Coralville (Iowa City), IA

Last night and tonight I’m in Coralville, Iowa just south of Iowa City. That’s about 60 miles or so from the Illinois state border. Once I hit the Illinois border, I’ll head down I-55 / I-74 to the eastern edge of Illinois in Danville.

I’m staying over another night in Coralville tonight because weather to my east was bad today, with thunderstorms across most of Illinois. Also, it was quite cold and windy here this morning, with the wind actually partially pulling the cover off the Atom. There’s no rain forecast for Friday, with a high of 65 / low of 36 here in Coralville, and a high (if you can call it that) of 61 in Danville. Saturday morning will be even colder in Danville, high of 58. Looks like fall is finally arriving. I hope to make it to Columbus, Ohio on Saturday night; Bedford, PA (high of 52) on Sunday night, and get home to New York on Monday. That all depends on whether I run into rain, or a forecast of rain, along the way. Right now, the extended forcasts look Ok through western Pennsylvania, but there is a possibility of rain in central Pennsylvania, through New Jersey, and into New York.

Random musings from the road

I thought I’d add a post with some random observations I’ve made in the last few days:

There are a lot more “road gators” (blown treads from retread tires) on the road this year. I don’t know if it is due to cuts in road cleanup funding, or truckers trying to get every last mile out of worn-out tires. I think it is a bit of both, as I encountered fresh ones in the road, with a truck pulled over a few 10th’s of mile further on with a blown tire. These things are really dangerous in a regular car, and could be fatal in an Atom.

There aren’t as many vehicles (trucks or passenger vehicles) on the road this year. There do seem to be a large number of RV’s on the road. Some of these rival Jabba the Hutt’s sail barge in both size and decrepitude. In particular, the nicer the RV is, the crummier the vehicle being towed is. In one case, there was a brand-new 40′ RV pulling a rusted-out pickup truck. In the bed of the pickup truck was an ATV. Towed behind the pickup truck was a plank-floor trailer (obviously home-made) with a golf cart on it. I wasn’t sure what I expected to see in the golf cart – a unicycle? a pogo stick? Anyway, this string of stuff was fishtailing madly down the highway at over 70 MPH.

It is really amazing that the pioneers got out here in wagons, on horseback, and sometimes on foot, with only a rutted dirt trail to go by, and sometimes not even that.

Sloan, IA

Tonight I’m in Sloan, Iowa which is a wide spot in the road a few miles south of where Sioux City, IA is supposed to be. There was a lot of road construction there, with most of the signs removed. I saw a sign for North Sioux City, and the next one I saw was for South Sioux City. Somewhere in the middle, plain old Sioux City was hiding.

This may not be entirely the fault of the highway department – the map on my PC shows the main east-west roads in Sloan to be (in order from south to north):

  • 110th Street
  • 100th Street
  • 330th Street
  • 320th Street
  • 310th Street

Sloan Mystery Map

Nestled in between 330th Street and 320th streets are 1st Street to 8th Street, running in the reverse order of the 330th – 320th sequence. Apparently, whoever laid out this grid failed math.

Sloan Mystery Map

Murdo, Day 2

Today the sun rose on a far more normal-looking Murdo. With the sun streaming in the windows, it was possible to make out that the headless dude in the picture is really a guy in a cowboy hat, with his head bent low. He seems to be holding a small calf under his arm, not a skull. It is still very dark and hard to make out, though. I think it is a photo of a painting, and the photo has kept getting darker over time.

Anyway, I headed “downtown” to check out the Pioneer Auto Show, which is run by the second- and third-generation Geisler family. Over 55 years has gone into this collection, which is a pretty eclectic mix of mostly-American cars from the dawn of the automobile to the late 70’s, with a couple of newer vehicles for good measure.

From 1945 to the 1980’s, this family operated a variety of car dealerships. It appears that a lot of the museum’s cars were taken as trade-ins which were set aside for the museum instead of being re-sold. Most of the registration stickers are from the 70’s and 80’s.

There are a number of foreign cars on display, including a BMW Isetta and a Messerschmitt KR200. No Peel P50, though, but they do have a Trabant.

