September to October 2005

 Banana Belt is a Relative Term

Alaska, Yukon Territory, Alberta

Aka:  We’ve stayed too long at the fair --- yet again

Also, a discussion of Life on the Edge .... of the Mountain Time Zone

We’re just outside Rapid City, South Dakota.  We arrived shortly after Labor Day, with plans to stay until the winter weather got so bad we had to move further south, which we expected to probably be about mid-November.  We arrived, and immediately fell in love; it’s beautiful here.  More on that later.  First, we need to chat about MTZ.  That’s Mountain Time Zone to all you folks out there in the real world.  Here we’re in Never-Never Land.

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In the MTZ you don’t know if you have weather or not.  The ditsy girl on the teevee stands in front of your state – AND NEVER MOVES.  I think she figures there’s no one there to care.  And the sports announcers ignore you; the game is going to start at “9:00 eastern, 8:00 central, and 6 on the West Coast.”  Rick always chimes in with “7:00 mountain.”

We do have public radio – but it originates in Sioux Falls, all the way on the other side of the state, in the CENTRAL TIME ZONE.  We can listen to Scott Simon okay, but it’s on between 6:00-8:00 in the morning.  And Frank, they are pretty rinky-dink when it comes to raising money.  They really need to tune into KCBX and see how the pros do it!

So why South Dakota, and why Rapid City for Pete’s sake.  Because it’s lovely,  We’re right on the edge of the Black Hills, with all they have to offer.  This  includes Custer State Park, which has a standing herd of about 1500 bison.  (Early in October we attended a roundup, which was a hoot in itself.  They really knew how to make those behemoths move right along!)  This area is where some of “Dances with Wolves” was filmed.  Remember the huge buffalo herds?  We are also close to Mt. Rushmore, and Deadwood (Al Swearingen and Seth Bullock of the HBO series were REAL people!) and the mining town of Lead (no, silly, like in …. a horse to water).  Fall color is in full swing; not the reds and oranges we’re used to seeing in New England.  A dozen different shades of yellow.  It truly is lovely.

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But we didn’t just dash over here after we left Canada in August.  We thought for awhile about what to do and where to go.  One huge consideration was fuel pricing.  We had put on almost 10,000 miles over the summer, most of that in the motorhome, currently costing about 30 cents a mile.  (This was even before hurricanes were tormenting the Gulf; prices had been high in Canada all summer.)  And we were ready to start considering a place to settle down for a couple of months.  We had projects to work on, and a trip to Mexico to organize.

So!  Where do you go after you leave Canada and Alaska?  We had really enjoyed those areas with so much to offer: wide open spaces, critters, glaciers, spectacular mountains and lakes; you know: we’ve been telling you about it!  But, carefully considering our options, we didn’t really think staying in either Alaska or Canada would work for us for the winter.  Brrrrrrrr!  So when we crossed back across the border, we landed in lovely Libby, Montana.  This was late August. And Libby was great.  We were in an Army Corps of Engineers campground right next to the river, with hawks and eagles and ospreys in the trees, warm afternoons watching people float and fish in the river; what’s not to like?  

But Libby would be too cold for a winter stay.  We knew we wanted to slowly begin to head further down the hill.  We thought, “let’s go visit our home park in Rapid City, South Dakota.  We can stay there as long as we want to.  That sounds cool.”  Well not cool yet.  South Dakota in August is waaaay hot.  So let’s take our time.  

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Leaving, Libby, now late August, we wanted a few days in Glacier National Park, which is only 120 miles away.  But a day-trip to poke around convinced us there were entirely too many people there for us to be happy.  And once again there was a new fire in the vicinity, leaving the area too smoky for comfort.  Glacier needs to be visited in June, before crowds and before fires.  Period.  End of discussion.  So we discarded that idea.  So what else is out there?  When you depart northwest Montana, how do you get to South Dakota?  Why, you go to Yellowstone, of course.  We followed the Clark Fork of the Bitterroot down to Missoula (this is incredible country in here).  Missoula, we understand, is a charming town to visit and prowl; but each time we’ve been through it’s been incredibly HOT.  So we’ve never stayed long enough to do that.  Kathy’s mother grew up on a farm outside there, and it’s an old town with lots of trees and pretty parks; we vowed that some day we’d explore, but today we were on a roll.  On to Butte!  Ugh.  Oh well, on beyond Butte!  After finding a quiet place to hang our hats for the night, we pressed on.  This is mining country, and you know, California/Nevada aren’t unique:  Montana also has a Nevada City and a Virginia City, and the area looks like the California foothills, too.  It was Labor Day weekend, and big doins’ abounded.  Opportunities to pan for garnets, rubies, etc., all for just a few shekels.  Ennis was our favorite town to visit; lots of western flavor, with just a touch of Ducks Unlimited – and a great pizza place.  

