28 May – Not a bad night at Wally’s. Spent the entire day at the Buffalo Bill Centre of the West – a huge complex with over 7 acres of buildings housing 5 different museums. We commenced with the Western Natural History exhibit – several levels taking us through different aspects of Yellowstone Park and the flora and fauna of the region. From there it was on to the Buffalo Bill museum – with exhibits taking you right through his life and career promoting his shows throughout America and Europe. Quite a fascinating man and what was amazing was the places he toured with his Wild West Show and the sheer size of the entourage that he took. It was not just cowboys and real Indians, he had Cossacks, Chinese and Arabs. We then had a short break to listen to a talk on raptors and got to see close-up – horned owl, turkey vulture, peregrine falcon and golden eagle. Next museum was the Cody Gun Museum – literally thousands of firearms from the 1500’s to present day. On loan here was a huge collection from the Smithsonian Institute and these were presented in pullout glass cabinets so that you could see the gun from both sides.
Needed a lunch break after that and then tackled the other collections in the afternoon. The Western Art Museum had a mix of sculptures and paintings – many depicting scenes from Yellowstone which we had seen on our trip through the park. There was a whole section dedicated to Remington, with a recreation of his studio furnished with all the original décor and artistic paraphernalia. The artwork was period and modern and there was also an artist in residence doing lovely pastel works.
Final museum was the Plains Indian Museum – again done in period stages from early civilisation to current. Some interesting artifacts and the handiwork on the clothing was so intricate – the women were able to make such beautiful articles of clothing with such basic tools. The beadwork especially was really fine.
After such a full-on day we just went up the road about 20 miles to Powell and parked in their purpose built rest and overnight area. A couple of trucks came in before dark to share the spot with us.
29 May – After a rude awakening at 2.30am by another truck coming in alongside and leaving its motor running – we had to move house a bit further down the park to get away from it’s noise, so a bit of a disturbed night. First stop today the Pryor Wild Horse Centre at Lovell – no horses there but were given a map and sent off up the valley for about an hour into the protected area and managed to see about 6 of these wild horses. They are leftovers from when the Spanish were here and there are only about 200. They have quite distinct characteristics some even have stripes on their legs and the colours are also unusual. Returned back down towards Lovell, stopping off at Devils Canyon and wow that was spectacular, a deep canyon with sheer orange coloured walls and way down in the bottom a muddy looking Bighorn River.
Back down at Lovell we then set off over yet another high pass – 9400ft. The climb up through the Big Horn Mountains was through arid, desert like scenery with rocky outcrops and was a very steep grunt up, but a good road. At the top it levelled out for a while and we were again in the snow and forest before it opened out into alpine meadows and our first sighting of moose. What goes up must come down, so it was an equally slow journey going down. The views were just spectacular as the valley below appeared and after a while we got down to about 3,000 ft and the small settlement of Dayton. Our wonderful camping book told us of a free campsite up the Tongue River Canyon a few miles. We found the road and followed the gravel road for a couple of miles when we reached the first campsite listed and decided to stay put there – the road further up the canyon narrowed and when we ventured up there later on foot, we had made the right decision. It was quite rough, but the worst of it was that the far camp was partially flooded so would not have been a viable option. The Tongue River has a flood watch alert on it and we can see why, in places today it is nearly up to the road and it is flowing very torridly.
Over the weekend it is meant to get even higher with thunderstorms predicted in the mountains and higher temperatures as well which combine to make the snow melt rapidly and it has to go somewhere. Quite a neat canyon – quite narrow with high sided rock walls interspersed with forest and this wild river running through it.
