RealImaginaryWest Day 10 – Grand Canyons, Geysers & Grant Village in Yellowstone

After packing up camp at Canyon Campground, we hiked to the brinks of Lower and Upper Yellowstone Falls and had a late lunch at the Canyon Lodge Dining Room. We then took a drive to Norris via Virginia Cascades and drove the southwestern section of the Grand Loop Road on our way back toward our new campsite in Grant Village.

Sleeping In (Sort Of)

Even though I didn’t get to sleep until midnight last night, I still woke up at dawn, this time with a headache. I get those sometimes, mainly from muscles in my back and neck being messed up by car accidents and too much sitting for work. Usually I apply pressure in the right places and my headache subsides, but today that wasn’t working for some reason…so I just took it slow and endured the pain.

I looked over at Becky, still sleeping. Yesterday we got up at 5:30am, but I had kept us go-go-going so much that we got to bed too late to do it again today. Becky needed recovery time, and I was glad to see her getting it. She and I were both up and about around 8am. I started a fire so we could have a real breakfast and so Becky could make some real coffee. I also took the opportunity to set up my pano rig so I could get a 360 shot of our campsite.

This was just not our morning though. The late morning lighting conditions weren’t working for me, and I kept forgetting steps in creating my 360 shot. Becky’s campfire coffee percolator got too hot on the fire and the handle melted. Our frustrations were getting the better of us. My headache still lingered. We still had a lot of packing to do. And I still hadn’t talked with Becky about how to avoid a repeat of yesterday’s Yellowstone Mania. All this anxiety got us super grumpy, but things were good once we let each other chill out for a few minutes. Once we really got to packing, the day got steadily better.

360-degree panorama of Site J193 at Canyon Campground in Yellowstone National Park. Despite my frustrations, this actually turned out well! Click and drag to look around & click the arrows to see a different location. Click the top right button to go full-screen.

Packing Up at Canyon Campground

This pack-up was messier than the last one though. It had rained quite a bit while we were out yesterday. We got some water inside our tent, but by now everything was dry. The outside, however, was still wet in spots and the tarp underneath was completely wet with tree debris stuck all over it.

This is where I’d like to leave an endorsement for a $2.07 hand broom and dustpan set I bought over 15 years ago when I moved into my first apartment. It wasn’t great for sweeping my kitchen floor back then, but it works perfectly for so many things when you’re camping! Every time we pack up the tent, I use it to sweep all the fuzz and debris on the floor. I use it to brush off all the bugs, needles, and leaves on the outside of the tent. I can even use the brush to help my tent dry faster by spreading out the water beads.

Unfortunately for my trusty dustpan, I overestimated its abilities. When we arrived, I used it to shovel ashes out of the center of our fire ring and it worked great. I actually made a pile of them next to the ring so I could use them if I needed to put out a fire. Unlike back East, it’s very dry throughout much of the West, making everything from the grass to the brush to the trees quite flammable. As a result, campers are instructed to extinguish all fires before they leave their site or go to sleep for the night, either by dousing with water or covering with dirt. After cleaning out the tent, I thought that I better shovel those dry ashes from our first night onto the fire to put it out. Easy peazy, right?

Well, the rain had soaked my dusty ash pile and turned it into something more like hard clay. I didn’t expect this, and so I dug in hard and shattered my faithful dustpan. 🙁 I was so angry! I still needed this thing for the rest of our trip, and now it was broken. Becky doused the fire with water after this fail, leaving a pool of boiling water but no smoldering ashes behind.

OK, so maybe it was actually after we put the fire out that the day really started to improve. One of the last things we packed up was our tent and tarp. As I folded each part of the tent, I used the hand broom to clear off the tree junk and a towel to wipe it dry. For the last little bit, Becky just held the tent up for me while I brushed and dried it. After the tent was neatly in its bag, I swept off the picnic table at the vacant campsite next to us and draped our tarp over it so I could brush off one side. I then folded it in half to brush debris off of the other side and off the table again. Then I flipped the tarp and cleaned the other side. Finally, I had a relatively clean, dry tarp to fold and put into its bag.

So on a big or a little trip, never underestimate the usefulness of a good hand broom and dustpan!

Back to Yellowstone Falls

Ravens were a common site anywhere they could find scraps…either from humans or other animals in the park.

Now that our campsite was packed into the car, we drove out to the main road and back over to the parking area near the brink of Lower Yellowstone Falls. It was a late start for us, arriving about noon. I wanted to hike in and see more of the canyon, including the Upper Falls. I popped open the trunk and began rummaging through my photo bag, thinking of which pano head and lens to bring.

That’s when I remembered the day before and said to myself, “Screw it! I’m tired, and I need to just relax and have some fun, and stop trying to be a documentarian for every hour of the trip.” I decided I’d bring my camera and only my 24-70mm lens, which is plenty versatile and won’t get me too hung up shooting panos.

I informed Becky of my decision. She smiled and replied, “I like ‘Screw It’ Day!”

She thought it was cool for me to grab a camera and shoot stuff, but that the day be more about us and less about the ‘photo shoot’. I liked the sound of it too.

A Bug’s Life

Before we got going, Becky made preparations sitting in the passenger seat of our car with the door wide open. While she was looking down intently, I saw this big black bug with giant antennas land on the dashboard almost directly in front of her! In a hopefully unstartling tone I told her, “You might want to look up, there’s a big black bug in front of you.” She sorta freaked out and slowly backed out of the car. I was in no position to reach it. It stayed where it landed for the most part. Becky grabbed a map and tried to scoop it away, but it crawled deeper into the car! It stopped in a little nook on the side of the center console, but it was dangerously close to crevices where it could hide behind the dashboard. This required a better approach, or this thing was going to die somewhere back there and possibly stink up the car (glad it wasn’t ours).

Becky acted fast and cut the top off a big empty water jug we hadn’t yet thrown out. She then easily scooped him up and let him go outside of the car. We kept the scoop in case we needed it again. The bottom of the jug fit a loaf of bread perfectly, so we used it to protect our bread from getting smashed in the back. So I suppose you could say she killed two bugs with one jug!

Brink of the Lower Falls

People gathering to look down from the brink of Lower Yellowstone Falls

It’s a 600-foot drop but less than a half-mile hike to get to the top of Lower Yellowstone Falls. This area was far more congested than anywhere else we’d hiked so far. We could definitely tell this was like the Disney World of national parks with the casual manner in which several people took the paved trail. I had three people nearly collide with me on the switchback down, and Becky just missed getting hit in the face with a selfie stick.

In spite of the number of people and the rudeness of a few of them, the top of the falls was incredible! It’s amazing how fast the water moves through the upper canyon toward the Lower Falls. The sound of the water was just enormous. And the view of the canyon with a partly cloudy blue sky above was just awesome and unforgettable!

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River from the brink of the Lower Falls

Continue reading RealImaginaryWest Day 10 – Grand Canyons, Geysers & Grant Village in Yellowstone

RealImaginaryWest Day 9 – Hot Springs, Overlooks & Oversights in Yellowstone

Our first full day in Yellowstone took us to Tower Fall in the morning and Mammoth Hot Springs at midday. We grabbed lunch outside the park in Gardiner, Montana, then found some wood and a moose on our way back to Canyon Village. We closed out the day at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River and ate a late dinner back at camp.

