What a wonderful combination, balloons and ice-cream. Must be a party you say, no, but both form an important part of this couple of days of our journey.
Darkness greets us as the alarm goes off at 05:00. A mistake, no, we are going to see the 11th Annual Casper Balloon Roundup which will see up to 27 balloons launched from 06:00 onwards. Light is slowly creeping in from the East as we leave our hotel for the 10 minute drive to the launch site at the Central Wyoming Showgrounds in Casper.
With only two turns to make, I believe, I have bravely decided not to put the location in the GPS, but try that old fashioned navigation method of remembering the turns and hoping for some big direction signs should I get lost. Luckily after the first couple of turns, a pickup with a balloon basket in goes past and using my intuition, I decide to follow it. Success, we arrive at the launch site.
We are greeted by little activity as all the pilots, yes all balloon operators are required to have a pilot’s licence with a “lighter than air” endorsement, are waiting for the latest wind report. Up goes a small red weather balloon, which rises quickly and then starts being buffeted this way and that. Talking to one of the pilots, I learn that what we would consider still, with a few leaves rustling, can quickly turn into 10 to 15 mph landing speeds, which I understand may not be a pleasant prospect, plus the potentially expensive damage to the balloon’s envelope.
Only one balloon is getting setup, as we wait for more weather information, firstly using a fan to get the envelope partially inflated with cool air, then a burst of hot air from the burners gets the envelope off the ground and the attached basket swings upright.
While it sways in the early morning light, the pilot makes small burn adjustments to keep it stable without taking off, then a larger sustained burn and the first balloon soars majestically skywards. I think other pilots are watching carefully as the first balloon moves slowly westwards. Other pilots appear to be encouraged by the first flight and soon other balloons are being prepared for flight. It is interesting to see those preparing balloons and their attendant ropes interacting with the increasing number of spectators without barriers and no entry signs. People just watch where the ropes are and step over or avoid them – so simple when people take responsibility for their actions!
Balloon after balloon heads skywards, it is a spectacular sight and worth our early start to the day. We had talked earlier to one of the organisers, Charlie from Remax the main sponsor, who had talked about the hard work in development of this event in Casper, a town that is known to be windy. Not an easy task, but judging from the number of balloons and spectators they have made the event a success again. Enjoy the video below.
As Anne mentioned in her previous post, this area was part of the route pioneers from the east travelled through to reach the Pacific in the mid 1800’s. Seeing the rolling and relatively flat country well supplied with grazing for the horsepower of the wagon trains, one can see why these routes would be more popular than the mountain passes of Colorado further south.
We pass train after train loaded with Wyoming coal headed east and south to supply power stations. The trains of both Union Pacific (UP) and Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroads are moving much of the over 350 million tonnes of coal per annum produced out of the state. What is interesting to me was a supplement in this weekend’s paper on the future of coal mining in the state. With the planned closure or conversion to gas of up to 23% of US coal fired generating capacity in the next 10 years, Wyoming could loose up to 100 million tones per annum of production. It will be challenging here for coal, but they are now looking at Asian export markets to make up for the shortfall in domestic demand. A new competitor for our export of Queensland coal.
As we travel east we see the familiar sight of wind towers in the distance. Wyoming is blessed with bountiful supplies of wind, so again we are seeing a change in makeup of power generation sources as we have seen throughout our journey through South and Central America. Wyoming is looking to become a renewable energy supplier to California which is trying to reduce its dependancy of fossil fuels. Interesting times in the energy supply industry in Wyoming.
We cross into South Dakota, a new state for us – we have now visited over 40 of the 50 States in the USA over the years since our first visit in 1980. It is possible on this trip that we may get close to having visited nearly all 50 States in the USA. We are heading to the Black Hills, known for Mt Rushmore’s 4 Presidents’ heads, the sculpture of Crazy Horse and the wonderful roads and scenery.
As we move closer to the Black Hills, we start to see more and more motorcycles. They are predominately Harley Davidson, more three wheelers than we expected, but I guess we are all getting older and three wheels make more sense. South Dakota like the majority of States in the USA allow riding without helmets and for many riders teeshirts, sunglasses and bandanas are the dress code of the day. Much as I envy the freedom they enjoy, until I can guarantee that I will not come off a motorcycle again, it’s helmet, kevlar and padding for me.
We head for the Crazy Horse Memorial, a monument being built which depicts Crazy Horse, an Oglala Lakota warrior, astride his horse and pointing into the distance. This monument has been under construction since 1948. Over 8 million tonnes of rock have been removed to date. Quite an amazing effort by Korczak Ziolkowski, the sculptor who, with his wife and family, worked on this project until his death in 1982. When and if finished, the monument will be 641 ft (195 m) wide and 563 feet (172 m) high, and largest in the world. Well worth a visit.
As we travel towards Custer State Park, the uniformity of the colour of the pine trees is a surprise to me after Colorado’s Aspens and various blue to green hued pine trees: here they are all the same type, interesting to see changes in what flora exists in what seems to be similar climates. I find that the scenery seems almost perfect, a little Disney like – we both prefer the more rugged open scenery we found in Colorado.
The roads are twisty and heavily treed which sets the speed limits at between 25 – 35 mph / 40 – 55 kph. Traffic is heavy with crocodiles of Harley Davidson motorcycles rumbling along with their distinctive engine sounds reverberating off the hills and trees. With the 2015 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally only a week away, so many riders are converging on the area. What will it be like in a week’s time? We are glad to have decided to ride here before the really big crowds come.
I have always had an interest in seeing Mt Rushmore since watching the 1959 Alfred Hitchcock movie ‘North by Northwest’ with Mt Rushmore and the four Presidents’ heads featuring in the finale of the film. We decide to ride the Route 16A that will allow us to see the presidents’ heads as you pass through the tunnels on Route 16A. An interesting historical note is that Governor Peter Norbeck wanted to have a very scenic road for tourists, he chose the locations for the tunnels with their views, but then left it up to the engineers to connect the tunnels. Route A16 is amazing and hopefully the seperate video post to follow can give a small taste of what we enjoyed.
So now you may still be wondering: where is the ice-cream. Yes? Well while we were at Mt Rushmore, we learnt that Thomas Jefferson, in addition to being a major contributor to the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, also recorded the first vanilla ice-cream recipe in the USA. Of course they make ice-cream to that recipe at Mt Rushmore and I had to try one, which only came in large. I wonder how many kids on a hot summer’s day would prefer the ice-cream recipe over the declaration of independence?