Dakota National Park Tour – Part 2

Halfway through my Dakota trip, I had the opportunity to explore the tight confines of Wind Cave National, checked up on the status of the Crazy Horse Memorial, and had explored what had inspired Theodore Roosevelt to highly promote the national park system during his time as president in the national park named after him. Now, I was heading east away from South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park on I-94 in a loop that would take me down to Badlands National Park. As I drove, the clouds darkened above me and the afternoon sun behind me created a marvelous arched rainbow against these clouds. Perhaps I saw it as a good luck charm. I-94 took me through the capital of North Dakota, Bismarck, but there wasn’t much to see from the highway. A few miles east of the capital, I exited I-94 and headed south towards South Dakota and its capital, Pierre (which I am told is pronounced like pier by the locals). Pierre is one of the few state capitals not connected or serviced by an interstate highway, so my US route took me straight into the center of the city. I wound up stopping for a Chinese buffet dinner just a few miles from the capitol building. As I left Pierre and headed south to connect with I-90, just a few miles east of the motel I had made reservations near Badlands National Park, the clouds began to darken again. I was able to reach the motel in time before the thunderstorm opened up. I was beginning to experience and understand the severe weather that builds around the Great Plains at this time of year.

The next morning, skies were clear, and I headed towards Badlands National Park. At the interstate exit to the northeast entrance to the park, I noticed the visitor center to an interesting and important historic park, the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. Even though I decided not to stop because of the tight scheduling of my tour, it reminded me how this country was able to use the open spaces of the plains to hide a major part of our country’s defense in the modern era. I headed south into Badlands National Park.

Southwest panoramic view from Bigfoot Pass.

Southwest panoramic view from Bigfoot Pass.

Badlands geology is interesting to view, sedimentary strata of mainly white and red rock that is exposed on hills and canyon walls, with a section of yellow rock mounds in one part of the park. It was created by the huge sea that used to exist down the middle of North America until the land rose up, draining the sea and creating the Great Plains. I had viewed this badlands geology in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. However, within Badlands National Park, the geology was sharper with craggy spires and a higher contrast between the red and white strata colors. In one section, a hiking trail explored a section where fossil remnants from prehistoric creatures are still being uncovered. Badlands does support the same types of bison and groundhogs that I saw in Theodore Roosevelt National Park; however, during my visit, I only came upon one deer hiding behind some shrubs on a trail. The canyons and mounds of Badlands appears to be closer to the expansive great plains to the east than the Black Hills to the west, as I was able to view long open stretches of vibrant green grass fields heading away from the canyon bottoms and out from the tops of the canyon rims along the loop road. The road that traveled along the badlands walls was called a loop road because it somewhat paralleled I-90 to the north with two park entrances on either side of this road section that connected back up to I-90. This allowed me to exit the park at this west entrance, then loop back east on I-90 to the exit that led to the eastern entrance. Only I passed this exit and took the next exit south, heading down towards Scottsbluff, Nebraska.

As I traveled down the state routes towards Nebraska, the severe weather patterns of late spring that I had begun to experience in previous afternoons along this trip suddenly demonstrated their greatest fury when I found myself driving through a thundering hail storm. It didn’t help that I was stuck behind a semi-trailer at the time the storm struck. However, my faithful car persevered, and I passed through the storm before arriving in Scottsbluff. This was the last stop on my road tour, and I checked into my hotel in preparation of my final day of the tour.

Pioneer wagons at Scotts Bluff National Monument.

Pioneer wagons at Scotts Bluff National Monument.

The small city of Scottsbluff grew up in the Platte River valley next to a major landmark the early pioneers used as they made their way along the Oregon Trail, a large rocky bluff named for an early fur company employee that mysteriously met his death near this bluff in 1838. The bluff and the pass between it and the neighboring Wildcat Hills are protected within Scotts Bluff National Monument. In the morning of my final day of my tour, I stopped at the visitor center within this pass next to the bluff and walked a short trail up to a point where the Oregon Trail officially snacked its way westward. Some representative covered wagons presented the history that brought pioneers here on their way west. I walked back to my car and drove up a road that snaked up through a few tunnels to the top of the bluff. From the top of the bluff, I was able to see a broad landscape both east and west, showing why this rocky bluff was such a major landmark in the expansion of America. After enjoying this perspective of history, I headed back down the bluff road, got on the interstate, and headed back to Denver. I was home in time for lunch. This tour was a short trip, but it was also an impressive tour of history and geology.

