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Yellowstone’s Chimeric End of the Road

An ad infinitum judgment of isolation is pinned to the town by the immutable saw-toothed ridges of the Absaroka and Beartooth Mountain ranges. As I step outside the truck to see the town from the proper height, the eclipse from a large tree envelops me in its satiny cold field.  A puff of wind pushes strands of hair into chapstick. Clawing to locate and extract them, I step from the shadow into the light. Cars stowed on concrete porches, lower story windows boarded against a late afternoon sky alternating between aureate October lightness and winter gloom shedding snow like a strip tease, make for an ambiguous sense of place.

Lamps in upper story windows toss beacons of welcome. But the one sound – sips and sighs of intact blankets of smoke hanging above each chimney as they’re forced to separate and dissipate, arrests any notion of coziness. Make no mistake, winter here is serious and it’ll not stand for an outsider’s romanticized projection of it upon a town it’s preparing to overtake. It stamps the ground with a suffocating updraft; a demand for respect.

No faces have shown themselves and as I begin in earnest to discover one, I wonder if the 2nd coming hasn’t occurred during my drive from Cody, Wyoming leaving me the only hapless soul in town. There is but one road into Cooke City, Montana from the outside world.  The wildness of Yellowstone’s Super Caldera lies on the other side. This is the end of the road. As I glance over a shoulder to see my exit darkening, I feel simultaneously favored and cursed by the chimerical scene before me.

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Cooke City, Montana

I consider the effort to clamor into the Cooke City General Store for food (do boarded windows have adequate finger/footholds?) and try to imagine the eventuality of being eye level with 2nd story windows, elevated there by a platform of snow. Like lying on your back, head dangling from the edge of a bed while pretending the floor is the ceiling, the ceiling the floor, it’s a strangely appealing, altered perspective.

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Cooke City, Montana has done with its remote birthright what it could. First mining, then Yellowstone National Park. Originally named Shoo-Fly, the mining town was renamed in 1880 in an attempt to flatter a Northern Pacific Railroad executive into putting a stop there. Coming over BearTooth Pass at 10,974 feet on Highway 212 out of Red Lodge, Montana or Dead Indian Pass, 8,066 feet on the Chief Joseph Highway out of Cody with views of the Absaroka’s Pilot and Index Peaks (11,708 & 11,313 feet)  should have given the townspeople clues as to the outcome of their flattery – no way, no how. In 1877 this country helped hide the Nez Perce Chief Joseph and his 800 or so band of hold-outs from General Howard’s 2,000 strong Cavalry for three months. Railroads don’t go where outnumbered bands of undersupplied men on horseback can elude a United States army for months.

Cooke City has a year-round population approximating 100. Three hundred cavort on the one paved street in the summer months of July and August. Even though it’s considered Yellowstone’s Northeast entrance gateway community, Silver Gate, a few miles past Cooke City, actually claims the ranger station.

Take note, if you’ve not entered the Park through this least-traveled entrance, you’re missing a lot more than a momentary gut-check about the 2nd coming. Yellowstone’s wildness is epitomized by this small community and the drive to get here.

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Snow poles stand alert and ready.

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Yellowstone’s East Entrance, the 50 most beautiful miles in America

“It charmed me, intrigued me, seduced me so completely and in such a way that memories of it result in the kind of longing normally reserved for the best fruit pie of your life.”  This journal entry was made after my first encounter with Yellowstone in 2003. The best fruit pie of your life is a powerful memory; one that will be difficult to surpass. Or forget. If your visions of sugarplums are instead bodacious double crust fruit pies, you’ll understand. If not, pity.

Just in case the first paragraph gravely misdirected you, this post is about Yellowstone,  and sadly, not fruit pies.

I’m not the only one infatuated with Yellowstone and the surrounding area. Some famous people whose opinions really count, feel the same. President Theodore Roosevelt called the stretch of highway between Cody, Wyoming and the East Gate of Yellowstone National Park “the fifty most beautiful miles in America”.

Named the Scenic Byway of Highway 20, aka the Wapiti Valley, the road is wedged into a valley shaped by the flow of the Shoshone River. The swath of wildness is charged with history and scenery. The Buffalo Bill Dam/Reservoir and Buffalo Bill State Park were worth the drive alone.

