The Old Meeker Ranch

We’ve geocached in 40 states. The only areas we haven’t explored are New England and the Pacific Northwest. But out of all that, our favorite geocaching destination is the Black Hills of South Dakota. The Black Hills have it all – scenery, open spaces, mines, ghost towns, trails and more places to explore than you can do in one trip. And there are geocaches everywhere. You could geocache and explore there for the rest of your life and never get bored. They have everything from drive ups to day long quests. One of those quests took us to an abandoned homestead nestled deep in the hills. Locals call it the Old Meeker Ranch.

First look on the road in

First look

You can drive to within a mile on a forest service road with a locked gate. Then you walk in. This is the first view you get when you come over the rise. The pictures simply don’t do it justice. It is a breathtaking scene.

Natasha with the cache

Natasha with the ammo can find. The geocache was called “The Old Meeker Ranch”, GC1CTMH. Unbeknownst to us, the owner had deactivated it the day we found it. It might still be there, but we’ve got the last entry in the cache log.

The 278 acre ranch area was homesteaded in 1882 by Frank Meeker, who was a rider for the Pony Express in his younger days. He named his spread Willow Creek and that is still the name of the year round stream that flows through the middle of it.

The front door and barn

The front door and the barn. The barn is relatively new, built by the last owners in the 1950’s.

** HISTORICAL FOOTNOTE – The Pony Express carried mail to/from St. Joseph, MO and Sacramento,CA. Letters cost $10 an ounce. The 120 riders covered the 1,900 mi (3,100 km) route in 10 days. Most of the riders were teenagers, some as young as 14. They rode legs of 75-100 miles, going at breakneck speed day and night. Switching horses at way stations that were about 10 miles apart, the riders kept to the timetable despite weather, terrain, outlaws, hostile Indians and numbing fatigue. Although successful, the Pony Express was only in operation from April 1860 to October 1861. It was replaced by the transcontinental telegraph. We don’t know what Frank Meeker did in the 21 years between the Pony Express and the Willow Creek homestead, but he must have been one tough hombre.**

These are original buildings from the late 1880’s. Although preserved and open to the public, the ranch has been bedeviled by vandalism in recent years. So far, it’s been broken windows and torn exterior clapboard, which have been fixed by workers. In fact, the day we were there, a BLM crew came out to inspect the place and do any needed repairs.

The ranch changed hands numerous times, ending up with the Davis family in 1952. They built the new barn and worked the spread until 1974. After they left, the ranch spent 30 years in limbo and disrepair before becoming part of the Black Hills National Forest in 2004.

The dilapidated kitchen

We’re explorers. Locked doors and “No Entry” signs drive us nuts. One of the great things about the ranch is that you can go inside the buildings, including the house. When the last family moved on, they left behind a treasure trove of artifacts – cans, jars, newspapers and more – on shelves and in closets. These aren’t props put there by someone. They’re the real deal. Use caution, of course. The upper floors aren’t safe. Watch out for weak spots in the structures and be alert for an occasional rattlesnake. Also keep in mind that this is wild country with black bears and mountain lions. If you have pets or small children, keep them close.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) took over in 2004 and scheduled the property for demolition in 2006. A grass roots effort led by local artist Jon Crane and the Black Hills Historic Preservation Trust saved the ranch. They also raised funds for preservation work, an effort that is ongoing as we write this. A dedicated corps of volunteers working alongside the BLM and spearheaded by Historicorps keeps the ranch in a state of “arrested decay” for the public to visit.

Going out the way we came in

Looking at the way back. If you’re a photographer, this place should be on your bucket list. Here are some great photos taken on the Old Meeker Ranch.

For your GPS. N43.8042º W109.5554º. These coordinates will put you right at the center of the ranch. Click on them for a Google map.

The Old Meeker Ranch is a unique historical treasure. It is one of the few ranch homesteads in the country that is maintained, open to the public and freely accessible. Concerned citizens, historians, artists, archaeologists, businesses, trusts and government agencies work hard to keep it that way. Please enjoy it responsibly and safely.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha

NPS Passport Stamps – More Things to Hunt

In 1986, the National Park Service rolled out a new program to increase interest in the parks.  Called NPS Passport, it succeeded beyond all expectations and is now in its 26th year with over 1.3 million passport books in circulation.  The program is actually administered by Eastern National, a non-profit organization chartered to provide educational materials and services to national parks.  Since their start up in 1948, they have contributed over $100 million dollars to our national parks and trusts.