Most of the cars are in semi-enclosed buildings or under free-standing roofs. Very few cars are “under glass” and in perfect restored condition. On such car is Tom Mix’s 1931 Packard. Most of the cars are behind a low railing or parked in the aisles with the windows down. I don’t think many have run for quite a number of years – lots of them appear to have battery chargers under their hoods, as I saw quite a few 2-prong plugs on short cables sticking out. These are the old-style plugs, with frayed cloth or rubber wires.

There’s also large sections for tractors and other farm equipment, and one building with motorcycles, including an Elvis Presley Harley-Davidson 1200 (also under glass). Outside one of the tractor buildings was a Ford F-5 pickup truck converted to steam. Sticking out of the hood were two large steam pistons at a 30-degree angle, complete with oilers and so on. They drove a shaft which was then connected to the driveshaft via chains.

Steam was apparently provided by a vertical boiler in the pickup truck bed. Water was held in 2 55-gallon drums. Presumably, the third drum was for some flammable liquid to fuel the boiler. This must have been an absolute deathtrap when operating – according to the gauges in the back, it ran using a working steam pressure of 250-300 PSI.

There is also a large mineral exhibit hall, many classic amusement / vending machines (apparently the state is a stickler for licensing – most of these, whether operable or not, had state license stickers with an expiration date of 2012 – very odd to see one on a cigarette vending machine that hasn’t sold a pack in 35 years or more).

There’s also a reconstruction of a prairie town, which has a number of historic buildings dating from the early 1900’s which were moved to the site at a later date (the one-room schoolhouse from 1906 was acquired when it finally stopped being used in 1956!)

After touring the museum for hours, I chatted with the current proprietor, Dave Geisler. I asked about the steam pickup, and he said that someone had done the conversion as a lark, and that his father had then purchased it. We also talked about my Atom, and he pointed out a local resident who was just pulling out of the museum’s other parking lot. This local was driving a car which was apparently made out of wood in the back half, and some sort of bare metal (aluminum, maybe) sheeting on the front. The passenger side of this car had a pennyfarthing bicycle attached to it, and the driver was wearing a WWI leather aviator’s cap and goggles. As the car pulled away, Dave turned to me and said “We have a REAL shortage of ‘normal’ around here.” I think that sums it up perfectly…

After dinner, on the way back to my room, I stopped to pick up the complimentary local paper at the front desk. It is the “Rapid City Journal”, and the headline news of the day was that an obscure religious group purchased the entire town of Scenic, SD for $700,000 and nobody knows what they’re going to do with it – speculation runs rampant and the county sheriff has no idea what’s going on. You can read the article here, at least until the link dies.

In other top news, South Dakota meat production rose 17 per cent in August. Pork was up, while sheep and lamb production was down. Turkey production is expected to fall 7% this month.

In the newswire section, strange things happen when local reporters try to summarize or paraphrase articles they receive. Quoted verbatim from the paper: “SALT LAKE CITY – A North Carolina man crawled four days across the Utah Desert after breaking his leg, inspired by a Hollywood movie about a man who cut off his own arm to save himself after being trapped by a boulder in the same canyon.” Maybe it’s just me, but doesn’t this sound like the guy broke his own leg on purpose?

Anyway, that’s the word from America’s heartland tonight. Signing off until tomorrow…

Murdo, SD (I think – maybe not)

I’m in Murdo, SD, tonight – or at least I think I am. Murdo is supposedly 275 miles or so from Gillette, WY where I stayed last night. But there’s a really weird vibe here. Sort of like the old Twilight Zone intro: “You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension – a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You’ve just crossed over into the Twilight Zone.”

To give you an idea, the first lodging I came across was called “The Lost Souls Inn (and Anchor Tavern).” Wisely, I decided to skip that and head for a more recognizable brand. I checked in at a Days Inn, where I seem to be the only guest. When I opened my room, I was greeted with this piece of art hanging on the wall:

Headless dude on a horse (I think)

It appears to portray a headless guy on a horse, holding a lantern in his right hand, with his skull in the crook of his right arm. The image is actually a lot darker than this in real life – all I could make out initially was indistinct shades of black and the lantern.

