Monday, July 28, 2014

Wrapping Up Our 4,000 Mile Drive With A Stop at the Wisconsin Dells

Why is it that I always procrastinate when it's time to finish a project?  I'm so close, I'm almost there.  And then I stop.  Then I need to give myself a big push to get it done!  And so it goes with this post for the final leg of my trip with Lizz.  After a week in Milwaukee, here's the final 338 miles that got me here.
The landscape changed again as we crossed the border into Wisconsin, where the farms took on the look of the old red barns and silos I was so used to seeing in the outlying areas growing up here.  That sweet nostalgic feeling started creeping in, and my midwestern accent came back over me like a cold front.  We stopped in the small town of Hixton, known for its charming antique shops and suggested by my brother as a possible place to find mermaids, which I am always on the lookout for.  Unfortunately I only had one close call.  When I asked the owner if she had any mermaids, she exclaimed "Yes, I have one!", but it turned out to be a false alarm, when the mermaid turned out to be a hula girl!  Oh, please!  Thanks, but no thanks.  On the way out the door, I noticed this cute cafe across the street proclaiming the promise of BEER.  For sure I am now in Wisconsin.
Our next stop was the Wisconsin Dells, a very popular Midwestern vacation destination that I have visited myself many times since I was a kid.  The Dells have grown and changed over time (what hasn't, for that matter) and now are known as much for their large hotels with indoor waterparks as for their scenery and host of restaurants and gift shops.  You can find old fashioned amusement rides like this wooden roller coaster,
and this long arm that shoots you in a big circle while you spin in your little flippy seat.  I'm sure this ride has an official name, but for me the name would simply be "you couldn't pay me to go on this".
In a quest to find out why this turned into such a huge resort area in the first place, we decided to take a boat ride so we could actually see "the dells".  Boat rides began here in one form or another as early as 1856, when city dwellers discovered this was a beautiful area to relax and get away from it all.  The Dells now offer a one hour boat ride, a two hour boat ride, and a "duck" ride to get an up close view of the sandstone formations of this glacially formed gorge on the Wisconsin River.  Since we were just passing through, we opted for the one hour tour, purchased our tickets, and walked the few blocks down to the boat dock.  I saw some pretty local flowers,
a nice view of the Wisconsin River,
 and the boat dock.
I also saw our boat leaving!  Yes, that 2:30 ship had sailed, and we discovered when we reached the bottom that the next one was not leaving until 4:30.  This was a little disconcerting, as the ticket sales lady assured us that the boats left every 30 to 45 minutes.  Had we known that we would have to wait 2 hours for the next boat, we would have taken the 2 hour tour (which leaves from another location).  But it was what it was, and we decided to just relax and wait for the next boat.  And once we were finally on the water, it was a really nice trip.  We passed a lot of inner-tubers,
a popular pastime here on the river, which of course includes renting a separate inner tube for your beer cooler.  This particular group actually had TWO beer coolers.  That empty tube to the right represents the guy who tipped over trying to wave to us, and is now under water.  We also saw "The Ducks" which are vintage military vehicles used to give tours of the area, capable of traveling on both land and water,
and some gorgeous views of the sandstone formations that give this area its name.
We passed some geese,
and some campers!  These were the only people we saw camped on this part of the river, and I don't know how in the world they got down there, but it sure was a pretty spot to spend the night (since I have this new-found camping enthusiasm).
We finished the tour around 5:30 pm and bid farewell to the Dells, taking the scenic route for the remainder of the 130 miles to Milwaukee.  We took Hwy 16 past many large, pristine farms and then transitioned to Hwy 33, which took us right through Horicon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge.  The geese were so abundant there that they were literally sitting on the sides of the road,
and the land was thick with cattails.
This spectacular area was formed during the Ice Age, and now provides a nesting area for waterfowl and a resting area for migratory birds, including over 200,000 Canadian geese yearly.
We made one last stop, at Dairy Queen, for our final treat before reaching my dad's house, where we arrived shortly before 8:30 pm.  We'd made it, traveling about 4,000 miles total together!  Lizz got to work that night studying the map and planning her next move, on to New York to visit her own dad.
We would part company in the morning, and each begin our own individual adventure on the next leg of our trip.

