Montana, my heart belongs to you….

We are back in this beautiful state – Billings for a few days at a cool KOA with a delightful miniature golf course – where I beat Rick with three holes in one! Billings is hardly scenic as it is surrounded by oil refineries and oil is the smell in the air at all times. While we understand the value of these industries, it’s important to remember the environmental & ecological impact of stripping coal and oil from the earth. Regardless of your perspective one wonders why there are not more solar panel projects or wind farms here – where the wide open plains and the strong winds are widespread.

Next stop for us is Red Lodge, Montana – off Rte 212 just east of Yellowstone. We were greeted with a big thunderstorm and pea size hail our first evening but surrounded by scenic farm land and tall peaks. As we drove into the area there were wildflowers decorating the roadside – but the orange poppies were spectacular – like a welcome greeting or hello hug.

First day we drove the Jeep Grand Cherokee high into the mountains following the famous Beartooth Highway that just reopened for spring. It’s a winding corkscrew of a road thru the high mountains and contrasting valleys that leads you to the east side of Yellowstone National Park. Picturesque is an understatement.

It is according to Charles Kuralt ” one of the truly most scenic highways in the USA ” and we agree even though there was still a 30 ft of snow wall along the highest points.

An amazing vista along with an occasional white knuckles section – can’t imagine doing this in a motor coach although people passed us in small ones. This drive was a wonderful experience that we are very glad we did.

Skiers and snow boarders can be found near the top – still enjoying the over 30 ft of granulated sugar snow on the basin slopes. There’s a historical rope tow at the Basin area giving a small assist for those brave souls. We watched for a while and shared their exuberance of their almost flying rides down the slopes.

We made it to The Top of the World gift and sundries shop for some munchies and a photo op – then on to Cooke City just outside the Park East Entrance. Waterfalls powering down mountain slopes tell you how high the snow pack was this winter and it’s a spring sight to witness. In realty photos tell the story best of this beautiful drive so here are several to wet your appetite for this amazing drive.

Our return drive was along the Chief Joseph Highway which commemorates the trip this famous chief took his Nez Perce tribe when in the late 1880’s, he unsuccessfully tried to escape the US Army. He eventually surrendered after terrible cold weather affected his people but his loyalty, grace and courage will always be remembered. This return trip was not as elevated but it was still beautiful.

Red Lodge is a tiny scenic cowboy town of 2300 with lots of shops, galleries and fun places to poke around in. There are several terrific restaurants and we enjoyed one – Bogart’s with a Mexican theme and photos of the wonderful iconic actor and his costars on the walls as well as great Margaritas and authentic food.

We enjoyed a walk thru the local candy emporium and an interesting antique shop that had everything from classic lamps to old license plates with a classic gun shop room in the back – complete with pearl handled revolvers and leather tooled holsters.

In an expansive gallery of several large rooms we saw wonderful local artwork ranging from sculptures to beaded work and large delightful oil paintings. The proprietor gave us some further tips about the area and Yellowstone – I had to try very hard not to buy any number of items there.

Near our campground we found a special furniture store – Rocky Fork Juniper Furniture – where an artist/ wood sculptor – Lee Kern – has a workshop where lovely juniper trees and logs became lamps, chairs, tables and even a huge four poster bed under the spell of his vision. We fell in love with his work and pieces – maybe someday one of them may grace our home.

Don’t miss this tiny town of Red Lodge if you are traveling this way – it’s funky, timeless and the people are very welcoming and warm. Just another reason to love visiting Montana.

Yellowstone – here we come!

A Close Encounter with the first National monument.

Ever since I saw the movie “Close Encounters of a Third Kind” with Richard Dreyfus among other sci fi experienced types – I was determined to visit this amazing place. It lived up to its billing and it was magical, serene, glorious and spiritual. And we found out that it was the first National Monument!

The Lakota Sioux still come to this site to offer prayers and there are several Native American stories about a it’s origin. One about three little girls escaping a grizzly Bear – they jumped on a small mound which grew larger to protect them and another with a bear’s huge claws responsible for the ridges in the Tower.

Geologists say it is the volcanic plug that remained from a giant volcano was eroded by wind and rain over millions of years. I still think the aliens built it…..there’s plenty of room for a spacecraft to land on the surrounding plains.

