Thursday, September 30, 2010

Big Trip: Statistics and Lessons Learned

Now that we've been back for a while and I've had time to get my thoughts together, I thought it would be interesting and/or useful for future reference to do a run-down on some trip data and lessons learned.

If you would like to take a look, click here.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggy-Jig

I can't believe we're home!  We arrived at the house around 4 PM today and spent less than an hour with Mary, the house sitter, for the hand-off.  Then Mary finished loading up her car and off she went.

The cats are hiding because the dogs are running around. We've caught a couple glimpses of Rosco but Celia is tucked away somewhere - no doubt planning her grand entrance. It may take a little while but I'm sure everyone will get used to each other and things will settle down.

And so we'll spend the new few days transitioning back into the house. The Trek is parked out front (our neighbors must love that) so we can begin unloading tomorrow... it will take several hours to brings clothes, books, tools and other equipment back into the house and then put everything away.

I wonder how long it will be before I get restless and want to get back on the road?  We hope to go to Florida in January, but that is months away... can I last that long? We'll get the Trek all cleaned up over the next week or so and have the oil changed so she's ready to go again when we are.

I miss her already.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Ohio - Dayton: Visit with Dede

We left the Streetsboro KOA yesterday morning and made the 200-mile drive to the Dayton area without any trouble.

We were settled into the Bass Lake campground at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (AFB)  by around 3 PM and took the dogs for a walk.  This campground is not fancy, but its clean and functional and a good place to stay if you need to be in the Dayton area.

Our friend Dede came over around 5 PM and it was so nice to see her - its been about 18 years!  I first met her in 1986 when we were stationed at Travis AFB in California, and then we were stationed together again in Germany at Lindsey Air Station from 1990 to 1992. This is also where I first met Lynda, and so the three of us have known each other for 20 years or more.  Dede is now retired from the Air Force.

Dede was very pleased to meet Sydney and Barley. A big-time dog-lover, she is very involved in the local dog obedience club and frequently runs her dog, Sadie, in CPE trials, etc.  Dede loaded us and the dogs up in her SUV and took us out to a dog park where Sydney and Barley ran around off-leash and got some real exercise.  They really had fun!  Then we dropped them off back at the campground and Dede took us over to the Gem City Dog Obedience Club land facility, which is very impressive. She told us a good deal about how this 43-year old club is run and it sounds excellent. The GCDOC would be a great club to model after!  We spent some time at the outdoor area, watching dogs undergo various training and meeting some of Dede's friends.

Dede came over again this morning, and the three of us went over to the National Museum of the Air Force, which is on Wright-Patterson AFB.  Enthusiasts come from all the world to visit this museum and you could easily spend several days looking at the hundreds (perhaps thousands) of exhibits. We were there for about two hours and barely scratched the surface, but at least we saw a little bit!

After the museum, we had lunch at Olive Garden and then went over to Dede's house to visit Sadie. Not surprisingly, this little dog is very cute and we could easily understand why Dede is so fond of her!

 Dede had a commitment to teach a dog obedience class this evening and so she dropped us back at the campground around 5:30 PM.  It's been a nice visit and it was great to have this time to catch up - hopefully, we won't let so much time go by before we see each other again!

As hard as this is to believe, we head home tomorrow! I'm a little sad that Our Great RV Escape is winding down, although it will be nice to see family and friends after being gone for over 5 months.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Ohio - Streetsboro: Visit with 'Rain and Mare

We left the Riverside Park Motel and  Campground around 10 AM, in plenty of time to make the 220-mile drive to Streetsboro, Ohio where we would spend the night and have dinner with some old friends.

We made the border crossing at Buffalo, NY and got through without any issues. This was our 10th and final border crossing for Our Great RV Escape. Although other people have reported unpleasant experiences going back and forth between Canada and the US in their RVs, we've had no trouble at all. Perhaps we're just lucky.

The plan was that my friends would pick us up at the Streetsboro KOA at 6:30 PM, and I wanted to arrive at least a couple hours early so we had plenty of time to set up, walk the dogs, and freshen up. In fact, we even had time to take Sydney and Barley to the little KOA dog park and let them run around off -leash, which they really like.

I met 'Rain and Mare, who are cousins, in 1976 when I was a sixteen year-old exchange student with the American Field Service (AFS). Although I was an American citizen, AFS selected me to represent Barbados and I spent a year attending 12th grade at Euclid High School in Euclid, Ohio. I had already graduated from high school in Barbados but attending 12th grade was part of the deal.  Anyway, I made some great friends during that year in Ohio, with 'Rain and 'Mare being a big part of the core group I hung out with.  I have not seen these "girls" since we were 18 or 19, when they came to visit me in Barbados during the summer of 1978.  I was really looking forward to catching up!

Just as planned, 'Rain and Mare picked us up from the KOA at 6:30 PM and we went to a nearby Applebee's for dinner. It was so great to see them!  We exchanged news about children, husbands (a mixed bag), parents, and other friends. Although 32 years have gone by, we slipped right back into our friendship... isn't that amazing and wonderful?  And Lynda was such a good sport - she sat quietly and just absorbed as much as she could.

Well after a couple hours, we had to end our little reunion and the girls brought us back to the KOA.  We promised not to let another 32 years go by before we see each other again!

