Timothy Brennan’s Out West Travelogue
(Guest Columnist Timothy Brennan, Sept. 28, 2014)
I am finally getting to do something that I had dreamed about since I was in high school. Drive cross America with my best friend. The allure of the open road began calling to me as soon as I was able to drive. My dream was to be with friends travelling the roads of America in a van, seeing the west, camping out in the woods or in any place we could find. That it was an actual campsite was not a prerequisite. Were there girls involved? Sure why not! What a concept! Although we were underage legally, who would have dared to question us about travelling together, let alone sleeping arrangements? I have often heard that if you look like you know what you are doing, no one would question you. Would their parents really let them do that? I know mine would have never allowed it. But I dreamed on…
Then there was the problem about the van. None of us had a van or any money, at least not enough to buy a van. These were all thoughts that careened through my mind, but somehow, I just knew it would work out. Someone’s parents would come up with a van, magically; it would have gas for days and if it ran out, hey, we could find a job and work just long enough to make gas to fill the van up and then we would be off for another few hundred miles. And insurance? Chirp, chirp… But I digress, and as I have previously mentioned, I am finally getting to drive out west with my best friend… and Zoey, our granddaughter. The best friend thing is a little different than I had envisioned as a kid, but still very nice.
Fortunately my best friend, who heretofore shall be known as Julie, loves to drive. However the other day she handed me the keys after we had made a bathroom stop just before crossing the wide Missouri and I have not been able to relinquish them as of yet. The wide Missouri…what a cool thing it was to cross that river…I have sung or played that song many times, and to think about singing it while actually crossing the river. Cheap thrills…
I mentioned that we might want to make contact with Zoey’s mom to make sure the pick-up was going to go as planned. You know the old saying, “The best laid plans?” It seemed that someone did not tell us that there was a wedding to attend on the evening we were supposed to pick her up. Or did they? Or did we forget that they told us. To quote Mick Jagger, “What a drag it is getting old”.
The exchange went off without a hitch and we sat motionless and silent as the familial gathering took place to see Zoey off at of all places…Culvers. Kids were running all over the restaurant. Spilled milkshakes and dirty faces from chocolate sundaes. Culvers is a fast food joint of the DQ caliber that uses so much grease in their cooking. I have had serious gastric issues after eating there on two different occasions.
We began early on a Saturday morning in July. Not as early as we have started before, but we are getting older and our morning needs have changed slightly. We are on a mission. A mission to see the old west, the Yellowstone National Park, The Grand Tetons and anything else that happens to get in the way. A mission also to deliver a cat to my sister who lives in Naperville and has so graciously volunteered to adopt one of our feral tribe. (That’s another story in itself) Wilson, the orange kitty, handled the trip pretty well. He had his own traveling cage but that made no difference at all and he let us know of his displeasure. Julie handled it like a mother who doesn’t want her baby to cry. I took over at the wheel and she held Wilson in her lap in his cage and stroked him through the open door. Kitten of 12 weeks of age…not happy riding in a car…open cage door….sounded like a recipe for disaster to me. What? Awful traffic jams on the Interstate near Gary, Indiana? I had secret visions of the cat escaping the cage and bounding from seat to seat, being chased by Julie while I drove on trying not to crash or let him get near my feet. It would have been a real issue if he had been wedged under the brake pedal or the accelerator.
I am on my own personal mission as well which turned out to be somewhat of an afterthought. I love IPAs. For those of you who are not beer savvy, that refers to India Pale Ale. Julie turned me on to the IPA a few years ago. I have no idea how the India part of India Pale Ale works in there, but the bitter hoppiness of an ice cold IPA in the hot summer sun is just heaven. So my mission is to try as many different IPA s as possible as I travel in the Mountain West. (And of course to bring some home …)
Cat delivered, we hastened on our journey with only a few obligatory sobs from Julie.
We departed Janesville about 7 am and drove in Julie’s new van, a 2010 Town and Country (that she swears needs a brake job), toward the Mississippi river. (Hey, at least it was a van) Road and bridge construction over the river kept us from seeing the river in all its majesty. The water was quite high we explained to Zoey from the melting snow from our really hard winter.
We had dropped our dog Tater at a friend’s house before we left. We got a text about halfway across Minnesota saying that all was well, and Tater missed us, and that we had forgotten to leave our 85 pound dog a bed. Hmmm. A bed?
Well travelling with an 8 year old can be quite an adventure. As we reacquainted ourselves with Zoey, she had lots to tell us about the weddings of the past weekend, and what she had done since we last saw her in December. Especially how school had gone since I am a teacher and Julie is very interested in her education. She is really reading quite well for her age. Thanks in no small part to Julie’s efforts to train her during our brief episodes with her. We had her for the entire summer last year and I think she is doing great. I teach band and orchestra, so when I see the reading progress in Zoey, it made me smile. We frequently tried to remind Zoey what a huge job it must have been to travel out west in Oxen drawn carts. How did they ever travel so far at such a slow pace? It must have taken them forever to make it out west and over the mountains.
