A driving day today. We got up after sort of a crummy sleep session due to a truly spectacular lightning and thunder demonstration that sizzled through Chamberlain from about 3:00 to 5:00 AM. We could turn out the lights in the Barbarian Invader and still see pretty well with blue/white lighting being provided free of charge by the thunderstorm. The storm also provided some pretty extraordinary rumbles and outright explosions that seemed to start way north of us and end up way south of our camp spot. A couple spots away some folks were camping in a tent when we went to bed but we noticed they were gone in the morning.
About 8:30 we chugged some coffee, gobbled up some cereal and prepared for travel. The weather was still overcast when we left but there was no rain, yet. We cruised out through Chamberlain, over the Missouri River and took the ramp for I-90 westbound. The trip west through south central South Dakota runs through some really gorgeous farmland and prairie that seems to run right out to the horizon.
After a couple hours we pulled off in a little non-town called Kadoka where we drove into a diesel stop that offered the most inexpensive price on fuel – $2.159 per gallon. That is even cheaper than Texas. The Bakken oilfield in the Dakotas certainly seems to be offering some benefits to the mere 800,000 souls living in South Dakota. I wish my tank would have been empty so I could have bought even more cheap diesel.
We got back onto I-90 before the rain came but even when it did start raining it was light and lasted only about 40 miles. There is about 20 miles of construction in progress on I-90 which has detoured the two eastbound lanes into one of the westbound lanes so the driving through these sections has a closing speed with the opposing traffic of 130 miles per hour and the contractor has provided a series of confidence-generating plastic bollards to keep oncoming lanes from colliding. It is a bit hair-raising driving through these projects.
The last bit of the drive is through the Badlands and they look pretty spectacular. We will be going back to cruise through them. We finally pulled into Rapid City after passing a phenomenal selection and number of billboards advertising tourist activities including caves, dinosaur museums, restaurants, fireworks vendors, breweries, wineries and a museum dedicated to a guy named Borglum who carved the faces at Mount Rushmore along with ubiquitous ads for Wall Drug. We missed them all. Perhaps we will go back east to check out a couple of these spots, without our home in tow.
Once we pulled into our campsite for the next four days, Hart Ranch RV Resort, we set up and went hunting for a spare tire and wheel to replace the tire and wheel which naughtily fell off the back of the trailer in Michigan, only to be picked up by some obviously responsible motorist before we could return the three miles and recover them. We fortunately found a great tire guy who rounded up a wheel to fit and a used spare tire and we took off to purchase a new spare tire carrier to replace the crummy one that broke in Michigan and started the whole problem. We continued to a store and were extremely fortunate to find Deschutes Black Butte porter for less than it costs in OR or CA. With booty in hand, we returned to Hart Ranch to try some of the porter for quality. It was hunky-dory.
Hart Ranch really is an RV resort. They have a very nifty main office with a business center, pools, hot tubs, multiple big luxurious shower and restroom facilities, mostly paved RV spots but, strangely, some of the spots don’t have sewer connections, including ours. They do have spiffy dump stations that we will be utilizing. We are not really in a position to bitch since our RPI membership lets us stay here for $15 a night.
Today we took a drive up the Missouri River from Chamberlain into the Lower Brule Indian Reservation. Started up MI-50 to Crow Creek where we turned NW on BIA-4 to Fort Thompson. There is a tiny Indian casino in Fort Thompson and we noted there are some nice tribal buildings but the Native American housing is depressing to view. It reminds me of a line in the movie Little Big Man in which Dustin Hoffman’s character says “When you get to an Indian village you think ‘I see the dump but don’t see any village.'” I don’t know what problems these folks are presented with but their ability to cope with them seems frail.
From Fort Thompson we crossed over a hydroelectric dam to the west bank of the Missouri where we took some cleverly unlabeled roads to the town of Lower Brule, another community within the reservation with the same conditions we noted in Fort Thompson – nifty tribal government and tribal community buildings but shit housing. Lots of single-wide trailers with horrible siding dot the otherwise gorgeous landscape. Small conventionally framed houses are in various states of disrepair or collapse and quite a few residents seem to think that their trash should be stockpiled in their front yards and side yards but never the back yards which are reserved for rusting junk cars.
