2016 Summer/Fall PNW to TX

Pictures can be found here

From Blaine, WA we have nowhere to go except east and/or south unless we want to cross the Canadian border.  Much as we may like to visit Canada one day, it isnít going to be this year.  So, we headed southeast from Blaine to Yakima, WA.  An old high school friend lives here and owns a small farm with room to park.  I havenít seen Jim or his wife Cindy since our 30th high school reunion in 2000.  Jim & Cindyís farm is a U-Pick fruit farm.  They grow blueberries, apples, pears, peaches, and more that I am forgetting.  It is blueberry season now.  Since we arrived fairly late in the afternoon, there was no crowd and I had plenty of room to turn the bus around in the parking area and find a nice out of the way place to park us for a few days.  Over the next few days we enjoyed catching up with Jim & Cindy, watching the flow of ďcity folkĒ who drive several hours from Seattle to experience picking their own blueberries, and seeing a bit of Yakima.  Yakima is a nice town, dominated by fruit farming, nestled in a valley.  The area is actually quite arid, but has an abundant supply of water for irrigation.  The surrounding hills that are not irrigated are covered in grasses that are golden in the dry summer.  This of course makes the area prime for fire danger, and while we were there a huge fire started on the Yakima Training Range where they do live-fire military training.  We watched across the valley as the fire was spread southeast very fast by the high winds the area was experiencing that day.  We also took a ride with Jim & Cindy down to Kennewick, WA, on the Columbia River, where we hoped to see some of the unlimited hydroplane boat races taking place on the river.  Since we only had a couple hours to spend, we didnít want to pay the admission price to the area where the boats were, so we found a nice place to sit along the river just south of the end of the race course.  Unfortunately, we timed our visit wrong, so we never saw any boats, but we did see some aerobatics performed by several different planes over the river.  While we thoroughly enjoyed our visit with Jim & Cindy, we also were shocked back into summer temperature reality.  Having been along the coast so far, we had not felt anything over maybe the mid-70s.  But here in Yakima, we were treated to a couple of 100+ days.  Time to head on to some mountain elevations.

From Yakima, we continued southeast.  We spent a few days in Pendleton, OR.  The geography in this area is very interesting.  Overall, itís pretty barren of vegetation, but there are huge bluffs rising from the valley of the Umatilla River.  The campground we stayed at was atop one of these bluffs, while the city itself was in the valley along the river.  The city is home to the Pendleton Roundup which is a major PRCA rodeo event.  The city was original home to a large Chinese population that was working on building the transcontinental railroad.  There is a series of tunnels connecting many of the downtown buildings.  The original use of these tunnels is subject to debate, but today they are a tourist attraction run by Pendleton Underground Tours.  We took the tour and found the stories fun and interesting, whether they are true or not.  We also visited the Wildhorse Casino just an exit down the interstate for Barbís birthday.  We had celebrated Barbís birthday with friends Tami & Dwayne back in Blaine, WA last week, but today (August first) is the real day.  We gambled a bit and had dinner at the buffet, which was nothing outstanding.

After a few days in Pendleton, we moved further southeast to Baker City, OR for a couple of days.  Thereís not much reason to visit Baker City, but it on the way to our next planned destination and it gave us a chance to catch up on laundry and things.  There was a nice brewpub here called Barley Brownís, which we visited for dinner.

Our next destination was a stop we planned several months ago.  We are in McCall, ID, at the home of Tom & Leslie Arnold, cruisers we met in Antigua, for the first annual Cruiserís RV Rendezvous.  Tom & Leslie cruise seasonally and have a beautiful home outside McCall with room to park several RVs.  For the next week, there were seven RVs here.  In addition to Tom & Leslie, we knew three of the couples from our cruising years.  We had many nice meals together at the house, with various people taking turns on the cooking and cleaning.  There was a large wildfire in southern Idaho while we were there, and one day the wind shifted and brought significant smoke to our area.  The whole week we were there we watched the fire-fighting planes fly over as they landed in McCall to refuel.  We had reserved a pontoon boat one day to tour Payette Lake, and of course the day we had reserved was a cool blustery day with the threat of rain.  We went anyway, and enjoyed the beautiful scenery as we circumnavigated the lake.  We stopped along the way and walked to a neat garden that a rich guy has built on his property.  Charlieís Garden is well manicured with lots of beautiful plants and flowers, paths, and water features.  The rain held off until just after we finished our boat ride, so even though we were cold, it worked out ok.  One of the events of the week was to install solar systems on two of the RVs, so those of us not involved in the engineering and installing enjoyed watching those who were work so hard.  One evening we had a hastily arranged house concert featuring Rob Mehl from San Diego.  Rob was in the area looking for gigs, and Tomís friend contacted him.  Tom asked if I knew of Rob, and if he was any good.  We donít know Rob well, but have met him before and heard him perform several times.  So, I told Tom to sign him up.  We had a nice show with the group of us and a few other friends of Tomís who came over for the show.  All in all it was a lot of fun to be in such a nice location with our old cruising friends.  We donít find that we get to know fellow RVers as well as we got to know other boaters, so it was really fun to be around this group where we share both activities.

