Friday, July 29, 2016

Walmart camping

Most RVers and truckers do it.  Including us.  But those of you who are unfamiliar with this lifestyle, may be a little shocked that respectable people actually sleep in Walmart parking lots.

The unwritten rule is -- RVs are supposed to just look parked.  No slide-outs, camp chairs, or unhooking any attached vehicles.  You arrive at night and leave first thing in the morning.  Etiquette is important because the few who push the limits, can ruin it for everyone else.  There's no cost and it comes with the convenience of stocking up on groceries and supplies while you're there, which is how Walmart hopes we'll return the favor.  It's the perfect overnight spot if you are just passing through.

The several times we've done it, we've felt perfectly safe.  The parking lots have adequate lighting and are patrolled at night, and we were tucked in amongst truckers and fellow campers.   The only downside is that the trucks can be noisy.

Some Walmarts don't allow it, so a phone call ahead is a good idea.  I have an app called Allstays that tells me which Walmarts welcome overnighters and which ones don't, along with reviews.  (The app tells me where just about everything else camping-related is, as well.)  I've heard that the reason some don't allow it is that their town has a rule against it.  AND I've heard that those rules are promoted by campground owners, who don't like the competition.  Although we've never tried other stores, most Cabellas and Cracker Barrels are also camper-friendly, and I've read that Costco, K-mart and some grocery stores let you stay there as well.

So next time you're on an evening Walmart-run to pick up milk for breakfast, notice the RVs and trucks, quietly parked on the outer edges of the parking lot.  If there are none there, that means you live in one of those towns where the No-Overnight-Parking signs are posted.  Our closest Walmart, sadly, is one of them.  Being just a few miles from home, I'd never have need of sleeping there, but all the same, it seems a little sad to me.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Rushmore, et al

We camped on the wrong side.  The fun, touristy towns like Custer, Hill City, and Keystone, along with the scenic mountains and valleys of Custer State Park and Black Hills Nat'l Forest were on one side of Rushmore and we were on the other side, parked in a shadeless field.  (Think of the prairies in the movie, “Dances with Wolves”.  You might even hum the John Dunbar theme.  It helps.)  Sad occurrences like this can happen when you don't know the area and are lured, sight unseen, to campgrounds offering discounts.  But we were relatively close to the Badlands, to which we went first, so I’ll start there.

Husband found a long loop from Rapid City through the Badlands which he figured would make a great motorcycle ride.  And it would have been, if not for the monstrous headwind.  It tried its best to blow us off the road every exhausting inch of the way.  The route took us 60-some miles from Rapid City down to Wall, another small South Dakota town.  On the way we became well acquainted with Wall Drug, a store which, many years ago, decided to become better known.  So it did ….. with signs all along the freeway every minute or two.
This constant, yet light-hearted advertising probably made it the most famous drugstore in America.  If you’re ever in the area, you must go.  Not for any good reason, just for curiosity.  The town has eagerly jumped onto the bandwagon with a western theme.  It’s cute and corny and appears to sell every silly souvenir and cheap T-shirt under the sun.  I did notice a small section of actual medicinals in one corner of the sprawling complex, to give it sufficient credibility for being a drugstore.  (I look awful in the obligatory photo in front of the store, so it's not getting posted.  Blaming helmet hair.)

The Badlands.  The only pics I got were from the bike as we rode through the pounding wind.

In my opinion, having been to scenic giants like Bryce Canyon in southern Utah, the Badlands were worth seeing (I suppose) but once is enough.  Just my opinion.  It's well named, though.   Our trip back, however, rewarded us with a tiny ghost town called Scenic, that featured one small functioning store and post office.  The rest looked like this:
Notice the cattle skulls hanging over the sign.
And there was even an old jail.  So cool!

The store proprietor said the town dried up when they stopped selling alcohol.  It went, he said, from rowdy to peaceful, almost overnight. 

The next day we wound through narrow mountain roads and single-lane tunnels to the wonderful and incredible Mt. Rushmore.  When you’ve seen something in pictures and movies throughout your life, and then… finally ….. see it in person … it has impact.  
And wow.  It was Grand Central in the middle of nowhere.  There was a huge, multi-level parking garage, cafeteria and other eateries, gift shops, visitors center with two theaters, a large amphitheater, and enough displays to keep a very large crowd busy.  All colorfully bedecked with the flags of our 50 states.  But all trappings aside, the carving of the four men on the mountain is truly a masterpiece, an engineering marvel, and worth the trip.

