We were down in Big Bend National Park in Texas when it came time to write our annual Christmas letter. The park features beautiful scenery, interesting culture, cacti, and lots of geology. It also features fossils from the Age of Dinosaurs, including a monster crocodile. The crocodile reminded me of one of the characters I created for Christmas Cards, Old Croc. He made it into my Christmas letter and today’s post.
There was also a large leg bone from a duck billed dinosaur. Bone couldn’t resist having his photo taken with it.
Peggy and I celebrated Christmas in 1999 at Big Bend. Not having a Christmas Tree, we used a hanging macrame. Our visit to Big Bend was before Christmas this year, but Peggy was still fired up with her passion for decorating. We found some hand-crafted Mexican Christmas ornaments for sale next to the Rio Grande. Bone, of course, insisted on joining the party. As did Bone’s traveling companion, Eeyore. We visited Peggy’s brother John and his wife Frances after Big Bend. Frances, knitted a Christmas scarf for Bone and donated a ribbon for the donkey.
Just in case you are new to this blog and have never met Bone, a friend of mine, Tom Lovering and I found him in a field of corn lilies when we were backpacking along the Tahoe-Yosemite Trail in 1977. He has been traveling with us ever since. In addition to Tom and me, a number of other people have carried him over the past 45 years on numerous adventures. He has visited over 50 countries. Among his many adventures are a 10,000 mile bicycle trip, a journey in the back of a truck the length of Africa, climbing mountains, and deep sea diving. He has travelled on the Amazon, attended a Presidential Press Conference, and been blessed by the Pope in St. Peter’s square. Four years ago he backpacked with me 750 miles down the PCT in celebration of my 75th Birthday, meeting numerous through-hikers along the way.
Peggy, I, Bone, and Eeyore want to wish you and your family a joyful Christmas and a great 2023.
I hesitate to use the word “quaint” when I describe the buildings and towns along the Romantic Rhine since it implies “old fashioned.” Picturesque, colorful and historic strike me as better. But whatever word one chooses, Peggy and I were awed by the unique look and beauty of the various buildings. All of today’s photos were taken by Peggy and me unless otherwise noted.
Devil’s Tower is special in a number of ways. Volcanic columns have always captured my imagination. The first I ever encountered were at Devil’s Postpile in the Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains when I was backpacking down the John Muir Trail in the 80s. Since then, Peggy and I have seen several, including one when we recently visited Yellowstone. Most are formed when a surface flow of lava starts to cool and contract. As it contracts, it cracks into the multi-sided columns seen at both Devil’s Postpile and Devil’s Tower.
A significant difference is that Devil’s Tower was formed under the surface of the earth instead of as a volcanic flow on top. There are a couple of theories. One is that it was formed by lava forcing its way up through sedimentary rocks below the surface. The other is that it was formed as a plug in a tube that supplied lava to a volcano. In either case, the lava cooled much more slowly than it would have on the surface. The result was that the columns are both wider and longer. In fact, with widths up to 20 feet, and heights up to 600 feet, the columns are the widest and the tallest in the world. Formed approximately 50 million years ago, erosion has cut away the surrounding rock over the past several million years, exposing the edifice we see today. It’s a continuing process.
Devil’s Tower reaches 867 feet (264 meters) into the sky and is one of the most prominent landmarks in the Western US. It’s no surprise that Theodore Roosevelt declared it America’s first National Monument on September 24, 1906. Millions of visitors have since made their way to the natural wonder located in a remote section of northeastern Wyoming.
Hundreds of years before Roosevelt became one of America’s first and greatest conservationists, however, American Indian tribes in the area had already recognized how special the tower was and considered it sacred. They still do today. As Peggy and I explored the tower, we found hundreds of colorful cotton prayer flags and medicine bundles that tribal folks had tied to the limbs. Visitors are requested to honor the sacred nature of the flags and not to disturb or take photos of them.
The tribes are also lobbying for a name other than Devil’s Tower, which seems entirely reasonable given their beliefs. Their consensus is Bear’s Lodge. The huge rocks that have broken off from the tower over the eons would seem to make an excellent location for bears to hang out and hibernate. Grizzlies and black bears were common in the area before being wiped out to make the world safe for cows. Local ranchers apparently had little sense of humor that bears liked an occasional beef or lamb dinner. Rare.
