Theodore Roosevelt National Park, ND

We’d spent most of a week in Wisconsin, culminating in a few nice days on the shore of Lake Superior in the city of Ashland and near the Apostle Islands in the town of Bayfield, and it finally was time to go.  North Dakota was calling us–the last of the lower 48 states to receive our Airstream.

Yes, with this one we’ve finally hit all 48. (I doubt our Airstream will ever visit Hawaii, and Alaska is somewhere in the distant future.) North Dakota had eluded us all this time because, well, it’s not on the way to anywhere and (sorry) there just wasn’t much to draw us into the state.

TRNP bison herd

Except for T.R.’s legacy: Theodore Roosevelt National Park to be precise, a fine place by reputation that just happens to be located in the western end of a state that is otherwise not known for tourism. Year after year I’ve considered making North Dakota a stop and each year it just hasn’t worked out. But this year we devised a route specifically with the intent of finally giving N.D. some Airstream love.

TRNP wild horses

I can see why Teddy liked the place. It’s wild, open, beautiful, and saturated with adventure. There are wild horses and bison, prairie dog towns, caves and coal veins, badlands and rivers, and all the fresh air you can inhale.  We’re finally back in the west, Teddy. Thanks for saving this place for us.

TRNP bison photography

As you can see, the wildlife is pretty easy to spot.  There’s a nice 34 mile loop drive in the park with many short walking trails that can easily consume your entire day and give you incredible vistas with little effort.  For us, the horses and bison were particularly accommodating and twice blocked the road with a parade.

[I feel obliged to point out that approaching bison is a particularly stupid thing to do. They’ll gore you and toss you fifty feet before you can even start to run away.  My photos were taken with a long lens. We stayed in the car and slowly drove away when it looked like they were roaming too close.]

TRNP prairie dog

On the other hand, you don’t have to fear the prairie dogs, even fierce-looking fellows like this one.  They look a little smug sometimes, probably because they know they are protected creatures living in a national park, and if tourists bug them they might get a ticket from a park ranger.  This particular beast was part of a large lawn-mowing crew that was spanning a couple of acres.

The campground here is exactly what we expect from a good national park. Very few amenities, a nice quiet site in the trees, ranger talks in the evening, and a natural setting that is untrammeled by hordes.  A few dried bison chips scattered in the campsite are a bonus.

No 30 amp power, no dump, and sulfury-tasting water help limit participation by the tenderfeet (or at least, those tenderfeet who don’t have a nice travel trailer to camp in!)  I’ve been mixing the water with powdered drink mix to disguise the flavor, because it has been fairly hot and I’m gulping down about 2 liters a day.


TRNP Eleanor BadlandsWe’re living on solar power here.  I’ve been wondering how we got along before we started carrying a portable solar panel, because lately it seems like we keep hitting campgrounds where trees shade the roof-mounted panels.  Except for a few hours in the morning, the only direct sun we can capture is far away from the Airstream.  I’ve been using every inch of the 45-foot cable to get the panels in a spot where the sun hits them in the early morning and late afternoon.

Even with that we aren’t getting a full recharge each day, so we have gone to our best boondocking practices.  One of my latest tricks for saving electricity is to use the iPad for 95% of my Internet needs.  It uses a fraction of the power of my laptop and recharges off a USB outlet, which means I can skip the inverter.  Plus, I can recharge in the car while we’re driving around.

Since it has been hot, we’re hanging around in the trailer during the morning while it’s cool, and then heading out for the day until sometime past 5 pm.  This cuts down the length of time we need the vent fans, which is also a big power saver.  Each vent fan consumes about 2 DC amps, which means all three of them running for six hours = 36 amp-hours.  That’s a lot of juice, which is put to better use after 7 pm when the temperatures start to drop quickly (thanks to dry western air).

We’ve got another day planned here, and then we’ll relocate to the lesser-visited North Unit of the park, which is about 70 miles away.  I’m told there’s no cellular service up there, so we’ll just do one night and then start heading to Montana.

