October 3, 2015
We piled high the Mercedes, stepped on the gas in Chicago at 6 a.m. on September 15th to drive 1,300 miles to Yellowstone National Park. Nine hours later we arrived at Sioux Falls, South Dakota after a featureless drive across southern Minnesota. The Fairfield Marriott was for the next ten days our main sleepery, breakfast included, right next to the highway and usually with Outback in shouting distance. The point was not the journey but the destination.
The largest city in South Dakota was eerily empty in midday, midweek with a silencc soon to become familiar on the Western Plains. A bit of a commercial boost pre- 2008, was evident in street sculpture, a brewery restaurant, espresso shops, and curiously “casinos” digital game machines where you could win up to $200, bank after bank after bank and smoking emporia that served beer and wine.
Day two, Rapid City on the far western side of the state was achieved after Wall Drugs relentlessly bombarded I-90 drivers with innane billboards. We stopped for a few minutes at the shameless advertiser with its replica of a wild west town, acres of junk and a gigantic roaring plastic T Rex. Bypassing the Badlands and reluctant to depart from the plan we headed to the Crazy Horse Memorial, the World’s Largest Mountain Carving started in 1948 by Polish Bostonian Korczak Ziolkowski at the invitation of Lakota elder Henry Standing Bear. Just the head has been sculpted on the sacred Thunderhead mountain, 87 feet to tall to Mount Rushmore’s presidential 63 feet, rather like an Easter Island moai, Its eternal incompleteless is all the more poignant with the Oglala Sioux chief looking at “My lands where the dead lie buried.” The foundation has no federal funding and the vast sophisticated exhibitions in the visitor’s center and the new Native American University are supported by tourist dollars if you’re looking for a good cause.
Driving by a location of Dances with Wolves at Fort Hayes a few miles outside of Rapid City in the gorgeous Black Hills, so steep, so stunning, we continued on to Mount Rushmore 7,200 feet high with the quartet of American presidents. The tiny old lead mining town of Keystone that supplied the laborers for the carving had for some reason shuttered the Gutzon Borglum Museum so Jack couldn’t see the remarkable story of carving solid white granite heads from 1927 to 1941. Even in mid September RVs were lined up so we viewed the gleaming white heads head of George Washington, and Teddy Roosevelt wedged between Jefferson and Lincoln.
We drove around the mountain from various angles then headed on to Yellowstone. Here we were, 73 and 85, tourists speeding by the landmarks of American History like Clark Griswold. Pushing on north into Montana we went past Sturgis, where 100,000 motorcyclists rally the first week every August, more prosperous weekend warriors than Hell’s Angels. On past Spearfish, (the winter camp of the Costner film), Mitchell the birthplace of George McGovern, and Belle Fourche, the geographic center of the US if you consider Alaska and Hawaii.
The 212 from Rapid City to Billings Montana, a five plus hour drive was cut in half by the Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument in Crow Agency. By the time we arrived at the visitor’s center run by the Crow very much in evidence en famille I hated George Armstrong Custer, the 7th cavalry, and Ulysses Grant for trying to force Sitting Bull, Tatanka iyotanka, the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho onto the hideous reservations we had just spent three hours driving through, where the white man’s cattle ranches gave way to sterile rocky dusty land impossible to graze cattle no less cultivate with crops. The Bighorn memorial on a high hill overlooks a vast basin surrounded by Custer National cemetery where the 262 American troops were buried after the massacre on June 26, 1876. Custer’s remains went on to West Point.
The vast North Cheyenne Reservation, with tiny human settlements Ashland, Lame Deer, Busby was little more than abandoned petrol stations and devastation and poverty, shacks bungalows rusting cars, crumbling shacks, piles of garbage, 1970s cars, the same scene appearing in the adjacent Crow Tribe and Nez Pierce reservations. The sad tale of the genocide was impossible to forget as were Red Cloud’s words, ”They made us many promises, more than I can remember—They kept but one; they promised to take our land and they took it.”
Billings, the largest city in the state, is an old oil and gas boom town located amidst six mountain ranges including the beautiful Beartooth at 12,000 feet. We had planned to drive to Red Lodge one of the gateways to Yellowstone via the Beartooth All -American Road, 65 treacherous exciting miles to the northeast entrance to the park but alas it was closed for the week because of snow so we missed out on what Charles Kurault called it the most stunning drive in America.
Billings was hosting the Indian Relay Championships at the Metra Center an annual contest where young Native American braves from 15 tribes in Utah, Montana, Wyoming and Canada compete in a relay race, transferring from one horse after another bareback at a wild gallop. We watched the spectacle on television in the Fairfield and read the Billings Gazette containing an obit for an old brave Arnold Coyote Runs Sr. born Ootchiash dunkxilee-sh (night warrior) in 1945 in Crow Agency, known as the Greasy Mouth Child of the Bundle Clan with extended family Knows His Gun, Pretty Eagle, Round Face and Real Bird. He married Gery Old Elk and never left Crow Agency.
