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Friday, September 15, 2017


One of the great road trips is the 655.8 mile
Pacific Coast Highway
California's State Highway 1
running the North/South route along the Pacific Ocean
Complete with overlooks, it offers a bucket-list-worthy journey offering
breath-taking views of the wild, powerful Pacific, stops in interesting
and beautiful towns, and, if you're lucky, beaches of seals basking in the sun.

Sunday, September 10, 2017


Getting around the huge Custer State Park,
several hours and still just a portion
of the 71,000 acres.

We saw bison at the Custer State Park Visitor Center, but it’s out on the prairie where the buffalo roam, and breathtaking as our introduction to bison was, the following morning’s Jeep Safari surpasses it. 

Bison own the park, wander freely, and when they want to move, we visitors stop.  It gives us a real opportunity to get to know them better. 

Bison are the largest mammals in North America, some about six feet tall and weighing upwards of 2,000 pounds.  When you’re close to them out in the open, you finally get a sense of that gigantic size.

For all their bulk and the hump on their backs, bison can get right down and wallow in the dirt, although the hump prevents them from rolling over.  Dust clouds rise from their bodies.  We saw this out on the prairie.

They’re big and furry black and brown, the fur often matted into patches over their sides, the result of wallowing to rid themselves of insects and other pests.  Some look like patchwork quilts.  Along the roads, if there are trees, you can see where they rub against trees too.  Bark is rubbed away.

Their split hooves are very sharp, cutting into the prairie soil and aerating it, helping it grow.  All part of the environmental stability of the prairie.

Most impressive are their massive heads, dark and full of fur.  Their expression might seem impassive and their deep-set eyes calm and somewhat sad, but if they suspect aggression, watch out!  Tempers flare quickly, and the bison can move at more than 35 miles per hour!  

Imagine the stampede of about 1,300 animals as it happens each year.  Two thousand pound animals, thundering across the prairie, hammering the earth as cowboys round them up as part of the park management program—to be counted, some tagged, and some studied.  This year it will be on Friday, Sept. 29th, so if you are available…. What a sight that must be.

We saw no stampede on our Buffalo Safari.  For us, the bison strut their stuff and take their sweet time. When they wish to cross the road, traffic stops and people gawk—and wait until they’ve gone to the other side.

The prairie, itself, is beautiful.  Average rainfall is only 20 or so inches, so the deciduous trees are close to streams.  On the hillier sections are evergreens.  All in all, not too many trees in total.  Not too much green. That accounts in a large part for the openness and the waving grasses.  Shades of yellows and browns predominate with interspersed trees.  Movies and photos cannot really capture the wide expanses.  Seeing is appreciating in a new way.

Bison, open spaces, a different kind of beauty to us from the east.  But one that is so easy to appreciate.  Our drive through the park introduced us to some of the other wildlife as well. 

Another jeep far across the open prairie.  So different to an Easterner
like me.

Custer State Park is also home to the beautiful pronghorn antelope.  We’ve already seen the biggest mammal in North America; the pronghorn is the fastest.  It can run 60 mph for long distances, enabling it to escape predators.  At two days old, it can outrun a man; at four days, it can outsprint a horse.  How speedy is that!!! 

The pronghorn antelope is graceful and beautiful, and several obliged us by coming quite close.  Gorgeous soft brown in color with a brown and white striped neck and a white rear.  Almost regal demeanor.  They’re agile and quick, but they allow us to get quite close.  It’s thrilling.

Thrilling is good, but the cutest critters we saw were acres and acres of prairie dogs popping in and out of the burrows in their cities on the plains.  It’s quite an experience to see them pop up, very curious, to gaze at the passing parade, staying very close to the doorways of their underground mazes.  On the prairie, their communities stretch as far as I could see and continued until the terrain changed.

One more highlight in a day of thrills and cuteness that was far from over.  Next up—Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse monuments.

Friday, September 08, 2017


I rarely post pictures of us in Friday's photos, but pictures of Mt Rushmore
are so iconic but almost always close up.  To envision the enormity of
these sculptures by Gutzon Borglum, perhaps a far away view is better.
Why did Borglum choose these preidents?
George Washington symbolizes the struggle for independence and the birth of the Republic.
Thomas Jefferson symbolizes territorial expansion.
Abraham Lincoln symbolizes the permanent union of the states and equality for all citizens.
Teddy Roosevelt symbolizes the 20th century, the role of the United States in world affairs and the right of the common man.

