Blue Mountain Lake, Adirondacks

On one of the shortest day of the year it seems fitting that I reminisce about the long days.  Summer to us means adventure; road travels and other.  I especially love finding a place beautiful enough to be popular to the masses, but, for whatever reason, remains a more local treat.  The Blue Mountain Lake region of the Adirondacks is such a place.

The Adirondacks is an interesting world.  It is sometimes a wilderness, sometimes a crowded resort town, and sometimes a quaint getaway.  The road from Utica (28) samples all of that on its slow ascent to the 28/30 intersection.  By the time you have reached the intersection of 28/30 you have shaken off many of the day trippers and resort goers.  The Blue Mountain Lake area to us feels like a small state park tucked into the mountains.  Eating options are decidedly fewer and if you have no groceries you might find yourself, as we did, dining on gas station pizza and potato chips.

Our lodging choice is Lake Durant, a stone throw from Blue Mountain Lake.  Lake Durant has one of the best swimming beaches we know.  Canoes are also available (a canoe truck drives through the camping loop each morning) and fishing is good.  Lake Durant has one camping area with sites on both sides of a gravel road.  Sites are either on the lake or are separated from the lake by the road.  Not surprisingly the lake side sites fill up first.  Several campers indicated that the campground only fills up completely a few summer weekends.  Nearby Blue Mountain Lake is larger and colder (the beach is bigger too but the colder water makes for worse swimming) and also offers canoe rentals.   Many years ago Corey and I took our first canoe trip on this lake.  We also fell into a lake for the first time ever  which led to our first canoe related lesson (how to successfully put a canoe into a lake).   

Blue Mountain is there for the climbing.  Corey and I have climbed it twice, Henna once.  The first time Corey and I were in our late 20s and I remember it being a pretty easy hike with a great view on top.  There are even better views from on top of the fire tower.  The second time up we were in our late 30s (Henna was not quite 7).  Henna did fine but was sort of pushed up the last half mile or so.  Corey and I worked harder to get up that mountain that I would care to admit.  The last chunk of the hike is straight up (no switch backs here) and I cursed gravity most of the way up.  We ended in a collapsed heap at the base of the fire tower.  There we met a mountain hermit or, actually, a young college student living at a cabin just behind the fire tower for the summer.  He was eager for conversation and told how a black bear walked just past his cabin a few nights past.  We stayed awhile on top of the mountain.  Henna and Corey refused to climb up the fire tower but I did and got some nice pictures for my effort.

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Our New Mini Trip

Greetings from Somerset, PA.  What am I doing in Somerset?  Just passing through on my way to Baltimore to marry off two young kids.  Really.  My cousin Chad and soon to be cousin Amy flattered me a few months ago by asking me if I would officiate at their wedding.  Very very excited to do just that in two days in Baltimore. 

Our last summer trip also began with a wedding.  Five weeks after that wedding  we returned home from Cincinatti.  We took the long way home to Chicago (all the way past Toffino, BC).  Now we have to balance school and plan on being home in just a few days.  Hopefully we will get a chance to see some of the museums we missed last time we were in D.C.  And tomorrow we hope to take a small detour to the 9-11 memorial that is nearby(Somerset is the county where the heroes on 9-11 made a stand against the terrorists).

Quick thoughts on the Ohio and PA Turnpike:  They sure like to pay tolls on the East Coast.  My I-Pass sort of worked meaning that each time I approached a gate I had to cross my fingers that it would work.  Twice I had to hit the help button in order to tell the attendant the pay code on my pass so that they could remotely open the gate.  There is a national park just south of Cleveland near Akron (Cuyahoga Valley N.P.)   Is this new?  I visited Cleveland several time in my years of being a Bobcat (O.U.) and do not remember such a park.  Are there campgrounds there?  The views from the PA turnpike were really stunning- lots of hills and trees.  But unfortuantly Somerset smells.  Really bad.  Like a steel plant and a dump got together and made a stinker.

We will post some more from this mini trip and will hopefully have some pictures to share.

