Now that I’ve finished my East to The West Roadtrip, my most ambitious so far, and had a few days to process, it’s time to count out the highlights and maybe some of the lowlights. Just to recap, the trip started when I realized there were only three states I’ve never lived in or visited. Two of them were North and South Dakota, so they became the destination. The inspiration was Teddy Roosevelt’s observation that: When I am in California, I am not in the West. I am West of The West. From there it was easy to incorporate anything on my way that was iconically Western. That included trails such as that of Lewis & Clark, Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce, and the Oregon Trail. Of course, National Parks had to be part of the mix. I visited five of them: Glacier National Park, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Badlands National Park, Yellowstone and Great Basin National Park. On the way home, I also did a quick drive-through of Yosemite, but that hardly counts. The West is a large place fulled of larger than life characters. I tried to stop in as many places that carried their footsteps. I managed to dog the steps of Buffalo Bill, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane. Unfortunately, I missed out on key sites for Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. But it’s not as if I won’t be heading back at some point. I’ve saved something for next time. But now, with no further ado, the list:
- Best Accommodations. For me, “best” is defined as “not just a place to sleep, but an experience”. So hands down, the winner would be the fantastic Rim Rock Inn. An isolated family-run outfit on the edge of Oregon’s Joseph Canyon, the traditional winter camping grounds of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce. Just the opportunity to sleep in a tipi under the undimmed Eastern Oregon skies was incredible enough, but the whole ambiance of the Inn and restaurant is akin to being the treasured guest of a wonderful family in a frontier outpost. The set menu at the restaurant was one of my best meals on the trip — full of fresh local ingredients lovingly prepared. As a bonus, the son is currently enrolled in a viticulture program in Washington and the wine list represents his carefully curated favorites from local vineyards. I have to admit, I don’t have much experience with wine from the Walla Walla Valley. But the Bordeaux style blend (Waters Interlude 2011) recommended to me has me planning a roadtrip up there sometime. There’s a two-way tie for second place between the Occidental Hotel in Buffalo Wyoming and the Mizpah Hotel in Tonopah Nevada. Both feature beautiful restorations of Wild West era classics complete with famous early guests and few resident ghosts.
2. Best Meal. From the moment I hit the Nevada border until I crossed back into California, my dining choices were steak, steak, bison and steak. I had a lot of very good steak dinners. So I’m pretty much comparing apples to apples or steak to steak. I’m going to have to give this one to the Rim Rock whose Saturday night special was Rib Eye. But it was so beautifully cooked and served with such a wonderful array of local vegetables, it topped even the Filet Mignon at Park City, Utah’s tony Riverhorse on Main. Riverhorse was wonderful in a San Francisco sort of trendy foodie kind of way, but the Rim Rock was just so much of its place and so beautifully and simply served with views to the edge of the canyon that it wins for being Pure Western.
3. Best Martini. The Martini isn’t particularly Western, although word has it, it was invented in San Francisco. But it became my drink of choice. The real West is pretty much beer country and I don’t drink beer. I could have ordered wine, but why when it would just be California wine transported out over several states. So I standardized on the Martini and glasses of water, simply because I was having so much steak. Hands down, the best Martini as mixed at the long elegant saloon bar of the Mizpah Hotel, by the engaging lady bartender who made a perfect Martini while regaling me with stories of her encounters with The Lady in Red, one of the Mizpah’s resident ghosts.
4. Most Transcendent Experience. Observing one of the wolf packs of Yellowstone Park. The best place to see them is the little visited Lamar Valley in the Northeast corner of the park. Get out early and look for a group of people with long scopes scanning the hillsides. Those are the Wolf People and I had the pleasure of talking to one of them, Doug McLaughlin, who I called The Wolf Man. He’s been observing the wolves for years now, he’s familiar with nearly every wolf in every pack and can tell you incredible stories about their adventures and personalities. If you get a guided tour in one of the famous Yellow Buses, chances are your guide will have laminated wolf identification charts. Most of the pictures will be Doug’s. I don’t know what I expected from the wolves. Some of their behavior seemed dog-like, but much of it was something quite different. I guess the difference is that your dog — or certainly my terriers — are never worried about where their next meal is coming from or when the next enemy will pounce. Now imagine the play, socialization and other behaviors your dog shows, but performed with an acute sense of awareness and alertness. That’s the wolf.
5. Biggest Surprise. North Dakota! I wasn’t expecting much of this state, and was especially warned off any area of it that touches the Bakken Oil Fields. I fell in love with it. Granted I didn’t see much, mostly around the Theodore Roosevelt National Park which is beautiful in a Badlands sort of way and wrapped around the lovely little town of Medora, which is much as it was when Old Teddy had his ranching operation near here.
6. Biggest Disappointment. Montana. I thought I was going to see big skies and fantastic mountains. I did, but only around Glacier and the northern boundary of Yellowstone. Instead, I saw flat featureless plains, which is probably the result of the fact that I went from Glacier to Medora on Route 87 which managed to miss everything of interest: mountains, Indian Reservations and river breaks. I’ll be going back to Glacier and Yellowstone, so I’ll certainly give Montana a second shot.
