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Travels with Grama

Travels with Birdie
(My Mother)

Road Trip -August 2007

Both my mother and I celebrate our birthdays in August, her 83rd on the 14th, my 61st on the 15th. She lives in Hanover, Ontario and I live in Calgary, Alberta - so arrangements were made for her to come to Calgary to spend her birthday with the western half of her family. She'd had a fall during the winter and broken her kneecap of all things, so her ability to get out and about had been quite restricted. She was finally mobile with the use of a cane or walker and her stubborness got her the rest the way.

Mom arrived on Sunday, August 5th and just visited and relaxed for the first few days, as my husband and I were working. On Wednesday the 8th, my daughter Lia, asked her if she would like to go for a drive and the two of them spent the entire day touring the mountain back roads around Banff, Lake Louise and other sites, returning late in the evening. Successful Test Run !!

Having accomplished a day in and out of the car, with no major discomforts, I felt it was safe to let her in on her birthday "surprise". On Thursday, I told her to repack her bags, we were hitting the road for a week. Being cooped up all winter, she didn't even ask where we were going - just what did she need to bring. I chuckled as I thought - the apple doesn't fall far from the tree - I know where I get it from. I let her know that if she was uncomfortable or in any pain - we would stop and rest or if the need be, turn around and head for Calgary. We would only go as far as she was able.

I left work a bit early and on Friday we were packed and out of town by 4 PM, heading for destinations I was familiar with, but where Mom hadn't been. Since Doreen, my travel partner did 99% of the driving. I was normally the navigator, photographer and food-beverage-entertainment director. This time I was the driver, so I was careful to map out routes that would take us through the best scenery to unique attractions and never be more than a 2 day drive from home.

Sticking with tradition, we cruised out of town with Willie Nelson's "On The Road Again", blaring on the radio.

2007 Travels with Birdie Photo Album


We made it to the border and into Montana around 7 PM and continued south on I-15. Just north of Great Falls, I looked in the rear view mirror and was stunned. The sky behind us was absolutely red and the setting sun looked like a huge yellow marble hanging there. I immediately pulled off to the shoulder to snap a couple of pictures. Ironically, my brother who was driving across the Trans Canada Hwy 1 took pictures the same night and although hundreds of miles apart - the photos are almost identical.

We spent our first night at the Best Western Heritage Inn in Great Falls, which has been one of my favourite resting spots, whether travelling north or south.

Little Big Horn

Leaving Great Falls Saturday morning, we headed east and then south on Hwy 89 through the Lewis and Clark National Forest. It is such a pretty drive. Just a two lane road that winds and curves up and over the hills with the morning sun flickering through the tree branches. At White Sulphur Springs we turned east again onto Hwy 12 over to Lavina where we picked up Hwy 3 south as far as I-90 and Billings. The Little Big Horn Battlefield is about an hour east of Billings at the junction of I-90 and Hwy 212.

Mom was as amazed, as I had been, that the headstones of the fallen soldiers were so vastly scattered over the 5 mile road.  Most of them were on the main battlefield hillside, but you could almost see how some of the soldiers had escaped from the group, only to be caught and slaughtered miles away.

As I look at the pictures even today, I still can't help but wonder why they stood their ground at the top of that hill, instead of trying to get to lower ground and put the river at their backs. It's not like they couldn't see the Indians coming - you can see for miles in any direction. When you rationalize that these men knew they were in a war zone and could be attacked at any time, the lack of common sense to me is mind-boggling.

After leaving Little Big Horn, we followed Hwy 212 east towards South Dakota. This is the road where, in June, Doreen and I had been forced to slow to a crawl because of all the deer and antelope feeding along the roadside. Well, they were still there. My Mom wasn't disappointed - there were so many she gave up counting when she reached 300.

It was a slow drive to reach our motel in Belle Fourche, but we arrived without incident and were able to acquire a ground floor room at the very nice AmericInn where I'd stayed previously during the June road trip.

In our little journal we kept, Mom had written that she'd slept through a huge thunder storm that night - Great Beds !!!

What I didn't know was that this was the big motorcycle rally weekend and until that afternoon, there wasn't a room to be had in a 50 mile radius. One day sooner and we'd have been sleeping in the car. Like they say, timing is everything.

