Monday, October 7, 2013

Badlands National Park

29, 30 September 2013

From Custer State Park, we headed to Rapid City for Mass, had a quick stop at Wall Drug for ice cream, and then drove on to Badlands National Park. We camped one night in the free Sage Creek Campground, which is a single loop, remote and undeveloped except for a horse corral area, pit toilets, and picnic tables with attached windbreaks. I learned that the gravel road into this campground varies from year-to-year in the degree of washboarding. This year it wasn’t too bad, but it would be a good idea to call ahead just in case if you’re thinking of coming.

Although Great Husband was suffering with a migraine, I had a great time here. First thing in the morning, there were bison passing through the campground. One was giving himself a hearty scratch on a picnic table and then they both pawed at the ground and rolled in the dust to take a bath.

I loved the general isolation here Sage Creek Campground, combined with meeting some very friendly fellow campers. Across the loop was a curious, dark gray, boxy, truck-topper-type of camper, which had very military-appearing heaviness to it. Great Husband noticed that it had German license plates and started calling it the Panzerwagen! Although I consider myself on the shy side, I could not resist calling out “Hallo!” to these people and it led to a very interesting visit, a little bit of German usage on my part, and a tour of the Panzerwagen. Yes, this couple was from Deutschland, and the inside of their camper was absolutely stylish and efficient.  They had bought the vehicle empty, designed and built the interior themselves, travelled throughout Europe in it, and then shipped it across the Atlantic. It was so creative inside—full of terrific sliding storage bins, and classy stylistic touches. They even had a massaging mattress, something similar to what you might use at the chiropracter's office. The Germans had just completed four months touring in Canada and were starting a full year of touring in the United States. We even talked a bit of politics. Alas, Germany is being illegally overrun with Turkish Muslims and the German government will do nothing about it.

Leaving the Panzerwagen, I encountered a man dressed in a cowboy hat and looking very western, but he turned out to be from Wisconsin. He and his friends brought ten horses to the Badlands and had “circled the wagons” (trucks and campers) down by the corral. The purpose of this formation was to protect their gear from the bison which might come through. The man told me that he raises horses back home on his farm, not to earn a living, but for the sheer joy of riding. He was enthused to be back here in this area where they could all ride as far and as long as they wanted without encountering any boundaries other than the Indian Reservation. I walked down to the corrals with the man and he told me about the various horses and ponies.

When Great Husband arose from his sick bed, we took a hike up the hill west of the campground. I was going strong and leaning into my walking stick, but when I took a break to breathe, I suddenly realized just how steep the path was. For fear of falling, I just could not lift the next foot to get back into the rhythm of climbing. Great Husband helped me with a push from behind and got a good laugh out of it.

We moved on to the east end of Badlands National Park later that afternoon and set up in Cedar Pass Campground. It was to be the last night of this week-long trip before heading home. We had been following news of the probable government shutdown and feeling sorry for fellow campers who told us they were on a big trip toward the national parks of the west, all to be shut down now on October 1. As we left Badlands National Park, orange cones were blocking all the scenic pull-offs. Seems to me that they could just lock up the visitors centers and restrooms and let the public continue to use the national parks unimpeded, even if there are no staff working. Bah humbug.

Towing note: After about six hours now heading east on I-90, we are averaging 16.9 miles per gallon.

Total miles this trip: 1257

Sage Creek Campground, Badlands National Park
See the little Escape on the left side.

While the Wisconsin cowboys were out riding, we climbed
 the hill and took this pic of their wagons in a circle.

Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park -- beautiful wrinkles

One day before the cones

Custer State Park

25-28 September 2013

True to our decision made last year at the Black Hills, we did return this year and timed it for the annual Buffalo Roundup. Last year we checked out every campground available in Custer State Park, so we knew exactly which one to choose this time around--Stockade Lake Campground North. We think it is the nicest campground in the entire park. I was determined to have some down time on this little trip rather than chase around playing tourist too much. All worked out perfectly for that goal. Thursday we relaxed, shopped for T-shirts for the grandkids in the Legion Lake store, and took a walk around Legion Lake. We were surprised how uninhabited and peaceful the Legion Lake area was, despite the buffalo roundup which would the next day attract something like 14,000 people. 
Later that afternoon we thoroughly enjoyed meeting another Escape 19 couple, whom we had met on the Escape Forum—Paul and Janet and their son Peter from Wisconsin, also camping at Stockade North. Janet offered us wine while we toured their 19 and talked camper details. How nice! Their 19 is from 2010 and looks as good as new. It is for sale since they now have a 21 on order. For the first time we have met somebody who keeps their camper as tidy as we like to keep ours.

Thursday evening we had a campfire using scavenged wood from the park. We also cooked hamburgers over the fire, and this gave Great Husband a chance to get disgruntled over the smoky coals and his attempt at grilling. In the end, the food turned out fine but the process did include rinsing off the meat and some griping by the grillmaster!

Friday we were determined not to get swept up in buffalo roundup mania, which for many people involves heading toward the viewing points at 4:00 a.m. We decided this was lunacy and rolled out of bed around 5:30, not too hard for us, and had our normal cooked breakfast of oatmeal with blueberries and granola on top. We left the campground at 6:30 a.m., heading for the south viewing area. By then the sun was up and the drive was spectacularly beautiful. We got to see some cowboys who were already rounding up a few bison to steer them in the desired direction. Traffic really wasn’t too bad at all, other than one or two full stops for 5 or 10 minutes each, which we really didn’t mind due to the beautiful views. Otherwise, the traffic moved at a moderate pace the whole way to the parking area, and we had no complaints about the two-hour drive. Well-chilled volunteers directed the filling of the parking field. 

Nobody in that crowd was there to participate in a beauty contest, that’s for sure. We were all bundled up in layers of sweatshirts and coats. We saw one insane woman with bare feet and flip-flops, but she did have gloves on. It was a picturesque group, many with the weathered faces that I think come from living out west in the dry and windy climate. But others came from all over the United States for this event. The earliest arrivals had their bag chairs set up against the fence to claim what they thought would be the best viewing. We were several rows back from the fence, but in the end did not have anything to regret in this regard. 

We barely sat down, but instead spent our time chatting with an amiable couple (Ken and Janet) from the Cedar Rapids, Iowa area. The two-hour wait until the bison appeared on the distant ridge went very quickly while we talked it up. Great Husband had his binoculars, and for the first time ever, I found binoculars to be advantageous instead of blurry and disorienting. As the bison ran, we followed along, never staying at one point very long. The most entertaining bison action was from two very independent ones who decided to turn upstream and go against the general tide. A cowboy chased one down to the delight of the crowd. The other wayward bison escaped without ever being caught, which was also a fun turn of events, worthy of cheers.
The roundup of the bison took only about an hour. Then Great Husband and I went to have lunch in the car, out of the cold. Shuttles were taking visitors down to the corral, and we had a great time down there after lunch. We sat on covered bleachers with some truly hilarious people sitting behind us! They were from Spokane and just too full of clever commentary for me to even describe! The bison calves were being split off and sent for branding. We could see the smoke and smell the burning, but we didn’t hear any bellering. The older cows headed down another set of chutes, being checked for pregnancy and given inoculations. The staff considered each animal while her head was trapped in the headgate, and after calling out the number from her ear tag, he shouted either “Sale!” or “Herd!” and then released her toward the appropriate corral to match her destiny. The bison to be sold will be auctioned off in November.

After all the bison fun, we drove to Bluebell Campground and stopped to introduce ourselves to Bob and Linda from Indiana, another couple we encountered on the Escape Forum in advance of this trip. Their Escape 19 is a 2013, so this gave us a chance to see in short order the types of changes that have been made to the 19s in the last few years.

