West to East chronicles: Back in the saddle, Skipping Detroit and Cleveland, Slowing down at Holden Arboretum
September 24 – Back in the saddle
Pat and John shuttle us to the far south suburbs to retrieve The Epic Van at the Sprinter shop in Orland Park, Illinois. The engine is running fine and a crust of prairie bugs has been scrubbed clean. We say goodbye to our loving cousins, thanking them again and again for six days of feeding and tour-guiding. It’s almost 5 p.m. Judy and I have a Chicago dog and Italian beef sandwich, restock our refrigerator, carefully select some diesel fuel and get on the toll road to Indiana. We have no change in our pockets to pay $1.50. It takes us three hectic minutes in the back of the vehicle to scrape up the change. (Nobody honked.) We roll with the truckers to Michigan City, Indiana, overnighting at Walmart.
September 25 – Skipping Detroit and Cleveland
Our travel plan for the rest of the month, sketched out before we left Longview, Washington, on Aug. 19, needs revision. Our next “bookend” is Oct. 4, a family visit in New York. Judy and I ditch the Henry Ford and Motown museums in Detroit and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and Museum of Art in Cleveland. On the way to Niagara Falls, we do stop at the RV museum in Elkhart, Indiana. Among my favorites: the 1935 Bowlus Road Chief, a sailplane-inspired aluminum design made famous by Airstream; the 1928 Pierce Arrow Fleet Housecar, one of three Gatsby-style luxury models built before the Crash of 1929; the 1964 Clark Cortez Motorhome, the first front-wheel drive RV built in the United States.
September 26 – Slowing down at Holden Arboretum
It’s been 36 hours since Chicago and we’re 400 miles down the road, a very hectic travel pace. Judy and I slow down a bit among the cultivated gardens at Holden Arboretum, east of Cleveland. We stroll by dozens of rhododendron species, large beds of lilac, a few ‘Princeton’ American elm, resistant to Dutch elm disease. The gardens also feature many tree varieties suited for northeast Ohio: Chinese ginkgo, Japanese maple, Norwegian spruce and European beech. The gardens are warmup for native trees, the object of our visit: maple, beech, oak and hemlock trees along miles of trail on the forest floor. There’s also a canopy walk, 65 feet above the native forest, and tower view, at 120 feet, offering a treetop vista stretching to Lake Erie. Over the next few decades, rising temperatures and heavier rain events will make northeast Ohio less suitable for American basswood, Eastern White Pine, sugar maple and Eastern Hemlock. Climate change models predict that Bitternut hickory, Bur oak and Eastern Red cedar will do better here. We wander for four hours, returning to the Epic Van for late lunch.
West to East Chronicles: Waiting for repairs with Pat and John, The Epic Van is very sick, Despair vs. Hope at Art Institute
September 18 – Will Dick vote for Trump again?
My cousin, Dick Almasy, of Freeport, Illinois, is my political bellwether for President Trump. I’ve talked with Dick, a retired industrial electrician, fundamentalist Christian and Vietnam vet, about politics for decades at family reunions in northern Illinois. Although our Red-Blue divide is deep, our conversations are always civil. Dick, a supporter of Ted Cruz during primary season in 2016, voted for Donald Trump. Has he done anything during the last three years to make you reconsider your vote? Without pause, Dick says no. According to Dick, Trump, as president, tells the truth and is law abiding, victimized by a mainstream media smear machine and unhinged Democrats, who never gave him a chance. (Aside from politics, Donald Trump is superior to Barack Obama in personal character, Dick says. However, he respected Obama during his presidency and prayed for him.) The re-election of Trump is even more important in 2020, given the threat of socialists bent on destroying the Constitution, Dick says. What about my political agenda for legislation to reduce global warming, create universal health care, raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy to finance a stronger social safety net, and establish humane immigration policy? To Dick, it’s just a thicket of abstraction for financially secure, educated elites, like me, to fret over. Dick’s agenda: “It’s all about jobs.” Wealthy corporations and individuals, already burdened by taxes that are too high, will create manufacturing jobs in the United States now that Trump is reversing unfair global trading rules and cutting government regulations. According to Dick, the economy is great. Dick and I end our gabfest, agreeing on only one thing. We both want a president who will act to improve lives in Freeport, a struggling, racially diverse, Rust Belt city, and everywhere in the United States. Dick, who has traveled to the Caribbean and Mexico on church missions to help those in poverty, believes in helping others, but also in the sanctity of work. He sees wrongdoing in his community, underachieving folks, white and black, who could work full-time at difficult jobs for low pay, but choose to work sporadically and game the welfare system. From The Epic Van, I see wrongdoing at the top of society, a self-dealing oligarchy that breaks and bends laws through money influence in our nation’s capital. Dick and I can’t agree on what’s fundamentally wrong with America. One of us will wake up the morning after the 2020 election, certain that our democracy is dead.
