Cross Country Trip, Service Projects

Road Trip Day 5: South Dakota and Montana

Sunrise at our Campsite - HDRI had set the alarm for this morning for 6 am, and when it went off, it was still dark. The sun had not yet risen over the mountains just to the east of us. We had slept fairly comfortably given that our tent was set up on soft grass, but it seemed very early and we were really tired. I hit snooze a few times, but we finally got up and got ourselves going, and were able to enjoy a lovely sunrise. Dave took lots of photos of the early morning sun on the Crazy Horse Memorial.

About an hour later I looked at the clock on my phone and had to double-check twice.

“Dave, I have to tell you something that you’re not going to like,” I said. “What?” he asked. “I accidentally got us up at 5 am. Sorry.” All he could say was, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

Obviously we had reset all the clocks for Mountain Time *except* for the alarm clock. I made sure not to let that happen again.

The dew had started to fall last night before we were even done eating dinner. At 6 o’clock in the morning, as the sun started to rise, our tent, camp chairs, and the picnic table were soaking wet. It was apparent that it would take a while for it all to dry out.

Crazy Horse from the VC Parking LotOnce we got ourselves together, we drove back to the Crazy Horse Memorial, which opened at 7:00 am. Even though we were there a half hour after opening, the woman at the entrance gate made a comment about us being early birds. I told her, “We’re awake, we figured we should take advantage of it!” We were glad we did, too, because there were very few people when we arrived, and it started to get really busy as we were leaving just a couple of hours later.

We watched the orientation video about the Crazy Horse Memorial project’s history and current status. We wandered around the visitor center for a while. At 8 am, Dave went out to make a few phone calls to try to organize our next activity. We were hoping to visit Jewel Cave, but as Dave made phone calls, we found that all the morning tours were booked. He also called Wind Cave and learned that we could get in on a first-come, first-served basis. We decided to take our chances with that.

Scale Model of Crazy Horse - HDROnce we had that straight, we spent a little more time at the visitor’s center facilities at Crazy Horse. The place is laid out so that you drive up from the main road to the visitor’s center, which is a mile or so from the base of the mountain itself. The initial entrance fee is $10 each (or $27 per car if you have more than 2 people in your vehicle). Once you get to the visitor’s center, you find that you can pay an additional $4 per person to take a bus tour to the base of the mountain. And, if you really want to see Crazy Horse up close and personal – and really feel inspired enough to support the project – you can pay about $150 to take the special tour up to the top. This all sounds really outrageous until you learn that this multi-million dollar project is being funded exclusively through entrance fees, donations, and profits made by selling items in the various stores at the visitor’s center. Apparently the foundation has been offered federal funding at least twice, but the founder of the project was a free-market libertarian, so they will never accept government funding. It will probably take 200 years (my estimate) for the thing to be completed. Fascinating.

All that to say, Dave and I limited our enjoyment of Crazy Horse to the terrace at the visitor’s center.

We left Crazy Horse around 9:15 am and went back to the campground to take down our now-dryish tent.

Then we drove down Rte 385 south to Wind Cave National Park. We got there around 10:15 am, and the tour we wanted to take (the “Natural Entrance Tour”) was at 11 am. So we poked around in the visitor’s center a bit, learning about the history of the cave, etc. Then we went outside under a shelter, where the group gathered to begin the tour. As we headed to the cave entrance, I noticed a black line of clouds heading our way.

Wind Cave Natural EntranceThe park ranger, Justin, was personable and knowledgeable. He showed us the original entrance to the cave (the natural entrance) which was a hole that couldn’t have been more than 24″ wide. It was amazing to think that the original explorers of the cave would give tours to groups and require them to squeeze through such a tiny space. Needless to say, Justin didn’t guide the tour group down this entrance.

Inside Wind Cave #2The cave itself was pretty cool. Wind Cave is very unique for several reasons, the most geologically interesting of which is that it has formations seen in very few other caves. These formations are called boxwork. There are none of the stereotypical stalactites and stalagmites – mostly just lots of boxwork.