Third Coast (Michigan Side)

With the school year starting, my thoughts have turned to road trips closer to home.  We have had our digital camera for about five years or, in road trip terms, about twenty thousand miles.  Most of those pictures are stored on my hard drive and, patient subscriber, may soon be posted by me for your planning pleasure.  Last post was about the Effigy Mounds/ Pikes Peak State Park area of Iowa.  Tonight it will be South Haven, Michigan to the Sleeping Bear Dunes.

About an hour and a half from Chicago is South Haven home of beautiful beaches, hidden vineyards (some quite good- my favorite is Lemon Creek), and really expensive homes.  Thrice we have camped at the relatively new, very well run and family friendly KOA in Covert, Michigan.  From there it is a short drive to beaches and South Haven. 

South Haven is fun, but we prefer Saint Joseph.  Once home to some kind of religious retreat, it now boasts a restored carousal, a pristine beach, a so-so children’s museum, and a small city area that has a Jimmy Johns and a few ice-cream stores.  Although we have never done this, you can take Amtrak directly from Chicago.  Other beautiful beaches can be found in several state parks including Saugatuck Dunes State Park. 

Going a little further up the coast one passes through Grand Haven (truly more grand than its’ southern namesake) which has a very cool city beach.  We have never camped there, but the very crowded sites are right on the beach.  North of there is the lovely town of Ludington.  During the summer a car ferry services Ludington from Wisconsin.  Ludington also boasts a wonderful city park that often attracts cool lake breezes.  Our second time at that park we met an aspiring actress vacationing from LA and were witness to a fishing derby centered deep on the lake. 

The drive from Ludington to Empire, Michigan, in stretches, is as awesome as any drive in America or Canada.  Across the lake you spy “mountains” (or at least big hills) and the road hugs a few cliffs as tight as another road does in California.  There are some dense woods and turnouts and the seventy miles might take you two to three hours, especially if you remembered to bring a picnic.   

Sleeping Bear Dunes is a special area to us.  It is one of the few places I know where the balance between wildness and development has been reached so perfectly.  The small towns attract repeat customers, many of whom stay at the same cabins each summer (sometimes for the whole summer).  We usually stay at a campground near Empire, Michigan.  Empire is at the sleepy southern end.  Each time we go there we drive to the public beach, roast some hot dogs on a fire pit, and watch the sun set.  Usually there are hippies, tourists, and townies all gathered to do the same.

So there you have a short trip from Chicago guaranteed to lighten your soul and add some miles to your odometer.  Please, I love hearing from you.  If you have any comments, questions, or just want to say hi, do so.

Northeast Iowa

When I am not road tripping I am planning future road trips.  And when I am not doing that, I like to reminisce a little about past road trips.  Over the next month or two I plan on focusing on places a day or two away from my hometown of Chicago.  First up, Iowa.

Methinks Iowa gets a bad rap.  People think of Iowa as flat, boring, and full of corn.  Yes on the last one but no on the first two.  And the north-east corner of Iowa is absolutely stunning.  There is Pikes Peak State Park (discovered by the same Pike who named Pikes Peak in Colorado), the Effigy Mounds, and a beautiful, rolling river drive that takes you past stunning views of the river, deep valleys where hawks and bald eagles soar, and some pretty lousy, but picturesque wineries.  The one winery we went to was actually in the kitchen/ dining area of a small ranch house and was run by its two elder owners.  The old man was shirtless when we rang the bell, but put a shirt on for the tastings.  You have to expect a certain touch of class at these things.  Pikes Peak State Park has a few short trails and several dramatic overlooks.  Effigy Mounds covers a very large area where one can hike past dozens of mounds in the shape of bears, eagles, and other animals.  A lot of mystery here in that no one knows exactly what the mounds were used for, but they did often house the dead.  To get there drive to Madison, WI and then take 18 east.  It took us about 6 hours.  We also got the last available campsite, so you might want to plan ahead.  Closest town is McGreggor which I think was the birth place of John Wayne. 