All good things must come to an end, so we headed north for our next stop.  Our trip took us along the Salmon River, up White Bird Grade and past the site of the Nez Perce war.  It was quite a beautiful ride.  Our next major destination is Glacier National Park, but on the way we are stopping for the weekend near Coeur díAlene at Athol, ID.  Yes, there is a town named Athol, and it is the butt of many jokes.  We are stopping here because our friends Thom Shepherd and Coley McCabe are performing at Athol Days.  There is a long, funny story about how Thom & Coley came to be playing this gig, and if you have seen them in the past year you probably have heard it, but itís too detailed to relate here.  We spent a nice day wandering around Coeur díAlene and then caught up with Thom & Coley at The Pastime Club in the evening.  Athol is a tiny town, and The Pastime Club is a typical small town dive bar.  We met the new owners who have recently purchased the place and are sprucing it up.  We also ran into a couple we met in Olympia a few weeks ago at Laid Back Attack, the Parrothead event we went to.  Thom & Coley (who live full-time in their motorhome traveling from gig to gig) had setup in the parking lot under the awning of their rig.  We enjoyed their show, especially the performance of Thomís song Djibouti. 

We spent the third week of August in the area of Glacier National Park.  We are staying at an RV park in Kalispell, and we are meeting up with fellow Alfa owners Skip & Lexie and Patrick & Kathleen.  It will be a mini-rally.  Skip & Lexie and Patrick & Kathleen are staying side-by-side in this park for a month, and they arranged to get us a spot right behind them, so we are all right together.  On our first day in town, Barb and I drove to Whitefish, the next town north of Kalispell.  Whitefish has a large ski area, Whitefish Mountain Resort, which is partially open during the summer for mountain bikers, hikers, and sightseers.  The lift that is open to the peak has three types of chairs on it during the summer.  There are enclosed gondola cars, regular open three-person chairs, and some chairs that carry three mountain bikes.  We rode an open chair to the top where we found the bar open!  This was the first time I have been at the top of a ski area in the summer.  The views were spectacular and it brought back many good memories of my skiing years.  Many people ride the lift up so they can hike down, and bicyclists ride it up to ride their mountain bikes down.  Then there are folks like us who ride the lift back down.  I donít think I have ever ridden down a ski lift before and it gave us a whole different view of the area.  We saw some bikes going down the trails as we descended the mountain.  The main base area of the ski area is not the bottom of the hill.  From the base, there is a luge track that goes further down the mountain.  Of course I had to try it once, so off I went.  Just getting my fat old body scrunched up on the luge was a challenge, but I managed to do it and had a successful run down the hill with no injury.  Another chair lift brings you back to the base where Barb was waiting.  After all this excitement we had to stop in town at The Great Northern Brewing Company for food and drink.

Another day we joined Skip & Lexie and Patrick & Kathleen on a drive into Glacier National Park to drive the Going-to-the-Sun Road.  Since there are six of us, we had to take two cars on the tour, but we managed to stay together and stop at the same scenic overlooks all the way.  The road truly has some incredible scenery, including views of the shrinking but still present glaciers.  The drive took us past Lake McDonald on the western side of the park, and Saint Mary Lake on the eastern end.  We had lunch at the Saint Mary end of the road and then turned around and retraced our route.  The cool thing about a drive like this is that you get a whole different view doing it in the other direction.  To give an idea of how stunning the views were on this drive, we took 287 pictures along the way.  Iíll try to pick the best to publish here.   Along the way, we kept passing these cool old buses that held maybe twenty people each.  They are White Motor Company busses originally manufactured in the late 1930s and rebuilt by Ford in 2001.  They are called the Red Jammers.  They were pretty cool.  We took a boat tour of Lake McDonald one afternoon.  The boat tours leave from behind the Lake McDonald Lodge, which was a big old building like youíd expect to find in a western national park.  One side of the lake is heavily forested, while the other was devastated by fire a few years ago.  While the fire damaged part looks bad, the tour guide explained a very similar story to what we heard back in Sequoia NP about the cycle of the forest and how fire plays an important role in that.

