Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Surprise in Montana

Montana's Crazy MountainsMonths ago, Brenda announced that she wanted to celebrate her next birthday in Montana, with our friends from the wildlife refuge where we first volunteered , and at her favorite pizza place, Kodiak Jax.  As a gentlemen and long-time husband, I can’t divulge which birthday it is, but the first number rhymes with “heaven”.  So we left Sheridan and headed into beautiful Montana.  Interstate 90 through Montana is a great drive – snow-capped mountains, green meadows, and this time of year, rivers swollen from melting snow.

Brenda and SueAfter getting set up at the Square Dance Center and Campground, we were joined by our friends Kirk and Sue who flew in from Tucson for Brenda’s birthday.  We took a day to show them the Bitterroot Valley, and our first stop was our favorite place, the Lost Horse Overlook, the site of a Nature Valley Granola Bar commercial. Kirk at LHO It’s a little known location that takes a nine-mile drive on dirt roads up into the mountains.  From the overlook, you can look into two major drainages and the beginning of a six million acre wilderness area.  This year we were surprised by the small amount of snow that remained on the distant mountains – a bad sign for the upcoming fire season. 

Lost Horse Overlook Panorama copy

Lost Horse View

Brenda pointed out these budding pine cones that looked more like flowers:Pine Cone Buds

Along the road we found this Beargrass, a flowering plant that grows in subalpine areas:Beargrass

Back in the valley, we continued south with a side trip to beautiful Lake Como.  By the end of the summer, there will be less than half the water left as the lake is used for irrigation:Lake Como

We continued down the valley until crossing over Lost Trail Pass into the Big Hole Valley, most of which is above 6000’.  We drove through the small historic town of Wisdom before heading back past the Big Hole National Battlefield.  We were too late to tour the visitor center, so we headed back down into the valley, stopping to take this picture of Trapper Peak, at a little over 10,000’, the highest peak in the Bitterroot Range.  Trapper Peak

On Saturday, we started Brenda’s birthday celebration with Kirk and Sue and a visit to Lolo Pass for lunch at the Lochsa Lodge. We spent the afternoon touring the area, and at 5:30 it was time to enter Kodiak Jax. Entering, we saw our friends all sitting at a table just beyond the entryway of another room. Brenda ran ahead to say hello and hug everyone, and finally I tapped her on the shoulder and said “look behind you”. She turned, and there at a table against the wall,  sat our daughter Kim, her husband Bill, and nephew Chris all from California, and her brother Ron, who flew in from Ohio. Her look could best be summed up by the saying “shock and awe” – and that’s probably an understatement. After a moment of realization, it was time for tears and hugs, and as the evening progressed, lots of laughter and smiles. Thanks to Bob, Deb, and Kim from the refuge, good friends Heidi and Jim, and of course Kirk and Sue, Kim and Bill, and Chris and Ron for an evening that Brenda will never forget. All the plotting and skullduggery that started back in February paid off – she was totally caught by surprise. Now, of course, I have to worry about payback. Here are some pictures from the evening: Deb and Bob

Brenda's Party1

Brenda and Kim

Brenda's Party2

We’re traveling again, so stay tuned!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Stoppin’ in Sheridan

We’ve driven by Sheridan, Wyoming a number of times in our travels, and always promised ourselves that some day we’d stop and explore the area.  Finally, our schedule allowed for a three day visit on our way to Montana.  We chose Peter D’s RV Park because we couldn’t resist the message on his web site:  “Peter D’s has nutritional value – if you don’t stay here, Pete don’t eat”.  Who could resist?   Peter turned out to be a delightful individual with a great sense of humor, and Sheridan turned out to be far more than we expected.  JC PennysWe started with a trip to the downtown area, and were impressed that almost every store front was filled.  We saw the old-fashioned sign for a J.C. Penney Store, and hey!  It really was a J.C. Penney store!  With it’s tin ceiling and portable fans for air conditioning, it was like stepping back into the 60s.  There were a number of typical strip-mall stores, like Maurice’s,  that also occupied downtown stores.  Brenda and the MooseEverything was neat and clean, there was a nice variety of restaurants, and even the trash containers had wildlife statues on them.  They would have had one less had Brenda been able to get the moose loose. 

A few blocks Sheridan Innfrom downtown is the newly restored historic Sheridan Inn, built in 1894 and originally managed by Buffalo Bill Cody.  The original inn had 64 bedrooms, but after being restored over the years the inn reopened this spring with 22 rooms, each with a historical theme of  a key characters in Buffalo Bill’s life.  You can read about the history of each room’s character on the web site – it’s interesting reading.

Trail End MansionPeter D recommended we visit Trail End State Historic Site, and we’re glad we did.  The home of John B. Kendrick, governor and US Senator was completed in 1913 and is without doubt, the most impressive restoration we’ve seen.  With ten bedrooms, 12 bathrooms, eight fireplaces, ballroom, and servant’s quarters, the mansion is huge, and the rooms have been renovated with clothing and furniture taken from original photos.  Trail End Central VacuumThe house was wired for electricity, had indoor plumbing, an intercom system, an elevator, and, believe it or not, a central vacuum system.  Located in the basement, the vacuum is about the size of a refrigerator, but it worked! 

