Three states in one day! (South Dakota: Part I)

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South Dakota is about as different to Vegas and LA as fire is to water. We left the deserts behind and landed in Rapid City amongst the fields, driving 40 miles to the town of Spearfish past flat green plains (prairies) flanked by pine covered mountains. South Dakota is one of the least populated states in America, and the countryside is dotted with large properties and small towns.

We are staying with my Aunt and Uncle Cleo and Peter in their wonderful self-built house. Spearfish may be small but it is rich in history and spoilt for choice when it comes to outdoor activities and nearby tourist attractions. It is situated near the border of South Dakota, therefore on Monday we set out to conquer 3 states! We drove firstly to Wyoming – cowboy country.

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 The general store in Aladdin, Wyoming.

  Population: 15

 

 

 

Soon we saw our first attraction rising in the distance – Devil’s Tower. This incredible geological masterpiece is thought to have formed from the solidified magma flow on the inside of a volcano, which never reached the surface to erupt. Over millions of years the earth has eroded away from around it, leaving the solid cone protruding from the much lower surrounding landscape.

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Because of all the cracks in the side of the tower, climbers attempt to reach the top… but we stuck to walking around the bottom. The tower was a stunning sight, surrounded by pine forest and prairie dogs but we had to move on and drove back via Montana. We even drove past a cold war silo, with old missiles mounted for display.

Some wildlife along the trail….

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_MG_0035 Snake sighting number 3, and a Prairie Dog.

The next day was another of long distances, when we drove to Wall and the Badlands. The Badlands are dry and desert like, a geologists dream with many levels of rocks as well as fossils. (Incidentally, the world’s largest T-rex was found in South Dakota.) The native Indians who were chased out of other states took refuge here and we could see how they could easily disappear from their pursuers. Past the impressive pinnacles are a campground and a small settlement, where we stopped in at a typical Western bar for a drink and at a lodge for a Buffalo burger.

In Wall, we stopped at Wall Drug – a famous store which started out as a tiny pharmacy and now owns every store on the street, with a café, gift stores, clothing, fudge, art, boots and hats, a gallery…. the success all stemmed from the original owner being cunning enough to erect a billboard stating “free ice water” to entice folks driving out of the hot and dusty Badlands to their store. Not that ice water cost anything anywhere else!

Later in the afternoon we drove to a ranch where some friends of Pete and Cleo were doing a branding. It was like stepping into a Western, with the men on horseback, skilfully lassoing calves. Traditional hot iron stamps were used to brand each calf whilst it was drenched and gelded – no rubber bands here, they sliced open the sacks and pulled out the testicles and tubules. The ranch kids went crazy for these, delving their hands into the slimy bucket. The “Rocky Mountain Oysters” were roasted on the branding oven and James was brave enough to try a couple… taste like beef apparently. I enjoyed a ride on a gorgeous horse named Heather; we took ourselves off to explore the nearby paddocks and enjoyed a good canter. I now have stiff legs and a sore backside however!

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Off for a ride

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On Tuesday we took a break from the driving and went for a hike with my cousin Dylan and his fiancé Mindy. We embarked upon Crow Peak; the second highest peak in the region. Hiking here is different to at home, we traipsed through open pine forests and along rocky trails rather than over tree roots and through bush. Although steep at times, the spectacular views along the way and at the top made the effort well worth it! Dylan pointed out a nearby gold mine, which has yielded some of the world’s largest nuggets. Because of the wealth generated by the mine, this was the first state in the US to have electricity!

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There is plenty left to explore this week, so in the evenings we are enjoying relaxing on the porch with beer and BBQ, and keeping up to date with emails, booking, blogging and the like. The former applies more to James and the latter to me of course!

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Vegas Baby! (And the Grand Canyon)

Las Vegas is not just a destination; its an experience. The moment we disembarked the airplane we were walking through rows of slot machines in the arrival gates, and when the taxi turned the corner onto Las Vegas Boulevard (The Strip) we were gobsmacked. _MG_9903Big and bright don’t begin to describe the scale to which Vegas is on display. The hotels are up to 60 storeys high, some of them with gold tinted walls. Fountains abound and there are numerous themed resorts.

“Paris” has its own Eiffel tower and Arc du Triomphe, “The Venetian” is an indoor replica of Venice, complete with St. Mark’s Square and gondola rides on it’s canal. “New York, New York” has a statue of liberty, “Circus circus” has its own roller coaster and “Caesar’s Palace” has a variety of marble statues. In amongst these resorts are palatial hotels, colossal malls and of course, casinos. As we wandered down the street in the middle of the afternoon, dancing girls dressed in bikinis and feathers posed for photos, tourists walked with cocktails and beers in their hands and music pumped out of speakers onto the streets.

