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My Laura Ingalls Wilder tour, Part 2

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I continued my Laura Ingalls Wilder tour last weekend with three stops: Pepin, Wis., Spring Valley, Minn., and Burr Oak, Iowa. All three were very much worth the drive.

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PEPIN, WISCONSIN

I started in Pepin, Wis., the birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder. This is where her story begins: “Once upon a time…a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.”

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There are actually two L.I.W. sites in Pepin. The first is the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, located right on the main street through town (306 3rd St). For a $5 entrance fee, you can tour the museum, which includes original quilts belonging to Laura and her sisters. When the Ingalls family left Pepin, they took all of their possessions with them. So the only items that actually belonged to the family that are displayed at this museum are two quilts and a doily. These items were sent from Mansfield, Mo., after Laura’s death.

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Displays in the museum include Ingalls photos and documents, dolls, clothing and artifacts of the time period when the Ingalls family lived here, and a “world-wide Laura” exhibit. (The Little House books have been translated into more than 40 languages and have created a number of pop-culture spin-offs including lunch boxes, board games, dolls, and other items, below.)

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There are also some interactive exhibits here for kids: a log-cabin dollhouse, covered wagon display, riverboat replica, and costumes to try on.

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The gift shop has some interesting prints and posters for sale. I bought a map of Laura’s travels for $3 and got directions to the log cabin, which is the second L.I.W. site in Pepin.

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I ate lunch at the Pickle Factory, a bar and grill located on the shore of Lake Pepin, took a walk along the lakeshore, and then drove around town (highlights are a pretty winery, a small depot, and a farm stand) before heading out to the cabin.

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The Little House Wayside, 7 miles north of Pepin on Country Road CC, marks the spot where Laura was born on Feb. 7, 1867, in a small cabin built by her father.

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The original cabin is gone, as are the big woods, replaced by fields of corn and soybeans. But still, this feels like a pilgrimage to the shrine of Laura – truly hallowed ground.

On the site is a replica of the cabin that became the famous “Little House in the Big Woods.”

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Late in 1868 or spring of 1869, the Ingalls family left Wisconsin and traveled by covered wagon to Kansas. But they returned to Pepin in late 1870 before again leaving the area in 1873 to move to Minnesota.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Days are held in Pepin during the second full weekend in September. The event includes a Laura contest, cabin activities, fiddle contest, spelling bee, square dance, craft demonstrations, a parade, and a “famous” chicken dinner.

SPRING VALLEY, MINNESOTA

Spring Valley is just south of Rochester, Minn. This Laura Ingalls Wilder experience is a bit different because it focuses mostly on the Wilder side – Laura’s husband, Almanzo, and his family.

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I arrived in Spring Valley before the museum opened at 10 a.m., so I walked around the small historic business district (below).

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The Wilder museum is housed in the Methodist Church at 221 W. Courtland, just two blocks from the main highway through town.

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The Wilder family, made famous in the book Farmer Boy, moved to Spring Valley in the 1870s. Construction of the Methodist Church began in 1876, and the Wilders helped support the building costs. After Laura and Almanzo were married, they lived in Spring Valley with their daughter, Rose, in 1890. So there’s plenty of history here.

Museum entrance is $7, and for that, you get a guided tour of the displays, most of which consist of photos and historical documents. My tour guide was Alexys, age 14.

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Alexys really knew her Wilder history. I may have thrown her off script a time or two with questions and interjections, but she did a great job. Displays told the story of the extended Wilder family in the town of Spring Valley. Photos show their original home, where Laura lived as a young mother. A letter from Laura to a fan of her books in 1952 is on display.

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If you’re interested in more than Wilder history, the museum also includes an 1874 fire wagon, the Richard Sears exhibit, camera collection, old-fashioned kitchen display, and other historic items. I walked through these areas quickly without a guide.

I’ve been trying to complete my Little House book collection, and I didn’t own Farmer Boy, so I bought it at the gift shop before leaving the museum. It seemed only right to buy it here.

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Spring Valley has two more sites worth visiting: An acreage just a few blocks northwest of the church houses the Wilder family’s original barn and farmland (below). This is private property, so I parked down the block and photographed the barn with a long lens so as not to be annoying.

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Before leaving Spring Valley, I visited the cemetery where some of the Wilder family is buried.

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BURR OAK, IOWA

I then headed to Burr Oak, Iowa, about a 45-minute drive from Spring Valley. I honestly wasn’t expecting much from that visit, but it really exceeded my expectations. The Masters Hotel in Burr Oak is actually the only place Laura lived as a child that exists today on its original site.

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In 1876, when Laura was 9 years old, the Ingalls family left Walnut Grove, Minn., and moved to Burr Oak to help manage the Masters Hotel, owned by William Steadman. Laura never wrote about her Burr Oak experience in the Little House series. Apparently she was eager to forget about her time there, as she didn’t enjoy living in town and working at the hotel.

The old Burr Oak Savings Bank is the first stop on the L.I.W. tour, where you pay $8 for a guided tour. I joined a group of four with a tour already in progress, led by a tour guide named Annastacia. She gave us some background information about Burr Oak: When the Ingalls family lived here, it was a bustling town of 200 with frequent stagecoach stops, two hotels, a saloon, grocery store, and schoolhouse.

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As a group, we walked across the street to the Masters Hotel, built in 1851. Much of the building has been renovated, but you can still see some original floorboards and many other original parts of the structure. We watched a short DVD telling the history of Laura’s time in Burr Oak as well as a brief history of her other homes. I was reminded that after living in the hotel, the family moved in Kimball’s grocery (two doors down) and then to a home they rented just north of the main road, where Laura’s sister Grace was born in 1877.

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We toured the hotel, which is furnished with period items and also contains some Ingalls history displays. There’s a place setting from Laura and Almanzo’s wedding china, first editions of some of Laura’s Little House books, a brick from the house where Grace was born, and documents from when Laura’s sister Mary attended a school for the blind.

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The first floor consists of one bedroom, a lobby, and parlor. Annastacia played “Sweet By and By” on the pump organ in the parlor, one of the songs Charles is said to have played.

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Borders stayed in small bedrooms upstairs, often sleeping three to a twin-sized bed (men only, side by side, feet on the floor) for 25 cents a night.

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The lower level is where the Ingalls family slept (below) and where Caroline cooked and served three meals a day, six days a week.

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Outside, you can see the creek Laura played in and the hill on which she sledded in the wintertime. In this back area, during Laura’s time, you would have milked cows and parked your wagon. A church bell has been relocated here – the exact bell that rang at Laura’s church.

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I loved this tour! After it was over, I grabbed a walking-tour map of Burr Oak and walked to the cemetery and the Methodist church (built in 1893 by Almanzo’s uncle) and the mercantile (below)…

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… and to the Advent Christian Church (built when the Ingalls family lived in Burr Oak, below), to a park with a pretty bridge, and to the site where Grace was born.

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Today, Burr Oak’s population (166) is smaller than when Laura and her family lived here.

I’ve now visited all of the northern Laura Ingalls Wilder museums (in North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa). Next up: A trip to Mansfield, Mo., where Laura lived as an adult and wrote the Little House stories.

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My Laura Ingalls Wilder tour, Part 1

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I’m probably no more or less interested in the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder than the average person. I’m sure I read some of them as a kid – although I don’t really remember – and I definitely read some of them to my own daughters. I liked the stories, and I appreciated the quality of the illustrations.

I enjoyed watching the television series, although I wouldn’t say I was a huge fan. At best, I was ambivalent.

So why am I now, at age 59, embarking on a tour of all things Laura?

My interest was piqued last year when Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder was published by Caroline Fraser. It drew a lot of mixed comments from people who loved the Little House books, which portray pioneer life as seen through happy, rose-colored glasses. The book was fairly controversial.

I decided I should read it. But when I got it from the library, I got confused and instead checked out Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. This is definitely not the same thing. Pioneer Girl is written by Ingalls Wilder herself and is actually the first draft of what would become the Little House series. It’s a little bit rougher and grittier than the final children’s series, but it’s mostly the same stories of her early pioneering life, only less embellished. The book is heavily annotated by Pamela Smith Hill, which is sometimes annoying but other times helps to put Ingalls Wilder’s words into the context of the times.

I enjoyed reading that book, and it occurred to me that I live awfully darn close to most of the places Laura and her family lived: Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakota Territory (now South Dakota), Missouri, and Kansas.

Laura’s life intrigued me – especially her early years – and I was also interested in the history of the frontier, from the Indian Wars to the Dust Bowl.

