Category Archives: Expedition Vehicle Travel

An expedition vehicle is basically a four season capable RV that does not depend on hookups and has 4×4.

Idaho and Homewards!

Important new photo news. Through the magic of the new editor from WordPress, you can see the full size images simply by clicking on the image in the blog. Cool!

We had been notified that our new refrigerator was en route to the Turners in Nevada so we did rather shorten our planned time in southern Idaho.  It was time to get our new refrigerator installed and we had an invitation to attend a steak fry at the local Volunteer Fire Department in Wellington, NV.  How could we say “no”?

We had previously visited and admired the north of Idaho and its incredible scenery but as we entered Idaho from southwestern Montana we found the scenery totally different.

Our first stop was the Craters of the Moon National Monument and its totally lunar looking landscape.  We had heard that the campground filled up each day despite its bleakness and we made a point of getting there in time to get a space, before we set out on foot for the visitor center to orient ourselves. 

Not a lot of shade at noon.

Bleak, but the flowers were sprouting through.

It was just as well that we walked from the campground as the parking was impossible for bigger vehicles.  Regular cars had taken all the RV spots.  (GRRRR!) After the usual movie, which we always enjoy, we set out to drive the loop with its various scenic view points.  We climbed the Inferno Cone, a large cinder cone.

It was almost like being at sea or in the air – there was nothing to give any perspective.
Top of the Inferno.
Beautiful, sparkling stone on the trail.
Looking down at the parking lot.
Ice! Down at the bottom of the vent. Amazing.
Panorama from the top of Inferno cone.

When you get to the top you keep expecting to find a crater – but there is none. The cinder cone was built up of cinders blown in from three little vents to the west. One of which now has ice in it. (See image, above.)

We hiked out to view the bigger lava tubes at Indian Tunnel, but did not enter any as we did not have a permit. 

Hmmm. Child sacrifice?
Hard to capture the size.

We continued south and decided we needed to visit at least one real waterfall before leaving the mountains, so we set off for the Soshone Falls near Twin Falls, Idaho.  On line research produced horror stories from drivers of long RV’s about the dangers of the narrow winding road to access the falls.  We had no problems, especially after driving in the Andes, and really enjoyed our visit.  The falls are controlled as needed for irrigation and other uses and can be quite dry, but they were flowing splendidly during our visit.

Falls
View downriver.
One of the few European campers that we saw this trip.
Denise at falls.

We then set off for Nevada as temperatures climbed.  We began looking for campgrounds that advertised shade and bringing the Blue Cat up front into the air-conditioned cab during the afternoon as the camper was just too hot for him.

Safely back in Nevada, the fridge installation was an interesting experience, as yet again, the skylight had to be removed for access. We used a neighbor’s hoist to remove the old fridge and install the new one. The Blue Cat was distraught when his camper left to go next door without him!  He ended up underneath Robinson Fuso, the Turners old camper, which he obviously felt was familiar territory! He came running when the 917 returned.

After another enjoyable stay, including the aforementioned steak dinner, we headed east on Route 50, again, this time on our way home.  We planned a leisurely wander, not a mad dash, and began with a visit to the Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Historic Park.  The wonderful book “Traveling America’s Loneliest Road” (https://www.amazon.com/Traveling-Americas-Loneliest-Road-Geologic/dp/1888035056) is full of intriguing side trips from Route 50 and this time we actually had the time to take some.

We turned down a side road until we came to a magnesia mining complex at Gabbs, Nevada. (https://www.premiermagnesia.com/)

Premier Magnesia Mine. Click for full size: https://pbase.com/diplostrat/image/169635497

From there we wound our way over the mountains and across the valley to the Berlin-Ichthyosaur park. (http://parks.nv.gov/parks/berlin-ichthyosaur)

Denise really enjoyed seeing the ichthyosaur fossils on display.  The shelter had been built over where the bones had been discovered and showed them in the ground, as found, and not rearranged to make a complete skeleton. Over 40 skeletons had been discovered there but many were not in good condition or were incomplete.   

Denise and the one that got away.
You really have to look to see the fossils.
Inside the shelter.
Denise with fossils outside. A cover was planned, but never built. If you don’t know what to look for, you will never notice them.

The site of the Berlin Mine ghost town is fascinating.

Lots of cool stuff to see.
Ore crusher.
Secondary ore chute leading to the main mill.
Inside the Mill.
We came across the mountains in the background and the valley in the foreground to reach Berlin.
The huge mill ore mill dominates the scene.
The main entrance to the mine was not very impressive, just an angled shed.
Tires are a bit flat.
We were grateful for the facilities in the 917.
Artistic massive beams.

We then headed to Ely for the required Chinese meal. May not meet purist standards, but we enjoyed it, as usual. We took on diesel and were starting to head out of town when we saw a sign for the Success Loop, a 30 mile off road loop which begins after the Cave Lake State Park near Ely and ends five miles north of the town of McGill on Route 93.  Hmmmm. Sounds like our kind of road!

The views were spectacular, especially as we approached the Success Summit, with the Schell Creek Range in the background. 

After passing a flock of sheep with their shepherd, we camped in the mountains, off of one of the side trails. The night was delightfully cool as we were at about 8,000 feet. 

The Blue Cat getting back to his wild roots and sampling a mountain stream!

We had now spent two months at between five and ten thousand feet and really noticed the heat as we dropped below that to return home.

