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From Ennis we drove out of the lush Madison Valley and into the quite different landscape of the Idaho high desert to Arco. This area has two claims to fame, one natural and one very definitely manmade. The natural one is the surreal and starkly beautiful landscape that makes up the Craters of the Moon National Monument. Summer had finally arrived in full force which limited the time we were comfortable wandering around this crazy landscape but we returned several times in order to fully appreciate the forces that created this harsh environment. It really is other-worldly. Lava tubes, cinder cones, spatter cones; we learned about and saw them all. We walked/crawled through a lava tube “cave” and climbed to the top of a huge cinder cone. This place is unlike any other we’ve been to. Well worth the trip (and a strong NASA connection, too).

Rising from the desert, a conning tower. Arco, ID 7/24/19

The second claim to fame in the area is atomic power. The large, and frankly mysterious, Idaho National Lab is just down the road. While it’s not exactly in the middle of nowhere, you can see it from there. Among other things, this is where the world’s first breeder reactor was brought on-line. Arco, Idaho is the first town to be totally powered by atomic energy. And this is where the technology, processes, and procedures were created to power the Navy’s submarines with nuclear reactors, thus explaining the conning tower rising out of the ground as you enter town. It’s more than a little strange.

We took some nice drives, toured the Experimental Breeder Reactor 1 (EHB-1), ate some good ribs and smoked baked potatoes, and generally enjoyed our time in Arco. Especially when Patti was able to enjoy horses right outside our window. Simple pleasures.

The view out our window. Arco, ID 7/22/19

The Big Southern Butte viewed from the Experimental Breeder Reactor-1 (EHB-1) 7/24/19

Simulated spent nuclear rods art the EHB-1. I was surprised at how small they were. 7/27/19

The moon peaking over the lip of a lava tube. Craters of the Moon National Monument 7/25/19

A cinder cone across a desolate landscape of lava. Craters of the Moon National Monument 7/25/19

More desolation with the Big Southern Butte in the distance. Craters of the Moon National Monument 7/25/19

The huge cinder cone. Craters of the Moon National Monument 7/23/19

View from the top of the cone. Craters of the Moon National Monument 7/25/19

Nature. Just…nature. Craters of the Moon National Monument 7/25/19

Snow in the bottom of a splatter cone, creating some needed coolness. Craters of the Moon National Monument 7/23/19

 

We eased our way out of Montana with a stay in Ennis, located in the heart of the Madison River Valley and, apparently, Mecca for fly fisherman. If you could see the river the odds were good that you could also see fishermen. We’re not into fishing, but we had no trouble keeping busy in this gorgeous place. Among other things, we toured a lake created by an earthquake in 1959 (this story should be made into a movie…check it out here), visited the touristy “ghost town” of Virginia City, took a lengthy and very interesting tour of the region with our nephew, drove up a canyon to see a “real” ghost town, hung out in a hot spring, and sat in the front of the coach and watched the colors change on the Madison Mountains.

We had a good time. Here are lots of pictures.

The rock slide on the opposite face cut across the valley and more than 400′ up the other side. It blocked the Madison and created Earthquake Lake. 7/16/19

This boulder surfed down the mountain, across the valley, and up the other side. Without rolling. Earthquake Lake 7/16/19

A drowned cabin. Earthquake Lake 7/19/19

Structures at the “Smugglersville” ghost town. 7/18/19

Structures at the “Smugglersville” ghost town. 7/18/19

The mine in “Smugglersville” 7/18/19

The Explosives Shed in “Smugglersville” 7/18/19

Ennis Lake 7/20/19

Ennis Lake 7/20/19

Ennis Lake 7/20/19

The Madison River Valley 7/20/19

Ever since we decided to full time RV we knew we would be visiting Bozeman, Montana our first year out. We have close family that lives here and we knew the area was beautiful with lots to do so that was an easy decision. We ended up spending 3 weeks here. What a great time.

