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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…

Badlands National Park History

Badlands National Park is a picture of contrasts.  While seemingly a harsh desolate environment made up of eroded buttes, spires and pinnacles, it also contains the largest undisturbed mixed grass prairie in the United States.  A prairie that teams with life.

Badlands began as Badlands National Monument on March 4, 1929 when it was authorized by Herbert Hoover, although it wasn’t established until January 25, 1939 (Franklin Roosevelt was President by then).  It was re-designated as a National Park on November 10, 1978.  The park protects 242,756 acres of land, of which 64,144 is designated wilderness.  The park had 966,263 visitors in 2016 – my mom and I were two of them!!

A stunning badlands view...

A stunning badlands view…

The park boundaries are brimming with fossils; it actually contains the richest deposits of Oligocene mammals known.  It sort of boggles the mind to imagine mammals roaming around on this land 33 million years ago, but there they were.  The fossil remains in the park include camels, three-toed horses, oreodonts, antelope-like animals, rhinoceroses, deer-like mammals, rabbits, beavers, creodonts, land turtles, rodents and birds.  There are also a fair number of marine animals in the fossil record here, including ammonites, nautiloids, fish, marine reptiles, and turtles.

Badlands has known human habitation for approximately 11,000 years.  The paleo-Indians, although little studied, are the inhabitants who arrived after crossing the ice bridge from Eurasia in the late Pleistocene period (“i” before “e” except after “c”, or in Pleistocene, apparently…).  Stone tools, including projectile points, have been found in the area, as well as charcoal from ancient campfires.  Later came the Arikara, and then the Lakota, who used the elevation of the Badlands Wall to scout for herds for hunting, as well as approaching enemies.

At the end of the 19th century, homesteaders and gold miners moved into the nearby area, and the U.S. government forced the tribes onto reservations, including one called the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.  Many of the Oglala Sioux in the area fought the orders to move to reservations, and instead chose to defy the order, following the prophet Wovoka.  From this movement, the Ghost Dance was born.  The Sioux believed that the Ghost Dance would restore their land and force the white settlers and government agents to leave, and that the Ghost Shirts that they wore would be impervious to bullets.  Well…  This didn’t end up panning out, and sadly the ghost dancers, being pursued by government troops in 1890, ended up seeking refuge on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Gunfire erupted as the soldiers were attempting to disarm the group – as the story goes a deaf man named Black Coyote was reluctant to give up his rifle, since he had paid a lot for it.  On December 29, 1890, what became known as the Wounded Knee Massacre killed over 300 Native Americans and 30 soldiers.  It was the last big clash between Plains Indians and U.S. troops in the series of clashes that became known as the Indian Wars.  The Pine Ridge Reservation now contains the Stronghold Unit and the Pine Creek Unit of Badlands National Park within its boundaries.  Although the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre is not within the boundaries of the park, it is nearby and open to the public.

Badlands has lots to do – there are hikes of all levels, from a 0.25 mile flat traverse over a raised boardwalk to a 10 mile back-country hike.  The trails range from easy to strenous, but you do need to plan accordingly for extreme temperatures and weather (both in summer and winter).  You can back-country camp, cycle on the roads (paved, dirt or gravel), and there is a night sky program.  Wildlife viewing is also popular at the park, with prairie dogs, bison, deer, pronghorn, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, badgers, coyotes, bobcats, and black-footed ferrets being just some of the species found in the park.  67 species of birds are known to nest within the park and over 200 species have been documented there.  There are also reptiles, amphibians and butterflies present there.

I have been excited about visiting this park for a long time, and I was finally going to be able to visit!  Posts coming soon!

 

 

Toilets of Yesteryear…

Apparently my readers are all as strange as I am, and are clamoring for a post on the historic toilets of the United States.  Or, at least the ones I have come across in my travels.  So…  Without further ado… Don’t try to pretend later that you didn’t ask for it…  Weirdos… 🙂

Alcatraz has a few different kinds of historic toilets.  The general population toilet…

One of the General Population Cells at Alcatraz - 5 Feet by 9 Feet

One of the General Population Cells at Alcatraz – 5 Feet by 9 Feet

 

And a slightly more recognizable toilet – in the cell where John Anglin managed to dig out of Alcatraz in 1962.  Perhaps he made sure to go potty one last time before he escaped, never to be heard from again…

The Cell that John Anglin Dug Out of in 1962. He Made it Off the Island, But Was Never Heard From Again, and Presumed Drowned.