From Lower Brule, I flawlessly directed Peggy, today’s driver, to continue up a road which took us through some very nice farmland but ultimately ended in dirt roads that came to dead ends against the Missouri. We drove back for another fabulous trip through Lower Brule (there does not seem to be any Brule or Upper Brule – possibly because “lower” is no idle descriptor of the town) before turning on a road Peggy had initially intended to take before I gave her the bum steer. We continued on the road, BIA-10, down into a small river valley for Medicine Creek. This place, quite devoid of any reservation residences, is very pretty and we spotted large wading birds and turtles sunning themselves on logs in the creek. We crossed the creek and continued on BIA-10 until we got to SD-273 where we turned south to Kennebec.
In Kennebec we spotted a KOA campground we stayed at in 1981 and it has not changed much. From Kennebec we got back on I-90 and drove west back to our campground in Chamberlain, stopping only for diesel and a picture taking opportunity with a big fiberglass buffalo mounted alongside the highway in front of Al’s Oasis.
We found that if you stay out of the Indian community areas, the scenery along the Missouri and nearby sections of South Dakota are stunningly beautiful. We crossed through farmlands with abundant crops, Missouri River roads with gorgeous scenes of the colorful banks cut by the river, a dam with calm lakes both sides that had lots of aquatic birds feasting on the fish (although below the dam they may have been feasting on pieces of fish since the fish had just taken a trip through the turbines) and wonderful rolling grasslands. It is really quite pretty – another repudiation of my preconceived notions of this part of the world.
Packed up our stuff and departed Welcome, MN and continued our westward trek. We pulled out onto I-90 in gorgeous weather and the conditions remained terrific through the rest of Minnesota and right on into South Dakota, a journey of some 250 miles. We pulled off at one of the first rest areas because, unlike Michigan, they have visitor information centers in the rest stops here that are actually accessible to travels and motorists. What a unique concept!
We continued west into Chamberlain, SD, which is right along the east bank of the Missouri River. We pulled the Invader through town until we reached our destination for today at American Creek RV Park. The park assigned us a wonderful spot backed right up to the river and it is glorious. The park has full hookups, wi-fi that works some of the time and CATV.
As soon as we got the Invader set up, Peggy broke out the porter and we sat down in our lounge chairs to enjoy the view and scope out the local wildlife. Peggy convinced me that I was supposed to take her out to dinner so we crossed the Missouri to Oacoma, SD, population 968, where we found a place called Al’s Oasis. Al’s Oasis is actually a big conglomerate of stuff so it actually ends up being Al’s trailer park, Al’s general store, Al’s beer store and, luckily, Al’s restaurant where we purchased a reasonably priced but not terrific meal. The food was pretty good but not good enough to go again.
We called it a night after Al’s although we did get a picture of a giant fiberglass buffalo Al has mounted next to the road. Spiffy.
Every once in a while we end up with a day without any plans or destinations scheduled and today was one of those. We woke up late, had some fortified coffee and Peg made an excellent scramble with B and E and S and C and Ps, none of which I am supposed to eat regularly. It was great. We also drove into the town of Welcome which ended up being a non-event because there really is no town of Welcome. There is a gas station, a small restaurant/bar and some houses although we did spot a gigantic cowshit processing facility nearby.
Today Peggy knocked out the clothes washing horror show without me having to participate and I will be eternally grateful for that. I did the breakfast dishes. I am surprised to admit that I am really starting to enjoy doing the dishes although I’ll be pissed if you tell anyone. I can look out the window and watch the wildlife while scrubbing away and find I like it. I might be turning Japanese or something.
After the dishes I did some rebuilding work on the left rear corner of the trailer with some demolition required before reinstalling fasteners without rust, reattachment of some exterior moldings and re-caulking of the joint which had developed an alarming fracture. After about 20 applications of Goo-B-Gone and some spirited rubbing I finally got the joint prepped and maybe my re-caulk job will hold up.
We checked all the tires for proper inflation, lubricated some slide-out parts so they will continue to work, dumped the tanks and prepared for another long drive tomorrow to central South Dakota. Chamberlain, South Dakota, is our destination for tomorrow and, hopefully, we won’t have the 30 mile an hour headwind we encountered yesterday and will be able to keep it in one lane most of the time.
Travel day today. We knew we had a pretty long drive today (about 300 miles) but noted that almost all of it was going to be westbound on I-90. When we woke up it was clear but quickly clouded up and drizzled occasionally on us as we drove west through Wisconsin. The wind picked up as we went west and by the time we drove through Rochester, Minnesota, it began to have a pretty substantial effect on driving. The Invader is a 6 ton billboard we drag around and, like all billboards, it tends to sway in the breeze.