We leave tomorrow for Dayton, Ohio to visit Dede who we both knew in the Air Force. We reconnected via Facebook last year and it will be really good to see her. Stay tuned!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Canada - Niagara Falls: Butterfly Conservancy, Botanical Gardens, Legends of the Falls

Our little group got going around 9 AM this morning and we stopped at the Boathouse restaurant for a good breakfast in preparation for another day of sightseeing.

This time we parked at the Butterfly Conservancy and Botanical Gardens and then spent the next couple hours enjoying the butterflies and the gardens. I must say the Butterfly Conservancy in Niagara Falls is the very best facility of its kind that I've ever visited, and I've been to several. The variety and numbers of butterflies is amazing - there are over 2000 butterflies floating freely among the lush, exotic blossoms and greenery in the conservancy.

After enjoying the Butterfly Conservancy, we spent quite a while walking around the Botanical Gardens, which are free for the public to enjoy.  The Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens were originally established in 1936 as the Training School for Apprentice Gardeners and in 1959 were renamed the NPC School of Horticulture. With an increase in garden development and quality of the plant collections, the school campus was officially declared a botanical garden in 1990.  The gardens are beautiful and definitely worth a visit - pictures speak louder than words!

While walking around the gardens, we happened upon an aviary housing ducks and other domesticated fowl. In this aviary was a most amazing bright-red streak of bird which a park worker told me is a Golden Pheasant, also known as a Chinese Pheasant and as a Red Golden Pheasant.  It was very difficult to get a good photo of this bird because he kept dashing around, pecking at the ground and generally staying very busy.

After strolling around the gardens, we got something to eat at the Butterfly Cafe and then hopped back in the cars to make our way toward town.  We did make one stop along the way, however, at a large souvenir shop where Lynda and I bought some shirts to commemorate our visit. Then we went on to the IMAX theatre, where there was plenty of parking, to watch the Legends & Daredevils movie. I give this movie a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10 - I was glad to see it, but the movie was not the amazing experience it was advertised to be and really did not add that much to our knowledge of Niagara Falls.

Back at the RV park, Lynda did some laundry while I began to pack up the Trek. Later on, we gathered over at the Fleeman's coach to have some of Judi's homemade chili for dinner.

The Fleemans and Chip and Carolyn are staying for another day or so, but we are leaving in the morning to visit long-time friends in Ohio. We've had a fun time here at Niagara Falls but I'm ready to get on the road again for a couple more adventures before we finally head home.

It's hard to believe that our Great RV Escape is winding down and we'll be home in less than a week!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Canada - Niagara Falls: Behind the Falls, Niagara's Fury, Whirlpool Aero Car

Our little group got going around 9:30 AM this morning and, once again, we parked at the Floral Clock and took the Peoplemover bus toward town.

On the way, we decided to stop and visit the Cham Shan Buddhist Temple. Cham Shan means "Ten Thousand Buddas," probably in reference to the precious collections of Buddhist arts and artifacts housed in the large Chinese style building on the 3-acre compound. A giant bronze Buddha statue and a statue of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara are on the property so devotees can make offerings and pay homage to the Buddha. It was interesting and peaceful to walk around the grounds.

After our temple visit, we rode another bus into town and got off at the Table Rock Welcome Centre to go on the Journey Behind the Falls - the Canadian Horseshoe Falls, to be specific.

We were each issued a yellow rain poncho and then took an elevator 150 feet down to tunnels that lead to the Cataract Portal and the Great Falls Portal. Walking through the tunnels themselves was not that impressive but when we stood out on the observation deck, it was amazing to watch one-fifth of the world’s fresh water crashing down to the basin below. The noise and the wind and the water were overwhelming!

Back up top, we decided to check out Niagara's Fury, which is an intense presentation about the creation of Niagara Falls. It began with an 8-minute animation that explained how the Ice Age shaped Niagara Falls. After that, we were herded into an enclosed room with a 360 degree screen. We got a pretty good hint of what was to come when we were each given a rain poncho on our way into this second area.

And that's when the "Fury" part kicked in: there was thunder, and lightening, and earthquakes, and water roared down the precipice, and the platform we stood on tilted and shimmered while water jets above and on the sides sprayed us unmercifully.  I laughed and laughed at Judi and Carolyn - the looks going across their faces were priceless!  The whole experience was great fun, even if we were fairly drenched when it was over.

After Niagara's Fury, we got some ice cream and collected ourselves. Judi, Gary, Lynda and I decided we would walk to the big shopping area by Ruby Tuesday's to do some souvenir hunting. Chip and Carolyn opted out and so we arranged to meet them later at the bus stop area behind the Table Rock Welcome Centre. And so off we went. Well, after hoofing it for a few minutes we realized it would take up too much of our sightseeing time to walk that far, shop, and then walk back. So we aborted those plans and went back to find Chip and Carolyn.  Of course, they weren't expecting us back so soon so it took a little time to find them but it all worked out and our group was re-united.

