Our Grand Road Trip, Part Three: Wyoming

Our Grand Road Trip, Part Three: Wyoming

Oh, Wyoming! We had no idea what staggering wonders you hold within your borders. Yes, there are the Grand Tetons. Yes, there is Yellowstone (whose size alone is utterly incomprehensible—and which will get more coverage in another post, I promise). But there is so much more.

We left Yellowstone at deep dusk with fifty miles to go before we reached Cody, our destination for the night.

Yellowstone Lake at dusk

We didn’t know Cody was named for Buffalo Bill or that he was its founder back in 1896. It was just a convenient stopping point. Neither did we know the road we were traveling has been called the fifty most beautiful miles in America—by none other than Teddy Roosevelt. We’ll have to take his word for it; we could barely see a thing in the foggy dark. But we saw enough to believe that a daytime trip through the wilderness of the Shoshone National Forest in the Wapiti Valley with the Shoshone River running alongside the road might be almost too beautiful to bear.

In the morning light, we realized Cody itself might have given us a fun day of adventure, but we had many miles to go before we could rest our heads on pillows that night—Wyoming is one big state! Along the way we passed Thermopolis, which lays claim to the world’s largest mineral hot springs. Wish we’d had time for one of its promised free soaks, courtesy of Hot Springs State Park.

Steam rising from Thermopolis’ hot springs

Hot Springs mineral deposits.

And then it happened. We were already in it before we realized we were actually inside a canyon, heading for its floor. We were floored as we drove into and out of Wind River Canyon, which was full of signs like this first one we saw, each pointing out a little slice of geologic time.

Phosphoria Formation from the Permian Period

These signs accompanied us all the way to the canyon floor’s Precambrian era, 2500 feet deep and 2.5 to 3 billion years into prehistory. We were time traveling, y’all!

And another cool thing: as we entered the canyon from its north end, the river’s name changed—from the Wind to the Bighorn. The spot where the change occurs has its own name: Wedding of the Waters. Don’t you just love it? The river, of course, flows through the bottom of the canyon walls. When we entered the canyon from above, it was far, far below us. As we descended, it seemed to rise until we were almost level with it. The canyon with its high rock walls, rapidly flowing river, and railroad running on a narrow ledge between the river and the canyon wall caught us completely off guard. And it became one of the two biggest highlights (other than family, of course) of our entire trip. All in thirty-four miles. They say you can drive it in forty minutes if you don’t stop. But of course we did. We wanted to savor it—both the scenery and the sheer awesomeness of the experience.

Honestly, I don’t know how we ever got to our next destination, the little town of Douglas, population 6,120. Just as with Cody, we’d planned to spend the night in Douglas only because the timing was right to get us where we wanted to go the next day. But Douglas was full of its own treats.

Douglas: home of the jackalope. You know, that mythical half-rabbit, half antelope creature you grew up hearing about? Well, Douglas is where it all started. Legends abound. Like its ability to mimic human voices, or that it mates only when lightning flashes, or its fondness for whiskey. The Chamber of Commerce even dispenses licenses for hunting the rare creature, legal only from midnight to 2:00 am on June 31st. Douglas is full of history. Established in 1867 when Fort Fetterman was built just ten miles away, named for Stephen A. Douglas (Lincoln’s presidential opponent),  a World War II prisoner of war camp that held 5,000 German and Italian soldiers, and home to both the Wyoming Pioneer Memorial Museum and the Wyoming State Fair.Our Douglas lodging was the charming Hotel LaBonte, currently on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s hard not to let your imagination run wild when you stand in the lobby. The place reeks of ranchers, cattle barons, and railroad tycoons.Just as it was closing time, we dropped in on what may be the world’s friendliest Chamber of Commerce where the helpful staff told us about what turned out to be the other biggest highlight of our trip: the Oregon Trail Ruts and Register Cliff, part of the Oregon National Historic Trail. We’d been planning on turning in early, but it didn’t take a nanosecond for us to change our plans and take off for Guernsey, just twenty miles away.

The whole of the Oregon Trail was over 2,000 miles long, beginning in Independence, Missouri, and ending in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. From there, pioneers chose between settling down or spreading out, going either north or south. Most heavily used from 1841-1869, almost half a million people traveled it.

