06.15.2010 - 06.20.2010 95 °F
After Yellowstone, where our last trip narrative left off, we made the short trip to Cody, Wyoming and rented a motel room for the night. Cody is named after Buffalo Bill Cody, who killed innumerable buffalo (Wikipedia says 4,280 in eight months) and assembled Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, among other things.
We definitely could have gone further than Cody that day but we wanted to see…. The Cody Nite Rodeo. Every evening in summer, Cody has an authentic rodeo. Its market is to give the tourists a feel for the west, but the people in the ring are real competitors. After a quick spin around Cody’s pleasant downtown in search of foods, we arrived at the rodeo and got seats in the stands.
Being from Maryland and Western NY, it might be obvious that neither of us have ever been to a rodeo, although we knew roughly what to expect – horses, clowns, bulls, steers, and lassos. It seemed like a legit rodeo – even though it was clear that the entire audience were tourists. The west is clearly a different place: they called all the children 12 and under out of the audience to partipate in the rodeo; with no warning to the parents the children were soon rolling in the dirt and chasing steers for prizes. On the east coast that would probably be considered gross negligence, but out here it was just fun on a summer night.
The next morning, we walked around Old Cody and hit the road. Our aim was Rapid City, South Dakota by night, with a quick stop at Mount Rushmore. About an hour after leaving we passed through Emblem, WY, notable for a road sign reading “Emblem, Population 10.” We actually had to drive past that sign twice to make sure we’d read it right the first time.
Another interesting stop was the Red Gulch Dinosaur Tracks, a place where you can see the tracks that some tall, unnamed dinosaurs made on a long-ago muddy place as they walked to and from the ocean looking for food. Their tracks hardened into stone and were then covered by layers of dirt, which has in relatively recent years started crumbling away to reveal the tracks. We pulled off the state road and bounced along a dirt road, past a couple tour buses of young archeologists from Iowa State University, and arrived at the tracks to find that, in addition to several helpful signs showing you what to look for, you could walk right out onto the stone and walk around on the tracks! A woman was there showing some friends or relatives how to find the tracks – they’re shaped like three fingers held up and therefore somewhat easy to mix up with ripples in the stone. She came over and kindly showed us a few tracks and showed us the fossilized invertebrate shells that were everywhere, having been preserved in the dirt that was now crumbling away. She told us, and the sign confirmed it, that it was Okay to take some shells home with you. Kathryn thought that Wyoming might come to regret its generosity, so we left them there.
Back on the road again, we eventually hit interstate 90 and drove mindlessly for a long time before making an ill-advised turn off of 90 onto 16, which from the internet estimate appeared to be a quicker route to Mount Rushmore. Lies, lies. Route 16 takes one through a beautifully meandering stretch of Wyoming grassland, the Black Hills national forest, and then, on Alt 16, through Custer State Park. The designer of this road was insane. The person that decided that this road should bear a route designation was criminally insane – twists, turns and one lane bridges (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/U.S._Route_16A); this cost us about 2 hours off our trip. After moving across the map in millimeter stretches, we were pretty sure that Mount Rushmore was going to have to wait until the next morning, since we had offered to take some friends in Rapid City to dinner and therefore needed to be there in a dinnerish time frame. Enter Custer State Park. I’m sure it’s a great place if you know what to expect. That is, if you’ve got time for absurdly winding roads, you will be pleased and soothed by the beautiful landscape and wildlife you’re passing. However, if you’re trying to push through and get some place, the hairpin turns on what the informational sign called “the road they said couldn’t be build” will make you both crazy and dizzy. The point of the road is to provide excellent views from the road of Mount Rushmore. We stopped, waved our fists at the crazy road, looked at the faces in stone, and got on to Rapid City several hours later than projected, where our friends mercifully fed us home-made pizza and showed us where to sleep.