So, once again, we boarded a Peoplemover bus and headed in the direction of the Floral Clock but got off at the Whirlpool Aero Car. Except for Chip who does not care for such things, we all wanted to ride on this famous cable car. The Aero cable car was designed by Leonardo Torres Quevedo, a Spanish engineer, and has been in operation since 1916. It is suspended from six cables and offers a wonderful view of the Niagara Whirlpool. The Niagara Whirlpool is formed at the end of the rapids where the gorge turns abruptly counterclockwise and the river escapes through the narrowest channel in the gorge.  As it turned out, the cable car experience was very tranquil and felt totally safe. In fact, it was the smoothest cable car ride I've ever been on - Senor Quevedo knew what he was doing!

And so it has been an eventful day... we returned to the RV park, took the dogs on another long walk, and served up left-over spaghetti for dinner. And now we're tootling off to bed - tomorrow is another day!

Click here to see photos of today's adventures.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Canada - Niagara Falls: Maid of the Mist and Oh Canada, Eh!

By the time Friday morning rolled around, we were all ready to get going and do something fun in Niagara Falls.  I spoke with the ladies in the campground office and they explained we should buy the Niagara Falls attractions package.  As it turns out, these packages are a good deal because they include discount passes to all the major attractions and also all-day bus passes for two days.

We also learned that parking around Niagara Falls is expensive. So we decided to park for free at the Floral Clock and ride the Niagara Parks Peoplemover bus back to the center of Niagara Falls. By that time we were all a little hungry and so we had an early lunch at Ruby Tuesday's before going on the Maid of the Mist.

And so it was with full bellies that we boarded the Maid of the Mist for that classic Niagara Falls experience. It was a lot of fun, and we definitely got an up-close sense of the power of the Falls standing on the deck of that boat!

The noise was tremendous - you couldn't shout about the roar - and there was no way to stay dry, even wearing those **pretty** blue raincoats.

We were able to get quite a few photos - click here to take a look.

I must say that the city of Niagara Falls is very pretty... the area is full of beautiful gardens, mature trees, generous sidewalks, clean bus stops, and attractive buildings. Of course the Falls themselves are the primary focal point, but the city of Niagara Falls has many other attractions and things to do and see. 

After our Maid of the Mist experience, we caught a bus back to the Floral Clock parking lot.  This Floral Clock is quite an interesting thing, and very pretty. According to the Niagara Parks web site, The planted face is maintained by Niagara Parks horticulture staff, while the mechanism is kept in working order by Ontario Hydro, the organization that originally built the clock. The intricate designs on the face of the timepiece are created with up to 16,000 carpet bedding plants. The floral design is changed twice each year - it features viola in the Spring and four cultivars of Alternanthera along with green and grey forms of Santolina Sage during the Summer and Fall.  Aside from the Floral Clock (as if that is not enough) visitors can also walk around and enjoy the pretty gardens that are landscaped around the grounds.

We headed back to the RV park to clean up and then go out again to the Oh Canada, Eh dinner show, which is now in its 17th season. This hugely popular show usually sells out and so we had purchased our tickets a few weeks ago.

Oh Canada, Eh is high-energy, tongue-in-cheek entertainment and it was a whole lot of fun!  The wait-staff are also the performers and so between taking care of customers' dining needs and jumping on stage to sing and dance, they definitely earn their keep. The woman who was our waitress turned out to be the lead female performer and she was great!  Here she is, giving Gary some "special" attention.  Click here to see some more photos.

And now we're going to get a good night's sleep, because we'll be heading back out in the morning to enjoy another day at Niagara Falls. We've planned a full day of sight-seeing, including going on the Journey Behind the Falls, Niagara's Fury, and the Whirlpool Aero Car.  Stay tuned!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Canada - Settling in at Niagara Falls

We left the Milton Heights Campground around mid-morning on Tuesday and made the short 65-mile drive to the Canadian town of Niagara Falls, where we met up with Lynda's parents, Chip and Carolyn, and our friends Judi and Gary Fleeman.

We got settled in at the Riverside Park Motel and  Campground without any trouble, and could tell right away that it would be a very pleasant place to say. This is a smallish campground set in a peaceful, rural-like area along the Niagara River.

Chip and Carolyn arrived an hour or so after we got to the campground, and the four of us had a late lunch/early dinner at Bettie's Restaurant. Afterward, we drove a little further into town and bought a few toiletries at a local IDA pharmacy.

Lynda and I thought it would be nice to make up a pot of spaghetti for everyone to enjoy when the Fleemans arrived on Thursday. So Lynda went with her parents on Wednesday to pick up the groceries while I stayed back to enjoy a little quiet time. As it turned out, they were actually gone quite a long time - they apparently ended up driving around the town of Niagara Falls to check things out and get their bearings. No one 'fessed up but I think they actually got lost... but it all worked out and they found their way back.

Lynda and I made the spaghetti sauce this morning and it was ready in plenty of time to serve a late lunch when Judi and Gary arrived. Later in the day, we went with the Fleemans to take our collection of dogs (their two and our two) for a long walk. After hanging out and catching up into the evening, the six of us will regroup tomorrow morning and start our sightseeing.

It seems I have been elected as activities director, and so I'm planning what we'll do over the next few days. There is a much to enjoy here in Niagara Falls and I think we're going to be busy - stay tuned!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Canada - Visiting Cousins in Ontario

We spent Saturday afternoon and evening with my Robinson cousins and it was great to see them!  Cousin Debbie, her husband Reg, and their daughter Brynn picked us up at the RV park and took us to Sandra and Eddie's house in Mississauga.