Buffalo Bill Reservoir, Cody, Wyoming

Buffalo Bill Reservoir

Nothing mechanical could capture what I saw with my own eyes. I didn’t try to create art from art, but rather to simply document I’d actually been there. Sometimes point and shoot is all you need do.  Things like this burn into your memory and you may forget when it happened but you never forget that it did.

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The East entrance‘s ranger station was built in 1934 but visitors staying in Cody, Wyoming had been entering the Park for years prior (Yellowstone was designated a National Park in 1872).

Cody was established in 1896 by wild west showman, William F. Cody, “Buffalo Bill” along with a group of investors from Buffalo, New York and Sheridan, Wyoming. They realized the potential for tourism since Yellowstone was only 50 miles west. Burlington Northern Railroad reinforced (and rewarded) the tourism dream when they completed a line into Cody in 1901.

Instead of the railroad, I drove. The round trip of 100 miles to Yellowstone from Cody and back took 7 hours. That should tell you that either I drive really, really slow, or there was a lot to see. Given that I’ve had a speeding ticket in almost every state I’ve driven, the latter is the best guess.

These guys did their part to make sure no one was in a hurry.

east entrance bison

American Bison

For more information on Yellowstone, check out these links:

Yellowstone’s Original Entrance

Official Yellowstone National Park Site

Lodges of East Yellowstone

Buffalo Bill Cody Scenic Byway

** The East entrance closes from early November to sometime in April because of snow. Be sure to do your homework before heading there in the winter.

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A Patriotic Drive – Mt. Rushmore and Beyond

With July 4th right around the corner, this post was begging for a re-run. They do it on TV all the time.

The grandeur of granite rising from the cliffs of Mt. Rushmore will in one upward glance sweep away any countryman’s negative sentiments. And impress the hell out of everyone else.  Mt. Rushmore is but one impressive sight however among many packed into the Southwestern corner of South Dakota.

Air Force One over Mt. Rushmore. Wikimedia Creative Commons.

Air Force One over Mt. Rushmore. Wikimedia Commons.

First

From my SRT in 2007.

Overview

Anchored by Rapid City (airport code RAP), the Black Hills area still echoes with the report of Wild West Colt pistols. You can wander through Native American Indian Reservations as you contemplate what to take in first — the sights of Mt. Rushmore featured on the big screen in National Treasure: Book of Secrets, the cavernous limestone formations of Badlands National Park, Sturgis or the frontier town of Deadwood. Throw in the Crazy Horse Memorial, Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park, the 1880 Train, Buffalo Gap National Grassland, the Geographic Center of the U.S., or the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, and a week’s vacation can be easily spent in one of the most scenic and pivotally historic areas of the lower 48 states. And that’s before you even cross into Wyoming. Forget the guidebook, you’ll need only your Atlas and a penchant for discovery.

The Badlands?

Badlands National Park, SRT 2009

The Route: starting in Rapid City

Interstate 90 East of Rapid City will deliver you to Wall, South Dakota. If you’re already parched or ready for a stop, the Wall Drug Store offers refreshment, take in the National Grasslands Visitor Center, or search for the Minuteman Missile Silo.  From there 240 South will take you directly to the scenic drive around the North Unit of Badlands National Park. The loop ends at Interior. To continue into the South Unit’s 2.7 million acres of sprawling erosion of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, proceed past Imlay to Scenic, turning South at the first/only turnoff. You’ll need to stop at the White River Visitor Center to get permission to proceed into the Reservation. West on Highway 2, then North on Highway 40 to Redshirt will complete the South Unit. “Highway” 2 is a misnomer. The road is gravel, albeit wide and well maintained. Continuing past Redshirt on Highway 40 to Hermosa presents the choice of turning North on Highway 79 and back to Rapid City, or west on Highway 36 to 87 South to Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park. From Wind Cave National Park you can easily hit 385 North taking you to Custer, the Crazy Horse Memorial, Mt. Rushmore, and the ‘1880 Train’ in Hill, as you progress northward.

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Scenic, SD. SRT in 2009.

