Thursday, October 29, 2015

Red Rock Country

So we drove from Fruita to Moab without further mishap, the new car brakes seeming to work pretty normally.  We planned to spend a month there and were expecting Ruth and Paul (from Washington) to join us after a couple of weeks.

Moab is a little town that got rich off uranium in the 1950s.  It's one of the only places on earth that lamented the end of the cold war.  But it had a few other things going for it.  Starting with John Ford's "Wagonmaster", the area has provided the back drop for numerous motion pictures.  It has also been raking in a lot of tourist dollars in the past 20 or so years as a mecca for off road vehicles, mountain biking, hiking, base jumping, canyoneering and other sports that verge on the insane.  It is also the most logical base camp for visiting Canyonlands and Arches national parks.  Vicki was sure we would be able to find plenty of stuff to keep us busy for four weeks, I was somewhat less convinced.

Our first exploration was up the colorado river, which crosses the main highway  just north of town.  This was a largely visual experience, so I'll turn this into a photo piece from here on out.

 Here is the Colorado River just above where you turn off Hwy 191.  It carries a LOT of silt and red rock runoff, resulting in the name.  These red rock cliffs run for miles and are visually stunning.

 The rock was built up in layers from the numerous times the great inland sea inundated the area over the last hundred million years, then erosion carved it into interesting shapes.

 Here is something I just couldn't figure out.  If you're going to spend several hours of your afternoon floating down the river, why on earth would you choose to do it standing up?  Give me a nice raft or canoe any day.

 Around every corner is another magnificent panorama.  You feel obligated to photograph them all, but after a while you begin to feel like your whole SD card is filled with the same picture.

 The little houses you can see in the middle of this shot are where the crew stayed when this part of the Colorado was substituted for the Rio Grande while making the movie of the same name with John Wayne and Maureen O'hara.

 Rafters picnicking on the shore.

 If this looks familiar it is because Fisher Towers have been a popular movie backdrop for decades.

Red rock hoodoos reminded us of Monument Valley

Tuesday, October 6, 2015


On Sept 10th we had more guests scheduled to stay at our property in Lead, SD so we had to pack up and move on.  We drove from Lead to Lusk, Wyoming.  What, you've never heard of Lusk?  Don't worry, neither has anyone else outside the city boundaries.  This little town offered nothing in the way of entertainment and we had a plenty long enough pull through, so we didn't even unhook the car.  Just fixed dinner in the coach and entertained ourselves through the evening.

The next day we drove to Cheyenne where we discovered the car would not start.  We had not remembered to remove the ignition key and the RPI automatic braking system had gradually drained the battery.  We did have a battery charger.  We don't travel completely unprepared.  But it was in the hatch back area and, when the battery is dead, there is no way to open the hatchback door.  Fortunately, the RV park we were staying in had heard this story before and kept a battery charger/starter on hand.  They hooked us up, got the car started and we were back in business. 

Colorado River from our campground at Gypsum
Over the next couple of days we drove down to Denver, then turned west and crossed the Rocky mountains.  It was a lovely drive and our Cummins engine took us over the 11,000 ft. summit with no problems.  We ended up staying near the little town of Gypsum, about halfway between Denver and Grand Junction at a motor home park right on the Colorado River, which at this point in its journey to the sea looks more like a creek.  Again, there was little to see in the way of sights and we left the car attached to the rig.  Not to get fooled twice, Vicki went back and got the key and while she was at it, set the parking brake.

The next morning we got up and got ready to go.  While I warmed up the diesel engine, Vicki went back and put the key back in the car and set it to Acc.  What she did not do was release the brake.  Our 500 HP Cummins was completely unconcerned by a little extra drag and off we roared, dragging our new Forester just over 120 miles at 65 MPH with the parking brake on.  We had no inkling until we unhooked the car at our campground in Fruita.  The parking brake had no "bite" whatsoever, but otherwise the car seemed to function okay as we drove off to find some lunch.  For the first mile that is.  Then it started making horrific grinding noises and we were forced to pull off the road and call triple A. 

The Grand Junction Subaru dealer was very nice but could not get it into their schedule that day.  The next morning when they took a look at it they said the pads were just gone and the rotors had melted.  Surprisingly, neither the wheels nor the tires appeared damaged.  The bad news was that they did not have the parts to fix it.  We paid extra to have the stuff shipped "overnight", which apparently translates to 2 days.  Then they could start working on it.  So we had three extra days in Fruita to consider our sins.

