Sunday, July 31, 2011

Mount Rushmore and Sylvan Lake Campground

...or Why?
Dakotas Day 3 - Sunday July 31 (Part 4)

1:20pm - We are back at our previous night's campsite to use the running water to clean ourselves off as best we can and put on dry clothes for the drive to Mount Rushmore. I am not overly enthusiastic about seeing this, but it is one of those things that you should stop and do while you are this close. Dave and Ted have seen it many years ago and say that there isn't all that much to it, but since we are practically driving right by we can't not stop. As far as that goes, I agree.

The drive to Mount Rushmore up highway 87 (if you can call it that) is only 30-some miles, but it takes longer than I would have expected. The roads through this part of the Black Hills curve up and down mountains, wrap around hairpin turns and switchbacks, have one lane bridges and tunnels, and have tourist traffic. All of which conspire to make this a pretty drive, but a long and dizzying one.

3:30pm - We pay the $10 or $12 per car fee to get in and park. The mountain rises up over the parking lot, and is an interesting and somewhat bizarre sight. Out here in the middle of nowhere, for some reason, someone decided that creating this memorial was a good idea. I understand that I am being intentionally dense to make a point, but I have exactly the reaction to this sight that I expected I would have. I just don't get it. Not even a little bit. It is big. It is impressive for what it is. The amount of work and skill required to carve it is undeniable. I just don't comprehend the "why?" The answer of course is either "because" or "why not", and that is fine. It just leaves me.... hollow.

There are a number of different areas within the memorial grounds that can be visited, including a sculptors' workshop and various history displays, but nobody (including me) seems to show any inclination to visit any of these. We wander in through the central plaza, which is fairly crowded, take some pictures at the main viewing area, and get ready to leave.

As silly as this may sound, the highlight of the stop at Mount Rushmore was a simple dish of vanilla soft serve ice cream on a very hot day.

4:15pm - A quick stop at a store in Keystone, a few miles back down the road from the memorial, provides us with a reload of ice and some other food essentials, as well as a case of beer and a few bottles of wine. Relaxing with a beverage or two at camp at the end of a long day is a nice treat...

The road around to Sylvan Lake is windy and slow just as the approach to Mount Rushmore was.

5:00pm - Arrival at Sylvan Lake campground. There is a nominal entry fee to use the facilities of Custer State Park, in which the campground sits, so we pay and then check in for our two reserved campsites (#17 and #19). We picked two tent sites near each other at the very back of the campground, figuring that they would be more secluded than some of the others. It turns out we were right. Parking is at the bottom of a hill, with good water nearby, latrine and trash facilities right next to the parking, and a shower building further down the hill. The campsites themselves are perhaps a hundred yards up the hill from the van. Dave and I have the site most of the way up the slope, and Leo and Ted take the one at the top of the hill, located right on a saddle of the hillside with beautiful views out the back of the campground.

6:00pm - Camp is set. To get to the campground we drove past the general store and little restaurant that sits on the shore of Sylvan Lake. The lake looked beautiful, and we had daylight left, so we decided to go for a swim. The parking lot was crowded with cars and motorcycles, and we were barely able to find a spot to put the van. People were using the lake for swimming, fishing, canoeing and kayaking, and hiking on the paved multi-use path around it. The swimming area had a little manmade sand beach tucked into some pine woods in an area surrounded by large boulder fields and rock oucroppings. The water was cold but incredibly refreshing, and it was nice to wash some of the sweat away.

7:20pm - Dinner back at camp, and a nice evening sitting out and enjoying the company. It was a long and very full day (as they all will be), but another very satisfying one.

Next... Harney Peak hike

Hiking Wind Cave, South Dakota

...or, Who Turned Off the Air Conditioning?
Dakotas Day 3 - Sunday July 31, 2011 (Part 3)

10:45am - Dave and I stop for a second South Dakota geocache within a mile of the trailhead of our intended hike, and then we make our way to the parking lot. It is hot, with temperatures in the mid-90's. The sky is clear and blue and the sun shines down. Exactly how much sun would be apparent later, but at the moment it is beautiful country as far as the eye can see and we are anxious to get on the trail.

Rolling grasslands
10:57am - We set out on an approximately 4 mile hike, diving headlong into the heat of the day. From parking, we will follow the Lookout Point Trail south then east around to its intersection with the Centennial Trail, which we will follow north and then west back around to our starting point. Scenic highlights of the trail are to include a prairie dog town, open rolling grasslands typical of the southern Black Hills country, and a stream valley with pine forests. We can expect to see prairie dogs (yes), bison (yes) and possibly rattlesnakes (thankfully, no). The guidebooks recommend this hike highly for those (like us) that want to capture the flavor of the different kinds of terrain that can be found in this park but do not have a lot of time for a more extensive hike in which to explore the area. In other words, this hike should suit us perfectly.

Fields of flowers
10:57am - Off we go. The first part of the hike is along a tiny stream through patches of grassland and fields of yellow and purple flowers. Soon we climb out of the little stream valley and crest a rise that gives us a fantastic view across the grassland, and provides a nice overlook down into a prairie dog town. Our presence sets the sentries to chattering, and some of the prairie dogs disappear into their burrows. Others stand upright and still, watching to see what kind of threat we might pose.

There are places here where you can see for miles and this is one of them. The sky is huge, and the horizon stretches on for a very long way. This is an observation I will make many more times before the week is out...

The road goes ever on...
Somewhere around here, I mis-read the map, and think that we are halfway done the southern part of our loop when in fact we are only one quarter of the way done. This mistake doesn't do any harm, but causes a little bit of confusion later on when we are trying to figure out when we should be expecting to find the next trail junction landmark. A quick consultation with my gps and a topographic map set us on the right path, but the minor error on my part makes me very conscious of being correct in map reading for the remainder of the trip. I pride myself on being very good with maps and my gps, and having jumped the gun here on the first opportunity was a cause of minor embarrassment to me (although I doubt anyone else really noticed).

