Tales Grow Taller On Down the Line

Funny story: I went online a few days ago to buy tickets for the Gin Blossoms at the Deadwood Grand Casino in October but ended up with REO Speedwagon tix for a December show instead.

I wasn’t entirely sure I was going to get the Gin Blossoms tickets anyway. Tara isn’t much of a fan and their heyday was a good 20 years ago, but I like them well enough and was itching for some live music. But looking at the list of upcoming shows I noticed the REO Speedwagon concert and couldn’t resist. $39 a pop seemed like a good deal for a classic rock group of their magnitude. Well, technically they cost $47.50 because I opted for ticket insurance. I’ve never bought it before, but Deadwood in December can be a tricky proposition. I’d hate to lose my money because a snowstorm prevented us from making it, so I figured it was a good investment for peace of mind. We’re both fans; I especially like their older stuff, songs like “Lightning” and “Golden Country.” But you can bet your ass I’ll unashamedly sing along to “Take It On The Run,” too.REO

Our fifth wedding anniversary was Friday. Once upon a time we were planning a big road trip to Alaska to celebrate, and had been saving money for that, but when we decided to move to the Midwest, our Alaska fund morphed into a South Dakota fund. We’ll get out there one of these days, though. Maybe for our 10th anniversary.

We’d talked about spending the weekend in Sioux Falls to celebrate, or maybe taking an overnight trip to Devil’s Tower, but in the end decided to keep it simple (and cheaper) and just do a little bar-hopping in Rapid City. So we hit up a few of the local joints, sat on an outdoor patio beside a blazing fire eating Mexican food, and ended the evening playing arcade games at Press Start.

Saturday we drove down to Hot Springs, a quaint little town in the southern Black Hills where we’d also tentatively talked about spending the night. It’s quite the charming place – lots of historic buildings, coffee shops, antique stores, and actual hot springs, in a scenic setting. Definitely whets our appetite for more.

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After killing a few hours in Hot Springs we drove through Wind Cave National Park. We’d planned on doing a cave tour, but the only tickets available were for the last tour of the day at 4:30. That would have left us with almost two hours ti kill and we’d have gotten home late, so we decided to save the tour for another time. Picked up Jimmy John’s on the way home and watched “Darkest Hour.” Gary Oldman is unrecognizable (and fantastic, actually) as Winston Churchill.

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There are bison everywhere in South Dakota.

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Calamity Jane got drunk, tried to steal a horse, and wound up in jail one night in Hot Springs.

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Best store name ever.

Today will be pretty low-key. There’s a Broncos game this afternoon and we’re grilling chicken kabobs.

It’s been very summer-like the past week. Sunny and warm-to-hot; it actually hit 94 degrees one day. But it’s supposed to cool off this week and they’re forecasting showers and a few thunderstorms. Thank god: I’m ready for fall. And it’ll give me the perfect excuse to make Italian Wedding soup.

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“We’re Not Tourists!”

I dropped my parents off at the airport yesterday after a four-day visit. They were our first official South Dakota guests, and we had a great time hanging out with them and showing off our little slice of America. Although it’s hard to show something off when there is more than a passing familiarity. I’d been carefully planning each and every day to ensure they got to see as much as possible until my mom reminded me, “We’re not tourists!”

Oh. Right. They lived here from 1983-1986, too.

Be that as it may, we didn’t want to just hang around the apartment for four days, so we made sure there was plenty to do. They arrived Thursday evening around 9:00, after a 45-minute flight delay. (Actually four days and 45 minutes, as they were originally supposed to come out the preceding Sunday but couldn’t find space on the flights, it being Labor Day weekend and all. The delay worked out for the best though; our new king bed didn’t arrive until Wednesday, so we avoided a few nights sleeping on an air mattress. Further proof that everything works out as it’s supposed to.)

Side note: Rapid City Regional Airport is the cutest thing ever. I just wanted to pinch its little cheeks.

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Friday, my parents wanted to visit Ellsworth AFB. I’d taken the base tour back in August, but was confined to a bus. Because they have their military IDs, we were able to wander around at will this time. Our first stop was the street we lived on 30+ years ago.

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Sadly, our house is no longer there. They tore down all the old brick houses about 15 years ago and replaced them with much nicer dwellings. Covered porches? Garages?? I wish we’d had those amenities when we lived there!

Afterwards, we hit the base exchange and commissary to stock up on a few items. Groceries are a lot cheaper on base.

