West 2016: Rapid City Oddity

Day 4: August 8, 2016

When you think of a gas station and convenience store, I bet you are like me and think about a place to fill the tank, and perhaps pick up some snacks for that long drive you have ahead of you.  You know…  Diet Dr. Pepper, coffee, licorice, pretzels… something to hold you over until you get your next meal (yes, I am a bit food focused, in case you were wondering).  But I bet it isn’t often that you think of that gas station convenience store as a place to view a whole host of stuffed animals from around the world.  And I don’t mean the cute, cuddly plush stuffies – I mean a collection of taxidermy animals!

This odd Taxidermy Gas Station, as I came to call it, is located in Rapid City, South Dakota inside a Mobile gas station.  It has an actual name – The Call of the Wild Museum, but Taxidermy Gas Station has a much better ring to it, in my humble opinion…

I knew about it before our trip, having stumbled upon it while I was researching things to do on TripAdvisor. I put it on the list as an interesting potential, but wasn’t convinced that we would make it there because there were so many other things we wanted to see in the area.  In the end, we just kind of ended up at the intersection and decided to make the stop as we were heading home from our busy day at Badlands, among other places…

I have mixed feelings on big game hunting…  I am sure others have different opinions, but I don’t think that anyone should be permitted to hunt endangered animals.  I think if you are going to hunt common animals, you should be hunting it to eat it.  But regardless of your views on hunting, this place is here, an exhibit showing the ‘kills’ of a hunting family that needed a large display room.  The Taxidermy Gas Station was born…

The exhibit is free – a big room attached to the convenience store, and it contains dozens, maybe even over a hundred taxidermied specimens.  Common animals and exotics from all over the world.  Lions, an elephant, a polar bear, an alligator, a wolverine, a Canada goose, a few different species of prairie dogs…  You name it, and you can likely find it there.  Well, now that I think about it, they didn’t have a manatee – that’s a good thing.

The taxidermy on these animals is very well done, and it is morbidly interesting to walk through the room checking out all the different animals.  However, it is also sad.  I will leave you to decide for yourself…



After the Taxidermy Gas Station, we wrapped up our drive back to Custer, South Dakota, traveling through Custer State Park after dark.  I will tell you more about this wonderful park in another post!  Winding through the park after dark was a surreal experience, especially since at one point I had to slam on the brakes to narrowly avoid hitting a large male bison, who was standing in the road, in the fog, staring directly at us…  Creepy…  My heart jumped into my throat!  But after we stopped the car, he lazily walked by the side of us, without a care in the world…

Distance for the Day:
Custer, SD – Minuteman National Historic Site – Prairie Homestead – Badlands National Park, SD – Wall Drug – Call of the Wild Museum – Custer, SD (4 hrs, 45 min, 254 miles)

Hotel for the night: Mystic Valley Inn – Custer, SD
Gas – $2.19 / gallon

Book Review: The Swan Thieves

The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova

A man walks into The National Gallery in Washington, D.C. and tries to attack a painting with a knife. Fortunately, Robert Oliver is restrained before doing any damage to the painting, and ends up being involuntarily committed for mental illness.

His psychiatrist, Dr. Andrew Marlow, begins to treat Oliver and in doing so, embarks on a journey to solve the mystery of the beautiful old-fashioned woman whom Oliver is obsessed with painting. His journey takes him to Oliver’s former wife and former lover, as well as halfway around the world. What he uncovers is a tragic love story; while along the way he finds a love of his own.

The Swan Thieves was written by the same woman that wrote The Historian (I recommend it highly), and Kostova weaves an intricate tale of love and relationships, and the nuances of the human mind. Her character development is superb, with each character possessing their own strengths and flaws; their own triumphs and tragedies.

I was captivated from beginning to end, trying to anticipate what was around the next corner, hating to put the book down to go back to the real world. The conclusion leaves questions, and just like life, things don’t always get wrapped up neatly. As is always the case with true love, the story will stay with you long after the end.

Note: I listened to the audiobook version, which was wonderfully narrated by different voices.

Free Ice Water at Wall Drug!

