Saturday, July 19, 2014

Forest Fires Force Flexibility

So it turns out that the forest fires I mentioned as causing the sky to be smoky in yesterday's post are right astride the routes I planned to take through the state of Washington tomorrow, and all the roads I'd planned to use are closed indefinitely. And this in a part of the world where there are no alternative routes to speak of. So I spent some time last night figuring out how to deal with it, and decided I would continue on my original plan until I reached Sandpoint, Idaho this evening, then cut down to Spokane and head on in to Seattle, getting there a few hours earlier than planned.

I got about 12 miles from Great Falls before the incredible acridity of the air forced me to put the top up, despite the wonderful temperature; and even with the top up, the stench was still unbearable and the visibility was so reduced that mountains a few miles away appeared ghostlike in the haze. I pulled off the road and got out the maps and decided that I would just cut south, to get out of the smoke, and head west on the freeway. The freeway! Yecch! But that's what I did, the upshot being that I got to Seattle (Sea-Tac, actually) today, and now have three nights here instead of two. Also, since so many people have evacuated central Washington (and come here, apparently), all the cheap hotels I'd been looking at on line have now disappeared, and where before I was looking at about $60/night, I'm now paying just over $100. Probably for the same hotel, which is all but full. Every cloud has a silver lining; this cloud of smoke has a silver lining for hoteliers west of the fires.

Need I mention that there was nothing worth stopping to take a picture of along the way? (I did, actually, take one photograph, of a wildfire on top of a low mountain, but I haven't uploaded it yet & probably won't until another day.

Now I have to figure out what to do with myself for two full days here. (I do have a plan of sorts.)

Friday, July 18, 2014

2014 Condo Week pre-trip, days 4 & 5

The day before yesterday, when I had checked into my motel in Valentine, Nebraska, I started the car to drive down to my room, and it made an odd noise. Sounded kind of serious. Yesterday morning, when I started it up again, it made the same noise, only worse. Uh-oh. You know a Jag is the prettiest car you'll ever see broken down by the side of the road, so we Jag owners tend to worry about noises.

I pulled into a gas station nearby to fill it up, and when I started it again, I heard that same noise, even worse.  Okay, I thought, I ain't a-gonna find anybody in Valentine, Nebraska who knows much about Jaguars, so I will just pray nothing breaks until I get to a bigger place.

fields in summer,
Rosebud Indian Reservation
Stopped for breakfast on the Rosebud reservation, and when I re-started the car, there was that noise again, and even worse. Sounded like a loud grinding noise. Stopped almost immediately, though, as it did each time.

Next stop was in Murdo, South Dakota for the Pioneer Auto Museum. An interesting collection of vehicles (along with toys and miscellaneous memorabilia, much like Elmer's Auto Museum in Wisconsin, which I saw a few weeks ago) slowly rotting away in dust and rust.

a '58 Ford hardtop-convertible

'65 Impala, one of my favourite cars

The horse-collar that doomed the car

a truly significant vehicle, the '38 Chrysler Airflow
Look at the condition this thing is kept in.

the first solar-powered vehicle,
poorly kept
I thought I could find someone who might have some idea about my problem at an automotive museum, but no. So I went on, intending to stop at the Minuteman Missile Nat'l Historic Site before heading over to hike in the Badlands, but along the way decided (after hearing the same horrible noise on starting up at the museum) to go on to Wall, a fairly sizeable town that might have an appropriate resource. I stopped at Wall Drugs (which is a sight in itself -- a city block of tourist attractions of all sorts, from western art to playgrounds to, well, a drugstore) and got directions to the one "pretty good" mechanic in town, but when I started the car, it made no odd noise 

At that point I realized the noise I'd been hearing is the noise you hear when you keep the ignition key turned too long after the engine has engaged. 

What a relief! And don't I feel stupid.