There were many times when the wind-blown truck and trailer would suddenly decide that we should be travelling in another lane and would try to implement the change in a very sudden fashion. I fought the wheel for about a hundred miles but the wind finally dropped down below about 25 knots and we were able to continue down our normally-straight path. Upwind sections had high fuel consumption rates.
We pulled into Welcome, Minnesota, at about 4:30 PM and, by that time, the wind was down to a nice breeze and the skies were clear. It is very green around this part of the world with corn and soybean fields that stretch out to the horizon. The terrain is gently rolling hills.
Our campsite for the next two days will be Checker’s Welcome RV Park and it is located in a large triangle bounded by a fairly busy state highway, I-90 and a railroad track. Since there is almost no humans near here, the train engineer has no qualms about sounding his 2 longs, a short and a long train horn blasts as he passes over the local grade crossings. Nevertheless, the scenery is very nice and the park has all the stuff we need. The guy at the park desk indicated we had “basic Cable” which is actually not cable TV at all. The park owner has installed a big aerial and re-broadcasts the signal he doesn’t get to the park tenants. The wi-fi works well and the park has full hookups.
We arrived after our long drive and set up, popped into the trailer and served drinks. We had barbecued steak for dinner. This traveling after retirement is tough.
Today had to be one of the most bizarre but activity-filled days since we started the trip. We spent the daytime portion going to a very weird place called The House on the Rock and the evening we spent at Wisconsin Dells Raceway Park watching the stock car races.
The House on the Rock is located in Spring Green, Wisconsin, which is quite near Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin masterpiece. We could see Taliesin from the road and it is a gorgeous creation although we did not get to do a close inspection because it is privately owned. They give tours in October and April, neither month being one in which I would choose to be in Wisconsin. Pity.
Five miles from Taliesin is House on the Rock. It is a creation by a guy named Alex Jordan, Jr. who was definitely a proper madman with obsessive-compulsive disorders of the first magnitude along with a tendency to hoard everything. We chose the Ultimate tour which set us back about $25 a head but it was the proper choice. The Ultimate tour takes visitors through the house, then a museum-like portion and finally through the weirdest organ room imaginable.
The house is a warren of passages that emerge into strange rooms that seem to be intended for small, intimate conversations among small groups of 6 or less. There must be about 20 such rooms and the maze-like passageways between them all have very low ceilings. I spent quite a bit of time touring the place with my head ducked down and my back bent because the ceilings are very low. I understand the guy that built the place was over 6′ tall so he must have crawled around quite a bit, too. The room all have windows which are screened with ornate woodcut screens with the exception of one called the “Infinity Room” that sticks out from the rock supporting the house about 200 feet horizontally. The Infinity Room starts near the rock as a wide, triangular walkway with glass on the two bottom sides of the triangle and it tapers down at the far end to nothing. From a viewpoint a half mile away, visitors can see this enormous prong projecting out over space and surrounded by trees. It is quite dramatic and also completely useless since you cannot go all the way to the pointy end because it tapers to a fine point. The guy that created this place was very clever about utilizing the surrounding rocks and trees because, as you proceed through the place, you wind around lots of rock pinnacles and fireplaces that serve the little conversation nooks. The nooks are really all the house has, although it has about 20 of them, because they are all on slightly different levels. There are absolutely no flat floors or passageways in the entire place. We took lots of pictures although the place is very dark since virtually all of the windows are covered with perforated woodcuts which are very ornate.
From the house we continued into the guy’s museum, for lack of a better term. Alex Jordan, Jr. was a compulsive collector and hoarder and his strange efforts are clearly displayed in this section. He has a collection of wooden ship models from all over the world which are installed in a gigantic room some four stories high with a enormous plaster sculpture of a toothed whale locked in combat with an equally enormous octopus. The whale is about 150 feet long and has a big open maw with a partially broken-up whaleboat resting on his tongue. The ship models are arranged along a long spiral ramp that goes around the sculpture a couple times. The ship models do not seem to be of a particular era or type. I guess the owner wanted to be fair so there are WW I battleships, 17th and 18th century sailing boats, junks, Chinese galleys, WW II Navy vessels and almost every type of other big ship imaginable. This same portion of the tour has his extremely large carousel (nobody gets to ride) with a terrific assortment of fantastic mounts like tigers with human faces in the mouth, twin mermaids pulling undersea carriages, dogs, pigs, rhinos, unicorns, knights in armor and a few horses. The carousel is surrounded by enormous music machines which operate automatically with everything from triangles and piccolos down to tympani struck by air and steam-driven actuators. The lighting is very ornate with some 200 chandeliers on the merry-go-round. This portion of the tour also has extensive collections of dollhouses, model airplanes, lots of music machines of a size I have never previously considered, an underground half-scale village with all kinds of shops, an amazing collection of devices which seemed to be associated with advertising diamonds that operate when you push a button, a big collection of model circuses and circus trains, an assortment of electric typewriters and adding machines, china, fancy glassware and paperweights, furniture and almost any other form of collectible stuff you can imagine.
