Nine Days On the Road – Pt.1
A 2,022 mile trip from State College PA to Grand Teton National Park
This past week Dave and I crossed a large section of the country, using self-imposed travel rules to determine when to stop, taking advantage of Harvest Hosts and campgrounds for our overnight stays, and, as always, being amazed by the sights along the way.
Our Travel Route “Rules”
Like many newbies to the world of RVing, we’d heard variations on the 3-3-3 rule: travel only 300 miles per day, arrive at your destination by three in the afternoon, and stay 3+ nights, or better yet, weeks.
In 2019, chomping at the bit to ‘get out there’ and travel with our new toy, we made our own rules and planned what turned out to be a fairly ambitious schedule. It all looked so good on paper! We’d driven 600+ mile days before when we had to change coasts for duty station transfers, so this seemed perfectly do-able. Travel a day, stay a day, move on. I shan’t bore you with the details, but that is the perfect recipe for exhaustion when practiced for even just a couple of weeks. We started dreading the days in the tow vehicle. It brought us to our senses! We adjusted the second half of our trip, and it was soooo much more enjoyable!
The 300-ish miles traveled per day is key. Towing is more stressful on the driver as well as the co-pilot than regular automobile driving, and therefore more tiring. GoogleMaps’ times and distances do not take into account fuel stops, rest breaks, or the fact that your towing speed will be 66 mph or less, depending on terrain, weather conditions, and state speed limits. We’ve found that dividing the day’s travel distance by 50 gives us a pretty good estimate for how many hours the day’s trip will be.
If the speed limit is 65 or less, we do the speed limit. If the speed limit is 70 or more, we do 66, stay to right, and let the other motorists take care of themselves.
Dave and just I crossed the northern part of the country to begin a new season working for the National Park Service as VIPs: Volunteer In Park employees, in nine days. This trip was more like a repositioning cruise than a leisure trip. We used 300 miles as our target distance for choosing where to stop. With the goal of 300-ish miles we don’t have to leave at dawn, and we are not trying to find the campsite in the dark.
The schedule also allowed us to take a two day break after five days of driving — and boy was I ready to stay in one place! We chose Custer State Park as the “slop day” location, being a place we discovered we liked on the speedball trip of 2019 and wanted to revisit. A “slop day” is a bit of flexible time in the schedule in case something changes — we have time to deal with it.
Picking a place to park for the night
This trip may have been about covering distance rather than camping experiences, but it did not mean that we had to settle for boring overnight stops, one looking like another.
Our ritual trip kick-off camp-over is at Wolf’s Camping Resort in Knox, Pennsylvania. Right off I-80, it is close enough that if something is wrong, we aren’t far from home to fix it, and best of all — we get to see family before we head out — Wolf’s owner is Dave’s brother.
We love to take advantage of the Harvest Host program, we’ve been members for three years. As of now, we’ve used Harvest Host sites 29 times! For those not familiar, Harvest Host is a membership program that provides access to thousands of unique, free, one-night camping experiences across the country, such as wineries, farms, museums, and more. Sometimes your view is the rolling vista of a winery, and other times it is the parking lot of a bowling alley, but it is always an adventure! This trip we stayed at a brewery, a winery, a museum, and a farm on our way west.
Wild Entertainment Out the Windshield
I could hardly believe my eyes as we rolled along I-80 toward Elkhart Indiana, our second night stop. I spotted a ground hog standing on a dirt mound next to his burrow between a corn field and the road shoulder, up on his hind feet, surveying the passing traffic. Water birds were plentiful in the creeks, streams, and ponds that we passed. A great blue heron flew over us, blue feathers backlit by the sun. In a farmer’s cow pond, half a dozen blindingly white egrets were wading and fishing. An Amish farmer in blue shirt and straw hat rode a plow behind the double-row team of six honey-colored blonde draft horses he had harnessed and was guiding the length of his undulating field. Hawks kept brooding watch atop light poles and barbed wire fences. Seemingly everywhere, red winged blackbirds were on vigilant insect duty over meadows, marshes, and corn fields.