The next morning, we dropped back into Ely for a cappuccino at the combination coffee and flower shop, then got back on Route 50 to take the Osceola trail and enjoy lunch at the top of the pass. A future camping site!

Hard to show the steepness in a photo.
That is US 50 down on the valley floor.
Wonderful future campsite, just over the pass from the Great Basin National Park.
Spectacular mountain after the Great Basin National Park.

We flew past the Capitol Reef, but this time did not go up to the “Temples.”

Nearing the Capitol Reef.
From the Goosenecks towards the hills.
The “Goosenecks” at Capitol Reef.

Denise wanted to see some ruins so we were planning to go to Cortez to the Hovenweep National Monument but after a night spent in the Natural Bridge National Park campsite, we got sidetracked by some ruins in Mule Canyon.  We were looking for a ruin known as the “House on Fire.” In actual fact, despite extensive internet research, we were not able to find them.  We finally followed one set of directions and hiked to find a couple of houses on a ledge with spectacular views but gave up on the rest! 

Not on “fire” perhaps, but spectacular.
We were getting quite good at finding water courses.
Denise admires the view.
The trails were narrow, but it was the trees that kept the 917 out.
And another view. Can you find the tiny building on the ledge?
Lunch in the shade.

With temperatures near 100F, we decided to leave Hovenweep for a future visit and continued east and stayed in Durango, at the campsite astride the Silverton railway line. Always fun to see the trains. (http://www.unitedcampgrounddurango.com/)

Fred was thrilled to drive the Wolf Creek Pass over the Rockies (he likes the song) and as usual the scenery was spectacular, though a lot less snowy than our previous crossing at the Monarch Pass. 

Me an’ Earl was haulin’ chickens, on a flatbed out of Wiggins, and we’d spent all night on the uphill side of thirty-seven miles of hell called Wolf Creek Pass. Which is up on the Great Divide.

No chickens, just a cat.

We made a quick trip to Taos, New Mexico, hoping for Indian Fry Bread, but in vain.  However we did a little shopping and enjoyed some New Mexican food for lunch.  (http://taoseno.com/) Who knew that the gentleman running a jewelry store on the corner of the main tourist square would be a Palestinian from Jerusalem? Sadly, or fortunately, perhaps, we were not in the market for jewelry.

Sopaipillas may not be Navajo Fry Bread, but they are good.

We later discovered that friends from our days in Cuba are living in Santa Fe, and had we known, we would have kept going for a visit.  Next trip!

We camped at Raton Pass which Fred found interesting, especially as they were having visits from bears and were refusing to accept tent campers.  Blue was kept on his leash when outside!

The look you give when they tell you that you will have to stay on your leash.

The Appalachians were much less spectacular than the Rockies but we enjoyed our journey home through them.  It is good to be home again!

And On to Montana

Our first stop in Montana was at the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, where Custer was defeated by Indians from the Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne, and other tribes.  We, of course, arrived at Saturday noon along with lots of other people but we were able to find a parking space tucked in with the other RV’s. So we had lunch and then set out to walk to the Memorial at the site of Custer’s final stand. 

We also walked to the Indian Memorial, a modern and moving site with comments from all the different tribes and a spectacular sculpture. It is hard to imagine a more evocative image.

It was interesting to see the white remembrance stones dotted around the hillsides.  These represented the Cavalry dead.  Interesting information, more than half of the 7th Cavalry troops were foreign born, representing about thirty nations.

The Indian dead were represented by brown remembrance stones. There are not many of these as the victorious Sioux and others removed their dead and wounded from the field immediately. We drove from the site of the final stand to the Reno/Benteen defensive site and dutifully read all the signs along the road.

Note: From this point we are using a new image hosting system. If there is a link below an image you may click it to see the image in a range of different sizes.

The paintings, which matched the actual landscape, made it very easy to imagine the scene. The effect was all the more dramatic as we were there on June 29 and the battle took place on June 25, so even the yellow flowers are correct.
https://pbase.com/diplostrat/image/169600293

Books have been written about the battle, but Fred would opine that Custer was not quite the vainglorious idiot as portrayed in modern movies. That said, he made a huge mistake and it cost him his life and half of his command. He was worried that the Sioux would try to escape – he didn’t realize that they had the strength to actually attack.

His deputies took casualties, but, after getting caught in the open against superior forces, they actually managed to do it by the book and retreated to high ground where they held off repeated attacks for over a day. In the zeal to portray Custer as a hero, back in the day, Reno had his career ended. Read the Wikipedia here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_the_Little_Bighorn#Controversies

Our next stop was Great Falls where we discovered and stayed in an amazing KOA campsite.  The incredible landscaping made this the Taj Mahal of KOA’s. We had a pleasant shady spot and enjoyed a campground fireworks display in honor of Canada Day!  Adding in free pancakes for breakfast and a great ice-cream bar, we decided to stay a second night as the day’s adventures had lasted longer than expected!  Though fireworks were lacking the second night! https://koa.com/campgrounds/great-falls/

Our first visit in Great Falls was to the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center and we enjoyed it very much.  The Interpretive Center is located on the Missouri River and there is a delightful river walk and some pioneer activities taking place there.  We walked down along the River Walk to see the Giant Spring, one of the largest springs that Lewis and Clark documented on their trip. The whole complex is well worth a visit.  (https://www.visitmt.com/listings/general/museum/lewis-and-clark-national-historic-trail-interpretive-center.html) Inside the center, the displays follow the rivers taken by the group and their timeline, so we progressed through their journey, learning of their successes and challenges.  And, of course, there was a film, this time by Ken Burns, which was well worth watching.  Because of waterfalls they actually had to portage their canoes 18 miles around five large waterfalls, so it was easy to look at the area and imagine their problems. 