Stamping the passport

Here’s a typical passport cancellation station. Stamp it on scratch paper first. Not all the stamps are out like this. Be prepared to ask for it or even explain what you’re looking for. Believe it or not, there are some people working the counter who don’t know about this. Also ask if there are any other stamps behind the counter. Sometimes those wily Rangers will stash one or two as part of “the game.”

Passport materials come in a variety of formats – small, large, children’s and more.  They cost money but it goes to the parks.   Every park has a free cancellation stamp that you put in your book like a visa.  Many of the parks have several.  Yellowstone alone has 23 scattered all over the park.  Overall, there are almost 400 parks with over 2,000 stamps spread out over their respective grounds.

The passport program is a great way to see the parks and satisfy your collecting obsession in a healthy way.  Throw in some benchmark hunting, track down some virtual geocaches and earth caches (no traditional caches allowed in the parks) and you’ll have a full schedule. You’ll certainly see and learn things the average visitor will miss.  Again, Yellowstone is a great example of this.  In addition to the 23 passport stamps, it has over 50 geocaches and at least as many benchmarks that will take you just about everywhere in the park.  We’ve been there several times and still have lots to do.

In addition to the cancellation stamps, there are collectibles. Each year the National Parks Passport Program releases a set of ten full-color collector stamps. One of the stamps is a national stamp and the other nine highlight one park from each of the nine NPS districts.  They are sold in sets that change every calendar year and cost about 10 bucks.  This article has all the stamps listed from 1986 to 2013.

This program has really grown up and has a lot of different venues.  One of the things you’ll definitely need is a master list of the cancellation stations.  These can be downloaded off the web or there are now phone apps (of course) that can keep you up to date.  The i-Phone has a dedicated NPS Passport app.  Droid has a couple of options.  I use one called Chimani. Here is a link to a PDF file with a complete list of passport cancellation stations.

A page of an NPS passport

Here’s your prize – pages full of cancellations and stamps. This is out of the smaller edition of the passport. It fills up quickly. If you get into this like we did, you’ll start small and go to the big one with the zippered case. The ink for the stamps is supposed to be in different colors depending on the region it’s in. Don’t be surprised if it doesn’t work out that way.

There are lots of websites and blogs with NPS Passport information. Just Google it.  For sure, you’ll want to bookmark parkstamps.org.  They’ve got master lists, master maps, NPS webcams and a whole lot more.

So get your passport, don your pith helmet and start exploring.

Your papers, please …. Boris and Natasha

The Hotel del Coronado

Opened in 1888 on the shores of San Diego Bay in Coronado, California the Hotel Del Coronado is one of the most recognizable buildings in the world and America’s grandest Victorian seaside resort. It was built by Elisha Babcock and Hampton Story after they purchased all of Coronado for $110,000 in 1885.

Built on 33 acres, it was the largest hotel in the world upon completion.  It was also the largest building in the world outside of New York City to have electric lighting.  Thomas Edison supervised the installation of the electrical system.

The front of the Hotel Del

My son in front of the Del a couple of years ago. There was a geocache right behind him. It’s gone now, but there’s plenty more where that came from. The large turret on the left is the roof of the main dining room – the Crown Room.

You have to see The Del to really appreciate it.  Pictures don’t reveal the true scope, size, setting or architecture of this national treasure. When you go through the doors, whether it’s to stay or just have lunch, it’s like walking back in time. It’s especially enchanting during the holidays. They spare no effort to bedeck the entire place in the spirit of the season. When we lived in San Diego, we went to the Del for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, depending on who was around.

Movies have been filmed here. It has been featured in books and been home to writers.  L. Frank Baum did much of his writing here and used The Del as a model for his Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz.  He also designed the chandeliers that still light the main dining room – the Crown Room.

The list of stars and VIP’s who have visited here reads like a Who’s Who of the last century. One of The Del’s favorite stories is about the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1920, who later became King Edward VIII.  He abdicated his throne to marry American divorcee Wallis Simpson, who lived in Coronado.  They met at the Del.

There’s also a resident ghost – Kate Morgan –  who died here under mysterious circumstances in 1892 and frequents the old section of the hotel.

The interior courtyard of the Del.

The interior courtyard of the Hotel Del. It’s more than a place to stay. It’s a destination. There’s world class shopping here, dining in several restaurants and live music. Enjoy the surf and the sun. Stroll on the beach. You don’t have to be a guest to enjoy the Del. You do, however, have to be prepared to pony up some serious money for your excursion here.

