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5/18 - 5/25/2014 - Blandings Landing

Look to the right and you'll notice a link to a website featuring some of Marty's fine art photography.  It's pretty cool that we can link it to our blog. 

On Sunday (5/18) we drove about 35 miles north to Plattville, WI to see the world's largest "M".  The M was created by University of Platteville students back in the 1930's out of granite stone.  Every year the incoming freshmen repaint the stones - I wonder if they tell them about this in their acceptance letters?   We climbed the 266 stairs to the top and ran into some Amish young adults having a picnic.  Marty asked them if one of them would take our picture (which I'm pretty sure is verboten in their culture), one young man said no but another (the rebel) said yes. 
266 steps but who's counting?
When we climbed back down the stairs to get back in our truck a man stopped his car and asked if we were from around here.  I told him no and asked him what he was looking for since we have all kinds of GPS and smart phone technology at our fingertips maybe we could help.  Well we weren't able to help him find the "truck/tractor pull" that he was looking for but did find out that he lives in Bellevue, Iowa which is where we are supposed to be camp hosting.  I really believe if you talk to anyone long enough you will find someone or someplace in common - it really is a small world.

Waiting for the tournament to start
Once we left Platteville we headed across the river into Dubuque, Iowa for a short visit to the casino.  We always get the member's card for any new casino and with this one we were entered into the slots tournament.  We went over to take our turns and did terrible so we went off to find a winning machine.   No winning machines were found but I did play enough so that I got a second chance at the tournament and this time I won!!   It was only 25.00 but it was fun and we left happy.

One of Marty's clients called him last week to see if he was available for a job downtown.  Since we aren't working in Iowa yet he said yes and scheduled it for Thursday (5/22).  We drove to Crystal Lake on Wednesday to spend the night at Judy and Don's  house and then drove into Chicago on Thursday morning.  Judy was kind enough to watch Maddie and let us use their car so we didn't have to worry about driving our big dually in the city.

While Marty was working, I met my sister Donna and niece Sarah for lunch.  After lunch Sarah went back to work and Donna and I walked over to the Farmer's Market at Daley Plaza.  We checked out all the stalls and even bought some fudge.  Maybe I didn't quite grasp the concept of a "farmer's" market or maybe I just didn't want to carry a bunch of vegatables around for the rest of the day.  
We then walked over to the Main Public Library so I could find out how to renew my card - it expired in March and I really miss downloading books!  While there we also checked out the storybook dollhouse in the children's library.  It's really fun for kids to look for all the items and characters from different stories that are scattered throughout the dollhouse.  It's been in the library for 30 years and I've taken many kids there to look for the storybook items.  I highly recommend it for anyone with young children.

Cousin Dave
Marty's job was at the Plymouth Restaurant which was right across from the library so we stopped to see him for a minute and then I walked Donna back to Madison Street so she could catch the train home.  Marty took advantage of a break between the lunch and dinner crowd and scheduled a 3:00 appointment with his dentist.  After picking up the key to Sarah's apartment I walked over to meet Marty and then we went a few blocks south to visit my cousin David at his job. I am the oldest Merkes cousin and Dave is the youngest - we are 17 years apart.  He usually works in the southwest suburbs but happened to be downtown for the day and his wife happened to see on Facebook that we were downtown too so we were able to have a short visit.

Marty went back to the restaurant to finish up with some night-time shots and I took the red line over to Sarah's which is where we spent Thursday night.  She lives in the DePaul area of Chicago, it was so strange to be back in the city without a home - thank goodness for family!  I was a city girl for a long time but in the short time we've been gone they've changed things at the CTA.  I felt like a tourist and had to ask for help buying my transit card and they've raised their prices - it cost $3.00 for a one ride ticket!

It was fun spending the afternoon downtown but boy was I tired from all the walking.  I just wanted to get to her apartment and put my feet up.  Which I did for a short while but then Sarah came home and we took a walk around her neighborhood and stopped for a bite to eat.  Then we finally went back to her apartment and that was it for the day.

