The Strato Bowl is the best of both worlds for us: Hiking for me, aviation for Mike. It was the such a fun Labor Day outing. We got some exercise, enjoyed incredible views and learned something new about aviation history.
The Stratobowl is a small, flat valley completely surrounded by the Black Hills where some of the first early manned balloon flights were launched in the 1930s. In 1934 and 1935, the Army Air Corps and National Geographic Society launched manned balloon flights into the stratosphere from this location to a record 72,395 feet. The Explorer II flight proved man could survive the altitude in a pressurized capsule, an important part of the space program and our quest to walk on the moon. Since then, the Stratobowl has hosted aviation pioneers Ed Yost, Steve Fossett, Troy Bradley and others.
The view is spectacular. There are few places where you will see such an interesting view including pine-covered hills, wide blue skies and the small stream that winds through that peculiar flat valley nestled between the Hills.
Dogs are welcome on this 1.7-mile, moderately trafficked out-and-back trail. To get there, take Mount Rushmore Road into the Black Hills (16). Stay on 16 past Reptile Gardens and Bear Country USA. Just past the service station is a small parking area on the right-hand side (westbound), marked by powerlines.
We’ve been in Rapid City since the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Mike was doing some work at the Rally, and then we stayed to make repairs on our travel trailer. (More about that later!) Since our savings have been nearly exhausted with making repairs, we’ve been focused on fun, free things we can do in the area. And thankfully there’s a lot of that in Rapid City . . . especially if you ride the motorcycle to get there!
Storybook Island is a super cool kids park that has a whole bunch of “sets” based on characters and locations found in children’s books. I was bummed to find out that we’d JUST missed their season when we got there (on September 17, 2016). The picnicking area is open all year long, but the theme park is only open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. But I still managed to snap some pics through the chain link fence.
Check it out to get a flavor of this place that’s perfect for the young and the young-at-heart.
Truck stop food isn’t always the greatest, but every now and then, there’s something especially yummy. At the Iron Skillet at the Petro in Ontario, California, I found a gem: Pineapple M&M Cake. It was so pretty with colorful mini M&Ms on top and plenty of sweet pineapple filling between layers of yellow cake. John, the semi truck driver, got a piece and kindly allowed me to have a single, luscious bite.
Heavenly! I instantly had a very strong urge to dash to the buffet and haul the entire cake over to our table. Good manners kept me from doing it, but it was a close call! Here’s a recipe to try at home.
- 1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter
- 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
- 3 large eggs
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 1/4 cups whole milk (to increase the pineapple flavor, sub 1/4 cup pineapple juice for part of the milk)
- 1/2 cup pineapple filling
- 1 can whipped white frosting (or your favorite homemade frosting)
- 1 bag mini M&Ms
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Grease and flour two round nine-inch cake pans.
- Cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
- Add eggs, one at a time, and continue beating. Mix in the vanilla and salt.
- When well incorporated, add the baking powder, and then the flour and milk a little at a time, alternating the two.
- On medium speed, beat the batter for about 2 minutes, until thick and creamy.
- Split the batter evenly between the two cake cake pans.
- Bake for 30 to 35 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
- Set aside cakes to cool.
- Spread about 1/2 a cup of frosting on the bottom layer of the cake, to about a 1/2 inch from the edge. Then top with the same amount of pineapple filling.
- Carefully place the top layer on, and frost the top and sides of the cake.
- Sprinkle the top with mini M&Ms.
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We’re nearing the end of this stretch of the Project LiveWire tour as the execs finish riding down Route 66. We remain on the highway that roughly parallels the historic route. Because the LiveWire semi, with the charging stations and motorcycle parts, is 73 feet long, it can’t park just anywhere. So we spend a lot of time in truck stops, swapping bikes out and overnighting. Mostly we’ve been able to empty our tanks at the truck stops, but the Flying J dump station in Kingman was closed when we were there. We were full, so we had to find another place quick. That place turned out to be the Calizona RV Park, which was kind of en route to Barstow, where we’d be stopping for the night. They didn’t have a dump station, but the manager graciously led us to a full hook-up spot and charged us $10 to dump and replenish our fresh water.
It’s kind of a bummer that we’ve been confined to truck stops because we’re missing out on a lot of cool touristy stuff. But sometimes the truck stops are pretty cool themselves. Like the one off of I-40 near Goffs, California. Goffs was a famous Route 66 stop until 1931 when a more direct route between Needles and Essex made it obsolete. Now the one-time railroad town is practically deserted, but it remains a popular destination.
The truck stop catches your eye right as you drive in. Look to the right, and you’ll see a narrow man-made lake with fountains jetting streams of water high into the air. In a mix of classic and kitschy motifs, a couple of the fountains are bronze naked ladies in seashells, and one is a trio of flamingos. Concrete tables and benches look out over the water, and the tabletops are painted with colorful murals. One I saw was covered with pastel flavors; another was decorated like a pepperoni and mushroom pizza with a slice missing.
