As we head west, we have been keeping track of the weather report for the Yellowstone National Park. It has not been good for two days of hiking we had planned, and the final report today was for snow and a high of 38 degrees. We talked to a couple from Minneapolis in the dining room at the Crazy Horse Memorial, where we had stopped to check on the carving’s progress. They said they walked the boardwalk among geysers in horizontal snow.
Then we received this email from the park: “As we are faced with workforce shortages, we are modifying our food service as well as operating dates and times at the Lake Yellowstone Hotel. . . . Considering the fluid situation in the park, you may wish to travel with some extra food items and snacks.”
We do carry food, but the prospect of being in an area of food insecurity was frightening to two people who have gained a pound for every day on the road.
We canceled our Yellowstone reservations and headed north to Billings. Drove through lots of rain, but no snow.
Some progress on Crazy Horse’s face since we visited 30 years ago, but it will still take another 100 years to finish carving the mountain into the chief’s head, hair, body and his horse’s head. We’ll check back in another 30 years.
Today’s bad weather was the first on this trip. It rained at the Kentucky Derby, but the mostly winning bets there have made that bad-weather memory fade away. Here’s what it’s been like as we traveled West:
When Rich Strike read what the pundits had written about him Saturday morning, it made him so mad he’d run like hell to prove them wrong.
That’s how Steve, my horse-race betting partner for years before he died in 2010, would explain how Rich Strike won the Kentucky Derby on May 7, 2022.
Steve always bet long shots, especially on horses with names that amused him or reminded him of his wife. As a steady reader of the Daily Racing Form and horses’ past performances, I would try to talk Steve out of his more “strange” bets, often by reading what the professional handicappers wrote. Kind of like they said about Rich Strike on Saturday:
“Poor speed figures. Best speed rating well below the average winning speed. Return to dirt might offer some hope for improvement.”
Steve would see such an assessment and say, “When the horse reads that, he’ll be so mad he’ll run like hell to show ’em.”
Nothing could persuade Steve to stop betting the looongest shots available, $2 to show on the least chalky choice. He didn’t hit often. But when he did, he’d signal “loo-ser” with an L to his forehead and wonder why I spent so much time with the racing form.
Nothing can persuade me to abandon the DRF. I can’t watch a race without an overnight session with the past performances. Leading up to the Derby, I had watched all the prep races, bet them, did OK and had a plan for the first Saturday in May: A Pick 3 with one horse in the first race (Jackie’s Warrior), four horses who might win in the second race (Shirl’s Speight, Cavalry Charge, Adhamo, Santin) and six horses who I thought could win the Derby (Mo Donegal, Epicenter, Messier, Tiz the Bomb, Zandon, White Abarrio) for a $24 bet. An Exacta boxed with Epicenter, Zandon and Tiz the Bomb for a $12 bet. And a graduated across the board bet on Epicenter, my fav: $5 to win, $10 to place and $15 to show.
Sixty-four dollars coming into the Derby. More than I usually bet on a race — or in a whole day at the races. But it’s the Derby, and I’m splitting my bets with Michael, my new horse-racing partner.
And things looked good coming into the Big Race. In the first race of my Pick 3, Jackie’s Warrior had gone wire to wire at even odds in the 10th race and in the 11th, Santin won by a neck at 7-1 odds, which would fatten up the payoff for my Pick 3.
Things looked even better when the horses were coming down the stretch in the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby. Epicenter was in the lead, holding off Zandon on the outside. A No. 3 (Epicenter) and No. 10 (Zandon) finish would complete my Pick 3, win my Exacta and pay off all three positions in my across-the-board bet. Just to win three bets on one race would be a first-ever accomplishment in my handicapping career.
My eyes were on Epicenter and not on what jockey Sonny Leon was doing with Rich Strike on the inside. Take a look at the great NBC overhead shot to see what a thread-the-needle ride Leon had on Rich Strike, which ended with 3 and 10 in second and third place. I tried to read the numbers of the winning horse. Was it No. 1, Mo Donegal? A possibility that Michael had bet because that was the hometown of his grandparents. Or No. 2, Happy Jack? A long shot but not out of the realm.
But No. 21? The horse that sneaked into the race at the last moment when Ethereal Road scratched? With odds at 81-1, ignored by betters even though he finished third behind Tiz the Bomb in his last race? This was the horse that destroyed all my carefully laid plans?
