Friday, May 21, 2010

More sights to see, north by northwest

Heading northeast out of Boulder, I was soon out in the prairie.

Lafayette, Colo., was a good place to stop and rest up after my loop down to Santa Fe and back up through Texas and Oklahoma cattle country and lots of southeastern Colorado grasslands. Thanks to my sister-in-law Jane Marshall, I was able to get caught up on the blog, do my laundry and even -- after I found some NikWax cleaner in Boulder -- wash the bugs out of my riding suit. I confess I left some oil spots on her driveway getting the oil changed, but after the run from California to Colorado it was time.

My Honolulu bike buddy Daniel Niide introduced me to Stephen Lam, who restores vintage Suzuki Katanas -- superbikes of the 1980s and 90s -- at his place just up the road in Longmont. I rode up there to pay a visit and covet Steve's immaculate creations. Besides being an expert mechanic and machinist, Steve knows where to go in northern Colorado for genuine Vietnamese pho and we had a great time talking bikes while eating spicy noodle soup and chicken wings.

Next morning, Jane found me at the dining room table puttering on Google maps trying to decide where to go next. Wyoming seemed to be the probable destination and I was researching the weather in Yellowstone, Jackson Hole and the Grand Tetons with some trepidation. Some roads were still closed in the area because of recent snow storms and camping again at altitude didn't have much appeal.

She suggested, why not go up to South Dakota's Black Hills and Badlands? They are just north of the Nebraska state line and from there you can check out the Nebraska panhandle and sand hill country on your way to the big Memorial Day family reunion in Bertrand.

For some unknown reason, I'd thought Rapid City, Sturgis and the Black Hills were much further north -- up in North Dakota, I guess. Now that I had an alternative to Wyoming frost bite, I was ready to go. In fact, I packed up and left that Thursday afternoon. I'd see Jane and her family again in a week and a half at the reunion.

In Gering, the neighbor to Scottsbluff, I found a pleasant campground near the bluff itself.

My plan was to ride up to Scottsbluff, Neb., on Thursday and to spend the night camping at Lake Minatare, which is locally famous for being the only lake in Nebraska with a lighthouse. The Civilian Conservation Corps built it during the Great Depression to shine a beacon of hope for those living in the region.

Unfortunately, the beacon isn't doing its hope job lately. I arrived at Minatare, the town nearest the lake, almost out of gas to find the filling station, restaurant and motel all closed, boarded up and for sale. Looping through the town, I discovered all the other businesses were also shut down, except for a small grocery store and one bar.

So, I turned back to Scottsbluff on the north bank of the Platte River to refuel and find a meal and a campsite.

Scottsbluff made a pretty picture in the morning.

The bluff is a national monument and part of a ridge of cliffs along the south side of the Platte River that rise unexpectedly from the surrounding prairie and forming a scenic skyline. Scottsbluff, combined with the town of Gering on the river's south bank, is the largest metropolitan area in the Nebraska Panhandle.

I found a pleasant new campground in Gering, pitched the tent and had dinner at a nearby Chinese restaurant, where I was the only Thursday night eat-in customer. Things were much busier the next morning at the cafe in the old passenger depot near the Scottsbluff zoo. There were two calendars on the wall and everybody who came in that Friday morning, except me, was a regular. The ham-and-eggs special arrived quick, hot and accompanied by a joke:

"There were these two guys fishing in a boat near a bridge. After a bit, a hearse and a funeral procession come across the bridge. One of the fisherman stands up in the boat, takes off his hat and holds it over his heart. 'What's the deal with the hat?' asks the other fisherman. 'Well, I was married to her for 32 years,' says his buddy. 'It's the least I can do.'"

North of Scottsbluff I passed through the Ogalala National Grasslands.

Next stop on my way to South Dakota was Chadron, Neb., where I noted the reading on the odometer: 33,480.5 miles. When I set out from Ellsworth, Me., on April 7, it read 23,405. I'd passed 10,000 miles -- and 21 states and the District of Columbia, so far -- in just over six weeks on this trip.

There was a Kawasaki dealer in Chadron with a KLR parked out front. I stopped and asked if they happened to have replacement clutch and brake levers. The young man behind the parts counter said, "Yep, we probably do, since I ride one."

I already had a set of levers on order to be delivered at Jane's place in Lafayette, but they didn't arrive before I left town and I figured the way I seem to go through these parts having a spare set wouldn't be a bad thing.

At Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota they let the bison run free.

You drive over a cattle grate to enter Wind Cave National Park in southeastern South Dakota, but it's not to keep cows in. They have a herd of buffalo roaming, running and occasionally charging through the park instead. But the main subject matter is underground, where there is a network of hundreds of miles of caverns.

I stopped at the visitors center and worked my way through the exhibits. The next tour wasn't to start for more than an hour and I hadn't felt any yearnings for spelunking since my visits to Mammoth Cave and Carlsbad Caverns, so I opted to move on to Mount Rushmore.

Mount Rushmore has an elaborate new visitor center and parking structure. Note the tiny workers atop Lincoln's head (click image for a larger version).

Ten dollars seemed like a lot to park a motorcycle, but I'd come a long way, so I coughed it up and climbed the stairs out of the parking garage to the spiffy visitor center, gift shop, ice cream parlor, amphitheater and cafeteria at the foot of Mount Rushmore.

Washington and Jefferson look down on the flag of Hawaii, which became a state 172 years after the U.S. Constitution was ratified.

I was happy to see Hawaii's flag hanging in the colonnade leading to the overlook, where some young scientists were working with fellow team members who were up on the sculptures themselves to record a three-dimensional, digital scan documenting the exact dimensions of the existing work -- in case pieces break off in the future.

The tiny human forms up on the huge likenesses brought to mind Hitchcock's North by Northwest, which featured Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint crawling on the presidential faces.

There are telescopes for those who want a close-up look.

The best photo I could manage on a cloudy day.

A gaggle of mountain goats wandered about the visitor center, upstaging the granite heads and providing additional subject matter for photography.

A mountain goat poses for pictures at the monument visitor center.

Unfortunately, the skies were cloudy. I waited for the sun to peek through to provide more shape and contrast to the scene, but had to settle for what I could get.

The photo on the Coke machine near the mens restroom was better than any of mine.


  1. Your photos were great! The only thing that the soda machine had over yours was a blue sky. You had much more detail in the rock formations and I found the parade of flags and the goats far gave me a much more 'almost been there' feeling than I ever had about Mt. Rushmore before. Were those rappelling lines coming down Tom's face? j

  2. I don't know if they were for rappelling, but the ropes had something to do with the digital scanning.

  3. Great pictures and the blog was worth waiting for. I visited Mt. Rushmore with Jennifer and the Girl Scouts in about 1984. The visitor's center looks like an impressive addition to an amazing American symbol.