Baby Shower, Solar Eclipse, Beers, and Balls

We moved to a full-hookup campground in Greeley, CO northeast of Denver so we would be near the Denver Airport. I flew back to Metro Detroit for a long weekend for my friend Sarah’s baby shower. 

It was a fun and busy weekend seeing family and friends, and the baby shower went great! 

Brian stayed in the Denver area and went golfing, and lined the truck cap toolboxes with carpet and vinyl so he can keep his golf clubs in there. This was the longest we had been apart in a year! 

I flew back to Denver on Sunday night after the shower, and Monday was the solar eclipse! We were 165 miles from the path of totality, so we planned to drive to Glendo, Wyoming. Without traffic it would’ve taken 2.5 hours, but we heard traffic would be bad so we left at 4:30 am. Traffic was even worse than we expected from the beginning. We sat at the exit to Glendo for a half an hour without making much progress, so we bailed out and turned around in the highway median and went back to the previous exit where people were parked everywhere. Four and a half hours after we left, we had a place to watch the eclipse.

It was so cool to see the moon covering the sun. Brian took pictures with our camera with a homemade solar filter made from eclipse glasses.  As the eclipse went on, it got chilly, and I had to put on a sweatshirt. When it was close to total, it got pretty dark. People started cheering even before it was total. Totality was amazing and worth all the hassle, but it was over so fast! We tried to have a plan of what we would do in the nearly 2.5 minutes of totality, but we didn’t really stick to it. Brian took a few pictures, but didn’t get as many as he wanted. I guess we spent too long gawking!

We felt a little let down after totality was over, because we wish it had lasted longer, but it was so cool to see. Some people started leaving right after totality, but we waited until the entire eclipse was over. 

Traffic was bad already, so we ate the lunch we packed and took a nap, and a few hours later, traffic was still terrible. We decided to take back roads as long as we could, and it took us about two hours to get 30 miles. After that it got a bit better, and it took us 5 hours to get home. Even the next day I25 South was backed up with eclipse traffic. It was a long, busy, stressful day but I’m glad we gave in to eclipse-mania! 

After my visit home and the eclipse, we had a few more days in the area, which we spent seeing friends. I’ve been trying to get better at looking up friends who are in the areas we travel to. I’m not sure why, but I often feel awkward about it or reluctant to make too many plans. 

I drove to Boulder to see my friend Mara, who I hadn’t seen in far too long. We went to Under The Sun and had dinner, and then walked around Pearl Street. It was so good to see her and catch up. 

Colorado makes some delicious beers, and we have been enjoying Odell Brewery beers since we’ve been in the area. Brian and I visited Odell Brewery in Fort Collins and took a tour. It was fun to see the facilities, but the rooms we were in were noisy, and it was hard to hear the tour guide. 

After visiting Odell, we met up with Stephanie at Still Whiskey Steaks to try Rocky Mountain Oysters. They tasted pretty good, for testicles! The texture was a bit tough, but they were pounded flat, breaded and fried, and served with creamy horseradish and onion jam. Would eat again! 

After dinner we had to drink more beer! 

Day 331 | Mile 34,875


Rocky Mountain National Park

We took a detour on our way to Rocky Mountain National Park to see Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. It was the first National Monument, in 1906, and it is bizarre to see. It’s an 867 foot tall hunk of rock in the middle of nowhere!

The craziest part is that people climb this thing. Not normal people, of course. There was a demo of the cracks in the rock that people use to climb it, and I tested it out so I can confidently say this is another activity that’s not for me! 

To visit Rocky Mountain National Park, we camped in Estes Park, Colorado at Spruce Lake Campground. It was expensive and had a lot of rules, but the location couldn’t be beat, just outside the entrance to the park. 