Yellow Pine, Idaho, is rooting into in my heart.
It’s a modern pioneer town of about 50 people, 70 miles from the nearest town, carved out of the wilderness on the East Fork of the South Fork of the Salmon River as a stopping point for miners. Its post office opened in 1906.
Every time we visit, we learn to love it a little more: its remoteness, its natural beauty, its unique residents, and its quirky rituals.
West to East chronicles: Day on the Niobrara in Nebraska, Soybeans on Iowa 3, Grounded in Northern Illinois
September 15 – Day on the Niobrara in Nebraska
We wake up at a Conoco parking lot for truckers in Valentine, Nebraska, to the sound of one rig idling. Last night, the lot was partially filled with about a dozen semi-trailers. Shouts of Cornhusker football fans on game night rang from a bar next door. We’re here for a second time to enjoy the Niobrara, a National Scenic River. In 2013, Judy, Nate and I rented a Roadtrek for the first time. I was skeptical about living full-time in a 21-foot vehicle and wanted a trial run. Our float down the lazy river on a hot July afternoon near Smith Falls State Park was one of the highlights of our 10-day vacation. After that, I began to serious consider the possibilities of wandering full time. Our plan today is to hike on the Cowboy Recreation and Nature Trail, which stretches 189 miles from Valentine to Norfolk along an abandoned Chicago and Northwestern rail line. Our segment begins several miles east of Valentine at a signed turnout on U.S. 20. We double back toward Valentine, enjoying a view of the Niobrara from a trestle 150 feet above. The river, originating in Wyoming and fed by the Ogallala Aquifer, drains a region where the Rocky Mountain forest we’ve traveled for weeks gives way to box elder and bur oak, and where western short grass, the mixed-grass prairie of the Sandhills and eastern tall grass intersect. We travel in afternoon sun in northern Nebraska, crossing the 100th meridian and moving into greener ranch country above the river. An hour of solitude on the plains on Nebraska 12, at last interrupted by a passing vehicle.
September 16 – Soybeans on Iowa 3
Leaving Ponca State Park in Nebraska, on the bluffs of the Missouri River, we pass a flooded riverfront campground and boat launch. Late-summer runoff, unusually heavy, is pouring in this unchannelized stretch of the Missouri River. As we enter Iowa at Sioux City, hay fields are out and corn and soybeans are in. I follow the lead of William Least Heat Moon. Our “blue highway” through western Iowa is Iowa 3, a more intimate alternative to four lanes on U.S. 20. I stop at a roadside stand near Cherokee to buy sweet corn and tomatoes, summer staples of my boyhood in central Illinois. I ask the seller about yellowing leaves in soybean fields. Was it because of heavy spring rains? No, the bean fields always turn yellow at the end of growing season. I was red with embarrassment. I left soybean country for Arizona 40 years ago, returned to Illinois many times, but never in September. I’d lost touch with the harvest cycle.
September 17 – Grounded in Northern Illinois
Sadly, there’s no time for rail trails in Iowa. We blow past the Hawkeye state. Judy and I gather groceries in Dubuque for a family reunion dinner in Freeport, Illinois. The Epic Van stammers a bit going up a hill in Dubuque on the way to the Mississippi River bridge. East of Galena, birthplace of Ulysses Grant, a bit of stammering turns into a whole lot of bucking and wheezing as we travel through steeper and steeper hills along U.S. 20, a route used by truckers. Near the top of hills, I edge onto the road shoulder as we slow under 30 mph with the pedal to the metal. Something’s not right, either with the transmission, or fuel system. (We filled up on biofuel about 50 miles ago.) We’re only 40 miles from Freeport. Surely we can limp in. Twenty-three miles from town, defeated, we turn off on a gravel road across from a herd of cattle and dial for a tow truck. It’s 3 p.m. Just before sundown at 7 p.m., the flatbed hauling vehicle we requested arrives. My cousin Jeanne and her husband, Dick, come from Freeport to rescue us. We load clothes and perishable food into their vehicle, and head back to pared-down dinner and lots of catching up on family comings and goings.