So I decided to go ahead and read Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Whoa, this is a different story altogether. For one thing, this book is big and dense, and Laura’s early life only takes up about the first quarter of the pages. It took me a very long time to read – it’s 640 pages but seems even longer. But it’s very well researched, and I appreciated that. I felt like I learned a lot about Laura’s growing-up years, what she really went through (extreme poverty, near-starvation, nearly freezing to death during horrible blizzards), and what her parents were like. More than that, though, I learned more about the history of homesteading, farming practices, federal programs, relationships with Native Americans, and other events of the nation during those times.

The book continues into the time of Laura’s marriage; much of it describes the life of her writer daughter, Rose Wilder Lane – probably more than I wanted to know. But it gets into the writing (and editing, and re-writing) of the Little House books and Laura’s ascent into fame as an author in her sixties, all of which is pretty interesting.

Bottom line, it made me want to visit the places I’d been reading about. So, when my husband Dave announced that he was going to North Dakota and asked if I wanted to tag along, I said yes, on one condition: That we stop in Walnut Grove, Minn., and De Smet, S.D. on the way.

WALNUT GROVE, MINNESOTA

Walnut Grove, you may remember, was the setting for the long-running “Little House on the Prairie” television series (which Caroline Fraser describes as “not so much an adaptation as a hyperbolic fantasy spin off”) and was the basis of the book On the Banks of Plum Creek.

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On the day we visited, we arrived in Walnut Grove early, before the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum opened, so we drove around. We went to the Ingalls’ 1874 dugout site but found that it was closed due to flooding. (Indeed, it was raining steadily when we got there.)

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So we stopped for a cup of coffee at Nellie’s Little Café on the Prairie (promising “homestyle cooking”), which was actually fun. (Dave had milk and cookies). The café is thoroughly decorated with photos of the much-abhorred character Nellie Oleson from the TV series, played by Alison Arngrim, as well as other photos from the series, many of them autographed. You will definitely not forget where you are.

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Just across the street from the museum, which was still not open yet, we found the Masters Store & Hall (below).

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According to the sign on the building: “William J. Masters moved to Walnut Grove when he sold his hotel in Burr Oak, Iowa. Around 1847 he built this hotel. Laura wrote about her time here in Pioneer Girl. The Ingalls [family] sold the Plum Creek property and left Walnut Grove in 1876. They returned in 1877 when Pa bought a lot in the pasture behind this hotel and built a small house for his family. After returning from Burr Oak, Laura found work here setting tables, washing dishes, and folding laundry for 50 cents a week.”

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum recently purchased the Masters Store & Hall; Charles Ingalls is said to have actually helped build it.

Once we finally got into the museum, it was pretty much as I expected.

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I bought some of the Little House books at the gift shop and we started our self-guided tour. We saw some pretty basic stuff in the first museum building (the Depot Building): Reproduction photos of Charles and Caroline, a timeline of the family’s travels (including Laura’s birth on Feb. 7, 1867), more photos and memorabilia, Laura’s quilt, and some documentation about the books.

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There’s an entire room dedicated to the TV show, with a painted mural from the show’s main street (below), and lots of photos and memorabilia.

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Besides this main museum, there’s a chapel (not authentic)…

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… and a building they call Grandma’s House (below), which was built in 1890 but has no actual connection to Ingalls Wilder.

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Inside the house is an exhibit featuring illustrations by Garth Williams, who illustrated the Little House books as well as Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and other children’s books. I love the style of his illustrations, so this display was fun; included many of his original sketches.

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I also enjoyed the exhibit that shows some of the less-well-known writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder and also those of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Some of Laura’s hand-written letters are even on display.

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Also on the property is a dugout-style home similar to the one Laura describes in Plum Creek.

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Dugouts were usually temporary structures used for a few months until a permanent home could be built.

A little red school house represents the kind of one-room country school Laura might have attended.

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A settler’s home is also on the property, moved there from property owned by a neighbor of the Ingalls family on Plum Creek. The two-room home is furnished to represent a pioneer home of the late 1800s (below).

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Finally, we visited the Heritage Lane building, which displays a covered wagon, a railroad history exhibit, the original Walnut Grove telephone switchboards, the original Walnut Grove Tribune newspaper office equipment, and more.

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If you go to Walnut Grove, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum is located at 330 8th Street. Admission to the museum, including the replica dugout, schoolhouse, etc. is $5 per person. Museum hours vary; when I was there this summer it was open 10 a.m. – 6 p.m., but hours are limited during other times of the year and the museum buildings are closed during the winter.

The original dugout site is located at 13501 County Road 5, 1.5 miles north of Walnut Grove ($5 per car).

If you’re really into it, there’s a big ol’ Wilder Pageant held during weekends in July. The pageant is “an outdoor drama based on the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder in Walnut Grove,” and admission ranges from $18 (bring your own blanket) to $20 (chairs provided). Apparently there’s going to be another “Little House” cast reunion July 11-14, 2019, celebrating the 45th anniversary of the TV show, which makes me feel really old.

DE SMET, NORTH DAKOTA

From Walnut Grove, we drove on Hwy. 14 to De Smet, S.D., about two hours straight west.

Known as the “little town on the prairie,” De Smet offers two ways to explore Ingalls Wilder’s childhood: the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes and the Ingalls Homestead. We started at the homestead.

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This is the original 160 acres of land the Ingalls family homesteaded in 1880, and although little remains from the Ingalls family on that acreage, it was still very cool to stand on the site and imagine what it must have been like back in those days.

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We started at the visitor center and gift shop (I bought more books), then headed outside – with homestead map in hand – to visit a dugout, a claim shanty, hayroof barn, school house, church, and other places of interest.

Here’s one view of the homestead from the top of a look-out tower:

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Back on land, we saw an exhibit chronicling Laura’s travels as told through her Little House series, with photos and illustrations.

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We visited an original claim shanty built in 1878 by early Kingsbury County residents…

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…and the dugout, which was slightly better than the dugout we’d visited earlier in the day, though both were mighty smelly.

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We stepped inside the hayroof barn, built as Charles Ingalls would have done.

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I was especially interested in this little barn, because there were chickens, a baby calf, and a litter of kittens inside. I mean, who doesn’t love baby farm animals?

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There’s also an heirloom garden (below), wildflower display, and native grass prairie.

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Just outside the livestock barn, we boarded a covered wagon and rode to the little prairie school.

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I believe we were the only tourists without children in tow. Now that I think of it, we might have had the most fun of anyone.

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I will say that this part of the tour took longer than I would have liked; once we got into the school we were pretty much stuck there and had to listen to an overly long lecture by the resident schoolmarm, including a lengthy history lesson and a reading lesson, from which we could not escape.

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Poor Dave was made an example of when he didn’t keep both hands on his desk (or something equally absurd) and had to stand with his nose on the blackboard. (He was a good sport and played along.) Mercifully, the lessons ended and we re-boarded our mule-led covered wagon back to the barn.

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We walked around for a bit, visited the West Bethany Church (shown above, built in 1905 and originally located 10 miles north of the Ingalls homestead) and “Ma’s Little House,” a wood-framed home reconstructed on the location and to the dimensions of the Ingalls claim shanty built by Charles Ingalls in the spring of 1880 (below).

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Five cottonwood trees still remain from the thousands that Charles Ingalls planted on his homestead claim (below). These last living cottonwoods, dedicated to his five girls, are located in the Laura Ingalls Wilder memorial site and donated to the L.I.W. Memorial Society after Laura’s death in 1957.

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Admission to the homestead is $15 per person, including all activities and the covered wagon ride. Summer hours are 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; hours are shorter during fall and spring, and the grounds are closed during the winter.

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Okay, by this time in the day I will admit I was pretty tired. We’d driven a lot and toured fairly extensively. So when we got to the historic homes area in town and found out that the only way to see the inside of the buildings was through a $12 two-hour guided tour, we decided to pass. Instead, we just walked around the outside of the buildings…on our own…for free.

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It’s actually an impressive group of buildings: the original Ingalls home built by Charles in 1887 (after Laura moved to Missouri); the original first school of De Smet, attended by Laura and her sister, Carrie; and the original surveyors’ home from By the Shores of Silver Lake. Kids can enjoy the Discover Center for hands-on activities.

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The L.I.W. Historic Homes and Discovery Center are located at 105 Olivet Ave. Admission, as I mentioned, is $12, and hours vary depending on the season. Remember, admission is by guided tour only. (It’s probably very interesting.)

Like Walnut Grove, De Smet also has an annual outdoor Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant, “These Happy Golden Years,” held in July.

