Turning an American leaf

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It’s nearly a year since we departed on our mammoth journey across the United States and an incredible year it has been.

Now I’m going to be honest… there were a lot of things about America that we really did not like: the religious extremism which is accepted as the norm; the wacky politics resulting in mind boggling social division; the racism; the consumerism and appalling culture of waste. All these things made us thoroughly glad to be British as we welcome being stereotyped at that.

That said, America is a truly conscious expanding experience and we loved so much of the vast, diverse, welcoming and beautiful country. And we had experiences there which we so deeply appreciated and loved that we are now incorporating them into our own lives. And I’m not just talking about the American fridge I bought complete with ice dispenser for the copious amounts of ice tea I now drink, or the American coffee maker I set on timer for after the school run, or the ball jars that we had shipped over and use now for anything and everything, although all those things definitely enhance my day to day life, God Bless America!

While we were travelling we volunteered with two families in particular who were living in a way which inspired me. The Scott-Pelman family in Washington and the Sabo family in Montana welcomed us onto their farms and introduced us to the American way of homesteading. Homesteading is a much bigger thing in America than it is here – we would call it smallholding or living self sufficiently. To do it properly here is considered a pretty unusual lifestyle, almost stepping out of society and into the world of “hippies and dreamers”. It’s an all or nothing… you’re either living the extreme lifestyle or you fit in and get a nine to five job and shop at one of the major supermarkets. There isn’t much of an in-between, although we attempted an in-between with our small scale farm that demanded such long hours marketing and selling our produce that there was little time left to enjoy it.

But in America self-sufficiency is a respected and normal lifestyle… homesteading is what the country was built on and many families living modern lifestyles are only one generation removed from their homesteading grandparents. They also do it in a much more effective way, canning their products for storage in larders and not batting an eyelid at milking a cow every morning. Okay, so part of their love of self sufficiency is due to their major paranoia about an apocalypse which, stemming from the cold war, is continuously fuelled by the aforementioned religious extremism as well as the government’s scaremongering billboards across the nation reminding citizens that “Winging it is not an emergency plan… what will you do in a disaster?” Remember folks… have a shit load of tinned food, hand guns and matches cos that will really help you when Yellowstone blows… honest!

Government campaigns across the States feed the national obsession with survival and hoarding!

Government campaigns across the States feed the national obsession with survival and hoarding!

Anyway, I’m a huge fan of apocalyptic literature so I’m all up for having a plan and making sure I can survive without supermarkets, electricity and running water… even if I do think it’s an utterly futile exercise, so what if it’s fun? I love imagining a born again virgin world with hardly any humans left. I think about which vehicles would be best to stock up and how to store the fuel and tires to ensure they run until I’ve figured out horses or dogs or something, I’d suspend the tires obviously……. I’ve rather gone off on a tangent here… back to the point.

I’m buying a cow. I’m going to milk her and yes we’ll drink it raw. I can already make seriously good yoghurt thanks to Cory’s instruction at Swinging Bridge Farm and I’ll figure out cheese, cream and butter before long thanks to Ashley we met at the Sabo Ranch and her great blog. We’ll be hosting wwoof volunteers again soon which will allow for our ongoing mini adventures and my rather demanding dedication to the HG Community. We’ve also got new chickens arriving tomorrow and some piglets at the weekend.

Yummy homemade yoghurt in one of America's best kept secrets... Ball jars

Yummy homemade yoghurt in one of America’s best kept secrets… Ball jars

We’re not doing it in a commercial way as we did before, we don’t need to with our low cost home, both earning, childcare costs now reducing and self sufficient for much of our food… this is for us, it’s where we started and are now returning to. We’re homesteading, providing our children with quality home grown nourishment and an understanding of where it all comes from. Plus they’ll gain useful skills like milking a cow and shearing a sheep and shooting a gun (actually Alfie can already do two of those things) so that should the apocalypse happen in their lifetime they’ll be just fine.

