Last year, we followed key historical events of the Civil War on our travels through South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Mississippi. This year, we followed the Indian Wars during our travels through South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Arkansas and Alabama.
Standing outside the RV on a hot and windy July evening, the eerie whistling of the stiff winds through the trees sparked my imagination of a wintery cold night as anything could. I gazed upon a Nebraska great plains scene from our Fort Robinson State Park campsite and thought about the feeling of freezing temperatures whipped up by the wind, knowing how it can cut you to the bone like a steely knife. I thought about that after visiting the Fort Robinson Museum and learning about the massacre that took place on these grounds in the winter of 1879. Contributing to my dark feelings were the comments from a park employee concerning the common sound of the wind through the trees that are thought to be spirits crying in the night.
What spirits? On March 29, 1874, Camp Robinson was established as a military post within the U.S. Red Cloud Indian Agency, a parcel of land designated for the resettlement of 13,000 Lakota Indians. The agency was created from the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 as were many other agencies or precursors to Indian Reservations. Camp Robinson was set up to protect the Agency and became the location of Crazy Horse’s murder, and soon after a massacre of Cheyenne Indians.
Following the battle of the Little Bighorn, the U.S. Government ramped up its war on the Native Americans. After suffering several defeats, the Indians began to drift into the agencies and surrender. Crazy Horse himself, the victor of Little Bighorn was convinced to return to Camp Robinson and give himself up. On September 5, he was taken to the guardhouse where something happened that caused him to bolt out the door. In a split second he received a fatal bayonet wound from a sentry guard. Hours later, Crazy Horse died from his wound on September 5, 1877.
Approximately one year and four months later, a band of captured Cheyenne led by Dull Knife broke out of Camp Robinson where they had been starved of food, water, and wood for heat as an attempt by the U.S. military to force the Indians into submission. The goal of the military was to make the Cheyenne return to Indian Territory in Oklahoma where the band had fled earlier in attempt to return to their land north of Nebraska. The consequence of Dull Knife’s group of about 150 men, women and children breakout was the massacre of all but 60 of the escapees who were captured and returned to Camp Robinson on January 22, 1879.
While camped at Fort Robinson State Park, the horrors of those days can be easily forgotten on the park’s friendly grounds where visitors can leisurely bicycle or walk around while taking in the historical sites. Horse back riding is a common activity here and one can enjoy a modest meal at the park’s lodge. In the days before Covid-19, hayride and chuckwagon cookouts were provided as entertainment. In the evening, Fort Robinson’s campgrounds are a familiar site with campers sitting comfortably outside their RV or tent, grilling and chilling. We had two days, so we assigned one day to immerse ourselves in Fort Robinson history and the second day to explore the surrounding area where we continued our Great Plains education.
Nebraska’s 200-mile Bridges to Buttes Scenic Byway (highway 20) bisects Fort Robinson State Park. It was along this highway that we explored the history of northwest Nebraska’s great plains beginning with the very small town of Crawford. It is one of hundreds we have seen during our travel; a once thriving rural community, now a skeleton of dilapidated buildings, some with a hint of life in them. We imagined growing up there and what might convince a young person to stay on past high school. The prospects look dim and from what I could tell Staab’s Drive-Inn (not a typo) is the only lucrative business that employs local teenagers. Crawford once thrived when the railroads reached Fort Robinson to bring in supplies to the soldiers. It became the entertainment center for the soldiers and fur traders, gaining quite a reputation as a wild frontier town as you can imagine. Oddly enough later in our travels and far away from Crawford, we met two RVers on two separate occasions who were born and raised in Crawford, NE, current population of 1116.
We continued driving east to the larger and more robust community of Chadron, home of Chadron State College. Chadron began as a fur trading post in 1841. Railroads led to its growth as did higher education that was brought to Northwest Nebraska in 1909 with the founding of Chadron State College. There we ate our packed lunch at a beautiful city park (Wilson Park) where a few others seemed to go to escape their office cubicles for an hour. Nearby was the college campus where we visited the Mari Sandoz High Plains Visitor Center.
The Mari Sandoz High Plains Visitor Center is more than that; it contains exhibits and is an active research facility containing ecological, geological and sociological collections relating to the great plains, with some art thrown in for show. An author of dozens of books, Sandoz was born and lived much of her life in the great plains, of which is the focus of her books. She wrote about Crazy Horse and the Sioux, she wrote about the fur traders, she wrote about the cattlemen, and she wrote about the buffalo hunters. Her detailed research makes each of her books an historical account of high plains life, especially relevant when coming from a woman who grew up there in a family of immigrant pioneers.
To round out our Great Plains education, we visited the Museum of Fur Trade, located a few miles east of Chadron. The museum is where over 6000 authentic artifacts are displayed to help tell the stories and history of the North American fur trade. Do not underestimate this distinctive attraction – it presents an interesting view of American history.
The trade industry was huge back in the day and the museum touts it as the first business in the New World. Fur trade was a significant means for Native Tribes to acquire many things, including firearms to resist the U.S. Government. There is so much going on here, that a quarterly journal is published through the museum. For the film “The Revenant” the producers relied on the Museum of Fur Trade for its authenticity.
Vivian and I never imagined the rich history that we would be exposed to during our visit to northwestern Nebraska. While planning, we basically lumped together our travels through Nebraska and Kansas into one segment – great plains states with a history but largely void of iconic national parks and archetypal landscapes and wildlife. To the contrary, both Nebraska and Kansas are full of surprises that transcend the prevailing flat farmlands. Stay tuned as we take you further into it, next time.
PS The title of this blog is a quote from Dave Barry’s Only Travel Guide You’ll Ever Need, 1991.
Our RV was parked in the Black Hills of South Dakota for two weeks. The history and legend of these hills, not the least of which is that they constitute sacred land to the Lakota Sioux people did not escape us. After a long and drawn-out conflict between the U.S. government and the Lakota, the government seized the land in 1877. From that point on, the Black Hills have experienced mining, logging, recreational uses, and two monumental stone carvings, both of which we came to see.
Our visit to the Crazy Horse Memorial was a way to pay humble respects to Native American history and to learn from it. Unfortunately, undertones of shame were difficult to ignore. And while our visit to Mt Rushmore was to pay respects to our national parks, it came with subdued pride for our democracy. Nevertheless, the tug-of-war between pride and shame dissipated when we were stopped in our tracks and stood in awe of the extraordinary human accomplishment of such massive stone carvings. Instead of immersing ourselves in Crazy Horse’s story (this will come later in our travels), we found ourselves paying more attention to the life and work of Korczak Ziolkowski. Instead of reflecting on each President’s accomplishments and how they shaped our American democracy, we could not stop thinking about John Gutzon Borglum.
To put it as bluntly as possible, each monument is the creation of an egotistical white man with visions of grandeur. Initially, the Mt Rushmore project was the idea of South Dakota’s historian Doane Robinson to promote tourism to the state. Robinson wanted to pay tribute to the great American West by way of a stone carving that would include the likeness of a Lakota Chief and famed explorers Lewis and Clark, among others. He invited nationally renowned American artist John Gutzon Borglum to do the work. Interestingly at the time of this invitation, Borglum had begun a project in Georgia with a different take on American democracy.
Borglum was an opportunist – a worthy trait for an artist and a necessary one to become nationally renowned. He was also quick tempered – not uncommon among opportunistic artists, I suspect. And he was racist – also not uncommon among white Americans during his time. He once said, “I would not trust an Indian off-hand, 9 out of 10, where I would not trust a white man 1 out of 10.” Each of these traits worked together to bring him atop Stone Mountain in 1915 and eventually to Mt Rushmore. It was Borglum’s national reputation (and perhaps his racism?) that led him to Helen Plane of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Ku Klux Klan.