While here we enjoyed several state parks with our personal tour guides, did several hikes that stretched our flatlander legs, ate some exotic and delicious meats (at least John did…Patti not so much), did some shopping that can only be done in towns of a certain size, and, most importantly, spent quality time with those we love. Plus we enjoyed just wandering the historic downtown. Any town that has trails that start just off Main Street and run into the mountains is alright by me.

We will be returning next spring for a wedding. We can’t wait.

View from the Triple Tree Trail outside Bozeman, MT 6/28/19

Alongside the Triple Tree Trail outside Bozeman, MT 6/28/19

Overlooking Bozeman, MT. I walked up here most every day. 7/2/19

Overlooking Bozeman, MT. The wildflowers just got better every day. 7/2/19

Missouri Headwaters SP 6/30/19

View at Buffalo Jump SP 6/30/19

The Native Americans would drive buffalo off this cliff. Buffalo Jump SP 6/30/19

Inside the cave at Lewis and Clark Caverns SP 7/11/19

Lewis and Clark Caverns SP 7/11/19

This post will be short on words, long on pictures. We saw a bunch of animals while in the park which is as expected. With only a 200mm lens I didn’t have the reach to even get a shot at many of them (I’m looking at you, wolf) and many that I did get from extreme distance don’t make for compelling photos (mama and baby bighorns, several bears, etc.). Others I got so many excellent shots that it’s hard to whittle them down. I captured so many of the coyote that virtually walked right up to me that it is truly difficult to choose. I should always have such problems.

This elk was just hanging out to welcome me on my first morning walk into the park. Yellowstone NP 6/17/19

And this elk stopped by for dinner. Taken from the front seat of the RV. Gardiner, MT 6/21/19

Mama and baby Griz. I could have used a longer lens since this was about as close as this city boy was going to get. Yellowstone NP 6/20/19

Fun fact: both male and female bison have horns. Yellowstone NP 6/20/19

Fun fact #2: the baby bison are called “Red Dogs”. Yellowstone NP 6/20/19

Getting side eye from a bison was a new experience. Yellowstone NP 6/20/19

This was NOT taken with a long lens. I thought I was going to get up close and personal with this coyote. Yellowstone NP 6/20/19

Looking for lunch. Yellowstone NP 6/20/19

The title of this post is a phrase I use when I’m in an area that is just so beautiful and/or interesting that anywhere I point my camera there is a potential “keeper” photograph. Yellowstone National Park falls well into this category. We had briefly visited the park on a couple of occasions in the past, but this was to be our first extended stay. We were parked just outside the north entrance in Gardiner and were close enough that my morning walks took me from the RV through town and into the park. Nice.

We saw way too much to cover in one post. This one focuses on the geothermal delights to be found in virtually every corner of the park and even many nooks and crannies outside it. It’s odd to be driving down the road and see steam and/or bubbling “water” coming out of the ground. It’s even odder when you just start taking it for granted. One thing we didn’t take for granted was just how pretty these things are. The colors can be spectacular. The bottom line, though, is that things can look pretty damn primal and dangerous. It’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature, especially when she has very hot, very acidic liquids flying around.

Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone NP 6/17/19

Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone NP 6/17/19

Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone NP 6/17/19

Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone NP 6/17/19

Artists Paint Pot, Yellowstone NP 6/18/19

Random thermal feature seen from the side of the road, Yellowstone NP 6/18/19

The Fountain Geyser, Yellowstone NP 6/18/19

We have a motto for when we are out and about having a good time. “No ER, No Bail” which means no matter how much fun we’re having we WILL NOT end up in the ER or jail. Our status on that is now 50 percent successful. <sigh> More on this subject later.

Our first stop after leaving Spearfish was Sheridan, WY. Sheridan is a nice little city sitting beneath the Bighorn Mountains. A really nice city center with lots of sculpture, great parks and recreation, and large enough to support decent groceries and shopping which we have learned to appreciate. We really liked it and will stop by again if we are ever in the neighborhood.

