3 May 2012
Firstly thanks for all the comments on the website. We read each of them with great appreciation and are really happy to hear from all the new friends and as for the old friends and family ..we miss you a lot so keep sending us your messages.
It’s been a while since I wrote something. We are currently at milepost 177 on the Blueridge parkway. This 469 mile scenic highway runs from Cherokee, just below the Great Smoky Mountain National park in North Carolina to the southern border of the Shennandoah National Park in Virginia. From there, another scenic highway called the Skyline drive runs for 100 miles from the southern to the northern borders of the Shennandoah National Park. These beautiful roads does not serve as a means to get from one town in the mountains to the next, for that they have interstates running, at times, parallel to the parkway. No, they were constructed purely for taking a scenic drive on the ridge of a mountain. And they really do go for the scenic views for which you can stop at any one of the hundreds of overlooks along the road. We are driving from south to north and only have the first 177 miles to go, but so far the blueridge parkway have been one of the most beautiful asphalt roads we have driven on. Every now and again you have a picnic area with restrooms to stop and have a bite. There are also numerous short trails you could hike to waterfalls or other attractions along the road. Highlights so far have been the Linville falls and Mt. Mitchell, which is the highest peak east of the Mississippi river. We also just stopped at Mabry Mill which is an old corn mill constructed in the 1940’s by Mr. and Mrs. Mabry where all the neighbors came to mill a new favorite breakfast cereal of mine called grits (it tastes and looks similar to mieliepap but is milled much more coarse). It is not for nothing that they call this the most picturesque spot on the blueridge parkway..the wooden mill is really quite something to see and we were lucky to have an overcast background that just made the place even prettier. Unfortunately camping along the parkway has become a little bit of a headache as we have managed to, yet again, be in the area just a little too early for the campgrounds to be open. The clever people that built this parkway provide camping areas right on the parkway at very appropriate intervals. Although they don’t have shower facilities, they do offer restrooms where you can stop overnight without driving all the way off the parkway into one of the nearby towns. Unfortunately they only open May 11th. Yippee kayay! Lucky for us we have been able to find campgrounds within the national forests which can be found along most of the parkway.
I guess the Everglades in Florida and milepost 177 in the state of Virginia seem a long way apart so I’ll backtrack from where we are now. Prior to the blueridge parkway we visited the most popular national park in the US…Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Annually, the park attracts over 10 million people, an amount which is more than double that of any other national park. It may be to see the spectacular mountain views, but it may also be because it is one of the closer national parks to the highly populated eastern side of the US. There are a number of campgrounds in the park (most of which was actually open) but curiously none of them have any showers. There is also one rustic lodge, but still no shower facilities. We have tried to figure out the rationale of this as there seem to be a lot of water and it should make people stay longer which would be lucrative for them. Anyway, we stayed at one of their campsites and on the second day embarked on a hiking trail close to the area where we camped. Now, for us going for a hike is not as simple as taking your backpack and strolling into the woods. We have to pretty much reorganize the cruiser to fit into our backpacks. We need pots and pans and sleeping bags and mattresses and cans of food to name a few. When we finally decided on the trail and had everything together we set out on our 11.6 km hike which would get us to one of the backcountry camping sites. The next day we would have another 14.6 km. Looking at these distances now I wonder how we ever thought I could walk so far…we ended up walking just shy of 9 km which just about killed me. To my complete humiliation, Marius was still fine..how he is so much fitter than me I do not know… We got to the campsite at around 17h30 and had to start with dinner asap to avoid the so-called black bears that was in the area. A number of other precautions for bears are taken at these sites such as food storage boxes and cables with hooks suspended about 8m high between two trees meant for hoisting your backpack out of reach for curious bear claws. We weren’t completely naïve about the fact that there should be bears around us, but we didn’t really expect that we would have any encounters. After dinner we made our way down to the little stream to fill our water bottles. We heard some branches break in the direction of the stream while eating, but didn’t make much of it. We did make a little more of it when a bear suddenly ran from the stream like a bow out of an arrow as we approached. From about 35m it looked quite small and it disappeared so quickly into the trees that we were left wondering if it really just happened. Needless to say we didn’t go down to get water but instead went back to the site to gather all the self-defense weapons we could find…our artillery was quite lame though..we had our two walking sticks (Gandolf and Delarey), three rather large stones and the most important one of all our aluminum Hart cooking pot. We were ready to go to war! Okay, we were actually rather freaked out about the situation…so we sat next to our small fire (which my Mr. Survival made from only sticks and leaves), with our little pot close at hand, waiting for the sun to set. It was 8pm already and dusk was just settling in when Marius heard another sound behind us. He came back wide-eyed telling me that it was a wolf! Trying to convince myself I immediately told him that there weren’t any wolves in this area, and it must be a coyote because I remembered in the back of my head that I had seen a picture in one of the many brochures. He didn’t really seem at all intimidated by us and upon using our pot-of –mass-destruction, he turned slowly and walked away as if to say he was going in that direction anyway. Two minutes later, he came round the other side of the campsite, slowly walking as he was checking out his opponents. We looked at each other and wondered when the zombies would start appearing. With nothing left to do, and no inclination to sit in the dark and wonder what was walking around us, we got in the tent just before light completely disappeared and waited to see what the night would bring. I prayed that night for nothing to come close to our little orange tent, and in answer to my prayers, nothing did. Marius told me the following day that he heard something that sounded like a bear, but I had slept soundly. We woke the next morning to a wonderful breakfast consisting of bananas and dry bread. Needless to say we didn’t attempt the 14.5 km plus the kilometers that were left from the previous day, we just walked the same 9 km trail back. Luckily it was downhill most of the way and it felt much quicker and easier. Seeing the Cruiser again was almost an emotional experience! I told Marius that we should stretch when we got to the Cruiser, but we were hungry and tired and mostly just wanted to sit. One thing led to the next and the stretching never happened. After a much needed hot shower at a very expensive Pisgah Forest campground, we slept like babies on our soft rooftop tent mattress. The next morning at 3am I woke for a nature call and soon realized why stretching is soo very important. For the next 3 days I could barely walk. Every muscle I knew of and some that I didn’t was sore. I had never felt older in my life. Marius was sore as well and we both looked fairly unstable when we walked, but he recovered in one day leaving me looking like an idiot when trying to get out of the Cruiser. I have to say, of all the things I miss about the Cruiser in our Africa trip, I miss the side steps the most! The day after the long hike back, Marius took me out for a Mcdonalds burger and ice cream in the pretty town of Asheville, which made everything feel better …well for two hours before my stomach protested against the fatty foods which we hadn’t had for quite a while.
