Lake Helene

I’ve developed a real appreciation for Lake Helene. It only recently made it on to my radar. I had hiked from Bear Lake to Fern Lake several times before venturing the couple hundred yards off the trail. The hike is a bit on the short side for me so I’ve been doing it either in winter or late spring, most recently last Sunday.

Jerry and I hiked it last year, a bit earlier in June. We hiked over quite a bit of snow, from not much after the Flattop trail junction all the way to the lake. This time there was not as much snow in spite of the cooler and wetter May. But I get ahead of myself.

As it’s a shorter hike, I didn’t need to get up at the crack of dawn. I left the house around seven and stopped in Boulder for breakfast. I arrived at the Bear Lake parking lot at about a quarter to nine. I was surprised none of the signs suggested I park at the shuttle parking lot. It was a near thing. I snagged one of the last few parking places in time to hear the rangers “call it” – the parking lot was full.

The forecast for Denver was a pleasant but warm day with a high in the mid-90’s. I was expecting the usual brilliant blue skies, but it’s been more humid than normal so visibility wasn’t as good as normal. Perhaps we’re also getting some smoke from the forest fires in California. Other than the haze, though, it was fairly clear.

I wanted to use the Fitbit to log the hike, but the Android app was wonky again so I just pushed the button on the wristband. I’d try the app again for the return trip. I had no intention of using it both directions, as my battery life has been poor lately and I suspect the Fitbit app makes it even worse.

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Notchtop over Lake Helene

I arrived at Lake Helene a bit after ten and looked for a nice sunny spot to sit and watch the world go by. I made my way to a peninsula of talus surrounded by a sea of snow that stretched about a hundred yards in all directions. Mid-90’s in Denver and here I am, sitting in the pleasantly cool sun on a rock in the snow.

I set up the camera facing down the valley to the north and surveyed the sky. Although the mornings are often cloudless here beneath the divide, it’s typical to see clouds form by eleven or noon. You don’t need time lapse to see them move; they’re generally quite boisterous. Today, though, it was just a thin veil of high clouds with little apparent motion. That’s okay; variety is a good thing.

I spent about two hours not doing much. The snow is melting everywhere around me, just about everywhere I can see. The rocks on Notchtop are streaked dark with water. Lake Helene is brimming at its banks. The falls are too far away to hear, but there is a slight breeze whispering through the pines. Occasional gusts kicked up, painting ripples on the surface of the lake.

Being that there is no official trail to Lake Helene it doesn’t see many visitors. It’s obvious people come here; there is a faint trail and I found footprints in the snow. At this time there are probably fifty people at Emerald Lake, and on the trail there you’re never out of sight or ear-shot of other hikers. Here, I had the illusion of solitude. While I was there, a couple of hikers appeared at the outlet but they were far enough away I never heard them and between here and the Flattop trail junction I met fewer than a dozen other hikers.

According to the Fitbit app, it’s three and a quarter miles. The bracelet comes up with 3.8 miles, but it’s not using GPS. I suspect the shorter distance is more correct. Comparing the data in the two logs, I see pretty much what I’d expect. It took me fifteen minutes longer on the way up than the way back, and I was working harder, burning about 30% more calories.

Back at Bear Lake there was a steady stream of cars arriving at the parking lot. I guess most of these folks figured the signs saying the parking lot was full aren’t intended for them. Strangely, nobody waited for me to back out of my spot. The last guy to pass me waved me by. “Did you just leave that spot?” He thought he might back up and snag that spot, but he never stood a chance. Probably took me 10 minutes to get out of the parking lot. Very crowded.

On the way out of the park, the signs said all the parking lots were full and visitors should try again after 4pm. I’ve never seen any indication that all the parking lots were full before. I don’t recall seeing the shuttle parking lot more than half full. Busy day.

Emerald Lake

Sunday, May 31

The last weekend in May is my traditional jumping off point for the summer hiking season. Following tradition, I visited Emerald Lake.

As it’s a very short hike, I could enjoy a lazy morning. I left the house just after nine and had a pleasant drive in spite of the expected heavy traffic. Before I reached Boulder I realized I forgot to bring the spikes. I never had spikes until a few years ago, so I knew I’d have no problem getting to Emerald, but I’m much more comfortable hiking on snow when I have some traction. And it looks like Longs Peak has more snow now than is typical for this time of year – heck, more than is typical for any time of year – and after a very wet and cool May I was expecting to see more snow at Bear Lake than usual.

I arrived at the Bear Lake parking lot at about 10:45, late enough that I had to park near the bottom of the parking lot. There wasn’t as much snow at Bear Lake as I was expecting; clearly what’s been falling in recent weeks has been melting pretty quickly.

I recently bought a Fitbit Charge HR and this hike was the “shakedown cruise” for it. I played around with it on the Black Hills trip and for the Bolder Boulder, but the Android app crashed and I didn’t collect any useful data. I can use it with or without the phone app. If I don’t use the phone, it collects steps taken, flights of stairs climbed (1 for each 10′ gained), my heart rate, and exercise duration. Using the phone as well, I get a map of my hike. My concern is, if I use the phone, how long will the battery last?

