Vacation


The days of summer are winding down here in the Dakotas. The sun has finally started setting at a time that I’m accustomed to and I’m pretty sure we’ve seen the last of the 90-degree days. At least a third of the seasonal employees have already checked out of their apartments to return to school or other jobs and the rest of us are going to hang on for another month. I still can’t believe how much I’ve been able to see and do in the short amount of time I’ve been here. From riding horses to flying over the park to hiking new highpoints; I simply could not have asked for more adventure this summer. And to add to the list, Jacob and I plan to get another highpoint point this weekend on our way to Minneapolis where we’ll watch a Twins game. Anyway, here are some photos from the last few weeks.

A pronghorn (often mistaken as antelope) let us get close and personal during a hike.

Gelatin, anyone?

Dave (left), Sam (middle) and me on a long hike.

An area in the park called Wind Canyon has formations that look like a giant brontosaurus jaw bone to me.

Unfortunately, Fantastic Mr. Fox (my car) is out of commission for a while. His CV-axles ‘fell off’.

I finally made it back to the Rapid City area in SD to hike the highpoint. We chose the long trail from the north side (a 10-mile yo-yo that left from a horse camp in the Black Elk Wilderness). The weather was perfect and we only passed one other hiker along with some people on horseback.

When we stopped for a water break a deer buck wandered right up our path and passed within 10 feet of us, completely unafraid.

The first thing the boys did when we reached the summit was crack open a couple of beers.

Highpoint #25: Harney Peak, SD on July 30, 2010

Some photos of us hanging out on the lookout tower.

After descending the highpoint, we headed to Mt. Rushmore to park the car. Cody guided us to his favorite camping spot in the wilderness about a mile from the monument. We actually had a nice view of the heads between the trees there at camp. We got up early the next morning, packed up, and I snapped this before leaving the boys to get a head start on the hike back to the car.

While I was waiting for them near the car, I spotted a beaver!

Later in the evening we met up with Cody’s friend for beer and pizza. We were able to sleep on the floor at his place before heading back to ND.

We get some pretty crazy storms out here and sometimes they are followed by rainbows and sunsets!

This is just before Jacob took us flying.

We flew over the town that we live in.

And we managed to find a herd of bison (black dots) hanging out on a prairie dog town (white patches).

Highpoint #26: White Butte, ND on August 27, 2010 (It was really windy and you can see my hair flying everywhere!)

Here are some views from the highpoint.

I’m no geologist, but I’m pretty sure all that white stuff is sandstone and you can see where this butte gets it’s name.

An abandoned farmhouse near the trailhead.

That’s White Butte in the distance. I’m standing in a field of alfalfa.

That’s it for now! I should have more to share in a few weeks.

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I realize I’ve been here a whole month and haven’t really shared any photos of the amazing park I’m working at, so here is a large group of random ones.

The second week I was here, the park superintendent took us for a short hike around the Elkhorn Ranch site. This is where T. Roosevelt had an 8-room cabin built and tried his hand at ranching. The cabin is gone but the Cottonwoods are still around.

A wooly bully!

My buddy Sam and I went camping and hiking at the north unit of the park. I love cooking gourmet food over an open campfire.

We only got lost a few times…most of those times were spent wandering around in big grassy fields looking for the trail.

Sam was so proud that he could make us a bridge to cross the creek.

I made my friend Joe go on a treacherous climb with me and about halfway up the face of a butte he informed me of his fear of heights. This is a view of our apartment buildings from the top of the butte.

We scared up a few owls when we were climbing around here.

Some of the park’s native flowers.

I always manage to get muddy.

The clover has grown up to my elbows on some of the trails.

I finally saw some elk in our park! There were 2 separate groups of them.

I ran into a band of 9 horses.

Bison bones.

I camped and hiked with Jacob along the Maah Daah Hey Trail.

It’s a horny toad!

One of the locals let us borrow his kayaks so we took a 2-hour paddle down the Little Missouri.

We’re a bunch of misfits.

Roommates!

When we pulled the kayaks up, the boys discovered a big mud pit next to the river so we returned the next evening so they could roll around in it.

Good for the skin!

That’s it for now! Stay tuned for more in another month or so.

I didn’t have any time to post the photos from the road trip earlier, so here they are with a few captions.

We found a good number of abandoned places along the way and this is one of the more interesting ones.

The clouds have much more character out west. Or maybe it’s that the view is unobstructed by trees?

A color-changing lizard I found on Black Mesa.

Black Mesa, OK, and the view to the south of the mesa.

Mt. Sunflower, KS.