Our other visit in Great Falls was to the Malstrom Air Force Base to visit the Museum there.  (https://www.malmstrom.af.mil/About-Us/Malmstrom-Museum/) Once we were cleared to visit by the Visitor Center, we made our way to the museum passing by a selection of planes on display.  The museum itself was fascinating.  It explained the mission of the base which was to maintain and keep in constant readiness a number of Minuteman missiles.  Two excellent films explained how this was achieved.  There were also examples of various pieces of missile and control consoles.  The Museum Director was an enthusiastic source of lots of information. And we learned that we had actually seen the relocation of a missile on previous day’s drive towards Great Falls; we had thought it was simply the National Guard. Interesting aside, the museum had a map of the route that Lewis and Clarke took across what is now the air base. (Sorry, no pictures taken on base.)

While everybody knows about the mighty Mississippi River and can probably even remember how to spell it, the Missouri is a bit overlooked. Pity, because it is a huge river, a major tributary of the Mississippi, and, of course, the focus of Jefferson’s dreams of a river route to the Pacific Ocean. As lamented previously, the Lewis and Clarke Expedition is too little taught in US schools. We have joyed retracing the routes in this and previous trips – freely admitting, that we started doing this after stumbling over Lewis and Clarke sites in our own, total ignorance. Upriver from Great Falls, the Missouri passes through an impressive valley, dubbed the “Gates of the Mountains” by Clarke. So naturally, we had to pay a visit. It was pouring rain when we arrived and boarded the boat, but over the course of the visit, the sun came out and, by the time we finished, the boat was in full sunlight.

The tour actually starts upriver, goes downriver, and then returns. But Clarke was coming from the portage at Great Falls, so his first view was of the “Gates” themselves.

The “Gate” as seen looking upriver.
https://pbase.com/diplostrat/image/169600305

From Great Falls we moved on to Deer Lodge.  July 4 was approaching and we decided we wanted to be in a small town to see a celebration.  Denise also wanted to visit the National Park Service Grant-Kohrs Ranch Historical Site in Deer Lodge.  (https://www.nps.gov/grko/index.htm) This site preserves the ranch, founded by Johnny Grant and then bought by Conrad Kohrs, one of the great cattle barons of the 1800’s.  The ranch originally grew when Grant, who spoke only French and a number of Indian languages, had the brilliant idea of exchanging worn out, stressed cattle from the wagon trains for his well fed, thriving animals.  He exchanged one of his for two of the others.  Needless to say, his herds grew as he fattened up the new cattle and then traded them for even more cattle.

The first view of the house is a simple frame building.
But walk around back and it is a huge edifice.

Conrad Kohrs was a German immigrant and we were fascinated by his very decorated Victorian house, not at all what we expected from a frontier home.  It could have been a historical site in Boston or New York. Sadly, such is the fear of people not being able to shut off their flashes, that no photography is allowed inside the house.

The ranch is still functioning and gives wonderful insights into the history of and current methods of ranching, explaining how the bad winter of 1868 changed cattle ranching.  The tremendous loss of animals after a summer drought and vicious winter, led to the realization that winter feed was needed to maintain the herds.

We enjoyed cowboy coffee from the chuck wagon and we chatted to a guitarist/luthier (!) from Pennsylvania who was singing original cowboy songs. 

Coffee fix at the chuck wagon.
Memories of how we used to cook when camping in Botswana.
Like many National Park Service sites, the ranch featured active displays, like the blacksmith’s shop.
https://pbase.com/diplostrat/image/169600296
The ranch extended all the way to the mountains – simply huge.
https://pbase.com/diplostrat/image/169600299
Official National Park Service cat – bored with tourists.
https://pbase.com/diplostrat/image/169600300

It was very pleasant visit.

The July 4 celebration in town took place inside the Old Prison compound and took the form of a pig roast and pot luck.  We were somewhat amazed that a town could be small enough to hold a pot luck that everyone could attend!  We dutifully stopped at the supermarket in town and purchased makings for a pasta salad for our pot luck contribution.  As we are still using the ARB electric cooler, we were unable to refrigerate anything large.  Armed with the salad and insect repellent against the vicious mosquitoes, we set off for the celebration.  It was fun, there was live music for the first part and then we ate dinner. 

No, they didn’t play Folsom Prison Blues!
With the second set, folks were dancing.
Enough for the whole town. Literally.

The pig was excellent!  By this point we were cold,  so we retired to the camper for a coffee and some warmth before returning for the fireworks.  When it is still light at 10.15 PM, showing fireworks gets very late!  But the firework display was fantastic.  It lasted about 20 minutes and was even more amazing as it was one of at least four displays, all at the same time.

As we had received notification that our new fridge was being delivered, we began heading south back to Nevada.  We did make a couple of stops en route.  The first was to Bannack State Park.  We had originally stopped at Nevada City, hoping to ride the Alder Gulch narrow gauge railway to Virginia City.  We discovered it was not running on the day we arrived and Nevada City, a rebuilt town, looked rather like a tourist trap.  So the authentic ghost town at Bannack State Park looked more like something we would enjoy, plus there was a campsite there.  (http://bannack.org) So, off we went. 