_MG_9926Once the sun went down, the Strip only got busier and brighter. Lights flashed, music played, partiers swarmed down the main street and restaurants were bursting. Inside the casinos smoking is still allowed, and they are so large it was difficult to find our way out! Unfortunately we weren’t lucky but we had a lot of fun trying._MG_9951_MG_9939

 

Our favourite part about the strip is the Bellagio Fountain. We went back a number of times to watch the fountain show which starts at regular intervals; the fountain performs a water display in time to music. We loved watching the water elegantly dance to “Singing in the Rain”, and couldn’t believe our eyes when it shot water up 60 stories high!

 

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The incredible suite we stayed in, arranged very generously for us by my Uncle Peter really helped to add to the extravagant feel of our stay! We enjoyed lounging by the pool and cooling off with a swim in the afternoons, as it was HOT in Vegas. So hot we had to keep ducking into the air conditioned malls as we made our way up the Strip.

We received free tickets to a buffet dinner and a variety show, with VIP seats. The buffet was the biggest I’d ever seen! The show was amazing, we laughed until it hurt at the comedian/presenter and gasped as arial acrobats danced and swung high above us. There were strong balancing Russians, a magician, a double jointed dancer, roller skaters and more. It was a brilliant 1.5 hours!

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On Wednesday morning we rose early and excitedly picked up our _MG_9740Ford Mustang convertible from the rental company. We cruised south with the top down, the warm breeze blowing across us and the heavy car smoothly chewing up the miles. The Hoover dam was our first stop, where we briefly stopped for a couple of photos but then continued – it is 360 km from Vegas to the Grand Canyon. The roads were straight and at times rough and not well kept, but the scenery was like nothing we’ve seen before; red, dusty and rocky. The road we drove on was actually part of the historic route 66!

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Once we finally arrived at the canyon, our first glimpse of the vast expanse of gorge was worth the 5 hour drive. It is much bigger than I had realised, in that it extends for miles and isn’t just the one deep hole you see in photos. There is a sense of peace upon gazing out into the depths, where there is no sound and no movement. The different surfaces and colours are really interesting to look at and there are all sorts of towers and bridges formed by erosion. We caught a couple of glimpses of the Colorado river at the bottom of the canyon – apparently never more than 8 degrees all year round! We ambled along the rim trail, taking photos of the changing scenery within the canyon and enjoying the wildlife along the trail (squirrels, lizards, birds). It took us a lot longer than expected to walk to Bright Angel Lodge, and it was only later we read that the canyon is over 2000m higher than Auckland – no wonder!

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 From Bright Angel Lodge, although we didn’t have much time we took the opportunity to walk down the beginning of the trail which leads into the canyon. You can hike all the way to the bottom (and up the other side if you like), but this takes days. It was such a cool experience to walk into the Grand Canyon and look up, seeing the high rock walls and feeling so small.

The canyon is in the state of Arizona, so it was a long drive back to Vegas in Nevada that evening, but the ethereal views of the Grand Canyon stayed with us the whole way back.

 

Los Angeles and Disneyland

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We made it to the U.S.A! Flying Premium Economy in Air New Zealand’s new spaceseats was such a treat… unfortunately it’s going to be difficult to return to Cattle Class! We breezed through L.A.X thanks to the friendliest customs officer and our bags being priority baggage. No such luck at the budget car rental company however, where we stood for an hour in line.

It was nerve wracking and hilarious at the same time to get into the opposite side of the car, use the wrong hand to change gears, look to the right instead of the left and drive on the right hand side of the road! James has become quite an expert since then and we’re getting used to thinking in miles, Fahrenheit, USD, ounces, gallons….

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Our little Chevy Spark

We’ve discovered that I can in fact read a map when I absolutely have to… we were too cheap to pay for the rental GPS, so I had to navigate us through LA to our accommodation (and continued to navigate for the next 2 days). Unfortunately some road works and detours posed a serious challenge but we only drove in circles for about 30 minutes before we got on the right track again…in my defence, the free map I had was missing about 60% of the smaller streets!

Our accommodation was a great little suite in a home in Fullerton (near Anaheim). Our hostess Michelle was brilliant and gave us invaluable advice about our itinerary (change it), whether we could do both Disney and California Adventure (no) and which freeways to take to the airport (not the ones we were thinking). It was just a little bit warmer than Auckland in LA.

On Sunday morning we took the car into the city (about a 45 minute drive) to Griffith Park. This is a 1700 hectare piece of land, which is home to Griffith Observatory and the Hollywood sign. A large network of trails runs throughout the park and its a very popular hiking and running spot for locals, as well as film sets. We hiked up to the top of “Mt Hollywood” and clambered off-road a bit to get a good view of the sign. At one point, I heard a rustle and caught movement out of the corner of my eye…. I had just about stepped on a rattlesnake! It slithered quickly in the opposite direction thankfully, although I had already fled about 100m. It’s not true what they say…. I was definitely more scared of it than it was of me.