We arrived, and by the time we set up camp it was starting to rain. We learned our first lesson of Rocky Mountain National Park, which is that in the summer, it rains everyday around 1 pm. Sometimes just a little, sometimes a lot, but everyday! We went to the visitors center, where we had a less than helpful encounter with a ranger who declined to recommend any hiking trails. We ended up going to a “Welcome to the Rockies” ranger talk, and he was the one to lead it. Brian mentioned that he was interested in seeing rivers and waterfalls and he replied that “there aren’t really waterfalls here, they are more like cascades”. Fortunately, another ranger was happy to recommend some hikes, and told us that her favorite trail is the Mills Lake trail in the popular Glacier Gorge area, and recommended a few short hikes on the west side, which is less busy and the area most likely to have moose sightings. 

We drove part of the Trail Ridge Road our first day in the park, even though it was still rainy and visibility wasn’t great. Trail Ridge Road is a 48 mile road that starts at the eastern entrance to the park, climbs up the mountains, past the tree line into the Alpine Tundra, across the continental divide, and down the mountains, and ends at the south-western end of the park. 

We went about halfway that first day, and the rain and clouds parted long enough to see a herd of elk and a rainbow. With all the rain in the park, we saw a few rainbows during our visit!

We also drove another fun park road, Old Fall River Road, which is a one-way dirt road up the mountain to to Alpine Visitor Center at the top. We stopped at the Alluvial Fan which is a waterfall over boulders created when a dam broke in 1982. There were people crawling all over it, one person fell into the water while we were there. We also saw a few yellow-bellied marmots while we were driving this road!

I was apprehensive about hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park because, well, it’s the mountains. The elevation of the park varies from 8,000 – 12,000 feet above sea level. I wasn’t sure whether the hikes would be too hard, but there were plenty of easy and moderate hikes, too. 

We started with a couple of easy hikes (about a half mile each) on the west side of the park. Coyote Valley Trail is a flat trail that follows a river. It is in a beautiful valley, but wasn’t a terribly interesting hike until we spotted a mother and baby moose! We watched them for awhile, and the female moose walked into the river for a drink. 

We also hiked to Adams Falls, and as we were hiking back from the falls we spotted a male moose lying in the trees. 

The most popular hiking area is on the eastern side of the park. We picked out a 6 mile round-trip hike from the Glacier Gorge Trailhead to Mills Lake and Jewel Lake. We knew it would be crowded even on a weekday, so we got there at about 7 am, and the trailhead parking was full already! Fortunately, they have a park and ride lot and shuttle in this area. That lot fills too, especially on the weekend, but it was pretty empty at 7 am. 

The hike took us past Alberta Falls, up about 900 feet of elevation to two lakes, Mills Lake and then Jewel Lake. It got pretty muddy between the lakes, but hiking in the cool mountain air felt good. The lakes were so beautiful! 

Our friend Stephanie recently moved to Fort Collins, CO, and joined us for a great day in the park, and stayed in the trailer with us. We used the park and ride to go to the Bear Lake Trailhead. It was even busier on Saturday! We circled Bear Lake, which was full of lilly pads. 

Then we started the 3.5 mile round-trip hike past Nymph Lake and Dream Lake to Emerald Lake. Each lake was very different, and between the lakes we walked along the river and admired the cascades. There is so much water in the park! There are rivers and lakes everywhere.

We peeked in the ponds and saw some beautiful trout. Brian was sad to be without his fishing pole, and was jealous of the fly fishermen that we saw along the way. 

When we got to Emerald Lake we had climbed about 700 feet and as soon as we turned around a bend, it got so cold! There was a chilly breeze coming across the lake. We stopped there and ate snacks, and had to fight off the hungry chipmunks. 

It was a great hike, and it was really nice to have someone else besides Brian to continuously exclaim “wow, this is so beautiful!” back and forth with me. 

Afterward, we continued on to drive the entire Trail Ridge Road. We stopped at the Alpine Visitors Center and climbed the Alpine Ridge Trail, nicknamed  “Huffers Hill”, and even though it was only 160 feet, it was a challenge because it climbed to 12,000 feet above sea level! We saw the Alpine tundra up close and enjoyed great views from the mountain. It was chilly up there!

