Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Westward Ho: Day 11

This was a day of hard driving, as we covered the 501 miles from Oklahoma City to St Louis in a little over 7 hours. It was 100% interstate driving through country that felt familiar -- hardwood forests, green fields, rolling hills. We've gotten spoiled by the 75mph interstate speed limits in the western states (heck, the speed limit on their 2 lane roads is 65mph!), so we know the 65mph interstate limit in Ohio is going to make those last miles home really drag out.

We ended the day visiting with Terry, Christina and Zack Shields, including dinner at a great little Italian place they took us to in their neighborhood (The Hill). The Shields are great folks, and we pray that the burden of Zack's illness is lifted from all of them soon.

Home tomorrow....

Monday, October 30, 2006

Westward Ho: Day 10

Today was a long day on the road as we made our way from Santa Fe to Oklahoma City. By the time we checked in to our hotel, we had traveled 539 miles in 8.5 hours of seat time.

The oldest church in the United States is in Santa Fe, and Terry suggested that we make it our first stop. It is a beautiful and historic building in the central plaza of the city, and well worth the visit. In the eastern part of the United States, the American history we learn in school is very much focused on the relationship between the English colonists and the English government, with some mention of the French and Spanish. When you travel the western part of the country, we are reminded that while the English and French settlers were struggling to survive in New England, the Spaniards had already established colonial capitals in the west. This church in Santa Fe was built nearly 400 years ago when Santa Fe was first settled.

The capitol building for the State of New Mexico is the furthest thing from the domed Greek themed building found in many of the eastern states. The New Mexico capitol is an adobe two story building constructed in the shape of the sun symbol on the New Mexico flag. The old narrow streets around the capitol are remarkably free of traffic, as is the whole plaza area. There are no tall buildings in Santa Fe, and most are in keeping with the pueblo style. All in all, Santa Fe seems like a very laid back city. It might be a great place to live.

From Santa Fe, we took US285 due south to catch I-40 eastbound, on which we traveled for the rest the day. In New Mexico, I-40 cuts through ranch country and small canyons. Soon after crossing into Texas, the terrain completely flattened out and it seemed like we could see 20 miles in all directions. While there are plenty of ranches in the area, we began seeing some row crops, notably cotton. I know Montana is called Big Sky Country, but we've never been anywhere where you have a largely unobscured level horizon for 360 degrees around you. Somewhere soon after entering Texas, we stopped at what must be one of the nicest public rest areas in America. At Groom TX, we saw the giant 190ft tall Cross as well as the Leaning Water Tower.

Crossing into Oklahoma, the terrain became a little more rolling. We came across yet another collection of maybe fifty wind generators spread across a hilltop west of Oklahoma City. We have been impressed at the amount of wind power farms we've seen in practically every state on this trip.

Now that we're back on standard time, sundown is at 5:45pm, and we were treated to a great sunset, albeit in the rear view mirrors. We had a nice Italian dinner and are relaxing in our room for the evening.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Westward Ho: Day 9

This was another driving day. We headed due east out of Durango on US160, enjoying the classic Colorado vistas of snowcapped peaks and evergreen forests. At Pagosa Springs, we turned south on US84 crossing into New Mexico in the backcountry where we watched some ranch hands load cattle onto trucks.

We were suprised at the altitude of the pass we crossed, which reached over 10,000 ft for a stretch. We weren't up there for long, but the effects of the altitude were definitely felt.
In New Mexico, we broke out into the broad Rio Grande valley. At the center of the valley the river runs through a very scenic gorge. We crossed the gorge once, then soon afterward the highway dropped into the gorge for some great views.

On US64, east of US285, we noticed a number of little houses -- shacks really -- that I thought must be the homes of some truly independent people. None of them seem to have any outside utilities. Then just before reaching Taos, we came across a wild set of houses. They had the kind of whimsy in their design that I enjoy about French movies (e.g. Fifth Element). It turns out that they were homes designed and built by an outfit called
Earthship Biotecture. You can even rent some of them for a night.

We didn't stop in Taos as it was Sunday and there were lots of folks there enjoying the bright warm day. On the way from Taos to Santa Fe, the access road to Los Alamos branches off to the west. The
Los Alamos National Laboratory is where the Manhattan Project got started, and I felt compelled to make the drive over the to see what we could see. To my delight, the Bradbury (not Ray) Museum was open, and we stopped for a few minutes to check out the exhibits. Neither of us realized that LANL is involved in biomedical research in additional to their primary mission of managing the health of our nuclear stockpile.

We completed the day with an easy cruise into Santa Fe. After a fine Mexican dinner, we retired to our room at the Hampton Inn and crashed. Mileage today was 444, trip total now 3,817.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Westward Ho: Day 8

No stops were planned for today -- our objective was simply to drive from Provo UT to Durango CO and take in the countryside.