Our strategy was to wait until after Labor Day, and then arrive at Yellowstone National Park as all those tourists were headed home.  It had worked perfectly in 1994 …… but not so well in 2005.  it seems our strategy was shared by lots of other folks.  “It used to be” that most tourists visited attractions between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and otherwise the parks were pretty empty.  Taint so nowadays, Mister Bill.  

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All this is mere muttering, of course.  Yellowstone was not nearly as busy as it would have been a few weeks earlier.  Old Faithful was probably the most crowded spot, and we simply kept moving.  But did you know they now have an exit and overpass to get over to the geyser?  That’s a real sign of how many people want to see this amazing spot.  Our visit to Yellowstone was great fun, and we had lovely weather.  We saw critters everywhere:  the bison were all over the roads; we saw sheep and bear, and heard wolves several times.  And bugling elk; what a treat that was!  In the evenings, we would hear them calling each other from a nearby meadow.  It’s a sound like none other.  We were encouraged to see all the re-growth after that devastating 1988 fire that destroyed almost one-third of the trees in the park.  The whole area is full of young trees rapidly filling in the empty places.  Also, in the five years since our last visit, they’ve completed a tremendous amount of reconstruction on the road network within the park.  Our visit left us feeling good about Yellowstone again.

One of the fun things about visiting Yellowstone is that you think you’re in Montana but you’re not:  right after you enter the park from the west you cross into Wyoming.  Montana doesn’t want you to know this; local reports and Forest Service information bulletins tend to be date-lined from Helena or Billings or Missoula.  But no…no…no.  And Wyoming is definitely another part of the planet.

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After several lovely days in Yellowstone, dodging bison on the road and watching/listening to the elk, we traveled east out of the park on Highway 14/16/20 (this is road conservation taken to a new level), heading toward Cody.  This is a stunning road, written up in all the lists of scenic by-ways, and it was spectacular.  Wyoming is known to be a sparsely populated, lonely kind of a state, but we had fun going across.  We picked several scenic roads, and they were all quite special.  We started by spending the night in a pretty park outside Cody, and checking the town out the following morning.  This is the home of the Buffalo Bill Museums, with huge collections of western stuff, including some very interesting Native American materials.  This is a nice town, one to visit again.

East of Cody we went through Ten Sleep, so named because it was that-many-days-travel west from Buffalo.  Gorgeous country, dropping into a very deep creek bed going far, far back in geologic time as far as the Precambrian.  The sandstone cliffs were lovely.  By the way, Ten Sleep is the home of the Snowmobile Grass Drags…………

But on to Buffalo, through Crazy Woman, past Dead Horse and Wild Horse Creek Rd.  More and more pronghorns off in the distance (and up close, too – boy, they’re beautiful).  By now we’d left the lovely small by-ways and had joined the interstate, and suddenly we passed the turnoff to Sundance, the turnoff to Devil’s Tower, both places to visit when we could, and then, and then, we were in ….. SOUTH DAKOTA.

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Well, you are, of course, very familiar with the map of South Dakota.  Right?  Right!  So you know that Rapid City is not far over the border from Wyoming.  You go through Sturgis (Sturgis!  Oh my……) and off ahead you can see the Black Hills and then the turnoffs for Rapid, as the locals call it.  And there we were, and here we still are.  We’re settled in our lovely “home” park of Hart Ranch, about 8 miles south of town and part of a still working ranching operation, and we are very happy.  The area is very like Paso Robles, with rolling hills and oak trees, although no vineyards.  But lots of horses and cattle ranching surround us; and wonderful peace and quiet (except for the cows, when mamas are separated from their babies).  And we have lots of coyotes and jack rabbits.  So we feel right at home, and can stay here very inexpensively, always important.

Rapid City has about 60,000 folks, big enough to have real stores and an excellent library, but not too much traffic, particularly now that “the season” is over, and the locals are really, really nice.  When we first arrived, it was mid-September, and tourists still abounded (were abounding???).  But they’re mostly gone now, and town is pretty quiet.  It’s supported largely by tourism, and visitors are treated with respect and friendliness.  There are interesting things to see in town, including an accurate replica of a Stav Kirke, a 900-year-old Norwegian church, quite educational and really beautiful.  