We took a drive south of Kalispell one day and circumnavigated Flathead Lake.  We drove around the lake counter clockwise, starting by going down the western shore through Elmo to Polson where we saw a herd of yaks on a farm.  Returning north on the eastern shore is a whole different kind of scenery being right at the base of a mountain ridge that parallels the lake shore.  We stopped in Bigfork where we found the Flathead Lake Brewing Company and had a nice lunch.

One day all six of us returned to The Great Northern Brewing Company in Whitefish for lunch.  It was quite a windy day, and when we returned we found numerous small tree pieces on the ground around the rigs.  Then we noticed a large limb lying on top of Patrickís rig.  With Patrick and me up on the roof and the help of a chainsaw belonging to the park, we cut the limb in several pieces and removed it.  Fortunately, there was only minor damage to Patrickís roof.

After a week in Kalispell, we headed to Missoula, MT.  Missoula is the home of the US Forest Serviceís Smokejumpers.  In addition to a very active base for smokejumpers, this is where they do research on forest fire fighting techniques and make customized equipment for smoke jumping.  We took a very interesting tour of the facility and while we were aware of several western fires going on, they were commenting on how compared to last year, this had been a good year so far.  Near the Smokejumperís base was the Museum of Mountain Flying.  This is supposed to be a self-guided tour, but since we were the only people there, we got to see the place in the company of Jim, the 85 year old volunteer who loved telling the stories of all the exhibits.  It was fun to listen to him.  In downtown Missoula, we found Tamarack Brewing for lunch and the visited A Carousel for Missoula where we rode the carousel.  We took a whole day trip back north of Missoula to the National Bison Range.  Ever wondered what the difference is between a bison and a buffalo?  Well, in North America, there are no buffalo (except maybe in zoos).  The critter we all call buffalos, are bison.  There are many more types of critters on the bison preserve than just bison.  We took the twenty-mile loop road drive to see what we could find.  They say to allow an hour for the drive, and we took almost two.  It amazed me how people would just drive through at speed and not possibly see half the wildlife.  We took our time and spotted antelope, elk, mule deer, white-tail deer, big horn sheep, eagle, coyotes, and of course, bison.  When we returned to Missoula, we stopped at the Big Sky Brewing Company.  Big Skyís tasting room is just a tasting room, so they donít sell the beer.  They give it away.  You can have up to four eight-ounce glasses of beer for free.  I have never been a fan of dark beers, but one of the choices here is called Moose Drool.  How could I not try a beer with a cool name like that?  Moose Drool is a dark beer, but itís not at all bitter and I found I liked it.  It has changed my perception of dark beers.  I have also been considering buying a growler (a 64 oz. container for draft beer to go from breweries).  They had a growler there that just said ďdroolĒ on the side, so of course I bought it.

Next stop was Butte, MT.  On our way between Missoula and Butte, we saw billboards for an auto museum in Deer Lodge.  We took the Deer Lodge exit and found the combination auto museum and state prison.  There was easy street parking and we werenít the only RV with the same idea.  The Montana Auto Museum and Old State Prison are separate entities, but they share a common gift shop and have a combo ticket available.  We toured the cars first and then the prison, finding both very interesting.  It took a couple hours to tour both places, and when we were done we walked across the street to the 4Bís Cafť for lunch.  Lunch was mediocre, but it was interesting to be in the small-town local cafť setting.  After lunch we continued on towards Butte.  Before getting to Butte, we passed through Anaconda which used to be a mining town.  There was a large smelter there which has been removed, but the huge smokestack from the smelter remains and is a landmark.  When we got to Butte, we found that there wasnít much to see there.  The town was a copper mining town and now the largest thing you see is the huge scar left by the open pit mine.  There was a gift shop and viewing platform overlooking the pit and the story of the ongoing efforts to keep the flooded pit from polluting the local water table was interesting although it pointed out the shortsightedness we used to have when it came to the environment.  There was a neat old downtown area which seemed to still have a remarkable number of viable businesses even though the mine is long since shuttered.

From Butte, we are headed to Jackson Hole, WY and Grand Teton National Park.  But we are making a couple of overnight stops along the way at two Harvest Host locations.  The first is the Legacy Flight Museum in Rexburg, ID.  This is another small airplane museum and they have a large parking lot allowing overnight stays.  The host here was another old guy named Jim, just like the last flight museum we were at.  He also enjoyed telling us stories about the planes.  One of the planes was still warm from having just been flown earlier in the day.  Old Yeller is a P-51 Mustang that formerly belonged to Bob Hoover, a famous stunt pilot.  Bob Hoover passed away a couple months after we were at the museum, but Old Yeller still flies.  The next day we hit our second Harvest Host in a row.  Grand Teton Distillery is a small distillery in Driggs, ID.  They are primarily a vodka distillery, using what else but Idaho potatoes as their base.  They also made bourbon named Colterís Run.  The story of John Colter and how he ran naked from Indians to save his life was funny, and the bourbon label included a pencil drawing of him running away.

