Thursday, May 6, 2021

The Best Laid Plans...

So, needless to say, things were going great. 

Monowi proved to be every bit as kitschy and cool as we'd hoped. Let's face it, a population of a single person is pretty neat, and listening to that person talk about how she came to be the sole resident of the town is almost mesmerizing. But there were other things to see further down the road, and we intended to see them.

With Nebraska in our rear view mirror, we headed toward Sac City, Iowa. Now, Sac City is a veritable photograph of small town America, and about 2,000 people call it home. So, while driving th


BAM!

 

Without warning, a suicidal deer literally launched itself into the travel lanes from the median of US-20. I was traveling about 75mph and only saw it at the last second. I stood on the brakes and swerved in an attempt to avoid hitting it.

I learned two things that day. First, anti-lock brakes are a thing. When I hit the deer, the car had slowed to about 50mph. Now, don't get me wrong, that's still a significant speed at which to hit a deer, but it's a Helluva' lot better than hitting it at 75mph. 

Second, I learned that, while I was only a split second away from missing Bambi completely, I was also only a split second away from hitting it squarely with the front end, and that could've been disastrous:

 


 

All things considered, we were monumentally fortunate. First, and most importantly, we were uninjured. In what could've been a tragic series of events, we lucked out and completely escaped injury. Secondly, the amount of damage to the car was, in the grand scheme of things, pretty minimal:

 



 
It could've been a lot worse...
 
Always the best part of a good deer strike...
 

Sitting on the side of an Iowa freeway wasn't exactly the place to start filing a claim, so I decided to wait until we got to our hotel that night. Once ensuring the car was operable we continued on our way, all the while our misfortune nagging me at the back of my mind.

As unfortunate as we'd been, we weren't ready to let it destroy our trip. Iowa held more to see, after all, and we were going to check it out. We continued on our way to Sac City, because Sac City is home to an undeniable monument to the unwavering ingenuity of the American spirit. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the world's largest ball of popcorn:

 

Nowhere else but America...

I know, I know. I can hear the collective gasp of my 11 followers as they try to digest the majesty of such a creation.

Weighing in at 9,370 pounds, the ball was created by 250 volunteers working for almost 13 hours. They used 900 pounds of popcorn, over 2,500 pounds of sugar and 1,400 pounds of syrup. Now, my New York public school education tells me that falls far short of the claimed 9,370 pounds, but I'm not about to go up against the Sac City Visitor's Bureau, so let's just accept the almost 4-1/2 ton claim and move on, shall we?

Weight aside, this thing is pretty damn big. Its diameter is 8 feet, and the circumference measures in at 24 feet. The ball is so big and so heavy that it wasn't placed inside the building you see above. In fact, the building was constructed around the popcorn ball.

And, as much as I kid and make jokes about this sort of thing, it's important to not lose sight of the larger point, that being that something like the world's largest ball of popcorn is just another example of the sort of unique things you can find along the road in Anytown, USA.
 

What had turned into a ridiculously day ended in a hotel room somewhere in Iowa, on the phone with USAA reporting my accident. I wasn't going to be getting the car repaired until I got to Ohio, but I wanted to make sure it was reported.

And, as unfortunate an event as it was, I was damned and determined to not allow it to sully the rest of the trip. It is, after all, just a car, and cars can be replaced. We had more things to see, and I was not about to let one emotionally distraught deer ruin everything.

We had more to see the next day...


Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Monowi, Nebraska...

Rested and ready, we got on the road at a relatively reasonable hour. There were a few stops we wanted to make, and neither of us is a fan of feeling rushed. For what I believe was the first time since leaving Oregon, we felt... relaxed.

Our first stop was one I've been looking forward to for a while now. It wasn't some big attraction, nor did it have the majesty of a bunch of old cars buried in the dirt. It was nothing more than one little roadside town, somewhere down the road between here and there.

Monowi.

Even before we got to Monowi, we had to make a stop. My daughter has this uncanny ability to look down some lonesome, barren street and tell if it's worth checking out. We did this, just a few miles away from Monowi, in the town of Lynch. Thinking back, I don't think Lynch, Nebraska even has a traffic light. It's probably he tiniest town I've ever been in:

 

I soooooo wanted to see what was behind that door...


At first we weren't sure what this was, then we figured it out. It's a movie theater...


When was the last time you saw a gas station with one gas pump?

Now, don't get me wrong, I did "small town" America, but this was ridiculous. We drove through Lynch for a good ten minutes and didn't see a soul. To me, it seemed like something lifted from the pages of a Stephen King novel as opposed to just being a small, northeastern Nebraska town. The census says the population is 206. Well, if they're there, they didn't show themselves.