Ed Jr. and his wife Audrey and their two children Holden and Lilly were there, and Adam also stopped by; although he was only able to steal an hour or so from work, it was great to see him!  In fact, although I had fairly recently seen the others, I had not seen Adam or "little" Eddie in at least 25 years, which is way too long!  The only Robinson cousin that was missing from our gathering was Dan, who unfortunately had another commitment. Sandra served a tasty chicken cacciatore, followed up by a very decadent Tiramisu cake - yummy! Good friends, good food, good drinks = good times!

Back Row: Lynda, Debbie, Sandra, Eddie  Front Row: Consuelo, Brynn
Debbie and Reg also invited us over for dinner on Sunday. Sandra and Eddie took us over to the Ross' where we had Debbie's delicious made-from-scratch chicken curry.

After dinner, Debbie took us back to the RV park and we said goodbye. I hope its not too long before we see them again!

Today we've just been doing some chores (laundry) and catching up on email, etc. We will leave here tomorrow and make our way to the Canadian town of Niagara Falls, where we'll meet up with Lynda's parents and our friends Judi and Gary.

Stay tuned!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Michigan to Milton, Ontario Canada

We left Lakeport State Park this morning, stopping to stock up at groceries and adult beverages before entering Canada at the Port Huron/Sarnia border crossing.

This is the biggest border crossing facility we have experienced so far, with the most modest facility being the one at the Top of the World Highway, between Chicken Alaska and Dawson City, Yukon Territory. In any event, we got through without any trouble although we were not greeted very warmly by the Canadian customs officer... apparently they are not nearly as interested in seeing new faces in Sarnia as they are at the Top of the World Highway.


Our drive was uneventful and we enjoyed the attractive Ontario countryside as we made our way towards the Mississauga-Toronto area, where my cousins live. We are actually staying at the Milton Heights Campground, which is about 25 miles from Mississauga, because there are very few RV parks close to Mississauga. This is a very large RV park with a variety of sites that all seem to be at least good if not excellent. We have a very friendly next door neighbor, who is pulling a T@B camper similar to the one shown here, and also hauling a motorcycle in his truck bed. Anyway, we've been chatting with him about our Alaska trip, he's been there also, and just relaxing.

Tomorrow, my cousins will pick us up and off we'll go over to their house to catch up and spend some time together. Unfortunately, it's not looking like we'll be able to get together with the Mosbaughs... we haven't been able to get our schedules aligned. It's too bad, but sometimes things just don't work out as we would like.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Wisconsin to Michigan - False Starts and Lake Rocks

Well, when we got ready to leave the RV park in Lake Delton on Sunday we discovered the chassis battery was dead. The only thing we could think of that might have pulled it down is that the clock display had been on for a couple days. Surely that doesn't pull much juice?  Anyway, we had trouble with this once before, when we were on Vancouver Island, and so now we were really skittish as to whether we could rely on the battery.

One of our fellow campers tried to give us a jump-start but it was no-go so I called Triple A and they put me in touch with a roadside service company.  I spoke to their dispatcher and explained to her that the battery might be kaput and they should just go ahead and bring a replacement with them.  And so we now have a new chassis battery in the Trek.

By the time we got the battery replaced, it was well after check-out time and we decided to just stay one more night. Schedule-wise, it was really not a big deal because we were at a "meandering" stage of our trip... essentially just hanging out until our next major stop in Ontario, Canada.

And so it was Monday before we left the Country Roads RV Park in Lake Delton and began to make our way to Michigan.

We drove right through downtown Chicago, which actually wasn't too bad - it was Labor Day weekend and so even though it was Monday, the traffic in the city was light. However, the traffic in the suburbs going into and then out of Chicago was very heavy, and so it took us quite some time to get through the greater Chicago area.

We stopped for the night around 7 PM at a Wal-Mart in La Porte, Indiana.  This is a very attractive area - it seemed quiet and quaint, despite being so close to the craziness of Chicago, which is the third largest city in the USA.

After our overnight stop in La Porte, we resumed our journey eastward and rolled into Lakeport State Park Campground Tuesday afternoon. Check-in was a breeze, and the young man working the registration desk dropped the $6 daily use fee when we told him we did not plan on leaving the campground during our stay.

This is a nice campground with large sites and oak trees everywhere for shade  The only hook-up is power, and so we've been using the campground showers and we'll use the dump station on our way out when we leave tomorrow.

The only criticism I have of this place is that there are no garbage cans in the campground, just trashcans in the bathrooms. The host told us this is because people were stealing the garbage cans. Hey, how about a 500-lb dumpster? ... it would be tough to steal that! So campers either hoard their garbage and trash, which is not good, put it in the bathroom (not good either), or drive/walk about a mile to the dumpsters at the entrance. We only made that walk once, but we don't produce much waste anyway. We'll drop off some more trash tomorrow, as we leave the campground.