Cleaning an old chicken house out for the new arrivals this week

Cleaning an old chicken house out for the new arrivals this week

2015 – Bushcraft and Bird Watching Adventures

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Well, it’s been some months since we returned to the UK and in that time I’ve worked harder than I thought possible, publishing my book, putting in funding bids, attending awards dos and holding conferences, oh and doing the odd TV and radio appearance too… There hasn’t been much time left over for adventure and fun. But now it’s a new year that is set to change.

Me on This Morning with Philip Schofield and Holly Willoughby talking about hyperemesis gravidarum

Me on This Morning with Philip Schofield and Holly Willoughby talking about hyperemesis gravidarum

This year, instead of the massive, all consuming adventure of travelling the USA, Team Dean is going to have a series of mini adventures closer to home and fitting around school and work so as to balance the load a bit better. Last year was a year of extremes, the first half on the road, juggling work and adventure, writing and blogging from tents and motels. The second half of the year was so utterly consumed with work that there was no time left for adventures, let alone writing and blogging about them! How I wish I could type in my sleep, or simply not have to sleep at all…

So what new adventures in 2015? Well, we want to focus on bird watching this year and have already started with a day at Slimbridge Wetland Centre on Sunday. Now I’m going to be honest… Bird watching with three small kids isn’t quite what it was in the pre-parenthood days, where we could settle into a hide and wait patiently for the birding experiences to come to us. The days when we had the time to accurately identify birds we were unsure of in our books and then listen and learn their sounds too. Oh how I enjoyed those days…

A Bewick Swan at Slimbridge. The bill markings on Bewick's are all individual so birds are identifiable as individuals!

A Bewick’s Swan at Slimbridge. The bill markings on Bewick’s are all individual so birds are identifiable as individuals!

A black headed gull (their heads aren't black in winter though!)

A black headed gull (their heads aren’t black in winter though!)

The boys (Rob included) go through a whole "don't say boo to a goose" thing, every time we see a goose... it never seems to get boring!

The boys (Rob included) go through a whole “don’t say boo to a goose” thing, every time we see a goose… it never seems to get boring!

Bird watching with three kids in tow is more a matter of taking it in turns to either briefly attempt to spot and identify something interesting or attend to the varying needs of the younger two… who want to take their shoes off the moment they’re in a (freezing cold) hide, then want snack, then want to climb the wooden walls and play post box with the little viewing slits and need picking up when they trip and then have snot pouring from their nose, then one needs a wee and the other needs a poo… you get the gist.

It was hard to get this bank vole in focus as he moved so quick, the light was low and I couldn't use the tripod where we were standing

It was hard to get this bank vole in focus as he moved so quick, the light was low and I couldn’t use the tripod where we were standing

On the plus side all three kids were impressively quiet in the hides, much to our amazement and admiration. For those who know our kids, “quiet” is not a word that would generally be associated with them (or us for that matter). But in and around the bird hides they really did do well!

I focused on photography for the day and despite it being a cloudy, dull day I was pleased with some of the shots I got. Alfie did exceptionally well and was interested and engaged all day which was rewarding.

This water rail was cool to see but again I couldn't get a shot in focus as it was too crowded to use the tripod needed for the low light.

This water rail was cool to see but again I couldn’t get a shot in focus as it was too crowded to use the tripod needed for the low light.

Another area we plan to focus on this year, like last year, is our bushcraft skills. Alfie’s fire lighting is excellent now and he’s really good with the axe he got for Christmas, chopping most of our kindling for us and lighting the fires most evenings.

I’ve booked myself on a carving master class with Ray Mears, which I’m mega excited about and hope that I can then relay techniques to Alfie, who is also getting pretty good with his knife. I’m hoping to do a family bushcraft course with Alfie in the summer and I’d really like to learn tracking skills which we can practice in woods close to home.

The tricky part is going to be finding a balance between work and play. I’m so passionate about the work I do helping women with hyperemesis that it can be hard to switch off and say no… I’m always so aware that there is always more I can do and stopping is hard when you haven’t finished. But I’ll never be “finished” and accepting that will help with stopping from time to time, it’ll be there to start again on Monday.