Plains Indian Burial Platform

Native American Burial Platform -- South of Redshirt on Highway 40. SRT 2009.

The area is deceptively compact.  While distances aren’t great between any point (from Rapid City to Hot Springs on 79 is only 57 miles) you will not desire to cover any of it quickly.  And the twists and turns of the roads preclude speed.  While limited lodging is available in the smaller towns and in Badlands National Park, the high season summer months make day trips to and from your pre-reserved lodging in centrally located Rapid City conducive to combing the area.

Deadwood

Once you’ve exhausted the sights south of Rapid City, 385 will take you to Lead (as in lead a horse to water), Deadwood, the Geographic Center of the U.S. in Belle Fourche, and Sturgis to the East just off Highway 90.  Either of these towns is worthy of securing lodging if you’re ready to venture past the Rapid City anchor.  Summer is high season though and Sturgis along with towns in the area are choked with bikers for the annual Bike Week Rally usually the first week in August.

Deadwood is a personal favorite. Wild Bill and Calamity Jane are buried in the Mt. Moriah cemetery. Saloon 10 is where Wild Bill made famous the Dead Man’s poker hand of Aces & Eights when shot from behind by Jack McCall (hanged for his crime). The town, while a haven for gambling is replete with history and the nostalgic charm of false storefronts.

Deadwood, South Dakota

Deadwood, SD. 2009 SRT.

Regarding FOOD, if you’ve got a nose for chocolate on the road, stop by The Chubby Chipmunk for a fix.  For lunch, try the Deadwood Thymes Bistro. The last time there I had the White Bean & Chicken Chili, a Three-Cheese grilled sandwich with bell peppers and a slice of apple all melted together between perfectly browned, thick sliced bread, and a large, cold, creamy slab of their Peanut Butter & Chocolate Pie.  I was hungry; the meal memorable. I’d like a repeat, please.  For dinner I sat one night on a perch over downtown Deadwood in the 2nd story location of Kevin Costner’s Sports Bar & Grill (above the Midnight Star casino on Main Street).  While I don’t recall the food in the same longing manner as the lunch from Deadood Thymes Bistro, I do fondly remember the view and the numerous photos/posters of Kevin Costner in his Western movie roles.

A Wyoming Detour

Since you’re on the border and you could add another state-notch to your holster belt, or you’ve got another day or two to burn, why not venture into Wyoming? Devil’s Tower National Monument is a quick drive and well worth the time. Take Highway 90 to Sundance, Wyoming. From there head north on 14 for a few miles. Or if you’re sticking to the backroads, Highway 34 west out of Belle Fourche (turns into 24 at the Wyoming border) will get you there as well.  Should you venturing here during the off-season, don’t count on lodging nearby. There IS lodging, but…

Devil's Tower National Monument, Wyoming

Devil's Tower National Monument, Wyoming. High ISO FILM. See the moon?!

President Theodore Roosevelt Proclaimed Devil’s Tower the first National Monument in 1906. Many Plains Indians have legends associated with “Bear’s Lodge” and consider it a sacred site. The Kiowas legend goes like this: Kiowas were camped by a stream where there were lots of bears. Seven little girls were playing away from their village and bears took chase. The girls ran and just as the bears were about to catch them, they jumped on a low rock. One of the girls began to pray. The rock began to push itself out of the ground raising the children higher and higher. The deep grooves running down the sides are said to be made by the bears attempting to claw their way to the top. The rock continued to push the children upward into the sky so far they reside in the sky today as the pleiades star cluster.

This Great American Drive will compel you to sing the Stars & Stripes and purchase a long, black duster.  Be prepared.

WARNING LABEL: If you decide to venture out of Belle Fourche to locate the original Geographic Center of the U.S. or anywhere in the above discussed areas, BEWARE of Rattlesnakes.

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Yellowstone National Park’s Original Entrance

Yellowstone’s original entrance in Gardiner, Montana, and the only one open year-round, is framed by the Roosevelt Arch.  While all the literature points out this entrance is the only one open all year, few state why. The annual snowfall in Gardiner approximates 30 inches, while the rest of the Park averages 150 to 400 inches, depending on elevation. And once entering the Park from Gardiner you’ll be met with closed roads during the winter over much of the Park.  So schedule a Snowcoach tour and do your homework if you’re planning to see Yellowstone during the winter (a highly recommended journey).