Lakeport State Campground in situated on Lake Huron and so we decided to learn more about this Great Lake. Here are some interesting factoids: Lake Huron is the second largest of the Great Lakes, with a surface area of 23,010 square mile which makes it the third largest fresh water lake in the world.  The lake holds 850 cubic miles of water and has 3,827 miles of shoreline. Lake Huron's average depth is 195 feet, with a maximum depth of 750 feet. At it's extremities, Lake Huron is 206 mi long and 183 mile wide

Lynda and I walked on the beach along Lake Huron, which is very long and quite wide and a great place to hang out.  I really enjoyed looking at the lake rocks washed up on the beach... they are all different colors and very polished by the water and sand.

Lynda was the first to notice that the squirrels running around the campground are black, unlike the Eastern Gray squirrels we're used to seeing. The dogs also found these little guys pretty interesting.

After a relaxing little sojourn here at Lakeport, we'll be leaving tomorrow for Ontario, Canada where we're getting together with cousins from my Mother's side of the family. I'm also trying to coordinate a visit with some old family friends (the Mosbaughs) I haven't seen in 30+ years... hopefully it will all work out.

Click here for some photos of Lakeport State Park campground.  And stay tuned for more adventures!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Wisconsin - Visiting Family and Making New Friends

Today was so much fun!  Cousin Bill and his wife Ruth picked us up from the RV park and off we went to (cousin) Pete and Debbie's  house, where the family was gathering.  I met Bill many years ago in Florida, at a memorial service for our great Aunt and Uncle, but I had not yet met his wife or any of his siblings.  I have no idea why this is... I guess we're all so busy living our lives and time just passes by.

When we arrived at (cousin) Pete and Debbie's house, Aunt Thurston was already there along with (cousin) Mark and his wife Barb - they had driven down from the La Crescent area. The group was rounded out with Debbie's mother and brother, and Barb's son Morgan and a friend of his. 

We had such a great time, getting to know each other a bit and enjoying some good food. We talked about shared family and compared notes on what we know about our relatives - it was interesting and fun. It was also very nice to see Aunt Thurston again; she is a very accomplished and interesting person and I enjoy her company a great deal. We do a pretty good job staying in touch but had not actually seen each other in about 17 years, since my sister's wedding. 

Back Row L-R: Barb, Debbie, Mark, Morgan Front Row L-R Bill, Ruth, Consuelo, Aunt Thurston, Pete
After the gathering wound down, Bill and Ruth dropped us back at the RV park and now we're just catching up on email and a few chores.

Click here for some more photos from our afternoon.

We will leave here tomorrow to make our way to Lakeport State Park in Michigan, which is just north of Port Huron. Stay tuned!

Friday, September 3, 2010

South Dakota to Lake Delton, Wisconsin

After a fun-filled week in the Rapid City area, we dropped-off the rental car at the airport and began our 330-mile drive along Interstate 90 to Lake Vermillion State Recreation Area, which is just a few miles west of Sioux Falls. We spent four nights there before continuing on toward Wisconsin.

Although it had been windy almost the entire time we were in the Rapid City area, it never occurred to us that driving across the South Dakota prairie would be so harrowing!!  That wind made our previous experiences in New Mexico and Nevada seem tame. I slowed down to around 45 MPH but it was still really bad. In fact, suction from the wind was tugging on the awning, despite it being properly stowed and "locked" in place. I happened to glance at the side mirror and saw the awning pulling away from the Trek.  Not good.  I pulled over onto the shoulder of the Interstate and double-checked the awning.  It seemed to be fine and so off we went once more. And again, I could see the awning in the side mirror, pulling away from the Trek.  And so I got off at the next exit and followed signs to a local motel, intending to use the parking lot to regroup.

When I found the little motel, it was obviously no longer in business although it seemed like someone was living there. Next door was an abandoned gas station and convenience store, with a single vehicle wash bay in which a shady-looking cowboy was spraying his pickup truck. There was nothing or anyone else around. Great. So I asked Lynda to stay in the Trek with the door locked, and to keep and eye on the truck guy. I got out and emptied one of the basement compartments so I could get the ladder out. Then I armed myself with a roll of duct tape and a handful of plastic electrical tie-wraps.  By the time I was done, that awning wasn't going anywhere!  

And so we continued on to Lake Vermilion without any further drama, although I still had to go slowly so the psychotic wind did not blow us off the road.

We stopped at a Wal-Mart and stocked up on groceries and adult beverages, and then went on to Lake Vermilion.  The young lady who registered us was extremely nice and helpful and we were soon settled into our campsite, a stone's throw from the lake. This is a lovely well-maintained campground with spacious graveled sites and Blue spruce trees all around.  There are only power hook-ups at this campground but it did not matter because we had plenty of fresh water on board and we used the campground's showers.  And so we settled in, content that we would be spending  several days doing a whole lot of nothing. Oh, and we decided to leave the awning in it's trussed-up state until we got out of the prairies and into Wisconsin.

The day after our arrival, I happened to check the weather while I was online only to discover that our area was under a severe thunderstorm warning with high winds, 1 1/2" hail, and a tornado watch. They were predicting the storm to peak at around 1 AM.  Yikes... if that size hail hit us, no telling what damage it would do! Well, we decided to sleep in our clothes with shoes nearby and run like hell to the Restroom/Shower building if things got really bad.  Long story short, we got through the night unscathed. Although there was lots of thunder and lightening, and it rained several inches, and the wind blew like a gale (which made the Trek bounce and creak), the hail never happened and neither did the tornado - thank god!  It was pretty creepy laying in that big metal box while it stormed so hard outside; I cannot say I liked it very much.