Boys at Golitha Falls

Boys at Golitha Falls

So I’m going to balance it… I’ll work hard in the week while the kids are at school and come the weekends it’s bushcraft and birdwatching time. And in the holidays we’re booking things to do. At Easter we’re going to travel the Wild Atlantic Way along Ireland’s west coast in a camper van. Before that we need to book something for the Feb half term… suggestions welcome. And then we’re heading into Summer where our outdoor kitchen can house us for periods of times and we can live off our own land away from the house…

2015… it’s going to be a great year!

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Bewick's Swan

Bewick’s Swan

I asked Alf if he could guess why a tufted duck was called a tufted duck... "Because they are really tough?" he asked!

I asked Alf if he could guess why a tufted duck was called a tufted duck… “Because they are really tough?” he asked!

Pigeons are pretty up close

Pigeons are pretty up close

Goliatha falls... I plan also to try to improve my photography this year.

Goliatha falls… I plan also to try to improve my photography this year.

The Van and The Plan

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We’ve been back in the UK now for a week and a half and in that time we’ve bought a mini bus/van, converted it so we can all sleep in it, driven hundreds of miles around the UK seeing all sorts of friends in a variety of campsites, bought another car as well and driven home to Cornwall… phew! So that’s why I haven’t had time to update you. And quite frankly I’m still trying to block the rather horrendous return plane journey from my poor, tired and traumatised mind… they didn’t sleep, we didn’t sleep… it was a no-sleep nightmare!

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We brought a lot more home than we took – our initial two bags returned as six!

Anyway, we’ve recovered from that now and have been enjoying the van camping, although I think our memories of camping in Britain while still state-side were somewhat rose tinted – we forgot about the rain! But it ‘s been fun none the less with barbecues and campfires, games of cricket and football and plenty of wine with friends.

The van conversion is a great success. We stripped the panels off the inside, insulated and boarded the sides and doors. Then we hung blinds and built beds for us all with plenty of storage underneath. We bought blocks for levelling it up at campsites and we unpacked our bags into convenient tubs.

The Van!

The Van!

Adding insulation

Adding insulation

Stage one complete

Stage one complete

Then we built the beds!

Then we built the beds!

Then we set off and covering the South of England visited friends in Cambridge, Surrey and North Devon, stopping at Swindon en route to pick up a Toyota Starlet for me. I have a history with a starlet and this car makes me very happy…

Since returning to the UK I’ve been thrown back into the deep end of the hyperemesis gravidarum world and despite the improved time difference the road side working simply wasn’t working. Not wishing to turn this blog into a discussion about the running of a charity, it became clear to us that there was an immediate need for me to position myself somewhere I could work full time for a few weeks – so we descended last night on our house sitter, who rather conveniently happens to be my bezzie mate. Our house is much bigger than we remember after living in a car for the last six months! Today, with a stonking hangover far worse than I’ve experienced in quite some time after celebrations and stories last night, I have worked my little socks off trying to get things back under control and catch up with matters that were simply on hold while I was away. I can’t bring myself to look at the two draws full of six months worth of post… it’ll have to wait.

Rob in the meantime is getting started on the outdoor kitchen, compost loo and solar shower… we’re not actually “in” our house you see… there are people living here! We’re camping in our van still, we have a tent arriving tomorrow and will set up at the bottom of our fields to live outdoors for the next few weeks, poddington pea style!

The outdoor kitchen at Bruce and Pat's in Montana... the inspiration for a Dunmore Farm version.

The outdoor kitchen at Bruce and Pat’s in Montana… the inspiration for a Dunmore Farm version.

We’re also planning our adventures for the next few months, ponds, woodlands, hot tubs and all sorts are beginning to take shape in our minds and on paper… it’ll be the All New Adventures of Muma Dean and her Team, in the most beautiful place in the world – Cornwall.

Mighty Montana

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We drove out of Yellowstone through the North East entrance in order to experience the Bear Tooth Mountain range. It was a good decision! The snow covered mountains, even now in mid-June are other worldly beautiful. The interesting winding roads taking you to the remote mountain tops past the odd hard core skier and plenty of yellow-bellied marmots. Frozen lakes and three metre walls of snow line the road as you hairpin your way up, up, up the ear popping heights.