Our first stop was in Mitchell S.D. The big attraction in Mitchell is the Corn Palace. As we entered South Dakota, we discovered that we were unable to drive more than a mile without seeing some reference to the Corn Palace. Hmmmmm…a palace made of corn? Although we were both somewhat interested in the idea of seeing the palace, neither of us let the other know how we were feeling. However, we soon found that this palace was not made of corn. According to the travel brochure, it was made of corn ears cut apart and dyed different colors. The different colors were arranged in such a way as to create this work of art. However the Corn Palace was under renovation. The Mitchell Chamber of Commerce made it abundantly clear that the Corn Palace was open even though the Onion domes were being repainted and the walkway to the men’s washroom was in the process of being retiled. Who would have thought?
There was a pool for Julie and Zoey to swim in at our Mitchell stop which turned out to be an indoor mini water park with a huge water slide that Zoey went down no fewer than 68 times. My women met a family of four that was also traveling westward with two girls about Zoey’s age. They became fast friends and played together for about an hour in the pool/slide. The adults were nice and Julie talked to the family from Minnesota while I daydreamed about the Corn Palace and took pictures of Zoey in the pool. That was a monumental drive for the first day and we were all tired. So we ate Mexican food and fell asleep at 9 or so and no one was any worse for not having experienced the awesomeness of the Corn Palace.
We awoke early the next day. Julie and I earlier than Zoey, and were eager to get on the road to our next stop, The Badlands of South Dakota. During breakfast, we visited with our Minnesotans and discovered that if we did not stop at Wall Drug in Wall South Dakota, we would be missing the treat of a lifetime. For years I have seen bumper stickers proclaiming the greatness and wonder of Wall Drug. To be brutally honest, I actually thought that Wall Drug was some sort of affiliate of Wal-Mart. Anyone agree with me? Places like Wall Drug are fun if you are in elementary school, maybe middle school, but after that, I would have to wonder about the maturity level. There are only so many ways you can paint a rock to have it look appealing to anyone. This place is really commercialized to the nth degree. Did it start out as a legitimate apothecary establishment, and then after they sold the first t-shirt someone said, “Hey, we might be on to something here…”it morphed into a disgusting commercial waste of time. Maybe it would not have been so bad if we had gone there in the middle of October, but in mid-July, it was totally filled with tourists and money changers. Ever been to Pigeon Forge, or Virginia Beach? But I suppose there are those who like that kind of thing. It was somewhat of a chilly morning for mid-July even in South Dakota. So we wrapped Zoey in a blanket when she got out to check out a Totem and a rather large bunny rabbit with a saddle. Never know what you will see out west.
On the road, we talked and munched and tried to remind Zoey not to suck her thumb. It was about a 4 hour drive to the Badlands and we made it in about 3. (Did I mention, Julie was driving?)
This would be our first opportunity to use our America the Beautiful National Parks pass and we were so excited that we forgot to sign the back of it. The ranger at the gate was very nice and allowed us to use his fine point marker, lest we make a mess of our pass with a simple ball point pen. He explained to us that some folks only have one person sign the pass but if it were ever lost or stolen, a thief only had to sign the other spot and present his ID to gain admittance to the park. Point well taken. We were glad to have been able to follow the rules and keep some miscreant from gaining access to one of our national treasures.
The Badlands were extremely interesting. I was feeling fulfilled as a husband and a grandfather to be able to demonstrate my prowess as a provider and an educator to these two for whom I felt responsible. Bentonite is the mineral of which the Badlands rock structures are made and when they get wet they swell to a larger size and become quite slippery. This is yet another reason to follow the advice of your grandparents and NOT climb on the rocks despite all the other children who are doing so. It was just a stunning display of beauty and intrigue and Julie told me that there were many different colors on the rocks that I just could not believe it. I don’t. So with the Badlands in our rear view mirror, we were on to Mt. Rushmore. But before we headed into the Black Hills of South Dakota, we had to make our predestined stop at the Wall Drug store in Wall, South Dakota. Wall is at the end of the Badlands road, so if you drive through the Badlands, you are dumped out right in downtown Wall.
Our plan is to drive from the Badlands to Custer, S.D. and then go right to Mt. Rushmore. Mission accomplished. Mt. Rushmore was as awesome as I remembered and its beauty and majesty still remain beyond belief. Zoey didn’t seem too impressed. Wow…a bunch of dead guys faces. I wonder what it looks like from the Canadian side.
We stayed in Custer, a small town south of Mt. Rushmore. No pool, so Zoey was bummed. But we found a very nice restaurant. Sage Creek Grill. I may have mentioned it on Facebook. There I had a very nice salad with a super IPA from Oregon. Mirror Pond IPA.
It has been interesting eating out as much as we have been. Some places you find servers who don’t have a clue how to attend the weary traveler’s needs; then you find the veterans who cater to your every whim. Most are kids who are of college age or maybe slightly older. My attitude towards servers has changed quite a bit in the last 14 years. I used to get really upset with the server if stuff was not the way it should be. Meal cooked right, undercooked beef, etc. My amiga has convinced me that I need to be a little more amiable to servers. We have had a couple of conversations on this point and I have lost every one. Now I have a more laid back attitude. My kids have both been servers and I have an affinity to tip slightly above the 20 per cent mark. The way I see it is that kids have to learn to do a job and it takes anyone time to learn one. They need to make a living the same as I do, and knowing that they make a miniscule hourly wage, and I need a meal, they should get a little extra and if I have it, I can share it.