The major thing we did while here was visit the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. We really enjoyed the visit. The area is beautiful and the presentation of the events was interesting and well balanced between both sides of the events that took place. As a history buff I really enjoyed seeing the terrain. We walked the area of the “last stand” and drove the loop road that covers the overall territory. Fascinating. The Federal lands are actually in two areas connected by that road crossing Indian land which is used for grazing horses. Lots of horses. At one point a herd was crossing the road. What was apparently the alpha male blocked traffic (with help from one of his paramours) until everybody got across, then human and horse each went about their business. My horse-loving wife was thrilled.

When we checked into the campground, the nice gentleman recommended a loop drive through the mountains. It was only “90 miles” and would just take a “couple of hours”. Cool. We set out one day to give it a shot. 90 minutes, 60 miles, and a couple thousand feet of elevation later we came across a road sign that explicitly defined our path. We still had another 180 miles to go. Having been doing a lot of driving recently we noped right out of that, went home, and curled up with our books. That’s what I get for not doing due diligence. Google later told me it was just under a 5 hour drive. As an aside: the part we did do was very pretty.

Back to my lead in: one morning I was roused from sleep by major back pain that I, unfortunately, recognized. Kidney stones, and it was the worst I have ever experienced. That’s how we found ourselves in the Sheridan ER at 6:30 AM on a Saturday. We had an excellent experience, if I can say that considering the circumstances. Everybody was very supportive and helpful, although you know you’re in trouble when experienced nurses are looking at you with pity in their eyes. After judicious applications of opiates and various other drugs they sent me on my way, happy and relaxed. Apparently while I was drugged and numb I passed the stone, since I’ve been fine ever since. Cross the ER experience off of our checklist.

We left Sheridan and moved on to the thriving town of Reed Point, MT, population 185. Nice little town with a very funky saloon. We attempted to drive the Beartooth Highway but turned around due to weather. We enjoyed a nice lunch in Red Lodge instead. There was also a lovely walk to the Natural Bridge Falls, a trip to a real grocery store and some downtime. A good time was, once again, had by all.

Locations of fallen Native Americans, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument 6/9/19

Locations of fallen soldiers, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument 6/9/19

Native American Memorial, Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument 6/9/19

Reed Point, MT 6/15/19

Natural Bridge Falls 6/13/19

Natural Bridge Falls 6/13/19

After the wonders of the southern Black Hills, we headed to Spearfish, SD, in the northern hills. We stayed in the Spearfish City Campground which had both pluses and minuses. On the downside, the sites were extremely narrow to the point where we had to move the picnic table on the site next to us in order to run our slides out. Fortunately we never had neighbors on either side, so in this instance it was not an issue. Many sites would have been difficult for us to get into due to trees, but again it was not an issue for us. What was an issue was the fact that our site was very unlevel. Our front left corner was 7.5″ lower than our rear. We managed to get very close to level through the use of lumber. Lots of lumber.

On the plus side was location, location, location. It was about a 3 minute drive to the heart of Spearfish which is a very cool little city. A trout hatchery was across the street and admission was free. The Spearfish River ran through the campground and there were nice walks everywhere. And we were just a few minutes drive to the bottom of Spearfish Canyon and the awesome Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, a 19 mile drive up an insanely beautiful gorge. In fact, we were so close that I could walk a trail to the Byway faster than we could drive to it!

We drove the canyon twice while here, looking at waterfalls and taking walks. The first time we looped around and made our pilgrimage to Deadwood, a can’t-miss stop for us since we’re huge fans of the HBO series. In fact, we walked around town, ate at the Gem, visited Wild Bill Hickcock’s and Calamity Jane’s graves, and then went home and watched the new Deadwood movie that had just dropped. Swearengen!

If you’re familiar with the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, you’re familiar with the Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming. It’s only a short drive from Spearfish so we made a day trip to it. Words don’t do it justice. Below are a few of the many photos we took. We walked the beautiful trail around the base on a lovely day. Well worth the trip.