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We made one last stop before leaving De Smet: We visited the Ingalls’ grave sites. Buried there are Charles and Caroline Ingalls; Laura’s sisters Mary, Carrie, and Grace; and Laura’s son who died as an infant. (Laura is buried in Mansfield, Mo., where she spent most of her adult life.)

You’ll notice I called this post “Part 1” because I have a second trip coming up! Get excited! I’m planning to visit the Ingalls’ homesteads in Pepin, Wis., Spring Valley, Minn., and Burr Oak, Iowa. I’m sure you’re all on the edge of your seat.

Exploring west-central Colorado

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I traveled to Colorado last month with my National Parks-obsessed husband, Dave. He’s trying to visit all of the 417 NPS sites, and occasionally I am interested enough to tag along.

We drove to Denver the first night, then got up early the next morning and headed south on Interstate 25, then west on Hwy. 50. I had to stop and take Dramamine because of the curves and also sinus medicine because we were gaining altitude so quickly I thought my head would explode. I’m sure I was a lot of fun in the car.

As we were driving, we could see fires burning in the distance, and we drove past a staging area for firefighters – there was a camp there and a lot of helicopter activity. Luckily, none of the areas we planned to visit were directly affected by the fires.

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After about 4 hours we arrived at Curecanti National Recreation Area. Our first views were of Blue Mesa, Colorado’s largest lake (above). We stopped at the Elk Creek visitor center for advice on what to see and where to hike, then we drove along the scenic reservoir until we arrived at the trailhead for Pine Creek Trail.

I must admit that I wasn’t all that keen on hiking this trail based on the description in the park service brochure: “This hike descends 232 stairs along Pine Creek to the old railroad bed and Morrow Point Reservoir. This is the access trail for the boat tour.”

Okay, how about, “This is a pretty hike, with scenic vistas and happy wildlife”? I wasn’t sure I wanted to hike down (and then, of course, back up) 232 stairs to see an old railroad bed. I may have grumbled a bit.

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But down the stairs we went in the 95-degree heat and bright sun, down, down, down to the bottom of the canyon to the river, where boat tours begin and hikers go to die.

As it turns out, it wasn’t all that bad. There was a tiny bit of shade here and there, and the steep canyon walls were pretty cool. Reading the signs, I learned that the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, built in 1881-82, went through the canyon for 67 years, hauling coal, ore, livestock, and passengers.

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We came upon the boat-launch area and saw one of the Park Service pontoon boats leaving for its tour of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, where we’d go later by car.

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After finishing that hike with no casualties, we drove further to Mesa Creek Trail. This one was easy, and it included crossing a pretty foot bridge over the Gunnison and a view of a dam.

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From there, we headed to our next destination: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park near Montrose, Colo.

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This park got its name because the canyon walls are made of dark volcanic rock and because, while the gorge is an average of 2,000 feet deep, it’s only about 1,500 feet across, thus not allowing sunlight to illuminate the canyon walls.

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I’ll say this: It’s a pretty dramatic place. We stayed mostly on the south rim road, stopping often to hike to overlooks offering incredible views of the canyon and the Gunnison River far below.

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One sign at the Chasm View overlook said the walls of Black Canyon range in depth from 2,700 feet to 1,750 feet, and the Gunnison River has a very steep gradient – an average fall of 95 feet per mile. Every overlook offered a different, dramatic view.

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The afternoon light was nice, but we could see storm clouds gathering in the distance.

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We stayed overnight in Montrose, a pretty cool town, and planned to visit the park all day the next day. So, we drove there the next morning and started at the far end of the park at Warner Point Trail, a 1.5-mile nature hike. It started with sweeping views of the valley…

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…and then views of the canyon, which unfortunately were looking directly into the sun.

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Note to self: Viewing the south canyon is definitely better in the afternoon than the morning.

We met a young hiker who was visiting a number of national parks for the first time. But, mostly, we had the trail to ourselves.

I really liked the craggy juniper trees, which create twisted sculptures whether they’re alive or dead.

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We stopped and hiked at each of the overlooks we hadn’t done the afternoon before – and revisited a few we’d already seen. We thought it would take all day to see this park, but by noon we’d done everything we wanted to do on the south rim.

We headed back toward the park entrance and took the East Portal Road down to the bottom of the canyon. This road is extremely steep, with 16-percent grades and hairpin curves. By the time we got to the bottom, our brakes were smoking. But what a cool drive, and what a beautiful sight at the bottom! It was suddenly so green!

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We had a picnic lunch along the river, and had the whole area to ourselves.

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Afterwards, we attempted to take a little hike, but the trail was pathetic so we turned back. We did see some fishermen in the water. If fishing is your thing, this would be a very scenic place to do it.

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We had lots of time to kill in the afternoon and evening, but in a way that was nice because it forced us to relax and enjoy being on vacation. We’d been on the go for several days, and it was SO HOT that we were really exhausted.

We decided to go to the downtown area of Montrose, which is really quirky and fun. We found the Horsefly Brewing Company (motto: “No crap on tap”) and tried several of their beers. I liked the Jazzy Razzy, which was pink and fruity and not at all what I generally drink. I also tried the Bug-Eyed Blonde, an easy beer to drink on a hot day. We also stopped for ice cream at the Daily Bread bakery and soda fountain.

That evening we ate dinner at Trattoria Di Sofia, a small Italian restaurant with red-checkered tablecloths and fresh pasta dishes. We definitely enjoyed our time in Montrose.

The next morning, we got up at 5 a.m. and left town an hour later, stopping only for coffee at a local coffee shop. Our destination today: Colorado National Monument.

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We arrived at the National Park site, located near Grand Junction, at 7:30 a.m. As it turns out, morning was a terrible time to visit. All along Rim Rock Drive, we were facing into the direct early-morning sun, making it difficult to see and almost impossible to take decent photos. But we didn’t have much choice as we needed to be back in Denver by late afternoon (a 4-hour drive).

This area is described as having “big, bold, and brilliantly colored mesas, with towering and fascinating rock sculptures.” Like the Black Canyon, the main way to see the Monument is to drive along the rim road and stop at overlooks. Most of these overlooks don’t require much of a hike, although there are hiking trails in the park ranging from one to 14 miles long.

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All along the 23-mile drive, visitors are treated to views of the Colorado River Valley, high cliffs, and the Grand Mesa. It’s pretty spectacular.

I especially liked these Coke Ovens…

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… and Monument Canyon…

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…and the Grand View. Just think how spectacular it would have looked if the sun would have been in a better spot?

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We did take one short hike along the Canyon Rim Trail, and I got to see more of those awesome, twisty juniper trees.

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The Park Service says this drive is one of the grandest scenic drives in the American West. And it’s right off of Interstate 70, so it’s really easy to access. Here are a few parting shots:

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Our drive back to Denver was through towering Rocky Mountains, along white-water streams, and near a number of swanky ski resorts. Overall, this section of I-70 may be the one of the most scenic drives anywhere on a U.S. interstate highway.

 

RAGBRAI Ames

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Ames and Iowa State rolled out the red carpet for RAGBRAI riders yesterday. It was a sight to behold: Cyclists in Jack Trice Stadium, cyclists downtown, cyclists all over the city of Ames. And this morning, they all left.

Ames was one of seven overnight towns for RAGBRAI 2018. The city’s theme was “Cycling Power” – a takeoff of Iowa State’s “Cyclone Power” signature athletics chant.

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I spent some time in the stadium area yesterday. The Alumni Association had a tent (that’s some of our group, above, posing for a group photo at the Alumni Center), and we interacted with a lot of folks – mainly Iowa State grads, but not all.

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We asked trivia questions, gave out prizes, and encouraged riders to mark where they lived on our “Cyclones Everywhere” map of the U.S. I met people from California and Idaho and Texas and even as far away as Ukraine.

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Coming in to Ames from the south, most cyclists rode the Cyclone Loop through Jack Trice Stadium, something that’s apparently never been done before. The people I talked to said it was really cool.

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Once they came out of the stadium they were greeted by Iowa State groups who’d set up tents filled with information and giveaways. Food vendors were also on hand, and spirit rallies were held hourly during the afternoon. It was great to see so much Cardinal & Gold but to also see teams decked out in balloons and flamingoes and other costumes.

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After work, I drove through some Ames neighborhoods and was amazed at the sheer number of support vehicles and tent campers in residents’ yards. It was like a city-wide camping spree.

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The main activity was downtown. Three stages were set up, with musical acts on each stage from 4 p.m. until around midnight. I was there for an hour or so, long enough to drink a beer, eat a crepe, and listen to some music. There were a ton of people there.