Here is the way we usually see them.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017


 Entering South Dakota’s Custer State Park and beginning the climb into the Black Hills, seeing grazing cattle on isolated ranches and the vast profusion of Ponderosa Pines clinging for all they’re worth to the rocky, sometimes steep cliffs, it is impossible for my mood not to bubble over with excitement.

In the same State Game Lodge where we headed, President Calvin Coolidge once made the Summer White House.  So impressed by his surroundings, so moved by his forays into nature, the fishing he enjoyed, and the hiking that occupied his time, before Coolidge left the sculptor Gutzon Borglum was able to convince him to set aside Mt. Rushmore.  The President was overwhelmed by nature.

The State Game Lodge
in Custer State Park, South Dakota
was used by President Calvin Coolidge as the
Summer White House in 1927.
A summer here convinced him to go ahead with the plans
for Mt. Rushmore.

The State Game Lodge is a dark stained, wooden hotel propped against the side of a hill overlooking the main road.  Clean and welcoming but with small rooms, an absence of television, spotty wifi, and no air-conditioning, it is still a great place to begin our Tauck tour entitled “Legends of the American West.”

In the bar, the stone fireplace is a certified National Treasure.  Above the mantle hangs a portrait of President Dwight D. Eisenhower who also used this lodge.  We walked where giants walked.

Our inaugural meal in South Dakota, bison stew.  Of course! It was delicious!

Despite its rusticity, the State Game Lodge is popular with tourists like me, so if you are interested, book early; it’s in high demand.

At 71,000 acres, Custer State Park is among the largest state parks in the United States, showcasing nature’s unending variety of lakes, fast-moving creeks, plains, mountains, and granite spires known as The Needles  which brave and expert climbers scale to view the majestic scenes below and out across seemingly endless valleys.

For me, above all, is that Custer is home to a herd of bison, the descendants of the barely few left after the wanton slaughter of the millions that once roamed the vast plains of the mid west.  To see them in their natural habitat where we, the interlopers, have the honor to view them, is breathtaking. 

We thought our introduction to bison and the other animals in the park would come the following day on a Buffalo Safari, but on the day we arrived, Rob and I followed Creekside Trail and walked the ¾ mile from the State Game Lodge to the Custer State Park Visitor Center, a lovely curving path over a creek, through the shade of trees, past a campground and children’s playground, through cattle-guard fences, and over some wooden walkways.

Almost to the Center, we stopped short. Lazily ambling toward us was a herd of bison. 

We were dumbstruck!  Delighted!  Exuberant!  The bison?  Totally unabashed by human presence, they stopped to feed on the grass and moseyed their way down to the creek for a drink.

How did we feel????  THIS WAS NOT A TOUR.  Rangers came over to warn people to stay back.  These are animals in the wild.  These 2,000 pound mammals, the largest mammals in North America, brook no disturbance, and they can be dangerous.  Don’t be deceived by their sleepy-eyed demeanor.

We spend nearly half an hour observing and photographing them, and then wistfully tear ourselves away and leave them to other observers.
Seeing them in their natural surroundings made me sad to think
that they were so close to extinction.
The parks brought them back for us and for posterity.

Time for the Visitor Center and some more understanding. Pictures and information abound, and there is a 25 minute film narrated by Kevin Costner about the different faces of Custer State Park and the different ways in which visitors can recreate.

Much, but not all, is dedicated to the bison, the annual roundup where they are counted, tagging some for study, tallying the way they have multiplied and thrived over the years, and continuing the work to learn more about them as well as about other park inhabitants like the pronghorn antelope (that really is more closely related to a giraffe than to an antelope).

It’s a modern Visitor Center welcoming to people with disabilities.  In my case, their device gives me closed caption of the movie’s narration.  This is a first for me, and it works beautifully.

It may have been the first day, but already it is a great vacation. This is just the beginning.

Friday, September 01, 2017


BISON, not buffalo, we quickly learned
on our Tauck tour Legends of the American West.
Not in a zoo, but across the creek.
Thrilling to see these magnificent animals in the wild,
in their natural habitat.