Sunday, July 29, 2007

Mt. Rushmore

After getting the dreadful news about our T@B, we decided we needed to try and make the most of our last couple of days of our vacation. We decided to go home by way of Mt. Rushmore and South Dakota, ironically, driving right past where Dave's accident had occurred on I-90 the day before (but not realizing it at the time).

We spent the night in Rapid City, SD along with about a million other tourists and then visited Mt. Rushmore the next morning (being followed by those million other tourists again!). I had never been to the Black Hills before, and apart from the tourist trap stuff, really liked the area and hope to get back there some day.

While in the area, we also visited the Little Bighorn Battlefield (where we saw this cute foal resting beneath it's mama).

We also drove through the Badlands National Park, which was quite spectacular and reminiscent of Utah and other far off southwestern locales.

And what trip to the Badlands would be complete without a stop to the infamous Wall Drug Store. Here's Mom posing at one of the tourist photo opp spots.

One final hurrah of tourist-mania was to drive past the Mitchell, South Dakota Corn Palace (with front walls featuring real corn!).

The rest of the trip home was dull and uneventful....except for the look on my next door neighbor's face when, after a month on the road, I drove a big brown Chevy Impala into the driveway. "Where's your camper & your new car?" he asked. "LONG Story," I replied!

Friday, July 27, 2007

Three Strikes, You're T@Bless!

After our glorious weekend at Glacier, we returned to Great Falls where I worked a few days while waiting on a complete new transmission to get flown in compliments of Subaru (the previous dealer had failed to discover a loose part rolling around inside the transmission which had done all the damage, so they deemed the entire transmission defective and needing replacement). Mom had run out of paperback novels, but was thrilled to find plenty more at the Sam's Club in town. Meanwhile, Millie discovered a new river to swim in-- the Missouri!

Try as I could to be patient waiting for parts to arrive, our vacation had now stretched out nearly a week longer than had planned, and Mom and I both had obligations to attend to back home within the upcoming week. After daily update calls between Bob and Jody, and my transmission getting shipped to Minneapolis instead of Great Falls, it was now time to cut our losses and get home. Jody agreed and said for me to go ahead and make plans to go home and that Subaru would ship me back my car once it got repaired.

I first tried to rent a truck or SUV that might be able to tow both us and the T@B home, but no such luck-- rental companies don't want you towing anything behind their vehicles. So, next I looked into getting a one-way car rental for us and shipping options for the T@B. I only found one rental car company willing to do a one-way rental, but fortunately it was Avis, and would be easy for me to drop off in Chicago.

For the trailer shipping, I found an online service,, that lets individuals bid out their shipping jobs to small, independent carriers (a booming business with all the eBay car and boat sales going on around the country). I posted my shipping job, and within a couple hours was getting a number of bids from drivers with pick-up trucks who specialized in hauling boats and RVs cross-country. I selected one who said they could pick up my T@B the next night.

We picked up the rental car (a big cushy Chevy Impala ideal for a 2000-mile road trip!), and then met up with a very friendly driver named Dave who would take my T@B back to Illinois. He was a retired guy helping out his son-in-law who had just started their shipping business. Dave was so thrilled to be towing my cute little T@B that he even asked to take a picture of us in front of it hooked up to his brand new pickup truck. He started on his way that evening, while we returned to the hotel.

The next morning, we left Great Falls and headed for home across the vast wheat fields of central Montana. As we rolled into Billings (and back into cell phone service), I had a voice mail from the son at the shipping firm asking me to call right away.

I couldn't believe what he told me, it was so surreal. Mom and I had worried about getting the Subaru back and wondering if it's transmission would blow again on the way home, so when it turned out that we'd be driving a rental car home and getting the T@B shipped, all our worries had seemed to disappear. But now, the shipping firm was telling me that there'd been "a terrible accident"....and my T@B was completely destroyed!

Dave had been driving on the interstate in eastern Wyoming doing the speed limit of 75 when he came over a ridge to find a dump truck in his lane only doing 35 mph. He drove off the shoulder of the road, flipping his new truck and the T@B so severely that the T@B's tow bar sheared in half at the hitch. The truck and the T@B were completely destroyed, but fortunately, Dave suffered only minor injuries.

It took a few days for us to finally get connected and hear what had happened (then it took weeks to sort it all out with the insurance companies). But, finally, it appeared that our lightening had finally struck three times on this vacation, and our bad luck was finally over!