Sturgis, South Dakota

The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is an American motorcycle rally held annually in Sturgis, South Dakota, each first full week of August. It is billed as the biggest bike rally in the world.

It's been held here every August since 1938, when the Jackpine Gypsies bike club ran some flat-track races and bikers rode in to watch. Over the years it grew, reaching its zenith probably in the early '90s when an estimated 500,000 people would gather in this small town of 6,500.

The first event was called the "Black Hills Classic" and consisted of a single race with nine participants and a small audience. The founder is generally considered to be Clarence "Pappy" Hoel. He purchased an Indian Motorcycle franchise in Sturgis in 1936 and formed the "Jackpine Gypsies" that same year.

The focus of a motorcycle rally was originally racing and stunts. In 1961, the rally was expanded to include the Hillclimb and Motocross races. This could include half-mile track racing, intentional board wall crashes, ramp jumps and head-on collisions with automobiles.

The Sturgis Rally has been held every year, with exceptions during World War II due to gas rationing.

In recent years, there has been a revitalization of motorcycling and a new group of fans that are interested in the old rallies. Attendance was estimated at 754,844 in 2000.  Many of the new attendees of the Sturgis Rally are families travelling in trailers or campers towing the trailered bikes and then riding their motorcycles in the last few miles. This has prompted several of the attendees to start wearing patches and shirts saying "I Rode Mine to Sturgis" with the date - instead of the traditional patch stating that the wearer attended the event in that year.

Since it was totally by coincidence that we happened to arrive as the Rally was ending, we were still in time to see the thousands of bikes and bikers travelling the highways in all directions.

We both had a chuckle or two, watching the silver-haired diehards hauling their Harleys around behind the $200,000 motorhomes. We can relate, as my sister and brother-in-law drag their Harleys back and forth to Florida in the winter. Not me - I like my sunroof and A/C and prefer not to have bugs in my teeth.

Wall, South Dakota

There is a unique tourist attraction in the little town of Wall. It started out as a drug store, originally advertising for water to the dry, thirsty travellers and has grown into a full blown year round memorabilia centre which still advertises for miles along the interstate. The motorcycles lined the street here, too. The entire main street caters solely to tourism and travellers come in droves.

I first visited Wall Drug in the summer of 1989. The main street hasn't changed much but they did upgrade the attractions at the rear of the drug store. Unfortunately, the original attractions are "modernized" and there are stores where there used to be places for kids to play but it is still a worthwhile stop along the route. We did a short walkabout, Mom bought me a ring for my birthday and took a few pictures before continuing on our way.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Located in southwestern South Dakota, Badlands National Park consists of nearly 244,000 acres of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles and spires blended with the largest, protected mixed grass prairie in the United States.

Sixty-four thousand acres are designated official wilderness. The Stronghold Unit is co-managed with the Oglala Sioux Tribe and includes the sites of 1890's Ghost Dances.

Four species of wildlife have been reintroduced into the Badlands since its establishment as a National Monument in 1939. The black-footed ferret, bighorn sheep, bison, and swift fox, once exterminated from the area's mixed grass prairie, are again thriving in their native habitat.

When Doreen and I toured the badlands in June, the land was grey and green with sprouting grasses and spring flowers.

In August, it was like being in a completely different country. The grasses were tall and yellowed by the heat and the hills were alive in brilliant colours of gold, pink and varying shades of purple. This was all interspersed with two and three foot green shrubs that are about the only plantlife hardy enough to retain it's colour.

Long Horn Cattle

What's wrong with this picture ???

After leaving the badlands we travelled west again on Hwy 44 and then south on 16 towards Rapid City. Somewhere along this route we passed a pasture full of these long horned cattle. They were strange looking so I stopped and took a couple of pictures. When we got home - I showed Doreen the photos and she figured it out. One of the bulls had horns that were upside down. It looked like he'd been bred with a mountain goat. I'd be curious to know if this is an actual breed of cattle or simply a fluke of nature.

Bear Country, South Dakota

In 1989 my husband Steve and younger daughter Jenn, had driven to Ontario for my oldest daughter, Lia's wedding. The trip was basically non-stop to get there. On the way home, I made poor Steve stop at every advertised attraction we passed along the American highways. Bear Country was one of those stops and it was memorable enough to take my mother back to it.