Although there was no alien space ship there for this visit we spent a couple of hours there – walking around it and taking pictures from every angle. We did not sign up to climb it although that is allowed with special equipment. We didn’t see anyone climbing but for me even imagining it is scary.

It’s very large – higher than you thought – there is soil and grass on top – it’s big enough for a garden. The rocks below are the result of pieces breaking off the structure all the time. If you watch you might see one fall. The tribes members leave prayer scarfs tied to trees to honor their ancestors or personal wishes.

People flock to this sight – on motorcycles, on cars, RVs and buses – it calls you to it with a magnetic like force. That first glimpse you get as you round the hills on the highway is so compelling everyone stops for a photo.

Here’s a prairie dog looking fondly toward the Tower. 😜 They May wonder what all the fuss is about. But the landscape around the Tower seems very unusual – so for us it seems other worldly.

And then we took a trip through the old mining and rough towns in western South Dakota. We did a quick ride through Sturgis but it’s not very impressive without the 750,000 motorcycles that arrive in August every year. Then we drove through Spearfish, little tiny Whitewood, the beautiful deep Cheyenne Canyon, charming ski town Lead, and the wild town of Deadwood.

We had a great lunch (although Rick had breakfast) at Cheyenne Canyon Cafe – a sweet crossroads place inside the Canyon – the only place to eat for many miles.

The hotel above has a fabulous restaurant called Legends – we’ll stop there someday. There’s a very western cowboy feel about Deadwood even though it’s got paved streets and sidewalks.

A big check mark on the bucket list and a great time had by all on this trip to old SD.

South Dakota – truly a unique place.

We planned to visit South Dakota to see family as well as check off some big bucket list items! Last year we traveled through North Dakota so this trip was to focus on the southern sister. It is the true wild and rich prairie from the eastern border with big farms and grain production prevalent complimented by cattle grazing lazily in the sun. As we approached the state’s center and began seeing Wall Drug signs we knew the Badlands were getting close.

We planned to take a day to visit the famous store which offers lots to buy in a museum atmosphere and Badlands National Park once we were settled in Rapid City KOA.

Wall Drug defies explanation in reality and you just gotta stop fir ice cream or lunch or just a free cup of water. It’s over 80 years old and has displays of cattle branding, amazing cowboy memorabilia as well as leather items. and Native American goods for sale. The people are very friendly and accommodating. One fellow gave us some good suggestions for visiting the Badlands. We also ran into a fellow traveler from my sister Margot’s home town school – Williston- he had a school shirt on so we compared dates to see if he knew my nephew, Colin but he graduated after him. Small world isn’t it?

The Badlands are different than all the surrounding landscapes with colorful rock exposed by millions of years of erosion. The red bands along the top are over 200 million years old. The park has a buffalo or bison herd – several of which greater us at the Park Gate as well as plentiful bighorn sheep and a number of prairie dogs towns

Drive through the park and stop at all the turnoffs to see wildlife and amazing landscapes – it looks like another planet – something out of Star Wars. It’s greener in the park this year because of all the rain in spring. Makes for a cool contrast against the wild colored rocks.

Bighorn sheep travel in families with new kids born this spring – they are so sure footed on the cliffs and precipices – you admire their balance is something to see.

Prairie dogs rock – we could watch them forever. Their communities are so full of life and activity it’s hard to move on.

Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Monument were our destinations the following day. Both define awesome and should not be missed.

The approach to Rushmore has been jazzed up with columns and flags – some don’t line it but I thought it was well done. The movie and museum are a worthwhile stop to get the background on the designer and the work.

It’s fun to see before and after pictures of the mountain and to see how the images changed from the original idea. The designer died before it was finalized so his son finished it – making the grand accomplishment a family affair. It is a beautiful recognition of the four presidents who were most significant in their leadership thus inspiring, and making a reality our republic with liberty, freedom and pursuit of happiness for all.

