Vermont

By this stage of the game it was getting on for 5pm as we pulled up at the Visitor Info Centre on the Vermont border at Fair Haven. I ducked next door to an RV dealer in order to get the propane topped us. With maps in hand we set off to get somewhere across Vermont this evening. Even in this late afternoon light, the colour on the hills was impressive. About 20 miles east of the border you get to the city of Rutland. We fuelled up – as did a large group of motor-cyclist obviously on a large rally somewhere. We were crossing the mid-section of Vermont – a distance of only around 65 miles. Leaving Rutland you have a good climb up and across Mt Killington – very popular ski area – the ski runs here appear to be through forested areas so quite different to back home. There were fancy ski lodges and ski lifts along the main road as we passed along – but no snow just yet. Rest areas weren’t plentiful along this stretch of road – the map suggested there would be a spot but it didn’t materialise. We’d run around 45 miles across the state and it was getting very dark by this staged, so we ended up parking in a little carpark in the town of Woodstock – making sure we rose early the following morning so as not to draw any attention to ourselves. Out of our overnight spot early on Thursday morning we had a foggy and dark start to the day as we covered the remaining 20 miles that would take us out of this state all too soon. Due to the time of day we had travelled I really don’t think we got to do much justice to the state of Vermont, but we did see some colours, and got a bit of a sense for what the state offers.

New York State

Continuing on along the 5 Coastal Highway, we crossed over into New York State. We pushed north through an area called Dunkirk – would be interested as to how some of these areas were named. Again, the coastline through here had loads of apples and grapes being grown – nice to see. We stopped for the night at a truck-stop in a place called Irving – an Indian Reserve. As a result, they are able to see fuel, alcohol, smokes and tobacco and more with no tax so very cheap and obviously very popular. On Tuesday morning we got on the road early and I filled up at the station – I paid $2.12 a gallon but I saw it around the road on our way out for $2.10 so cheapest we have seen to date in the US. We were heading for Niagara Falls so we carried on the 5 into the outer suburbs of Buffalo before cutting across to join the very busy Interstate 90. Cleverly the NY State have a series of toll roads and bridges leading towards Niagara – most would take them as the most direct route to the falls, but not us – we were determined to work our way around those roads – as a result the 60 odd miles we travelled to the falls took us over 2 hours – it was rush hour so the interstate and surrounding roads were all busy, but it was a slow and frustrating run to Niagara. Finally with some directions from the Visitor Centre it was a quick drive over and onto Goat Island – the base for viewing the falls on the US side.

We parked Romin at the southern end of the island and it was an easy walk up and along to see the falls. We walked out to the Three Sisters Islands which puts you out into the Canadian flow / rapids (the southern side of the island has the Canadian Rapids, and the north, the American Rapids), and then up to the Terrapin Point viewing spot to take in the famous Horseshoe Falls. Down below the Maid of the Mist was loaded with people as it inched up into the spill of the falls – they were all getting a good wash below. There’s another boat that operates from the Canadian side – the Hornblower – a bigger catamaran, but again, everyone on board was getting a good wash. The US have plans to shortly introduce an all new electric cruise boat – to be more eco friendly to the environment. From Terrapin Point you walk along the face of the falls over to Bridal Veil and American Falls. On the US side you can go down and into a cave to get out near the fall so that’s another tourist excursion but not in our budget. We headed over to Prospect Point on the mainland and picked up some more great views and some handy info relating to the falls.

Here we go – Niagara consists of the 3 falls – Horseshoe, Bridal and American. The American Falls are the highest at 184 ft, and it pumps out 65,000 gallons of water per second. The 3 falls combined pump out something like 600,000 gallons of water per second. The falls lie on the Niagara River which connects Lake Erie with Lake Ontario. That was where it got really interesting for us – how do the 2 lakes have such a drop-in level between them (that being the falls), and how do boats transit through here? Turns out there are something like 8-10 locks along the canal that ‘gently’ drop the lake levels from one to the other. Both the US and Canadians have respective large hydro power plants on the river driven by the force of the rapids and fall of the falls – the Robert Mosses plant on the US side is the state’s largest producer of electricity and one of the largest hydroelectric plants in the world. The inventor Tesla was instrumental in developing the power stations here. The Maid of the Mist tour boats first started operating here in 1846 to ferry passengers too and from Canada. The Canadian side of the falls was a bit more outlandish – there was casino after casino and amusement park activities – looked a bit like a circus, whereas the US side was more reframed with the likes of the Observation Tower. Apparently fish do travel over the falls – and around 90% of them survive the fall – the white foam from the rushing waters is thought to cushion their fall.

In awe of what we had seen, it was time to push further north. We worked out way north on Highway 104 across to Rochester, and then cut north so as to come out on the Highway bordering the lake – Lake Ontario that is. Again the land around here close to the lake was obviously great for growing apples and fruit – there was orchard after orchard, and large houses that flowed down on large sections to the lakes edge. We stopped at a park at Pullneyville (site of a ship wreck in 1890 where the Captain uncharacteristically was the only one to survive) and I managed to tick off the 5th of the Great Lakes – hands tipped, challenge complete. Lake Ontario is the baby of the ‘big 5’ but is still the 14th largest fresh water lake in the world. Whilst smaller, it is the third deepest of the lakes. At the base of the Niagara Falls, Lake Ontario sits 325 ft below Lake Erie. The lake was called Ontario by the Iroquois Indians and means ‘beautiful lake’. The lake flows out into the St Lawrence River and then on out to the Atlantic – this is the first or last of the lakes depending on which way ships are transiting.