From Lynch it was only a short drive to what truly is the smallest town in America, Monowi, Nebraska. There was little to see along the way (I mean, c'mon, it's Nebraska), but we did find this 1940's era pickup which had certainly seen better days. There's nothing special about this, it just looks cool. And, if I had to guess, I'd imagine it's been sittin' there since the 40's too:



From the dilapidated truck, it was just a quick drive down the road is the smallest town in America, Monowi, Nebraska.

By the way, the correct pronunciation is "MAHN-OH-WHY".

Monowi was founded as a railroad town in 1902, and saw its most robust years in the 1930's, when the population swelled to around 150. Over the years since, though, as cities afar were experiencing growth and offering better job opportunities, the younger folks started to pack up and move on. By the year 2000, there were only two residents left: Elsie and Rudy Eiler.

Monowi, Nebraska - Population: 1...

 

Rudy and Elsie met in the fourth grade, and were married for just shy of 74 years when Rudy passed in 2004. Since then, Elsie has served as Mayor, clerk, treasurer, librarian and bartender. She pays herself taxes and even grants herself her liquor license:

 

Elsie Eiler, the sole resident of Monowi, Nebraska...

Elsie's a woman of slight stature and quiet confidence. As we walked in she welcomed us quietly with a "Sit where you want" as she moved to serve other customers. We took a seat at the table closest to what serves as a kitchen and looked around.

It's more tavern than restaurant, but there was no shortage of customers seated at tables as opposed to the bar. Many, it seemed, were regulars, those who stop in not only for a bite to eat but also to check on Elsie. She is, after all, 87 years old.

Monowi, at one time, was also home to a chapter of the Night Owls Motorcycle Club. No one seems to really recall when a chapter last called Monowi home, but it's clear it's been some time:


The Night Owls (former) clubhouse in Monowi...

One thing in town which Elsie takes a great deal of pride in is Rudy's Library. When he passed away, Rudy wanted his 5,000 volume book collection to be made available to anyone wishing to have access to it. It was with this in mind that Elsie opened "Rudy's Library" in 2004, in a small building along the main drag:

 




 

When we finished lunch, Jess and I went over to the counter to thank Elsie. Up to now she'd been very quite and quite reserved but, when I asked if she would oblige us for some photos, her face lit up and she couldn't say "YES!" fast enough:

 

Elsie Eiler and me at the Monowi Tavern...


Elsie and Jess...

We chatted for what had to be another 20 minutes when we finally decided to let Elsie get back to the growing number of diners in the tavern.

Hindsight being what it is, we probably should've explored more in the town. Allegedly there are four traffic lights, but I saw none of them and, honestly, I can't see a reason for them being there. But there were things for us to do and places for us to be, so we turned the car east to see whatever lay down the road...


Sunday, May 2, 2021

Valentine, Nebraska...

We decided that, after a week of going and going every day that we would slow it down a little bit, and give ourselves  a break. We decided to make Valentine, Nebraska a two day stop. We'd be able to decompress, recharge and maybe even get some laundry done. We even got that stop at Carhenge in (and you should totally go if you get the chance!).

We got to our hotel and got settled in, but we wouldn't be staying long as we were both pretty much famished. Now, there's not exactly a whole lot to choose from when it comes to dining options in the thriving metropolis of Valentine, Nebraska, so it came as a relief that the restaurant we chose, The Peppermill, was outstanding. Jess got some tasty chicken thing, but I had to go for the brisket. Now, no offense to any of my barbeque-makin' friends, but this was probably the best brisket I've ever had, and it's hard for me to envision brisket that could be even moderately better:

 

Dinner at The Peppermill in Valentine, Nebraska...

 

It was the end of a very long day, so when we returned to the hotel it wasn't long before we were calling it a night. There would be no alarms set, no long drives started; nothing, and that was a nice change.

The next day, after knocking out some laundry, we decided to explore  little bit. Now, make no mistake, Valentine is a very small place. The population is right around 2,700, give or take, and it's almost a game trying to figure out what all of those people do for a living. There's no industry to speak of, and the next town down the road is quite a ways down the road.

But what Valentine has is character. It's got character to the nth degree. The "small town feel" is everywhere you look:

I wouldn't be surprised if the town grocery store was also in this building...


The local Security First Bank, complete with brick relief sculpture on the outside wall...

Monument honoring all of Valentine's war dead...


Valentine's World War I monument...


Storefront on Main Street...


Storefront on Main Street...


I have a similar hat at home which I don't wear. Seemed like overkill...


The Skylight Bar & Grille...


Valentine is known as "The Heart City" and there's no shortage of hearts and heart-like motifs throughout the entire town. So popular is the town that every February 14, the post office is inundated with cards and letters to be postmarked with a heart and the town's name.



So, if and when you find yourself in the middle of Nebraska and needing a place to stay, you could do a lot worse than Valentine, where the people are friendly, the red meat is amazing and even the Super 8 is cozy and warm...










