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Thursday, 27 September 2012

Motoring West

After spending about 2 weeks this past summer in Ontario, Quebec, upstate New York and Vermont, it was time to head back to Vancouver Island where we live. All in all, I put about 13,000 kilometers on the odometer including the drive across Canada.
It can get pretty hot on Vancouver Island in the summer but there is always a bit of a breeze. Linda and I had forgotten how close and humid it can get in the summer back east. It can be kind of draining if you are not used to it. Now I know why older folks who go on long road trips always seem to plan them in the fall or springtime.
Our basic plan was to cross into the US at Michigan and make our way to two particular spots along the way out to the Pacific Ocean, Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone National Park.
We had no idea that the temperature would be as high as 105 degrees. In fact, last summer was the hottest on record in the US since something like 1889. Linda likes air conditioning in the car and I prefer the windows open and the breeze coming in. The latter isn’t much of an option when it really gets hot out.
We crossed over the border at Port Huron and a few hours later found a beach with sand dunes along the shores of Lake Michigan, a good place for our dog to have a swim. We spent our first night in a motel just outside of East Lansing, Michigan.
Lake Michigan.
The next day we put in a lot of miles. We went through Indiana and Illinois and ended up in the small town of Leclaire, Iowa. We stayed at a motel up on a hill overlooking the Mississippi River below. The back entranceway to the motel was clogged with dead mayflies. There were thousands of them. I drove around looking for a place that had take-out food and found a little sandwich shop by the river. I overheard some people talking about visiting the building that the American Pickers operate from. American Pickers is a TV show about two guys from Iowa who drive all over the US looking for lost treasures they can make a buck on.
American Pickers.

We checked out of our motel fairly early the next morning hoping to beat the heat for at least a few hours. That didn’t work. It was really hot out at 8 a.m. We drove down to the river and stopped where a Mississippi riverboat was moored. It took a little bit of time to find it, but up the road a bit we found the warehouse and office for the American Pickers. In front of the building there was a rusted old Hudson sitting up on a mound. Apparently the parking lot is often crammed with tourists. We were the only people there when we visited.
Old Hudson.
American Pickers home base Leclaire, Iowa.
Mississippi riverboat, Leclaire, Iowa.
We got back on the main highway and about an hour later pulled off the highway to visit a little community called The Amana Colonies. There are seven little villages in the area and it is populated by a religious group called The Ebonezer Society or The Community of True Inspiration. Most of them have German ancestry and they have a self-sufficient local economy. Everything looked very tidy. I grabbed a pastry at the local baker’s and we bought some sausages at the butcher’s.
Amana Colonies.
We drove past endless corn fields in Iowa. The temperature in the daytime was now as high as 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Each morning we packed up a small cooler that we kept in the back seat of the car. The back seat was our dog Cooper’s spot and we made sure he had plenty of water to drink. We pulled into Sioux City, Iowa and found a motel.
I’m not sure what day it was that we started to feel we were in some kind of marathon. The weather was starting to tap us. Even when we stopped to get gas or something to eat it was hard to find any shade. We took turns driving and there were long stretches of not seeing much off of the highway that was interesting. By the end of every day we were just happy to find an air conditioned motel room.
All across the US, other than fast food joints, we found the restaurant food to be awful. We weren’t sure if many of the restaurants lacked in knowledge of food preparation or just didn’t care. Maybe it was a small town thing as we avoided staying in larger cities. Americans seem to love things like biscuits and gravy with the gravy being kind of lumpy. In hindsight we should have brought a list of diners, drive-ins and dives. After a long day it can be a kind of empty feeling when the salad you ordered turns up with wilted lettuce with brown ends.
About a month ago I posted a comment on a site on the net about the crappy food we experienced and someone commented back that we had chosen the worst states to drive through expecting something reasonable to eat. He said he was a travelling salesman and the first rule is to stay away from square shaped states. Who knew?

We spent a forgettable night in Sioux City, Iowa and made our way into South Dakota the following morning. Linda had made notes of things to see along the way and we stopped off at The Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota. Apparently about a half a million people visit this tourist trap every year. We wandered around for about an hour. At one of the shops I saw a big blanket that had famous American Indians depicted on Mount Rushmore instead of the dead presidents. I thought it was funny. All in all the town was a bit….corny.
Corn Palace, Mitchell, South Dakota
We arrived in Keystone, South Dakota in the late afternoon. Keystone is the closest town to Mount Rushmore. We were attracted by a large flashing neon sign that advertised motel rooms for $59.00 a night. The motel was perched on the mountainside overlooking Keystone. It turned out that the advertising was just bullshit and the rooms were more like $159.00 a night.
We drove around town looking for another motel and saw another $59.00 a night neon sign. Again it was bullshit. We checked into a modest motel at about $100.00 a night and stayed there for 2 days. As we were unloading the car we struck up a conversation with some middle aged bikers who were sitting outside their rooms with their wives and girlfriends having a few pops. It turned out that they were all from Port Coquitlam, BC not far from where we live.
About the only thing we found interesting about Keystone was the local museum and some bronze sculptures by the guy and his son who built the Mount Rushmore monument. Their names were Gutson Borglum and Lincoln Borglum. When he was younger, the father studied in Paris and actually knew the famous French sculptor Auguste Rodin. The Mount Rushmore Memorial was started in 1927 and completed in 1941.
Mount Rushmore
We never got really close up to the monument as we couldn’t be bothered with the pay parking lot and you could see the thing very clearly from other vantage points.
The food in Keystone was probably the worst of our trip. We tried the breakfast buffet in one joint that had greasy eggs and partially cooked bacon. I ordered a donair in another place and was served some fried luncheon meat on microwaved pita bread. I placed an order for a 3 cheese grilled sandwich for take out and they gave my order to another customer. They actually ran down the street to recover it. I also made the mistake of buying some fudge that was below room temperature.

