Chapter 1.  Crossing the United States

© Bert & Shari Frenz, 2011 All rights reserved.

Day minus 7 – May 20, 2011 – Pierre, SD

(Bert) Shari and I started from the Mexico border at Mission, Texas, on May 4, stopping frequently on our way to the Canada border. Crossing Texas on a diagonal, emerging from the Panhandle, we traversed 1140 miles in that state alone, then quickly crossed Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska. Now in the center of South Dakota, we are most of the way to Canada, but it will be a total 2562 miles before we reach Rugby, close to the Canada border. While Texas is dry, the heartland is wet and in Kansas we stayed tuned to news of tornados. Since entering South Dakota, we drive in light rains and overcast skies. Flooded fields and roadsides delight Mallards and Blue-winged Teal. I see my first Yellow-headed Blackbird of the trip and a Wild Turkey as well, but the rain keeps me from seeing much else of interest while cruising northward on US 83. When will the rains stop?

(Shari) In 1996 when we started our RV adventures, we took Highway 89 from Texas to the Canada border. This year, on our way to Manitoba, we have stayed on Highway 83, again from Texas, through Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and, soon, North Dakota. Tonight we are in Farm Island Recreation Area, Pierre, South Dakota. As we back into our spot facing the Missouri River, our tires dig deep drenches into the rain-drenched gravel. I tell Bert to stop as I fear he may get stuck. I just hope and pray that we will be able to get out again. Hopefully it won’t rain, although the forecast has the words “thundershowers” in it.

Day minus 6 – May 21 – Farm Island Recreation Area, SD

(Shari) Today the weather is lovely, a welcome change from the past two days of drizzle.
We have our bicycles along with us and the park is a beautiful place to bike. This weekend, family activities abound at the park and we see kids and parents fishing the banks of the river, standing so close together it looks like combat fishing during salmon season in Alaska. We watch a model airplane demonstration and I even get to “fly” one of the planes myself. I say myself but I am tethered to the instructor and he takes over on numerous occasions when the plane begins to dive too steeply. I never get the hang of it. We continue our ride on the trails made over 60 years ago by the CCC, a group my dad often talked about. Over 40% of the population of South Dakota got income from the Civilian Conservation Corp camps, one of those “welfare” programs that helped millions of people during the depression that would never get passed today with our constantly debating politicians. We get back for a late lunch at R-Tent-III, the nickname of our 41-foot Dutch Star motorhome. It starts to rain and I worry about getting R-Tent-III out again.

(Bert) Late yesterday, Shari found a great camping site along the Missouri River, one of the same spots Lewis and Clark stopped during their expedition. We enjoyed our first spring of 2011 in early March and now, two and a half months later, spring has arrived in glorious green colors to South Dakota. Vibrantly fresh tree leaves, lush grass wet with rain, dandelions at the peak of their golden glory, transparent blue skies and a freshness that smells of new growth permeate our senses as we bicycle around the recreation area. Families with young children – mostly fathers and sons – are enjoying the first good day of fishing. They are competing with 15 White Pelicans intent on fishing as a cohesive flock. Choosing a rounded corner of the lake, the pelicans swim side-by-side, first away from the beach, then turning on a dime in unison, then swimming to shore and at the point it is shallowest, together they dip their big heads and outlandish bills into the water to scoop up fish. They repeat their collective action at the same fishing hole for hours, with such precision one would think they had military marching training. It’s a great day for birding too and I check off 42 species. Some, such as the dozens of Marsh Wrens, have set up nesting territories. Others, like the female Blackpoll Warbler, are still migrating north, as we are too.

Day minus 5 – May 22 – Hazelton, ND

(Shari) Upon our departure, I remove a stake that I am afraid Bert might hit as he surely does not want to back up once he gets going. I watch the rear tires as he gingerly presses the pedal. No problem, the tires have the traction needed to get out of the ruts made two days ago. Our problems start later in the day. We are on our way to Gettysburg, SD to Emmanuel Lutheran Church, a church where Bert’s cousin’s son has been a pastor for almost a year now. We definitely surprise him and he and his wife seem delighted to have guests. We are introduced to the congregation and everyone is just very friendly. We take him and his family out to the only restaurant open for lunch in this town of 1500 people and have a surprisingly good buffet and wonderful conversation.

