Our Vacation. The Complete Tale, in Three Parts. (1)

I’ve been trying to figure out how to do this blog. A select number of people got to read the following each day as my husband sent out an update; most of my legions of readers (stop laughing) probably haven’t.

As it’s our vacation, and as its old news, it probably won’t interest you all that much. However, this seemed to be the best way to gather everything from the vacation and record it.

Each night, I uploaded photos and began editing, and Timmy wrote a little update. Timmy likes to write. There are no short updates. 🙂

Our Vacation was astounding, fascinating and beautiful!

(The photos I am putting with the updates don’t truly correspond, but that is because by the time I finished editing, there were 1469 photos on the website. I then broke them down, and felt that subject rather than day made more sense.)

For ease of reading I am breaking even this up into three posts. (This is definitely more for us, than for you, gentle reader, so it’s all good if you just skim!)

If you make it through, good for you!! 🙂 If you like, please, comment!

Part ONE

"Day One"    

The first day of our cross-country adventure ended at our hotel in Brownsburg, Indiana, just west of Indianapolis. Covering this kind of distance from our home in Virginia had been a tentative goal, so we are “on schedule” so-to-speak.  The weather was lovely for most of this leg of the journey, and there were couple of times we considered dropping the convertible top, but since we weren’t taking a leisurely pace, we focused on covering as many miles as possible.   While “Ms. Ladyhawke,” (our 2008 Chrysler Sebring convertible) has performed well so far, she struggled in the hills of West Virginia. Some of the long grades required 2nd gear to keep pace with traffic which threw engine rpms into the 4k range. That’s fine for short bursts but it’s a point of concern for the longer grades we are sure to face out west. Still, even under those conditions, our first top-off of fuel delivered 27mpg. Later, as we crossed the gentle rolling hills of south Ohio, where speed limits are strictly enforced (you can tell this when EVERYBODY drives the limit) at a steady 60-65mph our mileage on the next tank was an impressive 34mpg.   The scenery has been lovely and I’m sure that will improve as we go. The Appalachian Mountains are lush with green trees as the interstate highways and the West Virginia Turnpike crest over hills and carve their way through valleys to provide wonderful vistas. Once we reached western Ohio and into Indiana the landscape begins to flatten, and part of US Rt35 carried us through the small town of Eaton. Here was an image of classic small town America; two lane streets, modest houses and local storefronts were all indicators that you were in the country’s heartland.  The sun set as we crossed the Indiana countryside and we reached Indianapolis under cover of darkness. We opted to continue around the beltway to the western side of the city to avoid rush hour traffic the next morning, and it wasn’t until that point that we hit our first construction traffic jam. The bright orange sign of “Road Work Ahead,” can be a haunting sight while traveling, but considering how few we had come across so far we counted ourselves lucky.  Lots of music and small talk had helped us roll away a good number of miles for our first day, and even though the weather report says we’ll cross through a major rain front sometime tomorrow, we’ll wait and see how that affects the roads when it catches up to us.  We are off to great start and hope to make Sioux Falls, South Dakota by bedtime tomorrow night.   Time to fly :) 

Brownsburg, Indiana – 681 miles


"Day Two"  
We covered another good chunk of ground today, and even though we encountered road construction in a few places, none of the traffic was bad.
Today also dashed some of the misconceptions I had about the geography of the country. The remaining portion of central Indiana and Illinois is some of the flattest ground I’ve ever covered. You can literally see for miles with virtually nothing to obstruct your view. The horizon is so wide open you can see rainstorms that appear to be in the next county as they move by in the distance. At one point we could see sheets of rain falling to the south while the road we were on was bathed in bright sunlight.
Misconception number two, I always thought of Iowa as the flat plains covered in cornfields. I was only half right, there is corn aplenty, but Iowa is NOT flat by any means.
Gentle rolling hills occasionally grow into aspiring mountains, especially in the western part of the state. As we drew near to Omaha, Nebraska, we came upon the wind farms and the sight of these giant wind turbines is a striking contrast to windmills of old. Silently they turn in a seemingly slow and lazy motion, but scale is deceiving as we later learned their diameter can exceed 300 feet.
We passed a flatbed tractor trailer carrying a single turbine blade, and the length made forty foot offshore racing boats look like bathtub toys. I hope they don’t have to turn a corner in any downtown area because the sidewalk café or the corner drug store won’t survive.
I was also in awe of the sheer acreage of corn and soybeans we passed. Three states boasting mile after mile of farmland where houses, barns and silos looked like dots in an ocean of yellow and green. In Iowa, the sloping hillsides were lush with green soybean fields and the winds blew ripples across the tops like waves on a lake…it was incredibly beautiful.
We stopped for a few photo ops as well as a lengthy break at a bookstore where I caught a quick nap in a comfy reading chair, so we only made it just past the South Dakota border tonight. Sioux Falls is less than an hour away come morning.
After breakfast, I’ll need to find a spray car wash since the fields of crops seem to be quite the haven for bugs, which are in turn drawn to the headlights after sunset. The front bumper of Ms. Ladyhawke is now a different color, and her windshield needs as much scraping as it does washing. But I take solace in the fact that I’m helping to control the insect population for our thriving farmers.
Ms. Ladyhawke continues to deliver a solid 30mpg even at 70mph speeds, and the Han Solo voice I downloaded for the GPS is proving to be great fun.
Falls Park at Sioux Falls will be our first destination in the morning, then on to Badlands National Park.
Time to roost, and fly with the morning sun 🙂
North Sioux City, South Dakota – 1362 miles


