Saturday, September 6, 2014

Capitol Cruise (Road trip to Ironman Wisconsin via ND highpoint)

Way back a year ago when I volunteered for and signed up for Iroman Wisconsin, I didn't have a plan for how I would get there. Eventually I decided to drive, since it's "only" about 1000 miles from Austin. Some time after hightpoint #40 in December, I started looking for excuses to go to the rest of the state highpoints. For fun, I added White Butte, North Dakota's highpoint, as a waypoint on the route. When I saw it doubled the mileage, I laughed it off as a crazy idea. If you've read my blog, you might know that a certain brand of crazy is sort of my stock in trade. My original plan for race week was to volunteer for TriRock on Monday, go to work on Tuesday, and drive straight from Austin to Madison on Wednesday. When the idea of stopping by White Butte creeped up in my mind, it almost seemed sillier to go to work for one day than to take off on a road trip. Of course once I was already going to be in the Dakotas, it was only natural that I would also stop at the state Capitols. Watch this space for my next crazy adventure cooked up around another highpoint.

Because sleep is not my strong suit, I only got about 3 hours of sleep Sunday night before getting up at 4am on Labor Day, September 1, to volunteer for TriRock Austin, one of the biggest triathlons in Austin. I've volunteered lots of times for lots of races, but this was my first time being a "captain," although it didn't really amount to much of a difference; I didn't even get a special t-shirt like some races do. I was stationed at the swim start along with 7 other people, mainly to make sure everything was orderly and maybe to get a little last-minute pep to the racers. Apparently the swim course was pretty much the same as CapTex this year, but nothing like previous years, and I did not get a chance to get down to the water at CapTex. I made sure to orient myself to the course since I knew I would be asked many times throughout the morning. Other than a little bit of scrambling at the beginning, things ran rather smoothly from my viewpoint. The racers did a very good job of queueing with little direction other than the announcer calling waves up. The biggest problem of the morning was one I couldn't help- the massive amount of vegetation in the water; it seemed nobody could control it. The race officials had done their best to at least clear a swath to swim in, but it kept drifting into the course. The start was delayed a little while they ran a boat around to break up a big chunk between the dock and the first buoy. During the break between Olympic distance and sprint distance waves, I went down to the swim exit, and it was choked with weeds. There seemed to be no way out of the water except through a giant chunk of hydrilla with sticks and other junk mixed in. They paused the race during the sprint waves long enough to clear the course of racers and clear some of the junk from the exit. As captain I wandered around the start are a little bit checking that things were going smoothly, but really none of us were doing much other than occasionally helping ensure goggles were on straight, chips were on properly, tops were zipped up, and to give some final pre-race encouragement. I was particularly concerned that one guy didn't seem to have goggles. I checked, and that was intentional- he prefers not to wear them. After the last swimmer was in the water ~9:30, I picked up some trash, shoved flip flops into a few piles, and headed back to the transition/finish line area. I hung out for a little, drank a soda, ate a taco. I was tired and still had to put my stuff into my car.
I got home ~10:30, loaded a few things, and laid down for a half-hour nap. I was on the road a little after noon, but it took ages to feel like I had made any progress. The worst pure traffic (not construction-related) of the whole trip was just getting out of Austin. My first gas stop was in Oklahoma, then into Kansas. It was dark and I was getting tired already when I got off of Interstate 35 and onto US 81, but I pushed on. What I hadn't thought out thoroughly ahead of time was that in order to properly visit the places on my itinerary, I had to be there during certain hours. Working backward from getting to Madison Wednesday night, I had to be in Bismarck ND first thing Wednesday morning, meaning I would have to be at White Butte before dark on Tuesday. Based on the travel time from Austin to White Butte and allowing time to tour the Capitol in Pierre SD, I had to cover a lot of miles the first day. On Monday night I finally stopped in York NE after 12:30am, more than 12 hours of driving. I brought my bike and suitcase into my room and was asleep in no time. Of course I didn't sleep great, but I did get decent rest.

I was awake at 6 and on the road at 7am Tuesday. I got to the Capitol in Pierre around 11. The layout of the town reminded me a little of Helena MT, but the resemblance went much further as the Capitol is actually a modified version of Montana's, with a later addition on the back. The building is really nice, a lot of white marble, but to me the grounds are even better. It's on a nice plot of land with thick lush grass, and there is a pond with a nice war memorial sculpture. If I had had more time, I would have run at least one lap around the pond. The only problem with my visit is that the House and Senate stained glass ceilings had been removed for restoration. Because of the work, there was scaffolding in the Senate and all the desks had all been moved on the House floor.