I launched the app at 10:52, right at the car, and started walking. I followed the summer route as there wasn’t enough snow to take the winter route. According to the Fitbit, it was 1.82 miles from the car to Emerald Lake. It took me 48 minutes and I gained 818 feet of elevation.

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One of the reasons I wanted this particular model of Fitbit is to collect a log of my heart rate. I’ve talked to people using older ones, and you need to use a chest strap to get a log of your heart rate, or stop every now and then and query the device to get your current pulse. Here’s what my heart did on this short hike:

fitbit_heartThis was just the hike to the lake. I stopped the app there and restarted it for the return trip. Oddly, I had a higher peak heart rate going down than I did going up. I don’t expect to get similar results on my much longer and more strenuous hikes. Unfortunately, when I got back to the car I managed to plug the phone into the charger without noting how low the battery was, so I still have no idea how well it will work for an all-day hike. I’m guessing I’ll be able to use the app on the hike to where ever I’m going, and not use the app on the way out.

There were fewer hikers than I was expecting. I guess the snow had most of them turning around at Nymph Lake. I did overhear a few amusing snippets of conversation. Near Dream Lake: “Where does all the water come from? Snow melt?” Keep in mind, they hiked half the way here over snow. At Emerald Lake as I was leaving, a young couple arrived, looked around for a few seconds, took a picture to prove they’d been there, and turned around to leave. The young woman calls out to a friend, not yet to the lake, “Hardly worth the trouble, it’s not very scenic.” I have several complaints about hiking to Emerald Lake but lack of scenery isn’t one of them.

I had the SLR up and running for the time lapse by 11:52. Readers of the Black Hills posts will recall that the GoPro was a casualty of that trip, so I only had the one camera. I managed to forget to put the lens hood on it, so when it started sprinkling I stopped and packed up as the lens would get wet right away. This turned out to be a good thing, as the graupel started falling almost immediately.

I beat the squall to Dream Lake and figured I’d set up the camera to continue the time lapse. Unfortunately, I ran into some unknown technical difficulty. The timer wasn’t working. It was counting down properly: “0:02… 0:01…” but no shutter release. Very frustrating. I reset it several times to no avail and by the time I gave up, the graupel started falling here. I had planned to snack on my berries while the camera ran for a while, but so it goes.

IMG_2698sThere’s a nice open view of Glacier Gorge and the Longs Peak complex from the trail below Dream Lake, so I stopped there and ate my blackberries and raspberries. There were squalls over Longs, just as when I paused here on the way up. Very scenic. The weather didn’t follow me past Dream Lake – from my rock with a view to the car, no more precipitation.

I had a lazy drive down the mountain in an unbroken string of traffic from Estes to Lyons.

The time lapse is a bit on the short side this time, but so it goes.

Delahaye Type 145

IMG_2068sToday Jerry and I went on a tour of the Bugatti restoration shop in Berthoud. This was my third time to the shop. Of course, it’s not the shop that’s the attraction, but the cars. Today there were a handful of Bugattis there, along with a fairly modern Ferrari and a couple of Lotus. The Bugattis are always interesting, but the draw today was the Delahaye Type 145.

Emile Delahaye started building cars in Tours, France in 1894. In 1896 he entered two cars in the Paris-Marseille-Paris race, finishing 8th and averaging 12.5 miles per hour. These nineteenth century cars weren’t very powerful – one model had a 2.2 liter engine pumping out four and a half horsepower.

The state of the art had improved somewhat by 1937, when this car was built. In those days, IMG_2051sthe racing scene was dominated by government sponsored Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union. In an effort to get French auto makers to develop race cars capable of beating the Nazis, the leftist alliance Front populaire (which included, among others, the French Communist Party and Radical and Socialist Party) sponsored the ‘Prix du Million’.

The race was held at the notorious Autodrome de Montlhéry, site of Alberto Ascari’s death a dozen years before. Actually a time trial, each car was required to drive 16 laps (120 miles) and average 91 mph from a standing start. The prize was a million francs, which was a bit over $40,000 at the time but would be close to a million US dollars today.

IMG_2062sDelahaye’s answer was the Type 145, chassis 48771 specifically. The car had a 4.5 liter V-12 engine pumping out 220 horsepower. To make the engine as light as possible, the cylinder heads were made of an aluminum alloy and the block was cast in a magnesium alloy. Capable of 160mph, this car took the win driven by Rene Dreyfus.

In addition to winning that race, this car also finished 1st in 1938 Grand Prix de Cork Ireland and Grand Prix dePau, France, as well as 4th at the 1938 Mille Miglia.

This car is worth in the neighborhood of $20 million.

IMG_2065sThanks much to Victor for sharing his shop with us and to Skip for organizing the event.