Our stops from here to Seattle are completely uncharted.  We have no real plan at all.  Weather, campground availability, and our whims will reveal a route at some point, but it’s much like traveling by Ouija board—anything might be spelled out in the next 12 days or so…

Altered reality

As I sit here in the Airstream, writing, a thunderstorm is approaching. I’ve been working at the dinette quietly (so as not to disturb my sleeping fellow travelers) since 8:30, while watching other campers pack up and flee ahead of the approaching storm.

Our plan had been to travel up to Bayfield WI, which sits on a large peninsula in southern Lake Superior and which is an excellent starting point for exploring the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. Then we were going to head further around the lake and north to the remote Grand Portage National Monument. During that visit we planned to take a ferry to Isle Royale National Park.  Isle Royale has the distinction of being the least-visited National Park, because it’s hard and expensive to visit, and it was sort of a “bucket list” spot for me.

This is despite some disdainful online reviews of Isle Royale as a gray, forbidding, and unfriendly place.  Any island in the north has the possibility of being grim on a bad weather day, just as they can be delightful on a sunny summer day. It’s that wide range of moods that seems to attract some people. We were prepared to deal with Isle Royale regardless of weather (up to a point; I’m not getting on a boat for hours if the lake is heaving like a roller coaster). It’s an experience no matter what, and we collect experiences. A singularly uniform collection of perfect weather would be boring.

As an aside, I want to share a tangential review of Isle Royale National Park that was pointed out to me by my friend/correspondent Dr C as “probably the best review ever written”:

Everytime, upon returning from that cold, deadly and unforgiving nightmare-paradise that is Isle Royale, I made it a point to head straight in to the welcoming embrace of Zik’s bar. I’ll tell you honestly and straight away: I loved that place. I loved it with all my heart like a sailor loves his woman from afar during a terrible gale, knowing that he’ll never return to her but loving and loving all the same, with a reckless abandon matched only by those terrible waves smashing the ship to bits, driving that sailor to his doom though he loves and loves all the while. But that all came to a devastating end this past June. Yes. It was June. That month that sings to a man’s soul in the sweet tones not unlike those emitted from the golden throat of a decrepit but beautiful Greek bard-master. My favorite bartender, who was a dead ringer for Kurt Cobain, had been sacked by his sister for the crime of “keeping it real” and had been replaced by a vindictive lummox who damaged my pride and insulted my intelligence. He did all this before ejecting me from the bar for ordering my favorite drink: a scotch with two egg whites. For some reason he took issue with my request. He must have had a bad association with eggs. —Dylan Seuss-Brakeman


Grand Portage cancellation

But neither Isle Royale nor Zik’s Bar will work out for us now.  There is only one campground within 30 miles of Grand Portage (offered by the Indian casino that seems to be the source of most civilized amenities in that area) and that place is booked solid. No other RV camping exists in the small town of Grand Portage MN, and the outlying national forest sites are all far away and lack cellular service. I hate to admit it but cell service is a serious requirement for me these days.  After hunting for alternatives for an hour, we finally decided the best path was to scratch Grand Portage/Isle Royale off our itinerary.

This sort of thing rarely happens, but when it does there’s always something else to substitute.  We’ll cut 286 miles and about four days off our trip by skipping the Grand Portage side trip. We decided to spend an extra day in the Apostle Islands area and save the other day or two for later out west, when we’ll certainly find something else that makes us want to stay longer than planned.  Heck, we’ve already had that happen twice on this trip and we’ve only been out for 9 days.

To unsettle our plans a bit further, we finally ran into some weather.  We’ve been remarkably lucky so far, with brilliant summer weather all the way from New York to Wisconsin, but now in Ashland WI (our starting point on the shore of Lake Superior) we finally got whacked with thunderstorms this morning and a 100% chance of rain in the Apostle Islands tomorrow.

