Aug 1, 2020 – To Boldly Go…

Our route through western Nebraska and Kansas began with Fort Robinson State Park and ended at Scott Lake State Park in Kansas. We stayed in four campgrounds along this route, each identified on the map. With fifth wheel in tow, we stopped at Carhenge after leaving Fort Robinson, an easy roadside pulloff for RVs. All told, from the day we arrived at Fort Robinson to the day we left Lake Scott, two weeks had passed.

Most people I suspect, drive through Kansas and Nebraska only because they cannot avoid them if they want to get to their next destination. And I also suspect that most people keep to the interstates of which there is one in each state that bisects it completely from border to border. With that, I will guess that most people who have traveled through Nebraska or Kansas have never seen Toadstool Geologic, Carhenge, Chimney Rock, Scotts Bluff, Monument Rocks or Little Jerusalem Badlands. Too bad, because these are jewels adorning the vast flat topography of the great plains.

Carhenge is a replica of England’s Stonehenge, conceived in 1987 by Jim Reinders. Instead of stone, carhenge is created with 39 automobiles.
While living in England, Reinders studied the structure of Stonehenge, which helped him to create carhenge.

One of them is man-made inspired by stone formations, while the others are strange and abrupt geological landmarks formed by the power of weather-driven deposition and erosion. The alternating layers of hard and soft rocks interrupt the flat lands with dramatic vertical appearances that fan out at their base. When viewed from a distance they appear as aberrations and viewed aerially, look like injuries to an otherwise smooth landscape. When you see these rock formations, you get the sense they did not look like that millions of years ago. Indeed, what remains standing are testimonies to the durability of hard rock as the surrounding softer rock eroded away over time. Often, odd shapes have formed from large clumps of sturdy sandstone that appear balanced delicately atop narrow vertical outcroppings – such are the toadstools or hoodoos. They have won the test of time and their ongoing erosion is undetectable to the human eye.

From our campsite at Chimney Rock Pioneer Crossing we had a view of the rock. Not much of a campground, but it is conveniently located.
At night, Chimney Rock lights up.

Escaping far and wide from the vertical rocks are deep crevices or arroyos that appear like spindly tree branches extending across the landscape, only to be seen from above. This severe landscape is often referred to as badlands and indeed, the progress of westbound pioneers was impeded by them. Emigrants typically traveled along the Platte River Valley as part of the Oregon Trail. When they arrived at Scotts Bluff, the travelers were forced to move out of the valley to find a pass that would allow them to continue westward. Other formations such as Chimney Rock served as familiar landmarks for travelers.

Westbound emigrants had to find a pass around Scotts Bluff on the Oregon Trail.
The Summit Road was built through Scotts Bluff. No need to go around it now!
A view from Scotts Bluff.
Looking east toward Scotts Bluff as the sun set behind me.

Otherworldly is a term used often to describe these rock formations. I cannot help but think of many Star Trek episodes where the landing party finds themselves among strange geologic formations on a desert-planet. No need to travel to another galaxy, simply get off the interstate and explore Nebraska and Kansas. One does not have to boldly go where no others have been because these points of interest are not difficult to get to; you simply need the desire to see them. And Vivian and I had that desire; at least I did, with camera in hand.

The sun rose behind me as I set up to photograph Little Jerusalem Badlands from a lookout point.
Little Jerusalem got its name because to some, it looks like the ancient walled city of Jerusalem.
Cattle graze everywhere in western Kansas.
Monument Rocks is located on private land, and is technically closed from sundown to sunrise. We arrived a couple hours before sunset.
While attempting to photograph Monument Rocks, I had to patiently wait for people to move out of the frame. It wasn’t terribly busy, maybe a couple dozen people scattered about with plenty of rocks to go around.
Around sunset, the moon rose and by then, most everyone had left the rocks.
A photographer could spend a lot of time here.
While camped at Fort Robinson, Vivian and I drove up to Toadstool. It was a long drive going 15-20 mph on 12 miles of washboard gravel roads, but well worth it. The photograph was taken from a Newsbreak website to show you the campground and parking lot.
I had less than an hour, maybe only 30 minutes or so to photograph what I could at Toadstool. Sunset was an hour or so away and a nasty storm was closing in on us.
I basically walked around the edge of the rocks, not having time to explore inward.
Meanwhile, the storm was hanging large in the sky, but made for a perfect backdrop for the bright rocks.
This pyramid shaped rock stood out along the road into Toadstool. On the way out, Vivian stopped so I could get out and capture this scene before the rain started.
In addition to exploring the rocks, we visited the Golden Spike Tower than overlooks Bailey Yard, the world’s largest switching yard, near North Platte, NE.
And last, we stayed in a campground overlooking McConaughey Lake, a large reservoir in the middle of western Nebraska. Here, large RVs can park along the water on the beach. You can’t drive yours down there, it has to be brought in with special towing equipment, at a cost of course.