Bear tooth mountain range, Rob Dean

Rob in the Bear Tooth Mountain Range

But the decent, again along treacherous zigzag passes is very different indeed. The side that gets the sun is lined with waterfalls and grassy meadows between the patches of tumbling rock held back by giant girders holding vast nets. Then suddenly you’re in the valley. Lush and green with a wide river providing fantastic habitat for eagles and osprey.

So on we drove to Bozeman for the night to get our clothes and bodies clean before the next adventure… WWOOFing on a ranch in Montana.

Thanks to a minor disaster involving a red crayon in the tumble dryer which somewhat slowed our morning, we arrived at Sabo Ranch at lunch time and had a wonderfully warm welcome from our host Jenny. The boys were instantly delighted with their two, older, boys; Reilly and Kiril, respectively 14 and 11 years old… Alfie’s idea of heroes. Later Mark arrived home and we set to talking through the ranch and it’s routines. Branding calves was to be the big task over the weekend and then moving the cattle during the week.

Then the pitter patter of rain drops started falling on the roof of their beautiful straw bale home and our cosy cabin and we found ourselves in a parallel universe… one in which rain is welcomed and rejoiced. “ Oh this rain is just so wonderful” and “this is great, all this rain” were phrases muttered from our delighted hosts peering out at the grey sky with bucket loads of water lashing against the windows, bolts of lightening crashing around us and and vegetable sized hail pounding the ground.

And so these two world collided as we tried to imagine living and farming in a place so dry that you pray for rain, where two days of steady rain can mean an entire extra month of grazing. And they tried to imagine our horror at wishing for water… our world where the rain bolts our crops and wrecks our hay. We relayed stories of late nights with a new born baby bringing bales to the barn to save them from the rain which was starting at 4am – we missed two in the darkness… that’s fine as we saved the rest. They shared stories of dry summer after dry summer and methods for irrigating whole fields of grass and their worry for getting enough feed to see them through the winter.

By Monday however the rain presented a problem. We were there to help with the branding of the calves and for this task it was essential that the calves are dry… stamping a wet calf with a red hot iron results in cooling of the iron and scalding with steam, rather than burning which seals the mark up. We’ve never branded cattle before, it’s not really done in the UK. We’ve de-horned, ear tagged, castrated, tattoo’d piglets, rung lambs and plenty other brutal procedures essential to modern farming, but branding was new to us. And you know what, it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting! The calves are restrained on a table with a couple of strong men and clearly it hurts while it’s done. But they recover straight away and I suspect the full thickness burn doesn’t actually hurt that much after (not that I ever want to test that theory). Lambs seem much more put out by a tight rubber band round their testicles!

Branding in pictures:

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The rest of the week saw Rob getting out and helping with various tasks on the farm which he enjoyed and the kids enjoyed playing with the Sabo children and helping with their pig and turkey chores, Patrick even became a qualified Turkey Nurse! I enjoyed having the evenings to work on my book. Speaking of which, is the reason my blogging here is far less prolific. The book needs to take priority at the moment and this needs to take a back burner for a while.

At the end of the week Jenny had her sister and nephew come to stay for the weekend so we decamped to make room and had the incredible opportunity to stay in their renovated original settlers cabin. A beautiful one bed cabin in the middle of 6,500 private acres where at night no other human lights can be seen, resulting in the most incredible starry nights.

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It was while staying in this lovely isolation we made plans and decisions about the next step. We weighted up our journey so far, the things we’d seen and the people we’d met. We talked about our plans for when we returned home and we evaluated what is important to us here and now. We assess the impact of the time difference and the struggle of juggling poor internet connection. We discussed options and searched for what we really wanted.

And so on the Sunday evening I sent some emails and rearranged our flights… next stop, the UK. We’re not going home to Cornwall just yet, we’re buying a van to tour the UK, see friends old and new, and to work from… I need to work. And I need to be in at least vaguely the same time zone as my colleagues and peers. The book I’ve written is getting close to release and the time is ripe. So I’m returning to the UK for some shameless self promotion and and hard work. It’s the next adventure, being published and changing the experience of women suffering an obscure medical condition.

