Once I hit Cody it was smooth sailing. I was on the very last leg of my trip and I couldn’t wait. I stopped to get groceries, enjoyed an older gent playing accordion in front of the supermarket (very random) and got my oil changed. Yup, my Honda is purring like a kitten. That machine never ceases to amaze me. Cody is a fantastic little tourist town that features a rodeo just about every night. Continuing west on Route 16 is Buffalo Bill State Park featuring a huge reservoir and dam that was completed in 1910. I stopped to take these pics and a weasel scampered by me with a fish in its mouth. So mischievously awesome! Buffalo Bill State Park is free to enjoy and has a free visitors center, museum, beaches and has many camping opportunities.
Then the drive winds through Shoshone National Forest, which–like a broken record–is beautiful, free and full of recreational possibilities.
Soon after that is Yellowstone! Just as I hit the park I saw a sight I’d never seen before. I was lucky enough to catch two different groups of big horn sheep crossing the road. The only time I’ve seen them was as specks on a distant mountainside. This was a freakin’ treat! They were so close to me, within feet! I could see their bright orange-red eyes. I also caught a few glimpses of some fluffy, white elk butt on my way through and heard the calling of frogs beckoning me to come catch them. And I shall!
I arrived at the dorm at 5:30 pm and it’s the same as I had left it. They even had the same National Geographics sitting on the kitchen tables. Ahh…home sweet home. Right now the place is filled with lake trout biologists and fishermen. Two of them put on an impromptu concert last night complete with guitar, ukulele and singing. Oh, it’s going to be an interesting summer! It never ceases to amaze me that people pay me to work here when I should be paying them. No matter how bad the rest of my year is, at least I have this.
I’ve got a soft spot for Buffalo. If I could live anywhere in the west, Buffalo would be in my top five. It’s small enough to not get lost but big enough to have all the creature comforts. The downtown is charming but not offensively touristy. It’s the gateway to Yellowstone and is located at the base of my beloved Big Horns. The KOA is immaculate and the tent sites are located next to a babbling brook with a waterfowl refuge on the other side. One of the maintenance workers stopped by my site to show me pictures of the forty baby geese that they have tromping though every morning. They’re so darn cute when they’re young. The storm system that I’d mentioned in my last post finally hit the area at around 7 am. I awoke to my tent nearly flying away with me in it. I had to quickly vacate, pick up the tent, stuff it into my car (still set-up) and dive into the backseat before anything flew away or flew at me. Overall though, after that day I had before, I was super grateful that the storm didn’t hit in the middle of the night. I was easily able to ride out the storm and catch a few more hours of sleep in my car until it was time to embark on my favorite part of the journey: Route 16! If there’s one stretch of road that you want to drive in your life, this may be it.
I left Buffalo at 10:30 am and headed into the Big Horn National Forest. This place is an unknown national treasure and I love it. It rivals Yellowstone for me. If you have to, skip Yellowstone, skip Glacier, skip Yosemite and just hit the Big Horns for a vacation. It’s snow covered mountains, vast canyons, lush grasslands, rolling rivers and majestic pine forests are absolutely beautiful and free to enjoy. There are campgrounds, lodges, skiing, hiking, fishing, horseback riding, snowmobiling, kayaking…anything recreational you can think of. I’m surprised it’s managed to fly under the radar for so long.
After the Big Horns is the tiny town of Ten Sleep (population 257) which may also be on my top five list of western towns that I’d live in. It’s so small and so quaint and better yet, I see that they’re opening a brewery. I may just have to pay them a visit on my way back. After that is miles and miles of rolling, sagebrush BLM land with oil drilling and livestock grazing. The landscape is absolutely beautiful and if you’re lucky you can catch a glimpse of an antelope butt on the hill next to you (they’re pretty proud of their best asset and will gladly feature it in the landscape). This stretch of road is all about dinosaurs (Themopolis–dinosaur central is not too far away), oil drilling, recreation, livestock, cowboys in beat-up pick-up trucks, bentonite clay extraction (this is what I make my toothpaste out of!), small towns and beautiful scenery. Cody, Wyoming comes almost too soon.