Our next stop is Jackson Hole, WY, but between here and there is Teton Pass.  At 10%, Teton Pass will be the steepest grade we have ever done in the bus.  I have heard horror stories about big RVs either overheating while climbing the pass or burning up their brakes coming down.  But, we had no problems with either, partially because a diesel pusher has the torque to climb and the engine brake to slow on the downhill.  The RV park right in Jackson was full, so we are staying a few miles out of town on the road to Teton Village where the big ski area is.  I missed the well disguised driveway the first time, resulting in a detour through a small shopping center parking lot to get turned around, but we found the place and got settled.  Jackson is a neat little town that caters to skiers in the winter and river rafting and fishing in the summer.  We had booked a rafting trip with Mad River Rafting back when we made the RV park reservation.  Mad River offers two types of rafting trips:  White water rapids shooting trips where you paddle and get wet and work hard.  Or nice slow sit back and relax trips where the customer does nothing but enjoy the scenery.  Thatís the trip we took.  We were the only two on the trip, so it was like having a private tour for 13 miles of the Snake River.  The trip came with lunch and eagles.  We saw five bald eagles along the way and an osprey that dove into the water and snagged a fish very close to our raft.  Our guide, Bobby, was a young man who once he found out our past on the sailboat was just as interested in hearing our story as he was telling us about the scenery we were seeing.  It was a great afternoon. 

There are two ski areas in the Jackson area.  The big one is Jackson Hole which is located at Teton Village, several miles north of the village of Jackson.  We drove up to Teton Village just to see it, but didnít explore much.  Right in the village is a smaller ski area called Snow King.  At Snow King, they run a lift to the top during the summer for sightseeing and hiking.  We took the ride and got a great view of the village and the Tetons in the distance.  After the ride we stopped by Snake River Brewing for lunch. 

It is early September, so we hope that the crowds visiting the big National Parks will be diminishing as families go back to school.  Unless you hike, most of what there is to do in Grand Teton National Park is to gawk at the mountains.  We took a whole day to drive the park road from Teton Village north to Leeks Marina where the road was closed due to a forest fire.  If you continue north on this road it enters Yellowstone National Park and we plan to go this way in a couple days, so we hope the closure is over by then.  We learned that unlike normal driving where a sudden stop of traffic usually means there is an accident or something else bad, in a national park, it probably means there is some cool wildlife to be seen.  Along this ride we crept along with the slowed traffic and were rewarded with a moose grazing just off the road.  In a different spot, we found herd of bison mingled with a herd of horses.  These herds were in the vicinity of the National Elk Preserve, where we did not see any elk.  Along the way we saw an old yellow bus that was similar to the Red Jammers we saw at Glacier National Park.  I couldnít find details on these busses other than the fact that they are part of Yellowstone Lodges fleet

Our plan is to move almost due north from Jackson north to Gardiner, MT traveling the road that goes through Grand Teton NP and then Yellowstone NP.  But, that road has been closed for several days due to a wildfire.  Our other option is to go to the west of both parks which would be about 150 miles and a couple of hours extra driving.  Lucky for us, the road was reopened the day we left and we didnít have to detour.  The road we are taking is all two-lane but it was perfectly fine for the bus.  When we got north of Jackson Lake we saw the result of the fire.  We have driven through several areas that have burned over the past couple of years, but never immediately after the fire.  Other burn areas weíve seen had some amount of regrowth already, bringing back some color to the landscape.  But this was nothing but gray ash.  Even knowing it is part of life in the forest, it was sad to see.  The only part of the drive that was a little sketchy was the last twenty miles or so, from Lewis River Canyon to Gardiner.  The road was quite narrow, but we made it ok, finding our RV park in Gardiner, just outside the northern entrance to Yellowstone.

Our Alfa friend Patrick and turned us on to a phone app called Gypsy Guides that is a guided tour on your phone.  The app uses your phone's GPS to know where you are and which way you are moving.  The tour guide then explains to you where you are and what you are seeing.  He suggests where to stop or pictures or to learn more.  It was just like having a private tour guide with us.  There are Gypsy Guides for many places of interest in the US and Canada, and you download them individually.  The Yellowstone version costs $5 and was worth every penny.  The only downside of the app is that it will use up your phone's battery, so you'll want to have a car charger with you.