Plane invited him to carve a 20-ft bust of Robert E. Lee on the 800-ft face of Stone Mountain. Borglum suggested her idea would amount to nothing more than a postage stamp on a large stone face, so he conceived a monument of grander scale. His vision included Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson riding their horses, followed by artillery troops. To honor the major financial backers of the monument, the KKK, Borglum agreed to build an alter to them when offered the following proposal from Helen Plane, “I feel it is due to the KKK that saved us from Negro domination and carpetbag rule, that it be immortalized on Stone Mountain.”
Within a year’s time, Borglum’s headstrong will clashed with the financiers of the monument and came to a violent head when the artist smashed his clay and plaster models. He left Georgia permanently and ended his tenure with the KKK, which was likely prompted by Doane Robinson’s more lucrative invitation. Borglum discarded Robinson’s original idea and came up with his own vision to include four presidents representing his personal symbolism of America – birth (George Washington), growth (Thomas Jefferson), development (Theodore Roosevelt), and preservation (Abraham Lincoln). The carving commenced in 1927 and Borglum devoted his remaining 14 years of life to the 60-ft tall profiles that would emerge from Mt Rushmore. His son Lincoln finished it for him after he died in 1941.
Meanwhile, Chief Henry Standing Bear had a vision to counteract the newly created monument dedicated to the United States of America. Chief Henry Standing Bear wrote, “My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know the red man has great heroes, too.” This was written to another well recognized and highly accomplished American stone artist, Korczak Ziolowski. It took Ziolowski a couple years to mull it over and create some designs for this monumental work of art. But like Borglum, Ziolowski never met an opportunity he didn’t like.
Ziolkowski set out to design the Crazy Horse Memorial, ultimately to become the world’s largest stone-carved monument. And unlike Mt Rushmore, it would be created three-dimensionally from one side of the mountain to the other. One can imagine Ziolkowski’s motivations to take on such a project that he expected to complete in 30 years. Perhaps his difficult background growing up in abusive foster homes gave him a deeper sensitivity to the Sioux Nation’s plight, or perhaps it was being in the shadow of Borglum during his stint as an assistant on the Mt Rushmore project. After all, Chief Henry Standing Bear offered Ziolkowski an opportunity to outdo the other famous stone carver. Or maybe it has nothing to do with Borglum or the Sioux Nation, rather it was simply an opportunity to do something no other had done or was willing to do. Perhaps none or all the above. Whatever his initial motivation, Ziolkowski blasted away the first pieces of Thunderhead Mountain in 1948 and commenced to dedicate the rest of his life (and his family’s) to carving it.
Approximately 17 miles from Mt Rushmore is the Crazy Horse Memorial on Thunderhead Mountain. The completed head of Crazy Horse is 87 ½ ft, much larger than a president’s head on Mt Rushmore. The entire completed memorial will be 563 feet high and 641 feet long. Although the memorial is unfinished, the vision of its completion looms large beyond the detailed and completed face of the Lakota leader. The Crazy Horse Memorial came into existence to counter the nearby monument to America and it is probably for that reason it remains unfinished with no end in sight. Indeed, funds from the U.S. Government have been refused numerous times. Regardless of its relationship to Mt Rushmore, the memorial to Crazy Horse was inspired by the spirit of the Sioux Nation, while the stone carving itself is the mega-vision of one artist.
So, what did we come away with from our visit to these great monuments? The obvious take away is that together they represent a large piece of American history, both bright and dark. For that reason, we recommend anyone traveling to South Dakota to visit both monuments. But mostly, we learned the stories behind two amazing stone carvings. We learned the motivation behind the extraordinary creation of each monument began with the work of one artist. Mt Rushmore National Monument and Crazy Horse Memorial – two artists, two egos, two visions, two lives dedicated, two immortal stone-carved monuments. That is quite a legacy.
The American Alligator is synonymous with The Everglades. I can remember clearly the first time I saw one in the wild. At least six feet in length, the reptile’s presence commanded its watery environment. It appeared to not have any interest in me or anything for that matter- it was just there biding its time. I could not keep my eyes off it, it looked so primeval with its thick armor of dull gray skin. In terms of evolution, the American Alligator got it right the first time having not changed much over the millennium. Nearly extinct from hunters a hundred years or so ago, its comeback is the symbol of all that is right with the Everglades. The quintessential keeper of the swamp, the American Alligator IS the Everglades, always has been and respectfully, always will.
Like my first encounter with the alligator, my first siting of a bison in South Dakota felt as if the magnificence of everything I came to see and experience in the Great Plains was filtered down to that single moment when I saw a lone bison standing under a tree. Like the alligator, the bison appeared to not take any notice of my presence nor cared one way or the other. It was just there – keeper of the grasses. The American Bison IS the Great Plains, always has been and respectfully, always will.
On July 9, two days after arriving at the Black Hills in South Dakota, Vivian and I saw two American Bison, number 4 and 5 on our count. The two were hanging out behind a small herd of longhorn cattle at the foothills of Devils Tower, not far over the Wyoming border. The monolithic rock formation with its vertical columns stood out in severe contrast to the brilliant blue sky and green pasture foreground, a perfect backdrop for the bison on the plains. Despite it being in the same family of Bovidae, the bison appeared out of place next to its cousin. Or should I say, the longhorns looked out of place in the bison’s grassland.
The bison is synonymous with the Black Hills or really, the Great Plains. In fact, it became the national mammal of the United States in May of 2016. I am sure most Americans slept through that one, I know I did and only recently became aware of it as my interest piqued from our travels. The irony of bestowing an animal that was brought to near extinction with the honor of national mammal by the very same government that caused its near extinction is not lost on anyone with an ounce of cynicism. Long ago, the bison once roamed North America in numbers upwards of 30 million. By 1890, there were less than 1000 and ten years later, only 325. Our national mammal, indeed.
For centuries, Native Americans relied on bison for their survival. It provided them with practically everything they needed – food, clothing, tools, shelter. The bison was also an object of worship for many natives. Following Lewis and Clark’s Corp of Discovery in the early 1800’s, the American westward migration commenced at an obscene rate. By the 1860s, the elimination of the bison began. This was primarily by hunters who killed the animals for their hides, bones, and tongues, and consequently leaving the carcasses to rot on the plains. When the trains started running through the Great Plains, it was all too common for passengers to shoot the large beasts for target practice as the train thundered past the herds. While the killing of animals to extinction to fuel a fashion trend is difficult to wrap one’s head around (I am still struggling with the thought of plume hunters), this horror pales in comparison to the atrocious effect it had on native people, best summarized by General Phillip Sheridan, Commander of the US Army Cavalry who stated, “The buffalo hunters did more in five years to defeat the Indian nations than the army had done in fifty.”
Ranchers that moved into the northern Great Plains also contributed to the bison’s demise. But ironically, it would be a handful of ranchers that eventually initiated the slow return of the American Bison. Today, there are almost 400,000 bison throughout North America, most of which live on public and tribal lands, including Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The state park is home to 900-1600 bison, the second largest publicly held herd in the country.
Only three days into our 2-week stay in the Black Hills, I left Vivian and our RV behind to drive in the dark toward the main entrance of Custer State Park. Not far from there I turned onto Wildlife Loop. As sunrise approached, it became lighter as I made my way to a previously chosen location where I was eager to photograph the sweeping Black Hills landscape from atop a ridge. My truck, as far as I could see, was the only vehicle on the 18-mile loop.
As I slowly made my way on the 25-mph highway, I had a difficult time containing my eagerness to photograph the landscape before the dawn’s early light lost its sweetness. And then abruptly, my anticipation was interrupted. Stopped in my tracks on a highway where no other traffic was evident for miles, I sensed something special was about to happen. The sheer size of the bison is enough to stop anyone in their tracks, even if one is driving a full ton pickup. It was not one bison that caused me to stop, it was at least 50. That was my immediate impression as I put the truck in park. Within a second or two, I came to realize that was only the beginning as I watched a thick line of bison a quarter mile long wind its way toward me.
