Spring in the Smokies

It’s the home stretch, baby. Just two more nights in North Carolina, two furious days on the road, and we’ll be back home. My bet is that I’ll be wishing we were back on the road again in about a week. The glow of being home sometimes wears off quickly.

Leaving Evansville, we headed to Big South Fork NRA in Tennessee. This turned out to be a fabulous spot to camp – quiet, great bathrooms/showers, and well-spaced campsites in the trees. I’d go back in a heartbeat.20160514_133149This area is loaded with hiking trails, so we opted for a 6.5 mile jaunt to one of the original homesteads in the area.20160514_12214620160514_12052720160514_12194020160514_120941

 

Magnolia trees with gigantic leaves are scattered along the Trail – they were gorgeous to see, and would be truly spectacular when they bloom.20160514_105548Perhaps best of all, this was a walk on which we could take Jezzy. I totally understand the ban of dogs on trails in the National Parks and many State Parks, but we jump at the chance to include her on our hikes where we can.

Moving on, we decided to revisit Smokemont Campground in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This was our third trip to GSMNP, and our second to this campground – in fact, we had the same campsite as our first visit. There were few campers in the Park, although the road in was jammed with cars near any trailhead or attraction when we arrived on Sunday. I really thought that we would be able to see blooms on the thousands of rhododendrons in the Park. Nope! We were STILL too early in the season – a huge disappointment. We saw a few meager blossoms.20160514_104449Our seven mile hike took us along a trail dense with rhododendrons on each side, limiting our views out into the Smokies. So, I had to concentrate my camera on some of the small sights instead of the big scenes. Macro photography is not my specialty, but I did spy a few things I wanted to share. Check out this pink moth. The flowers on the Salomon’s Seal were nearly ready to open.

Most of my flower shots were stupid-looking, so I’m not even going to bother to post them. BUT, the real show came as we trudged back to the campground. As we passed the RV dump station, we noticed dzens of yellow swallowtail butterflies clumped together in pools of liquid on the ground. Whether this was fresh water from the spigots or a bit of drizzle from some RV’s gray or blackwater tanks, I don’t know. But the butterflies were everywhere.20160516_132106Nearby was an even more curious sight. At the base of a tree near our site were other clumps of swallowtails, but I’m not sure what was happening here. But it was butterfly carnage – torn wings and pieces and parts of butterflies were everywhere amid the clumps of fluttering wings. Were they mating, and then the females eat the males? I have no idea. It might be hard to see in the photos, because the ground cover masks the pieces of wings, but look closely and you’ll see what I mean. I’m anxious to get to a spot where I can have enough Wifi to do a bit of research on this – it was crazy to see.20160516_16070320160516_160753We checked out the Visitor Center and wandered through the reconstructed settlement there. Original buildings from various areas of the Park have been moved here, and restored. It’s gorgeous, and the perfect, picturesque setting.20160517_121553.jpg20160517_121636.jpgAnd, how could you NOT want to just settle in and hang out on the veranda of the Visitor Center for a spell?20160517_123858.jpgNow, we’re in Maggie Valley, NC for a ‘rally’ with our T@B and T@DA pals. There are probably 50 campers here, from as far away as New England and Seattle. It’s great to connect with old friends and greet new ones.

I  think my phone is trashed – I inadvertently left it on a chair under our awning last night. It rained, and some of the rain funneled directly into the chair where it pooled around the phone. Damn! I’ve dried it out as best as I can, but nothing seems to be happening. It was due for replacement when we get back home, but I’m sad that it may have bitten the dust a bit prematurely. I’m definitely not relishing the learning curve of a new phone.

Big

Big Brutus. Big Barges. Big Storms. Big Fun. We’ve had it all this week – perhaps a case of trying to cram everything in the remaining days of this trip.

