Monday, June 23, 2008

South Dakota Air and Space Museum, Ellsworth Air Force Base, and Coldwar Missiles

Location: Rapid City, SD

Click for Larger Image of South Dakota Air and Space MuseumJust outside Ellsworth Air Force Base sits an old remodeled aircraft hanger that is now the site of the South Dakota Air and Space Museum. Air Force fighters, bombers, cargo planes and trainers take up all the extra lawn space on the outside of the museum, some with inactive bombs attached to their wings, some with painted ladies on their noses, and most with one or more flat tires, the planes held in place by blocks.

Click for Larger Image of B52One of the largest planes at the museum was the B52 Stratofortress. The plane on display was configured with the same weapons' load as those flown in Vietnam -- 12 bombs on each wing and 84 inside. The wingpan of 185 feet, requiring wheels at the wingtips to prevent them from scraping the runway when fully fueled, exceeds the plane's length of 156 feet, 7 inches. It could fly over 6000 miles before refueling, and reached a maximum speed of 636 miles per hour. To handle all this bulk and armament, a crew of only 6 people was required.

Click for Larger Image of Planes at SD Air and Space Museum

The Air and Space Museum sits just outside the gates to Ellsworth Air Force Base, home to over 4000 service men and women and their families, and one of the emergency landing sites for the Space Shuttle. Security is tight -- we had to provide our driver's licenses for a "wants and warrants" check before we could board the small tour bus that would take us into the base (yes, everyone "passed"!).

The base is a small city, with every ammenity a family could need or want. We circled the base, our driver pointing out the nightclubs, athletic facilities, housing, and shopping areas.The most interesting stop, however, was the missile silo.

Click for Larger Image of Silo at EllsworthA relic of the cold war, 150 missile silos, and 15 control centers once dotted this area of South Dakota. Each control center could launch 10 of the missiles, with backup procedures in place to transfer the ability to launch to another center if the need arose. The centers were always located miles away from the actual missiles. This picture shows the topside of the silo with a wheeled trailer in place over the actual silo. This trailer was moved into place when missiles were added or removed to prevent spy satellites from imaging our secrets. The round hatch on the bottom left was the only way workers could enter or leave the silo.

Click for Larger Image of Missile in SiloWe were then taken into the silo itself -- not through the round hatch, but through an entryway since constructed for these tours. A walkway circled the silo at midpoint, with viewing windows cut into the wall so the missile itself could be seen. This particular missile was never "live," as this particular silo had always been a deactivated training site. But it was impressive. As our guide related various missile and cold war facts, she pointed out a small, round hole in the top of the silo. This hole opened to the outside, and provided a view of the north star, Polaris. Polaris is almost directly over the north pole, and is the point around which the night sky circles -- with only a small visible movement, it always is seen in the same spot in the night sky. It was used as part of the process to accurately target the missile.

Only one missile was ever fired here in South Dakota, and that was an unarmed test. There were supposed to be three tests, but the first was so successful the other two were canceled. Firing a missile more or less destroyed the upper part of the silo -- instead of losing valuable time by opening the concrete cover, it is simply blown off.

The missiles that once lived in these South Dakota silos are now obsolete. With the exception of silos left intact for historical purposes, they have all been removed. The maps, locations, and procedures have largely been declassified, providing a glimpse into a world most of us knew nothing about. Slightly further to the east lies one of America's newest national parks, the Minuteman National Historic Park, where tours of both a launch control center and another remaining missile site are given daily. At the entry to the launch control center, a large homemade sign greets visitors. It looks like a Domino's Pizza ad, a red and blue painted pizza box in the center with a domino painted on one side. The other side of the pizza box, however, has been altered to show a Minuteman Missile. The text around the box proudly proclaims, "World Wide Delivery in 30 Minutes or Less -- or Your Next One's Free."