30 May – No noticeable rise in the river level overnight so we had no trouble getting back to the main road. Quick stop in Dayton to fill up and then along Highway 451 which ran parallel to the Interstate but was fairly free of traffic and much more relaxing. Crossed backed into Montana yet again and our aim for today was to visit the Little Big Horn Battlefield and site of Custer’s last stand. We had been told that the ranger led walking tour was not to be missed and they were right. Ranger Bill is a retired history teacher and the 45 minute walk and talk was really informative and interesting. After that there was another ranger talk on the battle, again enlightening. The Visitor Centre had a small museum about Custer, the battle and the Indians. After that it was a drive around the 4.5 mile loop of the entire battle site with interpretive signs all along it and one short walk right at the end of the loop. The hill where the last stand happened has a mass grave to the 220 soldiers that died on that fateful day. Custer himself was dis-interred and reburied at West Point. It seems that the three day battle was the result of a lot of bad decisions on the army’s side as well as the questionable politics back East, and quite an unfortunate episode in US history. It resulted from yet another deliberate move to renege on their previously signed treaties with the Indians. Nearly half of Custer’s troops were immigrants from Italy, Germany and Ireland and many young local boys. With the lure of $15 a month and 3 meals a day, it was a seemingly attractive opportunity as the US as that time was going through a severe depression. Many of them could not even speak English. It must have been so terrifying to be pitted against an overwhelming number (about 2,000) Indian warriors.
After seeing all there was, we moved on down the road past Ashland and stayed in a lovely campground in Custer National forest – free and we had it to ourselves yet again – where is everyone? This one had about 12 sites, each with picnic table and fire grate and the usual vault toilets. These are always lovely and clean – I don’t think we have come across a dirty one yet neither do they seem to get vandalised either.
31 May – Explored all around the camp before setting off – 140 miles of open plains – through the Indian Reservations of the Crow and the Cheyenne. Acres and acres of lovely green grasslands and hardly any stock in sight. Good areas though if you are after a car restoration project – the backyards of the houses that we did come across had great collections of dead vehicles. These high plains were once home to the roaming bison herds. Nowadays they are settled by ranchers with just long straight roads dissecting it. Each time you get to a high spot – all you can see for miles and miles is your road stretching out in front of you.
Target today was back in Wyoming and the Devil’s Tower – a huge columnar rock tower sticking up in the middle of nowhere. 867ft high and quite a way around it too – the short walk around its girth was 1.3 miles. Camped at the bottom in the National Park campground and even managed to shift some of the grime off Wanda’s exterior with a quick wash. Also got the walk done before the threatening weather arrived. Thunder and lightning entertained us – fortunately the hail stayed away. There is a cute prairie dog town just over the road – entertaining little critters – a bit like meerkats in appearance and mannerisms except more squat in appearance.
01 June – Another month gone by. Hit the freeway today a few miles away from Devil’s Tower and we could have been in NZ again – green pastures and rolling hills. Entered yet another state – we came back briefly into Wyoming last evening and are now in South Dakota. Headed for Sturgis – this is where the big Harley get together happens each August – the rest of the time it is pretty quiet. Bob had a look around the motorcycle museum and was surprised to find it wasn’t all about Harleys they even had a Norton in there and many interesting early Indians!
After Sturgis the rain came down in bucketsful just as we were about to explore Deadwood. – that was short lived – the town is full of casinos and not a lot of character so after the rain cleared we went off down the road a bit further into the Black Hills Forest and found a quiet spot at the start of a trailhead to park up for the night.
02 June – Had a quiet night in the forest and after the weather yesterday, a pleasant surprise to have a nice sunny day. Set off back on Highway 385 towards Hill City, where we had a treat for the day – took the steam train ride up to Keystone and back. The two hour trip wound up through the hills past all the old mining settlements which are now private landholdings. Scenery varied from forests, to meadows to rocky outcrops. Interesting diversion and a different start to the day.