Our First Full Day

Has a full week already past? Are we only on Day 9? Just yesterday I told Becky that 1 week and 2 hours ago (because of the time change) we left! It also doesn’t seem possible that today was Friday and that we still have more than a week to go…wow…we planned all this??? I don’t know how we did it, but I know we could only have been this successful from working together! I know I couldn’t have done this as well without Becky!

Today’s entry starts with the end. Right now I’m sitting at a biggole fire that took longer than I hoped to build, but I’m feeling content that I am warm, our tent is still good, we haven’t run out of money, and we are doing OK. It’s been tough sometimes and we’ve gotten in each other’s hair occasionally, but we have really enjoyed ourselves over the last week. We’ve learned a lot, and we’ve gotten to see a lot of the country!

I feel like we’ve done really well so far, but today I know my “OMG Yellowstone!” mania pushed Becky way too far. We were up at first light this morning in time for sunrise. We were out before the tourists wake up to clog all the roads and scare away all the animals. And then we ran almost all day without much downtime. It’s almost midnight now, and we still aren’t quite in bed. The original plan for tomorrow was to start early like we did today, but I know I ran Becky ragged, so I doubt it will work out that way.

Enduring the Cold

Let’s rewind and go back to how last night went. Becky was super cold, and had to cover her face with the top in-between blanket. It was by far the coldest night we’ve ever slept in. We’re up around 7,900 feet in elevation here at Canyon Campground, which means the atmosphere is much thinner and the temperature in turn stays much colder—often only in the 60s for a high and down into the 30s at night, even in July. By contrast Mammoth Campground, near the park’s North Entrance, sits at about 6,200 feet and experiences temperatures that are roughly 10 degrees warmer. I was concerned about whether we’d get rain or wind on top of the cold at night, but thankfully the winds calmed after dark and it only rained during the day.

Layers are key to beating the cold. Becky and I both wore at least 2-3 layers up top, and I had two on the bottom. We had two blankets between our sleeping bags and our air mattress to insulate us below, and then another one inside the sleeping bags to keep us warm on top. Without the extra blankets, we would have been unbearably chilly! But as it was, everything was rather comfortable for me, so long as I kept my hoodie up to keep my ears warm.

Yellowstone Mania

Steam rises from Wabash Hot Springs at sunrise.

Tower Fall

The Yellowstone River as it passes out of its grand canyon

Now I wanted to be up early enough to get some photos of sunrise at Yellowstone Falls, which is very close to our campground. Becky agreed that she’d get up at 5:30am and we’d be ready to go at 5:45. We got going right on time. The weather was definitely brisk, but the mostly cloudy sky looked to make for interesting images so long as the clouds didn’t completely block out the sun. After shooting the falls, we planned to go back to camp to shower up, then hit Mammoth Hot Springs and come back to camp again for early dinner and maybe a nap. Later, we’d go back to Yellowstone Falls in time for sunset.

When we drove out to Yellowstone Falls, however, there was a thick blanket of fog over the entire canyon :-(. This would not do, and I wanted to take advantage of the early light, so I decided we’d upend everything we’d planned and drive an hour to Mammoth Hot Springs right away. My mania had kicked in, and it wasn’t even 6am…

A few miles down the road from Canyon Village, we stopped at the Wabash Hot Springs Overlook, since it looked like our last good opportunity to take advantage of the sunrise. As I set things up, it was awesome to watch the sun cast its first light on mountains that had to be miles and miles away.

Things were starting to warm up, but my stomach started asking for food and Becky started asking for coffee…so we stopped by the Tower General Store. It was too early for it to open, so we made use of the time and hiked the short trail to 132-foot Tower Fall.

Continue reading RealImaginaryWest Day 9 – Hot Springs, Overlooks & Oversights in Yellowstone

RealImaginaryWest Day 8 – Buttes, Sulfur & Bear Traffic in Yellowstone

After packing up at the Ponderosa Campground, we got breakfast and hung out a bit in Downtown Cody. Then we stopped by the ginormous Buffalo Bill Center of the West—which was way way bigger than we expected! Next, we drove into Yellowstone National Park, making a quick stop at the Lake Butte Overlook to watch a thunderstorm across Yellowstone Lake. Lastly, we got stuck in bear/bison traffic near the Sulphur Caldron and Hayden Valley on our way to camp at Canyon Campground. This taught us that carpe tempore is the rule when passing restrooms…or trees……

Calm Night in Cody

Today we go from roughly 5,000 feet in elevation at the Ponderosa Campground in Cody, to 7,900 feet at Canyon Village in Yellowstone National Park. Altitude tends to catch up with flatlanders like us above 7,000 feet—also the days and especially the nights are much cooler…eek!

The sun was up around 6am at the Ponderosa Campground, and so was I. We were both fairly well-rested thanks to the calmness of the night. Not only was the weather perfect, but our 60 young neighbors from Teens Westward Bound were awesome too. It was clear that this was a great group of kids! At 6:30 they received their wakeup call from the trip captain: “It’s time to get up, little darlin’s!” she repeated kindly in her North Carolina accent, walking about the camp. I got a chance to talk to her later and ask a few questions. I was especially interested in how they handled inclement weather, as De Smet a few days before was still fresh in mind. They all camped out in the open on tarps and sleeping bags, which meant even less shelter than we had in our tent.

She explained that they had about a week left on a 23-day road trip. They were headed back home to Charlotte, North Carolina through the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore, after already touring the Southwest and California. Young people are not selected willy nilly for this program—these were responsible, academically successful youths. The group from the looks was about 70% girls and 30% boys. Everyone was taught to tarp up properly so that nobody got wet or blew away. The whole purpose of the trip, besides seeing the Western United States, was teaching each and every one of them, from high school sophomore to entering college freshman, that they could do pretty much anything they set out to do!

From what I could see, that thought had sunk in. The group was two weeks from leaving home, and they each awoke without a complaint, in spite of possible homesickness, and even if some of them looked like they could have used a couple more hours asleep.

It was time for Becky and I to get started too. We got in rather late and very tired from the big day’s drive from Rapid City and the rodeo the night before. I was so tired I didn’t even get a chance to take advantage of the electricity available here to dump my camera’s memory cards and charge a few batteries. So I took care of that while we packed up the tent. We got ourselves to breakfast at around 7:30 or 8am.

A Few Hours In Cody

Clouds rolled over Rattlesnake Mountain toward the historic buildings of Downtown Cody early in the afternoon. Peter’s Cafe is on the right about halfway to the first traffic light at 12th Street.

Becky picked out this place in Downtown Cody called Peter’s Cafe & Bakery. All of Downtown Cody is very well put together, with plenty of historic architecture along its spacious main street, Sheridan Avenue. Peter’s was in one of the old buildings here, with a standard American breakfast menu at reasonable prices. The bacon strips were huge and everything on our plate was cooked perfectly. They had a couple of book racks with great titles for customers to read while they eat, like How to Stay Humble When You’re Smarter Than Everybody Else, The Joy of Being Broke, and the one that first caught my eye, How to Share a Bad Attitude, all by Ben Goode. Hilarious stuff! I’m gonna have to check this out more when I get home.

