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Published: August 18th 2011
Enough of these gentle piney woods, easy going animals and benign - although cool - weather. Time for some dramatics. This post takes us down through more of the Rockies, across Utah and Colorado – keeping an eye out for roaming Sacketts there – back up into Wyoming, through a bit of Nebraska, into and across South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin and into Illinois and Chicago. We have covered some distance. After we left the Rockies we did expect it would become just a little flat and perhaps even just a bit boring, thus being an area we could slip through quickly. Bbut not a bit of it. This country seems ready to deliver exciting times at the drop of a hat.
High country is always special for us. We have visited a lot and never fail to be impressed. Some of the country through Utah and Colorado is not as high as we have been in - in the Andes or in Ethiopia - but it is special and different. Our son has a collection of just about every Louis L'Amour western ever published (he pinched a lot of it from me). You work your way through this country
From one storm to another
tavelling along the I-90 in South Dakota
and you can see what old Louis was talking about. Hard not to be inspired.
We drove down through Utah to Vernal and Dinosaur and then across Colorado on Route 40 to Steamboat Springs. The Flaming Gorge was beautiful and a little surreal after some of the earlier country that was so plush and green. Harsh but very beautiful. The authorities had helpfully placed some very good interpretive signage at points along the way. Clearly, a lot of people don't want to stop to read signs so they made some of them nice and large and very short. We were able to pick up a lot of information about the very interesting geology and ancient history of the area from these signs. For the more detailed information about more modern events we needed to stop at the more normal signs set up at many of the pull off areas. A good road.
As we moved further and into Colorado along route 40 we lost much of the tourist traffic. They probably went a little further south and picked up the Interstate through Grand Junction or perhaps one of the other scenic routes. We decided to stay up on
route 40 and work our way across to Steamboat Springs. We travelled 650 km that day, which wasn't bad given the number of stops we needed to make. The country wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea but we enjoyed the feeling of remoteness and the occasionally beautiful views.
We had hoped to be able to connect with Jeanne in Denver but it turned out that she was actually in Montana so that was unlucky. Bob and Linda also live in that area but they had headed east a little earlier. Perhaps we will be able to swing back up here later in the year and see them all. Instead we visited REI to pick up a replacement tent. They were very good about it and apologetic about the fact that our tent had had problems so quickly. A visit to REI is dangerous though and this one was the largest store they have, so doubly dangerous. But we emerged with the budget relatively unscathed.
The decision to head straight up into the Rocky Mountains National Park was a good one. This time we camped in Estes Park which is outside the National Park. Estes Park is a tourist
town. Not a bad one, though, and we had a very comfortable camp in a very good KOA. We could have a shower there but that wasn't the only reason, really. The National Park was busy and the camping areas were posted as full for the night we arrived. Moving through the next day, though, there seemed to be plenty of room, at least in the camping areas.
The main thing to do here – if you aren't going hiking – is to drive along the Trail Ridge Road with the thousands of others. We climbed to a height of 3720 metres at one point, well above the tree line and into the tundra. A spectacular road and different from those we have seen in Glacier and Yellowstone. The tundra looks like tundra generally does, although not as damp as the tundra we struck north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska. We were surprised at the number of people who seemed not to appreciate the fragility of the environment, despite many useful and very clear signs that were scattered about. More than you might expect wandered about picking flowers and running around on the vegetation to take photos of
each other and of elks which stood and posed for ages. There is plenty of tundra there I suppose and it does tend to look like it is pretty tough but you do wish that some would pay more attention. We did discuss the merits of rangers or wardens with whistles who could alert people doing the wrong thing - such as we saw in South American parks.
The road took us up over the mountains and down again to the town of Grand Lakes on the other side. Our South American altitude acclimatisation has dropped away a bit and we were both feeling the effects a little. Needed some coca lollies or even leaves but I suspect they would frown on that practice here. It was very well worth the drive and we can appreciate why it is considered one of the special drives in the USA. The park would be a good one to spend a little time exploring but you do get a very good look at least of the scope of it along the Trail Ridge Road.
The road from Estes Park through to Fort Collins took us through a magnificent gorge. Fisherman dotted
the stream that ran alongside the road, and more than a few were spending time trying to extricate hooks from bushes and trees. Mainly fly fishing. Barnes would have been in his element but then I have to say he would be in his element in a lot of these US rivers. We moved on north and spent some time on the freeway – I 25. We wanted to see Fort Laramie which sits at the junction of the North Platte and Laramie Rivers. The Fort is under restoration and about a third of the buildings have been brought back. They are doing a very good job of it and is already substantially more interesting than some stone foundations with interpretive signs scattered about. The tourists had dried up here. There were more staff than visitors there on the day we visited. Pity that.
To drive through this country is to understand why it was able to become so rich, so comparatively quickly. We come from a country that is just a tad less in area than the 'lower 48'. Australia is doing and has done all right and is a great place to live but, let's face it,
we have a fair bit of brown in the middle and even along some of the edges. Not this country. It seems to have just so much productive land. And if it isn't productive grassland it is growing crops or simply looking spectacular. I know, I know. Their farmers often do very well from subsidies funded by their fellow citizens but their land is just so good that it would make many a farmer from another country weep with jealousy.