After the Badlands, I hit the road again with the intention of stopping off to see Mount Rushmore. My mother told me that I’d enjoy the little town of Keystone and Mount Rushmore is basically right there so I veered off Interstate 90. That area of the state is basically a hot spot for tourist sites, adventure and fun activities. It would take at least a week to see all there is to see there. Just in the thirty minute drive from Rapid City to Keystone there is the Reptile Gardens (the 2014 Guinness World Record holder for having largest collection of reptiles), Bear Country (a drive-through wild game park), some sort of Scandinavian village, a mystery spot and various other goodies. And speaking of the drive into Keystone…all I can say is that I almost simultaneously filled my drawers and puked at the same time. It was soooooo steep that my newly serviced brakes were hanging by a thread. I’m no stranger to downshifting on hills instead of riding the brakes. That’s my usual deal but this was way beyond my driving ability. The road went straight up and down mountains, with blind hairpin turns thrown in there for fun. I was forced to downshift AND ride my brakes just to stay in control. And Keystone was right at the bottom of one of the mountains. I have no idea how people escape getting smeared by runaway RV’s when trying to cross the road.
Needless to say, I had a hard time enjoying Keystone knowing that I had to endure another near death experience on the way out. To make matters worse, I was baking in the sun (Yes, I applied sunscreen twice to no avail and no, I wasn’t using Sweet Pea’s sunscreen. I decided to use up another brand before I dipped into mine. Never again.) and I ate at perhaps the worst restaurant ever. You know it’s bad when there are hundreds of tourists around and you’re the only one in the joint. People were walking in, looking around, grimacing and immediately leaving. It’s crazy what health & safety violations you’re willing to overlook when you’re hungry. I walked around for a bit, tried to make peace with impending food poisoning, felt my skin burning, and dreaded the trip out. I decided to get the heck out of dodge and totally skip Mount Rushmore. Yup, I was about two minutes from the national landmark and I skipped it. I was having a moment. Not wanting to retrace my steps, I took a back road to Hermosa and then back to Rapid City. This would be my suggested route if you’re looking for a drama-free approach from the north. There was only one scary spot and I held my breath through it. I never thought I’d be so happy to see Interstate 90 again but I was over the freakin’ moon.
Soon after that I hit a storm with 60 mph winds and quarter size hail. Yup, this was not my day. Eventually, I made it to my regular KOA stop in Buffalo, Wyoming and was able to shake things off a bit.
After 1880 Town, I stopped by Wall Drugs because….well you just have to. It’s an institution and the hundreds of billboards starting from the state line serve to create an insatiable pavlovian urge to visit. I took pictures of the inside last year so check out this post if you’d like to see them. Wall Drugs is basically a circus for consumers, making it all too much fun and easy to spend your hard-earned dollars on a rubber tomahawk. It’s a tourist trap but it’s infinitely amusing. Then I ambled across the street to eat at the Cactus Café. The buffet didn’t blow my mind but for $10.00 I was able to go competitive eater on the place. Once my belly was full and my head was aching from the sugary margarita my server talked me into, I was off to set up camp in Badlands National Park. I had no idea what to expect but I was up for adventure.