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Tara had to work that day, but we met up with her at Firehouse Brewing in Rapid City when she got off, and enjoyed a nice few hours of conversation, wine, beer, and food. The Firehouse is quickly becoming our favorite spot, I think.

Despite my mom’s protestations over not being tourists, we did end up doing a few touristy things with them. No Mount Rushmore or Crazy Horse, but we hit Sylvan Lake and the Custer Wildlife Loop on Saturday, and I took them to Wall Drug and the Badlands on Monday. Sunday was our one low-key day; we watched the first Broncos game of the season and cooked up some homemade fried chicken and macaroni and cheese.

My favorite part of their trip was probably our visit to Miner Brewing and Prairie Berry Winery in Hill City on Saturday. We spent a few hours sampling spirits and had an excellent lunch. It was nice and relaxing, and the weather was perfect.

Alas, all good things must come to an end. They are back in Washington now, and we are trying to get back into the routine of not having guests. It’s strangely jarring, returning to an empty apartment after entertaining for several days.

Actually, the whole experience was a novelty. I’m so used to living 10 minutes from my parents’ that playing host feels strange. I have to remind myself that way back when I lived in the PNW and they were still in California, there were nine years’ worth of long-distance visits where they were houseguests. That feels like a lifetime ago, and in many ways, it is.

The rest of the week I’ll be busy with work and running errands. Friday, Tara and I celebrate our 5th wedding anniversary! Once upon a time we were planning a road trip to Alaska, but we decided to move to the Midwest instead. So we’re going to hang around downtown Rapid City, doing a little bar-hopping and hitting up the local video arcade. Then this weekend we’ll be playing tourists ourselves and checking out Wind Cave National Park. Ooh, fingers crossed – maybe we’ll see a buffalo.

Thanks for a great visit, mom and dad!

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Spot 68: Pretty Great

Today is overcast and cool. It’s early afternoon and barely 60 degrees! Summer isn’t over yet – it’ll be back in the 80s tomorrow – but this is one sure sign that it won’t last forever. Living someplace with honest-to-god seasons is going to be a novelty, too. In the PNW, our temperatures would cool and the rainy season would kick in come fall, but it was rarely anything too dramatic. Last Thanksgiving it was 65 degrees. Any random July day could be 65 degrees. Pretty mild climate all things considered, which I’m sure is one of the draws. If you don’t mind getting wet.

Out here on the Great Plains, though? Let’s just say I’d better start shopping for a good pair of snow boots.

Fortunately the weather this past weekend was nice, which made for ideal camping conditions. Our destination was Sheridan Lake, just one of many spectacular bodies of water in the Black Hills.

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We had the perfect spot, too. There were just enough trees (the ever-present Ponderosa pines) to provide shade, and while we weren’t right next to the water, it was only a stone’s throw away.

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Our first evening, we cooked bratwursts and beans over the campfire, enjoyed tasty adult beverages, and listened to music. Caught a pretty spectacular sunset, too:

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Which was rivaled only by the next morning’s sunrise.

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Saturday, after breakfast, we hiked the Centennial Flume Trail, but didn’t have a very reliable map and because it branches off in several different directions, we ended up cutting our hike short at just over three miles. Which was probably just as well, because it was warming up by then and we had Bloody Marys to drink back at the campground!

Our second night was a repeat of the first, only we had ribeye steaks and corn on the cob, and we played a game of Cribbage. We’d actually forgotten some food at home, so we ended up running back to the apartment at one point. Good thing it’s only a half-hour drive away. When we returned to camp the sky was growing dark and ominous, and we actually had to duck inside the tent for a few minutes. But after a few rumbles of thunder, some gusty winds, and a brief smattering of raindrops, the sky cleared and it went back to being perfect.

Sunday we decided to give our hike another go after learning which way to go, but this time we hit the trail super early – 6:30. It was nice and cool and the morning light on the lake was stunning.

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The hike itself is pretty interesting. The Flume Trail follows the path of the Rockerville Flume, which carried water along a 20-mile stretch for placer gold mining operations in the 1880s. After dropping into the Spring Creek Canyon, the trail climbs high into the hills above, and you can see the crumbled remains of the flume itself, as well as a couple of abandoned tunnels. Warning: it’s not for the faint of heart, as the trail is pretty narrow in a couple of spots and it’s a LONG way down, plus you’re scrambling over rocks. But the views are worth it.

We were back at camp by 9:30, and enjoyed a nice leisurely breakfast and read books for a couple of hours before it was time to break down camp and head home. All in all it was a great weekend getaway, and we can’t wait to do some more camping next summer! I figure things will be a little less hectic then since, you know, we won’t be busy planning this big 1,250-mile cross-country move.