Before we left downtown after breakfast, I shot a couple of panoramas and Becky perused some shops. We have plenty of charming old business districts like this back in Ohio, but few are this large and vibrant—and of course none have the Western flair of Cody. I particularly liked 12th & Sheridan because of the Irma—the hotel opened by Buffalo Bill Cody himself back in 1902.

360-degree panoramas of the central business district of Cody, Wyoming. Click and drag to look around & click the arrows to see a different location. Click the top right button to go full-screen.

Buffalo Bill Center of the West

The humble South Entrance understates the magnificence and expansiveness of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

Before we left town, we followed a tip to check out the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. We went into the small South Entrance to pay admission, and found out that this museum is so extensive that each ticket is actually a two-day pass! We explained to the lady at the front desk, Rosalee, that not only would we not be here for two days, but we really only had two hours at most before we drove to our campground in Yellowstone National Park. She was very kind and offered for us to take a few minutes to look around without charge, in order to get a feel for all they had there so we could plan to visit on our next trip.

Let me tell you, this museum is first class, and it is huge! It is actually five museums in one. The Draper Natural History Museum explains the geology, animals, and everything else on the prairies and in the mountains of Wyoming. The Plains Indians Museum shares the history of the native tribes who inhabited the West and the effect of United States settlement. There is of course a museum about the life and legacy of the town’s namesake, Buffalo Bill Cody. They also have the Whitney Western Art Museum and the Cody Firearms Museum as well as special exhibitions. The current exhibition was a firearms loan from the Smithsonian, way back East in Washington—which felt a world away after spending a week in the West.

I’d heard the Buffalo Bill Center was a great museum, but that was an understatement! I had no idea it was on par with museums in big cities like New York or Chicago. Everything I saw here was impressive, and certainly a bargain for the price. Next time we pass through Cody, we’re certainly spending quality time here.

Before we left, I shot a couple of 360-degree panoramas outside, including the Main Entrance where the statue of Buffalo Bill stands. Afterward we re-iced the cooler and refueled to head into Yellowstone.

360-degree panoramas outside the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. Click and drag to look around & click the arrows to see a different location. Click the top right button to go full-screen.

Heading Up To Yellowstone

It was just after 1pm when we left Cody, and the weather was transitioning from morning blue skies to early afternoon storms. US-14/16/20 is designated as the Buffalo Bill Cody Scenic Byway from Cody to the East Entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Almost the entire route follows the Shoshone River through the Absaroka Mountains, passing by Buffalo Bill Dam, its giant reservoir, Buffalo Bill State Park, and eventually through the Shoshone National Forest.

Just outside Cody, the US highway enters Shoshone Canyon, snakes its way along the river, passes through three tunnels, and finally emerges just past the dam next to the Buffalo Bill Reservoir. The reservoir provides irrigation for agriculture throughout the area. It’s really gorgeous here, even on a rainy day! There are tall mountains all around with gentle brown and sagebrush prairie sloping gently upward from the lake. There were beautiful houses perched partway up the mountainsides with what I’m sure were spectacular views of the river and reservoir amid the mountains. Most land around the north side of the reservoir was part of Buffalo Bill State Park.

Beyond the reservoir, we passed into Wapiti Valley. There are plenty of guest ranches and campgrounds along the highway here that no doubt take advantage of their proximity to both Yellowstone and Cody. After a relatively straight shot from the reservoir, the valley narrows into a canyon and the road begins to wind as we enter Shoshone National Forest and the heart of the Absaroka Range. The road hugs and criss-crosses the North Fork of the Shoshone River for several miles…

Shoshone Canyon, just downstream from Buffalo Bill Dam

We got excited as we approached these two tunnels…but before we knew it, we’d already passed through more than one tunnel. When we realized another tunnel was hidden in between…we got really excited!

US-14/16/20 along the north shore of Buffalo Bill Reservoir

Driving toward the western end of Buffalo Bill Reservoir and Wapiti Valley

Just inside the Shoshone National Forest near Wapiti Wayside

And finally we saw the sign for Yellowstone National Park! At long last I had been able to achieve a nearly life-long dream to tour one of the largest, finest, most renowned parks in the world! It had taken me almost exactly 38 years to finally make the trip. Almost exactly 7 years ago I made it to my first big western national park, Yosemite, and it was positively magical! I’d hoped that Yellowstone would prove to be in its own way just as majestic, profound, and inspiring.

Entering Yellowstone National Park

The East Entrance gate at Yellowstone National Park. The entrance fee here gets you into both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Alternatively, you can get an Annual Pass like the one we bought back at Badlands National Park that gets you into all of the parks for an entire year.

The first thing I thought about when we reached the East Entrance was that it was very quiet! I expected a lot more traffic, especially in the middle of July. Maybe everyone entered through the North Entrance from Montana or flew into Jackson and entered from the south? I was pleasantly surprised to see that the park was mostly uncongested…and I was happy to know that there was a nice little campsite waiting for us in Canyon Village.

Stone guardrails like this one on the East Entrance Road line the steep edges of most roads in Yellowstone, rather than the metal ones typically used. A park should look prettier anyway, right?

Along the way in, you pass deep into virgin mountains, with the only evidence of the hand of man being the road you’re traveling. Rather than standard metal guardrails, most roads here have stone guardrails that remind you that you’re in a national park! After emerging from the giant mountains of the Absaroka Range, the view opens up and you catch your first sight of Yellowstone Lake. The lake was much much larger than I expected it to be, and the terrain around more mountainous. I don’t know why I expected something smaller…maybe it’s because any video I’ve seen just can’t do this place justice.

The entire landscape is covered mostly with sloping grasslands and forests, with occasional rock outcroppings. This was unlike what I saw frequently in the Sierra Nevada, where bald domes and half domes of sheer granite accompanied by spires decorated the landscape like a castle or cathedral.

Just 16 miles to our campground at Canyon Village! No problem, right!?

We stopped along the way at the Lake Butte Overlook, several hundred feet above the shores of Lake Yellowstone. We got an awesome view of an afternoon thunderstorm making its way down mountains on the opposite side of the lake. The area all around has obviously been burned out by a forest fire in the last few years. It felt like a worthy place to first set foot in Yellowstone National Park. After a few moments to look out and around and shoot some panoramas, we headed back down to the East Entrance Road. The road runs right below the overlook and along beaches on the lake’s north shore before coming into Fishing Bridge. We had some rain down along the beaches just before we caught the Grand Loop Road north to Canyon Village.

360-degree panoramas of the Lake Butte Overlook in Yellowstone National Park. Click and drag to look around & click the arrows to see a different location. Click the top right button to go full-screen.

Traffic Was a Real Bear

Who knew a few animals could cause such a stir?

I was able to fill the frame with this bison, it was so close to the road.

Along the road to Canyon Village, bison and elk grazed peacefully in the meadows. Motorists also sat peacefully with their cars, as we ran into our first traffic jam. So much for the park being uncongested! I knew going in that girdlock was fairly common in Yellowstone, and that it usually had nothing to do with bad driving. More often than not, traffic snarls because animals are close to the road, so massive amounts of people stop to take a look and get pictures. Sometimes the animals are on the road—and there’s no coercing a 2,000-pound wild bison to keep moving—so you just have to wait for them to cross. This traffic jam was stop and go for what seemed like miles though…so something big must have been happening!

