Thursday, July 08, 2010

Our Way Back to Berwyn

When I finally realized it in my head, that we were now on our way home, a little sadness crept over me. You know how it is, realizing that a great adventure is coming to an end? Well, that thought hung over my head the whole time we drove back home. Luckily, the way we chose to drive home was filled with things to see, as we were trying to maximize our time that we had left. Firstly, we planned on driving north through Yellowstone National Park, then to Cody Wyoming and up over the Bighorn Mountains. Then we planned on seeing Devil's Tower before we left Wyoming. In South Dakota, we wanted to drive through the Black Hills, before we hit the flat-ish plains of Iowa and definitely flat plains of Illinois.

Yellowstone NP
Thermal pools at Yellowstone National Park.

Driving across Yellowstone really made us realize how HUGE the park really is. It took us literally the whole day, with a few stops of course to see the hot thermal pools and geysers. We also stopped for about 2 hours at Old Faithful to see it erupt. Nicole and Marcel went on the boardwalk around the thermal pools and springs, while Romy and I looked for a nice spot to watch Old Faithful erupt. We found the gigantic Old Faithful Inn, a hotel made out of wood which sits right next to the geyser its named after. We saw that there was a viewing platform on the top of the hotel so we tried to get to it. We climbed three stories of stairs until we hit a blockade which locked the rest of the stairs up to the crow's nest viewing platform. Damn! Well, during our search inside the Inn, we found a smaller balcony lower down on the second floor where we decided to sit and watch the eruption away from all the people. It was perfect! And another bonus we found was that the Inn had hostel style bathrooms, with showers! We helped ourselves to a nice hot shower while N&M were still walking around the thermal pools trail/boardwalk. We already saw it the last time we visited Yellowstone, and a hot shower after many days of camping sounded nice (and it had to be a stealth shower so that the hotel staff wouldn't catch us - Shhhhhhh don't tell anyone)!

Yellowstone NP
Old Faithful Geyser at Yellowstone National Park.

The road out of the park towards Cody took us out of the mountainous interior and onto the rolling plains, near Yellowstone Lake. There we saw buffalo everywhere! And with the wild animals, of course, came the back up in traffic, with everybody and their mom stopping their cars in the middle of the road to look at the wildlife. It really seemed like these were the type of people who have never seen a deer before, or something. Once there was a bear on the side of the road off in a wooded area, and so many people just stopped their car to take pictures that it caused a back up for half a mile down the road. People even got out of their cars while leaving the engine idling. So many people were mobbing the poor bear that it promptly left. In fact, most people seemed to 'hog' the opportunity to see the wildlife. Instead of taking a quick look and leaving the animal alone, people swarmed it with their cameras, approaching it and yelling, "Hey look!" to their brothers or sisters. So annoying!!!!!

A resting buffalo in the prairie grass at Yellowstone.

When we finally got out of Yellowstone (which we all decided would be a lot better to visit in September when all the people were gone) we had to start looking for a camping spot since it was getting late. We found a whole string of National Forest campgrounds along the road to Cody, so we just picked one. It was getting pretty cold outside and clouding over. Romy went to go talk to the campground host, and he said that they were predicting snow for any location above 6,000 ft. That meant we might be getting snowed upon in the middle of July! And Yellowstone was going to get snow for sure. I secretly hoped that we would wake up under a couple inches of snow, but it didn't happen. Instead we got a little cold drizzle overnight and then a good rain in the morning. Romy and I packed up our tent before the downpour started, but N&M were a little slower and got their tent soaked!

After the rain hurried us out of the campground, we started the drive to Cody Wyoming where we filled up for gas and coffee. But as N&M pulled up into the gas station, we noticed a bunch of oil under their rear end. Uh oh! Oil was literally squirting out like a fountain out of their oil cooler when the engine was running. Crap! Luckily there was an auto parts store across the street from the gas station, so we filled it up with more oil and drove quickly to the parts store. There we asked if they would happen to know a VW joint nearby, but of course, those don't exist in these parts. The man behind the counter said we just tripled the VW population of Cody by driving through (apparently there was only one other VW in the whole town). But he pointed us to some guy he knew of that might have VW parts lying around, so we took the info and hoped for the best.

Joe's Auto in Powell, WY
A hand painted VW Beetle at Joe's Auto in Cody, Wyoming.