LOCO Black Hills – Part 3

May 18

This morning we opted for the hotel’s breakfast. Genae tried the automatic pancake maker, I had two fruit cups. The plan today was another picnic, this time at Devil’s Tower. We’ll make a pit stop in Sundance, WY, where there’s a Subway a block from the gas station. We hit the road by nine.

We headed west on US 16 to Newcastle then north on US 85 to a place called Four Corners. Odd name because there aren’t four corners there. Odd, even, that it has a name. There are two t-junctions and the Four Corners Country Inn. We took the second T and WY 585 northwest to Sundance.

Harry Longabaugh made a name for himself here at the age of 15 by being arrested for stealing a horse. That was the only time the Sundance Kid ever got arrested. Half of us first got sandwiches while the other half pitted for fuel. While waiting for everybody to get provisioned up we saw three state troopers, the only ones we saw since Nebraska.

IMG_2030sWe had a pleasant little picnic then headed for a walk around the tower. After two pictures, the camera quit working. It’s just not my weekend with cameras. But it was a pleasant day, mostly sunny and cool. The Tower Trail is about a mile and a quarter. We took our time, stopping often to look for climbers and visiting every little spur of trail. When we finished the loop, we did the beginning portion again. The it was back to the visitor center.

Somebody said Mike wanted to line up for a group photo down at the entrance. It was a bit of a miscommunication. We exited the park and waited in the parking lot but Mike was at a much more scenic picnic area. We finally got our act together and got to the right place.

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“Do Not Clean or Wash Here”

Leaving the park we took WU 24 east. This took us to a junction with US 85 just south of Belle Fourche (pronounced “Bell Foosh”). The road is a four lane divided highway, but construction had the right lane closed for quite a while. In Spearfish we made a pit stop. Overheard remarks: “They’re Lotus Elises!” and “Is there a rally going on?” There were a lot of flying insects there, but they all congregated on Cindy’s yellow Evora. She says it happens all the time; she calls the paint “Bug Yellow”. I didn’t see any bugs on my yellow stripe or wheels, clearly not “Bug Yellow”.

As is apt to happen with a chain of a dozen cars, we got split up in town after leaving the gas station. By the time we made the right turn on US 14A and headed south through Spearfish Canyon we were down to about half a dozen cars. The canyon is very scenic. Frank Lloyd Wright visited here in 1935 and was quite enamored of the place. There are many sheer cliffs and numerous wide ledges sprouting tall pines. To Wright, it evoked classical Chinese paintings.

Staying on US 14A, we exit the canyon and eventually rejoin US 85. We’re heading northbound this time, to Lead where we find US 385 and the road to Hill City and Custer. Genae and I were wondering how you pronounce “Lead”. Is it lead as in “Wild Bill Hickcok got filled full of lead in Deadwood” or lead as in “you can lead a horse to water”? It’s the second.

Lead, like Deadwood, had road construction on the main drag. Here, mercifully they kept us out of the mud by a detour through some back alleys. The trip down 385 back to Custer was a repeat of yesterday but with better weather. We thought we’d get tricky and take the truck route through Hill City and get to the head of the group, but I turned too soon and had to make a u-turn. So we were shunted to near the back of the pack.

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Ambiguous sign?

As there was no group activity planned for the evening, we figured to grab a quick dinner then go back and drive the Needles Highway in a more leisurely manner. At the hotel I started one of the camera batteries charging. Then I noticed that the battery pack was a bit loose. It didn’t obviously feel loose, so I didn’t notice. I tightened it up and all is well now.

Genae wanted pizza, so we asked the hotel desk clerk for a recommendation and thus we were off to Pizza Worx. Not much in the ambiance department, but decent pizza. When we got back to the hotel to pick up the camera, we heard talk of folks wanting to get together for dinner. A large group of them decided to the Blue Bell Lodge.

IMG_2036sWe drove the Needles Highway the opposite direction from yesterday, slowly, and stopped for photos several times. It looks like the pine beetles have been at work here; quite a few trees have been cut down and the wood stacked up in piles. It’s not as bad as in some places in Colorado, hopefully the clearing they’ve done will stop the critters. We pretty much had the place to ourselves and saw very few other cars.

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Eye of the Needle tunnel

It was still fairly early when we got back to Custer so we headed back into Custer State Park again searching for bison. We didn’t see any buffalo but did see much of our group parked at the Blue Bell Lodge. It would be dark before we could complete the wildlife loop so we just went a couple miles farther south and turned around. No bison but loads of white tail deer, some pronghorns, a rafter of turkeys, and even some elk.

After dinner we stopped at the Purple Pie Place but nothing struck Genae’s fancy. So when we approached the Blue Bell we decided to stop there for dessert. The gang was still there, so we joined them and ordered the apple crisp à la mode (with Blue Bell ice cream, of course).

Drove 329 miles.

May 19 – Custer to Denver

Two years ago yesterday, May 18, 2013, LOCO awoke in Telluride to snow on the cars. There wasn’t any snow on the cars when we woke up today, but it started snowing before we were downstairs for breakfast. Just about everybody got towels or washcloths from their rooms and cleared the snow from the cars. A snow brush is not generally carried as standard equipment in a Lotus.

