This photo has nothing to do with this post. But if I put up a picture of haggis, would you be reading this? If you don’t know what haggis is, read on. Or if you don’t know what clootie dumpling is, read on. Or chapshot—you’ll never guess that one.
The road home—the Beartooth Highway in southern Montana and Highway 14A in the Bighorns of Wyoming.
Pictures don’t capture the majesty of these mountains.
Nor do they capture the gut-clutching, death-defying, close-your-eyes-and-trust-your-driver feelings.
Fortunately, there are places to pull in, catch your breath, and stand and gawk at the grandeur.
Then on we drove to the northern route over the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming. And I thought the Beartooth Highway was nerve-wracking! I don’t have many pictures of this route because I was busy coping!
The grade here is 10-11%. Breath-taking is a good description! That’s usually a good thing, but on occasion I didn’t want to give up my breath! (Lots of exclamation points here, you’ll notice.) I almost kissed the flat ground when we got down. And I swore off ever driving in the mountains again unless it was in Glacier Park’s little red busses.
In hindsight, when I had recovered and was relaxing at the Occidental Hotel in Buffalo, listening to a cowboy band, I thought of this day as one of the best mountain days I’d ever had. Thanks to my husband for doing the mountain driving, or I never would have had the experience.
Here ends my travelogue of our Great American Road Trip West; the harsh beauty of the West is a wonder to me; the indomitable spirit of the pioneers inspires me; and the enduring evidence of strife between peoples in our country saddens me.
Like Dorothy who stared in astonishment at Munchkinland and said, “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas,” the US is a whole of so many vastly different parts. Going from the Midwest to the West is like going from to Mars to Jupiter. Pictures and words absolutely do not convey the feel of the varied beauty of our country. Go see it for yourself.
Horseback riding in the Absaroka Mountains of Montana (pronounced Ab-sor’-ka). I’ve been looking forward to writing this post.
The Skyline Guest Ranch is three miles east of Cooke City, on Highway 212. A log structure purpose-built as a bed and breakfast out of timber salvaged from the Yellowstone burn of 1988, Skyline hosts guests who want to run around the mountains by various means and for various purposes—horseback riding, snowmobiling, fly-fishing, hunting, backcountry camping—or guests who want to sit on the porch and enjoy the view.
Our purpose was to ride in the Rockies. This is the way to see the mountains: from the back of a horse!
Wrangler Rob, on his trusty steed Sue (a gelding), led us up and down, through the forest, and over rocks—for two hours.
Dave and I are seasoned riders, though out of practice for many years. I don’t know how rookies do this! Not that I want to deter you if you’ve never ridden a horse and you’re burning to try it in the Rockies. Just a caution: don’t panic. The horse knows what he’s doing, even if you don’t.
Here we are close to the turn-around point. As you can see from my right hand, I wasn’t altogether relaxed! It wasn’t a sheer drop to my left, but it was pretty steep and a long way down. But I was having a blast!
To give you an idea of how steep it was, to take this picture Rob had to dismount on the right and crouch on the mountainside, then remount on the right because it wasn’t safe to mount on the left, the side from which you always get on a horse.
Shortly after Rob took this photo, he said, “Do you want to turn around here? or where it’s wider?” “Here” was the width of a horse, with DOWN to the left. So I said, “Wider.” Duh! Well…”wider” was two horse-widths! Our horses had the maneuver done before I had time to freak out.
An afternoon shower on the way back did nothing to dampen our enjoyment of our ride in the mountains. We were just glad we were off the rocks by the time it started raining, not that slippery rocks would have bothered Mason and Rodman.
Now, when I’m lounging at home, drinking my morning coffee, my mind often wanders back to this ride. It was great! No, more than great—it was one of those lifetime greats.
If you go to the Skyline Guest Ranch, these guys await you.
Westward ho and away we go—to Virginia City and Nevada City, Montana. The two towns are separated by a mile or so, but they function as one museum of the Old West.
Virginia City is a little town in the mountains with a remarkably preserved main street from the mining days of the 1800s. Businesses like Bob’s Place (pizza!) are interspersed amid the old shops where it looks like the residents just up and skedaddled. Not much restoration here. You stand at the open door of the mercantile and peer in at the dust-coated merchandise stocking the shelves.
Nevada City is a collection of old buildings, some original to the site.
Here volunteers perform living history on the weekends. We caught the last performance of the season: The Hanging of Jack Slade. I wandered off to the side and took pictures of fancy chickens rather than watch Jack swing.
If you want to see this part of the Old West, you’d better hurry. These towns are extraordinary, but the years are taking their toll. When I compare this wonderful piece of history to the glitzy museum at Cody, I really realize how much money it takes to preserve our history. These towns aren’t on the way to anywhere—your destination would be here, or you’ll miss it.
The Buffalo Bill Center of the West at Cody, Wyoming is a Smithsonian-quality museum. Don’t go through Cody without visiting it. Western art, firearms, history of the plains Indians, western geology, natural history, and all things Buffalo Bill Cody under one roof. Plan on spending no less than four hours here; your ticket is good for two days.