Monday, July 23, 2007


A couple weeks late and a few new Subarus short, but we finally made it to Glacier to do some whirlwind sightseeing. Since we didn't have time to go all the way to Banff, we decided to at least "dip our toes" into Alberta to say we'd been there. We drove along the east side of of the park all the way up to the Canadian border where the park then turns into Waterton Lakes National Park.

Waterton's prime attraction is the gorgeous, grand, all-wood Prince of Wales hotel. Just as we passed the scenic turnout, the sun came out from behind some clouds to light up the hotel and it's hillside (ok, Photoshop helped out a bit here as well, but the scene really did seem this magical). Behind the hotel and down the hillside was the quant little Welsh-inspired village of Waterton, where we enjoyed a traditional fish and chips lunch while overlooking the lake.

In the afternoon, we back-tracked to the U.S. again to begin one of the most "must see" scenic stretches of highway in the country-- the "Going to the Sun Road" (which bisects Glacier from East to West). Besides the scenery, the road is equally famous for it's bright red tour buses with their peel-back canvas rooftops. I wish we would have had time to ride in one.

We spent the night in Kalispell (west of the park) so that we could drive the GTTS Road twice in two days, and we weren't disappointed....breathtaking mountains and waterfalls, a big horn sheep, and turquoise blue glacial waters.

Lake McDonald

Wild Goose Island

Avalanche Gorge

On our second day, we decided to tour the other grand lodges on the East side of the park. On our way to lunch at the Many Glacier Hotel, we spotted this black bear nibbling on her own lunch!

Our final stop was to the "original grand lodge", the East Glacier Hotel and it's incredible four-story-tall timber lobby built about a hundred years ago for wealth tourists from the East who arrived with their steamer trunks at the railroad depot a few hundred yards from the hotel's front door. Amtrak still makes stops there today! A delightful perennial garden lines the pathway between the depot and the hotel.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Great Falls

The service manager Bob, was only the first of many warm and delightful people we met in Great Falls. When we had quickly stopped on the outskirts of town the day before for lunch, the town appeared to me to be rather dumpy and forgettable. But now that we were stranded here (for likely another week), and we began to see more of the town, I quickly realized how wrong my initial impression had been. I wondered how many other towns I've driven through over the years and also quickly wrote off could have revealed the same surprised had I stayed there longer.

It's interesting that when doing a websearch of other websites that discuss Great Falls, that this site's author had a similar impression of the city (he also had some nice photos of the town which I neglected to get).

Rather than stay at another campground, we decided to stay in a hotel this time around. But, not too many options for lodging that offers free wi-fi while also accepting large dogs and mothers who smoke! Fortunately, Great Falls had a very nice, clean Motel 6 that was just perfect for us.

Our first morning, Bob had the Enterprise Car Rental office come pick us up to get our rental car. It was also a Subaru Outback (and did a great job at starting to renew my confidence in Subarus!). The guy at the rental counter, by coincidence, also was a native of Chicago and he recommended a good pizza place for us to try. Then, our valet driver said we'd just HAVE to go to Eddie's Supper Club to enjoy their steaks and 2-piano lounge. The night before, the tow truck driver had highly recommended we go hear "Piano Pat" at the O'Hara Motor Lodge. Oh, so many entertainment options and so little time!

We decided to splurge that Friday night by going to Eddie's Supper Club. What a time warp it was!

(photo courtesy of

The waitresses were clad in 1960's short barmaid outfits, and appeared to have worked there since that spring chickens here! This was a real, honest to goodness throw-back supper club-- with dark paneled walls and booth dividers with those old yellow and red transparent plastic top sections. There was a large lounge with red Naugahyde swivel chairs and a pair of pianos with 2 old guys playing all their favorites from the "rat pack" years. I expected Dean Martin or Sammy Davis Jr. to come waltzing through to offer a cigarette and a martini at any moment! But all joking aside, their steaks were outstanding and food was the best we had by far on the entire trip. If you ever get to Great Falls, you HAVE to go to Eddie's!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

"It's Like Deja Vu' all over again!"

Finally, after what seemed to be an eternity, the Subaru dealer in Jackson had my car finished and ready for pick-up. Mom and I hurriedly packed the T@B and returned the rental car, and began making reservations for somewhere other than Jackson!

Apparently, they had discovered some defective parts in the transmission, and that is what caused the blown gasket. Now that the transmission had been rebuilt, the dealer was confident I was good to go.

We finally pulled out of the KOA in late afternoon and decided to drive straight west over to to Idaho and then head north into Montana and spend the night in Butte. Our drive was uneventful and calm.

The next day's drive would finally take us to Glacier National Park. Because of the delay in Jackson, we no longer had time to get all the way up to Banff, so we decided that at least getting to Glacier would let us see at least one thing we had originally set out to see.

