From the Vault: Our Tour of the Northern United States (1999)

Note: This journal is printed as it was shared on my previous website at It was updated periodically and followed by friends at (before it was a registered site). As a result, it is written in a present tense even though the voyage happened over 20 years ago. I duplicated the journey on this site because it was a good trip and still referenced as a basis for some of my travel-related decisions today. Enjoy! -Scott

May 12, 1999

Windmill in Buzzards Bay, MA.

On May 18, 1999, my wife and I will transfer from Cape Cod, MA to West Texas. Instead of making the transfer a four-day 2400-mile “Point A to Point B” drive, we decided to make it a 5000+ mile tour and see some sites while we’re on the road. Our main goal is to drive to Montana to meet family members I have not seen since I was a toddler (in other words, I’ve never met them). We simply plotted our course to West Texas via Montana and chose points in between to visit along the way (or slightly out of the way).

All of this was with us…

Our biggest challenge is traveling with our pets, two cats and a turtle. We decided to carry our baggage on a “wheel-free carrier” outside the car (pictured below). That way we can fold the rear seat down and give the cats free run of the trunk and backseat area. Sometimes they get a little scared while traveling. Having the trunk available for hiding will prove to be a good idea. We’re keeping the turtle in a 20-gallon aquarium with her usual mix of potting soil. The trick for her is that she requires full-spectrum lighting during the day and a 24-hour source of steady heat so she can thermoregulate (Yes, it takes more than a box to care for a box turtle). Therefore, we bought a voltage inverter so we can power her household lamps and heat sources from the car’s electrical system. We’ll keep her in the trunk so her perceived light and heat will remain consistent. A thermometer with a limit alarm will warn us of hazardous conditions for her. The voltage inverter also makes it possible for us to use the laptop computer without worrying about its battery life.

Our Intended Route: 5300 miles…

Our planned stops are:

Brewster NY, Pittsburgh PA, Lexington KY, Springfield MO, Kansas City KS, The Badlands SD, Mt Rushmore SD, Helena MT, Salt Lake City UT, Denver CO, Holloman AFB NM, and Carlsbad Caverns NM.

May 21

Hitch Haul Carrier with Travel Organizer.

Our first day didn’t go as smoothly as planned. The movers arrived about three hours late. They didn’t leave until about 5:00pm. Luckily, I was able to check out of housing before the movers actually left. Otherwise, we would have had to wait until the following day to check out. We were finally on the road by 7:00pm. We stopped at the ship to check out then drove the remainder of the 220 miles, arriving in Brewster, NY around 12:30am. We ran into rain after three hours of driving. Naturally, it rained while we were on the dark two-lane roads instead of the interstate. That slowed us considerably. I had wondered if the outside travel bag (above) was waterproof. I knew I didn’t get Goretex for $40. Still, only the side containers and a few other items got wet since the bag was in the car’s draft. We spent some of the day drying out those items and repackaging the cat food and litter. We’ve prepared for future rain by wrapping all of our baggage in plastic trash bags or Ziploc bags.

Our stay in Brewster was fairly relaxing. It was good to see an uncle. Brewster is one of a few places where the cats must stay outside. It rained most of the day so it was fairly cool. There are lots of trees, so parking in the shade was easy. “Hotel Jetta” served the pets well, staying below 72-degrees all day. “Hotel Jetta” is pictured below. The inset shows the turtle walking in the grass.

Callie and Cookie perched in and over the trunk. Inset is Mae wandering in the rain.

Our next stop was Pittsburgh, 450 miles down the road. What a nightmare! It’s been years since the last time I drove in the area. There was construction and detours everywhere. We didn’t get to Grandma’s place until 6:30pm. She invited us to stay with her and we gladly accepted. That allowed us to spend more time with her and avoided a late commute to the hotel. The cats stayed locked up in the bathroom, but that was much larger than the car (they had been in the car for 50 straight hours). One thing that really amazed her was the amount of stuff that came out of our car. “Are you sure you’re not driving a pickup truck?”, she asked. I guess it was sort of like the little circus clown car with dozens of clowns piling out of it. I shared a snapshot of the things we’re carrying in our car a few paragraphs up. The packed Travel Organizer is inset.