Selfies -- rarely our thing.
I have never before noticed that the carvings included more than just their faces.  Do you see Washington’s lapel and Lincoln’s collar?  We learned that it was originally supposed to go down to their waists as you can see in the model below.  I did some googling to see why they didn’t finish it. Later I heard a tour guide say the rock had too many faults and cracks further out in places where, for example, Lincoln’s ear should be.  They feared it might eventually break off.  So they stopped carving.  It wasn’t due to lack of funds, as per comments on the internet.
(Lincoln is holding a pipe.)
They say ya gotta go see Crazy Horse while you’re there.  “It’s HUGE”, they say.  So we did.  If it is ever finished, it will definitely dwarf the four presidents on Rushmore, to say the least.  But in over 60 years, what is meant to be the top half of a man on his horse carved from a mountain, is yet only his face and the beginning of his outstretched arm.  It was started in 1948 (shortly after work stopped at Rushmore) by one man, a sculptor, who was invited by a group of Native Americans to create a monument to show the world that they too, have heroes to honor.  He worked on it mostly alone with old, worn-out equipment and few tools, while his devoted wife bore him many children.   As the years went by, those children took up the cause and to this day, his descendants (none of whom are Native Americans) continue to spearhead the work.  To their credit, they refuse any government funds.  It’s all financed by donations and entry fees.  ($11 per person)  The lovely knotty-pine visitors center shows a somewhat longish film meant as a tribute to the family and to promote support for their cause.  But to be honest … it was kind of sad.  It seems like such a futile effort.  You can’t help but notice in the display photos that it has hardly changed in the last 20 years.  
Sufficiently visible from the road.
We wound through Custer State Park and saw buffalo, deer, antelope (still no moose) and traveled some very winding, high, mountain roads.   We held our breath as we squeezed our Jeep through more VERY tight tunnels, feeling glad we had left our motorhome behind.  We saw another RV in a pullout along the road between two of those tunnels that were spaced a mile or so apart with no escape road between them.  We have no idea how it got there and how on earth … it will get out.  The thought of it still haunts me a little.

With that, it was time to point our caravan west and trek home.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Gorgeous Glacier, Devil's Tower -- and a couple of questions

May I wax a weeee bit political for a moment?  On this trip I have noticed a LOT of federal (national) land.  Forest, parks, landmarks, grasslands ..... Why is that?  Why must the federal government own and managed all this land?  Why can't the states do it?  Cannot states be trusted to care for and preserve their own property?

Just wondering.

On the other hand, we are LOVING our national senior pass, since one of us is now the ripe young age of 62, allowing us to qualify.  A one-time $10 fee and then we get free entrance into all national parks and half price for many campgrounds, including those managed by states and counties .... forevermore!  So cool!

Now .... on to Glacier National Park.  I went feeling a bit confrontational.  Just TRY to beat Rainier.  Go ahead .... make my day.

And .... it did.  Oh my.  But first ....

We stayed in the small town of Hungry Horse (which sits close to the edge of the park) where, from the looks of it, NO one should be hungry, including horses.  There were signs everywhere advertising Huckleberry pie.  One place even offered it fried.   We could have walked from our campground to three different establishments for a slice.  So, of course, we did.  The crust was so-so, but the berries were very good and worth all the hype.

We didn't get many pictures because we were there just a few years ago.  Plus we were on our motorcycle, the road (appropriately called "Going to the Sun") was narrow, and I guess we were just enjoying the experience too much to think about cameras.   So I'm stealing a few from the net.  It looked JUST LIKE THIS.

Need I say more?

To Husband's disappointment, we saw neither moose nor bear.  We did see a deer who couldn't have cared less how close we were and some very active squirrels.  Oh, and some bald eagles.

Just a week or so before we got there, a man was killed by a bear.  You may have heard about it.  He and a friend were mountain-biking and he, in the lead, rounded a corner and ran smack into a bear who, probably thinking it was being attacked, immediately took out the cyclist, and left.  By the time the friend came along, the bear was gone.  The victim worked for the US Forest Service and had grown up in the area.  Very, very sad.  We were told the citizens of Hungry Horse all stood on the street edge in reverent respect, as the funeral procession went by.

Then we went east, experiencing eastern Montana and its vast nothingness, and into Wyoming.  And since we were in the neighborhood .....

Can we say .... HUGE?

Now it wasn't the Grand Canyon or anything, but definitely worth the detour.  The Indians originally revered this as holy ground and it's no wonder.  I mean, it LOOKS the part.  If I was going to pick a natural landmark which to assign a deity-related status, this would be it.  It just rises up out of nowhere.  If you recall the movie, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (who doesn't?) it was the site to which Richard Dreyfus was mentally and physically drawn, where he met face-to-face with the mother of all UFOs.  In other words, it has a presence.

See the rock climber standing on that ledge?  Someone should have told him to wear red.
People still go there for spiritual purposes.  There are rag strips hanging on tree branches here and there along its base, called prayer cloths.  There was a sign asking us to respect and not bother them.

So yeah.  It looks the part.  That said --  WHY IS IT CALLED DEVIL'S TOWER?   Whose idea was that??