Continue reading RealImaginaryWest Day 8 – Buttes, Sulfur & Bear Traffic in Yellowstone

RealImaginaryWest Day 7 – Devils Tower, the Bighorns & Our First Rodeo

The most driving we’ve done since Day 1 started in Rapid City, South Dakota. We took the scenic route through the Northern Black Hills to Devils Tower. We then took I-90 to Buffalo, where we followed the Cloud Peak Skyway/US-16 over the Bighorn Mountains. We continued on US-16/20 West from Worland, through Greybull, and on into Cody…where we camped before heading into Yellowstone National Park the next day.

Devils Tower & The Northern Black Hills

We made it! This far…

Up and off we went around 7:30am from the M Star Rapid City on Mount Rushmore Road/US-16. The weather was still a bit hazy, but it was probably the clearest morning we’d had on the entire trip. We got started a little later than we’d hoped, but we figured we still had time to hit Devils Tower and make it to Cody in time to set up camp and see the famous rodeo there. After finally remembering to clean the bugs off the windshield, we followed I-90 up to US-85, and then followed SD-34 across the Wyoming state line. Here, the road turns into WYO-24 and heads to Devils Tower. We could have stayed on I-90 and taken a faster route via US-14, but these three roads were all marked scenic.

Becky and I had already decided yesterday that what we’d seen so far of the Black Hills was pure awesome! We’d love to come back and camp either in Black Hills National Forest or Custer State Park. Seeing it for a day made us want to come back for a week! However, Devils Tower and what we saw of the Northern Black Hills in Wyoming made it hard to imagine confining a return trip to only the better-known Southern Black Hills in South Dakota.

At the last second I almost decided to stick to faster highways in the interest of time. After we got a few miles into Wyoming, though, I was so glad that we took the scenic route instead of the freeway! The red rocks and canyons along the Belle Foursche River held a type of beauty we saw nowhere else in the Black Hills. It was definitely worth the extra few minutes! Then we passed over a crest and around a curve—and caught our first glimpse of something like a giant tree stump on the horizon—that was just unmistakably Devils Tower.

It wasn’t the clearest day…but this was where we first laid sight on Devils Tower from WYO-24, still over 13 miles away as the crow flies. The hills on the right are the Little Missouri Buttes, which are just 3-4 miles northwest of Devils Tower and of the same geological composition.

Red sandstone is exposed along much of the Belle Foursche River as it runs below Devils Tower.

Devils Tower as seen from the east on WYO-110. Each angle offers a unique view.

It’s no wonder the Sioux and Kiowa saw it and thought, “This means something! This is important.” (Sorry, couldn’t resist!). The Kiowa have the coolest story about what Devils Tower means. The story is told in Ken Burns’ documentary, The West, and they had a display about a similar legend.

I can’t help but feel a sadness about the cultures that were destroyed by the United States’ westward expansion. The Indians really loved the land, and all the creatures that lived in it (at least when they weren’t warring with rival tribes). While the new Americans certainly intended on leaving their imprint on the West, often for the love of power and riches—they at least saw that places like Devils Tower should be held sacred, just as the Indians thought they were. And thus in 1906 with the passage of the Antiquities Act, President Theodore Roosevelt created Devils Tower National Monument—the country’s very first national monument.

While photography is all about capturing light, creating dramatic images is all about the shadows—and even in the middle of a hazy summer day, Devils Tower delivers from this northwest view! I can’t wait to see this printed on glass or metal…!

One last shot from the west, taken from the visitor center

At the visitor center, there were lots of ranger-lead activities and several hiking trails around the mountain that I would love to have seen. There were plenty of gorgeous campgrounds in the area too, within the national monument land as well as all up and down the nearby Belle Foursche River. Unfortunately, we didn’t allocate much time here in favor of more time at Yellowstone—and we needed to get going in order to make Cody. So on we pushed to US-14 and I-90…

Continue reading RealImaginaryWest Day 7 – Devils Tower, the Bighorns & Our First Rodeo

RealImaginaryWest Day 6 – The Black Hills, Mount Rushmore & Wind Cave

The weather held up really well, with just a little rain falling on us south of Rapid City as we drove from Badlands National Park to lunch in Keystone. We visited Mount Rushmore and got down to Wind Cave National Park just in time to catch the Natural Entrance Tour. Then we drove north into magnificent Custer State Park—WOW!—and finally made our way to our motel in Rapid City via the spectacular Iron Mountain Road.

Dreaming of the Old West

After a positively uneventful and peaceful night in Cedar Pass Campground at Badlands National Park, Becky and I woke up refreshed, and packed up our tent bound for the Black Hills. Becky cooked eggs in a tiny little portable stove she bought that resembles more of what a caterer uses to keep food warm than an actual stove. This was what we had to use to cook at Badlands, since there were no campfires allowed due to the risk of prairie fires. It took a while to cook a single egg, but it was effective.

After seeing I-90 and the Badlands Loop Road, I thought it would be best to drive to Rapid City via SD-44 so we could see the other side of the Badlands. Few likely see this area, since it is a much less popular part of the park. This was a great drive, which starts by going through the tiny little town of Interior, then passing through the town of Scenic, and finally to South Dakota’s second-largest city, Rapid City.

SD-44 straggles the border between Badlands National Park and Buffalo Gap National Grassland as it stretches West toward Scenic and Rapid City.

Black-footed ferrets, once extinct in South Dakota, prey almost exclusively on prairie dogs for food. They were reintroduced to the wild here in the 1990s, and as a result prairie dogs are protected in Buffalo Gap National Grassland.

Most of the way was either within Badlands National Park or Buffalo Gap National Grassland. The road runs alongside an abandoned railroad line where small wooden trestles still cross creeks, just without the rails. There were also plenty of pulloffs where you could drive into the grassland on dirt roads. Signs said that this was a management area for the black-footed ferret, which was thought extinct in the late 1970s. A few years later they were spotted again in Wyoming, and eventually reintroduced in areas such as this one. For the majority of the route we could see badlands going on for miles and miles and miles.

The railroad line crossing all of the creeks just a few feet above was odd to me. The fact that the creeks had grass all the way down to the water along their entire banks was strange to me too. Back East, the railroads are built far above floodplains, and there are trees and underbrush all around creeks and rivers, and pretty much just mud on the dropoff into the creek. The rolling hills and twisting and turning railroad bed conjured up all sorts of westerns and cartoons I’d seen all my life with scenery like this. When we entered into Black Hills country, it especially felt like I was living in an old western movie, except that technology and the 20th Century had happened and it was a little different now. It was strikingly beautiful country, and a lot of the things I’d seen in stuff set in the Old West started to make sense. I could imagine riding a galloping horse through this valley and on up into Rapid City with the rolling prairie on either side of me, and with the first pines appearing in the Black Hills.

Writing the Itinerary As We Go…

Now today had me a bit nervous…up to this point, we had all of our accommodations planned and/or reserved well before we left, except for the motel in Wisconsin. I had also managed to score three nights worth of campsites in Yellowstone online the day we left, and after that nothing was reservable anyway. The one and only night I hadn’t planned out was tonight…I figured on getting a campground as close as possible to Mount Rushmore. I thought it would be good to be able to capture it at sunrise in case sunset didn’t work out, plus it would eliminate any extra driving at the end of the night and hopefully we’d be able to relax. Unfortunately, there were zillions of campgrounds in the area and I had no opportunity to research many of them. The ones I did check were all super-expensive, as in might-as-well-get-a-motel expensive.