When we left Custer in the morning, we were going to head west. I, however, learned in a conversation with the hotel clerk that our intended westerly route had construction planned for the next several days. She advised an alternate route, and after studying the map, I decided we should head north through the greater Rapid City area towards Lead, and Deadwood, the famous city where Wild Bill Hickok was gunned down. We drove straight through Lead and Deadwood, commenting on how we thought Deadwood was a little nicer and less touristy than Lead. A not too distant relative of mine mentioned a few years back that I should check out funeral home registries in Lead as one of my very distant relatives was said to have deserted his family somewhere in NY State, headed west to strike it rich and apparently made it as far as Lead and died. I never located any Brennans in Lead cemetery data. Thomas Patrick Brennan, you scoundrel…
Once we finally made it onto our main route west, I-90, we found ourselves in the state of Wyoming. Growing up I had always heard that Colorado was the most awesome mountain state ever. That you could see the most wildlife, drink Coors beer till your socks dropped off, and seen the most beautiful scenery you could ever see. Well, I have to say Wyoming is a much more picturesque state than Colorado. People in general are a little more rough and cowboy like in Wyoming, but after all, it is a pretty rough place to live. Bad winters, hot summers, snakes, cattle, horse riding, calf roping, bronc busting, gosh….what a life.
Our first stop in Wyoming was Devil’s Tower. This was ours and Zoey’s first experience with the Junior Ranger Program. This is a very good way to get kids to remember what they did in school. Not that children don’t have access to this program during the school year, but, most kids will be doing their Junior Ranger training in the summer months when families are on vacation. Zoey was no exception. The Devil’s Tower is also a big draw due to the motion picture, Close Encounters of a Third kind. Yet another movie that I have seen bits and pieces of, but never the entire thing. Tuba players love to mimic the musical theme during concert band warmups…2-3-1-1-5…Hmmm. Sounds like a good password for a bank or email account. (If I was really into that sort of thing.) I don’t have any idea how this landmark fit into the motion picture.
Well, as I mentioned we would begin our foray into the Junior Ranger program at the Devil’s Tower. To begin, you get a booklet, depending on your age of course, and you, the child, must fill out all sorts of things that you may have learned about the particular site you are visiting. When we were at Devil’s Tower, there were actually climbers on the tower. We could see them. We took a 1.5 mile hike around the tower through some beautiful scenery while we were looking for wildlife. (Questions 4 and 5 in the Jr. Ranger quiz book) This all took place about 1:30 or 2:00 p.m. which was in all actuality about 2:30 or 3:00 p.m. due to the change from Central time to Mountain Time, and our little Ranger was not feeling the necessity to log in the number of steps she took to circle the mountain, or the number of squirrels she saw while making the trek. Mini-meltdown had occurred and the rest was history. We ended up finishing the booklet with her input and turning it in to the Ranger on duty. Upon which I felt HUGE pangs of guilt for assisting in the completion. Why???? The teacher in me said, “You don’t learn anything by cheating…”Oh well, she got her badge and we were on our way across Wyoming in search of IPA and mountains.
We began to see our first hint of mountainous terrain in Wyoming. Not quite the Rocky Mountains, but much more grandiose than the plains and wheat fields and cornfields of Minnesota and South Dakota. They are the Little Big Horn Mountains first, followed by the Absaroka Range and the Gallatin Range.
A brief thunderstorm of epic proportions found us as we headed north on I-90 towards Sheridan. I was driving at this time and when the raindrops began to hit the windshield, I was really shocked when the wipers came on automatically. It was one of those “What the hell is that” moments. I was here two years ago with the Army band where we played a concert in a nice public venue. A lot of the city looked familiar and I had no trouble finding our abode for the next evening. The Sheridan Center was by far the nicer of the two hotels we had stayed in previously, and there was a pool. Zoey was ecstatic. The two women went to have a dip while I went on a quest for the grail, IPA. I found the long awaited Grail…otherwise known as the Bent Nail in a store directly across from the hotel. A quick stop there to pick up some Bent Nail, and Mirror Pond, was all I needed. We had a very nice meal at a restaurant called Frackleton’s. After a couple of days of fast food, I was feeling the need for something green and healthy. There were not too many children Zoey’s age in Frackletons and so they put us at a high rise table away from the main seating area. Smart move. It was here that I tried an obscure IPA which was below standards, and the Bent Nail on tap which I found to be as good as it was two years ago.
On the next morning, we left Sheridan with the Little Big Horn Mt. range on our left. We were on our way to our next stop which would be at Gardiner, MT and the Northernmost entrance to Yellowstone National Park.
We have become accustomed to certain smells while driving all day in an enclosed van. Every once in a while we will catch a scent of a skunk on the highway. Julie and I just look at each other and say…”Did you get that?” Or if it is some other strange unrecognized smell, I just blame Zoey. I have done my best to keep things locked down while in the car on this trip. However as I get older, that becomes a bit more challenging.