Much has changed in Coronado since The Del opened. The city has grown up around it. A cracker box fixer-upper in town runs about $1,000,000. The US Navy has a substantial presence here with the Naval Amphibious Base and North Island Naval Air Station. The Naval Special Warfare Center where the Navy SEALs are trained is practically next door. In fact, some of their rough water boat training takes place on the rocks of the jetty right in front of The Del.  The SEALs routinely run along the beach, much to my daughter’s delight the last time we were there.

If you come to southern California, don’t miss The Del.

Hooyah … Boris and Natasha

The Roadkill Cafe

Down in Alabama at the intersection of the Foley Beach Expressway and Alabama 98 in Baldwin County is a little town called Elberta.  About a half mile east of the intersection is a diner called the Roadkill Cafe.  Their motto is “You kill it, we grill it.” We were out geocaching in the vicinity one day and ran across it.  Well, with a name like that, how could we resist? 

The outside of the Roadkill Cafe.

The Roadkill Cafe
25076 State St
Elberta, AL 36530
(251) 986-5337
Hours: M-F 10:30 to 12:30
or there abouts
“You kill it, we grill it.”
Check out the mural on the right.

Y’all plug this into your GPS – 30.414339, -87.597030 – and click on the linked numbers for a Google map.

This is definitely a locals place.  Everybody who comes in and out seems to know everyone else. We were the only outsiders but were welcomed warmly.  Everybody was real nice.  The menu is on the chalkboard by the door and all the food is laid out buffet style, including salad and dessert.  For eight bucks, you get it all and as much as you want except your drinks.

This is real home-style Southern cooking.  I had chicken fried steak, red beans and rice and cornbread.  Natasha had fried chicken and mashed potatoes with lemon cake for dessert.  It was all good stuff.  We could have easily gone back for seconds and thirds but resisted the temptation.  Most of the people there did not.

This is the kind of fine dining we look for on our adventures.  There are over a dozen geocaches within a short drive so you can roadkill a couple of birds with one stone.  If you want to eat here, you’ll have to time it right. They are only open Monday – Friday from 10:30 AM to 12:30 PM although locals were streaming in after the closed sign went up.  Maybe they stay open until the food runs out.

Inside the Roadkill Cafe

Inside the Roadkill. Clean and simple. Menu on the chalkboard. Eight dollar buffet in the middle. This was taken about 10 minutes after closing. Before that, all the tables were full. There were still some locals wandering in after this was taken.

So forget your diet for a day and check out the Roadkill Cafe. Don’t pay no never mind to the Subway next door.

Y’all come soon….Boris and Natasha

The Wild Turkey Geocache

Hi again,

It’s winter. Even by Minnesota standards, it’s a brutal one. However, we’re in Tucson for four months. One of our favorite places to explore is the Santa Rita Mountains about 40 miles south of the city. Knifing into those mountains is Madera Canyon in the Coronado National Forest. Going from 2,000 feet at the bottom to 9,000 feet on top of Mt. Wrightson, it goes through nine different climactic zones – the equivalent of driving from Arizona to Canada. There are lots of geocaches but few gimmees. Most involve some hiking in steep terrain and many involve some rock climbing. This was one of them.

Natasha at the Wild Turkey geocache.

The lovely Natasha near Ground Zero of the Wild Turkey geocache. The container is a mini-bottle of Wild Turkey bourbon minus the bourbon. Just the log. It’s located in the rocks you can see in the picture and was a tricky hide. It was a challenging two mile hike up the Bog Springs Trail but the scenery was worth it. As you can see, we’ve got our back country gear with us and navigated with our Garmin Dakota 20’s. No cell phone coverage up here. Along the way, we got another geocache and a letterbox. Today, we cruised successfully off the beaten path.

Cheers …. Boris and Natasha

One of My Best Days as a Dad

My first wife and I had kids late.  I was 40 when our son was born, so we were raising teenagers in our 50’s.  By then, we were divorced but I lived right around the corner and spent a lot of time with the kids.  Every summer from 2004 to 2010, Ben (call sign Bravo Lima) and I would take an extended trip somewhere adventurous.  Our playgrounds were South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Arizona, Colorado, California and my native Pennsylvania. We hiked, biked, rafted and four-wheeled  in Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Gettysburg, San Diego, the Black Hills and the Little Bighorn.   We also geocached.  On many days, we simply picked out some historical or back country caches and went for them.

Our equipment was primitive by today’s standards. For the first couple of years, we used Magellan Sportrak Map GPS devices, with their serial cables that loaded one geocache at a time.  Many times, we stuck our arms out the car window while we were moving to get a decent signal.  Ben became a good geocacher with a sharp eye.  The find in this picture was one of his better ones during a very successful day of Montana geocachingyears ago.

