Friday, July 18, 2008

Family time in the midwest

Our trip across the US shifted from tourism to family visits as we entered the Midwest since Chris grew up in Wisconsin, and my parents are from Chicago and St Louis. These family visits gave us a nice reprise away from a diet of french fries and the benefit of sleeping in a bed.

We first stopped in Hayward Minnesota to visit with Chris' grandmother, aunt, uncle, and cousins. Hayward is a small farming town of 200 on the southern border of Minnesota. We were lucky to be there during Hayward Days, complete with a half marathon, live music, and 4x4 mud bogging. I think 'mud bogging' is best described as amateur monster trucks competing to complete a course of curves, mud filled ditches and small hills. We were tempted to drive our car through the mud bog as a warm-up for the jungle roads of South America, but didn't want to show up all of the jacked up trucks on huge tires.

After a great weekend with the family in Minnesota, we continued on to Fredonia Wisconsin, a rural community north of Milwaukee. We enjoyed several days of sun, swimming, fireworks and rambunctious play with our niece and nephews who ranged from 4 to 8 years old, and relaxing evenings with cold beer, great food, and even greater company with Chris' sister and brother-in-law.

Unfortunately we had to change our plans and head down to St Louis, as my grandmother passed away, not entirely unexpectedly. My grandmother, Alita, left behind her husband of 67 years, 2 sons, 5 grandchildren, and 1 great-grandchild. I will miss playing bridge with her, listening to her slightly off-color jokes, and hearing her stories about her world travels. After spending time with family in St Louis, we continued on to Chicago. Here we spent several days with my maternal grandmother Joan (who is pictured here), and my many aunts, uncles and cousins.

After leaving Chicago we spent a night in Ohio at my stepmother's brother's place on our way for New York City. I worry that after sleeping in comfortable beds and eating home-cooked meals for the last two weeks, it will be rough living on the road again. No matter, it has been great to spend time with family without worrying about getting back to work.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Fahrenwald homestead in South Dakota

We set off from Madison NE for Yankton SD a little bleary eyed from our previous evening. In 1868 my mother's family, the Fahrenwalds, homesteaded a farm 9 miles north of Yankton, and sold the farm in 1906 to the Dahlerup family in order to move to Rapid City SD. My mother, who has done extensive genealogical research on our family over the course of 20 years, had previously contacted the Dahlerups to see if they had any information about the Fahrenwalds. They responded with lots of extremely useful information, and said that if we were ever in the area, we should stop by to see for ourselves. Fortuitously, Yankton was on the way from Denver to our next destination in Minnesota, so we arranged to meet them at their farm. Janet and Jason warmly greeted us with their two sons and showed us their property. Only two buildings remain from Fahrenwald times, a barn and a chicken coop, but it was interesting nonetheless to see the artifacts built by my great-great-great grandparents. Janet then gave us a tour of the local cemeteries to visit various relatives' graves. Some of the older cemeteries were picturesquely situated on higher hills in the rolling South Dakota landscape, and the play of the wind across the golden wheat fields complimented the serene scene.

Corn dogs and cold Buds

We entered the pretty rolling hills and pastures of eastern Nebraska, and took local country roads to cut north from I-70 up to I-80. We drove through the small town of Madison, and happened upon the Madison County Fair and a campground, right at the time we started looking for a place to stay for the night. 

After enjoying some corn dogs and watching the locals rope calves as part of the rodeo at the fair, we walked into the small downtown area for a beer at the local bar. We entered the Whiskey Run Bar, walked past the group of locals giving us the 'you're not from around here' looks, and took a distant spot at the bar. The atmosphere warmed up quickly after meeting our bartender. Young and energetic, Scott would stop by to ask us questions about our travels and tell us jokes. Later on we started talking to a few guys who just got off from work at the carnival that was part of the county fair. Munchie, the oldest of the group, gave us a dollar bill to add to the collection of money taped to the ceiling. We are now officially enshrined at the Whiskey Run Bar of Madison Nebraska after taping a dollar bill marked with our website and names.
We told Munchie, Jester, and Frodo about our plans to drive to Central and South America, and they all disapproved. Munchie told us that the US Government puts alligators in the Rio Grande to dissuade Mexicans from crossing the border into the US, and how this plan was not working as the Mexicans were just catching the alligators and eating them. After this and many other stories would not persuade us to cancel our plans, Munchie gave us the 'phone number' of his friend Butch who is a marine in South America. He told us to call him if we ever found ourselves in trouble, and he would be there within 30 minutes. The phone number looks like it may have too many numbers, so if you end up reading this post Munchie, email us the number again to make sure we have it correctly! Jester also gave us his phone number as the carnival will be in Texas when we're driving through to get to Mexico, and he guaranteed us a job if money was short. We're a little tempted. We didn't get to talk to Frodo very much as he took off with the 6 pack Munchie had just bought. All in all an unexpected and very entertaining evening.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Traveling through the Great American Desert

Our drive east out of Denver was not attractive. It was downright mean to place this flat, treeless landscape on display immediately after the majestic peaks of the Rockies.