After restocking our provisions and taking on gas, we headed east from Provo on US6, which follows the pass also taken by the railroad. I took a wrong turn at the US191 intersection, and we ended up enjoying a side trip to Duchesne UT over a very scenic route through the Ashley National Forest. It has always been interesting to us how the colors change as you move about this part of the country. As soon as we got on the east side of the Wasatch mountains, the colors turned from the browns of the Salt Lake Valley to the reds of much of Utah. But once we got into this high country, things became gray and green.

After backtracking back to US191 south, we came to the town of Helper. Railroad enthusiasts know that 'helpers' are one or more locomotives added to the end of a train to help push the train up a mountain. The helpers usually stay at the base of the mountain, hooking up to the train before it begins the climb. Once the train reaches the top, the helpers disconnect and return to the bottom to assist the next train. I wonder if Helper UT got its name because it was the place the helpers stood by while waiting for trains.

After a short blast eastbound on I-70, we jumped back onto US191 to south. The intersection of I-70 and US-191 is a high point with a rest stop where we took most of the pictures attached. I found myself humming 'I can see for miles and miles, I can see for miles and miles' by The Who.

We retraced (in the opposite direction) the route of a trip we took with the kids about fifteen years ago, passing Arches National Park, Monticello UT and Mesa Verde in Colorado. We settled into the Hampton Inn at Durango CO and had a great meal in a little place almost across the street.

Mileage today was 444 in 8 hours of drive time. Tomorrow we're off to Taos and Santa Fe New Mexico.

By the way, we have now officially started the return leg of our trip...

Friday, October 27, 2006

Westward Ho: Day 7

The AmeriTel hotel in Pocatello Idaho was a great place to stay, and we woke to a clear cool morning. After a quick breakfast, we jumped on I-15 and headed south with great views of the Wasatch mountains to on both sides.

Our only planned stop was Promontory Summit UT at the site of the driving of the
Golden Spike marking the completion of the transcontinental railroad. While the short movie was informative, if you really want to know about the great endevour, I recommend Nothing Like it in the World by Stephen Ambrose.

On the way back to the freeway, we encountered the
ATK Rocket Motors complex. Like the Idaho National Laboratory we passed through yesterday, this is one of those places where very advanced research and engineering takes place -- stuff that would seem like science fiction to most of us. Like INL, what goes on in there is just a bit dangerous, hence the remote location.

After several days in the backcountry, running into a Salt Lake City traffic jam was shocking return to the urban world, including smog (we assume that's what the haze is). We jumped off the Interstate at Temple Square and spent a few minutes admiring the beautiful grounds of the Mormon Temple and the Tabernacle. I have been to Salt Lake City a number of times on business, but have never really seen the Great Salt Lake. If you drive through the city on I-15, you never see the lake. So we found a street that headed west, and kept going until we reached the lake shore.

From there, we fought the Friday evening rush hour traffic all the way from Salt Lake City to Provo, and checked into our hotel. I was happy to find an email from my cousin Diane Hirsh Pennington, who was in Salt Lake City with her husband Gene. Diane's daughter Julie recently gave birth to her fourth child, and Diane and Gene came out to help. We connected up at our hotel, and had a great visit.

Tomorrow we head across eastern Utah, with our planned destination being Durango CO.

Trip odometer: 290 miles in 5.5 hours of drive time. Total mileage now 3,057

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Westward Ho: Day 6

We woke to a beautiful clear and cold morning (14F) morning in West Yellowstone, MT. Our first stop was to head back into the park to watch Old Faithful. There were very few folks around, so we got to drive the Suburban right up to the entry way of the Old Faithful Inn and wait for the next eruption. The geyser came through in only 30 mins or so, and it was a good show.

For anyone who wants to visit Yellowstone, we whole-heartedly recommend coming in the Fall, near the end of the season. Kids are in school and it seems that few folks make the trek to the park once all the main facilities close. I abhor the crowds at popular tourist destinations, especially something like Yellowstone where the remoteness and solitude is a big part of the attraction (to me at least). We could just imagine the park in mid-July, teeming with people all getting in each other's way at every scenic view and every encounter with the animals. Most of the time, we couldn't tell there was any other humans in the park.

After the 30min drive back out of the park, we gassed up and headed for the
Craters of the Moon National Monument in Arco Idaho. This is a beautiful drive on mostly level high plain (about 5,000ft) with a great view of the Grand Tetons to the east. Along the way, we passed through Idaho Falls.