11:10am - It is hot. We are hiking along the top of a ridge line in the grasslands and the sun is beating down. There is no shade because there are no trees. The temperature is in the upper 90's and the sun is brutal, but it doesn't feel too bad yet because of the breeze up here on top of the ridge. We are hiking in what will be the most common formation of the trip - Leo in the lead because he sets a moderate pace that is acceptable to everyone. Ted would go faster, but he doesn't typically lead for exactly that reason; he would gallop out ahead and create a gap between himself and the rest of the pack. Dave and Ted follow Leo (interchangeably) in the #2 and #3 spots, and I bring up the rear. I don't bring up the rear because I am the slowest hiker necessarily, but because I am the expedition's designated photographer. Dave has brought a point and shoot camera and takes some pictures when the mood strikes. Leo and Ted have not even brought cameras. That leaves me and my new DSLR to take as many pictures as possible, which suits me fine. I would take lots of pictures on a trip like this regardless of any other factors, but knowing that I am responsible for the primary (and in many cases only) photographic record of the trip makes me that much more conscientious about taking as many pictures as possible. As a result, since I tend to stop frequently to take a picture or three, I am generally the one bringing up the rear and calling out "wait for me, guys!".

12:07pm - We are at the halfway point.

12:10pm - Down into the stream valley. The write-ups on this hike are that the first part is prairie grasslands and the second part is riparian stream valley, and we have reached the second part of the hike. As we get into the wooded section of the hike, we come across the only other hikers we will see that day, who have stopped to watch a bison across the valley with a telescope. We stop to check out the bison as well, but there isn't too much to see, as it appears to be a large male in the tree line several hundred yards across the valley. It is an impressive sight, but we will soon see one much closer up.

12:18pm - We reach a stream crossing, and are confronted with a dilemma. The stream ahead of us is not a major obstacle, and can be crossed easily, but another thirty or forty yards past the fording spot seems to be the bedding down location of a single very large bison. My first instinct is to be as quiet as possible while we figure out what to do. Leo's first instinct is to yell at the bison so as to let it know we are there and not surprise it (which he does). The bison doesn't move at all.

We stop and debate the options. Crossing the stream and going to the right around the bison is option number one, which would put us behind it, but does have the drawback of pinning us between it and the stream should things go bad. Option number two is to ford the stream and then go left up the hill and around it to its front. This has the downside of being in its field of vision, but has the benefit of putting us nearer the tree line should we need to seek shelter from the bison's unwanted attentions. I believe that I am the only one who wanted to go to the right, so next thing I know we were crossing the stream and going off to the left up the hill. I am keeping a wary eye on the bison, but it never so much as flinches. The worst part of this choice, and the part that will worry me for the next day or two, is that the "go left up the hill" choice leads us through an unavoidable field of thigh-high poison ivy. And I am wearing shorts. As a kid, I caught poison ivy very easily, and all I can imagine as I wade through the poison ivy jungle is "red, swollen and itchy from ankle to thigh for the next week or two."

The more immediate concern though is the bison. As we crash through the underbrush around and in front of it, it never moves. I think that it is either a very sound sleeper in the middle of the day, or it is sick, or maybe even dead. The "maybe it's dead" theory seems more possible as we pass in front of it and it never so much as twitches, in addition to the smell of something dead that we all detect. The "dead or not dead" debate will continue for a while after we move out of the area, as something in the general vicinity was clearly dead, but something the size of a dead bison would probably be unmistakable and render all debate a moot point. Regardless, we march on in the sweltering 100 degree heat.

12:33pm - Nearing the end of the hike. And it can't come soon enough for me. We are only completing a 4 mile loop, but the unrelenting sun and the oppressive heat make this a much more taxing hike than it might otherwise be. I have done 7 or 8 mile hikes that seemed easier than this. Part of this, I suppose, is expectation. And my expectation of this hike, not accounting for the heat, was that this would be a "stretch the legs" hike. Despite the relative flatness of the ground, there was nothing easy about this hike on this day.

12:57pm - We climb the last hill and reach the parking lot and our van exactly two hours to the minute after setting out. I am tired and hot, but happy. There is a certain kind of satisfaction to be gained by completing something that requires physical exertion, and this hike was more difficult than the mileage would indicate. Not so much on the legs, but 100 degree heat will sap your energy fairly quickly, and this pretty well exhausted me.

A look at the GPS track when we get back home shows that this hike was 4.8 miles, or about three quarters of a mile longer than the guidebook indicated.

Next... Mount Rushmore and on to Sylvan Lakes

Wind Cave, South Dakota

Dakotas Day 3 - Sunday July 31, 2011 (Part 2)

8:40am - We arrive at the outdoor pavilion that is the meeting place for the "Natural Entrance Tour" of Wind Cave in Wind Cave National Park. As I have said before, at this point I am a bit apprehensive at the prospect of an hour and fifteen minutes underground. I am not overly claustrophobic per se, but don't relish the prospect of terribly closed-in spaces. Having read the descriptions of this tour in the guidebooks, I am convinced that it will not be anything too strenuous or confining. Hopefully this will prove to be true. I did read one of the other tour descriptions that sent a chill down my spine - 4 hours underground on a tour that will have you crawling most of the time and squeezing through narrow openings. That is precisely what I am not looking for. I am all for adventure of the right kind, but for me that is absolutely not the right kind.