Sorry for the angle of the picture – I couldn’t flash it from straight on or all you’d see would be the reflected light from my camera flash. And I didn’t want to take it out of its frame to get a better picture – that might make it mad… I wonder if “Murdo” is related to “murder”?

After leaving my luggage in the macabre motel room, I headed out to the “Buffalo Restaurant and Lounge” for dinner, as recommended by a menu laying on a table in the reception area of the motel. On arriving there, I was greeted by the bartender who was wearing a shirt that said “Have you seen my zombie”.

While I was eating my dinner, I overheard the only other patrons in the place, 2 elderly couples, talking about church today. One of them was saying “You know the usher, the little one? He makes his own guns out back.”

After rapidly finishing my meal, I went to wash up in the men’s room. There was a sign above the urinal that said “No chew in urinal – use bucket”. (Chewing tobacco)

Anyway, I’m back in my motel room now, where the headless dude is watching over me. Soon, night will fall…

Tomorrow I should make it past Sioux Falls, but whether it will be in this dimension or another, I can’t say. Stay tuned…

Red Lodge, MT (Day 2) and Gillette, WY

Yesterday I decided to stay in Red Lodge another day and try to relax and take a break for a while. I did my laundry and took in the local sights – mostly a historic “Main Street” kind of setting.

Thursday night, I ate dinner at a cafe that was a true historic building – it had an old-fashioned ornamental tin ceiling. Not one of those modern replicas with 2′ square grid ceiling tiles, or even a high-quality replica, but a real old-time tin ceiling, complete with tin cove mouldings.

Friday, after I did my laundry, I drove through town to see if Dame’s Crazy Mountain BBQ was open (yes, that’s really its name). It had been recommended to me by the motel staff on Thursday, but was closed when I drove there around 6 PM. It is actually an open-air tent and a couple of picnic tables in front of a disused office park. The motel clerk had told me “It’s really good, but kind of expensive – the sandwiches are five bucks.” She said that with a straight face and really meant it. Unfortunately, it was closed. Apparently, a lot of the town closes down for the season, or at least is only open for the weekend. Red Lodge hosts a motorcycle rally – not as big as the one at Sturgis, but still a big deal. It seems as though some of the bikers who come for the rally never get around to leaving – even though the rally was 2 months ago, there were a large number of bikers in town. When I parked the Atom Thursday to look for food, I asked a couple of them where there was good food. They answered “We don’t really know, we came here for the rally and have been alternating between this Mexican place and that bar and pub ever since.” I kid you not…

One of the beneficial side effects of this is that the town is very bike- (and Atom-) friendly. The motel had a big bin labeled “Rags for cleaning motorcycles” at the front desk, and would supply buckets of hot water on request. That came in useful for getting most of the mud off the Atom, from the 8 miles of watered-down dirt road back on the Beartooth Highway.

Anyway, Friday I had lunch at the aforementioned Crazy Mountain BBQ, and it was quite good – real pulled pork from a big outdoor smoker, on a bun and slathered with sweet sauce. It was so good I ordered two more of them and a side of beans to take back to the motel for later.

I felt a lot better on Friday and today than I’ve felt in a while – ever since the Yellowstone fiasco starting nearly a week ago, I’ve been really on edge. The extra night’s sleep and good food did wonders for me.

Today I drove 300 miles to Gillette, Wyoming. It isn’t nearly that far, as the crow flies, but it is truly a case of “you can’t get there from here”. That’s about 60 miles north and then 60 miles back south:


The surprisingly warm weather continued today – it was over 90 degrees during most of the drive. In Montana. In late September. Weird. And they had snow falling and sticking only a week ago. Since it is so warm up here, I’ll stay on I-90 for a while, through South Dakota. At Sioux Falls, I’ll decide whether to stay on I-90 or head south on I-29, where I can pick up either I-80 or I-70 in a warmer climate. The weather forecast for Sioux Falls says that it will be in the 70-80 degree range during the next 5 days.

