Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Deadwood to Tennessee

When we laid this plan out originally, we had a short "to see" list: Florida Keys, Smithsonian in DC, Niagara Falls, Victoria BC, and the great parks in the middle (Glacier, Yellowstone, and the Tetons).

Jenny Lake, Grand Teton National Park

The question we get repeatedly asked by friends and family back home is: "have you found a place to settle down yet?". And when we arrive in a new town, we do think about it... someday in the vague very far away future.

Mesa in Custer State Park, shot through the (very buggy) RV window

Conversely, the first question on the lips of every traveler we meet is "where have you been?" quickly followed by a new list of things we MUST see or do. So despite over two years of travel our short list just keeps growing.

Example of South Dakota's attitude about fog lines. This picture was taken in the RV park, but is indicative of the way they look through Custer State Park where the edge often disappears into infinity. Riding in the passenger seat across Custer State Park aged me 10 years.

As the result of such a suggestion we found ourselves driving across Custer State Park and into Deadwood SD with Loretta pulling Mr. Toad. South Dakota is very casual about shoulders on their roads, and in many cases where the road has eroded they simply chose to paint the line anyway where the road should be. Coupled with wind advisories ("55+ mph winds, tip-over danger very high" many highway signs bleated at us along our way) and narrow tight twisty roads with sheer dropoffs, it made for a white-knuckle drive from Grand Teton to Deadwood.

Deadwood is a cute little town that has done a good job of protecting its history and charm; it's very easy to imagine the gold rush lifestyle of 1876. There are daily reenactments of various important moments in the town's history, both in the street and in the theaters. We were out for a  walk with Chloe during one of these and were surprised by several gunshots in rapid succession - a shootout in the street between unhappy gamblers. Chloe the Chicken Dog nearly ripped Lance's arm off trying to escape so we didn't walk her downtown after that.

Reenactment of a historical shootout. Each gambler shot 10 times and neither one was hit. The only casualty was a bystander who took a glancing blow to his leg and recovered.

Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane, Seth Bullock and so many others whose names you'd recognize are buried on the hill overlooking the town, and nothing appears to have changed much since they were laid to rest.

Stagecoach parked in the RV park

Now that our original "to see" checklist is complete, we're ready to start getting serious about boat shopping. We found a few in the Great Lakes to check out, and also wanted to visit some friends that live in Michigan. The night before travel day though, first the boat listings disappeared and then it became clear our schedule wasn't going to work for our friends. And we are definitely feeling an early, icy Fall breathing on us. We've been pretty cold off and on for what feels like months and we are totally done with being cold. It occurred to me just a few days ago that I haven't been swimming once all summer, not once. Mostly we've spent the summer in cold places and the few times there have been sufficiently warm park pools the pool pee math hasn't worked out to my advantage.

First we decided to make a dash for Annapolis, there are a few boats there we want to see. And so we hit the road with another  wind advisory on our tail and let it push us across South Dakota in record time. We drove almost 500 miles that first day and somewhere along the way we realized that even if we got to Annapolis and agreed on the perfect boat the first day, we wouldn't have time to negotiate, sail test, get it inspected, close the deal, and get it moved to somewhere warm and safe before winter caught us. Which means we'd be putting it up in a storage facility somewhere in Maryland until Spring thaws it out. Nope.

Dignity in South Dakota commemorates the state's 125th anniversary. The artist combined features from 4 different native models as his inspiration.

So we switched gears, again. We were still cold, and so we pulled out the Thousand Trails map and found the closest warmest park we could find - Tennessee. With a pool. Perfect. This will be our home base for a couple of weeks to get the Great Parks pictures sorted and off to Shutterstock, do some boat shopping and work the viewings into the RV fun that's already planned through February 2020.

Some poor soul's house and carports underwater just North of Omaha Nebraska
Days two and three found us battling occasional heavy rain, strong sidewinds and flooding through Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri. In a few cases our freeway was underwater and the detours were definitely not RV appropriate - the first one we encountered tried to direct us under an 11' bridge. Loretta is 12 and a half feet tall and since we are fond of our air conditioners and wifi antenna we did some clever navigating to work around the problem areas.

Surprise! More freeway closures!

Despite the challenges we were able to knock out 1200 miles in three days, and then we cruised the last 200 miles in a relatively short day. It looks like Tennessee still has a little summer left to share, really looking forward to warming up and hitting the pool.

Hey, there's no water in the pool! Dangit!

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Beavers and Foxes and Bears, Oh My!

While we were checking in they reminded us about the bear. And the foxes. "So don't leave anything out that smells like it might be food".