Big Brutus may have been a new high or maybe a new low in our camping experience. It certainly is among the oddest experiences. I’ve never really associated Kansas with coal mining – probably not many people do. But in the 1960s and 70s, coal was surface mined here, near West Mineral. Big Brutus was the shovel which scraped the top layers of dirt and rock which covered the coal seams 25-30 feet below the surface.20160506_135347When it was built in 1962, it was the second-largest electric shovel in the world – truly deserving of the name ‘Big’ moniker. Brutus could scoop up 90 yards of earth, swing around to dump it in a designated spot, and be ready to reload the bucket in a minute. It was assembled on site, then worked its way backwards across the top of the coal seam until it was retired in April 1974. It’s huge in every dimension – 16 stories tall,  11 million pounds, ballast tanks which held 1.7 millions pounds of water to keep the shovel from tipping. Check it out against an older steam shovel which is also on display.20160506_14363020160506_14424120160506_144241The pit now is a recreational area for fisherman, although it’s illegal to swim there – subject to an $80 ticket. 20160506_145404We camped on site (the only ones there), and it was an unusual experience, for sure. See us in the distance?20160506_145159 We could shower in the adjoining Mining Museum bathroom, as long as we were done by 4:30 when it closed. We set up camp, grilled dinner, and watched the sun set on Big Brutus. Big Brutus and the land on which it sits were donated by the P & M Coal Mining Company in 1984, and the Mining Museum opened in July 1985.

It was tough to find an act to follow Big Brutus, but we managed. How about camping right on the confluence of the Kaskaskia and Mississippi Rivers, watching the river traffic pass by all day long? Our campsite at the Kaskaskia River Project provided just that. We were just 200 yards from the Kaskaskia River locks, and 1000 yards from the Mississippi River.20160508_132813 We watched this tug maneuver 35 barges along the bend. It’s hard to see, but the tug is on the far left, and the front of the barges on the right.  Five barges across, seven deep!20160508_140040The Locks were fairly quiet when we were there for 1-1/2 days, but we did get to see traffic heading up the river (empty), and out to the Mississippi (loaded with coal). Interesting – my photos are not great – it was gray and gloomy on the full day were spent there.20160509_080951And boy – did it ever rain! For five or six hours at night it was like living under a waterfall. The rain just thundered down. After a brief respite in the morning, it picked right back up where it left off. I don’t think we have ever camped in such hard rain. We kept a nervous eye on our broken window, but the many layers of duct tape we’ve plied on in the past four months kept the water out. Whew!

The Big Fun part of this week is our current lodging at John’s brother’s house in Evansville. What a great spot to hang out for a few days – Evansville is a BIG small town – smaller in population than Grand Rapids, but twice the size in so many ways.20160511_101654This is the stopover with the 1500 count sheets, and towels so thick and heavy that it’s a workout to take a shower. More big storms are ripping through this area in the last two days – huge thunderstorms with a tornado or two thrown in for excitement. Poor Jezzy – she’s practically worn her Thundershirt out.

So, tomorrow (Friday) we head out for our last 10 days of camping. Hard to believe it’s that time already. Homeward bound.

Into the Heartlands

In the week since we left Mesa Verde, we’ve covered hundreds of miles as we finally make a serious attempt to head back toward Michigan. The hours spent in the truck are not the fun part of the trip by any means, and we keep finding places we’d like to linger. All of the sudden, there’s no time for that.

We left Mesa Verde in a blizzard of snow and sleet.20160501_110525 It seemed like a great idea to wait out the bad weather for a day or two in Durango, a picturesque cowboy town not far away, but at a substantially lower elevation. We spent one day checking out the brewpubs and walking the streets of this gorgeous (tourist trap) town.20160429_14105520160429_14073920160429_14033920160429_144429 It’s the kind of place in which you can instantly picture yourself leading an idyllic life. Trees and flowers were performing their spring blooming act, and it couldn’t have been more pleasant. We watched the Durango Narrow Guage Railroad Train pull into the station. What a thrill.

Getting back to our roots on Day 2, we decided to hike a portion of the Colorado Trail, which stretches nearly 500 miles from Durango to Denver. Although there were probably 20 cars at the trailhead, the Trail itself was pretty quiet.20160430_102808 With Jezzy in tow, we wandered along a very fast-moving creek, up and up to Gudy’s Rest at about 9000′ – a perfect lunch spot.20160430_12140320160430_121326 By the time we got back to the truck, we had covered just over eight miles – a good workout for us, especially in thin air.

Weather once again thwarted our travel plans to Great Sand Dunes National Park. Getting there would have involved crossing the 12,000′ Wolf Creek Pass. Predictions were for 4-7″ of blowing snow on our travel day, which would likely require us to install our tire chains to cross the Pass. We carry chains, as required, but have successfully avoided having to use them. So, we poured over our maps for an hour, and elected to go with Plan B – a run south to Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico. It turned out to be a great decision.