Several Native American galleries, evidence of a large native presence in the area, are in town.  We are close to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the scene of the Wounded Knee massacre.  In October, the school kids get two extra days off around Columbus Day, called Native Heritage Days, and there’s a huge pow-wow in town, drawing folks from the entire region.  

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There is a downside to living in a tourist area, especially in the Mid-West.  Tons of schlocky signs, truly awful ones.  “Patriotism” is in the area.  Stupid attractions abound, mystery caves, reptile gardens, water slides (seasonal) and such.  And there are few decent places to eat.  Since South Dakota has legalized gambling, many towns have casinos on every corner.  And they all serve cheap food, to bring the folks in.  So it’s hard for “real” restaurants to compete.  At least that’s my theory.  Down with gambling!

Another downside, not surprisingly, is the plenitude of poor Native Americans, housed in sub-standard buildings and surrounded by tacky stuff.  We’ve seen this across the United States (Canada is definitely not immune, either).  A subject for another day.  

The weather is very changeable here in the fall.  For a few days it’ll be in the 70s, then it will turn cold; often it’s extremely windy.  We had snow one night, mostly gone by noon but adding to the ambiance.  We have been told that the winters are much more mild here than either to the west in Montana and Wyoming, or to the east in eastern SD or Minnesota (hence the banana belt designation).  We try and get out to see the area on the best days, but it’s also so lovely right here that sometimes we cannot make ourselves move very far.  Rick has bought a new camera and is enjoying learning its charms.  He was so regularly frustrated by the animals he couldn’t take pictures of last summer that we decided it was time for a better camera.  And I have inherited the “old” one – which is a wonderful camera, merely a little more basic.  I’m learning how to use it, and enjoying the experience very much.  We now have two photographers in the family.  And I have found that hobby that people said I was going to need eventually.

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This area is full of places to visit (hence all the tourists).  We had a nice day out in the Badlands (is that an oxymoron?), quite happy it wasn’t July.  It was fun trying to capture the prairie dogs on film (or digits?).  We’ve made several riding trips in the Hills, just to enjoy the roads. And of course we stop off at Mt. Rushmore on the way back from lunch at the diner in Hill City.  The Black Hills are truly magical; filled with beautiful views, wonderful old rock formations and spectacular motorcycling.  

We find that the Mt. Rushmore Monument brings us back time after time.  We’ve visited at various times of the day, walked the base of the monument to look at the guys from up close, and even have come up at night.  The monument is lit at night, but by November, they only have it lit for a couple of hours.  One quite warm evening (it was about 60 degrees, at 4:30, which was dusk) we rode up and spent awhile.  There was a moon, but unfortunately it wasn’t in the right part of the sky, so we couldn’t combine the two phenomena in one shot; but we had fun and it was a neat experience.  There was almost no one there except us and a few families in town for a 4-H conference.  That’s what we like about the “off” season!  Wandering through the hills that night, we drove through Keystone.  Now Keystone is a small tourist town, one of the worst of the schlocky-tacky ones.  In the summer it’s wall-to-wall tourists, but this night, about 6:00, the only visitors were a couple of deer munching the grass along the edge of a Quality Inn parking lot.

Once in our riding we made a wrong turn and ended up so far west we had crossed back over into Wyoming, ending up in Newcastle.  This gave us the chance to temporarily name the bike ….. Coals.  

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And we have gone back into Wyoming on purpose to go visit Devil’s Tower, a huge monolith out in the middle of the northern plains.  This is quite a spot, visible from miles around, as they say.  It’s a national monument, and a sacred Native American area.  Mountain climbers love it, and it gets a lot of attention from them.  We were interested to see that June is a sacred month to the tribes, and there is a voluntary closing of the peak to climbers.  Since this practice was started, there has been an 80% reduction of climbing during that time period.  Isn’t that refreshing!

Yes, we’ve seen the area.  But as we we’ve said, we’re also happy just being “homies.”  We  are enjoying certain luxuries we normally do without.  After dry camping for three solid months over the summer, we now have water (hot all the time) and electricity and sewer connections at our site.  We have free Wi-Fi right here (and a good connection, too).  Our phone works.  There are laundry facilities on site, a small grocery, and even a gas station.  Rick has joined the local gym and is working out virtually every morning.  Kathy is walking 6-7 miles a day on the paths that wander through and around the nearby golf course.  Every day, as she walks, she communes with the local deer and the wild turkeys who feed on the golf course.  We’ve lost weight, toned up, and feel good.