From the lake we moved inland on Highway 104 and other secondary roads through Fulton and then over to the Lake Oneida to an RV park we had arranged to stay in for the night. As we’d seen down on Lake Erie, we spotted another large nuclear power plant up against Lake Ontario before we dropped inland. The RV park was set to close the coming weekend – as were many in the northern states – supposedly the RV traffic dries up, plus the weather just isn’t conducive to being open. The park bordered 2 rivers and was a nice quiet spot for us to park after several noisy stops in recent nights. On Wednesday morning we had a leisurely start and took advantage of the laundry at the camp to get the washing all up to date. From there we hopped on the road before midday and headed back up to Rome and then east on a series of secondary roads in order to avoid the tolls in place on Interstate 29 – the most direct route east through this sector of New York, but we managed to cut across to Saratoga as needed. From there we turned north on Highway 4 and had a bit of a stop start affair as we worked our way towards the Vermont border. We followed along the Champlain Canal – this eastern side of the US is steeped in history – in 1609 the Dutch came through here, before the French arrived and then the English took over – calling this eastern side of the US – New England. We crossed over the Hudson River on our way north – took us something like 3.5 hours to cover 140 miles, but eventually we made our way up and across to Fair Haven – time to leave New York State behind – for now atleast.

Northern Pennsylvania

This would be a short run through Pennsylvania – we would be back here in a few days, so this time round it was simply about cutting across the northern end of the state – a run of around 50 miles. For us we choose to stick with the scenic route and got ourselves off the Interstate and over onto Highway 5 – Coastal Scenic Byway. We stopped at a nice spot just about the town of Erie – there was a boat ramp here so we took the opportunity to park up for a cuppa and also to go out and touch the lake itself. The area was called Shade Beach and it was used in the 20’s by rum runners who cut across the lake from Canada with alcohol during the US’s prohibition period – one way to get the goods in I guess. Whilst parked here a local fisherman came in – reckoned it was pretty rough out on the lake, but from where we were sitting it looked flat as. He’d had a successful time out fishing and had plenty to keep him going. We had a good talk about the area – he was equally interested to hear about our travels and plans. He was telling us that the lake has a pretty good climate and was still at 70 degrees – and as a result of that, this area is one of the last to get any winter snow. As a result the coast line along the lake here was full of apple orchards and grapes. With another lake ticked off we carried on along the 5 and before too long, we’d crossed this section of Pennsylvania.

Northern Ohio

Crossing the border into Ohio it’s a short run down to Toledo. We cut over to get onto Great Lakes Circle Tour – Highway 2 that would take us up and around the southern side of Lake Erie – yep, another of the Great Lakes. Erie is considered the busiest of the lakes – it borders Ohio, Michigan (comes in at the south side of Detroit), Pennsylvania, New York State and Ontario Canada. It’s the 11th largest freshwater lake in the world, and was the last of the Great Lakes to be discovered by white explorers (the area was home to the hostile Iroquois Indians and that kept a lot of early explorers clear of the area till around 1669). For us we travelled on in the late sun of this Sunday afternoon until we were around 40 miles west of Cleveland – we found a really nice Highway rest area to park up in – it was in amongst the trees so road noise was reduced for a change. Along the way we passed our first nuclear power plant at an area outside of Oregon Ohio. The plant was right up against the lake so they obviously draw water in to cool things as needed. Also what we picked up on in this area were the large tree nurseries and grape vineyards. Monday morning saw us head back out onto the highway which had now merged with the Interstate and we headed for the nearest Walmart and Starbucks – Walmart for supplies, Starbuck for refreshments and charging. Fully recharged it was time to push on (was late morning by that stage) and so we headed for the Interstate and ran east and north along the bottom of Lake Erie until it was Ohio no more – time to cross another border.

Michigan

Crossing out of Wisconsin we head the northern peninsula of Michigan. I hadn’t factored on how big a state it is – well it’s only big if you decide to cut across, down and across like we did. I think it ended up taking us 4 days to cover the state, albeit we did have some good stops along the way. Thursday saw us cut into the state high up at Ironwood. The northern peninsula is bordered by Lake Superior – on the eastern side the lake narrows down and there is a very busy canal system in place – Sault Ste Marie. Supposedly it’s one of the busiest locking waterways in the world. The thin channel of water separates Michigan and Canada. The locks were first built by the Canadian’s in the late 1800’s but they were destroyed so then the American’s moved in and took over the locking operations locally. There are big plans to update the canals currently in order for them to be able to take larger ships through the locks. As much as we hoped to see a big ship or ships operating on the lakes we didn’t spot any. Our run east took us from the 2 onto the 28 – a coastal lake scenic bypass. We motored over to the town of Marquette – Michigan’s largest town / city on the northern peninsula. We pulled in here to have some lunch and for me to be able to get my hands wet in the lake. One of the key areas along this part of the lake’s coastline is the Apostle Islands – they called them this because they thought there were 12 islands off of the point, but there was actually 22 of them. Very popular with tourists in the area. Pulling out of there the weather started to pack up again and by the time we cut across further east on the 28 the rain came in. We headed south on the 117 to come out on the southern side of the peninsula and followed Interstate 2.