7. Best Museums. In the category of World Class Museum, it would have to be the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody Wyoming, which is actually five wonderful museums under one roof. But in a different category, that of Expression of Place, it has to be the wonderful Ninepipes Museum of Early Montana. Located on the Flathead Reservation where there seems to have been a wonderful history of respect and friendship between the local tribes and the White settlers, the museum is filled with local family treasures and artifacts from more than a hundred years of area history. You learn more than history in this museum, you come to know the people of the place.
8. Thing You Must See. Seek out opportunities to observe raptors close up and in the wild. I found several. The first was the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho. The Buffalo Bill Center of the West also has a close up raptor experience. For seeing them in the wild, the Nez Perce Trail from Oregon to Montana, Glacier National Park, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone all gave me wonderful opportunities to see Eagles, Ospreys, Peregrine Falcons and various hawks hunting, nesting and soaring. I also saw several Bald Eagles flying over the The National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole Wyoming, which was also a contender for Best Museum.
9. Thing You Must Not Do. Rush up to any animals closer than the Ranger recommended distance — 25 yards for large hoofed animals and 100 yards for predators. In fact, I found that most animals, if they were asked, would prefer wider boundaries. Yet, at every turn I saw tourists slamming on the brakes at the first sight of animals, leaping out of their cars and running right up to the animals waving iPads and selfie sticks. If you want a close up, invest in a telephoto lens, or buy a postcard. Or just wait, there are plenty of points where you come around a corner and an animal is right in the middle of the road in front of you. Just take a picture through your windshield. Harassing wildlife not only puts you in danger, it alters the pattern of wild animals, and, worst case scenario, could result in them being killed as “rogue animals”. Don’t be that tourist! Places like Yellowstone and Glacier should be first and foremost habitat for animals. Assume, when you go there, you are going to someone else’s house. Act accordingly.
10. Things I’m glad I did. Get out and hike as often as possible. Some tiny percentage of National Park visitors ever get off the road and out into the backcountry. It takes some doing if you are alone, and it’s recommended that you don’t go into bear country with fewer than three people, preferably four or five. In Glacier, I went on a day hike with the excellent Glacier Guides. In Yellowstone I wanted to hike with Wildland Trekking Company, but couldn’t make it work with my schedule. Luckily, I found other hikers at my lodging to hook up with. Only at Great Basin did I feel comfortable hiking alone because it was a very well peopled trail.
11. Worst Mistake. Deadwood. Thanks to fires and floods, all traces of the Deadwood of Al Swearingen and Wild Bill Hickock are gone. Only Seth Bullock’s Bullock Hotel was actually built during the lifetime of one of the Deadwood crew. The town has legalized gambling, an affinity for bikers and a long history of prostitution. I found it creepy and the only place on my travels where I didn’t feel entirely safe. The visit was redeemed only by visiting the Mount Moriah Cemetery to pay tribute to Wild Bill, Calamity Jane and Madam Dora Dufran who are buried there. A runner-up would be Mount Rushmore. I suppose I had to see it. In fact, do they let you out of South Dakota if you can’t prove you went there? But I hated the whole concept of stealing someone’s sacred place, then defacing it by carving giant faces of their conquerors on it. If you want a more impressive monument, see Devil’s Tower. That had a majesty Mount Rushmore could only wish for.
11. Fun Reads. I always like to prepare for a roadtrip with a reading list. I’d read several books on Custer and the Little Big Horn, then ended up not able to make a detour out that way work. One book that did really add to the trip was The Virginian by Owen Wister. Widely acknowledged as the first literary Western, you’ll recognize all the stereotypes: the silent, noble cowboy, the school marm he loves, the no good sidewindin’ varmint who opposes him, the walk-down shootout on the main street at high noon, even the idea of the Man With No Name (the Virginian is never named although some call him “Jeff” as a reference to Jefferson Davis, since he’s a Southerner.) But in addition to the ripping yarn, Wister also includes some incredible descriptive passages of Wyoming landscapes that are still relevant today and, more importantly, some prescient observations on the relationship of Wyomans to their land. In one chapter, he notes how Wyoming cowboys would make a run into one of the territory’s few general stores to stock up on canned goods. Then you could tell where the cowboys went by the long line of empty cans and trash strewed along their trail. It seems many Wyomans are still of that mind, that their beautiful, wide open spaces can take an unlimited amount of garbage and abuse and that they can always find unspoiled areas just around the next bluff.
12. Apocalyptic Observation. At first glance, it seems like the West is almost as wild as ever –especially as judged by how easy it is to get out of range of cell phone, wifi or radio signals. On second glance, much of it seems in peril. There were great empty places I drove through that had no animals in evidence, not even birds. There were many forests that seemed stressed either from drought or from beetles and fire. In fact, the fires from Washington, Oregon and California sent thick layers of smoke all the way as far East as North Dakota. There were also few open landscapes that didn’t show some evidence of oil drilling, mining or some other sort of exploitation. The West, as Wallace Stegner tells us, is incredibly fragile. We’ve got to take better care of it or it won’t be there for our children or grandchildren.