Another aspect of the tour that was fun was toward the beginning, when Justin gathered the entire group into a large space, and showed us what the lighting would have been like for the original explorers, who used a candle bucket. You can’t see much detail carrying just a candle, or even much of the floor. Dave and I were glad that we didn’t end up taking the Candlelight Tour, which we had been hoping to do rather than the Natural Entrance tour. After Justin showed us the lighting with the candle bucket, he then blew out the candle, and we got to experience the cave in complete darkness. It was remarkable – you can’t even see your hand a centimeter in front of your face. As Justin explained, this is complete darkness – your eyes can’t adjust to this kind of darkness.

The tour was about 1 1/4 hours long, and we were glad we took the time for it. After we came up (exiting the cave via elevator) and went outside, we found that it had rained, but was now clearing and becoming beautifully sunny. Perfect timing for us!

Deer @ Wind Cave NPOn our way toward the visitor’s center, we passed some prairie dog colonies, so of course I wanted to stop and watch them for a bit. As we drove back, we noticed a mule deer buck with a beautiful set of antlers. Dave took some photos and he stared at us the entire time.

Prarie Dog @ Wind Cave NPWe watched the prairie dogs play for a bit, then stopped at a turnout to have some peanut butter sandwiches. It turned out there were prairie dogs right at the parking lot there, so we watched them a bit and took a few more prairie dog photos.

Anna Miller Museum #2Then we headed toward Montana via Wyoming. We stopped briefly in Newcastle, WY to take photos of the Anna Miller Museum, to amuse Dave’s mom (whose name is Anna Mary). By now it was past 3 pm, so we didn’t have the time to enjoy all that the Anna Miller Museum had to offer. Instead, we got back on the road and headed back to I-90, which took another hour or so.

Check out our Day 5 photos.

Once on the interstate, we drove through Wyoming for about 3 hours. We saw many incredible vistas in Wyoming as we headed west toward the Rockies, and then stayed north as the interstate worked its way along the feet of the great mountain range. As we cut across the northeastern part of Wyoming, the corn and soy fields had pretty much disappeared. Most of the land we drove through was grazing land for cattle – not many crops being grown there. It has a very wide-open feel.

We crossed into Montana around 5:15 pm, and fortunately didn’t have much further to go to get to our friends’ house in Hardin. We got to their farm just after 6 pm, after managing to just avoid being struck by a long train hauling tons and tons of coal. (There are no RR crossing gates here in Hardin to warn you not to drive across!)

We spent the rest of the evening relaxing and hanging out with our friend Kristen, her kids Hannah (7), Caleb (5), and Toby (3), and her parents Dave and Bonnie. We had a delicious home-grilled steak dinner, played with the kids, and had a late-night philosophical talk with Kristen. We stayed up a bit later than we should have, but it was great to have a chance to spend time with good friends.

Service Projects

Gulf Coast Trip: Digest Version

Below is the quick version of our trip to the Gulf Coast, though I realize it seems rather long. Click here to check out our photos. Read the entries below for details on various aspects of our trip, written topically rather than chronologically.

Friday, March 16: After work, we drove from our home in Silver Spring MD, through DC, down to Blacksburg VA. It was sleeting when we left, and snowed a bit as well in Virginia. It took us about 5 and a half hours. We spent the night with our friends Ryan and Elyn.

Nearly completed Habitat houseSaturday, March 17: We listened to Irish music in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day as we drove from Blacksburg through southwestern Virginia, eastern Tennessee, the northwestern corner of Georgia, across Alabama, and into Mississippi. We got to Hattiesburg MS around 6 pm CDT – the trip took about 11 hours. We moved into our volunteer housing, a Habitat home that had been turned into a bunkhouse for 12 people. We were the first ones to arrive. We drove around Hattiesburg a little bit – a cute university town (home of University of Southern Mississippi) but perhaps struggling a bit economically.

UMd Law StudentsSunday, March 18: We got up early and met one of our Site Supervisors, J.R. We also met the group that had arrived late the night before and was staying in the bunkhouse next door – 12 students from the University of Maryland Law School. J.R. gave us various projects in the three Habitat homes across the street, which were in various stages of completion. Dave and I installed a doorjamb in the kitchen, and helped a pair of law students install a vanity in the bathroom. Since the week promised to be full and intense, J.R. only had us work a half day. We all had lunch around noon and then the law students went off to go canoeing. Dave and I spontaneously decided to do the two-hour drive to New Orleans to see how it’’s recovering. (Read the report in “On Katrina“.) Before heading back to Hattiesburg, we had dinner at the home of our friends John and Christy in Jefferson Parish, and heard some stories about the difficulties of living in a city that is having difficulties coping with post-disaster realities.