I decided to stay at Sage Creek, one of the two campgrounds in the Badlands. Sage Creek is a no-reservations, primitive campground with a wealth of covered picnic tables and two pit toilets. The feature I was most interested in is that it’s free to camp here. Aces! After a few death-defying moments on the winding, unpaved roads, I arrived in a valley to find the campground full of people from all over the globe just hanging out. I thought I was in a smaller, more vegetated version of Burning Man. It was glorious. Added to that were the bison just roaming around the tents, all laid back. The thought crossed my mind that one may decide to set up shop on me in the middle of the night but luckily they kept their distance. I set up my tent amongst the 50+ other campers and bison and fell asleep to the unsettling sound of coyotes howling nearby. I find coyote communication to be terrifying. Don’t ask me why, I just do. Despite the coyotes, I had the best nights sleep ever. It was perfect. In the morning, I tore down camp and went for a hike on a nearby footpath. Although it was glorious, I wish I had more time to explore because I only experienced the northern most edge of the Badlands. It would take at least two more days to do this place any justice.
On Interstate 90, just a few hours west of the Corn Palace is 1880 Town. It’s basically one of South Dakota’s many over-the-top, crazy, unexpected roadside attractions. I’ve always scoffed at 1880 Town because it seemed like a tourist trap. It boasts a large collection of Dances with Wolves paraphernalia–which I never saw. Costner makes me feel yucky inside. But I was still riding the Corn Palace high so I figured I’d just check it out for once instead of driving by like a poop. Yup, I’m stepping out of my poopy comfort zone. Well, my gamble paid off. I went, I saw, I walked around, I flirted with the help (a rugged fella in cowboy gear) and I fell in love with the place. If you like old buildings, tiny homes, antiques and history then you’re in for a treat! Dances with Wolves memorabilia aside (which was actually impressive, detailed and seemingly historically accurate–although I’m no expert), some of the actual buildings comprising the town were from an old movie set but others were old buildings from around the state that were rescued from destruction. So you can actually tour around an old bank from the 1800’s, for example. The town has a church, a saloon, a doctor’s office, a barber shop, a hotel, a jail, a general store, a homestead, a bank, a tiny home, a blacksmith…pretty much everything and they’re all filled with antiques authentic to that particular structure or time period. All of the buildings are so small and yet they served their purpose well. It’s such a contrast from the build-big mentality we have today. Needless to say, this visit made my tiny house fetish sooooooo much worse. AND I also noticed that I have a thing for old heat stoves. I took a million photos of stoves while I was there. It’s just another weird, newly discovered, little quirk I have.
There’s also a gas station, train car diner, gift shop and museum (with a working player piano–they freak me out a bit) on the premises. Plus a ranch with several Texas longhorns, horses and even a very friendly camel. Yup, I escaped without getting spit on. That’s always a bonus. Admission was $12 but it was well worth it. I even took home some longhorn coat hangers for my future tiny home. I saw a bucket of them in the museum and inquired in the gift shop if I could buy two of them and they let me. They were $2.00 each and now I have antiques from 1880 Town. I cannot suggest this stop enough. I plan to make this a yearly visit.
Just to review: After Lily Dale, I headed to Chicago to stay with a friend for the night. Then it was off to Myre Big Island State Park in Albert Lea, Minnesota for some camping and hiking. I finally, begrudgingly, left the park at around 3:30 pm and headed west until I hit a KOA in Mitchell, South Dakota. For some reason, I always end up there. It’s the place where driving fatigue always compels me to stop. After a very rainy night in the tent, I headed to the world’s first and only Corn Palace. It was free, so why the heck not? Here are some factoids about Mitchell’s glorious monument to maize:
The corn palace is redecorated every year with a different theme.
600,000 pieces of corn are used to decorate the outside each year.
3,000 bushels of grains and grasses are also used to decorate the outside each year.
9 different colors of Indian corn are used in the murals.
Over a ton of nails, staples and wire are used to secure it all.
Approximately $100,000 is spent each year in the redecorating process.
It’s open year round and free to enjoy.
It was well worth the brief interlude off Interstate 90 to see this. The Kremlin-o-corn is basically a large auditorium inside, including stadium seating, a gym floor and a stage. This leads me to believe that the corn palace pulls double duty. What a pain in the arse it must be to move an entire gift shop when you have an event! Every last inch of wall space on the inside is covered with detailed corn and grass murals. On the floor is a gift shop in which the proceeds go to keeping the palace free and open to the public. All-in-all, it’s corny but pretty cool. I happily did my part by purchasing some Corn Palace post cards and then it was back to the beloved old grind.
