... Steaks on pitchforks, bison, prairie dogs....
Since I was a lass of ten and memorized all the state capitals in the U.S.A., I have
been pronouncing the capital of South Dakota ''PEE-ERE'', accented on the second
syllable. Much to my astonishment, the correct way to say the name is ''PEER''.
That is but one of the many things I learned this summer, when Russell and I took part in the Airstream Caravan entitled, ''National Landmarks West'', touring the Northwest for five scenic-crammed weeks. A Caravan is a group of Airstream trailers traveling together. In our case, we were one of 30 Airstreams. The route, campgrounds and events are planned well in advance.
There are many advantages to traveling with a Caravan, but that is the subject of another article.We started our exploration of the area in Medora, North Dakota. Even though its population is just under 100, Medora is familiar to tourists. It is the southern gateway to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which we visited and where we saw prairie dogs, bison and sage brush, but not rattlesnakes!
While staying in Medora we also attended an outdoor pitchfork fondue, where steaks are impaled on pitchforks (clean, of course), plunged into boiling oil and served with accompaniments to appreciative guests, all with a backdrop of gorgeous mountains. After the meal we saw a musical show at a large amphitheatre built into the hillside. The stage is large enough to hold horses as well as a troupe of actors, dancers and singers. While we watched, the show the stars came out, large and bright. What a memorable evening! Remember the song ''Don't Fence Me In''? In North Dakota I finally came face to face with cottonwood trees. Yes, they are messy--their airborne fluffy seed pods land all over the place. But their leaves are very sensitive to wind, and we all loved to ''listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees.'' After Medora, we traveled to Hardin, Montana, population 2900; elevation 2900. Hardin is near the Custer National Battlefield, which we visited.
More to my taste, Hardin also boasts a large indoor municipal swimming pool, which I used twice in one day.We drove on to Cody, Wyoming, 5075 feet above sea level. It is a properous bustling town of 7900. One of the main attractions is the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, a collection of four museums. We made two visits there, as a result of which I revised my previous opinion of Buffalo Bill Cody. ''Opinion'' is the wrong word--to me, he was just another gun-tottin' cowboy. I learned at Cody that he was an early and vocal champion of voting rights for women, of equal pay for equal work and of equal rights for the native Indians.
In Cody the group also went to a Rodeo--a first for me. Interesting, but I won't cry if I never attend another. From Cody we also drive over Beartooth Pass, nearly 11,000 feet high. There are so many spectacular vistas, beautiful waterfalls and deep gorges that one is nearly breathless at the end. Near the top we stopped to watch skiers and a snowboarder--on July 13!The Caravan made twelve stops in five states (North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Washington). We had delightful visits to Yellowstone National Park; Butte, Montana; Glacier National Park; Grand Coulee Dam; Brewster, WA; Randle, WA (near both Mt. St. Helen's and Mt. Rainier), and Port Angeles, Washington, from where we visited the Ho Rain Forest. Port Angeles is at the northern tip of the Olympic Peninsula. From there the group took an 18-mile boat trip to Victoria on Vancouver Island. The AAA tour guide book describes Victoria as the ''gentle'' city, the ''most English of Canadian cities.'' What a charming place! The streets are clean. Some 1260 hanging flower baskets adorn the lamp posts in the downtown area. The architecture also has clean lines. The harbor is clean, as harbors go, and is lively with active marine traffic. In Victoria, we were able to roam for two hours through the Butchart Gardens, an unforgettable treat of massed colors, artfully arranged theme gardens and a fountain of every-changing sprays which is mesmerizing to sit and watch.
I am reluctant to end this portion of the piece without mentioning the Highway-to-the-Sun in Glacier National Park. It is a thrilling ride. The road runs along beside two exquisite lakes, up over Logan Pass by way of several hairpin turns, past tumbling waterfalls which plunge down stone stairways and near glacial snow ten feet deep, on top of which children were cavorting gleefully in the hot summer sun.
