Spontaneous Roadtreking

IMG_0803We’re the traveling trio- Olga, Laura and Ruka. Olga (stands for Old Ladies Get Aound)  is my comfy-ever-ready-super-cool-traveling machine that makes me feel a little bit like Dr. Who?, because I get in with my dog, Ruka, and we don’t quite know where we are going to end up or what’s in store.

Take this last couple of weeks. We headed north in the general direction of the Black Hills area. No plans, reservations and almost no research, although I did glance at a couple of tour books and saw there was plenty to do- so we did.

I decided to go on a Friday and we left the next Monday.

We had a bit of a late start out of Kansas City, so headed west on I-70 which is not my favorite, but it’s fast. There’s a fab KOA in Goodland, KS that has about 3 acres of mown pasture for Ruka to run off leash so we always stop there. The owners are nice and it’s spic and span. I don’t like to marathon drive and Ruka takes a day or two to get back in the groove, so 6-8 hours with several stops are plenty.

Next day we made it up to Chadron State Park in northwest Nebraska, which is a lovely place. It is actually part of Pine Ridge and the southern edge of the Black Hills area. This time of year, hardly anyone is vacationing up north (it’s already snowed once) so we had the campground almost to ourselves. We had a great hike up and across the ridge next morning, where Ruka got to chase an open range cow and I spotted a small heard of mountain goats. We liked it so much, we stayed another night, glad we didn’t have to be anywhere else.IMG_4611

Thursday morning, I chose a small, scenic highway though the spectacular Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, a stop at the Wild Horse Sanctuary, and made it up to Sylvan Lake Campground in Custer State Park, South Dakota. (JG VAN, one of Mike’s other Roadtrekking reporters, just wrote a great article on the park if you want to know more.) The famous annual Bison Roundup was happening (which I didn't know about since I didn't do any research but what a cool surprise!)  and Sylvan had the only spots available on short notice, but it turned out to be lovely. I decided to make it my home base and stayed 4 nights, heading out everyday to see: Crazy Horse Monument, Wildlife Loop, Needles Highway (yes an RT sprinter can get through the smallest tunnel!), a few lakes, hikes and the Art Fest going on at the visitor’s center. I’d been to Mt. Rushmore before, so skipped it. I will certainly return to the Black Hills; there was much I didn’t get to see.

Olga handles well on steep climbs so I only had to downshift a couple of times. She is comfy, cozy and so good looking, that I had to give quite a few tours. Since it was cool at night, I had the little electric heater going on low which was perfect. I figure, why use the propane and it’s a bit noisy for me anyway. Unfortunately, my sewer hose sprang a leak, but my friend, W Dan, had the same problem when we were traveling together so I knew just what to do- Gorilla tape! It lasted about a week then the thing finally came apart. Not a problem as it was only half way on the hose, thus, would still reach the dump site if I got close enough. I mostly shower in the campgrounds, use water sparingly and don’t flush paper, so it wasn’t a big issue.

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Wild donkeys

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Crazy Horse

I don’t get upset, these things are going to happen at some point if you travel enough. I now carry silicone, tapes, ropes, bungees, tools and all sorts of odds and ends for these mishaps. If I can’t fix it, there is usually a service facility nearby or someone in the campground who is willing to help. If internet is available, I can also get help online._MG_7364

After the weekend Bison Roundup was over, the place cleared out. The campground was quiet so I scavenged plenty of leftover firewood for a last campfire before we finally skedaddled.
We went north to a small town where I bought a hose clamp to reattach the valve on the sewer hose. Then we went on up to Deadwood and stayed at another KOA- which was open only one more night for the year. Most of the campgrounds up north close sometime in Oct. and a lot of the stores were already shuttered. Deadwood is pretty touristy, not my cup of tea and I don’t gamble, so we just zipped through to Devil’s Tower._MG_7401 (1)

Another KOA -I’m a fan, can you tell? With my card, I get a pretty good discount. I do boondock and usually prefer state or national parks, but it was cold, I wanted a hot shower and the view was incredible from anywhere in that campground. (Actually, what I don’t care for are Walmarts and such. I’d rather pay for a nicer spot than a parking lot, unless there is no other choice- just personal preference.)

Later in the afternoon, we went up to the tower and had a look see. It's way more impressive than photos, and that part of Wyoming is just beautiful. It’s crazy, really- lovely rolling hills and ranch lands with this unusual, solitary monolith sticking right up in the middle! There was great light for photos so I stopped on a path when I met another photographer and we watched an IMAX team hauling equipment up the side of the tower. Conrad Anker, a world famous climber, and his son were part of the team who are shooting a series on National Parks. Wow- Must keep and eye out for that!

IMAX platform on the side of Devil's Tower

IMAX platform on the side of Devil's Tower

In the morning, I went back up (once you pay for a pass, it’s good for a week) and did the hike around America’s first national monument. It’s a nice hike in and out of pine/aspen forest with stunning views of the tower and surrounding country. I saw Native American prayer bundles tied on tree branches as this is a very sacred spot. Legend has it that a bear clawed the grooves into the side of the tower. Scientists say it could be from magma activity. I like the legend.

Done with the hike, we headed back east to the Badlands along scenic highway 44 which runs across the bottom of this wild park. It rained some of the way, but made for quite beautiful color. We set up camp in the national park and hunkered down for the night. Up at 4:30 for some reason, the next morning I decided to get going to photograph a clear dawn breaking over the incredible rock formations. I was on the east side of the park and in perfect position to follow the morning light. I spent several hours, driving the loop, then went down the unpaved Rim Road where I saw the Swift Fox, Bison, Pronghorn, Big Horn Sheep and thousands of Prairie Dogs. All in all, a perfect day!_MG_7299

young  Bighorn Sheep

young Bighorn Sheep

I thought about staying another day, but decided to head on home after a fabulous 2 weeks. We spent the night in Mitchell, SD for a look at the Corn Palace, then drove home.

Corn Palace mural

Corn Palace mural

However!!!!!!! I’m headed out again in a couple of weeks to attend a Region 7, Roadtrek International rally in Hutchinson, KS. That trip is planned, badged and itineraried, but not by me. I get to just go with the flow, see some of my great RT friends, make some new ones, check out the Cosmosphere and Underground Salt Mines. Not to mention the pot luck- those are always excellent! It sounds like a lot of fun.

So I guess for me, it’s apples and oranges- spontaneous or not- it’s always great to be trekking!




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  • Barbara K

    Laura – I loved this. I plan to do the same in a year only with 2 dogs instead of your 1.
    I’d like to know the factors in your deciding on the RS model? Any chance we could connect via email?
    Barbara

  • Susan Garrett

    This is a well wrtten, fun, and evocative article. You made me want to hit the road this morning. Thanks for the fun!

  • I love traveling this way. I have traveled with no set itineraries since i was young.
    I love Devils Tower and the hike around the bottom. And…I think it is so cool that you got to see Discovery doing their thing.