Our first Yellowstone day was geothermal day.  We started at Mammoth Hot Springs where there are numerous hot springs and some small geysers.  You could spend hours here and keep seeing different things in the springs and the colorful areas where the minerals have collected.  From Mammoth Hot Springs, we continued south to Old Faithful.  I had no concept of how developed the area around Old Faithful was, with several lodges, restaurants, a grocery, a service station, and a huge viewing area around half of the geyser itself.  We timed our arrival well and only had to wait about twenty minutes for the next show at the geyser.  Old Faithful erupts about every 90 minutes and is the most predictable geyser in the park.  We had lunch after the eruption and then headed back north, stopping at the Norris Geyser Basin along the way.  Our second Yellowstone day had us driving the northern half of what they call the Grand Loop.  Our first excitement was encountering a herd of bison that didnít seem to care that they were blocking the road.  It probably took half an hour to get through the roadblock.  If you look at the pictures, no zoom was used.  Our first stop along the way was at the Petrified Tree.  Unlike the Petrified Forest in Arizona where there is lot of petrified wood, but it is all laying down and scattered about, this petrified tree is a large standing trunk.  We passed through Tower-Roosevelt and the turnoff for the north-east park entrance and Beartooth Highway, and turned south to Canyon Village.  The Yellowstone River flows through its own little Grand Canyon.  We stopped at several stops along the drive to view the canyon and the falls from the top and from a distance.  From Canyon Village, we cut across the center of the Grand Loop to travel back north through Mammoth Hot Springs back to Gardiner.  On the way, we came across a bunch of cars pulled over everywhere and people looking at something over the side of the highway, down into the ravine.  I saw a place to pull over, grabbed my camera and walked back to where everybody was.  What they were looking at was a grizzly bear way down in the ravine.  There was a lot of underbrush down there, and all I ever saw of the bear was its butt moving in the bushes.  I took pictures, but even zoomed, it was too far away to see it.  So, it doesnít count in my quest to see bears.

On our third day, we retraced yesterdayís trip to Canyon Village without stopping and then continued south to complete the Grand Loop.  We encountered our first slowdown of the day just south of Canyon Village when traffic stopped for a bison in the road.  This guy was by himself, plodding down the centerline.  The traffic slowly passed him on either side and he didnít seem to care a bit.  Our first planned stop of the day was at the Mud Volcano.  The Mud Volcano area is a series of boiling mud pots.  There are bubbling mud holes large and small, some with big slow bubbles and some sizzling like a frying pan.  Of course, the constant smell of sulfur was in the air.  Next was a quick stop at LeHardyís Rapids.  LeHardyís Rapids is where Yellowstone Lake becomes Yellowstone River.  Once we were in the car again, we came across our next bison roadblock.  Again, it was a single bison plodding down the road, but this time he was in my lane.  I just stopped and when he got to us he turned right and made the other lane stopped while he crossed and went back into the woods.  Next stop was Lake Village, on the shore of Yellowstone Lake.  There is a large hotel here.  We parked on the lake shore and watched as a strong, very localized thunderstorm came towards us across the lake.  It reminded us of being on the open ocean on the boat where frequently you could see a well-defined rain cell moving across the water.  There was a small sailboat out on the lake, which disappeared from view during the storm.  That really reminded us of the boat years, and we didnít miss that part.  When the storm hit, we were safely in the car and were glad we were since there was some hail in it too.  We continued south stopping at Pumice Point, past West Thumb and stopping at the West Thumb Geyser Basin.  You would think we might be tired of geysers by now, but these were just as cool as the first ones.  Part of what makes this area cool is that it is right on the lakeshore.  Some of the hot springs are right on the shore, and there are a few places where you can see the bubbling water out in the lake.  From here it was back to Gardiner, completing the Grand Loop.  The lady in the RV park office had told me about a ďsecretĒ place to drive to and watch bear come out of the woods at dusk.  We drove north of Gardiner several miles and then west, up into the foothills.  We went several miles back on a dirt road looking for the parking area we were told about.  We were unsure of where the place was, and it started raining.  Since the road was getting more primitive, i.e. muddy, we turned around and didnít see any bears.  Bears remain the one type of wildlife we havenít spotted.

The plan for our fourth Yellowstone day was to take the road out the northeast park entrance to the Beartooth Highway.  There had been rain during the night, and it was pretty cold.  So imagine our surprise in the morning when we found snow on the mountains in the distance and learned that the Beartooth Highway was closed due to ice and high winds.  So, we spent a day relaxing in the bus instead of driving.  The next day, we departed Gardiner and headed to Rapid City, SD, with an overnight stop in Billings, MT.

