Sunday, June 20, 2010

A LONG AND WINDING ROAD

It was a perfect afternoon and evening for a ball game. I watched two and a half of them as the Wheatland Lobos took on the Laramie Rangers.




I am not sure that this is the way they do it all the time, but given the distances between towns in Wyoming it makes some sense. It had rained here a great deal this spring so they may have been making up for lost time.


I should back up here a bit. Wheatland Wyoming is north of Cheyenne and an exit down from Fort Laramie which is the way I like to leave the pandemonium of the Black Hills souvenir world behind. The route is quiet and populated more by Elk, Bison, and Llamas all grazing together than people.


When I left you last I was exiting Minnesota into South Dakota. The plan had been to spend a week or so in the Black Hills after the obligatory stop at the infamous Wall’s Drug store in Wall, both named for Mr. Wall, who offered early travelers a free glass of ice water to slake their considerable thirst after traveling the plains of the Dakota Territory. It is now a scene of madness with everything for sale from lunch to Levi’s and all manner of cheesy souvenirs. One still can collect that glass of water for free, but finding parking is a problem.


It was still raining. NOAA seemed unsure how far west and north the front would reach, so I decided to look around South Dakota a little and stopped the weekend in Mitchell at the public park. Mitchell is a sizeable city. It is largest I have encountered that has a “town” campground. There is a small lake there and swimming is allowed so it can be a busy place on weekends. When I arrived on Friday it was pleasant, by the time I left on Sunday it had rained more than 7 inches, which qualified as the 100 year record in a 48 hour period, and a sinkhole had begun to appear in the campsites across from me of sufficient size to require one trailer to be pulled out. I left at six on Sunday morning in fog and rain heading north where, NOAA now assured me, there were only partly cloudy skies and less humid temperatures.


The roads in the nearly flat, square states are straight and nearly true to the major compass headings most of the time, so I was headed due north with one eye on the rising James River which would not crest for a few days but was already out of its banks and flooding farms and what are charitably called “secondary roads” here and the other eye on the sky searching for the beak in the gray dullness that had been my companion for far longer than I enjoy. Near the state capital of Pierre in the northwest part of state a light rain fell with some interruptions. It is known to the locals as “Peer” the local Americanization of the French. The State capital building and the governor’s house and the various agency headquarters are in the western part of town. I made a quick tour, noting the remarkable lack of security, which I assumed from my Washington experience, accompanied every public place these days.


I decided clearing weather here seemed out of the question so continued north. When I reached Modoch and the Indian River State Recreation Area I found sun along the Missouri River at this pleasant place where Lewis and Clark’s Corp of Discovery had made camp for a time on their way out in 1802. The prairie rolls here giving the illusion of hills. This year it is very green given all the rain and seemed a different world compared to the grey and foggy dawn I had seen when I left the south eastern part of the state, a mere 150 miles south.


I was tempted to spend some time to scrape moss from me here but still had not given up the idea of more than a cursory look at the Black Hills . During the bicentennial of the Expedition of the Corps of Discovery I had devoted nearly two years to following this route and while this looked pleasant it was too familiar. There was little here left to amuse my twisted sense of imagination except to look at the towns of less than 300 I had been moving through all day and wonder how I would handle the experience of living in one.


So the next day I was off west and south and–despite the forecast—back into the rain and fog. I was tired of this race to beat weather. I rarely mind the rain if it is warm, but there had seemed to be enough of it now, so the Black Hills would get a cursory look and I would go over them and into Wyoming and while doing that, try to decide what would come next.


After “experiencing” Wall and the eponymous drug store, I decided to stop short of the Hills. Given the traffic of trailers and class “A” campers seeming full of people it seemed wise to be sure I had a place to stay if I still was going to spend time in the Black Hills. The campground was proprietary in the town of Hasta which is four blocks square with many abandoned buildings, no business I saw except the campground, an elderly motel, and a service station which doubled as another “express campground” whatever the meaning of that term. I was later assured less than 100 people lived there on a permanent basis. The place I stayed is technically still under construction and had four customers. It was run by a young woman who, with her husband, was building a summer house in the trees nearby. They were both born here, knew each other in the high school which used to be here, went their own way for a number of years, meeting again, marrying, and moving on to Phoenix, a construction partnership, and a job with the Arizona Republic which disappeared with all the other mid level management jobs two years ago. He now drives an over the road truck for the Swift Company and she was here, finishing the house and living with her in-laws while the rain held up the completion of the house and the campground.