Sarah lives in a studio apartment in the DePaul area.  The apartment is large for a studio but it doesn't have a kitchen - isn't that strange?   She does fine without one, she has a few small appliances and a small refrigerator but no kitchen sink or stove.  It works for her and it really is a nice apartment. 
Niece Sarah
We left Chicago on Friday morning after a quick stop at Stanley's Fruit and Vegetables - we really
miss that place, they have such good prices and really fresh produce.  We picked up some stuff for us and a few things for Judy and then hit the highway to Crystal Lake to pick up the pooch and our truck and head back to Galena.

My niece, Megan, graduated from Ripon High School on Saturday morning and we wanted to surprise her by going to the 11:00 A.M. ceremony.  We had to leave Galena by 7:00 A.M. which meant we had to get up at 6:00!!   It was 180 miles away and we got there around 10:30 for the 11:00 A.M. graduation, Tom was already there and had saved space for us.  I drove there and it was the first time I've driven since November and the most I've ever driven the truck!  It was an easy drive for the most part and I felt pretty comfortable in the driver's seat (not sure how Marty was feeling in the passenger seat).  I still don't feel ready to drive the truck in Chicago. 

It was about 1 1/2 ceremony sitting in the bleachers in the hot sun but no one was complaining, Wisconsin people seemed to be very happy to be warm again after their miserable winter.  After the ceremony we searched thru the crowd of graduates for Megan.  She saw her dad and started towards him for a hug but then she saw me and she blew right past him for me - I love that girl!

Proud Aunt Mary with Megan
Proud Skinny Papa with all three of his girls - Amanda, Megan, & Liz

We went over to Tom's for a quick visit but Megan needed to leave for her party at her mom's house.  The Merkes party will be next Saturday at Devil's Lake so we'll have some more quality time with the whole family.

Tom has lost 50 pounds since we last saw him in January.  He did it by two full weeks of juicing and then changed his eating habits and also started exercising.  He has inspired more than a few of his siblings and soon there will be a juicer on our counter.   I hope it works as well for me, although I'm still not sure about drinking green juice - it looks gross.

Once back at our campsite, our boss Bret stopped by.  We've talked to him on the phone but had not met him.  He just wanted to check in and make sure we were happy at our site and at the campground.  He doesn't know when we will be able to get to Pleasant Creek but we are quite content staying here and the price is definitely right.

5/13 - 5/18/2014 - From the Missouri to the Mississippi

We called our new boss, Bret, Monday, (5/13) to see how the Mississippi River situation was by our soon to be home. Here's a link to where we will eventually be working -

The bad news is the river is rising and it doesn't look like we'll be able to go there for a few more weeks. The good news is they are sending us to another Corp of Engineers (COE) Park until we can get in ours and the park we will be waiting at is Blandings Landing just outside of Galena, IL.   So, we will be in Illinois and not working - we'll have to find things to do, any suggestions?

On Tuesday night we finally checked out one of the local eating establishments, The Bucksnort Pub. Tuesday nights are their pizza special nights- any size and any toppings for $12.99.  Such a good deal and the pizza was delicious.   We even had dessert; fried bread pudding with ice cream for me and a dish of ice cream for Marty - YUM!
For our last day in western Iowa we decided to do an AVA walk.  We drove across the Missouri River and picked up our route map for the Downtown Omaha 10K walk.  The walk started near the ConAgra Foods Headquarters and took us around a small lake on their property.  We then crossed over some railroad tracks and headed east to walk along the Missouri River.

Omaha and the Missouri River played a major role in the westward expansion of the U.S.  There are numerous sculptures in the downtown area depicting this.  One park has life-size sculptures of three covered wagons along with the people and animals that would have ridden or walked along side them.   On another block there were bronze sculptures of buffalo including one that was encased into the corner of the building - the front end and back end exposed.
The above mural titled "Fertile Ground" was painted on the Energy Systems Building by muralist Meg Saligman.  When it was completed in 2009 it was the largest mural in the U.S. at 32,000 sq. ft.

