Of grasslands, corn and Mt. Rushmore

Lover's Leap just south of Hannibal, Mo.

Lover’s Leap just south of Hannibal, Mo.

Our Great Across Country Trek continues. For those of you on social media, I’ve been tweeting and Facebooking my way west, posting numerous photos via Instagram. When I last left off, we were making our way north along I-55 and the Mississippi. I then veered off the freeway after St. Louis and went north on Rt. 61, a most boring route. I’d decided I would spend this trip trying out different fast food places, albeit #anywherebutmcdonalds. The only other place I could find an iced coffee was the Dairy Queen – now known nationwide as DQ. This has been a theme of my trip: Finding iced coffee in the afternoon. Around 2:30 pm is the witching hour for me. That’s when I am sleepiest and SO want a nap. Our stop in Hannibal, Mo., was a disappointment. Veeka’s too little to know or read anything about Mark Twain and the town was mainly one street of touristy shops. We got a better view of the Mississippi River and Hannibal from Lovers Leap, a cliff south of town. That night, we were with the Webers, folks we’d met at a Christian conference last year and who had a daughter, Evvy, close to Veeka’s age. Evvy’s mom Heather happens to be an assistant pastor of an Assembly of God church – LifeChurch, I think

My cousin Faith with Evelyn, her youngest grand daughter.

My cousin Faith with Evelyn, her youngest granddaughter.

they call it and we attended the service there Sunday morning to hear her preach. It’s the same kind of place that’s all the rage now among new churches: a box-like structure with no windows, a praise band and one person preaching during an hour-long service. The church is big into service projects. Approaching Minneapolis that afternoon, we drove hundreds of miles through endless cornfields which is what I remember Iowa as being when I saw it as a child. We spent much of the time on Rt. 27; which had signs proclaiming it was a “highway of the saints” connecting Sts. Louis and Paul cities. It was the idea of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, businessman Ernest Hayes, who envisioned a four-lane highway between St. Paul and St. Louis in the 1980s. Most of its 563 miles went through cornfields, believe me. There were nice spots, such as the welcome center in Nashua, Iowa, but I was sure glad to pull into the Minneapolis area that afternoon. I spent several days catching up with various relatives – all cousins and their offspring from my dad’s side of the family – whom I’d not seen in 5 years. Veeka enjoyed meeting and playing with her 2nd cousins and wiling away lazy afternoons swimming and

Veeka with her great Aunt Alice

Veeka with her great Aunt Alice

eating buttered corn and hamburgers, as we all did at the Burkhow’s home the night before we left. I stayed with my cousin Faith and saw my 99-year-old Aunt Alice with whom I communicated through a boogie board as she cannot hear. Wednesday morning, we pushed off toward South Dakota, first stopping by New Ulm, where my dad grew up and where I got have lunch with Liz, wife to my cousin, Bob, at Iola’s, a charming place on Minnesota Avenue. I drove by the old house on Washington Street and then went to see the cemetery full of Duins and Engelberts and Hinnenthals just north of the city. Fortunately there is an enormous urn near several of the graves, making them easy to find. Veeka really liked being there. Then it was off to find I-90. We stayed that night in Chamberlain in a pleasant Best Western near the shores of the Missouri River and enjoyed a nice dinner at Upper Crust Pizza across the street. Amazingly, they had a bottle of Gewurtztraminer available. The next day, we saw the Badlands, which were amazing as usual and then I drove about a lesser-seen part of the Badlands along the Sage River where there were lovely hills covered with yellow clover flowers and blue sage. Veeka adored watching the prairie dogs,

Overlooking the Badlands, where the temps were in the upper 90s the afternoon we visited.

Overlooking the Badlands, where the temps were in the upper 90s the afternoon we visited.

which would pop their heads out of their holes and squeak at her. We stayed in the Black Hills, after the obligatory visit to Mt. Rushmore. The area had changed greatly in the 43 years since I’d visited – a new visitor center, walkway, museum, etc., plus a stunning $11 parking fee. Fortunately, Veeka was impressed with the sculptures. If you’re up there, it’s best not to stay in Rapid City but to go up to one of the places in the hills. We were in Hill City, which I disliked, including the Mangy Moose Saloon, a wretched place where there were flies everywhere and the table wasn’t even cleaned off for us. We gulped down some Mexican food, then fled for a nearby ice cream place. Most of the towns up there were filled with odd touristy contraptions and the hotels were horribly expensive.
The next day, I diverged from the path my parents took back in 1971. They had headed north towards Spearfish and Devil’s Tower whereas I headed south towards the Oglala National Grassland, as I’ve become quite fascinated with grasslands. This brought me south into Nebraska, a state I had never visited, especially its northwestern panhandle, which is pretty isolated. But I found the area is part of a “fossil byway” which means it’s covered with sites of major fossil finds. The western interior of the

The limestone buttes overlooking Crawford, Neb. They're a lot prettier than this photo shows.

The limestone buttes overlooking Crawford, Neb. They’re a lot prettier than this photo shows.

US used to be a shallow sea and western Nebraska was the eastern beach of this sea, hence, lots of animal remains. One fascinating display were the bones of two bull mammoths who died fighting each other some 10,000 years ago. Their tusks became locked and they fell to the ground together and both died as a result. That display was at Ft. Robinson, a very pleasant former military installation and WWII POW camp transformed into a quasi-resort. Unfortunately I didn’t have the time to visit some of the other fossil beds in the area, as that would have been another day and most of the sites were down long dirt roads. Must add, though, that because of the heavy rains in the area last month, all the grasslands were beautiful shades of bright green – something one only sees in the spring in those parts, rarely in late July. The area is 4,800 feet in altitude, which keeps it from getting super hot. I did locate one boutique coffee shop – Perennial Haus – at the edge of town, but the area could use some other restaurants as the town of Crawford itself seemed pretty deserted. Some stunning limestone buttes overlooked the town and indeed limestone formations were scattered everywhere in that part of the state, some of them rising up from the grass like huge rock thumbs. It was a real switch from Thunder Basin National Grassland next door in Wyoming, a huge area that’s being mined for coal. We’d no longer crossed the state line than when we saw enormous trains – a mile long – bearing car after car of coal. No wonder you hear of so little tourism in eastern Wyoming; the coal companies own the place.

Veeka has a chat with a prairie dog.

Veeka has a chat with a prairie dog.

So far, I’ve managed to escape any car trouble, although some passing truck or car tossed a large rock at my windshield yesterday, which put quite a crack in it. The cat has been as amenable as can be expected for a furry creature who’s been sclepped from motel to motel each night with no chance to wander about a garden, which she likes to do. She also likes to start mieowing at 4 a.m., which has made for some early mornings here. This morning we are in Casper, meeting with a friend for breakfast before setting off for prettier climes further west.