Dakota National Park Tour – Part 1

Ever since I moved to the Denver area, I had started plans for a quick road trip to explore the three national parks within the Dakota states. I had already had the opportunity to visit the most famous Dakota site on a major road trip I had done with my mother in 2003 – the Mount Rushmore Memorial, but this was my chance to visit Wind Cave National Park, Badlands National Park, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park. As the ten day weather report finally showed a period of seventy degree temperatures in the week leading up to the Memorial Day weekend, it seemed like a perfect time for me to make the trip.

I started out at midday and headed north to Hot Springs, South Dakota, a town just south of Wind Cave National Park. I spent the night at a local motel, then headed up to the park in the morning. Just inside the south park entrance, I and a few other visitors came upon a small bison herd enjoying the hilly grasslands around the visitor center. One male bison decided to take a stand on the road, delaying the small line of cars heading both ways on the road. It was a perfect opportunity to take pictures. Once past the bison herd, I headed up to the visitor center in time to take the first tour of the morning.

A bison enjoys the grasslands within Wind Cave National Park.

A bison enjoys the grasslands within Wind Cave National Park.

Wind Cave is one of the longest cave systems in the world. However, its passageways were one of the thinnest and tightest I had ever been through. In fact, the natural entrance that our tour was shown would barely allow a baby to pass through and looked more like a rocky rabbit hole. It was because of this feature that Wind Cave got its name. Inside the cave system, the lack of large openings to the outer world was instrumental in the cave being able to maintain a steady air pressure within its passages, but at the small openings where the cave connected with the external atmosphere, the normal changes in air pressure from high and low weather systems outside would cause the cave to “breathe” in or out. In order to maintain this standard pressure within the cave, the manmade entrances that were built to allow tour access have a double door system, an outer door to allow access into a gathering room, then once this outer door was sealed, the inner door was opened to give the tour group access to downward steps into the lower lit passage. The unique geology of the cave provided interesting wall features like popcorn and boxwork, but large stalagmites and stalactites were not evident in these tight cave passages. At one point, the ranger guide turned off the lights to give our small tour a chance to truly witness absolute darkness. Wind Cave is definitely not for the claustrophobic, even mildly.

Boxwork formation on a cave wall in Wind Cave National Park.

Boxwork formation on a cave wall in Wind Cave National Park.

After exploring Wind Cave, I headed north towards North Dakota. Just a few miles from Wind Cave, I stopped at a rest stop and took a photo of the Crazy Horse Memorial, still being sculpted in the Black Hills. During the 2003 road trip with my mother, we had stopped to examine the memorial and visit the adjoining visitor center and museum after viewing the Mount Rushmore Memorial nearby. The sculpting of the Crazy Horse Memorial had begun in 1949, but as it is being funded through a nonprofit system, the main progress was just the face and general shape of the mountain sculpture in 2003. Now, looking at it in 2016, I could only see minor progress in the memorial project.

Crazy Horse Memorial still in progress in 2016.

Crazy Horse Memorial still in progress in 2016.

Continuing on into North Dakota, I was able to reach I-94 by around five in the afternoon. I thought I might try to slip into Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit for a quick run-through, but discovered that the visitor center was closed by four-thirty. I was able to stop at the Painted Canyon Overlook just off the Interstate and get some afternoon shots of the striated rock and grassland landscape. My reasoning behind trying to get into the park at this time was due to the somewhat unique outlay of this national park. Theodore Roosevelt National Park is actually divided into two major units with a third small unit between them. What is especially unique about this is the distance between the two units of over sixty miles, basically a two hour round trip between the two units. The North Unit could only be reached from one US route, so I could not just check out this unit along the way to the next national park. I checked into the local hotel in preparation of exploring the South Unit in the morning.