When we got cell service back again and I could check the forecast, the potential rain and the possibility of having another repeat of DeSmet weather settled it! I Googled around and found a motel—the M Star Rapid City. It was the cheapest thing I could get, and it was close to I-90, so I jumped on it. That was settled!

Now it was time to decide which destination to hit first…there were two on our itinerary. I’d originally planned on going to Wind Cave National Park first thing, then heading to Mount Rushmore by way of the Iron Mountain Road and seeing Rushmore closer to sunset. This would give me the opportunity to photograph the sculpture both in the Golden Hour and after dark when it’s all lit up. It was still partly to mostly cloudy, but the forecast called for overcast and possibly rain in the evening. This significantly reduced the probability of getting any interesting shadows or blue sky—and it shouldn’t matter what the weather outside is to tour inside a cave—so we elected to hit Rushmore first after we grabbed lunch.

We got a bit of rain between Rapid City and Keystone. I’d never seen a freeway interchange with wood-framed overpasses like this one at the junction of US-16 and US-16A!

The drive out of Rapid City and deep into the Black Hills was peppered with many and varied tourist traps. Several were totally designed to grab an eight-year-old’s attention so that they would pressure their parents to visit. I still have to admit, a few were tempting to check out.

Right before Mount Rushmore, you go through the town of Keystone, which seemed to have more hotels than residents. Again, there were many and varied tourist attractions, several of which were themed around the presidents and their history. We stopped at the Grizzly Creek Restaurant to try their burgers. I went for the bourbon burger and Becky had the buffalo burger. They were tasty and hearty, but not remarkable for the price. They have ten beers on tap, two or three of which were the standard Miller and Budweiser choices, while the rest were all local microbrews. We still had a lot ahead of us for the day, so I decided not to have anything after I tasted a sample of the only beer that really sounded good to me—which was a wheat beer that tasted too hoppy for my liking.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

The clouds were just beginning to subside as we caught our first sight of Mount Rushmore from SD-244.

Mount Rushmore was a busy place, probably the busiest we’d seen so far on this trip. It was nowhere near congested though, especially compared with just about any of the major tourist attractions in California. As you drive up on SD-244 to the monument, you actually catch your first site of it, which is pretty striking. At the entrance are ticket gates where you have to pay to park in the massive deck they built back in the 1990s. Unfortunately, the Annual Pass we just bought at Badlands doesn’t apply here, as a separate organization operates the parking deck. Finding parking was not too difficult, and neither was making our way up to the monument.

Mount Rushmore towers over the grand entrance to the memorial from the parking decks.

Continue reading RealImaginaryWest Day 6 – The Black Hills, Mount Rushmore & Wind Cave

RealImaginaryWest Day 5 – The Good & Badlands of South Dakota

We drove through drizzly conditions from De Smet to Mitchell in Eastern South Dakota, and then traversed most of the state on I-90 to Badlands National Park and Wall.

Last Stop with Laura

So, after another violent Great Plains storm (albeit in much more secure conditions) and our car already packed, we emerged from our covered wagon to much cooler but drizzly weather. The misty haze was not looking good for my photographic aspirations today! The forecast showed the rain holding on for just a little longer in De Smet, and that there would be a general clearing trend where the sun might come out and burn off the fog.  Becky and I each got showers this morning, since it would have more long-lasting effects than if we’d showered the night before with the 85-90 degree heat and humidity. The humidity in South Dakota was nowhere near as high as what we had experienced before we left Ohio, but it was enough to make you move a lot slower so you didn’t overexert yourself in the heat.  Now that the temperature had dropped to 65-70 degrees, everything except the haze was peachy.

We got a fairly early start, getting out of the Ingalls Homestead around 8am. We headed into De Smet and to the local coffee shop, Ward’s Store.  Interestingly enough, this was the site of Charles Ingalls’ store, and in the original building that rose in its place after he sold it and moved out to his homestead.  Becky was really glad to have gotten coffee here, since now she’s been to every place where Laura lived in De Smet.

We then continued south on SD-25, making our way down to Mitchell, which is only about an hour away. We planned to see the famous Corn Palace, and I hoped to score a quick breakfast.  Ever since we’d left De Smet, it had been horribly foggy, drizzly, and hazy.  The rain had let up completely by the time we’d reached Mitchell, but the fog lingered.

The World’s Only Corn Palace

A look south down Main Street in Downtown Mitchell

We got breakfast at a hip restaurant called Cafe Teresa. The place seemed to be loaded with college students, who I’m assuming were from Dakota Wesleyan University. It was easy to overhear bits of conversations about finals, classes, and professors. Becky and I both ordered eggs and toast, which hit the spot..and so off we went to see the Corn Palace.

The Corn Palace wasn’t quite itself on the day we visited… This made us sad. 🙁

It was still way cool to see the corn murals though! 😀

The Corn Palace is the main tourist draw in Mitchell, which has about 15,000 residents and a rather quaint and decidedly Western downtown. The building is decorated on its exterior by thousands or maybe millions of ears of corn, color coordinated to depict western scenes of cowboys, buffalo, stagecoaches, and Indians on the front and sides of the building. Unfortunately, it took us a bit to make sure we had actually found it because it looked much less flamboyant than the pictures we’d seen. Apparently they were in the process of replacing the domes on top and had run into a delay because the new domes weren’t strong enough to hold up to South Dakota’s wind (which Becky and I have noticed is quite substantial).  Also, it appeared that they were updating parts of the building’s exterior, which they do every year anyway because it’s probably a good idea to slap a fresh coat of corn on the building to keep it from peeling.

So it’s that kind of palace!

Becky and I proceeded inside “The World’s Only Corn Palace”, hoping for a more satiating indoor experience. There were lots of exhibits inside about corn, the history of the Corn Palace (reaching way back into the 1890s), and then there were doors…turns out through the doors you could see that the Corn Palace had a lot in common with San Francisco’s Cow Palace and the Detroit Area’s Palace of Auburn Hills—for it was a small basketball arena where a giant souvenir and gift shop had been set up.  I didn’t figure it for an opera house, but I have to admit that without having done any research that in the back of my mind when I saw the general shape and size of the building, I wondered if in fact this was a basketball arena.

It seemed like a very nice place to see a game. It was likely that it hosted games for either the Dakota Wesleyan University or the local high schools.  But either way, the clock was ticking and we had to move on to Badlands National Park, which was about 3 hours away on I-90.

You GOTTA SEE South Dakota!



A VERY small sample of the gimmicky advertising…I regret that I did not capture more of these sorts of things!

I’d like to take this opportunity to recognize South Dakota for a couple of things. First, Mitchell was my first indication that South Dakota really was a great place to analyze advertising gimmicks, because between what we saw here and what we saw later that day in Wall, it was readily apparent that South Dakota took the art of a tourist trap to a refined art form!  There were signs and buildings and old trucks and cars and dinosaurs in front of billboards all along the interstate that really were sights in their own right and really made it tempting to stop a lot along the freeway and check this stuff out.

