Well, aren't I a typical American consumer. I'm sitting at the bar in a "T.G.I. Friday's" restaurant in Fargo, watching a TV trivia game while I await the arrival of my chicken quesadilla. At least I didn't order one of their new "pizzadillas." Criminy...
Mount Rushmore is indeed impressive: four solemn faces glowing in the morning sun, the clean, light grey of the recently-exposed granite contrasting with the darker, browner surface of the weathered, aeons-old rock surrounding it. However, seeing it from a distance somehow diminished its grandeur; the sixty-foot faces of the Presidents became barely-discernable features in a large, rocky bluff somewhere in the middle of North America. I wanted to hike up to the very base of the mountain, stand in front of George Washington's unfinished lapels and take in the sheer magnitude of Gutzon Borglum's masterpiece. However, there were no trails visitors could take to get close to the mountain; all we could do was pay eight dollars to view the monument from the visitor center, only a few hundred feet closer than the view from the road. The zoom lens on my video camera saved me the money. Say - a hundred more monuments, and this baby will have paid for itself.
Driving on through the park and passing south of the monument, I got a fairly close view of Washington's face, his profile protruding strikingly from the mountainside. Also clearly visible was the area to Washington's right where Jefferson's face was started but abandoned due to the poor quality of the rock in that location; the carvers blasted away what they had started, smoothed the rock surface, and placed Jefferson to Washington's left instead. It was a prudent decision; our third President wouldn't have looked good with the Sphynx's nose.
Boy, did I pick the wrong day to visit the Crazy Horse monument! This statue-in-progress does have a trail that provides a close-up view of the Sioux chief's recently-unveiled face; however, the place was packed with thousands of people from a hiking club attending a weekend walking festival, and the five-mile trail was mobbed. No thanks! I hike to get away from crowds and civilization. I'll just stay here at the visitor center, sip an espresso, and buy some of these great souvenirs. I'm learning a funny thing about unemployment: when you have a job, you wish every day could be Saturday; when you don't, you look forward to Mondays.
This place is not a national park or monument - yet. The Park Service apparently is waiting to see if the people behind this project will actually finish it. That will take decades; the just-completed face is almost the size of those on Mount Rushmore, but the planned statue is to include the Indian's entire body and his horse! If it can be completed, the Crazy Horse monument will be far more spectacular than Mount Rushmore.
Speaking of spectacular, the drive through the Black Hills into Wyoming deserves mention. This area of tall, timbered hills and sprawling cattle ranches was surprisingly verdant and pleasant in the June sunlight. I cruised along the gently winding roads with the windows down and Aaron Copland's Rodeo playing loudly. Turning north, I passed the small town of Sundance and headed for the country's first national monument, Devil's Tower.
The Tower is a tall column of rock that juts upward 867 feet like a joystick from the rolling floor of a broad valley. It formed about 60 million years ago when a huge magma vent created a rock chimney above and below ground level. The earth gradually eroded around the column, increasing its external height. The Tower looks very difficult to climb but was first conquered in 1893 by ranchers using wooden ladders that they attached to the steepest parts. Rangers say that 220 different sport-climbing routes have now been used to climb it. There were no climbers to watch today, however, because sacred Indian ceremonies take place here throughout the month of June and the Tower is closed to climbing. Plenty of people, many from Europe, were here taking the pleasant 1.3 mile walk on the trail around the Tower, whose western face glowed in the afternoon sunshine and whose silhouetted eastern face glowered down upon us in the cool shade.
The sun set early behind a wall of storm clouds hovering over the Bighorn Mountains as I headed northwest to Sheridan. I passed several pronghorn antelope grazing among the sagebrush and a long load of coal riding the rails eastward. The scene reminded me of past road trips across the West with my family, in a car or motor home with Marty Robbins cowboy music (or worse) on the stereo. I'm afraid no amount of therapy could rid me of those memories...
Sheridan is a sleepy little cowtown near the border with Montana. I thought it would be a bit more touristy and lively, but even on Saturday night there wasn't much happening. I secured a room at one of several old motels on the main road through town, had a prime rib dinner at a local watering hole, and turned in early for the next day's drive.
