Saturday, October 25, 2008

Oregon Trail Mix

Back in 1841, a Jesuit priest named Father de Smet traveled the great Oregon Trail. Upon seeing his first tornado he remarked, "Once as the storm was raging near us, we witnessed a sublime sight. A spiral abyss seemed to be suddenly formed in the air ...

"... The winds came down in a perpendicular direction, and in the twinkling of an eye the trees were torn and uprooted, and their boughs scattered in every direction. But what is violent does not last. After a few minutes the storm dissolved almost as quickly as it had been formed. Soon after, the sun re-appeared: all as calm and we pursued our journey."

What was true then is true today. The blizzard that stopped us cold in southern Montana blew itself out. The power lines were righted. The roads were cleared. And, after a little coaxing, we fired up our good old bus and continued our trek westward.

Once the clouds cleared off, the blue sky of Montana revealed itself to us. If infinity has a color it must be this shade of blue. It is a color that defies measurement and challenges rational thought. Infinity just is. Powder blue just is. Like contemplating your own mortality, it's a feeling that's difficult to describe with words.

While the Montana skies seemed infinite above us, as it turned out mortality was just around every corner. By this I mean ghost towns! Good old fashioned deader-n-a-doornail gold rush gone bust ghost towns. The very best kind!

Though, I hasten to add, no where else but a Montana ghost town will you find citizens frozen mid-shave...

... and forever On Hold.

It's a strange place. But it's also proof positive that the 1800s were, indeed, slower times. Not slow like a '71 microbus, of course. Because soon enough we were shooting the line, going for broke, in a single screaming bus...

... and once again our little one-horse convoy jumped into the worn ruts of the old Oregon Trail. Or at least the ruts of Goodale's Cutoff, which skirts the craters of the moon...

... Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve, that is.

It's the sort of place that makes you feel as though you're on top of the world. Or is that the Moon?

Regardless, once we got back to earth we paused to catch our breath in Ketchum, ID. It's a nifty little ski town, famous for its famous seasonal visitors and what remains of its most famous permanent resident. He was easy enough to track down.

Six feet under, Papa Hemingway has said all he's ever going to say on the subjects of life, death, and traveling. So allow me. We bid a farewell to Hemingway and north we went, through Sawtooth National Forest. It's a place of rare and brooding beauty.

Then we again turned west, through Boise (a great big little town), and joined a wagon train bound for Oregon.

We may not have been driving the biggest wagon, but by no means were we driving the slowest.

To be fair, we saw the exact same sights our pioneer forerunners saw about 150 years ago. Farewell Bend of the Snake river...

... Mt. Hood, as seen from the Columbia George....

... and the Spruce Goose!

Okay. The pioneers of the Oregon Trail never saw the Spruce Goose. But the pioneers of aviation sure did. And you can, too. Just go to the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville, Oregon.

Speaking of Oregon... Did I say Oregon? I did. Beautiful Oregon! ....

Wonderful Oregon! ...

And if we're in Oregon it also means we are home. But this doesn't mean we've stopped traveling. This doesn't mean this road trip is over. Far from it. We have many wonders yet to see. We have many miles yet to drive. We have many people yet to visit. And we can't wait.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Postcards from Yellowstone

We've been traveling so many miles through Wyoming and Montana that we've barely had time to sleep, much less write post cards. But thanks to an unseasonably heavy snowstorm, that has changed. While the storm blew itself out, we took refuge in a hotel just north of Yellowstone National Park where we caught up on our sleep, postcard writing, and TV watching.

In case you haven't received your postcard yet, keep watching that mailbox. In the meantime, here's what you've been missing:








Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Wyoming at Close Range

"Want to see the elk?" Martin asked me. He was a small man somewhere on the long side of sixty, his dark and scraggly beard bristling with shots of white and gray. I nodded. He nodded. He slung a towel over his shoulder, adjusted his hearing aid, and motioned for me to follow him across the parking lot outside of the mineral pools at the Thermopolis Hot Springs State Park.

While Diane lingered in the hot mineral springs, I followed Martin to a giant white pickup truck. A knot of his hunting buddies, who I had already met, were busy stowing away their bathing gear. While soaking in the pool, Diane and I had struck up a conversation with these hunters. They wanted to know all about our bus; and as soon as I found out they had just finished a week-long elk hunt, I wanted to know all about that.