We were on the road by 8am. Yesterday we spent most of the day near the front of the pack. Today we stayed near the back. The snow only lasted a little while – we were not only heading south, but downhill as well. Early morning the precipitation was variable but as the day wore on the rain became heavier and more steady. We considered making a stop at Lusk but stuck with the group. Our next scheduled pit stop was for Torrington.

Unfortunately, the gas station we stopped at was small. Only a couple of pumps and a single bathroom. By the time we got stopped, there were half a dozen people standing in line. Genae, not able to wait in line, found a bathroom nearby after a couple of attempts. Before she got back I had decided we’d try another place. We didn’t need gas, but I didn’t want to stand in line here, in the rain. We found another gas station down the road. Jeremy pulled in after us, and that was the last we saw of anybody from our group.

We continued southbound on US 85 a bit slower than we were going in the group. I was expecting them to catch us sooner or later, but perhaps they slowed down as well due to the rain. The wind added to the fun, a crosswind blowing strongly from the east. Oncoming trucks were brutal, throwing up huge clouds of spray. Luckily not much standing water on the road.

The group never caught us. We had lunch in Wellington and were home by 3pm.

We really enjoyed the trip – the roads, the sights, and friends. Thanks to everybody for their companionship and especially to Mike for putting it all together.

Drove 342 miles.

LOCO Black Hills – Part 2

May 17

Although the hotel provides breakfast, nothing on offer particularly appealed to us so we decided we should head to town instead. We ate at Baker’s Bakery and Café, a little place with about ten tables and the tag line “you’ll love our buns”. After bacon, eggs, hash browns and toast we went back to the hotel for our usual drivers meeting. Today we would drive the Needles Highway and the Iron Mountain Road before visiting Mount Rushmore. Then we’d head to Sturgis for lunch and return to Custer through Deadwood and Hill City. I mounted the GoPro above the left rear wheel and we hit the road.

We headed north from Custer on Sylvan Lake Rd, SD 89. For the first few miles there are numerous houses and small ranches. One has a gate with big statues: a longhorn and a bison. He has a few dozen head of each. At Sylvan Lake we reach the junction with SD 87, through here known as the Needles Highway.

The road is quite narrow – no danger of getting stuck behind an RV here. There is no center stripe most of the way, and there are a couple of primitive narrow tunnels blasted through sheer granite walls. Mike was in the lead up to this point, but pulled over for the canyon carvers. We passed Mike and the others who wanted to take their rime but didn’t go as fast as many. We let two cars pass.

The highway is named for the granite needles that punctuate the terrain. Peter Norbeck (Governor and US Senator) plotted the route on horseback and foot and construction was completed in 1922. It cost so much at the time, locals called it the Needless Highway. The road has been well maintained but not significantly upgraded. Very nearly a one lane road, there are plenty of pullouts and overlooks.

SD 87 ends at a T-junction with US 16/16A. There’s a small parking lot there, and restrooms. We stopped there for a short break, completely filling the lot. The rangers from the Custer State Park entrance station walked over the hill and took some photos. While we were stopped, I remembered to power off the GoPro to save battery. I even remembered to turn it back on when we left.

A few miles up the road I happened to look in my left hand mirror to see the suction cup mount fail and the GoPro go flying off the car. I think it survived the initial impact intact. Colin was behind me in his new Evora and he managed to dodge it. After that I didn’t see what happened. I stopped and turned around as quickly as I could and made my way back to the “scene of the crime.”

The mount was in the middle of the road, the camera nowhere to be seen. John rolled up in his Elan and helped me search. I walked up and down the side of the road a few times, along the road and down by the stream. I found the battery and the back door of the camera, both more or less intact. But no sign of the camera or housing. I was afraid somebody ran it over, possibly damaging their car, but I asked around and nobody says they hit it. After the futile search, we figured we were now on our own, well behind the group.

Rolling again, we made our way to the Iron Mountain Road. We were a bit chagrined that the road is being resurfaced. The sixteen mile stretch we were on had had the surface ground, leaving a rough road with shallow holes and loose rocks and gravel. This road, like the Needles Highway, was laid out by Peter Norbeck and is also known as the Peter Norbeck Memorial Highway. He designed it as a scenic low speed route for tourists.

Like the NIMG_2000seedles Highway, most of it is narrow and twisty. It features a few “pigtail” bridges and one lane tunnels. A pigtail bridge is much like it sounds – the road crosses a bridge then turns 270 degrees to pass under the bridge just crossed. The tunnels, again, are one lane and hewn from solid granite. Two of the tunnels are aligned with Mount Rushmore and obstructing trees removed. One of the tunnels dumps you directly onto a pigtail bridge. At the second tunnel with a Rushmore view, I was out of the car lining up a picture when Terry rolled up in his M100. We weren’t last ones on the road after all.

