THE BEARTOOTH HIGHWAY

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Sign at the top of the pass that marks the summit of the Beartooth Highway
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This is how the sign looks in August after all the snow melts (I snagged this photo from the Internet)

Monday, June 4, 2018

After ten days in Gardiner, we said our goodbyes yesterday and started our long trek back to Georgia. It was the first time during our entire trip that I did not want to leave the place we stayed. Maybe it was because I knew we were leaving to go back home, or maybe it was simply because I fell in love with Gardiner. It is not the prettiest town I’ve ever visited, but there is something about the tiny hamlet that draws you in and makes you want to be a part of the community.

Since we missed the Beartooth Highway while we were in Gardiner, we decided to spend a couple of days in Billings, MT. We are staying at the Billings Village RV Park close to I-90, so we’ll be making the scenic drive from the eastern terminus in Red Lodge, instead of the western terminus in Cooke City. The highway begins and ends in Montana, but a large portion lies within the northwest corner of Wyoming.

Clearing the highway is a monumental task that takes about eight weeks to complete. Crews install snow poles along the edges of the road each fall as a guide for the following spring, when the road is blanketed in up to 30 feet of snow. When the poles become buried or knocked down during the Beartooths’ harsh winters, determining the location of the roadbed is often a matter of experience. The dozen or so members of the plowing crew use Snowcats equipped with plows to shave the top layers of snow until the heavier blades can begin punching through the denser, compacted layers underneath. Behind those massive snowplows, equally massive snow blowers churn through the ridges of snow to push them off the road.

This morning we drove to Red Lodge to begin our trek on what has been heralded as one of the most scenic drives in America The 68-mile stretch of road affords stunning views of the Absaroka and Beartooth Mountains, climbing to an astounding 10,947 feet above sea level.

In June 13, 2002, the Beartooth Highway earned the prestigious designation of All-American Road. To receive this designation, a road must possess characteristics of national significance in at least two of the following intrinsic qualities:

  1. Scenic
  2. Archaeological
  3. Cultural
  4. Historic
  5. Natural
  6. Recreational

According to the Federal Highway Administration, “The road or highway must also be considered a ‘destination unto itself.’ That is, the road must provide an exceptional traveling experience so recognized by travelers that they would make a drive along the highway a primary reason for their trip.”

I guess they’re right. We did spend two nights in Billings for the sole purpose of driving the Beartooth Highway, after all.

As you leave the valley floor, the road snakes up the mountainside in a series of tight turns and switchbacks, passing snowbanks 15 to 20 feet high in some places. There is a ski area on top of the Beartooth Plateau near the summit. Two Poma lifts deliver skiers to the top of a steep headwall. It’s strange to see people snow skiing in June.

At the top of the pass, the temperature was in the thirties. The wind was so strong it kept whipping the hood of my jacket off my head. I finally gave up and pulled on my knit cap. The snow was so deep the picture I took of the sign that marks the top of the pass did not capture the elevation from my vantage point. However, there was a very nice man standing in the bed of his truck snapping pictures who offered to take a photo for me. He had no idea how much that meant to me, since I had just carved my late son and late grandson’s initials into the snowbank near the sign. I know they will be gone in a month or two, when the temperatures warm up enough to melt the snow off the summit, but that memory is etched in my brain in inedible ink.

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Welcome sign near Red Lodge, MT
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A scene from the valley floor
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One of those tight turns I mentioned
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The name “Beartooth” comes from a Crow name, Na Piet Say, meaning “the bear’s tooth” and refers to the pyramid-like granite spire that juts from the Beartooth plateau.
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One of the many switchbacks as you wind your way up the pass
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A marmot in the Alpine Tundra above the tree line
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One of the numerous Alpine lakes

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK

Old Faithful
Old Faithful

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

If I had to pick one word to describe Yellowstone, it would be diverse. It has everything you could ask for in a national park: animals, canyons, fishing, geysers, hiking trails, hot springs, lakes, mountains, rivers, and waterfalls, to name a few.

At more than 2.2 million acres, the park is larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. There are 466 miles of road, 310 miles of which are paved. The main road is called the Grand Loop, consisting of an upper loop and a lower loop. The Grand Loops closely resembles a figure eight. The entire Grand Loop is 142 miles long, with numerous side roads and pull offs along the way. There are five entrances to Yellowstone: the north entrance from Gardiner, MT, and the northeast entrance from Silver Gate and Cooke City, MT, intersect with the upper loop. The south entrance from Jackson Hole, WY, the east entrance from Cody, WY, and the west entrance from Island Park, ID, all connect with the lower loop. The north entrance is the only entrance to the park that is open year-round.