We spent a very short time in Nebraska so I'm a little doubtful about claiming it as a visit. We came in along Highway 20 going towards Chadron before we hung a left towards Hot Springs and the Black Hills. Seems that this is where the grasslands really get going. The local radio was full of reports of a massive storm ahead and south of us. Weather alerts were being broadcast over the local radio continuously. Hail the size of quarters and 60 mph winds were reported. Luckily, the storm was headed south west and we were going north east so we just caught a little rain. Nothing exciting at all.
Our destination was a place called Custer,
Crazy Horse Memorial carpark
which seemed to be well located for Mt Rushmore, the Crazy Horse carving, the Black Hills and the Badlands. We also wanted to get a look at some examples of the grasslands and to travel through a National Grasslands.
As we have moved about we've noted the number of motor bike riders, or more precisely, Harley riders. The numbers were high in Glacier, there were more in Yellowstone but fewer down in Colorado. Then they picked up again on the run through the eastern part of Wyoming and into Nebraska, reaching a crescendo, as only a Harley can, in South Dakota. (I can hear Adam starting to guffaw now, even from Slovakia). There were no Japanese bikes, except for a few Honda Goldwings. All Harleys of various shapes and sizes and ridden, as these bikes tend to be, by blokes of roughly my vintage and never much younger than about 40. There was much grey hair about, when there was hair at all.
The worrying thing for an Australian was that, after we hit Idaho, through Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska and into South Dakota, most of the Harley riders didn't wear helmets of any kind. Some had
Crazy Horse Memorial so far
The pointy bit in chalk is the horse's ear
on chromed up mixng bowls or those WW 11 German ones, but the overwhelming majority protected their brains with small pieces of coloured cloth. And this was both the riders and their pillion passengers. It must be a cultural thing. There was nothing inexpensive about these bikes. Most looked very flash. They were, of course, all very clean and shiny. Many had more than 2 wheels. A lot towed little trailers but there were plenty with the trainer wheels set up that I would have thought to be a bit embarrassing to take out in public.
It turned out that there was a major rally on at a town called Sturgis in the Blacvk Hills which wasn't so far away. It was obviously popular. Thousands of bikes.
The Crazy Horse mountain carving is a very ambitious project. They have his face and head pretty much carved out but, when compared to the models on display in the excellent visitors centre, there is a long way to go. It is an interesting concept and a massive task. They say that they aren't accepting any government aid of any kind. The idea is that the whitefellas have Mt Rushmore, which
is impressive by the way, and there is a need for a carving of a quintessential Indian or Native American hero. (Both terms seem to be in free use here). Crazy Horse's likeness was picked because he never surrendered to the white man. His surrender was to Red Cloud, his chief, but also because there is no photo of him in existence as far as anyone can prove. So they were able to create a vision of the all-Indian hero and that is what they have done. He will eventually get a horse and weapons. It will be a very impressive sculpture if they finish it – and I am sure they will.
The Badlands National Park is hard to describe but surreal probably fits it best. Another place we would like to have spent some time but we had decided that we really needed to be in Chicago by the weekend. Again the visitors centre came through with information. They do these well in this country. There is not always a lot of information along the roadways as is the case in some countries but the Visitors Centres are a different matter. We spent longer than we intended
poking about the exhibits and establishing why this particular land formation is in this place and learning a little of its history.
The trip out of the Badlands NP was mainly along I-90. A storm was obviously on its way but we thought we could get ahead of it. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a line of storms that seemed to line up along the route we were following. Eventualy we ended up in the middle of a storm, outrunning it and then going into another one. Lovely fun. Winds up to 80 mph, hail up to the size of quarters, good solid rain. We watched as a 5th wheel (the gooseneck vans) came off its large 4WD pick-up and rolled between the carriageways; a truck lost its trailer and rolled; then another jacknifed and rolled. Fortunately for us this happened on the opposite carriageway. Many bike riders either came off or simply stopped on the side of the road trying to hold their bikes upright. Every overpass had vehicles trying to get some shelter. This all went on for nearly 3 hours.
We gave a lot of thought to stopping. The radio emergency services advice
In western Illinois
to residents in the track of these storms was to take shelter and, at times, they upgraded that to take shelter in a protected part of your office or house. For most of the time though we weren't terribly worried. The wind was strong and gusty but not too bad if you slowed down. The people who were having trouble seemed to be those who were intent on maintaining a speed of 60 or 70 mph. Eventually, there was very little traffic on the road and we felt reasonably safe trundling along at a gentle 40 – 50 mph (60 – 80 km/h).with the very few others who were doing likewise. We made it to Mitchell at the same time as yet another in the line of storms, decided a motel was a prudent idea and checked in. Found that the storm by then was moving at 50 mph and so were we. Stopping was the sensible thing.
There had been a tornado watch on during our trip and in this area but we saw nothing. Next morning a couple of the bike riders who were at breakfast reckoned that they saw a tornado pluck a rider off his
bike and dump him on the side of the road. But then they said that they had heard that a tornado had plucked a 5th wheel off its trolley and dumped and rolled a semi. We had seen those happen and there was no tornado involved so we are pretty sure there were no tornados around where we were.
The next day needed a good solid driving effort. We travelled over 1000 kms across the rest of South Dakota, through Minnesota, across Wisconsin and then down through Illinois. We thought it would be a pretty dull drive along an Interstate and through farming country, but not at all. A lot of corn and soyabeans. Minnesota has millions of acres of soyabeans growing at very high rates of production and is apparently the 3rd largest producer in the US. We found it all interesting and enjoyed the drive, although I suspect that it could become boring with repetition. We missed Iowa and Kansas and probably won't pick them up later.
Now for Chicago.
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