Although home is Maryland, Wisconsin was our start point for a quick trip to Yellowstone. We were in Wisconsin to settle some family business, and had several days of “wait time” to conclude the dealings. Reather than waste the miles already invested, dear wife and I decided to make the trip she’d been wanting – a visit to Yellowstone National Park.
I had been there as a kid as the family made its way to Seattle for the 1962 World’s Fair. It was a two-week journey that rivaled “Vacation” in its continuous hilarity that is part of family lore these years later. DW had never been there before – so it was a trip both nostalgic and new.
Ordinarily I would have been in Milwaukee for the Harley-Davidson 115th anniversary, but there was little that attracted me this year. Elton John wasn’t appearing. And I had the Jucy, our campervan, as my ride, not my bike. Appearances at biker events may have been awkward. The fun part was meeting so many of the riders headed to Milwaukee. One came all the way from Alaska.
We left on a Sunday night and made it to Myer Big Lake State Park near Albert Lea, Minnesota. It was a bit of a jaunt off the I-state, and worth the detour. When we arrived the gate office was closed, so we had to deal with the state’s reservation system by phone. The direct-dial telephone was bolted to the wall about four feet off the ground, with a metal-shielded handset cord about 12 inches long. It was not the most comfortable position in which to talk to the reservation specialist. It took time to establish an obligatory account and arrange the night’s stay with a credit card, many questions and answers needed. One question was which site we preferred…How should I know? I finally asked the young lady to pick one near a shower/toilet and in sight of the lake. After all this, we discovered were were nearly the campground’s only patrons that Sunday night. The grounds themselves were naturally quiet. It was a pleasant night.
Along the way we stopped at the Mitchell (SD) Corn Palace, the last of the “palaces” that displayed agricultural produce throughout the Midwest in the early 20th Century. The murals made of corn, grain straws and other materials were still cool to behold. They’re changed every other year. The Corn Palace is best known as the professional birthplace of Lawrence Welk and Myron Floren. (I know most of you know who these two are – otherwise, Google it!)
The destination Monday was the Badlands. As a child I found them B-O-R-I-N-G! Seems we drove forever looking at these giant globs of mud. We pulled in about 4 PM in a howling 40-50 mph wind with threatening skies. The campground was nearly full of mostly transients. Once again, our pass got us a nice discount. We drove around a bit to see the beautiful sunset over the hills and through the clouds. When we returned the winds made it impossible to make dinner, so we went around the corner to the lodge. The food was good, the prices fair, and the service enthusiastic and friendly. I had a tasty bison burger, and Janet an “Indian taco”, which she enjoyed.
We did the loop of the Badlands, stopping to take a few short hikes and came out at I-90, near the Minuteman Missile National Monument, which included a decomissioned nuke missile silo such as dotted the plains during the Cold War (and still today). The visitors center was interesting, although I’m not in total agreement with the history as presented. Still, it was well worth the visit.
We also visited the Ranch Store, where we had the chance to visit the expansive prairie dog town and the “Six-Ton Prairie Dog”. Missing was the cages of rattlers I recall from my youth. Then it was off to Wall Drug for a glass of ice water and lunch – the famous roast beef and gravy sandwich. It was actually a fun diversion.
Our overnight destination was Mt. Rushmore and the Black Hills. Stayed at Kemp’s Campground outside Keystone, very convenient to Mt. Rushmore. Cost $28 for a tent site and no site amenities beyond a picnic table. WiFi was variable, mostly none in the tenting area.
We took in the night illumination program at the monument – highly recommended. We also met a bunch of Indonesian police officers and an Egyptian rider on their way to Milwaukee. Nice guys all.
The next day we drove through the Black Hills and Custer State Park. Beautiful, slow going. I have driven the Dragon’s Tail in NC and Australia’s Great Ocean Drive…this ranks with them in both beauty and the need for full-attention driving. Along the way we drove through Deadwood and Lead without stopping. Both had become unabashed tourist traps, featuring casinos and “watering holes.” As a boy we passed through during some heavy rain storms that undercut many of the roads, requiring the state to put out stakes to prevent driving over little-supported asphalt overhangs. I’d seen Wild Bill’s and Clamity Jane’s graves. DW wasn’t particularly interested. As a Harley guy, I had to check out Sturgis, legendary home of one of the three largest national biker rallies. Okay…we were soon back on I-90 without a stop.
We struck out for Devil’s Tower National Park, Wyoming, arriving in late afternoon. We got a campsite that had an obstructed-by-trees view of the Tower, again costing just $10, and drove over to the visitor’s center. There are two trails from there around the Tower. We chose the shorter 1.6 mile route that essentially hugged the base. The views were worth the walk around the moderate path. It was interesting to watch the numerous climbers descending as the sun dipped lower.