At the foot of the Great Smoky mountain lays Cherokee, a small village in an Indian/native American reservation. Here the Indian peoples cash in on their culture by selling all sorts of things from Moccasin shoes to traditional apparel to bows and arrows and knives. They also do native dances, but as we heard when passing one of these, they will not charge you for watching….they merely ask for any donations that you may feel you want to give. It was all rather sad and it reminded me of the how the native tribes in Africa also sell their culture and souls at a price. I guess that is the price of civilization. We are all slowly mixing into one common humanoid being, the one person indistinguishable from the next. Well, that was Cherokee.
On our way to the Smoky Mountain Park, we drove through the Cherokee national forest and was happy to find free campsites next to the road. One particular site was right next to a winding river road. As we drove in we saw the usual table, garbage hook and firering, but right next to these we found something we hadn’t seen at a campsite before. It was a small round wooden table with a brightly colored Cars child-size folding chair on top of it. We immediately thought that the site may actually be occupied although the friendly chap at the site across from us told us otherwise. Upon inspection it seemed like the little chair had been there for a while. Curiously, the dirty little chair had nails pushed through the part where your bum would sit…neatly arranged in a circle. It was like something out of a horror, we were waiting for the child laughter in the background…What can I say, it was late, we were tired and so we left the funny little chair where it was and did our best to ignore it. We had no problem falling asleep and were delighted at another nights free camping.
From western Florida, which I will get to in a minute, we drove through most of Alabama, a small piece of Georgia and the southeastern part of Tennessee to get to the Smoky Mountains. This makes the total amount of states we have been in 11. Alabama was a beautiful green state, much greener than we initially anticipated. We drove a ton of small forest roads and slept in all the Talladega national forests. We stopped at the Talladega superspeedway and were amazed to see the size of the area. There were fields of freshly cut grass with porter-potties where you could park your car while watching the race, or alternatively just camp there in your RV for the whole weekend. There was an upcoming Nascar race in the beginning of May, but although we seriously considered hanging around, we decided that we would try to see a race in Texas when we didn’t have such a hectic schedule to try and see everything up to Alaska in the summer months.
From the Everglades at the southern tip of Florida we headed north up the western coast. We were in a bit of a hurry to get to the Blueridge Parkway at the beginning of May (little did we check when the “beginning” of May actually were..hahaha…apparently the US summer officially only kicks off May, 11th ). Anyway, we also wanted to drive west on the panhandle of Florida and see the Apalachicola National forest so we drove straight up only stopping to sleep mostly. In retrospect we should have stopped at Tampa and some other places people along the way suggested…but I guess that leaves some places to come back to. One of the campsites we stopped at on our way north was Mitchell’s landing. It was a great site even aside from the fact that it was free. We had dinner and were just about ready to go to bed when a man in a car came driving up the road and parked at one of the other sites opposite from ours. We had seen the funny man who was sitting in his car at a different site down the road when we got there, but had since forgotten about him. What was strange about the man was that he just sat there, no tent, no table, nothing. And now he was parked next to us. We figured he must have nothing with him for whatever reason and as a show of goodwill, mixed with a what-the-hell-is-this-guy-doing, Marius went over to offer him some coffee. Curiously however, the guy didn’t answer and seemed to be blatantly ignoring him. We looked at him, looked at the car, then looked at each other and decided that it may be a better idea to move away from Mr. Strange in the car. We really blame all your movies about psycho killers in the woods! We drove in the direction of the road and were surprised to find the camper van we saw driving away from where the funny man in the car was initially parked, at other sites up the road. We paused for a second, wondering where we would find a Walmart in this area, and then parked right next to them. We did feel a little silly but we saw enough of those silly movies to know there is always safety in numbers. We slept soundly that night, hypothesizing about what this guy could possibly be up to. That morning we met the friendly campers nextdoor, Micheal and Francine, and after a while of sharing stories they told us that they had actually left the previous site because of the freaky guy in the car. They couldn’t figure him out either and decided to rather drive to a safer site. We felt slightly less stupid and soon after saw the funny guy driving past, waving as he went. Who knows, maybe it was just a sad little man whose wife had kicked him out of the house, as Francine suggested. Better safe than sorry though.