Theodore Roosevelt's preserved Maltese Cross cabin in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Theodore Roosevelt’s preserved Maltese Cross cabin in the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

I entered the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park the next morning and stopped in at the visitor center. Behind the visitor center was the Maltese cross cabin that Theodore Roosevelt lived in shortly after his wife and mother both died on the same day in 1884, an amazing historical structure. At the visitor center, I asked about what I would see at the North Unit and was told by a ranger that the environment, although basically the same, was more rugged and had a wonderful view of the Little Missouri River along the viewing road. Roosevelt also had another home in the North Unit, but it was no longer there. I spent the rest of the morning exploring the South Unit on its loop road, checking out bison herds, prairie dog towns, some feral horses, hiking trails along badland hills and grasslands, and panoramic overlooks, including one next to a section of the Little Missouri River. As I finished the loop, I debated whether the two hour round trip to the North Unit as well as the potential hour or so traveling the overlook road would add much more to what I had seen. I decided I had explored and come to understand the landscape that Theodore Roosevelt had come to love within the South Unit and decided to move on to the next location where I had motel reservations near Badlands National Park.

The Little Missouri River from Wind Canyon Overlook in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The Little Missouri River from Wind Canyon Overlook in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

To be continued…

A New Life Adventure – Moving to Denver

In my last three posts, I shared about my road trip from Los Angeles to Denver in order to attend the wedding of my friends’ daughter. Even though my posts focused on the national parks and sights I visited on the way to Denver, my trip had another purpose behind it. Although I had grown up in Jacksonville, Florida, I had spent the majority of my life and my career in Los Angeles, but I had come to realize that circumstances were directing me to choose a new direction and adventure in my life. It was time to move to a new location and lay down a new foundation for the next stage of my life. As I mulled the options over, I realized that my friends had spent the last twenty years in the Denver area and saw this as a good balanced option. My hidden goal in this trip was to ask their opinion regarding my idea to move near them. If their answer had been anything close to “Are you crazy?”, my plan would have shut down immediately. However, their response was exactly the opposite as they were excited at the thought of me moving to Denver. For the last few months, I became very busy in putting my plans into high gear.

Having a solid base in life, a home, is a common goal for most people. However, no place remains constant over the course of time. I had found a nice townhome close to the beach. I kept it well maintained and remodeled it to my tastes several years back. I had good neighbors and a solid base of good friends within a very vibrant world-renowned city. Yet, after I had lost my job nearly four years ago, the ability to maintain a base lifestyle while covering promotional expenses for my self-published novel had begun to eat into my standard savings, and I am still too young to tap into my retirement funds without penalty. Except for a mortgage, I had no debt, but should I tap into the various avenues of debt available to me to support me and keep me in my “home” until I find a new source of income or reach retirement age? For many, keeping that center of their life, their home, would be worth the debt, but for me, the center of my life is me and my friends, not a inanimate structure, so my decision had to be based on what was best for me. Because of the location of my townhome, its value had skyrocketed over the years and there were many places in this country where housing and the cost-of-living were a lot cheaper.

Still, financial considerations are only a small part of a major life-changing decision. The sense of exploration that I have developed in my love of traveling became the major part of my decision. Traveling to new locations for a quick vacation helps to balance one’s perspective, but setting down stakes in an entirely new neighborhood and environment really stokes the explorative spirit and provides an in-depth lesson in the operation and evolution of my true home, Earth. I grew up in a location on Earth where warm tropical waters extended a humid atmosphere most of the year over a landscape that stayed within a thousand feet of sea level and a laid-back Southern culture struggled against a wave of Northern transplants. Upon graduation from high school, I announced to my parents a college selection that would take me to an opposite coast in this country where cooler ocean currents and a series of small and large mountain ranges had created a drier and sunnier set of basins and valleys which had attracted a diverse population dependent on the automobile and proud of the entertainment culture that attracted worldwide attention and acclaim. Now, I was seeking a new environment, far from ocean breezes and a sea level altitude, and what appeared to be a very politically balanced culture. The Denver area, somewhat centrally located in this country and continent, situated a mile high from sea level at the base of the Rocky Mountains, and experiencing growth from a diverse influx from across this country, seemed to fit the bill in my selection to start a new life adventure in a new home with a new set of neighbors to discover as friends, while exploring the wonders of this Earth from a broad new perspective.