"He wants to see the elk," Martin cawed. Paul, a lanky man with more scalp than hair on his pate, fished out a set of keys and set about unlocking the topper of the pickup truck. Paul looked like he'd be more comfortable behind the manager's desk of a petroleum services company than out bivouacking through the inhospitable wilds of the Wyoming back range.

"It's a nice elk to look at alright," Paul allowed with a deadpan grin as he opened the hatch. "That is, if you like looking at dead elk."

And so I looked. Decorum prevented me from snapping pictures. But it was a fine dead elk, and I said as much. The field-dressed carcass had been expertly butchered into quarters. There was no hint of blood. The head was detached, and its snout brushed the inside of the tailgate. Face-to-face with their elk, I saw that the antler rack spread wide and tall such that the tips almost touched the roof and walls of the topper.

As we talked about their hunt, it was clear that none of them took any real pleasure in making their kills, nor did they show particular pride in their hunting prowess and their trophy. "It takes us a few days to hike into the back country," said Paul. "It's hard country. It's hard work, where we go. Up and down. Those hills are steep. But then you're out there. The bull elks are still rutting and bugling. It's something to see..." His voice trailed off with the wistful tone of a love-sick admirer.

Paul shrugged as he buttoned up the truck's topper. "You know, I don't particularly like to kill animals. But I figure that as long as I'm going to eat meat, I'd rather hunt for it myself. It's that or buy a side a beef from a yard that crams its cows into a feedlot and shoots them full of chemicals."

He's right, of course. We are what we eat. And as the hunters and I parted ways, it occurred to me that there are two Wyomings.

The first Wyoming is the most obvious--the place itself.
Diane and I had been threading our way west across the northern part of the state from the Black Hills to the Tetons and Yellowstone, and the scenery was a delight to behold. What's more, we were in the fold between seasons when the autumn chill is blunted by a bright and warm sun. Every morning when I got out of the bus, I nestled into jacket and gazed to the horizon.

Sometimes, I found myself under tight stands of Aspens that ripple with a golden glow against a pale blue sky that goes on forever.

Other times, a deep valley spread out before me with a emerald glow, its limits defined by a roll of crinkled hills that reach for the heavens, a tattered blanket of pines smothering the steep slopes.

And then there are places like Wind River Canyon that exhales an air so sweet as to defy my poor attempts to describe it with words.

The second Wyoming is more elusive--namely, its residents (this is, after all, the least populated state in the Union). There are the hardscrabble miners in the east...

...the wild cowgirls in the west...

... and the mild-mannered hunters in-between.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Bright Days in the Black Hills

After jumping off the Oregon Trail, Diane and I moseyed south-bound to Colorado for a stop at my mother's home. This was our second visit to Mom & Linda's place on this trip, and our stay was just as wonderful this time as it was the last. But before the week was out, we were again on the road, racing northward to the Black Hills of South Dakota. Thanks, Linda! Thanks, Mom!

The term "Black Hills" is a translation from the Lakota. The term refers to the appearance of these tree-covered hills from a distance. But looks from a distance are deceiving. The Black Hills have a long and storied history. It is a story of long-evaporated seas, long-receded glaciers, long-extinct beasts, long-exhaused gold veins, and long-retired weapons of war.

For where else but here can you visit a small town's municipal park, play some volleyball, take a dip in the city pool, and throw down a picnic blanket under the shadow of a mothballed ICBM?

But the Black Hills is more than a museum. It is also a place of monuments to a not-so distant past. Take the monument to Crazy Horse, a work-in-progress where visitors are emplored to, "Never Forget Your Dreams."

And there are seemingly-completed Memorials where it is possible to meet some of the greatest leaders of generations' past, both close-up...

... and personal.

Diane thinks I have a certain sort of, how shall I say this?... Presidential demeanor. Not to look up at Jefferon's nose, but I can't say that I disagree. Diane says, however, that I need a mustache, pince-nez, and a few rough rides to seal the deal. It's her kind way of saying that I have a lot of work to do before making a run in '12.

Political aspirations aside, the Black Hills are home to monuments where Man's Hand is nowhere in evidence, other than that of Protector and Ticket-Taker. I speak, of course, about Devil's Tower.

Unlike the monuments of Crazy Horse and Mt. Rushmore, the creation of Devil's Tower is a debatable subject.

Geologists say that about 50 million years ago, molten magma was forced into sedimentary rocks above it and as it cooled underground it contracted and fractured into columns. Then, over millions of years, erosion of the sedimentary rock exposed Devil's Tower.


