Road Trip 2018 #13 – American Gothic and the Battle of Athens

Our 4th of July was spent meandering our way from Iowa through Missouri and into Illinois.  Who needs parades and festivals and fireworks when you can be in three states in one 24 hours period, right?  I will admit: this driving thing was getting old.

As I was using our trusty mapbook to navigate, I spotted a couple of interesting little detours I might otherwise have overlooked.  First of these was the American Gothic House in Eldon, Iowa.  As someone who loves art history, I had to go.  Grant Wood painted American Gothic in 1930 having been inspired by the house.  The figures he placed in front of it were modelled on his sister and his dentist, the pair not actually meeting each other until years later.  It’s an iconic and much parodied painting.  Unfortunately for us, the house and museum was closed to visitors because of it being Independence Day.  However, we could still view the exterior of the house so we had a bit of a wander and could not resist doing our own posing in front of the building.

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The visit to the American Gothic House was driven by my interests so it seemed only fair that I confess to Mr Pict, who was driving at the time, that I had spotted a Civil War battle on the map.  We, therefore, took a bit of a diversion to the scene of the Battle of Athens.  Confusingly, Athens is pronounced Aythens.  It sits right on the border of Iowa and Missouri which meant we bobbed in and out of both states as we weaved our way along rural roads to reach the site.  The skirmish that took place there in 1861 is notable for being the most northerly Civil War battle fought west of the Mississippi.  I had absolutely never heard of it but Mr Pict was chuffed.  At the time, the town was a fairly busy port on the river.  When the railroad made the river obsolete and the town became defunct, it appeared that most of the buildings had gone with the population.  There were, therefore, just a few buildings dotted around in the landscape, including a hotel and a house that had belonged to a Kentucky slave owner.  The boys decided to stay in the shade of the trees so I wandered around while keeping them in my sights which allowed Mr Pict to wander down to the riverside to see the Benning House, which was pockmarked with canon ball wallops.

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Road Trip 2018 #12 – Iowa

There is always at least one day in any of our road trips that turns out to be an absolute write off.  We had considered our day of travelling from South Dakota to Nebraska to be that day.  We were to be proven wrong.

The day got off to a bad start when we slept in far longer than we intended.  It is essential to get up and on the move early when trying to cover as many miles per day as we needed to so being a tad tardy can throw the whole day off kilter.  The hotel breakfast was shoddy so we decided to skip it and eat on the road instead, treat ourselves to a little slice of Nebraskan or Iowan food.  That was our second error.  Our plotted route took us through towns with populations in the double digits that offered nowhere to even grab a coffee let alone a morning repast.  The kids had snacks and fruit to keep them going for a while but we parents knew that at some point they would turn into grizzly bears if not fed and watered.  So the drive was proving stressful enough before, somewhere in the middle of rural Iowa, the car hit the raised tracks on a railroad crossing a little too fast and did a Dukes of Hazzard style leap onto the road on the other side of the tracks.

We immediately pulled off the road to have a look at the undercarriage of the car.  We could see dripping.  Worried it was oil or fuel, we pulled the car forward a few feet.  It was a relief and yet not relief enough to find it was water.  While I was 95% sure it was simply condensation from the air conditioning system, that part of me with the 5% nagging doubt did not want to drive off onto the remote byways of Iowa with a dicky phone signal.  I spotted a garage not too far from where we were standing, feeling like total twerps, and decided we would head there and ask if someone wouldn’t mind giving our car a once over.  The family who owned the garage were welcoming and kind.  We were given refuge in their air conditioned office and met their cats while the mechanic raised our car and checked things over.  Thankfully the dripping was indeed just the air conditioning and nothing to be concerned about.  They told us they got a lot of business thanks to those railroad tracks which made us feel only slightly less foolish.

That little escapade had set our schedule way back.  Our day was not going at all well.  We had no big plans for the day but even those plans now had to be entirely shelved.  It was proving to be one of those days we wished we could completely do-over.

Winterset is famous for being the birthplace of John Wayne.  We arrived too late to visit the John Wayne museum and birthplace but honestly we were pretty lukewarm about the prospect anyway.  My Granddad was a big fan of Westerns which makes me very familiar with John Wayne as an actor but actually I was never a fan of his either as an actor nor as a person.  I certainly would have found it much more interesting to visit sites associated with another of Winterset’s famous citizens: George L Stout, art conservator and one of the “Monuments Men”.