This rewarded us with our first glimpse of Lake Michigan – the lake borders the southern side of the Northern Peninsula, the western side of the lower peninsula, the eastern side of Wisconsin – Milwaukee is right on the lake here, and then right at the southern end of the lake you have the top of Ohio and Illinois – Chicago being the big city down there. Lake Michigan is the third largest of the lakes – slightly smaller in length than Huron, but a bit deeper. Our campsite tonight was a really nice rest area off the 2 at an area called Naubinway – in amongst the bush and a short walk out to the lake – so in one day I had already ticked off 2 of the Great Lakes – off to a good start. Friday morning dawned fine for us so we were up and away early and pushed on the last bit east across the Northern Peninsula. We stopped at the town of St Ignace – this sits at the south eastern tip of the peninsula where Lake Michigan and Lake Huron meet / converge. To cross the lake’s, you have to go over on the Mackinac Bridge – I think it cost us $10 to travel the 5 miles over the bridge. The bridge was opened in 1957 and cost just shy of $100 million to build. I read where the bridge paid off its original debt (bonds) in 1986 or so, and funds thereafter have gone towards the bridges upkeep. The bridge had been planned before WW2 but was deferred for obvious reasons. The bridge when opened was the longest suspension bridge in the western hemisphere – might still be? The bridge is considered Michigan’s ‘single largest asset’.

Crossing the bridge we are rewarded with our first views of Lake Huron – No 2 of the big lakes and the world’s 5th largest fresh water lake. Huron has the longest shoreline of the lakes – which includes the 30,000 islands that sit within the lake. It’s funny, but it’s as if Lake Michigan and Huron just form together – there is no narrow neck between then – just the bridge spanning across this – they are 2 shared faces of water for the 5-mile opening at this neck. A funny local trait – the northerners or U.P’s (Upper Peninsula dwellers) refer to anyone south of the bridge i.e. on the lower peninsula as ‘trolls’ as they ‘live under the bridge’. U.P’s or as they are known, ‘Yooper’s’, are also considered a tough breed as they endure of solid winter conditions. Over the bridge we turned east and opted for the scenic highway 23 – this would take us right around the eastern side of the lower peninsula – it runs all the way down to Bay City at the bottom end of Saginaw Bay. We stopped near Rogers City, a large Lime shipping port, so I could go out and tipped my hands into the lake – 3 down, 2 to go. Although there was still the odd old classic car parked up in properties along the way, the most common item in this neck of the woods was boats – ranging in shape and sizes – most of which had been wrapped – variation on shrink wrap, to prepare them for the pending winter months. After the scenic pace of the lake highway it was time to cut west again and so it was down the road on the busy Interstate 75 before cutting west on Interstate 69. It was late afternoon on Friday and so the roads were humming – everyone was in a hurry to get somewhere. I managed to see my first Ferrari on the roads and also a new Corvette – both of which were seen for long. After a big days driving, we called into a truck stop to the east of Lansing and called it a night.

Saturday morning we carried on into Lansing (around 20 miles) so I could have a look at the RE Olds Museum – the founder of Oldsmobile. We arrived a little ahead of opening time so had a bit of a wander around the downtown area – Lansing is the state capital for Michigan. The museum was okay but something of a disappointment as I’d read it was listed in the ‘top 10’ US auto museums – I wouldn’t hurry back to it but it was good to have a look at what was on offer. From there we headed west to find the Gilmore Auto Museum. This place wasn’t on my list to see but we saw an add in a Michigan tourist magazine and it sounded okay, so we took a punt and travelled the 60 odd miles towards Kalamazoo (turns out we were half way between Detroit and Chicago). We were using the GPS and it was taking us down so old dirt runs and I was really wondering where we were going to end up, but finally we arrived at the area called Hickory Corners and well, what an afternoon we were to be in for. This museum was amazing – a truly brilliant find. The museum is set on a rural 90-acre property and consists of a series of large barns. Ach barn or gallery is dedicated to a car genre or brand i.e. Cadillac, Ford, Lincoln. The Gilmore museum stated in the early 60’s when Donald Gilmore was given his fist classic car from his wife – he’d sold their business and she felt he needed a hobby so brought him a car – what a woman. Well one car led to many so he needed a place to store them and brought this farm property and then sourced a whole lot of old barns that he has reconstructed and then rebuilt on the farm – stunning. The museum opened to the public in 1966. Today the museum is considered to be the largest auto museum in North America so far as space / area is concerned.

Carol came around with me as well and I think she was just as impressed as I was. We spent close to 5 hours trying to get around all that was on offer but I think we still came up a bit short. One of the highlights for me was the fact that you were actually able to get up and around most of the cars – so many of the museums I have been going to prevent that – cars are backed up to a wall with a barrier to the front – not at Gilmores. The crown jewel of the current display was a collection of rare Duesenberg’s – from an opulence perspective these were the US version of what Rolls Royce was offering in the 20’s and 30’s and anyone that was anyone had to have a ‘Duessy’. They called the area a ‘campus’ – there are over 400 cars on display – well spaced as noted, and over 8000 artefacts including an amazing collection / display of hood ornaments. A bit overwhelmed and in awe of what we had seen, and with the museum closing at 6pm, we needed to get on the road again. We had plans to park at a rest spot on the Interstate heading in towards Detroit so we worked our way down to get ourselves onto Interstate 94 for run east. I hadn’t accounted for just how far west we had gone as we ended up running a good 120 miles with limited success.