When we got to the Apalachicola forest the hot humid vacation atmosphere was replaced by the friendly South. The people here showed the same Southern hospitality we had come to expect while driving through North and South Carolina as well as Georgia. The forest also had some wonderful free campsites mostly for fishing and so we settled in at one of these on our first night. We were the only campers in the campsite, except for some chairs and a lot of wood that probably belonged to someone out fishing. After a nice dinner we crept in for the night to be awakened by the noise of someone walking on the tarmac campground road. It was quite strange as it was late already and we couldn’t make out any flashlight. Then we heard footsteps around the cruiser and Marius said he even felt something touching the cruiser. It may have been the funny guy in the car from the previous night or your scary psycho-killer movies again…but we lay there breathing softly for what felt like an hour and then got up and started flashing the torch around. We didn’t see anything so we got out and looked around but…nothing. Whatever it was had disappeared into thin air…and then so did we. Marius closed the tent in record time while I flashed the torch around us (not that I would have seen anything as I didn’t have my contacts in) and we left within minutes from getting out of the tent. We’re still not sure what happened there, it could probably have been a bear or some other animal, but we’re both pretty sure it sounded like a human and it would be impossible for us both to make up something that wasn’t there at all. A little bewildered we drove to another forest campsite where we saw another camper with a great big fire outside and stayed there for the night.
The next morning we me this camper and his friendly dog. He was a free spirit who had sold his landscaping business and was on a journey towards discovering the mysteries of the world. Unlike most Americans we had met up to that point, he did not like the American way…the beliefs, the culture ..basically the whole way of life and had now left it all behind to find the answers to all the big questions…what are we and how everything is linked together. He would be doing this by travelling to a few forests and eventually joining a Native American chief to go on a spiritual journey which involves some old Indian customs. He was by far the most opinionated individual we met on our trip but although we disagreed on some aspects like the place religion had in these questions, his knowledge about history and other subjects were very impressive and we enjoyed the alter ego of the Americana we had seen up to that point. John, we spent more time talking about our chance encounter with you than about anyone else and we really hope you find the answers to your questions.
Since I started writing, we have finished the Blueridge Parkway and Skyline Drive. Unfortunately the entire Shennandoah national park was covered in a thick blanket of clouds and we could really see any of the great views. We stayed at Big Meadows campgrounds where we were we could hardly ever see more than a few meters in front of us. We have to complement the campers of America though..the campgrounds were packed, so and so that we had to look for an open site and this was not due to a lack of campsites..it has around 200 plus sites. It would rain, stop for 10min and then start raining again..and with each pause you would see people in short sleeves (and some without shirts who seemed to be intent on showing their muscles!) happily crawl out of their dry holes and play games and try to make fires. When the rain started up again they would just as happily jump back into their RVs or tents and wait for the next round. To be fair we did see some people just throw everything on the back of their V8 Ford trucks and head for dryer ground. But even so, in South Africa I would expect the campground to be cleared after the first rain..or they would of never even have thought to camp in weather like this! Needles to say, as a South African I was ready to get out of there by day two…we did some laundry, said goodbye to the clouds and headed down to earth again.
In the laundry room, we yet again changed our coarse.. We were planning on going west from the northern boundary of the Shennandoah Park in the direction of South Dakota to go and see Badlands National Park and Mt. Rushmore. Between Virginia and South Dakota, we would go through Ohio, Indiana,Illinois and Iowa. Alternatively, we could go north (again), up to Niagara Falls into Canada and then back into Michigan and then into Illinois, then Iowa and then South Dakota. Since we could really find a whole lot written about the states we would cross in the original route and we would get a chance to see Niagara Falls, we opted for the alternative route. We drove up to Niagara from Virginia in a day, staying overnight at a Walmart (no rotisserie chicken unfortunately).
In Niagara Falls we stayed at a state park on Lake Erie. Since it started raining in Shennandoah National Park, it hadn’t stopped up to Niagara Falls. Most of our tarps and raingear was wet, the tent had to be dried in the mornings and we (or mostly I) had just about had enough of the sad weather. That night after dinner we drove from the state park to the falls to witness the illumination of the Niagara Falls which happens every night at different times throughout the year. It was however not such an illuminating experience for us as the clouds had caught up with us again, making the sound of these falls more of a feature than the actual visual. The whole area was cold, wet and like something out of a movie where you wonder what the stupid girl was doing in the desolate foggy park and we went home a little disappointed. The next day didn’t look any better but we drove to the border anyway and crossed into Canada without any hitches. The whole area was still disguised by clouds but we figured its now or never, stopped the Cruiser almost 2 km upstream from the falls (not due to the amount of people at the falls, due to the parking rates which start at $5). When we got there we could see why they recommend seeing the falls from the Canadian side and it was pretty spectacular. We didn’t go on any of the boatrides or walks to the bottom of the falls for obvious reasons but saw both the American falls and the horseshoe falls in “most” of their glory.