Clay with his Jetta TDI

Next, we drove 375 miles to Lexington, KY. Driving with the cats is possibly like traveling with kids. Okay, probably not. But they do get bored and demand attention. They also fight over any inch of space that the other may be occupying. “I want the sun… I want the lap…It’s too quiet… It’s too hot…” We stayed with an internet friend, Clay, while visiting Lexington. He and I share an interest in diesel-powered Volkswagens. He showed me his two modified VWs. My friends think I’M a techno-weenie. This guy’s got LOTS of goodies on his cars. His GTI-VR6 is frightfully fast. I have so many wants and so little money… the story of many lives. With 120 cars being stolen each week near my next duty station, it’s probably good that my car is not an eye-catcher.

May 24

This photo shows the copper deposits (green).

Our 580-mile drive to Springfield, MO was the longest day so far. Our intent was to get to Springfield to see the Crystal Caves the following morning. We saw billboard ads for dozens of caverns along I-64 and I-44. It may be worth a drive back someday to see them. The Crystal Cave was not quite what I expected, but it was definitely worth the visit. For starters, there are no billboard ads or beautiful color ads flooding the area to attract visitors. Most people learn of the Crystal Cave by word of mouth. Crystal Cave is a genuine “Mom and Pop” operation. The Mann sisters’ father discovered the caves in the mid-1880s. Then the Mann sisters inherited the caves. It’s been open to the public since 1893. The current owner knew the Mann sisters and used to visit the cave often. He never dreamed the cave would eventually be willed to his family, then owned by him and his wife. Much of the cave’s presentation is still as it was back then. The caves are very rustic. There are no colorful lights to enhance the cave’s natural look, no wide concrete paths to guide you though the tour, and no uniformed guides leading dozens of tours daily. Instead, there are simple light bulbs crudely hanging about the cave, narrow gravel paths with stone stairways and low underpasses leading the way through the cave, and comfortably clothed family members offering tours from 9:00am to 1:30pm.

This photo shows how close we were able to get to the live formations.

So what makes Crystal Caves so great? They’re constantly changing. We were guided by the owner as the only tourists. He told us about the history of the cave and pointed out areas that he was working on that were not yet open to the public. A lot of what we saw was not open to the public until recently. He was quite proud to have been able to give the public something that had not been available before. Most tours last about an hour and 20 minutes. Ours lasted almost two hours since he pointed us to the best photo opportunities. Another bonus is that the formations are up close and personal. Most cave systems have only a few “rooms” with wide paths that are 20-30 feet from the nearest rock formation. Crystal Cave has about 10 rooms and the formations are literally right in front of your face. I even had to get near the floor for a few of the ceiling photos to be far enough away. Best of all, the detailed tour cost only $5. Compare that to a cave up the road that offers a 30-minute electric car ride into a large single room at a cost of $14.50 and you’ll agree that a visit to the Crystal Cave is a good deal.

After our visit to the cave we checked out of the hotel and drove a short 250 miles to Lawrence, KS. A good friend of mine from the Coast Guard lives there. We stayed with her family for two nights. A lot has changed since we last met 10 years ago. Her son is now a teenager, she has two young daughters, and she’s no longer in the Coast Guard. Once again the cats enjoyed accommodations at “Hotel Jetta.” It was a little warmer in KS, so the “hotel” was moved into her garage. We visited an outlet mall and picked up a few things. We also rested up for our long drive to South Dakota.