Natural entrance
There seem to be about a dozen people waiting for the ranger to show up, and the final count will end up being 14. This is a great number, as we are told that the normal size for this tour later in the day (this is the first of the morning) is closer to 40 people. After a short wait the ranger shows up and gives us some general background. All the important factual stuff can be found on the National Park Service website here, but the highlights are that Wind Cave is the fifth largest cave in the world (at the moment), with over 130 miles of explored and mapped passages and rooms, all of which are located under one square mile of the park. The amazing part is that scientists estimate that as little as 5% or so of the cave has been explored thus far. They apparently arrive at this estimate by volumetric analysis of the air movements, working backwards to how large they think the cave complex must be, and how much is known at this time. If this is true, there could be over 2,500 miles of cave down there. Which is hard to imagine.

The cave is a "breathing" cave with only one known natural entrance. By breathing, they mean that air does not go in at one place and out another, passing through the cave, but rather only goes in and out through the one opening. When the air pressure inside is higher than the pressure outside, air rushes out of the cave. When the pressure inside is lower, air rushes in. Winds in excess of 40 mph have been recorded at the opening. It is not yet 9:00am, and it is already getting hot, but at least for the first part of the day we will be nice and cool; the constant temperature in the cave is 53 degrees F year 'round. We will be longing for any shade or cool later in the day (and not finding it), but that is a story for the next post.

The actual tour itself begins with a walk past the modern man-made entrance to the one natural entrance. In the picture, it is the dark spot about the size of the rim of a cowboy hat. Perhaps 12 by 16 inches. My shadow gives a good indication of the size. Or lack of size. Which leads me back to my fear of cramped spaces... what possessed someone to wiggle down through that opening into the unknown is beyond me, but explore they did. By candle light, with no modern conveniences. Yikes. On this particular day, the pressure inside was a little bit higher, as a ribbon held at the opening by the ranger blew outward, but not excessively so.

After visiting the natural entrance, we went back the man made entrance, which a revolving door (to keep from affecting the air pressure inside), and a couple of hundred stairs down. We had what would turn out to be a very nice malfunction at this point, as the lights inside the cave were out. The ranger handed out flashlights, and down we went. And down some more.

One of the scenic highlights of the cave, and the thing for which this cave is famous, is the boxwork. Boxwork is a cave formation of crosshatched lines (shown in the picture) which are believed to form from harder mineral deposits forming in fissures in the limestone. The softer limestone erodes away, leaving only the mineral deposits. However it forms, the majority of the world's known boxwork formations are in this one cave.

The ranger told us that Wind Cave is not a wet cave, as many are, and this turned out to be true. The walk we had was mostly dry, and was entirely on a poured concrete path with ramps and stairs where needed. I guess this may have made the tour seem over-sterilized to some, but I was enough in awe of the sights that it didn't detract from the experience for me at all. Not having the electric lighting for the first half of the tour lent a much more intimate and natural feel to things. In retrospect, I wouldn't have had it any other way. They run a candlelight tour, and based on our experience, I think I would recommend that tour sight-unseen. Call it ambience or whatever, but being down in the cave with a candle or a flashlight is definitely better than being there with the whole array of "mood lighting" that the NPS has set up for the tourists.

Dave, Leo and Eric
The flashlights did also provide a running joke for the rest of the trip. Our ranger was a young lady who took the behavior of her tour members very seriously. One little boy had a habit of shining his flashlight in places that she asked him multiple times not to, like in her face and other guests' faces. By the time the flashlights were no longer necessary, she seemed about ready to stuff one up his nose. Sideways. (Personally, I think we would have stuffed it up the nose of the parents who were completely oblivious to the misbehavior of their child, but maybe that was just us...). Anyway, for the rest of the trip, any questionable behavior was met with a comment along the lines of "don't make me do horrible things to you with this flashlight, little boy".

9:50am - All too soon, we had reached the conclusion of the tour, which ended rather abruptly with our arrival at the elevator lobby that would take us back to the surface. And out we go.

I am very glad that things worked out such that all four of us were able to take this cave tour, and we weren't forced by time constraints to choose one or the other and split up. I for one would have chosen to hike a trail above ground rather than do this, and if so I would have missed something special. I am also very glad that I did not give in to my instinct to bail out and not do this tour regardless of having the time. I admit I came fairly close to doing so. I really don't like overly cramped spaces...

Next...Hiking in a much hotter place.

Morning in South Dakota

Dakotas Day 3 - Sunday July 31, 2011 (Part 1)

5:33am - I hear Leo and Ted get out of their tent, and I am lying awake in my sleeping bag, so I get up as well. It is light out, but the sun is not over the nearby hills yet. It is nice in the early morning hours. I slept better than I expected to, partly I guess because I was tired, but also because the overnight temperatures were cool making for perfect sleeping weather. One thing I did not notice here that I did on our Pennsylvania backpacking trip last summer was critters rooting around camp during the night. Something may have come by, but I certainly didn't hear it. Soon the sun does come up over the hills and it is a beautiful and peaceful sight.

7:01am - Camp is dismantled since this is the only night we will spend here. Leo and Ted are cooking bacon and eggs in a frying pan over the fire, and the results are fantastic. As simple as the food is, I am becoming convinced that everything tastes better outdoors. While they finish cooking, I take a "shower" in the sink of the men's latrine, and get changed into clean clothes. I am a bit finicky and this whole lack of a real shower thing is going to take some getting used to. In retrospect, at the end of the trip, this is the one thing that I never really will have gotten used to at all. I don't feel entirely human until I get my shower in the morning. And by shower, I don't mean dumping water over my head from an empty Gatorade bottle.