This narrow, twisty portion of US 16A meets SD 244 and widens to four lanes. We went left at this intersection, taking 244 to Mount Rushmore. When we arrived at the entrance station to pay our fee, the ranger asked if we were from Colorado: “I sent the rest of your group to level 6. Follow the red arrows.” Our cars occupied about a third of the level, and, as usual, had drawn admirers.

IMG_2007sWe last visited Mount Rushmore six years ago during a Clark family reunion. That time we came after dark to see the monument all lit up. This time we had daylight and scattered clouds. Lots of people visit Mount Rushmore and everybody tends to get the same picture, so I wanted to get away from the amphitheater. This turned out to be a good choice, as we weren’t allowed into the amphitheater because there was a high school graduation going on there. What a great place for a graduation ceremony.

IMG_2018sWe hiked on the Presidential Trail. Luckily, we went to the right. The trail makes a loop from the Grand View Terrace, down the hill and up a boardwalk slightly up the slope below the carvings. We didn’t know that half the trail was closed and might have been discouraged had we gone the other way instead. The weather was still pleasant and we enjoyed the short walk. And I got the same pictures as everybody else.

Next on the agenda was a drive to Sturgis via the outskirts of Rapid City. The weather held out until a bit before we arrived there, when it got windy and rainy. We weren’t too impressed by Sturgis and broke off from the group here, perhaps hunt buffalo in Custer before going back to the hotel.

We ate at Taco Johns then headed to Deadwood. It rained the whole way, and the main drag through much of Deadwood is under construction, a muddy pot-holed mess. The place has been overrun by casinos. Everything historical in Blackhawk and Central City were pretty much destroyed by the construction of casinos in the name of historical preservation. Deadwood looks to have suffered the same fate. We don’t gamble, so we didn’t stop other than to refuel.

The weather cleared about half way to Hill City, which boded well for a trip through the park. The drive from Deadwood to Hill City is pleasant if not dramatic. It had the bonus of having very little traffic. I caught up to no cars for several miles, and if I had there were ample passing zones. Unfortunately, when I did catch traffic, the passing zones evaporated.

When we stopped to pay the entry fee the ranger said, “Your car is too short!” As it so happens, the park is a free today. The ranger recommended Wildlife Loop Road. This is the third narrow road we’ve driven today. Instead of granite tunnels and pigtail bridges, it’s eighteen miles of riparian areas and grassy hills.

Genae was hoIMG_2028sping we’d see the baby bison again. She was disappointed. All we saw were a few lone males. One guy was quite close to the road. When we stopped to watch them yesterday they were making a cacophony of grunts and belch-like rumbles. This lone one was quiet.

We came across a solitary pronghorn by a cattle guard. She posed for me a little bit, crossed the road, and scratched in the gravel a coupleIMG_2023s times. Then she proceeded to piss. In retrospect, I should have taken the picture. But, frankly, I was a bit offended!

There was very little traffic. If somebody was stopped, that generally meant there was an animal in the vicinity. The biggest crowd we saw were stopped to take pictures of some donkeys . The asses didn’t appeal to us, so we skipped the photo opportunity.

Dinner was a group affair. We ate at the State Game Lodge, which made for a pleasant little drive. It’s about twelve miles from Custer, five or six miles into the park. It’s a great building, built in 1920. President Coolidge booked a two week visit but stayed for thirteen. The room we were in looked to be newer construction. I considered the Cobb salad (with hard boiled quail egg) or the bison steak but went with the buffalo burger instead.

Drove 250 miles

LOCO Black Hills – Part 1

It’s time for another long weekend road trip with Lotus Colorado. This time, Mike put together a four day excursion to the Black Hills of South Dakota. We’d drive to Custer on Saturday, visit Mount Rushmore and Sturgis on Sunday, head to Wyoming on Monday to see Devil’s Tower and return home on Tuesday.

The contact list included 22 cars and 38 people. Over a quarter were Elises – one blue, one red, two orange and two BRG. Gordon was the other green one – no stripe, silver LSS wheels, hardtop. Three Evoras, two black Exiges, two red Elans (both 1967), two M100 Elans, and a Europa round out the Lotus contingent. The others were BMW, Porsche, Saab, Volvo, and a Miata. As always, a few new faces on this trip, including a Chicago couple who rendezvoused with us in Custer.

May 16 – Denver to Custer

On past drives we’ve been pretty fortunate with the weather. We did get snowed on two years ago this weekend in Telluride and it was a bit on the warm side in Moab last year, but never anything much to complain about. But it has rained or snowed every day so far in May and the forecast doesn’t look too bright for our trip. Still, we hoped for the best.

We left the house at about 8am and fueled up. Luckily I realized I had forgotten the SLR before we got very far, so we went back home before heading to the meeting spot. We met at a gas station off exit 22 of I-76. The morning was cool and a bit breezy, with scattered, nonthreatening clouds.

Once everybody showed up we had a quick drivers meeting then hit the road, running northeast on I-76 to exit 80. There we headed northbound on Colorado SH 52 to a T-junction with CO 14 at the southern border of the Pawnee National Grassland.