I was greatly distressed to find no “Welcome to Montana” sign when we crossed the border. You may ask, “How do you know you were in Montana if there was no welcome sign?” Since I don’t have a GPS with Longitude and Latitude lines in my brain, I just expected there to be a sign somewhere north of Sheridan, as the map had indicated, but there was none. It finally showed up. Good thing we don’t rely on my internal GPS…
I had mentioned something to Julie about stopping at the National Historical Battleground of Little Big Horn early in the planning stages of the trip. She seemed receptive, so we put it on the agenda. Probably should never have done that because it was a very moving experience. I kind of expected it would be, so I steeled myself against all possible emotional situations. As we were about to walk into the visitors center, we overheard a ranger giving a talk, so we walked over to listen. He was quite animated in his description about what happened with the 7th Cavalry and their exploits with inept officers and I found my eyes watering on several occasions. He gave a very good, unbiased presentation as he expressed his opinion about Little Big Horn. It did not help matters that we had driven onto a Crow Indian reservation as soon as we crossed the border into Montana. I could not help but think of the injustice done to Native Americans in this country. What did they get from the US government? A plot of land? I don’t really know enough about the situation today with the Native Americans, but I see how they live. Lots of trailers and broken down vehicles in the yards; maybe a dog tied up to the trailer or some other fixture. Broken screen doors, duct tape on broken windows
The Battle of Little Big Horn was apparently a lot more than George Armstrong Custer being killed with a bunch of his 7th Cavalry soldiers. As I mentioned above, mistakes happened. The monument was extremely well done and also honored the Native Americans in a beautiful display of artwork and history. On to Yellowstone.
We drove west across Montana and saw mountains become larger and larger on the way. We made a small detour through the city of Billings, MT to get some colored pencils for Zoey. She has turned into quite a little artist. Truly, pictures do not do these beautifully epic monuments justice. We made our turn southward at a town called Livingston. Travelling south along the Yellowstone highway, we drove next to the Yellowstone River and found it to be quite a nice companion. The Yellowstone River flows north. I found that very hard to believe. Apparently the Continental Divide has something to do with that.
We were finally into Yellowstone. We arrived at our abode for the upcoming three days. Best Western of Gardiner MT. And….a pool. The pool would be my chance to write while Zoey and Julie were swimming. I also was assigned the laundry duty.
Our first foray into Yellowstone came not long after our arrival into Gardiner. We bunked in, got our bearings and were off to see what we could see.
The Northernmost entrance to Yellowstone has an archway over the road. This archway was built by Teddy Roosevelt. A monument in itself, it stands 25 to 35 yards over the highway leading to the Ranger gate. It was made from stone taken from the park; it is an ominous statue which gets clogged by tourists who want to have a souvenir photograph of the park entrance. In our efforts to not be a typical tourist family, we snapped our picture as we were driving through. We would not become one of the hordes of road blockers. Yellowstone was our first National Park and it is also the oldest.
Just inside the Ranger gate, we came to some craggy peaks with some goats perched on the edges. One of the first ways you can tell if there is a “wildlife viewing opportunity” in Yellowstone is the cars pulled over to the edge of the road. Seeing the cars, like a good tourist, I pulled over and we checked out our first Yellowstone critters. Not really able to get a good picture, we rolled on.
Each turn in the two-lane undivided road brings a new sight, and maybe a new animal or scenic photo, and as you might expect there were many turns in the road.
High desert is really awesome and mysterious. I really miss John Denver. I should have downloaded some of his songs for mountain driving. I just want to get out of the car and go wandering into the hills, down valleys, and across rivers, but I know high desert is snake-priority area, and I have a healthy respect for snakes. Bison as well. I was chased by a Mama Bison when I was stationed at Ft. Sill back in the 70’s. That’s what happens when you get a little too close to a mama and her baby. So I follow the rule. Twenty five yards for Bison and Elk, and one hundred yards for bears.
Millions of years have passed and earthquakes and volcanoes have brought about lots of changes to the landscape of the West. Earthquakes mostly I suppose. Their deep rumblings in the bowels of the earth pushed up what we see today. Plate tectonics are cool. Science is amazing.
Yellowstone is sitting on a huge volcano, so we have been told. One of such epic proportions, that if it ever blows, North Americans can pretty much kiss their “You know whats” goodbye…
Yellowstone first became a National Park during the 19th century, and the Federal government thought it would be a good idea to build an Army post on it. The buildings just inside the north entrance look like some of the other army posts I have been on. Soldiers were stationed there to protect the park and its residents, the aforementioned wildlife, from poachers. One well known poacher, Edgar Howell was captured by the Army in the winter of 1894. The soldiers were able to sneak up on him and arrest him without incident. However, Howell was quite unhappy with one of his dogs who was supposed to alert him of trouble. He made good on his promise to kill that dog. Poor puppy….
There were also hotels, a post office, souvenir stores, a Ranger station and a gas station. The best part of the Mammoth Springs area was the Elk. They were wandering all over the area. Signs everywhere warn about approaching the Elk because they can charge at a moment’s notice especially if the is a baby elk around. There were also elk in the town of Gardiner, sitting on the Ranger Station front lawn, or maybe it was the Catholic Church. Walking the streets of Gardiner made me really wish I could take some of the road droppings back for our garden.
Our plan is to do both upper and lower loops of Yellowstone. The two-lane highway is laid out kind of like a figure eight.
We saw the Mammoth Springs area when we came into the park on Wednesday afternoon, so we just drove right past on Thursday morning. It is not uncommon to see thermal events on the side of the road in Yellowstone. A small creek which flows alongside of the road or beneath it may have a vent of steam bubbling right out of its bank. Some are small and some are really big. Julie is really fascinated with all the thermal places in Yellowstone.
It seems we would be unable to escape even the orange barrels while in Yellowstone. A six mile stretch of road is under construction just south of Mammoth Springs and we had to traverse the bumps daily. Sometimes multiple times each day.