We had two choices for what we could do with the six or seven hours we could spend here before needing to head to the next stop at Sylvan Lake campground via Mount Rushmore. Option one was to take a ranger-led tour of Wind Cave itself, and the other option was to do a short hike. Looking at the timing of things, we all decided that rather than each person choose which they wanted to do, we would all squeeze in both. I will admit to being apprehensive about the idea of being underground for an extended period of time. I have been on a couple of geology field trips in college that went into old coal mines, but that was for short periods of time and the spaces were never that enclosed. I am not claustrophobic as far as I know, but this would be a bad way to find out.

8:00am - We have an extra 20 minutes or so before we need to get to the Visitor Center to sign up for the 8:40am tour (which would last 1 hour and 15 minutes), so we drive around the area, and I get to see my first view of real bison in the wild (or semi-wild...). They are big from a distance, and downright huge when they are playing five feet from the side of the road. This was the first of several occasions on this trip when I would have to get by bison blocking a road, and it was nerve wracking. You would be waiting forever if you waited until they wandered off, and they tend to be fairly docile in general, but I always had this fear that at the exact moment that I chose to try to sneak slowly by them some big bull would decide to charge the van. I don't know if this ever does happen, but it didn't happen to us.

We also see a few different kind of deer, something that looks like an antelope, and lots of birds. There is a lot of wildlife active on the grasslands this morning, and it is great to see.

Next... Wind Cave

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Scotts Bluff, Nebraska, and on to South Dakota

Dakotas Day 2 - Saturday July 30, 2011

6:00am - I am awakened by a text message from my little one, Grace, who doesn't realize that 8:00am where she is is only 6:00am where I am. I fitfully return to sleep for a little while.

6:50am - We wake for good, get a nice hot shower, which will be a luxury in the coming days, and load our baggage in the van. We have plenty of space as we have not yet bought our food, nor the coolers which we store it in, and a number of other "buy and leave" items; things which we could not bring on the plane, will want while we are here, and will not be able to bring back. This whole idea of buy it, use it for a week, and then throw it away, is unfortunate, but cannot really be avoided, as the cost of shipping these things to or from home would be far more than the value of the items themselves.

7:40am - We leave the hotel and Dave and I get a Colorado geocache right down the street. This is a new state for both of us, and the 5- to 10 minute detours for caches here and there will happen a number of times on the trip. We make the short drive to Walmart and shop.

9:30am - We leave Walmart $495 poorer, but with a van full of coolers, food, camp chairs, drinks, and miscellaneous minor camping items. This shopping run will carry us through most of the week, with a few small stops to replenish ice, water and drinks, and a few other essentials.

10:20am - A stop at McDonald's in Cheyenne, Wyoming for a fast food breakfast. Mine is an Egg McMuffin and a large coffee; alright if you don't do it very often. This is perhaps a precursor of things to come as we will be eating lots of fast food and quick meals while on the road, and easy things like grilled hot dogs and cold cut sandwiches in camp and on the trails. Not many green things will be eaten in the next week other than a few pickles.

Scotts Bluff, Nebraska
12:00pm - Arrival at Scotts Bluff, Nebraska. Dave and I find a Nebraska geocache, and then we proceed to the National Monument. I know almost nothing about this site other than that Ted picked it out as a place to see on the way to South Dakota, in a location that would break our drive in half nicely.

12:15pm - We can get to the top of Scotts Bluff one of two ways - driving or hiking. Everyone is anxious to stretch their legs, so we opt to hike the Saddle Rock Trail, which is an out-and-back of 1.6 miles each way. It is sunny and hot as we set out, and by the time we are done, we are sweaty, hot and thirsty. But it feels good to be here doing what we came to do - hiking and seeing the sights.

The hike itself is a surprisingly nice one. It starts with an easy walk through open grasslands to the foot of the Bluff. The trail then climbs the bluff at a moderate slope via a number of switchbacks. At the top of the near-side switchback, it passes through a tunnel high in the bluff and finishes its climb to the top on the far side. Almost all of the hike is in direct sun, and the temperature is in the high 90's, so I am sweating profusely and huffing and puffing a bit by the time we get to the top. This will be a constant in my hiking this week (and always is); I get winded easily on climbs but do recover pretty quickly.

The view from the top of the Bluff is amazing. From what I have read, you can see four different states from the top on a clear day. Today is a clear day, and it does seem like you can see forever. This is another phenomena that will reoccur this week. Big Sky country is exactly that. Flat or undulating ground and a horizon that can seem to go forever.

2:15pm - We complete the 3.2 mile round trip hike, with photo and sightseeing stops, in exactly two hours and reload the van for the drive north into South Dakota. I am hot, sweaty, and a little tired, but it feels terrific. One thing that I am adding here after Dave remarked on it in his blog is that we had a slight scare when we got back to the van after our hike. It seems that we left one of the van's side doors wide open the entire time we were gone. An entire van full of camping gear, luggage, food, beverages and cell phones and ipods was there for the taking. Nobody took anything. As Dave so rightly noted, the Patron Saint of Idiots was surely watching over us.

South Dakota
4:45pm - We stop in Hot Springs, SD for my first South Dakota geocache, making three new states today.

5:15pm - We arrive at the Elk Mountain campground, a first come first served campground, and the only one in Wind Cave National Park. We have no trouble finding a lovely spot, and set up camp for our first night in tents.

6:15pm - Camp is set.

6:45pm - Leo is making a fire to cook dinner. A big fire. Dinner is a simple one of grilled cheeseburgers, but food has rarely tasted so good. I suppose this is a combination of the earlier exertion, the camaraderie, and just something about cooking food at the camp fire. I am happy.

There is no cell service where we are, which is a good and bad thing. Even on a trip such as this I like to feel connected. Some would consider this sacrilege, but I do not think sending the occasional text message spoils the "outdoors and away from it all" feeling for me. For some it certainly does.