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As it happened, Winterset also has an association with another famous man.  A few months previously, our 9 year old had an assignment whereby he had to research a famous African American and then present his research as if he was that individual, a project called a “Talking Art Gallery”.  Our son had chosen to research George Washington Carver so he had done his research, written up a speech, and dressed up in a gardener’s apron with a jar of peanut butter and a sweet potato as his props.  Because of his research, we knew that one of the places Carver had lived, while trying to secure a tertiary education, was none other than Winterset.  Indeed, tenuous though the connection is, the town had dedicated a garden in Carver’s memory.  Finding that garden proved to be tricky so we did the sensible thing and popped into the town library.  Librarians are almost always reliably friendly and helpful and the lady we spoke to was no exception.  She directed us to an alleyway beside the fire station and it was this little sliver of land that contained the memorial park.  It was actually a lovely, calm, shady little spot and I loved that local school children had contributed tiles for a wall that commemorated Carver’s contribution to American agricultural and botanical knowledge.

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Winterset is within Madison County and Madison County is famous for its covered bridges.  I have neither read ‘The Bridges of Madison County’ or seen the film adaptation.  I know that I could, however, develop a fascination with covered bridges in the same way that I have to stifle a potential addiction to lighthouses.  Combined with a compulsion to do something actually properly Iowan, therefore, I concocted a plan to visit the area’s covered bridges.  The first one we reached was Holliwell Bridge.  It was built in 1880 and, at 122 feet, is the longest of the bridges.  I knew my plan was not going to pan out when only my 12 year old opted to get out of the car with me – and he just wanted to stretch his legs.  When I suggested visiting another of the bridges, I was laser-stared by all five of the other Picts.

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So instead we ploughed on and reached our hotel in Indianola.  The hotel was brand spanking new and was clean, light, airy and our room very spacious.  The boys loved it best because they got ice water and limitless free cookies at reception.  Our whole day in Iowa, therefore, was a bit of a catastrophe.  I felt like I had had a day of not remotely experiencing Nebraska followed by a day of not particularly experiencing Iowa.  It felt very much like our road trip was going off the rails.

Road Trip 2018 #11 – Missiles and Nebraska

When you think of South Dakota, do you think of the Cold War and missiles?  No.  Me neither.  Mr Pict, however, does.  For that reason, on the day we bade farewell to our temporary log cabin house, we headed to the Minuteman National Historic Site.

Mr Pict and I obviously grew up in the final decades of the Cold War and can remember  pretty terrifying public information films about nuclear holocaust being shown at school.  Our sons, however, don’t have that context or understanding so first port of call was to the Visitors Center.  We handily arrived just as the video was starting.  The kids learned about the use of missiles as a deterrent, about false alarms and close calls, and about “duck and cover” training.  Ultimately the only thing our youngest son could recall about the video was that “Bert the Turtle says Duck and Cover”.  Better than nothing I suppose.  You already know that I am no expert in military history having only the most passing interest in it.  I am, therefore, probably atrociously simplifying things when I write that the Minuteman programme involved constructing silos across the sparsely populated Plains states and having each silo tube house a ballistic missile.  These could be activated by staff at the control facilities.  It must have been boring to man one of these facilities, having to always be on alert while ultimately not doing much each day.  We learned that staff often studied for educational courses or spent their time reading.

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We drove from the Visitor Center to the site of the D-09 missile silo which has been preserved as part of the historic site.  We could look through the glass into the silo below and see the deactivated missile within.  It was weird to imagine thousands of these things dotted across South Dakota and the neighbouring states.  We did not stay long at the site as we were being devoured by vampiric flying insects.

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I am a sucker for decay and rust so we took a detour to a small town called Okaton, near Murdo.  While the town still has a population of about 30 people, I had steered us there because it is in large part a ghost town.  Like so many American ghost towns, Okaton’s life and death was determined by the railroad.  The houses were built to accommodate railroad workers and, when the railroad work moved further west, so did the people.  The railroad ceased operating altogether in the 1980s which was really the death knell of the little hamlet.  I did not venture off into the long prairie grass in search of the railroad tracks (see – I’m learning) but I did poke around the decaying, collapsing buildings, and the rusting hulks of old vehicles and rotting agricultural equipment.  I did not risk stepping inside any of the buildings but I did poke my head and camera through doorways and interiors to get a better look.  The abandoned appliances, moth-eaten soft furnishings, and peeling wallpaper were both nostalgic and poignant.

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It was mid-afternoon by the time we crossed the state line into Nebraska.  That was state number 37 for me!  Sadly our route was boring and flat.  There was not even any “roadside Americana” to divert me and cause a pit stop or detour.  Our hotel for the evening was in Valentine and, while the room was spacious, it felt weird and somewhat aggravating to be back in confined quarters again.  We could have headed out to see the nearby river or waterfall but the kids were just not feeling it.  Therefore, having not done anything kid-friendly all day, we opted for dinner and a movie.  We ate at the Peppermill restaurant where the food was good and the service excellent.  Nebraska is known for its beef so Mr Pict ordered a steak which he declared to be amazing.  We then went to the tiny, two screen Jewel cinema to see ‘The Incredibles 2’ and the kids then burned off some energy in the hotel pool.  I, therefore, get to claim Nebraska but don’t really feel like I accomplished anything Nebraskan while I was within the state’s boundaries.