Eighteen years later it had grown considerably and had more bears as well as a variety of different animals. The pictures below are not stock photos. They were taken with my camera and we were within a few feet of some of them.

The mountain goat was in the grass as we drove up and I swear it jumped up on that rock and posed for us. It stood there until we drove on and then jumped down again. The white wolf was just circling to lay down and I was afraid it would disappear in the long grass but luckily I was able to get the picture.

Below is the park watchtower to keep an eye on the tourists to make sure they don't do something stupid like get out of the vehicle and approach the bears. The bears are so adapted to humans they just meander alongside the cars and it can give people a sense that they aren't dangerous. They ARE. Vegetarian animals are in their own section - apart from the bears and wolves - separated by fences and texas gates.

After Bear Country, we headed to Keystone to find a motel room before visiting Mount Rushmore and more of the many local sights. This would be our 3rd night out and Mom was quite enjoying the trip with no signs of discomfort, other than numb bum.

Keystone, South Dakota

Keystone is a small town in the Black Hills region of Pennington County, South Dakota. It had its origins in 1883 as a mining town, and has since transformed itself into a resort town, to serve the needs of the millions of visitors to Mount Rushmore National Memorial, which is located just beyond city limits.

Carrie Ingalls ("Little House on the Prairie") spent a significant part of her adult life here, living with her husband David N. Swanzey and his children. Her sister Mary Ingalls lived with them for a while and died here in 1928.

We were able to get a room at the President's View Resort which sits atop a ridge overlooking the town. In the picture to the left, you can see it's viewpoint advantage. It's the whitish complex in the centre of the photograph with the green roof.

The steep road up to the motel is a treat in itself and must be fun to keep open in winter.

View of Keystone main street from the motel
View of Mt Rushmore from motel

Mount Rushmore, South Dakota

Mount Rushmore is most famous for the faces of the four presidents carved into it's southeast face as a memorial to American history.

The faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln look down from their stony heights and remind everyone that even the impossible is possible.

The idea was conceived in 1923 as a way to bring tourists and recognition to the state. Gutzon Borglum was contracted to do the sculpting and he continued to work on the project until his sudden death in March of 1941. His son, Lincoln, took over the project for the next seven months, until funding ran out. The carving of Mount Rushmore was shut down and the presidential faces were complete as they stood.

Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway

This 70-mile drive offers breathtaking views of some of the Black Hills' most stunning scenery. The popular Needles Highway (SD Highway 87) and Iron Mountain Road (US Highway 16A) are both part of the byway.

Needles Highway features tunnels, hairpin curves and slender granite pinnacles.

Iron Mountain Road

Three granite tunnels on Iron Mountain Road perfectly frame the faces of Mount Rushmore National Memorial in the distance. Also on the route are three pigtail bridges, built in the 1930s, which have a corkscrew shape. A pigtail bridge is a type of road bridge, where the road curls and passes over itself. This allows the road to negotiate sharp changes in topography in limited space.

Wildlife Loop Road
The Wildlife Loop Road (SD Highways 87 and 16A) in Custer State Park is pure nature at its best. There are open grasslands and rolling hills speckled with pine. This 18-mile route follows the diverse landscape offering views of mountain foothills, prairie meadows and lush streambeds. The park is home to one of the world's largest publicly-owned bison herds.

Wildlife Loop Road

Continuing on the Scenic Byway, we headed into the Wildlife Loop Road. The sun was still up but slowly setting.  Through the tall trees we could see an unusual cloud formation to the south and as the forest thinned into grassland, the full cloud was revealed and the picture to the right displays most of what we saw. It looked like a nuclear bomb had gone off. This accumulation hung in the sky over the next 2 days - shrinking in size and shape but still massive.

Many of the park's wildlife species occupy this area and are commonly seen. They include bison, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, deer, elk, coyote, prairie dog and numerous birds.

Also, some of the park's wild "begging" burros live at the southernmost end of this road.

The Wildlife Loop Road (SD Highways 87 and 16A) in Custer State Park is pure nature at its best. There are open grasslands and rolling hills speckled with pine. This 18-mile route follows the diverse landscape offering views of mountain foothills, prairie meadows and lush streambeds. The park is home to one of the world's largest publicly-owned bison herds.