May 30

Our next day’s drive was 660 miles to Kadoka, SD. Our goal was simply to get within striking distance of the Badlands and spend the night. The next morning we drove through Badlands National Park. The scenic drive through the Badlands was about 30 miles. The scenery was beautiful, but odd at the same time. A friend once described the Badlands as a “miniature Grand Canyon.” He’s right. Photos of the Badlands and the Grand Canyon appear quite similar. Even standing on the rim of one of the Badlands’ canyons provides a spectacular view of what seems to be a huge canyon. But once I visually “measured” the height of the canyon I figured it’s not really that deep. The layers of colors in the rocks are what provides the perception of tremendous depth. After we passed through the park we stopped briefly at “Wall Drug.” It’s much more than a drug store. In fact, it’s more of a shopping plaza. There were dozens of shops with souvenirs for nearly every attraction in the Black Hills. We decided not to purchase anything and to make our souvenir purchases at the actual attractions. Our 100-mile drive to Rapid City was met with plenty of rain. Most attractions we wanted to see are outdoors; therefore, we decided to call it a day.

Death Row Inhabitant.

The next day was beautiful. First we headed to REPTILE GARDENS, the world’s largest collection of reptiles. They had lots of snakes, including the inhabitants of “Death Row,” the most venomous snakes in the world. There was also a 200-lb alligator-Snapping Turtle. He was pretty boring, but impressive by his size alone. It was also my first time to come face to face with several Galapagos Tortoises. It was cool outside, so they were in their heated indoor area.

There was also a prairie dog habitat. They were calling across to each other as if they were saying, “People! People! Hide!” The center attraction was a large arboretum with approximately 40,000 flowers and orchids, several reptiles, exotic birds, and a few loose snakes. Our final stop at Reptile Gardens was the gift shop. We picked up some t-shirts and a few geodes.

Bear Country USA

Our next stop was BEAR COUNTRY USA. This was our first time to visit a drive-thru wildlife park. They had lots of different mammals there including Timber Wolfs, Arctic Wolves, bobcats, mountain lions, rams, reindeer, buffalo, and the world’s largest collection of black bears. The different species were cleverly divided by electric fences and cattle guards so they wouldn’t eat each other. The end of the tour featured “Babyland” with dozens of baby bears, foxes, and wolves. Naturally, there was a large gift shop. It featured just about every kind of teddy bear imaginable.

We were there!

Next, we headed toward Mt Rushmore. There was a turnoff for Rushmore Cave. We had seen dozens of billboards, so we decided to take a detour. The caves were nice, but nothing stood out as spectacular. Most of it consisted of passageways with one large room at the end. We had seen better, but each cave has its own features. We left quickly and went to Mt Rushmore. It was neat to see Mt Rushmore in person. The mountain really speaks for itself. Most interesting are the things that cannot be seen in the sculpture. For example,about 95% of the sculpting was done by blasting with dynamite. Also,did you know that Thomas Jefferson was originally supposed to be on George Washington’s right side? When it wasn’t working out, his image was blasted from the rock face and reblasted on Washington’s left side. Finally, the sculpture was originally planned as a waist-up sculpture. However, the artist died before the Memorial was dedicated. His son saw the completion of the project, but opted to leave the sculptures as neck-up sculptures. We returned after dark for the evening lighting ceremony.

Pigtail Bridges

We took a scenic drive between our two visits to Mt Rushmore. The road through the rugged mountains was extremely steep and windy. One of the most interesting road designs is a bridge network called the “Pigtail Bridges.” A way to reduce the grade of the climb was required so all vehicles could make it up. The pigtail design was laughed at and it was said the plan would never work. Given the fact that heavy RVs with trailers climb this area every day, I’d say it was quite successful. Our main reason for making the tour was to see how the tunnels “frame” Mt Rushmore.

Rare box formations at Wind Cave.