The sauntering procession began somewhere in a field on the other side of trees that blocked my view. All I could see were large animals appearing in the distance one by one. In total awe I watched several of them pass by within six feet of me. The adults’ wariness was evident with a steady eye contact. The calves were never far behind them. The only sounds were the gentle clopping noises of even-toed hooves on the pavement and occasional loud bison grunts and snorts. I opened the door and stood on the running board to get a better view of the animals as the long parade passed on both sides of the truck. Minutes passed. Alone with a few hundred bison and three pronghorn that leapt briskly through the scene at one point, I felt as I do when alone in the Everglades.
A moment like this takes on an entirely different meaning when experienced in the presence of others. And that happens a lot in Custer State Park. In fact, the park warns visitors of frequent traffic jams because of bison herds blocking the road. Similarly, visitors to Everglades National Park are warned to give alligators a wide berth as the reptiles lay out in the sun in the presence of hundreds of onlookers walking along a narrow boardwalk. It feels like Disney World when you see so many alligators lying motionless in the open as dozens of tourists accumulate to take pictures before walking on by. In Custer State Park, stopped vehicles accumulate on the road, and doors open as passengers try to get a clear view of the bison with a camera or phone.
But when given an audience of one, nature will put on an extraordinary show of epic magnificence, if only for a fleeting moment. With no others to distract or to serve as a buffer, the experience can be palpable. It is nothing short of a unique gift from nature, to be kept safe in a memory. The Black Hills gave me such a gift at the crack of dawn on Wildlife Loop. For about 10 minutes, I stood still from the safety of my truck and viewed a few hundred bison saunter on by. And in those moments, what I had anticipated in the Black Hills no longer mattered. Everything came down to this.
After that, Vivian and I saw many more bison, often in the presence of many other visitors to the park. The Black Hills gave us one gift after another; I got to photograph the enchanting hills on a few occasions and Vivian got to spend time fishing the many lakes in the area. And then there were those two grand rock sculptures we visited (those are for another blog). But it was the time I had alone with the bison herd that defines the Black Hills for me.
On July 2, 1874, a United States Army expedition led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer set out for the uncharted Black Hills of South Dakota.Among their many missions was to investigate the possibility of gold mining. On July 31, the wagon train arrived at Black Elk Peak (highest point in South Dakota) where a camp was set up at the mountain’s base. This camp was named ‘Custer Park’. On August 15, Custer wrote a letter to the Assistant Adjutant General of the Department of Dakota and stated the following “…examinations at numerous points confirm and strengthen the fact of the existence of gold in the Black Hills.” A scout carried that message to Fort Laramie and from there, it was telegraphed to the press eastwards and the news spread like a social media tweet storm.
It should be noted at the time of the expedition, the Black Hills was exempted from all white settlement forever according to the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. Justifiably, the Lakota people living in the Black Hills were alarmed to Custer’s expedition. The short of it is, Custer’s letter piqued the U.S. government’s interest in owning the Black Hills. But there was this nagging issue of a treaty. To earn ownership of them their hills, the U.S. government would have to buy or steal them from The Lakota Sioux. At first, Congress took the high road and offered The Lakota $25,000 for the land and to relocate them to Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma). When the chiefs refused the offer, a US commission was sent to the Black Hills to pressure the Lakota leaders to sign the new treaty. They failed.
President Grant and members of his cabinet met with military leaders in Washington D.C. to discuss the issue. Indian Inspector Erwin C Watkins responded to their discussion with this: “The true policy in my judgement is to send troops against them in the winter, the sooner the better, and whip them into subjection.”
Thus began the Great Sioux War of 1876-77. After a series of campaigns, including the infamous Battle of Little Bighorn where Custer met his defeat, the Agreement of 1877 officially took away Sioux land and permanently established Indian reservations. Meanwhile, the Black Hills Gold Rush had already commenced.
Fast forward to 1919, 40 years beyond the peak of the Black Hills Gold Rush. South Dakota was now a state, and under the leadership of Governor Peter Norbeck fast becoming a popular tourist destination in place of its gold. Norbeck would leave a tremendous legacy to South Dakota during his two terms of governorship and later as State Senator. In 1919 the “prairie statesman”, urged the state to acquire a 72,000 parcel of land designated as Custer State Forest and turn it into Custer State Park, South Dakota’s first and largest state park.
Driven by his vision for South Dakota, Norbeck personally oversaw the development of South Dakota’s Custer State Park including the infamous Needles Highway. He initiated the creation of Needles Highway by marking the entire course through steep slopes of pine and spruce forests and rugged granite mountains by horseback and on foot. In 1922, the Needles Highway was completed, including two tunnels blasted through granite rock.
On July 7, 2020, an RV expedition led by Vivian and Connie set out for the popular Black Hills of South Dakota. Among their many missions was to explore Custer State Park’s many scenic highways including a drive through the infamous Eye of the Needle, and to discover its many lakes, hiking trails and wildlife. The RV in tow arrived at Heartland RV Park located along Highway 79, a short distance from the small town of Hermosa where it would be set up for two weeks. The camp was named ‘#630’.
With a laundry list of things to do and places to see including lakes to fish, lands to photograph, historic towns to visit and trails to hike, it was almost overwhelming to figure out how to fit them into a two-week period. So, on the first day, it was decided to initiate our Custer State Park expedition with the most anticipated (and perhaps feared) activity on our list, and that was to drive the truck through the Eye of the Needle.
The name ‘Needles’ refers to the granite spires that comprise a region of the Black Hills. Basically, these are tall vertical rock formations with sharp looking tips. Besides the view, which the driver cannot fully appreciate having to keep her eyes on the road, the best part of the highway or at least the most anticipated are the tunnels; and there are two of them.
Winding through the mountains we eventually came to the infamous 8’9” wide and 9’8” high Eye of the Needle. We got our truck through it in one piece and could sigh relief as we knocked that “must do” off our expedition list. Custer may have shot and killed a grizzly during his expedition to the Black Hills, but we passed through the Needles and lived to tell the story!
One last thing about them Black Hills – gold may have been discovered from Custer’s expedition, but our expedition to the Black Hills felt very much like striking gold. Take away Custer State Park and the area is left with two national memorials, two national monuments (one of which is in Wyoming), a national park and several historical mining towns. Not to mention 1.2 million acres of beautiful wilderness full of wildlife. Now that is gold.
Stayed tuned for more of the Black Hills expedition. Meanwhile, enjoy this slideshow from some of our hikes in Custer State Park.
Driving 200 miles through open space on a straight westerly path void of most anything except cattle herds and Wall Drug billboards hypnotized us. As we passed one cattle field after another, I knew we were getting closer to something so severely different from this grass prairie landscape that it was difficult to imagine how it could be so hidden away from our highway view or how it could develop out of such flatness.
Finally, we turned onto exit 131. From there, highway 240 continued south through more open prairie. Everything looked the same except for the 12-ft, 6-ton concrete prairie dog that stands in front of the Ranch Store not far from the entrance to Badlands National Park.
At last, we arrived at the north east entrance to the park. Still, the prairie land prevailed as we continued driving, now officially within National Park. But then in a blink of the eye, we were transported to a completely different world; a landscape so strangely unique as to attract a million visitors each year. A land that compelled Frank Lloyd Wright to describe it as follows, “ “How is it that we, toward the Atlantic, have heard so much about the Grand Canyon and so little of this, when this is so much more miraculous?” We were entering the ‘land of stone and light’.
With our 33-foot fifth wheel, we normally stay outside of national parks and enter one only after we unhitch and leave the home parked. This time, our campground (Badlands/White River KOA) location necessitated us to pull the RV through a portion of Badlands National Park. Thanks to the National Park Service that maintains a scenic highway, we were given a generous preview to the oddly formed rocks that radiate a mesmerizing beauty ever to behold. I witnessed this scene as Vivian drove the 11 miles from the park entrance to the campground. While pulling the RV slowly up and down grades through a dense outcropping of layered and jagged sandstone cliffs and pinnacles, my jaw remained dropped. Like a kid walking into a candy store, I became overwhelmed with anticipation of photographing those exquisite rock formations against a brilliant evening or morning light.