I've given short shrit to many, many spectacular sights. If I described them all to the extent they deserve, this article would be far too long. Let me summarize by way of two topics: first, some of the things I learned, and, second, how the trip reflected the theme song of the Caravan leader. I learned that plains and prairies go on for miles. They bear a similarity to the ocean--always the same and yet changeable. I learned that the rivers in the Northwest (expecially in Montana) are lovely. They are clear; they flow rapidly and playfully; usually they are surrounded by dark green trees and blue mountains. Russell and I share the driving of the ''rig''-- a GMC Suburban and a 25-foot Airstream trailer. Together they weigh a bit over six tons. During the Caravan, the 60 people involved had periodic meetings called ''Drivers' Meetings'', at which Jack, the leader, gave guidelines about the route we would take the next day. I Learned how to drive safely on hills while protecting the car. On a long climb the important thing is to prevent the engine from overheating. In addition to down-shifting, one can turn off the air-conditioning, thus reducing the burden on the engine, and even turn on the heat, to keep the coolant circulating. Going down, you want to avoid burning out the brakes. Don't let the rig get going too fast; better to down-shift and let the engine slow you down, do NOT ''ride the brakes'' or pump them. It is better to touch them and let go; touch and let go.
The highest pass I drove was Craig Pass in Yellowstone National Park, at 8262 feet, and the scariest downgrade was a 7% for 4 miles. I renamed Craig the ''Scared Driver Pass'', but, by golly, I did it and became quite adept at it, despite signs such as ''Chain-Up Area'', ''Chain-Off Area Ahead'' and ''Runaway Truck Ramp, 1000 Feet''.
Traveling with 29 other airstreams is fun and rewarding. No, they don't all travel together, out of courtesy to other drivers, who may need to cut in. There are single Airstreams on the road, and groups of three or four, all with a common destination. Another skill I learned this summer is to communicate with other drivers on the CB radio and to say, ''Do you copy?'' and ''Ten Four'' with the best of them. Finally, I learned again how much fun and laughter a simple activity can be for a group of people who are good sports. One night after a drivers' meeting held in a shady grove there was a cherry-pit spitting contest between Ohioans and Texans, the two largest groups in the Caravan. It was great fun to watch people's idiosyncratic actions as they spat out the cherry pits. Some would wiggle their behinds in preparation; others would pucker up their faces; others would frown in concentration. Jack and Sue Corle were the leaders of the Caravan. They did a fine job of giving clear, trustworthy guidance. When Jack first spoke to the assembled group he talked about the words to ''America the Beautiful,'' and reiterated them in his final remarks. In the five weeks between those two events I learned for the first time the true meaning of the phrase, ''spacious skies''.
In Montana, particularly, the horizon is far distant and that piercing blue, often hot, sky covers everything like an inverted bowl. Nothing gets in your way when you look at a distant horizon. We saw many ''amber waves of grain.'' Eastern Washington in particular grows a plentitude of wheat, barley, oats and alfalfa. The fields stretch for miles, making a checkerboard of different hues. Looking at those amber fields one has a vision of loaves of bread going to every tiny hamlet and big city in this country.
''Purple mountains majesty.'' The grand Tetons in Wyoming stand out in my mind among hundreds of mountains of great grandeur. The Olympic mountains resemble jagged cardboard cutouts thrust into the sky. While not ''purple'', Mt. Rainier is the most astonishing mountain. You may be driving along, say to the grocery store, minding your own business. You turn a corner and there in the distance and yet looming over you is the mountain, looking like a gigantic rather flat-topped white or pink ice cream cone. ''Above the fruited plains.'' Much to my surprise, eastern Washington is what is called ''high desert''. The hills are barren and brown; the vegetation is sparse; the air is HOT and DRY during the day in the summertime, and cool at night. Yet in the midst of all this there are large green areas of apple orchards, thanks to the benefits of irrigation from the Columbia River.
These ''fruited plains'' extend for miles and support a whole economy. It was an unforgettable experience, full of beautiful scenery, interesting adventures, and new friends. As we say to our Airstream friends, ''See you down the road!''