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.
The 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.
I’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”.
Scattered 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.
Our 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.