The routes varied somewhat from one wagon train to another, but not here. Because of the topography, almost all of the nearly 500,000 westward-heading folks traveled this very same path near Guernsey with their horses and wagons or their handcarts. Not just to Oregon—this passage was part of the Mormon, California, and Santa Fe Trails, too. In places, their feet, wheels, and hooves wore the sandstone rock down to a depth of five or six feet, still visible today. Imagine!

See the top of these rocks? That’s the level the first pioneers traveled. Four hundred thousand plus people with their horses and wagons and carts wore the rock down this much.

Just a couple of miles away is a place called Register Cliff. Think of it as a pioneer version of a hotel and its accompanying ledger. The sandstone cliff, in those times a day’s journey from their previous night’s stay at Fort Laramie, provided some degree of shelter as well as a place where people could chisel their names and date of arrival. Maybe it was a message to relatives and friends coming in a later caravan. Or maybe it was a way of recording for the ages, “Look, I made it this far!”

What were their fates?

Now, I’ve just got to take a minute here to tell you this was a deeply spiritual experience for me. I felt that I was on sacred ground. Not that it’s personal—my ancestors traveled no farther west than east Tennessee in their search for land and a brighter tomorrow. But they did cross the Atlantic in dangerously rickety boats to face the unknown, knowing they’d never see beloved faces and familiar places again. And some of them did trek across the mountains from Pennsylvania to Virginia to Tennessee to western North Carolina in a time when roads were scarce and hazards were plenty. That particular history and struggle is part of me and I feel it deep in the core of my being. So, seeing these ruts and the names of some of the people who made them moved me.

The Oregon Ruts and Register Cliff touched me in a way I cannot express. If you get a chance, you really should see them. Give yourself time to study the signage, time to examine the names faintly etched into the rock. Time to “see” these people. Time to think on things. Things bigger than yourself. Here is a place where you can immerse yourself in the story, a story of heroism and hope. And a place where you can actually touch history.

Oh, by the way, those clouds that were missing earlier in our trip? We found ’em.Wyoming, you stirred my soul and stole my heart.

(More of Our Grand Road Trip still to come. Stay tuned.  Want to read about our trip from the beginning? Start here.)

Our Grand Road Trip, Part Two: South Dakota, Montana, Idaho

Our Grand Road Trip, Part Two: South Dakota, Montana, Idaho

In my last travel blog post, we traveled to Louisville, through Illinois, across Minnesota and into South Dakota’s Badlands. Today we’ll visit more of South Dakota and three states farther west.

Here’s where our journey started to take a serendipitous turn. Over and over we found ourselves in the midst of something unexpected. And that unexpectedness never failed to wow us. Just the idea of falling into so much amazingness almost entirely by accident was enough to take our breath away.

We’d almost become inured to the massive fields of corn and soybeans when we spotted something a little different. Ever wondered where all the sunflower seed you buy for your songbirds comes from? Well, we found out. They were well past flowering—wouldn’t that have been something to see—but the seeds were still busy preparing for their destiny.

DSCF1665

As far as the eye can see and then some

On our way across South Dakota we pulled in at a rest area that turned into a happy surprise. How many rest stops do you know that house a museum? Yeah, that’s what I thought. But just off Interstate 90 near Chamberlain, that’s exactly what we found with the Lewis and Clark Interpretive and Keelboat Center. We were excited to be standing on ground where Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery explorers set up camp. They picked quite the spot—a bucolic bluff overlooking the scenic Missouri River. (We’d soon discover that much of our journey passed along the Lewis and Clark Trail—another unexpected treat.)

That was only the beginning of the excitement we felt at this rest area. Just days before our arrival, the fifty-foot tall, stainless steel sculpture named Dignity had been installed. Dignity, with outstretched arms holding a multi-hued blue-star quilt, was designed by South Dakota artist Dale Lamphere to honor the culture of the state’s indigenous Lakota and Dakota peoples. He used several Lakota models from fourteen to fifty-five years of age to give the statue a universal feel.

She was magnificent!