The next day, Lynda got into a conversation with a woman camping a few spots from us.  She said storms like that blow in all the time in the summer months. She laughed about our experience with the awning on the Interstate, and told Lynda that folks from South Dakota know to lash down their awnings with extra tape. She also said that a few RVs are blown off the road every summer - its like a rite of passage.  Good gravy, those South Dakotans are a tough bunch!

By the time we left Lake Vermilion on Thursday, we were well-rested and ready to hit the road again.  We swung by the dump station (a finer aspect of RVing) and then off we went again, heading east on Interstate 90 to Albert Lea. Now the only reason to go Albert Lea was that it's on the way to Lake Delton, Wisconsin which was our next "real" destination.  I'm pleased to say the drive was uneventful. We actually got to Albert Lea earlier than planned and so we ate a late lunch/early dinner at the Wok 'n Roll buffet and then spent a quiet night at the nearby Wal-Mart.

We departed Albert Lea this morning and enjoyed an uneventful drive to Lake Delton, Wisconcin.  The countryside we drove through was pretty, particularly the area around La Crosse and La Crescent.  And now we are all settled in at the Country Roads RV Park here in Lake Delton, close to the popular Wisconsin Dells area. This campground is large but seems well tended and very pleasant.

We will be getting together tomorrow with my Aunt Thurston and three of her sons and their spouses. Who knows why, but I've only ever met one of my cousins on this side of the family and so I'm really looking forward to this gathering!

Stay tuned!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

South Dakota - The Mammoth Site

After a wonderful visit to the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, we drove into Hot Springs and had lunch at a restaurant called Woolly's Mammoth Family Fun. Lynda had a bison-burger that she said was very good and much better than one she tried in Canada. If the name of this restaurant seems odd, consider that Hot Springs is home to the Mammoth Site and there are many businesses in town that capitalize on this attraction.

The Mammoth Site is the world's largest Columbian mammoth exhibit, and a world-renown research center for Pleistocene studies - visiting scientists have come from Mexico, Italy, Netherlands, Great Britain, Russia, and Germany.

In 1974, the area now known as the Mammoth Site was a soon-to-be housing development. During the early stages of preparing the land for construction, several artifacts were exposed. Fortunately for the world, the developer, Phil Anderson, stopped operations so the items could be examined. The artifacts turned out to be mammoth teeth, and then additional investigation led to the discovery of a complete skull and tusk. Donations, some made by local citizens, along with work performed by amateur and professional excavators, led to the site's status as a museum, and it was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1980.

Escavation and research has determined that a sinkhole formed 26,000 years ago which was then filled by a warm artesian spring. Numerous animals, including Columbia and Woolly mammoths, were attracted into the sinkhole by the warm water and pond vegetation, and then could not get out because of the steep sides and loose shale. Over the next 400-700 years, the sinkhole slowly filled with layers of dead animals, and drying silt and sediments; the mud which had aided in trapping the animals entombed and preserved their remains.

Eventually the sinkhole became completely filled. And then over thousands of years the hardened mud inside the sinkhole remained stable while the surrounding dirt and shale eroded, exposing the sinkhole as a hill. And it was upon this hill that excavation for a housing development was taking place in 1974.

The Mammoth Site is now fully enclosed in a climate controlled building, and the museum and dig site attracts visitors year round. The bones are displayed "in-situ" (as they were discovered)  in the now dry pond sediments. So far, 55 mammoths have been identified, along with the remains of a giant short-faced bear, camel, llama, prairie dog, wolf, fish, and numerous invertebrates. Fossils of several varieties of plant life have also been found.

We both enjoyed the Mammoth Site, although I found the young (9-11th grade) guides to be somewhat monotoned in their presentation. Nonetheless, it is definitely an interesting place to visit and you could spend several hours there, depending on your level of interest in such things.  We managed to get some pretty good photos...

And so we left Hot Springs and returned "home" to the TeePee Campground & RV Park. After being in Rapid City for a week, we're getting ready to leave tomorrow to continue our travels eastward. Lynda took care of some laundry while I cleaned the car to get rid of Badlands dust, lots of dog hair, and yucky nose smears on the windows!  We  put 900 miles on that rental car this week - it served us well.

Stay tuned!

South Dakota - Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary

Our original plan was to turn in the rental car yesterday and then drive the Trek to the Wild Horse Sanctuary and stay on one of their RV pads for a couple nights. Anyway, we had to ditch this because of the delay in getting the Trek repaired. So we extended the car rental and paid for a couple additional nights at TeePee Campground & RV Park.  If nothing else, we've learned to be flexible!

We left the dogs in the Trek this morning and made our way to the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary, which is about a 70-mile drive south of Rapid City.

The Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary is actually part of the Institute of Range and American Mustang (IRAM), a non-profit corporation founded by Dayton Hyde in 1988. IRAM owns and manages 11,000 acres of private land dedicated to range preservation and a balanced ecosystem.