Ashland WI Kreher RV park-1

The photo above is from yesterday. Today it is gray and occasionally rainy, so it looks like we will have a subdued visit to Lake Superior.  We’ve decided to stay in this cozy waterfront city RV park for another day and get some work done.  It’s a nice spot, with a hike/bike trail attached, a cool oceanographic research ship docked nearby, and a huge dock that we can walk out on for an even better view of the lake area. The surrounding town seems pleasant, and there’s really no reason to rush now.

Ashland WI Kreher RV park-2

In fact, given the weather I might have passed on the Apostle Islands this time and moved further west but I’m trapped by that bane of all full-timers:  mail drop.  Even in this high-tech payment world, most of my advertisers pay their bills by paper check, and so I’m required to occasionally get a mail drop somewhere or run out of money. Plus I am expecting a few other packages, like copies of the Fall magazine. I’d like to see that.

Yesterday morning I told everyone to ship via FedEx and UPS to the campground further north we thought we’d be at by Tuesday evening, so at some point on Thursday I really need to get over there and pick up my mail. We’ll move tomorrow between storms, if possible.  In the meantime, it’s a working day and plenty of things to do here at my desk by the shore of Lake Superior.

Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, Nebraska

[Facebook readers: I don’t post every blog entry on Facebook, so you may have missed a few posts. If you want to catch up our travels from the past week, check out my blogsite at]

We have been moving quickly the past few days.  From Fort Collins we headed up to bag a national park site, Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, just because we could.  This particular park is small, doesn’t have camping, and is located in a fairly remote area, so it’s tough to visit.

Back in 2007 when we were at Scottsbluff I considered going to Agate but it seemed too remote when I looked at the Nebraska map.  That was silly, since it’s only about 50 miles away.  Turned out to be a pretty nice spot, with a great visitor center (and an awesome collection of Sioux artifacts that by itself was worth the trip).  Despite the name, the park is not really about Agate, but is very strong on fossils.  (Come find out what a daemonelix is.)  Emma snagged a Junior Ranger badge and we hiked one of the trails until the weather turned abruptly blustery and cold.

Agate Fossil Beds Emma Jr Ranger

On the recommendation of one of the park staff, we are not taking the quickest possible route across Nebraska (I-80) because it’s also the most boring.  Instead we headed north to Rt 20, which has turned out to be a much nicer way to go.  Rt 20 has—unlike I-80—actual scenery!  Rolling hills!  Lovely state parks!

It’s enough to make me feel badly about all those things I said in the past regarding the dullness of traversing Nebraska.  It’s still vast and often startlingly empty, but at least not so straight and tedious that you’re tempted to lash the steering wheel with a rope and take a nap.

Ft Robinson SP Airstream

Our stop for the night was Fort Robinson State Park, which is one of the many small treats of traveling this route.  I posted a review on Campendium.

From there we’ve been winging  it across Nebraska’s countryside, stopping in small towns for roadside breaks, and listening to podcasts when there’s little outside to see.  We found a quiet little State Recreation Area near Stanton NE (also on Campendium) and that was a good find too.

The rest of the travel has been, sadly, Interstate highway through Iowa and Illinois.  Right now we are stopped about 90 miles from the Chicago area, heading to an appointment tomorrow with the kind folks from Zip Dee (the people who made your Airstream awning and probably also your chairs).

We’re also going to get the windshield replaced while we are in the Zip Dee parking lot, because something cracked it on Monday night.  Alas, that’s part of the price of doing a lot of highway travel. We have zero-deductible glass insurance for that reason.

But we won’t hang around in the Zip Dee parking lot for long, because by Saturday we need to be in Ohio to help prep for next week’s Alumapalooza.  The excitement is building for that event and it looks like it’s going to be a great time. More on that soon.

Cactus, sure—but FISH in the desert?

If you read my previous post (Black Bottles, Boots, and Borders) you might be a bit dismayed or even scared by my harping on border issues at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. So I want to give equal time to natural beauty of the Monument, because that is what you should really expect here.

Being the Centennial year of the National Park Service, quite a few promotions are going on.  All 410 units of the NPS have been holding occasional free entry days, and there’s a new program to give every fourth grader (and their family) a free pass to the parks for a year.  Some extra funding has been going to improve the parks, too.