We stayed in Rapid City for a week, with several side trips.  We went to Sturgis, SD where we had lunch at The Knuckle Brewery.  Even though I used to ride a Harley, Sturgis was never on my bucket list.  Even at a younger age, I donít think I would enjoy the crowd and craziness.  But, now I can say Iíve been there.  When the bikers arenít there, itís a quiet little town.  After we ate lunch, we toured the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum.  This is a relatively small place that is obviously operating on a shoestring, but they had a lot of neat exhibits.  The day we hit Sturgis, we made a big circle through Deadwood and Lead (pronounced Leed).  Deadwood is a casino town.  We cruised through the main street a couple times and decided we didnít need to stop.  Lead on the other hand was quite interesting.  Lead was the home on the largest, deepest, and most productive gold mine in the western hemisphere.  The Homestake Mine has shafts 8000 feet deep.  The mine closed in 2002, but the facility has reopened as the Sanford Underground Research Facility doing research into things I donít have a clue about like dark matter.  There is a nice new visitorís center there that explains both the history and current use of the mine.

Also from Rapid City, we spent a day touring Mt. Rushmore.  You can see Mt. Rushmore from the road, and skip the parking fee, but to see it up close, and tour the visitor center that explains the construction is worth the fee.  Mt. Rushmore isnít the only big rock carving in the area.  A few miles down the road is the Crazy Horse Memorial.  The Crazy Horse Memorial has been under construction since 1948 and has a long way to go.  But, the visitorís center is large and very interesting.

Another day, we drove east and stopped at the Minute Man National Monument.  There are two parts to the national monument.  One is the visitorís center that has a good exhibit of the era of the cold war and the history of why the Minuteman missiles existed.  Growing up in the 50ís and 60ís, things like the shelter signs, and the ďduck and coverĒ school drills brought back some memories.  The other part of the monument is a tour of the one remaining silo that has been converted to a display.  Unfortunately, very few people per day can be accommodated on this tour, and people line up at 6AM to get the dayís available tickets.  So, we didnít get to actually see the missile.  From there we drove through the Badlands National Park.  Badlands in another one of those parks that you just drive through and marvel at the scenery.  On this day east of Rapid City, we also stopped in Wall, SD.  Wall is the home of Wall Drug, which is a general store kind of place that has grown into a whole street that includes several shops and restaurants.  We had lunch here and explored the store complex.

Probably the one thing I was most looking forward to on our tour of the western national parks was seeing a bear.  I donít think Iíve ever seen a bear in the wild.  But alas, other than the glimpse of the one butt in the distance in Yellowstone, there have been no bears.  So, we resorted to a visit to Bear Country USA to see bears.  And see bears we did, along with a lot of other wildlife, including elk, big horn sheep, pronghorns, bobcats, wolves, bison, mountain lions, reindeer, and mountain goats.  It wasnít as cool as seeing them in the wild, but it was still pretty cool.

From Rapid City, the real sightseeing part of our trip is done.  From here, we will be booking it east to Indiana to have some work done on the bus.  There will be a couple of stops along the way to visit family.  The first of these was Sydney, NE.  Sydney is in the southwest corner of Nebraska, and only a couple hoursí drive from Denver where Barbís son lives.  We found that Sydney is the home of Cabelaís, the large outdoor hunting and fishing retailer.  Cabelaís corporate headquarters is just off the interstate next to the flagship store and their RV park.  They operate a full-service RV park with about fifty spaces that is very reasonably priced.  When I went in to the store to pay for two nights in the RV park, I was offered a free stay if I applied for their branded VISA card.  Opening the account would also get us $25 in-store credit to spend immediately.  So, we got two nights free parking, and Barb got new sneakers for under $20.  Barbís son AJ came up to visit us and spent a night with us.  There were several restaurants within walking distance of the RV park, so we stayed right in the immediate area.

Next stop eastbound was outside Omaha where Barbís nephew Steven lives.  We stayed at a KOA where we were parked right near the entrance.  The second day we were there, a fire truck entered the park, with its lights flashing.  With my curiosity peaked, we went for a walk to see what was happening.  We didnít see any big smoke, so we assumed it might be a medical issue.  We found the fire truck and two police cars over on the other side of the park and walked towards them.  We found two cops, five firemen, the RV owners and their neighbors all standing around.  One of the firemen was just crawling out from under the RV with a propane sniffer saying that there was no propane leak.  But, there was a bad smell.  As soon as we walked up, I recognized the smell as a boiling battery.  Since they all seemed to be at a loss to explain the smell, I stepped up to the guy in charge and suggested they check the batteries.  They had the owner open the battery compartment, and sure enough one of their batteries was steaming from being overheated.  They disconnected the battery and problem solved.  They were all amazed that I recognized the smell.  I was amazed that none of them did, especially the firefighters.  The real scary thing was that the owners had first noticed the smell the evening before and had ignored it!  We had a nice visit with Barbís nephew Steven and his family at their house, and then the next day they came out to see the bus.