Our next stop is a place I’d wanted to visit since boyhood – Little Big Horn Battlefield N.P. in Montana. Between the movies and the heroic story of Custer and his command, it grabbed my interest. Besides, I graduated from Custer High School and later found my great-grandfather rode with Custer in the Shenandoah during the Civil War. Anyways, here we were. The Park Service does a good job explaining the battle from a carefully “neutral” standpoint, not to offend either side. The essential truth is that the Sioux Wars were between two nations, one far advanced technologically and expanding, the other far better equipped tactically for plains warfare and ultimately doomed.
The battle’s official story explains away how a large contingent of U.S. Cavalry could be wiped out by an overwhelming force of aborigines. Thing is, much of the story does not necessarily square with eyewitness accounts and modern archaeological finds. (Sounds like modern day accounts of any disaster with potential political consequences.) One interesting theory is that Custer was mortally wounded at the very outset of the fight, leading an attempt to cross a river ford guarded by indians to make his attack on the village, about which he had questionable intelligence. Custer always fought from the front – check his Civil War record. There is indian testimony supporting this theory. His incapacitation would help explain the force’s disjointed retreat up to “Last Stand Hill”. It is rumored that his brother Tom ensured he was not taken captive. On the other hand, the official story is pretty much the Errol Flynn version, with Custer among the last to go down, firing to the end at the thousands of warriors overrunning his high ground position and its 42 defenders. Whatever you think, walking and driving the grounds is incredibly interesting and, for me, a personal key to better understanding a piece of American history.
We arrived at Yellowstone National Park, our goal Thursday as the Labor Day weekend approached. Thinking was that if we arrived early we might score a site through the weekend. (Our fallback was grabbing a Forest Service site outside the park.) We arrived as dusk was descending. The West Gate entry, apparently open 24 hours, was unoccupied, with a note to pay fees on the way out. We hardly drove a mile inside before our way was blocked by a porcupine. I expected to see much wildlife, and there was the first. My dear wife noted she wanted to see buffalo.
We continued down the road and the darkness was soon upon us. I was going downhill towards a lake and saw two sets of headlights stopped down below – I may have been going about 35 mph. As we approached one of the vehicles slowly flashed its headlights twice – I dimmed my high beams. At the bottom of the hill was a right-hand turn…where is suddenly saw a life-sized buffalo head in my windshield! It was like something out of a holographic Disney ride. My wife was heading for the basement as I swerved left. Somehow I missed the ginormous animal and the parked ATVs. With that, as her nerves calmed, I turned around to have a look at what we had just seen. The ATVs were goe, and the bison contentedly munched grass along the road. No other traffic was in sight.
We got a site at the Bridge Bay campground, again only $10. The lady said there were no sites for Friday, but to check back in the morning. We were given a tiny tent site, with a cutout to park. I was glad to get to bed after a quick meal of beef stew over rice. Had been a long, exciting day!
The next morning we were going out to tour the South loop road, which features the geyser basins and Old Faithful. On the way out we came upon another Jucy camper – with two young German women. We compared notes as their unit was the newer version, with the crank-up “Penthouse” and a small solar panel to help keep the house battery charged. Otherwise, pretty much identical. Of course, theirs had the Jucy stickers all over it. They said they were constantly asked for “tours”. We would see them often during the day. At the front desk we were happy to get another night’s stay confirmed, although we had to move. We got our permit and headed off.
After breakfast our first stop was the Yellowstone General Store on the shores of Lake Yellowstone. The people manning the shop were work-campers from Oklahoma. I grabbed a half dozen organic free range eggs and a half pound (8 ounces) of regular Oscar Meyer bacon. $13! The nice Okie lady assured me they had no cheaper eggs from exploited chickens, nor no-name bacon. Okay, my fault for not stopping before we got to the park. She asked what we hoped to see, and I said we came hoping the caldera would blow. Her friend said it was overdue…you never know.
The drive around the loop was wonderful. Our first stop was a small thermal spring just outside the campground. My dear wife wanted to feel the hot water – and where it ran into the lake, she indeed did. It was less than bath water warm, cooling as it meandered 10 yards to the lake. Along the way there was very little traffic and much to see. Speed limit is generally 35 mph. We pulled into Old Faithful visitors center and it erupted minutes later. It was one of the few areas that had phone and internet service. (I needed it badly to catch up on that business I had mentioned earlier.) Otherwise, there is virtually no service of any kind, certainly not ATT.