An excellent campsite in an empty campground was ours for three nights for the grand total of $18 (love our National Parks Senior Pass). 20160501_173619There’s a big population of Abert’s Squirrels here, which drove Jezzy nuts! I’ve never seen anything like these critters with their big white chests and long ears. I tried to get a photo, but these were always chasing each other around, so here’s a photo of a photo from the Visitor Center.20160502_123310Here, there are cliff dwellings, talus houses, petroglyphs and an excellent museum housed in a beautiful CCC-era building.20160502_10374020160502_111612 20160502_122404We scrambled up 140′ ladders to visit Alcove House. 20160502_110937Our first day of exploration was finished off with a four mile hike to a high waterfall in a narrow canyon.20160502_134427 I was baffled by these big dots on this tree until I realized that it was resin or sap from the injury of limb removal. Maybe it’s just my newfound interest in trees, but this really intrigued me.20160502_140346One of the other reasons we wanted to visit Bandelier is that it’s located in Los Alamos, NM, site of the Manhattan Project. Teams of scientists worked secretly to develop the atomic bomb in the 1940s. We figured there HAD to be a great museum there, as well as many related sights. Well……no and yes.

The Bradbury Science Museum is devoted to the exploration of nuclear physics. Of course, a big historical portion of that is the Manhattan Project. The pale guy is Robert Oppenheimer.20160503_122245 Parts of the Museum were interesting, but most of the Museum required a very high level of knowledge to explore. I will admit to understanding about 1% of what I saw. John definitely scored higher – having taken some college physics classes. But it was baffling – here are a couple of photos to back me up on this.20160503_123132 We decided that it should be called the Bradbury Science Museum for Scientists.

But, the history of Los Alamos is intriguing. Basically, the US Government commandeered the property in the town under eminent domain, and established the Los Alamos National Laboratory. A full-scale building project began, and scientists and their families were gathered. We viewed the homes of Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi, which are now both private residences. The entire town of Los Alamos seems to be offices of the Department of Energy. There are dozens of Tech Centers scattered around, and many super-fit, military types are seen everywhere. There’s a feeling of being on high alert. I rode my bike in from Bandelier, and had to pass through a security checkpoint on the highway. Stuff like that…But, what other town will have live images from Mars posted on a video board next to a brewery? You gotta love that!20160503_125516Leaving Bandelier, we stormed through northern New Mexico and into Oklahoma for a brief one-night stay at Black Mesa State Park. 20160504_153959Petrified wood, dinosaur tracks, and a deserted campground were the highlights – temps in the mid 70s!

One more long day on the road brought us into Kansas to Cheney State Park. We made several interesting stops along the way. Liberal, Kansas (the city, not the ideology) has promoted itself as the Land of Oz.20160505_120304 20160505_120732We visited Dorothy’s house, and John listed for the Tin Man’s heart.20160505_120533 They get points for effort, but it was pretty lame.

Our second stop was even sillier – the sight of the secret tunnel of the Dalton Gang of the 1880s.20160505_125926 We didn’t open our wallets to visit the secret tunnel (re-created, not original), but I did get a photo of the dead Daltons after the big shootout.20160505_130524 Our last stop of the day was more interesting. Greensburg is the home of the Big Well, the biggest, deepest well in the world dug by hand. It’s 109′ deep and about 32′ across. Stairs allow you to climb down about 50′ into the well, which is rather creepy.20160505_143630 But, it is overshadowed by the story of the destruction of the entire town of Greensburg by a Force 5 tornado on May 4, 2007. Everything was demolished. The Visitor Center highlights the reconstruction – all the homes, schools, churches here are less than 10 years old. It’s amazing. This is one of those crazy little places that I’m very happy to have visited.

After a super long day on the road, we were delighted to find an entire loop at Cheney State Park with no other campers. Everyone is jammed down in the sites with electric and water, and we’re hanging out by ourselves in the tent section. It’s a great ending to a busy day.20160505_171849If you’ve stuck with this post to the end – thanks. It’s rather disjointed – I realize that the longer I go between posts, the less sense everything seems to make when I try to put it together. So, a few photos pasted together with a bit of commentary is all I can manage. It’s been a great trip – we’re both anxious to get home, but not quite ready yet to get back to real life. So, we race on to the Big Finish.

 

History Lessons

We left Bryce Canyon in a hail of swirling snow and wind – seeking a lower elevation for the night, but with no firm plans in mind. Checking the map, there’s a huge swath of green, indicating the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument about 160 miles down the road, so we get the bright idea that we’ll boondock and explore that area for a day or two.