We were staying at Robb Colorado State Park and were able to extend our stay up to the weekend but no longer.  The park is a very nice facility right on the Colorado River.  It had long pull through parking pads running parallel to the campground road, a set up very similar to Rifle Gap State Park where we stayed a few years ago, and with full hook-ups.  We went to Sears and rented a car to use.  We were stuck, but at least the conditions were nice.
Balanced Rock at Colorado Nat Mon. from below
We took a day to explore Colorado National Monument which sits up in the canyons above Grand Junction.  We had been there before but that didn't make it any less beautiful. as the few pictures will demonstrate.  Unfortunately, once you have seen the National Monument, the entertainment possibilities of Grand Junction are largely used up.  We did a little more sight seeing and some grocery shopping but mostly spent the next two days in the coach.

We were concerned that we were going to be stuck over the weekend with no place to park, but at about 4:00 PM on Thursday the Subaru Dealer called to say the car was ready.  For only $1300 dollars n repairs and $200 for car rental it was good as new.  We hope.  We will see how it holds up over the next 3 months.  So Friday morning we packed up and cleared out of our camping spot so the weekenders could move in and we hit the road again headed for Moab, Utah.  Before we left, I checked to make sure the brake was off.

Balanced Rock from above.

Loking back down the canyon toward Grand Junction

Independence Monument

The Coke Ovens

Colorado River from Robb State Park campground

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Homestead and Homestake

We drove across Montana without any major mishaps and reached the Black Hills the last week of August.  There were still renters in our house, so we spent a few days in Rapid City doing chores like getting our car re-registered and talking to a lawyer about a South Dakota living trust, then we moved on to Lead (just south of Deadwood) where the house sits.

The South Dakota house with motorhome and dumpster
The major purpose of this visit (besides checking to see that the place was still standing) was to finally clear out enough of the detritus from our former lives to allow guests to actually park cars in the garage and fill the closets with their own clothes instead of ours.  As boring as this sounds, the reality was even worse, so we are not going to cover that at all except to note that Vicki ended up donating (I kid you not) about 300 lbs of clothes to charity.  The homeless females in Rapid City that can wear her size are going to be ecstatic. (We won't go into exactly what that size is.)

We had continued to drive through smoke all the way across Montana but when we got to the Black Hills a couple of things happened.  After a couple of windy days and a  thunder storm, the smoke and haze mostly cleared out, and in the last 50 miles or so we apparently drove out of the rain shadow of the Rocky Mountains and the landscape turned green and beautiful.  This encouraged us to take a few days off from our labors to enjoy the Hills.

Meet Stan
Meet Stan.  He is the star attraction of the Black Hills Institute of Geologic Research, at their small museum in Hill City, dedicated to all things fossil.  They do real research but aren't directly connected to any university or foundation.  They apparently fund their activities by being world class experts in the preparation and reconstruction of fossils which are eventually displayed in other museums throughout the world.  They have a display room with several hundred fossils crammed into it.  And most of them ARE fossils. About two thirds of the specimens on display are actual rocks, not casts or reproductions.  That in itself is fairly unusual.

Stan is one of the best known T. Rex specimens ever collected.  He comes from the Hell's Creek formation in South Dakota (the same deposits where "Sue" was found) and was originally excavated by the Black Hills Institute
A bevy of T. Rexes
beginning in 1992.  They have sold about 30 copies to various museums around the world (and one to Disney World) at $100,000 apiece and the specimen has been used in mechanical studies to elucidate tyrannosaur physiology.  The BHI also has copies of a half dozen other T. Rex skulls on display for comparison.  They are impressive.

One of the paleontologists on staff is an expert on Ammonites, the ancestors of the modern day Nautalus, so the museum has a fair number of high grade Ammonite fossils.  I don't know what they looked like originally, but some of these have been polished to a fine opalescent finish and look pretty cool.  Overall, it is a great collection, if you have any interest in that sort of thing.  The only problem is that they could really use another 5000 sq. ft. to display all their stuff in a little more organized and relaxed setting.
Fat and happy fish fossil
Vicki and Big Al the Allosaurus

They could use a little more space
Where the buffalo roam and the antelope play
Donkey begging for handouts
One of our favorite places is Custer State Park in the southern Black Hills and we took a day off to go drive through this area again even though we have been there a few times before.  We went around the wildlife loop and saw more bison and pronghorns.  They also have a herd of feral donkeys in the park that are descendants of animals that were once used to haul tourists over the hills.  When motorized conveyances took over that job, they just let the animals go and they have apparently thrived.  They seem to make up a good portion of their living begging from tourists and the
Prairie dog
park administrators don't seem to mind.  It is strictly forbidden to feed the "wild" animals but feeding these feral donkeys is not only allowed but encouraged.  We also drove through a prairie dog town that we did not remember from previous visits, though we must have driven past it.