We are heading back across America now, via North Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin then down past Chicago and onto Washington DC where we fly from next week.

I will continue to blog about our adventures but perhaps not as prolifically while I’m getting the book finalised and the PR for it organised. It’s such a lot of work and it needs to take priority. It’s my next big adventure. Once the book is released I’ll come back to this and we have loads more adventures planned for the coming months around the UK, Europe and beyond.

Oh and I’ve yet to tell you about Bruce and Pat… that’s coming soon.

Perfect Yellowstone

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After our disappointment at Yosemite we had lowered our expectations for Yellowstone, the mightiest and most famous of all the National Parks in America. It was probably wise as we had previously had very high hopes for this “Serengeti” of the Northern Hemisphere, having watched numerous spectacular nature and geology programs about the place. It was, however, unnecessary. Yellowstone did not disappoint. Far from it, our expectations, pre-Yosemite were easily surpassed and we were utterly blown away but the most incredible landscape, fascinating features, wonderful wildlife and fantastic people.

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Rob and Alfie using the scopes

One aspect of Yellowstone no-one can prepare you for is the smell! Boy O Boy does that place stink of rotten eggs and burnt matches. But that’s as wonderfully weird and interesting as all the other geological features of this super-volcano. I can’t capture the smell in photographs for you I’m afraid (although we did consider trying to bottle some for a particular Derby-dwelling, smelly bottomed friend back home). So you’ll have to settle instead for photographs of boiling mud pots, vast water squirting geysers and bottomless hot pools of magical colours.

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Stinky boiling mud pots

Old Faithful Geyser at Yellowstone

Old Faithful Geyser erupting

Morning Glory pool at Yellowstone National Park

Morning Glory pool – it has to be seen to be believed!

Yellowstone Lake

Yellowstone Lake

The wildlife in Yellowstone is unsurpassed anywhere else in North America. We had a list of “would like to see” animals and very few were creatures we actually expected to see. Well we were just ticking them off almost hourly for the first couple of days! On expanding our list to things we never thought we would get a chance to view, Yellowstone continued to perform, tick tick tick! Now, don’t think you can just rock on up and see grizzlies, wolves and mountain goats. You need to actually look for them and be in the right place at the right time… ie. The Lamar Valley at 5am. Indeed we Deans did rise at 5am (hardcore right?), bundled the sleeping children into the car with blankets and set off to see the wolves. And it paid off, we saw two separate black wolves and a big grey fellow. You also need to stay up at dusk to see more of your bucket list species but it’s the mornings that really pay off. From coyotes and badgers to birds of prey and yellow-bellied marmots, they all rise with the sun to be seen by the hard core nature watchers.

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Loading the kids in the car at 5am, Orla was surprisingly cheerful!

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A little note on rising early for parents – If you are planning to drive a long way from your base camp for the entire day then remember to take clothes and shoes for your children to wear once the sun is up… My children may have seen the spectacular geysers and hot springs of Yellowstone National Park but they did it in their pyjama’s and with utterly inappropriate foot wear which I ended up carrying for most of the way.

Sunrise at Yellowstone

Getting up early means spectacular misty sunrises

Sunset at Yellowstone

And staying up late means even more incredible fiery sunsets!

There are parts of Yellowstone which are particularly busy, around old faithful and anywhere a bear is hanging out near a road, thereby creating a “bear jam” as the hoards swarm to get photos. But, if you take a few of the tracks off the main roads, boy does it pay off. There is a 6 mile track between Mammoth village and Tower, where our campsite was, which was particularly quiet in the evenings and provided incredible encounters, such as a coyote hanging out with a badger right there in front of us. We also found secluded yet accessible fishing spots with no one else around and (with bear spray on Rob’s belt) we caught 6 brook trout which we ate for dinner back at the camp ground.

Fishing at Joffee Lake, Yellowstone National Park

Alfie fishing at peaceful Joffee Lake

Brook trout caught at Yellowstone

And the Brook Trout he and Rob caught which we had for dinner, yum!