PHOTO BREAK! Sometimes, I even have photos of people on vacation!

“Day Three” After a quick trip to the spray car wash, which looks like it may become a regular morning routine, we set out for Sioux Falls bright and early. Maybe I shouldn’t say "bright" since pea soup thick fog rolled in and made for slow going all the way to our exit from the interstate.
Falls Park turned out to be one of the most scenic parks in the center of a city that I have ever seen. The Big Sioux River cuts through the center of town much like the James River does through Richmond. While the many rocks you see in the James are worn smooth and round with a tan color, here the stones almost look like building blocks, with nearly clean, sharp breaks and a color that resembles red clay. The rocks have tumbled into formations that resemble stairs as the river finds multiple paths to follow. Foot bridges and walkways with overlook perches cross the multi-level falls at several locations and provide fabulous views while blending in with the rugged landscape.
The park visitor center had an observation tower that provided a beautiful overview of the entire area, and then we retired to the grassy hillside picnic area below. Large trees gave some welcome shade from the heat of the bright sun as we settled at a table for brunch of cheese and crackers. Trish also made sure to pack peanut butter and Nutella, because what good are crackers without Nutella? We packed up a short while later and headed for I-90 and Badlands National Park.
Traveling the highways in South Dakota was unlike any place I’ve ever been. I could see my tax dollars hard at work with virtually every bridge and over pass going through major concrete replacement. Yet even with all the construction, it didn’t really hinder our progress, mostly because here you SLOW DOWN to 65mph for work zones, while the speed limit normally is a brisk 75mph. Many if not all run about 80mph, and it is a surreal experience to sail by a state trooper at 80mph and not even flinch. In some places the concrete highway had been completely demolished in favor of pouring new concrete, and we’re talking 6 to 10 miles stretches of this massive undertaking. In some locations, the concrete road surface is evidently made from the indigenous red stone, giving the finished road a reddish hue, but it was as smooth as any asphalt road I’ve traveled.
I-90 is specked with tourist attractions which are hawked by untold numbers of billboard signs. We stopped to see the Corn Palace in Mitchell, which is a civic center whose exterior has been decorated in corn. As silly as this sounds, the pictures they create with different colored ears of corn are simply amazing. Each year the Palace is re-done since birds attack and eat the dry grain. We also saw a couple of fun sculptures including the world’s largest bulls head, and a life-sized metal skeleton of a T-Rex, being walked on leash by the skeleton of a man, which was my personal favorite.
The farther west you go on I-90, the more you are taken by the amazing vistas. Enormous open plains are so expansive that you can overlook entire towns, and the road stretches out in front you like a ribbon of concrete laid across the landscape all the way to the horizon. We crested a small rise and the Missouri River shimmered in the sunlight below like a brilliant blue crystal. Then as soon as you reach the other side, the landscape immediately changes into massive hills that lead up to a plateau. The view of the river from either side of the valley is stunning, and on the west side we stopped in at Al’s Oasis, which is essentially just that, since there isn’t any other fuel or food for miles.
One thing is unmistakable, South Dakota is cattle country; while the corn fields still exist in places, the hay bales dot the countryside like mini-wheats scattered over a carpet of green (very large mini-wheats on an even larger carpet) and the cattle cool themselves in ponds so big we might call them lakes.
Another amazing sight was fields of sunflowers planted in rows as crops. The yellow color blankets the hillsides and sheer size of the fields boggles the mind. I guess you have to do this somewhere to put sunflower seeds in every supermarket and corner store.
After crossing into the Mountain Time zone, late afternoon saw us reach Badlands National Park. I can’t believe we almost left this off of our “to-do list” because it is one of the most incredible sights I have yet to witness.
You stand on the plateau as the ground drops hundreds of feet to the grassy prairie below, but it isn’t just sheer cliffs. The closest I can compare it to would be the fiords of a jagged coastline as the multi-colored formations stand like crooked knives jutting up through the grasslands below. The tour road carries you down through passes to the prairie floor and the landscape becomes otherworldly. The still quiet is incredible, as you can hear people talking normally a hundred yards away. In their absence, you could probably hear an eagle from one of the craggy cliffs a mile distant. As the sun drops lower in the sky, the light paints the colored strata of the rocks in gentle hues, and the shadows cast on other sections take on an ominous appearance. We stayed until sunset, and the vast open spaces put on a show of magnificent grandeur. The fading light showed pastel colors in the stone you didn’t notice before, and the orange and pale blue sky gave way to purple clouds. The line of nightfall could almost be drawn across the Heavens as the moon chased the sun to the horizon beyond. Only God can use a paintbrush this big, and his artistry is unmatched by any human effort.
Trish pushed herself and her camera to the edge of burnout. She easily said "wow" forty-two times at every overlook, and it was one of those times when any other adjective or superlative simply escapes your lips.
I can hardly wait for tomorrow, as we climb the Black Hills to Mt. Rushmore!
Gotta Fly!
Rapid City, South Dakota – 1816 miles