When we got to the west side of the park we saw a few herds of elk.

It was really fun exploring the park with Stephanie. It was also great to catch up and drink beer together.

Brian and I did one last hike in the park before our time there ended. We visited the southeastern area and hiked 5.2 miles round trip and about 900 feet in elevation from the Wild Basin Trailhead past Copeland Falls and Calypso Cascades to Ouzel Falls. It was a great Trail through the woods near the river. Brian was very excited the see mushrooms again, and we saw some great ones!  

Of the cascades and falls on this hike, I think I liked Copeland Falls best, though they were all beautiful. Calypso Falls had trees fallen and a bridge that went over it. 

We ended with a walk around Lilly Lake where we saw wildflowers, baby ducks, and a couple of muskrats. 

Rocky Mountain National Park really exceeded my expectations and I learned why it is such a popular park. The hiking and wildlife are amazing, and nearly every trail goes past rivers, waterfalls, (oops, I mean cascades), and gorgeous Alpine lakes. 

Day 321 | Mile 33,843

The Black Hills of South Dakota

The Black Hills are a mountain range in western South Dakota and eastern Wyoming that are covered in Ponderosa Pine trees, making them appear dark. Windy roads cross through the area, making the small towns and tourist destinations accessible. The southern Black Hills contain Jewel Cave National Monument, Wind Cave National Park, Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, and Custer State Park. The northern Black Hills include the cities of Deadwood and Sturgis. 

Both Jewel Cave and Wind Cave are only accessible by guided tour, so we arrived early two days in a row to get tickets.

Jewel Cave became a National Monument in 1908, but up until 1959 only about 2 miles of cave passages had been discovered. Now, it is the third longest cave in the world at 189 miles, but more passageways are still being discovered. Based on airflow analysis done at the cave’s only natural entrance, there could be thousands of miles still undiscovered. I thought (for about a minute) about volunteering for a cave exploration trip before I remembered that I’m not a big fan of tight spaces. 

We took the scenic tour, which starts with an elevator ride down, and continues with 723 stairs up and down on metal stairs and platforms covering about half a mile of the cave. It is 49 degrees in the cave, and humid. The air didn’t feel very cold (though I wore a sweatshirt), but the metal handrails felt cold and damp.

Jewel Cave is covered in calcite crystals, which is where it get its name. It is more colorful than many caves, but most of the crystals aren’t shiny, and give the cave a bumpy look.

The next day we toured Wind Cave. We took the Natural Entrance tour, which we expected would enter the cave through the natural entrance. Instead, the tour started by showing us the natural entrance, which is one of many sites in the Black Hills that are sacred to the Lakota Nation. We then entered through a man-made entrance nearby, which I was glad about, after I saw the size of the natural entrance!

Wind Cave has been a National Park since 1903 and was the first cave in the world to become a national park. It’s the sixth longest cave in the world (140 miles), but like Jewel Cave there is likely a lot more that hasn’t been discovered yet. 

There is a rare cave formation called boxwork, and 95% of all discovered boxwork is in Wind Cave. It gave the cave a gothic appearance, and made it feel like we were inside a hornet’s nest. 

It is 54 degrees in Wind Cave (a little warmer than Jewel Cave), but the postcards designed in 1935 say 47 degrees. That’s due to climate change, which has affected the central prairie region more than many other areas.

We visited both Jewel Cave and Wind Cave because I had read that they are so different and both great so it’s hard to choose one over the other. Even though they were different, we liked Wind Cave better. Jewel Cave was more colorful, but Wind Cave has more interesting cave formations. The area of Wind Cave we toured is less open, so we were closer to the formations and ducking under low ceilings. The walkway was cement rather than metal, and the experience just felt more cavey.

Wind Cave National Park also includes the area above the cave. There’s a scenic drive, and hiking trails, and many opportunities to see wildlife in the area where the ponderosa pine forest meets the prairie. We did a short hike on the Rankin Ridge trail that went up a hill to the highest point in the park, where there is a fire lookout tower. The view from the top was nice!