This was a day of record hot temperatures for Montana, and the Subaru was starting to show signs of stress again--- at every long incline, I had to turn off the air conditioner and slow way down for fear of overheating. We stopped for lunch in Great Falls, Montana and the bank time/temp signs were displaying 104 degrees!

Only 3 more hours til Glacier...but then, in the immortal words of Yogi Berra "it was like deja vu all over again!". This time I was driving as we came to the first long, steady incline about 40 minutes north of Great Falls. Nearing the top of the hill, a familiar blue cloud of smoke burst out from beneath the hood. I literally screamed in disbelief! "This is a brand new car", I shouted!

Well, this tim
e, rather than calling my Good Sam towing service, I knew exactly who to Subaru customer service manager, Jody. She was completely stunned by the news, but quickly jumped into gear to get me some help. There was a Subaru dealer back in Great Falls, and she contacted the Service Manager to make towing arrangements for us.

In an hour or so, a nice young man came to tow the car and the trailer back to Great Falls. Millie knew the routine now, as she peered out from the back seat of the Subaru as it got loaded up onto another flatbed tow truck.

While the dealer in Jackson was a total nightmare to deal with, the dealer (and all the people we met) in Great Falls were the kindest, most generous people we had ever encountered. When we arrived to Bennett Motors 10 minutes after closing time, the Service Manager, Bob Bailey, and his head technicians were out front waiting for us. One of them started inspecting the car as it rolled off the tow truck while the other hooked my T@B up to his pickup truck and drove it into the garage for safe keeping that night.

(photo courtesy of Bennett Motors)

There were no rental car offices still open that night, so Bob drove Mom, Millie, me, and our bags over to the hotel and promised to send a driver in the morning to take us to the rental car office. When we arrived to the hotel, Bob even took the time to help carry our bags inside and made sure we got checked in o.k. I couldn't imagine any other auto service manager in the country doing something like that for total strangers, long after work hours no less!!! He really renewed my faith in how good and compassionate people can be, and we will be forever thankful for his kindness to us that night.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Our Home for 12 days

Our first week in Jackson was fun with a bit of an adventure. We figured it would take about a week for the Subaru dealer to get the needed transmission parts flown in and to get us back on our way, so we started making plans accordingly.

But at the end of the week, when I called the dealer to learn that they still had no idea when the parts would be delivered or when the car would be ready, I finally could no longer be kind and forgiving. After a morning of very frustrating calls with the dealership's service manager and general manager, and now at my wits end, I was finally given a hotline number for Subaru's national customer service center. What a breath of fresh air! Even the rank-and-file customer service rep I first made contact with was empowered to get things done-- she immediately offered to cover my expenses and escalate the service situation with their regional management. The next day, my case was escalated to their wonderful customer service manager, Jody, who promised to see the case through to the very end for me. But, try as she could, the dealer would not get the car finished for another 3 days, so we'd need to stay another weekend in Jackson.

By this time, we'd become fast friends with the staff at the KOA. Their campground was booked solid every night, mainly of people stopping for one night as they drove to or from Yellowstone. They said we were the first to stay there this summer over a week, but what a challenge it was for them! Because I only had a rental car (and no tow vehicle), we had no way of moving the T@B from the campsite we first got left at. So every few days, I would go up to the check-in desk to see Beth (apparently, she was the only one with expert knowledge of the KOA reservation software)! Beth would sometimes spend an hour or more moving reservations around so that we would be able to keep our same campsite a few more days.

While Mom and I were starting to tire of staying in the same place so long, Millie, on the other hand was having the time of her life! She would take long morning naps on the cot in the screenroom....

Then before dinner, I'd take her down to the Snake river (that ran along the back of the campground) where she had a blast riding the swift currents and trying to swim like crazy to "stay in place". While she had become quite a good lake swimmer at home, river currents were something completely new (and fun)!

Before leaving Jackson, we had to get some of the iconic shots of downtown. Here's mom in front of the famous antler arch ...

and the cowboy who drives the stagecoach around the downtown square...

Finally, one of the most famous sites in Jackson... the Cowboy Bar with it's distinctive neon sign.

Monday, July 16, 2007


There are many parks more beautiful than Yellowstone, but perhaps none as unique. Animals and geysers are everywhere! And what trip through Yellowstone would be complete without a bison traffic jam! This little baby stole the show the day we were there....

While this coyote was more interested in scouting out some dinner...

Up at Mammoth Hot Springs, a herd of Elk live on a patch of lush green grass in the middle of town all summer long. Their only job appears to be posing for the tourists!