The camp ground at tower was ideal for us, most of the park was easily accessible, particularly Lamar Valley where a lot of wildlife is easily spotable. All the campsites here have great fire pits and nice flat places to pitch the tent. Shady from the trees but with enough sunlight to warm up the air, we warmed water on the fire to bath the kids a couple of mornings and we all slept snuggly. Although getting out for a wee in the night in grizzly territory is a whole different experience.

bathing the baby in Yellowstone National Park

The best thing for us about the campsite was the people we met in the pitches near by. A slight disappointment for this trip for myself and Rob has been the lack of new people we have met along the way. We had imagined meeting all sorts of interesting and diverse people at campsites and in the National Parks. Admittedly we’ve met some lovely people at our wwoof placements and friends we’ve stayed with whom we already knew a little but at the campsites people have very much kept themselves to themselves. Until Yellowstone that it. The first night we arrived the children were invited to a s’mores campfire party which they loved and the next few nights we happened to find ourselves next to one of the most interesting and fun couples we could have hoped for. Bruce and Pat – wolf educators, film makers and authors, also brilliant with kids. Having lived with a wolf for 16 years they had fascinating stories and interesting takes on current hot topics. I shall tell you more about Bruce and Pat after we stay with them at the end of June at their Montana home but on returning to our tent after a late night wildlife watching we discovered our tent decorated with fairy-lights, lighting the way for our sleeping babies safely to their beds. Kind gestures make the best memories.

Camping at Yellowstone

Coming home to find the fairies had been

Everyone we met in Yellowstone were fantastic and interesting and helpful except for one nutty lady who wouldn’t shut up, convinced that there were both Bison and Buffalo there, two separate species, hard to tell apart… “you’ll have to ask an American Indian to know the difference”. Oh and “the brown coloured black bears are actually brown bears”… Right Oh! Apart from her (there’s always one!) people shared tips, stories and experiences as soon as there was a clear interest and everyone was helpful and kind to the children. We went to see the ranger, Jim, who we had met a month ago in Canyonlands National Park and got more fantastic tips about where to see our tick list species, and the harder things to spot… though a live skunk still eludes us.

So here is our list of what we saw in Yellowstone (there are plenty more things we’ve seen elsewhere in the States but that list will come at the end of the trip). It’s not totally exhaustive and there are plenty more birds which we didn’t positively identify but this is the vast majority:

Mammals and reptiles

Grizzly Bears

Wolves

Black Bears

Big horn sheep

Mountain goats

Elk

Moose

Bison

Unita ground squirrel

Beaver

Badger

White tail deer

Mule deer

Red fox

Yellow-bellied marmot

Coyote

Bull snake

Chipmunk

Jack rabbit

Common muskrat

Pronghorn

 

Birds and waterfowl

Osprey

Mountain bluebird

Red tailed hawk

Swainson’s hawk

Scaup

Trumpeter swan

American kestrel

Western tanager

Yellow rumped warbler

Northern flicker

Stellers jay

Brown headed cow bird

Brewer’s blackbird

Common loon

Sandhill crane

Common Merganser

Blue winged teal

Western meadow lark

Cliff swallow

Violet-green swallow

Tree swallow

American white pelican

Buffle head

Golden eye

Raven

Magpie

Killdeer

Rough grouse

Williamson’s sapsucker

Red-winged blackbird

Red breasted nuthatch

Canada goose

Great blue heron

It’s almost impossible for me to explain the magic of Yellowstone in a blog post and my amateur photographs really don’t do it justice. If you have even a vague interest in wildlife or geology then you must put this place on your bucket list. Save up, do it on a budget in a tent, get up at 4.30 or 5am to make the most of it and just do it. You’ll never forget the massive bear tracks in the mud crossing your path or the experience of seeing wolves eating a bull elk carcass. The incredible fire like sunsets will burn in your memories along with the vast sky with ever changing clouds casting shadows on the most incredible and diverse landscape. The revolting yet fascinating smells will linger in your nose to remind you of the volcanic activity bubbling away below you as you live and breath forever touched by perfect Yellowstone.