Next stop Crazy Horse Monument, what a slick operation that is. The monument is the Indian’s answer to Mt Rushmore although supposedly on a much larger scale. It is still way off completion (it was started in 1948) but in the meantime there is a huge complex dedicated to getting the money off you – a large collection of Indian artifacts, the sculptor’s house and workshop as well as oodles of native arts and crafts people selling their wares along with a huge souvenir shop. Outside there was a group of 3 Indians telling the American audience what they really didn’t want to hear about the wrongs that had been done to them in the past, afterwhich they did a couple of dances. The sculptor, Korczak Ziolkawski who made this project his lifetime work, was fortunate to have seven children and a dedicated wife who have carried on his work since his death. His wife just passed away last week. This is true dedication on their part to the project and to the Indians.
Continued on through the Black Hills – they get their name from the Pondersoa Pines which have a flat side on their needles which doesn’t reflect the light and therefore they look black from a distance and also the bark on the young trees is also black. The pines are suffering though – there was a big winter storm which knocked over a lot of trees – evidenced by being snapped off half way up their trunks; the pine beetle also is prevalent around here and that gets under the bark and kills the trees – swathes of brown trees amongst the green.
We have felt very much at home the last couple of days, it could be anywhere in NZ – very green rolling hills. Continued almost on to Hot Springs where we found a Corps of Engineers camp at Cottonwood Dam – nice place with only about 10 sites plus a camp host and even flush toilets – $4 wasn’t a bad price to pay for this.
Have been keeping a very watchful eye on the severe weather which fortunately is just keeping to the East of us as there was a tornado risk advised in the thunderstorm cells amassing, although we are currently basking in clear blue sky and nice warm temps.
03 June – Nice warm temps of yesterday have disappeared and it is an overcast start to the day. Drove to Hot Springs and stopped off at the Mammoth Museum – impressive building covers the entire area of an ancient sinkhole which is now a mound due to erosion, which was discovered by a contractor in 1978 clearing ground for a subdivision. It was established fairly early on that this was a special find and the developer sold the land to a newly formed Mammoth trust at cost. With a cover over the site, paleontologists have been able to painstakingly work through the layers and so far have uncovered 60 mammoth skeletons, all but a few are the big Columbian Mammoth with just a few Woolly Mammoths as well. We had a young guy giving us the spiel on a short tour before being left alone to look in more detail. In the exhibits hall were reconstructed skeletons as well as complete beasts – they were huge things – today’s African and Indian elephants looked quite small in comparison.
Weather had got even more dismal as we set off towards the scenic loop up through the Windcave National Park and Custer State Park through to Keystone. Allowable speed through both parks was only 35mph which gave us plenty of opportunity to view the various wildlife – good tally today – elk – nice stags with big antlers, pronghorn’s – one with new twin fauns, white tailed deer, prairie dogs, bison and a small band of wandering burros begging for food. In the Custer Park we came across a large herd of bison on their daily migration from one area to the next – nearly every cow had a lovely little ginger calf. They are a bit more advanced into the calving here than in Yellowstone.
Just as we got out of the park and had found a neat spot for camping in the National Forest the heavens opened and we got treated to a very loud thunderstorm – fortunately it passed by in about 10 minutes and we were able to settle down to the important stuff of the day – wine and chippies!! We had intended to go to Mt Rushmore this afternoon, but with the low cloud on all the hills, I doubt that we would have seen much anyway. Rules for camping in the National Forest are quite liberal – we just have to be no more than 300 feet from the road and not within ½ mile of a campground and then we can camp for free.
04 June – Good choice to wait to see Mt Rushmore as the weather was lovely again this morning. Stopped off first at Keystone – had a wander along the boardwalk with all its tourist shops and looking for some cops! Even found a dump station which we made use of. Up the hill about 10 minutes and there was Mt Rushmore in full glory. Joined the masses to get a closer look (although you can only view from the bottom of the mountain) and went around the museum and watched the short movie on the making of the sculptures. It is a wonder how they managed to get such great likenesses using jackhammers and dynamite, all the while hanging down from the top secured by ropes and harnesses.
