Grand Teton National Park

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Before leaving Idaho Falls this morning, we stopped at the Japanese Friendship Garden on the River Walk. It was a lovely interlude before driving to Jackson, Wyoming.

About 20 years ago, I visited Jackson, Wyoming, hoping to see the Grand Tetons. I could only stay one night, and the mountains were fogged in the next morning. It was such a disappointment, so I knew I had to return some day.

Grand Teton National Park includes several major peaks of the Teton range within its 300,000 plus acres. Humans have occupied this region at least 11,000 years. White explorers arrived in the 1800s, looking for beaver. Now they come to ski, hunt and hike. The Town of Jackson, at the south end of the park, with only 10,000 residents, can attract as many as 40,000 visitors per day in the summer. This year, after a year of minimal travel due to COVID, the town was even busier than usual.

The Menors Ferry Historic District, just north of Jackson, was once home to a ferryboat across the Snake River that operated from 1894 to 1927, when a bridge was built south of the ferry. The ferry was a platform set on two pontoons, with a cable system across the river.

The weather was perfect for visiting the park today. We stopped several times to take photos. Lunch was at the Jackson Lake Lodge, where we could look out their large windows toward Jackson Lake.

It would be easy to stay here for several days, there is so much to explore, but we are on a tight schedule, so on to Yellowstone tomorrow.

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The Copper King of Butte, Montana

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Our lodging last night was at the Copper King Mansion, which now operates as a bed and breakfast. Our stay included a tour of the mansion. The 34 room home was built between 1884-1888 for William Andrews Clark, at a cost of about $500,000 at the time, equivalent to about $16 million today. Clark was one of three “copper kings” of Butte. The house is of Romanesque Revival Victorian style, with all of the newest technology available, including gas and electric chandeliers. All of the wood was hand carved, no two panels were the same. Each room featured a different type of wood. The house has about 97 doors, pocket shutters on many of the windows (they fit into the wall when not in use.)

After Clark died, his son, Charles inherited the house. Unfortunately, Charles had a gambling problem and had to sell it to cover his debts. All of the furnishings were sold as well. The house was purchased by the Catholic Church and used as a convent and school for girls for several years before being purchased by Mrs. Anna Cote. Fortunately, the nuns left most of the features intact, so we were able to see what it looked like in its days of glory. Mrs. Cote and her daughter, Ann Cote-Smith were avid collectors, and filled the house with furnishings from the Clark era. There are also collections of dresses and hats, dolls, steins, and more.

The Bed and Breakfast is now owned by Mrs. Cote’s granddaughter, Erin Sigl and grandson, John Thompson. Along with Erin’s husband, they have been operating it for several years.

In the 1860s, Clark staked a gold mining claim near Bannack, about 90 miles south of Butte. He worked the mine for a couple of years, then decided he could make more money by helping miners manage their findings. He was right, amassing a fortune estimated at $50 million by 1900, equivalent to $1.6 billion now. Clark became a banker, and acquired several mines when owners defaulted on their loans. Clark also owned several newspapers, a sugar plantation in California, and land with oil wells. He personally financed the building of 1,100 miles of rail which became part of the Union Pacific Railroad. One of the businesses Clark purchased was the United Verde Copper Company in Jerome, Arizona, which was rich in copper, silver, and gold. We have visited Jerome a couple of times and toured their mining museum.

Clark had a colorful history. He campaigned successfully to have Helena named the state capitol, instead of Anaconda. Perhaps that was because Anaconda was founded by one of his competitors for Copper King, Marcus Daly. He had political ambitions, hoping to serve in the US Senate. At the time, US Senators were selected by the state legislators. After being elected to the US Senate by the Montana State Legislature, the Senate refused to seat him, claiming that he had bribed the legislators to vote for him. He was sent home, and campaigned for the seat a couple of years later, successfully, and served one term in the Senate. He supposedly said “I never bought a man who wasn’t for sale.”