The Tetons as seen from our campground at Colter Bay Village

Later in the day the staff came by and pointed out that "things that might be food" included Stewie. Apparently he's snack-sized, so back into the bus he was tossed, where he settled grumpily on the bed and glared at us.

Later that night, armed with our trusty new can of bear spray, heavy jackets, fuzzy hats, Chloe the bear-alarm system on a short leash, and an assortment of camera paraphernalia, we bravely set off on the path to the lake. We were expecting a full harvest moon and wanted to capture it's glow on the mountain range which was wearing a fresh dusting of snow. In an effort to minimize the impact of the night lights on the critters and stargazers, all the property's lights had been replaced with red bulbs, leaving us to walk through eerie red pools of light in between the dark trees.

Lance set up his time lapse shot and we waited on a nearby log while the camera clicked away. Before long we heard a big splash. It sounded like a bowling ball had been dropped into the lake... no preceding sound and no subsequent sound. There were some folks on the boat docks off to our left, so we decided one of them must have dropped something overboard. Shortly afterwards we heard it again, from our right side where there were no people.

It being Friday the 13th, there was a full harvest moon, and we were the only people around. Of course the first thing we thought of was "bear" but before long our conversation turned to how it was exactly the sort of sound probably made by dropping a body, of lake monsters, of Jason with a hockey mask, and of course, we circled back to bear again. An off-duty staff member with a camera came by and we asked her about it, she told us she hadn't heard a sound like that before and had no idea what it could be. She hung out with us for a while and also mentioned that beavers had been active in the area and that staff had been making constant repairs to the boat docks as a result. She pointed to the former tree-line-now-stumps at the lake's edge as evidence of the ongoing battle.

A long line of stumps where there used to be trees

The camera snapped on. The night got cold. Like, don't-touch-the-camera-because-you-can't-stop-shivering-and-you'll-destroy-the settings-cold. Now and then the splashing sound resounded, long after the boaters had given up for the night.

Our vantage point for night photography, ground zero for the Beaver Battle

Then we saw it. Almost half the size of Chloe, an absolutely HUGE beaver scurried across the beach and jumped in the lake, and swam around frantically. Then another. Then another. These beavers are huge. And busy. Now I get it when I hear the term "busy beaver" - those dudes are so industrious! Cutting down trees, moving them around, splashing and swimming, they do it all at a frantic pace. The sound we heard, we concluded, was them slapping their tails on the water to alert that we were there.

Mystery solved and no real danger in existence, I admitted I was too cold to continue and went to bed, leaving Lance to finish his photos alone with his bear spray. Here's what happened in the wee hours of the morning, in his own words:

"Around 2am I changed the battery in the camera and set up the final time lapse shot with the full moon in the frame. Before long, I heard some large crashing nearby. Still primed for bears I jumped but it was only the beavers taking down another 12-inch diameter birch tree. Eventually I had to admit I was freezing, and since it was only 5 minutes before the timed shot was supposed to end anyways, I stood to pack up the camera. When I turned around there was a large red fox staring up at me from right behind the log where I'd just been sitting. I tried to get a picture but he escaped before I could switch the camera from time lapse to flash shot. I hurried back to Loretta in the dark, loudly whistling my stay away bear song."

The next morning we surveyed some of the damage, alongside staff who were out to make repairs to the docks ("again" they sighed).
Beavers had stuffed branches under the dock
The tree the beavers took down last night

We were supposed to only get a couple of nights here at this swanky little resort, but Ambassador Chloe made friends with the staff and every time they came by to love on her we reminded them we'd like to stay longer; when a spot became available we were fresh in their minds and they offered it to us. We've been so long boondocking and off the grid, we are super appreciative of the full hookups, the nearby restaurants and grocery store, and the internet access.

Here's the timelapse video of the full moon over the Tetons, enjoy:

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Yellowstone... no reservations

Yellowstone's big. Ya ya ya!
It's not small! No no no!
(now the jingle's stuck in your head... you're welcome)

Mammoth Hot Springs
The original plan was to stay outside the park where there was plentiful internet and dive into the park for day trips. After only two day trips like that we realized it wasn't going to work if we wanted to see all of Yellowstone in a reasonable time; getting into the heart of the park from the outside just takes too much time. 

Mammoth Hot Springs - top-down view
In Montana they have a saying about the 4 seasons being "almost winter, winter, still winter, and construction". So the roads within the park were subject to 30 minute delays here and there, in addition to the usual wildlife-on-road delays, it became quickly apparent we would have to think differently to make this work. To add another layer of difficulty to our no-reservation lifestyle, the main RV park on Yellowstone Lake was closed for repairs, displacing 400+ RVs into the other campgrounds.