Although long from complete, this monument to the revered chief is remarkable and a labor of love too. One family – originally from Poland, has been designing and working on the monument since 1940 – hired by the chief of the nation – they committed themselves to its completion with no government assistance – it is funded by entrance fees of $10 per person in each car and a variety of other fundraising techniques. There is a foundation located on the site which has built a school of medicine for Native American students. It’s a sacred mountain and there is a feeling of reverence about the monument. The Chief’s face is visible now and someday it will include his horse and his arm and hand pointing to the land they loved. Below is a model of the finished sculpture.

Tomorrow we will talk about the second half of our visit – it was equally exciting – we checked off a big bucket list item and we had Rick’s cousins family for our local lore guides. We took a lot more photos while touring the historical cities around Rapid City.

We also enjoyed several terrific restaurants in Rapid City – which is vibrant young city with a lot of citywide events and programs. From quaint to hip or really rocking – all these marvelous places served wonderful meals and had superb service – Vertex in the Alex Johnson Hotel, Kol Kitchen, and MLurphy’s Pub, Cheyenne Crossing Cafe, and finally the Dakotah Steakhouse.

It’s the city of Presidents – statues of all the President’s are on the street corners and they are remarkable likenesses. You can recognize them by their clothes, accessories or mannerisms. It’s a unique celebration of our history.

More in our next post. Enjoy South Dakota as we did!

Minnesota – the Twin Cities or Lucas Davenport’s ole stomping ground!

John Sanford, author, writes the “Prey”crime mysteries with Lucas Davenport as the main character – currently a US Marshall but formerly with Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and a gaming software designer – so every time I think of the Minneapolis/St Paul area I think of his terrific stories. He introduced Minnesota & the twin cities to us but also the rural areas that surround them.

We decided to stop just outside of the Twins – in Jordan and the Granite Falls – so we could meet up with some friends from Rick’s Ameriprise Financial days. We had dinner with always interesting and fun Bernie and Cate at a fabulous Irish Pub in Shakopee and then a few days later we met at a sweet Italian ristorante with the delightful Cory and Corey team in Marshall. It was cool to catch up and see both families are happy and doing well. They loved our traveling stories and will come with us in spirit this year.

Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes and they are not kidding. Water, water is everywhere and this has been a wet spring so the flowers are blooming and trees exploding with green. We are experiencing our fourth spring. And still enjoy wiping the pollen off every day…..

Next we are off to South Dakota to see one of Rick’s cousins and check off several big items on our bucket list.

A short stop in Wisconsin

We headed west from Indiana – transited Illinois west of Chicago – stopping just for lunch north of Rockford. We will return to that area some day for a visit. Our first stop was north of Madison, Wisconsin – where we spent Memorial Day weekend in a small KOA campground actually in Deforest right off interstate. We had a 60 mph wind storm with rain the first night and learned why they called winged seeds from maple trees – helicopters. The car and coach as well s the ground were covered with them.

We toured Madison a bit, but focused on seeing some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s designed private homes as well as his personal home “Taliesin” out in Spring Green. We love his eye for environmentally sympathetic design and use of natural materials. He and his families offer us a fascinating story and his artistry is without rival. We did not tour the personal home – it’s quite pricey and is rigorously scheduled, but we did enjoy a delightful lunch in the cafe & visitor center he designed. We took lots of photos of the buildings – below is the home surrounded by 800 acres of lush vegetation – and we enjoyed soaking in the sweet pastoral atmosphere of Spring Green.

Apparently he was delighted by the big beautiful red barns prevalent throughout Wisconsin so he built on on his property – along with a working farm, homes for relatives, architecture school and church.

His family life was complicated – three wives , lots of kids, at least one mistress who was murdered in his home mysteriously. But there is no doubting his important influence on American art.

Who wouldn’t love a home with great open views and interior space, stone fireplaces and decks to view sunrise and sunsets! We took photos of several private homes and one church – I’m sure they are used to that.

Madison is an attractive youthful university surrounded state Capitol with two big lakes – it’s quite beautiful and seems to be a family friendly city. We saw the big crowds who were enjoying Saturday Farmers Market in the city center.

And no visit is complete without a cheese stop – we came away with four or five new cheeses to enjoy thanks to this amazing dairy state with more cows than people and beautiful barns to add to my barn photo collection.

It was a great way to spend the first warm sunny weekend of the season.

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