Regardless of some of his more unsavory practices, he apparently treated the miners and their families very well. He built an amusement park, Columbia Gardens, in 1899, which sat on the site currently occupied by the Berkeley Pit until it burned down in 1973. The 68 acre park had flower gardens, a Ferris wheel, roller coaster, and greenhouses. Rides were free to the miners, their families and city residents.

Before leaving town, we visited the Granite Mountain Speculator Mine Memorial, which commemorates the death of 168 men who died on June 8, 1917 when a fire started in the Granite Mountain shaft of the Speculator Mine.

This location provided some great views of the Berkeley Pit. When we viewed the pit yesterday, we saw only a fraction of it. It is truly immense.

A little trivia about Butte: It is the birthplace of Evel Knievel, a famous daredevil who was born in 1938 and died in 2007. He is buried in Butte.

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The Richest Hill on Earth

Butte, Montana

Friday, June 18, 2021

We arrived in Butte this morning, and first visited the Montana Mineral Museum at the Montana School of Mining. The school was founded in 1900, and the first artifacts acquired in 1901 for teaching purposes. Over the past 120 years, the number of items in their collections has grown from 177 to over 13,000 from all over the world, of which about 1,000 are on display. The museum is located on the college campus and is free to the public.

We next stopped at the Berkeley Pit, which was mined for copper from 1955 to 1982. The pit is about 1800 feet deep, over one mile long and nearly a mile wide. Several neighborhoods were removed to allow for the mining operations. The owners were compensated at market value for their homes, then given the option to buy them back for $1 and move them elsewhere. Homes not repurchased were demolished. About one billion tons of material were removed: copper, silver and gold, which gave Butte its nickname “The Richest Hill on Earth.”

While the pit mine was in operation, groundwater was constantly being pumped out. Once the mine closed, the pit quickly filled up. The water is extremely toxic, containing high concentrations of copper, cadmium, cobalt, iron, manganese and zinc. It also contains arsenic. Nothing can live here. Migrating waterfowl have made the mistake of landing here, drinking the water and dying shortly thereafter. Ongoing efforts, including noises, predator drones and even wind are used to deter waterfowl, proving to be about 99% effective. Maybe we can try something like that at home to keep the geese out of our yard!

The Berkeley Pit is the largest Superfund Site in the United States. The water level must be kept below 5410 feet above sea level to prevent it seeping into the surrounding land. Butte sits at about 5800 feet above sea level. A water treatment facility on site pumps water continuously from the pit, treats it and releases it into Silver Bow Creek. At that point, it is clean enough to drink.

Overlooking the mine is Our Lady of the Rockies, a 90 foot statue that sits on the Continental Divide.

We then headed to The World Museum of Mining, which was founded in 1963 while mining was still big industry in the area. In just over 100 years, 3 million ounces of gold, 700 million ounces of silver, 850 million pounds of lead, almost 4 billion pounds of manganese, almost 5 billion pounds of zinc and over 20 billion pounds of copper were mined here.

The Museum is located on a mine yard, the Orphan Girl Mine, where silver, lead and zinc were mined. Many artifacts remain at the site, including the Hoist House, headframe, ore bins, and rail cars. You can visit a re-creation of an 1890s mining town and take an underground mine tour. We’ve done a few in other locations, so passed that up today.

We enjoyed cocktails at the Fifty One Below Speakeasy in the old downtown area of Butte, then dined at Mac’s a couple of blocks away. We recommend both.

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Riding the Rails

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

This is our first overnight train trip. We’ve enjoyed the short train trips we’ve taken in the past, and thought this would be an adventure we would enjoy.

Amtrak (a portmanteau combination of the words American and track) is celebrating 50 years of operation this year. The Rail Passenger Service Act was signed into law in October, 1970. This act created the National Railroad Passenger Corporation (Amtrak) to take over responsibility for operating intercity service from railroads. At that time, 20 railroads offering intercity passenger service joined Amtrak. The number of operating lines were cut in half – from 366 to 184.