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I also went north to the NPR RAGBRAI Team event at Alluvial Brewing Company (above). I always listen to NPR when I’m in the car, and the voices on the radio seem like good friends by now. So it was pretty awesome to get to meet White House reporter Scott Horsley (below) and see other members of the NPR team – including national political correspondent Don Gonyea – and folks like Clay Masters from Iowa Public Radio. I may have geeked out a little bit.

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My own little neighborhood was full of bikes and support vehicles and tents last night. I think there were at least four houses where RAGBRAI-ers were camping, including mine. We had three guys in our backyard, and it was fun to talk to them about their experiences. They seemed to appreciate the hot shower and our clothes dryer, and they even played with our cats.

Even though I don’t ride a bike, I feel like I’ve spent the last month obsessing over RAGBRAI, so it’s sort of sad that it’s over. Well, at least it’s over in Ames – riders still have four more days to go!

 

 

RAGBRAI 2018, part 3: Amish farmland, Star Trek, and famous ice cream

I was so looking forward to this day. Yesterday (Saturday, July 21), I drove the final leg of the 2018 RAGBRAI route (Sigourney to Davenport). There were so many highlights to look forward to! I got up really early and was on the road by 6:30 a.m. for the two-hour drive to Sigourney to pick up the route.

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The day started bright, sunny, and very cool (65 degrees and breezy) compared to the past few very hot weeks in Iowa. But by the time I got to Oskaloosa, heavy, gray clouds rolled in. And then I spent much of the morning struggling to stay on the route. I don’t know if it was me or the RAGBRAI map, but things just weren’t matching up between the route on paper and the reality of the road.

I missed the Hwy. 92 connection not once but twice (okay, the first time was my fault); I lost the route again in Harper (population 109, above). And then again in Keota (population 996, below). What the hell? I swear, road signs must not be a thing in this part of Iowa. I kept going south when I needed to go north; eventually, I cut my losses and found an alternate route out of Keota (missing G26 altogether), but eventually got on the right county road (W38). So far, this has been the worst section I’ve ever driven in terms of following the route, and I was irritated. I may have said some bad words.

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Things improved in Wellman (population 1,424), a small town with a cute business district.

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I loved the old-fashioned clock (above) and the Bidwell-Slockett mini park mural. Take a look at these details, below:

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And, finally, I hit my stride in Kalona (population 2,534). I am a big fan of this Amish community. My blog post from 2011 has consistently been one of the most popular things I’ve ever written on Iowa Girl on the Go – it literally attracts readers every day.

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Since I’d been here before, I didn’t take the time to visit the Kalona Historical Village (715 D Ave, just off Hwy. 22) or Stringtown Grocery (2208 540th St SW), although I recommend visiting both.

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Instead, I spent most of my time along Kalona’s main street, helping the local economy by buying things I don’t need in the antiques stores. Check them out: Vintage Chic, Raven’s Nest, and English River Antiques and Collectibles, all along B Avenue downtown.

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The Kalona Bakery was closed, but I visited the Amish general store, where you can buy old-fashioned Amish noodles, cheese, smoked meats, a variety of bulk foods, fudge, local honey, nuts, and Amish mustards and other sauces. They even have a small restaurant inside the store, where you can order Amish cinnamon and pecan rolls, pies, biscuits and gravy, sandwiches, etc.  I enjoyed the bricked quilt squares along the downtown sidewalks (below) and savored the yummy smells wafting from the coffee shop. This town has some great-looking restaurants and more antiques stores outside the main downtown area, too.

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The other really awesome thing about Kalona is the surrounding countryside, with Amish farms, traditional barns decorated with quilt blocks, and many horses and buggies. I saw an Amish woman and two young children in traditional clothing tending a garden very near the highway, and it was a truly delightful scene. I am guessing that cyclists will encounter Amish farm stands and baked goods all along the route.

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The next pass-through town is Riverside (population 1,039), said to be the future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk from Star Trek. This designation may be the only thing keeping Riverside afloat, because it is a pretty sad, dilapidated little town.

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But check out the banners! There’s a whole series of them, with photos of Star Trek characters and slogans like “Live long and prosper” and “Where the TREK began.” I am not a Star Trek fan, but I still think this is fun. (Look closely at the Murphy’s Bar & Grill sign and you’ll see a tiny Spaceship Enterprise.)

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The tiny town of Hills (population 808) has a small city park and a bit of industry connected to the railroad.

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By noon I was pulling in to the next overnight town: Iowa City. I was looking forward to eating lunch here.

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With an estimated population of 75,798, Iowa City is the fifth-largest city in Iowa, and of course it’s home to our rival, the University of Iowa. I will admit, I have very mixed feelings about this city. On the one hand, it’s got an incredibly vibrant downtown area, with many more bars, shops, and restaurants than Ames, so I am sort of envious in that regard. I like the pedestrian mall with its outdoor dining, food carts, and street art.

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There’s a ton of history here, too. Iowa City was the second capital of Iowa Territory before statehood, and the first capital city for the state of Iowa. The Old Capitol is a national historic landmark. And Iowa City has tremendous historic neighborhoods filled with cool old houses and mature trees.

The downside, besides the fact that as an Iowa State employee I am contractually required to hate the Hawkeyes, is that Iowa City is a terrible place to drive and an even worse place to park. Since I was there on a Saturday in the summer, you wouldn’t think the traffic would be bad, but you’d be wrong: There’s construction, closed streets, and all sorts of nonsense. Ames may not have as many restaurants, but by god we have better streets.

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Anyway, after parking on South Linn (putting six quarters in the parking meter for one hour) and hoping to walk a couple of blocks to North Linn to eat at my favorite Iowa City restaurant, Devotay (117 N. Linn), I learned that you can’t get there from where I parked. So I walked around a bit, trying to keep a low profile as a Cyclone in Hawkeye country, and then moved my car to North Linn, where I put seven more quarters in a different parking meter and snagged an outdoor table at Devotay. I love this little restaurant. It usually features Spanish tapas and paellas and other interesting dishes. Today the menu featured brunch, with both breakfast and a few lunch items available. I ordered a café Americano, patatas bravas with sofrito and aioli, and semolina breakfast muffins with quince jam. I am drooling again, just looking at these pictures! It was wonderful and very relaxing.

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I did something next that I really try never to do on the RAGBRAI route: I google-mapped. I wanted to visit Plum Grove, a state historic site at 1030 Carroll Street. I had no idea where that was. This is the home of the first governor of Iowa, Robert Lucas, built in 1844. It turns out it was not far from Devotay and also not at all far from the RAGBRAI route.

The seven-room home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and also features stunning gardens tended by Iowa State Extension master gardeners (take that, Hawkeyes!)

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I spent waaayyy too much time in Iowa City. (And I should apologize for all the Hawkeye jokes. I have absolutely nothing against the University of Iowa. I’m just kidding around.)

As I started this official last day of the RAGBRAI route, two things occurred to me. One, this day is bookended by the largest cities on the route (Iowa City and Davenport). And two, I was driving the LAST day of the route as bikers were gathering on the other side of the state in Onawa for the FIRST day of the route. That made me smile.

It also occurred to me that I’ve driven and written about much of this route before: RAGBRAI XLIII (2015) went through West Liberty, Atalissa, Moscow, and Wilton – all towns I’d visit today. The 2015 route also ended in Davenport, as does this year’s.

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The first pass-through town on this final day is West Liberty (population 3,736). West Liberty is known for its racetrack and as the home to the Muscatine County Fair, which was actually in progress when I arrived. Had I more time, I would have stopped and spent some time there. West Liberty is probably better known, however, as the producer of turkey products at an enormous meat-processing facility that dwarfs the entire town.

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Likewise, nearby Atalissa (population 306 according to Wikipedia) is mostly known as the home of several intellectually challenged men who worked in the nearby turkey processing plant. After a scandalous New York Times article reported that the men were living in horrific conditions, they were removed in 2009, paid damages by the courts, and relocated.

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On a happier note, I learned that Atalissa was founded in 1856. It was named by its founder, William Lundy, for a mining town in California, which in turn was named for an Indian queen Atalissa. Hence the picture on the welcome sign.

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I get a kick out of the next town, Moscow. It’s unincorporated, so I have no idea how many people live there, but I enjoyed it in 2015 and I enjoyed it again today. I stopped at the Birkhofer Produce stand and bought Amish-grown tomatoes, green beans, onions, garlic, green pepper, and zucchini. I was tempted to buy a watermelon.

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I had my fingers crossed heading into Wilton (population 2,802). I’ve twice visited this town hoping to get a taste of its famous ice cream at the Wilton Candy Kitchen and soda fountain, and twice it’s been closed. So I was super excited to find it open today.