Like I said, a lot of abandoned places, especially homesteads.

Panorama Point, NE.

A herd of bison!

I’m beginning to see why they call this area ‘Big Sky’ country.

Camping in Ft. Robinson State Park with some views from inside my bug tent.

Camping in Custer State Park with some large visitors.

Camping in Bear Butte State Park with a view of the butte.

The ‘buffalo’ toe.

Mt. Rushmore Memorial, SD.

June 5-7, 2010

When I woke the grass was still a bit damp but the sun was rising and the air had warmed enough. I got a fire started and put some coffee on. I was able to cook the last of our bacon and begin sauteing some pepper and onions. I got Ingo out of the tent and we drank all of the coffee before I could even put eggs in the pan. I stoked the fire a little and tried to get another pot of water boiling but the wind was blowing in every direction and all the heat was disappearing from the grill area.

We spent about 2 hours trying to get water boiled for more coffee so we could put the eggs on the fire. Between attempts at restarting and coddling the fire I shook all the water off of the tarps and packed up our sleeping quarters. Ingo ended up throwing more wood on the fire and basically starting it from scratch. We finally got enough heat for the eggs to cook and I ended up pushing the grill grate back and putting the water pot for the coffee directly on the fire. We had hot enough water for coffee in about 10 minutes.

We both felt a little defeated by breakfast but washed our faces and packed up the car and headed for North Dakota.

When we arrived at the park, I met up with the Chief Ranger and checked into my apartment. It’s a cozy little space with a shower stall and a stove and two twin sized beds with a couple of feet between them. I have to admit it’s much nicer than my accommodations the first year I was in college and the rent is very cheap so I have no complaints. I was able to meet my roommate briefly but she took off shortly after because she had just started a second job for the summer. From what I can tell a lot of my colleagues have second jobs in town.

Ingo and I checked into a little motel in Medora and sat on a patch of grass out back to watch the sunset but quickly had to move inside because the wind made us chilly.

The town (ahem, village) of Medora is very quaint with a permanent population of less than 100. I’m told most of the businesses in town are owned by ‘The Foundation’ and close after the season is over. There is a good amount of foreigners who have come to work at the restaurants and I have met people from Macedonia and from the Ukraine. The park employees are also from all ends of the country: California, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Kansas, and now Florida (represent!).

I’m grateful that the V-Dub made it all the way up here, but he’s going to need a few small repairs before I do any major driving. I got a post office box and may end up renting a bike for the summer. My neighbors have all been really friendly and I have an excellent view from my apartment. I can tell I’m going to have an excellent summer.

June 3, 2010

We left Nebraska for South Dakota and stopped in Hot Springs when we noticed a little natural foods store. We were still craving hot dogs and planned to camp and were hoping to find some buffalo dogs. We had to wait a half hour for the store to open so we wandered a bit and found a very colorful quilt shop that was being run by a couple from West Palm Beach. Ingo pointed out that several shop owners that we have met along the way have been transplants from the south. The natural food store had buffalo dogs after all and we left there with a lot of goodies including hot sauce from Boulder, pale ale flavored mustard, eggs from free range chickens and cans of organic black and butter beans.

It was getting late by the time we pulled into Custer State Park and we took one of the more narrow and curvy roads into the park. It was beautiful and reminded me a bit of North Carolina. We saw a lot of buffalo in the south end of the park and several little prairie dog towns. They had informed us at the park entrance station that the park was no longer allowing self-registration for camping and that we would have to call a 1-800 number to reserve a site for the night. We were charged an extra $7 because we’re not residents of South Dakota, so between the entrance fee for the park and the campsite reservation, we almost paid as much as a local motel room would have cost.

At least the site that we were assigned was within a tent-only area and was right next to a creek (pronounced ‘crick’ in the Midwest). I set up the tent and we sat down to enjoy a few beers before preparing dinner, when all of a sudden our neighbors called out to us and told us to look back. There were two buffalo who had roamed down from the RV site across the road and were standing within 20 feet of our tent!

A state park employee had pulled up and was wielding a bull whip which he cracked toward them a couple of times. The bulls turned their heads in slow-motion and grunted and basically ignored the whip. Ingo climbed up on the picnic table when the bulls started stomping down toward us and I wasn’t as much afraid for myself as I was afraid for our tent! They rounded the campsite and walked the narrow path between the creek and our tent and moved along. We passed it off as being a normal thing for the buffalo to roam through the campgrounds and went about making dinner.