By evening we had completed the loop and happy with the day winding down. We stopped to get some firewood ($8 for a boxful). As we were leaving a fellow came up and said there was a bull elk fight going on in the campground. Okay…we drove around to our site…and guess what? Yup, the campsite over from ours was nature’s Madison Square Garden! And hanging around as the referee was a bison. There was antler rack clanging and banging for awhile, and then the main event left us, a draw. The bison stayed, munching away as the night fell. Of course, the nice people would all warn us to stay far back from the bison…really? Seems he was an old hand at this, showing no interest in the campers around him. We made a simple meal and started the fire. The wood was dry and hard, and would burn with a sporadic flame, mainly after you vigorously fanned it awhile. (It was so difficult to keep lit that our frustrated neighbor came in the morning and offered his for the taking.) I wondered whether it was partly the altitude, at about 8,500 feet.
We were going to tour the north loop, but had to secure a place for the night. Bridge Bay had nothing for the weekend, so we stopped up the road at Norris and got a site for Saturday night. The North loop is much different – more scenic than the South, with fewer geyser but many other hydrothermal features. We stopped at Mammoth Hot Springs, where I was expecting to see this beautiful cascade of steaming water…and saw a white, mostly dry formation. I asked the ranger on duty, and was told that she is often asked that question. The answer is that the formation has grown so much over the years that the water flow appears to be less when it is actually the same, and cannot cover the larger formation as it did 50 years ago. So the color faded to white… Disappointed.
We stopped at the store there for some snacks. The work-camper at checkout told us he and his wife were full-timers, following the work to cover their stay. Next stop for them was further south as the stores were closing for the season.
The “highlight” of our 1962 trip was the transmission failure of our ’62 Rambler Classic station wagon near Roosevelt Lodge. We stopped at the Lodge for lunch, not hoping to re-enact the episode, which would entail a backwards ride at the end of a tow truck hook to Mammoth Hot Springs! Our lunch was very good, and reasonably priced. The waitress, from Pennsylvania, told us the next cell service was down the road at a ranger station. She said she was happy to be in a place without phone or internet service as it kept her life simple.
We continued around the loop, admiring the petrified tree trunk and the numerous other sights. The best sight was all around us. The landscape was gorgeous, with mountains, ponds and forests surrounding meadows of golden grass and colorful flowers – all under the fabled and cloudless Big Sky.
The day’s other highlight was the Yellowstone River Canyon. It was more gorgeous than I remembered. The vibrant yellow stone cut deeply over eons by the river, with the falls in the distance. The nearest view of the falls was closed due to construction, but it really didn’t matter.
Yellowstone River Canyon
We got back to the campground and prepared a simple evening repast, relaxing around a campfire until we noticed there was no one stirring anywhere after nine o’clock. We burned the last of the gifted wood and went to bed. The next morning a fellow asked whether we felt the ground shake and heard the loud woosh. No…what was that? The Steamboat Geyser put on one of its irregular eruptions. It’s supposedly the world’s tallest currently-active geyser, spewing 300 feet! Well, I slept through it, as it seems most everyone else did, too.
Before we got on the road we had to watch our neighbor try to pull out the 5th-wheel rig he stuffed into a undersized and tight site. I really came to hate these outrageous and ginormous rigs on the curvy park roads, so I will admit to a round of Schadenfreude. He and his lady provided a fair amount of entertainment as they brushed trees, a bear-proof food safe, picnic table, fire ring…just about everything around them before they got their rig out and down the narrow campground lane. Their fairly new dualie monster truck had a few more running scrapes on its doors and quarter panels upon departure.
We left Yellowstone via the West Entrance. Along the way there was a 14 mile traffic stoppage on the in-bound lane – as idiots stopped in the middle of the road to get out of their cars and take pictures of a single grazing bison. It was amazing! I’m told that’s not a rare occurrence, either.
We left the park and headed south to the Grand Tetons. Beautiful scenery the entire way. We were seemingly the only vehicle for much of the ride. Many small towns…so small they had no gas station. I was driving the upper half of my gauge. Price was as high as $3.49 where there was fuel.
After a DQ feast at Jackon for lunch, we took US 26/20 through Riverton and around Casper, making it all the way to Ogallala, Nebraska. The campground, Sleepy Sunflower RV Park, was just off I-80. It was convenient, and the new management was eager to please. The price was also right – $18.
The rest of the ride was easy enough. Stopped to visit relatives in Omaha area, then lit out returning to Wisconsin.
A stop was made at The National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, Iowa. If you are a motorcycle fan, it’s a “must stop”. Whatever you my have ridden, it’s likely there’s one to get you all nostalgic. It’s not the Smithsonian, but it has a wide variety of historic bikes, ephemera and paraphernalia on display, even a few of Evel Knievel’s x-rays.
For being a bit of a dash we saw much and enjoyed the trip. It was also beneficial that the only rain we really encountered was on the last 500 miles headed back.