We enjoyed our walk in downtown Omaha and had some fun clowning around.
A "mime" is a terrible thing to waste

Pretty in Pink

Outstanding in Orange
Marty's new friend - Chef Boyardee

We left Arrowhead Park on Thursday (5/15) and headed west to Hanover, IL.  We drove a little over 300 miles and it started raining for about the last 100.  We crossed the Mississippi River and entered Illinois; Hanover is about 8 miles south of Galena which makes it nice for day trips into Southwestern Wisconsin, Northeastern Iowa and, of course, Illinois.
We're baaaack

We reached the campground around 3:30 and discovered that we will be parked on grass.  We walked around the campsites to determine which one would be best for us.  We chose #12 and backed into a lovely site framed by trees overlooking the Mississippi River.  We unhitched the rig and got all set up.  Unfortunately we discovered that we couldn't get our door to close because we weren't level so we had to pack everything up and move over to site #8.  We are now level and still have a beautiful view of the river.  This was all done in a steady drizzle but it's the worst weather we've dealt with while setting up so we really can't complain. It was cold and drizzly for the rest of the evening so we just settled in and read and watched television.

We drove into Galena for breakfast on Friday morning (5/16/) and did a quick walk through the downtown area.  There are lots of cute shops and I'm sure we'll be back.  After leaving Galena we
The only spot that's dry is our site
decided to check out our future home at Pleasant Creek Corps of Engineers Park.  This park is in Iowa on the banks of the Mississippi River.  Actually, once we got there, we discovered that it's no longer on the banks!  The park is pretty much all underwater and it doesn't look like we will be camp-hosting any time soon :(.   We may get in there early June but if it keeps raining maybe we won't be camp-hosting at all.

Our future home - bring your own boat!
We did a little more exploring on Saturday.  We took the country road from our campground and headed south, ending up at Mississippi Palisades State Park in Savannah, IL.  We stopped for a few photos at a couple of scenic overlooks and then took the bridge over the Mississippi into Iowa.
Mississippi Palisades State Park in Savannah, IL

Looking out over the Mississippi River

Photo taken in the infrared spectrum
We stopped again at our future home to see if things had improved in the last 24 hours - they haven't.  We continued our drive on 52 and decided to check out the "Crystal Cave" near  Dubuque.

Here's the story of the Crystal Cave - in 1868 lead miners drilled 40' into the ground looking for lead.  They didn't find much lead but they did discover a natural cave.  In 1932, Bernard Markus (not Merkes - darn!), one of the original lead miners opened it to the public naming it Crystal Lake Cave.  The cave maintains a constant temperature of 51 degrees which would make it a nice place to spend a hot July afternoon.   We took the 45 minute tour and Marty took lots of pictures of the photogenic stalacites and stalagmites.  It was a pretty cool cave with some tight passageways, low ceilings, and little brown bats hanging from the ceiling (luckily not in the low ceiling part!)

Brown Bat just hanging around
Now entering the Bat Cave aka the Crystal Cave

Stalactites grow from the ceiling and hang down.  Stalagmites are the lower formations.

That's it for this week, it's nice to be back in Illinois, 

5/5 thru 5/12/14 - Back in the Midwest

I-80 in Nebraska, will it ever end?

Well the funeral home photography job in Boulder didn't pan out so we left Longmont, Colorado around 10:30 Monday morning (5/5) and drove east thru Nebraska on I-80.   Nebraska is one long (about 450 miles) and boring state!  We spent our first night on the road at Walmart in North Platte and then continued East on I-80 until we finally left Nebraska and arrived at our home for the next 8 nights - Neola, Iowa (just east of Council Bluffs).   We are staying at a small but very nice county park - Arrowhead Park.  The campsites including electricity are $15.00 per night, you can't beat that!  There are a few hiking trails here and a small fishing lake.  They even rent canoes and paddleboats.   This is one of the prettiest parks we've stayed at.  There are only 4 or 5 other campers here and we are off by ourselves on the banks of a small creek.  This may change on the weekend but for now it's just about perfect.   I am sitting outside right now writing on my iPad, looking over the creek and listening to the birds.  Life is good!
The view out our front window
We did a little exploring on Tuesday and drove into Council Bluffs, Iowa to check out the "squirrel jail".   It is not a jail for bad squirrels (although some of them need one) but rather a circular jail with pie-shaped cells.   There are three floors and there was one entrance to each level.   The cell blocks rotated, if the warden needed to get to a prisoner he would rotate the opening to that cell to get access.

The jail remained open until 1969.  Today it's run by the Historical Society of Pottawatamie County.  According to some history buffs it's one of Council Bluffs most haunted buildings.  Paranormal groups often visit on weekend nights and the public is occasionally invited to special ghost-hunting events.