A number of impressive views of Devil’s Tower are available when driving into and out of the monument. We stopped several times to take photos. These are three of our favorites.
The real treat was when we arrived at the Visitors’ Center, however. After a quick perusal of the displays and books, we went for a mile walk around Devil’s Tower that starts and ends at the Center. The hike was easy and all of the views were spectacular. They varied significantly. Peggy and I urge you to go for the walk if you visit the National Monument. All the photos, BTW, are taken by Peggy and me unless otherwise noted.
Peggy and I are driving into Big Bend National Park today, which is at the very southern tip of western Texas. The last time we were here, we celebrated Christmas in 1999 as part of a year-long sabbatical we took from work to explore North America. This time we are celebrating out 30th Anniversary. Talk about an adventure! I was on the edge of turning 50 and Peggy was 42 when we were married in 1992. We’ve had an incredible life together, and, amazing to both of us, we are still out wandering the world. We will be off the grid for at least part of this trip. See you next week. And thanks for visiting.
Rheinstein’s history dates back to the 13th century when the castle was originally built to collect tolls and whip some of the local robber barons into line, i.e. they weren’t paying a percentage of their take to the local catholic bishops and the Holy Roman Emperor. By the 17th century the castle had fallen into ruins. But it was about to be saved. The Romantic Age was flourishing. Nature was idealized, science regarded with suspicion, and the past glorified. What better way to glorify the past than to rebuild a medieval castle. Or at least, that’s what Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia thought. He went looking for a candidate and settled on Rheinstein. In 1823, he went to work.
Now, fast forward to1975. The Duchess von Mecklenburg had an important decision to make. Would she sell her 700 year old castle to the Hare Krishna religious sect or to an Austrian opera singer, Hermann Hecher. The Krishna group wanted to turn the castle into a private temple. Hecher wanted to preserve the castle’s cultural heritage. (I fantasized about the Hare Krishna devotees circling the keep and chanting, or Hecher standing on top while belting out an aria.) It would have been a quick decision for me: Preserve the castle’s cultural heritage for public enjoyment and education. It wasn’t so easy for the Duchess. The Hare Krishna folks were willing to pay 40% more. Whoever bought it, extensive renovation would be required. The castle was in serious need of saving again. Fortunately, for the thousands of people who have visited Rheinstein since 1975, including us, the duchess opted to sell the castle to Hecher. His family has been hard at work restoring the castle for three generations. It’s a labor of love. As one of the family members noted, “You don’t buy a castle to get rich.”
Uniword Boutique, our cruise boat line, offered a tour of the castle as one of our options. There was no doubt what decision the Mekemsons would make: Touring castles was a prime objective of our trip. Grandma insisted. The tour bus picked us up at the boat, took a ferry across the Rhine, and dropped us off at the castle gates. Visitors are encouraged to explore all of the nooks and crannies on their own. Off dashed the grandkids, happy to lead the parade. Except Ethan. Our daughter Tasha assigned him grandparent duty. Or rather, I should say, Grandpa duty. Tasha frets a lot. She knows my ways and worries at 79 I might wander off and just keep wandering. At 17, Ethan is the oldest and now towers over six feet. Every time I turned around, there he was. I chose to find it amusing rather than irritating. He’s a good companion. Still, I couldn’t resist ditching him on occasion. It’s my duty.
We wandered from room to room. The Hechers have done what they can to restore the castle to its historical status including searching Europe for era-appropriate furnishings. Some, such as the collection of tiny skulls with antlers, were downright weird. My blog today, will reflect our tour, working from the outside in.
Today, Peggy and I are taking you on a trip up the Rhine River Valley between the towns of Koblenz and Bingen. The journey on the river is little more than 30 miles (48k), but wow, what an impressive 30 miles! There is a reason why this segment of the Rhine has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While there is much to see in the valley, the highlight for us was the castles. There are over 40. We’ve chosen 12 to feature. This post is a continuation of our family riverboat trip up the Rhine River from Amsterdam to Basel this past summer. All photos were taken by either Peggy or me unless otherwise noted.