Currently there is a five or six mile stretch of road construction underway between Mammoth Hot Springs and the Norris Geyer Basin, with delays of up to 30 minutes. The pavement in this section has been removed, and only one lane is open at all times. It rained off and on all day on May 24th, the day we arrived in Gardiner, so our Jeep got filthy driving through the construction zone the following day.

There are also several other closures either currently in effect, or that will go into effect soon, so keep these in mind if you plan to visit the park this summer:

  • The Brink of Upper Falls will be closed from July 2018 through the summer of 2019.
  • Inspiration Point and Inspiration Point Road are closed for reconstruction. Expected completion date is July 2018.
  • The North Rim Trail is closed between Cascade Falls and the Brink of Lower Falls, and between Grand View Point and Inspiration Point. During this closure you will not be able to walk the entire North Rim Trail. There is no data available for when these portions of the trail will reopen.
  • Uncle Tom’s Point and Parking Area, Uncle Tom’s Trail (the stairs), and the entire South Rim Trail are closed for reconstruction: expected completion date is July 2018.

We didn’t mind some of the trails being closed, but it was annoying dealing with the road construction. Rather than drive through the mud and sit still for long periods of time, we took the eastern side of the upper loop back to the north entrance each time we visited the park. The eastern side of the upper loop is 16 miles longer than the western side, and under normal circumstances, takes an additional 45 minutes to drive. But given the extreme delays in the construction area, not to mention the mud and the ruts, we decided we’d rather be moving than sitting still and getting splattered with mud.

Driving through Yellowstone requires keen observation skills and infinite patience. While some animals, such as wolves, are more likely to be seen during dawn and dusk, you never know when you might spot a pack. One surefire way of knowing if animals are around is to see a large crowd of people standing on the side of the road, and cars parked haphazardly alongside the roadway.

Bears and wolves seemed to draw the most attention on each of the five days we visited the park, but people will stop in the middle of the road to take pictures of elk or bison, heedless of the fact they are blocking traffic. Harry swears some folks will stop if they see a large rock off in the distance.

Elk are the most abundant species of mammals in the park, but you see a lot of bison too. Bison and buffalo are often used interchangeably, but it is not correct to do so. There are no buffalo in North America, only American bison. Yellowstone has the largest herd of bison on public land. The bison population varies, ranging from 2,300 to 5,500 animals. The bison at Yellowstone are divided into two subpopulations, based are where they breed: The northern herd breeds in the Lamar Valley and on the surrounding high plateaus. The central herd breeds in Hayden Valley. The bison think nothing of crossing the street, stopping traffic in both directions. We’ve seen as many as fifteen cross the road, one right after another, taking their sweet time. It’s like sitting at a railroad crossing waiting for the last car to rumble past.

Old Faithful is the most popular attraction at Yellowstone, but ironically, it is not the tallest geyser in the park. That honor is bestowed on Steamboat Geyser, the tallest geyser in the world. Steamboat is known to eject a column of water 300 feet or more into the air, whereas the average height of one of Old Faithful’s eruptions is 145 feet. Old Faithful, the first geyser named in the park, earned its moniker because its eruptions are highly predictable. It erups every 60-90 minutes on average. Up until March 15 of this year, the last time Steamboat erupted was in 2014. For some inexplicable reason, Steamboat, which is located in the Norris Geyser Basin, has erupted a total of seven times this year. The last eruption occurred on May 27. Naturally, we missed it.

If you asked a dozen people what their favorite thing is about Yellowstone, I expect you’d get seven or eight different answers. Harry liked the animals and the geysers best, but for me, it was the mountains and the waterfalls. There are over 100 waterfalls in Yellowstone, and we have only seen a fraction of them so far. The roadside waterfalls are easy to view, but many of the falls require a trek in the woods to see. We only made it to one waterfall—Wraith Falls—that required a half-mile hike. We had to navigate a muddy trail and traverse a small creek to reach a footbridge at the bottom of the falls, and then climb some steps to get to the top of the falls. It wasn’t the highest or the prettiest waterfall we’ve seen by a long shot, but it was definitely worth seeing. Wraith Falls earned its name because of its ghost-like appearance.

