Friday, July 19, 2013

Painting the Black Hills Red in Rapid City, SD

My favorite part of our visit to South Dakota was that my mom came to visit us and celebrate my birthday. Mom and I are complete opposites in that she hates to travel, but somehow I convinced her to hop on a couple flights to Rapid City to spend my "birthweek" with me. (Birthdays are a big deal in my book, so I like to extend the celebration. I prefer my birthday bash to be like Hanukkah, involving many nights of gift-giving and latkes.) 

Not only did Mom want to check out the RV for the first time, but she also wanted to see Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Although other travelers warned us not to be blown away, we were able to appreciate the craftsmanship and history behind the carving that honors our presidents. 

Mount Rushmore is descended upon by more than three million visitors each year, and it certainly feels littered with tourists from all the over the world. Doane Robinson, a major proponent of the carving, wanted an attraction that would draw people to South Dakota. Mount Rushmore is a success based on the foot traffic alone. 

What's wonderful about the Black Hills region of South Dakota is that there are so many parks, attractions and sights to explore aside from Mount Rushmore. We also visited Crazy Horse Memorial, which is a mountain commissioned for the carving of the Lakota warrior. 

It offers an interesting contrast to Mount Rushmore, although both projects stalled at one point. The carving has been in progress since 1948, and the original sculptor's family is still driving the effort. The project is entirely donation-based and once completed, will look something like this:

Obviously, there's a long way to go. Crazy Horse will also include an educational and cultural center to honor the heritage of American Indian tribes. Spencer and I look forward to visiting the sculpture again in 20 years to see what progress has been made. 

On my birthday, Mom, Spencer and I visited Custer State Park, which provides one of the best examples of wildlife for a state park. If you can't make the journey to Yellowstone or Grand Teton National Parks, which I highly suggest you do, and have the insatiable urge to see wildlife, you will enjoy spotting bison, donkeys and birds that call the Black Hills home. 

Custer State Park is also home to the historic State Game Lodge, which served as the Summer White House for President Calvin Coolidge in 1927. The spectacular lodge also garnered a visit from President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953. 

Established in 1920, the lodge is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, visitors can satisfy their hunger in the stately dining room, lounge leisurely by the fireplace, or even sleep in the rooms where Presidents Coolidge and Eisenhower rested their heads. I'm sure someone must have changed the sheets by now -- unless you're into that sort of thing. 

Any trace DNA left in the room? I need to stop watching Law & Order: SVU.
Just driving around the Black Hills region, stopping and climbing out to a vista, makes you appreciate the natural beauty around you. I felt very loved and blessed to have Spencer and Mom building these memories with me.  

Our next stop was Wind Cave National Park, one of the longest cave systems in the world, known for its incredible boxwork. A distinct, almost honeycomb-like type of cave formation, boxwork in Wind Cave may be the best formed and most prevalent of all caves. 

The three of us lingered behind on the tour and turned off our flashlights, closed our eyes, and tried to imagine stumbling upon this underworld wonder for the first time. How terrifying and exhilarating! 

We were pretty exhausted after our adventures, but Spencer treated Mom and me to a Japanese steakhouse dinner, so I could enjoy teppanyaki-style food. But the best part of the feast was the cake Spencer ordered for me. It certainly made turning another year older, a lot sweeter. 

The birthday festivities may have concluded, but we still had a "birthweek" of fun! Mom and I ventured to sightsee the outstanding, the quirky and the cool. We found the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, which is a quirky program. During the Cold War, with the impending threat of a Soviet attack on the U.S., the government arranged to store missiles in silos in rural parts of the country. Most of the missile complex was destroyed, but two of the missiles were deactivated and preserved as part of the National Historic Site. 

The idea behind the location of these silos and the complex is that they would be difficult to identify in the rural landscape. Spot on. Unless, Miss Cleo herself told you were they were, you would probably have no idea. 

Mom and I continued on to find something outstanding in the Black Hills and we found it: Badlands National Park. The park's landscape looks as if it's been designed to look weird, loosely based on a cartoon of another planet. 

The swirly, colored pattern in the rocks is one reminder that the Badlands have changed drastically between now and 69 million years ago when sediments of an ancient sea were deposited here. 

Ancient creatures like the saber-toothed cat, rhinoceros and horse were past inhabitants of these awesome lands. Today, the Badlands provide a home for bison, big-horned sheep and a variety of rodents. Traces of the past still live on, too, since the park houses one of the most complete fossil accumulations in North America. 

Looking back, I wish we would have spent more time in the Badlands, because it seems that there would be so much more to explore within the park. Unfortunately, our time in South Dakota was rapidly approaching its end, as well as my vacation with my mom.

All of us experienced incredible beauty, uniqueness and wonderment in the Black Hills of South Dakota. I am sure the region will be calling our names again soon for another visit. Until then, I'll be riding high on my fond memories of life in the Badlands. 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Trackin' Bakken & Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND

After saying our goodbyes to captivating Montana, Spencer, Ellie and I headed east to North Dakota, a state known for its storied history of Theodore Roosevelt, desolate lands and its recent oil boom, a modern-day gold rush. 

Spencer, who has been following the rise of "fracking" the way a preteen follows the boom of One Direction (read: grossly invested), has been anticipating our North Dakota visit since we left on our RV adventure. Actually, it may have been the reason for the RV adventure. For those not as informed as Spencer, hydraulic fracturing or fracking is a technique used to extract gas and oil from shale rock found underneath the ground. A high-pressured water, sand and chemical mixture is aimed at the rock to release gas into the oil well. 