I learned all this while hooking the camper up to the utilities and she told me about most of her life which was now, she believed, happier than it had been when it was stressful and the money more plentiful. She was pleasant and interesting and I was impressed how well the couple had coped with the collapse of construction and the red ink bleeding from the newspaper business. Hearing her story made for a pleasant way to spend a gray and drying afternoon.


The next morning it cleared late after a dense fog I only emerged from as I climbed into the hills. It became a cloudless and warm day. The traffic in the Hills near the “attractions” was awful for one used to moving along the farm roads of the plains dodging an occasional truck or tractor. Rapid City was on the way to work as I went through and I wondered idly how I would handle the Los Angeles freeways if I was having trouble with this. I found the crowds an annoyance. Not in what they did, just that they were there. It was a sure sign, experienced before, that it was time to make plans for a way home. Except for the distance that lay between, there were few things I wanted to see or do, so I made a pass at Mount Rushmore, which looked the same of course, and Sitting Bull, which has progressed yet is itself bordering on a trashy sort of tourist attraction, much different than when I first saw it in 2002. I passed on the various caves of wonder, the zoo, and the rattle snake farms and the rest, kept moving and hence reached Wheatland. There are still things in and near the Black Hills I want to see—the Badlands, Custer, and the canyon where Bridal Veil Falls are, but I will do it another time when I can do them all justice and it is either earlier or later in the season.


Wheatland is a small, seemingly prosperous place just south of Fort Laramie and north of Cheyenne. It has a most attractive multiuse park that includes three baseball diamonds, a large picnic area, an outdoor theater stage an enormous swimming pool, tennis courts, a basketball court, and numerous picnic facilities. Many of the denizens here use it to walk in the evening and early morning, some accompanied by dogs, some by neighbors who make the circuit of the large place in good humored conversation and some who have obviously been told to get some exercise and move in a more solitary and plodding way around the road that surrounds the vast green area in the center. On the south side of the park, the city has 10 sites for RV campers and a tenting area. There is electricity available at ten sites. A sign asks for a donation and one is glad to leave one for a chance to watch the activities of the park and stay for the night in a quiet place under the large cottonwood trees.


I was attracted as I always am to the baseball diamond where I found the three teams from Laramie High school here to compete against the hometown Wheatland Lobos. I watched the freshman game, the Junior Varsity, and most of the Varsity game. Baseball, it is well known, is interesting to me at any level. I was struck that the JV game was the most competitive and error free. The freshman game was marred by the fact that the catcher for Wheatland, a boy no larger than 5”3” had a general understanding of the equipment needed and that squatting down was required, but lacked all the other requisite tools needed by a catcher, the most unfortunate being his inability to catch a thrown baseball. By my count eight runs scored as a result of balls that reached the backstop untouched. On this warm day, he may have worked harder and to lesser effect than anyone on the field, to the chagrin of all in the home dugout. He was mercifully removed for the last two innings. The other two games moved faster mainly because the ability levels were markedly better. When the lights came on in the fourth inning with the home nine behind by six and the Rangers clearly the superior team, I repaired to the camper for dinner and a glance at maps to decide on tomorrow’s destination. For the record, the Lobos won one out of three. The chosen destination was Colorado City.


It was time to go south and west which would bring me home. The trip was nearly done, the heat was coming to the desert, and this trip which had started as they all do with great promise, had more serious hiccups than most, felt as if it should be over. La Coachasita remains well but as happy as I to be going home.


We traced a path through the mountains of New Mexico near Taos, through a slice of the Navajo Nation including Shiprock and Window Rock, made famous by the mystery stories of the late and supremely talented novelist, Tony Hillerman, and made a last stop near Winslow Arizona. By tomorrow night I will be home, nearly 6,400 miles later, content with what I saw, pleased that I still enjoyed the places, the people, and the adventure.