Oblivious to the high accommodation rates in Canada, we drove north to a small historical town called Niagara-on-Lake. It is located on Lake Earie like the state park, but on the Canadian side. The houses on the way there and even in the little town was very quant, even the starbucks had an old feel about it. It was roundabout at that point that we realized we had to sleep there somewhere and started looking for places on the internet. It was rather more expensive than we had been spoiled with in the US forests and we figured going up to Toronto would set us even more over budget. We found that luckily even small town Canada has Walmarts (which doesn’t always stay open 24h a day) that didn’t have any problems with us staying there. Tim Hortons (which is the equivalent of Dunkin donuts in the US) does however stay open all night and they were happy to serve us some good coffee (and a restroom ..aka washroom in Canada) at 6am in the morning. We got out of Canada asap and low and behold changed our minds again on which direction we were heading. Instead of Southwest toward Indiana/Illinois, we would head north in Michigan toward the Upper Peninsula and then west toward South Dakota from there.
We have so far reached the Leelanau Peninsula in Michigan, specifically Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore which is a beautiful place! The dunes made us miss Namibia..but it’s pretty amazing to see dunes next to a lake. The name for this place comes from an old Chippewa Indian story about a mother bear and her two cubs that was driven into Lake Michigan by a raging forest fire. The bear swam for hours and eventually the young cubs started to lag behind. The mother reached the shore and climbed onto a high bluff hoping to see her cubs. The Great Spirit Manitou created two islands (now South and North Manitou Islands) where the cubs disappeared into the lake and then created a solitary dune to represent the faithful mother bear waiting on the shore. Pretty sad…amazing how much of the American culture involves bears. . The 1.6km high dune itself is estimated to be about 2000 years old but was however only 38 meters high by 1961 and by 1980 it was even down to 31 meters. These fluctuations seem to be the result of dune erosion caused by wave action and wind.
From Sleeping Bear Dunes we drove north next to Lake Michigan and spent two nights looking at the Mackinac (pronounced Mackinaw otherwise you are a fudg-e instead of a fudge) bridge whilst in war with small black fly-like bugs. They don’t bite you or actually do anything remotely physically harmful..no these guys conduct their warfare on a psychological level. They are everywhere..perfectly content just being there on your jacket, in your eye, on your last bite of your lunch. I almost completely lost my sanity before we illegally moved to another site. Across the 3 mile bridge an entire new part of Michigan lay before us. We had seen three of the four great lakes; Lake Erie, Lake Michigan and Lake Huron (to the right of the Mackinaw bridge) and was now on our way to the last, also known as the largest freshwater lake in the world …Lake Superior.
On the shore of the lake lies the Picktured Rocks National Lakeshore known for its sandstone cliffs towering above this freshwater turquoise ocean. What we expected was just another lakeshore, but what we got was pretty much the most beautiful place we had seen so far. Proclaimed in 1966, it was the first national lakeshore and stretches for over 40 miles along the Lake Superior shoreline. The sandstone cliffs is anything from tan, brown and beige to anything in between and rise up to 200 feet above the water. Millions of years ago glaciers transformed the volcanic and sedimentary rock to form what is now the Great Lakes with the last of these ice giants only retreating 10 000 years ago. As the weight of the glacier lessened, the land rose and the land was exposed to erosion resulting in the cliffs we see today. The name, Pictured rocks come from the streaks of mineral stain on these cliffs which occur when groundwater ooze out of the cracks. This water, containing iron, manganese, limonite, copper amongst others leaves behind these colorful stains as they trickle down. What an amazing place to see..it would be even more amazing to hike through but we thought we got a pretty good idea at the exhibits…
We are now on our way to South Dakota which was two states to the west before we drove almost straight through the last bit of Michigan and the whole of Wisconsin in one day! Wisconsin has beautiful lakes and as the state with the largest amount of diary produce, is fondly known as the Dairyland. Due to the very kind Mike and Rachel Geisler we met at Mackinac City, we now know that their cheesespread is really worth writing home about…all pun intended! At this moment we are making our way to a campground in Minnesota bringing the total number of states we have been in to 16! Tomorrow we will drive over the state line into South Dakota which is officially considered part of western side of the US..we have finally escaped from Eastern USA!
New found wisdoms…as great as the hot showers are at all the campsites, they have this annoying watersaving plan which involves you pressing a button which gives you water to shower under for a varied amount of time before it stops. Some last a few seconds whilst other almost make a minute. I guess constantly pressing a button to get a shower is not that bad, but standing there with soap burning my eyes trying to locate the button made me think of an analogy…its like sitting infront of a slot machine in a casino..you keep pushing the button and not getting a whole lot back for all your effort. Furthermore we have now been suspected of travelling for a number of reasons such as missionary work, carrying weapons in a military but now we have also been suspected of being vendors…if I were a vendor, I would definitely be selling slices of super cheesy pizza..but at this stage I can only offer you a can of beans..any particular type of bean I can interest you in? Lastly, don’t ask American salesmen what would happen if you use bear spray (defender spray) on humans, they don’t quite look at you the same after that..