Red Lodge, MT (and America’s Stelvio)

Tonight I’m in Red Lodge, Montana after successfully transiting Yellowstone this morning. I was dreading the ritual at the entrance gate, but when I pulled up, it was the same ranger from yesterday that said I couldn’t go in, and today she didn’t even ask to see my pass / ID, she just said “Go on”. I had to ask her to make sure she meant “go on in”, and she did. She said she’d talked to the ranger I’d met with yesterday and everything was Ok. She even gave me a note to show any other rangers that wanted to give me a hard time. I just don’t get it…


Anyway, I had a full day of driving planned out, and didn’t stop for any of the sights inside Yellowstone – this was a part of the park I’d mostly covered back in 2007. The only issue I had was that I planned on topping off my gas tank at Roosevelt Lodge, but the gate was down with a “closed for the season” sign. I guess they’re starting to shut down the park for the winter.

I had plenty of gas (and a 2-gallon emergency can), so I wasn’t too worried. I headed out of the park’s Northeast Gate and filled up at the ambitiously-named Cooke City, which is a lot smaller than it sounds (population 142, if you also count neighboring Silver Gate).

I have gotten some derisive comments in the past for calling the roads in this area “America’s Stelvio“. Here’s a picture from the road I was on today – I think this will dispel any doubts. Click on the picture for a larger version:

America's Stelvio

This is a view a little to the right of the previous picture. It’ll be a little difficult to make out at this size, but you may be able to see one of the lower loops of the road behind the road in the foreground, just to the right of the mound of rocks at the left edge of the photo:

Lower Loop

Panning to the right some more, here are some of the loops leading up to where I parked to take these pictures:

Upper Loop

This was all on the west side of the peak. This part is in Wyoming and is posted at 55MPH. Once I crossed over into Montana on the east side, the speed limit changes to 70MPH! Trust me, nobody drives that fast on these roads.

The high point of the road is at 10,800 feet. Once over the top, I headed down the east side, which also has some great switchbacks. There weren’t as many places to park on this side, so I don’t have a lot of photos from this side. Here’s one – you can see the road I’m on at the left edge of the picture. The road descends through a series of switchbacks to the valley you can see in the center of the picture:

East Side

Here’s a picture of the Atom parked where I took the previous picture. This isn’t a bad parking job – the angled spaces switch from pointing right to pointing left in between the Atom and the car to the right.


Yellowstone, Day 3 (or not)

This morning was another multi-hour debate as to whether they would let the Atom into the park or not. Today’s answer was no. They say there is a Federal law against it, but were unwilling or unable to give me a reference to it. I didn’t want to make a bad situation worse by getting confrontational.

I did arrange (hopefully) to be allowed transit through the park to the Northeast Gate, so that I can continue my journey on the Beartooth Highway as planned. I have an appointment to be at the park’s West Gate at 11 AM to be let in. I hope that works – sitting here in West Yellowstone at $100+ / night just vegetating isn’t my idea of fun. There isn’t a lot to do in town (after all, this place’s reason for being here is to be a gateway to the park), and what there is, only happens in the evenings as people come streaming out of the park.

If I don’t get allowed through the park, then I’ll have to backtrack to Idaho Falls and then head south on I-15 to pick up I-80 at Salt Lake City. The alternative would be to go way north to Bozeman, Montana and then onto I-90, but I don’t know that I would trust the weather enough to do that. In either case, it would be way out of the way.

Yellowstone, Day 1

This morning, when I started the Atom, both the water and oil temperatures read 38 degrees (Fahrenheit; that’s 3 degrees Celsius for you non-US folks).

After bundling up, I headed for the west entrance of Yellowstone. Since I have an annual pass, I chose the “pass holders – no cash accepted” lane. As I prepared to hand the gate officer my annual pass, he said “I’m sorry, I can’t let you in”. I laughed and assumed he was joking – he wasn’t. He told me to turn around and take it up with the office if I wanted to.

I parked in a side parking area and walked to the office. Someone said “Can I help you?” and I responded that they wouldn’t let me in. She said “That’s right” and that I could take it up with a ranger if I wanted to. I said I did, so she radioed for a ranger.