Warning signs on the latrine building warn of rattlesnakes and mountain lions. For rattlesnakes, the general advice is get away as quickly as you can. Makes sense to me. For mountain lions (a rarity), the advice is to "make yourself big" but do not run. This will become a running joke for the remainder of the trip, as all sorts of events and cirsumstances will met with the advice to "make yourself big".

When darkness finally comes, with it come as many stars as I have ever seen in one place. There is so little ambient light and background interference out here that the night sky is amazing. We could see the whitish band of the milky way itself, something that I have only seen a handful of times in my life. We also saw satellites in their orbits, and several shooting stars.

10:30pm - Bed time for me. What a great day.

Friday, July 29, 2011

An Inauspicious Beginning... Which Ends Well

Dakotas Day 1 - Friday July 29, 2011

The big day is here and I can't wait to get going. Since three of us live in the suburbs and one does not, the plan is that Dave and Leo will leave their cars at my house and I will drive to the airport, leaving my car at one of the offsite lots for the eight days we will be gone. Ted will meet us at the airport. Everyone is anxious to be on our way, so we decide to leave my house at 3pm-ish for a 6:40pm flight. We know we will be there very early, but can meet up and have a drink or two while discussing shopping plans for the next day. Our main provisioning stop of the trip will be at a Walmart Supercenter first thing tomorrow.

4:00pm - We get to the airport, check our bags, and meet Ted at Chickie's and Pete's for a couple drinks and some dinner (just crab fries for me). Spirits are high and it is immediately comfortable to be in the company of such old friends. Our 6:40pm flight is initially delayed until 7:15, but then is adjusted forward to 6:50. I am a bit of a worrier, and this is Southwest's last flight of the day to Denver, so if something goes wrong with this flight there is no later flight to be bumped to, which would mean a Saturday morning departure instead. But as Dave says, it's vacation time, we aren't working, and there is no need to worry about these things. Yet.

6:50pm - We board the flight on time and pull back from the gate only ten minutes behind schedule. Things are looking good. Then we taxi out and park on the runway for almost 2 hours without moving more than a few hundred yards every now and then. Apparently there are storms in our takeoff path, and we don't have another approved way out of Philadelphia, so we sit and wait. While we wait we learn that the Eagles have shockingly signed Nnamdi Asomugha, a star cornerback, and that the Phillies have equally shockingly traded for star outfielder Hunter Pence, so we have something to talk about while we wait.

8:35pm - We take off. Finally.

10:15pm (Mountain time from here forward until noted otherwise) - After an uneventful nearly four hours in the air, we land in Denver, get our bags, and proceed to the rental car counter to pick up our minivan. We have rented a late model Chrysler Town and Country minivan, and it will turn out to be a comfortable workhorse over the course of the next week. Now that we are on the ground in Denver, I consider the trip to have officially begun.

12:30am - We arrive at our hotel in Loveland Colorado, about an hour north of the airport, and near our Walmart stop tomorrow morning. It has been a long day.

1:00am - Lights out. It is the equivalent of 3:00am eastern time and I don't tend to sleep all that well in hotels, but I think I fall asleep the moment my head hits the pillow.

Kitchen - Day 5 (7/29)

Today: A very eventful day. Appliances were delivered and put into place. Old appliances have been moved to the garage, where they will sit for a few days until Habitat for Humanity comes to pick them up and take them away as a donation. I love the look of the kitchen. The appliances are stainless steel; we are just leaving the heavy blue plastic protective film on them until everything is done.

While this is all going on I am putting the finishing touches on my trip packing. Checking and re-checking. Dave and Leo arrive at around 3pm to head to the airport. Excited would be an understatement...

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Kitchen - Day 4 (7/28)

Today: The remainder of the cabinets have been installed and the last sections of hardwood flooring completed. The ongoing string of electrical work continues as well. Having the upper cabinets in finally gives us a really good idea of exactly what the finished kitchen will look like. I like it very much so far.

Tomorrow: Appliances get delivered and roughly put into place. Plumbing work that needs to occur after the granite and marble countertops get installed will prevent the gas range and the dishwasher from being hooked up. Without a sink, we will not have a truly functional kitchen, although we will be able to do some things. The microwave will allow us to warm things up at home, and we can grill outside if we want to. Soon we will be into a 2-week waiting period for the granite countertops to be manufactured and installed. Tomorrow afternoon I leave for eight days in the Dakotas, but as of now there will be very little that happens while I am gone.

Dakotas Tomorrow

It seems hard to believe, but after all this time waiting and planning, our Dakotas trip begins tomorrow with a flight to Denver in the evening. I am in good shape to be ready to go, and there isn't much left to be done other than to wrap up some loose ends at work, pack for real, and wait out the mild butterflies of anticipation. I also have a little bit of remaining planning for geocaches during the trip, but I did most of that last night.

There are a few minor items that I might want to bring that I do not have, so I might run out at some point today and do a little shopping. But if I don't get around to it, it doesn't matter.

One more day.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Kitchen - Day 3 (7/27)

Today: Once again, I continue to be amazed at the speed at which things are moving along. Speed by itself is nice, but only if you are getting quality work and attention to detail, and watching these guys work and seeing the results I am convinced we are getting that. The hardwood floor is complete everywhere but in the laundry room, and it looks absolutely fantastic. This isn't a surprise, because the neighbors have this exact flooring in this exact color, and we loved it when they did it, so we chose the same floor. Drywall work continues, but is a somewhat slow process to do properly as it takes several coats and rounds of sanding to make it look nice. Electrical work continued throughout the day, as there is a lot of not very glamorous effort that goes into making everything is set up properly for future steps (like appliances and under cabinet lighting).