We have met a large number of interesting people again..firstly from way up in Florida..Cheryl and Daniel McCormick who has made their own trip through South America years ago when they just got married, thanks for the free campsites in the Everglades. Brad and Jenna, thank you soo much for your great email…I wish we had read your email earlier, I think we would have stopped at a few more places on the westcoast of Florida! Michael and Francine, our friends from funny-guy-in-the-car night..hope you enjoyed the cycling in the Everglades. Bennet Bastin, the ranger from the ghost-around-Cruiser forest, if you stayed closer to that campsite we might have knocked on your door that night! Dale Singleton and his Mexican brother-in-law Luis Magana, thank you sooooo much for the Bass. Your energy was contagious and your generosity unforgettable. Robert Theurer with the Detroit 6.2L V8 diesel Landcruiser for introducing us to the US cruiser club, we really wish we could have stayed in Tennessee for the Landcruiser run up the Smoky Mountains…Soulby Jackson, the second South African we met in the US. Lawry de Bivort, Eileen, Jai and Jordan, nice to have met you guys, we will definetaly chech out your recommendations. Roach and Kamila, thanks for your offer to host us in Detroit, sorry we could meet Martha. Jimmy Rohrbacher for your comments on the website, we appreciate it! Mike and Rachel Geisler from Wisconsin for the great cheese and jelly..we thought your Ford cruiser was awesome. Al, Jenny, Carli and Will..it was great meeting you..your seem like such a happy family. And finally, Jimmy, miss you man, hope all is well in Jacksonville!
Cheerio, till next time….
20 May 2012
As soon as we crossed the state line into South Dakota, our trip got even better. From entering you could see that there was a lot less people per square kilometer than on the eastern side of the US. This place was vast, with huge area covered in one or the other type of crop. The road network run in squares only and it is flat and green..something very similar to a green Free State. Our first night in this Cowboy state was spent at a city park in the small town of Arlington. Campers are invited to stay on sites which include a restroom with a shower (cold unfortunately) and water spigots for free. The next day we drove through the town of Mitchell and had to stop at the Corn palace. Yes, like a palace built out of corn. This world’s only corn palace was first built in 1892 when the city of Mitchell was but 12 years old. The early settlers apparently displayed their agricultural wealth on the exterior of the building to attest to the fertility of the soil and as a means to advertise to other would-be farmers who were looking to settle. This practice later became a festival of celebration held every fall which to this day remain a tradition for the people of Mitchell. Every year a theme is chosen and the exterior of the palace is stripped from the previous year and decorated with new corn and grains. Roughly 275 thousand ears of corn are sawed in half lengthwise and used in specific patterns according to an artist’s design! This year the theme was the youth in sports and it was rather amazing to see how corn could be used to make a pretty picture. Although the whole experience was rather corny (do not excuse the pun) it was nice to see a tradition being upheld. For anyone interested, Marius took pictures of almost all of the corn palaces of the last century…we will happily show anyone who has a few hours to spare and absolute nothing else to do!
We crossed the large Missouri river at Chamberlains but were unlucky not to see it from a scenic tower that was inaccessible due to road works. After a long day’s travel on the I-90, we arrived at Badlands National Park at around 19h on a Friday evening. It wasn’t dark yet as the days here are endless, the sun only sets at about 20h30. We had been driving in the direction of a raging thunderstorm, which we had been able to see on the horizon for the last hour and a half, and had finally met up with the angry monster as we turned off Interstate 90. As we entered the gates to the park, it started raining and then as the badlands unfolded in front of us, the storm, the lightning and the landscape merged by some Indian magic into a spectacular show. It was the jaw-dropping, wonder-if-this-could-actually-be-what-you-are-seeing, pointing-randomly-with-no-words experience that you have a few times in a lifetime. We got out of the Cruiser stupidly with little regard for the fact that we were the highest point in a rather large radius and pointed the camera in all directions. The wind was blowing to such an extent that you had to have both feet on the ground. It was one of those moments that you realize there must be a Creator who has conceived wondrous works of art on grand scale for us to enjoy.
We drove down into the badlands valley to the Badlands Interior campground where we would stay that night. The motel was exactly what you would expect in a cowboy movie.. a large wooden building with a small shop and office area inside and some rooms on a second floor. Our friendly and helpful cowboy host, Larry, showed us to our site and was happy to offer any assistance on which places to see and how to get there. It is located within a mile of the Badlands National Park campgrounds but unlike these campgrounds have some of the cleanest showers and restrooms we have come across. So you have all the great views at the same rate the national park offers but you can feel nice and clean at the same time! The shop has some necessity items you might need such as homemade buffalo burger patties and with some luck a pair of old cowboy boots at a very cheap price! The motel officially open in June so we were a little early but if you’re lucky enough to be there at the right time they offer Cowboy stew for dinner and a cowboy breakfast which sounded really big and really good…another one of our just a little too early moments…! Although we couldn’t get the breakfast we did get some delicious peanutbutter cookies with the free WiFi before we were off on our trusty steed to explore the Badlands..