We say our goodbyes to the family and head north. Yesterday, I noticed we were having trouble getting up hills. When I said something to Bert he just said the hills were steep. Today he agrees with me and we travel about 100 miles and limp into a town campground. The engine acts like the fuel filter is clogged but we just had it changed before leaving Texas. Bert drains some fuel into a glass and it looks clean. I read about all sorts of horrendous and expensive things that could cause the problem. I guess I will have another sleepless night, worrying about the engine. This trip is getting costly, as our refrigerator went out on Thursday. We found a repair place in North Platte, Nebraska. The mechanic replaced the expensive circuit board and two hours later got our troublesome tow lights functioning again. The bill came to $565.

Day minus 4 – May 23 – Minot, ND

(Bert) The problem surfaced two days ago, although I thought little of it at first. But yesterday afternoon, I was certain we were in trouble. I don’t think of North Dakota as being a hilly state, though our diesel engine certainly made us aware of the inclined highway. Petal to the metal, R-Tent-III slowed from my cruising speed of 58 mph to 45 on the slightest incline and, on the steepest of the hills, to 35. We’ve had this happen before: once in a remote area of West Texas near the New Mexico border and another time while climbing the White Mountains of Vermont. The problem is compounded because this time I am not carrying a spare fuel filter and finding a replacement is not easy. Last night at our campsite in Hazelton, I drained a half glassful of diesel fuel from the filter. It ran clear, without water and just a few granules of black particles. This morning I stop at the mechanics shop a few blocks away and show him the glass contents. He agrees; it looks okay. Nonetheless, all the evidence points to a dirty fuel filter so he searches for a replacement. He comes back empty handed, but he has located one in Bismarck.

With trepidation, we drive the 60 miles to Bismarck, fearing we will come to a dead stop on the intervening hills. To our surprise, the motor coach drives as if nothing is wrong. Whatever the problem, it appears to have ended and the Freightliner service technician suggests we do not change the filter. But to be safe we purchase a replacement. It is off to Minot now, our second detour to avoid washed out roads from the extensive spring floods across the North Dakota prairies that only added more water to the substantial snow melt from winter.

The problem returns, worse than ever. It seems to take forever to reach Minot when half the time we are climbing at 35 mph. I pull into the Freightliner parking lot and minutes later we hear the disappointing news that they cannot change the fuel filter until four days from now. The Cummins dealership is next door, so I move the RV to the road in front of their building. Their technicians are backed up too, but can spare the 30 min. to replace the fuel filter. Soon we are staring at a dirty filter topped with numerous pieces of black crude of unknown origin. Where did it come from? The work goes quickly, the filter is replaced, I start the engine and we are all smiles that we will soon be on our way again.

Not to be. The engine dies and no amount of cranking gets it to restart over the next half hour. To my surprise, I find out the technician did not first fill the filter with diesel fuel. A trained mechanic, he says on Cummins engines they leave the filter dry for restarting. We have a Caterpillar engine and I tell him the filter should have been filled first. He has run out of ideas on how to start the engine and has no knowledge of how Caterpillar engines are designed. Shari is on the phone again, calling the mechanic shop across the highway. The service technician says if the Cummins’ guys can’t start it, neither can they. Shari locates a Caterpillar dealership on the phone and they know how to start the engine, but cannot work on it until June.

We walk back to the Freightliner shop and Shari puts on her most pleading and desperate voice. It works! The service manager will send over a mechanic to start the engine. Fifteen minutes later two mechanics arrive, study the engine for a few minutes and then tell me to try starting the engine. I turn the key and look through my rearview mirror to see one the mechanics with a spray can sending a plume of ether high on the coach where the engine’s air intake opens to the outside. The engine jumps to life, then sputters in death. We try again and this time it stays running as I keep the petal to the metal and let the diesel engine roar in new found life. With enough excitement for one day, we drive a few blocks to a muddy campground for the night.