West to East chronicles: Holed up in Spearfish, Black Hills rail trail, Harsh realities in the Badlands
September 12 – Holed up in Spearfish
Hard rain and winds whip The Epic Van at Walmart in Spearfish, South Dakota, and the forecast calls for no letup all day. We’re reduced to our least favorite option for getting in 10,000 steps a day, the Walmart walk. Raincoats will be cumbersome indoors, so we dash to the entrance. Under fluorescent sky, we begin our walk through blue and yellow signage with constant reminders of Everyday Low Price! (The tariff war with China must be making a lot of this stuff more expensive.) We’ve tried spicing up the walking routine, which we’ve done several dozen times over the years, by going Pac-Man, gobbling every aisle in a store. It’s dizzying. Gets old fast. The Spearfish store has an unobstructed perimeter walk around the box, old-school Walmart design. Updated stores are partitioned to funnel shoppers into the maw. We take a drive in the rain, scouting a section of the Michelson rail trail near Lead, South Dakota, and seek wi-fi at a Pilot truck stop in Rapid City to watch the Democratic presidential debate and camp.
September 13 – Black Hills rail trail
As we cruise toward a rail trail in the Black Hills of South Dakota, the sun shines brightly for the first time since Idaho, eight days ago. Judy and I are doing our first shuttle hike, on the Mickelson Trail, a 108-mile biking and hiking route between Edgemont and Deadwood. If you are looking for ease of travel through steep terrain, nothing beats the gradual up-and-down gradient of a rail line. (This rail trail features smooth, fine gravel, though not all do.)
I start at Dumont trailhead at 9:30 a.m. and head north toward Lead, South Dakota, while Judy parks at the Sugarloaf Trailhead and hikes south toward Englewood to meet me. I stroll in a sweatshirt at 5,000 feet, climbing gently through Ponderosa pine, aspen and birch, dotted with slopes of knee-high emerald grass. I pass through open valley at Englewood, a railroad ghost town once named Ten Mile. In 1890, the town was a bustling junction for three lines: the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy, Black Hills & Ft. Pierre Railroad, and the Spearfish line, popular with tourists.
I meet Judy on mile seven, just before noon as temperatures warm up in the valley. In a half-mile or so we’re back under cover of the Black Hills forest for our return to The Epic Van. Our half-day shuttle hike worked perfectly. We’ll do it again.
September 14 – Harsh realities in the Badlands
We begin our morning in Wall, South Dakota, parked on motel row on Main Street. Our plan was to camp last night in Badlands National Park at Sage Campground, but it was full. At least we drove out of the park under the glow of the harvest moon. After laundering and shopping (fixings for buffalo stew), we roll back to Badlands park. On the way, we stop at Prairie Homestead, one of the best-preserved sod houses in the United States. You can walk inside to examine earthen walls, cottonwood beams and a precious few milled planks used to build it in 1909. This was one of the last stretches of the Great Plains opened to the plow. Homesteaders, relying on about 13 inches of rain a year, said: “The government bet you 160 acres of land against $18.00 that you will starve to death before you live on the land five years.” The signs for hundreds of miles along South Dakota highways should lead to Prairie Homestead, instead of the drug store back in Wall. Later, we take a short, steep hike up to Saddle Pass, on the Badlands Wall, a 50-mile barrier that separates upper mixed-grass prairie from lower prairie to the southwest. I looked toward the White River bluffs in the distance, thinking about how grasshoppers, prairie fire, hail, sub-zero temperatures, blizzards and social isolation crushed homesteaders, forcing 80 to 90 percent of them to abandon their dreams in the Badlands.
West to East chronicles: Ivan Doig’s Montana, Business agenda and proselytizing and Going senior with yoga
September 10 – Ivan Doig’s Montana
Our rough outline for West to East travel has us in the Black Hills of South Dakota in four days. We should travel directly there, but the lure of the Little Belt Mountains is too big. Today is a drive-by, a 280-mile loop through low-slung, rounded mountains of pasture and forest. It’s a day to ponder the lives of the “lariat proletariat,” mid-century sheep and cattle hands and their families who eked out a living here. Ivan Doig describes it all wonderfully in This House of Sky. (Thanks to David McElwee for introducing us to Doig in a Dahl family holiday book exchange.)
Our drive-by begins at 11 a.m., taking us from the confluence of the Jefferson, Madison and Gallatin rivers at Missouri Headwaters State Park to Townsend. Then we travel east on U.S. 12 to White Sulphur Springs, which figures in Doig’s childhood. (It’s still a town of many drinking establishments; the springs warm a motel pool.) At a ranger station, an employee suggests a visit to Neihart, Doig’s birthplace. That would extend our day trip until dark. Instead, we travel on U.S. 89 and dip into the Little Belts, about a mile high, driving a few miles north of Sheep Creek before looping back. As we travel east on U.S. 12 along the southern edge of the Little Belts on the way to Harlowton, Judy reads from Roadside Geology of Montana about Madison limestone formation, lignite (coal) bands and the Crazy Mountains. She’s OK with reading from Roadside this afternoon, though sometimes I test her limits. We reach downtown Billings by 6:15 p.m., honoring Montana ranching with a ribeye and filet at Jake’s. We bed down at a nearby Walmart.