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Road Trip 2018 #10 – Mount Rushmore at last!

Finally – after two failed plans and on our final day at the Log Cabin near Lead – we managed to make it to Mount Rushmore.

We had been a bit tardy leaving the house and had driven a slow going, not always properly surfaced, cross-country route to get there which meant we did not arrive early enough to beat the crowds.  The place was absolutely hoaching*.  We joined a queue that began on the actual roadside just to join one of the queues to drive into the multi-level parking lots.  It was crazy.  However annoying our experience of waiting to get parked might have been, we were still lucky we arrived when we did.  By the time we left, the queue to enter the parking lot was so long that it took us ten minutes of driving to even see the end of the queue.

The National Park itself was also thronging with people.  Because I hate crowds, I sometimes find myself getting annoyed that so many other tourists want to visit the places that I – also an annoying tourist – want to see.  Of course, the sculpture is on such a massive scale and is at such a high elevation that there is really no risk of the view being obstructed by all the masses gathered below.  I, therefore, don’t really have any cause for complaint.

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The idea of a gigantic carving in the Black Hills was conceived of in the 1920s and the sculptor Gutzon Borglum was hired for the project.  He chose to depict Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln because they represent America’s founding, expansion, preservation, and unification.  Almost 400 people worked under the direction of Borglum and his son, Lincoln.  We learned that workers had to ascend 700 steps to the top of the mountain to start each working day and then they were handling things like dynamite and dangling from ropes.  I can’t help thinking that the shortage of other employment during the Great Depression must have been one of the reasons that compelled people to sign up for the job.  I know I absolutely could not have done it.  In addition to using dynamite, holes would be drilled into the rock to assist its removal with greater precision.  We saw chunks of this so-called “honeycomb” granite lying around among the rocks and trees at the base of the mountain, which was pretty cool to see.  It was pretty amazing to think that such a process resulted in the smooth carvings we saw high above us.

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We took the short and easy “presidential path” to get closer to the heads.  All this really achieved was to move us away from the majority of the crowds because, of course, getting closer to colossal heads is all relative.  After we had had a gander at the presidents, I suggested we poke around in some of the other exhibits on site, maybe take in one of the National Park movies.  The kids, however, were not having any of it.  I also suggested that we visit the (ongoing) carving of Crazy Horse which is not too far from Rushmore.  The kids protested once more.  At present, Crazy Horse is just a face.  The boys claim they will happily return with me once the sculpture is complete.  The sculpture is planned to be almost 600 feet high and has been being worked on for 70 years.  I suspect I may have to return without them if they won’t go until its completion.

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In the end, we agreed we would return to the Log Cabin.  The boys wanted some down time and to soak in the hot tub.  We parents knew we were going to have some real slogs of driving days ahead so were happy to capitulate and let the kids recharge their batteries and their tolerance.  I used the time to do laundry and pack suitcases.  We also had a visit from some deer and a family of wild turkeys.  Later, the two younger boys and Mr Pict took a gentle stroll to see a waterfall in Spearfish Canyon where they encountered lots of downed trees from the recent tornados.  Otherwise we had a lazy time of it and made the most of having room to relax in before hitting the road again.

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*I used a Scots word so better translate.  Hoaching means teeming or swarming, to be very busy indeed.

 

Road Trip 2018 #9 – South Dakota Badlands

The sensible part of our day – as opposed to doing silly tourist stuff – was a visit to Badlands National Park.  The landscape is pretty striking, not just because of the way its rugged peaks and steep chasms differ from the flat plains of so much of the surrounding topography, but also because of the layering of colours.  I am not remotely a geologist but I find the striations of colour to be aesthetically appealing.

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We took a wander into the landscape via the Door Trail.  It was absolutely thronging with visitors but most were staying either on or in the vicinity of the boardwalk.  We, therefore, headed out onto the rocky plateau where there was more space and a greater opportunity to actually take in the scenery.  The Badlands are rich in fossils but we did not stumble across any.  Apparently simply stumbling across fossils is something that still happens here.  A Ranger told Mr Pict that last year a little girl had found a sabretooth skull.  We told the boys to listen and watch for rattlesnakes and to always be aware of where at least one parent was and then let them be free range.  It was just what they needed after so very many miles of being stuck in a car each day for a week.  They were absolutely thrilled to find that they could clamber down into mini canyons that twisted and turned and then pop up and out in an entirely new location.  They also ascended some small peaks to take in some panoramic views and just because they like climbing things.  Our youngest son has almost zero impulse control and never undertakes any version of a risk assessment so he was gamboling around like a mountain goat.  I actually had to stop watching him as he was giving me palpitations.