Saturday there was a big arts and crafts fair in Custer State Park. We wandered through all the booths, easily resisting any purchases, even though there was a nice variety of stuff available. I thought Great Husband came up with the line of the day when he said the merchandise reminded him of that song from “Beauty and the Beast” about the brute Gaston: “He uses antlers in all of his decorating.”

Two activities at the festival were the most fun for us—watching Indian dancers and sitting in on an auction of art. It was so fascinating to listen to the auctioneer as he tried to move the prices up. Being an artist myself, I found some of his descriptions of the art and the likelihood of increasing value over time just laughable. Good entertainment, however!

Site 2E in Stockade Lake North Campground

Legion Lake
I would have liked to get some of these cattails for
the grandkids, but they were beyond reach.

Beautiful drive on the Wildlife Loop Road,
headed for the Buffalo Roundup

Cowboy volunteers

Remember where your car is, folks!

Herding the bison on horseback and with trucks

Bringing the bison through a sequence of chutes

She got her checkup while confined by the headgate.

Indian dancers

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Post-Trip Comments

10 September 2013

The LED light over the sink has failed. We really miss it. We're still under warranty.

We should buy a funnel to help us in manually pouring water into the Escape fresh water tank.

It is quite possible to sleep four adults in the Escape 19! We gave our sons the queen bed and didn't hear any complaints about that. Great Husband and I slept on the dinette, which is 42 to 44 inches wide depending on how you measure it. This isn't that much wider really than a single bed. Great Husband huddled against the front wall and I stayed carefully on my own 20" of turf, even when rolling over. The dinette seat cushions are too firm for great sleeping, but we adjusted over time. The old bones didn't suffer too much. I think we had more minor conflict over the proper sleeping temperature and the cold wind from the air conditioner than over anything else.

The secret to happiness in a small trailer is keeping it as clean and uncluttered as humanly possible.

We used the air conditioner overnight several nights, mainly due to high humidity, but it is definitely noisy. When the compressor is running it's too cold in the trailer, but when it's not running, it's too humid. Great Husband wishes the air conditioner had a lower fan speed. Low is not very low.

The refrigerator fan (installed under Dometic warranty behind the refrigerator) isn't coming on and there is no evidence that it has run at all since leaving our driveway. It died a very quick death, didn't it? We never got to truly give it an extended test, other than a drive to Fremont, Nebraska a few days before this trip and back without anything in the fridge. On that drive, Great Husband thinks the fan was working, but even so the fridge warmed up rapidly while on the road. We don't think the new baffle on the outside of the Escape is doing anything, and we wish the repairman had not installed it. Great Husband is agitating for removal.

We drove home to Omaha in just two legs, stopping first at a KOA east of Columbus, Ohio that was too expensive and not that nice for the money. Since our refrigerator was dead on the road and nearly empty anyway, we just turned it completely off and drove the whole way from Columbus to Omaha on the second day, arriving home just after midnight. Counting gas stops and other breaks, that took us 17 1/2 hours. There was a nice lightning display coming west across Iowa.

Total miles this trip-- 4037 

Washington DC, Part 3

7, 8 September 2013

From Little Bennett Regional Park, we made two more trips into Washington DC. On Saturday we drove to Shady Grove Metro Station and rode the subway from there to the Smithsonian Stop, right on the Mall. We found the locations of the metro stations somewhat elusive and not necessarily accurately marked on maps; otherwise we might have found the Smithsonian Stop earlier in this vacation, and used it more. Oh well.
  • American History Museum     Whistling Son wasn't impressed with this. Maybe it was a bit too random in its offerings. We saw the original Kermit the Frog, made from an old green coat that had belonged to Jim Hensen's mom. And I enjoyed seeing the kitchen of Julia Child because the counters and walls seemed very cluttered with pots and pans and all her other equipment, and it was far from the pristine look of magazine kitchens. I'm sure it met her needs.
  • National Museum of Natural History     With not enough time to see all the possibilities in the various Smithsonian museums, we did a quick job on the National Museum of Natural History and were there to close it down. We saw the Hope Diamond (there's no curse), lots of other gems, minerals, and rocks, and then had a little time amidst the Egyptian mummy displays, including mummified cats and baby alligators.
It ain't easy being an old green coat.