On US20 to Arco, we passed through the vast (900 square mile)
Idaho National Laboratory, operated by Battelle for the Department of Energy. The first reactor used to demonstrate the generation of electricity for residential power, the EBR-1, is now open for tours, but closes after Labor Day. I would have enjoyed seeing this site. INL is still a big part of America's nuclear energy program, employing 8,000 people. Their public mission is to do research on reactor designs and fuels. I have no doubt that there's a fair amount of classified military stuff going on in there too.

I hate to say it, but the Craters monument was interesting, yet not worth the drive. We expected something we had never seen before, but it was really much like the lava fields on the Big Island of Hawaii. After we left, I realized that I hadn't even taken any pictures.

We've settled for the night in a very nice hotel called the AmeriTel in Pocatello ID after 381 miles and 7 hours of driving time. Tomorrow we'll head into Utah for what we expect is a short day.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Westward Ho, Day 5: Yellowstone

Today started off at the crack of dawn in Miles City, MT with the goal of reaching Yellowstone. We knew it was supposed to snow in the mountains, but hoped that we could get through the park on the main roads. We made the 250 miles to Cody WY by late morning, only to find out that the east entrance to Yellowstone was closed due to the morning snowfall. So we backtracked 80 miles to a scenic route through the Crandall Ranch and over the Beartooth Highway to the Northeast entrance. While the fog obscured most of the view, we could tell that this drive would have spectacular vistas. I'd like to ride it on a motorcycle sometime.

We spent the rest of the afternoon traversing the nearly 100 miles across the northern part of the park. We saw multitudes of buffalo, many elk, and even had a pair of wolves cross the road in front of us. At most times, it seemed like we had the whole park to ourselves, as we only occasionally ran into other people. One of those enounters was very odd however.

On Monday morning, two days ago, as we were getting ready to leave our hotel in Ladoka SD, we ran into a couple from Lancaster OH who was also traveling west on a sightseeing vacation. Lancaster is a town about an hour southeast of Columbus, so they were practically next door neighbors. We bid each other safe journeys and went on our way.

Today, as we were just about leave Yellowstone, we decided at the spur of the moment to follow a sign directing us a quarter mile off the road to a geyser field. As we circled the parking lot, I saw a red pickup with Ohio plates -- it was the same couple we had talked to in Ladoka!! I'm sure we both made dozens of little choices along the way, including the fact that they entered Yellowstone from the west portal and we entered from the northeast. How we ended up in exactly the same obscure location in a park covering 3,500 square miles, at the same instant after two days of travel is one of the great mysteries of the universe...

Total distance covered today was 459 miles in 9 hours of seat time. Total miles now are 2,386.

We had dinner tonight in a place in West Yellowstone MT called Bullwinkles. It's probably been here for decades. I had an elk burger and a local beer called Moose Drool. Terry tried a beer called Trout Slayer. We've crashed for the night at the Yellowstone Lodge Motel, and plan to head into Yellowstone in the morning to see Old Faithful. From there, we'll head into Idaho and see how far we get...

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Westward Ho, Day 4: North Dakota & Montana

Today was another LONG day in the saddle: 496 miles in 8 hours. So far our journey has covered 1,927 miles, and we're just getting started.

We begain today in Custer SD, driving west to Newcastle WY on Route 16. There was still much evidence of the forest fire that was ignited by a severe thunderstorm just as we entered Rapid City on our motorcycle trip in 2001. In fact, the area was mostly obscured by smoke in 2001, so this was the first view I've had of the devastation.

From Newcastle, we ran up to Devil's Tower (you know, from Close Encounters?). We stopped and visited a little while with the prarie dogs at the base of the mountain.

By way of Hulett and Belle Fourche, we got back on US85 and headed toward North Dakota. Neither of us anticipated the miles and miles of open range all around us for most of the day. While western South Dakota is heavily forested, North Dakota and Eastern Montana is barren and mostly treeless.

Our stop tonight is in Miles City MT, right on I-90. The hotel shares a parking lot with a Chinese place, and the food was good.

We went back to the hotel to map out tomorrow, and I thought I would take one more look at what we might do around Yellowstone. Before we left Columbus, I checked out the Yellowstone website, and it said the roads would be closed to wheeled vehicles on Oct 15. Too bad, I thought, we'd be there a week late to get in. Well, tonight the website said the roads would be closing on Nov 5th. Great news! We've made reservations at a hotel right outside the west entrance, and tomorrow will be hustling down as quickly as possible.

A personal note: with today's journey, I have passed through two of the remain three states (North Dakota and Montana) on my goal of visiting all 50 states. The only one remaining is Alaska!