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On the subject of impulse control and risk assessment, as we departed the National Park, I spotted the rusting hulk of a car in a field and asked Mr Pict to pull over so I could leap out and take some photos.  It is possible he assumed that I was just going to take some distance shots but that was not my plan.  Instead, I hiked off across the field of scrub to reach the car.  Before I could stop them, three of the kids followed me.  We found ourselves dodging numerous cow pats, getting scraped by cacti, and bitten by nasty bugs.  We reached the car and had a nose about and took some photos and then headed back towards the car.  That was when we heard the distinctive rattle and that was when I remembered about rattlesnakes.  Oops.  I told the kids to follow exactly in my path and to scope out not just where they were placing their feet but the area immediately surrounding it too.  It actually became advantageous to stand on the cow pats as those acted like stepping stones through the scrub.  We saw the tail end of a snake dart off but otherwise we had no encounters and we made it back to the car safe and sound.  Parenting fail.

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Having missed out on an evening visit to Mount Rushmore the previous night thanks to tornados, we had a plan to visit after seeing the Badlands.  However, the sky grew grey and overcast and rain was forecast.  We worried we would not get a decent view of the presidents if we trucked over to Rushmore for the evening.  We also worried we were running out of time to see Rushmore at all.  Sometimes indecision can be crippling.  Everyone was famished, however, having had nothing but a donut since breakfast, so we pulled into Rapid City to eat dinner and decided we would put off seeing Rushmore again.  Would we ever make it there?

 

Road Trip 2018 #8 – Wall Drug and Prairie Dogs

Mr Pict had been telling us about Wall Drug for years.  I think it may be his strongest memory of visiting South Dakota in his early teens.  He had told us about the persistent billboard advertising that begins hundreds of miles from Wall, and about how crazy and kooky the place was.  It had taken on a somewhat legendary status as a result and, of course, with such build up of expectations we were being set up for deflation.  The story is that a family named the Husteads bought the drugstore in 1931 and, in a bid to lure in weary travellers, started advertising for miles around that they offered free ice water.  It worked like a charm and customers started pulling over in Wall for refreshment.  From there, the place just grew and grew so that today it is some kind of extended general store with cafes and various eccentric attractions.

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I have a thing for cryptids so I loved the theme of jackalopes running throughout.  The younger boys were even able to clamber on top of a gigantic one, though I cannot confirm whether or not it is the World’s Largest Jackalope.  We also saw a T Rex growl and a whole bunch of Wild West themed statues.  There was some authentic history to the place, such as a window display of antique pharmacy items and ephemera, but mostly it was all a bit fairground-like.  I suspect the whole escapade was rather underwhelming to us because a) Mr Pict had built it up to crazy proportions and b) because we have visited Country Junction in the Poconos a few times which, while smaller in scale, has a similar ethos and feel to it.  We did buy some delicious fresh donuts to snack on back in the car.

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From Giant Jackalopes to Giant Prairie Dogs.  We stopped off in Philip to see the World’s Largest Prairie Dog, which is about 12 feet tall.  I was just there for the whole World’s Largest shebang but it transpired that the massive rodent was a promotional tool for a store and that the owners of the store encouraged feeding of the prairie dogs on their land.  How could we not take up that opportunity? We bought some bags of peanuts from them and wandered into the prairie dog town.  For obvious reasons, unlike the prairie dogs of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the ones at this site were not so skittish around humans and it was easier to get close to them.  They were not tame but nor were they timid.  They were, however, evidently sick of peanuts as they weren’t overly fussed by our offerings.  The boys absolutely loved being able to get up close to the prairie dogs and take in more of their utter adorableness.  One of them was so friendly that he actually ate a peanut out of our 11 year old’s hand.  I think we were all pretty smitten with prairie dogs.

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Road Trip 2018 #7 – Deadwood

Driving is exhausting so, after so many days of hard driving, the respite of staying in the one location for a few days was very much appreciated.  It was an absolute joy to wake up in the log cabin near Lead and not feel flustered and harried.  My normal road trip routine involves waking super early so that I can pack everything up again while everyone else showers so that we can then have as early a start to the day’s journey as possible.  To be able to have a leisurely morning while on vacation is bliss.  Plus we all had space rather than being piled on top of each other in a hotel room.  A bit of space is also essential when six people are crammed into a car for much of the day.  In the spirit of a laid back day, therefore, we decided not to go far (because nobody wanted to be back in the car for starters) and restrict our wanderings to Deadwood.

We started with a visit to two of Deadwood’s most (in)famous residents.  Mount Moriah Cemetery is on the outskirts of town, up on a hilltop that offers great views of the town below.  It took no time at all to find the graves we were seeking as they were situated a short walk from the entrance.  Wild Bill Hickok’s grave is marked by a large column topped with what is a rather flattering bust.  Wild Bill led an extremely colourful and action-packed life, however brief, and his real life adventures were embellished and augmented by his tales.  I suppose it is, therefore, fitting that his bust makes him out to be rather more handsome than he was in life.  Will Bill’s grave is adjacent to that of Calamity Jane.  Forget the bonnie and chipper Doris Day version of Calamity Jane because the real woman was apparently uncouth and unpleasant, though she did have some admirable qualities.  I had read that Wild Bill did not want Calamity Jane to be interred anywhere near him but that she had been insistent and persuasive in ensuring that they were cemetery neighbours.  Bill’s friends thought it would be a good joke on their old friend to comply.