(Shari) As I posted to my Facebook wall, “I have all but time on my hands and worry in my heart.” As soon as I awoke this morning, we drove to the town garage where Bert visited earlier. The mechanic there thinks we have a clogged fuel filter but he does not have the part. Our only option is to drive to Bismarck, about 60 miles down the road. I drive the car separately so as not to tax the motorhome engine unnecessarily. Miraculously, the motorhome does not lug and as Bert says, “It is like having a heart attack, taking an aspirin, and the pain goes away.”

Ah, the symptom may go away but not the underlying cause. We reattach the car to the RV before entering I-94 and travel the next 30 miles in ease. Nevertheless, we stop at the Freightliner service center anyway. Taking their advice we buy a spare fuel filter and continue on our way. Not 10 miles into our way north again, the engine acts up. I want to turn around but Bert keeps on trucking, I suppose hoping that the problem will go away again. But the problem gets worse and worse and by the time we reach Minot, the engine cannot go faster than 30 mph even on minor inclines.

We head for Freightliner of Minot and are told they cannot look at the RV until Friday. That is unacceptable as our caravan starts Thursday. I walk over to the Cummins center next door and they take pity on us and change the fuel filter for us even though they are not authorized Caterpillar dealers. That fact should have waved a warning signal but it did not. We were just so happy someone would look at it. The mechanic walks to the street where we are parked, crawls under the unit and twists and turns the fuel filter off. The filter is covered with black stuff looking like rubbery leeches. He puts on the new filter and tells us to start the engine. The engine runs for about two minutes and then just quits and no matter what we do, it will not start. Now we are in a pickle since we are dead in the water on the road. The only way we will go any place is to get towed. The Cummins dealer does not know what is wrong and washes his hands of us. I call the authorized Caterpillar dealer in town and he suggests I get towed to his center and he will look at it on or about June 1st. JUNE 1st I almost yell. I tell him we are due in Rugby on Thursday. He says he is sorry but offers no help.

I then call a mobile garage across the street and he promises to send a mechanic in a couple of hours to take a look. I then decide to go back to our first service center and lay out my story. I tell Bert to let me do the talking. I give the service manager the details of what happened since we saw him earlier in the day. I tell them that the Cummins dealer took pity on us and offered to change the filter but now can’t get it started and they are stymied. They feel bad and we feel bad. This was said to play on any sense of sympathy and guilt he might have. I tell him we think we know why it won’t start (the Cummins people do not fill their new filters with fuel before screwing them on and therefore we drained the lines of fuel when starting). Freightliner fills their filters first and then starts the engine. He seems to agree and has Shaun come out to help us. Shaun looks for a hand pump that he says often are put on the engines for cases like this, but he finds none. They he sprays some stuff in our air filter and tells us to crank the engine. The engine starts and big billows of black smoke exit the exhaust pipe. This is to be expected and soon the engine is running normally. We thank him profusely and ask where we pay for this. He waves us off and says no charge.

By now it is 7 PM and we are tired. We head to the nearest campground and I have a nice big martini to settle my frazzled nerves before dinner. I still can’t help thinking that we may have just put a band aid on the symptom. No one seems to be able to say what in the world the black stuff on the filter was. But, just in case, we now have two extra filters on board.

Day minus 3 – May 24 – Rugby, ND

(Bert) From Minot we head due east to Rugby. Although no rain today, the highway passes extremely close to the flooded Mouse River, which creeps to within a dozen feet of the raised highway. Rain in the forecast and flood waters coming south from Canada have the news people predicting the river will overflow the highway. Pierre is sandbagging by the truckload in anticipation of flooding on the Missouri River. We are safe in Rugby for now, but expect more rain over the weekend.

