Roadtrip: The Old West And Other Tales

Today was a comedy of errors.  I had one Airbnb booking fall through, then had another accepted, only to have the host tell me when I showed up that she was too sick to have me.  I declined her offer to stay with a friend of hers (nice enough, but not signed up to Airbnb and I have a rule that I only stay with hosts with multiple reviews–a proven track record) and went driving around for a hotel, but everywhere I went, there was some sort of music festival–I say “sort” because while Deadwood’s Wild Bill Day weekend had a bandstand set up and live music, the posters indicated the real draw was the temporary exception to the local open container law that allowed you to wander around the streets with a beer in hand, rather like every day in Memphis–or a rodeo, or some other thing that was maxing out every single hotel in locations that you wouldn’t possibly think would draw that many people.  I ended up driving into Rapid City and breaking, for the third time, my rule about $100 a night or less.  In a Days Inn.  And I had such a good streak going, too.

But anyway, I started the day winding around the backroads of Wyoming before I reconnected with I-90 near the South Dakota border.  US 16 was another unplanned scenic drive, and it’s a good one for taking you through the various geographies of Wyoming.  You go from flat grasslands, into the mountains, then down into the badlands–slightly different flavor from Montana’s version, since Wyoming’s has smaller, more regularly-shaped outcrops.  As you get into the Black Hills, these odd little cone-shaped hills start to pop up, sometimes with the tips worn through the green grass so you can see the brilliant red rock underneath.  The rock gets redder and redder, and then you’re into South Dakota.

However, I took two short breaks before getting on I-90: one to eat breakfast at Crazy Woman Cafe in Ten Sleep (food okay, had to stop for the name), and one to visit the Jim Gatchell Memorial Museum on the rec of the previous night’s Airbnb host, and I was glad for it.  Jim Gatchell was a local pharmacist who, by virtue of his connections with the local Native Americans, amassed a good collection of artifacts from them.  He also seems to have been something of a history buff, as the museum that now houses his collection has an excellent section on the Johnson County War, as infamous in this region as the Hatfields and McCoys are in the Midwest where I was born and raised.  Sadly, they don’t allow photos inside.

After my Airbnb mix-up, I stopped off in Deadwood to try and collect myself, and hopefully get some fun out of the afternoon.  I gotta say, though, I’m not really big on the place.  Like a lot of Wild West towns, they’ve kept the old, movie-ready buildings on the main drag, but they’ve commercialized the place way past charmingly quaint, beyond gaudy, and right into parody (Cody compares very favorably).  All the historic buildings seem to house combination saloons and casinos, and it’s just weird seeing slot machines crammed in amid the Old West decor.  I wandered around for an hour and then hopped out to find a hotel.

Deadwood, SD

Deadwood, SD

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Roadtrip: Montana from ND border to Laurel

The Montana side of the badlands isn’t quite so eerie as North Dakota.  The spires and buttes are a bit more sedate, and the Yellowstone river (which I-94 and I-90 follow for several hours) flattens out a long stretch between the hills into a beautiful grasslands.  And again, dinosaurs!  Prehistoric stuff!

I started out in Glendive (no Airbnb but the Astoria hotel is quite nice and has a substantial AAA discount), which is right next to the Makoshika State Park.

Panorama of Makoshika State Park, Glendive, MT

Panorama of Makoshika State Park, Glendive, MT

Tons of dinosaur fossils have been dug up here, some of which can be found in the nearby Frontier Gateway Museum–free, not to be confused with the creationist museum next door, and with a very chatty docent–which also has a whole mini town of Old West stores in the backyard.  You can apparently still stumble across some; however, my sports car, which getting awesome mileage as a hybrid, was not built for the mostly dirt- and pebble, steep, scenic road.  I ended up parking it about a third of the way in, then hiking another mile in before running out of time.  Need to convince someone with a 4W/AWD vehicle to come back for me, since I believe I missed out on some of the best views.

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I will also say that Montana state parks have a pretty good deal.  You pay the day pass fee at one park ($6 for nonresident car) and get a permit, and it’s good for as many state parks as you can visit that day.  So I also managed to squeeze in the Pictograph Cave State Park.  Sadly, the main cave with most of the pictographs was closed due to a rockfall, but the whole area has a really lovely peaceful feel to it.  A ranger I ran into said that the ancient Native Americans considered it akin to a cathedral, and it does have that meditative feel to it.

It also has a lot of wildlife.  I spotted rabbits and birds, and the aforementioned ranger showed me a rattlesnake he had just removed from the trail (much smaller than it looks in the photo, maybe a couple feet long).  It was a good day for animal-spotting; I also saw some pronghorn next to the interstate.

And just before Pictograph State Park was the Pompey’s Pillar National Monument, where the Lewis & Clark expedition stopped and William Clark etched his name into a stone pillar (along with hundreds of others, including Native American predecessors).  The Pillar had a great view of the Yellowstone river.  It also seemed to be populated entirely by loud, chittering marmots, which are sort of furry sausages with a face.  Note: The federal government’s interagency annual pass ($80 covers all entrance fees to any federal area) is an awesome deal, too.