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I had intended to see the grave of Seth Bullock too, he being Deadwood’s first Sheriff, but his grave was sited at the top of a steep hill, the kids were protesting at the prospect, and I actually couldn’t be bothered enough either.  Instead we had a wander around the lower sections of the cemetery, including the Jewish section, the children’s section, and a couple of the Potter’s fields.  We also stumbled upon the graves of a notorious brother madam Dora DuFran and of a preacher who had been murdered on his walk to another city.  Between the outlaws, crime victims, and the mass graves for those who died in epidemics, we definitely came away with the impression that 19th Century Deadwood was a rough place to live.

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Deadwood was founded as a Gold Rush town in the 1870s – totally illegally since the land belonged to the Lakota – and its architecture is so well-preserved that the entire city is designated as a National Historic Landmark District.  Deadwood started off seedy, tawdry, and lawless and I think they have managed to preserve some of that too since the whole place is a bit tacky and geared towards tourism.  That is possibly a bonkers statement since we were there as tourists but what I mean is that I like to see the authenticity of a place whereas modern Deadwood was largely all surface spectacle.  Still, exploring the area made for an entertaining and easy day out and we enjoyed all the “wild west” trappings and shenanigans.  We wandered through town looking at the old buildings and reading about their history, poked around in a few stores, and saw the saloon where Wild Bill Hickok had been killed.

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Stopping off for a bite to eat, my kids decided to be adventurous with an appetiser.  For context, these are kids who – while good eaters of nutritious food – will pick through a newly presented dish like forensic scientists, critique the balance of spices in the curries I make, and I even have one who doesn’t eat pizza.  They, however, decided that they would order prairie oysters, one plate to be shared between them.  Yup, my children who will sometimes choose to go to bed hungry rather than eat a meal that is not quite to their liking, ordered a platter of calf testicles.  The testicles were flattened, bread crumbed, and fried so they looked a bit like nuggets.  The boys tried them and declared they were not as bad as expected and were reminiscent of pork.  For my youngest, one bite was enough but the others kept eating.  My 11 year old declared that they were “actually quite teste”!  They get their addiction to puns from their Dad.  I was amazed that they chomped through almost the whole serving, my oldest son defeated by the last one which he said was too spherical and chubby for him to forget what it was.  When my youngest asked him, “Is that a juicy one?” he just couldn’t take another bite.

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The rest of the food was tasty enough but the service was absolutely wretched.  I struggle to think of a time when I had service so tardy.  Unfortunately this meant that we missed out on the afternoon street performances of scenes from Deadwood history, which particularly annoyed Mr Pict.  We, therefore, decided to head back in the direction of Lead and visit the Broken Boot Mine.  The nearby Homestake Mine was the largest gold mine in North America and the second largest in the world.  It closed in 2002 and is now a laboratory for research into complex things like Dark Matter.  The Broken Boot Mine was much more modest in scale but that suited us fine.  We didn’t want an extensive tour so the half hour spent wandering around inside was perfect.  Long enough to be informative without risking losing the boys’ attention and interest.  We even saw a bat flying back and forth through one of the tunnels which was an unexpected treat – albeit one that made our guide shriek.  We learned that this particular mine had always been a fairly poor source of gold as it never produced much and most of what it mined was iron pyrite that they sold to other gold mines to use as flux.  We saw the old boot that gave the mine its name, learned about blind donkeys, and the kids got to see what the light levels were like using a miner’s candle and in pitch darkness.  The miner’s would apparently take their breaks in the darkness in order to save their candles and would have had to run from the dynamite in the complete darkness because the speed of motion would snuff out the candles.  Three of the boys decided to pan for gold once we emerged from the mine.  They enjoyed being taught the techniques and were thrilled to find little flakes of gold in their bowls which they then transferred to vials to take home.  They were chuffed.

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Our plan had been to go and see Mount Rushmore that evening, so we could see the sunset there and view the light show.  However, having a break back at the log cabin, our phones started blaring with tornado warnings.  The area was predicted to get a direct strike.  I began wondering how secure a log cabin was in such weather.  Ultimately all was well but it meant we ditched the Rushmore plan so as to not risk being on the road.  Instead we hunkered down with books, mugs of tea, and slices of rhubarb kuchen.

 

Road Trip 2018 #6 – Little Bighorn and Devils Tower

The sixth day of our road trip involved being in three states in one day and a whole lot of driving.