Day 4: August 8, 2016

Is there such a thing as a trip to the Badlands without a stop at Wall Drug? This iconic store, originally a pharmacy, has become an American legend, due to the road signs that line I-90 for miles in both directions. Additionally, they give away free bumper stickers and people erect signs in far off places announcing how many miles it is to Wall Drug.  These marketing strategies have absolutely aided in their success.

Wall Drug was opened by Ted Hustead and his wife in 1931; they were looking for a small town with a Catholic church where they could establish their pharmacy business. Wall is currently in the “middle of nowhere,” and I can only imagine that it was even more remote over 85 years ago. His wife Dorothy deserves the credit for its ultimate success. Mount Rushmore had just opened, and she had the idea to offer free ice water to tourists traveling west to see it during the hot, dry summer. The idea brought lots of people in and the store took off!

The Famous Wall Drug Store

Wall Drug is basically a shopping mall where you can buy all sorts of kitschy souvenirs, including a mounted “jackalope,” which is a jackrabbit with antlers.  I have no idea how this thing ever took off, but I guess I need to remember that we have a long history of venerating mythical creatures, and why not – it is fun!  Apparently in Douglas, WY, where the first taxidermy jackalope was created in 1932, they have an “official” jackalope hunting season, which occurs for only one day.  In case you are interested in bagging your own jackalope, the season occurs each year on June 31 (a nonexistent date as June has 30 days), from midnight to 2 a.m. The hunter must have an IQ greater than 50 but not over 72.  Permits are available from the Douglas, WY Chamber of Commerce.  I think that would be pretty awesome to get one!  But I digress…

Mom and I combined our visit to Wall Drug with dinner.  I had a buffalo burger, which was good, but somehow I neglected to snap a picture…  We decided to forego the ice cream for dessert, although it did look really delicious.  Instead we took a bit of time to go find the rideable Jackalope out back!  Because a trip to Wall Drug is not complete without sitting astride a 10 foot tall fiberglass Jackalope!  The stirrups were too short for this equestrienne, but I tried to make the best of it with my long remembered equitation skills.  Mom even played along and climbed up there too.

The Wall Drug Cafe – I got to stare at the ice cream counter all through dinner!


Me riding the Jackalope


Mom riding the Jackalope!

We also found a stuffed bison to pose with – she had seen better days – I imagine she’s been petted by millions over the years. And we checked out an exhibit on gold mining, where you can pan for gold for a fee, but it was closed when we were there.  The mall has a Western art museum as well that would have been cool to check out if we had more time – it is free to visit.

Me with the stuffed bison – up close and personal

In the end, we departed with full bellies but passed on purchasing the mounted jackalopes or other Wall Drug souvenirs, and got on the road towards home (Custer, SD, that is…).  We still had a fair bit of driving and one more, very odd, stop to make…

West 2016: Deadwood – Mines and Museums

Day 3: August 7, 2016

After our busy morning in Deadwood, our next stop was the Broken Boot Gold Mine; it was named for the old, falling apart boot that was found in the mine as the current owners were getting it ready for tours.  For $12 ($5 for the tour and $7 to pan for gold), we took a tour of a now defunct gold mine.  Our guide was a chipper high school student, working through the summer for his family’s business.  He was upbeat and fun, and although he mostly stuck to his script, he explained the inner workings of the gold mine.  This particular gold mine didn’t make that much money, but it was an interesting tour.  He showed us the equipment that the miners used, and explained that they had to purchase it themselves.  We also got to experience the pitch black of absolute darkness in the mine, as well as the VERY dim light of the candle that the miners worked with.  The conditions would have been difficult.

The entrance of the Broken Boot Mine

The entrance of the Broken Boot Mine


The inside of the Broken Boot Gold Mine

The inside of the Broken Boot Gold Mine

At the end, if you chose to add it onto your tour, you got to try your hand at panning for gold.  Of course, they seed the dirt and rocks with some gold, so it was a “miracle” that both my mom and I found some!  Our guide was great about showing us the technique, although I think my mom did much better at it than I did (she has done this before).  We both had a lot of fun with it though!