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From Griffith Park it was a short drive to Hollywood, where we did the obligatory stroll down the boulevard and snapped a few pictures with the stars (on the ground, not the real people). _MG_9658Far more glamorous than Hollywood was Beverley Hills which we drove through, including Rodeo Drive. Where James refused to let me out of the car. Probably sensible! The houses in Beverley Hills are like the ones you see on the movies – huge, immaculate and beautiful.

After a long drive through traffic (so many lights!) we arrived in Santa Monica – our destination for the afternoon. The beach is endless and white, the sea bright blue and sparkling and the people tanned, fit and ridiculously good looking. All along the beach are adult ‘playgrounds’ with gymnastic equipment (rings, bars, tightropes) and plenty of people working out. We ambled along the beach to pier (a mini amusement park) for lunch, after which we hired bikes (they didn’t have helmets!!) and rode to Venice Beach. The scene here is very different, much more alternative and somewhat more colourful. The boardwalk is one long marketplace, and there are many street performers (from great music to “circus freaks”).

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Roller dancing at Venice Beach

We stopped for a while to watch some roller skaters who were roller-dancing…. someone had set up a stereo and anyone was welcome to roll in and dance. One man even joined in without skates!

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Monday was DISNEY DAY!

Teacups!

Teacups!

We arrived at the park at 9:15am, and didn’t leave until 7:30pm. It was truly magical…. like stepping into another world for a day, we felt that removed from reality. It was everything I’d dreamed of as a child and more. The rides aren’t really thrill rides as such, but the main appeal Space mtnof the park is it’s set up. Every street, tree, building has been built with a theme and the detail is so intricate its easy to believe you’re in a Disney movie. In Fantasy Land we rode the teacups and the Materhorn, in Tomorrow Land we screamed our way around Space Mountain, we gazed in awe at the Indiana Jones temple in Adventureland – which was not only a façade but a real set inside with tunnels, and artefacts.

New Orleans square featured the Haunted Mansion with incredible special effects, Frontier Land, designed to look like Settler’s America  was where we rode the famous Thunder Railroad Mountain. James got soaked on Splash Mountain in Critter County and we rode the Disney railroad right round the park; including through a display of moving, eating, roaring dinosaurs. Although we spent a lot of time waiting in lines, our fun wasn’t spoilt and we left the park exhausted but thoroughly satisfied.

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It was a brief but enjoyable stop in LA, and on Tuesday we caught our flight to Las Vegas… which is another post altogether!

The first day of the rest of our lives…

The day we’ve been waiting for has arrived! We are in the final throes of packing our things, and enjoying some last minute New Zealand fresh air. Over the last month we have been exploring our own backyard, visiting family and catching up with IMG_8715friends.

Over Easter, despite the miserable weather James suggested a Sunday drive to Manukau Heads, where we were lucky enough to be the first ones to the Lighthouse for the morning. A surprising number of families turned up within the next half hour, but for a brief time we were alone with the view of the wild ocean.

After flying to Palmerston North, we drove the 3 hours to New Plymouth to spend some time in my original home town with family. My sisters were visiting from Australia, and my aunt came across from Napier so we enjoyed going back to our old favourite places, checking on our old house, driving past our old schools, seeing the changes to the city and our beloved Pukekura Park.

Searching for treasures…

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Luckily we had enough of a break in the rain to spend some time rock-pooling; a pastime we spent hours on as children. These days there are far fewer starfish to be found, but James did collect a crab (and promptly dropped it after it nipped him hard!). IMG_8919The next week and a half were spent at home in Palmerston North, relaxing, being well fed by mum and enjoying quiet runs and bike rides along the river. We hiked the Gorge Walk, an old favourite running trail of mine which has been redeveloped and is far less rugged than the rough bush track it used to be.

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The views have remained just as stunning though!

 

 

Instead of flying back to Auckland, we took the Northern Explorer scenic train. It was a delight; a r_MG_9369elaxing and interesting 10 hour journey and not in the slightest bit boring as I had imagined! The train itself is a modern and spacious facility and the views were spectacular.

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Mount Ruapehu from the open air viewing carriage on the train

We were however the youngest people on the train by about 30 years!

We had a blast at our leaving drinks in Auckland last weekend and have since been sorting out our things… every time we think we’re done we look in our bedroom and it looks as though we haven’t even started! I think we’ve finally succeeded. Unfortunately there have been some hold ups with processing James’ residency which has caused some stress – not least about only receiving his passport back on Thursday! Small hassles aside, everything is packed and ready to go now.

We’ll be heading to the airport in just a few hours to start our adventure. We’re beyond excited and can’t wait to land in the States! There will be more frequent posts over the next few months of course, so keep an eye out for photos and stories of our antics.