After taking in the mounds and the views, it is an easy drive south to Dubuque which is across the river from Galena.  Galena is a much more happening town, but Dubuque has a cool aquarium focusing on the river, a casino (did not enter but I am sure it is nice), and a very clean, built up downtown that was curiously empty when we were there.  Galena is a short drive away and offers a very historic, shop and resteraunt filled town.  I believe that most of the city is a historic landmark and one can really get lost in the beautifully restored blocks that sometimes seem to climb straight up into the hills.  The drive west on 20 is also very pretty and offers a scenic alternative close to Galena that is worth the drive.

Start of Something Big

We made it back to Chicago in time to catch the last few hours of July.  After thirty eight days of driving in straight, zig-zag, curvy, and circular lines, it was finally time to rest.  We did not feel as tired as you might expect.  Henna was homesick toward the end and I was feeling the monotony of traveling every day (I always prefer to spend multiple days in one spot, but how many days could we really spend in Albert Lea, MN).  Corey’s mantra the last few days, which I am sure has been influenced by the high humidity, has been “why do we live in Chicago?”  But home is home and is made much nicer by the people we live near.  This summer those neighbors have been especially awesome.  The Pederson’s took over cat sitting duty when needed and also were a true friend to the felines.  The Longos’ as well as neighbors Alex and Chad also assisted with the cats and kept a good eye on our house.  And the Davis’ were able to keep one of two hermit crabs alive.  Janice, of course, made us feel at home when we were so far from our actual home.   Sam, Henna’s babysitter, expanded her job description and came to our house every day in order to feed and play with the cats.  It is important to have good people in your life.  It makes coming home worth it.

We also looked for changes in our neighborhood and found a few worth mentioning.  The tree stump remained (the rest of the tree had crashed on my neighbors van as well as my fence), but my neighbors van had been repaired.  I am also very excited to report that there is a new hot dog stand a short walk from my house.  Other changes are more subtle.  I feel great and have lost about seven pounds.  I also feel fit (walking several miles a day will do that) and very confident.  So confident, in fact, that I have worn my cowboy hat around town.  Corey reports that her legs are strong and Henna is just happy to be home.

Most travel articles or travel books have a “if you go” section, usually placed at the end of the text.  We have done the same, but decided to focus a little on cost.  It is impossible for us to determine exactly how much our trip cost us for the simple reason that in any given five weeks we go out to restaurants, buy groceries, see movies, maybe go to a museum, etc.  There are of course some specific purchases that we probably would not have made if we had stayed at home the past five weeks (whale tours are few and far between in Chicago, although the Shed would have been a lot cheaper).  But here are some the costs specific to our trip:

Gas:  We drove about 7500 miles and averaged close to 25 MPG (our car, a 2010 6 cylinder records this information).  At $4/ gallon (I think we actually averaged less than that but it is hard to figure, especially when trying to convert liters to gallons) we spent approximately $1,260 on gas. 

Hotels:  We spent 7 nights at hotels.  Every province and state, regardless of whether they have a sales tax or not (Oregon, Minnesota, and Montana do not) have a pretty hefty hotel tax.  After that tax we spent approximately $125 a night at various hotels.  This comes to $875 spent at hotels.  By the way, I am much pickier and more likely to complain at hotels and this once led to a $25 discount due to a loud AC issue.

Camping:  A blackjack worth of camping (21 nights).  Money spent ranged from $12 to $40 (that included a reservation fee).  KOAs, not surprisingly, were more expensive but also offered a lot more services; pools, showers, hot tubs (once), etc.  Canadian parks were also more expensive.  Total approximate cost for tent camping:  $470.  Of course there are also a lot of start up costs for tenting (the tent, sleeping bags, etc).

KOA Cabins:  My favorite hotel alternative.  You get a roof, but no linens and you have to share a bathroom with RVers, tenters, and fellow cabiners.  The four nights spent at a cabin ranged from $90 (outside Victoria) to $40 (Corvalis, OR).  Assume that local hotels are always twice the price of a KOA cabin.  Total cost was about $270.

