Wednesday, August 31, 2011

We Made It To Montana

Aug. 31, 2011 (Day 5)

We have had another long, but full, day. Lots of travelling, but sightseeing also. We started out with a quick trip to Walmart in Spearfish, then drove 10 miles up to Belle Fourche. (That’s pronounced Bell Foosh--Joe asked!) About 20 miles north of Belle Fourche is the calculated exact center of the United States (including Alaska and Hawaii.) So as we passed through the town, we of course had to stop and take a photo of the monument to The Center of the United States. They also had a lovely little museum detailing pioneer life in the Black Hills, with lots of items donated by residents of the town who had “roots” there. It was a nice visit to start our day.

From there we drove about 200 miles, leaving South Dakota, cutting off a very small corner of Wyoming, and then entering Montana (I get to add a new state to our map!) We stopped midway for lunch in Broadus, before continuing on through the Cheyenne and Crow reservations. The terrain was first grazing and ranching land, but right after Broadus, it began to rise, and we entered the Custer National Forest. We went up and over some quite hilly land before coming down into the valley of the Little Bighorn River at around 3:30pm. As the afternoon grew later, our views became more and more dramatic, and for a couple of hours our history lesson was enhanced by the changing light against the grassy hills.

The Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument is really well done, in my opinion. There is a nice interpretive center which tells you a lot about the Indian culture, the personalities involved (such as Custer and Sitting Bull), the historical context of the Campaign of 1876, the details of the battle as far as they are known, and the role of archaeology in figuring out how the battle progressed. We saw a 17-minute film which gave a very good overview of some of the complexities of the battle. Then we left the building to drive along the 5-mile road which is marked with information panels, monuments, and, most poignantly, white and red markers indicating the places on the hillsides where soldiers and Indians had died.

The terrain, of course, is still the same as it was, which allowed us to stand in front of an information panel, look out in the directions indicated, and “see” in our minds the movements of the troops and the Indians who encountered each other. In the distance, or even at our feet, were the markers--sometimes singly, and sometimes in clusters, indicating where a skirmish involving a large group had taken place. The scenery was fabulous, but of course it is the battle which is the most riveting part of the experience in seeing the battlefield. It was really very interesting and history definitely comes alive when it is studied this way!

We didn’t leave the battlefield until about 5:30. We could see in the distance how a line of thunderstorms was moving, and the weather, which was quite hot earlier in the day, had cooled with the arrival of the cold front sweeping ahead of the storms. We had a panoramic view of the horizon and could see the rain coming down miles away. We also could see that we were driving right toward it. Fortunately it was only a brief encounter, however, and we made good time to Billings, where we stopped for gas and propane at a Flying J, and then on to Red Lodge, MT, which is a “gateway” to Yellowstone. Now we are ensconced in a campsite with a noisy little brook nearby. The wifi has proven to be okay for reading websites; I sure hope it will cooperate when I upload this blog.

I feel as if I left out a lot about today--it was really a lovely day and we enjoyed all of the roadside scenery; the herds of black cattle looking so beautiful against the green pastures up here near the campground; the small group of prong-horn antelope I saw at one point in, I think, Wyoming; and all the other little things we notice as we drive along. Tomorrow we are going over the Beartooth Highway into Yellowstone, and I won’t have any wifi until Saturday night. So I’ll try to upload as much as possible tonight--I did take some good photos. We are looking forward to Yellowstone!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Another long driving day

Day 4: August 30, 2011

Yesterday continued uneventfully after my blog's ending point. We had a lovely drive through Wisconsin, on some windy hilly roads through gorgeous green farms and countryside. I am just in love with that state--so lush and relaxing. It speaks to me.

We crossed the Mississippi River at La Crosse, and followed the river on the Minnesota side up to I-90. And then we were back on the superslab, driving as fast as we could. We were hungry but didn't want to take the time to make dinner, so we had some fast food, not a very exciting anniversary dinner, but oh well. And then we drove until about 10:30pm when we voted to stop and spend the night at a rest stop. I have to say, I have stayed in many places noisier and more crowded. The highway itself seemed very untravelled and the rest stop had 3 cars when we pulled in. It was dark and even quiet.