By far the biggest leap forward is the installation of the cabinet bases and the assembly of some of the clusters of uppers. The base units are all in, and now that we can see them in place, we are thrilled that we chose (at the last minute) to change the door styles from a plainer one to the one shown here. I couldn't love them more. The uppers are a fascinating thing to watch go together. There will be a very plain crown molding detail around the tops of the cabinets, and that molding will be slightly offset and resting on a three inch filler strip. The result of this arrangement is that the contractor won't be able to get a nail gun in between the ceiling and the final molding pieces. To get everything lined up properly, and not have to nail at an angle and hope for a good result, the uppers are being assembled on the floor in clusters, complete with the molding, and then will be installed in bunches. That can't be an easy way to do it, and the contractor says he has never done it like that before, but it seems to be working ok. I just hope they can lift these things and get them on the walls.

As for the quality of the KraftMaid cabinets themselves, I think we will be pleased. After the workers left today, it was fun to play with the self-closing drawers and other features and compare them to what we had before. Fun fun fun.

Tomorrow: Day 4 should see the completion of the drywall, the hanging of the upper cabinets, and the flooring of the laundry room. Additional electrical odds and ends are still on the docket I believe, and some other minor things. The Contractor says that tomorrow should see the end of the major tasks. Which is not to say that we are anywhere near done, in terms of time, or all the little things remaining to be done. Appliances are to be delivered and installed on day 5 (which includes plumbing and gas line work), countertops are to be templated on day 6. A range hood still needs to be installed. Countertops need to be fabricated, which will take an estimated two weeks. The sink, and its related plumbing (which includes the dishwasher drain line), cannot be completed until the under mount sink can be installed in the finished countertops.

This means that in fairly short order we will have a somewhat functional kitchen in terms of being able to refrigerate, cook, microwave, and restock the finished pantry. But we will be without countertops until mid-August, and therefore no running water in the kitchen. We will make do.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Kitchen - Day 2 (7/26)

Today: I am amazed at how much progress was made in one day. The demolition of the soffits was completed, and those areas of wall and ceiling have been drywalled, taped, and mudded. Additional sanding and skim coats are needed, but the configuration of the walls and ceilings is complete. The hardwood flooring was installed in most of the main kitchen area as well as half of the walk-in pantry. In addition, lot of electrical work was accomplished, which included on-the-spot decisions on location of many switches, outlets and light fixtures. Now is the time to make all the little tweaks that we have always wished we could do, like moving phone jacks around.

Tomorrow: Day 3 will see the completion of the hardwood floor in all areas but the laundry room, more work on the drywall and some additional electrical. The biggest thing will be the cabinets starting to go in. The base cabinets should all be placed, and depending on how the drywalling goes, some uppers may be put in places as well. The drywall work is messy and dusty, but our contractors are doing a pretty good job of containing the mess. Tomorrow it should begin to look a little like a kitchen again.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Kitchen - Day 1 (7/25)

Today: The big demolition day. By the end of the day, all cabinets and countertops were gone, the soffits were half removed, and the old vinyl flooring and underlayment were mostly torn up and removed.  There weren't too many surprises, and those that we did find were small. We were hoping that there was nothing buried in the soffits but dead space, and that turned out to be mostly true. There was some wiring and phone cable that can easily be tucked into the new ceiling, and one small elbow of vent pipe above where the dishwasher goes that the contractor doesn't think should be tough to re-route and bury back in the wall. One minor concern was some water damage to the subfloor near the vent at the corner of the sliding door, but we were moving that vent 90 degrees to its current orientation to put it along the side of the cabinets as opposed to in front of the door, so that flooring was going to be cut out anyway. Hopefully there isn't damage under the subfloor.

Tomorrow: The completion of the demolition (mainly the soffit above what we call the butler's pantry - picture at right above) and the reconstruction and drywalling of where the soffits used to be. Moving two floor vents and fixing the minor issues noted above. Some electrical work to rewire some things and prep for future light installation. Perhaps if all goes smoothly, the beginning of the hardwood floor installation. The hardwood is being installed first so that it runs wall to wall under everything throughout the whole kitchen as opposed to not running under the island or under the cabinets. Cabinets and the island then go on top.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Kitchen - What Will Be

I've posted a couple of pictures of what the soon-to-be-gone kitchen looks like; so what are we planning? I wouldn't say that it is our absolute dream kitchen, because if money were no object, and we had a bigger kitchen footprint to deal with we would almost certainly do some things differently than what we are planning. None of those extra things are all that important to us though, and the kitchen we are going to get has everything we really want. So while it is fair to say that is not absolutely our dream kitchen, I think it will be awfully close.
Harrington Dove White

The parameters we needed to work within, and what we decided on was this:

No substantial change to the footprint of the kitchen is feasible. The garage prevents us from going in one direction. The inability to easily move the laundry room prevents us from doing much to move the pantry around. Lastly, our house has a walkout basement in the back and therefore the kitchen is really on the second floor from the point of view of the back of the house. Plus there is an expensive deck back there, so pushing an extension out the back would cost a fortune. So what we have to work with is basically what we have now.

We considered a few different layout changes to the arrangement of cabinets, appliances and the island. After scribbling a bunch of alternate plans we came to the conclusion that the kitchen is laid out the way it is now for a good reason - it is the best and most functional use of the available space.The renovation therefore would be focused mainly on upgrading the quality of everything in the kitchen rather than making any dramatic layout changes.

The cabinets are Kraftmaid in Dove White. The door style is Harrington. Having chosen this, the rest of the choices were made to fit this style and color scheme. I was a bit of a skeptic on a white kitchen to begin with, but once the rest of the plan came together, I became a believer.

Steel Gray and Carrera
We considered tile and hardwood flooring, and decided on hardwood. We chose a Bruce wide plank oak floor in "gunstock", which is a rich medium brown color. It should contrast with the white cabinets nicely.

