I had no idea how much our nomadic life would be impacted by the weather. The best journeys have happened on the edge of my tolerance for big weather events. However, driving a 40-foot RV with a towed car in big storms does deserve a certain amount of caution.
The unpredictable mid-October weather in the Northern plains is no exception. We just came out of Manitoba, Canada after a couple of snow days during our Polar Bear Migration tour. Planning to high-tail it to the southern desert I found it hard to pass by so many landmarks — so we changed our route.
In Minnesota, the weather softened and we took a chance. The pace was slowed so we could detour for a few days at Badlands National Park in South Dakota.
Badlands National Park
In the nearly empty campground, many sites were flooded where the recent snow storm had melted away. Early morning game drives were rewarded with awesome sightings of Big Horn Sheep, Bison, Prairie Dogs and even a Golden Eagle. The landscapes are a mixture of grasses blowing in waves and beautiful layered hills where the soil has eroded away.
Big Horn Sheep
It was my first sighting of wild Big Horn Sheep that were close enough to be more than pixel sheep. It refers to photo of an animal that is too far away to get more than a pixel or two sized image. There are plenty of those in my catalog, this was something else again. Sometimes the sheep were too close to get with my telephoto lense! That’s a nice problem to have.
The rams were rutting. It starts out innocent enough, just 3 – 5 rams bunched together pushing against one another and kicking each other with their front legs. Unsure of what makes the huddling change to full-on head butt but it is spectacular when it happens.
The early morning 30 degree temps found the males right along the road posturing for dominance. Sometimes, the ewes and older lambs would be nearby ignoring it all, but most of the rutting we saw were groups of males. There is a momentary crazy look in the eye just before a ram rears up and butts heads and horns into another ram with a loud crack. The others don’t move away, they remain huddled together as if pushing the receiving ram to take it again.
When the rams were a safe enough distance away, I could get out of the car and get some photos with better angles. Within minutes, the freezing temperatures would push me back to the heated car seat inside with a happy heart and a frozen smile. I could have watched them for hours!
Having seen plenty of bison before at many locations in North Dakota, Utah, Wyoming, and Yukon, Canada, we were surprised at the size of these guys. Search the blog for ‘Bison’ to read those articles. Rangers were correct, these bison were the biggest I have seen and beautifully decked out with long, shaggy fur. The fur on their front legs moved like pom poms as they strutted around.
As we drove along a dirt road alone in the middle of a huge prairie, there were three males moving the same direction as we were. The biggest daddy was owning the road and the other two were competing for rights to it. They were fun to watch for a while. But after a couple of miles following them we were ready to pass by.
The large dude would turn around and look at us with a challenging stance after having chased the others off the road. No way were we going to upset him and get into a sparring match with the car. We took it slow and waited.
All of a sudden, he put his head down, pawed the ground and took off running at one of the other bison. There was head to head contact! After that skirmish, he returned to the road and strutted along, so proud of himself. He made sure to turn around and warn us away periodically with a menacing look. I’m not passing him!
Finally, he stepped aside very purposefully and allowed us to pass. It was a wonderful communicative moment – he almost nodded as we passed as I thanked him! What magnificent and powerful animals.
Click to see our video of Badlands Big Horns and Bison
One morning we found the prairie dog town off a dirt road. A muddy trail littered with huge piles of bison scat led to fields of skittish prairie dogs. These guys were not as habituated to people as those in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I could barely get a photo before they dove into their dens. These guys had thick and beautiful winter coats without the prominent scars that we had seen before.
The mud and straw stuck so hard to my boots that I couldn’t get it off – this must be where the idea to create building bricks came from. It was impossible to shake the mud off. Further up the road there were better sightings without all the mud.
Click to see a video of the thick mud
Wall, South Dakota
A trip here wouldn’t be complete without stopping at Wall Drug. It is a complete tourist trap but one of the best and I would definitely return. Interconnected shops go on for blocks selling everything from rocks and souvenirs to high-end boots. There are cafes and even an actual pharmacy! Everything is set up for huge crowds like the campground in the National Park. I’m so glad we were here off-season when the crowds were more manageable.
The Buffalo Gap National Grasslands visitor center located in Wall gave a good overview preceding a drive through the prairie. I did get a bit worried when we had snow blowing sideways in the wind when we arrived. The snow was short-lived and left a nice dusting on the hills.
Beating the Weather
Our goal was to celebrate my birthday mid November in Tempe with mild temperatures and palm trees. We may have overstayed this delightful little detour to Badlands. Another storm blew into the Rockies, right in our path through Denver. We re-routed a little further East and drove a long day to get out of the area before the storm socked everything in.
New Mexico – Santa Fe
It was worth the long day to get to Santa Fe, New Mexico KOA. We arrived just before the snow hit Santa Fe and stayed there a couple of days to allow the storm to move on past.
As my first trip to Santa Fe, it was fun to see the downtown area and visit the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Being off season, the town is pretty quiet but it has a good feel with beautiful mountain views and will be worth exploring again when there is no threat of snow.
Our last stop on our way to Tempe was at Homolovi State Park just outside Winslow Arizona. The park protects ancient pueblo dwellings dating from three periods. First AD 620-850, next AD 1050-1225, and AD 1260-1400.
A nice meal (with wi-fi), photo op and souvenir shopping at Winslow, Arizona was fun.
Winslow is on Route 66 where Standin’ On The Corner Park was opened in 1999. The park was created as a result of the song “Take it Easy” written by Jackson Browne and Glenn Frey but made famous by The Eagles. The lyrics include “Standin’ on the corner in Winslow Arizona” and “It’s a girl, my Lord in a flat-bed Ford slowin’ down to take a look at me”.
A relatively short drive took us into Tempe to our Daughter’s. We love to visit here where we can park behind the RV gate at the house. We have good services, favorite restaurants and incoming mail shipped from Oregon. The friendly neighborhood has a well organized association. Our neighbors saw that we had arrived and made a point to invite us to a home tour and catered dinner. We walked around to all seven homes on the tour to see their recent improvements and it was a lot of fun to get to know the neighbors.
I’m glad we made it out of the snow and into the warmth of the desert valley in Tempe in time for my Birthday. It’s always nice to be in a familiar place for celebrations. We enjoyed my birthday dinner at a favorite restaurant that opened a new location a short walk away.
It’s hard to believe we are still dealing with ramifications from being rear-ended in July. I had some follow-up medical appointments in Tempe and another Jeep repair that we noticed on the trip to Manitoba. There was water leaking inside from an unattached sun roof drain. The fix was surprisingly quick. I think the car is fixed now and I’m mostly repaired.