Snow gives way to bright skies and 50ish temps. 20160426_100610We zoom down into Kanab and head to the Visitor Center to check out camping scenarios. The Ranger that is not encouraging. On the board is posted the 5 day weather forecast, and it’s a mass of green (for rain). Most of the backcountry roads are already impassable, even for four-wheelers. Not only do we not have 4WD, we’re towing a trailer. She finally recommends one spot – 12 miles out of town, then 12 miles down a paved road to a gravel road beneath the white cliffs. We’re excited – we only hear ‘paved’, so we figure we’ve got it made. Not so fast…..

We pass through some gorgeous territory, including an old Mormon settlement, which is slowly sagging back into the ground.20160425_130719 Finally, we get to the turnoff, and it’s sand and deep red clay. John pulls off the road slightly, and we get out to feel the surface and assess potential campsites. It’s a great place to camp, BUT there are some deep, worrisome ruts in the clay surface of the road. A local rancher pulls up and offers advice, using words like “tow”, “stuck”, “marooned”, and “isolated”. It doesn’t take too long for us to carefully back out and head back to Kanab to find a safe haven for the night. Good choice – it rained hard for ten hours, and I’m sure we’d still be spinning our wheels in red muck trying to get out of Grand Staircase.

So, Day 2 we head over to Navaho National Monument. This the site of the spectacular Betatakin settlement of the Ancestral Puebloens.20160426_15201920160426_15091320160426_150818 There’s a small adjacent campground which is free. This is the best of all worlds.20160426_142343 A great campsite is ours for the taking – complete with our own huge stone patio overlooking the canyon. The Visitor Center is terrific, and we’re camped in a significant historic site. We wander down to the pubelo overlook, check out the surrounding area a bit, and settle in for the night.20160426_194026I’m excited to make the drive through Monument Valley again on Day 3. This remote section of Utah highway passes some through some of the most breathtaking scenery you can imagine. Flat desert is broken up with massive red monuments. There’s no way I can capture the majesty and sheer grandeur of this setting – there’s nothing to use for scale.20160427_111659 It is no wonder that this is sacred ground to Native Americans – it is a breathtaking and mystical experience to pass near these enormous mystical mountains.

John had read something about Goosenecks State Park in Utah, so that became the next stop for the day. Six miles of the San Juan River meander through a deep valley in a series of undulations, stretching horizontally over only about a mile and a half.20160427_120054 It was well worth the $5 fee we paid to wander and admire for a half hour. The lighting at the time we were there was perfect – even the parking lot was photogenic.20160427_120419After checking weather reports and consulting our maps, we decide to press on to Mesa Verde National Park for two nights of camping and exploration of the magnificent pueblos there. 20160427_165942Mesa Verde was one of the original twelve Unesco World Heritage Sites in 1976 – one of the twelve most significant sites in the world worthy of preservation. This relatively small area is home to over 5000 archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. 20160428_12264220160428_11250420160428_105947Having the privilege to see this well-preserved site, visit the gorgeous museum and take a Ranger-guided trip to Balcony House will certainly be two days I will remember for a long time. The Mesa Verde area was inhabited by the Ancestral Puebloans from about 600-1300 AD, with a population that likely exceeded today’s number of inhabitants. Of course there’s a huge difference in the structures from the earliest to the most recent, but to see them all in such a small space is amazing. You review hundreds of years of history within a day.

Our tour of Balcony House was terrific. We headed down under the cliff, then up a worrisome 32′ ladder to reach the dwelling.20160428_13334920160428_133838Probably housed 30-50 people lived there in the 1200s with their domesticated turkeys and dogs. Our Ranger Paul was passionate about helping us understand the forces in play during the time of this settlement.20160428_13394620160428_135247 It’s amazing what we do know about these early settlements, and how much we really don’t know about what caused their seemingly abrupt  desertion of this area around 1300. All you can do is look, absorb, and try to understand. It’s an amazing opportunity.

We did have one low point when using the campground showers today, which had just opened for the season. Chalk it up to the joys of camping.20160428_165158 Tomorrow (Friday), we’re moving on. Once again, we don’t really have a firm plan. The weather forecast is lousy for the higher elevations – snow. Rain in the lower regions. We’re thinking about just moving to nearby Durango for a few days. Perhaps we’ll ride the Durango steam train, although it’s too early in the season to take the classic trip to Silverton. Maybe we’ll just lie low and look for a bar where we can watch a baseball game. Funny how far removed we feel from simple pleasures like this.

