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.

There is not much to report today but I’m sure some of you are wondering how we are doing, so this will be a quick post.

We got a late start which put the sun right in our laps and our faces for the entire drive. Most of the time on the road today was spent on the interstate we are both a little relieved that we left all of that in Oklahoma City and the remainder of the trip will cover state roads and U.S. highways. Gas prices are around .20 cents cheaper per gallon than anything I would have found in the Panhandle. The scenery gets a little repetitive, but at least it’s pretty. We’ve seen limitless wheat fields and pasture land and the sky has remained a mostly cloudless light blue. Although it was hot, the drive through Oklahoma wasn’t so bad.

We stopped at a cozy little motel called The Wayfarer Inn and the lady at the front desk pointed us toward a restaurant down the road called K-Bob’s which offered steaks and chicken and their famous salad wagon. We ate our fill.

If the events of this first day on the road are a reflection of things to come, then I definitely got what I asked for when I said I wanted an adventure.

Our morning started great. TJ cooked us some super pepper and asparagus omelettes and we had some coffee before leaving. We left Pensacola near 9am and the humidity was smothering but the temperature was still bearable. We puttered along, following I-10, really admiring all that ‘scenery’ along this stretch of highway. It was gradually getting hotter but we were still riding with the windows rolled down. The first couple of hours of the trip were uneventful.

And then we hit Mississippi. Their sign boasts ‘Welcome to Mississippi: It’s Like Going Home’.

Well, I was welcomed ‘home’ with a speeding ticket. I wasn’t checking the speedometer much and the car has been running so smoothly since I got the wheel bearing fixed so it wasn’t always evident when I was approaching 80. I was mostly just relying on the driving speed of my fellow motorists. I was in a line with maybe 4 other cars and I noticed they all started slowing and switching to the left lane. I saw that there was a car parked on the side of the highway and I couldn’t tell that it was a statie. I began slowing, but it was too late. Being the last car in the lineup of speeders, I guess it was easiest to nab me. He had turned on his lights before I even passed him.

The officer approached the car, said ‘good morning’ and asked for my documentation. It was with shaky fingers that I handed over my license (I haven’t been pulled over for nearly 6 years). He told me I was clocked at 78 in a 65 and I just blurted ‘I’m sorry’ as he walked away. He returned with a ticket and my license and pointed to a number at the bottom that he told me to call and said good day. I’m pretty sure I thanked him 3 times, which just seemed ridiculous to me as I was pulling away. I obviously haven’t had much practice in socializing with enforcers of the law, especially when I’m in trouble, mind you.

I was a little shaken up and Ingo asked if I wanted him to drive, but I told him no. This was largely based on the fact that my hands were still shaking and I figured that if I had to grip the steering wheel guide the car then the whole uneasy, shaky feeling might pass quicker. It didn’t take long for me to feel like myself again. Of course, I was being very careful to check my speed and often drove exactly the speed limit.

At some point we noticed a burning smell like someone had left up the emergency brake and started driving, so I checked mine and it was in its proper position. Ingo sniffed the air outside and the air coming through the a/c vents and said he didn’t think it was the Fox. We pulled over anyway to pop the hood and take a quick look. Everything seemed to be in order and the burning smell went away so I wrote it off as coming from someone traveling in front of us. We pulled back onto the highway convinced that everything was fine.

As I’m sure you may have guessed by now, everything was not fine. Ingo and I were chattering and nearing Jackson when the car suddenly seized up and made a quick, sharp squealing noise. I lost use of my breaks and had to signal and drift into the shoulder until we rolled to a stop.

My immediate thought was that a tire blew out. I couldn’t imagine why else the breaks would fail as they did. We quickly hopped out and inspected all the tires which were intact. We popped the hood and smelled that faint burning smell again. The low oil pressure indicator had alit on the dash so Ingo checked the oil, which was clean and full. I tried starting the car a couple of times but it wouldn’t turn over. Our eyes poured over everything on the surface of the engine and we pulled on hoses to make sure everything was on tight. We looked under the car to make sure nothing was leaking. We were totally puzzled.

We had already convinced ourselves we were going to have to get the car towed to Jackson, so I started calling car rental agencies in the city, not exactly sure what the plan was going to be (one of the scenarios involved having the car scrapped and flying all the way north). Nobody had rentals available. What a weekend for your car to break down, right? We had been sweating in the car for almost an hour when someone pulled up behind us. A wrecker. Perfect.