PHOTO BREAK! A quick overview of the parks we visited

"Day Four"
Today was dedicated to the Black Hills of South Dakota, which was part of the great western gold rush. While that part of history has long since past, the Black Hills of today are rich with treasures that are wonders to behold.
We began our day winding up mountain roads to a small town called Keystone, which looks like the remains of an old mining village that has been breathed back to life. While its population is a mere 311, the town bustles with activity since it is the gateway to Mount Rushmore. The entrance to the park lands of the National Monument is virtually at the town line of Keystone, and thereafter begins an intimidating ten percent grade climb over a thousand feet of elevation to bring you to the monument itself. The payoff is well worth the effort as the image of the carved mountain in the morning sunlight is as striking as it is majestic. The walkway leading to the grand viewing terrace is lined with the flags of the fifty states, framing the faces of the presidents with an impressive show of the people and places that make up these United States of America.
The view from the terrace itself is without obstruction of any kind, and the sheer scale of the mountain face towers high above you. The craggy peaks of the rocky Black Hills provide a sharp contrast to the smoothly carved faces of the founders of our nation.
A quick walk down a rustic slate stairway leads to the sculptor’s studio where the original model of the proposed monument still resides. Fashioned on a 1:12 scale, the models dwarfs you as you stand nearby, while the light cascades in through a huge, cathedral style window that looks out on the finished monument. The image of the two sculptures puts immediate perspective on the massive undertaking it took to create this timeless tribute to four men who helped forge a nation, and the spirit of an artist who dreamed of making it happen.
A small concrete platform outside the sculptor’s studio is an area called “The Historic View.” This was the original viewing area, and the change of angle to the east gives Washington more of a profile, and the gap between Roosevelt and Lincoln is almost completely obscured. The hike back up the staircase might be a bit taxing, but the pieces of history we saw were well worth the effort.
While Mount Rushmore is an awe-inspiring, man-made sight, the Needles Highway is man-made road that showcases the tremendous creative power of nature. The formations at Badlands resembled fiords jutting into a sea of grassy plains, but the Needles look like those same jutting rock formations pointed at the sky. The peaks slice upward with sharp crevices in between, as though the mountains had been visited by some enormous carving knife. Three different tunnels were hewn from existing rock formations, and as such only have 8ft 4in of width, so cars must carefully pass through one at a time. The rest of the road is not for the faint of heart, with 180 degree switch back turns that climb and fall as well as curves skirting drop-offs that measure in hundreds of feet; most with no guardrails of any kind. But I suppose if you "went over" you wouldn’t fall very far due to the dense cover of pine, cedar and aspen trees. In stark contrast to the plains and the Badlands, where trees are a celebrated rarity, the Black Hills are thickly covered with the aforementioned trees up to a few hundred feet of their rampart-like peaks. How so many trees manage to flourish on a mountainside that seems to bear so little soil is an amazing freak of nature.
The last stop of the day was the Crazy Horse Memorial, and while Thunder Mountain itself is a staggering sight, the Native American Museum and story of Korzcak Ziolkowski is both touching and incredible. I would go into more detail but my take on the visit would run on for great length, so I think I will dedicate a blog post to the subject. Suffice to say much of what I read and saw moved me to tears, and the daunting task of carving this colossal monument to a bold Native American leader is a testament to their enduring heart and strength of will.
The phenomenal size of the project is hard to take in, over twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty and the head of the warrior Chief surpassing the whole of Mount Rushmore. Once you add his outstretched arm and the charging steed on which he rides, you begin to digest the enormous undertaking that is going on before your eyes.
When finished, Crazy Horse will be the largest sculpted monument in the world. I hope I am still around to see that dream realized.
We returned to I-90 and settled for the night near the town of Spearfish (don’t ask me why the name, but possibly having something to do with dinosaur fossils which are found in abundance here in the Black Hills) and tomorrow we set out for Devils Tower in Wyoming, then on to Yellowstone National Park by way of the 11,000 foot high Beartooth Pass.
Time to nest for the night.
Spearfish, South Dakota – 2006 miles