As promised, here are the photos of Lily Dale, New York. This small community of mediums, psychics and spiritualists is actually the world’s largest center for the science, philosophy and religion of spiritualism. This 135-year-old community is located on Cassadaga Lake, just an hour south of Buffalo and about 35 minutes north of Interstate 86. Sadly, their open season is not until June 27th so I didn’t get a chance to partake in any of the workshops or talk to any mediums, however, the upside to going during the off-season is that I could walk around at my leisure and not have to pay the $12 gate fee. They’re totally cool with visitors no matter what the season so don’t be afraid to check it out any time. The gates are open year-round. I was certainly not the only one enjoying the grounds. Residents and visitors alike were walking around, meditating, taking photos and indulging their own creative endeavors. There’s a beach, campgrounds, a museum, a post office, a few hotels, a healing temple, a library, a bookstore & souvenir shop, several restaurants, a spiritual school, a pet cemetery, walking trails, an artisan guild and they even have their own fire department. Yup, they’re pretty hooked up.
As I walked around, I could see a lot of home repairs happening in anticipation for the open season. There’s pretty much a medium in every house in Lily Dale, each with a placard out front beckoning you to choose them. It’s was a lovely, surreal place to visit and I’d be more than willing to return when their season is in full swing. The good news is that their last day is August 31st so I may be able to swing by when I head back east.
If you’re looking for a place to camp nearby, definitely check out Woodside Campground. They have ample RV sites and three tent sites (which were super nice–you will have to drive through a field though). Plus, it’s just a few miles from Lily Dale. The cost for a tent site was $17, which is way more affordable than most campgrounds. They even have seasonal rates for around $775 so you can stay a while if you like. In fact, I think that’s what most of the RVers do in this campground. The best part–well, besides it doubling as a country music park–is that they have private, clean bathrooms with showers. A word to the wise though, don’t be deterred by lack of signage telling you where the heck to check in and such. Just stop by the white house on the right, that’s their office but there’s no sign telling you that. Like I said, most people are either seasonal residents or repeat customers so I don’t think they feel the need to explain much.
Two posts in one day!? Wtf?! Yup. Don’t get used to it. After I wrote my first post, I took a hike around Myre Big Island State Park and had the best, most relaxing time. Fantastic wildlife viewing opportunities abound. A racoon hiked along with me, I ran into a mouse, and I accidentally scared off several white pelicans and one magestic heron. From their brochure, I gather that pelicans are an increasingly common treat. They must have finally put this place on their migratory map. It’s funny because me and the pelicans are probably both heading to the same destination. I wish I could hitch a ride on the back of one (ala Neverending Story movie poster). They have a six-foot wingspan, they wouldn’t even feel me. I had such a good time that I pondered staying another night but….Yellowstone calls. I got a huge kick out of their brochure. Since when have turtles been amphibians? Cornell, I want my money back! All this time I’ve been completely misguided. In fact, I feel lied to and betrayed.
I finally made it to South Dakota. This is when the drive becomes extremely amusing: roadside attractions that you didn’t even think possible, kitschy Wall Drug signs mixed with anti-abortion manifestos, extremely windy roads that leave me wanting to poo my pants with every gust, great hard rock radio stations (even heard my hometown hero, Ronnie James Dio), motorcycles up the wazoo… It’s a really interesting state. I’m debating over whether I should hit up the corn palace tomorrow or drive on through to Wall and the Badlands. It probably should be experienced at least once, right?
