Thursday, July 28, 2011

It’s Tough to Get Good Help….

Sometimes I like to depart from our travel diary to tell a story.  This is one of those times:
A few days ago we decided to stop at the local Perkins Restaurant for lunch.  As usual, upon entering, even though we were the only ones standing there, we were asked, “party of two?”.  Although at our age we seldom have a party with just the two of us, let along a crowd, we said yes and were led to our table.  While perusing the menu, I sensed that the server had approached our table, and I lost my focus on the menu when I heard Brenda say; “your hair is a lovely shade of purple – is that your school color?”.  Looking up at our server, I saw a young lady with bright purple hair and enough metal on her head to pick up most of the area’s radio stations.  When it came time to order, I though I’d best keep it simple, so I clearly stated five simple words, “club sandwich on wheat toast”.  She nodded vigorously, and off she went.
A while later we were served.  I looked at my sandwich, which was some type of breaded thing between slices of buttered, grilled bread.  Asking what it was, our server proudly said, “it’s, like, your cod sandwich!  We don’t have one on the menu, so I had the cook make it special!”.  I nicely told her that I had ordered a “club sandwich on wheat toast”.  Stunned, she left and went back to the kitchen.
About the time that Brenda was half way through her meal, a NEW server appeared with another plate.  This one was some type of chicken or turkey, covered in melted cheese, on….yes, grilled bread.  Sigh.  A “club melt”.  Once again I stated my five-word order, and was met with an apology.  I also pointed out that the fries from the original order were now cold.  Off she went.
A few minutes later, back she came, bearing what looked like a large pizza pan and three pounds of steaming fries.  By now Brenda had finished her meal and wasn’t interested in any more fries.  Shortly after, our new server reappeared with, YES!  A club sandwich on wheat toast, and also told us that there would be no charge because of the confusion.
But my ordeal was not yet over.  At the register, the cashier, without looking up, asked “and how was everything?”, to which I answered “Well, it was certainly an adventure”.  She quickly replied, again not looking up, “That’s nice!”.  Then, looking at my ticket, a dark look suddenly came over her face, she looked up at me, and said……”oh, so YOUR’RE THE ONE”.   And of course, I was. 
Seriously, I’m not making this up.  Ask Brenda.
Hopefully we’ll be back to telling you about our travels next time!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Following Custer

In July of 1884, two years before the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer led an expedition into the then-unexplored Black Hills.  With over 1000 men, 110 wagons, cattle, and rations for two months, his mission was publically stated as an attempt to explore the area and build a fort to control hostile Sioux and Arikara warriors.  However, with the country in a deep depression and needing an economic boost, some historians believe the real mission was to discover gold; after all, they did take a group of civilian miners with them.  Gold was, of course, discovered,  and the resulting rush by thousands of people hoping to get rich drove the native Indians from the hills and set the stage for Custer’s death at the Little Big Horn. 
Knowing that I’m always interested in Custer stuff, Brenda bought me the book “Exploring with Custer”, an amazing chronicle of the Black Hills expedition.  It details each day’s travel, with maps, photos, and reprinted reports written by the expedition members, including the five reporters who traveled as guests of Custer.  It has a section of unique photos, where on one page is the black and white photo taken by the expedition photographer, and on the facing page a color photo taken recently – in the same location.  The differences are intriguing; most notably that the landscape today is much more forested than in the 1870s, thanks to fire management practices.  But the real reason for the book is the ability to follow in Custer’s footsteps as he explored, and so off we went!
Custer RouteWe picked up the Custer route on a forest service road just outside of the former town of Buckhorn, on the Western edge of the Black Hills.  In this area, gravel forest service roads follow the same route as the expedition, since the terrain follows a series of valleys.  It’s a beautiful area, described by one reporter as an “exquisite site of park-like scenery”.  At our starting point, we were at “Floral Valley,  the site where on July 25th, 1874 Custer wrote:
“Its equal I have never seen. Every step of our march that day was amid flowers of the most exquisite colors and perfume. So luxuriant in growth were they that men plucked them without dismounting from the saddle.... It was a strange sight to glance back at the advancing columns of cavalry, and behold the men with beautiful bouquets in their hands, while the head-gear of the horses was decorated with wreaths of flowers fit to crown a queen of May. “Floral Valley
An interesting mental picture, isn’t it?  But seeing the valley at about the same time of year, we could see why his men were so taken with the wildflowers covering the bright green valley.  Black Hills Wildflowers
Ike's Xmas TreeWe came across this interesting sign along the route, tucked into the edge of the forest.  It’s been a long time since the tree was harvested; we couldn’t even find the stump!

After a couple of hours, we reached Deerfield Lake, a Custer campsite now covered by a reservoir.  Our two hour trip took Custer and his expedition about four days!
Departing from the Custer route, we drove over the the town of Custer, to view it’s museum.  On the way, we had this interesting view of the Chief Crazy Horse Memorial.Crazy Horse
Custer Museum ExhibitThe Custer County Courthouse Museum is in a pretty building, and the museum was nice, but nothing exceptional.  The one area we particularly enjoyed was the small section with memorabilia from Custer’s visit – in fact it looked like he was really standing there.
Pactola LakeOn the way back to Spearfish, we stopped at Pactola Lake, a large lake in the heart of the Black Hills.  It was a hot day, and the lake was crowded with skiers.  It wasn’t long ago (May) that the lake still had a coating of ice – it made us wonder how warm the water could be.
That’s it for this trip – C’mon back, like Custer, we’re exploring the Black Hills!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Another Day in the Black Hills