This is the end of our lucky 13th 2011 trip, but not an end to this blog.  Over the next few days we will post some of our favorite photos from the trip.  We also plan on describing some of our favorite two to three day adventures leaving from Chicago (this is meant to serve as an idea section for you at home).  Next to planning our own trips, our next favorite activity is helping others do the same.  On a hike this past fall we designed and envisioned a future online business in which we would do just that.  Plan mini or long vacations for folks; supply them with information about traveling to places we’ve been etc.  This blog was started as the beginning of that far off future endeavor.   We may never get there, but it’s good to dream big.  Therefore please, if you are looking for ideas or want a little guidance, ask us via the comments.  You never know, this may be the start of something big.

To all the roads I have loved before

The tilt is in full swing and I am writing you from Albert Lea, MN which is about 120 miles west of Lacrosse, WI.  I should be home tomorrow late afternoon/ early evening.  The heat and humidity plus our desire to get home by tomorrow contributed to us passing on such gems as the tractor museum and the South Dakota Hall of Fame.  We did spend about an hour or so today at Wall Drug.  Wall Drug is a place famous for being famous, but we like it plenty.  In case you have never been there, it has dinosaurs, robot cowboy singers, and shooting arcades.  It also boasts 5 cent coffee and free ice water.  The founder of Wall Drug strung signs along highway 16 advertising free ice water in the 1930s and this snowballed into a large mall with a cowboy bent.  A couple of years ago Corey purchased cowboy boots there that she has yet to wear.  This time we had breakfast and bought some souvenirs.  About an hour later we crossed the Missouri and decided not to stop at the rest stop/ small museum there.  It was 13 years ago that Corey and I did stop to make time by the Missouri River.  It was the beginning of one of our first true adventures and we met our first of many road friends.  David and Ethel were in their late 70s/ early 80s and agreed to take our picture overlooking the river (this picture is now framed in our bedroom).  We talked awhile and they told us that if we were still talking to each other at the end of the trip then we were meant to be.  We haven’t shut up since. 

A couple of hours past the river we crossed I29.  Corey was driving, Henna was listening to a story, and I was entertaining myself with our road atlas.  I was intrigued by the perpendicular interstate and saw that it journeyed south from Sioux Falls, SD to Sioux City, IA then down to Omaha and later Kansas City.  Travelling north one would go past Grand Forks, ND and then, by route, Winnipeg.  I was transported at that moment to earlier in our trip when we did just that.  If you remember, we took route 2 to Grand Forks and then, due to flooding in North Dakota, drove past lumbering cattle trucks into ranch land and gas stations that you could neither pay at the pump or pay before you pumped.  For a fleeting moment I felt that same freedom I experienced four weeks past.  I thought then of all the routes and highways I have been on.  There was one time when, just outside of Bend, Oregon my three-year old atlas did not anticipate a route (97) becoming a divided highway.  The sudden and unexpected terror of being on something that should not exist cannot be overstated.  Most times though the routes did not disappoint in what they offered; sights, interesting people, and a chance for adventure at every turn.  We made time on the interstates and had fun on the routes. 

Over the next week or so we will edit photos (my camera’s memory card is stuffed at a little over 1,500 photos) and try to digest this trip.  I look forward to the process as it keeps the trip alive for just a little longer.  Over the next year we will stare at maps trying to see the grand pattern, the route that speaks most to our heart.  We have several ideas for next year, but for now are leaning toward Newfoundland.  I hope you check in with us often as we will continue to post for as long as we feel the pull of the road.

Note:  Both photos taken Summer, 2009

Stalker burros, bison road blocks, and granite presidents

I did not intend this trip to be a grand tour of KOAs, but that is what the last week has become.  A couple of factors:  1)  Henna’s profound love of swimming and her new found underwater diving skills and 2) Our love of cheap, fun places that allow us to camp.  Yesterday’s KOA (in Custer, SD) was perfect.  It had a  lot of tenters, families, and trees.  Besides having a pool, they also offered crafts for the kids and Henna painted a glass butterfly with a kindly older work camper.  Today, I am about 35 miles north of Custer at the Rapid City KOA which is off of I90, is filled with some type of camp group which descended on the pool just before closing as well as punkish looking teens (and a few nice families).  But the pool is nice and we had pizza delivered to us from a nearby place. 

