Thursday, September 17, 2009

Retroactive Travel Post - Day 7 - Nebraska and South Dakota

Our first night of camping went fairly well, even in lieu of the fact that we had camped out in the wrong area, but no harm, no foul, right? We'd found on this trip was that one of the most enjoyable aspects was the actual camping, so even though we'd miscalculated the timing and ended up driving a great deal, it was the camping part that we all looked forward to, even breaking down camp. We all had our assignments and went about them with eager enthusiasm. The kids really had fun with it, and felt a sense of duty and accomplishment, and rightly so. Plus, it was a great way for all of us to work together and have fun.

It was at this point that my blog had ceased because I no longer had an internet connection, a electrical connection, and an office. Usually I hole up in the bathroom and set up shop, but at this campsite, there were pit toilets, and it was warm, so you didn't want to spend any more time than you had to inside. Take care of business and get out of Dodge.

After camp was done, the kids went to the playground while R cleaned up the breakfast dishes and rolled up assorted sleeping bags and pads. Just wanted to reiterate our contempt for Quaker Oats for not making it clear that "low sugar" oatmeal actually means sugar replaced with Splenda. Also, it was pretty amazing how the four of us piled ourselves and our supplies into a single Toyota Matrix. It's not a huge car, though not a tiny one, either, and we managed nicely, albeit with some creative organizing. During out trip, we hadn't seen a single four-person group that had anything less than a minivan or a station wagon with a Thule pod, my point being that we were traveling light, and able to trim things down. Do we get points for that?

We then hit the road. We had left Omaha on the main highway and then cut into smaller roads with the goal of reaching one of Nebraska's national forests, which seems oxymoron, but they exist. It turned out to be too far to get to before dark, so we settled for the Victoria Springs State Recreation Area. Apparently in the past it was a destination for city folks because it has natural mineral springs with healing qualities. While we were there, we saw no evidence of this.
We got back on highway 2 and drove west towards S. Dakota, but not before stopping at the quintessential example of kitschy-Americana, Carhenge. Just for the record, it was a really cool place, and the town that it's in, Alliance, was actually interesting in a funky, artistic way. Carhenge was fun, and we spent some time just checking it out. We found a cool snake skin that had been molted, it was at least two feet long. The kids enjoyed just checking things out, and we could appreciate the surreal quality of the place.

We then went into Alliance to get supplies. We had developed a routine whereby we would pack up our camp, drive to where we needed to get, check out the local flavor, then find a store and get that evening's supper, which usually consisted of something canned (pork and beans was a favorite), some hot dogs, some fruits and veggies (consumed raw with ranch dressing), and water. It worked out well, and gave us a chance to check out the local markets. Also, we'd determined that we simply weren't going to be able to maintain our healthy eating plan. Life on the road comes with it's costs, and fresh fruits and vegetables is not one of them, so you have be creative as well as resigned to some junk. Makes you realize that traveling a lot on business takes a toll on one's health.

After making bologna and mustard sandwiches for the road, we jumped onto the 385 and headed north to South Dakota, with our goal being to make it to the Black Hills before night and camp. I have to confess, driving through Nebraska was a surprise, there's more to the state than I realized, and it played a significant role in the history of this country. The pioneers passed through this way en route to their new lives on the frontier, and as you travel west, the plains become pretty rolling hills and lots of trees. What a pleasant surprise.

With this in mind, we couldn't pass up a homeschool opportunity and headed for Chimney Rock and Scott's Bluff, both important icons of the westward migration, though they took us far off course from where we were headed. I'm not sure how much the kids got out of this, though much more than learning it in some book in a classroom, but I found it fascinating to learn what the pioneers went through. Their lives were so incredibly difficult, and the courage and perseverance they displayed in settling the west were so profound that it makes me ashamed of how soft we've become as a society, most notably myself. It inspires me to whine a little less and just bear down and deal with the hardships of life.

Either way, Chimney rock is a typical example of the stunning and dramatic geography that characterizes the west. The rock is a tall column that the pioneers used to guide them towards Oregon. It was a bit of a paradox, however, because as happy as they were to realize they had made it this far, it was also an ominous indicator that the hardest part of the journey was head, crossing the desert and getting over the rocky mountains. It was reason for hope, nonetheless. There is a visitor's center where you can read about the families and what they went through and what their lives were like. We even got to watch a movie, which the kids enjoyed.

We'd spent longer than we'd intended at Chimney Rock, so we had to forsake Scott's Bluff and get to our campsite before dark. Rather than head back to the 385, we cut up the 29 and . We had a great system where I simply focused on the road and maintained a cruising speed of about 85 mph while R directed me. I'm not good a navigation, and R loves looking at maps, so it was a good arrangement.

We entered S. Dakota directly into the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, whatever that means. They give it this official designation, but in reality it's just a big area of grass, thus the name. It's nice that it's unspoiled. The southwest section of S. Dakota is actually very nice, reminiscent of traveling in Colorado along the river, where it's pretty and dramatic. We climbed the Black Hills and at one point I thought I saw a bear. We even backtracked to see if it was true, but whatever it was, it was gone. I had mixed feelings about seeing a bear in an area where we were going to camp. We passed through the town of Hot Springs, which is a good example of the touristy Western towns that you encounter. Everything is geared towards the cowboy lifestyle, and the buildings resemble either Spanish houses or wild west towns. It's kind of fun... sort of.

As we headed into the Black Hills National Forest, we passed through the town of Custer and then headed for our campgrounds in the Wind Cave National Forest, where we saw our first buffalo. There has been a lot of effort to restore their numbers after we decimated them, and it seems to be working. We must have seen hundreds of the just dotting the hills, and they walk around as if they own the place, because they kind of do.

It was getting dark when arrived at the camp, and it was nice. From our experiences, we'd found the National Parks were nice but a little more civilized than the National Forests. I.e., flush toilets and sometimes hot water. For the true camping experience, however, you can't beat the National Forests. I think they get less traffic and more true campers, so they tend to be quieter and cleaner and more natural, even if you have to use pit toilets and keep bears in mind. Either way, our first time in the Black Hills was in a National Park.

One thing that really struck me when we got there was the good vibe. People were so nice, in a genuine "outdoorsy" way, as if we shared a common bond of celebrating the great outdoors with respect and dignity. So, no alcohol or loud music or garish RVs (well, maybe a few). We kind of like that.

We set up camp and were on a slight hill, so we knew were in for a rough night of sleeping, but it was getting late and we were tired, so we went with it. It was too late to go searching for firewood so we went without, but cooking over the stove and hanging out was fun.

The kids had a blast playing with the flashlights and performed a "laser" show. After the dishes were washed, we did our bedtime routine (i.e., brush teeth and floss), and we were out like a light.

Until the next time, thanks for reading.

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