September 11 – Business agenda and proselytizing
Just as we launder clothing and clean The Epic Van on a 12-day cycle, we pick a place for a half day of business every week. Today’s agenda: shopping, blogging, prescription pickup, scheduling a family visit in Illinois and RV dump. We begin at 8:30. I shop for groceries; Judy reminds me to get more mouse traps. She’s bagged two since Idaho; peanut butter was licked off one trap last night. At Walgreens, I learn a prescription called in two days ago isn’t ready, and cancel it. Our RV dump app led us to a wastewater treatment facility without facilities for us. Business half-days often turn out to be close to an eight-hour shift. Traveling southeast on Interstate 90, we turn off at Little Bighorn Battlefield at 4:15 p.m. The visitor center and roads that overlook the 1876 battleground close at 6 p.m. Immediately, a man on a bicycle says hello and really wants to see The Epic Van. We can’t say no. Judy has invited about 200 or so curious folks into The Epic Van during the last five years, but no one was more enthusiastic than Tom Southern, a volunteer historical interpreter for the park service. He was smitten with the functionality of The Epic Van and the dream of full-timing. I predict he will be a road brother soon. Judy and I hurried through the visitor center, bought A Terrible Glory, Custer and the Little Bighorn, by James Donovan, then drove along grassy hillocks and coulees of the battlefield, viewing river plain where 7,000 Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho camped, and Last Stand Hill, where Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and about 210 men of the 7th Cavalry were surrounded and killed. A park service vehicle herded The Epic Van and other stragglers out of the park at 6:15 p.m. We saved the day from routine, working overtime to witness history and proselytize for life on wheels.
September 12 – Going senior with yoga
Our plan was to camp and hike a little in the foothills of the Big Horn Mountains near Buffalo, Wyoming, for two days. It’s much too rainy for that, and it’s a bit too cold, mid-50s, for park yoga, even if we found a pavilion for shelter. From the Walmart parking lot in Sheridan, Wyoming, I call The Hub, a senior center with a trendier name, and ask if they have a room or wide hallway to roll out two yoga mats. There are classes in the exercise room until 11 a.m., but we’re welcome to use the space afterward. The Hub is modern and well-appointed with a busy café and a spacious exercise room with large windows overlooking a park. It’s a luxury to have a level floor to move through our hour-long routine. We thank several employees for their welcome and leave a small donation After lunch and a shower in The Hub parking lot, we roll on Interstate 90 to Spearfish, South Dakota, through patches of rain.
West to East chronicles – Lodgepoles get in our way, Our beautiful Idaho 75 and Hiking and hunting on the Nez Perce Trail
September 6 – Lodgepoles get in our way
We peek at steam rising from Kirkham Hot Springs before leaving for Stanley, Idaho, a likely spot for an RV dump and groceries. At noon, we rush to fill our water tanks at Redfish Lake under a sprinkle and depart as thunderstorm clouds bulge. Pounding rain and hail strike as we travel north on Idaho 75. Wind gusts of 40-50 mph tug at the Epic Van as two Lodgepole pines, about 30 feet tall, snap and fall in front of our vehicle. We skirt them and decide to wait out the storm in Stanley. There’s a flash flood warning and red flag (high-wind warning) until 6 p.m. on the road to Salmon, according to Judy’s weather app. We decide to stay at the edge of the Sawtooth Wilderness tonight. We tour the visitor center at Redfish Lake, site of the world’s longest, 900 miles, and highest, 7,200 feet, spawning route to the Pacific for Chinook salmon. Less than 100 natural Chinook, and a few hundred hatchery Chinook, made it back to Redfish Lake last month. Once, thousands of spawning Chinook gave the lake its name. On an interpretive nature walk, we walk along a terminal moraine, an indicator of glaciers that formed the lake. A boardwalk leads over marshy terrain, flush with willows and beaver dams. In the distance, 57 peaks in the Sawtooth Mountains rise over 10,000 feet. We end our afternoon with a short hike along Fishhook Creek trail, amid Rocky Mountain fir, lodgepole pine and sagebrush. A couple from Idaho Falls leads us to a pocket of calm water on roaring Fishhook Creek, pointing to native fish idling. At 6 p.m., we find a spot at nearby Sunny Gulch Campground. Overnight low is forecast at 37. The furnace is set for the first time this summer, 55 degrees, our sleep comfort number.