The sun had gone down and whilst we were on the Interstate we were doing fine, but then the rest area we had planned to stop at was closed off for some reason so that blew our plans. We turned off into what I thought was the town of Ann Arbor – it was in fact and outer suburb of Detroit and with that it was crazy busy. I managed to get us heading in the wrong direction and soon had us going down the very busy main street of Ann Arbor at 8.30pm on a Saturday night – not really RV territory. We finally managed to get ourselves out of the area and ended up getting back on the Interstate and getting over to the north side to a rest area there – I think we parked up around 9.30pm in the end – big day and not the best ending after what had been a stellar afternoon. Sunday morning had us head as near to Detroit as we would dare (around a 30 mile trip in) – we / I was off to the Ford Museum at Dearborn – one of the big suburbs of Detroit (car names are popular for suburbs here as you can well imagine – Pontiac, Plymouth, Lincoln, LaSalle. This place – Ford’s complex here, was also amazing. The museum complex was opened to the public in 1929 and consists of the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation – it covers something like 8 acres of museum space, and then there is the 80-acre Greenfield Village – there’s 300 years of history and innovation on display here as well as 3 working farms. And then you have the neighbouring Ford Rogue Factory site. I only opted for the Innovation Museum but I could see how you would need atleast 2 days of you wanted to do the museum, as well as the Greenfield Village and factory tours on offer.

I had assumed being a Ford museum that Ford cars would be at the centre of the collection – not the case – the Innovation Museum is a bit of everything – cars (all makes and models), trains, planes, engineering and farming, as well as US history and of course a bit of Ford history – certainly not the package I had expected. That said I somehow managed to consume just shy of 6 hours non-stop just in the museum – a big day. I have to be honest, I had expected and hoped to see more Ford related material here – I really assumed that all Ford makes and models would have some representation but far from it. I think at best there would have been 75 cars on display and of those displayed a good half were non-Fords – this museum was all about the innovation – not just Fords. The story that goes with it was very good as well – he was obviously quite the man Henry Ford – he did very well for himself, but he also appears to have given a lot back to both this city and to the US. When I entered the museum at opening time 9.30am it was pouring with rain but by the time I came our mid-afternoon we were bathed in sunshine – very nice – contemplated getting my shorts back out.

We drove around Dearborn a little – emm, there are a load of Fords being driven in this area as well you might imagine. Seemed like every second vehicle was a Ford – I wondered if the Ford employees got a good discount? We got some fuel and then headed south on Highway 24 to join the madness of Interstate 75 for the final run south and out of Michigan. We had a very bumpy run of around 50 miles to the border – you’d think being an Interstate it would be well maintained but the road had lot of holes in it and in our right ‘slow lane’ it was bump after bump. We’d had a few great days in Michigan – it had taken us the best part of 4 days with the route we had taken, and museum excursions thrown in, but it was great. We know there was more we could and would have liked to have seen but it was time to push west again – we were going to head into Ohio next.

Minnesota and Wisconsin Combined

I think I will double up with these states – reality was we were just motoring to cross them – unfortunately but we had a bigger goal in mind. Wednesday dawned grey but okay so after navigating some more of Fargo’s downtown we cross the river and were now in the city of Moorhead (population of nearly 45,000) but also had crossed over into the state of Minnesota. We will be back in central Minnesota in early November so our plan here was essentially to run across the state to Wisconsin. Coming out of Moorhead we made our way onto State Highway 10 (we are getting ourselves confused when it comes to Interstates, Highways, Freeways, bypasses, state roads etc – there are too many options and the ‘secondary’ roads we opt for are odd in that they take you right through the heart of towns along the way – we certainly are getting to see more of America this way). We didn’t follow the 10 for long before we cut up onto Highway 200 – the Lake Country Scenic Bypass. Minnesota supposedly has something like 10,000 lakes – we would be lucky to see some on our way east today, and for the moment, the weather was good. We stopped for a break at a nice spot on Lake Leech – the historic site marker made reference to it being the site of a bit of a bloody confrontation – soldiers were sent to arrest the local Indian Chief but they weren’t going to have a part of that – the soldiers came off second best and the Chief never was arrested.

Carol was excited as Minnesota provided her first opportunity to see some of the fall colours she had been hanging out for. The landscape across Minnesota was nice and rolling with lakes dotted all along and with that, loads of trees and signs warning of deer crossing – we saw deer and plenty of eagles as we moved across the state. The 200 then cuts south east on Interstate 2 across towards Duluth – the state’s third largest city (population around 90,000) and our exit point for the state. Just as we started coming into Duluth the heavens opened up – heavy rain and it got darker with it being very grey out. We’d hoped to stop and have a bit of a look around and get some tourist info here but missed the turn, so our Duluth experience was limited to ‘the view from the 2’. Duluth looks to have been a very industrial city and sits at the western base of Lake Superior – yep the biggest of the great lakes. As a result of that Duluth is a major shipping port – I understand loads of minerals come out of both Minnesota and Wisconsin – a lot of moved by ship through the lakes. From Duluth – the furthest west of the lakes, the ships would have a big run to get through to the St Lawrence waterway and out to the eastern side of Canada and the US but more detail to come on the lakes. We set ourselves a challenge to ‘touch’ each of the ‘big 5’ and that challenge would start the following day. The run across the state was around 250 miles. The St Louis River feeds out of the bottom of the lake here and the bridge that spans it marks the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin. Another notable fact as you cross to the east of Minnesota is the fact you cross over the source of the mighty Mississippi River – its source is a small lake in the state – Lake Itasca.

