Little House to Big Sky

Trip Start May 01, 2003
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14
15
Trip End Sep 01, 2003


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Flag of United States  , Montana
Thursday, August 14, 2003

Aug 8 (Day 99) DeSmet, SD-Badlands-Keystone, SD
We split the long drive from Minneapolis to Keystone, SD with an overnight stay in DeSmet, SD. This little town's claim to fame is it is the homestead of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Little House on the Prairie). Now, neither Kirsten nor I could remember much (any) of these books from school (much less the TV series), but our travel bible recommended this small town so we went. We visited the homestead and rather than the tourist trap we had expected, it ended up being a very good experience for the girls. The homestead was as it was in the late 1800s, and a small one room schoolhouse was brought to the site from its previous location three miles down the road. The land around the site approximates what the open grasslands of the prairies looked like at the time (less than 0.1% of the Great Plains remains as it was). The homestead is a living museum, with horse rides, farming demonstrations, rope making and the like. The highlight for the girls was a covered wagon ride of about half a mile to the school house, where they dressed in traditional clothes, recited alphabet and counted for their teacher, Mrs. McGuire. Jocey and Izzy were able to take the reins of the wagon on the way back to the homestead.

We left DeSmet and made the 350 mile drive to Keystone, our base of operations for Mt. Rushmore, Crazy Horse and the Badlands. When we made the reservations to stay in Keystone, they warned us that it was the same week as the Sturgis Harley Rally, the largest global gathering of gang members, auto body repair experts, ex-strippers, investment bankers and anyone else who can afford a tricked-out chopper. Approximately 300,000 bikers descended on western South Dakota, and it seemed many of them were heading west with us on I-90. We decided to hit the Badlands on the way to Keystone, and took a quick tour through the scenic loop for some good pictures. We were flagged down by a couple of bikers who were from Texas and asked us for some tools and jumper cables for their dying Harley (1,500 mile ride w/o a toolkit? Rookies). That was the first and only time we were acknowledged by a biker in our two days there, although Chris felt as if he had bonded with the biker community.

Aug 9 (Day 100) Keystone, SD
We headed out early to Mt. Rushmore, and our location in Keystone made it very easy as it was a 5 minute drive from our Holiday Inn Express. What can we say about Rushmore? Some people say they expected it to be bigger. It was exactly as we had expected. One interesting tidbit we had learned was that originally sculptor Gutson Borghlum had placed Jefferson to the left of Washington, but they ran into bad rock, so they blew up the original Jefferson visage and moved him to better rock to the right of Washington. We hiked under the faces for an up close look at Washington's nostrils and Lincoln's mole and as we returned to the Suburban the sky was looking quite dark. Temperatures all week had been hovering around the century mark and the air was incredibly dry and static-filled. So these dry electrical storms would fire up over the Black Hills almost every day. As we drove the 30 minutes to Crazy Horse, lightning was shooting everywhere and this storm was big enough to squeeze out a torrential downpour with small hail. You know what? Those bikers don't look so tough when they are drenched and pelted by hail. Anyway, we went to Crazy Horse because Chris had always heard how much bigger a sculpture it is, saw a documentary about the monumental effort by the sculptor and his family to honor this great indian chief. The face of Crazy Horse is complete, but that is it. The sculpture looks the same as it did in a documentary Chris saw 10 years ago. The side of the mountain has the head of the chief's horse painted on it to suggest the finished sculpture. We predict it will be finished at about the same time as William Jefferson Clinton's face is added to Rushmore.

Aug 10-11 (Days 101-102) Devils Tower-Big Horn, WY
Conveniently, Devils Tower is just a two hour detour off of I-90 on our way to Big Horn, WY. We made it a must-stop because of course, it is the famous landing strip for alien spacecraft in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind". The 900 foot tall tower of basaltic columns was created by what geologists call a magma intrusion, or lava which pushed through a weak section of earth's crust and cooled rapidly, forming these massive columns. We were there in beautiful weather, and the girls loved "bouldering" on the chunks of rock which had cleaved off of the tower over hundreds of thousands of years. We watched climbers well up the tower, as this is a climbing mecca. A major victory was Jocelyn's 1.3 mile excursion around the base of the tower without any backpack time. Chris's back was very thankful. After the tower, we drove over some beautiful ranchland to the north and west towards Sheridan. We arrived at one of our most memorable locations in Big Horn, at Spahn's Bighorn Ranch. We drove six miles out of Big Horn and on two miles of dirt road to a cabin which literally had a 100 mile view across the valley floor. This was a RUSTIC cabin, complete with a mouse we chased out the first night, and a resident collection of moths. The next morning we took a quick tour of downtown Sheridan, seeing the famous King's Saddlery and visiting a saddle museum, in which we were truly fish out of water. The real excitement happened when we decided to put out trusty Suburban into 4WD and journey into the backcountry for some real four wheelin'. We traveled approximately 5 miles into the wilderness to a land of ATVs and fording rivers. There were several times we came to a VERY steep downhill or boulder field and decided (probably against better judgment) to press on. Our trusty Suburban came through. The reward was a beautiful, broad river of snow melt in which we waded and watched braver souls cross in ATVs and pick-ups. The night before we left for Red Lodge, the moon was nearly full, the night was warm, and another round of electrical storms was firing in the distance. The evening had a strange atmosphere, with full moon out the east window of our cabin and lightning flashing out the west window.

Aug 12 (Day 103) Red Lodge, MT
Our drive to Red Lodge took us along the striking Big Horn Range and Beartooth Mountains. The most notable part of this trip was descent down a winding 10% grade for 18 miles, which was the hairiest drive for us to date. Red Lodge is in south central Montana and was a quaint, western mining town with an up and coming ski resort. We stayed at the Pollard Hotel on Main Street and basically stretched our legs and window shopped for our short overnight stay. Our drive the next day had us on a fairly long stretch of I-90, with our first signs of the wildfires which had been scorching the state. We had a lunch stop in Bozeman and the weather remained hot as we strolled the streets at high noon. We looked forward to the trip south to Big Sky and we were rewarded by scenic views of the Yellowstone and Gallatin Rivers as we climbed to the 6,000 foot elevation of the ski resort of Big Sky.

Aug 13-14 (Days 104-105) Big Sky, MT
Big Sky is exclusively a ski resort which happens to stay open for the summer. There is no town to speak of other than for the convenience of the mountain bikers and hikers passing through. We rented a magnificent cabin in the Powder Ridge development, which was brand new and one of the nicest accommodations we found on the trip. We would recommend it for anyone skiing in Big Sky, close to the slopes and wonderfully appointed. We would love to come back to Big Sky to ski, which is when it clearly would shine. We did get some babysitting and the two of us took in some hiking and a dinner at the resort. The smoke became quite thick at times as distant fires blew over the peaks, which was a little unsettling. The next day we drove to over 350 miles to Sun Valley, Idaho, passing through the extreme northwest tip of Yellowstone Park, which we had not seen in our trip there last summer. As we entered Idaho on US-20, we passed through some very interesting terrain which was not at all what we had expected from Idaho, high desert, lava beds and a nuclear energy research facility on a 900 square mile compound in the middle of nowhere. The tiny town of Arco (pop under 1,000) had a sign advertising it as the first city lit by nuclear power, and I guess it was chosen because of its location (in case anything went wrong with the first reactor the rest of the world would be far removed). From there we climbed to the north into Sun Valley.
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