Today, there are 33 routes that operate in all but two of the 48 contiguous states in the US. Wyoming and South Dakota are the only states without Amtrak service. Over 300 trains provided service to 32.5 million passengers in 2019. Those numbers dropped significantly in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic, but the numbers are ticking up.

Amtrak has never been self-sufficient, and in 1997, after provided a $2.3 billion tax refund to ease Amtrak’s cash flow issues, Congress declared its intention to terminate funding of Amtrak’s operating losses. However, it was determined that Amtrak would not be able to function without federal subsidies, so pulled back from that declaration. Amtrak survives because of the benefits it provides to the nation, including energy efficiency, reduced traffic congestion and less air pollution, fewer fatalities, as well as providing an alternative method of troop transport if interstates and highways are damaged.

We are taking the Empire Builder route, which was scheduled to leave St Cloud, Minnesota at the insane hour of 12:24 am (just after midnight.) However, it was late getting to the station, so we boarded about an hour late. Then, we encountered a slowdown due to freight traffic. Amtrak rents the rails, so has to wait behind any freight trains.

We had booked a bedroom so we can sleep on the way to Whitefish, where we were scheduled to arrive at 8:23 pm tonight. Again, that was a little over an hour late, not too bad.

The sleeper room is cozy, but a pretty efficient setup, with one bed converting to a sofa during the day, plus an in-room shower and toilet. The upper bunk was as hard as a board, but the bottom bed wasn’t too bad. The bottom bed is a small double, and we can both fit as long as we like each other! The car was a little outdated, could use some TLC, but it worked pretty well. Masks are required to move about on the train, to sit in the lounge/observation car and the dining car. As long as we stayed in our little nook, we could spend the 20+ hours in maskless comfort.

Meals are included with the sleeper cars. In normal times, there are chef-created meals, but for now we are eating food that was prepared ahead of time and then heated up on the train (sort of like airplane food.) We learned from staff that whoever plans for provisions didn’t send enough food. No omelet for breakfast because they had run out already, no wine at dinner because they had run out already. There were few options but we didn’t starve. Staff was very apologetic about these shortages, and were encouraging riders to complain to headquarters.

We slept through Minnesota and part of North Dakota. The land is pretty flat here, but we started to see some changes in terrain about mid-morning. Mountains became visible in the afternoon. There are some nice views, but they are hampered a bit by the dirty windows.

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Flathead Lake and Missoula, MT

Thursday, June 17, 2021

We picked up our rental car this morning, and headed out to explore Whitefish a little bit. We have a couple of goals for this trip – finally visit the states of Montana and Idaho, and visit several national parks. When we’re done, we’ll have only one more state to complete the entire 50 – West Virginia (scheduled for September this year.)

Then, we drove south to Missoula, stopping for a while at a couple spots on Flathead Lake. This is the largest freshwater lake in the US west of the Mississippi River, and it is considered one of the cleanest. Volunteer Park, in the town of Lakeside, has picnic areas, pebble beaches, swimming rafts and public docks. It was very well kept, clean and welcoming. Several people were enjoying the water while we were there.

During the last glaciers, a massive glacial dammed lake was formed – Lake Missoula. Flathead lake is a remnant of Lake Missoula. In 1930, Kerr Dam was built at the south end. The dam provides hydroelectric power and water for irrigation.

A few miles down the road we saw a sign for the Flathead State Park, and pulled in for some more good views. Montanans can enter any state park free, but out-of-towners are supposed to pay an entrance fee. The very kind gate staff decided that the Montana plates on our car were good enough to let us in free. Nice people are everywhere, not just in Minnesota!

Mountains were all around us on our drive – the Flathead, Swan and Mission Ranges to the east, and the Salish Range to the west. We are always impressed by the mountains we see, as the highest peak in Minnesota is only 2,300 feet high.