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Mt. Rushmore

Location: Rapid City, South Dakota

Click for Larger Image of Mt. RushmoreWe all know what is on Mt. Rushmore... but who was Rushmore, and why was this hill named for him? Charles E. Rushmore, attorney, found himself in the Black Hills of Dakota in 1885 to check property titles for a mining company. One day, as he walked near the mountain with some business contacts, he asked them the name of the peak. The response was, "Never had any but it has now - we'll call the damn thing Rushmore" -- and it stuck. Forty years later, Charles Rushmore made the single largest donation ($5000) towards the sculpture of the four President's heads that has now made Mt. Rushmore a huge tourist attraction and one of the most recognizable names in Americana.

Click for Larger Image of Rushmore ModelThe heads on Mt. Rushmore were sculpted by Gutzon Borglum, who began the carving in 1927 and finished it in 1941. Early models (see one version on right) called for the President's torsos to be included, but this was later dropped for financial reasons. In the final version, the beginnings of a jacket can still be seen on George Washington. As the outer rock was removed and the carving granite exposed, unusable granite was sometimes found and the sculptures had to be changed to avoid these areas.

To transfer the dimensions from a model to the actual sculpture a very old technique was used. Protractors were placed on the top of the head of both the model and the mountain's sculpture, using a 12:1 ratio, and a plumb bob was dropped from the model's protractor to a point on the face. Measurements of the angle of the protractor and the length of the plumb bob line were taken and transferred to the Monument.

Click for Larger Image of Mt. Rushmore CloseupSome Rushmore Facts:

  • The faces on Mt. Rushmore are 60 feet high.

  • Mount Rushmore was originally conceived to increase tourism. It is now the number one attraction in South Dakota, and over 2 million people visit it each year.

  • 400 workers were involved in the creation of the Monument, and not a single fatality occurred.

  • Workers would use large charges of dynamite to remove large amounts of rock as they began each section, but as they got closer to the face they decreased the charges. They got so good at dynamiting the rock that they continued to use the explosive until they were within 2-3 inches of the face. Then they changed to a tool more suitable for fine work -- the jack-hammer.

  • Borglum's criteria for the selection of the Presidents was simple -- he included those he felt did the most to preserve the Republic and expand the territories. While he was a personal friend of Borglum's, Theodore Roosevelt, the last likeness to be authorized by Congress, was included because of his contributions to the creation of the Panama Canal.

  • The Lakota Indians consider the Black Hills to be sacred, and a group critical of the monument once demanded that it be destroyed.

  • A dedication ceremony was held after each face was completed which served to keep interest high and donations flowing. A huge American flag, large enough to completely cover the face, was put in place until the unveiling.

  • Thomas Jefferson had been originally carved on Washington's right, but the rock was found to be unsuitable so his likeness was dynamited off the rock and re-carved on Washington's left.

  • A huge text panel to commemorate the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and other American documents was to be carved to the right of the heads, but this was cancelled due to a lack of funding.

  • Total cost: $989,992.32.

Friday, June 13, 2008

More From South Dakota

Location: Rapid City, South Dakota

The Solos' Rally is over, but not my time in South Dakota. I will be here for a couple more weeks until it is time to go to Gillette, Wyoming, for the Escapee's Escapade. Here are some more images from places we visited during the rally:

The original model for Mt. Rushmore -- note that the lower torso and arms were not carved in the final version:

Click for Larger Image of the Original Design for Mt. Rushmore

Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary:

Click for Larger Image of Wild Horse Sanctuary
Click for Larger Image of Wild Horse Sanctuary

Kevin Costner's Tatanka - Story of the Bison: This site featured an interpretive center staffed by a Lakota Native American who had been raised in the "old way" (hunting and tracking as a lifestyle, and no TV or Nintendo) who explained traditional Native American culture in a way no one else could, and a life size sculpture showing bison being pursued by Lakota hunters:

Click for Larger Image of Tatanka Sculpture
Click for Larger Image of Tatanka Sculpture


The town of Deadwood is the once infamous gold rush town where hookers beckoned from second story windows, men lined the river bank mere feet from their neighbors to pan for gold, and where Wild Bill Hickok was shot while playing poker in Saloon No. 10, instantly creating the legend of the "Dead Man's Hand" -- a pair of aces and eights.