Every night in Keystone they stage some kind of native Indian thing with a whole lot of hooping and hollering. A lot of the shops had fake fronts making them look like they were from over a hundred years ago. Sort of. There were a lot of signs advertising 50% off. All in all a tacky, tacky little town.
Keystone, South Dakota.
We went for a drive around the area and it was well worth it. There were lots of short tunnels through parts of mountains and lots of pine trees. On our second day there I decided to see if I could find a good place where the dog could swim. It took me well over an hour to find a place that was accessible and it ended up being in a park in another small town that had a brook running through it.
We visited the Crazy Horse Memorial about 20 miles away from Mount Rushmore. Again another tourist trap but a lot more tasteful than Keystone. You can’t get very close to the actual monument as it is a work in progress. It was started in 1848 and it appears it will be well over 100 years from now when it will be completed. It is much bigger than Mount Rushmore and at this time only the head of Crazy Horse has been accomplished.
Crazy Horse Monument
We left the Mount Rushmore area and headed into Montana. We spent the night in a place called Red Lodge. The next morning we found ourselves on The Bear Tooth Highway that starts in Montana and ends up in Wyoming. It was absolutely spectacular and one of the high points of our trip. And I do mean “high point”. The highway winds and winds its way up to the mountain tops with lots of hairpins. We were up so far that there were snow banks that hadn’t totally melted in the summer weather.
Goat herd near Red Lodge, Montana
We saw a few marmots, alpine lakes, and wildflowers everywhere. It was totally amazing. I got a little nervous at times because the road was narrow and there were thousands of feet drop offs just off of the road and often no barriers. The speed limit was 15 miles per hour in some places.

Hairy road.
Our dog Cooper swimming in Alpine lake.
We found our way to the park entrance to Yellowstone National Park. We were on a roll as far as spectacularscenery goes. Years ago, I spent some time living in Banff and Jasper, Alberta in the Canadian Rockies and Yellowstone gives them a run for their money.
Gatehouse to Yellowstone.
The wild buffalo herds alone are enough to blow you away. The scenery is awesome. We saw mountain goats, deer, and elk. There were lots of creeks and small lakes. We took a pass on going to see Old Faithful as we had seen a number of other geysers. We really only spent one day at Yellowstone but was a day we will long remember.


Mountain Goat. Dead center of pic.
Cool tour bus.
We did stop at Wounded Knee in South Dakota and Little Big Horn in Montana and both times we decided to take a pass. One of reasons we opted out was we couldn’t leave the dog in the car and another reason was we would just be looking at an open field with little to see other than people selling souvenirs.
Entrance to Little Big Horn
We ended up spending the night in a forgettable town called Belgrade, Montana. We asked the front desk gal if she could recommend a good place to eat and she suggested a truck stop across the highway. I got to eavesdrop on a conversation between some truckers at a nearby booth. It was mostly about women. Our food came and it was another culinary disappointment.
On the road.
We were about to begin our mad dash for home. We had had enough of the unrelenting heat. There wasn’t a lot to see out of the window that was of much interest by this point. We did notice in different spots across the west that wind turbines had been set up over the last number of years as another source of energy.
Wind turbines.
We crossed the mighty Columbia River and into Washington State. The eastern part of Washington is desert like in a lot of places. In other spots they grow wheat and corn and some vegetables. We spent out last night in Ellensberg, Washington about 100 miles east of Seattle. (Hey…I’m an old guy and I still use miles and Fahrenheit when I can.)
Columbia River.
As we got closer to Seattle we could see the thick forests we are familiar with in BC. We were almost home. We stopped off at a MacDonalds for breakfast. There was a white guy about 40 years of age sitting with a black teenager at the next table. A prayer was said before they ate. It made me think of the good rock stations we listened to on the road trip that faded away before us then hearing some religious sermonizing and us deciding to just turn the radio off.
We stopped off at Bellingham, Washington and went to the local mall and bought a bunch of clothes. Also picked up some duty free booze near the border.
We had a bit of waiting to do at the ferry terminal near Vancouver and after a long day and a 35 day trip it was good to be home. One of the first things I did was go to the grocery store the next day to get some decent food.




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