Next stop was Albert Lea, MN, just because it was a good distance to go.  We were surprised while we were here though to find The SPAM Museum.  If I ever have eaten SPAM it was as a child in someone elseís home, or maybe on a Boy Scout camping trip.  But, how can you not check out a whole museum devoted to the stuff?  It was actually pretty interesting, and included some samples.  I had no idea how many different flavors they make now, or how popular it is in some other parts of the country (Hawaii) and the world (the Far East).

Next stop was a night in Wisconsin Dells.  I have always heard of Wisconsin Dells, but never really knew what it was.  Well, itís a town built exclusively for vacationers from Madison and Milwaukee and Chicago to come.  There are amusement parks, and water parks, and every other amusement town thing you can think of.  The first thing we noticed in the RV park was the railroad tracks about fifty feet from our spot.  I hoped maybe it was a little used siding, but soon after arrival a freight train came through at full speed.  The good news was there were no crossings nearby, thus no horn blowing.  The rumble of the train without a horn blaring wasnít too bad.  Given our history with being close to train tracks though, it was funny.  After just one night in Wisconsin Dells, we moved down the road a piece to Madison, WI.  My niece lives here, and we spent four months working here a couple year ago.  We spent a couple days here during which we went to my nieceís house for dinner and they came to the bus for an afternoon on another day.  Of course we stocked up on cheese at Ehlenbachís Cheese Store conveniently next to the RV park.

We were scheduled to arrive at McMillerís Customs in Wakarusa, IN on Oct 3rd, but we were early.  We arrived Sept 27th instead.  Since we can live free in their parking lot, it didnít matter to them.  P.J. & Megan Miller are the folks who did our extreme makeover to the bus exterior.  We are here now primarily to convert the drive mechanism for our big slideout to a better engineered solution.  Of course, as with every time we stop here, we have a list of other little things to have them do.  We spent a little more than two weeks here, partly because we kept expanding our list, and partly because we enjoy their company.  It was getting cool in Indiana, and one day we had a storm that included a mixture of rain and sleet, so it was time to head south.  We left early on Saturday Oct 15th and drove a long day all the way to east of Birmingham, AL.

We are going to camp for a week at Talladega Superspeedway and attend the Hellmanís 500 NASCAR race on the 23rd.  The track camping opens on Monday the 17th and we got to the area on the 15th, so we spent two lazy days ay an RV park nearby.  On Monday morning, we went to the track.  First stop was to pick up our tickets at Will Call and then we found our camping area.  Talladega has tons of camping, some first-come-first-served free, and some reserved.  We have a reserved spot and we were the very first RV in our whole camping area.  Even when we have arrived on the morning of the first day at other tracks, we werenít close to first.  We got setup and were very pleasantly surprised to find that our spot was much larger than the 40í x 20í that was advertised.  Since we are going to want to park a second car in our spot, that is perfect.  There were no on-track activities until Friday, so we had time to kill.  The speedway is out in the middle of nowhere, so we took a couple road trips into Talladega proper to eat and grocery shop.  On Wednesday, we took a guided tour of the track.  There were only a few support trucks showing up by then, but there was lots of activity with putting up signs and painting logos and such.  On Thursday, our friend Sheila joined us from New Orleans for the weekend racing.  Sheila is a big NASCAR fan and has lots of connections within the NASCAR community, although she has used up all her garage passes for the year, so this weekend sheíll just be a regular spectator.  Even though her joining us was not planned when we bought our tickets, she was able to get a seat directly behind us in the grandstand, so we were all together.  There are two races this weekend, the Camping World Truck series, and the Sprint Cup Series.  Since the trucks are here, that means Camping World has setup two good sized temporary stores, one of them just down the street from our camping area.  This was nice because our outside seating area is facing due west meaning sitting outside in the afternoon is hot.  We were able to purchase a sunscreen to attach to our awning which made it much nicer to sit outside.  On Friday evening, we drove to Oxford, the next town east of the speedway on the interstate.  Oxford is where all the nearby hotels are, thus where all the teams are staying.  We were meeting a friend of Sheilaís for dinner.  Rob is the tire engineer for Dale Earnhardt Jr.ís team.  We enjoyed meeting Rob and Andy who drives Dale Jr.ís hauler.  It was cool too that while we were eating, several other people from various teams and media stopped by to say hi to Rob.  The race itself was a little disappointing.  Talladega is a superspeedway and is known for having at least one huge crash in each race.  I donít watch races to see the crashes, but in this race for the first time many drivers immediately dropped to the back of the field and just followed around to avoid a big crash.  Then at the end, they tried to come to the front, but it made for 450 boring laps and 50 laps of racing.  It was still cool to be at our first superspeedway race.