In 1823, the US Government created a map labeling this area “The Great American Desert” , considering the area uninhabitable and unfit for agriculture. Settlers during the mid 19th century found this untrue after discovering the region was sitting on top of the world's largest water supply, the Ogallala Aquifer. Lying under eight states, this underground water supply turned this huge semi-arid expanse into an area that now produces one-fifth of the United States' wheat, corn, cotton, and cattle. Once thought to be a limitless supply of water, it is now understood that the aquifer is being drained faster than it is naturally replenished. Parts of Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Mexico have seen the water level in the Ogallala Aquifer drop 100 feet since irrigation began, and parts of northern Texas. It will take thousands of years to restore the aquifer to its original levels.
For more information, research, and discussions about the Ogallala Aquifer, see the following links.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

From the hot desert to the cool alpine

Coming from the dusty heat of Utah's desert we welcomed the cooler temperatures at 9000 feet in Rocky National Mountain Park. Since we arrived a day later than we had anticipated, we decided to car camp rather than backpack. We took a 7 mile hike to Lulu City, a ghost town near the headwaters of the Colorado river. Lulu City was founded in 1880 after the discovery of silver in the area. The center of town is now a peaceful grass meadow surrounded by the Never Summer Mountains.

We walked along the small stream that is the headwaters of the Colorado River, and tried to imagine what Lulu City looked like in 1881, when the year old town contained multiple grocery stores, a hardware store, a post office, sawmills, a red light district, and two stage lines. Dreams of striking it rich in gold or silver filled every prospectors' minds as they walked out to their claims every morning. Every person in this town took on a huge expense by moving to this far away place.

The next day we drove past the Continental Divide before hiking to one of the the highest areas of the park (above 12,000 feet). Above the tree line and next to the snow we admired the many small plants and animals that struggled to survive in the harsh environment. We're looking forward to sleeping in a bed with friends in Denver tonight.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Rockies and hot springs

Late last night we found an open campground off of a twisty road through the mountains of Utah. We took a few minutes to enjoy the stars and the view of the milky way in the dark sky before spending our first night in our car Caballo as part of our trip cross-country.
We got an early start to push through Utah for Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. We hope to backpack for two nights, but that is looking a little less likely given our current location. Arches National Park is on the way, we will be stopping there for a quick visit.

We found southwest Utah's steep canyon washes nestled between rusty bluffs and mesas more aesthetically pleasing than our earlier travels through the Great Basin Desert of Nevada and western Utah.

The rocks and dirt became increasingly red as we entered Arches. Hiking in what felt like 100 degree heat makes even a 3 mile hike without too much elevation gain seem pretty difficult, but we were rewarded with great views of the arches.

After our very small but tiring hike, we drove to Glenwood Springs, CO for a relaxing dip in the Glenwood Hot Springs. Instead of driving 40 miles out of the way to camp for the night, we took a dirt road in a National Forest area and found a nice parking spot overlooking the valley. No one drove by us for the whole night.
View from our campsite

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Not a stick of timber

We finally set out on our trip across country today. We left early in the morning from Sacramento after spending the night with some good friends. Our last night sleeping in a real home and eating a real meal for about a week. After driving through the thick smoke of the California Sierra wild fires around Donner Pass, we descended several thousand feet to the great basin of Nevada.

Luckily the speed limit on I-80 through Nevada is 75 MPH, so we could pass through the burned out gambling towns and tumbleweeds at a reasonable clip. Nevada is definitely a strange state, and we were wondering how the pioneers could have made it through this desolate desert. It was a quite a feat to dodge boiling hot springs and dust devils with all of their belongings and cattle intact.

The most interesting part of the day was a quick detour to a ghost town marked on our map of Nevada. We found a lot of rusted cans, broken bottles, an old mine shaft, abandoned train tracks, and an old barn. The wind through though the low brush was the only sound breaking the silence.

We plan to sleep in Utah somewhere, and are looking forward to more variety in the geography as we drive south to pick up I-70 through the mountains.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Independence Day

It's July 4th and we are declaring independence from our apartment and most of our belongings. When it came time to pack the car, I got that sinking feeling that we had ten pounds of junk to fit in a five pound car. Unbelievably, after a few hours we were able to fill up every available space in the car so that we could finally hit the road. We are planning on having less junk in our car by the time we leave the United States by dropping off extra clothes at our parents' houses and giving things such as our extra bars of soap and aspirin bottles to friends on our way across the country. Having the car packed to the ceiling makes it hard to get up into the camper, let alone find anything. I think a good goal would be to hit the US-Mexico border with one third of the stuff we have now.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Slowly becoming houseless

For the last two weeks we have been emptying our apartment. In one way it has been good to be fairly organized about this process. Hopefully we won't end up dumping drawers of random pens and partially used batteries into ripped plastic shopping bags at the last minute. This may be an unavoidable part of the process but starting early may minimize the pain. As our furniture disappeared courtesy of Craigslist or Goodwill, we found ourselves living in an apartment ghost town. Reading in a sleeping bag bed just isn't relaxing, and dinner in camp chairs isn't very romantic. Our wise, elderly neighbor Ellis remarked to us while we struggled moving our mattress: "the two worst things in life are getting a divorce and moving. I know, because I've done both."