On the way back from Jewel Cave, we stopped at Crazy Horse Memorial and Mount Rushmore. 

Brian had visited both when he was 10, and he was interested in seeing how much the Crazy Horse carving has changed, since it is still in progress. When he visited 23 years ago, the face was nearly finished, and there was a hole in the mountain where the arm would be. Now, the face is completely finished, and the mountain is a lot skinnier. But, there is still a lot of work to be done. If finished, it will be the largest sculpture in the world, at 641 feet wide and 563 feet high. 

The model of the sculpture is beautiful, and the amount of mountain that has been moved is impressive.

Part of the experience felt more like a memorial to the sculptor, rather than a memorial to an Oglala Lakota warrior. I have a hard time identifying with a guy that decided to make the world’s largest sculpture, began in 1948 basically by himself with a jackhammer, pounded away on a mountain for forty years, and then died leaving a massive project to his wife and 10 kids. I would’ve picked a much more practical project. 

The viewing area of the memorial (which is about a mile from the mountain carving) also includes a Native American museum that has some interesting artifacts and beautiful art. 

I hope the sculpture is finished during my lifetime so I can come back and see it. It’s been in progress now for nearly 70 years, but it does seem like they are gaining momentum. 

It was raining a little as we left Crazy Horse and drove to Mount Rushmore. At Mount Rushmore we found a large granite pavilion with a gift shop and cafe and two rows of flags displaying every state and territory’s flag. We walked through the avenue of flags and stood on the viewing platform, admiring the mountain carving.

It’s interesting to me how something can look just like it does in all the pictures, but it’s still really cool to see it in real life. After a few minutes we thought, “welp, that’s that”. But then we saw a sign pointing off to the right that said “sculptor’s studio”. We went there, and there were some models and a ranger giving a talk, and a gift shop. We bought postcards and looked for a patch, but the only patches for sale said Junior Ranger and Rushmore Ranger. Of course, we couldn’t buy the patch without earning the title. So, I requested a Rushmore Ranger workbook, and was directed to the visitor’s center to get one. What?! There’s a visitor’s center?! It is underneath the avenue of flags, and we had no idea. We almost missed it!

We went to the visitor’s center and learned about the creation of the monument and the carving process. It was created to be a tourist attraction to the area, since the gold rush boom had fizzled out and the region’s economy was struggling.  It took 14 years to carve. A few hundred workers hung off the mountain in swing chairs and blasted it with dynamite, and amazingly there were no serious injuries or deaths. After all that learning, we ate ice cream made with a recipe recorded by Thomas Jefferson, which was delicious.

The whole time we were walking around, Brian kept mentioning that it didn’t seem familiar. He thought Mount Rushmore was just a mountain carving and a parking lot. We asked about it, and a ranger said that the avenue of flags and visitor center complex is all new, and was started in 1994. So Brian was right, none of it was there when he last visited. 

Deadwood is a city that began illegally in the 1870s. The land belonged to the Lakota people, but when gold was discovered in the Black Hills, treaties were ignored and settlers invaded. It was the last gold rush, and because the town was illegally settled, it was lawless and full of gambling and brothels and wild-west characters like Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane.

In more recent history, brothels were only shut down in the 1980s, and were replaced with legal gambling. We visited a casino and made a modest contribution. Brian played in a poker tournament and I visited the Adams Museum and the Mount Moriah cemetery. I probably should’ve gotten the hint, but was very surprised that Mount Moriah cemetery is at the top of a steep hill!   There was a long walking tour suggested through the large cemetery, but I skipped most of it and checked out Wild Bill and Calamity Jane’s graves, admired the view of the town from above, and then saw a few bighorn sheep that were resting in the cemetery. 