The campsite was lovely and we ended up staying two nights.  We walked over to the “town” and had a most interesting and enjoyable visit.  We purchased the information and self guided tour book for $2.00 which proved to be most worthwhile.  It contained lots of information about life in the mining town and how hard it was.

Looking over the town towards the river and the hillside where most of the gold was found. Most of the gold was placer gold, dredged out of the river.

https://pbase.com/diplostrat/image/169604544
School/Masonic Lodge
https://pbase.com/diplostrat/image/169604537
Mining gear – dredge buckets, torpedo hoist buckets, and hydraulic cannons/nozzles.
https://pbase.com/diplostrat/image/169604541
One of the first houses built, expanded and used well into the twentieth century.
https://pbase.com/diplostrat/image/169604535
Beautiful stairway from hotel lobby.
https://pbase.com/diplostrat/image/169604545
Grave above the town. Mining took its toll.
https://pbase.com/diplostrat/image/169604543
Some of the houses looked as if people had just stepped out for a moment.
https://pbase.com/diplostrat/image/169604536

And then we headed for Idaho.  

Still Searching for Moose!

We left Casper heading north-west en route to Thermopolis.  On the way, we stopped for lunch, quite by accident, at a pull off at Hell’s Half Acre!  It looks over a small, isolated, and deeply eroded valley full of painted desert colors and fanciful shapes. It used to have a restaurant, but now there are only slabs at the overlook. Hell’s Half Acre has been used in various movies, most famously “Starship Troopers” where it became Klendathau, the bug planet! 

As lunch spots go, it was quite spectacular! And we were not bothered by bugs, big or small. Movie fans take note. Like the Alabama Hills, Hell’s Half Acre is an interesting study in how a tiny space can appear huge when you carefully control the camera angles. Hell’s Half Acre was used for the scenes of the capture of the Brain Bug. Other scenes were shot in South Dakota and California.

Thermopolis sounds rather Greek but is actually a pleasant Wyoming town which is the site of multiple hot springs.  (http://thermopolis.com) We stopped at the Hot Springs State Park but decided not to soak there with hundreds of our nearest and dearest acquaintances. It was a Saturday afternoon and the places were all heaving.  So we headed for the Fountain of Youth campground which had its own pools for soaking. It turned out to be a rather ordinary commercial campground, but has three large hot spring pools.  (https://camphotsprings.com) Denise soaked a while in the coolest of the three, which was plenty warm enough for her!  Fred did get into the middle pool for a short while and he said it was hot!  The third pool was too hot to enter, but flowed into the second, which flowed into the first, which flowed out via a channel.  All quite ingenious.  We both enjoyed it all more than we expected to!  We should note that no photos of the soaking experience were taken!

Heading north again, we stopped in Cody, home of Buffalo Bill Cody.  To say that it is his town would not be an exaggeration!  We camped in a lovely campsite beside the Buffalo Bill Reservoir, in the Buffalo Bill State Park. 

And while in Cody we spent a day at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, which was a most interesting collection of museums, connected to the Smithsonian in DC.  (https://centerofthewest.org)  Sounds a bit like a tourist trap, but it is actually a very serious set of museums. All were excellently done, especially the Draper Museum of Natural History, which gave insights into local flora and fauna.  We also enjoyed the Museum of William Cody (Buffalo Bill) and the Plains Indian Gallery.  Denise enjoyed the Gallery of Western Art with paintings both historic and modern.  The Firearms Museum was under renovation.  They also have a selection of raptors and we enjoyed meeting a very well behaved screech owl! These are all birds that have been injured and cannot survive on their own in the wild.

Our next adventure was a visit to the town of Kirwin, a ghost mining town in the mountains about 60 miles away.  (https://www.wyohistory.org/encyclopedia/kirwin-wyoming)  We were initially worried by all of the “we’re-all-going-to-die” posts on the Internet, especially as the 917 is a bit bigger than a Jeep, but after a lifetime in Africa and especially in the Andes, we decided to give it a try. The first part was paved to Meeteetse and a bit beyond.  Then the road was a well graded gravel one. 

Finally, as we started to climb into the mountains through the Shoshone National Forest, the road was rockier and rougher.  It also included four river crossings, one of these involved driving down the river for 100 yards or so!  This reminded us of the times we hiked to view the forest elephants in Bangui which also involved much time walking through a river!  We were concerned about the water levels in the river as there had been so much rain this spring, but the the crossings were made without a problem. 

While it is clear that the road could get interesting in the rain or snow, it turned out to be very easy when dry.

The trail was almost always at least one lane wide.

The ghost town was at 9,000 feet and a bit bleak on a cloudy day, with 12,000 foot peaks all around. 

The mines were long abandoned but some of the buildings remained.

While we only met one vehicle on the way in, there was a constant stream of trucks and 4×4 off road buggies coming and going.  The flowers however, were beautiful in the slightly lower altitudes; miniature lupins, purple milk vetch, harebells and possibly Rocky Mountain iris. 

 

9,000 feet is high, so we descended a bit and camped at the Brown Mountain Campground run by the Forestry Service. It proved a delightful spot.  We were the only people there and enjoyed seeing a number of pronghorn and mule deer, passing by to feed and drink.  And, the next morning, we finally saw a moose! A young one, but a real, live, moose at last! 

