August 2017 - The Midwest

Ralph's Blog

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Glacier National Park

Visiting Glacier National Park can be a bit of a challenge - they don't have Glacier in the name for nothing. We've come near it twice before on our travels, but it was still closed because the roads were still hip deep (or worse) in snow. We balanced out our karma, though; leaving Austin later in the season got us unbearable heat in the desert but temperate weather in Glacier.

The first thing we learned was that while Glacier still has glaciers, it was named for the gigantic glaciers in the area eons ago, not for the little glaciers that are present within the park boundaries these days. This is one actual glacier:

Kinda disappointing, huh? When I was in school and learning about glaciers I saw pictures of vast snowfields and parka-clad scientists driving poles into the ice to measure how fast the thing was flowing. Now there are only about 40 left in the park. According to CNN they started with 150. Global warming, anyone?

So far tourism hasn't been affected, and I can affirm that from personal experience. When we were there it seemed like all of the other 2.95 million visitors that showed up in the park last year were there along with us. We had intended to take the park shuttle, since that had worked so well at the Grand Canyon, but the waiting line was ridiculous.

The main road through the park is called the Going To The Sun Road - a name that is a bit unwieldy but rather poetic. There is no way you're going to get a big bus over that road, so the shuttles are passenger vans. Take a look at the road and you'll see why.

I can assure you that taking our 21 foot long pickup over the road provided some exciting moments.

The park is beautiful, so I'll just show you some pictures and shut up for a while.

It's not a glacier, but there was some snow that hadn't melted and the kids had a fine time sliding down it.

There were waterfalls galore and a multitude of creeks to wade in or just enjoy.

There was, of course, spectacular mountain vistas, but as you can see from the pictures they appeared to be foggy. That wasn't fog, folks; it was smoke. In the spring of 2017 much of the northwest was burning - hundreds of wildfires from California to Canada and from the pacific to the Midwest. The air didn't clear until we were mostly through North Dakota.

The park is a big place - so big, in fact, that it connects with a park in Canada to be truly an international park. Where else would you need your passport to take a long canoe trip or hike in the back country? We took a day to visit the Many Glaciers area - another poetic name for another beautiful place. There is a wonderful lodge on the lake up there and lots of people enjoying the water.

Much as we would have loved to do some of the back country hiking, we aren't quite up to umpteen miles and thousand foot changes in elevation these days. There was one nice, level hike on a boardwalk, though, called the Trail of the Cedars.

A couple of days before we left a major storm came through, roaring down the valley and dropping trees all over the road. We didn't find out until later that the storm had started another forest fire in the park, very near to the entrance. We saw helecopters ferrying water from the lake and dumping it on the fire, but left before they had it under control.

That's when I discovered the windshield squirters were not working. When we finally got home I discovered one of the squirters had been broken off inside the hood, probably by the same knuckleheads that replaced the fuel filter and caused us so much grief. Of course, there wasn't a Ford dealer anywhere near, and as we drove on to our next stop it was a weekend - we passed several Ford dealers that were closed for the weekend. Grrr...

We also arrived back at the RV to find the storm had knocked out the power to the entire campground. Good thing we can live on battery power for a night.

A Major Mistake

Ever since we bought a diesel truck I have been paranoid about putting regular gas into it, something that will destroy the engine. Well, it finally happened as we passed through Circle Montana. It was getting late, I was tired and grumpy when I pulled up at the green pumps, green being the almost universal color for diesel fuel. I looked at the pump and it said diesel, so I grabbed the handle and started pumping. Judy jumped out to the car and said "Are you sure that's the right pump?" and I grumpily assured her it was thinking nasty thoughts to myself. A few seconds later I looked and I had grabbed the wrong hose and I was putting regular gas into my diesel tank.

This time I said the nasty things out loud and at considerable volume, having just pulled a boneheaded stunt. Here we were in the middle of nowhere, on a Sunday night and I just disabled my truck. Pretty damn stupid, without a doubt. The only saving grace was that there was a repair shop next to the gas pumps, so we called the convenient number on the sign, hoping to leave a message for Monday morning, a message that basically said HELP!

To our amazement, the mechanic actually answered the phone and offered to come down to the shop right away and drain our tank and fill it up again with the right fuel. The only thing I can think of is the Travel Gods had whimsically decided to make up for all our recent problems by tampering with the heavenly slot machine to dump manna upon us.

