The summer of 2003 was particularly hot for this area. Temperatures in the 90s and triple digits in Denver and elsewhere in the flatlands throughout July meant upper 80s and 90s for Nederland, 3000' above the urban, traffic, and brown air. Seeking some relief from the heat, we decided to fire up the mini-RV, pack some shorts and bathing suits, hiking shoes and mountain bikes, along with food and the dogs, and drive north where surely the weather was cooler. After all, the farther north you go the cooler it gets. Doesn't that make sense?
We knew we’d see some new parts of the country; North Dakota is the only state Hughes had not traveled through, and an article in some travel magazine made Theodore Roosevelt National Park look like an inviting, if generally ignored, destination. In addition, Judy hadn’t been to Glacier National Park and we thought hiking through there would be a summer highlight.
Ah, the dreams we had.
But Robbie Burns said it best in his poem “To a Mouse”: The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.
The realities were sobering.
•Glendo State Park
Our home on wheels for the next two weeks was our mini-motorhome on a 1986 4-cylinder Toyota chassis. Some refer to it fondly as “Tonka” for its small and underpowered stature, an aging David among hundreds of younger more powerful 8-cylinder, turbo-charged Goliaths that flew by us throughout the trip. But the race is not always to the swift, and Tonka managed a steady 55 mph as we headed up I-25 toward a Wyoming campground north of Cheyenne. We aimed for a spot on the shores of a reservoir on the North Platte River at Guernsey State Park. Within biking distances are historical sites that honor paleo-Indian cultures, the Oregon Trail, and, at Hartville, the the state’s first mining boom. A good choice we thought. Alas, a week before we got there, the state parks folks drained most of the water for downstream irrigation and left a wide mud hole waiting to be refilled when upstream Glendo State Park reservoir opens its floodgates to refill Guernsey.
We drove the 35 miles up the road to Glendo where we discovered half the boaters in the state of Colorado had converged on the 14-mile long aquatic highway for jet boats, water skiers, fishing boats, and muscle boats that tore mindlessly (it seemed) from one end of the lake to the other. Campsites were an unidentified, unorganized, every-camper-for-himself free for all (“Just the way we like ’em,” said a Wyoming resident who heard our description a few days later). We muscled Tonka into a flat area lakeside and we all (Sophie and Bella included) enjoyed swimming in the lake to cool down from a beastly hot day of driving.
We’ll go back to the quieter park at Guernsey another time. It’s a short three hours from home and a less frenetic option for Coloradans without boats.
Our next stop up the highway was an unexpected pleasure: Douglas, Wyoming, home of the fabled rare and elusive jackalope. We definitely wanted to see for ourselves if the stories and postcards were true, or if this unlikely cross between a jackrabbit and an antelope was fiction. We had, of course, seen in the grasslands throughout our trip many likely jackalope parents: antelope fathers on the lookout for potential jackrabbit females with whom to mate. But we cannot verify a definite sighting of a jackalope in the wild. Perhaps their numbers are being depleted as taxidermists continue to demand more and more for commercial gain. (I confess that we helped the taxidermist cause by purchasing a handsome specimen mounted on a piece of native cedar.)
Douglas, we learned, is also the home of the Wyoming State Fair which we missed by one week, and the location of one of the finest public campgrounds in the country. For no charge, you can have a grassy, shaded site on the banks of the North Platte River with clean hot showers open 24 hours. The path along the river is perfect for biking and running. There’s not a posted limit on the number of nights’ stay permitted. Our only disappointment is that we were not able to join the throngs of folks who used the park as a put-in spot for tubing the river, the perfect antidote for the day’s heat. Our compliments to the citizens and local government in Douglas for maintaining such an attractive facility for those visiting their town. We’ll come back.
•Devils Tower National Monument
Due north of Douglas, along 100 miles of state highway 59, is the Thunder Basin National Grassland. That’s all we have to say about that.
Finally we reached Gillette, touted as “the ideal stop between the Black Hills and Yellowstone.” After the two hours of treeless, featureless monotony broken only by the “town” of Bill, Wyoming’s 4th largest city did look pretty good. In addition to gas and oil wells surrounding the city, the length of the many trains we saw hauling exclusively coal from area mines measured a mile or more.
We stopped for gas.