Historical Yellowstone tour buses await a fresh batch of passengers outside the Mammoth Hotel

The restaurant at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel
In the end we found some internet at a first-come-first-served campground near Mammoth by the North Entrance. This put us within easy daytrip reach of the Beartooth Highway, Mammoth Hot Springs, Norris, Madison and the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone.

My impromptu office in the Map Room at the Mammoth Hotel
Verizon got a good signal here

This view at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone was the first image to return to civilization, in painted form. It seized the nation's attention and sparked the desire to save this magical place for future generations to share; thusly the very first National Park was born. Even knowing for a fact that I stood there and shot this picture, it still doesn't feel real.

On our last day we also visited Old Faithful and it's accompanying lodges but it was a long driving day. Norris campground is also first-come-first-served and would have been a better launching point for this end of the park but there were only a couple of spots big enough for Loretta. Getting there and not getting in would have bounced us out of the park - we decided not to chance it and ended up suffering the long drive instead.

Old Faithful
It was worth it.

The light fixtures at the Old Faithful Lodge

Staircase at the Old Faithful Inn

Pendulum clock at the Old Faithful Inn

Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks sort of blend into one another, so when we finally felt like we'd seen enough of Yellowstone we moved Loretta South to Jackson Lake with a beautiful view of Grand Teton. Again, we nabbed a spot in the first-come-first-served campground for a night until we could wiggle our way onto a full hook-up site for a couple of nights. The nights have been shockingly cold off and on, plugging in is a nice treat.

This bison calmly grazed right alongside the road near Norris campground.
He didn't even budge when the cars passed within inches of him.

We had intended to boondock in the National Forests around the Tetons, but we're sort of loving the long showers and dual heaters. We'll see how it goes. For now we are luxuriating with the 50amp hookups in the shadow of Grand Teton.

Dry Camping at Mammoth Campground
The elk routinely wander right through camp

Stewie loves being a Savannah cat. He patrolled the campsite at midday,
and always came in well before Elk Hour, all the better to watch them from the safety of his window perch.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Gallatin National Forest

The approach into Yellowstone through the Gallatin National Forest

"You are addicted to the internet" Lance told me with a smirk.  I shook my head and made eye contact. The man has beautiful cornflower blue eyes; every now and then they startle me, and this was one of those moments I was shocked when I looked up to see them twinkling at me. Maybe I thought to myself at the same time my mouth formed the denial "nah..." and I shoved the phone in my pocket.

Bozeman Hot Springs RV Campground

The resort where we landed is between Bozeman and Yellowstone National Park. It has hot springs attached to it and the town of Bozeman is adorable. I asked the clerk at the desk if we could extend past Friday and he actually laughed at me. "What, you mean into Labor Day?!" followed by a round of belly laughter from everyone who worked there.

Oh Shit. Labor Day. Isn't that like weeks away? In September... what's today? August sometime, right? Oh... the 30th.
And this is how we found ourselves between Bozeman and Yellowstone in the Gallatin National Forest in a first-come-first-served campsite next to the highway for Labor Day weekend. Close to the park but oh so far away. No power, no water, no internet. Deep in bear country.

Grizzly sauntering along the plains in East Glacier National Park

The first night was fun. We cooked dinner, cleaned up very carefully and put anything that might smell like food safely away, and enjoyed a campfire together. By the second afternoon the isolation was getting to me. I got it into my head that I absolutely had to solve a little client project (which in hindsight definitely could have waited until Monday afternoon), packed up the laptop and fled back to Bozeman, a college town sure to have a good signal.

The project took about 10 minutes and then I found myself surfing Facebook. Lance might be right... I may have an internet addiction problem.

Leaving Bozeman for Yellowstone

Time to focus. I booked us a place to land close to Yellowstone's West gate after the holiday weekend, scouted a propane supplier on our route, checked on a couple of other client projects (all quiet for the holiday weekend), and put the computer away. For real this time.

This is pure Montana; agricultural, wild, huge.

Back at camp, I pulled out the book I'd picked up in Glacier National Park written by a local author and spent Sunday devouring it. She really nailed the mood of the place with this suspense thriller. It was the perfect way to spend a holiday weekend Sunday in a totally disconnected campsite. It's called The Wild Inside and the author is Christine Carbo. Here's a link to the Kindle version.

On Monday we moved on to a swanky RV resort at the West side of Yellowstone to prepare for weeks of boondocking within the park. We should be well within the range of a good signal from here on out. Whew.