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Dedicated in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt, who was already on vacation in the park when asked to lay the cornerstone, the arch is 50 feet high and made of locally quarried basalt -- plentiful since Yellowstone sits atop one of the earth's largest volcanic hot spots.

The arch was erected as the formal entrance to the Park in 1903 since most visitors arrived via the Northern Pacific Railroad’s nearby stop in Cinnabar, Montana. Stagecoaches made the remaining short trek to Gardiner. I cannot imagine arriving there by railroad. I cannot imagine arriving there by any means of transportation of the day.  The ground boils beneath you while the mountains always coddle snow on top. Were it not for modern climate control’s tempering of these extremes, conditions would be brutal most anytime of the year.

While the arch may be Gardiner’s claim to fame and really the only thing of note to see there, it’s worth a stroll to see some of the older parts of town. The Flying Pig Camp Store has internet access and bear pepper spray, an important combination you’ll see frequently in these parts. There’s plenty of lodging, restaurants, and outfitters so it’s a well stocked and not overrun base with which to explore Yellowstone.  Gardiner is 53 miles south of Livingston. Bozeman is 26 miles west of Livingston on Highway 90, providing the only airport in the area serviced by major airlines (most seasonal). Billings’ Logan International Airport (BIL) is 117 miles east of Livingston on Highway 90 and offers a much broader array of scheduled flights on major airlines.

Mammoth Hot Springs, 5 miles south of Gardiner is the Park’s headquarters and an eye opening welcome to the ancient, wild world of Yellowstone. From mid-April to early June, bison new-borns dot the ground. Bison is the correct scientific term for the North American species, but “buffalo” has become an accepted synonym.  In the seventeenth century, French explorers in North America referred to the new species they encountered as “les boeufs”, meaning oxen or beeves. The English arriving later, changed the pronunciation to “la buff”. The name grew distorted as “buffle”, “buffler”, “buffillo”, and, eventually, “buffalo”.

Yellowstone has the largest free-roaming bison herd in the world, estimated at 3,500 head.

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Female bison's gestation period approximates 9.5 months. Twins are extremely rare. At the turn of the 20th century the bison herd had been slaughtered from a high of 120 million to less than 30. Today they approximate 500,000. Bison are a ruminant similar to cattle, in that they chew their cud. They can weigh up to 2,200 pounds and run at speeds up to 40 mph. Talk about mass in motion!

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Mammoth Hot Springs - all about extremes. Heat, water, limestone, and rock fracture combine to create terraces of travertine. The travertine is deposited as white rock, but microorganisms and living bacteria create beautiful shades of oranges, pinks, yellows, greens, and browns. The terraces are constantly changing.

No discussion of Mammoth Hot Springs/Gardiner would be complete without a reference to the Elk that migrate in early fall when the weather cools off and they re-emerge from the coolness of higher elevations.   If you stay at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, your day will begin and end with the eerie, wild sounds of male Elk bugling for the rut and a change of seasons. It’s a sound I recommend everyone hear once; it’s unforgettable.

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Wapiti; not a petting zoo.

Yellowstone Map

Yellowstone Map

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The Enchanted Highway

North Dakota’s Enchanted Highway is 32 miles of soaring, metal art sculpture that qualify as some of the largest in the world. They are as unusual as they are enjoyable, qualifying unequivocally as must-see Americana Road Art. But the highway isn’t about the objects at all. North Dakota’s Enchanted Highway is about a MAN and his singular vision.

Deer Crossing

"Deer Crossing". The buck is 75-feet tall and 60-feet long. Erected in 2002. Made from old oil well tanks cut apart and welded to form the shadow design. To fit through the streets of Regent, the buck's front leg had to be cut off and re-welded on-site.