Another hour east and north of Gillette, rising 867' out of the land between the Black Hills and the prairie grasslands, stands Devils Tower, our first National Monument dedicated in 1906. (Teddy Roosevelt applied the new the Antiquities Act to ward off commercial exploitation of the tower and destruction of the beauty of the surrounding area. What a concept—and he was a Republican.) Formed by an igneous intrusion of magma from the earth’s center and the erosion of the sediments from the ancient ocean that once covered our country’s midsection, the lava formation overwhelms its surroundings. N. Scott Momaday wrote, “There are things in nature that engender an awful quiet in the heart of man; Devil’s Tower is one of them.”
The name came from the ignorant or superstitious imagination a 19th century US Army officer. But to the native Americans, it has more mythic importance. Several versions of the same story describe seven girls/sisters who were threatened by a bear. They ran to the safety of the stump of a tree (or a large rock, depending upon which version you hear). As the bear approached, the girls sought help from the Creator/Great Spirit/or the stump itself. The tree/rock began to rise in into the air. Each time the bear climbed the children were just beyond his reach. His claws scored the tree (or rock) and the girls were borne into the sky becoming the stars of the Big Dipper (or “the seven sisters” constellation, Pleiades). Either version seems an improvement over the “tower of the Devil.”
The tower is a formidable climb, though the day we were there we watched a small guided party that included a 16-year-old descend from the top. The top was first reached, as far as history records those events, in 1893 by two men who used, for part of their ascent, a 350-foot wooden ladder which can still be seen wedged in one of the crevices. Over 5,000 climbers attempt one of the 220 routes each year, though not all reach the top. Our friend and traveling companion, Alan Higham, recently climbed to the top and returned with the photo on the right of his ascent.
We bicycled from the quiet of the park’s campground three miles uphill to the visitors center at the base of the tower. Lots of folks went no further, choosing to sit on the benches at the base and stretch their necks upwards. There is a paved path that encircles the base for a little over a mile. The view is, to the untrained eye, essentially the same on all sides: columns of lava standing side by side like gray rock logs poking the clouds. The better view, for those not climbing, might rather be from a few miles away in order to grasp the magnificent presence of the tower quietly surrounded by trees and bison munching on grass.
Our campsite in the park was excellent: quiet and shaded, great cottonwoods blocking much of the heat that continued to dog our travels.
•Theodore Roosevelt National Park
We left Wyoming’s northeast corner and drove east and north as rapidly as Tonka could safely go to avoid the annual gathering of half a million motorcyclists converging on nearby Sturgis, South Dakota. We saw hundreds of bikers nearly every day, most headed for Sturgis, a few going in an opposite direction (lost or avoiding the crowd?). We joined with the latter few and headed north of the Black Hills up US 85 along the western edge of South Dakota, past the geographical center of the US and across some of the dreariest landscape in the country (no place for a car to break down) into southern North Dakota. Another 100 miles of what Rand McNally fraudulently identifies as a scenic highway we were in Medora, the gateway town to Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
We pulled into the park looking forward to several days of a varied and beautiful landscape, quiet surroundings, some good hiking, and cool weather. We did have quiet surroundings and varied landscapes. And we did hike a bit. But the heat caught up with us with a vengeance. We no sooner pulled into a shady level site when there was an explosion under Tonka’s hood: a hose for the seldom used air conditioner burst spewing some sort of sticky fluid over the top of the engine compartment. A call for roadside service informed us that we’d need to take it 20 miles west to Walz Truck Repairs in Beach. In the meantime, we could drive it though we couldn’t use the air conditioner (which we didn’t use hardly at all since it drove the engine temperature up toward that dreaded red line).
We spent three days in Teddy Roosevelt, relaxing in the shade with the books we brought, hiking and biking and horseback riding, attending excellent campfire programs in the evenings, and seeing the scope of the park from the 32 mile loop road that showed off the grasslands and some dry creek beds. We did see small groups of bison and wild horses, but none of the park’s elk herd, and no jackalopes (though park rangers didn’t say we should expect to see them in the park). We ventured one day back to Medora, a “cute” little town spruced up with look alike tourist stores with look alike merchandise. A notable exception was a newly constructed bookstore that had a fine selection books on native American and western themes and cowboy music CDs. We had our first dinner “out” at the Cowboy Cafe: tasty chicken fried steak (for Hughes) and chicken caesar salad with blueberry pie a la mode for Judy. A fine treat and no dishes to wash. We chose not to attend the “world famous” Medora musical, something we’ll have to live with; we promised ourselves that we’ll go when we come back next.
Our original itinerary included driving across northern Montana to Glacier before returning home. But the fire that closed the west entrance to Glacier sent hazy smoke all the way to North Dakota and disrupted travel throughout the park. We changed our plans accordingly and will try again for Glacier before year’s end.