Hard to believe we’re entering the last few weeks of this trip. We’ve seen so much, yet all I can focus on is what we’ve left undone, and what we overlooked through ignorance or laziness. There is hardly a place we’ve visited that I don’t want to revisit, yet I know that’s not going to be possible. Food for thought.

 

 

Bryce is Best

The first Canyon views bring a gasp of amazement. Can this be real? Is is some kind of lighting trick?20160424_102544.jpg20160423_140750.jpg20160422_113539 Reality set in, and my head swiveled from side to side to take in the extraordinaryness that is Bryce Canyon. My second thought? I don’t have the camera or skills to capture this. I wish I had a stereo, or 3D camera.

imageOur three-night stay in the North Campground turned into four, as we swiftly figured out that we couldn’t possibly drink in all the sights in such a short time. I don’t know how much time would be enough, but we didn’t reach that limit. At Bryce, the attraction is the hoodos, those tall skinny spires of rock that reach up from the Canyon bottom and are wind and weather eroded into spectacular formations. 20160423_124638.jpg20160422_10350720160424_124336.jpg20160424_124716.jpg20160422_11290320160422_102850Some have names, such as Tower Bridge.20160424_120753Others set your imagination reeling with images from your own knowledge. Some days, we shuttled to trailheads on the amazing bus system, and bicycled back and forth other days when it suited us. It was always cold in the morning, warming up into the mid 60’s – 70’s during the day. Spectacular winds blow through the Canyon, swirling dust devils through the air. Parents clutched their kids, and everyone hung on to their hats. John convinced me to step out to precipice for a photo op. I had to brace myself from being blown off the edge, and hang on to my favorite hat at the same time.imageWe hiked the northernmost trail (Fairyland Canyon) and the southernmost trail (Bristlecone), and several inbetween those two. The details of each day have already blurred, so I’ll just share a few of my favorite photos.20160423_124959.jpg20160423_130219.jpg20160424_110209.jpg20160424_102731.jpg20160423_131258.jpg20160423_130219.jpg20160424_110209.jpg20160424_115055.jpg20160424_124336.jpg20160424_124716.jpgEven if you never hike, amazing views can be had from the Rim Trail which travels along the 18 mile length of the Canyon. Take the shuttle, jump off and on and you please.image20160423_132918.jpg20160423_140750.jpg20160423_141607.jpg20160423_141757.jpgEven the jet contrails above Bryce resemble hoodoos. I was sorely tempted to turn this photo upside down to make my point, but you’ll get it anyway.20160422_120634My quest for the Bristlecone Pine, the oldest living trees on earth was answered, but not in the manner that I had hoped. This is what I had hoped to see, but the Bristlecones we saw were far less spectacular.20160423_134804.jpg20160422_103817But we did observe many in varying stages of life, and felt privileged to do so. We saw some variety of spruce that was forming cones, and the branch tips were bright pink. Perhaps it was new branch growth, but it appeared to me to be cone formation with the striking color. A visit like this will remind you of all you do not know, and probably will never really understand.20160424_104123.jpgNow we have seen the oldest (Bristlecone), tallest (Coastal Redwood), and largest (Giant Sequoia) trees in the world. My heart still belongs to the Sequoias, but it quiets me to be in the presence of any of these giant trees.

I have so many more photos that I perhaps will share on a separate photo-only post, if I find a place with some good WiFi. A post like this gobbles up an amazing amount of our monthly data plan. ;-)

Our post-Bryce plan was to camp on BLM land in nearby Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. But, we awoke to snow and freezing rain. We packed up our stiff and frozen awning,  and rolled as quickly as possible to a lower elevation. As we dropped down (over 3000′ for the day), the snow turned to sleet, then to sunny breezy 50 degree temps, then back to rainstorms as we reached Kanab, UT. The knowledgeable Ranger at the Visitor Center there advised us not to venture onto any of the backcountry roads, as the storm threat and past rainy weather had made the roads unpassable for two-wheelers such as us. She showed us where we could find a great camping site just off a paved road, which we checked out. It was raining by the time we got there, and the deep ruts in the clay site were enough to scare us off camping there for the night. There are signs everywhere warning of impassable roads under rainy conditions. We headed back to an RV park in Kanab. It’s probably a good thing, since it’s been raining steadily for six hours since. One bad experience with a tow truck has made us wary of volunteering for another

Tomorrow, we plan to venture back up into Grand Staircase to see if it’s possible to actually stay and explore for a night or two. But, having had one bad towing experience, we’re not about to expose ourselves (willingly) to another. We may roll eastward. Destination unknown.