The Cell that John Anglin Dug Out of in 1962. He Made it Off the Island, But Was Never Heard From Again, and Presumed Drowned.

 

This prison toilet at the Old Idaho Penitentiary was slightly less fancy than the toilets at Alcatraz…  I wonder if pooping in a bucket helped the recidivism rates.

See that panel in the wall there? That's where prisoners got to keep their shared bucket. Yep - you got to poop in a bucket, and you probably had to empty it out and wash it yourself. Imagine the aroma on a 90+ degree day...

See that panel in the wall there? That’s where prisoners got to keep their shared bucket. Yep – you got to poop in a bucket, and you probably had to empty it out and wash it yourself. Imagine the aroma on a 90+ degree day…

I visited Fort Vancouver with my mom and my cousin and checked out this historic double outhouse (although it is a replica).  Posing optional…

My cousin and I roleplaying in the double outhouse at Fort Vancouver. This one is a replica though

My cousin and I roleplaying in the double outhouse at Fort Vancouver. This one is a replica though

This privy at George Washington’s Mount Vernon is probably original, given that it looks like they are trying to restore it.  That’s my story and I am sticking to it.

A historic privy at Mount Vernon. Sadly, the privy is not discussed in the guidebook, so I can't tell you when it was built, or if it is original.

A historic privy at Mount Vernon. Sadly, the privy is not discussed in the guidebook, so I can’t tell you when it was built, or if it is original.

 

This outhouse at the Wilmer McLean House at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park is almost certainly a replica, but it sure looks the part.

Wilmer McLean's Outhouse

Wilmer McLean’s Outhouse

 

This historic outhouse was discovered in the ghost town of St. Elmo, Colorado.  It looks a little rickety – step on in and try it out!

An old outhouse in St. Elmo

An old outhouse in St. Elmo

 

While this toilet is not historic, it made the blog purely for its “technological advancements.”  Given that it is located in the ladies room at the Dark Horse Brewery in Marshall, Michigan, it seemed worth a mention.

I have no idea what “features” this toilet offers

I have no idea what “features” this toilet offers

 

This toilet at the George Washington Birthplace National Monument isn’t historic either, but I felt I had to include it for the unique foot pedal flush!

 

George Washington Birthplace Toilet

George Washington Birthplace Toilet

 

And although this isn’t a toilet, this bathtub is truly the most historic one I have ever seen.  Discovered at Pompeii.

A Pompeiian bathtub - these folks were shorter than me!

A Pompeiian bathtub – these folks were shorter than me!

 

And of course, those of you who couldn’t wait for the historic toilets post will remember these recent photos from my West trip…

The Prairie Homestead’s double holed outhouse…

I met a new friend in the Prairie Homestead's double outhouse...

I met a new friend in the Prairie Homestead’s double outhouse…

And a genuine nuclear missile Launch Control Center toilet.

A genuine historic toilet! Unavailable for posing on...

A genuine historic toilet! Unavailable for posing on…

 

That’s it for now folks.  I am sure I have more historic toilets in my photo files, so when I come across some more, I will be sure to post another round.  Maybe Toilets of Yesteryear will become a series!

West 2016: Missiles and Sod…

Day 4: August 8, 2016

We began our day with a trip to the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in Philip, South Dakota. It was on the way to Badlands National Park, which was our ultimate destination for the day.

We didn’t actually tour the Launch Control Center, as that is a few miles down the road and we didn’t have time with our busy agenda for the day.  There are a limited number of spaces on tours each day, for a small per person fee.  The Launch Control Center was active between the 1960s and the mid-1990s, when most of the nuclear missiles were deactivated.  The United States during the peak of the Cold War had about 1,000 active nuclear missiles, and each control center controlled 10 missiles.  So, you can do the math – this was not the only control center.