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The Candy Kitchen was founded in 1860 (or 1856 or 1867, depending on which sign you choose to believe); it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is said to be the oldest ongoing confectionary ice cream parlor in the world (a fact too good to check), and has been run by the Nopoulos family since 1910.

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It was recently visited by none other than Mark Zuckerberg, and I am here to tell you, the young woman who served me a chocolate malt is the same person who served the Facebook CEO. I have a photo to prove it! I was pretty stoked. And the malt was delicious.

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The Candy Kitchen serves the usual cones (made with “George’s famous homemade ice cream”), sundaes, sodas, and malts in flavors like marshmallow, black raspberry, and hot fudge.

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With a happy tummy full of ice cream, I headed to the next stop: Wildcat Den State Park. This is a not a state park I’ve visited before – or, if I’m being honest, even heard of. The state park website says the park is one of the most unique in Iowa, combining natural beauty and solitude, preservation of historical structures, trails, camping, and picnic areas for recreational use.

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It also says one of the major features of Wildcat Den State Park is its trail system, which also interests me. When I got there, I immediately saw a trail head, got out, and took a short nature hike. The trail was lined with incredibly tall trees, and it was very peaceful. I wish I could have spent more time on the path, but I needed to keep moving.

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I had read about the Pine Creek Grist Mill, also located in the park, and I was hoping to find it. I’m so glad I did! Not only is this a restored operating pioneer mill originally built in 1848 (and in impeccable, working shape), but it’s set along a scenic spillway, with a swimming area and historic bridge setting the scene. The Grist Mill is on the National Register of Historic Places.

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A sign on the building says this area was also the site of the first post office in Muscatine County. Mail was addressed “Iowa Post Office, Blackhawk Purchase, Wisconsin Territory.”

As I headed to unincorporated Montpelier (named by the first settlers who were natives of Vermont and chose the name after the capital of that state) I had no idea how close to the end of the route I was. Also, I had no idea Montpelier was a Mississippi River town; I guess I hadn’t looked that closely at my map. But, indeed, it is right on the river.

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And when I got to Blue Grass, all I found was a detour that threw me off the route and confused the heck out of me. I didn’t even stop in Blue Grass (population 1,699) to take a photo. Instead, I just headed to Davenport on F65.

I was thinking all the way, Man, I really don’t want to go to Davenport. It’s such a big city (population 102,612); it doesn’t really seem like a RAGBRAI town. I was tired. And it was getting late. And I’ve been here before, including on the 2015 RAGBRAI route. So many excuses!

So, although I had a big list of things to do in Davenport (photograph the Mississippi River bridge, walk across the Davenport Skybridge, go to the Figge Art Museum, try to find the Putnam Museum and the VanderVeer Botanical Park and the Nahant Marsh and the German American Heritage Center, and discover historic neighborhoods that date back to the 1840s), the minute I saw the sign for Interstate 80, I jumped on it and drove straight home. I promise I’ll come back again one of these days and spend more time here.

And now it’s Sunday and I must get ready to host the cyclists who are camping in my backyard Tuesday night and prepare for all the RAGBRAI events in Ames. So much fun! Thanks for reading! Go, RAGBRAI!!!

RAGBRAI 2018, part 2: Lincoln Highway, roses, and Maytag blue cheese

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Today was another unbearably hot day, but I loved this section, even though one of the roads was closed and the route went through very familiar territory.

I got an early start – 6:40 a.m. – and headed back to Jefferson to start my second day-trip driving the 2018 RAGBRAI route. Today, my goal was to drive THREE days of the actual bike ride: Jefferson to Sigourney.

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I arrived in Jefferson (population 4,169), the third overnight town, at 7:20 a.m., and was not surprised to see very little activity, even though it was the Fourth of July. I was reminded of the Hamilton lyric – “It’s quiet downtown” – as I walked around Jefferson’s pretty square. Jefferson is the Greene County seat and has some wonderful architecture, both downtown and in its residential areas.

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Jefferson’s RAGBRAI theme, “Highway to Bells,” obviously refers to the Mahanay Bell Tower in the center of the square. Apparently there’s rooftop art that can be seen from the tower’s observation deck, but of course that was closed at that hour of the day.

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However, I did locate Sally’s Alley (115 E Lincoln Way), a renovated alley space with the outdoor photography of Sally White, a native of Churdan, Iowa. The alley features large bird photos and original poetry (below).

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Also on the square, Greene Bean Coffee was open for business! Just off the square is a fun ice-cream place, the Twiins Shoppe (below). Jefferson is definitely ready for RAGBRAI with its super-cute bike banners.

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Heading out of town, riders will be on a relatively flat section of the Lincoln Highway and will pass by the Junction Township Cemetery, established in 1874. They’ll also see a fair amount of tall corn.

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The first pass-through town today, Grand Junction (population 824), emphasizes its Lincoln Highway connection with a pretty garden and a bunch of Lincoln Highway signs.

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Dana (population 69) isn’t much more than a road sign.

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On this stretch of county highway, I encountered a one-lane road with a pilot car, and I felt sort of bad that they had to work on the Fourth of July, especially in such ridiculous heat. I also passed a lot of wind turbines.

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And then I arrived in Ogden (population 2,044), home of a memorable blue-and-white-striped water tower and some cute July 4th decorations (above).

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The scenery changes dramatically as you head into Boone; this is the Des Moines River valley (above). The RAGBRAI route goes very near the famous Kate Shelley Bridge. I didn’t visit it today because I’ve seen it before (and blogged here), but if you’re interested, you should go for it because it’s pretty cool.

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I’ve spent a lot of time in Boone (population 12,661) over the years, so I wanted to do something different today. I drove past the Boone County courthouse (and the now-ubiquitous Freedom Rock) and by Mamie Eisenhower’s birthplace.

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Which brings me to some fun facts about Boone:

  • Mamie Geneva Doud Eisenhower, First Lady of the United States, wife of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, was born here; Mamie Eisenhower Avenue, one of the main east-west streets in Boone, is named in her honor.
  • According to Wikipedia, the city of Boone was originally called Montana (until 1871). Seriously.
  • Boone is home to the first Fareway grocery store and Casey’s General Store (a company I love and appreciate for providing public restrooms all across Iowa).

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Boone is also famous for its Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad trains, which I hate to admit I’ve never ridden.

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I dropped by this morning just to see if the trains were running, and they were not, but a sign on the door said there would be one train today at 1:30 p.m. This could be a fun activity for cyclists. If you don’t want to take time to ride the train, you can visit the James H. Andrew Railroad Museum & History Center or just stop by and look at the cool locomotives.

Or stop by the Boone Brewing Co. (Roxie Red is my fave). Or go downtown Boone and check out the awesome antiques and vintage stores – another one of my blog topics.

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The RAGBRAI route was originally scheduled to go through Ledges State Park, one of my favorite places to hike in central Iowa. I tried to follow the route, but the road was closed due to high water. The route has now been officially changed to bypass Ledges, so you’ll have to take my word for it – it’s a great place. (I’ve mentioned it in several blog posts, but here’s the one I like best.)

I tried a workaround and couldn’t find one, so I took Hwy. 17 to get back to the route. I didn’t bother to stop in Luther (population 122); sorry, Luther.

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I was grumpy about the backtracking, but then I saw a bunch of horses in a field between Luther and Ames, and that made me happy. I stopped my car, got out, and walked to the fence. Man, they came running over to see me like I was carrying a bushel of whatever it is horses like to eat. I took a bunch of pictures and they actually let me pet their sweet faces.

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So, now I’m in Ames, which is so weird, because I live in Ames. My house is practically on the RAGBRAI route, so I stopped there to use the bathroom. I mean, why not? And then I went to Provisions (on Airport Road, in the ISU Research Park) and bought an almond croissant, which I definitely recommend. Actually, you can’t go wrong with anything in the bread/pastry/dessert case at Provisions.

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Ames (population 66,498) is home of Iowa State University – Cyclone country! The theme for this overnight RAGBRAI stop is “Cycling Power: Taking the state by storm;” the route will actually feature a ride through Jack Trice Stadium.

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Beyond that, there’s just so much to do in Ames. There are art museums, athletics, Reiman Gardens, and the amazing Iowa State campus. Ames has awesome shops, restaurants, and bars, both in the Main Street corridor (overflowing on this day with people there for the July 4 parade) and in Campustown. If you want to eat in a restaurant, here are my suggestions: The aforementioned Provisions, Stomping Grounds (Campustown), The Café or +39 (both on the north side of town), Great Plains Sauce and Dough (Main Street, but only if you are really hungry – this is a heavy-duty pizza). Other people rave about Hickory Park. I don’t eat barbecue, but I do like their ice cream, and it’s an iconic spot in Ames. Torrent Brewery just north of Main Street might be a fun place for RAGBRAI-ers, too.