Gives me chills, even now

This was a stop we had not planned, knew nothing about. We certainly didn’t anticipate spending well over an hour there, but it was worth a late arrival in the Black Hills that evening to experience this moment.

Then came the pronghorn antelopes. They appeared from nowhere, then they were everywhere, sometimes outnumbering the cattle whose pastures they shared with apparent impunity—a real peaceable kingdom. I couldn’t get enough of them: their stature, their gracefulness, their markings.

Where the antelope play

DSCF1738 - CopyWe really didn’t know what to expect in the Black Hills, other than that we’d see Mount Rushmore and hopefully a few bison or other wildlife blocking our path somewhere or other. Were we ever in for a treat! Driving the Loop Road in Custer State Park, not only did we get close-up (as close as is safe) views of the bison; we got real up close and personal with some pretty brazen donkeys.

Where the buffalo roam

I thought they looked like a bunch of teenage hoodlums up to no good or maybe a gang of gunslingers itching for a fight.

The Gnome makes a friend. (But this guy would be happier if that hand held an apple!)

It was the many unusual and massive rock formations, though, that captured our imagination. Sort of like finding cloud pictures in the sky. We’re definitely returning for a longer stay, probably right smack in Custer State Park. What do you see in these images?

As we crossed into Montana, we understood the state’s Big Sky moniker (though South Dakota and Minnesota could vie for that title as well, in my book). We couldn’t pass up a day trip to Glacier National Park where we went up, up, up the Going-to-the-Sun Road. How romantic a name is that? And such an astonishing engineering feat, especially given that it was built in the early 20th century.

I really wish we could have spent more time in the park. Like so much else on this whirlwind trip, it only got a lick and a promise, but even that was pretty amazing. Yet, it was again the unexpected that really got to us. Driving to Glacier meant passing Flathead Lake in the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Flathead Reservation. With over 185 miles of shoreline, it’s huge! On the way up, we oohed and aahed over the lake’s crystal blue surface glistening in the sun. Our return coincided with twilight, giving us an equally dramatic perspective.

Leaving our final “cousin destination” in western Montana, we opted for a more southerly route home so we could see more new-to-us parts of the country—a very good idea, it turned out. One of the many unexpected and spectacular sights we encountered was Mt. Borah. Located in the Challis National Forest in eastern Custer County, Mt. Borah is Idaho’s highest mountain. Though it was only rainy down where we were, way up at 12, 667 feet above sea level, snow was beginning to cover the peaks.We stopped to learn about the 6.9 magnitude earthquake that shook the mountain in 1983, raising the peak about a foot and lowering the valley floor by eight feet. We could even see the quake’s scar on the side of the mountain. (All very intriguing, but absolutely as close as I ever want to get to an earthquake!)

And then we came to Wyoming. Now, there’s a big state! And it graced us with so many unexpected wonders that it deserves an entry of its own.

Until next time . . .

Secret Name

My writing tends to lean toward essays, especially personal or descriptive ones. Occasionally, though, something comes to me in poetic form, or at least something akin to it.  In honor of Poetry Month (yes, I know I’m a few weeks late, but I had other things to write about in April—besides, every month should be Poetry Month) I send you this offering.

Secret Name

They used to call me Earth Mother
in our ’70s consciousness raising group.
I sat like a cat curled up on the floor
in long flowing skirt and macrame belt,
almost always wearing earth tones,
comfortable in my own skin
still sagging from giving birth.

Today, I’m growing back into that old metaphor—
poking bare toes in warm garden soil,
hair wild around me like branches of a gnarled old tree;
or wandering the woods seeking nature’s treasures
to dress up my home.
I still curl up, but in a soft old chair—
I can’t get up from the floor these days.

The Winter(s) of My Discontent

I get along just fine with the rest of the seasons, but winter is my bugaboo. We’re in a constant tussle.

It hasn’t always been that way. For most of my life, it was a given that I’d bounce out of bed, dress, and head outside in winter just as in every other season. I never minded, barely gave it a thought. In fact, if I had a least favorite season, it wouldn’t have been winter as it is for many, but summer—often too hot for me, even in our relatively cool mountain climate. And definitely too humid.

