On Saturday morning we arose to delicious Costa Rican coffee and a visit with my cousin's energetic doggies Hays and Didi before leaving for a delightful breakfast at the Sunrise Sunset Cafe, then we headed south to Colorado Springs, where we met a friend and her friendly and energetic Boston Terriers with whom we spent the next two nights. That afternoon we toured the Garden of the Gods.
Sunday we took off on Rt. 115 to Royal Gorge, the highest suspension bridge (1,053 ft.) in the U.S. over the Arkansas Riverbefore following the Arkansas River valley up to Salida and continuing to Buena Vista. After that we took off eastward across a beautiful mountain plateau toward Cripple Creek through South Park (yes, there is a South Park), then north on Rt. 67 to Divide before heading back to Colorado Springs.
On Monday we drove north for a delightful visit with friends in Lakewood before taking off west to Central City, where in 1999 I had played two weeks in a country rock band at Harvey's Wagon Wheel casino. We drove back to the Interstate and continued westward to U.S. 40, on which we crossed the continental divide at Berthoud Pass (elevation 11,307) . We continued westward on U.S. 40 to Rt. 34, which becomes Trail Ridge Road through Rocky Mountain National Park. The road had been opened for the season less than a week before. Once again we crossed the continental divide, this time going from west to east at Milner Pass (Elevation 10,759 ft.) . At these elevations us flatlanders can really get exhausted after just a few paces. We eventually reached Estes Park, then continued to the Interstate and our lodging in Wellington, CO.
Tuesday we drove north to Cheyenne, then east to U.S. 385, which took us northward through western Nebraska to Carhenge, which is a replica of Stonehenge made with cars. Seriously! Rt. 385 eventually took us to our destination for that night, my cousin's 420-acre ranch, RuJoDen, south of Chadron. There we enjoyed a great afternoon that included meeting a baby mule and his mother, petting chickens and making friends with Sandy, the friendly beagle. I got my tennis shoes wet following my cousin across the fields to check on his cows.
Wednesday my cousin accompanied me to Chadron College, where I was able to obtain a copy of my dad's college transcript plus pictures of him in football attire. He attended there from 1931-35 and was the president of the college Democrats (go dad!). Next we headed east to my dad's hometown of Gordon, NE where we spent the afternoon in the archives of the Gordon Journal copying old articles from 1913 (the year of my dad's birth) to 1931-35. I found the listing of his high school graduating class and other interesting articles. One that caught my attention reported on his father taking him to his first semester of college at Creighton University before his father was to serve as a delegate to an international labor convention in Toronto. My grandfather retired as a railroad foreman in the 1950s. After my neck could take no more craning up at the library's antiquated microfilm machine, we took off north through the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to the Black Hills. Pine Ridge has the notoriety of being the poorest U.S. census tract. We passed by scene after scene of abject rural poverty on the reservation. The GPS device we rented along with our car directed us onto a dirt road leading into Custer National Forest, where we soon came upon a huge bison not 50 feet from the road. After taking pictures, we headed on to an intersection with the Black Hills Wildlife Loop where we saw many other wild creatures. Soon we intersected the Needles Scenic Parkway, which took us through some breathtaking scenery. It was near sunset, so the angle of the sunlight created some spectacular views. We finally made it to our lodging for the night in Hill City, SD.
On Thursday we toured Mt. Rushmore and then the Crazy Horse memorial, which we found to be even more impressive. All of Mt. Rushmore would fit inside Crazy Horse's head; when finished it will be the largest sculpture in the world. Next we drove into Rapid City, where my cousin had reserved a room for us to attend my great-aunt's 100th birthday celebration. Nearly 175 O'Rourkes were present for a delicious dinner honoring this wonderfully spry lady. That evening many of us gathered in the hotel hospitality room to compare genealogies and make new friends.
Friday morning we took off eastward for a lunch at Wall Drug (the world's largest drugstore) before driving the Badlands Loop. Weather alternated between driving rain and brilliant sunshine, creating many dramatic photo opportunities. I should say here that during the week my wife took probably 1,000 or more pictures from the passenger side of our rental car. She's a great photographer! That evening we returned to Rapid City for my aunt's "official" birthday party at the retirement home where she lives. I was prevailed upon to play the piano, which I did to much admiration and applause. Boogie and blues appeals to everyone it seems.
Saturday we drove south through the Black Hills via Hot Springs, south through eastern Wyoming on Rt. 85, passing through places like Lusk and eventually back to Wellington, CO where we spent the night. We passed through some of the most remote places either of us had ever seen. Blue-green sagebrush as far as the eye could see with little or no signs of human habitation save for the long road ahead and behind with no cars in sight. No cell phone coverage either - a good place to have a full tank of gas and good tires! The sweet smell of prairie grass is still in my mind's nose as I type this from my desk in Nashville.
On Sunday we drove south into Denver, purchased a cooler, bubble wrap and tape to pack the wine and other gifts we had purchased on our trip. We returned our rental car having put over 2,000 miles on it. Our plane left at about 7 p.m. and arrived Nashville a little before midnight. After five hours' sleep my alarm told me it was time to begin my work week. It's now almost quitting time, and I surely plan to get to bed early tonight.