 There are only three of these jails left (none being used for prisoners) and one of the others is in Crawfordsville, IN which is the town my grandmotherr grew up in.  We will definitely be checking that one out. 


Our next stop on this very hot day (temps hit 95 degrees - yuk!!) was to the Lewis and Clark Monument which overlooks the Missouri River.  Council Bluffs was named for the1804 meeting of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with the Otoe Indian Tribe on the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River as they began their exploration of the Louisiana Purchase Territory.
Lewis and Clark Monument looking west over the Missouri River

We'll have a barrel of fun . . .

We got back in the car and headed back to check out Neola.  This town is tiny, only about 850 people.  There is one small grocery store, and a couple of small restaurants which I'm sure we will be checking out before we leave.   We drove a little further east to another small town, Minden.  We were just going to pass thru but saw a junky looking 2nd hand shop and decided to stop.  I am now the very proud owner of a windup Santa Claus holding an accordian that plays the Beer Barrel Polka!  My siblings will understand how cool that is (at least my sisters will).

Danish Windmill in Elkhorn, IA
On Friday (5/9), we checked out the town of Elkhorn, Iowa which is famous for its windmill.  Elkhorn has one of the largest concentrations of Danes in the U.S. (who knew?) and one of the townspeople, Harvey Sorenson was traveling through Denmark and noticed all the windmills there.  He thought it would be a nice way to celebrate the U.S. Bicentennial and also bring in some tourist dollars to his town.  He convinced the people of Elkhorn that this would be a worthwhile project.  They found an old mill in Norre Sneade, Jutland Denmark, and within ten weeks the mill was found, puchased, packaged, and delivered to American  - arriving in Elkhorn in February of 1976.  When it was dismantled in Denmark each piece was numbered so that it could more easily be reassembled.  A scale model was also built in Denmark and sent to Iowa for reference.  Over three hundred volunteers put in their time to complete the project.  The total cost of the project including transporting it from Denmark was $100,000.00.

Inside the windmill
I still don't like heights!
On the same property as the windmill is the Morning Star Chapel.  This chapel was built by Charles Wolensky in 1951 when he was 83!  He built it in his backyard and opened it to the public as a place for prayer, worship, and meditation.  It is six feet wide, eight feet long and sixteen feet tall.  There are four small pews and a pulpit.  The chapel was donated to The Danish Immigrant Museum in 1995.  
The tiny Morning Star Chapel
When we came back from our Friday adventures our campground was beginning to fill up and by Saturday morning it looked about 90% filled.  We were very happy that this is a first-come, first-served campground and that we had a site for the weekend.

On Saturday we drove back across the Missouri River to Nebraska to check out a few estate sales.  We went to four but didn't find anything to re-sell on ebay.  I did pick up another scrabble game and one of these days I really will do a craft project with all these scrabble tiles that I keep buying - anyone have any good ideas (or old scrabble games)?

Sunday was very low-key, we visited the laundromat in Council Bluffs and then hung out around the campground.  As we were watching television we heard a strange tapping noise so we had to check it out - it was a Baltimore Oriole tapping on our bedroom window at his reflection, so funny!
Hey, you're hot
How much is that birdie in the window?

Bird Brain
Storms came in Sunday night but despite all the warnings on television we just had a lot of rain.  The Omaha area (just 30 miles west of us) was hit hard with high winds and hail and even reports of tornado touch-downs so we were very lucky that we just had rain.  If there had been any sirens going off we would have headed to the cinder-block bathrooms and prayed a lot.

When we woke up Monday morning most of the other campers were gone and we were back to only about four rigs in the whole park, just the way we like it.

Geese are our only neighbors but they are sure a lot louder than the human ones!
We are planning to stay here until Wednesday and then head to the Mississippi River for our Camp Hosting assignment near Dubuque.  Not sure yet if the campground is ready for us, they closed it recently due to the overflowing banks of the river - stay tuned!

4/24 thru 5/5/14 - Rocky Mountain Hi

We left Las Vegas on Thursday morning (4/24) with our rig all repaired and looking brand new.   Our destination was the Denver area via I-15 and I-70 thru Utah and Colorado.   This was our first trip with the rig through the Rockies!