Putting up the first wall on the new houseMonday, March 19: The build team gathered around 7:30 am, now including not only us and the students from UMd, but also a family of three from Seattle and a group of 20 or so people from a Baptist church in Bethlehem, PA. Two men from this group were our new housemates, and the rest were staying in hotels nearby. The main goal for the day was to frame the walls for a new house, which at the beginning of the day was only a cement pad next to the three in-process homes. In addition, there were smaller jobs that needed to be done in some of these houses. Dave became a leader on the team framing the new house, while I and a girl from UMd put moulding around inside door frames at the most completed house. We finished up close to 5 pm —– a long day of construction! The law student invited us to join them for a yummy home-cooked dinner, then we all went out bowling.

Inner walls of the new house, Day 2Tuesday, March 20: Once again getting an early start, Dave continued to head up the framing team, leading the crew on putting up inside walls. I ended up heading up a paint crew in the second-most completed house. A new group had been added to our team, a bunch of undergrads from Earlham College in Indiana. They made a great paint crew, and we got the inside ceilings and walls of the entire house primed and ready to paint the next day. After work was done and we were cleaned up, Dave took me out to dinner for my birthday at a cute locally-owned pub called the Keg and Barrel.

Wednesday, March 21: The law students had left but we still had a good sized team. Dave kept up the work on the new house, and I helped out for a while putting up some of the ceiling joists. Starting mid-morning, I oversaw a new group from Earlham College to paint the walls and ceilings of the house I was working on the day before. It was another full day of work. Afterwards, Dave and I picked up take-out barbecue from a local place and took it to have dinner with our friends Sue, Ellen, and Will, the family from Seattle. They were staying in a cabin on a lake at a state park about 10 miles down the road. It was a fun and relaxing evening.

This is what happens when you encourage your crew to paint youThursday, March 22: The Earlham College students moved on to do some work down in New Orleans, and most of the folks from the Baptist church had formed their own crews working on smaller projects such as patio roofs. That meant that Dave’s crew, which had come to the point of starting to put the roof beams on top of the house, consisted of the family from Seattle and our Site Manager, Mike. It was slower going than earlier in the week. I helped for a while, handing up roof beams as they were being cut. I later did some cleanup and detail work on the third house, to get it ready for Monday’s inspection before the drywall could be put in. After work, Dave and I drove around the Hattiesburg area, inspecting some of the hurricane damage and also general state of Hattiesburg. We had a very unhealthy but very tasty dinner of Gulf Coast style fried seafood.

Millers and KutschersFriday, March 23: Dave continued to work with Mike, Will, and Sue on getting the roof up. He had help from a few new individuals: two local women who volunteer every Friday. Ellen and I were tasked with a couple of other projects on this house, and were fortunate to have a few hours of help from a couple of great local college students both named Lindsay. We put weather-proof wrapping on the front of the house, then installed windows and sealed them. About halfway through the day, the folks from Pennsylvania headed out, and the job site got very quiet. By 5 pm, everyone was tired, and J.R. was ready to call it a day. The new house had most of the roof beams on it, and the windows were all in and sealed. It had been a good week of work, and we said farewell to our new friends from Seattle and to our great Site Supervisor J.R. Then we went to Keg and Barrel to watch the Hoyas beat Vanderbilt — hooray!

Saturday, March 24: We gathered all our things out of the volunteer bunkhouse and packed up our car. We said goodbye to Mike, who told us we could come back any time. We hit the road around 9 am and headed toward Nashville, going back through Mississippi and Alabama. It took about 6 and a half hours to get there. We stayed with our friend Joyce, and had a chance to enjoy more Southern culture by eating at Jack’’s Bar-B-Que and checking out a bluegrass concert.