Thursday, April 29, 2021

Post Yellowstone: Capser, Wyoming & The Drive To Valentine, Nebraska...

 As I mentioned in an earlier entry, we finally got to our hotel in Billings, MT around 1:30am. Needless to say, we were pretty exhausted.


The next day's drive was from Billings to Casper, WY, and we took our time doing it. We were in no hurry to do anything much at all, although dinner would certainly be on the agenda. We did make a stop at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. I'd been there twice; once in 2013 and once while on this trip, so I didn't take any pictures.. But Jess had never been and, since it's only about 1/4 of a mile off the freeway, we decided o take a break. And, I should mention again, my National Parks pass I received at Badlands got us in for free, when we'd have paid $25 without it. 

After Little Bighorn the drive to Casper was relatively short. We got to our hotel and settled in and, before too long, we decided to get dinner. We founds a place called The Branding Iron. Advice to heed: If you ever find yourself in Casper, WY and you get hungry, go here. The burgers were pretty amazing, the beers were cold and the martinis were damn near perfect.

Jess also wanted to check out a local camera store while we were there. I told her that we'd track it down the next day before heading out. Well, as it was, the camera store was directly across the street from the restaurant where our Uber driver let us out. Needless to say, this meant it was somewhat easy to find the next day.

Casper was nice and relaxing, but the drive to Valentine proved to be one of the more enjoyable drives of this entire trip.

"Why?", you ask?

"Carhenge".

Located in the thriving metropolis of Alliance, Nebraska, Carhenge is Nebraska's answer to England's Stonehenge. I first heard of this some years back and have always wanted to visit.. A local gentleman, Jim Reinders, built it as a memorial to his father in 2007. It consists of 39 vintage automobiles, all spray painted gray.


Carhenge...


The best way to describe Carhenge is "bizarre". Out in the middle of nowhere in Alliance, Nebraska, it's a free attraction that's been featured in the documentary "Carhenge: Genius or Junk?" and in the 2007 travel book 1,000 Places To See In The USA And Canada Before You Die.

The cars used for Carhenge were all junked at some point, and Reeinders decided he could use them for his weird little project. But the Stonehenge homage isn't the only thing you'll see here. It's been dubbed an "Art Car Reserve" and, as such, has other works of art, as well:

 







Despite so many potential "blank canvases" for graffiti that can be found here, there's actually one on which visitors are allowed, and in fact encouraged, to write on. It's "the autograph car" and all you'll need is a Sharpie. When you walk onto the grounds, just turn to your right and you'll see it.


The Autograph Car...



Jessy brought her drone along...

 

Jessy's drone checking out the 1957 Cadillac....






Donations are appreciated, as there's no admission fee to enter and enjoy this roadside attraction. However, giving a donation can prove difficult. I tried to cram a $20 bill into this red, white and blue "donation" thing, but I couldn't. It was cram packed with cash. Instead, after I get back to Florida I'll contact them and find another way to donate.

Carhenge is truly one of those things you could really only ever find here in the States. It's a combination of commitment, talent, and just just weird ideas all coming together at the right time and the right place to produce something so classically American. 

Weird stuff is always fun to find when you're traveling, and you're not gonna' find too much stuff that's weirder than this...

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Yellowstone...

The day to visit Yellowstone had finally arrived.

I have to be honest: I was a little giddy. For me, there are two "great" National Parks: Yosemite and Yellowstone. I visited Yosemite many years ago, and it was pretty amazing. Yellowstone proved to be just as amazing, if not more so.

We started our day around 10:00am with breakfast at The Book Peddler in West Yellowstone. Part coffee shop, part book store, this is a quirky little shop that has a much wider book selection than a food selection. That's okay, though. We got some really, really tasty breakfast sandwiches and drinks which we enjoyed on-site. When we got done, we hit Yellowstone Camera Store, which was actually pretty well stocked. Hey, when you operate so close to one of the nation's premier National Parks, you'd better be able to get the people what they want.

After a bunch of hemming and hawing over possible purchases, Jess decided to wait on both a lens and a tripod. I, however, went shopping. Yup; I got me a second battery pouch and a Yellowstone Camera Store hat.

A big spender, I am. Let there be no question about that.

When we were done at the store, we hit the road. Literally five or six minutes later, we were entering Yellowstone through the west entrance.

Now, this might be a good time to mention our plan: We planned to enter the park through the west entrance, cruise along until we got to Old Faithful, watch that erupt, and then head out through the east entrance and on to our next destination.

So, yeah, remember that plan.

We arrived at the park at around noon or so. We got our map, and the park ranger advised us that only the roads depicted in blue and black were open. Upon inspection, we found that the road to the east entrance was shown in orange. If you're keeping score at home, this is adverse impact #1 to our plan.