Julia Child's kitchen
Early on Sunday we drove our own car boldly into the heart of Washington DC, following the Cabin John Parkway adjacent to the C & O Canal, which was very scenic and had little traffic at the time. We had no parking nightmares, partly because we found our first spot before Mass at 9 a.m. At church we happened to meet a man and his wife who have a Nebraska connection--he is the legislative director for our Senator Deb Fischer, and he formerly worked for Senator John Kyl of Arizona.

After Mass we were unintentionally swept up in traffic that took us to Arlington National Cemetery. Arlington was much larger than I would have guessed, plus very hilly. It took a lot of walking to get to the Tomb of the Unknowns. Great Husband was especially moved by the changing of the honor guard, and the visit of a large group of WWII veterans in wheelchairs. Interestingly, there is no longer a soldier of the Vietnam era among the unknowns buried at Arlington because those remains were disinterred in 1998 and identified with modern methods, and then returned to his parents in Missouri.

After Arlington, we drove down Constitution Avenue, happened across Georgetown by dumb luck just so we could get a taste of it, and finally found parking by the DC Court of Appeals so we could walk to see the National Archives. The founding documents can be seen there but they are so faded that they are unintelligible.

It was sad, but we knew we were counting down the last minutes of our big trip with these two sons. We soon had to drop off Whistling Son at Union Station to take a return train to Williamsburg, and then had to drop off Tall Son by Gallery Place Metro Station to head for his flight at Reagan Airport. After that, because we were in our own car, we got to drive northwest out of the city and saw a lot of interesting places that we wouldn't have seen on the Metro--many handsome, enormous and expensive-looking apartment buildings, followed by very posh houses in Chevy Chase, MD. There must be money there!

We spent one more night at Little Bennett, before heading west for home. Our fire ring looked so forlorn without the boys!

Veterans visiting the Tomb of the Unknowns

Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington National Cemetery

Robert E. Lee home in Arlington National Cemetery,
confiscated by the Union at the time of the Civil War, but
his family was ultimately paid for the property.
This house was oddly pink and ugly on the outside, and
we didn't have time to go inside.
Our campsite at Little Bennett Regional Park

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Gettysburg National Military Park, PA

5, 6 September 2013

Gettysburg National Military Park is the very best of the Civil War sites run by the National Park Service. The newish visitors' center is a major improvement over the old one. We started with the introductory film, saw the Cyclorama (a painting of Pickett's Charge, 27 feet high and 359 feet in circumference), and then took a ranger tour of the peach orchard and wheat field. There we heard the story of the disobedient General Sickles acting against General Meade's orders. 

A section of the Cyclorama

Cyclorama -- props on the floor blend into the painting on the wall.

General Lee's bed and field desk

Thursday night the boys made a campfire. It brought back wonderful memories of family camping in the past.

Friday we returned to Gettysburg, roughly an hour's drive from Little Bennett Regional Campground, and went to another ranger talk. This one included a stop at Meade's headquarters in a little white house. This ranger was a stitch, always quick with a clever observation. To quote him, "On Seminary Ridge you get religion. On Cemetery Ridge you find out if it's true." 

Headquarters of General Meade

Later we split up for more ranger talks, with the guys going to Devil's Den and Little Round Top, while I chose two talks, one about Civil War soldiers and the other about medicine during the Civil War. That one included grisly but interesting details about amputation.

That evening we ate at the Dobbin House Tavern, which was a sudden walk back into the Revolutionary Period. It was extremely crowded and I thought it was too expensive for the light fare. 