We had leftover couscous from the previous night and added some lima beans to mix it up a little. We grilled the buffalo dogs and slathered them up with mustard and hot sauce. The fire lasted just long enough for us to finish cooking which was perfect because we were both a bit exhausted. Ingo had wandered up to the bathroom to brush his teeth and I followed him shortly after. I nearly bumped into him standing in the path to the facilities and found that he was panting and a bit shaken up. He asked if I had seen what just happened.

Apparently, as he was walking toward the bathroom he felt a quick gust of wind and was pondering about how the wind had picked up and realized there was a snort at the end of that blast of air. There, near the entrance to the men’s room, stood one of the buffalo bulls that had earlier passed through our campsite. Ingo said that once it lowered its head and gave him a hairy look, he freaked out and ran around the building as quickly as he could.

By the time I walked up, the bull had started plodding off across the street and Ingo told me he had dropped the headlamp and lost the back, the strap and the batteries somewhere. He had also sprained or broken his big toe because his flip flop had flopped the wrong way during his getaway. Our tent neighbors asked if everything was all right because they had seen the buffalo and heard someone making noise and running around and we assured them that everything was okay. I happened to sleep really good this night.

June 4, 2010

The morning air was crisp and cool and the ‘crick’ was bubbling and rolling just a few feet from our tent. I was able to find the batteries and the strap for the head lamp that was dropped when Ingo was accosted by the local wildlife the night before. There was a rather fresh buffalo pie next to the batteries and seeing it made me chuckle a little.

We made coffee, bacon and eggs over a fire and we decided we liked the site so much we hoped to reserve it another night. I got on the phone with the reservation office as early as they were open but they told me there was only one site left in our campground that was amongst the RVs. We decided it would be best to just take our chances that the next state park we reached would have first-come sites so we packed up and left.

Ingo’s foot had swollen up like a sweet potato so hiking in the area was out of the question. The only thing I could think of on my list of things to check out while in the Rapid City area was to take a look at Mt. Rushmore. After visiting the Presidents, we drove north toward Sturgis to find another place to camp.

The state park we had in mind was Bear Butte State Park and there happened to be a sweet tent area right next to Bear Butte Lake. It was really windy and the sky was getting very dark so I set up the tent with the tarp ready to throw over in case it started raining. We were visited by a ranger who told us that if it happened to rain it wouldn’t be much and wouldn’t last long so we didn’t worry much about exactly when to get dinner started.

We heated more of the leftover couscous and threw some andouille sausages on the fire. The wind had really picked up at this point and the sky darkened and we started seeing some lightning headed our way. And then it started sprinkling. By the time the sausages were ready, it was raining pretty steadily. We had donned our rain jackets and sat at the picnic table eating dinner in the rain. Once we were finished I threw everything important in the car and we dove into the tent. There were a few scary cracks of thunder and it rained longer than I would have expected, but I fell asleep anyway, wet clothes and all.

June 1, 2010, Highpoint #23: Mt. Sunflower, KS

We packed up our camp at Black Mesa State Park and headed north into Colorado. I can’t say that the weather cooled as much as we had thought it would, but the clouds became larger and fluffier the further north we went. The eastern edge of Colorado is very flat and patterned with a mixture of farm and pasture land.

We followed the directions in my book to the gravel road that lead to Mt. Sunflower. The high point is marked with a sunflower sculpture made from railroad spikes. We signed the register and snapped a few photos. We got bit by some obnoxious horse flies. And we left.

After the high point, we took the road back into Colorado and continued north as far as we thought we could make it with enough light to pitch a tent. Our plan was to camp in North Sterling State Park but by the time we got to Sterling the wind had picked up considerably and the sky looked menacing. After some deliberation, we checked into a motel and after hearing from some motorists in the lobby say that there was a hail storm predicted for the area we were relieved by our decision.

June 2, 2010, Highpoint #24: Panorama Point, NE

From Sterling we only had about an hour and a half of driving to get to Nebraska’s high point. It is very close to the tri-state marker it shares with Wyoming and Colorado and is at the end of some dusty gravel roads on a bison ranch.

The actual high point features a granite marker and a counter with several registers and some stories stashed inside about the high point and the ranch. We could see a herd of bison about 100 large grazing off in the distance and also had to hopscotch around their large dollops of poo, but we were in no way threatened by them.

From the high point we headed for Fort Robinson State Park. They have a primitive tent camping area and we found a nice patch of grass next to a creek. There was a picnic table and fire pit and we arrived early enough to start craving something warm for dinner so I headed into town to see if I could find some hotdogs to throw on the grill. Everything had shut down just before we arrived so I returned with only a package of marshmallows and a bag of maui onion kettlechips. We ended up boiling carrots and chickpeas and throwing some couscous and chopped nuts into the pot. It was pretty good for being thrown together from nothing.