Sunday, March 25: We left Nashville at 8 am and drove for hours and hours, through eastern Tennessee and Virginia. We were so happy to get to I-66 and head toward DC. As we got into the DC area, we listened on the radio to the Eastern Division NCAA basketball game, in which Georgetown magically beat UNC to head toward the Final Four. Go Hoyas!

Service Projects

On Hurricane Katrina

St. Bernard Parish, March 31 2007Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on August 29, 2005 with a force and intensity that was greater than forecast. The city of New Orleans suffered the greatest damage, largely because the city is shaped like a bowl, and the levees that hold back the bodies of water that surround the city broke and the entire place filled with water. The communities along the Gulf of Mexico, such as Gulfport and Biloxi, also suffered greatly, particularly the homes and businesses within a few blocks of the beach, due to 27 foot waves known as storm surges that literally knocked down buildings and washed them either inland or out to sea. (There’s a lot of great detail on Wikipedia if you’re interested:

As Katrina proceeded, it whirled up Interstate 59 like a weed whacker, snapping trees in half, knocking down signs and utility poles, and peeling roofs off of buildings. This was the damage that was sustained in the Hattiesburg area (central Mississippi), causing some areas to be without power for up to four weeks and some businesses to close due to a lack of capital to rebuild.

Continue reading “On Hurricane Katrina”

Service Projects

On Hattiesburg

Hattiesburg, MSWhile Hattiesburg was hit pretty hard by Hurricane Katrina —– certainly harder than a community 75 miles inland is typically struck by a hurricane —– it didn’’t suffer nearly the damage that the communities further south sustained. On the other hand, though, the Hattiesburg area wasn’t as diverse economically as New Orleans, Gulfport, and Biloxi. The main ““white collar” industry in Hattiesburg is the University of Southern Mississippi (aka Southern Miss), and there is also a hospital. Most of Hattiesburg is working class: many jobs are military (National Guard base Camp Shelby is nearby), industrial (there are plants for Pepsi and Budweiser, as well as some local industry such as a foundry), and service sector (small shops and restaurants, and of course Wal-Mart). One of the women working with us to do her ““sweat equity” in order to qualify for one of the Habitat homes told us she was a Nurse’’s Assistant.

Check out our photos of Hattiesburg, including some photos of remaining hurricane damage.

One of the Habitat family ladies, and J.R.The Hattiesburg Area Habitat for Humanity affiliate had been building homes at a rate of 2-3 per year. The street we were working on had about 7 of these homes, which already had low-income families living in them. Once the hurricane rebuilding effort got underway, the affiliate seized the opportunity and set a goal of building 40 homes per year. So far this year, they had built the two homes that were currently the volunteer bunkhouses (though one would have a family move into it in April), plus the three existing “in-process” homes that were there when we arrived, plus the one we started the week we were there —– all this by mid-March! With the help of weekly teams of volunteers and donations coming in like never before, the Hattiesburg Area Habitat for Humanity is able to offer safe, decent housing to families who would not previously been able to think of such a thing. Some of them were evicted from apartments after Katrina when the landlords determined that it wasn’t worth fixing the hurricane damage. Some of them may have lost jobs when their employers closed or had to cut back after the disaster. Others are simply hardworking low-income families who are living through an ongoing unrelated pre-and-post-hurricane economic disaster.

Site Manager MikeKudos go to the incredible staff at the Hattiesburg Area Habitat for Humanity, who we were fortunate to work with while we were there: the Site Manager, Mike, and Site Supervisors Earl and J.R., and staff member Natacha, who wears many hats trying to identify families, coordinate volunteers, and raise funds for the affiliate. Visit their website and find out how you can contribute at

Service Projects

On Religion

Dave and Jenn on the last day - good work!Faith is a major motivation for me and for Dave to spend a week building homes for low-income families. Jesus set an example of serving the poor, the sick, the disadvantaged, and said that any time we do an act of service for ““the least of these”, we are also doing it for the Lord (Matthew 25). The Bible says that if we present ourselves to God as ““living sacrifices”, it is considered a ““spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12). It seemed appropriate to us to do so by sacrificing our spring break and vacation time and spend it doing hard work for God’’s children rather than relaxing on the beach somewhere. This gives us an opportunity for us to give voice to those who have none (Proverbs 31) by sharing with our friends, families, and blog readers the truth of how working families are faring in the post-Katrina Gulf Coast region.