Today we did a figure eight through Custer State Park.  13 years ago, Corey and I camped for the first time and had our first good hike in the Black Hills area.  My first night camping was memorable by the way, for me cutting my thumb pretty good while opening a can of tuna.  We could not get a fire going and I remember some guy who worked at the campground watching my efforts and saying, “it will catch, don’t worry” and walking away.  I do not remember if it ever catched.  The hike was Harney Peak which I always tell people is the highest mountain east of the Mississippi.  A couple of days ago I told that to Corey and she said “Harney Peak is not east of the Mississippi.”  A quick look at the map confirmed this.  So maybe it is the highest mountain east of the Rockies?  At 7200′ it is tall, but I am not sure that it is taller than the presidential mountains in New Hampshire.    One thing we can all agree on is that it is tall.  We told Henna there was a castle at the top of the mountain (there is a stone CCC firewatch tower at the top) and that she could eat as much candy as she wanted while hiking.  Yesterday she said she would do it but today she said no way. 

So we drove through Custer State Park  and were awed by how cool this park really is  After Yellowstone, Waterton, etc. we thought this would pale in comparison.  Not at all.  There are meadows, funky rock formations, windy roads that rival taller mountain passes, narrow tunnels that allow only one lane of traffic, a herd of bison that, toward the end of the day, surrounded traffic and caused our hearts to quicken as they walked toward the car before suddenly veering away.  While in a bison jam, a park ranger passed us going the other way and we asked if bison ever charge cars (I did this thinking the answer would comfort us).  He said, “yeah, all the time” and then drove off.  Meanwhile the bison are in front, behind, to the left, and to the right of us.  We can smell and hear them grunt too.  A couple of cars in front of us the drover froze up and we were stuck for a good ten minutes before being able to proceed. 

The burros are a different matter.  Quick review, in WY you can walk directly on dinosaur tracks and are encouraged to take any fossils you find.  At Jewel Cave I was reprimanded for holding an acorn in the visitor center.  At Custer State Park, you are not allowed to feed wildlike “except fot the burros…. we just want you to feed them something good like carrots” (the lady at the entrance gate).  So we fed them.  We also got of the car and petted them.  And then we walked in a great meadow toward a herd of burros.  Prarie dogs sent off their alarm and we watched for burro pooh and snakes in the grass (we found a lot of the first and none of the second).

Before seeing the bison and burros, but after first entering the park we took Iron Mountain Road which leads to Mount Rushmore.  The road was designed to give several cool views of the monument.  Quick fact:  Mount Rushmore is incomplete.  Congress cut off funding in 1941 (we were on the verge of WWII) and Lincoln is incomplete as well as some of the details of the other presidents.  There also was a big do-over due to unforseen cracking which left several imperfections to the left of Washington.

After Mount Rushmore but before the bisons and burros we parked at Lake Sylvian.  Lake Sylvian is lovely and also is the site of a trail head for Harney Peak.  How convenient.  The three of us started on the trail with the understanding we would only go as far as Henna wanted.  Henna wanted to go about 50 yards.  Corey graciously said I could continue for a bit and her and Henna went swimming in the lake.  I continued on the trail until I reached a spur leading to Little Devil’s Tower.  I figured that would be a logical turn around point and began walking to the tower.  What I did not realize, was that the trail led to the top of the little tower, not a view of.  About a third of a way up that spur I came across a vantage point that offered awesome views of the hills (they did look black from  there).  I did not have any way to record this.  There was a family at the same point and I decided to ask a big favor: would they e-mail me a picture of that view.  This request led to fun conversations and companionship the rest of the way up.  At the time of the request, I did not realize that they were actually a family of eight.  A very cool eight with the six children ranging from six to maybe their late teens.  They were quick witted (they laughed at my jokes) and very kind to me.  Still, I felt a bit funny hanging out with them, kind of like I was being unfaithfull to Corey and Henna.  The trail, by the way, devolved into spray painted blue diamonds on rocks which led us into gulleys and crevases.  Several points were only wide enough to allow me to walk with one foot directly in front of the other.  The view at the top was stunning with us just a little bit lower than the stone fire tower which we could see across a ravine.  As I was admiring this a little voice inside my head said “you told Corey you would be about an hour and it has been two.”  I came down as fast as I can, once losing the trail and having to backtrack.  I also resorted to throwing my water bottle down ahead of me so that I had both hands free.  When I finally returned to the parking lot, Corey and Henna were happy to see me and not upset in the least.  I felt true gratitude for them being so cool and understanding.