Black bear at Yellowstone

Black bear

Bison at Yellowstone

Bison

bison with calf at Yellowstone

Muma bison feeding her baby

Beaver at Yellowstone

Beaver munching some branches

Bull elk at Yellowstone

A regal bull elk from a distance

Trumpeter swan at Yellowstone

Trumpter swan

Coyote at Yellowstone

Camouflaged coyote

Yellow-bellied marmot at Yellowstone

Yellow bellied marmot with a snowy backdrop

Bear tracks at Yellowstone

Fresh bear tracks in the mud by the board walk around the hot springs and geysers

Hot spring at Yellowstone

One of the magical hot springs bubbling and boiling away

Boiling mud pots at Yellowstone

Vast and stinky, boiling mud pots

A small geyser at Yellowstone

A small geyser erupting and spluttering over us

Beaver at Yellowstone

And finally, here is the beaver from Joffee Lake again

South Dakota and the Big Face Place

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From Washington DC we made good progress albeit a little dull bar stunning sunsets and a handful of deer sightings, the highlight being the high speed glimpse of a new born fawn with it’s mother licking it as it learned to stand.

Once in South Dakota however things got a little more interesting. First of all psychedelic signs for “Kids Love Wall Drug” and other blander Wall Drug slogans started to appear along the roads. Our interest pricked we googled Wall Drug and were dully enlightened to a truly brilliant story of success in the face of adversity.

Click here for the full story, but in brief, Mr Ted Hustead, a young pharmacist, and his wife Dorothy, the true hero in the story, bought the run down Wall Drug Store in 1931. The town of Wall at the time was in the arse end of nowhere and all the 200 odd inhabitants were stone broke. It was however enroute to what would be Mount Rushmore, or as Alfie renamed it, “The Big Face Place”, and towards the end of the miserably hot journey across the Great Plains for it’s visitors.

After nearly five years of struggling by in their quite store with a room fashioned from a blanket across the back Dorothy Hustead had an idea. One of the simplest and best marketing ideas this world has ever seen and it remains a valuable lesson to us all… Lets put up some billbords on the main road offering free ice water for thirsty travellers. By the time Ted got back from erecting the first signs the customers were already rolling in for their ice water and buying other goods at the same time! And now the business, still family owned and run is one of the USA’s biggest roadside attractions and turns over $10 million per year.

Obviously we planned to stop and see the spectacle and despite low exceptions for the world centre of tack-ville, which it turned out not to be, we were in fact pleasantly surprised by decent souvenirs, a well presented history of the area and the business and of course plenty of free ice water.

On our way to Wall, having survived an impressive thunder storm with fork lightening crashing down to earth in the fields all around us, we then virtually stumbled upon the Badlands National Park. Not realising there was access from the route we were on we were pleased to detour from the boring interstate and took the scenic route through this incredible landscape which seems to come out of nowhere.

Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park on a rather grey day

After our exploration of Wall Drug we pressed on to Mount Rushmore but arrived to discover the entire place in a thick fog that meant we had no chance at all of seeing the Big Face Place. So we stopped over night in a hotel and went in the morning, which was beautifully warm with clear blue skies. Wow… if you haven’t been to Mount Rushmore then do… it is impressive! To think of the work that when into carving the faces of the Nations forefathers into the jagged mountain cliffs is staggering. In fact just the conception of the idea itself is staggering let alone the execution of it. And it is beautiful. The message and honour instilled within the sculptures too are humbling and awe inspiring.

Mount Rushmore

The Big Face Place

And then we headed on through the pretty Black Hills of Dakota singing Calamity Jane songs and on the look our for mountain goats, which sadly eluded us.

Next stop… Yellowstone.

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Driving in America

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Tell people from the UK that you’re driving across America and you’ll hear lots of accepted facts about how the roads are so big and wide, the speed limits are ridiculously slow and there are coppers on ever corner ready to ticket your speed.

That’s certainly what we thought before we got here. But now, having travelled over 15,000 miles from New York to California, back to Washington DC and now enroute to Montana I though it was time to share our view of America’s roads.