While each castle is unique, they share a common history. Many of their early owners could be described as robber barons. They made their money by charging ‘tolls’ to the boats traveling up and down the river. One can only wonder what it cost to cover the 30 miles through the valley when you had to stop every mile or so and pay up. A chain was often stretched across the river to force the boats to stop. It was let down when the boat paid and immediately hoisted up again to catch the next victim, er, boat. Another commonality is that most of the castles were also destroyed at one time or the other during the internecine warfare that rocked Europe over the centuries. Many were rebuilt based on their strategic location or the desire of some wealthy noble or the other to have a castle. More recently, The German Castles Association and local communities are responsible for a number of them.
It’s hard to imagine a better way to kick off a journey through Rhine River Valley from Koblenz to Mainz than a visit to Marksburg Castle. Originally built in 1100 CE as protection for the town of Braubach, it was owned by various noble families down through the centuries until it was sold to the German Castles Association in 1900. It had been established a year earlier to preserve castles in Germany. Today, Marksburg serves as headquarters for the Association.
We made our way up to the castle via a route that challenged our bus driver to maneuver along a curvy, narrow road that had originally been built to accommodate foot and horse traffic. If you’ve spent any time driving in medieval European towns, you are familiar with the problem. We were met by our guide who ushered us into the castle and provided an excellent tour. Three things captured my attention: The structure of the castle, its collection of knights and their armor, and a bit on medieval life.
All of the photos in this post are taken by either Peggy or me unless otherwise noted.
Join us next week as we take you along the Rhine River Valley and feature a whole plethora of castles and small towns along the way. Also, be sure to check in on Monday when we celebrate Halloween and blogging friends.
Birthdays are important to Peggy. When we first met, she told me “Forget my birthday and you are toast.” She was kidding, sort of. Apparently her first husband forgot the warning. I never have. Grin. Decade birthdays are even more important. For her 70th, Peggy planned a special outing. We would take the whole family on a riverboat trip up the Rhine. The kids and grandkids loved the idea (who wouldn’t), tickets were purchased, excitement grew, and then Covid struck.
Fortunately, our kids came up with an alternative for Peggy’s big 70. They rented a large house on the Outer Banks of North Carolina for the celebration. We hopped in Quivera, our small RV/van, and zipped across the country. Carefully. Covid was raging. It was a great celebration and Peggy was quite happy. But the riverboat trip was not forgotten. We still had the tickets and would use them as soon as Covid calmed down and Europe let us back in, which happened this past summer.
I’ve already done two posts on Amsterdam where we started and ended the adventure. Today, I am kicking off the series about our trip up the Rhine.
It was special, no doubt about it. The boat trip in itself was a delight— good food, nice rooms, and great service. (Admittedly, Peggy went first class. But what the heck, it’s only the kids’ inheritance.) While I am not a fan of mega-cruises with thousands of people and their impact on local communities, I will admit they are good for family outings. People have their own space. They can come together or go their own way. No one has to plan entertainment, no one has to cook, and no one has to clean up. It reduces the likelihood of the trauma that sometimes accompanies family get togethers. Our riverboat offered all of these advantages plus one more, a big one: there were only a hundred people.
Today, I am going to feature the first part of our journey. The countryside was relatively flat and industrial centers frequent. While it lacked the scenery and castles of the romantic Rhine River Valley we were about to experience, there was beauty and charm. And, we ended up in Koln/Cologne where we visited one of the world’s most beautiful cathedrals— and a chocolate museum/factory. Have I ever shared how much Peggy loves chocolate?
The photos for this post and all of the Rhine River series are all taken by Peggy and me unless otherwise noted.
Sage Road in Badlands National Park is known for its easily accessible wildlife population. We drove out it during our recent stay near the Badlands to see what we could find. This fellow, along with a few other bighorn sheep, was hanging out along side the gravel road. Its look seemed to say, “Don’t mess with me.” Big horn sheep were first re-introduced to the Park 1922 with more being added later. The park’s herd now numbers near 250.