Romy and Marcel dropped me and Nicole in downtown Cody while they took care of the VW. We didn't know it, but this was the first of many breakdowns we would have with N&M's baja on the way home! Nicole and I walked around the downtown area while Romy and Marcel drove around in the working baja to find parts. Their first stop was Joe's Auto in Cody, who referred them to some crazy old man a few miles down the highway. Apparently this man had a shop with a bunch of parts. Romy told me he has suffered a few strokes in his age, and also farted audibly without noticing or caring at all. They were looking for an oil cooler, which they finally found. Then a couple hours after they dropped us off, Romy and Marcel picked us up again. We went back to look at the oil leak, only to discover that it wasn't the oil cooler at all upon closer inspection! It was the oil pressure switch sender which was busted, and that was connected to the oil cooler. So the search for parts that Romy and Marcel went on was kind of pointless, but they did buy some cheap other random parts for the bajas while there. What we ended up doing was switching out their broken oil pressure sender for ours (since we actually had two on ours - weird coincidence). Literally in five minutes the problem was fixed and we were on our way again.

Bighorn mtns, WY
9,000 ft in the sky at the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming.

Since we spent most of the day unexpectedly in Cody, we needed to really get going back on the road. I hoped that we would make it to the Bighorn Mountains while it was still light out because I remembered from our last road trip in the bus that they were really cool. We took a small road (14A) from Cody to the foot of the mountains, and then the road just started climbing up - 10% grades! We were gaining elevation fast and before we knew it we were at over 9,000 ft in just half an hour or so! At the top we stopped for a rest, but quickly continued so that we could see the rest of the mountains along the road before sunset. Romy got really excited and proclaimed that it was his favorite mountains. They were like an island in the Wyoming high desert! We saw elk, moose, aspens, and pines. Forested areas gave way to rolling grasslands and creeks covered by willows. The mountain range, once you got on top of it, was kind of like a big plateau, mostly above 8,000 ft. We drove through for about an hour before we crossed it and descended back down to the grassy plains of eastern Wyoming.

Rest Stop Sleeping
Our sleeping arrangement at a Wyoming rest stop.

We drove deep into the night, but at midnight we were so tired that we decided to stop at the next rest stop which was just outside of Moorcroft. We were so exhausted that we just wanted to go to sleep, but of course, there is no camping at rest stops allowed. And N&Ms bug decided to die and not start again as they pulled off I90. We had to push their bug into the rest stop, about 1/4 of a mile! But we made it, and N&M decided to sleep in the front seats of their baja. Romy and I didn't like the sound or feel of that, so we got out our army camo sleeping bags and slept on the grass under a cottonwood tree. We were pretty hidden I guess because nobody bothered us all night. We woke up to the sun hitting us which started to warm up the bags to an uncomfortable temperature. I guess it was time to hit the road anyways!

Broken Down in Moorcroft
N&M's baja broken down in Moorcroft Wyoming.

We drove out to Moorcroft to get coffee and fill up on gas before hitting the road to see Devil's Tower. But again, there was something wrong with N&M's baja! This time a crazy noise was coming out of the engine, like a hammer hitting on metal. Sometimes it was in time with the engine rpm, as if it was a problem in the valve train, but other times it was completely random. We decided to check the valves, but first we had to wait for the engine to cool. The valves were pretty mal-adjusted so Marcel fixed that, but the noise didn't go away. After listening to it for a bit, we decided that it must of been a rock in the fan shroud that was being thrown around. That's what we hoped anyways, and hit the road again. Unfortunately we ate the time that we planned to see Devil's Tower. I guess there's always next time!

Wind Cave NP
The ranger demonstrating the wind coming out of Wind Cave, South Dakota.

Instead of continuing on I-90, we decided to get off and take Route 20 all the way back to Chicago. But to get to Route 20, we had to go through the Black Hills and found ourselves passing through Wind Cave National Park. Since we were there, we thought we might as well try to take a tour of the cave! We arrived a little late, but just in time to make it on the last tour of the day. The cave is known for its boxwork, a type of formation that creates honeycomb-like features on the walls and ceiling of the cave. Supposedly it was formed when the rock of the Black Hills area was uplifted and cracked in the process. The cracks were filled in by a harder mineral mix then the rock itself. When the cave eroded out the rock, it left the crack-filling, which formed into the boxwork. We also saw cave popcorn! When we came out of the cave, the sun was already low in the horizon, so we knew we had to hit the road again soon. We drove south out of the Black Hills and South Dakota, into Nebraska to join Route 20. When it got dark, we found a wayside with a picnic bench, like a mini rest stop but more personal sized since it was route 20 and not I-80. We decided that nobody would bother us if we pitched our tents there, so that's what we did and went to sleep. The only thing that bothered us was when the semi trucks zoomed by in the middle of the night, which didn't happen often, but when it did, they sounded like freight trains!