We were unable to see Wind and Jewel Caves in our planned stay. All hotels were already booked for Memorial Day weekend. Therefore, we couldn’t extend our stay. Instead, we packed up the car and made a drive to Wind Cave. We were able to leave the cats in the car during the tour. Wind Cave is the 8th largest (known) cave in the world. Other than its size, I was relatively unimpressed. The only items of interest were the “Box Formations.” These formations (pictured) are very rare. In fact, it is estimated that Wind Cave has about 90% of the world’s box formations. After touring Wind Cave we drove to Jewel Cave National Park. There were about 350 wild buffalo roaming the area as well as dozens of prairie dogs. It was far too warm to leave the cats in the car to tour Jewel Cave. Bummer! We decided to bypass the tour and continue toward Helena, MT.

Devil’s Tower with legend interpretation inset.

We detoured along the way to see Devil’s Tower in WY, made famous by the motion picture “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” We stopped, took photos, and visited the gift shop near the base of the tower. Legend says that Devil’s Tower was formed when a great bear chased a group of native children. The children stopped on top of a large rock and prayed for the rock to protect them. The rock sprouted to its current 1200+ feet, saving the children. The grooves in Devil’s Tower are said to have been made by the bear as he attempted to climb Devil’s Tower. The bear left when he had no more claws. The children were saved; but I’m sure they died of starvation and exposure to the elements since they didn’t have repelling equipment to get back to their homes. 😉

Driving on, we stopped in Sheridan, WY after my body said “Enough!” I had developed a head and chest cold and the long days had finally caught up with me. We got a good night’s sleep and made it to Helena by 4:30… one day late. Our plan is to get rested and meet the family. We’ll continue our tour on Tuesday.

June 4

Four Generations

After a good night’s sleep in Sheridan we made the relatively short, 360-mile drive to Helena, MT. This was a stop I had waited years to make. I was adopted by my step-father at age 3. I have no memory of my father. To make a long story short, 20 years passed before I saw my him again. I met him in Kodiak, AK and my grandfather in Bellingham, WA in 1992. This trip to Helena was to meet the rest of the family as well as to allow all of them to meet my wife. Most of them had not seen me since I was a toddler. Our greatest pleasure was in meeting my great-grandmother. She’s celebrating her 90th birthday next year. So we’re planning to return to Helena in the spring. We spent Memorial Day Weekend with them and continued our journey Tuesday morning.

Our next day was 500 miles to Salt Lake City, UT where we visited with some cousins. I first met them in 1989 and I had seen them only once since then. I’ve been in contact with them ever since. The trip was long overdue. I think my wife really enjoyed our stay there. I was still wiped out from my head and chest cold, retreating to bed each night at around 8 or 9pm. That gave her plenty of quality time with “the girls,” something she has not had much on this trip. We stayed two nights.

The Great Heart

The highlight of our stay was visiting the Timpanogos Caves. Being at an elevation of 7000 feet, we definitely got our share of exercise with this cave. The hike was about 1-1/2 miles with a vertical gain of over 1000 feet. To make matters worse,we got to make the climb in the rain. The cave was very much worth the climb. The Timpanogos Caves were the most beautiful yet. There were several large formations. But the most spectacular ones were the smaller, crystal formations. Like the Crystal Cave in MO, the formations were close and personal; plus the presentation was superb. The Timpanogos Caves are definitely worth another visit. Next time I’ll bring better photo equipment. Our trip continued the following day. Of course, the weather was wonderful.

June 10

All of this driving is beginning to get tiring. Our next leg was 530 miles to Denver, CO. Our primary focus was to visit my step-sister. It was good that this was our longest scheduled stop. We used the four days to rest and relax. I had reached the peak of my head and chest cold. It may have grown into mild bronchitis. But now it’s tapering off nicely. We visited several friends in the Denver area. Among them was a family that we met in Alameda, CA. It had been over six years since the last time I saw them. We went to church with them and spent the day at their home. I also got to see another Coast Guard friend. He left the Coast Guard in 1991, got married,and moved to Denver. We had barbecue and visited “Redrocks,” an amphitheater that’s built into dense red rock formation. The acoustics must be very nice during a concert.