The drive through Utah was beautiful - unfortunately it's not that easy to pull over for photos when we are driving with the rig so the  photos were taken from the car.

We could easily spend a few months in Utah starting in the North around Salt Lake City and heading south towards Zion National Park.  We just need to time it right so we have nice weather. 

We stopped for the night in Salina, Utah at a hole-in-the wall place called the Butch Cassidy RV Park.  Butch Cassidy was from this area and the locals take great pride in this claim to fame.  The manager at the park has read many books about Butch Cassidy and based on what she's read believes he did not die in Bolivia but lived a long life and died of old age in Utah. 

The unique feature of this park was their aviary.  Here we are in the middle of nowhere and they have an aviary - you never know what you'll find in this country.

White Peacock
Wild Turkey
Chinese Golden Pheasant
On Friday morning (4/25) we took a drive to the nearest post office to drop off flat Stanley. He is on his way back to Chicago :(.   Then we stopped at Denny's for breakfast and headed back to the rig.  We were all hitched up and back on the road by 11:00. We drove about 260 miles to our next destination, the Walmart parking lot in Rifle, Colorado.   It's free (except for what we buy) and it was right off the highway.   There was even a Starbucks across the street - what more do you need?  When we started our travels we thought we would spend more time in Walmart Parking lots but so far have only done 3 Walmarts, 1 Lowe's, and 1 Camping World.  They are wonderful places to spend one night.  They are usually right off the interstate and it's much easier (and cheaper) to pull into a Walmart than try to find a campground for just one night.

From the time we left Las Vegas on Thursday I was looking for a place to stay in the Denver area.  It was much more difficult than I expected I and was beginning to panic.   We have never had a problem finding a place but as the weather warms up it looks like it may be getting harder.   It didn't help that we were looking on the weekend.   The state parks were all booked up and the private parks were more money than we wanted to spend.   I even posted on a FB RV group to ask for advice.  We had found one park that might be a possibility but the office closed at 4:30 and I called at 4:37 (left a message and sent am email)  This was all on Friday!   The thought of getting to a busy city like Denver with no place to stay except Walmart was driving me nuts. Luckily, Debbie from the Boulder County Fairground Campground in Longmont, CO called us early Saturday morning and had room for us so we will be there thru Sunday or Monday (5/4 or 5/5).   That made the drive thru the Rockies much less stressful!
Driving through and over the Rockies (photo taken from car)

Our drive on Saturday was 217 miles mostly on I-70 going east over the Rockies.  The highest point was over 11,000 feet high and our truck handled it just fine.    We got to our campground around 2:30 and got set up.  They don't turn on the spigots at each campsite until May 1st so we filled up our water tank at the main pump (they've had frozen pipes in the past all thru April).  There is even a possibility of snow here on Sunday.

This campground isn't anything special, campsites are close together and there's only a few picnic tables but it works just fine for us.  It is a fairground so there are barns and exhibition buildings and even an indoor and outdoor arena.  The campground is separated from the buildings by a small road.

On Sunday morning we were all set to go for a walk and explore the area but when we cut through the fairground buildings we discovered there was going to be an auction.  Goodbye walk and goodbye Maddie, we took her back to the rig and we headed back for the auction.   It was amazing how much stuff they fit into one big room!  The auction was scheduled to run from Noon until everything was sold, they anticipated finishing up by 8:00 p.m.  We lasted about 6 1/2 hours with one break! There was a lot of furniture and a lot of knick-knacks and by the time we left around 6:30 things were going for pretty cheap.  The auctioneer even handed one young man a dollar to buy an iron bed that no one else would bid on! 
I had my own number and wasn't afraid to use it!
They sold all these hats as one lot and they went for about $40.00

The weather in this part of Colorado has been pretty blustery.  Winds were blowing about 40-50 miles an hour and further east on I-70 there were quite a few overturned semi's.   West of us, in the Rockies, there was more snow.  It looks like, even with the cooler temps and high winds, we chose a good place to spend the week.
On Tuesday we played tourist.  Our first stop was in Boulder where we saw the house that was used in the TV Show "Mork and Mindy".  This show ran from 1978 until 1982 and I was a huge fan (I even had a Mork t-shirt).  Does that make me a Mork Dork? 