Thanks for riding along.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

GOODBYE MINNESOTA

It seems at once yesterday and three week ago since I came up the road to New Ulm and began a long wander through Minnesota. I went as far as one can to the Lake of the Woods and then turned around and returned on the western side of the state, more famous for its prairie than the familiar white and red pines of the north.


There were new places, surprises, an old favorite, bugs and lots of rain as part of that but as I left Thursday I felt I knew it better now. Readers with me last year will remember that I came barging out of Canada from my trip around Lake Superior to discover the wonderful area north of Duluth, then on to St. Cloud and on south in the quest to find warmth and a lack of precipitation, the Lincoln Highway, and thus missing attractions along the way in my haste.

Several years ago as part of the great adventure of following the Mississippi River from the end to the beginning, I ended the trip at the headwaters at Lake Itasca and exited stage left to follow Route 2 across the roof of the rest of the northern tier of states on U.S. 2. Both of those trips into the state seem too short.

New Ulm was a short trip from Clear Lake Iowa. An annual park pass at their State Park seemed wise since it was a reasonably guess that I would stay in more than five parks, thus making the one visit, five dollar version a bad investment. As it happens I was in seven by the time I left on Wednesday in a truly epic thunderstorm that was doing a good job of taking the leaves off the trees art Blue Mounds State Park in the far south western corner of the state. It seemed a fitting send off. There was more to come in South Dakota since that is where the weather came from, but I hoped it would moderate.

Minnesota is a marvelous and diverse place. While most of my time was spent in the more rural environs, I did pass through a number of places with populations greater than 20,000, a fairly urban experience for me. Weather was a driving decision. The weather north was better than near “The Cities” as the natives refer to Minneapolis and St. Paul, located cheek by jowl on the Mississippi River. Following a central route, wandering through New Ulm and on to Mille de Lac and northward, we reached Bemidj. I paused for a mandatory cleaning, laundry, and shopping stop. The hotel I stay at there is on the lake and hosts many of wedding receptions. This trip an actual wedding occurred on the lawn facing the lake. It is a lovely spot, albeit a bit windy. Kris and Mandy whoever exchanged their vows just one floor below my windows and I was entertained by piped in violins, a live guitarist, and the sonorous sounds of the good Reverend as he discomforted the bride by telling anecdotes about her early years—which would have been the ones prior to her 19th birthday which she had  celebrated a week before.

I like Bemidji. This is the second time I have been there in the spring. It may be that the joy of sun and a 70 degree temperature is such that natives are incapable of ill humor. They are fond of running, skating, bicycling and walking along the lakefront. I was struck by the lack of obesity in Bemidji. It exists, but seems less prevalent here than in the population as a whole. The University (Bemidji State) there means that many of the clerks in the business are young, cheerful, and less jaded than most. Glad to be working and happy to help.

This trip, I spent two days in the Lake Itasca State Park which is the oldest one in the state and the “home” of the headwaters of the mighty Mississippi. It is a remarkably large place with more than 100 lakes within its boundaries. One can drive a 17 mile loop in the most rural part and find beaver dams and visit many of these small lakes. It rained of course, but lightly and the weather was warm enough to make up for it. The campground is rustic and enormous, a favored spot for natives to spend a week in summer.Here, as in all the places I have been this year, the number of tent campers are more numerous than in past trips. No one has an adequate explanation. They are usually younger and often same sexed and seem to enjoy the experience. Some of the campgrounds have length limits few more than electricity at the site which explains perhaps why some of the larger road warrior trailers and motor homes are absent.

Continuing north, as far as I could go, I reached the edge of the Lake of the Woods at a primitive campground known as Zippel Bay. It is rural there. No, perhaps beyond rural, but the best chance to see eagles, owls, and bears. They were all there but my attempts at photography thwarted at every turn by birds far more wise than I. I saw a fair number, but never when I was in a position to get a picture. No matter, they are in my mind and they are wonderful. A couple from Oregon and I set off one morning to see if we could find the bears we had been warned to avoid and came across a small black bear, which we concluded was a cub and if so momma was likely to be nearby so we hastily retreated. We did see some larger ones fishing, but only through binoculars. In the evening the deer came to the meadows as they did at dawn, just before full light. They were skittish. I am sure the lack of human contact is the reason. We enjoyed them as the firelight took hold and the very late sunsets here in the high latitudes faded into the gloaming.