Ames also has excellent parks and an aquatic center that I’m guessing would feel pretty good to anyone who’s been on a bicycle seat all day. Also, there’s my house. I know of at least four people who will be camping in my backyard, so stop on by.

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The next morning, as riders leave Ames along Lincoln Way, they’ll head to Nevada (population 6,805), the Story County seat.

In doing my research for this drive, I learned that Nevada (pronounced Na-VA-da) was named after the Sierra Nevada mountains. Huh? Um, there are no mountains here. If anyone knows this backstory, please let me know.

I also learned that there’s a place called Evergreen Lane located at 1204 H Ave. I read that it was an Italianate home with a carriage house, one-room schoolhouse, 1850 log cabin, and gardens, all on six  acres.

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I had to drive around a bit, but I finally found it. A sign said the grounds are open to viewing at all times, and that it’s the private property of Nevada Historical Society. I also met a guy across the street who said he keeps up the property and gives tours.

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Nevada also has a nice, historic downtown with some cute shops that I need to go back to visit.

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After Nevada comes Colo (population 876), also on the Lincoln Highway. Colo is actually located at the intersection of the historic Lincoln Highway and the Jefferson Highway. The intersection is marked by the historic Reed/Niland Corner, which includes a museum/diner and a cool vintage gas station.

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I spent quite a bit of time in the next town, State Center (population 1,468), partly because I enjoyed being there and partly because I got turned around and it took me forever to find the RAGBRAI route to get out of town.

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State Center, named for geographical center of the state, boasts that it is the Rose Capital of Iowa. And it also has a grocery store museum (106 W. Main St), which I’ve wanted to visit ever since I started this blog (and if that makes me a nerd, so be it), but it’s only open in the summers, on the weekend, from 1-4 p.m. Today I peeked into the window and it’s just as cute as you’d imagine it to be. So, I’ll drive back over one of these weekends. It’s managed by the State Center Historical Society.

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The downtown area was looking extra patriotic today since it’s a holiday, and I enjoyed peeking into the shop windows, especially the Junker Shop. Then I attempted to find the rose garden (300 3rd St SE), because you can’t be in the Rose Capital of Iowa and not go to the rose garden. It’s a pretty place for sure, with tons of different kinds of roses and a couple of small shelters, a bricked walkway, and charming statuary.

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After visiting the rose garden, that’s when I got turned around and couldn’t find my way out of town, but I did find a fun mural and some beautiful old homes (below). And got stopped by a couple of trains.

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I sort of bypassed Melbourne (population 820) and headed directly to Baxter (population 1,102). By now it was so hot that my glasses were steaming up every time I got out of the car. Heading out of town, I encountered the Chichaqua Valley Trail, a bike path I used to walk on a regular basis. It was like running into an old friend.

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On the road into Newton, I slammed on my brakes to photograph two giant metal insects in front of a home. I have no idea what that was about, but I thought they were cool. (Here’s the grasshopper, above. I think the other one was a praying mantis.)

I’ve spent a lot of time in Newton (population 15,034) because I go there four times a year for magazine press checks. Newton is probably best known for its Maytag Dairy Farms, the Iowa Speedway, and as the former home of the Maytag Corp. plant that manufactured washing machines and such (now home to TPI Composites, which makes enormous wind turbine blades). Of those three things, the dairy farm is definitely my favorite, so I headed there as I came into town.

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To my surprise, it was open! On the Fourth of July! I was shocked. I went inside and bought a wedge of their famous blue cheese and took note of a group of folks on the lawn, building a set for the Des Moines Metro Opera, which was performing Aaron Copland’s “The Tender Land” the very next day. Who knew? Maytag Dairy Farms is located at 2282 E 8th St N – just follow the signs.

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After that surprise visit I headed downtown. I really like the courthouse on the square (Newton is the Jasper County seat), and there are lots of murals in the downtown area, which I also enjoy (above). My favorite place to eat, Uncle Nancy’s, is on the square, too, but it was closed for the holiday. Dang! I was so hoping to get a cold drink there, or maybe even a shake. I also really like a gift shop on the square called The Farmer’s Wife.

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Newton’s an overnight town on the RAGBRAI route, and its theme is “Aloha Mahalo.” Like many of the RAGBRAI themes, I have no idea why.

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I will admit that after leaving Newton I was hot and tired and had less enthusiasm for the rest of the day’s route. And I’m in a car! I can’t imagine how this would feel on two wheels. But today was just out-of-control hot and humid.

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I stopped in Reasnor (population 190) to photograph a pretty barn (above) and a big-ass house up on a hill, surrounded by lush lawn and grazing horses (below).

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The road outside of Reasnor is a bit hilly as you head into Sully (population 819) and Lynnville (population 390), which seemed to me like one town. Even the water tower has both names on it (below). Sully has a winery, a nice city park, and the Coffee Cup Café.

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I came upon Ponderosa Lake before arriving in Montezuma (population 1,462). There was boating activity and other water sports on the lake, which seemed like a good idea, given the heat.

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Montezuma is also home to Diamond Lake Park and the Montezuma Country Club and golf course. There’s a pretty city park and quite a nice downtown, with the Poweshiek County courthouse at the center of the square.

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I learned, after my visit, that Montezuma’s downtown is a National Historic District; it’s also part of the (eternally confusing) Silos and Smokestacks National Heritage Area. Banners on the square proclaim that the town is celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2018. Way to go, Montezuma!

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I was amused by the abundance of street signs in tiny Deep River (population 269). Apparently a river named Deep River flows nearby, but I never saw it.

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Keswick (population 240) has a sad-looking business district (below). I did a little research on Wikipedia to see what might be interesting about this town and learned that the Burlington, Cedar Rapids, and Northern Railway built a 66-mile branch to What Cheer via Keswick in 1879.

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Also, the town is named for Keswick, England, the home town of a local woman who had offered lodging to the track-laying crew. Okey dokey.

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At long last I made it to Sigourney (population 2,059), the fifth overnight town on this year’s RAGBRAI route and the last town I planned to visit today. Sigourney has sort of an adorable town square with some nicely restored storefronts, an antique mall, restaurants, The Garden Gate shop, and remnants of some recent patriotic event on the lawn of the Keokuk County courthouse – there was very festive red, white, and blue tissue confetti all over grass.

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Sigourney is named for poet Lydia Sigourney, whose portrait is in said to reside in the foyer of the courthouse. The overnight town’s theme is “Where Pigs Fly.” Of course it is.

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It took me more than 12 hours to drive this three-day section of the route, from the time I left my house in Ames to the time I got back there. It rained on me, driving home, and the temperature dropped 20 degrees.

Next up: The last two days of the 2018 route – Sigourney to Davenport!

RAGBRAI 2018, part 1: Loess Hills and Donna Reed

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It’s July, so that means it’s time for my annual drive across the state along the RAGBRAI (Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa) route.

This year’s route goes smack through the center of the state and right through the town where I live: Ames. So, this year I was able to drive the route in three day-trips: Onawa to Jefferson, Jefferson to Sigourney, Sigourney to Davenport. Much of the route was familiar to me, but, as always, I discovered some new places and explored lots of previously unknown roadways. Here’s my first day’s drive, which covers the first TWO days of the actual bike ride:

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The first overnight town, Onawa (population 2,998), is known for two things: having the widest Main Street in the continental U.S. (above) and being the home of the Eskimo Pie. Yep, the Eskimo Pie was reportedly created by a local ice-cream-shop owner in 1920. Onawa is also the Monona County seat and has a stunning courthouse (below). There’s also an arboretum.

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Onawa’s RAGBRAI theme is “Riders Assemble!” This is some kind of superhero theme (see the window art at top) that I don’t really understand, but when I drove through a few weeks before RAGBRAI, Main Street was already decked out, so cheers to that.

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Heading out of town, cyclists will get to experience a brief but stunning taste of the Loess Hills (above) as they head toward Turin (population 68), a tiny town said to be named after Turin, Italy. Though the hills are on either side of the route, the road itself is relatively flat.

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Today is hot and terribly humid, and it looks like a storm is coming. The Little Sioux River is out of its banks.

In Soldier (population 174), there’s a veterans’ memorial and a large number of motorcycles in the small downtown area. The town was named for nearby unmarked grave of a soldier.

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The road out of Soldier is especially scenic, with pretty farmland and rural homes.

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In Ute (population 374), I followed the signs to the city park and had a picnic lunch. I was expecting bugs – there were none – but instead I got my feet and backside damp from the wet grass and wooden swing. Ute has an excellent welcome sign for RAGBRAI-ers (below).

