Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Wild West Adventure

On January 13, 2012, my eldest son and I made a college visit to the University of Dubuque, in Dubuque, Iowa. The University of Dubuque is one of the colleges my son is interested in attending for a degree in aviation. While we were having lunch in Dubuque before the visit began, I jokingly told my son that we should drive out to South Dakota after the college visit to see Mt. Rushmore. To this day, I'm not sure why I thought of Mt. Rushmore. It just popped into my head. Even though I was joking, my son thought it was a great idea (naturally!).

During breaks in the college visit, my son and I continued to joke with each other about driving to South Dakota. As we talked about it, my son became more and more serious about making the trip, and I became more and more afraid of how my wife would react if we did it.

After the college visit was over, my son and I continued to talk about South Dakota. After much agonizing, we decided that we would go for it. We agreed that we would do everything we could to minimize the cost of the trip, like eating peanut butter sandwiches for meals. We decided on peanut butter sandwiches because peanut butter and bread are cheap, and don't require refrigeration. The only clothes we had were the ones we were wearing, but we decided it would be worth it to wear the same clothes for the few days we would be gone. One of the bigger expenses would be lodging. We toyed with the idea of sleeping in the car, but the thought of dying of hypothermia didn't appeal to us, so we decided against it. As an alternative, we decided to seek out inexpensive motels.

After picking up some supplies at Wal-Mart, we pointed the nose of our car westward. Using the GPS, we determined that the closest city to Mt. Rushmore was Rapid City, South Dakota. We programmed Rapid City as our destination into the GPS, and the GPS estimated that we would arrive in Rapid City at about 2:30 AM local time. The thought of driving into the wee hours of the morning didn't appeal to us, but we decided to do it anyway, to save both money and time. We decided that once we got to Rapid City, we would find a motel and catch about 4 hours sleep, and then head to Mt. Rushmore first thing Saturday morning.

After leaving Dubuque, the highway took us north and west for a few hours, and then eventually headed straight north into Minnesota. Shortly after crossing the Minnesota border, the highway turned to the west. We continued to head west into South Dakota, all the way to Rapid City. Most of the trip was in the dark. The light, blowing snow that we drove through for most of the trip made driving difficult for my son, who ended up being my chauffeur for the trip. Like his father, my son loves to drive.

After many hours, we arrived in Rapid City on schedule at about 2:30 AM. We checked into the hotel and promptly hit the sack. About four hours of fitful sleep later, we woke up. After a continental breakfast, we got in the car and headed south towards Mt. Rushmore.

One of the fears I had as we were driving the night before was that the weather at Mt. Rushmore would be bad. It was the middle of January, after all. I had visions of explaining to my wife that we decided to drive all the way to Mt. Rushmore, but couldn't see it because it was shrouded in rain, fog, snow, or a combination thereof. It wasn't a pleasant vision. As it turns out, my fears were unfounded. On the morning we drove to Mt. Rushmore, the temps were chilly, but the cloud-free sky was a crystal clear shade of blue.

Mt. Rushmore was just as beautiful as I remember it to be when I saw it in 1968 with my family when I was eight years old. Since I didn't have my DSLR camera with me (dang it!), I had to take pictures of it with the camera in my Palm Pre phone. My son took pictures with the camera in his iPod Touch.

After experiencing Mt. Rushmore, we decided to explore Custer State Park, which is a massive area right next to Mt. Rushmore. The park was absolutely jaw-dropping gorgeous. We enjoyed driving the curvy, mountainous roads, and driving across the prairie. The weather continued to be fantastic. While we were there, we saw antelope and bison. One of the highlights of our visit to the park was when we stopped next to a herd of bison grazing in a field. As we were watching the bison, I was amazed by how quiet it was. We couldn't hear any man-made sounds. All we could hear was sounds that the bison occasionally made as they grazed. It was a fantastic experience. 

As the day progressed, we started thinking about when and how we would head back home. If we went back home the way we came, we would have to go all the way back to Dubuque, and then three and a half hours south to our house. Rather than go back the same route, I suggested that we go home via Colorado. The distance home would be about the same, since we would have to go south to Denver, and then straight east to our home, rather than straight east to Dubuque and then south to our home. My son readily agreed to the plan (big surprise!). We decided to spend the rest of the day driving to Denver, then spend all of Sunday in the Denver area, and then drive home on Monday. 

Later that day, we headed south towards Denver. We followed a route that took us through the southwestern corner of Wyoming. The scenery was pretty flat, but it was still interesting. The weather was good, making for a pleasant drive. We decided to make Colorado Springs our destination. Colorado Springs is about an hour south of Denver. We arrived there at about 8 PM that evening.

The first thing we did on Sunday morning was go to Mass at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Colorado Springs. I was impressed by the pro-life display near the entrance to the Church parking lot. Mass was wonderful, and it rejuvenated us after our long journey.

After Mass, we decided to drive to the top of Pike's Peak, a 14,110 ft. high mountain near Colorado Springs, just west of our motel. The drive up the mountain was incredible. The skies were partly sunny, and the views were to die for. The ranger station at the base of the mountain asked us to crack open our car windows before we drove up the mountain. We asked them why, and they said that the winds at the top of the mountain were currently 40 miles per hour, but if they got up to 60 miles per hour, enough pressure might build up inside our car to blow our windows out. Yikes!

After spending time at the summit of the mountain, and experiencing 40 mph continuous winds, we drove back down the mountain and had lunch at the Hell's Kitchen Pizza restaurant in Steamboat Springs, a touristy town at the base of the mountain. The pizza was heavenly.

After lunch, we went to a beautiful park called the Garden of the Gods. The park was donated by an oil baron to the city of Colorado Springs at the turn of the last century, with the stipulation that the public would be allowed to enjoy the park free of charge. How cool is that? My son and I spent the rest of the day exploring the park, enjoying the jaw-dropping views. We did a lot of rock climbing on the reddish colored rock formations that are all over the park. Once the sun went down, we decided to have dinner at a restaurant to celebrate the end of our wild west adventure. After dinner, we went back to our motel room to unwind before retiring for the evening.

We departed Colorado Springs at about 5 AM on Monday morning and headed for home. The trip was pretty uneventful. The weather was good for almost the entire trip, except for the last half our before we got home. On our way through Kansas, we spotted an unusual billboard that was a painting of Jesus standing in a field of wheat, holding up some wheat in his right hand. It was so unusual, we had to go back and take pictures of it. The story of how this billboard came to be can be found here.

We arrived home at about 10:30 PM Monday night. Taking the trip was kind of a crazy thing to do, but I'm glad we did it. My son will be going to college in the fall, and I won't see him much after that, so it was important that we spent this time together. I will always remember it in my heart.

To see the photos I took during the trip with my Palm Pre's humble camera, click here.