It was a miserable cold day but the Badlands made you forget about it. Both the Lakota Indians and the early French trappers experienced the area “bad lands to travel on” and hence the name. The story behind these eroded valleys started about 75 million years ago when the Earth’s climate was apparently warmer than it is now..some global warming maybe?..anyway, a shallow sea covered the region stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada and from western Iowa (aka “I Oughta have Went Around) to western Wyoming. Lots of animals lived in these waters and upon their death were fossilized in a grayish-black sedimentary rock which can be seen in today’s Badlands. Eons passed after their death and continental plates pushed and shoved leading to an active period of mountain building in the ancestral Rocky Mountains. The land under the sea rose, forcing the water of the sea to retreat leaving the ground exposed to air and sunshine. Now subtropical forest developed on the land and flourished there for years until eventually the climate cooled. The forest gave way to savannah, then grassland much like we see today. Red bands seen after heavy rainstorms in the area reveal the fossilized soils of the previous climate. To make a really long story feel a little shorter, check out the photos.. it’s a pretty amazing place! Unlike my usual self, we walked most of the trials in the icy cold wind which we could see played a big role in the erosion of the badlands. It’s funny that after just one day surrounded by these formations, you don’t see their beauty like you did when you initially arrived..makes me realize how quickly we can become spoiled. We saw our first Bison/buffalo which roamed the campgrounds where we stayed in the park the next night as well as some Prairie dogs which live together in “towns”. The whole place was like some kind of wonderland out of a different world. We met some great people while camping in the park as well, Kenny, Rachel, Colin and their two dogs Daisy and Flounder. They were kind enough to feed us for two days in a row after we followed them to the Devils Tower campground the next day..thanks again guys, we can’t wait to see you in Alaska.
While sightseeing in Badlands we took a detour to a small town called Wall. The town was named as it was built on the edge of the northern extension of the “Badlands wall”. Its claim to fame however comes from something almost completely the opposite …water. It started with a smart, determined and religious woman and it ended in hundreds of billboards for a store named Walldrug. I cannot tell the story as good as the people involved so we took a photo of their inspiring story:
The Waldrug shopping complex was huge and packed with every kind of souvenir you could possible imagine. The original pharmacy, or as they call it apothecary, was still open and ready to fill your prescription. There were a number of amusements such as mining in a little goldmine, a shooting gallery and a roaring T-rex, shops selling amazingly beautiful leather goods, coffee for only 5c (yes 5 cents) and off coarse you could still get the free ice water that made the place what it is today. Great place to stop, but don’t expect to just do some window shopping, you’re bound to find something you have to haven even if you don’t need it!
Next up was the Black Hills area which had a lot of sightseeing to offer. It had both famous stone monuments, Mt Rushmore and his lesser known counterpart Crazy Horse Memorial, Custer State Park and a few historic gold mining towns such as Sturgis, Spearfish and the unmatched Deadwood. Our first stop was Mt. Rushmore which lived up to all the patriotic hype and is truly a remarkable piece of artwork. It all started in 1923 with an idea to draw sightseers, when Doane Robinson suggested giant statues in South Dakota’s black hills. Many was against it but eventually unconventional sculptor Gutzon Borglum, known for his big carvings of all things American, was called in for the job and he opted to carve the heads of four certifiable great American presidents on a 5725 foot Mount Rushmore (named after a New York lawyer), “in commemoration of the foundation, preservation, and continental expansion of the United States.” The Big four are in random order, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. At 60 years old, Borglum started in 1927 and died shortly before the dedication of the last head – Roosefelt’s – in 1941. Each head is whopping 60 feet from chin to crown and the entire project cost the US nearly $1 million. An entire museum called the Borglum Story has been erected in honor of this monument and is advertised as the best museum in the US…we figured we knew enough already and rather just stopped at every overlook where the faces was proudly displayed.
The Custer State Park has winding roads that twist and turn along the ridges and valleys of the Black hills. The three highways that run through the park has a total of 6 tunnels which didn’t always look absolutely necessary as there were roads built for going around if the vehicle were too wide or high. At one particular tunnel, Mt Rushmore is perfectly aligned with tunnel and you have a perfect view of the Big four. Looking at Mt Rushmore and the road through Custer State Park we again realized that some people imagine things…others go out and build it!
Next up was Crazy Horse Memorial. If you don’t know anything about this, well….neither did we. This rather less impressive stone monument-in-the-making is the Native American answer to Mt. Rushmore. In 1939, Lakota Sioux chief, Henry Standing Chief and other tribal leaders invited New York World’s fair first-prize winner Korczak Ziolkowski after laying eyes on the faces of the American presidents. They told him that the Native Americans “would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes, too”. Less than a decade later, the Ziolkowski family embarked on the project which is likely to be completed in another half a century or so. Ziolkowski set out to make the biggest statue in the world..even larger than the Giza pyramid of Egypt. Prior to his death in 1982, he had raised and spent about $4 million on this nonprofit project which he has refused to take any federal funds for. Since his death his widow, children and grandchildren have been realizing his vision and now following the completion of the 90ft high face( just as the project celebrated its 50th anniversary), they will start on the 219ft horse’s head. We stayed at the cheapest campgrounds right next to the Crazy Horse Memorial called Echo Valley campgrounds which had nice clean hot showers and a friendly host with a very cute Chihuahua called Ruby Doo.