A guy stepped out sporting dark shades and a bristlecomb mustache, coke bottle in hand (Ingo had noticed there were peanuts fizzling and floating around in the bottle). He asked us what the trouble was and we explained briefly that we weren’t really sure. He leaned over the engine and asked me to crank it a few times. Both Ingo and the stranger stood there brooding over the engine a few moments longer and he asked me to try and crank it again. With this last effort, Ingo furrowed his brow and noted that the a/c belt appeared to be dragging across its pulley and knew that I had previously had it replaced. One of the pulleys that turns the a/c also turns the alternator. Ingo suggested that we just cut it off and with that, the stranger pulled out a knife and sliced through the belt.

I once again leaned over the driver’s side seat and reached out to turn the key. The engine roared to life. I stepped back toward the open hood and saw that the men were grinning. We thanked the stranger for stopping and he plodded back to his trucker, swigging and chomping on his coke and peanuts. I sat in the car, stroked the dash and apologized for threatening to scrap him.

It was nearing 2pm and Ingo and I decided it was a good time to take a break from the road so we stopped at a little Mexican restaurant. Grilled shrimp and sausage quesadillas? Yummy. Once our bellies were full and our bladders were emptied we got back in the car and pulled out on the highway. We drove through Jackson and began heading west for Louisiana. I noticed it was getting a little dark and smelled a little wetness in the air, but we welcomed the clouds. There was an unnerving chill to the air and it felt like the weather had cooled off much more than it should have with cloud cover. I was sure it was going to rain.

We crossed the Mississippi River and were welcomed by a small sign in Louisiana when it began sprinkling. I had only gone about a mile from the bridge when the rain suddenly got very heavy and the wind picked up. We stopped near an underpass (near because there were already other motorists occupying the space beneath it). It rained and the car rocked and I tried to pick up the Weather Channel on my phone to see if there were any alerts for the area. The results for Vicksburg, MS, didn’t show much.

After a few minutes of resting in car I was worried that rocks were being cast at us by passing trucks because there were louding cracking noises on my window. But then there were cracking noises on the windshield, too. I took a closer look at the rain coming down through Ingo’s window and saw something more than just rain. There were pea-sized balls of hail falling from the sky. There wasn’t much at first, but the frequency and size of the hail was increasing. There were times I was afraid my driver’s side window would shatter, it was so loud. As the storm subsided I was finally able to pull up the Doppler Radar for the area and it showed us that the storm was moving in the opposite direction than we were headed.

The rain seemed to slow and most of the other cars that had pulled off had already left. I eased back onto the highway and planned to stay at 40mph until the rain had stopped for sure but had to pull off of the road again within 50 feet because the rain began pelting the car. I checked my phone and it seemed a weather advisory had been posted about the hail and 35mph winds. We sat and waited, a little bewildered by this string of misfortune, and the intensity of the rain increased. Hail fell again for an unknown length of time and the wind rocked the car. We saw a few really good bolts of lightning, scary close, and heard their deafening cracks. And then the rain slowed. And the traffic picked up.

It felt safe enough, so I got back on the road, driving just 30mph this time and headed west, away from the freak hail storm. Within 5 miles of driving we hit totally dry road. The sky brightened and the air warmed again. The storm was behind us.

We didn’t quite make it to Ft. Smith like we had planned and stopped instead in a town outside of Little Rock. It was definitely a hotel night. I was smelly and exhausted and didn’t feel much like pitching a tent. I think we both felt like we deserved it, anyway, with all the chaos that the day had brought. Thank goodness for continental breakfasts with waffles.

I just wanted to share some photos from this Thanksgiving. In much earlier years it was rare for us all to be together for the holidays (in fact, I can vaguely remember having fried chicken instead of turkey one Thanksgiving very long ago), so it was a special treat for the four of us and two aunties to be together. My dad made the juiciest turkey and all of the sides were completely improvised, one-of-a-kind creations. I don’t know how Stanley is the only dog who was allowed in the last photo. He just loves the camera.

Adam and I went to my parents’ house for dinner last night and I actually got all three dogs to sit still for a couple of photos. (Stanley is pre- and post-yawn in each photograph, but I can’t help laughing about the second photo where it just looks like he’s grinning like crazy.)

Yep. I’m one of those ridiculous new pet owners who buys too many dog toys, gives too many treats and dresses the dog up in outfits. I decided Oliver needed to be a dinosaur for his first Halloween and made the costume myself by hand. Surprisingly, he didn’t mind having to try it on endless times as I tailored it to fit him exactly and even didn’t seem to mind wearing it. And the costume gave him plenty of attention (which he can never get enough of).