Day minus 2 – May 25 – Rugby, ND

(Bert) Temperatures dropped to near freezing overnight, but by mid-morning the weather is pleasant – just at the focal point of jacket or no jacket. The birding site we visited on our last trip to Rugby is flooded, so we are looking for an alternative for Saturday’s birding excursion. Shari finds a new app for her iPhone that lists, describes and gives directions to local birding sites. So, this afternoon is one of those rare occasions where Shari joins me in birding. With Shari giving me directions from her iPhone, we head to Pleasant Lake, an apt name for the pleasant day we are enjoying. By the time I have circled the small lake on country roads, some so narrow and overgrown we follow two ruts and cross fallen branches, I’ve only listed 14 species. Numbers climb rapidly when we stop at a highway wayside next to a marsh of nesting Canada Geese, Yellow-headed Blackbirds and Marsh Wrens. Swarms of insects that look like oversized mosquitoes force Shari back inside the car, but they also attract migrant birds. I spot a pair of Blackpoll Warblers, then quickly turn my binoculars to a much better find, a Harris’s Sparrow. I see Harris’s in winter in central Texas and I’ve seen a few at Churchill, Manitoba, which is about the farthest south these Arctic nesting sparrows find appropriate habitat. This is only the third time I’ve found the species in migration.

From Pleasant Lake we head north to Sand Lake, seeing many birds in the flooded fields and along the grassy road sides. I find several of my favorite Bobolinks, and Shari focuses her binoculars on the bright blue bills of her favorite Ruddy Ducks. We reach Long Lake, designated a Global Important Birding Area. On a gravel road that serves as a dike separating the water I spot a mixed flock of shorebirds. Caught in migration, all are arctic or near-arctic breeding birds: ten Black-bellied Plovers, six Dunlins and two Ruddy Turnstones. And all are in amazingly bright breeding plumage. The turnstones, in particular, look like harlequins with sharply demarked rufous, black and white patterns.

Black Terns swirl low over the swamped grain fields, rafts of Ruddy Ducks float on the shallow water, and dozens of Western Grebes in formal black and white attire glide regally with necks stretched high. As we depart the lake, I drive very slowly while Shari checks her iPhone for directions back to camp. All of a sudden I get my biggest surprise sighting of the day. Erupting from the ditch is a large bird that flies direct and low across the barren field, big wings flapping slowly in a manner that tells me this is not a hawk. It continues for a quarter mile and comes to rest, turning in our direction just as I see its feathered ears and the perfect profile of a Great Horned Owl. I speed along the dirt road in its direction and we get a much closer look before it alights again. Strangely, it was sleeping in a grassy ditch in a barren field next to a shallow lake and without a tree visible to all horizons. This is certainly not where I would have expected to find the owl. By the end of the day I’ve listed 72 species. Not bad!

Day minus 1 – May 26 – Rugby, ND

(Shari) It is all about the people. Not everyone is here yet but we have a social at 5 PM around a campfire in the fire ring. Getting to know each other, we laugh loudly and talk a mile a minute. I have not had wine for many a week and I indulge myself with two glasses. Washed down with some homemade hummus and pretzel crackers and Georgia’s delicious strawberries, it counts for half of my day’s allotment on my Weight Watchers Diet. I guess no lost weight on the caravan for me, but then I never planned to lose. I will be happy if I do not gain. Usually this caravan puts on 7-10 pounds that I have to take off again. Earlier in the day, I walk with John and Marilyn to two geocaches and get to know this new neat couple added to the group. John tells me about apps on my new i-Phone and I try one from Groundspeak. The trial only allows three geocaches but that is enough to get me hooked on the app. The phone automatically knows my location and then puts up a map with the caches that are in my area. As I start to walk, a dotted line gets closer and closer to the target. About 25 ft. out a screen pops up and tells me I am there and asks if I have found the cache yet. I look at the screen with the hints printed on it and the three of us look around a bit and Walla, we find a cache. What a thrill to find something that is hidden! I suppose it is like seeing a life bird for a birder, but caches don’t move and they stay still until found. It’s much more satisfying to me. We walk another 0.8 mi. along the Rugby Walking Trail for our next cache. I have been in Rugby four other times, yet these two places are new to me. The beauty of geocaching is it gets a person to neat areas that otherwise may be missed. The walking trail would be a good place to bird and I tease Bert that I saw a Yellow Rail in the marshy area. I know that bird would get his attention. When we finally come in for the evening it is close to 7:30. We say to each other, “This is going to be a good caravan.”