For countertops, I have always wanted stone of some sort. We love to cook and spend a lot of time in the kitchen, and nothing beats natural stone to me. We settled on granite ("Steel Gray") around the perimeter and "Carrera" marble on the island. The granite is a dark grayish black with the slightest hints of dark blue, and the marble is a nice white veined stone.

The appliances will be mostly new. We are reusing a Kitchenaid dishwasher that is only a year or two old, but it is black and the new appliances will all be stainless, so I don't know that we will end up keeping it in the long term. Most of the other appliances are from GE's Cafe line. We are replacing the current configuration of a drop-in cooktop and a set of smallish double wall ovens with a slide-in range that has the conventional oven on the bottom and gas burners on top. It will have a hood vented to the outside. We will lose a bit of refrigerator space with a counter-depth model, but not as much as I would have thought. We will no longer have a microwave over the range; it will be in the island instead.

As I finish writing this, it is less than 14 hours until the contractor arrives in the morning to start turning these piles of boxes and cartons into a new kitchen. In the meantime I guess we will be eating out...

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Tick tick tick- Kitchen Renovation - Day minus 2

Two different major events are in count-down mode around here: it is 6 days until the long-awaited Dakotas trip (more on that soon), and 2 days until a total kitchen renovation kicks off with full demolition commencing on Monday. The timing of the kitchen reno isn't great, as I will be away for the middle week of the three total weeks it is expected to take from start to finish. I would like to be here to see it all unfold, but Amp has promised to take daily pictures, and she has been the driving force behind this whole project and I know everything will go well.

Amp has been researching, designing and investigating various things since we made the decision to move ahead with this project several months ago. When we bought our house new 14 years ago, the builder's kitchen seemed alright. We upgraded the floor to a high end vinyl, the cabinets were mediocre but acceptable, and the countertops were a typical laminate. As the years have gone by, we have become less and less satisfied with the crappy cabinets, the floor is very worn, and the countertops should be something nicer. Every time we have considered upgrading something though, we keep coming back to the same problem - it's almost impossible to do just one item at a time.

The part of the kitchen that we like the least is the cabinets. The drawers are not the nice self-closing drawers that all good cabinets come standard with. The doors rattle. The laminate ends of the exposed runs have weathered and faded with time and light to an ugly purply-brown color. Now, I like the color purple as much as the next person, but it's not a great look for kitchen cabinets. The overall effect by now is that they just look and feel cheap. And I hate looking at them.

But the cabinets are the keystone part of a kitchen. We can't change the flooring if the footprint of the cabinets may change. And it makes no sense to put nice granite countertops on top of crappy base cabinets.  If you are going to replace the cabinets, then you have to change the flooring and the countertops.

So the cabinets are the single domino that has brought down our entire kitchen.

After a flurry of planning, ordering and buying, we are ready to begin. There is a dumpster in the street outside our house, and the contractor will be here at 7am sharp Monday morning to get started. I can't wait.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Dakotas Trip - 10 Days to Blast Off!!!

It seems like just a few moments ago that I was posting about "11 weeks to go" on this trip, and now it is 10 days from our departure. I am excited. And a bit nervous. And a little overwhelmed. And a bit nervous. And a lot of other feelings too. But mainly excited.

There were a number of things that I wanted to have a good handle on prior to the trip, and I can't say as though I feel like I have done an especially good job on any of them.

I wanted to finally buy a digital SLR camera and learn how to use it well. I have bought the camera, and used it a little, but I can't say as though I have put the time into learning how to use it as thoroughly as I would have liked. I will bring the user guide booklet with me, but will be relying mainly on the fact that this new camera is way smarter than me, and I can set everything to full automatic and use it as a very expensive point-and-shoot and the pictures will be great. "Artistic" may have to wait for another day. A new UV filter and a circular polarizer filter have arrived courtesy of Amazon, so I will have a few new things to play with, and the extra battery is overkill, but what the heck...

I wanted to be the proactive anal-retentive person that I normally am and be very ahead of schedule in terms of reviewing my gear, packing lists, and all the other "prep" kind of tasks. I haven't really done that. Which is not really an issue. I am reviewing my packing list as I type this, and have plenty of time to get the last couple of items that I could use. So no issue there, really.

The biggest thing that concerns me, and Dave echoed this sentiment in a recent blog post of his, is that I had really wanted to spend a good amount of trail time working on my conditioning and my legs, and I haven't done that at all. Quite the contrary, I have probably spent less trail time this year than I have each of the past couple of years. So I have good reason to be concerned about that.

But... the important thing is that we are ten days away from what should be one of the trips of a lifetime for me, and I can't wait!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Look Ma, No Training Wheels

My little one made quite a leap forward last night. Since her 7th birthday, she has been wanting to have the training wheels taken off her bike so she could learn to ride without them. So this weekend I took them off, and we spent some time Saturday and Sunday with her riding on the grass, with me holding one handle and the back of her seat. With no training wheels, there are a lot of different things going on for a kid to worry about; balance, pedaling, and steering. When first starting out, something always seems to be out of control. If you worry about the steering, you lose balance. If you worry about balance and steering, you forget to pedal, lose speed and wobble to a stop. Getting all three in synch is the hard part.