Back in Cody, we treated ourselves to a lunch of wood fired pizza at the Trailhead restaurant (http://www.trailheadcodywy.com) and returned to the campground at Buffalo Bill State Park.

We wanted to see the Medicine Wheel, a sacred American Indian site in the Big Horn Mountains, but on our way, we stopped for lunch at the Visitor Center for the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area.  (https://www.nps.gov/bica/index.htm) A gentleman we met in the parking lot recommended that we visit the Canyon, chatting as he admired the camper!  So into the Visitor Center we went and saw the movie and then asked for information.  The Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area stretches into Montana and in fact we ended up camping at the Barry’s Landing campground in Montana.  There are wild horses, bighorn sheep and various other deer wandering in certain areas, though in our particular case the bighorn sheep had gone to higher altitudes as it was hot.  We stopped at the Devil Canyon Overlook for spectacular views of the Bighorn Canyon and Lake before camping. 

While we admired the view, the deer admired us.

We also visited a ghost ranch  owned by the “cattle queens”, Caroline Lockhart, also an author and journalist.  The site was green and lovely but one could only imagine how cold it is in the winter!

Descending the road we stopped to admire the tipi circles and mustangs.

The valley has hundreds of these stone circles. The stones were used to anchor the bases of tipis.

Back on route to the Medicine Wheel, we tackled one of the most spectacular roads we have ever driven, Wyoming 14 Alt.  The road closes in the winter and we can certainly see why.  (http://www.whp.dot.state.wy.us/home/ports/mountain_road_information.html) It climbs about 4,000 feet in about 5 miles at a 10 percent grade and would be just as bad going down as going up. 

We did rather crawl at times, but we made it and enjoyed the spectacular views some of which are over 200 miles. Much has been written about the Moki Dugway, but we think that 14A matches it.

The Medicine Wheel was well worth the visit.  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medicine_Wheel/Medicine_Mountain_National_Historic_Landmark) The Forest Service had only just opened it for the season and there were still some snow banks covering the trail but the views were spectacular.  The Medicine Wheel is sacred to several American Indian tribes and we saw various offerings and prayer bundles at different spots.  Interestingly, since no one really knows who built the circle or when, it is considered a universal site and thus, unlike Devil’s Tower, there are no restrictions on photography of offerings, etc. The roundtrip path is only about three miles but at 10,000 feet of altitude and clambering through the snowbanks, we felt it. 

The trail rises up to the wheel.

How long have these rocks been arranged like this? Why? And by whom?

We then headed for a Forest Service campground back on Rte 14A where we found a lovely site and settled in for the night.

The next morning we headed out heading for Montana and to Denise’s delight there was a moose on duty, browsing at the entrance to the campground.  Denise was happy!

A moose at last!

Going to the Devil 

We set off to Devils Tower through a rainstorm or two and arrived at the National Park Service campsite just before the next downpour! 

Devils Tower from the road in. And yes, the mountains on the left are new towers in the making.

From the campsite, we were able to walk up to visit with the prairie dogs in a huge prairie dog town. They are so cute, popping in and out of their holes and chittering warnings to the rest of the pack.  Cutest were the little ones who liked to play as well as eat!

Back at our campsite we took in the Ranger presentation and simply marveled at that the Tower was RIGHT THERE, completely dominating our view. Never have we seen a campsite with an equal view.

That night the heavens opened. No flying saucers, but lots of rain.

The next morning it was obvious that we were going to have to stay a second night in order to fully enjoy the park, so after getting change from a nearby camper, we paid our fee!  

We then set off to hike up to the Visitor Center and walk the Tower Trail around the base of the Tower.  The 1.3 miles to the Visitor Center felt a lot further as most of it was seriously uphill but we made it and joined a Ranger tour of the Tower Trail.  He was a source of great information including where the ladder up the tower was located and various dates connected to its history.  Sadly, we learned that the flying saucers actually landed in a building in Mobile, Alabama. (Curse you, Steven Spielberg!) After a quick visit to the Visitor Center, we hiked back to the campground and to our lunch! (And vowed to bring granola bars or trail mix the next time!)

Along the way we met a lady who shared this truism: You climb on your heart and descend on your knees. Ain’t it the truth! Total distance was about four miles, which gave us a great appetite!

The next day we set off for Deadwood, a historical site and former mining town in South Dakota that has kept a lot of its old buildings and charm.  We wandered the Main Street, admired some of the architecture and even managed to find a latte in former gasoline station. And, if that were not odd enough, they also did glass blowing. 

It turns out that we were seen by some friends with a Tiger who live nearby. They were not in their Tiger, so we did not recognize them and, by the time we got their phone messages, it was too late to visit. But this gives us all the more incentive to return.

Courtesy of the Reader’s Digest book, “Off the Beaten Path,” we knew that there is the Chapel in the Hills, a copy of a Norwegian “Stavekirk” or wooden stave church, in Rapid City. This we had to see! It turned out the be a simply lovely site, on the side of a mountain, right in a residential area. The church resembles the wooden construction of a Viking Long Ship and is simply beautiful. And yes, it is in daily use. (http://www.chapel-in-the-hills.org)

We wanted to drive the Wildlife Viewing Loop at Custer State Park because they have about 1500 bison and Denise wanted to see the bison (and other animals).  Camping space is at a premium, so we had booked one of the last three sites available. By sheer dumb luck, it turned out to be just lovely. Animal viewing is often best at the end of the day, and so, with our fingers crossed, we set out on the wildlife viewing loop. It was a disappointing tour.  We saw both mule and pronghorn deer, wild donkeys, and some wild turkeys. Finally, we saw one lone bison, trying to shelter from the pouring rain.  So back to the campsite for supper we went, vowing to try again in the morning.