Our stop this night was the RV/MH Hall of Fame and Museum. We had a fun hour or so seeing the RV exhibits beginning with early car modification designs from 1913. Here are a few pictures from our visit …
Unusual for Harvest Hosts, we picked a noisy night. The music from the local prom drowned out the noise from the all-night generators of neighbor campers. The most enjoyable surprise was the post-prom fireworks!
Sunday it rained all morning as we made our way from Elkhart to Baraboo, Wisconsin. But I did see some cute painted ponies and a good sized flock of wild turkeys.
We stopped for the night at a brewery and restaurant, sharing the parking lot across the street with a class A and a travel van. Plenty of room. The pub restaurant provided delicious take-out.
Monday was a long day as we pushed on across Minnesota to Brandon, South Dakota. It was an amazing day out the window today. To start I saw two coyotes nosing around looking for a meal, not far from the road. Miles later I was astonished to see two Sandhill Cranes standing in a farmer’s tilled field, in some kind of stand off with a coyote. They must have been ten feet apart, face to face, and neither side looked ready to walk away. Oh! To have been able to pull over and watch with binocs or telephoto! Over a dozen swans were paddling around in a blue water pond in Minnesota, not far from Blue Earth (where Kathy’s maternal ancestors hail from).
We had to hit the brakes for a skinny legged bird crossing the highway in front of us. Long necked and equally long tail, its silhouette reminded me of a roadrunner we saw last year in Arizona. Close call!
Farms often surrounded the house and barn complex with thick stands of trees as windbreaks. Popping up as they do at irregular distances from each other across the otherwise flat terrain, they resemble little forest mushrooms, or maybe stepping stones for giants. Sometimes one side of the square is left open — I suppose to let the south facing side enjoy some sun. Always there is a farm house, a white or red barn, and usually an out building or two. But in one of the wooded enclaves, I saw bright, shiny, gold! Next to the farm house and barn, was a house sized structure with a roofline that looked like a temple from Malaysia or Thailand, each curved layer trimmed out in the shiniest gold leaf you ever hope to see. My mind is abuzz with questions about that anachronism!
Tonight we revisited Wilde Praire Winery, a Harvest Host location we visited two years ago. It was fun catching up on the changes at the farm, and of course sampling the latest vintages.
Crossing South Dakota we continued to see lots of birds — local and migratory. Passing one pond with a lot of cut stalks of last year’s marsh grass, I noticed odd brown lumps that I took for tree stumps — until I realized they were built-up mud nests for the birds paddling around. I could not begin to count the number of ducklings bobbing around getting their sea legs!
I saw a Least Tern in an aerial argument with a Canadian Goose. I wonder if the fight was over food or nesting material? To my astonished eyes, I saw a total of three Ring Neck Pheasants in the tall grass next to the road shoulder. The iridescent copper of their breast feathers are what caught my eye. So, yesterday’s bird running across the road must have been a pheasant! It was the long neck and tail (seen at 66 miles an hour) that recalled the profile of a roadrunner. The last amazing bird seen today was a bald eagle, in a plowed field, eating something held in his feet.
Tuesday night finds us in our first campground since Pennsylvania. We are at Legion Lake, about the ten o’clock position in Custer State Park. The campground is only about half full, and has a nice, new, and clean bath house. Best of all, it is walking distance from the cafe at the lodge across the street. [after driving the park again, we don’t think there is a bad campground in the entire park]
Wednesday is our rest and do little day. It is cold. There are thunderstorms with rain and graupel in the afternoon. I am happy to be cozy, stationary, not sitting in the truck, and working on this post with a little artwork thrown in.
Thursday we escaped the trailer midmorning to explore the Wildlife Loop of Custer State Park. Grabbed our cameras and jumped in the truck. We just love the Black Hills. When we look at the deep red earth covered with minty shades of vegetation, we are reminded of the Gros Ventre Range near Kelly, Wyoming — near where our campground is located. The long grassland valley flanked by rolling hills that is home to a bison herd recalls the Lamar and Hayden Valleys of Yellowstone. And yet, this area and park remain uniquely their own entity. And so, even though the skies had begun clouding over with the makings of the afternoon’s rains, we thoroughly enjoyed the fifteen mile loop.