After a short jog to the east, we continue north on CO 71 through the Pawnee. Here we hit a bird. I’ve hit more birds in this car than all other cars combined. On my trip to Portland last year I hit two at once. Usually it’s high on the car but this one hit the front clam and ricocheted to the windshield wiper where it got lodged in the wiper arm. For a few seconds I thought the wind might take it, but, no, it’s stuck. I turned on the wiper hoping for the best but no luck. I have no choice other than to pull over and pull it out manually.

The Pawnee Grassland gives way to a checkerboard mix of ranch and open prairie. On the south edge of Kimball we cross under I-80. Time for a pit stop. The route instructions directed us to the Kwik Stop but we followed the Miata into the station across the intersection. After fuel and potty, we lined up with the other cars at the Kwik Stop. As usual, we drew a crowd. It’s always fun to see people’s reactions – lots of smiles.

Our next stop was a picnic lunch at Scotts Bluff National Monument, a couple miles west of Gering, NE. Between Kimball and Gering is forty more miles of checkerboard. Here, more of the checker squares have checkers on them: center-pivot irrigation systems and their attendant crop circles. At Gering, the directions send us north when 71 bends slightly east, but we split up and attacked the place from several directions. We headed downtown to grab sandwiches from Subway.

We had our picnic and socialized for a while then we drove to the top of the bluff. The road to the top is 1.6 miles long. After a 180 degree sweeping turn it passes through a tunnel that curve 90 degrees the other way. It zigs and zags, passing through two more tunnels before finally dumping onto a parking lot on a wide saddle below the summit of the bluff.

Above the parking lot, a trail makes a sort of bow-tie and affords nice views. Below the bluff to the east lie the conjoined towns of Gering, Terrytown, and Scottsbluff. Immediately below the trail to the east is a nice cluster of houses – the high rent district. A national monument on one side and golf course on the other.

IMG_1963_stitch_crop_resizeThe North Platte valley is to the north. Both the Oregon Trail and Mormon Trail passed through here. When driving in comfort though these vast, rugged spaces in the west I often try to imagine what the pioneers went through. Sell your house, if you have one, and buy a wagon and team. Pile all your worldly possessions into the wagon and making twenty miles on a good day. Risking it all, venturing into the great unknown. Scotts Bluff was about a third of the way from St. Louis to the west coast, perhaps the easiest third.

IMG_1967sI’m not sure why I started doing it, but whenever I come across a survey marker I take a picture of it. That doesn’t mean I have lots of pictures of survey markers; I don’t come across them every day. The one on the top of Scotts Bluff is interesting because of what has happened to it since it was placed there in 1933. Scotts Bluff is made up of soft sandstone with a cap of hard rock. Where the hard rock is gone, the sandstone is eroding away on a human time frame. Scotts Bluff is about a foot and a half lower now than it was in 1933.

Exiting the town of Scottsbluff, Mike missed a turn. We were second in line and didn’t catch the error and everybody followed us. Mike found somebody to ask directions and while we waited, Ross passed through the formation looking like he knew exactly where we were going. We took off after him. He correctly navigated us onto US 26 eastbound. I drove several hundred miles of US 26 last summer through Oregon, Idaho, and Wyoming, but now we only followed it for a handful of miles before taking US 385 to Alliance.

For about twenty miles we’re out of the valley, away from the fields of checkers and back in prairie. Here we saw two pronghorn antelope running in our direction along the fence on the other side of the road. Our line of cars is probably a quarter mile long, and we slowed down considerably. The antelope switched direction a couple of times but were stymied by the fence.

In a field north of Alliance, a guy named Jim Reinders built an homage to Stonehenge out of old cars he’d gotten from nearby farms and dumps. Reinders noticed that the monolithic dimensions of cars from the fifties and sixties were similar to the stones at Stonehenge. They’ve painted the cars gray to make them look more like stones and they keep them from rusting away. There are some interesting cars in there – a Willy’s truck, a Gremlin, an old Plymouth like “Christine”.

IMG_1976sScattered around the property there are a number of large sculptures made out of car parts – a spawning salmon, a dinosaur, wind chimes, a Conestoga wagon. As built, Carhenge included three imported cars. These have been replaced by domestic cars and the foreigners ritually buried here, their grave marked by another junked car.

After a pass through the little gift shop, we started assembling for our departure. By now the skies were looking quite threatening. Here we had our first bit of rain, and it looked very nasty directly to the north of us. Luckily to get back on US 385 we had to jog a few miles to the west and we missed the biggest of the squalls. Along here we saw a couple of large birds in the grass along the road: a turkey and a ring neck pheasant.

Most of Nebraska looks just like what you expect Nebraska to look like – some farms, some ranches, a few feedlots. But just south of Chadron we pass through the Nebraska National Forest. I had no idea there were pine trees in Nebraska. Heck, there are hardly any trees at all. Genae found it a bit reminiscent of the area south of Flagstaff. Sadly, and perhaps obviously, this interlude was short and we were soon back to the more typical Nebraskan scenery.