And after breakfast, we set off again.  This time our loop was much more successful.  We had a bison traffic jam and found bison all around us, behind us, next to us and in front of us.  Most had calves with them and they were so darling.  A bit playful and a bit scared at the same time. 

When we finally ran out of bison, we left the park to head back to Casper and drove through the Wind Cave Park, where we saw even more bison and some more prairie dogs.  So feeling well and truly fortunate, we headed for our campsite in Casper.  

We did make one stop at the Ayres Natural Bridge, an absolutely gorgeous and green oasis in the middle of the generally dry desert. The Bridge was noted by some heading west in the wagon trains.  We even saw domestic bison in a field as we drove to it! (https://www.wyohistory.org/encyclopedia/ayres-natural-bridge)

But then it was time to sort out fridges and coolers at our campsite, do laundry and other chores before heading out north the next day.

The Oregon Trail Revisited

The BNSF railroad runs massive coal trains from Wyoming to electrical plants in the south. We were used to big trains, but this empty train heading north was one of the longest we have ever seen.

Entering Wyoming we spent our first night at an amazing campground at the Vedauwoo Recreation Area.  It is an area full of huge boulders and cliffs and is a very popular climbing site.  It reminded us of an area south of Jos in Nigeria, that we had camped in during our trip across the Sahara. (https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/regions/Rocky_Mountain/VedauwooRecAreaPoleMtn/index.shtml)

We then headed north to Casper through some lovely green country (obviously lots of rain here also!) where we saw lots of pronghorn deer grazing in the meadows with the cattle.  And there were lots of cattle!  Courtesy of the Harvest Hosts website  we found Historic Trails West, who offered free camping for the night if we joined one of their covered Conestoga wagon expeditions along the Oregon Trail.  (https://www.historictrailswest.com)

This sounded like tons of fun, and is just the sort of silly thing we enjoy, so we signed up for a wagon ride/pioneer dinner.  And it WAS tons of fun!  The driver included explanations of the Trail and background into the lives of those heading west.  Most fascinating was how to get the two Percheron horses (not authentic from the time but practical) and the wagonload of people safely down a steep part of the trail.  Not to mention getting them up it again on the return.  Our meal was excellent, especially the cherry cobbler!

We spent a pleasant night up on the bluff surrounded by pronghorn deer and stayed warm and dry while the wind howled and the rain fell!  We have been experiencing lots of afternoon storms in Colorado and in Wyoming and some of them are quite violent.

The driver of our Conestoga wagon told us about the annual National Collegiate Rodeo Championship taking place in Casper at that time, so we decided to delay a day to attend the semi finals.  We had no idea that Western universities had rodeo teams and competed against each other for money and prizes.  We thoroughly enjoyed our first rodeo and watched with awe the bronco riding, the steer riding, and all the other events.  The skill of the riders and their horses is incredible. Fred, on the other hand, was most impressed that the majority of the broncos, steers, and even goats, made an immediate bee line for the exit chute as soon as their event was over. There were, of course, “shaggers” to catch and direct the animals, but in most cases it simply wasn’t  necessary, the animals knew when their event was over and left of their own accord. It may have been our first rodeo, but it was clearly not theirs.

We also visited the Fort Caspar fort and museum.  The site had long been used by traders, emigrants, and settlers. Over the years various trading posts, military installations, fords, ferries, and a bridge were built there.  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fort_Caspar)

Still in Oregon Trail mode, we headed south to visit Independence Rock.  This rock was a gathering point and market for those heading west. Lots of names were carved on it by the settlers and it was known as the goal to be reached by July 4, so as to avoid the greater likelihood of winter snows in the mountains as they progressed to Oregon.  We did not find many clear inscriptions probably as we did not climb the rock itself. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Independence_Rock_(Wyoming)) We also went to look at Devil’s Gate, a cleft in the mountain that the settlers had noted and visited on their route west. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devil%27s_Gate_(Wyoming)) We were not able to get closer than the overlook. From Independence Rock, the emigrants began an easy, one hundred mile climb to South Pass, a remarkably low and wide pass in the Rocky Mountains. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Pass_(Wyoming)) Looking back at Lewis and Clark, and others, the South Pass was a kind of Shangri-La for European Americans trying to travel west. And by making it easy to cross the Rocky Mountains, the South Pass helped spell the death knell for the Plains Indian nations.

New and improved panorama! Now even wider!

While on this jaunt, we realized that our refrigerator was not working well, again! So we turned it off, restarted it and prayed it would get its act together. We camped for the night beside the North Platte River in one of the BLM fishing camps, Chalk Bluffs.

The next morning our refrigerator (the one that was replaced last year in Maine) was really dead. So we returned to our campground in Casper with the aim of getting it looked at. The campground, the Casper East RV park (http://caspereastrvpark.com), welcomed us back and recommended a local RV repair shop. The shop, however However, told us to go away until August so we decided on Plan B. We ordered an ARB 50 quart plug in unit from Amazon and a new refrigerator,  a Nova Kool this time, the same as we had in the Tiger. We no longer trust the Thetford Norcold.  Meanwhile Denise borrowed a cooler from the camp owner which she will return when we return on Thursday to pick up our ARB. We did mention that the RV park was wonderful?

