Pioneers in the Plains

Saddle up your horses (or oxen)!

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It’s the fall of 2012 and two good friends and fellow employees at the church (Russ and Anthony) will be joining me on a six-day action-packed adventure to experience the great High Plains. We’ll be flying into Denver and the plans are to explore several national sites in Colorado, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming. Along the way we’ll listen to several sermons and take in the beauty of God’s creation.

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Qualified as a cool site worthy of a roadside stop!

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Courthouse and Jail Rocks

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Both Courthouse and Jail Rocks are two rock formations in western Nebraska that were common landmarks on the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails. Even the Pony Express ran by this location. These rocks were so famous, story has it that many travelers would stray as much as five miles just to get a closer look. We were able to get the closest look possible! We climbed about as high as we could on one of these formations. The hour or so we spent there was special because we had this historic location all to ourselves!

Chimney Rock

Chimney rock is another prominent rock formation in western Nebraska. It rises nearly 300 feet abode the ground. During the middle 19th century it served as another noticeable landmark along the Oregon, California and Mormon trails which ran along the north side of the rock. Chimney Rock can be seen from miles away.

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Though a national monument, I believe the rock is on private grounds. Seen below was as close as we could go to for an observation. And based on the signs seen in the pictures, I don’t think we’d want to go any further!

Scott’s Bluff National Monument

Located in western Nebraska and towering 800 feet above the North Platte River, Scotts Bluff has served as a landmark for peoples from Native Americans to emigrants on the great trails mentioned earlier to modern travelers. The national monument contains multiple bluffs and gets it’s name form one of the most prominent bluffs called “Scott’s Bluff.”

Many of the great western trails all converged at Scott’s bluff. The history of these trails is intriguing as it is filled with stories of hope, exploration, adventure and sadly much tragedy. As you can see in the pictures below, some portions of the historic trails are still preserved. It’s incredible to walk these trials and imagine the thoughts, attitudes and conversations that took place right where you are standing over a century ago.

A couple minutes of hiking on the trail!

You like my little purple space heater? How about Russ’ panoramic shot?

When we returned to Scott’s Bluff the following morning, we were blessed to have one of the rangers take us out on a guided tour of the grounds.

The view after driving up to the top of one of the bluffs.

Running in a field, why not?

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Agate Fossil Beds National Monument

The main focus of Agate Fossil Beds is to preserve the location where many fossils and ancient bones were first discovered in 1904 on the nearby University Hill and Carnegie Hill. Though we took some time to look at the displays, I think we had more fun playing with the artifacts and posing for pictures!

A neat stop along the way in Nebraska!

Wall Drug, SD

If there ever was a world-famous “tourist trap,” this place wins hands down. I am also led to believe that this old location wears that title proudly. Wall Drug started when Ted Hustead purchased the South Dakota town of Wall’s drugstore in 1931. Ted’s wife Dorothy suggested they offer free ice water. From that moment on, everything changed. With the ideal location and Mount Rushmore just opening, tourists stopped by in the thousands. Eventually the area added everything imaginable to attract more tourists – from a giant jackalope to singing cowboys to souvenir shopping (all seen in the pictures below).

Badlands National Park

When the Lakota Indians first encountered the striking, moon-like landscape, they aptly called the area “Mako Sica” or “bad land.” Early French trappers also described the area as “bad land” after difficult travels over the rugged terrain. If you were a traveler heading west back then, not only was this a difficult place to pass through (some called it “The Wall”), but it was also a difficult place to survive if you needed to stay. The dry dirt is as hard as concrete and deep ravines penetrate the landscape. Yet for the vacationer, the beauty of the colored layers and and the shapes of the sculptured formations are a sight to behold. I had been here once before back in 1995 and was thrilled to return as it is still one of my all-time favorite locations to visit!

We arrived in the evening as the sun was setting. We set up our campsite and made some dinner. Later when it was dark, we went for a hike up into the hills (don’t tell the moms and wives!).

This is going to be a great day!

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The three of us went for a long hike and were able to see some of the interior portions of the park.

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Some more pictures near the entrance of the park.

A panoramic of the Badlands.

Buffalo and prairie dogs!

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More great views from the western side of the park as the sun was setting.

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Sweet!

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The three amigos!

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Sunset and sunrise at the Badlands!

We snapped this one as we were leaving the park. What a fantastic time!

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Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

This site, not originally on the itinerary, was stumbled across as we departed from the Badlands.