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Our day started in Montana, where the kids and I met an actual “cowboy” in the elevator who was in town to sell 25,000 cattle.  Our actual slice of Montana tourism, however, was our second National Park of the trip: the Little Bighorn Battlefield.  Long time readers of my blog will be aware that Mr Pict is a history nerd with a particular fondness for military history.  I share the love of history but am altogether meh about military history but I like a good stroll in open spaces so I happily tag along on his battlefield visits.  Mr Pict had recently read some books about the Little Bighorn so he was at peak geek for this visit.

The Little Bighorn is, of course, 9in)famously the site of the 1876 battle between the 7th Cavalry and the people of the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes.  It was a pivotal moment in the relationship between the US government and the indigenous peoples of America.  The Native Americans won the battle but ultimately lost the war.  Knowing what the aftermath of this battle, the retaliation, had meant for the Native American population lent the whole place a poignancy.  We started off at the Visitors Centre, which had an informative video and exhibits about and artefacts of both sides of the conflict.  Our youngest son was also inducted as a junior ranger having completed the programme by answering a series of questions.

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Mr Pict was in charge of directing our wanderings so we started with a hike down to the ravine where General Custer had envisaged he would attack but instead found himself attacked by Lakota warriors.  Or maybe I am misremembering.  It gets confusing because apparently thoughts about what occurred have evolved among historians over the decades.  The Deep Ravine trail was, however, an easy walk and took us past markers for both US soldiers and indigenous warriors.  I also encountered a couple of snakes along the way, though they quickly got out of my way.

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We were then led up to Last Stand Hill.  It is marked with a granite memorial and is where members of the 7th Cavalry were buried where they fell.  George Armstrong Custer’s marker is coloured black for easy identification and is adjacent to that of his brother.  From there we strolled to the memorial for the Native American warriors who were killed in the battle.  It was a beautiful and thoughtful memorial.  I really liked the way that the view of the landscape was incorporated into the imagery.  Back in the car, Mr Pict took us to the site of Reno and Benteen’s defense.  He and the two youngest kids walked the short trail to see specific sites.  The two older boys and I, meanwhile, enjoyed sitting in the breeze and taking in the view of the valley – including the Little Bighorn River below – and spotting wild horses and another one of those skinny pale snakes.

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Montana was the first state of the day – and my 34th overall – and I entered my 35th state when we crossed into Wyoming in mid-afternoon.  We were only in Wyoming briefly but I managed to legitimately claim it under my own rules because I had a snack and used a restroom.  That might be TMI but those are the rules.  What we were in Wyoming to do was see Devils Tower, America’s first ever National Monument.  This was another one of my long-held travel bucket list items.  I have wanted to see Devils Tower for myself since I first saw the movie ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ as a small child.  The movie made an impression on me but so did the unusual shape of the mountain.  Part of me was concerned that I would be underwhelmed, that seeing it in person would not be significantly different from seeing it in photographs or on film.  My fears were allayed as soon as it came into view.  It really is a striking mountain – or probably more accurately butte – and pretty breathtaking.  Super impressive.  Of course, I had to sing the tune that communicates with aliens while there, to the mortification of my offspring.

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I fully intend to explore much more of Wyoming on a future vacation but that wee corner of the state was it for this trip.  By early evening we were in our third state of the day – and, of course, my 36th – when we entered South Dakota.  We had booked to stay in a log cabin for a few days as a respite from being trapped in the car and covering so many miles per day.  Finding the log cabin, however, proved to be a challenge.  It was that problem again of having no cell phone connectivity to make our GPS work and of our road maps not being detailed enough to cover the roads we needed.  Indeed, our log cabin was on the outskirts of a town (Lead – to rhyme with feed not fed) that only appeared as a dot in our mapbook.  There was no way we were going to stumble across a cabin in the woods by chance, simply by driving around and hoping for the best.  We, therefore, drove around Lead’s business district until I found an unsecured wifi connection I could piggy back on.  Thanks to a saloon, I managed to connect for long enough to access a map.  Finally we found the cabin.  I would have sucked as a pioneer.

Road Trip 2018 #5 – North Dakota

Having spent the night in Fargo, that was where our day of exploring Dakota while driving across it began.  North Dakota is my 33rd state and Mr Pict’s 48th.  Mr Pict has not “collected” a new state in decades so this represented a significant leap forward in his tally.

We popped along to the Fargo-Moorhead Visitor Center.  There was stuff to see before we even set foot inside.  There was a vibrant bison statue and a large lump of petrified wood.  There was also a Walk of Fame.  This had been relocated from central Fargo to the tourist information site and was a collection of cement slabs signed by various celebrities who had passed through Fargo, the whole thing the brainchild of a local businessman named Mike Stevens.  Possibly most significant for movie nerds, there was a replica of the woodchipper from the Coen brothers’ 1996 movie ‘Fargo’.  My kids have obviously never seen the movie but somehow they still had the idea to pretend to be disposing of the youngest sibling in the woodchipper.