Organ Pipe crestateEmma always does the Junior Ranger program, but this park also has a “Desert Ranger” program for older kids and adults, and the park offers a special pin to anyone who hikes five miles in the park.  We decided to go for all of it.  Participating in things like this just gives you a better appreciation and enjoyment of a national park, so why not?

Having to study the exhibits in the Visitor Center in order to fill out the Desert Ranger booklet is why now we all know the correct term for a cactus that has this sort of mutation. It’s called “crestate,” and I’ve been told that it’s the result of suppressed genes from the long-ago days when cacti evolved from ancient ferns. (Not sure if that latter part is true.)

We’ve seen many saguaro cactus in Arizona with crestate shapes, but this was the first time we’d spotted it on an Organ Pipe Cactus. Even some rangers didn’t know that was possible.

We spotted that one on the hike to the Milton Mine, about half a mile down the trail on the left, in case you want to check it out for yourself.

There’s not a lot left at the mine locations now. You have to use your imagination, building up from the concrete foundations and a few other things that have survived a hundred years in the desert.

When we visit such places I’m always struck by the difficulty early prospectors would have experienced to get out here, and survive for even a few days.  There’s no natural source of water except a small seep several miles away. To a non-native’s eye there’s no food either, so the miners would undoubtedly pack in supplies as evidenced by the rusted steel cans abandoned in a heap nearby.

Organ Pipe mine tailings

From the look of the ore in the tailings pile I assume they were hunting copper (although I’m sure a little silver or gold would have been welcome too). You can see the greenish spots on the rocks, from oxidized copper. Ultimately the mine was unsuccessful. The big commercial successes came later with the advent of open pit mining.

(The town of Ajo north of the park, was a company town for a big mining operation, but the mines there have been idled for years, awaiting a rise in copper prices that would make it profitable to dig again. It’s now a town of Border Patrol agents and their families, housing 550 agents at present.)

Organ Pipe E&E Airstream shade

We found the best bird watching was right at our campsite.  The sites are well landscaped with all kinds of native plants and cacti, and so visits from Cactus Wrens, Bullock’s Oriole, Gambel’s Quail, and the couple pictured below (species I haven’t identified) were common and easy to photograph.  Bert used his Zip Dee awning and Solar Shade as a sort of contrived “photo blind” and got some nice shots for his collection.

Organ Pipe birds

The one creature nobody expects to see in the desert is a fish, but here they are.  Surviving somehow in shallow, hot, sometimes low-oxygen pools and springs, these little devils are a reminder of how life endures even in the most inhospitable spots on the planet.  They’re like little mascots for desert parks: spunky, ancient, and surprising.  In the photo you can see the iridescent blue of an adult male Desert Pupfish, and if you look closely you’ll see several brown females or juveniles as well. They live at Quitobaquito, but you can see them in an exhibit at the Visitor Center.

Organ Pipe Desert Pupfish

Now we are home again, and we’ve got our various badges and patches for having completed the Junior Ranger and Desert Ranger books and a 5-mile hike, and we’ve got a fresh ink stamp in our National Parks Passport.  It was a great weekend.

This won’t be our last visit.  I expect we’ll be back with our Airstream many more times. The southwestern desert is a strange and wonderful place, and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is one of the places you can see it best.

Black bottles, boots, and borders

We live 70 miles from Mexico, so border issues are always a topic here.  It’s something you can always count on, like death, taxes, and comical politics. There have been problems here with people illegally immigrating or smuggling as long as there has been a border, and while the times change, the fundamental arguments, responses, and failures seem to be perennial.

Back in the late 19th century it wasn’t the Mexicans that people worried about, it was the Chinese.  They were seen as taking away American jobs with their cheaper labor.  (This was the inspiration for the shamefully racist series of laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act and other laws. But as has been true throughout history, banning a race of people didn’t solve anything.)

The first official lawmen to patrol the border were with US Customs (Chinese Bureau). Later the responsibility migrated to Immigration, and eventually in 1924 the US Border Patrol was formed. One of the first people to patrol the border in this area, way back in 1887, was Jefferson Davis Milton, who rode on horseback between Yuma and Tucson.