Next -- Rushmore

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Washington then Idaho, back to Washington, and then Idaho again

My previous whiny post was in Leavenworth, WA, a town too adorable for words.  A bit of history:  Apparently when the logging business went bust back in the 60s, the town nearly faded away.  But a few bright people decided to capitalize on its Alps-like setting and created a tourist haven by remodeling their buildings to look like a Bavarian postcard.  So smart!  Now tourists swarm onto their streets and into their shops, restaurants, and hotels.  We need more towns like this!  One cannot have too many sources for fudge, apple strudel, and tacky wooden clocks.  (I'm perfectly serious.  Who doesn't love this??)

Think of the possibilities!   The economy boost.  The jobs.  The shopping!  Many societal problems (and a lot of boredom) could be solved, if more towns would pick a theme and raise the charm bar.  (Just my two cents.)

But I digress.....

Before Leavenworth, we spent a day on Mt. Rainier which, in my opinion, is a well kept secret.  I say that because I grew up in the Pacific NW and I discovered it only a couple of years ago.  I've been to Banff and Jasper in Alberta ... Yellowstone and Glacier in Wyoming and Montana, but little did I know that we had this breathtaking beauty practically in our backyard.  It truly stacks right up there with its more famous counterparts.  (Sorry, fellow Oregonians, it beats Hood.)  That and the canyons surrounding it are .... WOW.

It was startling each time I looked up from my phone-camera.  It was just so big and right THERE.

After Leavenworth, we went east to the always-lovely Coeur d'Alene, ID, which I am thoroughly sick of spelling.  Every internet search or map inquiry creates mental stress trying to arrange the vowels and apostrophes.   But it does roll off the tongue nicely, as most French words do.  Google says it means "heart of the awl" ..... (?)

Husband had read of an area in eastern Washington called The Palouse.  It's miles of rolling farmland, and it attracts photographers like cats to tuna.    So we went down to check it out.  It turned out to be a highlight.  (Hint -- If you go, take off your sun glasses.  The greens and yellows will pop even more.)

Have a look ....  (Fresh out of Husband's camera.)
(He got up reeeeealy early to get these shots.)

(Oh well.  Gotta take the bad with the good.)
And not only that, but the small town of Palouse (where we stayed a couple of nights in a no-nonsense little city-run RV park) was a treat.

We're the one in the middle.  The ugly retaining wall behind us is actually historic from the early 1900s involving an early railroad system.  What you don't see is the lovely tree-filled park in front of us.  The following pictures were taken just a block away.

Believe it or not, there were several shops selling quilts and fabric, antiques and gifts, and/or other knickknacks.  Plus a few funky (in a good way) cafes, and a decent little grocery store.  But, sadly, most of them are only open Thursday - Saturday, when we weren't there.  Palouse (the town) didn't need a theme.  It pulled it off with genuine character.

And then there was this treasure .... parked a short distance away.  What do you think .... should we upgrade?  

We did a long motorcycle ride through more of the show-stopping fields, in an attempt to find a waterfall called Palouse Falls.  Our route took us to the Granite Dam on the Snake River.  To go south across the dam, we had to show ID and be escorted, which the nice official man on the north end offered to do for us even though it was 5:00 and they were about to close for the day.  As we were riding across the dam, a large Mark-Twain-type paddle boat (like you'd expect to see on the Mississippi) full of happy vacationers, was entering the locks.  So I pulled out my phone and took pictures as we rode along.  The passengers cheerily waved and we waved back.   Then Nice Official Man (following behind) started yelling. "No photography!" ..... Oops.

At the other end, he politely apologized for not informing us of that one rule (there were NO signs) and then made me erase my pictures.  Oh well.  Now I guess I won't be plotting any terrorist attacks on a federal dam.   (Pictures taken from from outside the gates are okay.  Honest.)

We crossed from left (in the photo) to right.  Nice Official Man locked the gate behind us and, unsure where to go, we turned left heading upstream(?) along the river where the road soon dead-ended.  Uh-oh.  The dam gate was now closed and Nice Official Man was probably headed home.  I had brief thoughts of spending a long night on the banks of the Snake River waiting for someone to escort us back across the dam the next morning.  I even wondered if I could sleep with my helmet and gear on and whether it would protect me in case the river was named for reasons other than its curving shape.  Probably not.  And why would Nice Official Man NOT tell us the road didn't go through??   But fortunately the road going down river took us out of the ravine and back into more remote farmland where cell coverage continued to be non-existant, rendering us completely lost.

We finally came to a spot where we found enough signal to feed our phone maps and we eventually rolled into Lewiston, Idaho.  By the time we got back to our motorhome, daylight was gone and it was cold.  But it was a good day, even though we never found the waterfall.  (Note to self -- Get a GPS device.  Cell phones can get lost too.)

Next -- Glacier National Park, huckleberry pie, and beyond.