After some time, a ranger pulled up and re-iterated that they couldn’t let me in because “there were a bunch of you here last week and they broke a number of rules, like driving off-road”. I tried to explain that a) the Atom doesn’t have the ground clearance for off-road use, b) that my Atom was legally licensed and registered as a road vehicle, and c) that there were only a little more than a hundred of these cars, I knew most of the owners via the forum, and we weren’t here last week. I suggested that she might be confusing my Atom with some sort of ATV. I also said that I’d visited Yellowstone in this car in 2007, and that last year I did Yosemite, Sequoia, Kings Canyon and Death Valley, and that just last week I was at Crater Lake.

She was very apologetic, but said she couldn’t let me in. I asked her to look at my registration, and she radioed it in and had a long conversation with her base station. When she came back, she said “I’ll let you in, but I need to take some pictures of your vehicle”. She also said that she’d made the decision to treat the Atom as a motorcycle, which is allowed in the park. I asked if there was some sort of reference I could use, as I was staying here for four days to explore the park. She said that the people at the gate would probably remember me, but that each day would be on a day-to-day basis.

After about an hour’s delay, I was finally granted admission to the park, and started my drive up to Mammoth Hot Springs at the north end of the park. My plan was to drive up there and then explore on my way back, so I’d be getting closer to where I was staying at each stop, due to the “20% chance of rain” in the forecast.

First up is Mammoth Hot Springs. It seems that the springs trailed off earlier in the season, as all the water I could spot was in a few small pools. Some people told me that there was more water further up the terrace, but I decided to not walk up the 300-odd steps to get there.

You can see where the water had been running in this picture.

Dry Springs

Here, you can see how the minerals are deposited in patterns.

Dry Pool

Here’s the obligatory shot of a bison (sometimes called buffalo). I also spotted some mule deer and a solitary elk (at least I think it was an elk, it might have been a moose).


Next is Roaring Mountain, which has a number of steam vents on the side of the mountain.

Roaring Mountain

While I was parked at Roaring Mountain, a number of people came up to me to talk about the car. Here’s a few of them:

Atom Crowd

Last was Norris Geyser Basin, which has a large number of geothermal features – steam vents, geysers, boiling pools, and so on. You can also see the clouds that were threatening all day:

Norris Clouds

This is Black Growler, one of the largest steam vents in the basin. Vents are found on the side walls of the basin, as water drains away too rapidly to form geysers or boiling pools. What little water is available is continually converted to steam. The Black Growler name comes from a time in the past where the steam had a darker color due to minerals carried up with the water vapor.

Black Growler

After Norris, I drove back to the cabin where I’m staying. The combination of the cold weather when starting out, the alternating cold / hot of driving and then getting out and walking around took a lot out of me. I think I’m coming down with a cold, as I have a bad case of the sniffles and alternating hot / chilled feelings in my room.

Once I got back to my cabin, the rain that had been threatening all day finally started coming down. I abandoned my plans to drive into town and eat, and instead settled for having some Italian food delivered to my cabin.

Depending on how I feel tomorrow, the temperature, and whether or not I can get into the park at all, I’ll try to visit Old Faithful and the other southern attractions. Stay tuned…

West Yellowstone, MT

Tonight I’m in West Yellowstone. Today started out quite cold, even in Pocatello where I started from. By the time I got to West Yellowstone, I was reconsidering whether or not this was a good idea…

Something funny happened about 15 miles from West Yellowstone. A herd of cows wound up on the wrong (road) side of a ranch fence, and cowboys on horseback were rounding them up to get them back on the right side of the fence. The herd was off the road by the time I drove by, but it was still pretty amusing. Apparently, when one cow decides to do something, the others will follow. So there’s no such thing as a “small” escape.

Cows on the loose!

My clothes are relatively warm (though I didn’t have my heavy coat on), but the big problem is my ears. Despite having a closed-face helmet, there’s enough airflow in there that my ears were getting very cold. There was originally foam around the visor, but that has flaked away over time, and now there is apparently a big enough gap for lots of cold air to get in. There’s a motorcycle shop in town, and I’ll see if there’s anything they can do tomorrow (Monday).

Speaking of Monday, there’s a 20% chance of rain and the high is only going to be 63 degrees. Tuesday will be even colder at 61. Then the temperatures are supposed to rise a bit, with 68 on Wednesday and 70 on Thursday (when I’m leaving).

I’ll decide whether I’ll risk the cold in Bighorn later on…