Thursday, June 28, 2012

Craters of the Moon

Another drive-by National Park.  I guess if I was on my own, I would stop at all of these places, but then I'd get in later at night (or maybe just have to get started before 10:30 in the morning).  We drove the loop, but I stopped only long enough to wander through a few exhibits and to take a few pictures.  Admittedly, I think we'd crossed that divide where getting home just seemed like the highest priority and we still had a long ways to go.

Rendezvous Mountain

The map of this trip is two zig-zag lines that occasionally come together briefly - in Northfield, in Gillette, in Yakima, in Seattle, and in Jackson, Wyoming - but never completely cross.  That means this time I already knew where to find the coffee shop in Jackson while D slept in.  It was another beautiful day.

Our first stop was Teton Village, where we rode the remodeled tram up to the top of Rendezvous Mountain.  Jackson Hole was probably the ski area I most dreamed of visiting (or working at?) back in the days when such things were still in the realm of possibility.  But I'd never been to the mountain - summer or winter - until this trip.

Yellowstone Lake

I'd dreamed for months of a chance to finally explore the beautiful spits on the lake (Gravel Beach 2007) - I had even thought about bringing my kayak or renting a boat.

The reality was that we came through Cody pretty late in the afternoon and there were few options for staying in the park.  So we drove right on through, while I stewed about the beautiful weather, the lack of crowds, and those elegant gravel barrier beaches.  I did get one spit stop right along the road.  D stayed in the car, but I spent 20 minutes with my camera and an empty beach.  I even skipped stones.

We had a nice, but very slow and very expensive dinner in Grant Village, and then drove past the Tetons silhouetted against a late evening sky.  Some day I'll come back and walk more of the beaches.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Devil's Tower

We turned left off of I-94 as soon as we hit Montana and drove south through Baker.  I figured out where I rolled my S-10 in that freezing rain in December 1982.  But this time I got to finish that trip - in much better conditions.  We clipped the bottom right corner of Montana and headed into Wyoming, where we had a late lunch at Devil's Tower.  I wandered through the visitor's center and thought about walking around the base, but decided not to push my luck with D's patience.  We were back in the Fairfield Inn in Gillette that night, six days after I had stayed there going the other way.


D wrapped up his final and his computer project, I got back from Red Wing, we had lunch together, and then we spent a frenzied afternoon cleaning up the year's debris from the floor of his half of the dorm room.  I learned where the laundromat in Northfield was and commuted back and forth before stuffing bedding into card board boxes for the summer.  He returned his key and got checked out.  We hit the road and made it to Fargo by late evening.

Our trip back from Minnesota wasn't exactly direct, but it was definitely faster than my solo eastward journey.  Straight across I-94 in North Dakota, past the giant bison, past the giant heifer, and past the giant Geese in Flight on the Enchanted Highway.  Then I gave D a tour of Dickinson - the Queen City Motel, where I lived with the doodlebugging crew for three weeks in 1980.  Past the apartment where I spent much of 1982.  Past Dickinson State where I took my GREs.

We ended up camping along the Little Missouri north of Medora in Theodore Roosevelt NP.  Turns out this campground was underwater a year ago this time. We had breakfast the next morning at the Roughrider Hotel in town.

Red Wing

Having driven all the way to Northfield, I felt compelled to at least get as far as the Mississippi River.  So while D finished up his finals Monday morning, I drive the last 30 miles or so to Red Wing.  I crossed the river, got out of the car briefly, turned around, and began the long drive back.  I liked J's analogy - when you swim across the pool, you really need to push off the other side in order to come back. You don't just stop 5' away, tread water, and turn around.

The Mississippi was running a little high, though not seriously so.  It is an impressively large river, even this far upstream.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Hawkeye Point

Hawkeye Point, the highest point in the state of Iowa (1670'), is a spectacular summit just south of the Minnesota border.  It's surrounded my corn fields and is marked by flags, a monument, and the grain silo of the Sterler Farm (the Sterlers allowed access previously, but with their passing, the site is now publicly-owned).

I've been gradually building my high point collection.  Some like Denali (AK), I'll never climb, but at least I've seen from from close up.  Similarly with Mount Rainier and Mount Hood.  Mt Whitney (CA) and Mt. Elbert (CO) I climbed the summer after high school.  Mt Katahdin (ME) and Mount Washington (NH) I climbed earlier, although the latter I've come back to many times, including by car.  Devon and I reached Brasstown Bald (GA), Mount Mitchell (NC), and Black Mountain (KY) on a road trip a few years ago.  We all drove up to Mount Greylock (MA) two years ago.

Hawkeye Point was an easy climb - but far less crowded than some of the others.