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Stopping point for the night was an Airbnb place in Laurel, an early 1900s Romantic house that has been restored with period fixtures by the owner (some being essentially “early whorehouse” in their words)  Host is amazingly knowledgeable about local history.  Also offered to take me fossil-hunting, but sadly, no time for that on this trip (all the cool spots in Montana seem to be hours and hours off the interstate, which I didn’t build in time for).  Next time.

P.S. What I dislike about roadtripping: having to constantly clean bug splats off the windshield.

Roadtrip: Iowa

Iowa consists of a lot of farmland and very few rest stations.  Very few gas stations, either, so I’m glad that I always fill up rentals once I hit the half-tank mark.  That said, the few gas stations that are out there have some interesting offerings:

Fried chicken gizzards and peanut butter crisps, some Iowa gas station

Fried chicken gizzards and peanut butter crisps, some Iowa gas station

Yes, those are fried chicken gizzards.  And they were quite tasty going down, not nearly as greasy as you’d think (although I admit to some indigestion later that night).  The peanut butter crisps appeared to be handmade and were cousin to the chocolate-covered Rice Krispie treats I used to love as a kid.

Iowa City, home to the University of Iowa, was having a pretty typical Midwestern fall Saturday when I showed up–college football.  Everyone was in team colors and drunk.  I bobbed and weaved around them and strolled up and down the Iowa Literary Walk, which is a series of bronze plaques that interpret quotes from famous authors/books in interesting to creepy ways–I do wonder what the “eyes” plaque looks like to people late at night.  Also, about a ten-minute drive away is the Devonian Fossil Gorge, which is a spillway off a dam that has tons of fossil-studded rocks.  It’s not quite as good as a fossil site where I grew up, which not only had rocks but had so many loose fossils around that you were allowed to take a small quantity away with you, but it made for a peaceful afternoon climbing around and peering at history (but again with the creepy animals, Iowa).

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The hotel space in Iowa City had been scarce when I’d been doing all my booking (due to the football game, I expect), so I ended up getting a room in Davenport, about an hour away.  Davenport is on the Mississippi river proper, with some lovely riverfront space.  Even the hydroelectric power plant looked kind of steampunkish.

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Memphis: The Music

We came to Memphis for the music, and absolutely did not take that to mean just Graceland.  It’s actually a bit of a blessing that Graceland’s so far outside of the main part of Memphis, since Memphis–and rock ‘n roll–is so much more than the Elvis memorabilia.

Rock & Soul Museum

Rock & Soul Museum

The Rock and Soul Museum was sort of small, given we’re talking about two giant genres of music (and, for that matter, that it actually starts off properly, with folk, country, blues and gospel), and kind of heavy on the stage costumes, but it had an inventive audio tour that weaved in samples of music from every era from the beginning of recorded music.  It also had an entire reconstructed rural church, which was smaller than my NYC apartment.  Not a bad general overview and does a great job of showing the cultural roots of music.  Took us about an hour, going very slowly between exhibits.

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Memphis: The Un-flip Side

The Lorraine Motel is a kitschy, slightly shabby little building tucked off of Memphis’ slowly gentrifying Main Street, where the hot high summer sun makes even the brightest, shiniest, newest buildings look a bit wilted.  It’s part of the National Civil Rights Museum, because on a second-floor balcony at the back, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and died. You normally see the Museum first, with a multimillion-dollar, gleaming entrance, and to get to the Motel you have to walk behind the Museum.  They’ve preserved the outside and, I believe, MLK’s room just as it was that day, and you can pay to go up to the balcony and look through the glass into the room.  We didn’t do that.  It seemed too macabre and gawky; we stood on the ground and paid our respects there.  

In memoriam

In memoriam

Trip: New Orleans Jazz Fest, Part II (Non-Fest Doings)

We hit up some of the historical landmarks in town, including the old Ursuline Convent, the Cabildo and Arsenal (not pictured, and sadly, since the Arsenal had a really cool exhibit on early proto rock ‘n roll acts in New Orléans, and their somewhat forgotten part in creating rock music), and most of St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 before we got rained out.  Also, a couple more cool local details, like horse-headed iron street posts and sidewalk tiles spelling out street names (not limited to the French Quarter).  Lastly, we wanted a taste of the local music scene, and as the Jazz Fest itself ends oddly early for an outdoor festival, with the last acts finishing around 7 PM, we hit up Frenchmen Street Friday night.  It was buzzy and jumping, with an alleyway crafts market over there, a brass band busking on the corner here, and music pouring out of every club.  We caught the end of the TBC Brass Band‘s act in some club that I can’t remember except that it was one of the few that didn’t charge cover, and I wish we’d happened on it earlier [Edit: Vaso’s!  I did remember to note it in my phone’s memo app.  Bless smartphones].  I would’ve happily paid to see the whole thing–a little rough and ready, but with true verve.