Now Deadwood's old historic hotels have been transformed into one small, sad casino after another, the beautiful 19th century woodwork and decor hidden behind beeping and whirling slot machines; the "soiled dove" hookers have been replaced with dress store mannequins posed in front of each of the windows, eternally ready for tourists to snap their photos; and Deadwood's most famous gunslinger is still seen everywhere in the town he would no longer recognize.

Wild Bill's grave, next to Calamity Jane's, is on a hillside overlooking town, the cemetery's roads conveniently wide enough for buses. His likeness graces shop windows up and down main street, and you can find Wild Bill knickknacks in every store. You can even see his "death chair," preserved under glass, over the door of the saloon in which he was shot -- except there are at least 15 other claims to the "real" death chair, and this is not the actual site of his death -- the saloon was moved to its present location. So all that remains of the "authentic locale" is the saloon's name -- and maybe the chair. Ah, tourism:
Click for Larger Image of Deadwood Street
Click for Larger Image of One of Many Chairs Claimed to be Wild Bill's Death Chair
Click for Larger Image of Wild Bill Hickok's Grave

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Crazy Horse's Arm

Location: Rapid City, South Dakota

"My lands are where my dead lie buried." -- Crazy Horse

Click for Larger Image of Model of the Finished Sculpture with Current Sculpture in Background I am now in South Dakota, attending a rally of the Solos, a club affiliated with the Escapees. Weather has not been our friend with most days being cool and cloudy, and even a couple torrential downpours, complete with thunder and hail, have happened. It's the first real rain the area has had in years, so the locals are excited. We just wish it could have happened a week earlier! But despite the need to carry umbrellas, we have enjoyed some bus trips to local attractions. And on Saturday, June 7, we joined the American Volksport Association (AVA) for a walk on Crazy Horse's arm -- normally closed to the public, but opened one weekend a year for this walk, the largest of the many walks sponsored by the AVA.

Click for Larger Image of Crazy Horse as Seen From Near the BaseThe Crazy Horse Memorial was begun in 1948 to honor the Lakota Indian leader, and is a private enterprise funded entirely by donations. The face has been completed; the horse's head is now being blocked off, the white outline of the head, eye, and ear visible below and to the right of the head. The official literature is careful not to give an estimated completion date as the blasting and carving is sporadic, done when money is available.

Click for Larger Image of Crazy Horse from Left Side The monument will be 563 feet high when completed; the arm itself is 263 feet long, and the horse's head is 22 stories high. It is really, really, big. By comparison, the faces on Mount Rushmore, 8 miles away, are 60 feet high. It is the world's largest sculpture in the making.

Click for Larger Image of Crazy Horse's FaceDuring this weekend event, 14,000 people were expected to participate. We began the 10K hike about 8:15 in the morning, walking through the trees and shrubs that lie at the base of the monument. Once we had rounded the front, we could see heavy equipment sitting idle on the unpaved roads and trails that provide access for the workers. Soon we began the final climb up to the face, coming in from behind the monument. One second we were on the path; the next we were standing next to the biggest head I have ever seen. The arm area was crowded, with everyone taking turns photographing each other in front of the head.

Click for Larger Image of Mountain GoatOn the way up, we saw fields of bright yellow wildflowers, aspen groves, and a lot of pine and poplar trees. Marmots were running around everywhere, and we even saw three mountain goats perched on the rocks behind the face. As we walked, it occured to me that this project is a sight we don't often see in modern times -- something that was begun with the understanding that it will take multiple generations to complete. The son of the man who began the project, Korczak Ziolkowski, is now the sculptor, his father having died in 1982.

It was a moving experience, and I would do it again without hesitation if I am ever again in this area at the right time. If you are interested in seeing a live view of the Crazy Horse Memorial, a webcam has been set up at the Memorial's website.

Click for Larger Image of Crazy Horse's Eyes and Nose

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

On The Road from Moab to Rapid City

The town of Chugwater has a population 244 and covers 3 square miles of land in south-eastern Wyoming. The town may be small, but they do have a claim to fame -- Chugwater Chili. Since it was lunchtime when we reached that exit, we stopped to try the chili at the Buffalo Lodge and Grill, a small diner tucked away just off the interstate.