Right now I’m hunkered down in Mitchell, SD (yup, the home of the world’s first and only corn palace) at a KOA for the night because…well…this old lady is beat. When I checked in, the office was closed but an older gent in a golf card swooped by to save me. Apparently, he owns the place and lives right here with the rest of the campers. I asked him what time I had to leave by and he told me not to worry about it and invited me to stop on in for coffee in the morning. I warned him that I may never leave to which he replied that I could stay until November but then he goes south for the winter. So I’m faced with the dilemma to stay with my new boyfriend in Mitchell or to continue going west. Decisions, decisions.
Now its off to enjoy jammies and some tent Netflix (tentflix!).
Miles travelled: 844.4
Gas for today: $28.32
Mitchell KOA campground: $24.27
It’s my third day on the road, I believe. The days sort of mush together. I’m writing this from my picnic table at Myre-Big Island (no, I’m not in Hawaii-I wish!) State Park in Albert Lea, MN. It’s beautiful here, like an oasis in a rather flat, farming landscape. I left Cortland at around 2 pm on Thursday to head west to Woodside Campground (and country music park) in Cassadaga, NY. The campground was definitely unique and I highly recommend it for an adventure. After many detours, I pulled in wondering what sort of backwoods, deliverance situation I’d gotten myself into. Right from the start, I couldn’t figure out which abandoned building to check in to so I wandered aimlessly until I decided to call for help. Once that was all figured out (check in is located in the family’s front porch, duh), I drove down into the actual campground, assuming that I’d be alone– it’s literally out in the middle of nowhere–and to my surprise the place was packed with seasonal/full-time RVers. There are only three tent sites in existence and you have to drive through a ball field to get to them but the sites are super sweet. After a great nights sleep, I grabbed a shower and headed six miles away to Lily Dale, the spiritualist capital of the world. This was my one and only reason for taking the overnight, 35 minute diversion off the interstate. I won’t go into details now because I have a lot of pics of Lily Dale so it warrants its own post. Let’s just say that it was pretty freaking spectacular.
I left Lily Dale at 12:30 pm and said hi and goodbye to New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana in one fell swoop. After a zillion pee breaks, I arrived at my friend’s apartment in Chicago (Evanston to be exact) at 8:30 pm (accounting for the 1 hour time roll back). I just love my friend Cathy and where she lives. Evanston was designed with me in mind. Within walking distance of her place there’s the subway, a post office, Vogue Fabrics, a guitar shop, several Mexican restaurants, a vegetarian & vegan restaurant, a gem & mineral shop with a fossil museum in the basement, Whole Foods, Trader Joes, a wine & liquor store and tons of crafty boutiques. It’s my idea of heaven. Plus just a quick drive away is the beach. Too bad the weather is freakin’ crazy sauce or I’d be moving there. Tornados and -55 below windchill is not my thang. Cathy and I spent the night telling each other spooky ghost stories and paranormal happenings of a personal nature until we were both almost too apprehensive to sleep. My kinda night. I spent the next day walking around Evanston and shopping. I bought so many fossils, crystals and rocks that are going to make the most gorgeous, unique jewelry: labradorite, Oregon opal, ammonites, orthoceras, red tiger eye, mugglestone, zebra stone, and even a big ass quartz for my reiki sessions. And even though I just left, I can wait to get back home so I can start making stuff again. Yup, I really do love making stuff that much.
I begrudgingly left Evanston at 1:30 pm to find myself hung up in traffic and construction for way too many hours. Interstate 90 from Chicago on west to the state line was all construction, expensive tolls and just plain sucky. Eventually I hit the open road and it was smooth sailing after that. Wisconsin was a virtual gauntlet with all of the deer carcases on the road. I’ve never seen so many dead deer in one stretch of road and it’s always like that. It’s a beautiful state but not if you’re an animal. After many tiring hours, I set up camp in the Big Island at 9 pm, watched Netflix in my tent until the wee morn and woke up with the birds. Not too shabby. They don’t kick me out until 4 pm so I’m going to squeeze every last bit of enjoyment out of this place. Perhaps some drawing and hiking is in my future. Then it’s off to the Badlands! I probably won’t make it to Wall, SD today but I’ll get as close as I can.