The upper loop contains a lot of thermal places going down the west side ending in the Norris Geyser basin. Mud pots bubbling up look like a witches brew, and lot of color from different minerals in the water give a rainbow like appearance in what was extremely hot water. For some reason, blue is the only visible color during sunny days. (Maybe it is purple…) It has something to do with light and refraction and once again, I am awed by science.
Geysers are named in Yellowstone. Like Old Faithful? We were quite enamored with a smaller geyser in the basin named “Vixen”. It would erupt sporadically, maybe eight or nine feet high then the water would all trickle right back down into the crater.
We got soaked in the Norris basin by a pop-up shower. This pop-up shower showered us with small hail. We moved quickly and ducked for cover in a small book store until we were able to make it to a ranger presentation at the entrance to the basin. Rain continued but we figured it was the only time we would get to see the Norris basin, so we trekked on. Zoey and Julie wore raincoats and I wore a hoodie. We walked about a mile and a half and figured we had seen enough. By this time the rain had stopped and we made it back to the car and munched on granola bars as we headed on to the Artist’s canyon waterfall. The sun came out and allowed us to take some beautiful pictures. Afterwards, we drove on and came to an overlook area where we were able to see the water going over the fall. The sheer power of water is just astounding.
We did a bit of educational stuff and a bit of souvenir shopping then headed up the east side of the upper loop. Zoey got her picture made with a stuffed bison, and we learned just how much ash fell from the sky when Mt. St. Helens erupted.
Again following the Yellowstone River, we saw Bison and quite a few fishermen wading in the shallows. I knew there would be a little treacherous driving in the park, but nothing like we would encounter on this stretch of road. When we got to the top of the loop, Julie had to pry my fingers off the steering wheel after she dug her own fingernails out of the dashboard. Can you say “white knuckle driving?” I wanted to see the beautiful scenery and to enjoy the view however driving in this situation required both hands on the wheel and both eyes on the road. What I was able to see was just breathtaking. Julie got some nice pictures when she had her eyes open.
Crossing the top of the upper loop, we saw the bear. The telltale cars had pulled over so I did the same and wondered what we were going to see. It did not take long before we saw a small black bear munching on whatever bears munch on. Not too many people actually get to see a bear at Yellowstone because they tend to be a bit shy. We ended our first full day in the park and headed back towards Gardiner, the pool and a bison burger.
The second full day began much like the first, with a great breakfast in a little restaurant attached to the hotel. There was a buffet spread with eggs, pancakes, bacon, sausage, coffee and a host of other healthier things which I never touch. I am a breakfast person. I suppose it came from all my years eating in military dining facilities. There was always eggs to order, bacon, sausage, hash browns with onions, hot sauce on the eggs and on the sausage. While on vacations, I have to try the biscuits and gravy at least one time. That is about all Julie will allow. She rags on me when I put them on my plate and most of the time she is justified. I can’t seem to find good white gravy with just the right consistency and flavor. They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day and I took whoever “they” were at their word. There is no other meal that I love more than breakfast. I love it even more when someone cooks it for me. So getting up and getting a head start on the day with a great breakfast was one of my favorite parts of the trip. There is nothing like a good cup of coffee to get the day started just right.
This second day would be our last day in Yellowstone, so we wanted to make it just right. No forecast of rain, but one can never tell in the mountains. We got on the road about eight thirty and headed into the park past all of the sites we saw for the last two days. We liked seeing them every day because you don’t know if one of them will have bison, or a bear, or an elk just waiting for you to drive by and say Hi. I seem to recall a few bison waving on this morning’s ride on our way to the lower loop. We went past the Norris geyser basin and Julie was craning her neck to see the steam rising from the ground on what might have been the one geyser that we missed yesterday. Entering the lower loop we were on our way to the granddaddy of them all, Old Faithful. A trip to Yellowstone would not be complete without a visit to Old Faithful and almost everyone else in the part thought so as well. We got to the exit for Old Faithful and parked the car, only having to walk about a quarter mile.
Old Faithful is surrounded by a circular walkway about 2 city blocks in diameter. People were lined up all around the walkway sitting on benches or the ground or whatever they could find to sit upon. Each eruption of Old Faithful lasts anywhere from 2 and a half minutes to 4 minutes and the time that each eruption lasts determines how long the wait time between eruptions will be. The longer the eruption lasts, the longer the wait time until the next one. We were lucky to see one within ten or fifteen minutes after we got there which lasted about three minutes. The next one came about an hour and fifteen minutes later. We sat through two eruptions. We worked on Zoey’s Yellowstone Junior Ranger book while we waited. This would be our last stop in Yellowstone where we could turn the book in for grading so we needed to help her get it completed. There were about eight pages of activities to complete in order for her to get the certificate and badge. We managed to complete it just about the time the second eruption began. Zoey took her Jr. Ranger book to Ranger Dan, and he checked it out. Wow…a perfect score. Wonder how that happened? He made Zoey raise her right hand and pledge to be good and tell all her friends about Yellowstone and the National Park service before he would give her the badge and sign her certificate. He also asked her, “What was your favorite part of the Yellowstone Park? “to which she promptly replied, “The Badlands”. We made another stop for souvenirs and ice cream, and were on our way.
Our drive took us across the Continental Divide. Over eight thousand three hundred feet above sea level and our ears were telling us about each one of those feet.