The master bedroom was huge, and as the custom of the day, there were separate beds, each laid out with clothing identical to original photos:Trail End Bedroom

Their teenage daughter’s room would be the envy of today’s teens:Trail End Girls Bedroom

The parlor wasn’t exactly cozy, but was comfortable looking:Trail End Parlor

And on the third floor, the ballroom and musicians room:Trail End BallroomBuilding the mansion was quite a feat – everything had to be brought by rail.  Montana granite, Missouri clay roofing tiles, and custom made furniture from Michigan.  The total cost at the time was $165,000 – at a time when a three-bedroom house in town could be purchased for $4000.  This is an amazing place to visit, and if you’re ever in the area, don’t miss it!

Sheridan sits at the base of the Big Horn Mountains, and US Highway 14 has always been a route that RVers are told to avoid.  Fallen CitySo off we went in our CRV to check it out.  The road climbs quickly and passes a number of rock formations like this one, the “fallen city”.  Once into the mountains, it’s a fairly level area of meadows and forest, with snow at the higher elevations.  Driving along the highway the views were stunning, from sandstone cliffs to alpine forest and finally, a view of the valley on the other side.Big Horn Moutnains

Big Horn Moutnains3

Big Horn Moutnains2

Brenda was, as usual, hoping to see a moose, but the usual habitat, willows along the creeks, were still bare.  Then suddenly, next to the road in the meadow, stood a cow and bull moose, grazing quietly and paying us no notice.  The bull, a young one, we think, was having trouble grazing;  moose necks are short and they prefer to eat the tender shoots and leaves shrubs at eye-level while standing in water.  He couldn’t reach down to graze without spreading his front legs wide.  That stance looked very uncomfortable, and he finally did something we’ve never seen – he kneeled and walked around on his knees while grazing.  Kneeling Moose

He was a fine looking guy, and seemed to enjoy the attention:Young Bull Moose

Young Bull Moose2

We’re so glad we took the time to stop in Sheridan and the Big Horn Mountains.  It’s an amazing area – don’t miss it if you’re in the area!

Next stop Missoula and a visit with our friends from our volunteer days at Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge – and a surpirse for Brenda!  Stop back and see!

Monday, June 15, 2015

On to South Dakota

Leaving the Santa Fe Area, we headed north, passing west of Taos and crossing into Colorado and the small town of Antonito.  Near AlamosaThe weather was cool and cloudy, and as we turned east in Alamosa we had a few breaks in the clouds that gave us a glimpse of the mountains to our north.  During one break, Little Bear Peak, at a snow-covered 14,000+ gave us look at what we’d been missing.
Colorado SnowWe spent the night in Lathrop State Park, a large park with lakes, hiking trails, and multiple loops for camping.  We found a secluded pull through site and settled in for the night.  We went to sleep with the gentle sound of rain of the roof, but noticed it became quiet as the night wore on. Colorado Snow2 The next morning we found out why – the rain had changed to snow and covered us with 3-4 inches of the heavy, wet stuff.  While it made for a pretty landscape, it also meant that the slides could not be brought in for travel until I removed the snow.  There’s nothing like starting the day on a ladder trying to push snow the consistency of marshmallow cream off of four slide-out awnings.  After cleaning the motor home and car, we were able to begin our travel over wet, but snowless roads.
We’re in our tenth year as full timers and South Dakota residents, and so it was again time to renew our driver’s licenses.  The five years since our last renewal has passed quickly, but when we look at where we’ve been, the numbers are surprising:  162 RV parks/campgrounds, 24 states, and over 40,000 miles!  And countless restaurants!
Rapid City DowntownWe always enjoy a visit to Rapid City and the Black Hills.  Along the interstate are all of the big box stores and a large mall, but the downtown area is still vibrant.  We visited there on a cool and cloudy day, and at the square found people enjoying a local beer fest in spite of the weather.  Down the street is one of Rapid City’s better known restaurants, the Firehouse Brewing Company.  Fire House breweryRapid City Square
We’ve always wanted to visit the Journey Museum in Rapid City’s green belt park, but never had the opportunity.  This visit we made sure to visit and are glad we did.  It’s a remarkable place, one of the best we’ve seen, especially for children.  There are hands-on exhibits, staff-led craft classes, and amazing displays.  Here’s one:Museum Scene
We also made a trip to the Wounded Knee Museum, located in Wall, famous for it’s “drug” store.  The story of the Wounded Knee Massacre is one of those stories that seem so hard to believe.  How we as a people could be so cruel is difficult to understand today, and even at the time was considered barbaric by many.  Wounded Knee MuseumThe museum is a work in progress, but does a good job depicting the events leading up to the massacre and the aftermath, including many gruesome photos of the battlefield.  Amazingly, twenty Congressional Medals of Honor were awarded members of the 7th Calvary for this “battle” that left over 300 dead, mostly women and children.
Wall DrugDrive anywhere on I-90 in South Dakota and you’ll see a billboard every 1/4 mile for Wall Drug.  Signs offering free ice water, 5-cent coffee, and free donuts for veterans entice travelers to stop.  Having been there a number of times, we can sum up our opinion in two words…..ho hum.  Inside Wall DrugWall Drug is a labyrinth of touristy souvenir shops that offer all the usual must-have items.  Wooden cork guns for the kids, shot glasses for the guys, and refrigerator magnets for the ladies – a veritable treasure trove of useless items.  And the food….do yourself a favor and go to Subway, it’s a huge step above anything available in the “downtown” area.   Not to say you shouldn’t stop here if passing through, it’s an amazing collection of stuff you’ll never need.
I’m way behind on blogs, so stay tuned, we can’t wait to tell you about Sheridan, Wyoming!