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Charter Oak (population 502) is an adorable little town, with a strikingly pretty arboretum. A centennial mural sets off a small pocket park in the business district. (All shown below.)

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It’s hard to believe that I’m now already at the first overnight town: Denison. With a population of 8,298, Denison is a much larger town than the others on the route so far. The town has a Hy-Vee and a Wal-Mart, McDonalds and Pizza Ranch, and the other usual fast food options on the outskirts of town. But the downtown area is where Denison really shines. Five buildings (including the Crawford County courthouse, below) and a bridge are on the National Register of Historic Places.

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Denison is the hometown of actress Donna Reed, so downtown you’ll also find the Donna Reed Performing Arts Center. The Center is housed in a 1914 German opera house building and includes the Donna Reed Heritage Museum and Theater. Next door is a Bake Shop and Hollywood Café. All of this looked intriguing but everything was unfortunately closed.

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Denison’s RAGBRAI theme is “Bacon – It’s What We Smoke Here,” and I assume this is a reference to the town’s meat-packing plants (Denison is home to Smithfield Foods and Quality Food Processors, both of which process pork.)

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As I leave downtown, I note the cute kids’ artwork in downtown shop windows and snap a few photos of the majestic older homes. And then I get rather lost. Lots of highways converge here, and it takes me a few tries to get on the correct RAGBRAI road.

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Riders beginning the second day’s route will almost immediately encounter rolling hills as they head toward today’s first town: Manning.

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Manning (population 1,500) is a delightful little German town. I found a number of things to enjoy here. First, the town’s theme is “It’s Refreshing!” What’s not to love about that? They have an awesome “IOWA” sign …

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… and a cool old railroad trestle bridge …

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… and the first of many little free libraries I would come across on the route. (If you’ll look closely you’ll see that there are not one but TWO Bill Cosby books and a children’s bible story book. Oh, and the Babysitters Club.)

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I like Manning’s downtown area, with its German architecture, fun bike decorations, a coffee shop, and cute stores.

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Manning is probably best known for its German Hausbarn Heritage Park. Its 1660 hausbarn was constructed in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, dismantled, shipped to the U.S., and reconstructed in 1998. I wrote a blog about this in 2012.

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Today I opted not to pay the entrance fee since I’d been there before, but I spoke to a woman running the place and she seemed really excited for RAGBRAI. She told me about some country music entertainment and special German food they were planning on the site.

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Also in Manning are the Carroll County Freedom Rock (above), painted by ISU grad Ray “Bubba” Sorensen II , and a John Deere mural titled “Transitions,” by artist Clint Hansen, also an ISU grad, which contains 45,000 pieces of glass (detail below).

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Just down the road is Templeton (population 349). It’s a tiny town but has an interesting business district with nice storefronts, a huge grain elevator, a pretty Catholic church, and nice older homes.

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Templeton is best known as the home of Templeton Rye, and I was disappointed to see that their visitor center was closed for remodel.

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When I arrived in Dedham, I had an observation: the smaller the town, the bigger the sign. And the smaller the town, the most signs announcing the name of the town. This holds true throughout most of Iowa.

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The day remained oppressively hot when I arrived in Coon Rapids (population 1,261). There’s an interesting sculpture at the town’s entrance.

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In the downtown area, I snapped some photos, including a mural by artist Chad Elliott (enamel on steel, 2013).

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On my way out of town, I stopped at the Whiterock Conservancy/Garst Farmstead and wandered around a bit. This is a fascinating place to explore, with opportunities for hiking, biking, horseback trails, canoeing/kayaking, fishing, camping, and cottage rentals. You can also stay in the Garst Farm House, site of the 1959 Khrushchev visit, or in the Oak Ridge House or Woodland retreat.

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Just down the road I encountered the Bur Oak Visitors’ Center and more trails. I keep saying I need to spend a whole day here, but I just haven’t taken the time to do it yet. And today was definitely not the day.

Outside of Coon Rapids I stopped to photograph a pretty farm…

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…and then I was in Scranton (population 532), whose welcome sign boasts that there’s “No Place Like Home.” I didn’t find much to do there, and the thunderclouds were building up.

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I had planned to spend some quality time exploring Jefferson, the next overnight town (RAGBRAI theme: Highway to Bells). But just as I stepped out of my car on the town square,  thunder boomed and some mean-looking storm clouds roll in. So I called it a day and headed home.

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Next up: Jefferson to Sigourney.

Yankee Doodle Pops 2018

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Happy 4th of July! I attended my second Yankee Doodle Pops concert last night. Held on the west terrace of the Iowa State Capitol in Des Moines, this was the 25th annual pops holiday concert.

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I went for the first time last year and learned a few things. First, people walk around the whole time, so I learned not to sit right behind a sidewalk or you’ll have your view of the stage blocked pretty much from start to finish. I also learned that people talk during the concert. So, my expectations were lowered. One last thing I learned: where to sit to see the fireworks. That was a big takeaway from last year.

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Last night we arrived much later than the previous year, so we didn’t have as much time to kill. We’d already figured out that it’s easier to get out of downtown if you park your car far away and walk to the Capitol grounds; we parked in the parking garage at 5th and Keo (yes, I know this is like a mile away, but it works for me).

Last night’s concert was grand. The Symphony played all the right music (“Stars and Stripes Forever” is my favorite); Simon Estes performed; and the fireworks were spectacular. Even the weather cooperated. I am now in the mood for tomorrow’s holiday.

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National Parks of North Dakota

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When we enter North Dakota on Interstate 29, the first thing that happens is a really bad noise that sounds like some huge, angry vehicle following us. But, no, it’s us making the really bad noise. We have a flat tire.

Well, crap. This is no way to start a vacation.

We pull to the side of the interstate and take a look. Rear passenger tire flatter than flat. I guess it could be worse: It could be raining. Or dark. Or we could be in a really remote location.

So, OK. We will deal with this. My husband Dave makes a valiant attempt to change the tire while I call AAA and try not to freak out that one of the many semis blowing past us will crash into my tiny, injured Prius.

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AAA to the rescue! The dispatcher finds our location and sends help. A guy from a nearby tow service arrives in record time, changes our tire, and we’re back on the road to Fargo. Twenty years of paying our AAA dues has finally paid off. (Meanwhile, we experience a true-life example of North Dakota Nice when a woman and her son heading southbound on I-29 spot me and my car and, thinking I’m alone, turn around and come to my aid. My faith in basic human kindness is still intact.)

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LEWIS & CLARK AND INDIAN VILLAGES

We decided to visit North Dakota for the primary reason of checking more National Park Service locations off of Dave’s NP list. But our first stops were actually the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan near Washburn, about four hours west of Fargo (not in the National Park Service purview). These historic locations tell the story of the Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery with a special focus on the group’s winter stay with the Mandan and Hidatsa nations.

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The interpretive center is especially nice. It had great displays with more than 100 artifacts and nice-quality art galleries. We even saw the artwork of ISU alumnus Charles Fritz, who specializes in Lewis & Clark illustrations.

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Fort Mandan (above) is where Lewis & Clark stayed during the winter of 1804-05. The replica fort, built in 1972, was OK, but forts are not really my thing. The interpreter on site was a hippy-dippy stoner dude; I’m pretty sure he had been smoking something, or maybe he was just naturally strange.

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After touring the fort (yawn), we walked along the riverbank and then came upon a giant statue of Seaman, the Newfoundland dog who accompanied Lewis & Clark on his trek, and that was basically the highlight of that particular stop.

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Our next stop was the Knife River Indian Villages near Stanton, about 60 miles north of Bismark. This is a National Historic Site run by the Park Service.  I liked this place a lot. There was a reconstructed earth lodge that I could actually imagine living in, furnished with replica artifacts.

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We took a nice hike along the River Villages Loop Trail that went through a grassland and along a river and through the site of the Awatixa Village, one of the Northern Plains tribes.

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Most of the village sites in this area have been destroyed by erosion and river channel shifting and modern farming. The village site we hiked through was once home to as many as 400 people from the late 1790s to 1834.

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THEODORE ROOSEVELT NATIONAL PARK

From Stanton, we headed to Medora for a quick drive through the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I was super excited to re-visit this park; we wanted to explore the south unit more thoroughly and to experience the north unit, which we hadn’t seen before.