From Talladega we are going to Gulf Shores, AL to join a bunch of our musician/Parrothead friends in the Karavan to the Keys.  This caravan consists of people traveling to Meeting of The Minds in Key West in their RVs.  Since Sheila doesnít have an 8-5 job right now, and she knows most of the people on the Karavan, we convinced her to follow us to Gulf Shores and spend one more night with us.  It isnít that far out of her way back to New Orleans so we didnít have to twist her arm too hard.  We are all staying in an RV park for the next three nights while the entertainment is in the Gulf Shores area.  The night we joined the Karavan the music was at Luluís.  Weíve been to Luluís on our boat back in 2005, so it was fun to be back by land.  Luluís is owned by Jimmy Buffettís sister Lucy.  Tonightís music was Brent Burns.  Tuesday, we said goodbye to Sheila, although we tried to get her to stay with us to Key West.  Tuesday evening was more music in Orange Beach at The Hot Spot.  The music tonight was Donny Brewer, Brent Burns, and John Reno.  Wednesday for lunch, we went to the Flora-bama.   The Flora-bama is well known in Trop Rock circles.  As its name suggests, it sits on the Florida/Alabama state line, and on the beach.  It was destroyed by Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and operated out of temporary tents and such until it was rebuilt in 2010 with much of the original materials.  Wednesday night we went to the home of Eric & Gina Babin in Gulf Shores for a party.  Thursday, we traveled to Lake City, FL and spent the night in a Wal-Mart parking lot.  There were seven of us in the Karavan at this point.  Friday morning we were underway to Pt. Riche, FL.  We are spending two nights at Suncoast RV Park for this stop.  Friday evening we were invited to the home of Kenny & Lisa Burke who are organizing the music event tomorrow.  Saturday was the music day, all afternoon and evening is at Gill Dawgs Tiki Bar.  Cruising friends Pete & Maribel live a few minutes from Gill Dawgs, and they came over to say hi.  Sunday we traveled south to Cape Coral, FL where eight RVís took over a vacant lot across the street from the Tiki Bar at Dolphin Key Resort.  I never was clear if we actually had permission to park here, but nobody hassled us about it.  The music here was again an all afternoon/evening event organized by the local Parrothead club.  Our cruising friends Mike & Lynn live not far from Cape Coral, and they drove up to join us for a visit.  We were able to get a table way in the back where we could carry on a conversation and enjoyed visiting with them.  We started seeing other people we know from the Parrothead world here also.  We got on the road fairly early Monday morning and drove all the way to Key West.  It was hard to keep the Karavan together on this leg and we ended up driving alone most of the way.  But, most of us are staying at Boydís Campground, and Boydís was good enough to place us all together in the same row around their covered pavilion. 

We are in Key West to attend Meeting of The Minds, the national Parrothead convention.  There are 3500 people officially registered for the event, and probably another 1000 who come to town unregistered.  Musicians who may have a one-hour gig at the official event will play at other local bars all weekend, and there are some musicians who come to the island who are not even part of the official event.  So, you can still see plenty of music without being registered.  The official event was held at the Casa Marina Resort.  We actually only attended the event at the Casa on Friday night so that we could see the TRMA Awards Show.  Several of our good friends won awards.  We saw lots of acts all over town during the week, took a couple of sunset booze cruises that were organized by musician friends, and capped the week off with One Particular Breakfast hosted by our friends Fred & Sara and Brian & Cathi in the pavilion at the RV park.  It was a great two weeks of music and partying, but boy is that exhausting!

We left Key West Monday and just went up the road twenty miles to Sunrise Key for the night.  We stopped here because fellow Alfa Owners Bob & Denise are staying here for a month.  We went out to dinner with them and caught up.  We then took four days to drive back to Houston, with overnight stops in Venice, FL, Tallahassee, FL, and Lafayette, LA.  We have settled back into the Gordy Road RV Park just south of Kemah where we lived before leaving the area on our boat in 2005.  We still have lots of friends here and will be here though February.