Atlantic to Pacific -- two weeks to cross Wyoming

 ... Chapter 4: Devils Tower to Yellowstone -- a fascinating journey

by Don Norris

Chapter Four: We have struggled, during the early days of our ten-month journey, not to be impatient as we roll along America's highways. Nevertheless we have driven our motorhome over 2000 miles in our first 12 days, taking this voyage in spurts -- 20 miles one day, 400 the next. It is pleasant riding, and we stop when we see something of interest. It's a great way to see the country, by motorcoach. Above is the view of the Grand Tetons, just north of Jackson, south of Yellowstone.

Chapter 4:

We spent six days in Rapid City, South Dakota. It was worth every minute, not because of the city, but what awaits you in the Black Hills. The scenery is dynamic and spectacular, ranging from vast desert vistas to deep, rich black-green forests that grow on these foothills to the Rockies. Here is the home of the Mount Rushmore carving of four presidents, home to buffalo, ranches, funky old western towns, wildlife forever and new scenes around every turn.

The time is a very warm September 21.

The Black Hills are an anomaly in the high desert. This collection of ancient volcanic rocks rose up from the desert floor 60 million of years ago, and sit there on the plain, unconnected. The high plains are in every direction, surrounding this geologic anomaly.

If you come here in summer, it is just a few miles up the highway from Rapid to Sturgis, where the annual Harley Davidson ride-in takes place. Now that is a real happening! Otherwise, Sturgis is a sleepy little desert town.

And just a little farther on, just over the Wyoming border, is Devils Tower National Monument. You go to Sundance on I-90, and turn north. Not far. It is a dramatic place with craggy vertical cliffs, straight up for 625 feet above its base, and 1200 above the Belle Fourche River on the prairie floor. Really impressive!

There are some crazy guys who are always seeking permission to climb those cliffs. Permission is needed, but not always granted. It seems we are wearing down (and carrying away) this granite monument. Several routes up, including the picturesque "No Holds for Bonzo", "Accident Victim", "Belle Fourche Buttress", "Maid in the Shade" and "Teachers Lounge" are all closed beginning around March 15 while the Prairie Falcons do their family business. Climbing is also generally closed in June, out of respect for American Indian cultural traditions.

Nevertheless, there are usually some 500 ascensions per year. Lorry and I were not in that list.

At this point, the only road west is still I-90, the very same I-90 that runs by our place back in Melrose, except now the scenery is part of the Thunder Basin National Grassland. Two hundred miles later we came to a town called Buffalo, where there was a comfortable campground right in the middle of town. Again we lucked out for there was fine-but-funky western fare, some really interesting non-tourist shops and a hometown museum that has an Indian collection and lots of mining lore. This place is definitely worth a stopover.

According to the local bulletinboard, a mass of covered wagons rumble into Buffalo on their trek to Fort Phil Kearny, where bloody land battles were fought. The re-enactment happens generally in late June. It's sounds like carnival time on the old Bozeman Trail, a celebration of things as they were back in 1860.

Not too surprising, B&Bs have taken over for what used to be supper and a bunk bed, or you can stay at the old Occidental Hotel, where Butch Cassidy once stayed. Keep in mind you are now in mountain country, and the scenery is largely vertical -- and gorgeous.

It was at Buffalo that we turned and abandoned I-90 for a likely road called Sixteen. That, in short order, lead us up and over our first real mountain pass, the Powder River Pass at 9,600 feet, over the Bighorn Mountains. Ha! Watch the gas gauge fall as we climb.

Our 50-foot rig took those mountains in stride, but it was exciting and fuel consumption soared. When we came down the far side of the pass we hit another sleepy western town called Ten Sleep; we had a sandwich at the only restaurant in town -- a place from the set of Bonanza. It is alone, surrounded by hills, desert, ranches -- but no housing developments, no fast-food places, no strip malls. Almost forlorn in that vast valley. Sparse describes it. Dusty. Dis-populated. Almost, but not quite, empty. Unpainted, worn, but picturesque. And, umm, the opposite of pretentious.

It was also the place where some cowboy took a beating from his girlfriend. We had no idea what started the ruckus, but she was sure mad at him, swatting him with a stick. He finally retreated to his dusty old pickup and spun dirt getting out of town. We didn't know whether to applaud or hide from this agitated cowgirl.

Among the battles in this area were two of significance. One happened in 1909 when three sheep herders were pushing 5000 animals from nearby Worland to Spring Creek. About a week out, seven masked cattlemen hit the encampment at night, killing the three men and the sheep. Such were the range wars.

The map is linked to a larger version.

The other was a joint venture in 1874 of a US Cavalry company, accompanied by a band of Shoshones, whose mission was to chase down a band of Arapahoes that had been raiding in the area of nearby Wind River. Some 35 mounted soldiers charged the Indian encampment, routing the enemy. According to obscure figures, 29 Indians and soldiers died that day. Two years later the Arapahoe got revenge at the battle of the Little Big Horn, where Custer and his entire command were annihilated.