After a pit stop in Chadron, we continue on 385 into South Dakota and through the Oglala National Grassland. Although the North and South Platte rivers were running high, they were within their banks. The rivers we’d been crossing lately were flooding. In addition, many low lying parts of the fields along the road had standing water.

At Oelrichs US 385 meets US 18. The two routes are conjoined until Hot Springs where 18 goes west. We continue north into Wind Cave National Park. We made another minor navigational error, missing the turn on SD 87. US 385 would take us into Custer, but we wanted the more scenic route through Custer State Park.

This is not a big park but it’s packed with things to see. It looks like parts of the place catch fire every few years so there’s an unusual mix of pine forest, recently burned areas, and open grassy hills and valleys. The hills are populated by an abundance of wildlife. In a few short miles we saw deer, antelope, and bison. A group of buffalo grazed very near the road, several cows and calves.

IMG_1990sOur accommodations for this trip were at the Bavarian Inn, a pleasant establishment on the north side of town. We got checked in, unloaded the car, and socialized over margaritas and snacks. There were no group plans for dinner, so we were all on our own. Nonetheless, almost everybody ended up in groups of four or six or eight at the Buglin’ Bull. They weren’t really prepared for so many guests and those who arrived later after us were there quite late. We were back to the hotel and in bed by 10:30.

Today’s drive: 421 miles.

ChumpCar Road America – Part 3

Race 2

Sunday morning was sunny with scattered clouds and a bit of a breeze. The forecast was to be a bit cooler than yesterday, with a better than 50% chance of rain starting after two. The possibility of rain factored into the driving sequence. Phil was game to take on the rain, so he volunteered to be last. Dennis needed go earlier because he had to start packing the trailer for our departure. The final determination was for me to be first, Dennis second, Lauren third, Phil running anchor.

We arrived at the track a bit before the 8 o’clock drivers meeting, which only took a few minutes as there was nothing much to add after yesterday. Evidently nobody did anything unique out there that needed to be called out to the general group.

Yesterday I had planned to start the lap timer on my phone and leave it in my pocket hoping I’d get some good data logged. In all the excitement of my first stint in a real race, it wasn’t on the top of my list and I forgot all about it. Being first in the car was helpful for me as there was no driver change. The day got started without any drama and I remembered to turn on the lap timer.

They have us go on the track at a quarter till so we could do a formation lap to check everybody’s transponders. There is no starting grid; it didn’t matter where I went out relative to the other cars. I was slow getting on track and I ended up “tail-end Charlie”, which was okay by me. I was so late on the track I didn’t catch the field until the lap was nearly done. Being last meant I wouldn’t be getting dive-bombed by twenty or thirty faster cars in the first lap or two.

One more lap around and then the call came through on the radio: “Green! Green! Green!”

I guess a number of the other drivers in the slower cars had the same idea as me, hanging out in the back of the pack. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was able to pass a half dozen cars on the first green lap. A couple of them were faster cars, though, not yet warmed up. They got back around me the next lap, along with a couple cars that came out of the pits late.

On the first three green laps, cars immediately in front of me had issues in the chicane after the Carousel. The first lap an MR2 went too deep and was in the dirt. On the second lap two Miatas nearly came together. One driver gave the other a thumbs up, but I’m not sure it wasn’t ironic. The third lap was a repeat of the first but with a different car. Nothing like a little excitement to get your blood going in the morning!

Things quickly settled down and I found myself running similar speeds to a Dodge Neon painted up like a Holstein – a black and white cow. I was faster than he was in the turns but slower on the straights. I got by him on the outside on the Carousel and kept him behind me for a few laps. But every time we’d get to the end of one of the three long straights he’d be right up on me. I was disappointed when he managed to get by me. I took it as a challenge and made a real effort to put some pressure on him. I was confident I was faster than him.

It was a good dice. I forced him into a number of errors in the turns but wasn’t able to capitalize on any of them until I had a good run on him into the Carousel, where I passed him again. The next lap he went into the pits and I was looking forward to having some laps without him slowing me down. Imagine my dismay, then, to find the Holstein in front of me a lap later, after their driver change. Their second driver wasn’t up to the standards of the first and I dispatched the cow car quickly.

On the second half of my stint I was able to get a few laps where I wasn’t busy dicing or getting passed and I was able to concentrate on improving my times. I made a bit of a breakthrough on turn 1 and felt I was much faster there than yesterday. I was hoping to make a similar advance on turn 2. I managed to get it right a few times but not consistently. I was happy that fewer of the fast cars were able to catch me in the twisty bits between turn 5 and the Carousel.

Like yesterday, I managed to put together some consistent laps and managed a 3:15.8. Woo hoo!

Too quickly I was told my stint was over and it was time to pit. The driver change went better today – I managed not to forget to take off the wheel. I did bang my knee on the way out, but it went better than yesterday.