The specific purpose of the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary is to provide life and freedom to unadoptable and unwanted wild horses, and to contribute herd management research for the well-being of wild horses everywhere. The sanctuary is home to more than 600 wild Mustangs, and also a mixed herd of wild American Spanish and Sulphur Mustangs. Here's a brief lesson about wild horses in America: 

Mustangs are American wild horses that are indirect descendants of Spanish horses brought to Central and North America in the 1700s. Apaches captured highly bred and well-trained Spanish horses from Mexican villages and breeding farms, and traded them northward with other tribes. Some of these Spanish horses then became lost or escaped, and many survived to roam freely across the open plains. In those early days, a feral Spanish-blooded horse was called a mesteño, meaning "stray" or "wild," and this became the root of the word Mustang.

As colonization of the Americas expanded, the English, French and Dutch also imported horses such as Morgans, Percherons, Belgians, and Clydesdales. Like the Spanish horses, some of these horses also escaped or became lost, and then they bred with the wild herds of Spanish horses. By the 1800's, the Mustang had evolved into a different animal than a pure Spanish wild horse, except for one important characteristic: hardiness. Other attributes of Mustangs are high endurance, extremely strong herding instinct, very hard hoofs, and superior agility. Herds have adapted to the conditions of their locations and so Mustangs that live in cold climates are shaggy and small, and desert Mustangs can survive on remarkably small amounts of food and water.

Over time, these wild horses multiplied until thousands, perhaps millions, roamed the American plains. The US Calvary captured Mustangs from these herds and put them into service, and so did ranchers and farmers. But the wild herds were competing with settlers for land and grass and, by the mid 1800s, Mustangs were being shot on sight and rounded up by the thousands to be slaughtered for food and other products. In 1971, Congress passed the Wild and Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act which made the controlling and harvesting of Mustangs illegal. But then the Mustang population grew so quickly that control and management of the herds became a major concern. In response to this, the Bureau of Land Management began an adoption program that continues today.  However, not all Mustangs are good candidates for adoption and this is where the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary comes into the picture.

We arrived in plenty of time to explore the little gift shop and read a copy of the latest newsletter that was laying around. A family of four arrived and then our guide pulled up in a van to take the six of us on what turned out to be a very interesting tour of the sanctuary.  As he drove us around, our guide told us the history of the American Mustang and how carefully the sanctuary is run in order to have the least impact on the natural state of the horses.  For example, they don't have round-ups and they let nature take its course rather than treating sick horses. In times of drought, however, they do put containers out with water so the horses can drink. We were very fortunate to see a lot of horses, although we drove around for a while before we found the herd.  We made several stops and were able to get out of the van for a closer look and photo-taking. 

Shortly before returning to the visitor center, our guide took us to see the mixed herd of Spanish and Sulphur Mustangs, which occupies a bounded area separated from the regular Mustangs.

American Spanish and Sulphur Mustangs are direct descendants of wild Spanish horses and have little, if any, DNA from other horse breeds. They are highly intelligent with an innate sense of self-preservation and legendary endurance. The American Spanish Mustang comes in a full range of solid colors including black, bay, brown, chestnut, sorrel, grullo, zebra and red dun, buckskin, palomino, and cremello. Sulphur Mustangs are usually line-backed duns and grullos, but can have the color variations found in Spanish Mustang. 

In addition to seeing the horses, we also visited a petroglyph site, saw the Crazy Horse movie set (from a distance), learned more about Native American history, and saw the Sundance ceremony site that the Lakota use every summer.  Our 2-hour tour actually lasted almost 3 hours, and we really appreciated the extra time and effort our guide put in to make the experience so enjoyable.  By the time we left, we certainly knew a lot more about American wild horses than when we arrived! Click here for photos...

In today's fast-paced, money-focused way of life, I find it comforting to know there are people such as Dayton Hyde who put nature and conservation ahead of personal gain, and help keep our world in balance.

We left the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary and drove to Hot Springs for some lunch and to visit the Mammoth Site. But that's another story... stay tuned!

Friday, August 27, 2010

South Dakota - Locks, Memorials, Presidents, and a Fixed AutoPark Brake!

Well, it's been quite a day and it all started when I woke up and went to take the dogs out... and the door would not open.  That's right, the deadbolt was stuck in the locked position!  I fiddled around with it for several minutes while the dogs jumped up and down, barking incessantly to go out.  What a nice and peaceful start to a new day!

I ended up going out the window above the couch.  It was little embarrassing but we couldn't just sit inside and wait for a miracle.  I was finally able to open the door from the outside using the key. I took the deadbolt apart but couldn't find anything obviously wrong, except the damn thing kept sticking. We needed to get the Trek back over to the Chevrolet Truck Service Center by 10:30 AM and the clock was ticking on getting this lock issue fixed. So I drove over to a nearby Ace Hardware store and bought a new deadbolt.  I had to modify it a bit so it would fit but we got the Trek dropped off in time.

Then the four of us, dogs included, headed south to visit Mount Rushmore. We were both somewhat indifferent about visiting this Memorial; I'm not sure why but it did not inspire much excitement in either of us. Anyway, we agreed it would be foolish to be so close and yet not visit Mount Rushmore and so off we went. We knew we would not be able to walk around with the dogs, but had to take them anyway because the Trek was in the shop. And so we decided to do what we had done the day before at the Crazy Horse Memorial: take turns staying with Sydney and Barley in the parking lot while the other person visited the Memorial. This worked out well and we each spent about 45 minutes at the Memorial which, in the case of Mount Rushmore, was a fairly decent amount of time.