Highpoint #22: Black Mesa, OK

It was a little overcast outside when we rolled out of bed and sat on the stoop of our motel room to drink coffee and eat breakfast (there was an excellent view of the empty swimming pool from our room). The plan was to get to the eastern-most part of Oklahoma to hike the state’s high point and pick another place to hunker down for the night.

It was an easy drive to Kenton, OK, the closest town to the trailhead. My book made note of a mercantile store in town that would give you a certificate after you hiked Black Mesa, but we went out there to ask a few questions about the weather and about the dependability of some of Oklahoma’s backcountry dirt roads. The store happened to be closed so we sat on their front steps to consume some peanut butter and banana sandwiches and put on our shoes and fill the hydration reservoir for the hike. In the 45 minutes that we sat there, two sets of travelers stopped and asked us for directions. Good thing for my road atlas, right? I was a little baffled by the fact that people were driving in the Oklahoma ‘wilderness’ without any sense of where they were going or from where they had come.

We packed up our picnic spread and drove the 6 miles to the trailhead parking lot. There was a hiker who had just made it back to his car and told us he believed the weather should be fine. It was around 4pm when we took off and we were hoping to return before it got too dark and especially before a thunderstorm passed through because that was what the Weather Channel was threatening.

The old Jeep trail around and over the mesa is well worn and has a number of green metal arrows to point the way. We passed a few benches that served not only as resting areas but also as mileage markers. It was hot and the first 2.5 miles was rather windy in some sections. We kept rounding parts of the mesa and weren’t quite sure which area we were to climb up until we counted the 8th and final green arrow and saw the switchback trail leading to the summit.

The entire hike had an elevation gain of about 650 ft which was all gained within about a third of a mile. I had been (there’s no better word to describe it but) panting to keep up with Ingo’s pace. There was a point when we neared the part of the mesa we were to ascend where I stopped to snap some photos and by the time I looked up, Ingo was a quarter mile away. And he had the water! I had to jog to catch up to him because the wind just carried my voice and he didn’t turn when I called to him. I took a few quick gulps of water and pressed on.

We began climbing gradually but by the turn of the first switchback the hike got very steep. Ingo stopped to rest and I paused here and there to catch my breath but I became focused on remaining ahead of him so that I wouldn’t have to run again. I guess I went into pack mule mode. I trudged uphill until I reached the summit and I glanced back to see where Ingo was. I couldn’t see him while trying to lean over the face so I wandered down the trail until I found a large bush to sit beside which still gave me a view of where he would summit. I waited about 10 minutes. I got bored and poked around and found a dusty lizard sunning himself on a rock. I waited another 5 minutes. Ingo still had not reached the top.

I started backtracking and almost made it back to the edge when Ingo met up with me and quieted my worries. It was a steep climb and he admitted that he wasn’t in the best shape for the sport. We waited a few minutes for his pulse to come down a bit and hiked the remaining flat mile to the granite obelisk marking the high point. We rested a little and tried to sign the register but only got as far as reading someone’s scrawl about an amazing view 200 yards south before a large hornet became very interested in Ingo. He put the notebooks back in the box and we headed south, into the wind to avoid the flying invertebrate.

The view really was spectacular. The wind was blasting up the face and pushing us backward but there was a beautiful valley there to the south. The sky looked promising in this direction but the dark clouds toward the north got me a little worried. We returned to the granite marker, picked up our bag and left.

The descent was quick and easy. We saw the lizard again and his whole body had turned a brilliant blue color with yellow speckles. We also came across a snake in the trail and miles later a rabbit. After a while we were able to pick out the red Vee-Dub off in the distance. We covered the 8.4 mile hike in 3.5 hours which was good time according to the trail description. We unsheathed our sweaty feet from the socks and dusty shoes, threw everything in the car and took off.

I had called ahead about a state park within 10 miles of the trailhead so we drove there and picked a proper camp site. We pitched the tent and made a plan for covering it quickly in case it began to rain. There was a lot of wind blowing through our site and it wasn’t necessarily cold, but it was very loud. We ate chips and salsa and hummus and washed our salty, dusty faces.

By the time we got settled in the tent the sun had set and most of the cloud cover had blown over. We could see heat lightning in the distance northeast of us and when we rolled on our backs we could see a million glittering stars. I had trouble falling asleep because the sound of the wind whipping through the trees was so loud but I must have drifted off eventually because I woke very slowly the next morning to the sight of the sun glowing against the tent and the sound of braying burros from a neighboring farm.

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