The lap timer worked flawlessly. It logged my best lap as 3:15.75 while the unofficial time displayed for us was 3:15.808. As the speedometer in the car doesn’t work, we had no idea what sorts of speeds we were attaining until now. I managed a top speed of 106 on the straight going into turn 5, and about 100 on the other two straights. I was going 80 to 85 in the Carousel.

When Dennis was on track, I took the camera and went to turn 5 to see if I could get a decent picture. I sat in the bleacher there for a few laps then tried another vantage point. I didn’t see much of the track this way, but didn’t want to be away from the pits for too long.

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Dennis negotiates turn 5

Dennis had some excitement on his stint when a car ahead of him went off in the Carousel, head first into the wall and bounced back sideways across the track. This turned out to be the team next to us in the paddock – a black Maxima. Later Dennis radioed in for us to get brake fluid ready for some maintenance. We checked things out; didn’t need to add any brake fluid but the left front tire had some chunking on the outside edge. We replaced the tire and sent Lauren out on the track.

She surprised us by coming back into the pits a couple laps later. She said that after the Carousel the steering wheel wasn’t straight. She wondered at first whether she had just not put it on correctly in the pits, but then going into Canada corner she didn’t have any brakes. She managed to use the transmission to slow herself down and make the turn. Then she was feeling like the front left wheel was coming off and she limped back to the pits. We jacked up the car (when I say “we” here, I mean Dennis and Phil) and looked for a problem. I will only mangle the description of the problem, so I’ll simplify and say that it was a problem with the wheel bearing. It ended up being terminal and our day was done.

It was disappointing that Phil and Lauren didn’t get to drive, but the car and all the drivers were still in one piece and everybody had a good time, so nobody was really complaining.

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Exiting turn 14

The silver linings for the day were that we didn’t get rained on at the track and we were able to pack up and be on the road headed home a couple of hours early. Frankly, we were expecting the day to be cold and wet, but although the morning was a bit on the cold side with a bit of a breeze, the day was sunny and comfortable.

I mentioned some of the folks we met while waiting to get into the track on Friday. In the paddock, we had some neighbors with a giant rig with two cars. They were from Wyoming. They consider HPR their home track, even if it is “out in the middle of nowhere.” As opposed to Gillette, WY, right? In the pits we were neighbors with a team from South Dakota who also visit HPR regularly. It’s cool to see we weren’t the only long distance warriors.

Homeward

We missed the rain at the track, but it found us as we were crossing into Illinois. The truck stop restaurant we ate at had a sign proclaiming they had been voted the healthiest menu. Don’t know who did the voting, but I wouldn’t have thought it above average for a truck stop restaurant.

We spent the night in the same Davenport hotel as before. In the same room, to be specific.

By Sunday, Phil and Dennis were tired of my stories so we listened to a bit of George Carlin and a bit of a Malcolm Gladwell book, Blink, on disc.

A wide variety of topics were discussed in the many hours in the truck. Sunday we sort of did a project post-mortem on the trip, what we should have done to be a better team.

I think it’s an interesting issue. Our mistake with Lauren’s radio in Race 1 cost us a lap. We might have made the podium had we not botched it. We also almost made an error during refueling. Dennis had nearly put the nozzle in when Phil was still attending to the car. I stood there thinking “He’s not supposed to start until Phil’s done” but took no action. Luckily, Dennis caught himself in time. But perhaps the biggest error was to not take the wheels off the car and checking everything out.

Dennis used to fly planes. With that history, it seems to me a natural that he work on some checklists for the races. Starting with, maybe, a list of possible checklists! I’m not likely to do more than one of these a year, so it would probably be good if I could practice a pit stop. To do it right would require all four drivers, and everybody would have to do each job at least once.

Afterword

On the way home Dennis asked me how I would compare this race to my club days. My immediate response was “I’ll have to conduct further research!”

I’m not sure it’s fair to compare this Road America race to a club day or an open lapping day. The big appeal of this race, for me, was the venue. I would love to drive Road America in the Elise but that’s not too likely in the foreseeable future. Driving somebody else’s car there is a fine substitute. So it might be more fair to compare this trip to the track day portion of my Portland trip.

There are more differences than similarities. The similarities are that I’m on a road trip to a new and exciting track. The biggest difference is that I’m in a different, slower, car. Instead of being alone, I’m part of a team. I’m not just bombing around the track, my laps are toward a goal and I’m running a much longer session. Although it’s a race, it’s seldom I’m ever in a position to move up or down in the standings, so in that regard is it much different than a lapping day?

I enjoyed the track immensely. I feel like I could have the track figured out pretty well with a couple dozen more laps. I never put even two wheels off and managed for the most part to avoid the nasty rumble strips in turn 5 and Canada corner.

I look forward to having the opportunity to do a similar trip in the future – a road trip to a distant track. Maybe something in California?

I had a great time, I look forward to doing another one. Thanks to Dennis for making it all possible and to Phil and Lauren for the great companionship.

And last but not least, a hearty thanks to Tina and Mike for putting us up, and putting up with us.