But it’s been different for the last five winters. If you know me well, you know that timeline matches the number of years since I left the world of employment. In all this time, I still haven’t learned how to get comfortable with this season. I can’t seem to find my rhythm. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of things to do. Winter calls me to certain tasks—I just don’t always hear the voice. It’s a little too easy to curl up and forget to uncurl.

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

See? Even this little guy is begging to come in out of the cold.

If I don’t absolutely have to, I find that I’m disinclined to pull on snow boots and wrap myself up in a knit cap, heavy gloves, wool scarf, and a quilted coat that makes me look like the Michelin Man all for sake of stepping outdoors. Frankly, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone other than a winter sports enthusiast voluntarily making that effort only to be accosted by frigid temperatures, cold wind and sleet blasting your face while your freezing, boot-clad tootsies struggle to safely navigate ice and snow. It seems so … unnecessary. Why not just stay indoors under a nice fluffy comforter with a mug of hot chocolate and a good book?

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Who wants to go out when it looks like this?

I think I must be part bear. Winter fills me with an urge to go primal. With days that are shorter and often grayer, my instinct to hibernate is strong. I want my comfort foods. I want my warm blankie. I want a rest after three seasons of outdoor physical labor.

Still, winter has a lot going for it: it’s a contemplative season. It’s the perfect time for all those things that were set aside when the days were longer and the sun shone brighter, those days that were filled with the frenzy of planting, growing, harvesting, and preserving the garden and the challenging, seemingly never-ending task of home renovation. No, winter’s the time for reading, writing, thinking, playing, visiting, learning a new skill, playing a musical instrument, making gifts, knitting and crocheting, solving puzzles, putting all those snapshots into albums and scrapbooks, organizing that last cabinet. The list goes on.

Here we are again, winter and I—pulling at each other’s hair, scrapping like puppies over a bone. So far, our sixth post-retirement season together is stacking up to be just like the previous five. I’ve appreciated being able to stay in bed until the sun comes up and not having to travel icy roads to get to work. It’s a joy not to be tethered to a rigid schedule of someone else’s making. But a little self-imposed structure isn’t a bad thing. December’s fine for chilling out, playing, and connecting. But December’s long gone and already January is about to join it in the land of past tense.

I’m tired of the sluggishness. I know, it’s all my fault. Winter is just being winter. I’m the one who has to make some changes. And I’m ready. So, here I am, Winter. Ready to embrace you and your chilly rhythms. Ready to pull on my bulky coat and snow boots and get myself outside every single day. A brisk walk in the bracing cold should give me the energy to get a little cleaning and organizing done before starting in on writing or some other mental floss, followed by an afternoon break for cooking up something delectable. Sounds like a plan.

MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

Me, embracing winter!

When I feel keyed in to Nature’s patterns, I’m more whole—and more wholly in the moment. I think we’re meant to slow down a bit in winter, but not to shut down. Surely, I can get outside and have my hot chocolate, too.

Retirement Attire

When I retired,
I thought I could wear
whatever I chose.
Makeup and coordinated outfits be damned
with their matching shoes
and glittery accessories.

I was free to be quirky:
hair all akimbo; striped orange shirt
paired with purple print pants;
one blue sock, one white;
and the rattiest of old sweaters.
What did I care?

Then I remembered
the day I was home alone
hair in desperate need of washing,
body free of all clothing
when a strange car
drove up our lonely lane.

Rushing to close
and lock the door
to unwanted visitors,
I slipped.
I broke my arm.
As it dangled by my side,

my other arm
holding shattered pieces together,
I was unable to dress myself.
You can see why,
in that state,
no way was I dialing 9-1-1.

Too, I recalled a line
from a Calvin Trillin book.
His wife, he said,
always dressed to the nines.
One should look one’s best
for the doctor or lawyer

or anyone else the day might bring—
assured better treatment, she thought,
better service. Besides,
it made folks feel better.
I thought perhaps she was
on to something

I tossed the worst of my duds;
cleaned up my act.
These days
I try to match, at least.
Who knows what
might lie around the bend?

So, in the end,
it really is
like our mothers used to say:
“Always put on clean underwear;
you never know
when you might be in an accident.”