Balanced Rock

We also managed to squeeze in the new Star Wars movie and the subsequent shopping associated with seeing a movie in a mall. We visited the “Butterfly Pavilion” on our last day. There was a huge collection of insects, spiders, and other creepy critters. They also had a few small aquariums with samples of sea life. The most spectacular part of the visit was the arboretum with tons of plants and thousands of butterflies. There were also several breeds of box turtles present, but we didn’t see any of them. Terrie was a little concerned that we didn’t get to see as much as we could have, but we were able to get some needed rest. We left the next morning and visited “Garden of the Gods” park near Colorado Springs. Garden of the Gods is popular for its many rock formations. We could have seen much more, but wanted to get to our next stop before sunset. “Balanced Rock” is pictured.

June 15

White Sands, NM, home of the world’s largest gypsum dune field. Inset is the Bleached Earless Lizard.

We didn’t make it to Holloman AFB, NM before sunset as we hoped. The drive through Garden of the Gods took longer than expected. We also ran into heavy traffic and reduced speed limits on the two-lane highways. We made it to Holloman at 9:00pm after 550 miles of driving. We stayed with good friends that we had met at a church in Virginia in 1994. We did lots of traveling around in southeast New Mexico. We visited the White Sands National Monument near the White Sands Missile Range. White Sands recently had success testing an anti-missile missile. I found it interesting that the missile range encompasses State Highways 54 and 70. Both highways are subject to routine closures while missile tests are in progress.

Giant Formation…

The final attraction on our trip was our visit to Carlsbad Cavern. Carlsbad Cavern is the grand-daddy of all caverns. Surprisingly, the vast majority of the cave is no longer growing. However, the formations are still extremely impressive. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to Carlsbad early enough for the guided tours. Instead, we took the self-guided tour of “The Big Room.” This room should have been named, “The Stadium.” It is over 750 feet under ground and simply massive, estimated at over four football fields in size. Luckily, we’ll live close enough to Carlsbad to return later in the summer and take the guided tour as well as the tour through the natural entrance. There are other attractions in Carlsbad such as a wildlife park. Another surprise about Carlsbad Cavern was that many of the most beautiful formations are not viewable by the public. That’s because these formations reside in Lechugilla Cave. Ranking among the largest caves in the world, Lechugilla Cave is still being mapped and explored. So far only geologists, scientists, and a few park rangers have been allowed to enter the cave. It is expected to remain that way for years to come since the growing formations within are made from gypsum which is very delicate. Our only views of Lechugilla were from a slide show and a few post cards.

350,000 Bats! The Maternity Ward is inset. Up to 300 bats have been counted in each square foot here.

Later that evening there was a Bat Ceremony. Approximately 350,000 Mexican free-tailed bats fly from Carlsbad Cavern each evening at sunset. The flight is preceded by a short presentation where a park ranger discusses the bats, their part in the ecosystem, and their danger of extinction due to ignorance on the part of humans. It turns out that bats are nearly everywhere worldwide and play a large part in perpetuating plant life and controlling the insect population. The bat population of Carlsbad Cavern lives about two miles into the cavern. They make their “indoor” flight in complete darkness. The entrance (or exit) to the cave is extremely steep. Therefore, they spiraled upward as they climbed to clear the walls of the entrance. After about 20 minutes the sky had clouds of bats in flight. We stayed for 30 minutes then left. Sometimes it takes hours for the bats to finally vacate the cave. The photos above show the bats. I chose to use the postcard instead of my own photos. This photo was taken from inside the cave. Those darn professional photographers always get the best perspective.

Conclusion (with some VW-nut stuff)

We found our home within a week of visiting Carlsbad. Our household goods will be delivered on June 17th. We’ve found a three bedroom house with two bathrooms that’ll work out nicely. It doesn’t have a basement, but it has an attached garage and three small utility rooms. Foot per foot it’s probably only slightly smaller than our old home. There is a shade tree in the front yard that covers the driveway and another in the back yard that shades the master bedroom. The only downside is the 53-mile one way commute to work. But that’s why I have a diesel. The overall location is great. We’ll be within a day’s drive of my family members near Houston and Austin as well as family members in Arizona. We’ll be two days’ drive from our family members in California.