National Geographic has a helpful video if you want to know more about the Bakken, the oil reserves that cover North Dakota, Montana and Canada. Fracking is both popular and controversial -- seen by some as a way to drive down gas prices and increase America's oil independence; others worry about the chemicals injected in the shale contaminating groundwater and the large cost of water used in the extraction method. 

We stationed our RV in Dickinson, a small city a couple hours from the epicenter of the state's fracking in Williston. Since many residents work in the oil industry or ancillary fields, Dickinson has seen similar effects to Williston, like a housing crisis where companies can't build fast enough to accommodate the influx of people. 

Even the Walmart in Williston is so busy that palates are often left loaded in aisles. 

It was pretty incredible to see how fracking has transformed Dickinson, Williston and the rest of North Dakota. Wide open spaces are now filled with "man-camps" to accommodate oil workers.

For perspective, out of more than 100 sites at our campground in Dickinson, we were the only ones visiting for enjoyment and not for work. 

Fortunately, we were also close to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which offers visitors a chance to travel back to the late 1800s when the future president left New York for the rural Dakota Territory to hunt bison and explore the great outdoors. 

We spent the Fourth of July hiking and exploring Theodore Roosevelt National Park, as well as enjoying holiday festivities happening in Medora, the little town outside the park.

Teddy Roosevelt, known as the Conservationist President, formed many of the ideals that would define his future policies during his time in present day North Dakota. He said:

"There can be nothing in the world more beautiful than the Yosemite, the groves of the giant sequoias and redwoods, the Canyon of the Colorado, the Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Three Tetons; and our people should see to it that they are preserved for their children and their children's children forever, with their majestic beauty all marred." 

Although Roosevelt arrived in North Dakota to "bag a buffalo," he had trouble finding bison to hunt. Thousands had been killed by commercial hunters. Spencer and I didn't have the same trouble finding bison to shoot -- only with a camera instead of a rifle.

Roosevelt ended up launching a cattle ranching operation in the area before leaving for New York. However, tragedy drew Roosevelt back to North Dakota after both his wife and mother passed away on the same day. It was Valentine's Day 1884. 

In his diary, he drew a large "X" and wrote only: “The light has gone out of my life.”

In order to recover from these painful events, Roosevelt returned to the Maltese Cross Ranch. He commissioned a cabin, which is now on display at the park. With three separate rooms, it was considered a mansion by cabin standards.

The land and the ranch work healed Roosevelt, and without his experiences in North Dakota, he said he would have never been President. Spencer and I couldn't imagine a more appropriate environment to spend celebrating America's independence. 

I understand why Roosevelt felt so drawn to North Dakota: grit. Maybe it's the sub-zero winters or the boiling hot summers, maybe it's the history of handiwork, but North Dakota has resolve. 

We capped off our Fourth of July watching fireworks in the Dickinson State University parking lot. It was the perfect end to our time in North Dakota. 

Friday, June 28, 2013

Riding across Glacier National Park, MT & Canada

After consecutive visits to Craters of the Moon, Grand Teton and Yellowstone, we still weren't sick of the national park scene, so Spencer and I decided to venture north to Glacier National Park in Montana. 

Known as a hiker's paradise for its backcountry trails and scenic vistas, Glacier is considered one of the most undeveloped parks. Unfortunately, I would be sitting out on most of the vigorous hikes due to a stress fracture in my ankle. (Note to self: Do not attempt to lift 40-pound puppy out of a massive Chevy diesel truck.) 

When we arrived in mid-June, we were surprised to find out that some of the roads weren't open until the end of the month. Although this threw a wrench into some of our plans, we appreciated the emptiness of the park and our campground, which was mostly unoccupied. 

It's rare to find a solitary moment in any tourist destination, even in places made famous for their wilderness. In Glacier, we had the opportunity to pretend what it would be like to be among the first to lay eyes on these impressive mountains, valleys and lakes. 

Established as America's 10th national park in 1910, Glacier wasn't easily accessible until completion of the Great Northern Railway in 1891. I pictured what it was like centuries before then, when tribes would trek across the mountains in search of bison roaming the plains. 

Glacier isn't just known for its natural beauty, the park is also famous for some of its architecture. One of our favorites was Lake McDonald Lodge, a Swiss-chalet style hotel with stunning views of the glaciers jutting out of the lake. 

Just outside the park is a delightful general store and bakery, Polebridge Mercantile, which has served the community in some form for more than 100 years. 

Hands down, it has the best bear claws you will ever eat. I sample a lot of pastries, so I should know. 

You can also chow down on some delicious rolls and cookies, too. (There are some wonderfully fragrant goat's milk lotions -- not recommended for eating, though.) 

Since we were so close to Canada, Spencer and I took a scenic motorcycle ride across the border to see the Canadian side of the park, known as the Waterton Lakes National Park

The littlest border crossing that could.

Inside the park, we stopped for lunch at one of Waterton's famous landmarks, the Prince of Wales Hotel. Built in 1926-27, the hotel looks like an enormous alpine ski chalet, overlooking the water with glaciers that dwarf it like a dollhouse. 

I'll have a side of lunch with this view.
As you can see, the Canadian side of the park is equally as beautiful as its American counterpart. Riding across the border on the motorcycle reminded us how big this world is (especially when you're sandwiched between two mountains) and how many more places we have to explore. On to the next stop! 

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