To my great delight, the loop brought us straight to the bison nursery. Hills covered in slow moving bison, Moms and Dads leisurely munching spring shoots as the newborn and day(s) old calves napped. And when I say “nap”, I mean conked out cold, flatter than a pancake, little piles of noodle-limbed flesh, flopped where sleep knocked them over the head and dropped them. I set up a new camera on my tripod and Dave started to get ready for some test panorama shots.
By the time we were set up, a calf over here, and a calf over there picked their heads up and looked for Mom. A few just dropped their heads back down, slipping back into dreamland. Others rolled and lurched into an upright position and staggered off looking for a midmorning snack. Then a few more calves awoke, and decided food looked like just the thing, and they also got up and started looking for Mom. Soon, there were nursing pairs all over the hillside. After lunch it was time to play, which meant there were a few calves that decided to play “zoomies” across the hillside, and others decided to investigate the few remaining inert lumps of fur and nose them into action.
I could have stayed to watch all the amazing interactions for hours. A few of the calves were so new to the world, I could see their umbilical cord, shriveled and dangling from their bellies. A couple were clearly still adjusting to just what legs were and how they were supposed to use them. A few were rambunctious. Others preferred to stay very close to Mom, almost pushing for a cuddle. Generally Mom put up with it for just so long before walking off.
The park is also home to the Begging Burros, once pack animals to help lug tourists up steep inclines, they were turned loose and now look for handouts and hellos from passing tourists. The burros hang out along the wildlife loop road. They are pretty forward, sticking their head in your car looking for a handout if you let them.
I think I witnessed the burro version of a shakedown though! One burro stood in the middle of the road while his comrades were off in the bushes on the side of the road. When a car came through, it naturally stopped for the burro in the middle of the road — who absolutely refused to move. With a car now stopped, the burro gang came out of the bushes to surround the cars and convince the occupants to give up their food. Eventually the car worked its way around and moved on. The gang went back to the bushes. The burro in the road was still there, motionless, waiting for the next carload of food, I mean tourists, to motor down the road.
Dave spotted Prairie Dog town before I did. Another community of animals it was a lot of fun to watch. My first glimpse was of tan little hind legs churning and tails waiving alarm as they raced to the safety of their burrow. A few bold ones poked their heads up and eventually were brave enough to sit half in and half out of their home. On the far side of town, prairie dogs went about their foraging, paying us no attention — that was the job for the few sentinels standing lookout for the rest.
The skies were getting darker so we finished the loop and returned to camp, to see what we’d captured in the cameras. Well, silly me, I should have been shooting in shutter priority to compensate for using my long 600mm lens. Almost none of the 534 images I shot were in focus. Aarggh! Can I have a do over? Well, that is what you get when you rush — a lesson!
In-between rain bands I did pop out to see if I could capture a few birds. The red wing blackbirds and barn swallows that had been plentiful yesterday could not be found now. While I was gazing over the lake wondering where to go next, I saw a flash of yellow go by and flit in amongst the dried and bent stalks of last year’s marsh grass and cattails. Larger than a golf ball but smaller than a tennis ball, the bird was a fast and erratic little fella. I experimented with a few autofocus options to see if I could keep up. Not too bad, but I still need work. When I researched the bird’s description later, I found out I had been playing with a Yellowthroat Warbler. Cool!
I could hear thunder rumbling again so I started back to the campsite and passed the most amazing Mountain Bluebird. It must have been in its breeding prime because the little bird practically glowed neon blue in the dimming light. He patiently let me tip toe closer as I balanced the long lens with my elbow on my hip to try and capture his gorgeous profile and plumage. Walking a few steps one way and then another to try and adjust my angle to minimize the branch clutter around it and set the blue bird off to its best advantage. I think the result may be one of Dave’s favorite photos of mine, ever!
We wrap up the last two days of travel and our arrival in the park in Part 2 …