So here I am, writing this in my new home in the Denver area, waiting for the moving company to deliver my furniture and past history of accomplishments sometime in the next week, anxious to begin the next major exploration of my life. It will be exciting to start living the next great adventure.

Bucket Lists and Road Trips

I love traveling, exploring the vast complexities of this little orb circling a massive globe of energy in a little section of infinity. I am fascinated by the artistry of this constantly changing natural world and the amazing interaction of our species within this world in such a short span of time. Constantly flowing currents of air and water carve rock, transform landscapes, fluctuate temperatures and transport life on this spinning globe. Amazingly, here I am with the ability to move faster around this earth than my ancestors and the technology of a camera to freeze and record these wondrous sights for the temporary span of my lifetime. However, I am a part of this eternal miracle and responsibility comes with the gift of my life within the tapestry.

For some, travel means finding another place different and exotic from the regular patterns and flows of their home turf, then returning to this place year after year to enjoy a different regular pattern and flow. For me, it means more to uncover a new pattern and perspective with each trip I take. Sometimes, this can be accomplished within my own home backyard by hiking a different trail or checking out a local community or historical site previously unvisited. However, to really expand my perspective, I need to look beyond and see how natural elements and cultures fill in the mosaic. The best way for me to do this is to examine the adventures of those before me and to create a plan of adventure for myself. The first step is to create a series of bucket lists to set out as goals. In my case, my bucket lists are more places to see and experience, rather than activities to accomplish.

My bucket lists begin with the main list of hoping to set foot on every continent. On this list, I can check off North America, Europe and, nominally, Africa. Branching off the main list, I have lists to visit every country in Europe and to explore listed wonders worldwide both natural and cultural, but my longest bucket lists are set within the United States. One reason is obviously the proximity and ability to explore more with less resources. There is a large area to investigate and admire without crossing international borders. I have created three bucket lists to explore this country – to visit every state, to visit every US national park, and to visit an ever-growing list of US cities and sites (currently 141 items). Officially, I can state that there are only three states I have never been in. However, there are five other states in which I was younger than 2 years old when my parents drove through them and two other states in which I changed planes at a major airport, so I only count 40 states as actually visited and experienced. Of those 40 states, I have marked 12 that need to be re-visited since I feel the experience to be more cursory on the first go-round. On the extraneous list of 141 cities and sites, I have checked off 72 items as having been visited and explored. Quite a feat, but still only halfway through the list.

I placed the US national parks in a separate list. It was America that first decided to separate, protect and maintain nature’s grand displays, allowing people from around the world to gain the perspective of the forces that nourished this earth. Other countries have followed America’s example and many of their parks are on my international lists. There are 59 officially designated national parks in the United States and its territories. The newest national park is Pinnacles National Park which was elevated from national monument status in January. I have checked off 32 of these parks from my list. I am not sure which will be the hardest to visit on this list, American Samoa National Park or the Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska, but I am going to do my best to visit them all.

Most of these parks I have visited and explored in the last ten years through the most American type of travel, the road trip. The advent of the automobile brought about a vast network of asphalt and concrete that turned months of harsh travel to go from ocean to ocean into days in air-conditioned comfort. Modern mapping technologies and Internet reservations allow one to plot a general route and organize reservations on a day-to-day basis in order to travel economically while maintaining flexibility in the overall schedule. It allowed me to plan a Rocky Mountain circuit, a grand Californian tour, an Arizona parks tour, a southwest Nevada to Colorado trip and an Eastern parks tour. An $80 annual entrance pass covers my vehicle entrance fees into the national parks along the way, and in the process, I gain a greater appreciation for the geologic forces that shape this planet from the volcanic geysers of Yellowstone and the sea of grasses in the Everglades to the uplifting forces that allowed the Colorado River to carve a Grand Canyon. This country hosts the tallest living things (Redwoods), the largest living things (Sequoias), the oldest living things (Bristlecone Pines), the longest cave system (Mammoth Caves) and the tallest land-based mountain (Mount McKinley, also known as Denali) in the world. Getting to experience these wonders hopefully prepares me to find a way to experience the rainforests of the Amazon, the great bio-diversity of the Great Rift Valley of Africa and the largest sandstone monolith known as Ayers Rock in the Australian desert. Some day…