That catches you up to my current location in Milwaukee, which is the area I'll share with you next.  So put on your Liederhosen, grab a mug of beer and a cheese curd, and stay tuned! But for now, thanks for following, and to all a good night!

xoxo Linda

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

One Last Look at South Dakota and On to Minnesota

On Thursday morning we bid a fond farewell to the Custer/Mount Rushmore KOA, after spending two nights there. This was a lovely campground, and we enjoyed it.  It was very quiet at night, and the tent sites had water and electricity with pretty good wifi and cell service, which can be tricky throughout this area of South Dakota.  Back on the road, we headed towards I-90 East, and once we were back on the highway, the landscape changed dramatically to reveal hay bales and the Great Plains,
dotted with signs for, you guessed it, Wall Drug.
Anyone who has driven through South Dakota can't help but know about Wall Drug.  I first visited this granddaddy of all tourist stops last September with Eduardo, and of course I couldn't leave the state without sharing the place with Lizz.  The drive from Custer to Wall is about 96 miles, and signs announcing Wall Drug extend this entire stretch of I-90.  You can read about the history of Wall Drug in my blog post of September, 2013, so I won't repeat myself, but here are a few interesting items I saw on this visit.  I adored this rack of cowboy boots,
and these cowgirl boots in particular,
as well as this antler chandelier for a mere $1,500.00,
and this rattlesnake head (no home should be without one of these).
We marveled at their collection of over 300 original paintings of the West, which are really the highlight of Wall Drug,
while munching on a Buffalo Burger.
Honestly, their food was a less than spectacular.  It looked good, but the burger was dry.  Next time I will stick to the 5 cent coffee and homemade donuts, which are a sure winner.  Speaking of Buffalo Meat, I wanted to mention the Tanka Buffalo Jerky that Lizz picked up at the market in Custer.  Now this Buffalo was really delicious, soft and easy to chew with the tart, fruity taste of cranberries, apples and orange peel.  Wish I had gotten a better picture of the packaging, but you get the idea.  We should have purchased a bunch of these.
Back on the road, we started the remaining 222 mile drive to Mitchell, South Dakota, which would be our camping destination for the night.  Once again the landscape opened up to the Great Plains, and was its own form of spectacular.
We passed a sign for De Smet, home of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of Little House on the Prairie, and we imagined what life must have been like for the pioneers crossing this vast open area, which must have been hot and shadeless in the summer, cold and biting in the winter, with American bison (buffalo) roaming freely here.  As a side note, after near extinction, buffalo have made a recent resurgence mostly in a few national parks, like Custer, which is why we were lucky enough to have seen them in the wild.

We rolled into the Mitchell KOA with just enough daylight for Lizz to get in a small painting,
while I set up the tents.  I'd really gotten the hang of it, and I liked setting up the tents, unlike other chores like cooking!  This was another really nice campground, and I enjoyed seeing the homey lights on this camper,
and marvelled at this family, who were on a camping trip with their horses!  And you thought camping with your dog (or your kids) was a lot of work.
You meet the nicest people while camping, and this lovely couple from Canada, Chris, Tiina and their dog Kalle, invited us to share their campfire, and in return we introduced Tiina to S'mores.
After sitting up around the campfire until after 11:00 pm, we rose bright and early to make the drive to the St. Paul, Minnesota area to visit my brother.  The combination of long sunny days and crossing into the Central Time Zone and picking up an hour messed with our sense of time a bit, and we felt tired on this leg of the drive.  But the ever changing landscape now offered us a new kind of beauty, with cows and silos galore.
Stopping at the rest stop just over the Minnesota border for lunch, I spotted an Amish family in their traditional dress.
We rolled into my brother's driveway around 3 pm, and had a great evening relaxing with family.  We were treated to tasty margaritas complete with umbrellas,
and an appetizer of smoky flavored nachos on the grill (a technique called planking, not to be confused with the planking where you lay down flat on the ground), heaped with delectable guacamole.  How did we get so lucky? 
Chicken kabobs and lots of conversation rounded out a wonderful evening, and we slept like babies on nice comfortable beds after three nights of camping.  The next morning will mark the last drive that Lizz and I will make together on this trip, as we head for Wisconsin.

Wishing you all a terrific day.

xoxo Linda

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Wind Cave, Custer Park and Mount Rushmore in Fabulous South Dakota

We left Bozeman, Montana on Tuesday morning, with a fond farewell to Jane, childhood friend of Lizz.  Jane was a such a fun and gracious hostess, and she made our stay enormously special!  So a big thank you to my new friend Jane!!  But it was time to get back in the car, and we made one stop on the way out of town, at the fish hatchery to see the trout.
They were very colorful and quite large, and it gave me a chance to see first hand what all the fishing gear is for in Montana! 