Upgrade to a King

The weather has taken a definite turn the past couple of days and given us an early taste of fall. It’s going to be short-lived, but is still a nice reminder that “summer’s lease hath all too short a date.” (Sonnet 18 is the only Shakespeare work I can quote. I’m pretty sure I memorized that one to impress the ladies once upon a time, ha.) Yesterday we awoke to a cold rain and gusty winds. The high never made it above 65, which felt wonderful, to be honest. IMG_20180819_105334_295

And then this morning I was up early for a walk around the neighborhood and practically froze my ass off. I had to put on a hoodie and quickly regretted not grabbing gloves, too. Rapid City got down to 43 degrees. Brr! It’s funny to think in a few months a temperature like that will feel downright toasty.

I sometimes forget the seasons are going to change – and quite dramatically, at that. It’s been perpetual summer here ever since we arrived, so this is all I know right now. I think that’s why this morning’s unexpected chill was such a shock to the system. It’s pretty much always been 65 degrees when I’ve gone for a morning walk. Where did this come from?!

Fortunately, Saturday’s weather was perfect, so we ended up going to the Central States Fair. Neither Tara nor I had been to a fair in years, but Rapid City’s seemed so quaint and inexpensive compared to what I’m used to, we couldn’t resist! I mean, admission cost $3 per person, and there was plenty of free parking in a grassy lot just steps from the main gate. Hell, the “gate” wasn’t even an actual gate, but a couple of wooden podiums staffed by friendly volunteers. It would have cost us a total of $29.50 to gain admission to the Clark County Fair in Washington this year, so you can understand my excitement over handing them a $10 bill and getting change back.

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The fair itself was your typical county fair. We strolled the midway, checked out the arts & crafts and livestock exhibits, and ate bad-for-you-but-oh-so-good fair food. We even struck up a conversation with an oil & vinegar vendor who’d come all the way from La Grande, Oregon to sell his wares. I felt sorry for the guy because he’d traveled such a distance and business wasn’t as brisk as he’d hoped. We bought a couple of bottles but he gave us one for free and would only take half price on the others. He actually said if we come back near the end he’d load us up with more bottles for free. I guess we made quite the impression!

Funny side note: I bought a bottle of strawberry and black pepper balsamic vinegar which his card touted was “Amazing in Bloody Marys!” I asked him if he’d ever actually used it in a Bloody Mary and he just looked at me and laughed. “Hell, no!” he admitted. “That’s just something I wrote to help it sell!” Well, I didn’t think it was a completely horrible idea, so the next morning I made myself a Bloody Mary using the vinegar and you know what? It was pretty damn good.

Guy’s sitting on a goldmine and doesn’t even know it.

After the fair, we came home and watched the Broncos-Bears preseason football game. It was great, right up until the last few minutes.

Sunday we bundled up against the early autumn chill and headed out to Denver Mattress to buy a king bed. It looks like we might have our first visitors Labor Day weekend, as my parents have expressed an interest in flying out here. Yay! Tara’s been wanting to upgrade to a king for years and we’ll need a spare bed for guests, so it was time to bite the bullet and get ‘er done. Found one we both liked and were in and out of the store in less than an hour. The only downside? It has to be ordered from Sealy and might take as long as two weeks to arrive, so we may have to use the air mattress for this particular visit.

(Don’t worry, mom and dad. We’ll give you the bed.)

Speaking of the air mattress, we’ll be using it this weekend because we’re going camping. I booked us a reservation at Sheridan Lake the week after we got here (something that would have been impossible in the PNW, where you have to book a spot a year in advance these days). We’re looking forward to doing a bit of hiking, enjoying a roaring campfire, and indulging in a few of those strawberry and black pepper balsamic vinegar-infused Bloody Marys! The weather looks to be perfect, too: low 80s and dry. I don’t imagine tent camping in a thunderstorm is much fun.

Rally the Troops

When the Sturgis Rally came to town, we did our best to avoid it. Spent all last weekend cooped up indoors, watching movies and laying low. The constant rumble of motorcycle engines was trying, and the attendant traffic issues – all those bikers clogging the roads in and around the Black Hills – felt like a personal affront. So when Tara suggested we drive up to Sturgis Friday night and check out the rally for ourselves, I was initially skeptical. I figured we’d stick out like sore thumbs, a couple of non-motorcycle-riding new to town. Our point had been to avoid all of the commotion, so changing tactics and planting ourselves smack dab in the middle of what can best be described as a bacchanalia of hedonistic craziness and smoked turkey legs seemed counterintuitive to our agenda.