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

New Places in New Mexico

New Mexico has always been one of our favorite states to visit.   There’s so much diversity; from forested mountains to desolate desert, and each time we come here we discover something new.

We spent a few days in Alamogordo, our jumping off point for the Sacramento Mountains.  We’ve written about our visits here before, but a drive up to Cloudcroft and Sunspot is always a must for us.  Sunspot, a location operated by the National Solar Observatory, is the home of  the Richard B. Dunn Solar Telescope, said to be the finest of its kind in the world, even after half a century of use. 
Sunspot Visitor Center
From 20 miles below on the desert floor, as a young airman I  could look out the window of the control tower at Holloman AFB and see  the white dot of “Sunspot” on the the crest of the mountains.  The interesting thing about the instrument is that while it’s over 165 feet tall, there’s another 220 feet underground.  We were able to enter the building and walk around as technicians monitored computer displays and tweaked buttons.  
SunspotWe nodded sagely when they glanced at us, although we had no earthly idea what was going on.  There’s a description of how it works here, and now that we know that it uses a Universal Birefringent Filter and Diffraction-Limited Spectro-Polarimeter it makes perfect sense.  Well, maybe not.
From Alamogordo, we drove north through Albuquerque to just south of Santa Fe for a stay at the Cochit Lake COE park (review here).   We wanted to visit Santa Fe before the crazy tourist season started, and had never been to Bandelier National Monument or Los Alamos.  Santa Fe is a town that twenty-five years ago was charming, authentic, and easy to get around in.  Since 1990, the county’s population has more than tripled and many of the things that made Santa Fe special are gone.  Traffic is bumper to bumper throughout the town, and the attempt to make everything from Wal-Mart to McDonald's look like a “pueblo” makes the place look like a Disney theme park (imagine “Puebloland”).  Santa Fe PlazaStill, the old town area is worth a walk around, and there are still some shops that offer affordable products – in between the high-priced  galleries and jewelry stores.  Santa Fe MarketNo visit is complete without a picture of the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, the iconic building on the old square.  So here it is.  On one corner we found this open air market with colorful purses, jewelry, and scarves, which made it feel more like the old Santa Fe.
Rubber ChickensIf you’re like so many of us, your cherished rubber chicken has probably been getting stale from hanging around the house – well, not to worry!  Here in Santa Fe you can buy fresh rubber chickens!  A little pricey at $22/pound, but you can’t spend too much on quality!  We moved north from Cochiti Lake to Roadrunner RV Park to be closer to our next destination.  We’d never been to the area around Los Alamos, and were fascinated by the Pajarito Plateau, an elevated area with deep forested valleys.  It’s easy to see why the secret town was built here for the development of the first atomic bomb; it’s remote and isolated up on top of the plateau.  We didn’t have a chance to visit the museum, and other than the high number of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) facilities, the town didn’t hold much interest for us.  But Bandelier National Monument sure did. 
Bandelier ValleyLeaving the plateau, the road curved downward into a verdant valley with towering cliffs on one side.  At the visitor center, we learned that the porous, soft-looking rock has been used for habitat for over 10,000 years. 
As we began walking down the trail, the rock walls turned  from a solid to Swiss-cheese like texture.Rock Wall
The path up the valley was paved and easy to walk.  Soon we came alongside some of the lower structures that were built against the cliff face.Cliff Face

Structures and WallTourists and Wall
Petroglyphs are noticeable on the walls as you walk along.  One of the best preserved is this, which is described in the park guide as a Macaw.   We agreed it looked more like a Coatimundi……Petroglyph
What struck us as remarkable was the level of access to the cliff dwellings.  Ramps and ladders led up to some very high areas without any apparent restrictions to age.  Climbers
 At the end of the trail we came to Alcove House, a cliff dwelling 140 feet above the valley floor that was home to about 25 pueblo people.  To get there involved climbing flights of stone stairs and four ladders.  If you click on the image you can see someone climbing up the ladder.  It’s not one of us.  High Cliff DwellingThat’s it for now, we’re heading for South Dakota to renew our driver’s licenses and visit friends from our volunteer time there.  Check back, we’ll be posting another update soon!