Our campground lays adjacent to the White River near the tiny community of Interior. Located within Pine Ridge Reservation of the Oglala Lakota tribe, we are a short distance from the national park boundaries. The fact that we were surrounded by Indian land made it difficult to ignore history and the current state of affairs among the Oglala Lakota people. Pine Ridge encompasses one county in its entirety and partially two others, three of the poorest counties in the country. The reservation contains the southern portion of Badlands National Park and since the time of COVID, has been entirely shut down. I could not help but think of the tragic consequences of foreign viruses introduced to native Americans by Europeans immigrants. Indian tribes throughout the country were shutting down completely due to COVID and in the case of the Pine Ridge Reservation, this necessarily closed a large portion of the national park. But most of the park remained open.
Being inside the Badlands National Park requires all your senses and pondering the history of its native people rarely came into thought as I photographed and took in the scenes. I simply wanted to capture the moment. Later while staying in the nearby Black Hills, Native American history would come into focus for us. In the meantime, I simply wanted to capture the sand and light. And the park service makes it so easy to do so. The highway gives visitors unprecedented access to the Badlands with continuous sweeping views, opportunities to hike short distances easily through canyons and views of wildlife including bison, bighorn sheep and prairie dogs.
The word “Badlands” comes from the Oglala Lakota description of the harsh landscape as ‘mako sica’ which translates to ‘land bad’. The 244,000 acres of national park use to be under water. When the water receded millions of years ago, perhaps as the Rockies were formed and forced it out, it left behind sediment deposits that comprise the rock formations. Basically, the Badlands terrain was shaped by water. On the Badlands scenic drive starting at the northeast entrance and driving west to the Pinnacles entrance, we witnessed dramatic change in landscape beginning with tall jagged pinnacles that look like castles to colorful rolling mounds of rock interspersed with grasses, to flat open grasslands pock marked by prairie dog holes.
And we saw wildlife. As with the Everglades, the crown jewels of the park are the wildlife. Instead of an alligator near the road, it was a bison. Herds of bighorn sheep grazed in large numbers on the grassy prairies instead of flocks of wading birds in the shallow waters. The elusive prairie dogs contained in large underground communities reminded me of the hermit crabs that populate the tidal zones of the gulf coast. Wildlife viewings are reminders that these wilderness areas are not ours alone. The Badlands is not just to photograph, it is home to much life. Check out this next slide show for some wildlife images.
The animals of course define much of the Badlands, but for me, it was the light and the exquisite power it has over the rocks. The rocks themselves have so much character and all one needs to do is drive through the park to witness how that character changes profoundly. Amazed at how bright it is outdoors well before sunrise, we drove a backroad from Interior into the park 45 minutes before the sun peeked over the horizon. We pulled off at a lookout point to view the magic as the sun eventually lit up the rocks. Meanwhile, beautiful clouds formed in the sky and soon they were painted with pastel blues and pinks. Eye candy everywhere, Vivian used her artistic eye to point out scenes to me so I would not miss out. With the changing light and clouds, we spent an hour in one location as I created several compositions while the clouds and sun did what they do best. Only one time did a car pass by. We had the Badlands to ourselves and it was extraordinary.
The early morning scene was a hard act to follow but as the day progressed, it just got better. Such is the Badlands. Just wait a second and it will change dramatically before your eyes. Drive a short distance and another world will appear. We left the pull-off site and continued west on the scenic drive. It was early enough in the day that cars were few and far between. Clouds remained prominent in the sky creating an everchanging show of light.
This is what the Badlands were to us. Yes, we did drive out of the park to see the infamous Wall Drugstore, but only from our truck. And we did visit the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site but our self-guided tour lasted only minutes. These were meager diversions eclipsed by stone and light. On day six, we left our campground and pulled the RV one last time through Badlands National Park before returning to I-90. Once on the interstate, the Badlands was again hidden away as if it never existed, somewhere beyond the grass prairie that lay out in front of us. Soon, we would enter yet another enchanting land. Black Hills, here we come.
Every state has its share of idiosyncratic attractions; some historically meaningful and others are just idiosyncratic – such as roadside art with no context. Seems quirky art installations are not all that uncommon across the open prairies and some of them have been installed along highways for the sole purpose of entertaining travelers passing through.
The best part of these attractions are the unique stories that come with them. Take for example, this one. Over fifty years ago in a small town of about 200 people somewhere in South Dakota, an inspired young boy created his first sculpture in his father’s blacksmith shop. Only 10 years old, he used a cutting torch to carve a small bull’s head from iron and drilled holes in it so he could wear it as a necklace. At the age of twelve, his father taught him how to weld which inspired the boy to create larger sculptures from metal scraps. After high school graduation, the young sculptor left home, earned a college degree (in political science and history, not art) and dropped out of law school. At which time, he returned to his hometown and became a vegetarian sheep farmer. In his spare time, he indulged in his art which evolved very large metal sculptures. Meet Wayne Porter, the sole creator of an unusual and intriguing roadside attraction, Porter Sculpture Park located next to I-90 about 30 miles west of Sioux Falls.
What intrigues me the most about art and makes me want to go see it is the variety of reactions it elicits from people. And if ever there was a venue for roadside art critics, it is Trip Advisor. Behold what the traveling art critics from around the world are saying about Wayne’s sculptures:
“Absolutely stunning large sculptures”
“Artwork ranging from the whimsical to the surreal”
“Definite sci-fi influence to the artist’s designs, but imaginative, creative, clever and quite good”
“I think it’s just some guy whose artistic impulse was uncontrollable”
“Quirky and fun, dark and introspective”
“It is nothing but a bunch of creepy statues on side of road”
“Some of the sculptures are very blatantly satanic and can creep out anyone even in broad daylight”
Wayne’s artistic vision is BIG, as in 60-ft tall metal sculpture big. At the beginning, he put his large art on display in his tiny hometown because there was no other place to put it. It was not well received – maybe not so much for their size, but because the sculptures appear to be inspired by cartoon fantasies with a dark surrealistic edge to them. Not everyone’s cup of tea. The town’s reaction to Wayne’s art most likely was more than lukewarm, it probably came with a certain amount of hysteria as Wayne has been quoted to say “You haven’t lived ‘til you’ve been called a satanic pornographer.” As a result, in 2000 Wayne moved his large sculptures to a family-owned large piece of cattle-grazing land. He gave up his sheep and devoted all his time to Porter Sculpture Park. Art critics now come in cars and RVs between Memorial Day and Labor Day to visit Wayne and his art.
As I pulled into the parking area (nothing more than a gravel lot with a rundown trailer on one end and a large shed on the other), I noticed a gentleman working in the shed. When the park is open, Wayne lives on the premises with his dog Bambino. I was the only visitor there (this did not last long), except for Wayne’s friend who were spending the night in a tent.
What makes Porter Sculpture Park special is that you get to meet the artist. In fact, you are obliged to meet him when he comes out of the shed to greet you and collect his admission fee. After that, you can spend as much time and take as many pictures as you like. You can also partake in a lively conversation with Wayne who loves to share his stories and insights and sprinkle them with his quirky sense of humor. For about an hour and a half, I walked around the field of art taking photographs, reading the poetry and watching the nesting meadowlarks guard their nest built inside a blue dragon’s mouth. I also spent about an hour talking with Wayne and his fellow artist friend. One impression I came away with is Wayne’s love for the prairie where his art has become a part of its landscape.