Downtown Billings had a few too many suicide prevention notices and crisis center banners announcing upcoming Walk to Fight Suicide, a harbinger of the other towns we were to see shuttered, blighted, empty and with wobbly men and disheveled women sitting outside cafes or walking arm in arm obviously with heroine and meth problems.
Bozeman a few miles west, home of Montana State University,is a predictable university town, eco minded (big issues are pine beetles in Black Hills, cheatgrass replacing sagebrush, sage grouse habitat conservation), food coops, countless coffee shops, captivating fly fishing and hunting outfitters and a Peter Fonda brass plaque on the sidewalk outside the opera house performing Don Pasquale. Between Bozeman and Big Sky Mountain Village where we stopped for pea soup amidst the rain so welcomed after the long drought, is Flying D one of Ted Turner’s 15 ranches in the state. After The Divorce he spends little or no time here raising the bison elsewhere for his restaurants. This is Redford Country; A River Runs Through It was filmed in nearby Livingstone and south of Bozeman on the Upper Yellowstone Gallatin River and Boulder River. Granite Falls where the Maclean brothers jumped the falls, and farther south at Big Timber is the site of The Horse Whisperer.
We continued on the next day the remaining 90 miles to Yellowstone’s west entrance staying in the little town of West Yellowstone, Montana where we booked a room sight unseen at the Club House Inn. Half of its annual business is from Chinese tourists and this was no exception with much pushing and shoving at the breakfast buffet. West Yellowstone is a rough tourist town with one school house, located exactly midpoint between the equator and the North Pole. It has a subarctic climate and clocked a record minus -66 F .some years ago. Though off season by a hair the cars and buses were lined up at the entrance at 8 a.m.
We took an eight hour long Buffalo Bus Tour of the park’s South Loop in the center of 2.2 million acres of forest and grassland. Minutes later we were in Wyoming where 96% of the park is located. The driver was passionate about tatanka, buffalo (same as bison) spotting, and along with pointing out the dramatic beauty of the landscape we were on a buffalo hunt. These 4,900 resident wild beasts are pure bred, no mild cattle breeding mixture here, with many warnings about keeping a 25 foot distance ignored by tourists one of whom was recently gored and thrown 10 feet into the air.
From the west entrance we followed the Madison River north to the Norris Geyser Basin where plenty were spewing sulphur, Canyon Village where bear spray was very much in evidence, then down to Yellowstone Lake, and the Lake Hotel which the driver joked looked like the hotel in The Shining (spot on). Then more geysers at West Thumb geysers and finally Old Faithful which went off exactly on time within a 10 minute window right outside the mobbed 1920s Inn. In 2014 292 million visited Yellowstone. And this day only 1000 were in attendance outside at the eruption though is high summer it is 3,000.
Apparently the giant caldera, the center of Yellowstone, 50 miles by 30 miles, is 40,000 years overdue to blow, a rueful thought, to alter the global environment for a millennia, but today it was just smoky whiffs of sulphur bubbling out of the grey clay in the form of geysers, hot springs and mudspots. We were warned not to take a single step off the narrow boardwalks with no railings at risk being scorched to death. The best part of the park is the 1,000 feet deep Grand Canyon, 20 miles long, and the thermal Yellowstone River the longest undammed river in the States at 662 miles, that runs into the Missouri with its forces, waterfalls surrounded by rugged mountains, the last free-flowing undammed river in the Lower 48, with one of the world’s greatest trout streams. Looking out of the bus window how I envied the numerous fishermen evidence and the young hikers and cyclists setting off for one of the 1,000 miles of trails in the back country.
Later at the Branch restaurant one of the several offering local prime rib,cattle, hay an beets and largest agricultural industries the state,the silence was deafening until unable to stand it another minute I plugged two bucks in a juke box for Alan Jackson, and Toby Keith’s Shoulda Been a Cowboy.
The next day after two nights at the Club House we had a decision to make – head south to $300-400 a night Jackson and nearby Teton Village—or not. A decade or two ago I had spent a week or two there auditioning for a job as a cook at the dude ranch the Flying A in Pinedale; I flunked the cooking trials but did dance the paso doble in the Cowboy Bar with the CEO of Orvis. So instead visiting another fancy ski town (recently in Park City an St,Moritz) we decided to go to Cody.