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There is no word of exaggeration when I state that this was the best tourist information centre I have ever been to.  It was warm and welcoming, with free popcorn and coffee, a free colouring book and crayons for our youngest, and all very spick and span.  Best of all (again, for movie nerds) the centre housed the actual woodchipper from the movie.  There were other props and memorabilia showcased too but obviously the Eager Beaver woodchipper was the star.  The lady staffing the centre was very friendly and not only agreed to take a photo of us all with the woodchipper but even provided us with hats to wear as props.  That was fun.  Less fun was the fact that my 9 year old decided to embark on a wooden map puzzle that had no picture for guidance.  I thought we would get it done quickly when I believed it to be a map of the united states.  What it turned out to be, however, was a map of North Dakota’s counties.  Completing the puzzle was arduous and I learned more than I ever intended or needed to know about the geographical boundaries of North Dakota.

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The next stop was at the National Buffalo Museum.  It was a neat little museum, informative but very focused, not outstaying its welcome, and with plenty to engage the kids, including a whole room full of toys and books.  We saw the skeleton of an ancient bison and the more modern skull of Leo, a bison who was shoved off a cliff by a rival during a breeding battle at the age of just 24.  We learned more about the importance of the bison herds to the indigenous populations’ way of life, about the devastating over-hunting of the bison by white people, and about the efforts that brought the bison back from the verge of extinction and which now protect and conserve them as a species.  We also saw the stuffed body of White Cloud, a white bison who had been a celebrated member of the museum’s herd.  They have a new white bison in the herd, named Miracle, but unfortunately the herd was too far away for us to see them.  We had spotted them when driving to the museum but we could not even catch a glimpse of them when we were on site.

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By now, long time readers will have recognised that I can never resist a claim of World’s Largest Whatnot.  I will take detours just to see some random thing that is on a colossal scale.  Adjacent to the Buffalo Museum was the World’s Largest Buffalo.  At 26 feet tall and 46 feet long, it is indeed pretty vast.  A display inside the Museum had informed us that Dakota Thunder, as the giant beast is now known, was constructed out of a scaffolding of steel beams and mesh which were then coated with cement and stucco.

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It transpired that Jamestown – where the Buffalo Museum is sited – is a fascinating little place.  It turns out that Jamestown is the birthplace of Peggy Lee and of Louis L’Amour, one of my Granddad’s favourite authors.  L’Amour had a very colourful life which led him to meet many interesting folks who inspired his characters.  One building in Jamestown, therefore, represented L’Amour’s studio and was filled with memorabilia and information about his life.  The author had had an idea to create a faux frontier town which had never come to pass.  In many ways, however, that was precisely what this particular little corner of Jamestown had become.  Various authentic period buildings had been relocated to the town in order to create the impression of what a 19th Century pioneer town would have looked like.

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As such, the place turned out to be a massive hit with the Pictlings.  They thoroughly enjoyed wandering from building to building, trying on costumes, acting out various old timey western scenarios, and hopefully learning something about frontier life by accident.  For instance, in the print shop, I was able to teach them about typesetting.  The whole place is a bit cheesy and shabby but that is just the quirky sort of place we love to stumble upon when travelling.

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Our route took us past Bismarck, the state capital, and over the Missouri.  There was not, however, much to see on this route which might then explain why I went nuts when I spotted a gigantic cow on the horizon, sitting atop a hill.  Obviously we had to make a detour!  The cow turned out to be Salem Sue.  A sign at the beginning of the steep dirt track road urged us to “Enjoy the view from Salem Sue!”  She is the World’s Largest Holstein Cow and was apparently built as a celebration of New Salem’s dairy industry.  At 38 feet tall and 50 feet long, she made the World’s Largest Bison look like a shrimp.

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We stopped for a late lunch in Medora at a hipster, farm-to-fork place called the Farmhouse Cafe.  We all ordered random things – I had a delicious veggie burger – but Mr Pict decided to try something different, a dish called fleischkukele.  It is apparently quite a North Dakotan dish, having been imported by German immigrants.  Mr Pict found it to be tasty enough for a decent lunch but not interesting enough that he would bothering ordering it again.  We all enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere of the cafe, however, and the deliciously refreshing lemonade.  It fortified us for the next leg of our journey.

Theodore Roosevelt was our first National Park of the vacation.  Roosevelt was very fond of the area and took solace in a cabin there when his wife and mother died on the same day.  His cabin is still within the park boundaries.  We didn’t get as far as that site but instead took a driving loop tour through the park hoping to spot some of its wildlife.  We were not disappointed.  Within minutes we had reached a bustling prairie dog town.  I can appreciate that prairie dogs can be the bane of farmers but oh my goodness they are adorable.  We loved watching them scuttering around, popping in and out of holes, and standing to attention.  The kids loved it when we reached another prairie dog town where we could pull of the road and actually walk among the prairie dogs.  We also encountered a couple of herds of wild horses, which was pretty cool.