Small town characters/sometime heroes are sometimes an odd lot. My husband and I swap stories about the characters from our respective small towns – his in West Virginia, mine in SE Oklahoma. Those characters, as we call them, were a bit different, marched to the beat of a not-so-audible drum, hardworking, kind, and talkative. In a small town these individuals are part of the community’s colorful tapestry. They are a clean stamped part of the puzzle, fitting in while not being forced to lose their identity. And while this is commendable of small towns, they are at the same time frequently guilty of speaking from both sides of their mouth. On the intake they can welcome uniqueness with invitations to “come here” while on the exhale uttering whispers of displeasure and not-so-silent “get aways.”

Gary Greff is a small town character. I only hesitate to say “hero” as I feel I don’t know enough of the story. However if you judge such things based not on the outcome but intent and the effort expended, then Gary qualifies. Near 60, Gary hails from a small town to which he was never able to break the tether (Regent, ND), lives below the poverty line but is tenaciously steeped in hope for his own life and for the survival of his hometown, and has spent the past 20 years fighting for a vision of betterment for his community. His young life in Regent was re-directed by tragedy. At 16, driving a motorbike with his 15 year old brother on back, Gary hit a curb in town. His brother died at the scene. People’s lives are shaped by such.

After teaching school in various communities, at age 40 Gary moved back to Regent led by a vision to do something to curtail the demise of his hometown. He’d never pursued art of any kind. He couldn’t weld. And yet the sculpture below made it into The Guinness Book of World Records as the World’s Largest Metal Art Sculpture. It’s 110 feet tall, 154 feet long and weighs 79 tons. And photographs like any beautiful piece of art.

Geese in Flight

Geese in Flight

Tin Family

"Tin Family". The man is 45-feet tall; the woman 43-feet tall; and the boy 23-feet tall.

Teddy Roosevelt Rides Again

"Teddy Roosevelt Rides Again". 51-feet tall. A tribute to President Theodore Roosevelt's part in North Dakota history. Built from used oil well pipe.

Fisherman's Dream

"Fisherman's Dream" (my personal favorite).

Pheasants on the Prairie

"Pheasants in the Prairie". Rooster is 70 ft. long, 40 ft. tall. Made of wire mesh that was originally used for screening gravel. Long process -- took 3 years -- the wire was heated and bent to form the bodies.

Grasshopper's Delight

"Grasshopper's Delight". 60 Feet long, 40 Feet tall. A reminder of the hardships farmers have overcome making their living off the land. Welded from old fuel tanks and oil well tanks.

Gary Greff between 1989 and 2006 did all of this. And he did it amid harsh criticism, ridicule, accusations of insanity, the scorn of fellow townsfolk, one rebuff after another, and over time a severely curtailed financial and volunteer donor list. His brother Brad said, “people walked across the street to avoid him”. He did, what no other townsperson in Regent, ND has been able to do – he drew people to the area. And continues to.

Gary’s art didn’t save Regent in the way he’d envisioned. The High School closed. The town appeared to me to be a rural American small town clutching survival when I saw it in March 2009. Gary’s dream for an Enchanted Highway Theme Park and droves of tourists dropping their money in Regent hasn’t materialized. But his vision, hard work and undying commitment left a commendable and very memorable mark. Gary Greff is the best kind of dreamer – he takes action.

To see the Enchanted Highway and Gary Greff’s art, take Exit 72 (about 20 miles east of Dickinson, ND) off of I-94. The Highway runs due south from there and ends in Regent.  There is no charge so if you see a contribution box, leave some currency behind.

“No one, I discover, begins to know the real geographic, democratic, indissoluble American Union in the present, or suspect it in the future, until he explores these Central States, and dwells awhile on their prairies or amid their busy towns.” – Walt Whitman

Heartland Chronicles is a series of radio documentaries set in and around Middle America, exploring the region’s people and communities. A concentrated focus on this region allows us to draw what author William Least Heat Moon refers to as a “deep map” – a careful, long-term exploration of place that reveals the truth of everyday life today. Here’s the 2005 interview with Gary Greff (the MP3 choice seems to work best).

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The Grand Climb

 

Tammie DooleyAbout SRT... I’m a traveler, writer and photographer for whom the open road frequently summons. Adventurous solo road trips are a staple for me, and a curiosity. So I created this website to share them and inspire you to step out and give them a try. Welcome!

A soul that sees beauty may sometimes walk alone – Wolfgang Von Goethe

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