Yellowstone was once referred to as Wonderland. Even Theodore Roosevelt used the term when he dedicated the eponymous Roosevelt Arch on April 24, 1903. Roosevelt said in part: “Nowhere else in any civilized country is there to be found such a tract of veritable wonderland made accessible to all visitors, where at the same time not only the scenery of the wilderness, but the wild creatures of the park are scrupulously preserved…”

The comparison of Yellowstone to Wonderland dates back to 1885, when the Northern Pacific Railway took advantage of the popularity of Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, launching an ad campaign that presented Yellowstone as America’s “New Wonderland.”

I could wax philosophic about Yellowstone until you were bored to tears, but to be perfectly honest, you have to see it for yourself to truly appreciate the beauty of our nation’s first national park. It truly is a wonderland.

Note:  We spent ten days at Rocky Mountain RV Park in Gardiner, MT. We have stayed at countless RV parks on our way to Gardiner, but Rocky Mountain was our favorite. It is a family-owned and operated campground. The owners are a young couple, very friendly and outgoing. They live on site, and are quick to react to any problems you might incur. The park is nicely landscaped, well maintained, and very peaceful and quiet. The views of the mountains are breathtaking. The restrooms and laundry room are spotless, and the rates are extremely affordable considering the park is only four blocks from Yellowstone’s north entrance. We paid $46.00 per night from May 24-31, and $59.00 per night for June 1-2. Our Good Sam membership afforded us a 10% discount off these rates. The campground is within easy walking distance of local restaurants and shops. We would definitely stay there again should our travels bring us back to Gardiner. 

Absaroka Range
Absaroka Mountain Range

 

Undine Falls
Undine Falls
Wraith Falls
Wraith Falls
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Bison grazing by the side of the road
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Elk lounging around in the Mammoth Hot Springs historic district
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Pronghorn
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Black bear. I took this shot from the car while we were stopped in traffic

CUSTER’S LAST STAND

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Granite memorial erected by the War Department on Last Stand Hill in 1881

Sunday, May 22, 2018

We left Devils Tower yesterday and arrived at the 7th Ranch RV Park in Garryowen, Montana, later that afternoon. The 7th Ranch is the closest campground to Little Bighorn National Monument. The campground is very nice, but the half-mile gravel washboard road you have to drive on to reach the park is horrible. For that matter alone, we would never stay there again.

It rained most of the night, but this morning dawned sunny and clear. It promised to be a hot day, so we set off early to visit Little Bighorn. The Monument was created on January 29, 1879, to preserve the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn, near Crow Agency, Montana.

On July 25, 1876, Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, along with 262 men of the 7th U.S. Calvary, including Indian scouts and civilians, were killed while engaging with the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians along the Little Bighorn River. Custer and his entire battalion, consisting of five companies—were wiped out, purportedly in less than an hour. The majority of the other six companies, three detailed to Major Marcus Reno, and three detailed to Captain Frederick Benteen, survived the conflict.

Initially, the dead were buried in shallow graves where they fell, their burial plots marked with wooden tipi poles collected from the abandoned Indian village. In 1877, the remains of Custer and many of the officers were reinterred at various locations in the eastern United States. Custer’s remains were reinterred at West Point, New York. In 1881, the War Department erected a granite memorial on Last Stand Hill. The remains of soldiers and attached personnel were reinterred in a mass grave around the base of the monument. In 1890, Army personnel erected white marble markers at each soldier’s original gravesite.

There are numerous headstones on Last Stand Hill. Custer’s tombstone stands out from the others because it has a black background shield. Both his brevetted rank of Major General and his permanent rank of Lieutenant Colonel are listed on the headstone. Although Custer was not allowed to wear the insignia of his brevetted rank, his men still referred to him as General.

So who is to blame for this tragedy? Custer, who failed to wait for reinforcements, and for dividing his battalion into three columns instead of keeping all of his men together? General Alfred Terry, for telling Custer to depart from his orders if Custer saw sufficient reason, and then subsequently blaming Custer for failing to adhere to his plan? The government, for stating in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie that the Great Sioux Reservation included the Black Hills, and then later reneging on the treaty after gold was discovered in the region in 1874?

Personally, I think all three parties were at fault. Custer was known for his rashness; Terry’s plan was weak: the village’s exact location was not known, thus precluding a coordinated attack; and the government wanted the gold to help stimulate the precarious economy. The only problem with the latter was the Indians had a signed treaty stating the Black Hills belonged to them. Some people in the government considered buying the Black Hills from from the Lakota Sioux, but the Indians did not want to sell. Ultimately, Red Cloud, one of the most important leaders of the Oglala Lakota, and Spotted Tail, the Brulé Lakota chief, believing they had no other choice, since the whites would take what they wanted anyway, agreed to sell the Black Hills to the United States for $70 million. The United States refused. To make a long story short, negotiations broke down, and the government decided to maintain that the Indians had invalidated the treaty and devised a plan to drive them off their land.