Down the backside of the Continental Divide, we were on our way to Lake Yellowstone. There were hundreds if not thousands of acres with burned out timber and downed trees almost everywhere you looked in Yellowstone. Some were downed from fire I feel sure, but others did not look burned at all. At least not recently. It was in one such area we found more cars pulled over to the side, just before we got to the lake. I quickly got out and spoke to a couple who were standing on the opposite side of the road. “Elk?” I asked. (It was in this same area we saw Elk two years ago.) I saw two Elk in the woods at about 50 yards. Unfortunately, it was a highly wooded area but the woods were burned out so the light was able to get in and it afforded me a couple of nice pictures of Elk butts.
The lake loomed large and as we drove, we looked for a spot where we could pull over and put our toes in the water. We were rewarded with more cars pulled over on the side and we decided to join them. When we were in Ireland in 2008, Julie did some body surfing and about froze her toes off. Well she reported that Lake Yellowstone was at least as cold as the North Atlantic in July. It didn’t feel that cold to me, but then I was not brave enough to go in the water in Dingle either. Yellowstone Lake is not spring fed; its main inflow is the Yellowstone River as well as its main outflow. According to the USGS, Yellowstone Lake is the largest fresh water lake in North America above 7,000 feet in elevation. That sounds like kind of a prestigious title until you notice the caveat: above 7,000 feet in elevation. I wonder how many other lakes fit into that category.
We ended the Yellowstone leg of our trip with a quick ride back to Gardiner, a pizza dinner across the street from our hotel, and Bent Nail on tap! Back at the hotel, we packed for an early departure and headed to bed a little earlier than usual. Our early departure in the morning meant we would not have our usual breakfast in the hotel. I think Julie is trying to keep my girlish figure intact.
In order for us to begin the next leg of our trip, we once again had to make the trip through Yellowstone to get to the Grand Tetons. This time it took us 3 hours to get through Yellowstone. We were rewarded however with a final look at a couple of bison who wandered across the road on the way out of the park. They are an awesome animal.
The exit from Yellowstone is apparently the entrance to the Grand Tetons.
There is not a whole lot of difference in the appearance when you leave Yellowstone and arrive in the Grand Tetons. If there was no sign, you might not even know the difference. A mountain range on the east side of the road was called the Red Mountain Range. One similarity I found to true everywhere we went on our trip was that you never knew what you were going to see when you went around a blind curve in the road. I guess that would hold true to anywhere you were driving that you had not been before. Some places you kind of know what you are going to see, but it is just the opposite when you are out west. You could see anything from a Mountain Goat, a bison, a huge bear, a pika which is a cousin of the rabbit, or a mountain which stands 10000 feet above sea level or even higher. Those were all surprises we encountered on our trip but the most magnificent was when we rounded a curve in the road and came face to face with the Grand Tetons. There were fields of wildflowers of all different colors and shapes, but nothing can compare to the breathtaking view we got of the Grand Tetons. When I was out west in 2012, it was commonplace to drive around Yellowstone with your mouth agape. But, I had not yet seen the Tetons. They are truly deserving of their name, Grand. We drove on and on towards the magnificent range and found at several times the windshield of the car completely filled with mountain. This would be the turning point in our journey. From this point on we would be heading east, to Nebraska, Iowa, the wide Missouri and Mississippi and eventually, home.
With the Tetons in our rear view mirror, we headed on to our next stop, Riverton, Wyoming. We still had plenty of mountains to drive through, but nothing would compare to Yellowstone or the Tetons. We drove through small mountains, hills, small towns with giant statues of Jackalopes, rodeo arenas, and wagon wheel mailboxes. We saw an amazing little plant that looked like it could be a desert pineapple. Julie looked it up and found out it was some kind of thistle. A beautiful little flower.
Several years ago, I purchased a GPS while I was still in the Army. I figured I would use it on military duty when we go to different cities to play music, do ceremonies etc. It served me fairly well, until I left my car open one night and it was stolen along with my cup holder. Yes cup holder. Did I mention that it was filled with about 5 dollars in change? Bad for me, but did you have to steal the cup holder? Why not just dump the change in your pocket and take my GPS and run? It took me several years to finally get around to replacing the cup holder which just this year cost me about twenty dollars to replace at the dealership. So I digress. I did replace the GPS fairly soon, and for the first time on our trip, I plugged it in to the outlet and put in the address for our hotel in Riverton, Wyoming. Surprisingly enough, it took us very close to the actual property. Usually very close is good enough but you would think that if the darn machine is going to get me that close, for about fifty cents more, it could have gone all the way and actually put me right in the drive through for check in. We sat at a traffic light and looked across the street and saw that a right turn at the light would have put us right in the parking lot. But what did the GPS suggest that I do? Sure it wanted me to take a left and so I willingly obeyed as I was in the left turn lane anyway. I found a convenience store, turned around in the parking lot and at the next light change I was pulling into the property. I wonder how these things happen. My previous GPS did something similar the very first time I tried to use it. I was coming home from the Ark in Ann Arbor and the woman in the GPS told me to go east on 8 mile all the way home instead of going on I-275 to I-696 and home. And yes, I knew about the feature that directs you to the “Quickest way” or “Least use of Interstate”
Well we got bunked in and Julie and Zoey wanted to swim. While they were changing, I went on my quest for IPA and to get salads at Wendy’s. Another GPS issue. I plugged in the Wendy’s address and it took me 5 miles all the way across town instead a mile in the other direction. Well the good thing about that was I found a store with a whole lot of Craft beer. I picked up a few samplings and asked the proprietor where the Wendy’s was located. He gave me directions and we both had a good chuckle and I went on my way. I got back about a half hour later, we ate, and while they swam, I wrote. I think it may be time for an upgrade on the GPS.