Sunday, June 7 - Sheridan to Cody, Wyoming
It's easy to see why mountains are revered as deities in many cultures; high, rugged peaks can utterly dominate a landscape and inspire awe in the most cynical realist. Descending out of the Black Hills yesterday on my way to Sheridan, I could see the Bighorn Mountains growing on the western horizon. Actually, what I could see were the foothills rising a few thousand feet above the plains, as the Black Hills do; above these, instead of sky, I could make out the dim, shadowy images of glaciers and rock walls brooding under heavy clouds, hinting darkly at the enormous granite peaks that in turn towered above them unseen in the mist. The aura they cast over the valley was cold and forbidding, as if malevolent mountain gods were daring the puny mortals below to approach their lofty palaces of stone.
Climbing the steep switchbacks of the eastern shoulders, I eventually began seeing snow beside the road. The upper reaches of the Bighorns were in the clouds again today, and soon I was, too. The road topped out at about 8000 feet, and at the top was a nice new visitor center for the Bighorn National Forest - complete with maps, films, and the requisite gift shop. Looking for a short hike to stretch my legs, I learned about the one-mile trail to the Medicine Wheel, a ceremonial Indian site of rock cairns in a circle of stones. Then a short film informed me that I could actually drive to the thing. (Well, not exactly - only handicapped people were allowed to drive. Still, would Everest be as thrilling to climb if there were a road to the summit for handicapped people?) I continued through the mountains and soon, on a whim, stopped along the highway for an impromptu hike up the nearest slope through the damp sagebrush. I reached the base of a rocky tower at the top and took in the view as a cold rain began lightly falling. Back in the car, I drove through thick fog and sleet and nearly missed the access road to Medicine Wheel. It was no weather for more hiking, and in fact a couple was driving out in a car so covered with mud that I could barely discern its true color. They said that even four-wheel-drives were getting stuck farther up the road.
No thanks! Anyway, I've seen the movie.
Eventually I reached the western side and descended a winding ten-percent grade out of the clouds. Under this ceiling there was a clear view of the Shoshone River Basin, which I was about to cross on my way to the next night's stop.
Cody is a cattle town that seems to be trying to become a tourist town. It is known as the rodeo capital of the country, but it also has the Buffalo Bill Museum complex and several Western art galleries. Buffalo Bill's old Irma Hotel is still a popular destination, with its nicely furnished rooms (having learned the price of the rooms, I was content to view the photographs) and its rustic saloon with animal heads on the wall and a huge cherrywood barback given to Bill by the Queen of England. I had a buffalo steak there for dinner before retiring to a cheap motel. The museum has carriages and other items used in Cody's Wild West show, exhibits of Old West art, a huge collection of firearms, and old photographs and other memorabilia - and the requisite gift shop.
Monday, June 8 - Cody to Jackson, Wyoming
I got my first look at Yellowstone National Park today, driving into the east entrance, rounding huge Yellowstone Lake, and exiting south through the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Parkway, a parcel of land which is sandwiched between Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks like some sort of real estate gasket. It was already afternoon, so I had to limit today's sightseeing stops in order to reach Jackson before the mountain guide operation closed for the day. I had hoped to take a four-day mountaineering course which normally culminates with an ascent of the Grand Teton, but upon my arrival I learned that the bad weather would surely preclude that. They might try a lower peak, but even that would be in the clouds, which meant snow and no view. I weighed my options and, disappointed, decided to save my money and spend my limited time here doing other things.
One of the local motels had a little old cabin which they offered me for less than the price of a regular room since it wasn't as comfortably appointed. Perfect! I moved my stuff in, got cleaned up, and headed to the Cadillac Bar and Grill for some dinner.
She shouldn't have bet against me. I sat at the bar next to a New York girl who was visiting friends in town but was by herself until the others got off work. The house red, according to the waiter, was a shiraz-cabernet blend, though he didn't know who made it. I guessed that it was Australian; she said, "Nah, it must be Californian." I offered a wager; the bartender brought out the bottle, and my drink was on her. Later one of her friends arrived, and we all shot pool in several local bars until 1 a.m.