But the more I thought about it, the more intriguing the idea seemed. Tara’s new coworkers urged her to go, saying the rally is something everybody should experience at least once. And besides, I was going stir-crazy after being cooped up in the apartment for the better part of 10 days. I was ready for a break, and told her I was all in. So on Friday after work, we found ourselves heading west on Interstate 90, right into the heart of biker country.

To my astonishment, I ended up having the time of my life.

Words cannot even describe the spectacle that is the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Picture hundreds of bikes lined up in neat rows along Main Street, and thousands of people strolling around, most of them decked out in leather and wearing bandanas. Topless women – just a few, but enough to keep me on my toes – with strategically placed pasties or painted skin. And those aforementioned turkey legs, along with a collection of other deep fried delicacies that would make Crisco stockholders weep for joy. And on every corner Bud Light and Jack Daniels and Twisted Tea.

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According to the media, the modern Sturgis Rally is a lot mellower than in years past, mostly due to the fact that the hellions of yesteryear are now elderly. It’s  hard to feel intimidated by cane-wielding octogenarians, even if they have badass rides, ya know? And there were plenty of other people like us walking around – even a handful of families with kids. I never felt out of place or in danger. Quite the opposite, actually: I ended up having the time of my life.

It didn’t even matter that it was a warm summer evening – that just made our cold drinks taste even better. After strolling up and down Main Street for a while, we ducked into the Loud American, a bar Tara’s coworkers had recommended. We enjoyed live music, Bud Light and Cheladas, and just about the best damn steak tips ever. Not to mention some excellent people watching.

Then it was back to the main drag for more fun. By now the sun had gone down and the night was comfortable. We enjoyed seeing the motorcycles show off their custom lights. Among other things.

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When all is said and done, I have to admit we had a much better time than expected. I guess I didn’t know what to expect exactly; it’s not like my parents ever took us to the rally back in the 1980s. I’m pretty sure my head would have exploded if they had.

But now that it’s over, I find myself missing the hustle and bustle a little bit. I am sitting on our patio writing this post as the sun is sinking low and shish kabobs are sizzling on the grill, and it’s noticeably quieter than it has been in a couple of weeks. I mean, that’s nice, of course…but I am already looking forward to next August. I’m pretty sure the Sturgis Rally will be an annual event for us, even though we’re about as far from being the biker type as possible.

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Blast from the Past Part II

Last week I took a stroll down Memory Lane.

Needing a mental break from two full days of work, on Wednesday I drove out to Ellsworth AFB, my home from 1983-86. Civilians aren’t generally allowed on military installations, but the South Dakota Air & Space Museum just outside the main gate offers a $10 bus tour of the base, complete with a visit to a Minuteman II missile silo. The lure of setting foot on base again was impossible to resist, so after checking out the museum – pretty cool in its own right, with an extensive collection of military aircraft outside and two hangars’ worth of historical displays indoors – I boarded the bus and settled in for the base tour.

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My tour guide, Garry, was great. He started out by asking if anybody had ever been out to the area before, and when I told him that I had lived on base for three years and had just moved back to the area to escape the crowds and high cost of living on the west coast, he informed me that his circumstances were nearly the same. He’d been stationed at EAFB until 1982, when he was transferred to California. After several miserable decades there, he came back to Rapid City six months ago. Said he’d been to all 50 states and this was his favorite place.

Garry and I bonded.

It was a real trip being on base again! It was like stepping through a portal and going back in time, even though most of the housing has been modernized. We drove right by Ohio Avenue, the street we’d lived on three decades earlier, and I learned the crappy duplexes we’d been stuck in had been torn down and replaced with beautiful new houses that have covered porches and garages. Garages, guys! We had to plug our car in during the winter because we didn’t have so much as a carport even. This generation of military families has it so much better.

Some things were blessedly unchanged. The movie theater was exactly as I remembered it, and the ponds we used to fish in were all still there. I swear, I had goosebumps while we drove around. It’s all still so surreal to me. A mere 14 months ago I never would have imagined in my wildest dreams that I’d be walking around Ellsworth AFB again.

The highlight of the tour was definitely the missile silo. It had been converted into a training facility complete with an actual Minuteman II inside, the size of which is just amazing. At one time 150 of these missiles were buried beneath the plains of western South Dakota, aimed at Russia and ready to launch on a moment’s notice. They were deactivated in 1991 and have all since been removed, but Garry did tell us there are currently 400 armed missiles in North Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana. That ought to sober you up!