The bridge crossed we were now in another split city – this time in Superior Wisconsin – funny how a bridge can link 2 cities like that. The city of Superior adds almost another 30,000 to the local population at the foot of the lake here. With daylight running out on us we pushed east. If Minnesota had 10,000 lakes I had to think how many Wisconsin has, but time doesn’t permit us to explore what this state truly has to offer. We were running across the top stretch of the state where Lake Superior laps it’s shore. Getting out of Superior we found our way onto the Scenic Bypass 2 again and worked our way through to our rest spot in the coastal town of Ashland. That night it rained heavily, but Thursday dawned finer so we got our jackets and headed out for a good walk to see and touch the lake. There is a wonderful coastal pathway / walkway along the lakefront in this area and we headed around and found ourselves down at the local port – well not too much of a port these days, but through the 1900’s this place was a very busy port with tonnes of ore – iron and copper being pulled from the landscape nearby and then trucked down to the port to get loaded onto ore ships. The port had its heyday in the 20’s – 60’s and then it pretty much dried up around the area. The port had this long jetty like structure – we talked to an older chap also out for his walk and he described the huge ore gantry that used to be in place along the wharf / jetty – ships (multiple) would park up and the ore was just dumped into this huge structure and belts then fed it out and into the awaiting holds of the ships. Unfortunately at the port of Ashland they made the call to remove the structure in the early 2000’s, but we did get to see one at another port further around on the lake.

As noted, Superior is the big brother of the Great Lakes. It’s amazing to think that these lakes are all connected – feed / flow from one to another – as we would head east we would be amazed more at how this all works. Lake Superior touches 3 states – Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and also Ontario Canada. Superior is the world’s largest fresh water lake – it has an area of 31,700 square miles – stretches 350 miles at its longest point. I think I read a fact that Superior holds enough water that if it was drained it would cover the entire North and South America continent in over 1 foot of water – amazing. The lake was discovered by Europeans around the early 1620’s – fur traders started plying the lake area – loads of history here. Refreshed from the walk and the history of our surroundings we pushed on east – another 40 miles east had us cross through Hurley and then out of Wisconsin – yep, a very brief visit to this state – not sure if our journeys will bring us back here as our concern is that the weather will close in this far north before you know it. Next stop – the mighty Michigan, and more lakes.

North Dakota

We crossed over into North Dakota and stopped at the little down of Ellendale for a wander and to get some supplies. Time wouldn’t permit us to do justice to this state so for us once refreshed we started working our way east and north – in order to get over to Fargo – the state’s largest city (population of nearly 125,000) and one of those funny cities that sits right on a state border and essentially is cut in half by the border. We were looking for an RV Park for the night – we hadn’t factored this when we set out but a lot if not all the ‘northern state’ RV operators close us for the winter – some as early as the end of September, many from the middle of October. We managed to find a nice camp in the heart of Fargo – a big modern city which brings with it lots of traffic – add to that it was around 4.30 / 5pm so we were in the thick of it but we managed to navigate our way through and found our way to the RV park – Lindenwood Park, that was set in a very nice park area along by the river. We had loads of squirrels to keep us company – there were loads of trees and nuts to keep them happy. Romin was in desperate need of a wash so that was my task once parked up – as best I could I scrubbed some of the past week’s crim away. With a somewhat cleaner camper I was comfortable we could keep heading east looking a bit more respectable. We camped up for the night – tomorrow we would be state jumping again. There is a good aircraft museum in the city but in the interests of time I didn’t go to explore it the following morning – we needed to move east.

South Dakota

Crossing into South Dakota this Sunday morning it’s a run of around 27 miles on Highway 16 till you come to the very quaint town of Custer – yep, named after the, well some would say great soldier, explorer, icon of America. Coming into Custer its clear to see they have had a load of rain – we stopped at a nice gallery in town and the chap there told us that they had some near record rains in the past couple of weeks – thankfully the weather today was starting to clear – a very positive omen for viewing Mount Rushmore. Again the guy in the gallery said that it had been foggy up there the day prior but cleared later – can’t see any problems today. We had a good talk to the guy in the gallery – he was into aircraft so we were talking about museums to visit, and he was explaining some of his art (photography) on display, and that he was hoping to come out to NZ to go to Warbirds over Wanaka. We had a nice walk around the town – the main street had brightly painted / individually painted buffalo – bit like the giraffe thing we had going on in NZ (subsequently we have also seen a collection of painted up Moose in one of the towns we have been through). Custer serves as the lower hub to the Badlands National Park, Mount Rushmore and also the Custer State Park that is all through this area. We hiked back to Romin and with the gallery guys advise we headed west into the park on 16A – being a State Park you have to pay admission (we have a National Park pass that doesn’t cover State Parks) but if you say you are passing through to connect with the road to Keystone (Mount Rushmore base town) you don’t have to pay. Entering the park / the drive through the park was really nice – we even saw a couple of huge bull bison sitting on the roadside very content.

We stopped at the Custer SP Visitor Centre to get the lowdown on the area. They had a very good movie that plays – with Kevin Costner narrating. Turns out the area here was laden with bison back in the days of the Indian and then the ‘white man’ came along and decimated the species – there had been something like 30 million bison in the area it is estimated and then ‘we’ came along to ‘transform the land’ for farming, settlement, whatever, and reduced the bison herd to only around 1000 – irony is that we weren’t necessarily killing the bison for it’s meat or pelt / fur – we were just killing them to clear them, and to maybe push the Indians away from this area. Thankfully someone / something stepped in to save the last of them and now in the Custer SP there is a herd of around 2500. Turns out that we had only missed the annual stampede and roundup by a couple of days (this happened on Friday) and is an annual event to bring in the heard to do a count, vaccinate the young and they split off around 400 annually to be sold. Some of our actions in the past beggar belief.  Whilst we didn’t spot anymore bison on our drive in this area we did spot turkey buzzards, deer, and some more Pronghorn Antelope (still struggle to connect this animal with America as I keep thinking it should be in Africa). A bigger bonus for Carol in this area was the fall colours that were starting to play out for us.