I loved the giant yellow letters spelling out GAS in the parking lot. No way you’re gonna miss that as you’re driving by! The convenience store at the stop includes a restaurant. Order from the cashier. If you don’t want to eat outside, your food will be delivered to one of the wrought iron tables next to a display of t-shirts and Jehovah’s Witnesses literature. Mike and I split a cheeseburger. They cut it in half for us, and it was well done, just like we asked. Fries are extra, but the burger couldn’t have tasted better.
The drive to Kingman should have been an easy one, and it was…until we unloaded bikes at the Shell Station in Seligman, Arizona. As the lift gate was coming down, there was a pop, and the right side of it drooped. Oops! It’s not really surprising that something like this happened. That lift gate is going up and down three or four times a day right now, and I’m not sure it was built for that kind of use. On the plus side, we had already exchanged the bikes for the execs, so they’d gone on their way. And we were in a truck stop, off the highway.
As Mike and John tried to figure out what was wrong, they discovered that John had inadvertently parked the semi next to poop…human poop! With toilet paper and everything! Ewwwww!! So, as they were working on the lift gate issue, the smell of poop was everywhere, and it only got stronger as the temps rose. Blech! I felt particularly lucky to be doing my freelance work inside the RV that day.
Eventually, the guys determined that they didn’t have the equipment to fix the gate, so a repairman was called out. While we were waiting, bikers came in and out of the truck stop and posed for pictures with the semi and the bike. When a group of 20 French bikers showed up, I used my French to let them know it was okay to sit on the bike and take photos.
Once the repairman arrived, he had the gate problem taken care of in just a few minutes, and the guys were quickly loading the bikes back into the rig. Aside from the poop, the truck stop wasn’t too bad. It had a well-stocked convenience store along with fuel pumps and a shop filled with Indian crafts. The stuff outside was pretty, but I didn’t dare venture inside to check it out. There’s no room for more trinkets in here!
After overnighting in Holbrook, Arizona, before we took off for the next leg, I rode the lift on the semi up top where the electric bikes were charging. It’s cool up there, but even I have to hunch over to get back the bikes, and I’m only 5’2″ and a half! There are metal bars that fit into slots along the walls to brace the bikes. They’re sturdy enough to sit on, so you can give your back a break.
The execs riding the LiveWires stopped in Winslow and by the meteor crater for photos while we went ahead to our meeting place in Flagstaff. We parked the RV across the lot from the semi and decided to grab lunch before everyone arrived. On our way to the restaurant in the Little America, we saw a very rare Airstream motorhome at the gas station. It was in great shape. Mike talked to the guy who owned it and found out that he’d replaced the 454 gas motor with a Cummins diesel engine. To be honest, I was a little envious of the Airstream. Our RV is nice, especially inside, but it’s in that awful middle ground between not being new and not being vintage. It’s just a little shabby on the outside without the Airstream’s retro flair. Oh well! We have plans to make the outside a little distinctive. 😉
The view from the restaurant was gorgeous! After the hectic first week of daily travel, looking out onto tree-lined walkways and seeing bunny rabbits dashing among the bushes was so refreshing. Mike and have been cutting down our expenses and calorie intake by sharing meals, so we split a hamburger. The waitress was awesome. She cut the burger for us and served each half on its own plate with a small side of fries and individual accompaniments. She didn’t even charge us a split fee!
When we got back, before the execs arrived, I had the chance to walk Sadie off the leash. The bark babies so rarely get off-leash time these days. Sadie loves to meander at her own pace and soak up the sun. She was digging the Arizona rays.
We spent that night at the Harley dealership in Bellemont. We had to get up at the crack of dawn to roll toward Kingman, but it was worth it to see the glorious sunrise.
I’d never visited New Mexico, so I had high hopes that I might be able to explore a little bit while the dealer event was going on. Mike didn’t think he’d be needed once the bikes were unloaded, so when we pulled into the mall parking area adjacent to the dealership, I was excited. Just a few minutes to wait, and Mike and I could take off, maybe pop into a coffee shop or something. My excitement quickly turned to disappointment when Mike came back and announced that he’d have to be there for the entire meet-n-greet. It ended up that there were over 2,000 people there, so Mike needed to stay to talk about the bike. I took the dogs on the walk around the business complex and sourly took a picture of my shoes by a manhole cover. This was, unfortunately, the extent of my sightseeing in Albuquerque.
We overnighted at the Route 66 Casino Hotel, a few miles outside of Albuquerque. With the flashing lights and the clang of the slot machines, I felt like I was back in Vegas again, and it cheered me up. I cheered up even more after we ate dinner at Thunder Road Steakhouse & Cantina. The ambiance was great, and the food was delicious. The place really set itself apart with the salsa bar. There was a black bean salsa, thick with beans and onions. I particularly liked the yellow salsa, although I didn’t have a clue what was in it. Not sure if the chips were homemade, but they were strong enough to hold the piles. For dinner, Mike and I shared a shredded beef taco plate. Yum!