But who cared? Friends of Steve had kept his betting peculiarities going since he died. If we were ever at a track together, we’d place a bet in the last race on the horse with the longest odds. Just before Kathy and I left for the Derby, we had dinner with those friends and agreed to bet the longest odds in the Derby.
That would be No. 21. Rich Strike and Sonny Leon. We had placed a $10 show bet on the horse, which returned $147. Yeah, I lost all my well-planned bets (except for the place and show on Epicenter). But watching this race, having a bet on this uncertain winner and dancing around at the finish was the best race ever.
Chili served in Styrofoam bowls did not meet the standards of my wife, a former food writer. And that seemed to be the specialty of my favorite casino and hotel. We’d skipped supper there for a salad in town at a restaurant with five TVs tuned to News Max, Fox Views and other former state news stations with The Weather Channel doing their best to hold up the liberal side of political philosophy. We did not stop there for breakfast.
We drove on across Iowa until hunger forced us to turn at the first sign advertising food. That turned out to be a Subway advertisement on a signpost also directing us to the world’s largest popcorn ball. How could we resist?
The way to the world’s largest popcorn ball, located in Sac City, Iowa, was blocked by road construction (what isn’t?). So we had to park the car and walk in the direction of the world’s largest popcorn ball, hoping we would find a place to eat, Subway or otherwise. A block away, we came across a window in front of several tables laid out for a banquet. Back up to the nearest door and we saw the tiny sign: Cattlemen’s Steakhouse. In we went, and adjacent to the banquet room was a nice cafe with a counter and several tables, all filled with a luncheon crowd. A complete menu with this surprise: Boerewors, pap and sous (South African beef sausage made in Clarion, Iowa), polenta and spicy tomato stew. It was delicious as was Kathy’s chicken sandwich. The waitress told us that one of the owners was from South Africa as were the butchers in Clarion. Who cares that we never found the Subway? The restaurant displayed several historic pictures from Sac City and a very large cow head hanging over the table next to us.
After lunch, we retrieved the car and drove to the world’s largest popcorn ball, passing several large and elaborate houses. “As Sac City began to grow,” the Sac City website says, “local businesspersons erected beautiful stores and homes. The town is home to many wonderful examples of architecture. Queen Anne homes, Second Empire structures, buildings designed by noted architects, and striking public buildings continue to enrich the area. Sac City grew because of commerce, banking, and real estate investment.”
The population in the 1900 Census was 17,639. The 2020 Census counted only 2,059 and notes “Sac City is currently declining at a rate of -0.15% annually and its population has decreased by -7.25% since the most recent census, which recorded a population of 2,220 in 2010.”
My research has not answered why it was so rich once that houses could be built by noted architects and why is has been in decline recently.
It could be the world’s largest popcorn ball, which was a disappointment. Enclosed in a building with windows so reflective you can’t fully see what is inside. The popcorn is encased in blue tarp and a fence with only the top part of the ball showing. This probably is not the full story of Sac City’s decline. Our research continues.
Please don’t think that we took the snow detour around North Dakota so that we could stay at my favorite Indian casino. That would not be true. We went south after seeing the snow photo sent out by the North Dakota Department of Transportation. But once the decision had been made, well, the thought eventually formed in my head that a stop in the corn fields outside of Sloan, Iowa, would be right on our way and we should be arriving at check-in time.
The WinnaVegas Casino is not my favorite because of generous slots (I never play them), free drinks or blubbery buffets. I like it because of its location — standing alone out in the middle of corn fields. I wandered here some years back after seeing signs for it. Three miles down a country road after taking the Sloan exit off Interstate 29. There it stands: hotel, casino and Pony Express, where we filled our 12-gallon tank with $3.75 per gallon gas for under $50.
We checked in, and they issued me a new card (I left my old card in my gas-guzzling truck) and gave Kathy one with $10 on it to use in the casino. Getting the cards with $20 knocked off that amount off the room rate. But they got back the $20 within a few minutes after we found the electronic craps table. A video game the size of a real craps table but no side rails to stack your chips or shelves underneath to set your drinks, Put your money or your cards in a slot, push a button to place $5 on the pass line and you can lose money just as fast as at a craps table made of wood and felt. Dice are thrown across the video screen by swiping your hand over your console. They appear as red dice skittering across the table’s video surface from one side to the other rail. Numbers displayed and announced by a voice that also encourages other bets. “Line away,” the electronic woman says, as your $5 pass line bet disappears into the casino’s online bank.