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A real treat for us this fall has been our proximity to an excellent public library.  We’ve taken full advantage.  It’s a luxury to have plenty of good books available, at no charge.  We’ve been reading our heads off, and, partly by coincidence, have read several by authors who write about Montana and Wyoming and the hardships thereof.  Annie Proulx and Ivan Doig write about the tough folks who settled these rugged, isolated areas, as well as about the equally tough people who live there now.  As I walk in the park today (see weather report, below), I’m reminded of one of Doig’s characters out in north central Montana who was so accustomed to the prairie wind that he automatically started to “slant ahead into a braced position when he felt the start of a breeze through an opened window.”

We’ve taken advantage of being in one place for awhile to take care of some business.  Rick has enrolled in the VA here, and shortly will be assigned a doctor.  This attaches us further to this area, as he is now supposed to have an annual physical here each fall.  Okay by us.  And I’ve gone through the process of applying for Social Security, a truly amazing experience.  To my utter astonishment, it was quick, easy, and painless.  I applied over the internet, and then received a phone call from someone in response to a question I had asked.  She spoke excellent English, with no accent, in complete sentences, was a real person with the answer I needed, and we accomplished our business in no time.  There is hope for our country after all!

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So you can see why we linger here.  We (very briefly) considered staying for the winter.  But “banana belt” really is a relative term.  It was down to 18 degrees the other night and is supposed to be right back there again tomorrow.  So as the winter winds’ howling starts to set in, and we listen to the cows moaning at night as they wait to be fed, and it begins to be too cold to get out in comfort, we’re preparing to load the bike, unhook ourselves from those friendly umbilical cords, and mosey on down the road.  We’ve outlasted most folks here in the park.  When we arrived early in September, the park was full, with about 400 rigs on site.  Right now there are 32, ourselves included.  With wind chill factor figured in, the current temperature is 29 degrees, at 3:15 pm.  The wind is blowing at 33 mph.  Time to skedaddle.  

We’ve done one thing that will make the winter easier, much easier.  We’ve moved on to Phase Three of our adventure – we’ve bought a car.  We’ve often talked about taking this step, but always put it off.  We have really been just fine relying on the motorcycle for all of our transport these past four years as we both love to ride.  But there are times when weather intrudes despite our best efforts to always be in the right place at the right time; and we don’t venture out at night as often as we might like.  So the combination of increasingly colder mornings here and the anticipation of some hot humid weather next summer when we plan to stay in the states during the warm months, for the first time brought us to the decision that now was the time.  

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After lots of thought and some looking around at local dealers, we came to the conclusion that we’d like to have a Jeep.  More and more in our travels we have found ourselves wanting to explore the myriad of dirt roads that head off into the land less traveled; and while we have on occasion gone off the paved path on the motorcycle, neither the bike nor its rider are really suited for such work.  Anyway, we have invited a 2001 Jeep Wrangler into our modest family and the bonding has begun.  We like the idea of being able to take the top off when conditions are right, and of not having to worry that twenty or so miles down some interesting road we might come across a great big puddle (as happened on our way to Nogales early this year) that would force us to turn around.  So, with no pretensions of becoming rock hounds, we now at least feel equipped to fearlessly head off the pavement when the mood strikes.

As we move south, our plans are to drop down through Kansas and Nebraska, see a bit of Oklahoma, and then spend about six weeks in Texas.  There are a few things to see along the way, depending on the weather:  Abilene’s greyhound museum (and well, yes, the Eisenhower museums, too….), for one; and I’m looking forward to a day in Oklahoma City if possible.  But in looking at Nebraska, I think we’ll move right along.  We’re going to save for another time…..Elgin, the vetch capital of the US; Lincoln, the state capital and home of the National Museum of Roller Skating; and Norfolk, home of the voice of Tony the Tiger, and less importantly (apparently) the birthplace of Johnny Carson.

We expect to be in San Antonio for Christmas, and are looking forward to seeing some family who will be visiting us there.  San Antonio is one of our favorite cities, and it should be lots of fun.  After the New Year, we’ll head for the border.  South!  Always south!

Hoping you’re warmer than we are, lots of hugs from

Rick and Kathy 

PS.  Almost unnoticed, we’ve celebrated another anniversary:  we’ve now been on the road for 4 years.  We feel we’re still just getting started; we talk to many folks who’ve been out there 10-15 years or more.  And we’re still having fun, as the song says.  Fittingly, if you haven’t been keeping track, this is our fortieth newsletter.  Guess we do still keep some kind of schedule.

See more photos from Canada & Alaska in 2005

© Rick & Kathy Howe 2001-2018