We set the alarm for 6:30, hoping to get an early start today. We knew we had to make a stop in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for our new air conditioner cover, and Joe would have to replace it on the roof. So we were up and out early. It began to rain overnight (luckily Joe decided that would NOT make a difference to our naked AC) and it was lightly raining while we had breakfast. It was cool, too--we dressed in jeans and sweatshirts, and I was cool all morning. We turned on the radio during breakfast, and were entertained by the lead-in story of the news, that the harvest was now 60% in, and by the flat midwestern accents of the announcers. The local news was also interesting--evidently volleyball is a big deal in Minnesota, at least in the southernmost part of the state. Then we started driving and again the road was fairly empty--I don't know where everyone is this year--relatively few RVs and campers compared to the past, I think, and even fewer cars. Perhaps I-90 is just less travelled than seemed so empty to us.

So we zoomed through Minnesota and arrived in Sioux Falls around 11 a.m. We spent about an hour at the RV dealer. They were very nice--they had the exact right AC cover, and Joe went up on the roof and had no trouble replacing it--he is just great at this stuff! I, meanwhile, purchased a few other items and made myself generally useless. We left Sioux Falls around noon and headed west again.

The rest of the day was basically about driving. At some point, it got really hot, and we changed from jeans to shorts--I think we went through a 35-degree temperature change today. South Dakota is also a beautiful state--rolling farms, mostly, and the road stretching out endlessly. We stopped for lunch--Joe made me an awesome salad!--and at a beautiful visitor's center in the center of the state near the city of Chamberlain overlooking the Missouri River. (it IS "wide" at that point!) There was also a Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center there.
Then back to the road until 4:30pm Mountain Time (we crossed another time zone--they put them out in the middle of nowhere, amid the corn) when we stopped at Wall Drug. We skipped this stop back in 2007 and I must say, we were smarter then . What a horrific collection of every kind of tchatchka in the entire world! I walked in and walked around but the entire place gave me a headache. Joe and Roxy waited outside on a shady bench and watched the people go by.

Less than an hour later, we were leaving Wall and continuing on. At this point, I started to fall apart--the heat was too much for me and I was stressing because I didn't know where we would stay tonight. I really did not want to spend a lot of money, and a lot of the campgrounds in the area of the Black Hills are ridiculously expensive. The KOA at Rapid City was listed as $25-$80. I mean, who PAYS that for a campground! But we did want internet and Joey pointed out that it would be good to have AC tonight to cool me down.

So I finally found this place called No Name City Campground. It is in Sturgis, which means we are now only about 30 miles "behind" my original day-to-day plan for this trip (obviously the mechanical problems yesterday set us behind; now we're virtually caught up.) It's small and seemed noisy to me, because it is very near the Interstate with no trees or anything as a buffer. But in that it's no different from most of the campgrounds we passed along the highway--they are all sitting out in bare fields without any charm whatsoever. I guess it's because we are on the edge of the Black Hills and not really IN them. The good news though is it only cost us $18.99, a downright steal, and we do have Internet. Today we drove 512 miles.

So now we've had our dinner, I've written this blog, and all I have to do now is wrestle with the photos from yesterday and today. Tomorrow we are on schedule to drive into Montana for the first time, stop at Little Big Horn, and then continue on to Red Lodge for the night. And then, into Yellowstone.

Our 40th Anniversary

Day 3: Aug 29, 2011
Our day started out as planned--a lovely breakfast, and then we went to tour Frank Lloyd Wright’s home, Taliesin, and the Hillside Home School, which currently (still) contains the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture. The lucky students live in the house, dine in the dining hall, and study in the huge drafting room designed by Wright for his own “apprentices” when he was the busiest architect in America. At that time, it was a working farm as well, and the students also baled hay and raised vegetables along with working on the pencil sketches for homes such as Fallingwater and the Robie House. (The year after he died, they voted to stop working the farm .)