We left South Dakota Monday morning heading south on Hwy 89, then west onto Hwy 18 into Wyoming. We turned south again at Hwy 85, which is a very long, lonely road with virtually no washrooms - or trees to hide behind for that matter.

We avoided Interstate 25 for most of the way until just north of Cheyenne which took us into Denver.

By now it was getting dark with another rainstorm going thru so we were fortunate to find the lovely Quality Suites on the west side of the city in Golden area. Unfortunately, when we left the next morning, we left Mom's cane hanging on the luggage dolly. We called a couple of hours later but were never able to get it back.

Colorado is one of the prettiest states to drive through when you have to be on an interstate. I 40 takes you through the White River National Forest and the southern ranges of the Rocky Mountains. Some of the mountains are over 14,000 ft high and the scenery is breathtaking.

The rest stops are set with such beautiful backgrounds, you actually do feel relaxed before getting back into the rat race.

It's amazing that within a couple of hours - you'll be driving into an area so barren you can't believe anything can survive, let alone thrive.

Highway 128, Utah

We continued on I-40 into Utah and at exchange 214, took the little cutoff road thru Cisco to connect with Hwy 128. This is the narrow road that parallels the Colorado River for several miles and rises and falls along cliff edges and river bottoms all the way into the tourist town of Moab. It's where Doreen and I had travelled the first time at night and imagined the "great abyss" we were going to fall into.

This was Mom's first sighting of "red rock country". It's so hard to explain to someone the feelings you get when you see the colours and the extreme ruggedness of the land and I was so happy to have Mom see for herself what keeps Doreen and I coming back year after year.

Colorado River

One minute you are driving along the edge of the river, where it sometimes feels the river can overflow it's banks and swallow you whole. The next minute you are high above on a cliff, where the road edges are crumbling into the "abyss" and you pray the precipice you are driving on doesn't collapse under the weight of the car.

Arches National Park, Utah

On the outskirts of Moab, is the Arches National Park. There is a long climb up the side of the butte to enter and then you are suddenly driving through what seems to be a world totally foreign to what we know.

Arches National Park is known for preserving over 2000 natural sandstone arches, including the world-famous Delicate Arch.

The park is 119 square miles (310 km2) in size. Since 1970, forty-three arches have toppled because of erosion.

Balanced Rock is one of the many recognizable viewpoints in the park. Other sites are an original homestead cabin and walls of petroglyphs. The petroglyphs were carved by Native Americans during both the prehistoric and historic periods.

There are several areas to walk thru and explore but with Mom's knee, she had to settle for the scenic drive. Also, the temperature was in the low 100's and far too hot to attempt any walkabout further than a restroom.

Moab, Utah

I was hoping to get Mom onto the Riverboat Dinner Cruise that evening but she turned me down. There is a flight of stairs to get down to the boat and she didn't think she'd be able to climb them. The staff was great and said they often put guests in a chair and carried them down, but Mom was having none of it. So we sat in the shade, had an ice cream before continuing south on Hwy 191.

Blanding and Bluff, Utah

We weren't having a lot of luck that day. I pulled into the "Hole In The Rock" tourist site to show Mom the home built inside a rock and the gates were closed. No signs saying closed for the day or closed permanently.

It wasn't until the following year, I discovered Mom and I had stopped on the only day the site had ever closed. The owners were attending the funeral of their neighbour's son who was one of the unfortunate men killed in the mine collapse in Price, UT.

Once again we were driving in an evening thunderstorm all the way to Bluff, hoping to get a cabin at the Desert Rose Inn. No room at the inn - in fact no room anywhere- so we had to backtrack 30 miles to Blanding.

This time I smartened up and called ahead and was able to book a room. The motel was clean and the staff were very pleasant.

The next morning we purchased some fridge magnets from the young clerk at the checkout counter before setting out to have breakfast in Bluff.

The Twin Rocks Cafe/Trading Post is a favourite stop where the food is great and both the cafe and trading post offer local native artwork, sculptures, metalworks, jewelry, rugs as well as the typical hats, T-shirts, signs and novelties for tourists.

While I was picking out metal wall hangings to add to my collection, Mom had spotted the hand carved canes and promptly had one trimmed to size for herself.

So with full stomachs and purchases in hand, we headed off into "God's country".