The third portion of the tour takes you through something called the Organ Room which really isn’t an organ room, per se. There are huge, ornate organs in there but the rest of the room consists of steam engines, generators, large wooden clocks all located around long, serpentine walkways leading the viewer through the room. One enormous steam engine in the room has a propeller attached although it is installed in a masonry well preventing it from turning without breaking up the block. There are two more miniature carousels in here with dolls mounted on fanciful creatures. The mini-carousels are more than 20 feet high and maybe 40 feet across. There are not adequate descriptors in my vocabulary to express how strange this collection is.
After about 4 hours of wandering through these massive collections of stuff, we finally emerged into a quite beautiful Japanese Garden where we sat for a bit resting our feet from the long tour. The Japanese garden is gorgeous. It has two nice waterfalls that kept getting obscured by foreigners who I hope do not think all Americans are as strange as Alex Jordan.
We hopped back into Charlotte and headed back towards our campsite near Wisconsin Dells. We ate at Paul Bunyan’s (ribs and chicken on the menu today) and got back to our campsite in just enough time to change clothes and head a mile or so away to the stock car races. The crowd here seemed quite different than the Indiana crowd we sat with back at Twin Cities Raceway Park in North Vernon, IN. We did not see anybody missing all their teeth nor any persons with locating ankle bracelets that allow the authorities to keep track of the wearer. We had another three hours of fun watching the locals bend up their sheet metal before calling it quits for the evening and returning to the Invader. It was a great day.
Today we resisted the little voices in our heads that were saying things like, “Don’t go into Wisconsin Dells, you idiots” and “You’ll be sorry” and took a boat ride on the Upper Dells. We parted with about $25 a head and climbed down some steps from the main tourist-pinching area to the waterfront where we boarded a 40 ton river monster with two engines and little steering capability. The boat ride ended up being pretty nice although the guide narrating the cruise told really corny jokes.
The Dells are a name given to the area where the Wisconsin River cuts through a gigantic sandstone formation with very pretty results. The rock is highly stratified so it looks like enormous stacks of pancakes where it is exposed adjacent to the river. They let us off the boat a few times in selected spots where they had walks into narrow canyons cut by tributary streams and it is pretty spectacular. At one stop there is a chimney rock free-standing just a short distance from a promontory and they had a German Shepard jump across. Some early photographer took a stop-action picture of his nephew jumping across the gap but he had lousy reflexes so it took about 20 takes. If the kid screwed up, the penalty was death because it is about 50 feet to the ground if you go into the gap. The picture of the kid in mid-air was used to show to folks to induce them to come to this part of Wisconsin to have their pockets emptied.
We are absolutely flummoxed about which way is north in this part of the world so we departed the boat ride and drove around the town without seeming to ever go in the direction we desired. We did find a meat market with the creative name of “The Meat Market” and departed with a bunch of bratwurst and some overpriced but hopefully tasty cheese. We also found a great liquor store yesterday so I will have to reduce my condemnation of Wisconsin Dells since I now know this is not merely a hellish tourist trap but a hellish tourist trap with a good boat ride, a stock car track, a good meat market and a good liquor store.
Today was a travel day. We departed Plymouth Rock RV Park, where there is no Plymouth but there were some rocks, and their very nice campground and took off towards Wisconsin Dells further west in Wisconsin. The state highways are pretty lumpy here but more than wide enough and almost dead-straight. We drove on WI-23 to WI-151 to WI-68 to WI-33 and finally onto westbound I-90 right into the Dells. We have found that we like the state highways better than the interstate because you see nothing on the interstate but all kinds of Americana is scattered around on the roadsides of the local routes. Some folks have statues of weird characters, some prefer a big plastic cow or moose, some like little metal men made from automotive mufflers.
We pulled into Arrowhead RV Park, allegedly a TT site but we had to pay because of secret rule number 2004.2 which may say almost anything since members are not provided with a copy. It is a nice park with wi-fi which does not work and no CATV although it is quite pretty and has full hookups and all the other stuff like game areas, a pool and unlevel RV spots. On the way in we drove by a titty bar called Cruisin’ Chubbys, a name which has more significance to those referring to an erection than to the rest of us.