The electronic version takes away the jobs of the the stickman, the boxman and their two helpers. It’s easier to follow because everything is displayed on the electronic table and the individual consoles. You don’t have to embarrassingly ask how much money to put on a $1 come bet to get the odds on a 5, but you miss the normal banter of a good stickman. It’s another step in America’s growing loneliness. Finding a gambling establishment with humans dealing craps and card games is more infrequent than hitting a hard 10.
We might have felt better about the electronic craps table if we had spent more time with it. But the $20 on our two cards didn’t last long before the electronic woman had most of them. We cashed in the $1.77 we had not lost with an apology for wasting the young Native American cashier’s time for an amount that would not buy a gallon of gas, even at the Pony Express.
The Winnebagos call themselves “Hochunkgra, a Siouan people.” The reservation is mostly in northeast Nebraska with a few corners that stick over the Missouri River into Iowa, which is where the WinnaVegas is. They were not always here. They once occupied the southern half of present day Wisconsin and the northern part of Illinois. “The Black Hawk War of 1832 and a series of treaties forced the Winnebago out of their homeland, and they were removed to reservations in Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, and finally to a portion of the Omaha Reservation in Nebraska.”
You could follow these Indian trails across America, as I have done for the Nez Perce (Nimiipuu) people from White Bird to Bears Paw. Or you could follow the Choctaws and Creek on the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. None of them end happily.
Maybe it helps to follow them backwards — from where these peoples ended up in the West to a happier time and place back East, where they lived until the Europeans showed up. Our journey to the Kentucky Derby is now on that path as we travel from the Winnebago reservation to Illinois, where we stayed across the Rock River from the “Black Hawk” statue in Oregon, Illinois.
Right out of the gate, our trip to the Kentucky Derby took an unexpected turn. We had left Missoula, MT, planning to go to Glendive, MT, and then across North Dakota, when our friend in Missoula texted this picture from the North Dakota Department of Transportation:
Maybe South Dakota would be a better choice. Not that we are afraid of driving in snow. Especially in my Dodge Ram truck with four new all-weather tires that cost more than my first car. But we are not in the truck. Because of high gas prices, we decided the Toyota Camry hybrid was a better choice. And for gas prices, it has been. For snow, not so much.
Once we crossed out of the land of high gas, house and food prices in the state of Washington, we have not found any gas stations that charge above $5 per gallon as in the Evergreen State where filling the 24-gallon tank in the truck cost more than $100. Wattabout $5 per gallon? Mostly they have been under $4 per gallon: $3.86 in Bonner, MT. $3.96 in Hardin, MT. $3.88 in Kadoka, SD. But the cheapest gas so far has been at the Pony Express at the WinnaVegas Casino in Sloan, IA: $3.75 per gallon (more on the WinnaVegas in the next post).
Detouring to South Dakota meant a long day of driving before we reached Deadwood, SD, home of Wild Bill Hickok’s fatal card game. We avoided the deadly casinos and stayed in a slime plant. The slime plant did have a casino, which we avoided, and is a hotel built in what used to be a plant that processed gold slurry (known as “slime”) from the mines in nearby Lead, SD. The plant closed in 1973, and in 2010, a group of preservationists and businessmen decided to save the building by opening a hotel there. Nice rooms for $119; dining and gambling inside the building. Looking down on the main part of Deadwood, we could see the melting drifts of snow that were left over from what must have been a winter with many snow storms. Fortunately, the roads across South Dakota were dry and bare of snow as we continued the next day.
Life is a journey. We are on yet another one as we zigzag our way across the USA this summer. The plan is to reach Cumberland Gap National Park in the Applachian Mountains before turning around and heading back to the Spokane area. We are traveling in our trusty 26 foot, 2006 Artic Fox travel trailer pulled by a 2010 GMC Sierra truck. Mom, Margaret, is with John and me. Why should she stay home and read the blog when she can be part of the journey? I’ll try to keep it current with travel updates and photos for you to enjoy…or ponder…or laugh at...as the miles roll past us. Cherish the journey!