September 7 – Our beautiful Idaho 75
Today we’ll be tracing the first 100 miles or so of the Chinook migration route north to Salmon, Idaho, on pavement. At 8 a.m., Judy and I begin a gentle descent in morning fog along the Salmon River. Judy reads the first chapter of The Enchanted Hour, the Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction. We see a man with coffee mug lounging in a hot spring. We agree that this stretch of Idaho 75 is among the most scenic we’ve wandered in five years. We stop at Sunbeam Dam, the only one ever built on the Salmon. It was partially demolished in the 1930s to reopen salmon travel. We leave conifers, dipping under the cloud layer to a soft brown contours and green fields, then stop at a buffalo jump, a ledge used by Shoshone hunters. (Bighorn sheep also live here on rocky cliffs.) There’s a sign for a farmers’ market in Challis. We grab squash, green beans and fresh eggs. We leave Idaho 75 in Salmon for the road through the Bitterroot Mountains and Lost Pass. At 4 p.m., we arrive at Indian Trees campground, near Sula, Mont., for chair time. On a tall, tilted Ponderosa pine at site 10, there’s evidence of Bitterroot Salish. In spring, as pine sap flows, they stripped away portions of bark, using the tree’s cambium layer for food. Many wide Ponderosa pines in the campground were peeled from 1835 to 1890.
September 8 – Hiking and hunting on Nez Perce Trail
We depart camp near U.S. 93 on the sanitized thoroughfare to Lost Pass, but seek hiking and history on the ancestral route of Nez Perce. I rely on Forest Service ranger stations for local maps, but none were available. We look for road signs on U.S. 93 for the Nez Perce or Lewis and Clark hiking trails. At a trailhead, a map shows where the Nez Perce trail overlaps with a parking spot. We begin our hike at Chief Joseph Pass campground, at 7,200 feet. It’s cloudy and about 60 degrees. We hike on the Continental Divide Trail in Rocky Mountain firs and lodge pole pines, past a network of cross-country ski trails. We reach Gibbon Pass Road, one of the most historic paths in Montana, tread by animals, aboriginals, explorers, fur trappers and pioneers. At an overlook, we gaze toward Indian Trees camp and the road to Sula below. Back at the trailhead, we say hello to Terry, a hunter in camouflage from nearby Darby, Montana. I ask if anyone hunts around the ski area. He nods yes. Judy and I will be buying something bright orange to hike during hunting season. We spend an hour or so at Big Hole National Battlefield, which honors between 60 and 90 Nez Perce killed in 1877, many of them children and women, in an attack by U.S. soldiers and volunteers led by Col. John Gibbon. Thirty-one soldiers and volunteers died in two days of fighting. We travel east on Montana 43 along the Big Hole River toward Butte. Our day ends under steady rain just off Interstate 90, at Headwaters State Park, near Three Forks, Montana.
So many places. So little time. Check out some of the cool things we’ve seen.
All my Montana photos are full of sky.
Our hike through the Oregon Dunes was a lesson in how man can screw up nature, wrecking perfectly functioning ecosystems, probably beyond repair.
We’ve hiked other dunes in Indiana, Michigan, Oregon, Colorado and the gypsum sands in White Sands, New Mexico. So I was expecting to be slipping and sliding my way up and over shifting peaks. Instead, other than a few, small patches of sand, we were trudging over stable trails, under the shade of tall trees, hemmed in by bushes. What the hell kind of dunes were these?
Well, they’re dunes altered by man’s ignorance.
In March, we drove through Alabama, just a week before the anniversary of the 1965 civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, and we paused to witness the racial struggle still happening in our country.
We walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and as we reached the crest, I could hear the voice of one of the marchers from the spoken history at Selma’s Interpretive Center. She saw Sheriff Jim Clark and his goons waiting for them: “I knew we were going to get beat.”
We followed the road the marchers eventually took to Montgomery, the fields where they slept, now marked with plaques, and made our way to the newest twinned museum and monument, the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, which traces the direct line from slavery to lynching to forced labor to today’s mass incarceration, and the searing National Memorial to Peace and Justice, which documents the unprosecuted, officially sanctioned, serial lynchings across the south.
And we attended Sunday services at Montgomery’s First Baptist Church where we saw community sadness, solidarity and struggle, along with hope for the future.