Why We Love the Loneliest Road or back on Route 50 again.

Our next stop was in Nevada to visit friends. They are long time travelers who recently moved to Nevada following a disastrous house fire. (http://robinsonfuso.com) Now established in Nevada, Jon has let his tool and equipment fancy take flight and has, I think, one each of everything from 3D printer to tractor.

The perfect place to pull out the cassette toilet and replace it with a composting toilet. We loved our Nature’s Head on the Tiger, but this time went with a C-Head as it is a better fit for the tiny bath on the 917. Jon was in fine form, machining a foot for the front of the toilet, reworking the teak shower floor, 3D printing a shower plug, and even repurposing the fan and vent from the SOG so that the C-Head has a power vent. Did I mention Jon’s superb craftsmanship?

And if you were wondering, the C-Head is wonderful. (http://c-head.com) Look for a compare/contrast with the Nature’s Head in a future post.

Time to head east for our appointment at Terry Lee Enterprises in La Junta so we set off east along Route 50.  What more could we ask?  The pavement is good, the traffic light, and the scenery spectacular. Plus we know where the camping places are.  We ran in and out of rainstorms as we drove, which helped to explain how green everything was this year (much greener than the last time we drove Route 50 two years ago).

And we stopped, as always, in our favorite town of Ely.  Ely always provides what we need, when we need it and whatever it may be.  Previously we needed a car wash, a new fuse for electric steps, and espresso.  Ely provided.  On that trip we discovered the Happy Valley Chinese restaurant and thoroughly enjoyed lunch there.  Another time, all we needed  was dinner at the Happy Valley restaurant and a state park for an overnight. Again, Ely provided. This time we needed peat moss in a reasonably sized package for our new composting toilet, a supermarket, and of course lunch.  Ely provided, so we bought a perfectly sized pack of peat moss and our Chinese lunch was wonderful.  (And the portions so large that we got three more dinners out of it!) Unfortunately we have never managed to be there at the weekend to ride the steam train, but we live in hopes that we may manage that one of these days. Any excuse to return.

We continued east towards the Great Basin.

After a nostalgic night’s camping in the Great Basin National Park, we entered Utah near the town of Delta where Route 50 wanders rather and finally becomes 1-70. 

But we were back on 50 as we left Grand Junction, heading through Colorado. Another night of nostalgia as we found the Dry Gulch campground in the Curecanti National Recreation Area for the third time.

Our first tourist stop was Fort Uncompaghre in Delta, Colorado.  (http://fortuncompahgre.org) It took us a while to find it and we enjoyed our driving tour of the town!  The fort, like Bents Old Fort near La Junta, which we had previously visited, was a trading post in the 1800’s. This is a reconstructed site and extremely well done.  We have visited a couple of these forts and we learn something new each time. 

The whole history of the Santa Fe trail and the “Old Spanish Trail” to Mexico City and Los Angeles (La Ciudad de Nuestra Señora de los Angles) is fascinating and relatively little known. This time we learned how valuable were the furs which the trappers caught and the reason for the preference for beaver hats in Europe – the fur is naturally waterproof. Georgette Heyer and Jane Austin fans take note! Now you know why Mr. Darcy, and others, favored curly beaver hats.

The various trails, Oregon, Santa Fe, “Old Spanish”,  and the rest, are interesting studies in geography as destiny. Some of them went hundreds of miles out of the way to find a lower pass through the mountains, or more assured water and grazing for animals. We you consider that they were all traversed mostly on foot, this could mean weeks of extra travel. On the other hand, it could be the difference between arriving alive and perishing in the desert. In contrast, European trade routes were known and in habited for thousands of years. The only thing similar may be the Silk Road. Even the trans Sahara routes had been used for millennia.

We spent the night at the Winery of the Holy Cross Abbey, in Cañon City, Colorado, courtesy of the Harvest Hosts group.  (Of course we purchased a couple of bottles of wine, which we shall enjoy!)  It was a pleasant spot with nice views of the abbey.

On a whim, we decided to ride the the Royal Gorge Railroad through Colorado’s Royal Gorge.  This proved to be great trip on a beautiful sunny morning.  We booked breakfast on the 9.15 a.m. train and enjoyed our 2 hour ride, through the Gorge, with eyes open for animals, while enjoying our breakfast burritos and coffee.  We saw various deer, both mule and pronghorn, and missed the supposed sightings of the bighorn sheep, though some saw them!  The camouflage is so good it is hard to see the animals unless they move.  

We then headed up the road to La Junta. We checked into the little motel and took the 917 to Terry Lee Enterprises bright and early on Monday morning. We didn’t need much, and indeed, the spare tire carrier probably could have been modified by any welding shop, but it felt good to let Billy modify his own creation. We changed every fluid and replaced several pinion seals. The bottom of the truck is much cleaner now.

The truck done, we headed back to Cañon City to buy more wine. (Well, it was excellent and they let us stay a second night!) The next morning we took a four mile walk along the old railroad path overlooking the Arkansas River. We went through three tunnels which had been cut by hand by prisoners from the penitentiary in Cañon City. Cut by hand as no one was going to give prisoners dynamite! We took photos of the train as it went and returned and then we met a herd of big horn sheep. None of this viewing through the train window – we were up close and personal. To be fair, I think the sheep were much less impressed than we were.