So I went in the back entrance to Badlands National Park. Stopped at a few overlooks, then got out at the Castle Trailhead for a short hike of an hour or so. Brought my water in a canteen and my safari hat and my walking stick just for this experience. 

The Castle Trail is 5 miles long. I obviously wasn't going to hike the whole distance, especially since, though it was only about 88 degrees, it felt like 105. I wandered around for about an hour, thinking there surely must be some kind of trail markers out there, but none were visible beyond a single red plastic pole near the start. Eventually I gave up on finding the trail --- it's all open country there, and you can see hundreds of yards in most directions, except where there's a small bluff or outcropping of rock. Headed back to the trail head, and as I came around the last little bluff, I saw a second red trail marker. It is not visible from the first red trail marker, and the ground is so hard and open that there is no indication of the path from one marker to the next.

Badlands National Park

Seems like they ought to do something about that.

Pulled into Rapid, where I had a hotel reservation, around 5:30, except that I'd gained an hour for the time change (I thought the time zone boundary was the state line). Could have gone another 3 or 4 hours, but for that paid reservation.  So no reservation for tonight, but I made it to Great Falls, Montana, after driving Spearfish Canyon, and
Spearfish Canyon, South Dakota
a detour to Red Lodge and Absarokee (to get a couple of new counties in southeastern Montana) and found a motel with no problem. Lucky me.

The air in Montana is thick with smoke from some forest fires somewhere; a couple of people told me they just started this morning and already the smoke has covered half of this huge state.
No idea what this is.It stands next to Hwy 87 in Montana

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Day 3 of the 2014 Condo Week Pre-Trip

Drove up from Kansas into Nebraska today. This is the part of the country people think of when they hear the term "Flyover Country" but it's actually quite pretty, in a sedate sort of way. First stop was in Gothenburg, Nebraska, where there's an old Pony Express station that was relocated to a city park and restored. Nice little tidbit of American history. Always surprising how the pony express fixes itself into the national consciousness, even though it only lasted a few months. The three originators of the idea went bankrupt after 9 months of service, but the people who would later create Wells Fargo took it over and operated it at some profit for a further 9 months (by cutting the price of mail by 80%, which vastly increased volume and thus revenue), until the telegraph lines were completed coast-to-coast; at which point it became moot.

Just north of the tiny town of Arnold, Nebraska (where I made a short detour for the sole purpose of visiting Logan County), the northbound highway ended, but a city street that becomes a county road runs north. I took that. A couple of miles along, the road suddenly (and I mean suddenly) rises into the Sand Hills, several hundred feet higher and starkly gorgeous: rolling grass-covered hills with deep valleys, vistas in every direction. This goes on mile after mile (especially along the route I took), with only a few small towns to interrupt.  I wouldn't mind living in a place like this, if it never got colder than it was today (60 degrees when I left Kansas, 70 by late afternoon), or hotter. But that's pretty unlikely.

East of Valentine, Nebraska, I went out to see Smith Falls, the highest in the state. You reach it by 15 miles of good road under construction, followed by 4 miles of washboard gravel road, which must keep a lot of people away. The web site for the park claims the height of the falls to be 63', but there's a certain amount of unnecessary puffery in that. The main cataract, where a stream cascades off a cliff in a fascinating bell shape, is only about 30 feet high. The rest of the advertised height is made up of an unimpressive series of small cataracts dribbling away into the Niobrara River, a couple of hundred yards downstream. If they were bigger you might call them rapids.

see the other pictures
Still, it's a beautiful sight. The water on the left side of the falls courses down the rock in small sheets; in the middle, it falls through space in a bridal-veil cascade that spreads wide as it comes down; while on the right, the water is funneled into a sort of flume that gushes out and down, so the three parts of the falls seem to all be moving at different speeds. They all flow into a basin at the bottom and a stream carries it along to the nearby river. The whole falls is contained within a circular hole in the sandstone, making it seem utterly remote from the world. Certainly worth the drive, even if I didn't get a new county by going there.