I’ve had two revelations for thus far..no three! The first is that I absolutely love my Honda. It’s got +200,000 miles on it and it’s been an absolute dream. Every day I’ve been doing at least one thing to pamper it. Yesterday it was an addition of oil and coolant. Today it’s going to be a power steering fluid check and some air in the tires. Tomorrow it’s going to be an oil top-off. I’m prepared for it to break down on me at some point but I won’t be mad because this well-oiled machine has earned it. It’s just such a great vehicle that has required so little of me over the years compared to all the other cars I’ve owned.
The second revelation is the Oh, Ranger Park Finder app. I downloaded several apps before I left and this one is complete gold. Plus, it’s free (thanks to LL Bean & Ford). It uses your location to tell you where the nearest parks (state, national, BLM land, etc…) are, what activities they allow and hooks into your phone’s navigation system to direct you there. That’s how I found Big Island. I’m not a fan of pre-planning where I’m going to stay because then I’m on a strict time schedule, which stresses me out. This way, I can just find a nice place to camp nearby when I’m ready to rest for the night. I prefer to stay in parks because they offer recreational activities such a hiking and wildlife watching so you get more bang for your buck.
My third revelation is that I love making my own stuff. An hour before I left for this trip I decided to take a few minutes to make some sunscreen and toothpaste instead of buying it somewhere. Now I’m sitting here having used my own soap, shampoo, conditioner, hair oil, body butter, sunscreen, toothpaste, deodorant and insect repellent and I’m so proud it say that it’s all the absolute best. I’m tent camping and yet I feel completely pampered from head to toe. It’s such a treat and it leaves me a bit tickled. Yup, tickled, I said it.
Miles travelled: 592.7
Woodside Campground: $17.00
Big Island State Park camping: $25.00
Tolls: Ohio: $10.00, Indiana: $7.90, Illinois: $11.80
A few weeks ago I took a super quick trip down to New Orleans. By super quick, I mean that I was basically there for 2.5 days. My stay was by no means long enough but it’s all I could afford both time and money-wise. Nevertheless, I tried to cram in as much as humanly possible and I think I did a bang-up job. Several trips to Bourbon Street, a visit to the rum distillery and a haunted history tour (probably my fifth one but I still enjoy them) were all in order. Hours were spent looking in the shops on Royal Street, listening & watching street performers, breezing through the French Market, a night stroll by the Mississippi River, walking though Lafayette Cemetery #1, napping and watching the turtles swim in Audubon Park, thrift shopping at Buffalo Exchange, stuffing my face at Deanie’s and Slim Goodies, burning my insides with cherry bombs at Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, visiting my favorite French Quarter bars (The Dungeon & The Golden Lantern) and rump shaking to Bourbon Street bands playing the likes of Bobby Brown and Montel Jordan. Oh yeah! A little My Prerogative and This is How We Do It, is good for the soul!
Overall, I was amazed to see how budget friendly New Orleans is. It cost me $2.00 to catch the E-12 bus from the airport to the French Quarter. That’s a $33 cab ride. An unlimited day pass to travel around New Orleans on their public streetcar and bus system is $3.00. The rum distillery tour including transportation to and from the French Quarter (with lots of tasty rum sampling!) was $10.00 per person. We scored the haunted history tour for half price so it was about $13.00 each. Eating can be expensive but the portion sizes will easily take you through lunch and dinner. Slim Goodies is always my favorite breakfast spot and that’s very reasonably priced (remember to bring some champagne for mimosas with no corkage fee). Audubon Park and the cemeteries are free to enjoy and just walking around the French Quarter is entertainment enough. So although I spent more than I’d have liked to, it was still more affordable than vacationing elsewhere. Plus, it’s my most favorite place in the whole-wide-world so there’s no putting a price on that.