The following information was copied from the park website. It’s a bit long, but definitely worth the read!

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site protects two facilities that were once part of a Minuteman Missile field that covered the far western portion of South Dakota from 1963 through the early 1990’s. There were 15 Launch Control Facilities that commanded and controlled 150 Launch Facilities (Missile Silos) holding Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. Two of these facilities still exist in their historic state, Launch Control Facility Delta-01 with its corresponding underground Launch Control Center and Launch Facility (Missile Silo) Delta-09. These two sites, along with the Minuteman Missile Visitor Center, comprise Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.

During the Cold War thousands of Air Force personnel in Minuteman Missile fields throughout the Great Plains worked and lived around nuclear weapons that held unprecedented destructive power. It was these nuclear weapons that constantly threatened devastation of any aggressor nation that might consider launching a nuclear attack against the United States or its allies. This threat of destruction acted as a deterrent to enemies while paradoxically preserving an uneasy peace. One of the most serious responsibilities during the Cold War was to be part of a missile crew with the ability to initiate the use of nuclear weapons from a Launch Control Center. These crews were ready to respond at a moment’s notice. At the same time, maintenance and security police ensured that the sites were totally secure and always functioning.

The missile field was operational, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for 365 days a year, for thirty years. Despite the searing summer heat and brutal winter cold of South Dakota, operational status of the missiles was maintained at all times. Meanwhile, local landowners and members of small towns in the central and northern Great Plains lived literally side by side with nuclear weapons. In the background to all this, were the American people who enjoyed unsurpassed freedoms and prosperity yet also knew that their way of life could be destroyed in a matter of hours by nuclear war. This same harsh fact was true for nations all around the world.

Nuclear war loomed as an apocalyptic shadow that could possibly have brought human history to an end. Thus, a nuclear conflict was to be avoided at all costs. The democratic capitalist system of the United States and its allies vied with the communist totalitarian system of the Soviet Union and its allies. The Cold War was fought through economics, politics, culture and indirect military confrontation. The Soviet Union eventually collapsed, but not before the world had come close to destruction on several occasions.

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site’s purpose is to tell the story of Minuteman Missiles, nuclear deterrence and the Cold War. Delta-01 and Delta-09 are striking examples of the alert status of United States nuclear forces during this time period. These sites, along with the new Minuteman Missile Visitor Center, contain exhibits that help visitors understand the story of one of the most important eras in both American and World History.

Wow!

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Though spaces were very limited, we were able to get reservations on a tour inside the facility. We were the first to arrive, just to be sure we wouldn’t miss out on this incredible opportunity! You can even see Russ and I out there on the empty grounds standing by ourselves. Eventually a few other visitors arrived along with our tour guide. We were due to receive a special treat. The man that escorted us through the entire facility was a longtime employee of the government in this very compound! He answered all our questions and we received every inside story imaginable (that he was permitted to tell)!

The compound was intentionally left as it would have looked when the facility was vacated. That explains why the mess hall looks so outdated. In the other picture, now underground, Anthony is standing by the final door that leads into the heart of the control center itself. The sign painted on the inside reads, “Worldwide delivery in thirty-minutes or less or your next one is free.”

Here it is – the notorious location where two men were prepared to “turn the key” upon given orders to perhaps annihilate thousands of people.

Not far from the command center was one of the missile silos it once operated. The site, though original, is no longer functional and the nuclear warhead that once armed this particular missile has obviously been removed. The original blast door has been replaced with a glass cover allowing visitors the opportunity to stare straight down into the missile shaft.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Story has it that local historian, Doane Robinson, conceived this idea to promote tourism in the area. His original plan was to carve into the mountain western heroes such as Lewis and Clark, Red Cloud and Buffalo Bill Cody. Yet the opinion of sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, prevailed. Four of our nation’s greatest presidents would be sculpted into the hard granite stone (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln). When Gutzon Borglum died, the monument was still incomplete. His son, Lincoln, assumed construction to finish the massive endeavor. The work was deemed finished in October 1941, although it fell short from the ultimate mission to carve the presidents from head to waist. The entire memorial covers over 1,278 acres and is visited by over 2 million people each year.

Some close-ups the amazing work!

Though you are not permitted to hike up to the top of Mount Rushmore, there is a decent trail that goes up to the base of the mountain. Near the end of the trail you can explore the sculpture’s studio and learn more about this incredible project. In the pictures below you can see us in the studio goofing around with some of the equipment they used. You can also see the original model and the proportion of the presidents that was first anticipated in the sculpture. Also, while Russ and Anthony bought “passports” for their park stamps, I found it easier to simply use my right arm.