Next stop was Deadwood. This wild Gold rush town is known as one of the few National Historic Landmarks. The town was founded following the discovery of gold in 1876 when six thousand diggers came here to stake their claims. A large number dodgy characters followed, resulting in a nest of gambling, prostitution and general unruly conduct. The town’s stories come alive when you read about the lives of some of the people that passed through. One name stands out in particular when you hear about Deadwood…the infamous Wild Bill Hickok aka James Butler which was a jack of trades like spying, scouting, bull whacking, stagecoach driving, sheriffing and gambling..likely all at the same time. Most of his legend, however, is built on his ability to handle a pistol and his dashing good looks. He was one of the first “fast guns” and was known to carry his pistols in his belt in the unusual “butts-forward” position. Although his marksmanship was questionable, he was in a class by himself when he shot a man. As for the dashing good looks, Mrs Custer from Mr. George A Custer’s of Custer State Park, wrote among other things that “Physically he was a delight to look upon….I do not recall anything finer in the way of physical perfection than Wild Bill when he swung himself lightly from his saddle…” We wonder how Mr. Custer felt about that… Anyway, Wild Bill was also a notorious gambler, although not a very good one, and it was during this pastime that Mr. Bill came to his end. During a poker game in Deadwood’s No. 10 Saloon, Jack McCall shot Wild Bill in the back of the head with a .45 pistol. Some claim that he held a hand of two black aces and two black eights…since then known as Deadman’s Hand. Although Jack McCall was hanged for shooting Wild Bill, we could not find any reason why the poor man was shot at the age of 40…we suspect it may have had something to do with a woman….?
In Deadwood we checked out the Nelson’s Garage Car and Motorcycle museum which was more like three famous cars in the middle of a casino with sad looking people gambling with a drink in their hand. Nevertheless, we saw the original Herbie, the lovebug, James Bond’s Aston Martin from Tomorrow Never dies and the bike Evil Knievel jump the schoolbuses.. Next, we went into No.10 Saloon and saw the “actual” chair Wild Bill sat on when he was shot and also a lot of other cool Wild West stuff. Finally, we went into the Adams museum to learn about all the famous Deadwood folk and was slightly caught offside when the friendly museum curator told us that a voluntary donation of $5 per adult would be nice…we thought it was free and that you would be able to take some photos inside, so we hurried through the museum (I still don’t know who Mr. Adams was…) and left an unfriendly $0 donation. We drove through Spearfish Canyon on our way out of South Dakota and what a beautiful goodbye it was..the Canyon is apparently way older than the Grand Canyon and the curvy road along a small stream truly was a scenic route to take. South Dakota will always have a special place in my heart.
Our first stop in our second Wild West State, Wyoming was Devils Tower National Monument. This giant protruding, strangely very symmetrical rock stands like a sore thumb in an otherwise hilly rather than mountainous area. It was formed by molten magma that was forced into sedimentary rocks above it and subsequently cooled underground. Whilst cooling, it contracted and fractured into columns which run vertically from top to bottom. Over millions of years, erosion of this sedimentary rock exposed the Devils Tower which rise 876 feet from its base and a base diameter of 1000 feet. For those who don’t really care for science..legend told by the Native American Kiowa people tell of eight children playing, seven sisters and one brother. Suddenly, the boy was “struck dumb” and began to run upon his hands and feet. His fingers became claws and his body was covered in fur and suddenly the boy had turned into a bear. The sisters were very frightened and were chased by the bear as they ran away. They got to tree stump which told them to climb on it and as they did it began to rise up into the air. The bear tried to reach them and as he reared against the tree, he scored the bark all around with his claws. The seven sisters subsequently became the stars of the Big Dipper…I’m not sure what happened to the bear? If the tower looks at all familiar to you, you may have seen it in the 1978 Steven Spielberg’s movie “Close encounters with the third kind”..if not, you might still be as young as we are.
It started drizzling when we got there and neither of us felt like walking too far, we only did the “inner loop” around this monstrosity of a rock and got some great vertical views. In one of the many bear claw scratch marks we saw two climbers on their way to the top…the one looked like he was holding himself in position with hands and feet like a starfish. They had a long way to go and we were glad we weren’t in the same position.
Wyoming was a wonderfully unpopulated state which looked even more vast than South Dakota, redder soil and more rolling hills. We heard about the steep downhills (between 10 -20% grades) in the Bighorn mountain area just east of Yellowstone and headed there for our second night in the new state. When we got to the small town of Bighorn, the towering Big horn mountains lay before us..there was nowhere to go but over them. Half-way up the mountain, one of those big American trucks came roaring by on the rather slippery gravel road..but the speed he was traveling with was not the part we noticed, it was the fact that the vehicle was covered in snow! And soon enough the snow started falling, at first you couldn’t even see the snow on the ground and next thing we were swept away into a white wonderland. I won’t lie, I was freaked out…driving in snow, sleeping in snow..would we survive the night, what if we get snowed in…taking a “snow day” suddenly didn’t exactly sound as romantic as in the movies. Like with all other impossible times I had to go to the loo, this was no exception. Imagine my surprise when I got out of the Cruiser and wasn’t met by the destructive blizzard I had anticipated…instead it was dead quiet and looked rather peaceful. The only sound was the antelope hiding when they saw us. Marius had told me about how quiet it can get when it snows, but I guess you can’t imagine it until you see it for yourself. The forest campgrounds were still closed for the season, but we could still stay there…and better yet, for free. I put on all the clothes I had and then got out..still rather freaked out that people could actually survive in temperatures like this. Turns out it was only 0°C (feels rather strange to say “only”)…I would have at least thought it was -15°C! Anyway, Marius was in his element…he quickly opened the awning and we started making food. We were sure this was bear country, so we opted for an easy pasta dish. We used some of the snow to make some coffee..turns out you need a hell of a lot more than a cup of snow to make a cup of coffee! We slept inside the Cruiser that night and were happy to be slightly cramped but really warm! The next morning the sun came out blazing making the area all sparkly! Our first experience camping in the snow showed us how much cleaner it is to camp in snow..nothing is wet or full of mud…you simply wipe the snow off (quickly before your hand freeze..). We tried to cross the Big horns via the gravel road but we got to a point where the snow was about one and a half foot deep (didn’t know where the road was anymore), so we had to take a timely detour to Cody via the tarred road.