Now whilst in this area the main route up to Mount Rushmore is to follow Highway 16A as it winds its way through to Keystone – along the way you have to pass through 3 Black Hill tunnels (there are 6 in the area in total). Now under normal circumstance a tunnel would be fine, but this are just openings cut through the rock, so at their widest the tunnels are just over 13 feet wide (but a couple are 9 feet or less) and only around 11 – 12 feet high (again, one tunnel is only 9 feet 10 inches) so not wanting to wedge Romin in one of these openings we opted to cut out of the park across to the town of Hermosa and then we cut back in towards Keystone (tunnel free road) on Highway 40 – around 16 miles. All the distances in the Park area weren’t great but due to the windy nature of the road and presence of livestock, speed is kept to 35 or lower so it takes time, but allows you time to take in all that the area has to offer. Having climbed up to almost 4400 feet you come to the very touristy town of Keystone which essentially sits to the east of Mount Rushmore and is where all the motels, souvenirs and eateries are for ‘Rushmore’. From Keystone you climb up the hill some more till you come to Rushmore – you do get a nice glimpse of the Mount Rushmore faces from the main road before you come to a large destination parking lot with big American flags and the like. You don’t pay to ‘view’ Mount Rushmore but that do charge you to park – its all very controlled and there is a large multi-level car park – a little surreal for my liking.

Parked we head in – along with a load of other people to get a proper view of Mount Rushmore – easy to see why it’s such a national icon. I guess it’s that time of year – the summer peak is over so a lot of ‘attractions’ are having work done on them – Mount Rushmore was no different – the main amphitheatre area was closed, and turns out it’s been closed now for a couple of years whilst repairs / updates are being completed. From the looks of it the amphitheatre gets you a good couple of hundred metres closer to the base of the mountain. Instead there are a load of temporary construction fence panels obscuring some of your view which was a pity. So, Carol and I opted for the base walk and it was well worth-while – climb and all (I think there were around 300 steps to climb, but it wasn’t constant). The hike was the absolute best way to take in this sight – you got the best uninterrupted views of the faces and could really get a sense for how they were made. We’d had a look at some of the history on this area and were quite surprised to find that Mount Rushmore was only ‘completed’ as such in 1941 – it could be argued that it wasn’t completed but the principal sculptor / designer behind this all – Gutzon Borglum had died and with the US entering WW2 the government put a halt to anymore funds for the monument and called it ‘complete’ in 1941 and open to the public.

The story behind the monument was really interesting – a South Dakota state historian had this notion back in 1923 that if the state had a big carving up on the mountain face that it would bring tourism business to the state so he approached Borglum and they then set about getting federal and state legislation passed to get the funds needed for the project. That process took a couple of years, and governments and it wasn’t until President Coolidge in 1927 who fell in love with the area whilst holidaying one summer, that the funds were passed. Construction began in 1929 but it was a very on an off process with funds drying up and having to wait for new funds to be released. In total a team of around 400 worked on and off on the sculptures. The plan had been to extend the sculptures to include torsos but obviously the funds weren’t there to do so. Interesting fact Jefferson’s face was actually carved to the left / west side of Washington’s but after 18 months of work, a flaw was noticed in the granite and they had to reposition Jefferson to the right / east of Washington – who would have known. Borglum’s son started working with him on the sculptures in 1933 and was credited with do the completion work after his father passed in March of 1941 – the sculptures were declared complete on 31 October of 1941. The cost for this – just under $990,000 so not too bad I guess – a redevelopment was completed in the 1990’s and this cost $56 Million. It wasn’t until 2005 for that the faces were ‘washed’ for the first time. The noses are around 20 feet long, eyes 11 feet across, and mouths 18 feet wide. I was impressed – you have to have a good look at the area to appreciate the process needed to create what they have – blasting, drilling and chiselling away the granite.

Suitably impressed we moved on from Rushmore and headed on round to Hill City and then on up into the Sheridan Park area where we found our parking spot for the evening. That night we were woken by a heavy thunder and lightening storm and then the rain came – needless to say we woke on Monday morning to some dampness around us but we got back onto the main road and it wasn’t long before we were heading into Rapid City South Dakota – the rain getting heavier the closer we got. I’d located that there was a classic car museum in Rapid City – opening at 9am so we headed off thinking we would get there early. After going past the place that the GPS said was the museum address, with the gates all locked up we found we had to park up on a side road to wait for 9am when it was scheduled to open. Excited I rocked up just after 9am only for the guy to tell me they shut the museum up for the winter the previous week – despite my pleads that I had come a long way to have a look, he wasn’t interested in taking any money from me to turn the lights on – very disappointing (website said they would be open to end of October). My consolation was having a look around the used classic cars they had for sale in the yard – nice collection of machines wasting away from the 1950’s. My back up was to head on over to the Ellsworth Airforce Museum – surely it wouldn’t be closed – and no it wasn’t.