Mom panning for gold. She makes it look effortless...

Mom panning for gold. She makes it look effortless…


Me? Not so effortless...

Me? Not so effortless…

After the Broken Boot mine tour, we checked out the Days of ’76 Museum.  That’s 1876 in case you were wondering.  The entire focus of the museum is to celebrate 1876, the year that Deadwood was first established after the gold rush began, as well as the Days of ’76 festival, an annual celebration.  The Days of ’76 has a rodeo, a parade, and lots of people in costume.  The celebration began in 1924, so it has over 90 years of history!  The museum has exhibits with photos and historic saddles and costumes from the festival and rodeo.  They even have a whole floor of historic carriages from days gone by, as well as other forms of transportation, including a horse drawn hearse and a beer wagon.  Strangely, there was no wine wagon…  Who wouldn’t want to have a wine wagon?!  But they did have an exhibit showing a historic saloon.

A milk wagon at the Days of '76 Museum.

A milk wagon at the Days of ’76 Museum.


Me in the Stagecoach at the Days of '76 Museum.

Me in the Stagecoach at the Days of ’76 Museum.

We had gone to the Visitor’s Center to get some information at the beginning of the day and they had a passport card where you could get stamps at various places (the bus tour, the Adams Museum, The Days of ’76 Museum, the Broken Boot Mine, the Trolley, etc.).  We ended up being one stamp short for the day to get the prize, but the woman took pity on us.  I think she was secretly impressed that we managed to make the most of our day…  Either that, or she just didn’t care…  But either way it worked out well for us because, we each got to  redeem our passports and we both chose the historic photo playing cards…  Yes, in case you are wondering, I am a complete and total nerd.  So?

There's gold in them thar hills!

There’s gold in them thar hills!

We left Deadwood and made our way to our home for the next three nights; the Mystic Valley Inn in Custer, South Dakota.  Along the way we got caught in a huge rainstorm which sent bikers trying to find places to shelter along the side of the highway.  They looked pretty miserable standing out there in the rain; it made me pretty happy for our wonderful, yet dented to hell, car.  The rain had cleared along the way though, and when we got to our motel, it had stopped.  We got checked in to the cute 40’s/50’s roadside motel with a nice arbor and outside seating area, and then ventured out again to find dinner…

The Buglin’ Bull Bar and Grill in Custer, South Dakota looked intriguing, so we got a table and ordered our meals.  I had the beer sampler (The Wapiti Wheat, the 1874 Black Hills Gold (an Amber), the Armstrong Ale (an ESB), and the Custer Nut Brown Ale) – they were all good, but less complex than the Washington beers I have gotten used to.  For dinner I had the Pheasant Flatbread with kalamata olives, peperoncinis, feta cheese and tomato.  The pheasant tasted like chicken, but more oily and gamey.  It was delicious!

My beer sampler at the Buglin' Bull

My beer sampler at the Buglin’ Bull


Pheasant Flatbread at the Buglin' Bull

Pheasant Flatbread at the Buglin’ Bull

We ended the evening relaxing in our room, watching a bit of TV, journaling and reading.  The perfect end to a great day!


Distance for the Day: Belle Fourche, SD – Deadwood, SD – Custer, SD (1 hr, 49 min, 84 miles)
otel for the night: Mystic Valley Inn – Custer, SD

West 2016: Big Horn County Historical Museum

Day 1: August 5, 2016

I love those museums that have collections of historic buildings that have been saved and moved from their original sites.  So after we visited Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, we headed a few miles down the road to the Big Horn County Historical Museum in Hardin, Montana, about 15 miles west of the battlefield.

It is one of those small community historical museums, with a twist.  The indoor exhibits included a collection of Western Art and items, and a cool local photography exhibit and sale.  They had a replica tipi, a stuffed bison (we were to learn that stuffed bison are a dime a dozen around the West), and several other cool historic items.