After checking into our lodging, we spent some time at Historic Fort Missoula, which was built in 1877 to protect settlers from native American attacks. Beginning in 1888, it housed the Buffalo Soldiers of the 25th Regiment. These soldiers of color were given that nickname by the native Americans during the Indian Wars.

The fort was home to the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps in the late 1800s. Soldiers were trained for long treks, including an 1,900 mile trip to St. Louis which took 41 days. The bicycle corps idea was abandoned as the US faced imminent war with Spain.

Fort Missoula was renovated in 1904, and then used as a military training center to train truck drivers and mechanics during WWI. It became the Northwest Regional Headquarters for the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933, serving as a center for dozens of CCC camps until 1942.

The fort was used as a military training center to train truck drivers and mechanics of the Student Army Training Corps (SATC) during World War I, but was almost abandoned by 1921. However, it was designated as the Northwest Regional Headquarters for the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933. Fort Missoula served as the administration, training, and supply center for dozens of CCC camps in Montana, Northern Idaho, Glacier National Park, and Yellowstone National Park until June 1942. During WWII, it served as an internment camp for both Italians and Japanese. The fort was decommissioned in 1947.

We enjoyed a beautiful Iris garden at the park, sponsored by the Missoula Iris Society. I had never seen so many colors of iris before – truly lovely!

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Hunkered Down in Austin, Texas

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

We left South Padre Island on Monday, and headed to Brownsville, where we had hotel reservations for the night. The hotel had several electric vehicle chargers, all but one occupied by non-electric vehicles. We squeezed our Tesla in and didn’t leave until we checked out the next day. Before we left the island, we stopped at the supercharger, which worked just long enough to get us about 5% more energy than we had stored.

Many thanks to the Homewood Suites in Brownsville for letting us into our room mid-morning. They even offered a dinner that evening. I doubt we would have found any restaurants that were open. Once again, I have to recommend the HiltonHonors loyalty program which has helped us out of jams more than once.

To add to our worries on Monday, our car’s communication system went down. Tesla uses the AT&T network, so we think their cell towers were down. The car was drivable, but we had no GPS, nor any way to see if other superchargers along the route would even be powered. Fortunately, it was back in service by Tuesday morning, so we were able to head out. We kept our speed under the limit to conserve power, just in case any more of the superchargers were down.

We had some food and beverages left over from our condo stay, so we weren’t too concerned about starving. At one stop by an H-E-B grocery store in San Marcos, the line to get in was stretched about a block. With more bad weather on the way, people were stocking up. At another stop, we went into the nearby convenience store to pick up a few things, but the power went down before we could pay.

Along the way to Austin, we saw cars that still hadn’t been pulled out of the ditch from the last storm. We also saw the effects of several accidents that had occurred this afternoon. Icicles hang from road signs, snow blows off of passing trucks, overpasses and underpasses are treacherous since the ice forms there first, and melts last. Electronic signs on the freeway recommend no travel.

Much of Texas is still without power, and other areas are experiencing rolling blackouts. The wind turbines are not winterized, so many of them have become inoperable, which is a small part of the reason for the outages. Much of the natural gas and oil industry as well. Texas was completely unprepared for this type of emergency. Much of the power grid is shut down during the winter months, and not brought back on line until summer when there is increased demand for air conditioning.

We drove by a few tent communities in Austin, and I do hope those people have been able to find warm shelter somewhere. The roads are slippery, sidewalks are not walkable, lights are off at many of the establishments we passed.

We’re so happy we made our hotel reservations yesterday, as it was sold out by the time we got here. We are staying at a Homewood Suites, a fairly good sized one, and only three people were able to make it to work here today. They are doing all of the checking in (and turning people away), housekeeping and other services. These hardworking young people are doing an amazing job. Reminder to self: Big Tips!