The hot spring terraces near Mammoth are a very unique and amazing landscape..

And what trip to Yellowstone would be complete without a visit to Old Faithful (seen here through the window of the historic Old Faithful Lodge).

Another Yellowstone "must see" are the falls of the Yellowstone river. Of course, this is the one time Mom decided to just stay in the car!

Finally, one more on the Yellowstone hit list... the West Thumb Geyser Basin...

But still, I'm drawn to Yellowstone most for the animals.

Of course, on the other hand, Millie is drawn to Yellowstone for the swimming! This time she enjoyed a dip in one of the creek rapids.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Cody Rodeo

For our second weekend in Wyoming, and to break the monotony of T@B camping in one spot so long, we decided to see the sights of Yellowstone and stay at a hotel in Cody, Wyoming one night so that we could also visit the night rodeo there.

Cody has two main claims to fame...Buffalo Bill and rodeos. Their rodeo stadium is huge for being such a small town. In the summer, they do a rodeo every night for the tourists and it's quite a good show!

Saturday, July 14, 2007


Well, I suppose there could be far worse places to be stranded for a few days than Jackson, Wyoming. While I had really wanted to photograph the new sites of Glacier and Banff, it was not so bad revisiting the Grand Tetons again...after all, they happen to be perhaps the most picturesque mountain range in the entire country!

So, we decided to make the most of it. Since the KOA had good internet and cell phone service, I continued working and postponed my vacation days a while longer, then used the weekend days to go sightseeing and shoot pictures.

The first weekend was spent exploring the Grand Tetons. Here is the familiar old Mormon barn...

and horses and mules....

bison grazing....

I had read in my photo books that a good place to spot wildlife would be at Oxbow Bend, so one early morning I drove up there to discover a bull moose preparing to go for a little swim! What an amazing sight to watch.

Colter Bay was one of our favorite stops in the park, not only for views like this one overlooking Jackson Lake, but also for their terrific food court! National Park food concessions are normally not anything remarkable, but the one at Colter Bay served outstanding fresh organic southwestern cuisine. So, we made it a point to stop there a few times for meals.

Two of my very favorite images from the Tetons:

A meadow of lupines overlooking the Teton range...

and this mountain reflection in a beaver pond...

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Change of plans

We left Minden early on July 3rd to drive out to my brother Randy's house in Colorado to get there in time to watch the town of Avon's fireworks from his condo's balcony. It was hot for Colorado--- well into the 90's, and we had been driving hard and fast all day. Rather than stop in Denver for a break, we decided to drive through town and start heading up into the mountains.

The stretch of I-70 just west of Denver has perhaps one of the steepest grades in the country. You literally climb a few thousand feet within a few short miles. My new Subaru's temperature gauge had been running slightly hotter than normal all afternoon, but I didn't really think anything of it until we got to this mountain incline. As soon as we hit the first big climb, my temp gauge shot up and teetered on the borderline of overheating. I pulled off to the first exit and called my brother who suggested I just open the hood and let it cool off for an hour. He also gave me his Subaru dealer's number down in Denver, and they gave me the same advise.

What normally would have been a two hour drive from Denver to Avon, took us nearly 4 hours due to having to stop a few more times to let the engine cool as we climbed up the mountains. Fortunately, we never overheated, and we still managed to make it to Avon in time for the fireworks show and a terrific dinner my brother and his friends had prepared for us on the balcony. It was a terrific way to end the day!

We stayed in Avon the next few days so my Mom could visit with my brother while I worked. I tried calling the Subaru dealers nearby to see if I might need a transmission cooler installed, but they all replied the same that no cooler was made for the 2008 Outbacks. So, I decided to leave things "as is" for the rest of our journey.

After leaving my brother's, the next leg of our trip was to drive up to Glacier National Park and then on to Banff. We planned to stop in Jackson, Wyoming and Yellowstone on our way up to Glacier, but we had gotten a late start out of Avon and ended up staying a few hours south of Jackson in some dusty, forgettable town on I-80.

The next morning, we heading north to Jackson and Yellowstone. The day before, at a couple of brief moments climbing up steep passes, the car had started to veer towards the borderline of overheating again, but for the rest of the trip, it performed just fine.