The trip down the western side of the state was slow and meandering. Never one to use an Interstate when there is an alternative. I found lots of them and lots of small parks to spend a night or two. The rains returned as did the fog. Time at the wheel was contemplative. The state road speed limit is 50 MPH so there was time to look about and enjoy the scenery that so fascinates me.

As in many places there are small but interesting National Monuments here about which one knows nothing unless you take the time to get off the road. One such this time was in the town of Pipestone in the far south western corner of the state. The town takes its name from the quarry just outside of town. It is considered a holy place by many Indian tribes for it is here that the stone for the ceremonial pipe is found. It is in fact one of the few places in North America where it is found. Specimens of peace pipes, as they became known to whites, have been found that were quarried here as far away as Ohio. There is evidence that the red stone—said to be red with the blood of the ancestors---has been quarried here for more than 2,000 years. While there is a long and tortured history of control of the quarries, it was always sacred ground. When members of different tribes would come to quarry the stone, they left their weapons and gathered the stone peaceably. The Yankton Sioux had exclusive control given them by the US government in 1858 and were then moved 150 miles away shortly thereafter making it difficult to exercise it. They reached a settlement in 1928 which ended their claim. In 1937, Congress established the National Monument and gave only Indians exclusive quarrying rights.

Today, a member of any tribe, recognized by the U.S.  government, may quarry here. Some have been doing so for years. Some come once or twice a year. There is a five year waiting list. It is done only with hand tools. The vain of stone they wish to reach is deep under the quartzite of the surface. It is not easy work but it is a connection to their ancestry that many Indians cherish. Each of them leaves gifts for the gods they believe inhabit this place near the great boulders at the entrance known as the Three Sisters. It is a quiet and peaceful place with a beautiful stream fed from springs. I am glad I found it and had time to explore. It is complicated, as I have found most Indian sites to be, but once one understands the reasoning of the natives as to why this place is holy and necessary, it is easier to understand why the pipe is used at all.

A white man named George Catlin came here in 1836 to live among the Indians. He wrote extensively in journals and made maps of much of the area that the Plains Indian Tribes inhabited. His true talent was painting and many of the hundreds he did are now a part of the Smithsonian Institution’s American Indian collection and found in museums in states throughout the Mississippi River basin. Catlin was a remarkable man who came here first with General Lewis and published a number of books about the Indians of North America traveled as far as Florida and Canada to paint and worked for the Smithsonian near the end of his life.

The peace of the countryside and the warmth the people I met along the way has made this trip through Minnesota  most pleasant. I do not know when I will be back, but now at least I can say I have taken the time to look at much of it for more than a fleeting moment.

Thank you Minnesota.

Friday, June 4, 2010

AMERICAN PIE

Happenstance is all it was.

It had been a long day, it was about to rain and, from what NOAA radio said, it would be very hard and soon, so rather than continue on to Minnesota this day, I stopped. The state park was empty of people but full of Memorial Day trash and I wasn’t in the mood for a mess. I found a useful, if not charming, full service proprietary RV Park down the road and around the lake a bit further on, so I took the opportunity to run all the water I wanted and enjoy the luxury of knowing it was not coming from my internal tank and in the morning I could refill that nearly empty vessel with well water soft and pure.

A chatty and kind host met me and a bit later her husband walked over to the site to tell me of the pleasures of being a full time RV dweller (and one of the few without a dog). As he was departing, he said casually enough “Don’t leave without seeing the Surf Ballroom.” “The what?” replied the sleepy and now wet me now clambering back into the van when I suddenly remembered. This was Clear Lake. This was the place they sang their last songs.

I had seen the town on the map when picking the route. I knew it meant something but not what. If senility truly is the remembering vividly things long past better than yesterday, then I am happy to report I do not have it yet.

Now I have seen it, Now I have seen the place remembered for that awful winter night. The younger among you will not recall the event, but to those anywhere in their teens at the time, it is a day remembered even now.

The Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake was hosting its original Winter Dance Party on the night of February 2, 1959. Three of the performers that night, Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and J.P.Richardson, better known as “The Big Bopper” climbed into a small  plane after the performance to go on to Moorhead, MN and the next night’s performance. They were avoiding the icy bus ride the bands would have to make and perhaps have the opportunity to get some extra sleep. Five miles later, they were all dead, no doubt because of ice in a carburetor or on the wings. Great talent lost forever, memorialized in the song “American Pie” and the movie “The Buddy Holly Story.”

The Surf is still as it was then, maintained by a non-profit organization, and hundreds of men and women come back every year to hear other greats play on the stage has become an iconic shrine, especially to Holly, the best known and likely a most talented songwriter. The place is frozen in that moment. It is eerie. It is a step back into another time, another century. The pictures of the greats who have performed in homage on the stage here line the walls and their autographs line the walls backstage. The telephone still hangs on the wall that was used to arrange for the plane. It is still used, this 30,000 square foot entertainment space with the 6,300 foot dance floor, for all sorts of functions in this “resort” town in northern most Iowa.

To those who still come here on cold February nights to remember, it is their Graceland, the place the music died.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

BROUSING THROUGH THE MIDLANDS

My route changed at a point south if Branson when the calculations said that the time available and the destination desired would not match. Dreams of the Smoky Mountain National Park faded for this year with the news that water logged state parks in Tennessee were closing before Memorial Day so they could be cleaned for when most United States residents proclaim it summer for three days and then disappear again until July and the camp grounds become far less crowded. Turning north my destination of choice became The Mississippi Palisades State Park in Savanna Illinois, just south of Galena. Galena is an artsy little town now, but is remembered in earlier times for where President U.S. Grant repaired after what was at the time considered a failed presidency and lived out his years writing his memoir. The memoir is not memorable. Grant’s standing as a President has risen over the last 50 years, however, either because of a new revisionism history or a subtle commentary on the state of politics then and now.

The park in Branson was a small one on Table Rock Lake. If one didn’t have a jet ski or a fishing boat, the most exciting moment every evening was when the paddle wheel gambling boat from Branson came down the lake passed the isthmus the park was on , went two miles further down the lake and turned to return , giving a loud blast on its horn when it passed. The park is one of the many with a total of 210 campsites maintained by the Corps of Engineers that cling to the lake and the underside of Missouri not more than a mile from the Arkansas border. It is beautiful hilly green country. The park I visited was called The “Old Hwy 87 Recreation Area.” It is a pleasant place but on that weekend it was full. Campsites are close together and it was well past warm and by the last night there was humid and hot. The kindly host told me it was the first weekend that was rain free in the past four, which explained the crowd. Following my usual practice of never making reservation, I always arrive early when weekends are involved. I was surprised to find there were only eight sites left. Happy as I was to be living in the van again, it seemed not to matter. I spent a good part of the next day finding routes that would shorten the trip given my three week sojourn in Kansas, ultimately deciding that I wanted to spend Memorial Day camping rather than hiding in a motel somewhere and that the park in Savanna that I had visited before also gave me the opportunity to take day trips from there until the big weekend arrived.

Palisades State park has many wonderful things. The birds and other wildlife are abundant, it is near the River and the people are both fun and interesting. The ratio of tents to monster motor homes clearly favors the tents, a trend I am noticing more this trip. They seem to enjoy the time outdoors more. That is, of course a huge generalization, but about the fourth time you see a 45 foot Class A “building” pull in with windows both heavily tinted and the shades down, the air conditioning on and the satellite television dish in place, you wonder why they left home at all.

The weather has cooperated, a hot Sunday was followed by a few showers but real rain hasn’t been seen since last Tuesday. It is Monday afternoon now as a type this, and the crowds are gone, returned to Chicago and places in between. A few of us remain, enjoying a partly cloudy and much cooler day. It is a peaceful time to pack more carefully than those who left early today and in the smug knowledge that we will enjoy a wonderful night with far less wood smoke and cool enough to perhaps even close a few windows.