We were told that a local pizza joint was still open, but the line was around the block. We have tuna, meat, cheese and crackers, not a feast, but it works. We will stay here tonight and tomorrow night for sure, then decide if we can hit the road again. The plan is to be home in Minnesota by next Tuesday at the latest, but we’ll see. What an adventure!

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Are We Really in South Texas? Ice and Snow!

Monday, February 15, 2021

The last few days on South Padre have been windy and definitely cooler. We’ve given up walking on the beach because it’s hard to stand up. When we do go outside, we’re actually grateful for our COVID masks because they keep us a little warmer. No outdoor lunches because we’re afraid our food will blow away.

This morning was the worst, though. The temperature outside was 24 degrees, with 40 mile winds. I think I saw whitecaps on the swimming pool.

The temperature inside our condo was 66 degrees, and there was no power anywhere on the island. We had no cell reception either. We quickly packed up, and headed to Brownsville, where we plan to spend the night, waiting out the storm. Fortunately, our hotel has electric vehicle charging since the Tesla Supercharger was without power on the island. We were able to check in this morning. Hotel loyalty programs can offer some nice benefits in times like this.

I am ready to go home. It’s cold there too, but we have a generator and we have a fireplace, so we’ll at least be cozy. South Padre was a good destination, and we’ll probably stay there again, since we do have a granddaughter living in Brownsville. The beaches are beautiful and very walkable, the grocery store was about 1.5 miles away, and there are several waterfront restaurants within walking distance. We even enjoyed a movie at the local theater, social distancing and masks in place, of course. Island Metro is a free shuttle service, with three routes, that can take you around the island, and even across the causeway to Port Isabel. If you’re a SpaceX fan, you might get to view a launch from nearby Isla Blanca park.

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Port of Brownsville

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Fog!!! We couldn’t see much this morning except for fog, but hoped for the best as we headed to board the Danny B for a Port of Brownsville Cruise. The Danny B is a 50 foot used primarily for fishing charters, but twice a week, for a few months a year, it is used for this particular tour. In fact, today’s tour was the first one of the season.

Our captain, Darryl Stiers, was confident that the fog would lift, and we’d get to see what we came for.

It took about an hour to reach the Port of Brownsville from South Padre, and on the way, we passed under the Queen Isabella Causeway, a 2.5 mile bridge that we’ve crossed many times this past week and a half, while traveling from the mainland to the island and back. On September 15, 2001, four barges crashed into the bridge, causing three 80-foot sections of the bridge to collapse. It was foggy that day as well, which contributed to the accident. Before the bridge could be closed, several vehicles plunged into the water, and five people were killed. The bridge was closed for about two months for repairs. People and vehicles were ferried off the island during this time.

We cruised into the Brownsville Ship Channel, a 17-mile channel that was dredged between 1935 and 1936 when it opened for boat traffic. The channel is currently 42 feet deep, but around the clock dredging will in the works to increase that depth to 52 feet. The $350 million project is designed to accommodate ships that come through the expanded Panama Canal.

The channel is home to many shrimping operations, from one boat to as many as 47 boats. The largest shrimping company was started by the Zimmerman Brothers in 1952, and markets their shrimp under the Texas Gold brand.

The Port of Brownsville is also home to several ship recycling centers. From shrimp boats to naval carriers, these ships are systematically dismantled and the materials are sold for scrap or reuse. Just last fall, five former Navy warships were shipped here for recycling. Those five ships were the USS Charles F Adams, the USS Barry, the USS Stephen W. Groves, the USS Hawes, and the USS Ticonderoga (the fifth US Navy ship to have that name.) All of the ships have had their identifying marks removed, so we couldn’t tell which was which.

Mark was especially excited to see “Deimos,” one of two oil platforms that were sold for scrap, and purchased by SpaceX for use as launch platforms in the Gulf. Moving the launches away from land will help to mitigate the loud noise that a launch causes.

On our way back to South Padre, we were escorted by several dolphins riding the waves kicked up by the boat.