First of all, it’s not true that the roads are all huge and wide. Around the cities there are places that the interstates (equivalent to our motorways) get up to four, five or even six lanes, briefly to manage the extra traffic. This happens in England too, although rarely above five lanes. The vast majority of the interstates we have travelled have been a mere two lanes with occasional stretches of three. The lanes are no wider than ours either. Although many roads are wonderfully straight allowing vast views and enticing mirages.

Luckily it’s also not true that the speed limits are super slow, topping 55mph max… In some states there are silly restrictions on double lane roads limiting to 55 or 60mph but most states allow 65, 70, 75 and even 80mph! Many single lane roads are 65 which is above our UK equivalent. They use speed limits to manage traffic around junctions which works very effectively and we’ve rarely been caught in bottle necks and back ups around the slip roads.

In fact, the lack of traffic on the roads has to be the best thing about traversing this huge continent by road. Set the cruise control and enjoy the ride, it’s rare you need to break unless you’re coming off for a loo break! And speaking of loo breaks, the rest stops, although few and far between are ideal for quick stops and picnic lunches to keep costs down. Literally like extended lay-bys they have toilets, vending machines and shady picnic tables. Occasionally they even have play areas. Unlike our vast and complicated service stations which seem to suck the money from your wallet as you enter the slip road to it and take forever to get back on the road from, these simple rest stops are genuinely convenient. It’s just a shame there aren’t more of them!

A belief about America that is semi-true is that they don’t really have roundabouts. But they do have a few, often at the entrance to a small town. And because there are so few of them the Americans don’t know how to use them, which can be amusing to witness… Yesterday we were thanked for not pulling out on someone’s right of way. Conversely though, we still, after four months of driving, seriously struggle with the archaic and bizarre stop signs, particularly on cross roads where all four directions stop and to know whose right of way it is you needed to mentally note the order that everyone arrived at the junction. If you both, three or even all four arrive at the same time then there is a convoluted and frankly dangerous hand signalling conversation while you all try to give each other right of way and then all go at once. To confuse matters more there are rarely lines marking the place to stop or indicating rights of way and so on… If your view of the stop sign is obscured or missed for any reason then you just have to hope no one else arrived at the junction a split second before you did!

On the other hand, a truly great feature is the ability to turn right on a red light as long as it’s clear, with the incredible number of traffic lights in use this is a handy way to keep the flow going.

The downside to the higher speed limits is that even the massive trucks and people pulling lorry sized trailers also travel at high speed, and very close behind you which can be unnerving to say the least. The roads are also full of blown out tires which you need to swerve around on a regular basis. We’re not sure why this is but we think because they can use their tires until they’re totally bald, combined with the high truck speeds and in some states, particularly New York and Pennsylvania, almighty pot holes everywhere. The hard shoulders are littered almost continuously with the strips of rubber which no one seems to collect or move, even from the middle of the carriage ways.

Lanes aren’t used as they are in the UK and undertaking is totally acceptable and standard (although I doubt it’s legal). Rob and I are debating if this is good or bad… I think it’s bad as it’s dangerous but Rob likes that he can undertake people who sit in outside lanes. People tend not to flash to give way or let you know you can pull out so when we do from sheer habit people seem either very grateful or utterly confused.

Speaking of what’s legal, in many states you have to wear a seatbelt in the car yet you don’t have to wear a helmet on a motorbike… Seeing people on bikes without helmets and with handguns on their hips is somewhat unnerving to us Brits!

Despite the hazards and strange stop signs, for the most part driving in America is pretty pleasant. We’ve seen plenty of state police pulling people over but as long as you don’t go crazy on the speed you’ll be okay. The signage takes a bit of getting use to and we still struggle a bit, particularly where the same stretch of road has loads of different numbers and even names.

The views are the best bit, and coming off the interstate doesn’t always add a whole lot of time so can be well worth it for getting to see birds and mammals, impressive landscapes and massive skies. To us, even the regular whiffs of road killed skunks is kind of fun.

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