PHOTO BREAK! The wild beasts we encountered

"Day Five"
A good deal of ground covered today as we started off with rain and much cooler temperatures in Spearfish, South Dakota. The clouds quickly gave way to warmer sunlight as we crossed into Wyoming. Wide open spaces, expansive vistas and larger rolling hills were the order of the day. I use the term "hills" with slight reservation as the elevation in this area easily exceeds the highest of the Blue Ridge Mountains back in Virginia. Trees suddenly became sparse in sharp contrast to the heavily wooded Black Hills, replaced by plentiful sagebrush.
Devils Tower is only a short distance past the Wyoming state line, off the interstate on Rt 24. It is evident this area gets serious snowfall during its winter season with many roads (including I-90) equipped with barriers that look like railroad crossing gates. They are accompanied by signs informing you to turn around and go back to the closest town, I would assume until the road is either cleared or the spring thaw arrives.
The rock formation called Devils Tower juts over 1200 feet above the surrounding landscape and can be seen for miles as you draw near. From a distance it is an impressive sight, but the closer you get the more dominant it becomes. The loop road in the park affords some amazing views of this geological oddity, but the walking trail from the visitor center is up close and personal. The amount of stone that has shed from the face in combination with the rocks pushed aside as this hardened chunk of volcanic magma forced its way through the surface is strewn around the tower like a massive avalanche. Stones the sizes of cars litter the surrounding area, and are reminders of the tremendous power nature can exert. The flat area on the Tower’s peak is large enough to accommodate a football field.
A small plateau spans out below the eastern face and is peppered with holes, which are home to the community of prairie dogs scampering around the fields. You can tell the creatures have little fear of the tourists as they scurry about despite the people with cameras. If you stand by for a few moments they will congregate near a hole or mound, standing on their back feet like Meerkats, before darting away in several directions. They are great fun to watch.
We resumed our trek west on I-90 through Wyoming and into Montana as we made our way towards Billings to visit one of Trish’s friends. The incredible view of these areas test the limits of human vision, with miles to behold in any direction as you crest each hill, one can even see the shadows cast on the ground by the clouds as they move by. Some stretches of the interstate are so desolate that an exit ramp from the highway stops in less than a hundred yards and pavement becomes dirt roads.
Even more amazing was being able to see the Rocky Mountains in the distance, as if the "hills" we were crossing weren’t impressive enough, suddenly there was a backdrop of peaks so tall that snow could still be seen on their summit. They seemed to almost scratch the clouds passing above, and their dark silhouette dwarfed the red and sand colored rocks that cut through the pale green prairie grass below.
After a lovely visit and dinner with Trish’s friend and her family, we made our way south from Billings to a little town called Red Lodge, where our hotel desk clerk advised us strongly to not leave any food or drinks of any kind in our car, lest it be sought after by a hungry bear. Not the kind of information you get from a hotel clerk just anywhere you go.
Tomorrow we ascend the twisting road that leads to Yellowstone Park by way of Beartooth Pass. Trish took a quick total tonight and she has shot over 800 pictures so far; while I’m sure many will be simply deleted and others will require editing, it goes to show how impressive the trip has been so far…and we keep getting told the best is yet to come.
We shall see if those claims are true.
Red Lodge, Montana – 2437 miles

PHOTO BREAK!  Earth as Art

To see ALL the photos, follow this link.


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