The Ellsworth base (named after a brigadier who died in a military aircraft crash in the early 1950’s) was a key base for the US during the heights of the Cold War with the USSR. Ellsworth was South Dakota’s central base for the Minuteman Nuclear warheads that was located ‘strategically’ across South Dakota (there were 15 silos in South Dakota) in the 1950’s – to early 90’s. These silos were manned 24/7 – the ‘Missileers’ performed 24-hour shifts – I would have been a bit worried about how alert they would have been after anything more than an 8-hour shift. The missiles that contained a 1.2 megaton warhead – equivalent to 1 million tons of dynamite. The Minuteman sites in South Dakota were deactivated in the early 1990’s (apparently 450 active sites still exist across North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming – the Upper Great Plains) and one of the sites was turned into a museum attraction in 1991 – not that I was keen to go and have a look at it. But the museum proper at Ellsworth whilst small (roughly 30 aircraft on static display inside and out) was very good. Inside there was a load of info to study up on and outside taking pride of place was a B-1B Lancer supersonic bomber. Then to cap things off even more there was a couple of active B-1B’s doing touch and go landings at the neighbouring airbase – I was lucky to be able to see one of these planes up close and actually operating.

The best part of 3 hours consumed we headed on out of Rapid City on Interstate 90 – time to get some miles behind us. As you might image the run across South Dakota was, well pretty flat. Our vista as we travelled along was paddock after paddock of corn / maize, sun flowers and soya bean (as we would later be told) – produce / cropping in this area was very strong.  Around 130 miles across on the Interstate I stopped at the little town of Murdo – home of the Pioneer Auto Show and Antique Town. We had overlooked the fact that we had jumped another time zone coming across the plains and so instead of it being 3pm it was now 4pm – museum viewing time would be tight, but I pushed on. The facility here consists of around 36 rooms / sheds. The collection here consists of cars obviously, but also a load of old farm machinery, and a big collection of era relevant pieces from the early 1900’s. Not a bad collection – maybe a little hemmed in I felt – they almost had too many cars in some sheds and the lighting wasn’t that conducive to seeing them all that well. But I appreciated Carol sending me round to have a look. The American Pickers TV program had been to the museum a couple of times and had some buy ups so that was pretty cool. The museum is being run by the 3rd generation of family.

With daylight fading we kept pushing on – we travelled another 70 miles or so to the area of Chamberlain. The Missouri River stretches north to south – running out of Canada and down on through the US – a big waterway and where we crossed it on the Interstate there were houses / homes along the water’s edge, many with boat houses attached. On the east side of the river there is a Visitor Centre and setting proudly overlooking the river is the large Dignity Statue – statue of a large Indian woman (known as the ‘lady of the plains’) with her quilt stretched out across her back – the quilt consisted of diamond panels that moved with the light / wind. By the time we reached her it was almost dark so she was lit up – impressive sight. We found a camping spot down near the river and parked up for the day. On Tuesday morning we pushed on across the Interstate a further 50 miles before cutting north on Highway 281 – north towards North Dakota. Our last stint in South Dakota involved 160 miles of running north – our landscape not altering much between flat pastural land of corn, sunflowers and soya bean. Another state down it was time to go experience another – albeit briefly.

Wyoming – Part 2

Last time we were in Wyoming we were on the western side to do Yellowstone and co – today we were cutting back into the north eastern part of Wyoming to see one key feature – Devil’s Tower. Crossing out of Montana just south of Alzada, it’s about a 40-mile run down to the quaint old town of Hulett. It looks to have retained some of that ‘old west’ feel to it and serves as a tourist junction for those heading to Devil’s Tower. We stopped and had a look around a little museum that operates there – only to get a bit disillusioned over the way the Indian’s were treated in the mid to late 1800’s – being rounded up and chased out of what had been peacefully their lands for I don’t know how many 100’s of years prior. Once the Army with Custer started to push west they just rounded up and pushed the Indian’s off the land – it appears. Obviously there was vast bloodshed as a result of this – on both sides. Emm, to brighten us up the team running the museum enlightened us with some travel info and tips for the coming days.

From Hulett it’s only a few miles up the road (Highway 24) till you get your first peck of Devil’s Tower as you run up and over the hills heading towards it. The tower sits only around 10 miles south west of Hulett, and to our surprise, Saturday was National Parks Day so admission to the Tower and all National Park sites was free today. We arrived at Devil’s Tower around 4.30pm and thankfully the weather finally started to clear for us. As you drive into the Tower park you are greeted by a field of Prairie Dogs – sitting up, ducking back down into their holes – there were loads of them to entertain us. To reach the base of Devil’s Tower you have a climb up of around 3 miles to the carpark. With Romin parked and rain coats on we headed off to walk up and around the base of the tower – a track of around 1.5 miles only. Devil’s Tower will be easily recognisable for the role it played in the 70’s classic movie ‘Close Encounters’ – this was where the alien ship landed – everyone remembers that right. Getting up close to it made this ‘encounter’ all the more special. The tower is composed of symmetrical columns of rock that at their tallest and widest in the world – around 600 feet tall and 20 feet wide (the columns that is) with the overall tower standing at a bit over 800 feet I think it was. The columns range from 4 – 7 sided. They just seem to reach up from above the base of the mount. The tower is very popular for climbing – I think it was first successfully scaled in 1893 – they erected a ladder structure that they climbed and pulled up – looked a bit rickety but it obviously worked. The trail around the base provided great vantage points to take in this feat of nature, and was a good way to wind up our day.