Cody is as cowboy as it gets.. In this gateway town to Yellowstone National park, people there still wear cowboy hats, checkered shirts, leather boots (with spurs) and hearty cowboy smiles. It started raining when we got there and soon it was snowing as well. The next day we learned that the entire Yellowstone was snowed-up and some of the roads were even closed completely until further notice. A coupon in a travel magazine prompted a visit to one of the cowboy apparel stores and we ended up buying a lot more than we went in for. As these guys were currently experiencing Springtime (??) all their winter gear was on sale. We both got some snow boots, beany/bellaclava and finally some bearspray. We had our second take-away burger at a little diner and was delighted when the kitchen made a mistake and gave us both the beacon and cheese burger instead of one standard burger. Happy mistakes..we figured there was no harm done..
The road to Yellowstone had less snow than I anticipated and we were soon in the park. We drove through an area which they call the Serengeti of the US, but were disappointed that we saw more RVs (recreational vehicles) than wildlife. To be fair, we saw a bear, but it was so far away that we couldn’t really see if it was a grizzly or a black bear. The Mammoth campground was at an altitude of 1900m and it was already snowing when we got there. All the campgrounds were rather pricey and as usual had almost nothing to offer except some scenery. We woke up the next morning to a cold and frozen surroundings where I met a woman in the restroom that summed up the situation very accurately. After I had stripped down to a amount of clothes which allowed me to actually moved, she told me how she only had the sweater she was wearing, a dry-mac and normal tennis shoes. She went on to share her words to her husband that morning…she woke and looked out of the RV window and told her husband “We’re in hell and it’s white!”…I later learned that she was from Florida. She said they were on their way to Alaska, but has no idea what she was thinking only bringing a dry-mac!
The Western side of the figure-8 road through Yellowstone Park is a wonderland of bubbles, fountains colorful ponds and steams. When people say there are no place like this on earth..they are not exaggerating. Under the influence of some photographers and artists it was declared the world’s first national park in 1872 and was even guarded by the US army at some stage of its history. Three eruptions occurring 2 million years, 1.3 million years and 640,000 years ago respectively resulted in a 30-mile by 45-mile caldera/basin. Today this heat still power the park’s numerous geysers, hot springs and mudpots. No use in trying to explain any of these, so I include a lot of photos to try and give you the idea…although I suspect you’ll have to go there yourself to really get the idea.
We did half of the figure-8 loop in Yellowstone and then went south to Grand Teton National park before doing the other half. These two national parks lie back to back and you literally drive from Yellowstone into Teton…you even have only one entrance fee. Very unlike Yellowstone, Teton does not have any geysers or shocking orange ponds. It does have the Tetons though, a 2.7 billion year old mountain range with various peaks ranging from 3300m to 4197m. We were sure they were lying about these massive mountains when we got there as we could only see a measly few hills on account of the bad weather. We stayed a second day and saw a little more of them but was still not impressed. It was only on day three, perched on a hill overlooking these giants that the sun banished the clouds and we were finally humbled by their greatness. We did some hiking to the Hidden falls on the shore of Lake Jenny and I was pretty impressed that we walked 8km in a relatively short time. That night we stayed at the only free drive-in backcountry campsite and were treated to some chicken breast by new friends and fellow overlanders, Andrew and Sharlene.
After Grand Tetons and Yellowstone we were heading North with some serious speed. We had a vast amount of kilometers to travel to get to Alaska, but before we did we still had Glacier National Park to see. This park straddles the Canadian border and was by the looks of the name rather cold and icy. Unexpectedly however, it was less frozen up than the its hot spring cousin Yellowstone. The road-to-the-sun was unfortunately closed until the middle of June as a result of some 90 feet of snow that the guys have to plow through …every year! I think in SA the sentiment would be that although they had spent a fortune on building this road, it would be remembered as a great road that could never be recovered after such a “natural disaster”. Anyway, Glacier Park was a prime example of superblue lakes and beautiful snow covered mountains. One thing that we found good-to know was that on the northfork road, right outside the park borders, the US forest service provided a free, no-facility campsite as opposed to the $15 no-facility campsite (with water spigot to be fair) within park.
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