Day trips from here included two notable places. Sebula Iowa, just across the bridge here is the only “island city” in the state of Iowa. This is perhaps not remarkable except for the fact that it is in the Mississippi River on the main channel and has never been flooded. How this improbable wonder has occurred remains a mystery to even most of the natives here since the River has been well into this Park many, many times in the past at it is but five miles away. I find it curious, but something I prefer to leave as something curious rather than scour the Internet to know why it is so. There was a music festival there this week end in a field that offered country and folk music, no shade, and camping for $25 dollars a night. There was not a level spot in the field and by the time my neighbors here went over to see what was up, it was as deep in mud as Woodstock must have been only on a much smaller scale.

I have passed the signs for West Branch Iowa enough times to finally be ashamed that I have never gotten off I-80 to see the President Herbert Hoover Museum located there. I spent Wednesday there and was delighted that I did. While “Bert,” the first of three children born to Jesse and Hulda Hoover, lived there only until he was six, when his father who was a blacksmith, died at 36 years old and he was separated from his other siblings and went to live with his Hulda’s, brother in Oregon when she died a mere 18 months later.

During his very distinguished career as an engineer and public servant, he acquired the two room house that he was born in and his father’s blacksmith shop. Over time he restored it and the rest, as they say is history.

He is remembered here for many things. He was the first President born west of the Mississippi River. He was an engineer, a diplomat, organized the relief effort for the devastated countries of Europe after World War I, which became the model for the UN agency, UNICEF as well as the prototype used by President Truman for the Marshall Plan after World War II. Yes, Black Tuesday occurred as the Stock Market crashed and banks closed on his watch, and his engineering and organizational talents left him without the intellectual tools or advisers to fix it. It is not memorialized here. It is his boyhood and the “values’ he took from this place to the first graduating class at Stanford University that is stressed. The Village of West Branch looks much the same in the old Hoover neighborhood. A blacksmith works in the shop. The streets are lined with homes from the same period. Hoover and his wife are buried here on a hill overlooking the restored Friends Meeting House much like the one Bert Hoover attended as a child. It is a charming place. Whatever one’s thoughts of Hoover as a President, it was a nice way to spend a spring afternoon.

West Branch is both quaint but not overcome by the memorial and museum. The blacksmith, a gregarious and knowledgeable man, quizzes the group of sixth graders in the tour group ahead of me as to what other President has a connection to West Branch. When none guess, he hints the he too, was a Quaker and a teacher finally recalls Richard Nixon. I learn then that The Millhouses, Mr. Nixon’s grandparents lived here in a craftsmen style house just three streets over and the young Nixon would visit here often in the summer as a child.

The “neighborhood” in the campground over the weekend was an interesting one. The sites are sufficiently removed that one can chose to ignore each other if that is your choice. To my left in a tent was a remarkably funny fellow with his girlfriend, both from Chicago. She was camping for the first time. He is a veteran and is hoping to take her with him this summer when he goes to a remote small lake in the Michigan where he camps on an island with a group of friends annually. She is a Choir Director. He is a trader on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange with all the sound and fury in his voice that one would assume of that vocation. He was once a profession indoor soccer goalie and a fanatic fan of the Black Hawks who are currently competing for the Stanley Cup with the accent of a true native of South Side Chicago. When they left on Monday, she seemed happy to have been here and he seemed hopeful that there would be more camping in their future. Despite their dispirit backgrounds they seemed remarkably well suited.

Across the road was a man and woman from Minnesota,, who travel with his Harley in a trailer behind a moderate sized RV. He and his companion were equally funny and charming. His son is finishing Medical school. He one of those “bikers” I have met who are sensitive to the noise it makes, moves slowly in the campground, has it because he loved to ride it, and would leave everyday for one of the many local events held around here this weekend. They both came back with funny anecdotes about what they had observed.

My travelling companion appears to have regained full form and strength and is as anxious as I to move on. We will go north and back west tomorrow toward Minnesota. Beyond that is yet to be announced. That is fine. The lack of Internet the past few days has left me without the ability to further plan the route. Soon we will go west to the Black Hills. Until then we will see what there is to see, and surely enjoy it as always.