The Homestake Mine in Lead, SD has been called the richest 100 sq miles on earth.  It was actively mined for gold and silver for 126
Homestake Mine pit, just out the back door of the museum
years, closing in 2002.  It was aquired early on, using less than honest means, by George Hearst (father of William Randolph) who
had learned how to mine and process quartz veins in California. 
The result of processing one ton of gold ore.
The ore at Homestake was not rich, but there was a lot of it.  The little nugget shown in the picture shows how much gold they got for processing a ton of Homestake ore.  But underground the mine extended over a 100 sq mile area and went over 8000 feet deep, the largest, deepest mine in the western hemisphere.

In the 1960s an abandoned part of the mine was used by Raymond Davis Jr. to build a laboratory for studying neutrinos emitted from the sun.  The 8000 feet of rock covering were needed to filter out cosmic rays that contaminated such experiments.  He found solar neutrinos but not enough of them, leading to major rethinking of solar physics and elementary particles.  The problem was finally solved in the 1990s.  The site has more recently been taken over by Sanford Labs. as a research center for detecting dark matter and ongoing study of neutrinos.  They built administrative offices and a small museum in town at the edge of the old mine pit. These weren't there when we came last year. We visited the museum but a tour down the mine shaft wasn't in our schedule and will have to be put off until another visit.  That's OK.  Well need to keep coming back anyway to check on our minuscule real estate holdings.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Big Timber and the Natural Bridge

Camping on the Boulder River

Dogs on dash
Traveling east on I-90, we had made reservations to spend a couple of days at the Spring Creek Campground near Big Timber, MT.  We had stayed here before under less than ideal circumstances which you can review (if you wish) here.  It's is a beautiful site right on the banks of the Boulder River.  We were parked with our nose right on the riverbank as you can see in the accompanying photos.  Last time we were here was during spring melt and the river was really roaring.  This time around the flow was a little more restrained but still respectable and we really enjoyed our time here.

With an extra day scheduled for exploring, we drove south along the river through beautiful ranch lands  for about 25 miles and ended up, more or less by accident, at Natural Bridge State Park.  This is a nice little park built around a landmark where, over hundreds of thousands of years, the Boulder River gradually eroded away a sandstone wall until it finally broke through and created a span crossing the river.  And here it is...
Natural Bridge ?

We couldn't figure out how mother nature eroded those guard rails until we finally realized that this is NOT, in fact, the Natural Bridge.  No, the Natural Bridge is here... least it was here.  The span actually collapsed into the river gorge in 1988.  But there is hope. 
Water returning to the river bed
Just downstream from this point the river plunges into an underground channel and shoots out of a cave opening about 75 yards further along.  So there is still kind of a natural bridge although it is
more of a natural tunnel.  And it isn't big enough to handle the water volume in the spring, so for a couple of months a year the water partially goes back to flowing down the old river bed over the top of the tunnel.  But as time and the elements continue to work, they say that the tunnel will gradually enlarge and will eventually form a new bridge.  That's why they haven't changed the name.  Why go to the trouble of changing all the signs when you're just going to have to change them back in half a million years?  Now that's what I call planning ahead.

Eclectic artifacts
The pavement ended at the park, but we continued on a dirt road for another 5 or 6 miles for the lovely views, then turned around and drove back to Big Timber.  There we visited the local historical museum,  just because it was there.  Like other small town museums we have seen, it was mostly a collection of artifacts contributed by local families with little apparent organization and no overarching theme.  Visiting the museum did little to add to our understanding of Big Timber with one exception.  There were two docents who both looked old enough to be city founders and they were able to explain to us why "Big Timber".  I mean, there isn't a tree visible for miles.  It turns out the town is located at the confluence of Big Timber Creek and the Yellowstone River.  The creek took its name from stands of trees a hundred miles upstream.  The town took its name from the creek.  Logging was never a "thing" here.

There were a couple of interesting displays.  We always like to see collections of old medical tools.  It makes me long for
Medical Tools
the days when you didn't have to waste time fooling around with anesthesia.  Just get six or seven burley guys to hold down the vict... er, patient and carry on.  The other interesting room was a collection of old time cowboy chaps.  Never seen one like it.