And he is beholden to no one, he creates whatever he wants. He built a 7-ton, 40-ft tall metal horse. But, what gets the attention of people passing by is the 60-ft tall bullhead weighing in at 25 tons. No engineers were involved with the development or installation of these pieces, just a group of friends and family. Because of the location of his park, Wayne has the unusual privilege of meeting thousands of people every year because they stop in to view his art. Funny thing, this South Dakotan has never been as far as the Black Hills or Badlands National Park. Yet you get the sense from talking to him that he has the best reason not to – the world comes to him. And there is nothing he enjoys more than sharing his whimsical creations with all that come to view them and if you ask, he will share his thoughtful yet whimsical philosophies on life and art.
Vivian and I parked the RV in a lovely campground in the middle of a corn field about 12 miles from Porter Sculpture Park. With one night only, I unhitched the truck from the RV and set out to visit the park. Glad I did, because I got to spend a couple hours wandering around Wayne’s sculpture dreamscape in the prairie and talk with him about art, current events, South Dakota and cows. A conversation with Wayne is almost like walking through his Sculpture Park – almost every sentence, like every sculpture entertains you with his beguiling imagination and sense of humor. You never know what will pop up. I talked to him about my enchantment with the prairie and desire to photograph it. He looked over at his cow pasture and recommended I should try to photograph cows. “Thanks Wayne, I think I will”.
The next morning, we hitched up and continued west on the flat I-90 to Badlands National Park. Geographically, South Dakota is split in two by the Missouri River that runs north to south. The difference between the west and east portions of the state go further than a time zone, upon crossing the river we enter country that contains several national parks and monuments, and Native American sacred land. Before that, we had one more piece of art to visit on the east side of the river.
Dignity of Earth and Sky is a 50-ft tall and 12-ton statue installed at the Chamberlain Interstate-90 Welcome Center overlooking the Missouri River. Compared to Wayne Porter’s bullhead, it is mediocre in size. Dignity is the creation of South Dakota’s artist laureate Dale Claude Lamphere. During its 2-yr construction, Lamphere called upon three Native American women ages 14, 29 and 55 to serve as models and perfect the face of Dignity that was designed to honor the cultures of the Lakota and Dakota people. During the building of Dignity, Lamphere had a group of expert metal fabricators working with him. In fact, he consulted with structural engineers, cultural advisors, material suppliers and electrical contractors to create his art. How did all this come to be? To celebrate South Dakota’s 125th anniversary into statehood, Norm and Eunabel McKie of Rapid City gifted the $1 million statue to all the people of South Dakota in 2014.
And if you want to know, here are what the roadside art critics are saying on Trip Advisor:
“The statue is amazing”
“The statue is huge and quite stunning”
“It is truly impressive and beautiful”
“A wonderful statue in a wonderful setting”
“She is beautiful”
“Magnificent can’t even describe how beautiful the sculpture is”
“The sculpture is superbly done”
Art comes in all forms. It may be inspired by “horses living in my head” or to “serve as a symbol of respect and promise for the future.” From wherever the inspiration comes, what makes it art is the artist. And somewhere along South Dakota’s highway is an artist’s gift to you, by way of a generous donor or a father’s blacksmith shop. On your journey, take the time and experience it. And if you are fortunate enough, you’ll get to meet the artist.
As we continue our travels toward the Badlands and the Black Hills, I’d like to leave you with these thoughts, written by Susan Claussen Bunger, Instructor of Native American social systems.
“As is evident through history, humans will ultimately disillusion and betray. As is such, I have a new role model who is solid and sturdy. She literally owns a spine of steel and reminds me of the injustice in the world, but also the strength, perseverance and survival. She signifies people who have prevailed through the centuries. She represents all who resist and strive forward. She portrays a rallying cry for those who wish to be heard and valued. She stands strong and proud, meeting the morning sun and bracing against the nighttime cold. She contemplates the world through a poise of conviction and fearlessness. Her name is “Dignity”.
The summer of 2020 was a strange time to travel through the red and blue United States. Beyond doing what a pandemic normally does, COVID-19 also managed to saturate those red and blue tones creating an even more distinct dichotomy within the United States. We became poignantly aware of the differences as we traveled through many states that did not impose state-wide mandates to mitigate the spread of the virus. This is not an endorsement of either side of the political spectrum; rather, it is only our observation. In much of these areas, people went about their normal lives, until of course they got sick. But, these states had something going for them – fewer people and plenty of wide open space. And that is where we wanted to be.
So, it was no surprise to see a hand-written sign stating “Masks not required” on the door of Onawa, Iowa’s only grocery store. Shortly after setting up our campsite at the Lewis and Clark State Park, we drove a few miles to the little town to pick up some groceries. Known for having the widest main street in the continental United States, Onawa was where the Eskimo Pie was created in 1920 by Chris Nelson who owned an ice cream shop. During World War II, Onawa was the site of a prisoner-of-war camp between 1944 and 46. I am not sure how that came to be, given that no more than 50 POWs lived there at any given time while a nearby town, Algona contained 10 times as many prisoners.
Despite its few distinctions, Onawa looks like most rural farm towns in Midwest America, run down with a modest amount of humble pride. Our impression of rural life was not improved after picking up the “Grapevine – Your Hometown Newspaper” where pictures of smiling Onawa High School graduates were displayed. Our thoughts on these young individuals’ futures were overshadowed by the ad pages that were not much more than a list of announcements for alcoholics, narcotics and emotions anonymous meetings, and free counseling for domestic violence or sexual assault victims.
Ranked #1 in soybean, corn, pork, and egg production, more than 85% of Iowa’s land is farmed. Iowa farms have had their share of bad times, not the least of which is COVID-19. If the virus was not bad enough, the August 2020 Derecho winds dealt another blow across the state destroying many homes and businesses. While the Great Depression left a lasting impression in Iowa including a major population decline, the farm crisis in 1983 was just as devastating. During that year, an average of 500 farms were auctioned per month. With all that, I can understand a little better why the only grocery store in Onawa, Iowa did not have a mask requirement. These people have survived worse times, so an invisible virus was not going to keep them from a normal life.
Iowa is the only state whose east and west borders are formed entirely by rivers, the Mississippi to the east and the Missouri comprising most of the west border. The Missouri River symbolizes the gateway to the Great Plains and Iowa was our introduction to what lay beyond the western banks of the longest river in the United States. Awaiting us were endless gentle slopes of green, speckled with cattle and interrupted by spectacular red buttes and canyons. But first, we had some exploring to do on the east side of the Missouri.
What really brought us to this area was the Loess (pronounced ‘Luss’) Hills. Where northeastern Iowa is characterized by a landscape unaffected by the drift of glaciers, this western part of Iowa has much evidence of glacier-driven formation. Glacier movement grinds rock into silt. Over time, wind deposited the silt along the eastern edge of the Missouri River. The accumulation of wind-blown silt, or loess is what we see today as the Loess Hills, a rare and distinct landscape of flowing green and forested hills. We set out to explore the Loess Hills on the hiking trails within Preparation Canyon State Park. This park got its name from a former community called Preparation, established in the 1850s by Charles B Thompson and his band of followers. The Great Mormon Migration toward the Utah territory began in 1947 and lasted 20 years. Thompson’s group was a small one among the 60,000 Mormons who fled persecution in Illinois.
At some point along the way, Thompson received a message from the “Spirit”. Given the extreme hardships that came with westward migrations, I am guessing he was pretty much over it before arriving at the Great Plains and recognized the area as having good potential for farming. Indeed, the area was known as “Monona”, an Indian name for “Peaceful Valley. As a result of the spirit message received by Thompson, he and 50 or 60 families following him bailed from their wagon trains and organized the town called “Preparation”. This name was an easy one to come by because of their belief that existence in life was merely a preparation for the world to come.
Things were going quite well as the Mormons realized they settled in one of the richest farming valleys in the area. So Thompson did what any corrupt leader would do when in control of the town’s newspaper, he printed the following message written by his imaginary spirit he called ‘Beneemy’, “I appoint Charles B Thompson chief steward of my house to receive, hold, manage and direct all the treasures of my house to him.” Well, people believed Thompson’s fake news and consequently, turned over deeds and all possessions to their leader.