The next morning we were on our way after a coffee at the convenience store across the street and filling up with gas. Riverton is fairly close to being in the middle of the state, so we were headed east past Thermopolis, Casper, and into Nebraska. We determined that we would try to make it to Ogallala that evening and had already booked a hotel
The atlas we used was very helpful because it contained historical sites and Scott’s Bluff is on Hwy 26 just after you get into Nebraska. Scott’s bluff is an historical monument that helped mark the way for the settlers who were traveling the Oregon Trail in the 1800’s by Ox cart and wagon from St. Joseph Missouri to a new life on the west coast. If they had known then about the San Andreas fault, would they have made the trip? We stopped at the monument, flashed our America the Beautiful pass and were admitted free of charge. One of the best things we ever bought was that pass. Admittance to all National Parks and Monuments free with this pass. Each place would have cost us at a minimum of ten dollars admission. The pass cost us eighty five dollars which we gladly paid. I have to say we did a good bit of advance planning for this trip and it paid off in spades. Maybe all the years I spent in Operations with the military band helped a bit too. Good on you Uncle Sam.
We also learned about the Pony Express while we were stopped at Scotts Bluff. The Pony Express was a group of men who rode horses from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California. These riders would carry the mail or other correspondence across country at break-neck speed in order to keep lines of communication open. They would stop only briefly to change horses or riders. There were close to two hundred stations where these changes took place. They carried a single pouch of correspondence and were armed with two hand guns and a rifle. The route went from St. Joseph through Nebraska and on into Wyoming then headed south through the mountain passes to Sacramento.
The Pony Express was in operation for only nineteen months during the years of 1860-1861. During the time it was in operation, only one rider was killed from Indian attack. There was a monument to honor the Pony Express and its riders at Scotts Bluff which was one of the stops.
While we were getting in the car, we met a man who looked like he was about to do some hiking up Scotts Bluff. It turns out he was part of a group of hikers/climbers who were training for an 85 mile hike across the plains of Nebraska. My next question was, “why?”
Scotts Bluff was in our rear view mirror and Ogallala lay ahead and it was only 2 p.m. I looked at Julie and we both agreed that we could make it a bit further this day. So while she drove, I got on the phone and made the change. North Platte was about eighty miles further, so with the help of AAA, we booked accommodations in North Platte. Let the reader beware that if you use AAA to book and you also have a rewards card with a particular hotel chain, you will not be able to get your reward points. Somewhat of a bummer.
Before we got to North Platte, we made another educational stop at Chimney Rock. Good job Rand McNally! Chimney Rock looks like a huge pillar, or chimney sticking out of the ground about 360 feet from base to top. It was another landmark the early settlers used while traveling on the Oregon Trail. I don’t see how someone could miss that especially traveling at about 5 miles per hour -if that fast- in an Ox drawn wagon. Chimney Rock was not on the National Park/Monument list, but it was part of the State Historical Society and it was also a Blue Star Museum so we got in free due to my military status. We did make a donation because although it is nice that locations such as these let the military families in free of charge, they still have upkeep responsibilities and putting a few dollars in their donation box made me feel better. Chimney Rock interpretive center had great hands on activities for kids. There was simulated wagon made of a large wooden box and kids have to fill it up with simulated crates of provisions such as coffee, beans, flour, and ammunition among other things. You had to fill it to the correct weight or you would not have supplies to make it all the way to Oregon. It also had to have the right things for the trip in the correct amounts. Wasn’t there a computer game in the 90’s called Oregon Trail that was something like this? I seem to remember hearing kids talk about it when I was teaching in Louisiana.
We made it to North Platte and found the accommodations without the help of the confused GPS. I am pretty sure there was a pool and I am pretty sure Julie and Zoey made good use of it.
The following day would be a very long driving day, so we got to sleep early after a meal of sustenance and a dip in the pool.
Our next stop would be Davenport, Iowa. Nebraska is real flat once you get past North Platte and from there on home, we would miss our mountains. It was about at this point we did have something to watch that was somewhat educational and interesting. Wind turbines are a growing industry in the Midwest and we saw plenty of them across parts of South Dakota. Once we got west of the Badlands, we did not see too many. A few farmers had small ones on their land probably just to run lights for their barn or outbuildings. This industry is huge in more ways than one. We saw Oversize Load signs five or six times each day on big trucks and these vehicles were carrying one wind turbine blade. They, like the Tetons, are huge. The diameter of the circle created by three wind turbine blades is estimated at 120 meters. For those of you who do better making comparisons to a concrete object, imagine the length of a football field. 120 meters is about 1.5 football fields in length. These are made from composite materials or metals. Once we got back into Iowa, wind turbine farms appeared a lot more regularly. It gives me great pleasure to know that we are not relying totally on non-renewable forms of energy completely to power our country’s electric grid.