Jul 21, 2020 – “Nebraska was Not Always a Bed of Roses”

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.

Our campsite at Fort Robinson State Park gave us a view of Nebraska’s wide open spaces. Fort Robinson at one time was a K-9 corps training center. The training of war dogs in this country began during WWII. About 5000 were trained at Fort Robinson. Dog food was made in that building.

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.

An aerial view of Fort Robinson State Park. Our campsite was in Red Cloud Campground (full hook ups).

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.

A window reflects the Crazy Horse Memorial. The building is a replica of the one Crazy Horse was led into when he came to Camp Robinson under a flag of truce.
A memorial to Crazy Horse where he died. Four large granite stones surround it in all four directions, a Lakota traditional design.

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.

An artist’s account of the fatal wounding of Crazy Horse.

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.

Replica of the barracks where Dull Knife’s band were imprisoned with no wood for heat, or food & water.

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.

A couple miles from the state park along Highway 20 is Staab’s Drive-Inn, the most active scene in Crawford. As many times as we passed by it (and stopped in one time), we never saw it without costumers waiting in line.

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.

I’m sure it’s somebody’s favorite bar, but it definitely has seen better days on Crawford’s main street.

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.

Iron metal cut outs & their shadows run along the outside walls of what was once the Blaine Hotel, the starting point for the 1893 Chadron-to-Chicago horse race.
A statue of Nebraska’s author, Mari Sandoz stands among wild grasses and flowers in front of the 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.

Author of many books, it seems Sandoz wrote every story there was to tell about Nebraska’s high plains.

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.

About 3 miles east of Chadron along the scenic byway. The sign is small relative to the large red-roofed building that is the museum.

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.

The museum houses an extensive collection of Native American artifacts and clothing.
This museum contains a comprehensive collection of historical artifacts from the fur trade era, including furs!
In the museum, a room is devoted to an obsessive compilation of firearms that were made exclusively to sell to American Indians. It is the largest collection of these rare firearms.
You learn something every day! River travelers in their canoes carried personalized canoe cups for drinking water.

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.

Jul 13, 2020 – Two Artists, Two Monuments

Even from the highway, these two monuments stand large.

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.

The bust of the Mt Rushmore artist is on display at the entrance of the Avenue of Flags at the Mt Rushmore National Monument.
A painting of Crazy Horse Memorial artist Korczak Kiolkowski is in the American Indian Museum.

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.

The entrance to the Avenue of Flags gives you a full on view of the monument.
Outside the American Indian Museum, a mock up of the completed Crazy Horse Memorial serves as a foreground for the unfinished memorial.

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.

Lincoln’s head proved to be the most challenging to carve because of his beard. I guess Roosevelt’s mustache was no match.

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.

On June 9, 2020 Mississippi relinquished its confederate state flag. At the time of our visit to Mt Rushmore, the flag had not yet been replaced. Consequently, along the Avenue of Flags was one empty flag pole. I am sure by now the new magnolia flag waves proudly there.

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.”

Along the Avenue of Flags, 49 of our 50 states were represented. I wonder what the four presidents would think about that.
The Presidential Trail winds through the forest along the base of the mountain giving visitors a closer view and varying perspectives of Mt Rushmore.

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.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Thomas Jefferson. It was truly a good start in the right direction.
“I hold the maxim no less applicable to public than to private affairs, that honesty is always the best policy.” George Washington. He never told a lie, right?
“Understanding the spirit of our institutions to aim at the elevation of men, I am opposed to whatever tends to degrade them.” Abraham Lincoln. I believe Lincoln saw the forest through the trees.
“I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use the natural resources of our land; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob, by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.” Theodore Roosevelt. Two of my favorite three presidents seen here.

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.

“I will return to you in stone.” Crazy Horse

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.

A pictorial timeline of the progress made on Crazy Horse Memorial.

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.

Artist paintings of American Indian Chiefs. Below are more photos of art and handwork displayed at the American Indian Museum.