Monday, October 23, 2006

Westward Ho, Day 3: Badlands and Custer

We traversed 256 miles today, most of it was inside Custer State Park, south of Rapid City SD. I had been in this part of the country in August 2001 with the Motorsports Harley Owners Group, but it was brutally hot, and for much of trip through the area, I was following a leader (and as the saying goes, if you're not the lead dog, the view never changes). We saw much more today.

We left our 1950s motel in Ladoka and stopped in a 1950s diner just up the street for breakfast (great meal). It was short drive to the
Badlands National Park, which alone was worth the trip. We were virtually alone in the park, and could stop pretty much any place we wanted to just gawk at the beauty of this place.

Then we highballed into Rapid City and made the short drive to
Mt Rushmore. Terry had long talked about wanting to visit there, and said it more than met her expectations.

Next was a drive over Iron Mountain Road in Custer State Park. Lots of curves and great scenery. Since it was getting to be mid-afternoon, we decided to run into Custer to reserve our room, and make the run up to the
Crazy Horse Memorial.

With an hour or so left until sundown, we decided to go back into Custer State Park and drive down the Needles Highway. We still had some daylight left, so we drove around the Wildlife Loop, where we ran into multitudes of deer, turkeys, donkeys, and of course, buffalo.

Dinner was in a great little steak and ale house in Custer called The Bank, which was located into a building that was constructed in 1820 as the First National Bank of Dakota Territory. I had buffalo -- what else.

Our hotel is the Super 8 in Custer, a clean modern place, and one of the few open this time of the year.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Westward Ho, Day 2: Cedar Rapids to Badlands

With the time zone change and our tendency to wake pretty early, we were up in our hotel in Cedar Rapids IA by 6am, and out the door by eight. It's a good thing because today was all about miles. We pulled into our hotel about 7pm local time (MDT) after running 621 miles in 9.5 hours, for an average speed of 66mph (the speed limit on South Dakota interstate highways is 75mph).

When building the route (in Microsoft Streets & Trips 2006), I hadn't realized that we would be spending so much time in southwestern Minnesota. Until we crossed into South Dakota, the landscape remained vast vistas of cornfields, most which were being harvested in the bright cool sunlight. We were surprised with the number of large-scale wind generators, including a complex of approximately 100 units.

We stopped for lunch at a Subway in Blue Earth, MN, and were treated with a statue of the
Jolly Green Giant.

As soon as we crossed into South Dakota the terrain shifted to rolling hills and more grassland than row crops. Dinner was in the GTO Diner in Murdo just as the sun was setting. There was a dusting of snow in the grass, and the news reported several inches on snow in Black Hills. Tomorrow is supposed to be around 50, although we're expecting lower temperatures in the higher elevations.

In Mitchell SD, we took a brief side trip to see the
Corn Palace.

Our hotel, the Best Western in Kadoka SD is a throwback to the 1950s. It's a long one-story building with parking spots right in front of each room. The rooms have screen doors and a porch complete with lawn furniture so you can visit with the neighbors. I don't think anyone had stayed in this room for a while judging by the musty smell. Thankfully it cleared when we got the heater fired up. However, whenever the fan comes on, it blows the curtains open. Fortunately I had three vice-grip pliers in my toolbag which I clamped onto the curtains to weigh them down and hold them together. Anyone ever watch "My Name is Earl"? ....

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Westward Ho, Day 1: Columbus to Cedar Rapids

We packed up the truck and got underway about 11am, about two hours later than plan (my fault). Today's route was simple: I-70 to Indianapolis (we drove by the Speedway), then I-74 to Davenport IA. From there we traveled I-80 to Iowa City, and I-380 to Cedar Rapids.

Lunch was a quick stop at McDonald's near Dayton, and dinner was at a Crackerbarrel in Morton IL, on the outskirts of Peoria. It started raining right after we got back in the truck after dinner (about 6pm), and rained all the way to Cedar Rapids, where it is 33degF. It's supposed to snow a little here tonight, but warm up to the 40s or 50s tomorrow.

We crashed for the night at a Hampton Inn in Cedar Rapids, arriving about 8pm local (CDT). No pictures to post. Imagine cornfields. We crossed the Mississippi in the dark unfortunately. We'll cross it again on the return.

Total travel distance today 554 miles in 10hr 11min at an average speed of 54mph. The truck consumed about 34 gals, yielding about 16mpg. I didn't get an accurate measurement because the gas station had their pumps set to shut off at $75.00, which is annoying when you're paying with a credit card (i.e. I can't run off without paying).

At least gas prices are "reasonable" out here -- about $2.15 for 87 octane at a Phillips 66 station in Cedar Rapids. Oddly, the 89 was cheaper, about $2.05, but it was an ethanol blend, and I wasn't going to experiment.

The plan for tomorrow is another long haul, from Cedar Rapids to Murdo SD.