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Thank god we survived the Cold War without incident.

After the base tour and museum visit, I drove over to my alma mater, Douglas High School. Even though I did not graduate from DHS, I’ve always felt a much stronger kinship with that school than the one that gave me my diploma, Milpitas HS. Probably because I went to Douglas for three years and was only at Milpitas my senior year. All my best high school memories are at Douglas; I was a newcomer at Milpitas and hardly knew anybody. Anyway, I did stop by DHS on my road trip out here in 2011, but this time the gate to the football field was open so I walked around the track, absorbing all the feels. Again, so many memories came flashing back. Good ones. I was always happy living here, which I can’t say about every place I’ve been, that’s for sure.

The rest of the week – and weekend – were low-key. We set up folding camp chairs at Main Street Square on Thursday for a free Georgia Satellites concert. Remember those guys? One-hit wonders from 1986 with “Keep Your Hands to Yourself“? I can’t believe they’re still around.

Friday evening we played cards, listened to records, ate pizza, drank rum, and walked to the video store to load up on movies. The Sturgis Rally is in full swing now, and we didn’t want to venture out and deal with a million motorcyclists. I mean, they’re all over town; you walk down the street and see groups of five, 10, or 15 Harley Davidsons, one after another, roaring by. It doesn’t really bother me, but I also would rather avoid the traffic in the Black Hills. So we’ve pretty much sat around and watched movies all weekend. I envision a lot of Saturdays and Sundays like this when the temperature is below zero. Kind of a shame it was overcast and 75 today!

Blast from the Past

First things first: I need a good oatmeal recipe. I’m used to buying Trader Joe’s frozen steel cut oatmeal. Looks like an oversized hockey puck, but it’s surprisingly delicious and simple to make: two minutes in the microwave, stir, another minute and twenty seconds, and dig in. However, there is no Trader Joe’s in South Dakota, so I’ve been struggling to find a decent alternative.steelcut

In case you were wondering, instant oatmeal in a packet is not a decent alternative.

I might add that Harriet & Oak makes an excellent oatmeal – probably the best I’ve ever tried – but it’s not always practical to run downtown whenever I want a bowl. I’d rather just make it myself (and save money in the process).

So I’ve gotta figure something out. I found a few recipes online that look promising. Like this one. But if anybody else has a go-to recipe, I’m all ears.

Tara’s birthday last Friday was nice, even if she did have to work. We met for lunch and spent the evening playing cards, listening to records, and eating pizza. Just like our old life in Washington, only we were serenaded with a thunderstorm this time. When Tara’s coworkers learned it was her birthday, they got her a cake. Nice gesture! Today marks her third day there but so far it seems like a good fit. It’s a far less stressful position than the one in Vancouver. Another benefit to living in a smaller town.

DSC_0044Our real celebration was supposed to be on Saturday. Her birthday gift was a room at the Spearfish Canyon Lodge, something I’d booked four months earlier. We loaded the truck and took our time driving up there, detouring through Lead and hiking out to Roughlock Falls and back. When it came time to check in, Tara joked that it was going to be a great evening “unless they turn us away.”

They turned us away.

I wish I was kidding, but no such luck. Remember the thunderstorm that “serenaded” us the evening before? It was screaming at the top of its lungs out in Spearfish and caused quite a bit of damage. The lodge lost power Friday night and it was still out 19 hours later when we attempted to check in. That meant they could not honor our reservation. They’d tried calling me, but my phone number changed after I booked the room, so they weren’t able to get through to me. They did send an email, but that was mid-afternoon and we were already hiking a mile from the lodge by then. Plus, we had no cell service anyway.

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I was devastated, to be honest. I’d planned this all so carefully and was proud of the fact that I’d booked us such a great getaway. To her credit, Tara was unfazed and suggested we find a Plan B. We had read about a cool, retro 1950s-themed motel in Custer that we wanted to check out someday, but I figured the odds of snagging a last-minute room on a Saturday night at the height of tourist season in a town within spitting distance of both Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore were slim to none. Somehow, luckily, I was able to get a room and salvage her birthday weekend. So we regrouped in Lead over a couple of drinks and a plate of onion rings and then drove the hour and thirteen minutes south to Custer.

