On our way to our new home in Texas, we stopped in Amarillo. We took a quick trip to the famous “Cadillac Ranch.” Ashley assured me the Duggers had also done this activity so I was a little more sure we weren’t all going to be arrested. Turns out there actually are a bunch of Cadillacs “planted” in this field and you bring spay paint…and you try your hand at vandalism. Even though it is legal, it feels very naughty, and this increases its appeal. Of course, it is a popular spot and other people are also there “vandalizing” so don’t expect your creation to last long. I had this fantasy of coming out in the middle of the night and painting them all solid pink…maybe next time.
We only had a weekend to catch up with Harry’s sister Lisa, but it was a blast. We managed to squeeze in a trip to the tip of Pike’s Peak, visit the olympic training center, walk around Manitou Springs sampling mineral water, and visit Helen Hunt Falls. Wow! I’m tired just remembering it! We also had the pleasure of meeting Lisa’s adopted family of Steve, Jack and Lou. Lisa is lucky to have Steve, and Jack and Lou are delightful. They welcomed us to their lovely home and allowed us to maul their cat and friendly Golden Retriever. Lou is my idol when it comes to backyard design. She has turned a backyard into an absolutely tranquil nature reserve, complete with ponds, waterfalls, a stream and so much foliage you can’t even imagine, let alone see, her neighbors. Jack and Lou are originally from WI, but we didn’t hold that against them. Kidding of course! Actually our common mid-western roots made them feel like instant family. Which means that they now have crazy relative I guess!
The drive to Pike’s Peak is stunning, but once you get out and walk around up there you really are pretty stunned. I mean this literally. There is so little oxygen in the air that just attempting to walk makes you lightheaded. They are famous for having a snack bar up there that sells doughnuts that are to die for. Again, when you eat, you aren’t breathing and I wonder if the lightheadedness is partly responsible for their fame. They are super tasty, at least when I wasn’t seeing speckles and gasping for breath.
Manitou Springs, for my Dayton friends, is like Yellow Springs on a mountain. It is a funky, arty touristy place that sells every souvenir imaginable. We were focused on sampling the famous spring water, though. As it was over 90, we didn’t have a lot of interest in window shopping. The kids had mixed reviews on the water. Ashley loved it, and Haley gagged. I though most of them just tasted a bit salty. Not objectionable, but not worth the hoopla.
The Olympic Training Center was a hoot. Along with memorabilia from assorted games they also had access to several actual training gyms. Because we were there on a Sunday, we didn’t see anybody we recognized, but it was fun all the same. Everybody loves to dream about winning a gold I guess.
We stopped in Omaha, on our way to visit Harry’s sister in Colorado. It was a hoot to drive by our old Alma Maters. Creighton has gotten so much bigger, I didn’t recognize it. UNO has added a whole second campus with dorms! Huge changes. Otherwise, a quick trip to the Spaghetti Warehouse in the Old Market (oh yeah and ice cream at Ted and Wally’s. Yummy!) and we continued west once again.
We finished our northern leg with a stop at Rush Lake. It is always fun (and more than a little chaotic) to visit the family. My favorite part was being on the water. Knowing a move to Texas was in the future, and knowing how scarce good lakes are in Texas, made the visit all the more sweet. A family friend stopped by and brought his amazing ski-boat…but more about that later. As always, the kids enjoyed fishing with Pop. Pop…well, he had his hands full. Nothing like spending 5 hours rigging 7 fishing poles just to have the kids fish for all of 6 nanoseconds, before a.) snagging their line b.) gut hooking a sunny, or c.) getting bored. The kids are so excited they are running around waving hooks, yelling, and loudly demanding his undivided attention. In fact it is more than a minor miracle that nobody hooked a cousin or fell in the water. At least now they can all swim!
The adults were busy attempting to cash in life insurance policies. I kid you not! The ski boat was amazing, but not content to waterski, we felt the need to attempt wake boarding and a “sky chair.” If you have never seen one, google it, ’cause it is unbelievable. It is like a chair with a 6 foot foil on the bottom. You sit on it and then the driver attempts to drown you. Well actually, Phil, the owner, gracefully flies around the lake on it. The rest of us? Not so much! Mostly nosedives toward the bottom of the lake. If you do manage to get out of the water, immediately all friction is gone and EVERY. TEENY. Movement changes direction. Thus, you are 6 feet above the water before you plummet back, to once again attempt to breath water. Not withstanding the copious nasal lavages it was a blast, and next year…who knows?
The last few stops have been about two cultures clashing. The Americans and the Native Americans were frequently at odds. The Black Hills were the Indians’ most sacred place and we carved tributes to presidents there. Then take Devil’s Tower. The Natives call it Bear Lodge and find “Devil’s Tower” extremely offensive. Imagine if we had a cathedral that somebody wanted to rename after a devil. Then to make matters worse, people want to climb it. The park service does issue climbing permits, although not during June, which holds special meaning for the Indians. It is a compromise, although not one that really satisfies either side. The geology is intriguing and resulted in vertical columns in hexagonal shape. It is also home to the largest colony of Prairie Dogs I’ve ever seen. The ratty little critters were so abundant that it gives the illusion of waves in the field. Harry called it Old Country Buffet for Eagles.
The Black Hills of South Dakota get their name from the plethora of pine trees that grow on them. Seen from a distance, they do in fact look black. To get to Rushmore we drove through the town of Sturgis. This is apparently the site of a famous yearly motorcycle rally. I guess around 500,000 bikers descend on this tiny town every year in August. Not being bikers, we were happy to avoid the crowds, although it does sound like they plan some fun concerts for during that time.
