the ground, they change into firefighting

The "machine shop" is where they make and alter their gear.  It really is a sewing room, but apparently they don't like it called that.
Parachutes are inspected after every jump and repaired on site, if necessary.  They are packed by only a select few jumpers that are certified in packing.  After demonstrating they can successfully pack a chute ten times, they must jump with one they packed.
Round and square chutes are used and certain sizes are based on the weight of the jumper and their gear.  In 53 years and 350,000 jumps only three jumps resulted in death.
Much like firemen in a fire house, their gear is always ready to go.  When the alarm sounds they get suited up within two minutes.  It only takes 10-15 minutes for them to suit up, get loaded and airborne.
They only jump with a small amount of personal gear, so food and tools (called "Sherpa Gear") comes down in boxes by parachute.
Boxes are tightly packed and one of the smokejumpers we talked to boasted about how they have successfully landed eggs and pies without breakage.
Inside the sherpa box is usually a cross-cut saw, extra gloves, a bladder bag (to fill with water and spray on the fire), harness and spikes (to climb back up a tree and retrieve the parachute), and other miscellaneous tools.
Of course, there is food.  Apparently Spam is a favorite food.
There are 12 smokejumper teams around the country and all are located in the west where  fires occur in remote locations.  Ten are run through the U.S. Forest Service and two by the Bureau of Land Management.  
Our interest in wildlife led us to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (REMF) Visitor Center which is free and very educational with great exhibits and movies.  These majestic animals have struggled like many of this country’s wildlife populations.  Two hundred years ago an estimated 10 million animals roamed all but a handful of the 50 states.  Habitat loss and overhunting reduced the population to less than 90,000 in 1900.  Thanks to conservationists, the elk population has rebounded to one million animals and they continue to be reintroduced to their historic range.   The REMF has been instrumental in elk conservation and boasts about their protection and enhancement of 6 million acres of elk habitat since their inception in 1984 - a conservation effort well worth commending. 

In addition to the visitor center there is a nature trail and 10 acres along Grant Creek for the public to explore.
There are six subspecies of elk, two of which are extinct.  Bulls can weigh 700 pounds and are known for their buggeling call that attracts cows in mating season.  
The elk population in Yellowstone National Park was instrumental in sustaining the species and many reestablished populations came from the Yellowstone herd.
The most recent elk reintroduction program is planned for West Virginia.
The elk "Wall of Fame."  Historically elk were hunted for food and their hides and body parts were used to make blankets, clothes, chaps, tools, and decorative items.  
The Elk Foundation’s mission is to ensure the future of elk, other wildlife and their habitat. 
Before leaving Missoula, we drove out to Fort Missoula and the Historic District.  On our way, we spotted nine red fox kits frolicking in the grass.  The kits captivated us for so long that we didn't have enough time to see the museum.  Oh well!