No, your eyes do not deceive—the speed limit really is 80mph!

Second, the speed limits in South Dakota often seemed to actually make sense!  In Minnesota and most other states, you drove 55mph, maybe 60 if you were lucky in remote two-lane state highways—we hit the SD state line, and voila—65mph!  When we first got on I-90 in Mitchell, we had to check our eyes at first—”Speed Limit 80″—AWESOME! So thank you, South Dakota, for admitting that you might as well be able to drive fast on the roads here because there are so very few cars, the visibility is great, and it takes so very long to reach someplace.

Another reflection I have to make about South Dakota is that I didn’t expect it to have so many trees—in fact, I didn’t expect it to have any at all without at least a creek nearby, since it is in the Great Plains—and the Great Plains is a great big huge prairie that just doesn’t have the rainfall to really grow trees.  Apparently the main reason why there are so many trees is because of the Homestead Act, which allowed you to earn your 160 acres of land through growing enough trees on your claim…and probably because people who aren’t used to vast open grasslands prefer to have lots of trees to break up the scenery (and did we mention wind?). Personally, I’m all about diversity and history, so I was excited at the prospect of seeing a land that was just covered with prairie and all the things that come with it!  I also think a giant prairie sounds awesome for just grazing cattle, which we saw a lot of actually. Black Angus cows were everywhere, and lots of pieces of property up in the northern part of the state had lakes and sloughs where the cows often congregated to play in the water and drink as well as graze.  As we pushed farther west from Mitchell, we started to see a lot more of the open prairie I expected and we got to see fewer trees if any at all.

The Great Plains Are Not Flat

One big misnomer about the Great Plains is that it is all flat. That may be true in places like Illinois or Kansas, but it is most definitely not the case in Minnesota or South Dakota where rolling hills are pretty much the rule.

There are even deep valleys, especially along I-90, with the biggest valley being the Missouri River, which runs right through the state. It was unfortunately extremely foggy when we crossed it, but it was still a site to behold!  It seriously was more like crossing an expansive lake than crossing a river, and was actually much much bigger in person!  If they had called it part of the Mississippi instead of naming it a whole other river, the Missouri-Mississippi River would be among the longest in the world, and from what we saw, it had enough water to prove it!

Crossing the Missouri River on I-90. Sorry for how hard it is to see anything, but it was actually so foggy that we could see even less in person! I cranked the Dehaze on Adobe Lightroom up to +75 for this one (no joke)!

Crossing the Missouri was significant for another reason too—prairie dogs—of which we had seen none so far along the entire prairie we had crossed. I asked someone about that in De Smet, and was told that all the prairie dogs were located on the other side of the Missouri River.  The locals here hate them, because as this gentleman said, prairie dogs with their burrowing “just destroy the land”.  We were still looking forward to seeing some though, as they are an animal unique to the American West.

Another feature I noticed were steep escarpments to the south along the freeway, and sometimes there would be giant protruding chunks of land in the middle of the prairie. We were pushing closer to the Badlands, and so it seemed there were small little badlands appearing more frequently in the distance to our south along the freeway.

When we got on I-90, I told Becky to let me know if she wanted me to drive, since we’re about to get on a long stretch of mostly straight freeway where highway hypnosis can set in. About an hour or so away from Badlands, Becky said she was starting to have trouble, so I had her pull off a few exits down the road so I could finish my last blog entry.  It was my first taste of legally zipping along at 80mph, on a freeway in the middle of the open prairie.

Who knew crap like this would be in such demand?

We were just a few miles away from our exit for Badlands National Park on I-90 where we pulled off the freeway at a scenic overlook. As we headed up the hill to take in the view of the expansive prairie all around us and the Badlands in the distance to the Southwest, two people seemed engrossed in some sort of spectacle taking place on the ground.  When we got close enough, you could see two little pieces of poop rolling up the hill being pushed by little dung beetles who were happy to have scored dinner!

Overlooking I-90 from the scenic overlook at Buffalo Gap National Grassland, just a few miles east of the exit for Badlands National Park

Entering Badlands National Park

So many peaks…each unique…

Unlike many national parks, you can go off-trail and climb on the rocks…so your photo-op creativity is really only limited by your command of gravity!

We pressed on into Badlands National Park, a place where neither of us had ever been, and our first national park of the trip.  On the map it looked as if you got off the freeway and BOOM there’s the Badlands. Reality however, was that it was still nearly ten miles until we reached the park entrance.  Since we planned on visiting four national parks with entrance fees on this trip alone, we ended up purchasing an annual pass for $80. The total for entering each of these with just an individual park pass would be $105, so I recommend the annual pass if you plan a trip like this, at it saves you a substantial amount of money!

Entering the Badlands was like entering another world!  You’re on the prairie and then there are sharp layered outcroppings of rock that look like teeth made of mud sticking straight out of the ground.  Some were as tall as a person, and some were hundreds of feet high, while plenty of others were in between. Cedar Pass was positively awesome, where the road descends at least a couple hundred feet down an escarpment that revealed how big these Badlands really were when you could see them from the south.  It was almost like going down a great big step over a monster’s bottom teeth and into its mouth.

Overlooking the lodge and visitor center from Cedar Pass

Continue reading RealImaginaryWest Day 5 – The Good & Badlands of South Dakota

RealImaginaryWest Day 4 – Connecting with Laura at the Ingalls Homestead

Our first day off the road! We visited Ingalls family historical sites and museums around De Smet, South Dakota and took time to relax and recover after the storm that drove us from our tent the night before.

A carriage traverses the Ingalls Homestead

Waking Up in De Smet

After getting practically no sleep the night before, we began our day at about sunrise by driving into De Smet and getting breakfast at the Oxbow Restaurant. There was no use hanging around the Ingalls Homestead anyway, since they didn’t open until 9am that day. They would hardly have even known we were there, save for a couple of bundles of firewood missing, since we had pitched our tent well after closing time and pulled it out only two or three hours later. The weather had calmed down, with partly cloudy skies and gorgeous shades of greens and yellows from the early sunlight on the terrain around us. The wind was still blowing hard and gusty, but it was all that was left besides a few puddles after the last night’s storm.

With what little of my brain was left, I checked the forecast—partly cloudy, 90 degrees for a high, and windy all day with severe storms likely in the evening with possible large hail. Uhm, yeah…we’re not doing the tent thing! NO WAY. Large hail was all we needed to know.

So at the Oxbow, it was great to sit in something that was not a car, and it was just awesome to get a nice hot breakfast with eggs, French toast, and bacon. Becky and I deliberated over whether we should get one of the covered wagons they have at the Ingalls Homestead that night, or whether we should get a motel.

At breakfast we met all sorts of locals, mostly farmers in the De Smet area. One older man said to another as he walked in, “How did you like the sound of MUSIC, last night!” I quickly concluded he was talking about the horrendous storm and had to laugh out loud! He loved the storm for watering his crops, while I hated the storm for wrecking my sleep and nearly wrecking my tent. It was also quite telling that he found pure enjoyment—apparently that isn’t even close to a bad storm for the Plains!

Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes

After breakfast, we trekked back to the Ingalls Homestead and paid for our firewood and the night of not tent camping in the maelstrom. We also bought admission to the exhibits and activities there that demonstrate what Laura wrote about in her books. We planned to first go into town to tour the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes museum first, and then return to see the Homestead.

On the museum grounds there are four buildings: the main store, the old schoolhouse that Laura and her sisters attended, the small schoolhouse where Laura taught at the age of 15, and the railroad surveyors shanty that the family lived in when they first moved to De Smet. Becky was most excited to see the house Charles Ingalls built, which was across town from the museum itself. I’d love to share more photos, but photography inside the buildings is prohibited.

One remarkable difference with De Smet is that the Ingalls practically lived in the lap of luxury here! The surveyors shanty was originally located on Silver Lake, on the east edge of town, and even it had a huge kitchen with a sizable pantry, a bedroom, a living area, and a huge loft where the girls slept. It beat the pants off the dugout in Walnut Grove and would have been a lot easier place to spend the winters than the log cabin in Pepin. Charles Ingalls got a coup with this railroad job! The family was delivered from the grasshopper-ravaged farm at Walnut Grove and wound up in an even better position in a town that seemed much prettier.

Charles Ingalls built a 10′ x 14′ shanty in 1880, which he doubled in size the following year. This replica at the Ingalls Homestead also includes the 16′ x 20′ addition he added to hold the pump organ he and Laura bought for Mary.

Now while Charles Ingalls worked for the railroad, he opened a store at the center of town and also undertook another homestead claim. There he built a shanty for the family that started out as another “little house”, but was doubled and then nearly doubled again in size—to add a room big enough to entertain and to hold an organ. You see back in Walnut Grove, Laura’s older sister, Mary, at the age of 14 had contracted a fever that caused encephalitis, nearly killing her. This eventually resulted in her losing her eyesight and going away to attend a school for the blind where she would learn to play the organ. While she was away, Charles and Laura saved money to buy an organ for the house as a surprise for Mary’s homecoming. She became the organist at the Congregational Church the Ingalls attended in De Smet.

The Ingalls spent most of six years at the family homestead. Under the Homestead Act of 1862, Charles had to plant at least ten acres of crops for five years, live there for at least 9 months of each year, and build a house to live in, after which he would receive ownership of the 160-acre quarter-section of land he had developed at no charge from the federal government. Another way a homesteader could receive his land was to plant enough trees on the land successfully in that amount of time. Charles showed in his proving papers that he had succeeded at farming 30 acres and that he had also planted 6,000 trees, exceeding all the requirements to receive his homestead.

The Ingalls Home & Museum is the last house Charles Ingalls built and lived in.

As Charles and Caroline’s age advanced and his daughters except Mary got married and moved away, the family built a house in De Smet that would top even the modest shanty on their homestead. It started out small yet again, but Charles kept adding to it and improving it until Caroline had even said that they no longer lived in a little house—now they had a comfortable one. This is the only Ingalls house that still stands just as it was, kept up in its original interior decor. It was positively beautiful and looked like a palace compared to all the places they’d lived in before. All that hard work in unforgiving environments had really paid off for the Ingalls family! The house itself was often how Charles, Caroline, and Mary made their living as they got older, offering room and board to all sorts of people who needed a place to stay. The surviving daughters managed the house for several years after Charles and Caroline’s passing, eventually selling the house after it was in the family for 57 years.

Ingalls Homestead

After visiting the Ingalls homes and schoolhouses in De Smet, we stopped at the cemetery outside of town where the Ingalls family was buried, and then returned to the Ingalls Homestead to tour there.

360-degree panoramas of Ingalls Homestead. Click and drag to look around & click the arrows to see a different location. Click the top right button to go full-screen.

Continue reading RealImaginaryWest Day 4 – Connecting with Laura at the Ingalls Homestead

RealImaginaryWest Day 3 – On the Banks of Plum Creek & Little Tent on the Prairie

A woman wearing a bonnet looks across Plum Creek and up a hill to a sign that marks the location of the Ingalls dugout house.

We crossed the entire state of Minnesota, stopping in Walnut Grove, the settings for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book, On the Banks of Plum Creek and the Little House on the Prairie television series. We then drove to the Ingalls Homestead in De Smet, South Dakota.

I thought this would be a short one today, seeing as our only true destination was our next Laura Ingalls stop, Walnut Grove, Minnesota. We hadn’t planned on staying in Walnut Grove, but rather we intended to carry on to DeSmet, South Dakota, our third and final Laura Ingalls stop. We had six hours of driving to be followed by one day and two nights of exploring DeSmet and relaxing! Unfortunately, our first night in South Dakota did not go quite as we planned…which I’ll get to after a few reflections on the last of our time in Pepin, the drive across Minnesota, and our visit to the Laura Ingalls museum there in Walnut Grove.

Packing Up in Picturesque Pepin

It was our first day packing up the tent and the campsite on this trip, plus we got back to the campsite late after sailing Lake Pepin, so I was nervous about getting a jump on the day. So nervous, actually, that I didn’t bother to shoot a pano of our campsite until after we’d packed the whole thing up. Before we left, I wanted to grab a pano of the waterfront at the center of town. Plus, we had been invited by our new friends from the cruise to brunch, so we thought we’d at least take a few minutes to have coffee with them.

360-degree panorama of our campsite at Lake Pepin Campground. Click and drag to look around. Click the top right button to go full-screen.

It was funny, though…when we went to shoot the pano, we saw Maria from our cruise perusing the streets just soaking everything in and enjoying it. And Pepin really was a very special-feeling place…great for Laura Ingalls lovers, art walks, and bumming along the riverfront. It felt like being at the beach, except it was a river instead of an ocean, and it was Wisconsin instead of the East Coast. Maria hung out with us after I shot the pano, as we were looking for Dave to see if we could find a tool I use to blow the dust off of my lens. She, as everyone else but the captain on the cruise, was from Minneapolis, and told of how she worked for many years with the family business in worldwide shipping. Her family was Greek, and she ran much of the company with her brother until recently when she retired and started her own business as a wellness coach. She shared how she was always more laid back than her brother, and that she really enjoys having a much more zen lifestyle than she had with the craziness of running the shipping business. She certainly seemed to be having a wonderful weekend so far, and it was great to see someone enjoying life like she was.

360-degree panorama at First & Main in Pepin, Wisconsin. Click and drag to look around. Click the top right button to go full-screen.

We then went out to our friends’ farm, about two miles out of town. The family was extremely hospitable, and their farmhouse and all their property was beautifully manicured and had a lot of old-fashioned charm. They were a wonderful family to have met, and we really enjoyed their company! They gave us a few suggestions of sights to see in South Dakota and suggested taking in as much of the Mississippi River as we could.

A highway curves around a tree-covered bluff with a rock outcropping on top

Maiden Rock Bluff along the WI-35 west of Pepin

We decided to take their advice and proceeded to take a slightly more northern route along the river west of Pepin. Then we meandered our way across Minnesota, working our way to US-14 at Nicollet. Minnesota was all rolling hills as far as we could see. Eastern Minnesota was forested with a few farms, giving way to fewer trees and almost exclusively farmland with a few small towns here and there as we proceeded west.

A highway curves past a sign that says 'Lamberton' and a very large barn that has 'Lamberton Stockyards' painted in large lettering across the top.