Just on up the road a bit, we stopped off at Bear World – our only real chance to see bears close-up. It was about a 30 minute drive through various fenced off areas – with wolves, bison, elk, pronghorns and probably about 40 black bears. The bears are all bred and reared in captivity so not the real thing, but good to get to see them really close and even though they look pretty docile, still wouldn’t want to mess with them. Although they are black bears they come in a lovely range of colours from black right through to a light cinnamon. Outside of the drive-through enclosures were some outside exhibits of young animals – bear cubs were the cutest – only born in January and were full of mischief.
We had one more stop on our day today and that was just outside of Rapid City – the South Dakota Air museum. About 30 aircraft on outside display, all in great condition and including an example of the US heavy bombers, the Super Fortress and the current impressive B1B. On inside display there were a small number of light military aircraft and several cabinet collections of memorabilia from the past duties of squadrons based at the Ellsworth Air Force base. While Bob was in there, I was busy checking out camping stops for the next few days as well as keeping an eye on the weather. A severe thunderstorm had gone through Mt Rushmore soon after we left and it was tracking eastwards. It seemed to split and miss Rapid City but was heading in the direction we wanted to go. We left the museum around 6pm and as we headed down the road – all we could see in front of us was a huge wall of black, with lightning shooting from cloud to cloud, and forked lightning hitting the ground. As we were just on the rear end of this and catching some rain , we decided to pull off and let it get away from us before progressing, which was a good move as while we waited a fairly strong wind came through followed by clear skies. This same storm front caused enormous damage in Nebraska with hailstones the size of baseballs which did $16m in damage to one car storage yard alone – scary stuff, so we do realise the importance of checking out the weather and paying attention to the severe warnings when they are released. We only had about 40 miles to go and the storm front was well out of the way before we got to our neat little camping spot. Just off the I-90 but there is not much traffic on this section of the road, in a little place called Wasta – the Mobil station has set up about 6 sites all with power for just $5 and with the added bonus of a military museum.
05 June – Another beautiful day in paradise – storms all gone and nice and clear. It seems that they build up over the plains during the day and expel their full fury every evening. A real treat to be able to have nice long (3 minutes is such a treat!!) shower in Wanda as we know we can refill with water before we go. Sent Bob off to explore the museum and took advantage of having power to do a bit of baking for the freezer and give Wanda a nice clean inside, do a bit of washing and generally air everything out. The military collection was one man’s hobby for which he built the museum and prepared all the exhibits himself to an extremely high standard. He covers US military history fromWW1 and WW11 to Korea and Vietnam, with some interesting personal stories and equipment as well as a few major weapons and vehicles. Well worth the free entry!
Back on to the I-90 to our next stop at Wall – this is so kitchy that you just have to stop. The only thing at Wall is Wall Drug. Wall Drug came about in the 30’s when the new drug store owner came up with idea that free ice water should be served to travellers during the hot weather and they have never looked back from there. It is full of little shops selling the most amazing tacky souvenirs but it draws the people in. They have several different dining places, loads of paintings and historic photos lining the walls of the halls, especially of Indians from the late 1800’s. Ticked that off the list and got on to the Badlands Loop road to drive around the National Park and see all the amazing rock formations. It is really odd – one minute you are driving on the green prairie and then suddenly all these eroded rocks features appear at a lower level. I suppose we spent a couple of hours winding up and down through these formations. The colours were pretty – fawns, reds and browns in horizontal layers.
The loop road came back to the I-90 and it was another blat down this freeway to Murdo for a stop at their auto-memorabilia museum. This is not the first time that we have come across major collections put together by one man which have been left to molder by the next generation. Valuable and interesting cars sitting in rickety sheds often on flat tyres, historic buildings falling into decay and often the contents left to be cared for in trust. The collection was truly eclectic and quite interesting, but left a sad aftertaste.