Or Maybe, as the Kiowa people theorize, "Eight children were there at play, seven sisters and their brother. Suddenly the boy was struck dumb; he trembled and began to run upon his hands and feet. His fingers became claws, and his body was covered with fur. Directly there was a bear where the boy had been. The sisters were terrified; they ran and the bear chased after them. They came to the stump of a great tree, and the tree spoke to them. It bade the sisters to climb upon it, and as they did so it began to rise into the air. The bear came to kill them, but they were just beyond its reach. The bear reared against the tree and scored the bark all around with its claws. The seven sisters were borne into the sky, and they became the stars of the Big Dipper."

The Kiowa's theory is no crazier a creation-myth than, say, the one about the man who saw some divine visions and then led a rag-tag band of Chosen People to a promised land of otherworldly salvation.

Thus, the debate rages on.

But that's the thing about the Black Hills. Anything is possible. Anything can happen. Why, a threadbare pauper could even strike it rich--because there's gold in them thar hills! Black Hills Gold!

And where there's gold, there are gold miners. And where there are gold miners there are towns...

... rough and tumble towns. Sportin' towns, where the stakes are as high as the hills. These are towns that know how so show a fella a-rootin and a-tootin' good old time. In the 1870s, Deadwood, SD was a classic gold rush town, where a man could get rich in the mines or at the poker tables.

Today, about 130 years later, the dirty streets of Deadwood have been paved with brick and the rough-cut wooden buildings have been replaced with stone...

... though beneath this glitter still beats a heart of gold fever, albeit one of a more refined nature.

But a man's still got to watch hisself in these parts. Why, a feller might just find hisself at an olde tyme dance hall where the prettiest girl in town might even say "yes" to a neighborly polka dance. All you got to do is ask...

But before you start a-askin', you'd better make sure that another feller ain't already gone sweet on this pretty fillie. If so, you better be fixed to fight. This place ain't called Deadwood for nothin'.

Of course, and as you've seen, the Black Bills is more than grub stakin', gamblin', and gunslingin'. All you have to do is giddyup onto the open road and ask yourself these three simple questions:

Where is?...
Why is?...
What is?...
... and you'll soon find yerself tied off at America's most shameless tourist trap!

Once inside, you'll be find incredible curios. You'll wonder how you ever got through life without them in your possession.

I tried to convince Diane to go out with me at night with a flashlight and gunny sack to bag our own jackalope, but she would have none of it. Hence, the only jackalopes we saw were already stuffed and mounted. But we did see many other Black Hills beasts in broad daylight. We encountered:

Lone bull bison, as big as a truck...

...tame herds of fenced-in Wyld Stallyns...

...and a thriving town of barking prairie dogs. Only two-percent of North America's prairie dog habitat remains, mostly on protected sites below the likes of Devil's Tower.

Which means these dogs see people all the time, and they were not in the least intimidated by the likes of me. Not that I could catch them. Not that I wanted to. But this familiarity did allow the dogs and I to have a grand time playing, "peek-a-boo-I-see-you."

But in the Black Hills we saw more than squeaking dogs, stuffed bunnies, and cloven-hoofed beasts. We walked the edges of an ancient sinkhole where Ice Age mammoths, bears, and wolves have been trapped for over 25,000 years!

It's a sad tale of suffering and woe for the beasts that slid into this 60-foot deep sinkhole and perished. But it makes for great paleontology. And even greater gawking.

I can personally attest that these beasts are just as impressive since before the Dawn of Time... they are delicious today.

We covered a lot of ground in order to visit these Black Hills attractions--monuments (man-made and otherwise), tourist traps (definitely man-made), and animal habitats (man-preserved). But separating these attractions, sustaining the wild beasts, and supporting the sold-rock monuments to the greatest mortals among us, is the land itself. Everywhere you look in the Black Hills you see scenery.

I could commence a scientific discourse in regard to the natural forces that shaped these lands. I could spin terrifying tales about desperate mammoths and raging short-faced bears. Or I could gracefully cede the stage. For, as N. Scott Momaday wrote:

"A dark mist lay over the Black Hills, and the land was like iron...

At the top of the ridge I caught sight of Devil's Tower upthrust against the gray sky as if in the birth of time the core of the earth had broken through its crust and the motion of the world was begun..."

"There are things in nature that engender an awful quiet in the heart of man..."