As you drive along Interstate 94, you can actually see the park to your north, and at one point the highway cuts through the lower edge of the park. The first place to stop, even before you have to pay to get into the park itself is the Painted Canyon Visitor Center. There’s a spectacular, breathtaking view of the park’s Badlands right off the interstate. It’s really amazing:

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After Painted Canyon, you drive into Medora, a little tourist town famous for its Medora Musical (“the rootin’-tootinist, boot-scootinist show in all the west”), Pitchfork Steak Fondue, Medora Gospel Brunch, and all the fudge and taffy you can eat – all within about five blocks. We drove through town without stopping and headed for the park entrance gate (which is right there in Medora. Really, you can walk there from the fudge shop.)

It was already late afternoon when we started the 36-mile scenic drive that takes a really long time because you have to stop for bison on the road and to stop and watch the adorable prairie dogs and to stop and take pictures of wild horses and scenic overlooks. This is truly a spectacular park, just filled with wildlife and virtually no cars. I mean, there were some people there, yeah, but it’s nothing like Yellowstone or some of the other national parks where it’s just bumper-to-bumper. This park feels really wild, and it’s just wonderful to experience it in relative silence.

We saw this herd of wild horses (below) when we first entered the park. Feral horses, descendants of ranch stock, roam all over the south unit, just like they did when Teddy Roosevelt first came to this place.

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So, like I said, we followed the road through prairie dog towns and scenic overlooks, stopping at every one of them because they’re so awesome.

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Our first bison sighting was a pair, one on each side of the road. One was happily scratching its shaggy head on a trailhead post. We were joined by just a couple of cars while we watched in awe as the huge animals walked within just a few feet of us.

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We saw more bison that afternoon, but no big herds. Just this guy, below. We finished the loop before dark and headed off to our overnight lodging and dinner at the Brick House Grill in Dickinson.

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The next morning we arrived early to retrace our drive in the South Unit and to hopefully do some hiking (though the forecast was calling for rain). We were again greeted by a herd of wild horses (maybe the same ones as we’d seen the day before), this time within just a few yards of the road. They were so beautiful! There were even a couple of babies; I couldn’t get enough of watching them. It was a great way to start the day.

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Our first “hike” was at the Skyline Vista overlook. It’s not really a hike, just a quick walk to the overlook, but it’s pretty and worth the stop:

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The prairie dogs were out enjoying the sunny morning, so we stopped and photographed them again:

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And we spotted this next big guy walking away from us as we drove along the loop road:

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Our next stop was a real hike along Ridgeline Trail. It wasn’t super long, but it was a workout, with a ton of steep stairs and views along a high, grassy ridge.

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Back in the car and we spot another guy in a picturesque setting, so we can’t pass up the photo op:

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Our next hike is to the Old East Entrance, a .8-mile flat walk through a prairie dog town with Badlands in the distance. It was hot and sunny by this point, and I was glad I wore a hat. We saw one group led by a park ranger, but no other people. The prairie dogs kept us company with their high-pitched chatter.

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Back in the car, and around another bend, we came across this craggy, old bison, all alone:

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We passed by the Coal Vein Trail because the road to get to it seemed too muddy. By now we were about a third of the way around the loop, and we stopped at Buck Hill to climb to the top for a 360-degree view of the southeast portion of the park. Here I am at the top:

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Our next bison sighting was different: Several of them were climbing along a ridgetop. We snapped a few pictures before they disappeared around the side:

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One of our favorite views the day before was the Boicourt Overlook, but it was raining when we were there and the light wasn’t so great. So we were happy to get some good photos today and hike along the Boicourt Trail. The main trail is a quickie, just about .3 miles, but we found that the trail continued, so we took it and experienced some of the best views we’d seen by climbing along the narrow ridge. This was my favorite part of the South Unit.

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The last hike we took was the Wind Canyon Trail, and it was different from anything else we’d seen, with views of the oxbow of the Little Missouri River. It was also the toughest, with steep up-and-down scrambles, and while we were there the storm clouds came rolling in. We narrowly finished our hike and were back in the car before it began to rain.

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On our way out of the park, we had one final view before taking shelter in the visitor center until the rain let up:

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The rain followed us as we drove the 50 miles north to the park’s North Unit. This was new territory for us, and how I wish the weather would have cooperated because I was so looking forward to taking a longer hike there. But it was not to be; it rained the whole time we were there.

We were mostly undeterred. We drove the 14 mile scenic drive to the far end, turned around, and drove back (it’s not a loop). We stopped to photograph a herd of longhorn steers, a historic demonstration herd that harkens back to the Badlands cattle industry. The North Unit also has bighorn sheep, but we didn’t see any.

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Our next wildlife viewing was a good one: a large herd of bison, with many offspring, on both sides of the road. And on the road itself. In the pouring rain. I got really wet but couldn’t stand not to take pictures, they were so awesome. We noticed that a couple of them had tracking collars, something we hadn’t seen in the South Unit. We watched them for a very long time until we decided we’d better move on.

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The other highlight of our visit to the North Unit was the River Bend Overlook. Here we encountered a large number of young visitors traveling by tour bus. It was raining and muddy and the trail was slippery, but the view was spectacular and I actually think the rain made the colors more vibrant. This is the area in which I was hoping to do a 4-mile hike along the Caprock Coulee Trail…but I wasn’t counting on the rain, so it was not to be. We had to be satisfied with the iconic overlook and the small shelter built by the CCC.

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At the very end of the trail is the Oxbow Overlook, another view of the Little Missouri River Badlands. The rain had let up by this point, but the clouds were really low and just added to the beauty of the place. According to signage, the river here makes a hard turn to the east even though it used to continue north to Hudson Bay. During the most recent ice age, continental glaciers blocked its path; hence the turn.

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As in the South Unit, our drive back was peppered with scenic overlooks and picturesque bison sightings…and a view of some longhorn steers relaxing (or hiding?) in the tall grass.

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I hated to leave this place. It’s really remarkable, and I can’t say enough about its rugged beauty. If you ever get a chance and don’t mind the long drive across North Dakota, I highly recommend a visit. And don’t just go to the South Unit like so many people do…the North Unit is definitely worth the extra drive.

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FORT UNION TRADING POST

We stayed in Williston overnight. Williston is at the epicenter of the recent oil boom. The small city has been featured in the New York Times, Forbes, The Guardian, ABC News, and other media outlets, and not with the kindest coverage. Here are a few headlines from stories I’ve read: “An Oil Town Where Men are Many, and Women are Hounded,” “In North Dakota, Boom, Bust and Oil,” “Built Up by Oil Boom, North Dakota Now Has an Emptier Feeling.” This last one, from the NY Times, is worth a link so you can read the whole story, but let me just share the lead: “WILLISTON, N.D. — The ‘man camps’ sprang up from the prairie, rows of trailers and modular steel boxes that housed thousands of workers chasing their fortunes in North Dakota’s oil fields. But these days, the man camps are missing something: men.”

Yeah, so we stayed in an interesting town. We saw the “man camps” and the industry that’s popped up alongside the drilling rigs and the businesses that are already closed down. But, hey, we stayed at a perfectly nice Hampton Inn. And ate dinner at a mostly empty and overpriced Italian restaurant.

The next morning we had to search for decent coffee before hitting the road. Our final destination: Fort Union Trading Post, another National Historic Site managed by the National Park Service. It’s southwest of Williston, and it’s right on the Montana border. In fact, when you enter the site you momentarily enter Montana, but then you’re right back in South Dakota. Anyway, this is a reconstruction of a non-military fur-trading post from the 1800s, and I was not too excited about going. But it’s actually pretty cool. There are some teepees set up, with a pretty backdrop, and the trading post itself is a full-scale reconstruction built on the exact location of the original structures.

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Fort Union was the most important fur trading post on the upper Missouri River from 1828 to 1867, longer than any other post on the frontier. Congress in 1966 designated the site to commemorate its significant role in the development in the American West.

The displays are nice (with actual pelts, if you enjoy that kind of thing), and the setting is pretty. But watch out for mosquitoes. I had to run away and barricade myself in the car.

And then we drove 13 hours (give or take) back to Ames. But at least we didn’t have a flat tire.

On the North Shore: Water, water everywhere

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You’re probably tired of reading about my northern Minnesota obsession. I love going up to the North Shore of Lake Superior, mainly to hike the Superior Hiking Trail. I promise this will be brief! I just have to share a few photos of my most recent trip. These first few are from Tettegouche State Park, with views near Shovel Point, plus a short hike to Baptism River falls:

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We did those hikes on Friday on our way up the shoreline. The next morning we took an 8-mile hike just south of Temperance River State Park. The hike took five and a half hours, and it rained for the first three hours. But it was still awesome! All the waterfalls are extra spectacular this year, because this area had a very snowy winter. Here are images of Tower Overlook, the trail, Cross River, and Temperance River, in that order:

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