In the morning, after breakfast and a late-ish start, we popped back to Mount Rushmore to see the faces and a tasteful presentation by a park ranger about the presidents and the carving team. Kathryn wanted silly pictures of herself appearing to hang from a presidential nose or something, but with so many serious people around, she decided against it. We left and made our way to the Badlands National Park. We were mostly out of time by that point, but Kathryn had really been looking forward to the Badlands, so we got out and did a quick little walk around and took some pictures.
One disappointment on this trip was that Jeff had very much wanted to get a tour of a Minuteman Missile, one of which is near the Badlands and gives two tours a day. We called mid-day the day before and found out that they were all booked. No offer of a waitlist… no chance. It was pretty disappointing! South Dakota, we’ll be back some day to see the Minuteman Missile and the Badlands and Wall Drug. We just didn’t have time.
After the Badlands, we entered the Going Home phase of our trip in earnest. Sustained by “blondie bars” from our friends in South Dakota, we steamed across windy South Dakota and then windy Minnesota, resting for the night in Fairmont. We found out later that some tornado had passed close to where we’d been driving, just a few hours after we’d been there. The next morning, we got back on the road and entered Iowa and then Illinois, pulling into Peoria to see some of Kathryn’s extended family. They are wonderful people and keep good homes, full of children, love, and healthy food. You do not know how much you’re going to miss fruit and green things until you spend three weeks eating road food. Peoria was full of the antidote to too much time in the car.
In the morning, we packed up the car, including a wonderfully healthy and filling lunch, and once more hit the road. Since Kathryn’s parents have been making the trip back and forth between Peoria and Maryland for the last 25 years, this stretch started to feel like “almost home” to Kathryn. But it also was to be probably the longest driving day of the trip – Kathryn’s parents normally stop with family in Indiana if they’re coming from Peoria, and with family in Ohio if they’re coming from Chicago. We were coming from Peoria and stopping Ohio, which roughly equals a 12 hour drive.
But we made good time. The reason for that is, after losing an hour outside of Peoria and finally getting on a road that was moving, we drove on until just outside of Chicago, where we picked up a storm. Storms are alright if you’re in a house, or a car with a hard top, or have not been reading recently about tornados that cut houses in half. Or, for that matter, if you have the sides on your jeep and don’t have to worry about everything getting soaked in rain. We have a CB radio in our car with a weather feature – you can tune to the weather station and get NOAA’s official take on what’s going on where you are, and if it’s an emergency the CB will make a loud noise and automatically switch to that station. Well, it did. And the CB said, “This storm has a history of damaging winds and quarter-sized hail. If you are in a trailer, evacuate and seek shelter. This storm is currently passing through [quickly read list of small towns that are hard to find on the map] at a speed of 50 MPH.” The storm was at various times anywhere between 10 and 30 minutes behind us and chased us through Illinois, Indiana, and into Ohio, where we finally shook it, arriving on the later side of evening at the home of another of Kathryn’s aunt and uncle. They also kindly fed us and showed us where to sleep.
In the morning we were really almost home! It’s just a four or five hour drive from just outside Cleveland to Frederick, Maryland, so we soaked up a pleasant morning and early afternoon with Kathryn’s aunt and uncle, sharing trip stories and eating good food. After a good lunch, we rolled out to the promise of a sunny day and a short trip to Kathryn’s parents’ house. Well, almost. Outside of Pittsburgh, we hit an awful, driving rain. It was so rainy, guys. And of course we had the back of the jeep open so we could get all the nice air, but we didn’t want to get even more into the middle of the storm, so we just kept driving rather than stop and put the sides on. We eventually left that storm, had a clear patch for a while, entered another storm, and finally hit good skies. Then it was into West Virginia and through the skinny part of Maryland to a rural place outside Frederick, MD where we stayed the night at Kathryn’s parents’ house before going home the next day. We pulled in Sunday evening, found the apartment in pleasantly good condition, and crashed. Monday – the next day – it was back to work, but at least no more 8-12 hour days of driving for a little while.