What is interesting is that by the time each of us visited the Memorial, we both decided that Mount Rushmore is interesting and was well worth the visit! Click here to see some photos...

It was still pretty early when we left Mount Rushmore. I called the Chevy place and the service manager told me they had installed the part and the AutoPark brake was working, but they were having trouble with the brake light on the dashboard - it was staying on. I told him this had not been an issue before I took the Trek in to them and he agreed they needed to fix it.

So we had some time to kill before the Trek would be ready. We drove back into Rapid City, bought some Mexican fast food, and went to a nearby park to eat and then walk the dogs. I called the Chevy place again and they still had not fixed the dashboard light issue; the service manager sounded frustrated (welcome to my world, I thought).  By now it was 3 PM and I was starting to worry they would run out of time.

Anyway, we decided to go to the historic downtown area of Rapid City and take a closer look at the City of Presidents, which is a series of life-size bronze statues of past presidents placed at city street intersections. These statues are really well done, and we had fun walking along the downtown streets; the dogs seemed to enjoy it also.  Click here to see some photos.

We managed to look at about half the statues when the Chevy Truck service manager called to say they had fixed the problem!  Yay!

So we went to pick up the Trek and, after talking with the service manager, I realized they had fixed the dashboard light problem by replacing a switch for which I had a brand-new spare on board.  They were charging me $75 for the same switch I had purchased for $34.  After some discussion, the Parts Dept manager agreed to take my brand new switch to restock his parts bin and drop the part charge off the bill. 

So after 2 1/2  months and over 9,000 miles, the AutoPark brake is finally fixed! Sad to say, the brake problem that started back in early June at Yosemite National Park cost me $2,030 and four visits to various shops to get completely fixed.  Well, that's just the way things go sometimes and there's no point dwelling on it.  I'm just darn happy the ordeal is finally over!

More adventure to follow - stay tuned!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

South Dakota - Crazy Horse Memorial and Unending AutoPark Brake Issue

Well today has been a mixed bag: we went to see the Crazy Horse Memorial, which is good, but the Trek is still not fixed, which is bad.  Let me explain...

We got up early this morning and got ready for the day - we unhooked the Trek, battened down the hatches, and went by the dump station to empty the tanks.  Then I drove the Trek to the Chevrolet Truck Service Center in Rapid City with Lynda following in the rental car.  I spoke with the service manager, who was concerned that the part they ordered was (a) the right part, and (b) the only part they would need to fix the issue.  I told him that the service manager in Grand Rapids had assured me this is exactly what needed to be done and so we should be fine.

Then off we went, including the dogs, in the rental car to visit the Crazy Horse Memorial.  I had done some research online that indicated the Crazy Horse Memorial was pet-friendly. Unfortunately, it wasn't as pet friendly as I had thought or hoped and it was too hot to leave the dogs in the car. Nor could we take them inside the Welcome Center or the Museum. So Lynda and I took turns staying with Sydney and Barley under a shade tree in the parking lot while the other person went inside for about 45 minutes. It was the best we could do under the circumstances, but I wish we could have toured the place together and taken a great deal more time to look at the exhibits.

Despite those obstacles, I loved being there! The Crazy Horse Memorial is an absolute must see, and the Indian Museum is probably the best of its kind in the US, perhaps even North America.

The Memorial itself is amazing, even in its unfinished state. And the sculptor behind the Memorial was a remarkable person. 

When Korczak Ziolkowski and Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear officially started Crazy Horse Memorial in 1948 they had hardly anything in the way of money or even projected funding. Since then, for the past 60 years, Ziolkowski  and others banded together and would not give up - they simply made it happen. In a lot of ways, I think the Crazy Horse Memorial has allowed people to be at their best, which is certainly a welcomed contrast to darker days of mistreatment and duplicity.

Although he passed away in 1982, Ziolkowski's family continues to play a major role in the sculpting and oversight of the Crazy Horse Memorial.

The Memorial is a private, non-profit undertaking financed by admission fees and contributions, and does not accept any government funding. Based on what I've read, it seems that because of excellent management and the generous contributions of thousands of donars at all levels, the Memorial is in pretty good fiscal shape, although this is apparently never taken for granted and fund-raising is ongoing.

While we were still visiting the Crazy Horse Memorial, I got a phone call from the Chevrolet Truck service manager.  Although the part I had them install was needed to repair the Trek, a second part was also needed and it would have to be ordered. The only way to get it in time to finish the work the next day, Friday, was to have it shipped over night. I have to say I was pretty aggravated... not at the hapless guy on the phone but at the sorry SOB in Grand Rapids who gave me incomplete information.

So what choice did I have?  I asked the service manager to go ahead and have the part expedited, and to ask his mechanic put the Trek back together because we had to come get it for the evening.

And so we drove back into Rapid City, picked up the Trek, and returned to the campground. We are relaxing tonight and tomorrow, once again, we'll pack up the Trek and take it to the service center. I just hope that the part comes in as ordered and they get the job finished!

We'll see.