Click for Larger Image of Bob 'Woof Woof' BrownellWe have all gotten used to the highways -- cars and semis zipping by, roadside scenery that is almost a blur, and everyone rushing to get "there" -- wherever "there" might be -- ahead of the other guy. But, at least for an afternoon, a different perspective could be found in Chugwater. The diner itself was like a lot of small town eateries -- faded pictures of nearby attractions on the walls, joke books stacked on the table to keep patrons occupied while waiting for eggs, hamburgers, and sandwiches, and a friendly waitress who scurried to the kitchen as she kept up with an impossible number of tables. What made this eatery different from all the rest was one of its patrons -- a 74 year old man, charming and charismatic, whose nickname was improbably "Woof Woof."

Woof Woof, real name Bob Brownell, watched celebrities do wacky stunts to raise money for their favorite charities and decided that it should not require celebrity to do the same. So he set out to raise money for the Cary (IL) Amvets Post 245 by travelling from Illinois to Laramie, Wyoming. An 1100 mile trip doesn't sound like it is so special -- we all have made trips of that length without once thinking it was newsworthy in any way. But what sets Woof Woof's journey apart from the rest is that his vehicle -- legal only on the back roads and side roads -- is a 1969 Ford 4300 tractor. A tractor whose maximum speed is a blistering 15 miles an hour.

Click for Larger Image of Bob's TractorWoof Woof sat and talked with us for a while as we ate huge bowls of red and green chili that turned out to be just the right mix of meat, beans, peppers, onions, and heat. He is a Korean Vet, an RVer, and a passionate supporter of his local Amvets, an organization that helps veterans pay their medical expenses. He assures us that 100% of the money he raises will go to the Amvets -- he is not even recovering his own costs. I didn't think to ask what kind of mileage a 39 year old tractor gets!

As we were talking, I realized that he has found something that escapes most people who make the trip between Illinois and Wyoming. Maybe it's because he's helping a charity he is passionate about, or maybe it's because he isn't trying to get those 1100 miles behind him as quickly as possible. Whatever the reason, when you look in his eyes what you see is calmness, happiness, and contentment. Obtained on the back roads of America, at 15 miles per hour.

If you wish to donate, make checks payable to Cary Amvets Post 245, and mail to Bob at 4300 Giant Oak Drive, McHenry, IL 60051

Sunday, June 01, 2008

My First Anniversary

Exactly one year ago today, June 1, 2007, I officially became a full-time RVer. I no longer had a "stick" house, and all my possessions were in one of four places: my RV, my truck, a small storage unit, or my safe deposit box.

Here is a map showing the states I have visited since I started this amazing adventure:And here is a sampling of the things I have learned along the way:

  • If there is not a Target, a Best Buy, a branch of my bank, or an outfitters nearby, whatever it is I wanted can wait until I get to a place that has it, even if that doesn't happen for a month.
  • Retirement is good.
  • Despite what I thought in Maryland, most people live happy and productive lives without having a Trader Joe's or a Costco nearby.
  • I am glad to be a Texan, and now have cowboy boots and an armadillo belt buckle to wear when two-stepping. I would never have fit in as a Floridian -- my truck has an alarm that goes off if my turn signal is accidental left on too long.
  • On the whole, people are very nice and very approachable. It is "the public" that is indifferent.
  • Skim Deluxe milk (with added calcium) seems to only be sold in Maryland. Boiled peanuts are only sold in the South (the ones made from green peanuts are the best).
  • There is nothing I can do about gas prices. The options I have are:
    1. Don't travel
    2. Travel and complain with every fill up, or
    3. Travel, enjoy myself, and ignore the number on the pump.
    I'm trying to do the latter, but sometimes it's hard.
  • It is good to stop for a while to listen to a stranger playing a hammered dulcimer, to watch an owl sitting in a tree, or to sit quietly on a large rock and stare at Mother Nature's work.
  • We live in the most amazing country, so full of wonders and oddities that traveling it will never be boring.
  • Don't put off enjoying life. Life is not what will be in the future, it is the journey you take to get there. It will be over way too soon.