Only upon reflection did I realize what was missing from the history of the West—there was only a nod to the explorers and pioneers pushing West. One wonders if telling their stories would necessitate exposing the ugly side of people and events—best left untold in a family venue? Or are we tied in knots by political correctness? The sins were great on both sides, as was the extraordinary courage. One side may prevail, but no one wins at war.
Nevertheless, it’s a five-star museum of the West. Enjoy the photos.
“Let ‘er buck!”—the battle cry of the University of Wyoming athletics fans. It means: Bring on the bronco and let her (or him) buck! Metaphorically it means: Face adversity and try to conquer it, even if it throws you around. A put-up-your-dukes, stick-out-your-chin, bring-it-on attitude. And why not? A tough land makes people tough.
Wyoming—state of vast sage-covered land and really big mountains. It’s a thrill as the Bighorn Mountains, a subrange of the Rocky Mountains, rise in the distance. Take Highway 16 out of Buffalo and in no time you’re in the mountains.
100+ year old cabin.
On this trip we revisited places from a trip 30 years ago.
The South Fork Inn, a few miles into the mountains, has changed but not in a bad way. The name is different, but still recognizable, South Fork Mountain Lodge and Outfitters. The new cabins are neatly folded into the landscape. And the 100+ year old cabin we had stayed in is still there—a bedroom on either side of a center kitchen with a wood burning cookstove (now unusable).
After having a look around the South Fork Inn we trucked on to the next revisit—Crazy Woman Canyon Road—the reason we drove our 4-wheel drive truck. Single lane, gravel, and rutted. Not a road for cars with low oil pans. It’s a crazy road leading to fantastic scenery and gorgeous campsites (bring your own water or water treatment tablets). No facilities—I mean NO facilities—if you know what I mean. This eighteen-mile road can be driven in either direction, from south of Buffalo, or from Hwy 16 in the mountains, or you can just turn around like we did.
By this point in the road, (photo at left), I wasn’t feeling so good—a bit of a headache and mild nausea. OK, I’m a flatlander, and it takes me a bit to adjust to the altitude, but not long. Fortunately, my husband did 97% of the mountain driving. Well, fortunately, I think. He likes to drive, which means I was sucking in my breath or closing my eyes on occasion. Mountain driving is much like aging, not for sissies.
Down in the valley, me driving, a storm piled up black clouds and raced across the open range; a wall of rain bounced off the dry ground. Storms in the West are like that: fast, frequently in the afternoon, and sometimes violent. A beautiful storm.
Hot and tired, but exhilarated from being back in the mountains, we pulled into Cody, Wyoming. Cody is for tourists, and we fell right in step, enjoying a gunfight staged at the Irma Hotel.
I feel a little pathetic writing this post, but here goes—it’s about Wall Drug. Is anything more clichéd than Wall Drug?
No road trip West can fail to include a stop at Wall Drug, Wall, South Dakota. We stopped twice on this trip—out and back.
Why? Because the coffee is 5¢ and the ice water is free, as the billboards tell you. And it’s fun!
Talk about making something out of nothing. Since 1931, when Ted and Dorothy Hustead bought the only drug store in Wall, Wall Drug has grown to include a little bit of everything. Read Ted’s account of how it all started: “Our History began with Wall and Water!”
Wall Drug is iconic. It’s like being in an international airport. Tourists from all over the world stop here. Two busloads were reloading as we arrived.
The signs for Wall Drug are part of the fun. For miles in either direction billboards of all sizes alert the traveler to the reasons to stop. The signs are toned down and fewer in number than they used to be when I was a kid, but there are still plenty of signs.
Wall Drug isn’t just a tourist trap to get you to spend money on all manner of stuff you don’t need, it’s a Western fine art gallery. Really good art, and a lot of it. You can sit and enjoy your pie à la mode surrounded by paintings.
Wall Drug is an oasis in the middle of nowhere on your travels West. The Badlands to the south of the interstate are worth the loop road through—otherwise, next stop is the Black Hills.
“The long and winding road,” the Beatles sing—not this one. I90 through southern Minnesota and South Dakota barely makes a curve until the Black Hills on the western side of South Dakota.
The road is really boring, and much of it is either in bad shape or under construction. We laughed though, the speed limit in construction zones in the West is 65 mph, 55 if it’s really torn up. In the West the cowboy spirit still prevails—they do things their way, and we like that about the West.
These plain states are also beautiful. As soon as you leave the Mississippi River valley the land flattens out to crop and grazing land. Southern Minnesota and South Dakota are part of the Bread Basket of the US, they keep us fed. I’m from Minnesota, but this southern hemisphere of the state is foreign country to me. I know the Minnesota of woods and lakes.
The colors on the plains are stunning. I’d like to weave a plaid of the colors. If you focus on how boring the road is, you miss the beauty of the fields of sunflowers and sorghum, the black angus cattle, the variegated greens and tans of the grasses, the cerulean blue of the sky, and the vast majesty of the clouds. The color of the dirt ranges from tan to rust red, sometimes sedimentary stripes of many colors. Beautiful!