Earlier in the day in the visitor center computers I had been able to find several Civil War soldiers with our uncommon last name. One died in a Confederate prison camp and another was killed in one of the Civil War battles. It was getting dark after supper, but we made a last dash to the Pennsylvania Monument and were able to find some of these names, who are quite likely our relatives, on bronze plaques. It was so late that we had to use a cell phone for light.

Pennsylvania Monument

Antietam and Harper's Ferry, VA

4 September 2013

We wanted to camp away from the city with Tall Son and Whistling Son, so moving on to Little Bennett Regional Park near Clarksburg, Maryland was part of our plan. The park was nearly deserted, and although it's not really out in the sticks by any means, we could still feel like we were doing some real camping. We used Little Bennett as a home base to go see Antietam National Battle Field and Harper's Ferry the first day, and then drove to visit Gettysburg National Military Park each of the two following days.

For us Harper's Ferry was rather a Twilight Zone. The oldest part of the town was almost entirely shut down by the time we were there looking for dinner at 6 p.m. It's an incredibly steep town with tiers of buildings, and lots of steps to climb from street to street. Finally we gave up on the old part of town and found dinner at a good place called the Anvil--cheeseburgers and fries.

Antietam Battlefield

"Bloody Lane" at Antietam

Antietam from the tower

Burnside Bridge at Antietam
The nastiness of the "shutdown" strikes again--I just went to the website for Antietam National Battlefield and found it shut down, too! I can think of no earthly reason to shut down the National Park Service websites except for pure spitefulness.

Harper's Ferry, but it's steeper than it looks in this picture

We wandered inside here to search for dinner, but the sole employee
was overwhelmed, trying to take orders, cook and serve.
I bet the couple seated on the front porch are still waiting.
We fled.

Mount Vernon, VA

3 September 2013

As I belatedly write this blog and try to get caught up on it, now a month after this trip, I appreciate having seen Washington DC and Mount Vernon and other historic sites such as Gettysburg before the government "shutdown." What a nasty business that has become--with the National Park Service (under orders from the Obama administration) unnecessarily closing down open air monuments with barricades and even trying to close the parking lot at Mount Vernon, despite the fact that Mount Vernon is privately owned. 

It wasn't very crowded at Mount Vernon on the day of our visit. We drove the George Washington Parkway to get there, toured the house without a wait, and then relaxed on the back porch, overlooking the Potomac. A different Martha Washington was in residence here, but there wasn't much time to listen in on her presentation, as I was anxious to be part of the tour on the topic of slavery at Mount Vernon. A lady in our group unfortunately felt compelled to give her two cents throughout the tour, including telling our tour guide that she should not use the word "slaves", but instead say "enslaved people." I asked the lady just what the distinction was, but didn't get a good answer.

Mount Vernon has an absolutely terrific visitors' center. It's a nice mix of displays and video presentations, including a clever one about George Washington and espionage in the days of the Revolution. There is even a film with shaking seats (during the battle scenes) and snow falling on the audience. We enjoyed that visitors' center so much that we ultimately were the last ones to leave at the end of the day.

George Washington's back yard with the Potomac River

Mount Vernon

After Mount Vernon, we went to check out Old Town Alexandria and ate at the Mai Thai restaurant there, where we could watch some sailboats from the second floor window. The menu was marked with little chili peppers to indicate how hot each dish was. I chose something called Ka-Pow with three chilis after asking our waitress, named Boom, if it would be terribly hot. She said it was hot, but "not crazy hot." Well, it WAS crazy hot, but I enjoyed it anyway, and plenty of ice water. Perhaps I should have known to be more cautious, considering that Boom was serving me Ka-Pow!

We walked around Alexandria after the sun went down, and tried to match the old buildings to their historic owners. We found the home of Henry (Lighthorse Harry) Lee, father of Robert E. Lee. Lighthorse Harry is famous in his own right for his role in the Revolutionary War, and also as the man who eulogized George Washington as being "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."