When Brian and his family visited this area, they were surprised by how many motorcycles were in the area, and learned that the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was happening. The same thing happened to us! There were bikes everywhere throughout the region. I thought we saw a lot in Deadwood, but it was nothing compared to what we saw when we walked down Main Street in Sturgis! I’ve never seen so many motorcycles. We didn’t fit in well, as the only people not wearing leather vests. 

We drove a lot throughout the Black Hills region of South Dakota, but the views were so nice we didn’t really mind.

Day 312| Mile 32,810

Badlands National Park

In 1994, Brian went on an RV road trip with his family. They went to Badlands National Park, Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, Devils Tower National Monument, and Yellowstone National Park. Brian considers it his funnest childhood family vacation, though a lot is fuzzy, since he was 10 years old at the time. I’ve never visited any of the places, so we planned our late summer to roughly repeat this trip, with a few extra stops added in. 

We were planning to dry camp at a no-hookup campground in Badlands National Park. We dumped our tanks and filled our water at a rest area (South Dakota rest areas have dump stations!), but about 2 minutes outside in 90-plus degree heat had us rethinking this plan.  We started calling around to some campgrounds and found one with availability. As we were turning around at the next exit we saw a sign for a “express” campground that has 8 large pull-though spots, is next to an un-manned gas station with bathrooms, has electric hookups, and is $10 a day. Can’t beat that price for electric hookup (outside of Brian’s parents’ driveway)!

The first stop we made, before we even entered the park, was Wall Drug. The ultimate roadside attraction/tourist trap! We had been seeing signs advertising Wall Drug for hundreds of miles, and since Brian had good memories of visiting as a kid, we had to go!

Wall Drug began as a small-town drug store in 1931. It didn’t do very well until they started advertising “Free Ice Water” to tourists traveling to Mount Rushmore. They started putting up signs for miles around, and it has evolved into a large complex including many stores, a large restaurant, western decor, a backyard area, old photographs, a “mining experience”, singing animatronic creatures, a chapel, and a fountain. 

We spent hours exploring and taking pictures. We ate lunch there, hot beef sandwiches and delicious donuts. We aren’t the type of people to let a tourist trap suck us in, so we only bought a puzzle, two bottle openers, a t-shirt, postcards, a patch, two smashed pennies, and a bank shaped like a bison. 

Badlands National Park has two main attractions, the layered badland rock formations, and large mixed grass prairie and the wildlife it supports. 

There is a scenic drive through the park from east to west. On the east side are the more impressive rock formations, and on the west side there is more wildlife. 

We didn’t do much hiking in this park, because it was too hot! The Badlands is a “go anywhere” park, meaning hikers aren’t instructed to stay on the trails. Which is surprising to me, because the badlands look so crumbly. 

We drove the road several times, and admired the scenery and kept our eyes peeled for animals. We saw two male bighorn sheep right on the side of the road. We watched them for awhile, and one reared up and they clocked horns. I think they were just showing off, because afterward they just looked at us like, “did you see that?”

Sage Creek Rim Road is a gravel road on the west side that leads to the no-hookup campground we considered staying at. We drove this road as far as we could until it left the park, and we got stuck in a badlands traffic jam for a few minutes.

The park video they show here is one of the more depressing ones we’ve seen, describing how this land was once used by Native American tribes, and when white settlers came, they drove the bison nearly to extinction ruining the Native American’s way of life. Bison, bighorn sheep, swift fox, and black-footed ferrets (the most endangered land animal in North America) have been reintroduced into the park since it became a National Monument in 1939.

There are also serveral prairie dog towns within the park, made up of hundreds of prairie dog dens. The way they dart in and out of their dens, and squeak warnings to each other is pretty darn cute. 

Badlands National Park is a beautiful place!

Day 312 | Mile 32,810

Repairs and Roadside Attractions on the way to South Dakota

We spent a full day driving north to Columbus, Ohio. Our trailer needed some repairs, and we couldn’t get an appointment at the dealership before going to North Carolina. A few small things needed fixed (deadbolt adjustment, loose letters on the front of the Airstream, and a few missing rivets), but the main repair was for our furnace. It just hadn’t been lighting. We haven’t needed to run the heat recently, but wanted to have it fixed before heading into mountains. 