We still had a date in Beach to get the air conditioner hose replaced. As it turned out, we needed that and the fan clutch replaced, so said Mr. Walz himself. We saw all that Beach had to offer in the four hours we waited out the repairs. We talked to some very nice people who were getting ready for the annual high school reunion that would attract over 3,000 graduates of all classes, thereby more than doubling the population of town for the coming weekend. We paid Mr. Walz his $500 and left for the grasslands of eastern Montana just across the border.
We stopped for the night in the town of Forsyth at a nearly deserted state park on the Yellowstone River where the fishing is pretty darned good according to guys lining the banks in the evening heat. We “bathed” at the water faucet, cooling off in the process. We turned on the interior lights only to find that the secondary battery was dead. No light, no water pump, no 12 volts for the refrigerator. We biked into town to see how we might remedy that in the morning. Along the main street we talked for a while with Jack and Susan Wolf (with their son and Judy on the left) who own the old bank building from the former town of Vananda that they had moved 18 miles to a corner lot in Forsyth. It sat up on beams ready to be placed on the newly poured foundation. It will become a store featuring their handmade jewelry. Quite an undertaking and investment in a town that closed its last restaurant a short time back. They urged us to see the interior of the restored movie theater in the next block. It was closed that Thursday evening, but the owner was there and he proudly gave us a tour of a beautiful theater (with a balcony) that was out of the 1940s. He said that the next night, when “Pirates of the Caribbean” opens, folks will be lined up around the block to get in. I hope he’s right.
We also found a NAPA auto parts store where we stopped the next morning on our way out of town to buy a replacement for our seven-year-old battery that couldn’t take a charge anymore. It had died.
•Colstrip, Lame Deer, and Little Bighorn National Battlefield
Colstrip was the first town south of Forsyth and the contrast from other area towns was immediately apparent: it looked like a suburb that might be found anywhere with watered green lawns, clean, prosperous looking neighborhoods, varied services and shopping, tidy schools, etc. The only anomaly was the coal powered generating plant that provided the work for what really was a company town—though they take cash and credit cards, not just script. We bought groceries, sent postcards, and left for something different: Lame Deer, principle town of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation.
Pulling into Lame Deer we discovered to our delight that we were just in time for an area-wide flea market where everyone brought what they’d bought last month and didn’t want anymore: clothes, shoes, tools, Indian jewelry both imported and homemade. Best of all, several folks were selling authentic (made fresh on the spot) Indian fry bread with honey! Judy’s tried to make it at home, but it’s never the same somehow. We spent a couple of hours shopping the hoods of cars and the backs of pickup trucks that lined state highway 39 at the intersection of US 212.
Forty miles to the west of Lame Deer, right next to Crow Agency, the principle town on the neighboring Crow Indian Reservation, is the location of General Custer’s military blunder in his 1876 campaign against the Sioux and Cheyenne (and, many folks say, his campaign for the American presidency). Perhaps second only to the misteaching of the history of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Custer’s “last stand” is the subject of the most poorly taught episode in American history. Without going into that issue, it was striking to us that while there were white markers to identify the location of the hundreds of “Americans” who died on the battlefield, there were precious few brown(?) markers showing where Sioux or Cheyenne (non-Americans?) fighters were found equally dead, dying for the cause they believed in. We had the same feeling of disillusion as when we saw Plymouth Rock for the first and only time. We didn’t stay long there either.
An hour south of Crow Agency is Sheridan, Wyoming, gateway to the Bighorn Mountains. This mountain range has long been known to hunters, fishermen, backpackers, and outdoor enthusiasts. We turned west at Ranchester, just north of Sheridan, and Tonka groaned as it deliberately crawled 4,000' up to Sibley Lake, a national forest campground near Burgess Junction. At last we had escaped the heat we’d endured for the past week and a half, not by traveling north but by traveling up. Clearly the temperature at 9000' is not the same as 4000'. I think we knew that, but it must have slipped out minds. We got one of the last camp sites on this weekend evening. We hiked around the lake, built the first fire on the trip after dinner and actually enjoyed the warmth along with the ambiance. When we tried to turn on the lights and water pump and switch the refrigerator over to 12 volts, nothing happened. Our secondary battery clearly had not been charging properly as we drove that day and we had another dead battery on our hands. Oh well, we enjoyed the fire. In the morning, as we drove south, we stopped several times hike and walk the dogs in the meadows and forest along the road. We found several places we know we like to return to for longer dispersal camping.