The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

Even without going on the tour though, the Visitor’s Center was well worth the stop. Exhibits covered the length of the history of nuclear armament, from the dropping of the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Cold War, the tense periods with Cuba and Russia, and the eventual agreements to move toward disarming nuclear weapons around the world. Several years ago, I toured the Titan Missile Site in Sahuarita, AZ, near Tucson, so I was able to translate that experience without seeing this silo site.

When I toured the Titan site in AZ, I was amazed by the technology that existed in the construction of the silo. On my tour there, a volunteer was asked to try to open a blast door that weighed several tons. It was so well balanced and constructed that it moved very easily on its bearings.

The Minuteman Missile Visitor’s Center had a piece of the Berlin Wall that visitors could touch.

Mom, with a piece of the Berlin Wall

Mom, with a piece of the Berlin Wall

They also had a genuine missile silo toilet – a historic toilet for my collection! You know I had to get a photo of that!  Sadly it was damaged (probably by other historic toilet photo collectors) so I didn’t get to pose properly for the photo.  This one will have to do…

 

A genuine historic toilet! Unavailable for posing on...

A genuine historic toilet! Unavailable for posing on…

After the Minuteman site, we went just down the road to the Prairie Homestead – a South Dakota State Historic Site. There were two draws to the site – the first was the sod house, built in 1909 by the Ed Brown family. The home also had a later wooden addition; another home that was moved from its original location, and which doubled the size of the original house. It would be difficult to live in sod, which had bugs who would move through it and drop into the home (yuck), as well as the fact that sod walls make for a damp environment and tend to sag over time.

The Brown family sod house - the sod portion on the left was built in 1909

The Brown family sod house – the sod portion on the left was built in 1909

 

The bedroom in the sod house, showing the sod walls.

The bedroom in the sod house, showing the sod walls.

There were also several outbuildings on the site, including an outhouse, but I’m not sure if the outhouse was original or reconstructed. That didn’t stop me from getting photos of the historic toilet and its perpetual guest. There is a root cellar, and an old well.  The barn has animals, including chickens and goats, which I’m sure would keep the kids busy and entertained if for some crazy reason they got bored watching the more famous four legged residents.

I met a new friend in the Prairie Homestead's double outhouse...

I met a new friend in the Prairie Homestead’s double outhouse…

The other big draw of the Prairie Homestead is that they have white prairie dogs! Staff indicated that these prairie dogs are a separate species, but they aren’t.  They are actually leucistic black-tailed prairie dogs, meaning they don’t have the pigment in their skin, but do have pigmented eyes, so they aren’t albino.  Many species of animals have leucistic individuals, including other mammals (white lions and tigers), reptiles and birds.  These prairie dogs were certainly lighter in color than others that we saw during our trip, and they didn’t have the typical black-tipped tail of other members of their species. The fact that these prairie dogs interbred among themselves causes the genetic mutation to continue.

These guys are so cute!

These guys are so cute!

I loved watching them, and took lots of photos of them popping out of their burrows.  They are so adorably cute!

Which way do we look?

Which way do we look?

 

A White Prairie Dog (otherwise known as a leucistic Black-tailed Prairie Dog)

A White Prairie Dog (otherwise known as a leucistic Black-tailed Prairie Dog)

These white prairie dogs were moved to the site in partnership with the Oglala Sioux tribe, but if you aren’t interested in seeing the sod house, you can see the white prairie dogs for free just down the road from the gas station.

Look! Three of them in one photo - triple the cuteness!

Look! Three of them in one photo – triple the cuteness!

By the time we left the Prairie Homestead it was lunchtime, but we had so much left to do in our day!

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)
H
otel for the night: Mystic Valley Inn – Custer, SD

West 2016: Deadwood – Wild Bill and Bikers!

Day 3: August 7, 2016

Our destination for the third day of our trip was Deadwood, South Dakota, famous for its origins as a Gold Rush town.  Gold and silver were found here in 1874 and triggered the beginning of the Black Hills Gold Rush.  George Armstrong Custer was responsible for making the announcement that brought tens of thousands of eager miners to the area, completely unconcerned about violating the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which had given ownership of the Black Hills to the Lakota people.  But white men wanted money, so who cares about the government’s silly little commitment to the Native Americans who called this land home…  Despite the land dispute reaching the United States Supreme Court, the Lakota were not successful at preventing the encroachment of the miners on their land.