This probably wasn’t a particularly lucrative occupation, so Milton also prospected for mines, and he opened one in the land that was eventually to become Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. As part of our weekend vacation we decided we’d hike out to the Milton Mine just to have an excuse for a pleasant day in the park.

Organ Pipe border barrier

Driving along the steel vehicle barrier that marks most of the border in this area, we were reminded how the border is more of a political and economic concept rather than physical thing. The fence here is not designed to stop people (and even if it were “300 feet tall” it wouldn’t). It’s just designed to stop vehicles. The Border Patrol does the rest of the job, with high-tech surveillance and manpower. Although we couldn’t see them while we were parked by the fence, there’s no doubt that they could see us.

Organ Pipe black water bottlesOur six-mile roundtrip hike up the mine trail was a mere lark for us, but for the unfortunates who try to cross this land with the help of human smugglers called coyotes, the same mileage can be a life-and-death struggle. The heat and dryness here, even in late February, quickly sap you of water at the astonishing rate of about a gallon per day.

Looking for signs of immigrants who had passed by before, we would occasionally find large black water bottles discarded and trapped by the wind in the branches of a creosote bush.  The coyotes have convinced their clients that these black bottles help them evade detection (because they don’t glint in the sun).

That’s a ridiculously outmoded idea given the technology of the US Border Patrol today, which can detect humans from the vibration of their footsteps and the heat signatures of their bodies, but nonetheless Mexican factories continue to churn out black plastic bottles and (no doubt) sell them to the unsuspecting immigrants for additional profit. We had no trouble finding a half-dozen bottles, which I collected and brought back to Tucson later for recycling.

We encountered no one else on our hike but as we went I could not stop reflecting on how garishly we represented the economic divide between north and south. We visited the fence as tourists, posing for photos with digital cameras and then hopping back into our air conditioned Mercedes SUV.  We hiked with the latest sports gear, sucking water from our Camelbaks, munching packaged protein bars, and protected by Neutrogena sunscreen.

Organ Pipe boot repairAnd then we encountered a shallow overhang in a dry wash where a bit of litter told the story of people who spent a few hours here, hiding from the sun and the law. They were desperate to get to the economic land of milk and honey. We were hiking for fun.

I wondered how much water they had left at that point, less than six miles from the border fence with 60 miles yet to go. I wondered if that group of immigrants had any idea what they were up against, and if they were already losing hope.

Fortunately that wasn’t our experience.  Instead we had a sort of “First World problem” along the trail when Eleanor’s elderly Vasque boots began to come apart.  I didn’t know this when we set out but those boots were 21 years old and they were ripe for failure.  Three miles into the hike and close to the second mine (Baker), the sole of Eleanor’s left boot began to come off.

Eleanor managed a sort of field repair on the boot by partially removing the lace and running it underneath the boot to secure the sole temporarily.  She and I turned back at that point (leaving Bert and Emma to continue on to the Baker mine) as the boot continued to fall apart.

About a mile from the car the sole finally fell off completely and the other boot wasn’t looking too good either. In the end Eleanor survived the hike but the boot failure left her with some bruises around the ankle and some muscle ache from the uneven height of her shoes.

Organ Pipe boot closeupHere was another reminder of the difference between a hike that starts north of the fence and one that starts south of the fence.  Nobody in our group died, and Eleanor will get a new pair of boots out of this.  (I might even make a recommendation that she get a new pair every decade or so from now on.)  Paradoxically, the boot failure has made me feel more fortunate than ever.

Now, you might be getting the impression that border issues overshadow everything in the national park.  That’s really not the case.  I was attuned to these things before I arrived and so I was thinking about it. The park management and the Border Patrol have worked hard to restore the park to a state where you don’t see people skulking through, and every part of the park is safe.

In my next blog entry, I’ll write about the natural side of things and you’ll get the rest of the story—and see what a glorious place Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument really is.