The Rocket Motel certainly lived up to its hype. It was unbelievably cool! Vintage decor throughout, right down to the furnishings and tile. And it was one of the cleanest motels we’ve ever stayed in. Plus, the bed was super comfortable. You might say the place was firing on all cylinders! We wandered down to a bar and grill the manager recommended for a bite to eat, then went back to the motel. They had a covered patio and since the weather was perfect, we brought out wine and a cribbage board and played until the chilly night air drove us inside, where we played some more. I have to say, as far as Plan Bs go, this one was killer.

The next morning we grabbed breakfast at a little cafe downtown before checking out. Drove through Custer State Park next, stopping at the Mount Coolidge fire lookout tower to take in the views before heading to the Wildlife Loop.

That certainly did not disappoint! We were two-thirds of the way through and had seen the usual prairie dogs, burros, and pronghorn antelope, but hadn’t stumbled across any bison yet. And then we rounded a bend and there they were. Everywhere. There were hundreds of them, as far as the eye could see. It was a breathtaking sight, and reminded me of the scene in “Dances With Wolves” where they crest a ridge and find a veritable sea of buffalo in the valley below.

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If you’ve never been to Custer State Park and driven the Wildlife Loop, do it.

All in all, it was a pretty great weekend, even though it didn’t go as planned. But in some ways those are the best kinds of weekends, aren’t they?

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July has been unusually cool and wet. It’s weird to have triple the normal precipitation and high temperatures 15-20 degrees below average while the PNW is roasting through an extended heatwave. Sounds like they’re about to find some relief just as our temps are warming up to seasonal norms.

These next couple of weekends are going to be low-key, because the 2018 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally (we have learned locals call it simply “the rally”) is about to commence, and with that comes a lot of noise and streets crowded with bikers. They’ve even put up temporary traffic lights throughout the Black Hills to help control the throngs of people. It’s great for the local economy, but not so much if you want to get out and do things. Or so we’ve heard.

I see a lot of movies in our immediate future.

Donut Judge Me!

I basically drove 100 miles today for a donut.

It was a damn good donut, if that helps. And that was a 100-mile roundtrip. I only went 50 miles in each direction to get it. I hope that makes me sound a little less crazy.donut

Trust me. It was worth it.

OK, I didn’t just go to Wall Drug for the donut, though that (and the 5-cent cup of coffee) was certainly the highlight. I was looking to get out of the apartment for a few hours and figured a jaunt down I-90 to my favorite kitsch-heavy drugstore mecca was just the ticket. And while I bemoaned the fact that the place was overrun with tourists at 9:30 in the morning, I walked out of there with a baseball cap, coffee mug, sticker, and bottle of hot sauce, which begs the question: even though I live here now, can I truly be considered a local if I’m buying touristy stuff myself?

In my defense, Wall Drug was a regular getaway for us when we lived here in the 1980s, and I’m finding it all sorts of fun to revisit these places from my past. I’m finding I have a whole new perspective as an adult.

Take Tuesday, for instance. It was our one-month anniversary in South Dakota (yes, it’s been that long already!) and I decided to commemorate the occasion by going for a hike. My destination was Harney…err, Black Elk…Peak. They changed the name two years ago to honor a Lakota medicine man; the Sioux consider the place to be sacred ground and it is where Black Elk had a great vision at the age of nine. I have fond memories of hiking here with my family and couldn’t wait to get back. At 7,244′, Black Elk Peak isn’t only the tallest mountain in South Dakota; it’s actually the highest point east of the Rockies and west of the Pyrenees in Europe. Which sounds like one hell of a climb, but keep in mind the elevation at the trailhead is already 6,000’. It’s about a seven-mile roundtrip and really wasn’t all that strenuous save for the last mile, where you’re traversing a series of switchbacks and stone stairs carved into the trail. I have to admit I was a little bit winded just because I’m still getting acclimated to living on the high plains after three decades at sea level, but I had plenty of water and never doubted I’d make it to the top.

It was totally worth the effort, too! Honestly, it was even better than I remembered.The scenery is off the charts. Towering ponderosa pines, purple and yellow wildflowers, sheer granite cliffs, burbling streams, and views for days. And this is what I mean about different perspectives – I don’t ever recall being blown away by it all 30 years ago as I was on Tuesday. I guess teenagers don’t have the same appreciation for the beauty of nature as adults do.

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Love this bench!

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Here’s the view from the bench. See that triangle-shaped dot near the top left? That’s the lookout tower.

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Perfect day for a hike!

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Looking east across the prairie.