Our tour bus for the morning - riding in style...

Our tour bus for the morning – riding in style…

Deadwood is also well known as the town where Wild Bill Hickok lived and met his untimely end by a bullet in the head, while he was sitting in a chair playing poker in the #10 saloon.  He was 39 years old.  Wild Bill Hickok was known for being an outlaw as well as a lawman over his relatively short life.  Less well known is that he also worked as a teamster and a scout during the Civil War and it is rumored that he was a Union spy in Confederate territory.  But my personal favorite tidbit about him was that he was mauled by a bear and lived!

A sign marking the saloon where Wild Bill Hickok was shot

A sign marking the saloon where Wild Bill Hickok was shot

The first order of business for our day in Deadwood was a bus tour of town, by Boothill Tours.  My mom and I were joined by about 10 people who were around for the Sturgis Rally; we were the only ones who weren’t.  Our guide told us stories of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, and attempted to separate the myth from the likely truth.  Hickok was married to an older woman, and beyond being in Deadwood at the same time as the much younger Calamity Jane, they were unlikely to have been in a relationship together.  Our tour took us around town, showing us the historic buildings of town, pointing out the Adams House Museum from the outside, Mount Moriah cemetery, and a home whose roof was made from large can lids.  We all got out of the bus at Mount Moriah Cemetery to hear additional stories about Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, to see their graves, and to view the town below from the cemetery’s vantage point above the hill.

Wild Bill Hickok's grave in Mount Moriah Cemetery, overlooking town

Wild Bill Hickok’s grave in Mount Moriah Cemetery, overlooking town

Our tour guide was fantastic, telling us the history of the town and its residents, explaining the disasters that have befallen Deadwood over the years.  It has suffered floods and multiple fires, and has had to reinvent itself over the years, after the gold rush ended, and it became just one more dying town…  After our bus tour, it was mid-morning, and Deadwood was really starting to fill up with Sturgis bikers who were out touristing.  The town was packed with bikers and bikes!

The main street of Deadwood - before all the bikers started arriving...

The main street of Deadwood – before all the bikers started arriving…

We toured the Adams Historical Museum and checked out the exhibits; it was an interesting hodge podge of stuff!  The museum had an antique narrow gauge steam engine, a collection of small carved wood statues of nudists, comprising an entire wooden nudist colony, Wild Bill Hickok paraphernalia, an exhibit detailing the prostitution industry, and an exhibit with all sorts of opium den artifacts.  They also displayed Potato Creek Johnny’s famous gold nugget (another cast member of local color in Deadwood), dinosaur fossils, and a very nice N.C. Wyeth drawing of Wild Bill Hickok.  They even had a two headed calf!  I enjoyed the museum, which is housed in a historic building downtown.

 

The Adams Museum

The Adams Museum

A whole carved wooden nudist colony! But where are all the men?

A whole carved wooden nudist colony! But where are all the men?

 

A two headed calf; this one lived six weeks.

A two headed calf; this one lived six weeks.

After the Adams Museum, we went to lunch at the Tin Lizzie, a buffet restaurant inside a casino.  It was fine but certainly nothing special.

We wandered along Main Street, heading into Saloon #10, where Wild Bill Hickok was murdered by Jack McCall, the day after beating McCall out of a large sum of money in poker. McCall rode away after the shooting, but fell off his horse and was caught a few blocks away.  We poked around in a few shops and checked out motorcycles of all sizes, shapes and colors.  As well as bikers of all sizes, shapes and colors…  I don’t think I have ever seen so many bikers; there had to be thousands there in town – cruising the streets, sitting at restaurants and bars, walking along the sidewalks like we were – and we weren’t even in Sturgis!

Deadwood after it began to fill up with bikers!

Deadwood after it began to fill up with bikers!

We had already seen so much, and our day in Deadwood was only half over!