Adjacent to the museum building was an old schoolhouse, which we ignored, and an old Norwegian style storage building from the last century.  Much of the far northern Midwest was settled by Scandinavians who apparently have an inexplicable fondness for blisteringly cold winters.

Having fulfilled our culture educational requirement for the week, we drove back to our campground to enjoy our riverfront lodgings before packing up in the morning to continue our journey to South Dakota.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Yellowstone, Because It's Not on Fire

Yellowstone, the alternate destination.
After we left West Glacier, the master plan called for driving around to East Glacier where we were supposed to meet up with Paul and Ruth again for a week.  A couple of things made this unwise.  First of all, Paul and Ruth were back in Washington after Paul developed some increase in his back problems.  They will hopefully get back on the road later this summer.  Second, you will recall that East Glacier is still actively burning, making it a less than desirable destination.  Our ultimate goal was to get to our rental house in the Black Hills about the time the last scheduled tenants for the summer left at the end of August.  We were perfectly happy to take a leisurely drive across Montana, but even we can't drive that slowly.  We had some time to kill.  So we called around and managed to get ourselves a week long camping spot in Gardiner, at the north entrance to Yellowstone.

Group of bison ogling a herd of tourists
We were last in Yellowstone in 2010 and spent a week (half in West Yellowstone and half in Gardiner)  and we went just about everyplace you could go on 4 wheels so we didn't feel we desperately had to see everything again this trip.  We mostly wanted to do some wildlife viewing and were not particularly interested in breathing the sulfur fumes down in the geyser basins.  The one place we did not go the last time was the Lamar Valley, in the far north east corner of the park, so on the first day that's where we headed.  It turned out this was bison country. 

Pairing off
Now normally bison wander in segregated herds, the females congregating in larger groups than the males.  But August is the mating month and they all come together in one big happy buffafamily.  Males and females do some dancing around each other and gradually pair off.  Here you can see a large male staying close to his chosen sweetheart.  Does he protect her?  Provide for her?  Bring home the buffabacon?  Well no, not really.  He is mainly there to drive away competitors while waiting for her to go fully into estrus.  Then he will do his best to get a new little buffalo started before he bolts back to join his brethren and tell bawdy stories about his male conquest for eleven months.  Raising the kids?  That's her problem.  Life is good for the male bison.
How romantic
A lone pronghorn comes to the party "stag".

The elk mate in September, so we were a little early for that show.  The males were all up in the mountains somewhere preparing  their head mounted weaponry for battle, but the females were hanging out around Mammoth Hot Springs and the Gardiner River posing for pictures.  You can see a few here.

Elk cows hanging around Mammoth Hot Springs
Lunch time

Calf crossing the Gardiner River

Out on the prowl
We did drive over to West Yellowstone and visited the Bear and Wolf Discovery Center.  In the old days, of course, you couldn't visit Yellowstone without seeing a dozen bears sitting on the edge of the road begging for tourist handouts.  But now that such interaction is strongly discouraged,  it is pretty uncommon to see bears out and about in the park.  The Discovery Center has about a dozen grizzly bears that, for one reason or another, can't live in the wild.  The most common reason is that they became accustomed to humans at some point and are now considered too dangerous to roam at will.  Rather than just shoot them, they are adopted by the center so we tourists still have a way to get our grizzly fix.  About once an hour the keepers hide food around the display enclosure, then let out a couple of the bears to "forage".  Of course, the bears have learned all the hiding places and they know that if there isn't anything in hiding place A this time around, there is sure to be something in hiding place B or C, so they just methodically make the rounds.  At least it brings them up close to the audience side of the enclosure for a good look, and they are impressive to look at.
Dozens of crows fly in to steal their share of bear food
Grey wolf
There is a similar routine with the grey wolves but there are fewer of them and they only eat a couple of times a day, so you need to be there at just the right time.  The center also has a few eagles and other raptors and, for god only knows what reason, an enclosure for ground squirrels.  These seemed a little out of place amongst all the top predators.  As one of the more interesting displays, they had a collection of maybe 2 dozen "bear proof" food and garbage containers that had been successfully ripped open by determined ursines.  Clearly, bear proof is a relative term.
Bald Eagles
"What the hell am I doing here?"
By our 5th day in Gardiner the smoke from the numerous fires to the west had really moved into the area and going out sight-seeing became more depressing than enjoyable, so we just hunkered down in our RV and read or did chores for the last 2 days.  Then we packed up and headed east again.