We went through a time zone just before Murdo and have had to put our clocks forward an hour – officially in central time zone now so at 9pm when the museum closed we set off down that mighty freeway for another 50 miles to Kennebec where another free campsite awaited us. We didn’t quite beat the failing light and had to take the last couple of miles on the dirt road a bit gingerly. Great spot by a small lake, but we got inundated with mosquitoes as we were trying to find a spot to park, so it took a good half hour to exterminate the pests from inside of Wanda. Now all we have is the chirping of the frogs.
06 June – Lazy start to the day and back onto the I-90 to flit through the prairie land to Chamberlain on the banks of the Missouri River to have a look at the Lewis and Clark expedition presentation there. There is even a replica of the boat they had specially built to get their large group through the twists and turns of that great river. Only one person died on this momentous three year expedition, and that near here from appendicitis. On again to Mitchell and stock up on supplies, propane (which was quite hard to find a business with a filling station) and petrol. Left the I-90 and headed on a smaller road through more farmland to Freeman to stay at the County Park overnight so that we are well placed to visit their Pioneer Museum in the morning. Met up with a couple from Florida and spent a very pleasant evening in their lovely 5th wheel rig – going back to Wanda is a bit of a come down spacewise! We hope to meet up with Wayne and Sue again further on in our travels.
07 June – The museum was something else – we spent over 4 hours there wandering around the eclectic collection of local history memorabilia from this area settled by German/Russian Mennonites. Vehicles, buildings, taxidermy and domestic bric-a-brac, along with a knowledgeable custodian made for an interesting visit. Some of the displays were a bit tired and unfortunately the Plains Indian display which was on loan to them was closed as it was up for auction. Nothing much to see after Freeman – just a quick stop at Sioux Falls to view their waterfall then headed north into Minnesota towards Jasper (population 430) where we found a local city (all settlements are called cities once they become incorporated) park which had been set up by the Lions Club – so for $10 we got a site with power and water (nothing else in the park!). Downtown Jasper on a Saturday night was a bit different – there only seemed to be about 6 buildings in the main street and nothing was open. The buildings however were really impressive – double storied red stone and quite substantial. Our after dinner walk around the town didn’t take very long – nice leafy streets with a mix of housing. The boys from the local volunteer fire brigade were having a streetside session and we could see that they have a nicely restored 1928 Reo fire truck in the building.
08 June – From Jasper through agricultural country – not quite as open as the plains and a few more trees – mainly in clusters to protect the houses from the roaring winds. Passed one huge wind farm – must have had at least 500 windmills atop a low range of hills which separate the Missouri from the Mississippi water catchments – it stretched from one horizon to the other! Stopped off in another tiny settlement – Hanley Falls – and wandered around their museum. Different influence of settlers in this region mainly Scandinavian with a lot from Norway whereas in the Freeman area it was the Mennonites from what is now the Ukraine. This influence is quite noticeable in the style of barns throughout the country side – in the Freeman area we could have been in Poland, and around Hanley we could easily have been in Norway. The Hanley Museum was in an old double storied school as well as some large outbuildings housing cars, trucks and old tractors as well as three large traction engines. There was an interesting letter written from a Norwegian immigrant back home, describing how much better life was in America – he went to South Dakota first then finally settled in Minnesota and told of the difficulty of moving with wagons and 100 head of cattle which obviously had a mind of their own. They didn’t have much spare cash either and had to sell one of their beasts to get enough money to buy lumber to build the first house. They were impressed with the fertility of the land and once settled on their plot of land, I think they could buy it after 5 years for $20. We had a nice long chat with the curator and were particularly interested in how such a tiny settlement could keep a large operation running – it seems that it comes primarily from council funding; 15 of the local businesses; donations mainly from out of towners especially past pupils of the school and they have a Threshing Day (bit like an agricultural show).
Not much to see on the road after that – finally laid up for the night at a small private campground on one of the 10,000 lakes that are in this region. It seems that there is great fishing on the lakes, judging by the number of boats around. We are only a short distance from St Cloud and last night according to CNN they had a dazzling display of the Northern Lights – that would have been a great sight.