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.

Jul 9, 2020 – Let the Chips Fall Where they May

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.

The classic bison profile stands out against the very large longhorn steers. The second bison is laying down behind the steer.

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.

An artist’s depiction of what the America’s Great Plain once looked like. Photo taken from South Dakota State Historical Society’s website.

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.

A mountain of bison skulls. Photo taken from South Dakota State Historical Society’s website.
Among the few that remained after 1900, bison were being exploited. Photo taken from South Dakota State Historical Society’s website.

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.”

Each year, Custer State Park’s bison herd is rounded up, an important management strategy (and very popular sightseeing event) to maintain a large and healthy herd. Photo comes from South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks website.

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.

I left Vivian behind a few mornings to go photograph the Black Hills from atop a ridge overlooking an enchanting view of the hills.

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.

A herd of bison stopped me in my tracks as they walked on by.

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.

Too excited and wanting to capture video and photos of this event, I never did get a count. At best guess, upwards of a couple hundred bison proceeded to walk past 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.

Later that day as I backtracked the Wildlife Loop, I came onto this common scene. Not long after this, a video of a female buffalo charging a woman who got too close to a calf went viral.
A similar type of scene in Everglades National Park. The park warns people to give alligators a wide berth.

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.

Alone with the bison.

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.

Bison at the Game Lodge Campground in Custer State Park. What an experience to step out of your RV only to be confronted with a herd of bison.

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.

Each morning that I went out to photograph, I felt as if I had the entire Black Hills region all to myself.
One last scene, from atop a ridge where the Wildlife Loop highway runs through it.

Jul 7, 2020 – There’s Gold in Them Hills

Custer’s campground base in the Black Hills.

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.

A modern-day campground in the Black Hills.
Vivian and Connie’s campground base in the Black Hills.

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.

Custer’s expedition Wagon Train.

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.”

Connie and Vivian’s expedition Ford F350 without its wagon attached.

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.

What a hike in the Black Hills looked like for Custer’s expedition group.

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.

A modern-day hike through the Black Hills.

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.

Imagine a highway being created through those rocks.

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’.

The Black Hills as seen from a highway.

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.

Classic South Dakota storms were frequent during our stay. During one of those storms while inside the RV, we heard a loud noise, only to look out the window to see our neighbor’s awning blown out.

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.

Custer may have killed a grizzly bear during his expedition to the Black Hills, but…

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!

…we drove through the Eye of the Needle!

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.

Jul 2, 2020 – Land of Stone and Light

After 200 miles of this view, we arrive at our exit that leads us into the Land of Sand and Light.

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.

The 6-foot concrete prairie dog greets us as we drove south toward Badlands National Park.

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.

Arriving at the park entrance, flat prairies dominate the view. Where oh where are those Badlands?

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’.

About 3 miles from the interstate, at last the Badlands begins to reveal itself.
Are we still on Earth? This looks otherworldly.

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.

After driving 11 miles through the Badlands landscape, we came to our campground located next to the White River where trees predominate. Nice to have that shade as temperatures rose above 90 each day.
Our campground was located in Pine Ridge Reservation, outside of national park boundaries. Each day we drove this road to the park. Check out the slide show below for images shot from this roadside location.

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.

From our campground, there was a main route and this one to enter into the national park. I liked this backroad entrance as it got me on location more quickly.

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 scenic drive offers several overlooks and parking areas to pull-off safely. I didn’t have to go far to capture the Badlands.
A common scene at an overlook parking lot. Pantaloons are quite fashionable in these parts.
So easy to see the Badlands!

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.

Red X marks the location where we camped for five nights.
Continue on Sage Creek Road to see Robert’s Prairie Dog town.

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.

One of the best photography days ever. See slide show below for photos from Badlands National Park.

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.

Slide across to see the difference. Two images shot within 1 minute. This is what I am talking about when I describe how the light dramatically changes the Badlands landscape. See slide show below for more images.

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.

Jul 1, 2020 – The Quirky, Creepy, Beautiful and Magnificent South Dakota

“Skeleton Man Walking Skeleton Dinosaur” as seen from I-90 in South Dakota. The creation of Clarence Hullinger. (photo from atlasobscura.com)

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 creation of artist Wayne Porter, the Porter Sculpture Park as seen from I-90 in South Dakota. (photo from Google Maps)

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.