We got a better view of the Queen Isabella Causeway as we returned to the island. It was still somewhat foggy, though, and by sunset, it was as thick as it had been this morning.

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Relaxing on South Padre

Thursday – Monday, February 5 – 8, 2021

Time gets away from us when we’re doing a whole lot of nothing. The weather has been fairly good, although we have experienced fog some mornings. The temps have been in the upper 60s and lower 70s, with some wind. It’s been great for walking the beach, and we usually get 3 – 4 miles in each day.

We see people fishing, flying kites, building sandcastles. We even watched a sandcastle building class for a few minutes. This class was being taught by Andy Hancock, who has won several sandcastle competitions.

I had read about Sea Whip, which is a type of coral that occasionally washes up on the beaches here on, so I was excited to actually find some. Besides that, I found an interesting shell, actually a clam shell that appears to have been covered in coral and smaller shells.

The Laguna Madre Nature Trail is a public boardwalk near the South Padre Island Convention Center, covering about four acres of wetland and bird habitat. While walking this, we saw several herons, pelicans, terns, ducks and fish, including several flying fish!

Tomorrow, we plan an early cruise to the Port of Brownsville.

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Sandcastles and Sea Turtles

Wednesday and Thursday, February 3 – 4, 2021

Wednesday was a very quiet day. We tried driving to Boca Chica Beach (where yesterday’s launch occurred), hoping to see what the launch pad looked like after the crash. However, the road was closed for cleanup, so we returned to our spot on the island.

We then took a walk to locate what is billed as “The World’s Largest Outdoor Sandcastle.” It’s located just a couple of blocks from our condo, just in front of the South Padre Island Chamber of Commerce. This is an ongoing project by sand castle artist, Andy Hancock, a former American Sand Sculpture Champion. Hancock also teaches sand castle classes if you are interested.

South Padre Island considers itself to be the Sandcastle Capital of the World, and celebrates Sandcastle Days every October (except for last year, due to COVID.)

We walked a bit further toward the downtown, but then headed to the beach, where we walked to the far south end of the island. It was a beautiful day for walking, many people were enjoying the water and sand.

On Thursday, we drove as far north as we could on the island, planning to spend some time on the beaches there. However, when we got out of the car, the wind was so strong, we could barely stand up. It felt like we were being sand blasted – ouch! After a few minutes, we concluded that this was no fun at all, so headed back to town.

Most of our time had been spent on the gulf side, so we decided to check out the bay side. After lunch at a beachside bar and grill, we walked to a nearby display of sandcastles – yes, more sandcastles! This was the Holiday Sandcastle Village, which showcases the work of several artists, who started working on the display last October. After the sculptures are finished, they are sprayed with diluted glue, and will be on display through February. We are amazed at the skill of these artists.

From here, we visited Sea Turtle Inc., an organization dedicated to the rescue and protection of sea turtles. The organization was founded by Ila Loetscher, a former pilot (friend of Amelia Earhart), who developed a passion for turtles. She began caring for and educating about turtles, and eventually started the non-profit organization, Sea Turtle, Inc.

Most of the rescued turtles are returned to the gulf once they have healed, but a few remain as permanent residents because their injuries or defects make it impossible for them to survive in the wild. Many of the turtles have become entangled in fishing line or plastic bags, some have been snagged by fishhooks, and will end up stranded on the rocks or the beach. There were several turtles from Massachusetts, that had been “cold stunned.” This is a type of hypothermia that happens when the temperatures quickly drop below 50 degrees. The turtles are brought to this center, where they slowly warm up and become active again. Then, they are released into the gulf.

Among some of the permanent residents are those whose flippers have been so damaged that they no longer function well, or the flippers or shell are misshapen. One turtle, Alison, only had one functioning flipper, so staff developed a prosthesis for her, a rudder-like fin that allows her to swim, dive and surface for air.

The air was hazy tonight, probably from the sand being blown around, so the sunset was perhaps not as brilliant as it is some nights, but still beautiful.

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