I always suspected that when things would come together they would do so suddenly, and that is exactly what happened. We worked on riding a little Saturday without much success. And a little Sunday without much more success. Yesterday, after a day in north Jersey on business, we went back out and tried again. This time she seemed steadier, and on one of the passes across the flat part of the lawn, I carefully let go of everything, and Grace rode by herself for thirty or forty feet without realizing that I wasn't helping her any more. Very excited by what she had accomplished, we spent another twenty minutes or so making pass after pass across the lawn, with me doing nothing more than helping her get going. This evening when I got home from work, Grace was riding in circles around the driveway, turning this way and that, getting herself stopped and started with no problems. I suppose that in a way it is a small thing to learn to ride a bike, but it seems like a pretty big step to me at the moment.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Return of the Blog

No, I have not dropped off the face of the earth, but it may seem that way. There have been a number of things that have been going on that have taken up my time, but I have certainly not lost interest in the blog, and have every intention of having a burst of energy here in the very near future. As time has passed in the six weeks or so (ack!) since my last posting, I have kept a running list of the things that I want to write about here. I have every intention of making good on those plans and back-filling all the missing events and thoughts over the past weeks. Someday soon, it may look like I was never gone...

Wish me luck!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Historicon 2011

...or, Just Passing Through

Our biggest area wargaming convention of the year is going on this weekend, and by the time it ends Sunday around lunchtime, I will have been there for a total of about two hours. The  event is having its second year at the new venue, the Valley Forge Convention Center, which is certainly a bigger facility than the Lancaster Host, but I am not sure that it is dramatically nicer. I suppose it is, but I am not 100% convinced yet.

One undeniably good thing about it is that it is closer to home, and in fact is about 10 minutes from where I work. Which turns out to be a good thing this time around, because if it weren't for stopping in for a couple hours Thursday evening on the way home, I wouldn't have made it there at all. Not attending in any meaningful way is not something I planned, it just sort of worked out that way. The 4th of July holiday weekend was just a few days ago, and I took a couple of extra vacation days to make a very long weekend out of it. Work is busy at the moment, and adding another vacation day or two just wasn't possible.

So a quick fly-by was all I was able to manage. I had just enough time to stand in line behind 4 people (for 20 minutes!) to register as a walk-up attendee, get double charged in the process (yes, apparently the first credit card charge did go did the second), and do a quick cruise of the games area and the dealer area. There wasn't really anything I needed, nor anything that especially struck my fancy, but I did buy some additional "muddy stream" pieces and two bags of palm trees for my 15mm Crusades project. As any good wargamer worth his salt will tell you, there is no such thing as too much terrain.

The best thing about the brief stop at the convention, though, I would say, is that it seems to have rekindled the desire to make the time to be able to pick up a paintbrush and get back to work on some figures. Although to be more productive, I really should get back to work on re-basing those Crusades figures... or paint some more Lord of the Rings figures... or work on my medieval retinue... or Napoleonics... or get back to that Seven Years War project... Hmmm.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Geocaching - Lancaster, PA

I haven't been geocaching much at all these last few months, not from lack of interest, but primarily from a lack of time. There are too many other things going on, and there are not enough caches close to home anymore. Admittedly it hasn't been a real high priority either. Which made it all that much nicer that I was able to get out for a long day of caching yesterday.

In what is becoming a very nice tradition, if you can call something that has happened two or three times a tradition, my friend Ellen was in the area for the week visiting family, and had a day where everybody was busy with other things. So we were able to plan a full day of geocaching. Since there isn't too much left around home for me, and we had most of a day to play with, we decided to head out to the Lancaster area. There are a lot of caches in that area, and I have barely scratched the surface of what is available. She would be able to get a couple of virtual caches out that way that I already had, and we would both be able to get a bunch of new caches in a scenic area that is nice to spend time in.

To make the most of the day, Ellen picked me up at around 7am. There was a difficult cache near home that we had looked for on one of her previous trips and been unable to find. It was a 5/5 rated (toughest possible) in a dam, and proved to have gone missing. It has since been replaced, and downgraded to a 5/3. I have found it already, but a difficulty 5 cache is worth getting, so we began by driving over and parking in a little lot in the Woodlawn Tract. We walked down to the dam and found that cache, which was a great way to start the day.

From there, we drove out route 1 past Kennett Square and up 41 toward Gap, making a stop here and there. We stopped and got a few caches around Atglen, including a virtual that was a roadside historic marker sign out in the middle of farmlands. In Gap itself Ellen got a priceless picture of an Amish horse and buggy at the gas pumps at the Wawa. Leaving Gap, we made our way slowly cross-country to Strasburg, where we failed to find a cache I wanted to get, and then over to the southeastern part of Lancaster itself. We were in no great hurry, and it was a very nice day, if hot.

Over the course of the next several hours we spent a lovely day in parks, cemeteries, parking lots and walking on greenway trails, talking, exploring, laughing and finding a decent number of caches. As 3pm neared, we figured we had better make our way toward home to meet our goal of having me home by 5pm and her by 6. We headed back the way we came, making our way down 41 to 1, and then down 52 to Smiths Bridge. The covered bridge there is only a little ways from the dam where we started out, and there is another difficulty 5 cache in it that I have been unable to find. We were considering looking for it, but it was hot, we were tired, and the bridge itself is a filthy mess covered in black road dust. Looking for that cache is a fairly disgusting endeavor, so it didn't seem like a great way to end the day. Instead, to fill the little bit of time we had left, we made our way back to where we had started the day to look for a couple of nearby caches. There was a cache hidden in the rocks on the stream bank right across the road from our little parking lot, and I had found it before, but this time we spent a bunch of time looking and never did find it. Maybe it had washed away. But with that, our time ran out, so we headed back to the van and went home.

What a wonderful day. The weather turned out hot but not too bad. Showers that had been forecast as a possibility never showed up. I ended the day with 23 caches, and Ellen had around 30, so it wasn't a big numbers day by any means. Given the heat and our leisurely pace, it was about what I expected. Most importantly, I got the opportunity to spend a day geocaching in the company of a good friend. It's always nice to get out, and on the rare occasions that I get out with someone else, it makes it that much more special, especially a friend I only get to see once or twice a year.