Finally, we took a quick drive to visit the geographic center of the United States. That includes Hawaii and Alaska in its calculation. Who knew?

Wild Bill Hickcock’s Tombstone, Deadwood, SD 6/1/19

D.C. Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery, Spearfish, SD 6/3/19

The Geographic Center of the United States, Belle Fourche, SD 6/4/19

Devils Tower National Monument, WY 6/3/19

It is a custom of the Native Americans to tie pieces of cloth to the trees. Devils Tower National Monument, WY 6/3/19

Devils Tower National Monument, WY 6/3/19

Devils Tower National Monument, WY 6/3/19

Roughlock Falls in Spearfish Canyon 6/5/19

Roughlock Falls in Spearfish Canyon 6/5/19

Custer State Park, SD 5/25/19

As you can tell from our last post, we were still continuing our run of bad weather. Including here at Custer Gulch, we have set up camp 7 times in a row under wet, soggy, flooded, or even snowy conditions. Rain, wind and snow have forced us to change plans at least twice. And we are over it. Finally, here in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the weather broke.

The day after we arrived, we slogged through the snow to the truck and took off to explore. This area, near the town of Custer, is target rich for sights to see and things to do, so we started right in by heading to Mount Rushmore. The route we took was through Custer State Park, which we have been told is the top state park in the country. I don’t know if that’s true but if it is, I can see why. More on that later, but a nice windy drive through spectacular scenery and tiny tunnels led us to the monument. It pretty much speaks for itself, but I was bummed to hear that the old visitors center, including the dining room, was torn down and replaced with a more modern facility. I was really looking forward to seeing the location where a famous scene from the movie North By Northwest was set. It was not to be. Still, we had a good time on a bright, breezy day seeing this iconic place.

From there we went to the nearby Crazy Horse Monument. It was a very interesting sight with an excellent museum focusing on the Native community. This is definitely still a work in progress that will not be completed in my lifetime but impressive nonetheless. All in all, we had a pretty good day. And when we returned, all of the snow in the campground had melted! And it’s been nice ever since.

The next day we took a drive on the wildlife loop in Custer State Park. Takes about an hour to do. About 10 minutes in, we had already seen a couple of bison and deer. We were impressed. Little did we know that in the next hour or so we would see many deer and hundreds of bison, including some calves. It was great. Afterwards we had a nice lunch at the Blue Bell Lodge where I enjoyed munching a burger made of some of the unlucky bison. So it goes. Then up the Needles Highway, which is just another spectacular drive, and back to base. Lots of photos were taken and a very good time was had by all. We could get used to this.

The view from our window shortly after our arrival. This family was roaming the campground our entire visit. Custer, SD 5/23/19

Again, out our window within minutes of our arrival. Custer, SD 5/23/19

On the road to Rushmore. 5/24/19 Custer SP

Mount Rushmore National Memorial, 5/24/19

Crazy Horse Memorial, 5/24/19

Custer SP, 5/25/19

Custer SP, 5/25/19

Custer SP, 5/25/19

When last heard from, your intrepid travelers were poised to set off from Iowa to head west into South Dakota. We actually got an early start (for us) and headed down the road. Then the leveler alarm went off saying that our jacks were down. This is, to us, a known false alarm that in the past was warning us that the hydraulic fluid was low. And by low, I mean like a millimeter. It went off four times in 4 miles. Now, a false alarm is a bad thing in that a) it gets my adrenalin flowing and b) if we start ignoring alarms, it will be real one time. Not good. This issue was one of the repairs we had taken care of last week, so we were a bit perturbed. Back to Winnebago we went.

Winnebago was great. They took us right in and worked on the problem. Four and a half hours later we had a new hydraulic sensor and were heading down the road for real. Great.