It was about a 4-hour drive from Pierre to Amidon, North Dakota (the town near the highpoint). I had no idea the town was even the seat of Slope County, let alone that it was the "smallest county seat." I was slightly dubious of this at the time (having been through Mentone, TX), and vowed to check the facts later. It turns out it was the least populous incorporated town seat in the 2000 census. In 2010 it was the fourth least populous overall, second incorporated, with 20 residents. Brewster, Nebraska (incorporated) had 17; Mentone (unincorporated) had 19; and the "winner" was Gann Valley, South Dakota (unincorporated) with 14 (according to wikipedia). It's a good thing I had my trusty Winger guide book with me, because the highpoint would be very hard to find otherwise. There is a sign just outside of town pointing to the highpoint with its elevation, but the gravel road just past that sign does not lead to the highpoint, it only has a sign that says something to the effect of "the road to the highpoint is one mile east," but there isn't a sign at that road. I was going off the mileage listed in the book out of necessity, as there not a sign at the next turn either. There is a mailbox for donations with an arrow pointing to White Butte, but the handmade sign with directions for access (it is private property) was completely illegible from weathering. I went by wikipedia and shoved $5 into the box. The guide book says to drive another 0.8 miles to the trailhead, but there was a handmade sign saying "road closed." Considering the last bit of gravel road just to get there was a little dicey in my sedan, I heeded this advice. A high-clearance vehicle should have no problems getting a little closer. I decided that after being cooped up in a car for two solid days, I would run to the highpoint, or as far as possible anyway. Even if I hadn't intended to, I probably would have run anyway to stay ahead of the scourge of mosquitoes. Getting sweaty probably didn't help, but I doubt anything short of DEET would have discouraged these vampires.
The mosquitoes stayed mostly to the flattish high grass area, and I was pretty much free of them once the Badlands hill climb started. It didn't wind up being a big deal, but I made a wrong turn at this point and instead of taking the well-worn trail to the left (not clear at that point), I went up a runoff gully to the right. It wasn't terrible, but it was a little steep in some places, and one section was muddy. It got a little sketchy because what looks kind of like rock is more like dried mud. Once I was higher, I could see the trail, and traversed to meet it and follow it to the summit. I signed the register, took a bunch of pictures, and ran back down to my car. I jumped in very quickly to keep the mosquitoes at bay as much as possible. I assessed the damage: they seemed to favor my joints, with too many bites to count around my knees, elbows, and every other bit of exposed skin. It probably would have been nice to stay just a little longer to see the sunset there, but I had one more stop I wanted to make before it got dark.
I drove back to the paved road, and north to the Interstate. Rather than go right, straight to Bismarck, I went left to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I freely admit that it is a total copout to say I visited TRNP, since I only went to a closed visitor's center (cum Interstate rest area) at dusk, but no more than my claim to have visited Voyageurs National Park. While Teddy Roosevelt is one of my favorite presidents, nothing I read about the park said "must do" to me, and I didn't have the time to really see it this trip. Some day. The mosquitoes were really bad here as well, so I just ran around for 5 minutes and took a few pictures. From there it was a roughly 2-hour drive to Bismarck, arriving around 10:30. Since the Capitol didn't open until 9am, I had a chance to catch up a little on email and such after waking up around 7 on Wednesday.

North Dakota now ranks as one of my least favorite Capitols. While I get that office towers are a more efficient use of space, and this one is miles above Florida or Louisiana, I don't like them as a centerpiece of a state. I took the 9am tour, and the tour guide tried to place the building alongside those and Nebraska, and I had to protest. While Nebraska has a tower, it's a cathedral tower, not an office tower; not the same category IMO. While I like the Art Deco style (the building was build in the 1930s), the scale here is too oppressively large for my taste. Top that with a dispassionate tour (and a dreaded "make shapes from a natural material" foray into burl wood paneling), more mosquitoes while walking the grounds, and I was ready to declare North my least favorite Dakota (South Dakota also has a much nicer highpoint). I left Bismarck at 9:30am and hoped to get to St. Paul, Minnesota before its Capitol closed at 5pm. It took some driving, but fortunately I made it with time to spare, arriving at 4.
Now this is my idea of a Capitol. It's huge and elegant. It has great art, great old world charm. It's just too bad it's in the midst of a massive restoration and half the interior of the building is closed, including the rotunda. I guess I'll have to come back after they're done, which is supposed to be in 2015. I ran around the building and saw as much as I could before strolling around the grounds. I got back in my car about 5, and drove on the the next Capitol, in Madison, Wisconsin. It was a fine drive for the most part until the last two miles, which took half an hour due to construction. They didn't seem to have any idea how to move cars through, as even after four lanes squeezed to one we weren't moving. I finally checked into my hotel at 10pm. I wandered around Madison Thursday after checking in for the Ironman, seeing another great Capitol. I saw enough of the interior last year I didn't feel the need to tour it again, but I did cut through the building at one point and enjoyed its grandeur. I thought about taking a guided tour, but the timing didn't work out.

[Ed. addition] After the race on my drive home I made a brief stop at the Illinois Capitol in Springfield. I got there at 4:40 and the building officially closed to tourists at 4. The guard was nice enough to let me look around a little, which I kind of abused and ran up to the third level of the rotunda. It's a beautiful building and I wish I had had more time to look around.

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