The artist, Wayne Porter. On the sculpture of the hand with a butterfly on its finger tip and a thorn in its palm, “How pain and joy can coexist, but neither hang around forever,” Porter said. “Butterflies fly away, thorns are pulled.” (photo from detourart.com)
Wayne Porter’s sense of humor.

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”
“It’s the same size as a head on Mt Rushmore. I think it’s the world’s biggest. I haven’t heard anybody say they’ve got a bigger one, and if they did have a bigger one, I wouldn’t argue with them because they’re crazy.” Wayne Porter

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.

“My albino dog, Bambino does the thinking, and I have a pet porcupine that helps. I have the opposable thumbs, and my dog has the brains.” That’s Wayne’s dog Bambino next to Wayne’s summer home.

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.

“Horses live in my head. Artists are inspired by their biography. Where you come from matters and I’m from cattle and horse country.” Wayne Porter
“The ballerina is scrubbing the floor, and there are pieces gone from herself. The point there is your life isn’t complete until you’ve made your last choice.” Wayne Porter
“I always wanted to be in a cartoon. I used to think life was a cartoon.” Wayne Porter
“I have pieces here that are 40 years old. In those days I was into horror movies. I don’t like horror movies anymore, but I got some pieces here I would not do again, but I don’t cut them up, I leave them on the trail because they’re like part of my diary.” Wayne Porter

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.

“I love the prairie, I’m from the prairie. I love to hear the meadowlarks, I love to watch the sheep, I like the wind. There’s nothing I don’t like about the prairie except the storms” Wayne Porter
“I use to have a goldfish bowl, and goldfish are so tranquilizing, and people get them, and just watch them swim back and forth, back and forth. So it’s a cheap button, but I like goldfish.” Wayne Porter

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.

“Art, no matter what type of art, is about communication, and so that’s the nearest I can come to it.” Wayne Porter
“Dad once asked me, ‘What happened to those car springs?’ And I said, ‘Well dad, I chopped them up and made a sculpture out of them.” Wayne Porter
When asked, “And what are you trying to communicate?”, Porter replied “If I knew that, life would be more clear to me.”

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 short drive on a gravel road from I-90 to Porter Sculpture Park.

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.

“My intent is for the sculpture to stand as an enduring symbol of our shared belief that all here are sacred and in a sacred place.” Dale Claude Lamphere

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.

Dignity is made of hundreds of pieces of stainless steel. The star quilt is made of 128 diamond shapes in the color of water and sky. “It’s been well received by the Native community, and by visitors from all over the country. My hope over time is it really gets people to think about the beauty of the native cultures.”
“Dignity represents the courage, perseverance and wisdom of the Lakota and Dakota culture in South Dakota.” Dale Claude Lamphere

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”.

June 28, 2020 – Gateway to the Great Plains

The Loess Hills run parallel to the Missouri River on the west side of Iowa, where we stayed at the Lewis and Clark State Park.

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.

Driving through downtown Onawa, Iowa on the widest main street in the U.S.

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.

Although Iowa is not ranked #1 in beef or dairy, you do see a lot of cattle.
A typical picturesque scene in the Loess Hills.

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.

Catching up on the latest news in Onawa.

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.

Driving through the Loess Hills, I came onto this road, not what you might expect in Iowa. The bottom of this unimproved & very steep road is invisible from the top. On the right side is a sign warning drivers to enter at their own risk. I have nightmares about pulling our RV on one of these roads!

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.

A satellite image can distinguish the identifiable Loess HIlls topography from the flat prairie. We spent a day hiking within Preparation Canyon State Park, marked by the arrow.

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 the trailhead leading into Preparation Canyon where several primitive campsites are maintained and can be accessed only on foot.
Found this female ichneumon wasp on the trail. The very long tail is not a stinger, rather it is used to deposit eggs. And no, she did not leave eggs on my boot! She prefers wood for that.
One of the first-come-first-serve campsites off the hiking trail. Gentle slopes make it easy for the park service to maintain the trails and campsites with riding lawnmowers.

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.

This little one room school located somewhere in the Loess Hills was in use until 1945.

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.

A lookout point gives you a 240 degree view of the Loess Hills.

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.

The Saharan Dust made its way to Iowa, replacing bright blue skies with a dull white light. I converted this to black and white to hide my disappointment.

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.

From satellite images, you can see the U-shape or oxbow formed by the Missouri River. The state park its in the middle of the “U”.

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.

On display at the Lewis and Clark State Park are exact replicas of the boats used by the expedition.