When all was said and done, and the official reports were written, Custer was made the scapegoat. Why not blame the dead man, who was not there to defend himself? But regardless of who was responsible for the lives that were lost that hot, dusty Sunday afternoon in late June, the fact remains that 262 men died, and six others later subcommand to their wounds. So instead of pointing fingers, I think we should pay homage to those men who paid the ultimate price that horrific day.

Note: I have decided to discontinue my reviews of campgrounds due to the amount of time it takes to write both the blog post and the campground review for each place we visit. However, if anyone is interested in information on any of the campgrounds where we stayed, just enter a comment and I will be happy to provide you with details.

 

 

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Headstones on Last Stand Hill. The headstone directly in front of Custer’s is his brother, Tom’s
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Headstone of Custer’s brother, Boston, a civilian
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Some of the horses were killed and used for breastworks during the battle
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Grave of Captain James Sturgis, son of Lt. Colonel Samuel D. Sturgis, for whom Sturgis, South Dakota was named

WHAT ARE THOSE UGLY THINGS ON THE BRIDGE?

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Monday, April 30, 2018

Council Bluffs, Iowa, is located on the eastern bank of the Missouri River, across from Omaha, Nebraska. The first thing you’ll notice when you arrive in town via I-80 is four huge, hideous-looking sculptures, on the corners of the 24th Street Bridge. They stand 60 feet tall in some places, and what with their serrated edges, jagged spikes, and spears, they look like the work of Edward Scissorhands. In actually, the sculptures are the creations of world-acclaimed artist Albert Paley. I’ve never heard of him, but then again, I don’t exactly travel in modernist metal sculptor circles. The sculptures are called Odyssey. Personally, I think Oddity would have been a more fitting name. And believe it our not, the city of Council Bluffs paid $3-million for the four-piece metal monstrosity. What were they thinking?

We boondocked in the parking lot at the Horseshoe Bend Casino, sandwiched between a dozen semis. Between the eighteen-wheelers and a five-level parking deck nearby, we were completed sheltered from the high winds. We were thrilled to have the truckers as neighbors. As an aside, truckers are generally the most courteous drivers on the interstate. They will let you over if you need to change lanes, and they know better than to tailgate. I have yet to see a semi whip over in front of us and slam on their brakes the way other drivers do. Big rigs cannot stop on a dime. Unless you have a death wish, please remember that before you decide to dart in front of a motorhome or semi the next time you’re cruising down the expressway.

After arriving at the casino, we hopped in our Jeep and drove to Camping World to purchase a surge protector to see us through our trip. Harry is not convinced our electrical problem on Saturday was caused by our EMS. However, he has decided to wait until we return home to address the issue.

We had dinner at Texas Roadhouse with our good friends, Randy and Debbie. Afterward, we went next door to a fast food restaurant called Culver’s, where Harry and I were introduced to frozen custard. Yum-yum.

The main ingredient that sets frozen custard apart from ice cream is a high proportion of egg yolks. Frozen custard is also churned differently than ice cream, utilizing a process that introduces much less air into the mixture. The result is a frozen dessert with a creamy, dense, smooth consistency that is absolutely delicious. Surprisingly enough, frozen custard has about 10 percent less calories than ice cream. All the more reason to eat it!

The wind moved out early Tuesday morning, and we relocated to the casino’s so-called RV Park. It turned out to be nothing more than a parking lot with diagonal back-in sites and electric and water hookups. It looked like a drive-in theater, minus the speakers. There was a bathhouse on site, but it was, well, filthy. The laundry room didn’t look much better. At least all of the sites were level, and we were close to the casino. We paid $40 a night for our “deluxe” site, and—get this—they charged us a $50.00 per night security deposit. Seriously, what did they think we were going to do? Tip over the Dumpster or whip out a jackhammer and pulverize the concrete? I hate to break it to them, but judging from the number of potholes in the area, I’d say someone beat us to it.

The only reason we stayed at the casino “RV Park” was because the only other campground in town—a city park—was booked up solid. Next time, we’ll bypass Council Bluffs and spend the night in Omaha.

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Our fancy-schmancy site
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More deluxe sites
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Our view from our bedroom window
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View from our dining room