The plan was to head about halfway across South Dakota, stop for one night, and then finish the run the next day into the Badlands for a couple of nights. We made it to our planned stop very late due to the delay, set up, ate dinner, and checked the forecast for the next day. Which was not good. Sustained winds of 25 mph, gusts to 40/50 mph, strong rain. Discretion being the better part of valor, we extended our stay, cancelled the Badlands, and hunkered down to let the weather blow through. This proved to be the right decision since the next day was like riding out a tropical storm in an RV. More good times, but these things are to be expected, hence our motto: “Adapt and Overcome”.

The day after the storm, we took a field trip to Mitchell, SD, home of the “World Famous Corn Palace”, which was pretty much as advertised. It’s a nice venue in a small South Dakota town with huge murals, inside and out, made of split ears of corn in various colors. Strange, but interesting. We enjoyed it.

Finally, the next day, we headed to Custer, SD, for an extended stay in the region. Check out the photos below for what we found upon our arrival.

Sometimes it feels like nothing’s easy.

The Corn Palace. All of the murals are made of ears of corn. Mitchell, South Dakota, 5/19/19

The Corn Palace. 5/19/19

The Corn Palace. 5/19/19

Some appropriate artwork we found inside the Corn Palace. Mitchell, South Dakota, 5/19/19

Our arrival in Custer. We’re from Florida. Sheesh. Custer, SD 5/23/19

We arrived at our first appointed destination, Winnebago in Forest City, Iowa, parked the RV on Sunday night and checked into the hotel in Forest City that allows pets. Winnebago has a great policy of pulling your RV into the service bay each morning and then pulling it out each evening so you can sleep aboard, but we did not take advantage of it. We felt that putting a cat into a carrier for 8 hours a day, 3 or 4 days in a row, would drive us, Nora, and all those around us crazy in no time. So the Super 8 it was for 4 planned days.

Shortly after we got to the room, I asked Patti if she knew where Nora was. We couldn’t find her. In a hotel room. A small hotel room. After a not insignificant search we located her in one of the box springs. She had crawled up into it through a rip in the liner. She eventually came out bearing a face full of dust. Good times.

We dropped Sybil on Monday morning with our long list of fixes. And we were now on our own in the thriving metropolis that is Forest City. Then we got a phone call that sort of changed our plans. Patti had a family emergency in Baltimore. Tuesday we decided that she should fly out there and we made the arrangements. (Side note: we had previously discussed this contingency and what we would do, so we had already done some planning in our minds. The fact that we were only two hours from a major airport helped, but we discovered the joys of buying a last minute ticket. Now there’s an unexpected expense for ya). Wednesday I drove Patti to the airport in the Twin Cities and then it was just me and Nora. In a hotel room. More good times.

Thursday I picked up the coach, which had actually been ready Wednesday but Winnebago graciously allowed me to leave it with them (plugged in, no less!) while I did the airport run. The plan was to hunker down at a Forest City Park right next to the Winnebago River until Patti returned, but a flash flood warning killed that idea. It worked out for the best, however, since I found a gorgeous site at Pilot Knob State Park just outside of town. I moved the RV, retrieved Nora from the hotel, and spent 4 nights there. It rained much less than forecast so I was able to take several nice walks. I also drove a few miles and checked out the Buddy Holly Crash Site where the plane containing him, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens crashed on “The Night The Music Died”. Youngsters: ask your parents. It was a nice walk and kind of interesting. These weird, off the beaten path things are our bread and butter.

Sunday rolled around and I repeated the round trip run to Minneapolis-St. Paul to retrieve Patti. The next morning we rose early, did our travel day preps, and hit the road for the long but easy drive to the middle of nowhere South Dakota.

Yeah, that didn’t happen as planned.

Our nice, lonely spot at Pilot Knob, 5/16/19

The tower at the second highest spot in Iowa, Pilot Knob SP 5/15/19

The trailhead to the site of the Buddy Holly/Big Bopper/Ritchie Valens plane crash. The day the music died. 5/17/19

The “view” from the trailhead. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) 5/17/19

The memorial, 5/17/19

The young pilot was added almost as an afterthought. 5/17/19

Goose and goslings. There were geese everywhere. 5/18/19