Habitat for Humanity was founded on similar philosophies. It’’s not a missionary organization, but it follows the example of Jesus Christ by caring for impoverished families all over the world, in a compassionate, respectful, and sustainable way. Habitat’’s materials are quite clear about the fact that it is a Christian organization, starting with its mission statement and streaming through its website, printed materials, and its monthly magazine. Habitat is equally clear that it welcomes supporters and volunteers of all faiths to join in fulfilling its work. Check out the “Theology of the Hammer” page on its website:

Continue reading “On Religion”

Service Projects

On Construction

If you volunteer for Habitat —– particularly for an entire week —– you should not kid yourself that you’re doing a nice little service project. If you want to do something that helps someone else and feels good, stop and think about what you’re getting into first; maybe tutoring or handing out sandwiches is a better choice for you.

Earl, redoing people's workA Habitat build is a construction site, and while most of the workers are not stereotypical construction workers, the work is still the same, and the dangers are the same (if not greater, since there are lots of rookies).

At the beginning of each day, the Site Supervisor is supposed to give a safety talk. It varies in length and scope, but the one thing that is always emphasized is: don’t leave anything on the top of a ladder. You or someone else may try to move the ladder and then you’ll have something come crashing down on your head.

There’s a very good reason why they make all volunteers sign a waiver.

Continue reading “On Construction”

Service Projects

On Volunteers

Putting up the first wall on the new houseThe average U.S. Habitat for Humanity home costs about $60,000 to build. It is then sold, with no down payment (other than hours paid in sweat equity) and basically at cost, to a family who would typically not be able to afford a home otherwise. The only way this can be done is through free – volunteer – labor.

Here’s a very rough estimate on costs. Let’s say there were at least 40 volunteers on our work site in Hattiesburg. Most of us worked 8 hours per day. If we were getting paid an unskilled labor rate of $6.25, Habitat for Humanity would have had to shell out $2000 for that week (assuming no benefits or overtime). If a house takes 5 weeks to build, unskilled labor alone would add $10,000 to the cost of the house. This doesn’t include skilled labor such as electricians, plumbers, etc (which Habitat often does pay for).

Of course, in the case of volunteer labor, sometimes you get what you pay for. While Dave and I aren’t professional contractors by any means, the amount of building we’ve done over the past 15 years (both through Habitat and in the theatre) made us some of the more experienced members of the team this week. Let’s take a look at some of our teammates!

Continue reading “On Volunteers”

Service Projects

On the South

Driving to MississippiIn the rest of the country, particularly in the Northeastern United States and among some in the West, the South is not particularly respected. The people who live in the Southeastern U.S. are seen as uneducated, averse to progress, and racist.

I would venture to guess that the non-Southerners who hold to this view have, for the most part, not spent much time in the South. One only has to visit the Southern states to see that, while there are elements of the society that fit the stereotype (and there are Southerners who proudly wear some or all of the labels I described above), there’s more to the South than you think. I’ll make a few comments based on our most recent trip, which took us through Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia (briefly), Alabama, and Mississippi.

Continue reading “On the South”

Service Projects

Rollin’ to Miss’ippi

Well, we’re on our way! Tonight we drive four hours (approximately and weather permitting) from Silver Spring, Maryland to Blacksburg, Virginia, where we’ll stay with our friends Ryan & Elyn. Tomorrow (Saturday), we’ll drive 11 hours from Blacksburg down to Hattiesburg, Mississippi. We’ve received so much great encouragement from friends, family, and co-workers. We’re energized and ready to do some building!

Service Projects

Rebuilding the Gulf Coast!

On March 18, 2007, Dave and I will be traveling to Hattiesburg, Mississippi to join a team of Habitat volunteers in rebuilding the community there. Despite being about 75 miles inland, Hattiesburg was hit very hard by Hurricane Katrina. The city is currently strained by a large influx of temporary and permanent evacuees from nearby communities. We will spend a week building homes for families who lost everything in the disaster.

We’ll share photos and stories afterward here on our blog. In the meantime, check out the photos we took when we visited New Orleans, then drove out of New Orleans, then drove through Gulfport and Biloxi in August 2006.