Niobrara River

The Niobrara flows eastward across northern Nebraska, snaking its way through the Sandhills in a steep-sided valley with forested sides and bottom.  It's not out of place in Nebraska, just very different than what someone who had only seen I-80 might expect.  The Wild and Scenic stretch below Valentine gets plenty of rafts, canoes, and kayaks -- although my timing precluded me from spending the day doing the latter.  Maybe next time.

The river is crossed by many bridges - from the long railroad trestle outside of Valentine to a series of small one-lane bridges downstream.

Smith Falls pours out of the aquifer on the south side of the valley, falling 60' feet to make Nebraska's highest waterfall.  The main river tumbles over a few minor rapids in this stretch, but only a couple that require portaging.  Downstream it widens and probably gets tough to navigate through all the sandbars.


My circuitous route into the Sandhills left me with few choices for the night and I wound up at a ridiculously over-priced Holiday Inn Express in Alliance.  Alliance has become a major transportation hub, what with all those coal trains getting re-shuffled, re-crewed, and re-dispatched.

But the real transportation hub in Alliance is a few miles north and best seen as the June sun is rising in the eastern sky.  Carhenge is a testament to the american worship of cars and of idiosyncratic roadside attractions (Cadillac Ranch, in Texas, is another fine example).  It's also for sale, so if you want to mow the grass around the sculptures and restore the souvenir shop at America's Second Wackiest Attraction (TripAdvisor), this your chance.

Monday, June 25, 2012


I've been across western Nebraska by various routes over the decades, but I still have powerful memories of a north-south drive through the Sandhills sometime late in college (which was in New Hampshire, so how I wound up driving N-S in Nebraska says something of how I spent my time off).  This trip I drove a large rectangular loop - in both the evening and the early morning - when the light was low and perfect.

The Sandhills are a very large stabilized (for now) dune field that sits shallowly on the Ogallala Aquifer, which occasionally peaks through to form lakes and extensive wetlands.  It's mainly grassland - grazed, but only locally plowed or irrigated.  It may actually look something like it did 200 years ago - something one can't say for a vast majority of the Great Plains.

Toadstool Park

Toadstool Geologic Park is not exactly on the way to and from anywhere, unless you're a coal train headed from Gillette to Atlanta.  It's about as far to the top left as you can go in Nebraska without being in either South Dakota or Wyoming.  I didn't spend much time there, and didn't seek out fossils or Eocene footprints (of which there are supposed to be many), but I did wander the short loop that wanders through the bizarre eroded formations and badlands that define this long topographic break across the high plains.

Black Thunder Mine

Long before the issue of coal exports raised its head in Washington this past year, I had wanted to spend some time around Gillette checking out the mines and the trains.  Reading John McPhee's account of a coal train in Uncommon Carriers was one impulse, but there were others.  Including my long-time fascination with energy, geology, and railroads.

My first introduction to the Black Thunder Mine was in 1981.  I had been offered a job with Schlumberger and the first thing they did was to fly me up from Denver to Gillette to go out on a logging job - probably the idea was to either whet the appetite of new engineers or to convince them to find another line of work.  I was checked in at the Holidome? and late that night my host engineer called to say a job was ready south of town.  I remember being amazed as we drove past the lights and equipment of Black Thunder sometime after midnight, on our way out to the rig site (which was somewhere farther east).  Something about the dragline at night looked like a scene out of science fiction.  The oil rigs turned out to be pretty cool at night, too.

I suppose a large fraction of the electricity generated in the U.S. is "mined" within a few tens of miles of Gillette.  And then shipped all over the country in conveyor belts that look a lot like long railroad trains with a big loop of track at each end - one at the mine, one at the power plant.  The rail system developed to service the mines in the swath that extends south from Gillette is pretty impressive.

The mines are a very real presence in this area, as are the oil pumps and rigs, the rail yards, and miles of industrial service and supply warehouses.  Personally, I have far more trouble with the commercial strips and the boom-bust character of the towns and the social problems that go with the young, transient population than I do with the coal mines and the oil wells themselves!  Maybe it's what I took away from several years in places like Williston, Dickinson, and Fort Morgan.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Thunder Basin

The Powder River Basin lies between the Black Hills and the Big Horn Mountains.  Some of it lies within the Thunder Basin Grassland, although I'm not sure what that management designation does or does not represent.  There are cattle and bison, prong horn and sage brush, crude oil and bituminous coal.

The sky is huge, the floor is olive gray, and the horizon is a continuous circle.  Mesas and buttes and rolling prairie and occasional sandy river bottoms compete for space.  I zigzagged my way from Casper north and east to Gillette and then southeast to Newcastle - I think I was trying to get a better sense of the wide-open multi-use landscape.  And just lots of chances to observe antelope, drag lines, oil rigs, and trains, along with lots and lots of sage brush and short-grass prairie and the American Steppe.