We took a little spin around our camp location and just a short distance away found a racetrack where we will be going Saturday night to watch the stock car races. From there, we took off to get a sniff of the town called Wisconsin Dells. This place is possibly one of the most egregious examples of a tourist trap that exists on the face of the earth. There are big phalanxes of sign touting boat rides on the Wisconsin River, amphibious vehicle rides on the Wisconsin River, water parks, theme parks (although the theme is a bit hazy), restaurants with names like Paul Bunyan’s Cook Shanty, a Ripley’s Believe it or Nuts, a place called Dragon Quest, laser tag facilities, a plaster Mayan Temple and a myriad of other resort amenities and attractions, all designed to separate tourists from their hard-earned dollars. It is almost frightening in it’s magnitude. It only took a short drive through town before we became disgusted and returned to Arrowhead RV Park for the night.
No big drive required today so we got up late, mixed some special coffee with some bacon and eggs and took off exploring. We started by driving over to Road America because I could hear tantalizing noises coming from that direction. It turns out that some bigwig from Briggs and Stratton had rented the track for the day so he and thirty of his close friends could take their expensive cars and squirrel around without bothering to pay heed to pesky state speed limits. We spotted Porsches, Corvettes, BMWs and a Caterham 7 wide open on the course and it was glorious.
From the track we drove into Elkhart Lake which is a gorgeous little town with old buildings and a downtown section reminiscent of Disneyland’s Main Street except they had parking meters. We stopped in at their visitor information center and got a map to take us through the nearby Kettle Moraine State Park. We followed the entire north/south road through the park and it is a gorgeous drive. The forest is emerald green hardwood, mostly, with some sumac that is already turning very bright red. It is a great drive and the best part is that it is free.
We emerged on the south end of the park and pulled to the side of the road to consult the road atlas. We noted that the town of Grafton, WI, was pretty close. About 33 years ago we met some friends of ours, Marshall and Barb, at their place in Milwaukee. Back then they showed us a wonderful time taking us drinking, over to a neat spot called Holy Hill and taking us to a Packers game in Milwaukee. At that time, I seemed to recall that Marshall and Barb had expressed an interest in moving to Grafton.
In any event, we decided to go see if we could find them in Grafton although we were unsure about whether they moved this way, were still married, were alive or anything else. Surprisingly, we fiddled around with our miserable, defective phone which momentarily gave us access to the internet. That moment was enough because we found a listing for Marshall and promptly took off for his house for a nice, inconsiderate arrival without warning. I strolled up and knocked on the door and it turns out they are living here, are still married and they ain’t dead. We spent a couple hours hobnobbing and getting up to date, a mandatory activity due to my non-existent communication and letter-writing prowess.
They live in a great place. The best part of the house faces Lake Michigan which is about 150 feet and a big drop away. They have a magnificent back yard with a neat little promontory, complete with a bench, overlooking the lake. It is a great spot for just plain viewing/having a smoke (although we know nobody who would do such a thing)/having a cocktail/napping in the sun. The lake is turquoise near the shore and a enchanting shade of blue beyond.
Regrettably, we were obliged to hop back into Charlotte and start making our way back to Elkhart Lake. Neither one of us sees in the dark like we did when everything worked properly and we like to finish up with driving by dark. We drove about an hour back to our RV park and watched a good old John Wayne movie before crapping out and calling it a day.
We saddled up this morning and left the Iron Mountain area of Michigan without having to speak with the World’s Smartest Man. We backtracked a little east on MI-2 until we turned south into Wisconsin on WI-41 which became Interstate 141 to Green Bay. We zoomed right by Lambau (sp?) Field where the Packers play and continued on MI-57 to the town of Elkhart Lake where they have built a nifty road race course called Road America. Our campground ended up being right across the street from the race course and I could hear one of my favorite sounds – large displacement engines running at high RPM without mufflers.
We checked into our campsite, Plymouth Rock RV Park, which may have one of the stupidest names for a park considering that the town of Elkhart Lake is much closer than the town of Plymouth. We took a spin into Plymouth after we got the trailer set up and found a nice little burg with a gorgeous downtown section. In addition to being visually appealing, there is a tavern on each of the corners at a lot of intersections and drinking seems to be the state sport in Wisconsin. What a great place!
The RV park had cable TV and we had a long drive today so we crawled into the trailer at dark and switched on Turner Classic Movies although tonight’s selection was crummy unless you like old Lawrence Olivier flicks. We watched a dud and then called it quits and turned in for the evening.