Not all was peaceful in Peaceful Valley. Thompson’s people eventually wised up and asked him to return their property. This led to a hot dispute which eventually ended in the Iowa Supreme Court. Before that though, angry people organized a lynch mob and when Thompson got wind of that, he fled the state. People got their property back and for a long time thereafter, Preparation flourished. It even had a skating rink at one time. But after the Thompson sham, many discouraged Mormons left the valley and headed out to Utah. By 1946 the town was pretty much deserted. Descendants of the original Mormons eventually sold the land to Iowa.
I remember the lovely green pastures, rolling forested hills and hidden ponds of the Loess Hills, but what stands out the most is the relentless daily temperatures above 90 degrees during our 4-day visit. On our last day, we got a reprieve from the heat by visiting the state park’s museum dedicated to the two explorers from which it is named. People find the most unlikely things to be passionate about, as was the case with the museum volunteer who is a self-proclaimed and self-made Lewis and Clark scholar. And I do mean scholar with the utmost respect. The man was a wealth of information, eager to share it with us. At the very least, the Lewis and Clark expedition has all the ingredients of a great adventure story. Among other insurmountable impasses including the unexpected Rocky Mountains, they traveled thousands of miles upstream on the great Missouri to its headwaters where the Columbia River begins its trek toward the Pacific Ocean.
The Lewis and Clark State Park was created on the Blue Lake, which is an oxbow (U-shaped body of water) formed by the Missouri River years ago. Oxbow lakes are created when a wide curvy part of a river (a meander) cuts off to find a shorter course leaving behind a free-standing body of water or an oxbow. Lewis and Clark’s expedition came through here on August 10, 1804. The explorers stayed awhile and recorded several geological and biological observations.
The significance of Lewis and Clark’s expedition can never be understated. The impact it had on the evolution of the newly formed United States can fill a countless number of American history books. The expedition led by two very different men assisted by a Shoshone Indian woman forever altered the U.S. government’s relationship with American Natives, opened up America’s westward expansion of white settlers, created accurate topographical maps of the northwest and contributed to scientific research with its contact with 70 American Native tribes, and detailed descriptions of the geography and more than 200 new plant and animal species.
From their 8000-mile and 2-yr expedition, Lewis and Clark gave the Great Plains a face, a vast and harsh territory between the Missouri River and the ominous Rocky Mountains. The Loess Hills brought the Great Plains into focus during our stay at Lewis and Clark State Park. After that, we began our trek north and eventually west, the beginning of our journey into the Great Plains. From the time we left the state park, it took another day and a half before we crossed the Missouri River on I-90 and entered Mountain time. But, before we made the crossing, we had some art to view. Stay tuned.
Lewis and Clark SP is one of many parks we have stayed for several days without water or sewer hook-up. We prefer not to travel with much water in our fresh tank and will fill up at the campground before setting up. A little research (or a phone call) will let you know if potable water is easily available. It is typically located near the dump station as a separate water source (not the same water that is designated for flushing!). Some parks have additional potable water spigets scattered about the campground as well.
It was June 26, 35 days after leaving Chokoloskee when we finally pulled our home on wheels off Grand Design’s service center lot. The RV was in much better shape than the day we drove it there on June 5. How did we get here? Let me pause and back up – I mean REALLY back up to December 2, 2017.
After carefully researching and negotiating a price, we arrived at Palm Beach RV Center to perform what every excited and anxious RV buyer does before signing the papers, the pre-delivery inspection (PDI). It was Vivian’s 59th birthday and on this day, we purchased our 2018 Grand Design Reflection 303rls fifth wheel. And we did it with the intention of it becoming our fulltime home.
PDIs are routine and some people call it a “walk-through”. And for many people, it is just that – a walk through and then out they go. Not so with Vivian and me. Our PDI was more akin to a squatter’s claim to real estate. We arrived promptly at 8 am (the earliest the service center would allow) with a tool kit, flashlight, lunch box and thermos of coffee in hand. As we were led to our future home, our first question was “When do you close?” And with that, we began our 7-hr long inspection. Sounds over the top – but keep reading.
How did we spend our time? We contorted ourselves to inspect under the rig, on the roof and every nook and cranny we could find. We ran the AC full blast, we ran the propane heater full blast, we used the microwave and fired up the gas oven and each of the stove burners. We tested the auto leveling system. We ran the slideouts and the awnings. We tightened every visible screw. We removed the side panel inside the cargo space so that we could inspect the water hoses and all the connections that are part of the self-contained plumbing and electrical systems. In short, we drove the service people crazy. When we at last hitched up and pulled our home off the lot with confidence, I swear I saw a large banner with “Good Riddance”. We have never been back.
Here is the reality – despite our OCD PDI, we can’t catch everything that could possibly go wrong with an RV. We learned that fact the hard way during last year’s travels when the kitchen slideout began to tear the vinyl floor as it was rolled in and out. We mitigated the damage by placing a thin sheet of plexiglass on the floor when bringing in the slide. That protected the vinyl, but it didn’t fix the problem. The kitchen slideout contains all the heavy appliances (electric fireplace, TV, microwave, gas stove & oven, and refrigerator). And not to mention a large pantry full of food. Hence, a lot of weight. And it was quite likely that the weight on the slideout floor had become our RV albatross.
Consequently, Vivian commenced to do what she does best, research and inquire. Turns out, the gouging to the floor was indeed, a minor symptom of a serious problem. If not for Vivian’s persistent research and dogged inquiries, things could have gone from bad to worse in a short period of time. Turns out, Grand Design recognized the issue and corrected it for their 2019 line of RVs. Too late for our 2018 model.
In late September 2019, only days after Vivian broke her ankle, we attended a Grand Design rally in Little Rock, Arkansas. While sitting in her wheelchair, Vivian had a little discussion with the attending factory representative about our slideout issue. Because of her incessant research, she was able to confront him with knowledge and place him between a rock and hard place. The result – he admitted the issue and set an appointment for us to come to Grand Design’s service center in Middlebury, Indiana to correct the mistake and make things all better. Scheduled to happen on June 8, 2020, the appointment with Grand Design marked the beginning of our travel itinerary for the year.
I will say that among all the trailer and fifth wheel manufacturer’s, Grand Design is reputed to have one of the best, if not THE best customer service. And I am one of the many who will defend that reputation because over the long haul, Grand Design has been good to us. But had it not been for Vivian’s tenacity, nothing would have happened, until IT happened. Here is another reality check – there are many pitfalls in RV manufacturing regardless of the brand. Problems with an RV are a given – it is a matter of when, not if. Therefore, service reputation was the most valued criteria guiding us in our decision to purchase our Grand Design fifth wheel.
And with that, our 2020 travels to the Great Plains would not begin until we drove our repaired home off Grand Design’s service center. And that we did on June 26. But let me digress one last time. If you have been following, you would have read about our suspension debacle back in November, at the end of our 2019 travels. The seriousness of that issue led us to begin our 2020 travels by carefully driving 1600 miles to Goshen, Indiana to deliver the RV and its questionable suspension repair job to the manufacturer of the suspension – Lippert Components, Inc. We avoided sharp back ups and rough roads to arrive safely at their service center at 7:00 am on Friday, June 5. Six hours later, we drove off with an upgraded suspension and properly welded hanger brackets. Not only was the suspension repaired, but it was improved beyond expectations. Following that repair, we drove a short distance to Grand Design’s service center where we spent the weekend before leaving the rig with them on Monday.
As it were, three weeks passed from the day we arrived at Lippert to the day we drove away from Grand Design. The slideout issue was worse than Grand Design expected; however, the massive repairs resulted in a better slideout floor, improved frame support and all new vinyl flooring, among a few smaller and unrelated repairs. All told, our Grand Design home with Lippert suspension was better than ever on June 26, 2020.