The outdoor exhibits were fascinating.  The museum had a whole collection of dozens of buildings that had been moved to the site over the years.  There was a church and a dentist’s office, resort cabins, stables, a schoolhouse, a mortician’s office – they even had an original Pullman car!  The Pullman car was in very rough shape, and the inside was empty save for some debris, but it was really cool to see.

We wandered around outside for awhile, poking around in all the buildings.  They were connected by a series of boardwalks, and most of the buildings were open to explore inside.  We strolled slowly due to the heat until we needed to get on the road to our destination for the night.

And then there was the drive – a long, monotonous drive.  We broke it up with a stop at Top That Eatery, in the tiny town of Forsyth, Montana.  I had the twin taco – a hard shell taco inside a soft shell taco – smothered in fake cheese and olives.  Not healthy at all, but YUM!  It brought back memories of those awful, but delicious, convenience store nachos (at some point in my future I really should eat better…).  I did get my steps in for the day though, so I figured I could end the day with something terrible for me!

We hit Glendive, Montana after dark, and I was so ready for sleep!  Mom stayed up for awhile, but I didn’t know it – I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow!

Hotel for the Night: Comfort Inn – Glendive, MT
Distance for the Day: 275 miles (4 hours, 4 minutes)

San Diego 2016: The Del and the NAT

The last day of my San Diego vacation I was on my own. Angela and Allysa had departed the previous day, and Renée left that morning to attend her conference at the hotel. I had several hours until my 5 pm flight, so I packed up and took off for a bit of solo touristing.

First up, I decided to head over to the Hotel del Coronado. I have ogled it on websites and friends’ travel albums for years, so I didn’t want to leave San Diego without seeing it in person! It is a big hotel; actually it is the second largest wooden structure in the United States, (second only to the Tillamook Air Museum in Tillamook, Oregon – which I still totally want to visit, by the way). It was built during the Victorian Age of Grand Hotels; when it opened in 1888 it was the largest resort in the world.

The beach side of the Hotel del Coronado

The beach side of the Hotel del Coronado

The Del, as it is often called, is famous for its round pavilion tower. It was a construction marvel, requiring fresh water to be piped under the bay from San Diego, and lumber to be shipped from Eureka, California. It had electricity right from the beginning, although the builders ran the electrical wiring through gas piping, just in case that new-fangled electricity thing didn’t work out… The hotel is right off the beach, with gorgeous views of the water.

The street side of the Hotel del Coronado

The street side of the Hotel del Coronado

I wandered around the outside and checked it out; there are some areas that are only open to guests though. Inside, on the bottom floor, there are shops and a little coffee shop café. This is where it really gives itself away as someplace where the other half lives… The shops are super ritzy, and drip coffee costs $5!

I would love to have a spot here on a hot summer day.

I would love to have a spot here on a hot summer day.

The Hotel del Coronado has hosted its share of famous people, including Rudolph Valentino, Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gable and Mae West, as well, as several Presidents. McKinley, Taft, and Wilson, all stayed there, and so has Barack Obama. Although it is out of my price range right now, I hope to be able to stay there one day, but an outdoor selfie will have to do for now! Hopefully it will be a famous landmark for another hundred years!

My attempt at a selfie with The Del - sort of a fail...

My attempt at a selfie with The Del – sort of a fail…


I love the Historical Landmark signs...

I love the Historical Landmark signs…

After checking out The Del, I decided to spend a bit more time at Balboa Park. I wanted to visit the NAT, short for the Natural History Museum. They had a couple of movies on whales that were included in the price of admission, one in 3D! I watched Ocean Oasis, about Baja California and the islands off of it, and the phenomenon that allows this area to team with ocean life. And I also watched Whales in 3D, which had the most incredible underwater footage of several whale species. What majestic creatures!

A reproduction mammoth skeleton at the NAT

A reproduction mammoth skeleton at the NAT

I also had time to see the exhibits, including one on the fossils in the San Diego area – it was very interesting. They also had a whole collection of skulls; rodents, birds and larger mammals. It was fascinating to be able to compare the different shapes and sizes of skulls. I know, I am a little morbid, but I found it very fascinating!

Ammonite Fossils at the NAT - I loved these!

Ammonite Fossils at the NAT – I loved these!

