Head out on the highway…
As I mentioned last week, I’m with my family on our first ever RV trip. (Thanks to readers and e-mailers for sharing your wonderful travel memories.) Internet and phone access on my trek have been quite spotty – blissfully so. Doug Powers will continue to hold down the fort here on the blog, along with La Shawn Barber and Val Prieto, as I head back home in coming days. Please be sure to thank them for their terrific work.
Some notes on the journey:
Over the past seven days, we’ve hit Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse memorial, Cody WY, and Yellowstone. The scenery is cinematic; the frontier history is larger-than-life. And the RV community is full of friendly, independent, and amazingly resourceful people.
If you ever need your faith in our country’s resilience and beauty renewed, a Great American Road Trip does a body and soul good.
RV’ing is also a budget-friendly way to travel. Yes, fuel costs are hefty. But you can save a lot on meals by planning ahead and cooking on the road. We rented a 31-foot RV with a stove top, oven, microwave, and ample freezer/fridge with a small crisper for veggies and enough room for a gallon of milk, a dozen eggs, and several days’ worth of drinks and other perishables. Added bonus: No airline headaches, no TSA intrusions, no cramped seating, no crappy plane food!
KOA fees (even for deluxe hook-ups) are extremely reasonable — especially given the full range of amenities (showers, pancake tents, bike rentals, tourist shuttles, horseback riding, pools, showers, jumping pillows, chuckwagon dinners, firepits/firewood, ATV rentals) that the campgrounds provide. The Hill City SD KOA was top-notch (both staff and facilities exceeded my expectations) and I’d highly recommend it to fellow parents with young kids.
RV’ing is not everyone’s cup of tea, of course. If you’re high maintenance and need a hot bath every day, forget about it. If you can’t bear to be unplugged from the world, don’t bother. And if you are unwilling to jump feet first into the great unknown, go ahead and make boring, conventional flight and hotel reservations instead. Yes, the prospect of barreling across the highway in gusty winds and on wet treacherous mountain roads in a 10,000-pound home on wheels left me a little queasy. But if you make sure to pack some RV must-haves — sense of humor, spirit of adventure, industrial-strength rubber gloves, duct tape, extension cords, wrench, multi-tool, Petzl headlamps, tarp, S’mores ingredients, marshmallow roasting sticks, walkie-talkies, and Dramamine — you can live the RV dream. Experienced friends recommended we watch the movie “RV” before we started our trip. Aside from a few p.c. tirades against big corporations, it’s definitely good prep viewing.
RV rule of thumb: Things will go wrong. We tried to use the RV generator while off-site and somehow ended up setting off the propane gas detector, causing significant newbie panic. Also: One of the holding tank hoses got stuck during our first attempt to de-camp (which taught us the hard way to have a wrench at the ready). But as I said, RVers are immensely friendly and willing to lend a hand, tool, or tip. Attention to detail is key. Getting into a checklist routine before departing and upon arrival at your RV site will save a lot of grief.
As with everything, there’s an iPhone app for that. We used this one.
Our first major stop was Mount Rushmore. Yes, we all know Teddy Roosevelt doesn’t belong there (fun fact: a ranger at the sculptor’s studio explained to us how TR greased the wheels to earn himself a spot on the monument). But don’t let that dissuade you from appreciating this amazing engineering landmark and learning about the brash, ambitious, visionary sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, who spearheaded the project and possessed an uncommon reverence of the Founding Fathers despite his crony weakness for TR.
Taken from a little cave on the Presidential Trail:
This was taken from inside Borglum’s studio with the model in the foreground, looking out onto the monument (look in the top window and you can see Washington):
The ranger at the studio gave a fascinating talk about how the workers would hang from ledges strapped in bosun chairs with massive jackhammers. They would work full days for pennies — and many would then head to grueling second jobs in the mines of the Black Hills. Borglum gets the glory, but American brawn, guts, ingenuity, and dynamite turned a mountain into a monument — in just 14 years.
A few miles down the road, work continues on the Crazy Horse memorial. I knew nothing about the monument other than the fact that the planned 562-foot carving has taken decades and decades to complete. I assumed it was a government-subsidized project. Boy, was I wrong. The history behind this 100 percent, privately-funded monument is an amazing American story in and of itself. Crazy Horse sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski was a self-taught “storyteller in stone” who refused to take a dime in federal funding. He was a fervent believer in the free market and individual initiative — and he and his wife instilled those values in their 10 homeschooled children. The orphan son of Polish immigrants was a WWII hero who was wounded at Omaha Beach. He worked briefly with Borglum at Mount Rushmore before agreeing to work on Crazy Horse in 1948 at the behest of Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear (who admired Ziolkowksi’s award-winning bronze portrait of Polish composer Ignace Jan Paderewski). Ziolkowski worked on the memorial every day until his death in 1982. He is entombed at its base and his widow Ruth and 7 of his children continue his work to this day. (On the day we visited, there was a dynamite blast as workers chip away at the horse’s head.)
Stock photo of Korczak’s model with the monument behind it:
And here I am in front of the work in progress last Thursday:
Our next stop was Cody, WY. We were too tired to see the night-time rodeo, but hit the five museums all housed at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center downtown. This is a definite must-see if you’re driving from the East on your way to Yellowstone.
You’ll get a taste of the life and times of Buffalo Bill, Native American history, a huge exhibition of rare firearms, towering stuffed bears, a Yellowstone natural history appetizer, and Western art. My horse-loving daughter loved seeing exquisite saddles like this one currently on display at the entrance to the Whitney Gallery of Western Art:
Before I get to Yellowstone, here’s a brief pictorial interlude on building the perfect campfire. If you have kids, you must do S’mores at every opportunity — and you simply cannot do S’mores right with a puny, smoke-choked lame excuse for a roaring fire.
Gather small twigs, newspaper, used paper plates, tween magazine photos of Justin Bieber, etc., for kindling:
Build a little teepee of kindling over the pile. Leave some space for oxygen flow. Stuff one of those firestarter blocks near the front of the pile:
Build a larger teepee with your thick pieces of dry firewood (avoid damp! damp=smoke! smoke=unhappy, teary-eyed children running inside the RV!):
On to Yellowstone. We took the Buffalo Bill Scenic Byway. In a hugetastic RV, “scenic” = slooooooow. The views are indeed spectacular:
But the grades are steep and it’s white-knuckle, marital stress-inducing driving right up into Yellowstone.
I promised ranger Emily at the East Entrance that I would post this pic of us. Hi, Emily!
The weather is completely unpredictable here — gloriously sunny when rain is forecast, mild when a cold front is predicted. Ponchos, endless layers of clothing, and good walking shoes are de rigeur. Binoculars are also a must. We have a fancy Nikon camera, but I took all of the photos in this post with my iPhone, including all of these Yellowstone pics.
I can see bison from my window…
Don’t miss the mudpots:
Putting the “yellow” in “Yellowstone” at the Mammoth Hot Spring Terraces:
Buffalo in the mist:
A rainbow over the Chinatown Restaurant in West Yellowstone, MT:
This is truly “America, the Beautiful.” How humbling, how blessed we are to call it home.