Tuesday, June 9 - Jackson, Wyoming
It had been a while since I last rode a horse. My New York friend went with me, since her friends wouldn't take her. (Too touristy for locals, probably.) We were the only customers this afternoon since it was raining lightly. Our guide led us up into the Gros Ventre Range south of town on a three-hour ride. He was an interesting character, a young cowboy from Idaho who claimed to have been quite a hellraiser as an adolescent. His ex-girlfriend in Arizona still had his other pickup truck and most of his clothes since he hadn't the money to go and retrieve them. He said he had signed up to ride bulls in this summer's local rodeo. We all talked about lifestyle choices - living in the country and being poor versus living in the city and being wealthy (or, in the girl's case, living in the city and being poor, since she had just finished her graduate degree to become a social worker). The rain stopped halfway through the ride, but to the northwest the Tetons remained hidden in clouds. The horses were very docile and not used to much running, but the guide let us gallop a little in an open field. It was nice to ride again, but most of the trip was so slow that we actually could have covered more ground on foot.
Wednesday, June 10 - Jackson
This morning I headed out early for my flyfishing lesson, held at the fish pond of a local resort. After two hours, I had learned the basics of fly selection and tackle setup and had worked out a decent cast for a novice. After lunch I headed for Grand Teton National Park for some serious hiking. On the advice of the park rangers, I chose a trail that runs past Phelps Lake and up into the high pass of Death Canyon. Hmm, the rangers seemed nice enough... I reached the pass after three hours and found a perfect area along the creek for a moose, elk, or bear. I stood quietly and watched for ten or fifteen minutes, but nothing came out of the woods. Five o'clock arrived, and it was time to head back. There were marmots playing on the trail, and I stopped to watch the large rodents for a bit. They were obviously used to seeing humans and let me approach as close as three feet to take a picture. As I continued downhill, the tumult of the steeply falling creek drowned out all other sounds, and the towering peaks all around reminded me of the lost opportunity to summit the Grand. I'll have to come back someday.
Thursday, June 11 - Jackson
What a great day! That flyfishing lesson wasn't for nothing; today was the main event, a full-day guided fishing trip into Yellowstone Park. My guide, Bart, had 17 years' experience in the area. The guys at the outfitting store warned me about him: don't expect some philosopher in fancy Supplex shorts. Bart showed up in a well-worn minivan, wearing sweats and old sandals, and I liked him immediately. We fished the Firehole River and had what he said was the best fishing day he had seen since the season opened a few weeks before. It rained a little, but most of the day was overcast and calm - perfect fishing weather. A mid-morning hatch of mayflies produced a feeding frenzy in which trout were literally jumping out of the water. After lunch we found some action in the foamy area where hot water from a nearby "thermal" flowed into the river. In all, I caught about eight fish - I didn't bother keeping an exact count, since most of the fun was in locating the fish and placing the fly where it would float right to them. (Does that mean I'm cut out more for marketing than for sales?) It was a unique experience, wrestling feisty trout out of a rippling river while sometimes struggling to keep my footing in the swift, waist-deep water, with thermals venting steam and water on one bank and wild buffalo grazing on the other. If nothing else, I can say I didn't just see the park from the window of my car.
Friday, June 12 - Jackson to Idaho Falls, Idaho
I had originally planned to go up to Glacier National Park in northern Montana after these parks, but there just isn't time left on this trip to do it any justice, so Idaho would be next. First, however, I did one last sightseeing trip in Yellowstone. After cruising through scenic Hayden Valley, I hiked the short, steep trail to the brink of Lower Falls in what is known as the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Grand it is, too - not fancily etched like its more famous neighbor to the south, this one is simply an enormous, straight, steep gorge cut into the forest-covered hills. Lower Falls lies at the head of the gorge.
Most waterfalls are viewed from some distance, but I think their power and elegance are more striking when they can be viewed from right next to the edge, as Lower Falls can. Tons of clear water slide rapidly and surprisingly quietly over a rocky ledge worn smooth over thousands of years. The roar, of course, is created by the water's downward rush and spectacular landing far below.
No one visits Yellowstone without viewing wildlife from roadside overlooks and turnouts. The routine is rather amusing: spot an elk, moose, or herd of buffalo; stop; stand with a large group of other gawkers and shoot photos; drive as little as a few hundred yards; spot something else; stop again. It can take all day to get where you're going! And whoever said "Nothing attracts a crowd like a crowd" was right. Once a few people were looking at some bushes 200 feet from the road, so I stopped and asked what they were looking at. "Cow moose," someone said. For ten minutes we all stood there staring at nothing more than some wiggling bushes as the roadside grew ever more crowded. Finally, as if to save us from looking like complete fools, the cow emerged briefly with her young calf before wandering off into the woods. Other animals weren't so coy. The buffalo grazed near the roads and didn't even seem to notice the onlookers. The elk seemed more aware but no more concerned. The whole place seemed like a big petting zoo. I felt a vague sense of having gotten something without having earned it - like fishing at a trout farm where you're guaranteed to catch fish. Oh well - my hike into Death Canyon provided views only of marmots despite great effort, so maybe it all evens out.