Day minus 0 – May 27 – Rugby, ND

(Shari) Most of our group has arrived by now. Ever since I saw the signs around town advertising “Steak dinner 5:30 until gone”, I have been looking forward to eating out tonight. We have a short social before carpooling to the Eagles for their monthly steak fry. A table is set up with three kinds of steak and pork chops each wrapped in cellophane. The portions are huge and for $11 we get a steak, baked potato, salad, and toasted bread. We have to cook them ourselves over a big grill and they are delicious.

Day 1 – May 28 – Rugby, ND

(Bert) Rain is in the forecast, though it is clear and sunny at 7:30 when we head to Long Lake for birding. En route, we stop frequently for roadside birds. Notably, I brake for a Marbled Godwit in a water puddle on the right and a few miles farther for an American Bittern hiding in tall grass. I jump from the car quickly with my long lens camera in hand and just as the second car approaches the bittern takes flight. I click off eight shots while it flies past me; four are in focus. Surprisingly, we later see a couple more American Bitterns in another field. Turning north, we stop again at a flooded field of exposed mud flats. A mixed flock is spread across the small area and it is easy to identify the brightly patterned Wilson’s Phalarope, then the sewing-machine action of the Short-billed Dowitchers. I need to bring out my spotting scope before identifying the Least Sandpipers and I am stuck with identifying a dozen other somewhat larger shorebirds. Baird’s or White-rumped, my mind questions. Studying the features and glancing at Georgia’s open field guide, I decide they are White-rumped Sandpipers shortly before the small flock takes flight and we see the white rumps.

With each drive and stop we add more species to the list: a Swainson’s Hawk perched on a fence post and dining on a meaty morsel clamped under its talons, Bobolinks singing in flight, Brewer’s Blackbirds exploring the lush green grass. Finally, we reach the dead end road, flush against our broadest view of Long Lake. We walk in light rain to the end, with chattering Yellow-headed Blackbirds displaying on each side in the marsh. A flock of a thousand shorebirds forms a dense swarm far in the distance. Periodically, the birds land on a mud flats island at just barely the distance for identification. Ruddy Turnstones are easiest to pick out, then I see more Wilson’s Phalaropes, followed by the smaller black bellied Dunlins, leaving hundreds of still smaller peeps unidentified.

We return from the lake and I stop at another where a copse of trees on the shoreline promise passerines. Yellow Warbler is the first, followed by Yellow-shafted Flicker and a pair of Baltimore Orioles. Movement in an adjacent plowed field catches my eye, just in time to see a Ruffed Grouse fly to the woods. While studying a Chipping Sparrow and then a Song Sparrow, Dale and I hear the call of a Clay-colored Sparrow but cannot zero in on the source. The next call is much louder and now we see it only twenty feet from us, an excellent binocular view of its gray nape and patterned face. Our stay at this last stop is long, as we keep adding to a list the finally grows to 67. My watch informs me we need to head back to camp in time for my announced noon curfew. The skies release the rain held off all morning, but no matter now as we have finished birding for the day.

(Shari) Everyone is here and we have our orientation meeting in our rig. I am amazed that we all fit and I am the only one left standing. We tell the group what to expect on the trip and to be flexible. Sometimes we have to go to Plan B. I know that Plan B will be instituted tomorrow for sure, since our campground is flooded and I have had to make alternative arrangements. Today we could not have our meeting at the motel and restaurant there, because the owner’s daughter is in a track meet and the place is closed. This only happens in a small town. You got to love it. We walk to the Geographical Center of North America Monument to take a group picture and then return for a short social before we walk to the new Pizza Hut for dinner. Kay, who has traveled with us previously, is again the group trouble maker as she tries to enlist others to work on me to run another caravan to Belize. Not going to happen. I turn the tables on her and tell her she should join us on The Great River Road trip (a trip we are not going to lead but are going to take just for fun). We have a good time bantering back and forth, eating salad and munching on different kinds of pizza. When we depart from the restaurant, it has started to drizzle and everyone makes a beeline back to their rigs.

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