The next morning, Route 20 took us through the rolling hills of northern Nebraska, which used to be sand dunes, once deposited on the shore of an ancient sea. Romy's dad told us a story about how the area was settled long ago. He said that cattle ranchers had their cows in the central part of the state, which bordered the sand dunes. Once in a while a cow would wander off into the grass covered dunes. They are a bit like an endless wavy sea of grass, so the cows usually got lost. A year later the cow was found, all fat! So the ranchers realized that the grass covered dunes were actually ideal for ranching, and that's pretty much all we saw as we drove through northern Nebraska (cows). I liked the dunes, though. We also stopped for some Oreo Blizzards at a DQ.

Stopping for a DQ treat in Nebraska - Oreo Blizzards!

Soon we were out of Nebraska and into Iowa. About an hour in, N&M pulled over on the side of the road. Now what, we thought? They described a similar problem like when the CV joint popped out, the wheels didn't want to turn anymore. So we looked at the back wheel to see what was going on when a cop pulled up behind us. He was in a uniform that didn't quite fit him, and kept asking us what we planned to do. We asked him if we could tow them with our tow strap like we did in Idaho to the nearest town. The cop told us that the nearest town was less than a mile away, called Early, Iowa. So we hooked up N&M's baja with the strap and pulled them into town, even though it was completely illegal (but the cop told us we could, which was so nice of him). We needed a concrete pad so that we could jack up the car easier. We found one right off the road in the middle of town which I think was an old gas station (the building and pumps were torn out and all that was left was the concrete pad and piping). That would do, so we started to investigate.

Broken Down in Early
Taking the brake drum off in Early, Iowa.

Well, after some inspection, we ruled out that the CV joint popped out again. Instead, we thought that the brake drum splines must have stripped (similar to what had happened with the CV joint, but now it was the brake drum which connected to the axles). Since the brake drum splines were stripped, the wheel was effectively no longer connected to the axles, so the transmission couldn't spin the wheels anymore. So Marcel and Romy pulled the brake drum off and confirmed that the splines were completely stripped! What to do now!? As if on cue, an overly enthusiastic man drove up and asked us what we were doing and if we needed help. We told him the situation, and he let us know that the father in-law of the woman who owned the restaurant which was across the street owned a few VW Beetles. Maybe he could help us find a new brake drum? So Marcel went into the restaurant and talked to the owner, who was also the bartender. She called her father in-law and soon he was on his way (he only lived 5 blocks away). He drove up in a Smart car, and he was about 85 years old and retired. He took a look at what we discovered, and decided he would help us get a new brake drum. He figured he'd pull one off of one of his Beetles that were laying around in his shop.

N&M were sure lucky to be breaking down in towns which all seemed to have some old man with a shop that had VWs in it! 20 minutes later, Marcel, Romy, and the old man returned with a brake drum from his shop, and they started replacing it. While Marcel and Romy worked, the old man told us old man stories. He said he visited Hiroshima 5 years after the atomic bomb was dropped there. He described how the center of the city was still destroyed, and how he went by the marble front stairs of a bank that was in the blast zone. The exposed marble was greatly damaged from the bomb's shockwave, but the freaky thing he described was where people were sitting on the stairs, the marble was completely undamaged because their bodies protected it. He could literally see the imprint of where people were on the stairs because the marble was left undamaged there in an outline of a person. Kind of freaky!

Anyways, after the brake drum was replaced and the wheel put back on, we decided to go have a beer at his daughter in-law's restaurant/bar. She had Sam Adams on tap, so we each had a glass. The old man was with us, joking how he was the supervisor of the whole operation (the brake drum event) and that next time he wanted us to provide him with a better chair to sit on, one with a back rest! Then another guy came into the bar and sat down and ordered a drink. The old man told us it was the mayor of the town, but we thought he was joking with us again. No, actually it was the mayor of the town that sat down for a drink! What a small town. I liked it.

We wanted to stay for more beer, but we had to keep driving. The owner of the restaurant charged us $5 for all four of our beers. We were absolutely in disbelief but she insisted so we just gave her a big tip. The rest of our drive was uneventful. We spent another night in the sleeping bags on the grass, this time at a Pilot truck stop near the Illinois border (maybe the weirdest place I've ever slept, on a lawn in front of a gas station, basically). But it was okay. We managed only because we knew the next day we would be home in Berwyn! Finally!