We pulled into Davenport about 3:30 p.m. and were able to find the hotel without the help of the GPS. Davenport is right on the Mississippi River and Julie wanted to see the river up close. Did I mention she has a great love of water? So after we got settled in, I went down to the front desk and found a map of the city. I was able to recon a route that would take us to a park by the river. This trip was the first time that I had ever been across the Mississippi River in another city other than Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
After our trip to the river where we saw rainbow trees, we found a nice Mexican restaurant fairly close to the hotel and pulled in for a Fajita dinner with a Dos Equis to wash it down. The rainbow trees were what Zoey called a line of trees on the bank of the river that someone had painted all different colors.
While we were there, I noticed a television close to our table had the Golf channel on. There was a pro demonstrating a new putting grip. I am always looking to improve my game so I followed as best I could. The new grip which some golfers are using is one that uses the right hand to push the shaft of the putter to propel the ball toward the hole. Since I have been back, I have been using that new style with a good bit of success. It feels comfortable also.
Made it back to the hotel without the aid of the GPS and without the aid of a pool that night, we were forced to read and write to occupy our time. A little TV, but we tried to tell Zoey that the pioneers traveling on the Oregon Trail didn’t get to watch TV. They did however, have books to read, and so we fell asleep reading on what would be our last night away from home.
We awoke in the Central Time zone and were happy to be only one time zone away from home. Traveling west is much easier than traveling east. Gaining daylight hours as opposed to losing daylight hours is a bit more accommodating to the human body. I must say that the time it takes to travel through any time zone has a lot to do with the ease of traveling east or west cross-country. Driving is a lot more accommodating to the body’s internal clock and I did not notice much discomfort as far as time zone changing. Flying drops the body in the Eastern Time zone from the Pacific Time zone with little or no warning.
Pulling out of Davenport at about 8 a.m. we were following I-80 eastbound. A huge number of wind turbines on the road and on farms always gave us something to see. Into Illinois, we were finally in a familiar state we had driven through many times on trips to see the family, or pick up Zoey. Who needed a map now? Not me, but I wasn’t driving. We saw lots of construction as usual and why wouldn’t we? It was construction season!
We got to Chicago about noon and eventually to Portage Indiana where we were getting pretty hungry. So we stopped at one of our usual pit stops for lunch and fuel. After filling the tank, I went to start the car expecting to hear the crank of the engine and was surprised to hear nothing. Hmmmm. No familiar sound. Again. Again. Nothing. The odometer read that we had traveled over 4500 miles and the car had to pick now to crap out. Oh well, when you gotta go, you gotta go. We just looked at each other and decided if there ever was an “oh Shit” moment, this was it. Well I walked back into the store and informed the counter help that there would be some delay in their ability to use fuel pump number 17. Julie was calling AAA in between bites of cheeseburger and she learned that our tow truck would be arriving within one half hour. The hood was up, and we felt like we were getting angry stares from people who needed fuel.
The tow truck arrived before the anticipated time and with the van loaded on the back, we all piled in the front, Julie in the middle with Zoey on her lap by the gear shift, and me sipping a coke by the door.
I cannot even remember the name of the place we were taken but these people who came to our rescue were very accommodating to a family of three with an 8 year old who were nearing the end of an extremely long trip. It appeared to be somewhat of an impound yard. There was no air-conditioning. They discovered that the issue with the van was the starter had shorted out. It had been very hot for the last few days since we came down out of the mountains, and a wire had apparently melted and shorted out the starter.
Well there we sat. We were informed that the parts had been ordered because they were not on the shelves. They would arrive within an hour and the work would be done in about three hours. One hour into what would turn out to be a four hour delay, we did not relish the thought of sitting in a non-air-conditioned auto shop for the next three hours.
The gentleman who was the owner/manager came up with a wonderful idea. He would ask one of his employees to take us up to the Bass Pro Shop on the north side of I-94 and we could spend the next few hours strolling the aisles looking at fishing reels and hunting paraphernalia. Well, at least it was air conditioned. We found lots of things to keep us occupied. Reading books, shooting swamp critters in a shooting gallery set up for kids, and looking at the animals from a local taxidermist that had been arranged to look like they were still alive, standing on the side of some mountain or attacking a poor defenseless moose or deer. Julie bought a bag of dried banana chips and we ended up outside listening to country music, munching banana chips and waiting for the employee/taxi.
She arrived at the appointed time and we were glad to be away from Bass Pro Shop. I think I would not have minded all the time we spent in Bass Pro so much, but at that particular moment all I really could think about was getting my hand around a nice cold IPA.
The repair people were very nice and for the time we had to spend and the work we had to get done on the car, it really was not that bad at all. By the time we were back on the road, Zoey had learned how to say, “Are we there yet?” She was a great traveler and I feel pretty sure it was the adventure of a lifetime for her. We had to gas up in Kalamazoo, but we made it home about 8:30 that night and I finally got my IPA…
This was a monumental trip that we had just undertaken. Eleven days on the road, with about six to seven hours of each day sitting in the car, riding. As it turned out the trip was over four thousand, eight hundred miles all told. The weather had turned out nicely as we only endured two rain storms. The ladies got to swim a lot and I packed a few IPAs home in the van, and tasted a few others. Our garden fairies were glad to see us and presented us with a few tomatoes and zucchini. Zoey stayed with us for another week or so, then we pulled a marathon road trip returning her to her mom in Stoughton, WI and driving back on the same day.
The Rockies and the Tetons simply put, awesome. Julie’s van got its brake job, and we are already planning our next trip ….Glacier National Park, and you can bet that we will be using the America the Beautiful pass once again.
Timothy Brennan’s Out West Travelogue