We then headed off for Leadville with an afternoon coffee stop at the Brown Dog in Buena Vista, another find from a previous trip. (https://browndogcoffee.com) We found a wonderful, huge dispersed camping area just outside of town and settled in for the night.

The great AT&T coverage let us make our first blog post of this trip.

Discovering Route 395

After Overland EXPO, we wanted to go somewhere to shoot pictures of the 917 in action. Bad weather put paid to plans to return to the Valley of the Gods, so we headed west, across Death Valley to California.

Along the way we stopped for the obligatory photo on old Route 66,

We did not spend any time in Death Valley; we merely popped through the 20 Mule Team Canyon, but that said, it is spectacular.

The grades into the valley test your exhaust brake to the maximum! Oh, and the views are amazing. But with an 18,000 lb. vehicle, the road commands a lot of attention.

A grade of almost 10%. Note the road continuing across the valley.

In May the temperature in the valley is not bad, but you can imagine what it is in high summer!

Climbing out the the valley, we camped at an abandoned work site, known as “The Slabs.” (The old foundation slabs make nice level campstites!)

Once into California, we turned north on US 395. We had never heard of Route 395 which runs along the Sierra Nevada, but we very much enjoyed driving it.  We are not alone – it even has a Facebook group.

Our first stop was the Alabama Hills. The Hills have been Hollywood’s secret weapon since the 1930’s. You want the Hindu Kush (“Gunga Din”), the Lone Ranger’s massacre site, Afghanistan (“Iron Man”), a burned villa (“Gladiator”), or simply spectacular scenery for westerns, great and not so great? The Alabama Hills provide it all in an area about two by five miles. We drove around the rocks a bit (proving that the swing away rear bumper would swing!) and then settled in for the night.

No, we are not in the Hindu Kush.

The next day dawned grey and dismal, but we still drove under Gunga Din’s bridge, almost by accident. (Sadly, Annie, the elephant, was no longer there.) This is a great video: https://vimeo.com/8561946

The bridge spanned from the concrete in the foreground to the rock on the other side of the truck. The “yawning chasm” was a matte shot. You are standing where Annie the elephant stood when she shook the bridge.

We left the Alabama Hills and headed into Lone Pine to visit the Film History Museum.  This was most interesting with everything from cars used in the era to memorabilia and posters from different movies.  Fred especially liked the old movie camera car, used to film racing cowboys and crashing wagons.

The town of Lone Pine has what may be the most beautiful McDonald’s in the world. (We went to the espresso bar, not as scenic, but better coffee.)

All of the scenery on Route 395 was incredible, though we could have wished for better weather – rain, clouds and even snow were our constant companions. 

Then it was time for a visit to a most moving and sad location, Manzanar, National Historic Site. One of the Japanese Internment Camps, established after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it housed about 120,000 ethnic Japanese of which 60% were US citizens. They, for the most part, lost everything; homes, businesses, and even pets were abandoned at short notice. Allowed to carry, only a suitcase, they were forced into the windy, dusty high desert environment.  Parts of the camp have been reconstructed and interviews with former residents tell their stories. A very sad and shameful part of our history.

As we continued our drive north, we stopped at the Laws Train Museum and Historical Site, a collection of old houses and memorabilia from the late 1800’s and one of the last narrow gauge engines and cars from west of the Rockies.  The Laws Depot from 1883 is there.  Other than the falling rain, it was pleasant.

Heading north still, we decided to see the Obsidian Dome, a volcanic feature amongst a number of volcanic calderas, cones and lava flows.  As the road climbed, the rain turned to snow and we found ourselves in deep drifts.  Of course we managed to get stuck as we were not expecting this and were not even in 4×4.  (Yes, we should have been).  This posed a bit of a problem – we had sand ladders and “Go Treds” but no shovel. (Don’t even say it!) We successfully extricated ourselves using the rear winch. For the first time in our lives, Mr. “I-don’t-need-no-stinkin-winch” was saved by a winch. (Yes, we did have a nice new tree strap.) Actually, the truth is that Denise ran the winch while Fred drove.

Denise, a beautiful wench, or is it winch?

Once out, the snow was falling, so we decided to stay put and camped beside the drift!!  Next morning we had a dusting of snow on us but the sun was shining!  We had not seen it in so long!

Our final stop on 395 before heading into Nevada was at the Mono Lake, known for its tufas.  Mono Lake is a salt lake, which forms tufas, strange spires and knobs, when fresh water springs containing calcium bubble up through the lake water and combine with the carbonate-rich waters of the lake. 

We started at the Visitor Center and then retraced our steps to the South Tufa area where a footpath led down to the lake and close encounters with both dry and wet tufa.  There are no fish in the lake only briny shrimp, which are a favored source of food for several migrating birds.  There are also alkali flies which are a food source.  There were a few birds around but we did not visit in the main migration season.

The Mono Basin is very volcanic with the youngest mountain range in the US.  For example, Panum Crater only erupted 650 years ago.

As we left, we went to the Panum Crater, and climbed up the side to view the lake and the crater, before heading into Lee Vining to enjoy an ice-cream on the first sunny day in a week!  And on to Nevada where we planned to visit friends, for the Memorial Day weekend.