Learning to Fly

In the 80s, shortly after I had graduated from UCLA, a college friend who had just gotten his pilot’s license invited me and a couple of our other college friends to fly down to San Diego and back for a day. It was a clear crisp October day and I had my new Nikon. It was amazing to be seemingly floating along over the Santa Monica mountains, Los Angeles and the Southern California coastline. The pictures I took were great, but could only hint at the perspective I found in the experience. A few years later, after I had gotten my first job with ABC in their printing department, I decided that I wanted to take on a little adventure in my life and learn how to fly before I turned 30. I headed over to Santa Monica Airport and signed up for lessons.

Los Angeles was and still is one of the busiest airspaces for general aviation. Besides the well-known LAX, commercial air travel is conducted out of Burbank, Ontario, John Wayne Orange County and Long Beach airports. Smaller private airports like Santa Monica, Van Nuys, Hawthorne and Fullerton dot up all around the metropolitan area. Learning to fly a Cessna single engine plane by visual flight rules in this airspace was like taking Drivers Ed training on a freeway during rush hour traffic, but I loved the challenge. It is one thing to read about the physics of lift versus gravity and thrust versus drag, but quite another to feel these forces around you as you pull up the elevator to take off or lower flaps to prepare for landing. Practicing the coordination of the turn and adjusting my flight direction to counteract the effect of the winds around the plane gave me a much better understanding of weather and navigation. True learning is an adventure that brings all of your senses into play. The best part of a flight was reaching altitude, setting trim and allowing myself time to take in the landscape stretched below me. The more prominent curve of the horizon around me reinforced the reality of this orb of rock, water and life we live on in this universe. It was a precious feeling for me.

Soloing for the first time is a major rite of passage, but in the crowded airspace of Los Angeles, it proved to be a test of my ability to adapt to unexpected challenges. Santa Monica Airport has a tower to control takeoffs and landings, but does not monitor airspace beyond its landing patterns. However, LAX’s controlled airspace extending from the ground up was just a few miles to the south of Santa Monica and extended like a ceiling starting at 5000 feet over Santa Monica. Crossing into this airspace without permission was forbidden. It was late in the afternoon when my instructor and I started some elementary pattern takeoffs and landings practice. As I finished the second landing, he directed me to head over to the tower area. After I taxied over to the tower, he got out and told me to do a pattern on my own. I was both excited and nervous as I taxied to the runway, received clearance to takeoff and soared up toward the ocean. After getting to pattern level, I turned south, flew a few miles, then turned east on the downwind leg. As I reached the point directly in line with the tower on this leg, I brought up my mike, waited for a few other radio calls to complete, than announced my plane ID to the tower and stated that I was “south abeam, ready for landing.” The response was totally unexpected. Having to deal with a sudden influx of traffic, the controller told me to break off from the pattern and go someplace else as he did not have time to deal with me. Of course, the time to tell this to me, a student on his first solo, would have been before takeoff, not when I am in the air! Even worse, where was I to go? There was very little distance between the downwind leg and LAX controlled airspace, but I had to turn south, then turn back west and fly just barely outside of the controlled airspace, while still maintaining proper distance from any other planes that may be heading on the downwind leg. I was able to fly to a point where I could turn back into the downwind leg and get back into the pattern. This time when I reached the south abeam point, I was given clearance to land. Needless to say, my instructor was absolutely livid at the controller, but I managed to complete my solo pattern without causing an FAA investigation.

I earned my VFR private pilot’s license and had opportunities to fly to Catalina Island, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and even took off and landed at Burbank. However, the cost of staying current in my logs, the increasing amount of time my career at ABC was taking, and the difficulty of finding an FAA approved doctor within the company’s health insurance program forced me to take a temporary break from flying, a break that I am still on. But I do not regret the adventure and the lessons of flying that are still a part of my essence and perspective.