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: Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks

Since they’re both huge, I devoted an entire day to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Park(s).  Grand Teton curves around Jackson, a bit like Pac-Man, if you imagine Jackson as the pellet being eaten, and you can drive a fair way into the park before you hit the fee booths.  Not that that mattered to me, with my annual pass, but it’s really a very lovely drive for free.  The road parallels the Grand Tetons and the Snake River, with plenty of overlooks along the way, before it finally curves into the body of the park.

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I knew that I’d be pushing alongside other tourists all day, so I did my best to get up early to try and beat the crowd.  I was in the park by 7 am, although out here, it’s practically full daylight by then; I think the sun rises around 3 am or so.  Still, it was early enough so that I caught quite a few animals roaming around.  Pelicans and an elk hiding in the tall grass (no photo, even at that time other cars took up all the space on the nearest overlook) at Oxbow Bend, chipper little ground squirrels running in and out of grass tufts, and even the classic bison road crossing.

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Grand Teton had so many nice animal shots, I was a little later than planned getting into Yellowstone.  The two parks are only a handful of miles apart, and US 89 runs right from one park to the other, so that at least was easy.  But after that, it was a bit of a madhouse.  Driving around was fine but finding parking at nearly every attraction was a nightmare.  I circled the Old Faithful lot for nearly ten minutes–at least I did end up getting there in time for it to go off.  But even something like the Fountain Paint Pot site was jammed. And you did run into “critter jams,” where cars would block off the two-lane road by stopping to photograph some animal by the side of the road (usually a bison, they seemed to love posing, and I even saw one roll onto its back and kick up its heels).  The worst blockage was when someone spotted a bear.  After waiting for a half-hour to crawl by, I got up close enough to pull over and did, since at that point I wanted to see if it was worth it.  We were at the bottom of a steep hill, a couple semi-skeptical rangers supervising the traffic, and way up near the top was a brown speck that the people with binoculars swore was the bear.  I’m still not sure myself.  Whatever it was, it held me up long enough so that I had to cut out about a third of my planned drive, or else I’d have been arriving at my nightly booking after dark (as it was, I cut it pretty close).

Supposed bear, Yellowstone National Park

Supposed bear, Yellowstone National Park

The geyser and related sites were beautiful, at least.  They come in such extreme colors: the crusts around Old Faithful were so white that in the sunlight, they made my eyes water, the paint pots are soft Southwestern pastels, and the sulfur is a lurid yellow against the deep turquoise waters of the hot springs.  And then you juxtapose that against the cartoonish  blurping and popping sounds, and you’re trying not to snicker without quite knowing why.

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After leaving Yellowstone, I stopped off in Cody, WY for dinner.  There was a country western concert somewhere, spilling into the air, and the main drag featured the Irma Hotel, built by founder Buffalo Bill Cody himself.  It had costumed servers, the original wooden bar, and most importantly to me at that moment, a delicious prime rib dinner, with a crisp seasoned skin that crackled off the meat, which was tender enough without coming in a (much-welcomed) pool of juices.  Roasted red-skin potatoes with cracked black pepper and mashed potatoes rounded out the meal.  I was starving, and you can tell because I actually ate two-thirds of the prime rib all by myself; normally, I barely make it to a half.

Prime rib with mashed and roasted potatoes, Irma Hotel, Cody, WY

Prime rib with mashed and roasted potatoes, Irma Hotel, Cody, WY

Airbnb is a “bunkhouse” on a ranch outside of Basin, WY.  Not a lot of choice in WY, but this is a pretty luxury bunkhouse as they go, with a private shower, a desk, portable heaters and an A/C unit.  I can occasionally hear cows lowing in the distance.  It’s just plain fun.  And while the drive out was a bit long, I finally was able to snap a photo of pronghorn!  Benefits of having the highway basically to yourself for ten miles in either direction.

Pronghorn outside of Basin, WY

Pronghorn outside of Basin, WY

Animals seen and not photographed: That elk, a deer, various waterfowl.

Roadtrip: Colorado National Monument and Jackson, WY

A coda to my last post: my Grand Junction Airbnb host threw in a free hot, homemade breakfast, which was delicious: an omelet-type thing with ham and veggies, local peaches and peach juice, hot tea, and a buttered bagel with strawberry jam.

Omelet with veggies and pork, local peaches and peach juice, buttered bagel and strawberry jam

Omelet with veggies and pork, local peaches and peach juice, buttered bagel and strawberry jam

And it was a good thing, too, since I ended up driving nearly seven hours before I ate lunch.  Not intentionally–the day started out well, with a slight detour through Colorado National Monument.  It’s right outside of Grand Junction and the scenic drive was heading north, the way I wanted to go anyway.  I liked it quite a bit, as it has a lot of variation in rock formations packed into a small space, and it’s a less traveled spot than, say, the Grand Canyon, so you don’t have to shove in between other tourists to get a look.

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But after leaving Colorado National Monument, it got a bit tricky.  Yellowstone National Park was my next stop, and it’s in the western corner of Wyoming, but the major north-south interstates run towards Denver, which is very much east of the park.  My GPS ended up stitching together a zigzag across the Colorado-Utah border (fun fact: Grand Junction’s streets are numbered according to how far they are from the Utah border, so 29 1/4 Street is 29.25 miles from Utah), until I could pick up US 191, which runs up and nearly through Jackson, WY, the nearest decent-sized town to the bottom edge of the park.  Utah was dusty and going hot again, and I opted not to stop at Dinosaur, UT, despite my love of dinos, so I could try and get into the mountains to get cooler air.  However, US 191, while a beautiful, scenic drive–and also mostly lacking guardrails, but way less crazy to drive than US 550–doesn’t have any convenient combo picnicking areas/scenic viewpoints.  I ended up driving out of the Uintas Mountains and up onto a gigantic plateau.  Which was interesting, cruising across a flat grassland but seeing hints of steep canyons to either side, every now and then, but which did mean I got well into Wyoming before I could even settle for scarfing leftovers at a turnout.

Outside of Dinosaur, UT

Outside of Dinosaur, UT

I finally rolled into Jackson, only to discover the crazy, crazy hotel prices.  North of $300 for Hampton Inn, for example (no Airbnbs either, unless you want to rent out an entire ski lodge).  Luckily, I stumbled on the Virginian Lodge, which is really an entire complex consisting of the motel, a “convention center,” a saloon, a liquor store and a restaurant.  It’s enormous, the decor is stereotypical Western, and while I broke my rule about staying under $100 a night for the second time this trip (the first being Seattle), I think it’s worth it just for the lobby.  And then the restaurant turned out quite good, too.  Chicken-fried steak with deeply crunchy, non-greasy, black-pepper-spiked breading, genuinely tender and juicy beef inside–slightly pink, even!–and a sausage gravy that looks like white cement but which actually was creamy and soothing when paired with the black pepper bite.  And the mashed potato gravy was yummy, too.  And the strawberry rhubarb pie, nice and tart.  Made up for the crap lunch.

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Animals seen and not photographed: Western whiptail lizards (sunning themselves at Colorado National Monument and too quick, brown mottled bodies with bright blue tail tips) and pronghorns all along US 191.