Once you reach the summit, there’s a stone tower that once served as a fire lookout; one time my family had to wait out a furious thunderstorm sheltered there, and hail covered the trail during our descent. This time there was only sunshine and a few puffy clouds to deal with. The 360-degree view is incredible – you can see four states from the summit (Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, and South Dakota). It’s really something. It took me about four hours to complete the hike, and that includes quite a bit of time sitting on a rock outcropping gazing at the distant prairie that stretched across a seemingly endless horizon and wondering once again how I ever ended up back here. It still feels unreal! I’m not prone to Zen moments, but I came damn close on Tuesday. It definitely brought back memories and gave me All The Feels.

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Made it to the top!

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I believe that’s North Dakota off in the distance.

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Successful summiteers tie their bandanas to poles and trees.

Afterwards, I came home and knocked out a couple of work assignments. As I did today. I feel like I have the best of both worlds right now; there’s plenty of freedom without any stress over money. So this is what it’s like to be retired! Although I must admit, I do find myself losing track of which day of the week it is. It always feels like it’s a couple of days later than it really is; Tuesday feels like Thursday, Wednesday feels like Friday. I suspect that will change once Tara begins her new job tomorrow and we revert to a whole new, more normal routine.

I also have to say, I’m already lamenting what feels like the end of an era. I will always look back on our first month here as one big free-spirited adventure. But of course, I knew it wouldn’t last. Nor would we want it to, as that would mean we were jobless and destitute. Freedom isn’t much fun if you can’t afford to go out and do anything, let alone pay the rent. So this is good!

Speaking of Tara, she should be home in about an hour. When last we spoke she was in eastern Wyoming making her way back to me. I’ll be happy to see her, as the novelty of being on my own wore off days ago.

 

And then all hail broke loose…

I’ve said it before, though never using a fruit analogy: the weather here is bananas.

Take Tuesday, for instance. Our day started out quietly enough; we decided to go for a hike along the Sunday Gulch Trail in Custer State Park. Can I just say how different the trails are out here? No ferns or towering Douglas firs, but lots of Ponderosa pines and spruce trees, and quartz, mica, and obsidian deposits so abundant they make me want to take up rock collecting. Also: no bags of dog shit scattered about. And the scenery! It. Is. Incredible.

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This particular hike was like none I’d ever done before. You descend into a forest, cross a stream, and then there’s a steep scramble up rocks that are covered in cascading water. It was tougher than anticipated, but well worth the effort!

During our hike, I made a remark about how unfortunate it would be to get caught in a thunderstorm. No sooner had the words left my mouth than towering dark clouds rolled in, followed by rumbling thunder. Luckily, it wasn’t anything too bad; we got a little wet but were otherwise none the worse for wear.

Worse for wear came later.

After hanging out at Sylvan Lake for a little bit, we drove out to Hill City to stop at Prairie Berry Winery for lunch. We decided to eat on their covered patio, and were midway through our meal when all hail broke loose. Literally. One moment it was quiet; the next, thunder roared, lightning flashed, and a drenching rain – accompanied by hail the size of ping pong balls – came crashing to earth. It was so loud under the tent it sounded like a freight train. Suddenly, there was a river of hail sweeping through the place, and it piled up about 2′ high under the gutter. That’s feet, not inches.

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The temperature dropped about 30 degrees and we were suddenly shivering, so we made our way inside to find staff members mopping up water that was seeping into the place. And then on the way out, they were shoveling it off the sidewalk as if it were snow. Unreal!

I posted a video of the hail on Facebook; feel free to check it out for yourself!

Once the hail started coming down like that, I knew my car wasn’t going to come through unscathed. Sure enough, it’s all dinged up now. Which sucks, but at least the damage is only cosmetic. As one local on Instagram commented, “Your South Dakota christening! Now your car blends right in with the rest of us!” And while I’m busy counting blessings, thank god the storm that rolled through when we were hiking wasn’t anywhere near as bad.

So Rapid City has 5.00″ of rain so far this month. The normal is 1.00″. Crazy, huh? And we still have 11 days to go.

Sure makes for a pretty sky, though…

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In other, non-weather-related happenings, we took a trip out to Deadwood last Sunday. I think I mentioned that we’ve been catching up on the HBO series Deadwood, a perk of Amazon Prime, so it was pretty cool to hang out where all the real-life action took place and learn more about Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, and Seth Bullock. The highlight was the Mount Moriah Cemetery, where all three are buried. Calamity Jane’s dying wish was to be buried alongside ol’ Bill, and she got what she wanted.