We headed east through the park and took a left at Lake Village towards the east entrance which is closed in early November. And you can see why—precipitous breathtaking mountainous terrain on narrow roads over 11,000 feet winding through the Shoshone National Forest and the giant peaks of the Absarocka Range. If you decide to visit Yellowstone do take the east entrance from Cody probably as impressive as the northeast entrance over the Beartooth. After we left the park (no lines at all here) another fascinating river landscape to Cody, past towering buttes, deep narrow canyons and the Buffalo Bill dam and reservoir on the western edge of the Bighorn Basin.
Cody was invented in the 1890s to lure tourists to the disappearing frontier by the circus impresarios of the Wild West Show which toured America and Europe with entertainer “Buffalo Bill” Cody from the branding namesake. They even moved his childhood home here from Iowa. The same legend- manufacturing machine in action as in Wild Bill Hitchcock, Calamity Jane, Doc Holliday, Butch Cassidy, Kit Carson and so forth. I don’t begrudge Wyoming a nickel since it was then and always will be a tough terrain where tourism is an enduring economic engine and 80% of the population either ranchers for farmers. The energy boom is over and Wyoming has lost thousands of jobs in oil and gas in recent years with aging oil production and mining in decline.
We stayed at the Moose Creek Lodge in town center with soap the size of a half dollar and had we planned all this leg of the trip would have stayed Buffalo Bill’s Irma Hotel built in 1902 today full of beer drinkers with red bandanas with their dogs in the pickups outside. On Sheridan Street the main drag 30 mph dusty winds fiercely swirled as we sat outside a closed gimcrack geejaw shop in the dusk waiting to go to the Best Western for dinner.
The Buffalo Bill Center of the West, a conglomeration of five museums including Gertrude Whitney’s collection of western art luxurious and amazing attracted a busload of seniors but these two were not inclined to pay $20 each to learn about the west inside in the dark on the gorgeous early Autumn day. There are great archives there to study on the freezing winter days.
Driving to Casper, the center of the petroleum industry right in the middle of the state, we stopped in Thermopolis which sprang up around the world’s largest single mineral hot spring and prehistoric rock hieroglyphs. At the local Café lunchers ate mammoth sandwiches in silence with the wind swirling around outside. It all looked so inviting in the brochures but it was bleak even desolate like this whole stretch from Cody to Casper past Meeteetse home of the black footed ferret, Shoshone, Power River and Bar nunn. Over 200 miles in three and a half hours of red dust landscape that looked exactly like Mars without the water. With no other cars on the road I had the irrational fear the Mercedes would break down. What would we do? Walk to Hildale, population 10, where there was little sign of life.
Casper, the hometown of Dick and Lynn Cheney (you can understand his no-nonsense personality) has a beautiful Art Deco town center and a century ago was the hub of the great western migration on the 19th century all the rails converging here, the.Oregon, Pony Express, Bozeman, Mormon. Of the half a million pioneers settlers only the toughest stayed, at the frontier outpost of Fort Casper. They stuck it, the grittiest for generation after generation. This was the answer the secret to the Silence. Not only so few people but also the ranchers and farmers who stayed were gritty and proud that they did. A young bartender at Poor Boy’s Steakhouse said he left Wyoming for awhile and returned home here as people always do.
Cheyenne & Laramie
Route 25 to Cheyenne, a hundred years ago the richest city in the world, and today the largest city in Wyoming with a pretty gold domed capitol building and advanced urban blight in action. The 1880s cattle baron mansions are gone or boarded up, the Gilded Age a distant memory where the Opera Hose which burned down in 1962 saw Langtree, Bernhardt and Buffalo Bill himself performed. The Plains Hotel which opened in 1911 was a reminder of past glories. Nixon, Truman, Reagan and Debbie Reynolds stayed here,the first hotel in America to have telephones in every room. Two folks were eating lunch in the beautiful cherry wood paneled restaurant as we walked past into the street with the SROs, shuttered stores and the Cowgirls of the West Museum on 17th street.
Forty miles east to Laramie we were greeted by the gigantic statue of Chief Washakie a Shoshone who sided the US Army in wars against the Cheyenne and Sioux.Laramie was name for Jacques LaRamee a fur trader; in 1878 Edison supposedly had the idea of the filament when fly fishing awaiting the lunar eclipse in the cold dark skies. We went to see the Cooper Mansion now the location of the American Studies Department. A swell 1927 mansion now falling apart built by cattle baron Frank Cooper and his son Richard,a friend of Bror Blixen and Hemingway’s in East Africa. The social climbing author stayed in the house leaving a thank you telegram, displayed on the mantle. The director of the program wryly commented he sure knew where to find a good vacation.
En route home we stayed in North Platte Nebraska, such drought parched land and Des Moines where the landscape, the greenery and the rain welcomed us back to the Midwest of America. Here are a few photos taken with iPhone. Next time back to Canon or Nikon
Beartooth Range in the distance