I don’t like black coffee, but to finish up the meal, I had to try the Cafe de Oya: fresh pressed coffee with cinnamon and orange zest, served with biscochitos. I normally have to have my java all gooped up with some sort of non-fat milk and stevia or another zero-calorie sweetener. This brew was delicious without any cream or sugar. It didn’t come in decaf, so I brought most of it back to the RV to warm up the next morning. Mike’s dessert was the apple and cherry crisp a la mode. It was heavenly, but the maraschino cherries made it super sweet after a while. Mike, driver John and I shared tastes of it, but we still didn’t finish it.
After all that food, we were glad to have a rather long walk back to the truck and coach. We needed to burn off those calories!
After a whirlwind day in Chicago and a stop at Doc’s dealership outside St. Louis, we were headed toward Oklahoma City. Since we were spending the night in Springfield, Missouri, we reached out to our friends John and Sandy to see if they could meet us for a late dinner. Mike met them years ago when they were traveling Dyno operators. Good, good people. They live in Joplin, about 45 minutes away, but they made the trip. We had dinner at the Travel America restaurant with them and the semi truck driver John. The food was so-so, but the company was terrific. I’m still amazed by how many wonderful people we get to see all over the country.
It wasn’t the prettiest truck stop. The blacktop was extra cracked and spotted with even more oil than usual. The field adjacent to it, where we walked the dogs, was littered with trash where the pavement and the grass met. But, in the morning light, the rolls of hay cast long shadows over the green, and I could almost imagine I was sipping from a steaming mug of coffee, looking out from the porch of a cozy farmhouse.
We left Milwaukee around 5 o’clock on June 30th, following the truck. As an intense storm rolled in, we kept our eyes on the iconic bar and shield in front of us. We pulled into McCormick Place a couple of hours later and paid $30 to stay overnight in a pothole-filled parking lot with no services.
We were up at 5 to unload bikes and get them polished up for the day’s events. The first stop was the Route 66 sign in downtown Chicago. I hitched a ride in the PR team’s car. I had my window down to take pictures, and I could see Mike in the side mirror, talking to other drivers about the bike. (He looked like Marvin the Martian with the GoPro mount on his helmet!) People had lots of questions. One person even asked him to pull over!
The next stop was the Merchandise Mart. Mike and a marketing exec rode the bikes into the freight elevator up to 1871 Chicago, a co-working space for technology startups on the 12th. There was a media interview and a presentation about the project. In a few hours, the event wrapped up, and they rode the bikes out again. Apparently, the LiveWire rides very smoothly at 2 mph and, of course, it’s quiet. Perfect for darting in between the laptop-packed tables.
The freight elevator was kinda neat. It was large enough to hold a small car. It had its own attendant, who in turn had his own folding chair and a hard-wired telephone.
When all the promotional stuff was done, we disconnected the Jeep from the RV and grabbed a late lunch with John, the truck driver, at the White Palace Grill, which has been featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives. We had less than 24 hours in Chicago, but we made the most of it!
Since early this year, Mike’s been working on a top-secret project for Harley. He couldn’t even tell me about it. Project LiveWire is an electric motorcycle, Harley’s first. Mike’s unique blend of old-school mechanic skills and an affiinity for the latest technology made him ideal for this project. He’s the lead mechanic touring the West Coast to show off these handcrafted, limited edition electric bikes. We spent several weeks in Milwaukee as Mike, along with the East Coast lead mechanic, helped the engineers build bikes, tested them, ordered parts, and learned everything about the roadshow.
The project was announced on June 19th, and the West Coast tour kicked off at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee on bike night. I got to see the bike and sit on it and meet the crew that we’re touring with. It was a great evening. I was – and still am – so proud of Mike!
The bike is very sleek and weighs just 464 pounds. There’s no back seat, unfortunately, so I haven’t gotten to experience it. But Mike says is the most fun bike he’s ever ridden. It goes about 50 miles on a charge, but it can’t be plugged into a standard outlet. The truck we’re following in the RV contains the specialized chargers and holds 11 LiveWires as well as two Streets. Our tour is taking us down Route 66 to California. Then we’re veering north to Denver, Bellevue and Portland before heading back to California and wrapping up in Texas in December.
Right now, Harley execs are part of the caravan, riding the bikes for a few miles down Route 66 during the day and staying in hotels at night. There’ve also been a couple of meet-n-greets at dealerships. It’s been stressful because Mike’s working long hours – getting the bikes ready, swapping them out and waiting for people and supplies to arrive – and driving the RV, although I help out with the driving as much as he’ll let me. We’re in a different city every day, so there’s almost no time to go sightseeing. In a couple of weeks, though, we’ll be lingering in one city for a few days, which’ll be really nice.
The tour has its challenges, but it’s amazing to be part of history in the making.