We have also discovered the wonders of Thursday nights in downtown Rapid City, where there are dueling entertainment options through August: concerts in Main Street Square, and more concerts on the Summer Nights stage on blocked-off St. Joseph Street. And here I thought our music-going days were finished! Last night we grabbed dinner at Que Pasa and then hung out in the square, drinking beer and rocking out to an 80s cover band. By the end of their third set we were actually dancing in front of the stage. Afterwards, we headed over to Press Start and totally continued the 80s theme by sinking quarters into video arcade games. They have a Tempest machine – my all-time favorite. We’re having so much fun here!

One more quick thing to report: Tara was offered a job this morning and accepted!! She made it look real easy, huh? She’ll be a commercial loan processor for a local community bank and is pretty excited for the opportunity. Since she’ll be working F/T and won’t have any PTO for a while, she’s going to zip down to Nevada for a few days to visit family and see her new nephew. Leaving tomorrow, returning Thursday. Which means I’m on my own, I guess.

If only there were fun things to do around here…

It’s a Wild, Wildlife

Lots of irons in the proverbial fire out here, folks. I don’t want to go into specifics so as not to jinx anything, but all the pieces seem to be falling into place. Or at least stacking up like they’re going to. For both of us.

Vague enough for you? Not to worry: all will be revealed in time.

One thing that has taken some getting used to is having so much free time. Since I’m no longer shackled to a traditional desk job, I find myself working in short but intense bursts. Mondays are my busy day; I usually put in a full eight hours and get the majority of my assignments done. That gives me a lot of flexibility the rest of the week, which allows us to run errands or go exploring. I know this freedom isn’t going to last forever, so I’m trying to take advantage as much as possible while I have the opportunity.

This week was no exception. I had a lot of work on Monday, a little bit on Tuesday and Wednesday, and then it was basically the weekend for me. So on Wednesday, we took a drive to Sylvan Lake in the Black Hills. This was our third lake in eight days; part of me feels like we should pace ourselves, but really, what’s the point? We’ve already purchased a SD state parks annual pass, giving us free access to these places for a year, and it’s not like we’re going to get tired of any of them. I mean, how could we?

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I have fond memories of Sylvan Lake from the 1980s. We’d come out in winter, and there were people who drove their cars onto the frozen lake – that’s how cold it gets, and how thick the ice is. I don’t know if people still do that, what with global warming and all, but I know ice fishing is still popular there.

There was no ice fishing taking place on Wednesday, of course. Just lots of people cooling off in the water – swimming, kayaking, and jumping from the surrounding rocks. It was all pretty idyllic. We ended up hiking the one-mile loop around the lake and marveling over the scenery.

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After circling the lake and stopping in the general store for a bite to eat, we hit the road again. We were traversing the famed Needles Highway, named for the granite rock spires that resemble needles. Specifically this one:

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This National Scenic Byway really is one of the most breathtaking roads I’ve ever had the pleasure of driving.

After snapping pics of the Needle’s Eye above, we were waiting to pass through a tunnel carved in the rock but for some reason there was a vehicle stopped in the middle of it, not moving. A few minutes later a car came through and the driver told us there was a small herd of mountain goats on the other side of the tunnel, including a baby. What?! I passed through the tunnel on foot, and sure enough…

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Now, there’s a scene you don’t see every day. These guys were close enough to touch, but I gave them respect and distance. There was an incident in Olympic National Park a few years ago in which a hiker was gored to death by a mountain goat, and while this herd was clearly used to people and seemed unfazed by our presence, I wasn’t going to chance it.

From there, we made our way into Custer State Park and decided to drive the Wildlife Loop. It lived up to its name once again. Bonus: another baby!

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Last December a wildfire tore through the park and while there is a lot of burn damage, it’s still a very beautiful place. And with all the rain we’ve had this year, it’s looking quite green and lush, with yellow and purple wildflowers carpeting the prairie.

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No wonder it was after dark before we finally decided to head home. We got back much later than planned, which forced us to change our dinner plans because nothing was open at that hour. Except for Taco John’s, that is, and while it may not have been a fancy choice, you really can’t beat their steak burritos and potato ole’s.

We made up for that on Thursday by going downtown for Rapid City Summer Nights, a free weekly festival featuring music, food, craft beer, and more. They essentially shut down a four-street intersection and put up a stage, tents, etc.

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At the same time, Main Street Square features their own entertainment just a few blocks away with Thursdays on the Square. It’s a happenin’ night in Rapid, folks! Be there or be square, as the kids say.

We had a great time and can’t wait to go again next week.