The tour took us through the highlights--the school’s assembly room, drafting hall, and theater, and most of the house farther up the hill, including an enormous living room, bedrooms, and other living spaces. Every room is designed to enhance the view outside, which is wonderful on its own. But it is true that when you frame an amazing view with horizontal windows, it makes everything outside even more spectacular. All in all the buildings are fascinating and beautiful. Wright himself was of course a genius when it came to space and architecture, but he was also quite an unusual thinker in other ways. He could never have done what he did if he lived today--expecting apprentices to “learn by doing”, and the “doing” was building his own home, would undoubtedly not fly today!

Another interesting thing was that Wright seemed (to my way of thinking) to be remarkably un-invested emotionally in his work. What I mean by that is, The Hillside House especially was always a “work in progress”, and he constantly tore things out and rebuilt them in new configurations. Most people, I think, would look at what they did and not want to destroy it to build something new. His home, too, was rebuilt twice. The first version was destroyed by arson (causing the death of 7 people, including Wright’s long-time mistress and her 2 children), and the second house was destroyed by fire again when lightning hit the home. Wright rebuilt it including many stones which had gone through the fire turning pink in the exposure to the heat) and even art objects (statues, mostly) which show signs of having been burnt. In some places, the statues are literally embedded into the walls.

All in all it was a lovely tour and we enjoyed it. We got back to Mo at 12:15 and had sandwiches for lunch. While walking Roxy, however, Joe noted that we had a small problem--sometime in the last two days, the cover had blown off our rooftop air conditioner. We didn’t have internet in the Frank Lloyd Wright visitor center parking lot, so we drove back to the campground where we’d spent the night. We thought they might know a local RV supply place to get a new cover. (We could have backtracked an hour to the Camping World in Madison, but were hoping to avoid that and continue westward.)

After an hour of phone calls, we located what we needed in several places, but decided we’d wait until Sioux Falls, SD, which was right on our route and my original destination point for tonight. No rain is expected tonight, so we figured we could wait until tomorrow and not go backwards. So we got ready to go, and Joe turned Mo on--and Mo’s starter turned ON but would not turn OFF. Even when Joe removed the key, the starter kept cranking. Joe jumped out and disconnected a battery so the starter would stop….. but now we had a bigger issue. Joe’s guess was a “stuck solenoid”. Now we needed not a roof cover, but a “real mechanic”. Back into the RV Park office to ask for a recommendation. The guy we called couldn’t help, but he gave us the name of a good truck service center in Richland Center. The mechanic at the Richland Center shop talked to Joe on the phone, and actually guided him through the process to get the starter to turn off--by hitting the right part with a hammer!! (Joe says the hammer was his idea, to unstick the stuck solenoid, and the mechanic figured it couldn't hurt, LOL!) After the hammer trick worked, the mechanic recommended getting a new solenoid. Since his shop was literally 20 miles down the road on the route we’d planned to take anyway, we opted to come directly to the shop and get the solenoid replaced here.

So it is now 4:30pm--3.5 hours since I expected to leave the Spring Green area (well okay, we ARE 20 miles further along than we were, to be fair.) But the repair is now done, and Joe is paying them in the office, and I am going to stop typing, clean up, and get ready to drive toward Sioux Falls. We’ll stop someplace (as close to there as possible) and stop (I hope BRIEFLY) to purchase and put on a new air conditioner cover. And then continue on toward Montana.

Happy Anniversary, Joe and Deb. The journey of 40 years and thousands of miles may not always be smooth, but somehow, we do manage to come through it together. We are packing up again and heading west. The journey continues, I hope for another 40 years and thousands more SAFE miles. I love you, Joey Cohn!!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Charging Across the Country

Day 2: Sunday Aug. 28

My title tonight is a pun. It refers to: 1) Our steady progress from eastern Ohio this morning to Spring Green, Wisconsin, about 30 miles northwest of Madison, tonight. It was a gorgeous day for a drive. If you can believe it, we saw our first herd of buffalo this morning--in Ohio! Just along the Ohio Turnpike, who would believe it? But most of Ohio and Indiana is much of a muchness--kind of a flat, pretty in a nondescript sort of way, landscape. The corner of Illinois we are forced to endure is mostly very expensive Chicago-area toll roads until we get most of the way to the Wisconsin border. Wisconsin, otoh, is simply gorgeous. I loved it last year and loved it again today. There is something that really speaks to me about this landscape--all the green farms, dairy cows, white farm buildings, and gently rolling terrain. So beautiful. We barreled along all day and made good time, logging a total of 573 miles. This is a lot, even for us--although on our second day in 2007, we drove for 648 miles by getting up at 6:30a.m and drivng until nearly midnight. Today we started at 9:10am and stopped at 7:50pm. It was more than enough, for me at least.