A geocache in Montana

Bravo Lima bags the “Sow Your Wild Oats” geocache.

This is Bravo Lima at the “Sow Your Wild Oats” cache northwest of West Yellowstone, MT.  It wasn’t a particularly difficult cache but the scenery was spectacular.  So here’s this piece of rusty John Deere equipment sitting in the middle of nowhere.  There must have been a farm here.  Located  on the shores of Hebgen Lake, the ground was flat and there were old barbed wire fences weaving through the thick, new-growth woods.  Ben took the lead on the way in and nailed it like a pro while this proud Dad just followed along.   After a day of this, we went back to our room at the Old Faithful Lodge for dinner and a geyser show.   It was a good day.  Next morning, we were back at it.

Cheers … Boris and Ben

Our Greatest Father/Son Conquest

In celebration of Father’s Day, I bring you this story out of the geocaching archives of June 2006.

Old Faithful

Ben at Old Faithful. We did Yellowstone right.

After the smoke cleared from my divorce in 2002, I lived about 1/2 mile down the road from my former spouse and two kids, who were then 9 (Ben) and 13 (Kari).  Despite the fact that The Ex and I didn’t agree on a whole lot, we buried the hatchet when it came to the kids.   I spent a lot of time with them.  Every summer from 2003 to 2010, Ben and I went on a road trip somewhere for a couple of weeks.  Then in 2005, we discovered geocaching and we were hooked.

In June of 2006, we headed off to Yellowstone. We did it right, staying at the Old Faithful Lodge.  Afterwards we went up to Bozeman, Montana to do some back country geocaching.  It was all day trips.  We both love to go out and get dirty and nasty – as long as we can clean up in our air conditioned hotel room when we’re done.  After 20 years in the Marines, I’ll never spend another night in the field.  But anyway, on with the story…

In one of our searches, we came up with a geocache called the Trolls Cache.  It was halfway between Bozeman and Livingston way back in the Gallatin National Forest.  On the day we went after it, it hadn’t been found in two years.

We headed for it in early afternoon.  It seemed like we drove forever on a series of dirt roads that got progressively worse and worse.  Our Magellan SporTrak Map GPS finally got us to a point that had ground zero about 300 yards to our right  – across a stream and up a steep mountain. Off we went.  We walked and walked and walked. Most of it was uphill.  The area had been lumbered out years before, so there was thick new growth and lots of ankle-breaking flotsam and jetsam on the ground.  It was hot, slow going.  Like idiots, we didn’t take any water because we figured it would be a short jaunt.  We also found out later that this is prime grizzly habitat and we had nothing for bear defense.

Making the Find

I was still surveying the top of the hill on our second attempt when Ben made a beeline for this geo-beacon. I hustled over with the camera and recorded the find.

At some point I turned around and realized that I couldn’t see the car anymore and the sun was below the ridgeline.  Shadows were getting deep and dark fast.  We were about 50 yards away from Ground Zero when I told him we had to back off.  It wasn’t safe.  So we made our way back down the mountain thinking now we know why no one has found it in two years.  We drove out of the forest after dark.

Back at the hotel, we were bummed out.  We decided to take another shot at it.  We fired up Google Earth and got out the Delorme Montana Gazetteer.  We found what looked like an old road, maybe a lumber trail, that led up to the cache.  It would be a walk along the ridgeline instead of going up the mountain.  The next day, we were off in early morning with a map, GatorAde, lunch and bear spray.

The rental car company would have had a cow if they had seen the roads, rocks and stream crossings we negotiated with their AWD Murano.  But we found the trail and parked about 1/2 mile from the cache.  Twenty minutes later, we were on top of the mountain and Ben made the find in short order.  It was an ammo box in great condition.

After high fives and some trash talking, we celebrated by sitting on a stump, drinking GatorAde, eating lunch and soaking up the gorgeous and rugged panorama that was present at Ground Zero.

GZ at Trolls Cache

Ben opens the prize at Ground Zero.

This was the toughest geocache he and I have ever gotten. We learned some hard lessons on this one.  For me, the biggest one was I’m not a Marine anymore.  I don’t have to get hurt or killed to find a cache.  Ben, who was 13 at the time, was tough and had his game face on the whole time.  I asked him how many of his buddies had found an ammo box in the Montana wilderness lately.  He got a confidence builder and a crash course in real world decision making which he never forgot.

He’s all grown up now, married and in graduate school while working. We talk often and still enjoy re-living the quest for the Trolls Cache.

Happy Father’s Day to me … Boris