We also found a few buffalo along the way. The National Park website, which is where I found the details on the wildlife included in today’s post, gives the buffalo’s scientific name as Bison, bison, bison, i.e. they are of the genus Bison, of the species bison, and the subspecies bison. Buffalo was derived from the French “bœuf,” meaning buffalo, and given to the large creatures by early French fur trappers. The Lakota name for bison is tatanka. Bison were incredibly important to the Lakota and other Native Americans of the Great Plains who carefully used every part of the buffalo they killed. An estimated 30 million roamed the area prior to the arrival of Euro-Americans who hunted the buffalo almost to extinction for their hides and tongues. An even darker reason is given for the slaughter: The US government wanted to disrupt the Indigenous people’s way of life to make way for the Euro-Americans. One way of doing this was killing off the vast herds of buffalo that the natives depended on to live.
It’s Fat Bear Week, as anybody who hangs out in social media is probably aware. The prairie dogs of the Badlands want you to know that they consider it discrimination that there is no Fat Prairie Dog Week. When their size is taken into consideration, they are willing to take on any bear when it comes to putting on the pounds/ounces!
There is a Prairie Dog Town located along Sage Road. Park publicity and a pull-off guarantees that tourists will arrive in significant numbers to capture photos of the fat, furry squirrels. Sharp whistles warn of the two legged visitors. Here’s a fascinating fact that I read on the Badlands NP website: An estimated 5 billion prairie dogs once lived on the Great Plains in their underground boroughs. The largest of their historic towns has been estimated to cover over 25,000 square miles (64,749 kilometers)! For perspective, that’s larger than West Virginia and 9 other smaller states in the US or Croatia and 23 other smaller countries in Europe.
Beyond wildlife, Sage Road shows a different type of beauty than that found along the Loop Road, which runs along the Wall and through the badlands seen in the distance.
The Lakota people, who have occupied the area for hundreds of years, called it mako sica. To early French fur trappers, it was known as les mauvaises terres. Both names mean the same thing: Badlands. If you can’t hunt it, fish it, farm it, or mine it— what good is it? Fortunately, our tastes have changed. We have come to appreciate areas for their natural beauty and Badlands National Park has an abundance. BTW, where there is a will there is a way. People have finally found a way to make money off of beautiful places. It’s called tourism.
Speaking of tourism, we stayed in a small campground near Wall Drug, a tourist attraction that has mastered the art of pulling people off of the road. It started with offering them free ice water in the 60s and 70s by advertising on 3,000 small wooden road signs throughout South Dakota and neighboring states. I first came across the signs in the 60s. It was impossible not to be curious. This time, Peggy and I found the small wooden signs had been morphed into numerous billboards as we crossed South Dakota on I-90.
The term wall, in Wall Drug, comes from the primary feature of the Badlands, a hundred mile wall from which the Badlands have been eroding at an inch per year for the past 500,000 years or so creating mesas, ridges, and gullies with unique structures of considerable beauty. The 31 mile Loop Road the National Park features takes visitors along the wall and down into the Badlands, providing a great introduction. We will feature views from along the Loop Road today.
We are never bored when we wander. There are always things that capture our attention. It may be something we find beautiful, or educational, or interesting, or simply amusing, like the whacky-quacky characters above. The store caught us by surprise with its large duck and all of its ducklings that represent a multitude of professions and occupations from kings to rabbits. We had a traditional rubber ducky for awhile. It lived beside our bathtub and was occasionally known to go for a dip. I suspect we still have it, packed away for the time being. Do you have a rubber ducky? Are you willing to confess to it? Note the bike reflected in the window. As I said in my last post, it’s hard to take a photo in Amsterdam that doesn’t include one.
Our next major series will be on our Rhine River trip where we will take you along the river, introduce several castles, visit cities like Heidleburg, and make a journey into the Black Forest. But first, I thought it would be fun to take a quick break and catch you up to date on our present journey where Peggy and I will take you into Badlands National Park in South Dakota. Get ready for seeing rock spires instead of church spires and communing with prairie dogs, big horn sheep and buffalo, up close and personal from the safety of our truck.