A bite to eat before we head back to Mount Rushmore.

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Back to Mount Rushmore for the evening program.

We stayed at the “Wolf Camp” just outside of Mount Rushmore. Apart from a few wolves (seriously!) there was virtually no one at this campsite. It was late in the season an the owner was preparing to shut things down. The temperature was really cold. Though it was tough to get in and out of the shower, at least the facility still had the warm water running.

This was part of our daily routine. Before we departed on the road, we would each spend some time in the Word and prayer. This really helped to keep the Lord first and foremost in our adventure, having attitudes that glorified Him and were most cooperate with each other, as there were several “opportunities” for testing in this regard.

I can’t reach my Egg McMuffin!

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Crazy Horse Monument

Located fairly close to Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills, Crazy Horse Memorial is still a work in progress. It was sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski and Lakota Chief, Henry Standing Bear that officially started the Crazy Horse Memorial on June 3, 1948 in an effort to honor the Native American Indians. When completed, it will be the world’s largest mountain sculpture. Though I trust the price of admission goes to a good cause, but there really wasn’t much to see and it appears to me than not much additional work has been done since I was originally there back in 1995. I took this picture from the road and then we moved on.

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Jewel Cave National Monument

The elevator was broken at Jewel Cave so we couldn’t go inside the cavern. We looked around the visitor’s center and then departed. Check it off – I’m still counting this as an official visit to this destination!

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Is this Wyoming or what?

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Devil’s Tower National Monument

You are just driving along through the fields of Wyoming and this place just pops up from the ground out of nowhere. It’s unmistakable, enormous, fascinating and beautiful. It’s called “Devil’s Tower,” but as you can see from the sign below, I took the liberty upon myself to change the name to something I felt was more appropriate.

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We walked around the entire base of the tower. The pictures below show the different angles and perspectives we enjoyed on this 1.5 mile hike.

Had to zoom in on this one as two climbers were seeking to scale the monument.

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One of my favorite shots of the three of us on our hike!

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Fort Laramie National Historic Site

Fort Laramie was a significant 19th century trading post and diplomatic site. It was founded in the 1830’s to service the overland fur trade during the middle 19th century. It was a primary stopping point on the Oregon Trail. In 1849 the fort was taken over by the Army to protect those traveling on the emigrant trails. After the Grattan Massacre in 1854, the fort took on a more military posture. It is believed the name Fort Laramie came into gradual use, likely as a convenient shortening of “Fort John at the Laramie River.”

Here’s a panoramic of Fort Laramie,

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The pictures below are some of my favorite memories from our time at Fort Laramie.

When we pulled up late in the evening, the fort was about to close. Soon after we arrived the four visitors that were there departed. There was only one park ranger on duty, but instead of kicking us out, he took the three of us on a private tour with him as he locked everything up for the night. So as the sun was setting we got to go inside all the buildings, even places forbidden to the average public. We were able to experience the site from a unique and personal perspective along side a man who provided interesting stories and could answer all our questions (and we had many!). You can see our ranger friend (Laurie Vanous) in two of the pictures below. In one of the pictures he’s holding up a magnet with old nails that he collected from the grounds. When not a park ranger he acts in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show (I think he looks the part!).

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For another neat experience, Russ and Anthony were honored to lower the flag that evening as I videotaped the event!

Here’s a selfie I took of myself just as we were preparing to leave. This was one of my most exciting times on this trip!

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The pictures below were taken right after we crossed the border into Colorado. We were all fairly tired at this point, but Russ really wanted to find some custard ice cream. When he eventually located a Culver’s, he made a lane change that nearly killed us all as he squealed into the parking lot. Not long after that we found a hotel, the mere thought of unpacking and setting up another campsite was too much to bear. Yet we might have been better off pursuing our normal routine, because this hotel was really scary!

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park was our final stop on the trip. Our flight was departing in the evening, but we were able to squeeze a few hours in exploring this wonderful location situated in the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. We drove through the park and took some very brief hikes enjoying the mountain views, mountain lakes and varied climates as we changed elevation from wooded forests to mountain tundras.

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In the slideshow below you can observe the change of the terrain with the change of the altitude.

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Here’s a music video summary of the trip!

Time to leave, but definitely a trip we’ll always remember!

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