There’s so much to see and do in the Black Hills – I doubt we’ll be able to see everything we want to in our remaining time here.  On each break from our volunteer duties we try to take at least one day trip.  On this trip, we drove back into the Black Hills to explore the rest of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Highway, this time the Eastern loop.  This is another narrow, winding road with a narrow tunnel; big signs warn of the low clearance, but we wonder how many RVers fail to see them and end up trapped and trying to turn around.  An unusual feature of the road is the “Pigtail Bridges”, tight-turning loops that are necessary to gain elevation in the small confines of the canyon.  Along the way, viewpoints provide incredible views of Mount Rushmore in the distance: 
Rushmore in Distance
Rushmore through Trees
Rushmore View
Traffic was light, and we were able to stop in one of the tunnels and get this picture (nice of the builders to line it up with the memorial):
Rushmore Through Tunnel
Leaving the Black Hills, we headed north to Belle Fourche (bell-foosh) to see their museum and the “designated” geographical center of the U.S.  Geo Center of USThe actual geographical center is about 20 miles away in a pasture, with hand-written sign and red post to mark it’s location, so Belle Fourche decided to capitalize and bill itself as the “center”.  There’s a nice visitor center and museum, and in the back, surrounded by state flags, is a 27-ton marker using South Dakota granite.  We of course resorted to our basic tourist instincts, and now Brenda can truly say she’s a ‘centered” individual:
Brenda @ Geo Center
We’re still exploring – stop back and we’ll show you more of our travels!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Two Tourist Attractions–One Great Time

As volunteers, we’re given Chamber of Commerce “VIP” passes, which give us free entry to most of the attractions in the Black Hills.  It’s a good deal for us for obvious reasons, but it also allows us to help visitors decide where to visit since we can offer “first-hand” knowledge.  So, off we went, to our first stop, the 1880 Black Hills Steam Train, which travels between Hill City and Keystone.  Having ridden the Cumbres and Toltec train in Chama, New Mexico, we were looking forward to another old-West, realistic train ride 1880s Trainthrough interesting scenery.  Sadly, we were disappointed.  Had we looked closely at the website under the history tab, we would have seen that the train tracks and station were built in 1957 and while deemed the “1880” train, the founder, to quote the web site, “was never a rigorous advocate of historic accuracy”.  Fortunately, we weren’t charged the $24 per person View From Trainround trip fee (45 minutes to Keystone, a brief stop, then back to Hill City), because the train ride was a disappointment.  It meanders through the countryside, crossing the same road 19 times one-way, so it’s not exactly a wilderness experience.  There was a commentary along the way, but there wasn’t enough to see to make the narrative very interesting.  The part we disliked the most was the smoke and smell; instead of wood or coal, which couldn’t be used because of fire regulations, the engine used recycled motor oil for fuel.  Environmentally a nice idea, but the reality was a constant cloud of blue smoke that watered our eyes and didn’t do much for the scenery.  At the end of our ride, we both felt that the train would benefit from actors staging a holdup, or something to make the trip more interesting.  We were also very glad that we were able to ride free….
Bear Relaxing in WaterOur next stop was “Bear Country USA”, which bills itself as “the home of the largest privately owned collection of black bear in the world”.  Sure, we thought – after all, how many would it take to be the “largest privately owned”?  Ten?  Twenty?  Big whoop, we thought.  Then we drove through “Bear Country”……yikes!  Wall-to-wall bear in all directions; sleeping, eating, walking around, sleeping, and of course, sleeping.  Well over 100 bear of all sizes and colors, big ones, small ones, friendly looking ones, and not-so-friendly looking ones.  As we drove through the enclosure with our windows up and doors locked (some of those bears looked sneaky!), we marveled at how many color variations there were; every shade of brown, different shades of black, even a blond or two.  Unfortunately, the tinted windows and sun through the windshield resulted in poor pictures, but I did catch this one bear as he sat in one of the shaded pools – it sure looks like he’s smiling!
The drive through enclosures contain separate sections for Elk, Reindeer, Bighorn Sheep, Mountain Lion, and others.  After the drive, we parked to visit the more traditional “zoo” area.  There were large enclosures with Badgers, Lynx, Fox, and other small animals, and they were well done….but then we came to the enclosure housing all of the bear cubs born this year.  What a hoot it was!  Dozens of little bears, playing, sleeping, running, jumping on each other….it was quite a show!  They were all busy doing baby bear things when suddenly they froze…and all stood up on their hind legs, heads pointed in the same direction as if the move was choreographed.  It was the food truck!  Suddenly it was a baby bear stampede as the 30 or so hungry cubs charged the lady with the barrel of food.  She quickly tossed her delivery of what looked like a nut bagel around and each bear selected one, only to quickly decide that the one that the bear next to him looked better.  There were growls, bellows, squeals, and bears running everywhere – what great entertainment!  There can’t me anything much more endearing than a little bear cub!   Brenda, of Baby Bears3course named them all and wanted to take them home.  Fortunately, the enclosure walls were too high for her to climb over, or our cat would have a lot of company.  Our passes gave us a free admission, but even at the $16/adult fee, we’d go back and certainly recommend it to area visitors.Baby Bears
Baby Bears2
Baby Bears & Bagels
We’re truly enjoying our stay here in the Black Hills and have more adventures to share, so come back soon!