It took him a couple of hours, but we hadn't anything else to do. We unhitched the RV and the kind people at the 7-11 agreed to let us stay in their parking lot overnight. Eventually a young guy pulled up and we pulled the pickup into his shop, where we learned that the fuel tank actually had a drain valve built in, which made it easy to remove the gas. (I suppose I'm not the only one to do this.) Easy, yes, fast - no. It took almost two hours to drain the tank, during which time we had a fascinating talk with the mechanic.

Naturally he noticed our tailgate was plastered in liberal bumper stickers, prominently including Bernie 2016. Since we were in the middle to Trump country we weren't surprised when he asked why we supported Bernie, but we were surprised that he truly wanted to know without any political bias. As the evening wore on we were impressed by this very intelligent 24 year old businessman who was interested in finding out what we thought and believed and was happy to exchange views without any interest in proving which one of us was right or wrong.

He was truly curious, but we were appalled by the lies and crap this man had been taught in school. He had been taught that you could tell the difference between a black and a white because they had different blood that could be tested. He bought the voter fraud nonsense of the Republicans and many other pieces of political nonsense because that's what he had been taught. He was convinced that Norwegians were sneaky backstabbers and Germans were honest people because those were the prominent ethnic groups in his area and that's how they acted.

On the other hand, he did question he had some healthy questions about how the things he had been taught didn't quite add up. We explained that the black/white blood thing sounded like a corruption of sickle cell anemia, which is certainly not confined to only people with a black skin. He was still in the "I'm invulnerable and don't need a doctor" age group and really resented having to buy health insurance. We talked about Obamacare - how if I had had health care at his age I might not have the diabetic problems I now have because I couldn't afford to see a doctor decades ago.

In other words, we had one of the most interesting conversations we have had in a long time and I think all of us had a much better understanding of why someone would vote for the other guy's candidate. Too bad our elected politicians can't sit down and talk to each other.

Eventually the tank was purged and we went off to find somewhere to eat a very late dinner and were on our way the next morning.

Teddy Roosevelt National Park

We visited the South Dakota badlands during our first year on the road and were enthralled by the gorgeous colors and striking sculpture of the land. This year we visited the badlands of North Dakota - less colorful than the South but just as beautiful. This is the area that Teddy Roosevelt visited to recover from the shock of having both his wife and his mother die on the same day. At that time thousands of cattle ran free on the range - in fact there were so many they were destroying the land by overgrazing. Teddy tried to make a go of ranching, but the overgrazing and an incredibly hard winter wiped out the herds left him with major losses.

An avid hunter, he started to realize you couldn't just take from the land forever without destroying it and he began to become an advocate of natural conservation. Not that he was without flaw, but he did help turn the country in the right direction.

That's why Theodore Roosevelt National Park came into existence. It's not as famous as Yellowstone or Yosemite, but is a wonderful place to visit - and certainly less crowded.

You can even see some of the free ranging cattle that still inhabit the park.

Much like Glacier, there are many parts to the park, so we took a day to go to the Northern Unit, crossing a time zone as we did. You get used to that when you're traveling, but you usually don't get to reverse it when you go home.

One of the more interesting rock formations are called cannonballs.

Along the way one of those photos that just drop into your hands happened. It really gives you a sense of the serenity of the park.

All was not to be serene, however. As we drove over the dusty back roads to find a hiking trail the windshield pipers came on all by themselves. I fiddled with the switch and they stopped, only to start again a little while later.. After a couple of hours of this I finally opened the hood and pulled the fuse for the wipers before the dust ground the blades to strips of black goo and hoped the fair weather would hold.

We tried two hikes. The first one was a bit of a clown show as we followed the wrong path and ended up in the middle of some farmer's field before we realized our mistake. By the time we got back to the start I had run out of steam, so Judy went in search of the petrified forest that was our objective in the first place. However, the trail markings left much to be desired and she never found the forest.

The second was much shorter and more productive, led by a wonderful ranger who was a joy to be with. I have to admit I'm getting older - the little girl in the yellow dress left me in the dust in her enthusiasm to keep going.

Repairs Reprised

We've been pretty satisfied with our 2013 Ford F-350. it's been reliable and never had a problem beyond tires and brakes - not too surprising when we put 30,000 miles a year on it. So it was a shock when we hitched up and headed for Fargo, ND to find the radio had joined the wipers in striking and wouldn't turn on. Perhaps I should be happy that nothing that would have stopped us in our tracks occurred, but do you realize just how boring it is to drive 326 miles across North Dakota with no music? I won't attempt a description or you would stop reading this blog instantly. Instead of visiting Bonanzaville (another reconstructed pioneer village) I spent the day at the Ford dealer getting the pickup fixed and being relieved of several hundred dollars.