2) We wouldn’t get far without charging a lot (well, three) expensive fill-ups of our gas tank. It seemed that with every 50 miles, the price of gas went up another 10 cents/gallon. The Chicago area was the worst--it got all the way up to $3.99; luckily we still had half a tank at that point and did NOT top it off. Our last fill-up last night, in western PA, cost $3.59/gallon; this morning we paid $3.69 in Ohio, $3.79 in Indiana, skipped the $3.89 and $3.99 in Illinois, and came back “down” to $3.65 just at the Wisconsin border. That price was actually $3.63 for us, because it was a Flying J station and we have a loyalty card for RVers, which gives us 2-cents/gal off (it amounted to $.48, LOL!) But each full tank approaches $100, ouch!

3) And finally, charging refers to all the electronic cords which are surrounding me at the moment. My phone is charging, my computer is charging, and the iPod Touch is charging off the computer. I *love* my iPod Touch-- it earned its keep today. First, it did what it was supposed to do--played music. The Mo Report includes the refrigerator being more or less fine, although the pilot to the gas line blows out on the highway (not so unusually). But the CD player, which was temperamental last summer, refused to work at all this morning. So whenever we get tired of playing Radio Station Roulette, we relied on my iPod for music.

Even more important, however, was what it did this evening when we finally had to decide where to camp tonight. This afternoon, we made reservations for a tour of Taliesin tomorrow morning at 10:15 a.m. So where to spend the night? Last year we were here for 3 nights and stayed in 3 different places--two state parks, both beautiful, and one private campground, with lots of “facilities” but not so beautiful. The latter, however, is only 10-15 minutes from the Frank Lloyd Wright visitor center where our tour leaves from. And, it has wifi. We decided to choose the practical over the beautiful (especially after we missed a turn which took us toward the parks.)

At this point, we tried to program Magellan, our GPS, with our true final destination. But although I had the campground name (in our log book, which I keep daily for every long trip), the name was not in the AAA data bank, nor was it in the AAA camping book. Now what to do? I have an old copy of the Trailer Life Campground directory, and was just about to go dig it out, when I remembered: THERE’S AN APP FOR THAT! I looked at my iPod and there was the Woodall’s Directory, which is published in TWO paper volumes, each several inches thick, but which is stored on my cute little iPod with the Woodall’s App. There was the campground, with the address for the GPS and the phone number, so I could call and warn them we were arriving. And in truth, we would not have been able to find this place without that address.

So now we are parked in a nice grassy spot away from everyone else, with lots of electricity to charge up all our indispensable gadgets. Joe just made us a yummy dinner of cheesey-scrammies and kasha. There is a hot shower handy, and a lot of places for a dog to be walked in the morning. And the wifi has so far been excellent, at least for my little iPod. I hope this blog uploads as smoothly as my email downloaded on the latter. It is now almost 11 local time, which is midnight DebandJoe time. But we can sleep in for a while, and have a quiet anniversary morning before going to our tour and then heading west again. And I promise to get my camera out tomorrow--that will give me another gadget to charge, I suppose.

Note to blogwatchers: we will be Ontheroad for the next couple of days--so if you don’t get a daily blog, do NOT worry. We will probably be Walmarting or something of the sort, and there’s no guarantee we’ll find wifi on the way.

Weather Report

Day 1: Sunday Aug. 28, 2011.