But moving on.

After being in the park for about five minutes, we saw what everyone hopes to see: a bison. There it was, just lopin' alongside the road. We weren't certain, but we decided to treat this as our one bison sighting of the day:

 


Now, we might have been a bit low in our estimate of just how many bison we would actually see. In actuality, there are, by some estimates, up to 5,000 bison in the park. With so many in the park, you can certainly expect just a few. We ended up seeing hundreds of them. Some were loners, others were in herds, both large and small:





This one is my favorites of all the bison photos. He posed for a portrait, so I figured I'd take one...


Now, bison are hardly the only wildlife in the park. There are deer, elk, wolves, foxes, pronghorn, bear; a host of animals, both dangerous and not so much. We found a non-so-dangerous one when we came around a turn and saw a fox sitting in a clearing:

 


It seemed odd that a fox would just be sitting in a clearing in Yellowstone while those pesky humans were photographing it, but it just sat there.

It just sat there until it rammed its snout down a hole and came up with a mole of some sort.

Dinner is served:


 

Now, as cool as it is to see and photograph the wildlife in the park,the wildlife's not the only reason to visit the park.There are countless geysers and springs to photograph. If you've never experienced it before, it's what's known as a "target rich environment".

While most visitors will want to visit the Grand Prismatic Spring, there are literally hundred of others to photograph: We found a much smaller one which was pretty picturesque in its own right:

 



One of Yellowstone's geyser fields...


Of all the geysers, the geyser king is, without question, "Old Faithful". One of the most common questions you'll hear, almost anywhere in the park, is "When will Old Faithful erupt?"

Now, you might think it's a difficult thing to predict. After all, Mother Nature will do as she damn well pleases, right?

Well, the reality is that scientists have gotten to the point where they can accurately predict the eruption, within 10 minutes, about 90% of the time. In this case, we were told it would erupt at 2:50pm. Actual eruption time? 2:49pm.

Not too shabby:


 

Old Faithful...


Now, something to keep in mind is that, while most people take the time to drive themselves around the park, there are a number of tour companies who'll happily do the driving for you, and they'll provide narration throughout your tour. There are a number of them listed on Google. Be forewarned, though, none of them are inexpensive. Depending on your departure point, the costs start right around $260 for a full day trip with a private guide:

 


Now, let's go back to that aforementioned plan...

When we first got to the park, the Ranger gave us a map. Any roads show in blue or black were open. Roads shown in any other color were closed. As we looked at the map, the first thing we noticed was that the east entrance, and the road leading to it, were orange.

Of course, this failed to meet our criteria for being able to exit the park.

The road to the northeast entrance, however, was shown in black. "Excellent", I thought. This wouldn't take us out of our way too far, and we wouldn't fall behind on our schedule all too much. So, we got in the car at Old Faithful, and made the 40 minute drive to the northeast entrance. It was a short drive to the town of Cooke City, where we decided to fill up and get a bite to eat. The Prospector Restaurant, in the Soda Butte Lodge, was the only game in town, so we went in:


Soda Butte Lodge in Cooke City, Montana...

 

Some nice warm food recharged our batteries a bit, and we were all ready to hit the road. We'd be taking Route 212 out of Cooke City and onto our next destination.

Well, that was the plan, anyway. Remember the plan?

Yeah.

While the park map showed that the park road leading to the northeast gate  was open, it said nothing of whether or not the road would be open beyond that. We quickly found out that it would not be. In fact, it was covered in snow.

A lot of snow.

So, we basically had only one other option which didn't include driving all the way back to the east entrance and staying another night in West Yellowstone, and that was to try to north entrance to the park. So, we reversed course, drove back to the northeast entrance to the park, and began the 40 minute drive to the northeast entrance. It was a bummer to have to do this, but there really weren't any other options. 

We got to the north entrance, exited the park, and found a gas station. After speaking with the proprietor for a bit, we were assured the roads were clear. So, we developed a plan to drive as long as we could reasonably stay awake. We'd gotten to the park about 11am. It was now about 10pm and we were tired. After looking at GPS and assessing our own road-worthiness, we decided we would stop in Billings MT, about three hours away.

Our day finally ended when we got to out hotel. It wasn't hip and it wasn't fancy, but it was comfortable and getting a late check-out the next day wasn't an issue.

All in all, with all of the recalibrations we were forced to make because of road closures, it was an absolutely amazing day. It's difficult to describe Yellowstone National Park in just a few words, and I have my doubts that the words I've written here suffice. But go see for yourself. 

It really is one of those places which truly defies description...






The Best Laid Plans...

So, needless to say, things were going great.  Monowi proved to be every bit as kitschy and cool as we'd hoped. Let's face it, a pop...