The drive out of the Bighorns took us through Shell Canyon, a spectacular steep canyon cut by Shell Creek along US 14 on the western section of the Bighorn Scenic Byway that began in Ranchester on the eastern side. When we reached the small tourist town of Shell, we discovered the heat had not left, it had simply been waiting for us to come down to earth. The 100 miles to Thermopolis was blistering hot—and we were headed slowly toward the world’s largest mineral HOT springs.
Thermopolis, (Greek for “Hot City”) is one of our unlikely favorite destinations. The town is small and isolated in the middle of the state, yet has friendly people, a variety of services, a well known dinosaur museum (which we’ll visit next time) and inexpensive camping near the Hot Springs State Park. The hot springs are free to the public, though there are two swimming pools nearby fed by the same hot springs with all the water slides and water games that a kid would want. We go for the more quiet and sedate “baths” that are relaxing even on hot days. Of course there are hot showers there when you leave the hot water pools, so campers especially like to go there.
There was an attractive arts and crafts show on the state park grounds with live music when we arrived. It was a nice diversion during the obligatory two-hour wait between trips to the free hot springs baths. In the evening we also attended the annual pageant romantically commemorating the “gift” of land and the hot springs to the US government by the Shoshones and Arapahos in 1896. In fact, the government “persuaded” a chief from each group to sell 10 square miles of land which included the hot springs in exchange for cattle and food supplies. Local history says that Chief Washakie stipulated that a portion of the waters remain free to the public (though I wonder how long it took for any of his people to gain access to the springs). Hence, the springs in the state park have always been free to the public. The pageant, written by a local woman in the 1920s, re-enacts this “Gift of the Waters” using local Anglo women theatrically costumed as “Indian Princesses,” a singing of the Lord’s Prayer, and narrated by a member of the Chamber of Commerce. Surprisingly, the pageant includes the participation of Shoshone men and women dancers in authentic traditional dress. It was a strange event to witness. (Can you pick out the Indian princesses in this photo?)
We left Thermopolis and, ultimately, returned to Colorado, spending the night with son Michael and his wife Cindy. It was not what we had originally planned or even intended when we set out in the morning.
We drove back to Douglas south through the narrow Wind River Canyon, past Boysen State Park and Reservoir, and out onto the flatlands of central Wyoming on US 20 past Hell’s Half Acre and a half dozen dots on the map that represent nonexistent towns. We parked in our favorite free public campground by the banks of the North Platte River, took a shower and sat inside the RV while the first and only rain of the trip kept us inside for a while. It got us thinking that Cheyenne was only a couple of hours down I-25. In Cheyenne Sierra Designs has a showroom that we’d like to stop at on our way home. With the unpleasant prospect of retreating from the rain into the RV, we pulled out and arrived in Cheyenne by late afternoon. But Sierra Designs was closed for a company picnic when we got there.....and Michael and Cindy were only a couple of hours away..... and our battery was dead...... and we probably had an electrical problem......and it was still raining......and we didn’t really need anything at Sierra Designs anyway.......and we really didn’t want to drive to Nederland and then turn around and drive back down from the mountains to get the RV’s electrical system fixed the next day.......So, we called Michael and Cindy who said, Sure, come spend the night.
We spent a pleasant evening talking with Michael and Cindy about our travels, Bella and Sophie played with Penny, and we slept comfortably and soundly on Cindy’s new queen futon for the first time.
In the morning I drove the RV to Valley RV in Longmont without an appointment, got there when they opened and the owner arrived. He quickly checked the basic electrical system and pronounced it in good working order. He checked the battery and found it defective. He sent me a quarter mile away to the nearby NAPA dealer who exchanged the defective battery for a new one. This time the NAPA clerk checked the new one, something the NAPA folks in Forsyth, Montana, did not do (which would have saved a good deal of frustration), and once installed, everything worked as it should. We were home before noon.
THINGS WE LEARNED
•We’ll get to Glacier soon, probably this fall. The fires are contained now, and should be out soon and the park reopened completely.
•We’ve seen the Dakotas and eastern Montana. That’s all we can say.
•We took time to explore some small towns and talk with a few people about what’s going on. We met some nice folks, and got a sense of what’s really going on in small towns. Riding our bikes slows us down. We should do that sort of thing more often when we travel.
•Always check new batteries and other parts before installing them. Everyone in the auto repair business I’ve talked with since has agreed that once in a while everyone sells, unintentionally, defective batteries and other parts no matter what the brand. It happens.
•Heat easily spreads horizontally. Oddly enough, it has a more difficulty rising.
•We should stay home in the summer, travel the other seasons.