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I also spotted my first ever wild bison.  I have encountered captive and domesticated bison many times over the years but had never before encountered a wild one.  It was standing on the horizon line as a perfect silhouette.  I was ecstatic.  You can, therefore, imagine how thrilled and excited I was to encounter, later in the park, an entire herd of bison.  They were near the roadside so we were able to pull over, clamber out of the car, and observe them to our heart’s content.  It was pretty exhilarating to see these hulking beasts in the wild, interacting with each other, lazing in the sun, shaking the dust and dirt from their coats, looking after their calves.  It was very cool indeed to fulfill a long held travel bucket list item.

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After a very long day of trekking across North Dakota, we crossed into Montana at 6pm – and that was with having gone back another hour.  Montana was almost instantly more undulating and tree covered than North Dakota had been.  I had hoped to cram in a visit to Pompey’s Pillar.  This is a rock covered in Native American petroglyphs and the carved signature of William Clark.  The pillar was named for Sacagawea’s son and is the only physical evidence along the route of the Lewis and Clark expedition.  Alas, the National Historic Landmark had closed its gates three hours earlier.  I could see it from the entry station and could easily have slipped through the gate and tried to get a squizz in the dark but a) I am too law-abiding a person and b) we were bone tired and just needed to get to Billings and our hotel beds.  We arrived at the hotel at 10pm, the kids swam for an hour, and then we all collapsed into our fatigue.

 

Road Trip 2018 #4 – Minnesota

I am a big fan of Democracy.  I love democracy.  It’s a great and wonderful thing.  We all need to do all that we can in order to preserve and fortify democracy.

Except when it comes to Pict family decision making.

When it comes to making decisions about our family life and especially about our travels, we need to put democracy on the back burner and become an authoritarian regime.  It was because of democracy that my day in Minnesota – my 32nd state – was pretty much a wasted opportunity.  I had proposals that everyone else dismissed or derided.  When it was put to the vote, we ended up with Mall of America coming out on top.  A mall.  Seriously.  We could have been learning about Minnesotan history or culture or exploring the landscape or taking in the scenery.  Instead, we trudged around a mall for no particular reason than it being the country’s largest mall.  Homogenous consumerism won out over specific culture and history.  It was a product of parental indecision and a failure of democracy.  Mr Pict and our youngest son went on a rollercoaster in the central fairground area, the boys enjoyed sampling and purchasing jerky, and they liked browsing in the Lego store but somehow we managed to spend four hours – four flipping hours – in a mall while accomplishing nothing in particular.

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Our next stop was Paisley Park, Prince’s house and studio in Chanhassen.  Our 9 year old is a Prince fan so the visit was really for him.  Apparently it is now possible to tour Paisley Park but, without a ticket, it is impossible to get close to the building.  Angry signs told us to not even think about crossing the road and walking on the verge at the perimeter of the late star’s estate.  Instead we had to take in the building from the other side of the road.  It is a large but weird piece of architecture, its exterior very blank and stark definitely, much more working studio looking than domestic home.  I would like to think it is much more comfortable and cosy inside.  And probably very purple.

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Our final stop in Minnesota was in Alexandria in order to see Big Ole.  Big Ole is a 25 foot tall Viking who was built for the World’s Fair in 1964.  Judging by the names of businesses we passed, Alexandria (despite its Egyptian name) is very proud of its Viking heritage and I assume that is why they obtained Big Ole.  The town also possesses the Kensington Runestone.  It is purported to be a record left by 14th Century Viking explorers but it is extremely likely to be a 19th Century hoax.  Sadly, we could not visit the Runestone or anything else in the Museum as we arrived after closing time.

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So my explorations of Minnesota were pretty woeful to say the least.  Big Ole was probably the highlight of the day.  Northern Minnesota was so flat that it made Wisconsin look positively undulating so at least I was beginning to appreciate the topographical nature of the Plains states.

We crossed into North Dakota just shy of 6pm to spend the night in Fargo.  The hotel pool had twisty slides so the kids were happy.  We ate dinner at a place named Doolittles.  There was an unfortunate mix up with my order that led to me being presented with duck and a waitress trying to convince me that that was what I had asked for.  Otherwise the food and service were great and we left the restaurant feeling replete and restored after a day that was a bit of a dispiriting trudge.  We had a swing through central Fargo on our way back to the hotel.  Life really is focused on the one main street, which is charming and characterful, but the surrounding areas are more workaday functional.  Thanks to being a college town, Fargo apparently has an average age of 30.  It certainly had a pleasant atmosphere.  We were too deadbeat to explore much, however, so we returned to the hotel to hit the hay and prepare for another day and another state to explore – North Dakota being my 33rd state.

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