Monday morning we dropped the trailer off at the dealership, and spent the day running errands and doing laundry. We were hoping it would be finished that day, but it wasn’t, so we had to sleep in a hotel. We don’t have luggage, and checking into a hotel carrying our stuff in reusable grocery bags made us feel pretty homeless! The furnace was fixed the next morning (a switch was stuck and needed to be replaced), so we checked out and went to pick up the trailer.

On the way back to the dealership, a yellow wrench indicator started flashing on the truck’s dashboard, and it wouldn’t accelerate. Brian coasted onto the shoulder, turned the truck off and on again, and it ran fine. Apparently an issue occurred that caused the truck to go into “limp mode”.  We picked up the trailer and towed it to a campground just outside Columbus, crossing our fingers the whole time. We took the truck to a Ford dealership and begged them to look at it that day, and they agreed, diagnosed the issue as a faulty throttle body, and 3 hours and several hundred dollars later we were on our way again. 

Once repairs are done, it doesn’t seem so bad, but while things are broken it is stressful to not know what is wrong or how long and expensive it will be to fix. The Ford dealership’s service manager told us that the throttle body is a “known concern” on our model. We have had every “known concern” become an issue for us! Timing chain, turbochargers (needing three separate repairs to fix), and now throttle body. Plus, we think the new engine and starter issues were caused by other repairs that were made. All in 10 months! We have an ongoing debate on whether to buy a bigger truck, or try to make this one last another year or so of high-mileage towing. It feels like we may be pushing our luck, but trucks are so expensive.

After all the repair excitement, we left Columbus heading to western South Dakota, which is about 1,200 miles. We didn’t have a great plan on what to do along the way, but we found a few fun things to break up 2.5 days of driving. 

We drove all day until we made it to Iowa, and then stopped at the Iowa 80 World’s Largest Truck Stop. It is three floors, with a food court, a diner, a large store, and trucker services (showers, laundry, dentist, library, and more). We ate at the diner, and then really enjoyed looking at all the trucker accessories for sale. There were all types of LED lights, shifter and steering wheel knobs, lug nut covers, “mobile urinals”, and truck nuts.

We slept in a Walmart parking lot, and the next day visited Maytag Dairy Farm in Newton, Iowa. Maytag was the first producer of blue cheese in America, in 1941. We visited the small store at their office and watched a video on the cheese making process and sampled the available cheeses. We learned that there was a recall of Maytag Blue last year, and it still isn’t available. Over 900 pounds of cheese were recalled over listeria concerns, and the process was changed to use pasteurized milk rather than raw milk. Since the blue cheese ages in caves for 6 months, there isn’t any that is ready for sale yet. We did enjoy and buy the Summer Bloom soft Brie-like cheese, and the La Petite Blue cheese, which is a creamy cheese with some blue mold that was made in collaboration with another dairy farm. Even though we couldn’t try the blue cheese or see the packing and wrapping rooms in action, we enjoyed this mini-tour.

Shortly after crossing into South Dakota we stopped at Falls Park in Sioux Falls. We walked around the waterfalls and stretched our legs. It was really cool to see the falls and the nice park right in the middle of the city, but we were surprised that it smelled like manure. 

A few hours later, while driving through Mitchell, South Dakota, we decided to stop at the Corn Palace. The World’s Only Corn Palace! 

We thought it would be a goofy roadside tourist trap, but it’s a serious place! The original version was built in 1892 to encourage people to move to the area. It was rebuilt in 1905 and again in 1921. The most interesting part is the the inside and outside are decorated with murals made of corn. Every year the murals are redesigned and replaced with a new theme each year. It’s almost time for the redecoration to start!

The drive from Ohio to South Dakota ended up being pretty fun!

Day 302 | Mile 31,587