Oh, yeah. I got another windshield squirter and put it in, managing to break the undamaged one as I worked. Sometimes you can't win!

Mineral Point, Wisconsin

We had one more stop before reaching home base in Rochester, NY. My daughter's best friend from high school lives there with her very cute son Xander. The highlight of the visit was a trip to Peck's Farm Market to see all the animals and stock up on fall produce. They had several dozen different varieties of popcorn available, so we took the opportunity to refill our popcorn jar. We go through a lot of popcorn as we travel.

Oh, yeah. I got another windshield squirter and put it in, Wow! Windshield wipers and squirters - yea!

A Less Than Relaxing Weekend

We had timed our return to New York so we could attend the Last Gasp. The Gasp is a wonderful campout on Labor Day weekend with the folks from the Pick'n' & Singin' Gather'n', three days of music, food and friendship. This year my daughter Jessica decided to come up from her home in North Carolina to spend a week with us and go the the Gasp. It's always fun to have company in the RV, and we issue invitations quite easily - so easily I had forgotten we had invited our friend Maureen from Florida to stay for the weekend.

It's a good thing Jessica grew with a family that's so casual, and a better thing that Maureen is pretty laid back, so our two house guests got along just fine.

On the way to the Gasp we had to take care of some business. Since we spend so much time on the road it gets difficult to get the pickup and the RV inspected. There's a Camping World in Syracuse on the way, so I made a two o'clock appointment to have the RV inspected. The inspection should take about twenty minutes, right?

Wrong! At four o'clock they hadn't even started, so Judy found the manager and politely read them the riot act. He was nice, but it still was close to five before we left - with a failed inspection because two of the tires were in bad shape. Bad enough that I didn't really want to go very far on them.

What was extra galling was the spare tire I had put on the RV when we left Portland was one of the bad ones. It had been sitting unused since we bought it and the rubber was starting to deteriorate. We bought from this same Camping World on our very first outing when they replaced all our tires without asking permission first. I'd advise anyone with an RV to avoid the Syracuse Camping World. Two strikes and they're out.

We arrived after dark and set up by lantern light, eventually heading for the music as the air got colder. For the first time since we've going to the Gasp the pickers weren't grinning - it was too damn cold. The session broke up well before midnight - unheard of!

Saturday I once again got out the new jack and removed not one but two tires from the RV and trundled on in to Albany to find a Firestone to replace them. The only good part was both new tires cost almost the same price as I paid for the one I replaced before leaving the small town near Portland.

There are no RV sites at the Gasp, it's strictly dry camping, a bit of a misnomer for that weekend, as the skies opened up and much of the time it was a cold, miserable rain. Fortunately I got the tires re-installed before the rain and the propane heater kept us warm while our generator supplied the power to run the furnace overnight. My poor daughter spent most of the weekend huddled in the bedcovers because her poor, North Carolina adapted body was not at all happy with the cold New York rain.

About five AM on Sunday I awoke when my CPAP stopped working because the power had gone off. I should have been used to grumbling by now, but profanity was called for when I discovered the nice, level spot I had found for the generator was now under several inches of water. This meant I had to hook up the car battery to the RV with jumper cables and fire up the inverter.

No way in hell I was getting back to sleep, though.

Naturally we had emptied one of propane tanks using the furnace that no one has been able to break of it's habit of using too much propane, so I pulled out the smartphone and found two propane suppliers nearby. After a good bit of driving I found both suppliers were out of business. The GPS told me there was a place about 10 miles away, but it was closed on Sundays. Grumbling mightily, I returned to the camp, hoping our friend Jake could take our tank with him when he made a run into town for supplies to feed the hungry masses.

The day kept going downhill, as the RV battery had died - something I knew would happen fairly soon, but why couldn't it have waited until the weekend was over? Once more to the GPS to find an auto parts store - which closed five minutes before I arrived. Punching in the next parts store on the list I found one open on a Sunday night and was outraged at the cost of batteries these days. It must mean I'm getting old when I complain that things didn't used to cost that much in my day.

Grumpy old man? You betcha!

Everybody else had a great time despite the rain and cold, but the weekend was pretty much a loss unless you count the storytelling potential it provided.

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