Ten Sleep has grown since we passed through 14 years ago. It is now really big on snow mobiling and wintersports. But it would seem to us that the really big feature of Ten Sleep is the passing through -- that is, driving the Cloud Peak Scenic Highway, then known as U.S.-Sixteen, which leads right to Yellowstone, fifty miles west.

By taking the Sixteen shortcut, we missed seeing several other historic sites just up I-90 another 20 miles -- places like Wagon Box Indian Fight, Fetterman Historical Site and Trail End Historical Center in Sheridan. But on the other hand, we'da missed the big fight in Ten Sleep -- the one between the cowboy and his girlfriend..

If we'd have been going slower and perhaps less anxious to see what's around the next bend, we would have stopped at Medicine Lodge State Archeological Site, and Greybull Museum, but no, we were impatient. There is so much to see here, so much to study, so many pamphlets to collect. We missed some, obviously.

But it was hard NOT to pick up the cowboy drawl. Everybody was 'pardner'. 'Howdy, pardner.'

And the best part of the day was to come. We discovered the small western place called Cody, Wyoming.

Bill Cody. His town. His place. It is a neat town, sort of the unofficial entrance to Yellowstone from the east. It was still a little western town, with several juke joints, several cowboy bars, some Indian stores, a number of western duds haberdasheries -- where I bought a real Stetson. And a feeling that we have arrived. This is the West. This is what I've read about, this is the place of Wild Bill Hickcock, Kit Carson, Calamity Jane, six-shooters, cowboys and horses.

We ate western, we slept western, we sang songs at the fireside, we bought jeans and cowboy shirts. Man, this was what we had come all this way for. Two thousand six hundred miles, and we had arrived.  

Best of all was the large, modern museum at Cody. It was really three museums in one: First, it was the West, a cowboy and Indian place. Second, it was a museum of Winchester firearms, unexcelled in America. I even saw an original '94 Winchester 30-30 rifle, just like my own carbine. And third, there was a beautiful museum on American Indians, their origins, their coming to the Americas.

We stayed two precious days in this remote wondertown. All this time there was the telltale odor of smoke, which foretold the story of the humongous forest fires that were burning just a few miles to the west.

This is what we saw at Yellowstone -- not all over, for monumental efforts were made to save the forest around key treasures, towns and campgrounds. The picture is linked to a larger version.

By the time we arrived at the gates of Yellowstone on September 24, the fires -- which had been burning almost unabated all summer -- were now under control. What remained were endless mountains of charred forest, of grotesque blackened sticks of pine forming a strange forest of stark contrast. It wasn't quite what we expected, however. The avenues of approach to the center of this magnificent park were still lush and green. It was as if the fires had been allowed to burn over all those remote canyons and mountains that held small interest for the vacationing public.

Yellowstone Geyser was untouched, although the route there had been burned. The village of Yellowstone, just across the line in Montana, remained in business, untouched by fire, protected by the army of firefighters. The main campgrounds were still in operation while the remote wilderness areas were allowed to burn.

And I'd say the forest officials were right. Burned almost to the ground, the forests rapidly recovered, and a few years later one could find little but beauty in Yellowstone Park.

For us, Yellowstone represented a new goal in life. Just being there was almost beyond imagination. It was, truly, a dream come true.


An aside

There is something to be said for  relatively show-motion travel of a motorhome. My brother often questions why Lorry and I use a wheeled vehicle on our vacations rather than affording the immediacy of flying.

His way is really a means to instant gratification. Like going in-town to the theater. One grabs a taxi, which delivers him in short order to place of the play. Bang, he is there.

We compare that to our way of recreation: We choose the time when traffic is accommodating, perhaps after-rush hour. We dress casually, get into the car, and spend an hour leisurely driving to a place we know and enjoy -- say, for instance, Portsmouth, in New Hampshire. The ride is fun, informative, restful, and we talk. Our lunch is at any of a dozen favorite places, and our return trip will be, more than likely, over local roads, through small towns, with probably three or four stops along the way.

We have spent a whole day enjoying, in experiencing, in fun and relaxation.

My brother would fly to his destination. He would, let's say, fly to Santa Fe for the annual August Indian market on the square in front of the old Governor's palace. He would be home in two, maybe three days.

We would do that same trip, if financially feasible, by motorhome. It would take a minimum of a month, probably a lot more. We would vary our route to see places we have never seen before. We would re-visit favorite places, and renew friendships along the way.

The point is that the getting-there is, in many cases. just as important as the destination itself. And that's why we drive. And a good motorhome permits us to bring our home with us.

So next month, join Lorry and me as we journey at a leisurely pace through Montana, Idaho and the Rockies. Via motorhome, enjoying every view, stopping here and there, meeting some great people.

Atlantic to Pacific, Part 1
Atlantic to Pacific, Part 2
Atlantic to Pacific, Part 3

Friday, May 3, 2002

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