To that end, our travels to the Great Plains officially began as we drove away from Indiana. The feeling of security and relief was stark as we drove on an unforgiving I-80 past Chicago. Not far from the city, the road finally led us into wide open space, Illinois’s farmland and eventually Iowa’s. To infinity and beyond.
The next day, we backed into our lakeside campsite at the Lewis and Clark State Park near Onawa, Iowa. We had left Chokoloskee approximately 36 days earlier. That evening, we sat outside enjoying an uninterrupted view of a lake. It was a pleasant and peaceful evening left over from a hot day. We were free of crowds, free of noise, and free of concrete and fences. We were home. We turned to each other and offered a toast to officially kick off our 2020 travels through the Great Plains.
A side note about our RV repair
Grand Design’s repair included replacing the 3/4” thick slideout floor with a 1” thick floor that is more suitable to support the weight of the kitchen and living room appliances. In addition, outriggers were welded to the frame supporting both slideouts. Two interior rollers were added to the repaired slideout, bringing the total to five. Along the way during the repair after having removed both slideouts, kitchen island and furniture, it was discovered that the floor below the slideout had crowned. The main floor was removed, at which point it was realized that the aluminum tubings attached to the chassis were not welded correctly. Consequently, all of them were rewelded and 24 cross-members were added to the aluminum frame. Additionally, the seal tubing in both slideouts were replaced as was the entire vinyl flooring. All that and a few other unrelated minor repairs. What did it cost us? Only three weeks of time (which we spent staying with my sister and friends). Thank you Grand Design for making it right.
On July 7, 1983, 20 federal and local officers descended upon the tiny remote gulf coast fishing village of Everglades City and nearby Chokoloskee Island bringing “Operation Everglades” to a head. Leading up to that event a year earlier, the Drug Enforcement Association planted undercover agents within the tight knit community of families whose ancestors fished those gulf waters long before they became a national park. Beginning on that hot summer day in 1983 and ending sometime in 1990, the largest pot smuggling operation in the United States was dismantled. Between 1983 and 1984, 87% of adult males living in Everglades City and Chokoloskee Island were arrested.
Everglades City and Chokoloskee Island are the gateway to the gulf coast section of Everglades National Park – or more specifically, the Ten Thousand Islands. The mangrove islands spread about 40 miles along Florida’s southwest gulf coast (from Cape Romano to the mouth of Lostmans River). Nowhere along the coast of the United States is there another convoluted and extensive array of mangrove islands such as this – in short, the unique saltwater ecosystem is a navigational nightmare. Years ago, the “saltwater cowboys” fled and hid from the law among the labyrinth of islands until the law finally learned its way around. One can easily paddle or motor a boat into the Ten Thousand Islands and never be seen again. If you want to self-isolate, there is no better place.
Chokoloskee Island, the only inhabited island in the Ten Thousand Islands watery wilderness is our home. Some refer to the bridge that joins the shell mound of an island with the mainland as the “bridge to nowhere” because not much is waiting for you there. Being surrounded by federally regulated wilderness, Chokoloskee island is about as remote as you can get. And that is one of the many reasons we made it our home base, an outpost where we can isolate between travels.
After completing our second round of RV traveling, Vivian and I felt a joyful anticipation driving our home on wheels across the bridge to nowhere on November 3, 2019. Surrounding us was Chokoloskee Bay and we were back in the ‘Glades! Beginning in 2018, it has been our routine to leave Chokoloskee before peak hurricane season and not return until the tropical weather brouhaha settled down.
By the time we arrived, we were ready to immerse ourselves in all that is the Everglades – self-isolation wilderness style. Following the first couple weeks or so of cleaning the rig and truck, catching up with neighbors and gradually getting back to a routine, most days include Vivian fishing on the bay from her kayak, me wandering around the Big Cypress swamp looking to photograph something, and both of us paddling out to the remote islands to camp for several days. We come down from our travel high and get high on the Everglades.
But as the winter months wear on, the mood begins to change with the eagerness for the Everglades being replaced with the preoccupation of travel plans and preparations. Spring enters in with higher daily temperatures, businesses closing for the season and our snowbird neighbors leaving the island to head back north. These are signals that soon Chokoloskee would become an inhospitable place to live and it was almost time for us to hit the road. This year, a little twist was added to our spring preparations.
In March of 2020, we discovered that living on Chokoloskee had yet another perk. When the pandemic swept over the land, our daily routine never changed – we were already self-isolating. Vivian and I hunkered down and were OK with that. But it was not exactly a fun time. Most of our neighbors had homes to return to and they were scared. We worried about our families living in the city, especially Miami. The fear of the pandemic was real as the winter season prematurely screeched to a halt. Our Canadian friends left the island in a panic and others who live in northern states made the long trek home without stopping for the night. We worried about all of them. And we were a little anxious about our upcoming travel plans that were to include visiting several popular national parks.
COVID knocked the wind out of our travel sails. The itinerary morphed into a strange balancing act between our desire to experience as much as possible on a road trip and sickness avoidance. It was a confusing outlook, but we were clear about one thing – the self-containment of an RV was our ace in the hole. We would have the coveted ability to travel and isolate at the same time. We decided to stay within the least populated areas, namely the Great Plains states. Reserved campsites remained on our itinerary – no one turned us away. While avoiding crowds and public facilities, there were plenty of wilderness areas for us to explore and stay out of the way of the virus. Our island self-isolation would somehow continue into our travels.
On May 21, 2020 we pulled out of our park and crossed the bridge, officially beginning our travels. For the third time we left our island home to hit the road and fill the next five months with everything new. Chokoloskee comes with a rich and colorful history that we proudly share to anyone willing to listen. But driving our home on wheels across that bridge, the preoccupation of experiencing new places that have their own compelling stories finally emerged after hours of planning and researching into a gleeful anticipation. The excitement of what laid ahead of us was palpable – the history and stories of the Great Plains, the wilderness areas wide open to explore, and of course all that comes with traveling in an RV to unfamiliar territories. Stocked up with toilet paper and hand sanitizer, we were ready. But before we get to the Great Plains, we had some business to attend to.
By the time we got to Mississippi, we were road weary. And Mississippi didn’t help that either, it just seemed as weary as we were. It was a sad place in many ways with remnants of tragic history made mostly during the Civil War. We came to Vicksburg to continue our casual studies in American history and this year, most of our lessons were on the Civil War. They began in Florida, continued to Fort Sumter, then Gettysburg, and now Vicksburg.
Although by this time we came here with a respectable level of Civil War knowledge, Vicksburg opened our eyes wider. Our visit to Vicksburg National Military Park was a sharp reminder that the Civil War was not a war of soldiers that fought on battlefields isolated from the American way of life. Rather, it was a war fought (mostly on southern soil) where American towns and cities existed, where American women and children lived, where American farmers grew crops and raised livestock, and where human beings were bought and sold by Americans.
It wasn’t as much the National Park that reminded of this fact; instead it was Vicksburg’s Old Court House Museum that sits atop a high hill. It was well worth the struggle to push Vivian’s wheelchair up the very long and steep handicap ramp leading to the entrance. The museum is cluttered with artifacts of antebellum life, including a confederate flag that was never surrendered and the tie worn by Jefferson Davis at his inauguration as Confederate President. This is also where a first edition copy of the 1864 book titled “My Cave Life” written “by a lady”.
After a few days in Vicksburg, our morose spirits needed lifting and I thought I knew exactly how to do that. As it were, the most anticipated part of our itinerary was yet to come; and besides, we were not about to limp back home feeling defeated. Let me put this into context. We live in the far southern region of Florida’s gulf coast and before retirement we lived in Miami, equally as far south. We love south Florida’s Everglades, Biscayne Bay and Big Cypress and spend as much time as we can in the wilderness. But there are areas north of us that are equally as appealing to us. We dream of spending quality time up there because there are some drop-dead gorgeous rivers, salt marshes, pine forests and pristine beaches including the Emerald Coast. That’s a problem for us because it takes an entire day to drive to the panhandle and northern regions of this long state. Consequently, northern Florida has eluded us. But not anymore! Now that we are retired and full time RV’ers, we finally have the wherewithal to get to these places. And I had every intention of doing that as a finale to our 2019 travels.