So here we are in Rapid City, two days before we hope to be home.  Since Dan and Liz’s wedding, it has been 34 nights. 21 nights have found us sleaping in a tent.  4 times we stayed in a KOA cabin.  We did 6 hotels and were lucky enough to have Lou host us for three nights.  Our total trip odometer is over 6,500 miles.  It is time to go home, but these have been an awesome 5 weeks.  I will post some pictures, hopefully tomorrow and then again over the next week.

Inching Closer to Home

The plan today was big.  We would take I90 to 16, cross into South Dakota and see wild donkeys and bison in Custer State Park and then the granite presidents.  We didn’t do none of that.  We got off I90 and were on 16S for less than a minute before coming across the West Texas Trail museum in Moorecroft, Wy.  A sign said it was free and we were out of the car not thirty minutes after leaving Gillette.  By the way, Corey said I was to hard on that town so on the way out we detoured through their downtown.  It was clean, had several stores, no resteraunts, coffee shops or book stores though.  Still not my favorite place, but not the worse place either.  Anyways, many attics made up this museum.  There were coffins, pianos, WWI uniforms, various mounted cow heads, and short histories of the families making up Kirk County.  There also was a very articulate and knowledgeable man with nothing else to do but answer my questions concerning ranching, the west Texas Trail, the history of Moorecroft, and dinosaur bones.  It turned out he was friends with the family who once owned the land where the dino tracks were found.  He talked about being a kid on his grandparents ranch and finding twelve or more arrow heads a summer.  He also said that ranchers are suppose to tell people when they find stuff, but that means strangers coming on to their land.  People in WY do not like that, but then again I am not a big fan of the meter man coming into my backyard.  One sentence on the West Texas Trail:  Cows were brought north from Texas to populate ranches in MT and Canada from the mid to late 19th century.

We then stopped for gas, made lunch at a rest stop, and traveled a few more miles on 16 into South Dakota.  Corey hates caves but I made her pull into the Jewel Cave National Monument visitor center.  Cave tours were sold out for the day but there was an enticing hike into “Hell Canyon” past the historic cave opening.  Three and a half miles long and flat, this seemed easy to us mountain people.  There was a big fire ten years ago which caused lots of stumps, no shade from sun, and a beautiful meadow filled with butterflies, wild flowers, and interesting birds.  Henna tripped twice and skinned one knee.  She also was stung by a bee.  The sun and humidity (which us mountain people are no longer used to) was brutal.  The hike, although gorgeous, became monotonous after the first mile or so.  We saw one family at the onset of the hike, but then no one else and Corey was convinced we had made a wrong turn.  But after climbing out of the canyon (it was a pretty small indentation by the way) we came across that historic opening and it was awesome.  Cold air came out of one hole and there were small openings that a stupid man could venture into and then die a lonely death.  The rocks here have a crystal sheen that rubs off and we felt this sense of discovery that often eludes us in more crowded places.  The trail then took a bend around the corner and we found ourselves in a parking lot with maybe twenty people waiting for a cave tour.  A few more steps and we met a ranger dressed in 1940s garb (that is when the rangers first gave tours) who showed us the origional cabin.  Again, there was no one else around to compete for our attention and I asked him about the area, the canyon, and the CCC corps (who built the cabin and highway 16 that takes you to the cave).  The trail from that point to the visitor center ventured on high ground and offered shade and cool breezes.  Along the way Henna gave me the “prettiest acorn in the forest.”  At the gift shop we bought a sticker and the ranger wannabe said “tell me you did not get that from the forest.”  You can grab fossils from WY but do not take acorns from S. Dakota.  A few more miles down the road was the Custer KOA where I write you these words.  Total distance for the day:  maybe a hundred twenty miles.  Tomorrow we hope to see Custer State Park, Mt. Rushmore, and Wall Drug.  But who knows, maybe a county fair will intercept us a mile east of here.