Logbook Clipping

And now for the statistics my fellow VW nuts and I love. Our journey including local travel near each stop consisted of 6,317 miles in 29 days. We passed through 21 states: Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, South Dakota, Wyoming (twice), Montana, Idaho, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and (finally) Texas. Our typical speeds were 65-mph to PA, 70-mph to KY, 75-mph to KS, then 80-mph everywhere else (except in reduced speed zones, of course). I’ve estimated our payload at about 700 pounds (200 in luggage on the rear rack; 200 in cargo inside the car, then 300 for our combined weight).

Even with such a load we only used 162 gallons of fuel, resulting in an average fuel mileage of 39 miles per gallon. Our best mileage was 47-mpg, our worst was 36-mpg. Most of our high-speed cruising through mountainous areas yielded about 37-mpg. Having the cargo in the car’s draft was the greatest contributor to this high fuel mileage. The cargo carrier turned out to be a nice addition. Its only pitfall was the 3-1/2″ clearance once the car was loaded. It did a little scraping in driveways and uneven intersections. The only loss was about 1/2″ from a replaceable bolt.

The TDI with cover removed. New clamps are identified.

The car performed almost flawlessly during the trip. Once we were in states that embraced a 75-mph speed limit, the tiny diesel held an 80-mph cruise over hill and dale without leaving 5th gear. The only hill that slowed the car was a long, steep grade just south of Colorado Springs. The car remained in 5th gear and maintained 65-mph. It immediately returned to 80-mph at the summit. I’m not sure if our elevation had anything to do with the lack of power. By the way, the highest known elevation we traveled was at 8,650 feet on the way to Carlsbad Cavern.

The car reached its 5000-mile oil change interval in Denver, CO (I used to drain every 5k when I used conventional motor oil… now I use 100% synthetic and drain every 10k). I had scheduled an oil change in advance, so I was in and out easily. Since the car had lost 1-quart of oil during the first 5000 miles of the trip I had the turbo inspected. I had discovered an oil leak near it before we left Cape Cod. The dealer cleaned the engine and told me to inspect it again in two weeks. Two days and 600 miles later, I removed the engine cover and discovered oil leakage on the valve cover. Apparently it was leaking from the crankcase vent to the back side of the engine and dripping from the turbo. It turns out that replacing a couple of hose clamps (pictured) solved the problem… much cheaper than a turbo replacement.

Well, enough of the techno-weenie stuff. We are satisfied with the time we spent on our tour. We have a nice photo album, souvenirs, and good memories to show for it. We thank those of you who have followed the site and provided feedback and encouragement via e-mail and guestbook entries. Perhaps we’ll do another tour soon. But the car will be packed differently next time… perhaps with a small trailer. Until then, perhaps we’ll meet at a Texas VW Show.

Take Care,


Being used to a car that needs gas every 350 miles, one thing that has always amazed me about our new car is its excellent fuel economy: 49-mpg on the highway. This Volkswagen advertisement sums up its mileage capabilities pretty well. The car puts an end to stopping because we need fuel. Now we stop because we’re hungry or need to stretch our legs. Putting fuel in the car is something that is done just once each evening.

About Scott

I grew up near Houston, TX and served in the U. S. Coast Guard for over 30 years. I have an electronics background and continue to work in the electronics engineering field. I taught myself the basics about automotive systems as well as how to perform some of my own maintenance (cars and bicycles). I became involved with Amateur Radio and computers in 1995. The explosion of technology has made my job and several of my hobbies quite interesting. My hobbies include Volkswagens, bicycling, photography, electronics, amateur radio, web management, and reptiles. Visit my websites to learn more.
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