If you understood how insanely difficult it is to reserve a campsite in Florida, you will understand why an ankle break was not going to stop us from reaping the benefits of our hard-earned campground acquisitions. Like how a marathon runner gets a second burst of energy at mile 25, the final three weeks of our 4-month travels were planned ambitiously to include five Florida campgrounds in these hard-to-get places. Several months prior, in an act that can only be described as a coup, I fought my way through ReserveAmerica.com and Recreaction.gov to secure reservations at Fort Pickens campground and four Florida State Parks (including the highly coveted St George Island).
Fort Pickens campground is on the Gulf Shore Islands National Seashore. From a photography perspective, it is one of Florida’s prized beachy waterscape locations. And naturally, it is fishing paradise for Vivian, so much so that her longtime fishing buddy Jimmy planned to drive all the way from south Florida to stay with us a few days so that the two could do some serious fishing together. This highly anticipated event was the icing on our travel cake.
But it was NOT going to be easy. There was after all, this nagging inconvenience of a broken ankle. Vivian’s friend Jimmy would help overcome this. Our super idea was that he would help Vivian access the water and the two could fish together while I ran off into photographic bliss knowing Vivian was well taken care of. But alas, Florida had other things in store for us.
To begin, getting into our campsite at Fort Pickens was nothing short of a comedy of errors and quite possibly the turning point of our travels. I was not expecting a narrowly paved campsite with significant drop offs along its entire edge, but that is what we got. The severe lack of space for maneuvering the 21-ft truck with a 33-ft fifth wheel attached and the fact that Vivian (the driver) could not get out to assess the situation made it all too easy for me to relinquish to strangers’ willingness to offer help, which ultimately made things worse. A series of unfortunate events resulted in me waking our neighbor to ask him to move his truck which was unavoidably in the way. All that and a growing line of cars waiting to get past and the increasing number of neighbors coming out of their campers to share their unsolicited 2 cents made 30 minutes seem like an eternity.
At one point, Vivian had no choice but to back the RV over the pavement drop off and into the sand to allow cars with honking horns and impatient drivers to go by. I cringed as I heard the tell-tale noises emanating from the suspension that was straining under the weight of 12,000 lb while the driver-side wheels rolled off the pavement. It was not pretty. That compromising move was the price paid to get the truck and RV lined up suitably to pull forward and successfully back-in with about 1-inch of pavement to spare on either side of the wheels. Later, we learned it probably cost us much more than that.
The backing-in debacle ended just in time for a hefty afternoon storm to pour down on me as I connected the electric and water. By then, the dark mood had already set in, so I didn’t care anymore. There was some bad juju going on and it did not help that I was feeling guilt for wanting to be here so badly while Vivian would not enjoy this place as much as I would.
There was another dark cloud coming for us and it was tropical storm Nestor. We anticipated Nestor before we arrived, and shortly thereafter we were almost certain it would necessitate our leaving this hard-earned campsite earlier than planned. That ball was already set in motion as Vivian’s friend Jimmy cancelled his plans to visit because of the impending storm. On our second day, we fully expected the park to evacuate its campers before the weekend and we did not want to be there when that time came. We planned our exit strategy.
After only two days and three nights at Fort Pickens, we cancelled our remaining three nights and pulled away from the crowded campground. Everyone seemed oblivious to what was brewing in the gulf and I could only imagine the scene on evacuation day when reality finally hit. And they did evacuate because Nestor came right toward Pensacola. Meanwhile, we headed for safer ground inland, which eventually led us to the Suwannee River.
Nestor resulted in nowhere near the level of destruction that this coast suffered from Hurricane Michael last year, not even close. But still, it was strong enough that our moves were justified, and we took bittersweet comfort in knowing we did the right thing. The coastal campgrounds would soon be back to normal, but our plans were already altered and there was no going back at this point. Instead, we found ourselves betting on pigeon races and playing chicken poo bingo at the Suwannee River Rendezvous RV Park, a charming out-of-the-way river park.
After the Suwannee River, Paynes Prairie Preserve and Colt Creek were our final Florida State Park destinations and luckily, the weather did not force us to cancel them. Vivian missed out on long hikes through Florida’s savannah and a climb up to the lookout tower to view the wild bison and horses that make Paynes Prairie a unique Florida park. But not all was lost, we both enjoyed the Florida Museum of Natural History in nearby Gainesville.
Our final three days were spent at the remote Colt Creek State Park, Florida’s newest. It is so new that the washing machine and dryer are still in good working condition! Doing laundry while traveling in an RV is no picnic but when the primary laundress in the group has a broken ankle, this task becomes insurmountable. So thank you Colt Creek State Park for making that task a bearable one.
Did I mention something was wrong in paradise? Did I also mention that the Fort Pickens back-in spectacle was a turning point in this story? Well, here is how it ends. After our first night at Colt Creek, I noticed something terribly out of place as I walked around the RV. As part of the suspension, the equalizers hang between the front and back wheels and are normally shaped like a ‘W’. This time, the driver’s side equalizers resembled a ‘J’. This could not be good. We were both perplexed because the RV was perfectly level. The Fort Pickens nightmare suddenly came back to haunt us.
The first call to Lippert Components (manufacturer of the suspension and frame) was short and not so sweet. “Check the hanger bracket” was the technician’s immediate advice. We did, and in horror discovered the culprit that caused the equalizer to lose its form. The hanger bracket, which attaches to a leaf spring which attaches to the equalizer had sheered off at the weld. And God only knows how many miles were driven in that condition.
Let me pause the story for a second and mention once again how inconvenienced Vivian has been since breaking her ankle and how critical it is that both partners at least understand each other’s respective RV duties. On Vivian’s OCD routine checklist are inspections of the suspension at every stop as we move down the road. Among other things, she looks for loose bolts and cracks. Would she have noticed a crack in the hanger bracket before it broke off? Perhaps, but we’ll never know because in her state of disrepair, she was unable to perform her routine inspection. I could have stepped up and done her work, but too late for that now.
Long story short, by the grace of God or pure damn luck the worst-case scenario did not happen. We found a hanger bracket at an RV parts store and bought two. The next day a mobile welder was on site by 9 am to remove the broken one and weld on the new one. We had a spare leaf spring and had him put that on as well. A flat tire on the weld truck and a welding machine that decided to die before the weld began delayed the repair to well past 9 pm. Welding in the dark is not ideal. We had only one thought and that was to cross our fingers during the 220-mile drive back home.
We did make it home safely on November 3 after leaving Colt Creek. Once set up on our lot in Chokoloskee, the RV would not move for 6-7 months. Nevertheless, plans to resolve the hanger bracket issue began. Not only that, we had another RV issue that needed to be addressed. Both would lead us back to the RV capital of the world in Indiana where our Grand Design home and Lippert suspension were born – the room where it happened. We had some serious repairs and a few upgrades to be made and with that, our 2020 travels began to form as we settled in for a winter in the Everglades.
RV Tips and Issues. We pull a 12,000 lb fifth wheel. That fifth wheel contains most of our possessions. Supporting all that weight are the tires, frame and suspension. Things can go bad when any one of those is compromised. Therefore, frequent inspection is essential. Occasional bolt-torquing and moving parts – lubing, as well as annual bearing maintenance are essential. And don’t wait to do your inspections after you’ve driven down the road, start at the RV center where you are purchasing your new rig. Inspect, inspect, inspect. Don’t know what to look for? Educate yourself. Ask questions. Learn as much as you can about that rig, especially if it’s going to be your home. If you don’t take the time to learn, then you have two choices – don’t live in one or plan to spend a lot of money and a lot of wasted time dealing with repairs and hoping the worst-case scenario doesn’t happen. Always remember, the road is unforgiving.