Rushmore is such a crazy thing. I mean who looks at a mountain and decides, “Gee, I think it would be fun to carve that?!” But that is just what happened. Somebody wanted to carve famous “Old West” characters onto the mountain. They hired Gutzon Borglum as the artist. Given that work started in the midst of the Great Depression, there was no shortage of people who wanted to work on the project. Borglum decided that it should be a tribute to America and chose Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt to represent the best of our history. The project was not without hiccups. First, there was a problem with Jefferson’s nose. It had to be redesigned and moved several feet to the other side as there was a crack which Borglum feared would make the statue lose his nose. Also a shelf of Mica was discovered along the bottom of Washington running all the way to Lincoln. It was too soft to carve and thus the original plan of including a coat on Washington was scrapped. In a slightly different vein Borglum was not without quirks. Apparently his vision was of an “American Pyramid” which would house such treasures as the Constitution and Declaration of Independence. He misdirected federal funds to accomplish this vision to allow him to blast a chamber deep in the mountain. Yep, there really is a “secret” chamber. Sadly, this put him over budget and behind time. In fact, he didn’t live to see the end of the project, but his son Lincoln was left to wrap it up.
The monument to Crazy Horse is a work in progress. Because it is funded entirely through private funds, it is progressing slowly. However it is also much larger than Rushmore. The whole carving of the presidents would fit inside Crazy Horse’s head. There is a wonderful museum and art gallery on the grounds, and their plans are ambitious about what they plan for the future.
We made a bit of a detour to hit the battlefield monument at Little Bighorn. This was perhaps the most depressing stop of our trip. The history of Custer’s Last Stand is surely important to study, but the message we learned is that there really were no winners. This, of course, is the place where Custer led the Seventh Calvary against the Sioux and Cheyenne in a battle that decimated his troop, cost him his life, and left the Indians victorious, but only briefly. In the end, it cause such an outcry that the indians lost their way of life and were forcibly relocated to reservations despite numerous treaties to the contrary. It is a perfect example of winning a battle but losing the war. The rangers do an excellent job of relaying facts, without assigning “fault.” A lot of people come thinking “Custer got what he deserved,” only to leave thinking, “nobody won here.” It is a sad place of reflection where surely ghosts roam. It reminded me of Gettysburg; both sides doing what they thought best and men dying for causes that were surely already decided. One of the most poignant moments for me was learning that Custer and his officers shot their horses to form barricades at the end. They knew they were going to die, but it was truly a “last stand.”
Since the RV park was located on the road that connects Yellowstone with the Grand Tetons, we went to the famous mountain skyline next. Here we were treated to an informative movie about the Great Yellowstone fire, and one about the reintroduction of wolves. The highlight was the ranger program, however. We have been to over half the national parks, and have attended a ranger program at almost every one. However, the ranger at Grand Teton was far and away the best one. She gave a talk about the animals and their adaptations to live in the parks and showed furs of various ones as she was talking. She was lively, interesting, and knowledgeable. The entire back deck was spellbound while she talked. Along with teaching how to tell the difference between coyotes, and wolves, she also taught the group how to identify various grazers. In short, the kids (and adults!) learned a lot and enjoyed every second.
The second day we spent time hiking down to see the falls at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. I think it might be even more scenic than the actual Grand Canyon. A torrent of green water roars over the cliffs and you are standing right above it in the mist. You are so close it is easy to appreciate the power and beauty, while the Colorado is so far down in the valley, it loses some majesty due to distance. The down side is that the view comes at the expense of a hike. It involves a series of 11 descending switchbacks along a path that is barely two people wide. I think it descends about 800 feet. This might be the most strenuous mile hike ever. If the altitude doesn’t get you, the hoards of people squeezing by might, assuming you survive the uneven path. Still, the view at the bottom is worth the wear on the knees, and at least there are resting spots along the way.
Yellowstone is such a vast park, that it has distinct sections, and each has it’s own flavor. The north east is rugged hills and plains filled with pristine wilderness inhabited by wolves, elk, and bison. The north west is home to the famous calcium carbonate formations, and the southwest is Old Faithful, grand prismatic, and much of the geothermal activity. The southeast is lakes and rivers.
No trip to Yellowstone would be complete without a stop at Old Faithful. Indeed, we made it our first stop. The iconic geyser spouts frothy steam hundreds of feet into the air every 60-90 minutes. The Junior Ranger Program taught the kids how to time the eruption to predict when the next one will happen. (The longer the eruption, the longer the time period until the next one.)
As we explored the different visitor centers around the park, we saw bison. Lots of bison. Herds of bison graze just about everywhere you look. Then, where there isn’t a herd, there is usually a solitary one laying in the sun. We saw, not only multitudes of bison, but elk, a few bears, and even a soggy coyote.
We hiked a trail through a basin and it was a fascinating, if odoriferous, walk. There are steam vents, and small colored puddles bubbling and hissing, and the occasional mini-geyser eruption. You are warned to stay on the path at all times as the ground is highly unstable. In fact it is likely to melt the boots right off your feet due to the high temps and extreme acidity. The water is all shades of blue and green and even red to orange. Apparently bacteria live in the steaming sulphuric water and depending on the temperature a specific species of bacteria thrive there, which determines the color. Luckily the human nose quickly adapts to noxious odors and you don’t notice the sulphur smell much after the first few minutes. However, the pungent smell of rotten eggs packs a wallop as you get out of your car.
Perhaps, the most stunning sight is Grand Prismatic Basin. This is a pool that has so many distinct temperature zones that the bacteria all live here. However, they stay in concentric rings, forming a rainbow colored pond. Seem from above, it is simply unbelievable.