It’s Sunday morning in eastern Ohio, and the weather is bright, sunny, breezy, seasonably cool, and absolutely perfect. In short, an ideal day to travel. At home in HP, I understand that the power is out at my sister’s house (no report from my house yet, but probably the same story there), but still on at Mom’s and Joe’s office. Water in the basements, too, and no one is sure if the hurricane has gone through completely or if they are in the eye of the storm (it’s 9:10 am as I type this.)

We had an uneventful day yesterday, when we finally got out of town--that was not until 1pm. Joe had leftover paperwork to do, which turned out to be more than he expected. I meanwhile finished packing, loaded the food in to the RV refrigerator, took down stuff to hurricane-proof the yard, and all the other odds and ends. We stopped for gas before we left town, making it 1pm on the nose.

Otherwise, it was a typical first day, although none of our typical mechanical problems other than a discovery late in the day that our refrigerator wasn’t working. The culprit, as with last year’s first day, seemed to be the alignment between the on switch and the propane feed. Joe has tweaked it a few times, and we will keep an eye on it. Meanwhile, we stopped for a sandwich lunch in Tannersville PA at 3pm, and at Pizza Hut around exit 62 in PA at 8pm. Pennsylvania is a beautiful state, but there is just too MUCH of it!

After dinner we drove the rest of the PA segment and made it to Ohio. I would have liked to be further west tonight, but oh well. We stopped at the first Ohio Turnpike rest stop we came to, and it turned out to be one of the 3 with RV hook-up sites. So because we weren’t 100% sure about our refrigerator, we chose to pay for electricity rather than park for free next to the big trucks. And now we are back on the road. If we’re lucky, the next time we buy gas we will also be able to upload this--I seem to remember from last year that some of the OH TP rest stops have free wifi. The one we were at last night had wifi, but not free… I hope this is not a new trend!

Added at 1pm Sunday: We are now in Indiana, at a rest stop with free wifi. @Steve: Get me some cheap wifi-to-go and I am on it! This is really crazy how hard it is to find Internet service for free on the interstate.) Hope everyone on the east coast are not too wet and looking forward to some sun soon! We have stopped for lunch. Unfortunately there was a chocolate shop inside. But they had sugar-free chocolates so Joey is now rich in chocolate. I was just gifted with some garden-fresh mini-tomatoes and cucumbers from a mother-daughter pair having lunch at the table where I am borrowing laptop space. Roxy, meanwhile, stole half Joe's salami sandwich, so she is in disgrace. I am not too hungry, just want to keep driving. Hopefully tomorrow I’ll have something more interesting to write about!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Riders on the Storm

Aug. 27, 2011

It's 1 a.m. and the day has come--our long-awaited 40th Anniversary RV trip. This will be only the second time we've had the luxury of travelling for an entire month, and getting out of town is brutal. It is made even more surreal by the fact that everyone is talking about getting out of town, as Hurricane Irene makes her way up the east coast, blowing everything to smithereens in her path. Or so we have been told--Irene is touted as "the storm of our lifetime". Besides the usual winds and tremendous amounts of rain, heavy flooding is expected pretty much everywhere, and I'm sure the Raritan River will be running high through the park down the street.

Irene on the way
We, however, are buying bottled water not because of expected power outages, but because we are hitting the road. We are not your johnny-come-lately bottled water purchasers, not us! Mo is now about 90% loaded up--not a minute too soon, because it is actually raining already, although the heaviest of the storm is not expected for about 20 hours yet. It will probably be raining when we leave town in the morning, but I'm expecting to outrun it-- western Pennsylvania is looking dry on the weather map, and with luck, we will be into Ohio by tomorrow night.

The itinerary this time: the northwest corner of the United States. We are only missing 11 states (of the Lower 48) on our State Sticker Map--and with luck, we will be collecting Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon on this trip. Our first destination is Spring Green, WI-- the very same place we headed for last summer. We never did tour Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright's home, on that trip. So we're thinking to stop there and have a tour Monday morning, before continuing toward South Dakota via I-90. We have reservations at Yellowstone National Park next Thursday night. That's right, ya'll, we are CRAZY once we hit the road. But it's a big country.... and we are looking forward to enjoying every minute of the ride.