Valley of the Gods, Utah
Valley of the Gods is a smaller scale version of Monument Valley, with tall, red, isolated sandstone mesas and cliffs standing above the level valley floor. The valley has a 17 mile dirt road that winds amongst the eerie formations. The road is steep and bumpy in parts but passable by normal vehicles in good weather.
This was my first trip through the valley in summer, right after a heavy rainstorm so there were a couple of runoff spots that were a bit dicey to maneuver. I was quite grateful to be driving an SUV that day or we may have gotten ourselves high-centered or stuck in a ravine.

Mom & Highway 261, Utah

On the west exit of the Valley, the road connects with the infamous Hwy 261. South takes you to Mexican Hat and north leads up the Moki Dugway cliff road to the top of the butte.

Since we were now on the homeward portion of our adventure, we turned north and I was able to show Mom my favourite viewpoint in all my travels.......... the southwest viewpoint overlooking Valley of the Gods.

Travelling from south to north gives you the incredible view from many different angles, but the true way to get the "oh my gawd" sense of awe is to travel north to south and come over the small rise thinking the whole world has dropped out beneath you.

The pictures here are at the starting point of the climb up the Moki Dugway on Hwy 261. The road is an ancient trail carved out of the rockface of this butte and is definitely not for those who are afraid of heights. My Mom, luckily, does not suffer from this affliction and was hanging her head out the window like a puppy breathing in the fresh air.

Once we had climbed the butte and crossed the mesa, we connected with Hwy 95 northwest to Hanksville and up Hwy 24, crossed I-70 to Hwy 191/6 towards Salt Lake City. There were only necessary stops between here and Salt Lake in order to leave enough time to take the scenic route the rest of the way home through Wyoming and Montana.

Salt Lake City, Utah

It seems like a long drive but the day flew by and before we knew it we were hunting for a bed for the night in Salt Lake City.

We chose the Best Western Cotton Tree Inn. Not one of our better choices - but we did receive a discount for the inability to sleep due to noise and construction and lack of hot water.

Highway 89
We turned our directions northeast to Hwy 89 which would take us into the south entrance of Yellowstone National Park. There is a beautiful cottage area around Bear Lake that you pass through where we stopped for a refreshing milkshake to cool us off.

Bear Lake is a natural freshwater lake on the Utah-Idaho border. It is the 2nd largest natural freshwater lake in Utah and has been called the "Caribbean of the Rockies" for its unique turquoise-blue color. This colour is the result of suspended limestone deposits in the water. Bear Lake is over 250,000 years old and was formed by fault subsidence that continues today, slowly deepening the lake along the eastern side.

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

This was now my third trip through Yellowstone and I was keeping my fingers crossed the animals would be out in force. We stopped by the lodge near Old Faithful and had a bite of lunch and then continued on our homeward journey. We were able to spot buffalo and deer along the roadside and the sun was shining which made it a very pretty drive. It was getting quite late as we were leaving Yellowstone, so we decided to find a room in Gardiner, MT - just outside the north entrance to the park.

Montana to Home

On the north side of the Yellowstone River, we were able to acquire the last ground floor room at the Absaroka Lodge in Gardiner. It had a balcony overlooking the river and the sounds of running water was very relaxing. Later in the evening, a major thunderstorm went thru and we were treated to a fabulous lighting display from our vantage balcony seats.

We left at 8 AM and followed Hwy 89 north again to Great Falls where we had lunch at the Flying J. The last leg of most trips is always the longest and most boring because it's usually through areas most frequently travelled. Fortunately for Mom, the greater portion of the Montana return route had only been travelled once in the dark so this was new scenery to her.

Most people have the opinion that Montana is mainly grassy plains because of it's western heritage, but the state is in the heart of the Rocky Mountains and offers unbelievably beautiful landscapes.

Bank in Alberta

We reached the Canadian/US border around 3:15 on Friday, one week from the day we left. The sky was blue and the rains had vanished for the time being. It had been a fantastic adventure and we were sorry to see it end.

I had fulfilled a longtime wish to take a trip with my mother and hopefully she enjoyed it as much as I did. The unique opportunity to show her the places I'd seen was the icing on the cake. My wish now is that we have the health and ability to do it again.

Nest - 2008 Tombstone