It was the perfect amount of time at the NAT – I was just finishing up with the exhibits when it was time to head out to return to the airport. I did get a bit freaked out though on the drive back to the airport. The rental car return is very poorly marked, and I circled around the streets near the airport for a while before I found it. ARGH! Luckily, I managed to find it in time, and checked in and made it through security with enough time to spare.

What a wonderful trip!  I can’t wait to return to San Diego!

San Diego 2016: Old Town San Diego

After we left the Mission San Diego de Alcala we headed downtown to Old Town San Diego, located adjacent to Presidio Hill, underneath the bluff. For the first several decades, residents preferred to live within the Presidio walls or just outside, for protection from other Europeans or hostile Native Americans. By 1820, the threats had decreased, and San Diego residents were choosing to live at the base of the bluff in what is now Old Town San Diego.

The problem with the site of Old Town San Diego was that its location was several miles from navigable water, so supplies had to be brought overland from Point Loma several miles away. In the 1860s, residents began abandoning Old Town in favor of New Town (where the current downtown is now) because of its proximity to shipping ports.

We were hungry when we arrived after touring the mission, so we found a Latin American restaurant called Berta’s which offered cuisine from several Latin American countries. Renée had a wonderful Mango Avocado salad, a Chilean empanada and a glass of sangria, and I had Chilean Pastel de Choclo with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. The sun was shining and it was warm – we enjoyed just sitting outside and having our meal.

Me sitting at Berta's among the Hibiscus flowers

Me sitting at Berta’s among the Hibiscus flowers


Renée's Mango Avocado salad at Berta's - YUM!

Renée’s Mango Avocado salad at Berta’s – YUM!


The gorgeous Hibiscus at Berta's

The gorgeous Hibiscus at Berta’s

After lunch, we walked across the street to the San Diego State Historic Park – a collection of historic buildings built between 1820 and 1872, when New Town took over in dominance. The park contains five original adobes, a schoolhouse, blacksmith shop and a stable, among dozens of other buildings. Some are reconstructions. We enjoyed wandering around in a rock shop that was originally the Assayer’s Office, and toured some of the different displays in one of the adobe homes and other buildings.  We even sat on a wooden donkey!  The real donkeys didn’t want to come over and talk to us…  The entire park is free to visitors, and there are living history demonstrations too.

The Assayer's Office - there was a wonderful rock shop inside

The Assayer’s Office – there was a wonderful rock shop inside


One of the original adobe homes at Old Town

One of the original adobe homes at Old Town


This little bird was singing his heart out at Old Town

This little bird was singing his heart out at Old Town

Nearby, there are other historic sites that are not part of the San Diego State Historic Park too. I could have spent a couple of days just wandering around Old Town San Diego, checking it all out. I wish I had more time! It is nice that Renée has a similar appreciation for historic sites, so I didn’t feel like I needed to rush. I would have loved to have seen the Whaley House Museum that is nearby. I will certainly have to return…

The Old Town General Store

The Old Town General Store


One of the shops at Old Town San Diego - an interesting combination of items.

One of the shops at Old Town San Diego – an interesting combination of items.


The Colorado House at Old Town San Diego

The Colorado House at Old Town San Diego


Renée posing with the jail - they didn't let you go inside though...

Renée posing with the jail – they didn’t let you go inside though…


Renée had to be back at the hotel before 2:30 that afternoon for a meeting for her conference, so we left Old Town San Diego and headed back to the resort. I took the opportunity to get in some pool time. Angela and Allysa had to head out to the airport to fly home, while I was staying one more day. I enjoyed some time just laying by the pool with my book and my travel journal. And then I spent some time walking along the beach and collecting some shells.

That evening Renée and I went out to dinner at the Pacific Beach Fish Shop with a coworker of hers (my former coworker) who had also flown in for the conference. We had lobster lumpia, fish tacos, and beer. I swear I would be there all the time if I lived there…  It was all so delicious!

Our meal at the Pacific Beach Fish Shop - to die for!

Our meal at the Pacific Beach Fish Shop – to die for!