Approaching Lamberton, one of several small farming towns along US-14 in the Southwest Minnesota prairieland

Walnut Grove’s Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum

Masonry buildings line both sides of a very wide main street in Walnut Grove, Minnesota.

Downtown Walnut Grove, two blocks off of US-14 and three blocks around the corner from the museum
Cars are parked in front of a wooden building with letters that say 'Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum'.

Outside the main building & gift shop at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove, Minnesota

Eventually we arrived at Walnut Grove. We may have seen about four cars for the last half of that—I’m not sure if that’s because of lack of population density and tourism, or just because it was July 4th. Either way, roads and streets were extremely quiet, and there were very few people at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove, which I’m told was wall-to-wall people just the day before.

Continue reading RealImaginaryWest Day 3 – On the Banks of Plum Creek & Little Tent on the Prairie

RealImaginaryWest Day 2 – Dwarf Mountains, the Great River, and a Little House

A replica of the log cabin Laura Ingalls Wilder lived in as a small child and a historical marker at the Little House Wayside in Pepin, Wisconsin

We drove from Motel 6 in Janesville to Pepin, Wisconsin, a village on the Mississippi River. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book, Little House in the Big Woods takes place here, where she lived as a small child seven miles outside of town.

Today we got a much later start than I had hoped, but it seems like everything somehow worked out.

We left the Motel 6 in Janesville (they left the light on for us, but we turned it off before we left) right around 11am and headed north (or west…whatever) on I-90 past Madison and Wisconsin Dells on up to the Mississippi River.

The Driftless Area of Wisconsin

A row of Interstate Highway System shield signs indicating North I-39, West I-90, and West I-94

We were really impressed with the gorgeous rolling hills around Madison and on up through Wisconsin Dells. Everything everywhere was just wonderfully green and lush, and everyplace seemed very well-manicured and maintained, which is wonderful to see. Lots of times you would see modern industrial and commercial buildings, and sure enough, behind it would be a farm—something that is novel for me to see right next to suburban buildings.

Castle Rock as seen from I-90/94

Castle Rock as we passed by on I-90/94

Now once we got further north, the flora seemed to change to having more conifers in the mix and things weren’t quite a lush green anymore—they were more of a California or Rocky Mountain green, but not quite that color. It also got hazier and hazier, and that was likely because smoke was blowing in from forest fires burning all the way up in Canada. What was also strange was that there were huge valleys that would open up, and lots of times you’d even see small mountains that were too small to be considered officially mountains—maybe we could call them “dwarf mountains“. You’d see naked rocks that looked as old as time standing in the middle of a bunch of trees next to the freeway too…something else that I never associated with Wisconsin or Minnesota.

Looking miles away down a hill on I-90 in Wisconsin at Jacksonville Pass

Jacksonville Pass, looking west near the 36-mile marker on I-90 in Wisconsin
Tree-covered King's and Queens Bluff towering above US-61

King’s & Queen’s Bluff from US-61 as it winds along the Mississippi River north of I-90 near Winona, Minnesota.

Eventually we passed LaCrosse and went over the Mississippi River into Minnesota on I-90 and US-61, which parallels the Mississippi. US-61 actually follows the Great River all the way into Minneapolis, and there are busy railroads on both sides of the river carrying trains. Many of the trains heading south are all tanker cars, probably full of North Dakota crude oil bound for refineries in Louisiana. All along the river there were heavily-wooded bluffs with dwarf mountains, knolls, knobs, and rock outcroppings breaking up the trees.

Pepin & Little House in the Big Woods

Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum sign in Pepin, Wisconsin

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Pepin

We crossed back into Wisconsin at Wabasha on MN-60/WI-25 to go to Pepin.  This is where Laura Ingalls Wilder was born and lived as a little girl, and where she got inspiration to write Little House in the Big Woods. They have a museum there, and about 7 miles out of town there’s a replica log cabin. Pepin from WI-35 seems unremarkable in town, with a few little stores you’d see anywhere else, and a little motel with a campground where we stayed. The biggest attraction on the main street was the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum. Admission is only $5 and they have plenty of artifacts from the era when Laura and her family lived in Pepin Township, including cook stoves, clothing, tools, a covered wagon, and canoes used to fish on Lake Pepin.

Two children's dolls like those Laura had as a small child. One is a rag doll, and the other is made of a corn cob.

Dolls like Laura’s in Little House in the Big Woods. Her first doll, Susan, couldn’t help that she was a corn cob.

We met Dawn there, along with her mom, Mary, who just retired as the village clerk and was now planning to devote much more time to her position on the board of trustees for the historical society that runs the museum. They just expanded from a small building into two much larger buildings, and were in the midst of reorganizing and remodeling to improve their exhibits. All throughout the museum were artifacts, either with stories behind how they were used by the family, or with quotes from Little House in the Big Woods pointing out where Laura referred to them. There’s a video presentation on the history of Laura’s family in Pepin, along with other history of the area. Mary showed us on a big map from 1877 which lot Charles Ingalls had bought with his brother-in-law near the edge of Pepin Township. She explained how they found the information years ago by putting the word out for property owners to check their title abstracts for Charles Ingalls. She also shared the story of how she and the historical society worked to get grants and raise money for the museum to build a replica log cabin on the site of the old Ingalls farm at a wayside.  (In Wisconsin, small roadside parks along highways that we would call rest areas in Ohio are called “waysides”.)

Overlooking a fence and field with rolled bales, with a silo, several barns, and a farmhouse on the other side

A farm along County Road CC

We followed County Road CC out to the Little House Wayside Cabin, built in 1978 just a few hundred feet from where Charles & Caroline Ingalls started their family. The countryside round about the town was incredible! Beautiful farms and woods were all along the winding highway. We saw several farms that looked like they belonged on postcards.

Continue reading RealImaginaryWest Day 2 – Dwarf Mountains, the Great River, and a Little House

RealImaginaryWest Day 1 – Our Adventure Begins in Wisconsin

We drove from Middleburg Heights, Ohio, to REI & Whole Foods in Chicago, and then to Motel 6 in Janesville, Wisconsin for the night.

So it’s been a slog to get ready for this trip—fun much of the time—but anxiety-laden as well! I have struggled a great deal with anxiety all my life, often worrying about things I know will almost certainly never happen, especially when I’m getting out of my comfort zone and doing something I’ve never done before…or at least doing it in a way I’ve never done before.

Cars approach the Chicago Skyway toll plaza at dusk

Toll plaza on the Chicago Skyway just after crossing into Illinois on I-90 at dusk

But either way, the preparation is for the most part over, and now the adventure has commenced! I’ve wanted to do a road trip like this for a long time, and see the places we’re going to see on this one. I’m really glad I have my lovely “real imaginary” wife, Rebecca, with me on this whole expedition! Without her, I’m sure I’d have neglected to prepare for all sorts of things and I’d be spending more time at the ubiquitous Walmart than enjoying our unique surroundings.

So to finish off the preparation thread, I want to mention that researching so many places in just a few months was daunting! I wish I could have been a bit more thorough in parts…but oh well.

Here is our itinerary:

Continue reading RealImaginaryWest Day 1 – Our Adventure Begins in Wisconsin