Yellowstone is just beginning to recover from the cataclysmic 1988 fire. Thousands and thousands of acres of lodgepole pine stand dead and bare on the hillsides, their bark mostly gone and the wood a silvery grey. Seedlings have sprung up to replace them, but they will take decades to mature. The dead trees can't be cut down by salvage loggers or for firewood - of which the locals need a lot - so they remain, and one by one they fall and begin the slow rotting process. From a distance the vast burned areas, devoid of visible green color, look cold and wintry.
Yellowstone : Land of Fire and Ice
Actually, it is cold. The weather has been unseasonably cool throughout this trip, but now, at six to eight thousand feet of elevation, many of the roads into the parks have only recently been cleared of snow. While most of the nation sweats under June sunshine, folks in this area - did I mention they need a lot of firewood? It's a blessing, though; the harsh winter - all eight months of it - is surely the main reason this area hasn't turned into a big, overbuilt, tacky theme park destination. The city of Jackson has strict rules about what storefronts can and cannot look like. This has prevented the installation of glaring, visible-from-orbit signs, and the added cost of wooden storefronts and landscaped grounds has reportedly kept the Wal-mart monster away. The town is growing, though, so it may be only a matter of time.
The really crazy thing, however, is the abundance of hugely expensive, unoccupied luxury homes that dot the hillsides around Jackson. Bart told me they are mostly owned by East-coast businesspeople who spend perhaps a week or two each summer enjoying these wooden palaces. Maybe they buy them as mere status symbols, to beat their business rivals in the prestige game:
"Oh, I've got a little hillside spread out in Wyoming."
"Sounds nice. Where is it?"
"Well, uh...I'm not quite sure. I've never been there..."
Or perhaps these buttoned-down city dwellers are trying to gain a sense of cowboy masculinity (the men, anyway), but they won't get that from a mansion; cowboys spend their time outside, doing actual work. Maybe the reason I'm struck by all this is that, for a short while, I was on a track toward overworked corporate success and might have been drawn into that mindset had I stayed. Most of Jackson's permanent residents don't make much money, but how many millionaires can wake up and see a 10,000 foot peak and perhaps a moose from their bedroom windows? The people who really make out are the handful of caretakers who live free of charge for most of the year in these vacation homes. Where do I sign up?
Well, technically I've been in Montana now. Heading west out of the park, I crossed the state line and passed through the small town of West Yellowstone. Since this is the closest town to the park, there were lots of high-capacity motels for park visitors. The town sits in a tiny southern spur of Montana, and I crossed the next border into Idaho so soon that I never even saw the sign, if there was one. Descending through the Targhee National Forest, I passed from woods into sage desert and farmland, arriving in the large agricultural town of Idaho Falls just before sunset.
What if they threw a microbrewery and nobody came? The place I found for dinner is quite nice, a restaurant/brewery right out of the instruction manual that must exist, given the fact that every town of over 10,000 people seems to have a joint like this nowadays. Something doesn't seem right, though: it's Friday night, the NBA championship is on all the TV screens, and the place is nearly empty! Are Idahoans so hip that microbreweries are already passe? Two old guys at the bar next to me are on their way to Montana for some fishing, and they inquired as to what flies were working well in the Firehole. Cool! These fellas have been flyfishing for 40 years, and they're asking me for the gouge.
One other item of note: I've seen more antique tractors on this trip than in all my previous years, or so it seems. When I was little, I had a toy set that included miniatures of every major tractor built by John Deere, from the ancient ones with cast-iron wheels to the modern ones with air-conditioned cabs. I think I've seen at least one of every model between here and Pennsylvania, most well-worn and apparently still being heavily used, but some nicely restored, possibly for use only in parades and such. Do most people notice such things? Maybe I just love tractors.
By Robert LaGrone, Nevada Correspondent.