The house is a private residence located in a historic section of Boulder.  The owners don't mind you taking pictures as long as they're taken from the sidewalk. 

After that trip down memory lane we drove to the headquarters of Celestial Seasoning for a tea tour.
We saw a short movie about the company and about tea production (very short because we came in late).  Then we took a tour of the factory and got a whiff of the peppermint room - wow!  We also saw the different conveyor belts packaging up the tea for shipments all over the world.   When the tour ends they open the door and you are in the gift shop - how does that always happen?  We skipped the gift shop (for the moment) and went to the Tea Tasting Room.  I have never been a tea drinker but did try most of the samples and I really liked the Bengal Spice Herbal Tea.  Of course that meant we had to go back to the gift shop so I could buy some :).  It looks like I may become a tea drinker, who would have thought it?  It only took me 50+ years to start drinking coffee so I guess I'm just a late bloomer.

We learned one other thing about the Celestial Seasoning Company, something they're not very proud of.  Back in 1999 it was part of their routine maintenace program to posion the prairie dogs that made their homes on the plant's property.  From what I learned from a CNN article, it is legal to poison or shoot prairie dogs in Colorado if they are causing property damage.  "The pro-prairie dog community in Boulder was outraged when the company, noted for its environmentally friendly practices, didn't look into relocating the animals."    Due to the uproar from the community and their own employees, the company stopped the poisoning and now accepts prairie dogs relocated from other areas.  
Prairie Dogs now make their home on land across from the parking lot at Celestial Seasonings.
We came to the Boulder area because Marty was hired to do a job at a Funeral Home in Boulder.  They needed photos for their website.  We drove over to the funeral home on Tuesday after our touring to check it out.  It's very close to where we're staying and after talking to the Funeral Director Marty was all set to do the job on Thursday.  However, wouldn't you know it, when he got there on Thursday afternoon there was a very large wake going on so the job had to be put on hold.  Hopefully they will re-schedule it soon as we are planning to leave the area by Monday (5/5).   We can be flexible and stay a few days longer if necessary (the beauty of being full-timers).

On Friday (5/2), the Mile High Merkes Family came for a visit.  That would be my cousin Duane, his wife Asha, and their children - Nissi (9), Joash (4), Boaz (2), and Rinnah (4 months).  They live in Denver, about 45 minutes away.  It was great to see them all (I really needed a little kid fix) and we had a wonderful afternoon visit with them.  We had a barbque and even though Maddie (bad dog) stole 3 1/2 raw hamburgers off the picnic table we still had plenty to eat.  After lunch we took a walk over to the pottery/glass show at the exhibition building. Two little boys and pottery on tables - are we crazy?  These kids are very well behaved and there were no problems at all.  We then walked over to the Longmont Humane Society which is right next to our campground.  The kids really enjoyed seeing all the dogs and cats and I think Asha and Duane were very glad to get out of there without any new pets.  Speaking of pets, I almost convinced Joash to stay with us and let his mom and dad take Maddie - almost but no-go.  The kids are all adorable and fun to be with, we gave them some bubbles to play with (thanks, Jan!) and they had a ball.  Duane claims his driveway is long enough for our rig so, who knows, maybe the next time we're in Colorado we'll spend a night by them.

Duane, Mary holding Boaz, Asha holding Rinnah, Nissi, and Joash (and Maddie)

Proud Papa
Who's walking who?
Joash - looks just like his daddy!
Duane, when he was young

This kid is just too cute!  Marty is holding the camera with his mouth and spinning the kid around using both hands

We did another tourist day on Saturday and drove west to the Rockies.  We went into Rocky Mountain National Park via Estes Park.  It's beautiful but there is still a lot of snow in the higher elevations so we only got to go a short distance before we came to where the road was closed. 
Why did the mule deer cross the road?  To stop all the traffic in Estes Park!

A good photographer doesn't let a little thing like a closed road stop him.

That's it for this week.  Hopefully we hear back from the funeral director on Monday, if not we will be leaving Colorado Monday and heading east through Nebraska to our final destination of Bellevue, Iowa.  We will be camp hosting on the Mississippi River near Bellevue from May 15th until July 15th.