We grabbed some snacks for the road, heading to our next destination of the Custer Park/Mount Rushmore KOA Campgrounds in Custer, South Dakota.  I tried out the Huckleberry Yogurt, a flavor you don't see in Los Angeles.  Very yummy!
It was to prove to be one our longest driving days, with a distance of 494 miles, and a time of just over eight hours.  We crossed Montana and Wyoming, and one of the last things we saw before finally crossing into South Dakota was Upton, Wyoming, the self proclaimed best town on earth.
So thankful we didn't miss that!  We rolled into our campground with just enough daylight left to set up the tents and have dinner.  And thanks again to Jane, we enjoyed leftover salmon from Bozeman, along with rice and asparagus, and it was delightful.
The next morning we headed towards Mount Rushmore and Wind Cave, and decided instead to start out with a drive through Custer Park.  The park afforded the possibility of seeing buffalo in the wild, and we were all for that.  On the road to Custer Park, there are some low bridges, and the RV'er in front of us should have checked his RV App before he started out.  Not sure how he planned to make it through this tiny hole,
and to complicate matters, now here comes a guy from the other side with the same problem!
Luckily we were able to scoot around both of them and left them to figure it out.  Stopping at a lookout point, Lizz pointed out a tree full of woodpecker holes. 
Upon entering the park, we paid the fifteen dollar entrance fee to the park and visited the first scenic stop, which was a gorgeous lake, with people enjoying kayaking, fishing and rock climbing.
 Continuing on to Needles highway, there were spectacular rock formations.

and tunnels carved right out of the rock.  This photo gives you an idea of the scale.
The views were breathtaking.
Moving out of the Needles area, it remained a beautiful drive with many areas to picnic along the way, finishing at the south end of the park with the Wildlife Loop.  We opted to go visit Wind Cave first, and then come back closer to sunset to do the Loop. 

At Wind Cave, we signed up for the Natural Entrance Tour, and we had some time to kill before the tour, so I enjoyed the wildflowers,
 while Lizz stretched out on the grass for a tiny nap,
which was great until a passerby warned her about rattlesnakes in the area.  It was a little harder to sleep after that.  But soon the tour began, consisting of a group of forty led by Ranger Volunteer Meredith, who was very perky and funny, and started by showing us the original entrance to the cave, which is the hole in the picture below.
According to the legend, Tom and Jesse Bingham discovered Wind Cave in 1881 when the wind blowing out of this cave hole was so strong that it blew Tom's hat off his head.  Fortunately we did not have to climb into this same hole to start our tour.  You may remember from our escapade in Simojovel, Chiapas, Mexico that I am not that fond of confined spaces!  It wasn't until the tour was about to begin that Meredith let us know that head clearance in some parts of the cave tour was 5 feet 5 inches, and her last remark was that if anyone suddenly realized that they were claustrophobic, now was a good time to leave the tour.  Now I was feeling a little nervous.  But Lizz volunteered to be the last in line to make sure we didn't lose anyone, and I decided to be a trooper and stayed right in front her, as we began the descent of 150 stairs into the cave.
As you can see from this photo, the passages were short and narrow, opening into slightly larger rooms.  At one point, as we were all walking single file, the lights suddenly went out and we were in complete darkness.  It was unnerving.  Fortunately I had my headlamp from camping along in my purse!  I highly recommend you bring one on your next cave tour.
Once I put that baby on I was good to go, and I left that headlamp on for the rest of the tour, just in case.  You can see in this photo that I just barely clear this part of the passage, which was also a little unnerving.   
One of the many interesting formations in the cave.
We did a headcount when we finished and all forty were present and counted for.  Good job, Lizz, of keeping the troops together.  When I asked Meredith if anyone ever gets lost, her answer was yes!  So stay with your group if you take this tour.  Also, I was told that there have been reports of paranormal activity in the cave, so there's that.  But in spite of it all, this tour was really fun, and Wind Cave is a must see if you are in the area.

We drove back to Custer Park to take the Wildlife Loop, and we were not disappointed.  We saw
tiny prairie dogs that made a cute squeaky, barky sound,
 Prong Horned Antelope,
and goats.
But the wildlife got bigger than that.  Much bigger.
When they said large wildlife, they weren't kidding.  The most magnificent animals we saw that day, up close and personal, were buffalo.
When we saw one munching grass just across the road from us, I jokingly asked Lizz, who was driving, what she would do if the buffalo actually walked out on the road.  Right after I said that, the buffalo DID walk right out on to the road.  At this point, a sign flashed in my head.
I wanted so badly to disobey this sign, to get a shot of this gigantic, prehistoric looking creature.  But I didn't want to be the girl you read about in the park brochure, in the "Don't Do This" section.  So I resisted my urge to get out of the car and run up to him for a picture, and instead captured a glimpse of him through the rear passenger window.  Unfortunately this view did not include his head, but you get the idea at least of how close he was.
Well the day just seemed to get better and better, and we decided to top it off with a visit to Mount Rushmore, which stays open late.  On the winding drive on 16-A from Custer Park to "The Heads" we were tickled to discover that you can actually see them from the road, without entering the park.  And the closer we got, the more dramatic they became.  It was the icing on the cake that day.
Exhausted, we finished the evening with home made Calzone at Pizza Works in Custer before going back to camp.  It was fresh and fabulous.

This area of South Dakota is filled with amazing gems, and I can't wait to go there again, because there is so much to discover.  I fell into bed a very happy camper that night, and slept like a baby.

I hope you all sleep well, too, and thanks for following along.

xoxo Linda