After stopping for gas around noontime, Mom drove another long incline towards Jackson. All of a sudden, blue smoke started pouring out from under the hood. We quickly pulled over to discover that my transmission had blown a gasket and was leaking fluid all over the highway. We were 10 miles from the closest town, but fortunately, still at the very edge of cell phone coverage, so I was able to call Subaru Roadside Assistance. They were happy to send a tow truck for me, but said it'd be about a 3 hour wait, and they also would not be able to tow my trailer. Fortunately, I also still had my Good Sam RV towing service. They were fantastic and life-saving! Good Sam arranged to send 2 trucks to rescue us, and promised to drive us all the way into Jackson (a 60 mile drive!) so that my Subaru could be taken to the dealer there. For lodging, they arranged to tow my trailer to a KOA there in town, and I also was able to get a rental car.

As we waited for the tow trucks to arrive, a number of people stopped to offer assistance. It seems like the vast distances in the West make everyone help each other a bit more than they do in the Midwest or East. Finally, our trucks arrived, with only one small problem....Millie would not be able to ride with us in the cab of the truck, she'd have to go either in the trailer or stay in the Subaru. Temperatures were again in the 90's that afternoon, so I left her in the car and rolled down the windows. What a look on her face when they hoisted the car way up onto the flatbed tow truck!

Monday, July 2, 2007

International T@B Rally in Minden

After a long day of driving, we finally stopped at a hotel for the night in Lincoln, Nebraska. The next day's drive to Minden was only a few short hours through more cornfields and flat lands. About an hour into the drive, we spotted another T@B heading to Minden and we waved/honked horns excitedly with one another. T@Bs are growing in popularity, but there are still only about 3,000 of them in seeing another one on the road is a cause for real celebration! About 15 minutes later, we saw another T@B drive past us....we were getting close to Minden and the T@Bs were now coming from every direction like alien pods to the mother ship!

Minden, Nebraska is a fairly typical little farm town in the giant expanse of the Great Plains. The town square boasts a courthouse, an opera house, and a few dozen storefronts (some of which have seen better days). The town also has a large grain elevator (gotta put all that corn somewhere!), and busy railroad tracks. But it's main claim to fame is a complex spread out across a few city blocks known as Pioneer Village. A wealthy plastics businessman named Harold Warp started collecting items of "Americana" during the mid-1900's, and he decided to house his collection in his hometown of Minden. It's not a new shimmering, big-money operation like some of the Orlando or Las Vegas attractions, but it still draws some tourists to Minden....and this weekend, those tourists all came with T@Bs!

So, if we got excited by seeing our first "other T@B" on the road, imagine how exciting it was to see 50 T@Bs parked together at the small, cozy Pioneer Village campground. Here are a few shots....

This was known as "Potti-Tent Row" because everyone here had their potti-tents set up behind their T@Bs. On the right is Leslie's "camo" version which she had self-proclaimed as the world's ugliest potti tent on the Yahoo Forum a few months ago when her husband brought it home for her!

Here is a shot of Terry from Seattle, who selflessly logged hundreds of hours organizing this event for the past year. Terry not only arranged all the logistics of getting the entire campground reserved for us and planning all the daily seminars and events, but she also managed to talk Dutchmen (the company that makes the trailers) as well as a number of dealers to pitch in to provide t-shirts, hats, and other goodie bag items.

T@Bbers are a tremendous group of like-minded folks who love to learn, share, and have fun. We all initially met on an online Yahoo Forum ( where many of us exchange ideas, questions and answers about our T@Bs, etc. There's a real warmth that comes across that community that is so rare as online forums go. That warmth continued "in-person" at the rally-- it was like re-uniting with 100 old friends, even though most of us had never met each other in-person before. Here, below, we listened to Carol give a terrific demonstration on the art of Dutch Oven cooking...

The town of Minden really rolled out the red carpet for us. One night, the Chamber of Commerce president came to our pot luck dinner and gave us a quick history of the town. On another night, one of the townspeople brought his "little trailer" to show it off to us...a Mini Cooper towing a mini teardrop! Minden has hosted International Teardrop rallies for the past couple of years (which is how the T@B group learned about Minden).

Mom and Millie pose at our campsite. Our setup worked great with the Paha Que screenroom (which has privacy flaps that roll down to turn it into a tent at night). Millie was not going to budge off of her side of the T@B's queen bed, so Mom and I took turns sleeping on a cot in the screenroom. I got a nice plush 3" thermarest mattress pad to go on top of it and it was actually more comfortable than the T@B's bed! The nights in Minden were very pleasant for sleeping, that is, until the 2:00am freight train came through town with it's whistle blasting you awake!

The T@B factory reps drove a prototype of their new T@DA model trailer for us all to see. It's essentially a stretched out T@B with two "front ends", and has a built-in bath and separate dinette and bed. The T@DA served as a good backdrop for our group photo...