From the park we headed back out onto the main road and turned east up towards the town of Sundance on Highway 14. We found a pull off that had the tower as our vista so we parked up looking forward to the view we would have in the morning. Thankfully Sunday morning dawned fine albeit a little grey but we still had a nice final view back at Devil’s Tower as we pushed on the rest of the way on Highway 14 to connect to Interstate 90 that would run us to Sundance. This eastern portion of Wyoming is known as the Black Hills – not clear on the history other than the local Indians named it this. Our target in South Dakota was Mount Rushmore so rather than coming across the top into Spearfish and heading south (which we were told is a stunning drive), we headed south to Newcastle Wyoming on Highway 285 and 85. Newcastle was a little (well not so little, was quite a big area) gem with old classic cars again so I had a ball checking out yards as we drove past. From Newcastle it’s a short climb to the east on Highway 16 (all the highways in this area / eastern side of Wyoming were all very scenic and pleasant to drive – unlike the Interstate). One of the rewards for our early morning drive was seeing a Coyote crossing the main highway, the colours of fall in the area, and loads of wild turkey enjoying the roadside. Before you know it you have climbed up and cross through and you go from the Black Hills of Wyoming into the Badlands area of South Dakota – emm, sounds ominous. You’d best stay posted for that update.

Montana – Part 2

Around 50 miles into the I200 we were crossing the border and back over into Montana – we’d around with our good friend Dale to call on him again where he is west of Missoula. As noted, the Clark Fork river was our constant companion as we moved along this stretch of the I200. And a big river it is – in some areas it fans out into delta’s and lakes – there were homes scattered along the waterfront areas and on some of the larger expanses of water there were islands which again had an array of homes on them – accessible by speed boat, or helicopter I suppose. There are some nice little towns along the way – and some wildlife here and there to enjoy – and of course the water – plenty of water areas. We followed the I200 around 100 miles to a spot just east of the spot area of Paradise where we turned south on the I135 to make the run over to St Regis to reconnect with the Interstate for the last leg. At the I135 junction there was a nice area where apparently there are some nice hot springs – there were some random resorts plonked here to service the interest in the area. The run through the I135 saw us following the Clark River again – was only around 25 miles through to the Interstate. Once we hit the I90 if was around 60 miles for us up to Dale’s place. Rookie mistake but we overlooked the fact that there is a time zone change between Idaho and Montana so we sprung forward an hour so as you can image it was getting on for 7.30pm when we finally pulled up at Dales, and dark.

We enjoyed a nice evening catching up with Dale again. We had planned to make a run north to Glacier National Park with Dale, but he updated us that the forecast for north western Montana wasn’t good and snow was expected in the next couple of days. That decided it for us – we agreed to park any thoughts of seeing the park and made a plan to run east to get ahead of the weather. On Friday morning we said our goodbyes to Dale again and headed back out to get onto Interstate 90 to take us east past Missoula. We stayed on the Interstate for the better part of 100 miles before cutting up on the I12 through to Helena – the state capital of Montana. The weather was packing in so we didn’t stop and kept pushing east on the I12 for the rest of the day. The hills to the north had a dusting of snow, and the rain kept coming and going. We stopped for a break at a little town called Harlowton – population of around 850, where we watched the local school kids playing American Football. The teacher at the gate stopped to explain the rules to us and explained that the schools in the area were all too small to field full teams so the junior and senior teams all play 6 aside on a smaller field to what the NFL teams do. Was great to watch – these plucky small kids tackling kids a foot taller and the sportsmanship was great to see as well – everyone helped each other up off the ground etc. Better versed in the game we kept pushing east through the little town of Roundup where we found a rest area some miles east which would be our park up for the night. I think we covered over 350 miles today and by the time we parked up, it was dark – it had rained pretty much the entire time sense we left the Interstate – was there some karma in that?

On Saturday morning we rose to find a couple of hunters in the park up area – there were out hunting deer (Mule and Whitetail) which had been plentiful in the area along with Pronghorn Antelope (they were having a field day with all the growth in the surrounding paddocks). It was raining still so we carried on east for the final leg of the I12 – around 90 miles out to the town of Forsyth which is right up against the Interstate. From Forsyth we headed west of all things but only for around 6 miles to get onto the I39 south and east. First main settlement along the I39 is the town of Colstrip – an interesting spot which appears to have been established around the power plant there. The plant essentially ‘created’ the town to support the operations of the power plant (coal fired I think). The town was pretty much all new from the late 1970’s so unlike a lot of Montana that is steeped in heritage, this was a new town. Another interesting sight was the rail siding that run pretty much alongside the I39 from the Interstate to Colstrip – parked up on that siding for the best part of 30 miles were rail wagons – just parked in long lengths – mile after mile of them. From Colstrip you run south to the little junction town of Lame Deer – part of the Northern Cheyenne Indian reserve. We’ve noticed that most of the Indian land areas all have casino’s – obviously quite lucrative for them.

At Lame Deer we turn east again, this time on the I212 to finally run our way out of Montana, but first we have a steady climb to get us ready for the Wyoming country ahead. The I212 was busy with loads of trucks hauling both east towards South Dakota (the I212 is a main arterial route) and west across Montana to the west coast. Fair to say we were swamped by truck after truck passing up – it was raining heavily the whole way with loads of surface water, and a good head wind to battle. But finally after something like 775 miles and 3 days of driving, we finally reached Alzada on the border with Wyoming. Montana is one big state (well it is the 4th largest) but width wise I think it’s No 3 after Alaska and Texas. Despite the weather the last few days had presented us with a range of landscapes – we started with following the Clark Fork River and then we wound our way inland to get up and over the lower part of the Rockies – here is where the landscape changed to mountains and vast rolling country. There was paddock after paddock of baled hay with so many bales you just couldn’t count. We had small towns to big towns, old to new, and plenty of wildlife to take in – different types of deer, Pronghorn, eagles and Turkey Buzzards, and even a Coyote. Everything about Montana seems to be upsized. We’d enjoyed our time, and stayed ahead of the weather – well snow atleast, and we were heading out of state again.