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.

A Lewis and Clark expedition keel boat (replica).

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.

RV Tips

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.

June 26, 2020 – The Grand Design

The day we drove our new home of the dealer’s lot.

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.

If you look hard enough, you’ll see it, small tears in the vinyl from the slideout rolling against the floor. This does not appear to be nothing more than a cosmetic problem. To the contrary, it was a symptom of a very serious problem. Par for the course in RV living.

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.

Before leaving our rig with Grand Design, we spent a week at one of our favorite campgrounds, White River County Park north of Indianapolis. Having family there, we stay in this park at least once each 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.

At Grand Design’s service center’s campground where they put us up a few nights before and a couple nights after the 3-week repair job.
The Grand Design campground is located outside of the fenced-in service area. Over the weekend, it is quiet. By 5 am Monday morning, quiet is replaced by the loud sounds of RV manufacturing.
One of our fine view’s from the campground.

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.

Needing to be at Lippert Components by 7 am, we spent the night boondocking at the RV Museum and Hall of Fame parking lot.
Our home pulled into Lippert Components, Inc promptly at 7 am.
Among many repairs, the equalizer and shackle bolts were removed and replaced…
…with an upgraded and more durable version.
Each hanger bracket was rewelded (blue X). The yellow arrow points to the V bracket that was welded into the hanger bracket for added support. A cross beam was added above each axle (green line and arrow).

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.

While waiting for the repairs, our time was spent visiting family, including my mom. COVID kept us from entering her assisted living home, but we did get some window visits.
Most evenings were spend in my sister’s beautiful backyard.
And we got to visit some of Indiana’s parks, including Turkey Run. That’s my sis, Cindy.

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.

Go west!

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.

The chassis supports the aluminum frame. The aluminum tubing that run across the chassis needed rewelding and additional cross bars and outriggers were added during the repair.

Nov 4, 2019 – The Bridge to Nowhere

Chokoloskee Island, our home is the only inhabited Ten Thousand Islands in Florida’s Gulf of Mexico coastline.
The Ten Thousand Islands comprise a large portion of Florida’s southern gulf coast region. Chokoloskee Island is the only one connected to the mainland by bridge.
We decided three years ago to live fulltime in the RV and park it through the winter months on Chokoloskee Island.

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.

Every street but one is a dead end on Chokoloskee Island.
Survivors of hurricanes proudly stand on Chokoloskee Island.

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.

The Gulf Coast entrance of Everglades National Park is along the road that leads to the bridge to nowhere.
At the Gulf Coast Visitor Center, you can purchase a book to help you plan a paddling trip through Everglades National Park. See the book titled “A Paddler’s Guide to Everglades National Park”? One of the two paddlers on the front is Vivian, the other is our friend Fred. Yes, I took that photo from my canoe!

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.

We call Chokoloskee’s Outdoor Resorts our home, except when we’re traveling.
The first time I came to Chokoloskee, Vivian brought me to JTs for dinner back when it was a restaurant. Now, this historic building belongs to Everglades Area Tours, a local outfitter.
Chokoloskee Island’s famous Havana Cafe. People drive from Miami for Carlo’s omelet or a fresh grouper sandwich.

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.

Chokoloskee Bay surrounds the island. At low tide, numerous oyster shells are revealed. Imagine attempting to get your boat across the bay with those sharp shells everywhere you look. Many a boat have been left high and dry at low tide and this is what leaves Chokoloskee only to those not faint of heart.

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.

From the marina, Vivian and I can paddle our canoes to Chokoloskee Bay. The island is surrounded by national park wilderness.
Self isolation on one of the remote and wild Ten Thousand Islands. From our marina, we can paddle easily out to the islands where we spend several days at a time.
And I can self isolate in the swamps of Big Cypress National Preserve. The Preserve is adjacent to Everglades National Park.

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.

Our friends Pete and Marie enjoying a sunset from Chokoloskee’s “beach”.

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.

True, summers are sometimes intolerable due to the heat and bugs, but I love those amazing storm cloud views that come through most days.

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.

A clear spring evening as viewed from our window. Spring marks the time when we prepare for traveling.

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.

These storm clouds that mark the beginning of south Florida’s summer reminded us that our self-isolation on Chokoloskee Island was done and it was time put our self-contained home on the road.
On the bridge to nowhere, but in the direction of somewhere. Bye bye Chokoloskee, see you in November.