Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A tour of the West: Louisville to Wyoming

In late May my husband and I embarked on an 11-day, 4500-mile road-trip from Louisville, KY to points West. The main goal was Yellowstone National Park, but it was also an opportunity to see and experience some of the iconic places of the West that I've only read about. I hesitated over all that time in a vehicle. I'm not really that great on car trips, and this would be the granddaddy of them all. But, when I found myself at liberty (um, unemployed), we decided to just do it. Armed with car snacks and audio books, we took to the road. Our first day, we drove to Kansas City where you can get great, spicy barbecue at Gates & Sons (and delicious gelato downtown). It's also the historic jumping-off place for the Oregon Trail and the Santa Fe Trail. And, roughly, one follows at least some of the Lewis and Clark route.

 I've been as far as KC before, but I never went north, so all of the Mountain West was going to be new territory for us. We shot up I-29, stopping for lunch and a local beer in Sioux City, IA on a sleepy Saturday afternoon, and then pushed on to Sioux Falls, SD, a cool little city where we spent our second night. The falls are on the Big Sioux River, which runs through downtown, and they are surrounded by a neat green park with a new observation deck that you can climb for views in all directions, including the city's skyline. As on pretty much the rest of the trip, we were blessed with clear blue skies. We spent a late afternoon there taking pictures and hanging out by the rocks before dinner.

If you ever find yourself in Sioux Falls, go to Phillips Avenue where many restaurants, small shops, and bars can be found, and you can take in the sculpture walk. I didn't get a good picture of it, but there was an awesome dinosaur sculpture made out of what looked like old tractor parts and other random bits of machinery. It looked pretty fierce. We had juicy steaks at Minerva's, the flagship restaurant of a regional chain of nine or so steakhouses. It's fairly upscale with an excellent playlist of jazz and indie artists. Yeah, we were really roughing it so far!


The next day was a big one, and we needed the extra hour we were going to pick up crossing time zones. From Sioux Falls, we headed west again across southern South Dakota, where our first stop was going to be Badlands National Park. We took the Loop Road through, stopping at pull-outs but not doing any hiking. It was a pleasant day in the upper 70s, maybe even 80s, and it doesn't take long to figure out that if you got yourself stuck out there in the heat of summer, you would pretty much dessicate on the spot and blow away in a puff of white dust. It is bleak and weird and awe-inspiring scenery, the result of sediments deposited by an ancient sea, and eroded into buttes, pinnacles, and every contorted shape of rock you can imagine. It's a huge fossil bed surrounded by grass prairie, a place where saber-tooth tigers once roamed.

While I can be amazingly oblivious to things around me most of the time, in wild places I tend to ratchet up my attention several degrees, looking for wildlife large and small. There are warning signs about rattlesnakes (don't stick a hand or foot where you can't see what's there), and Badlands seem made for them -- lots of blazing hot surfaces with handy cracks and crevices to hide in. I did not spy any, thankfully. But for once, I had my binoculars so that I could spot the Bighorn Sheep ambling around the canyon rocks, too far away to see with the naked eye. My husband went back to the car for the zoom lens and managed to get some pretty decent pictures, considering how far they were. There were three or four (none with the huge, curved ram horns), including a little one. It's heartening to see these animals in a place where they are unlikely to be disturbed.

The other residents are the prairie dogs, which we passed on the way out. First, you spot their dirt mounds, then all the pert little figures, paws folded down in front, alert and watching your progress, probably thinking, good riddance! as they yap to each other and zip across the grass to the next dog's doorstep. We could easily have spent more time there, but we aimed to reach Deadwood before dark, so rejoined I-90 at Wall. Wall Drugstore -- you probably know about the billboards lining the road for miles, even if you've never been there. You might as well stop in if you're already there, but it's kind of crowded and touristy otherwise. Still, they have good ice cream, which is the only reason you need. I pretty much craved ice cream for this entire trip. Must be the dry air.

Black Hills

I should mention at this point that my husband picked out the books for this trip. He's not a professional librarian for nothing. First, was an excellent book in the Penguin Series of American Indian History, The Lakotas and the Black Hills: The Struggle for Sacred Ground. As we were headed for the Black Hills, it was especially relevant, and it certainly gives you a different perspective on visiting Mt. Rushmore, which we did on the way to Deadwood. From the distance, just outside of Rapid City, you can see the hills rising, blanketed by spruce and pine, looking as mysterious as you would expect even with the signs of modern suburbia in the foreground. There's a little tourist trap called Keystone that you pass through, got up tackily like little Gatlingburg, that sort of hurts your heart as you get closer to Rushmore.

It started a fine drizzle as we parked the car and mounted the steps to the platform space where you can view the mountain. It's impressive, but if you're fairly ambivalent about the whole thing, it only takes about half an hour to have a look, take a few pictures and skedaddle on out of there. You actually get a view of it on the road up, so you know, you could just opt not to pay the fee and keep on going. We actually had to backtrack to get on the road to Deadwood, which is a scenic route through the National Forest, skirting Sheridan Lake and the Pactola Reservoir. The drizzle sent a swirling mist through the trees and gaps that was appropriately ghostly, but it brightened up as we got closer to town and our little, no-frills hotel for the night.

Once we checked in and freshened up, we headed to town proper and the main street of kitschy bars and restaurants that have grown up around the fabled gulch. We were big fans of the HBO series, so who could resist having a drink in Deadwood? I had a sissy gin on the rocks in some dark bar I don't remember the name of. It was the least cutesy-looking. Cue the Swearingen jokes and rude quotes. Most of the bars have big, shiny slot machines and do not look like anywhere Wild Bill would be caught dead in (the site of the No. 10 Saloon where Bill met his doom is noted but no longer a saloon). The Bullock Hotel was on the list for dinner but we ended up in a little upstairs joint I found on Yelp called the Deadwood Social Club. It was pretty darn good. My husband had a bison steak, well-prepared and juicy, and I had some pasta with wild pheasant and mushrooms. Deadwood is also Mecca for Harley enthusiasts -- they have a huge bike rally every summer in nearby Sturgis; you will want to avoid that time unless you're into that sort of thing. In any case you would want to make your lodging/camping reservation many months in advance. That was it for Deadwood -- a drink and dinner, and a place to sleep.

Devil's Tower

We found some coffee for the road the next morning and headed west into Wyoming. Devil's Tower is all by itself, not too far from Sundance, but you pretty much have to mean to go there. It's very pretty country with rolling hills studded by buttes, pines and shrubs, and grazing cattle. Devil's Tower is stark and surprising in the landscape -- there is literally nothing else that looks like it anywhere around; it's eerie. No wonder that the Indians revere it as a sacred space. I think there are several stories about how it came to be, but my favorite one is this: seven sisters were being chased in play by their brother who magically turned into a fierocious black bear. They scrambled on top of a tree stump and were saved when it ascended toward the sky, the bear's claws scoring the sides as it rose. The sisters were set in the heavens as stars. There are signs at Devil's Tower reminding visitors not to disturb the prayer flags and bundles left around the tower's base.

We wound up to the base where you can park and get out to explore. If you are an adventurer, you can register to climb it, and we saw a handful of daredevils who were doing it. We were happy to walk the trail around it, very easy and bordered by trees for shade and little meadows of wildflowers. There are also overlooks into the green valley below, a curve of river, and cows, more cows!

Gargantuan tumbled columns of rock have fallen around the base, accounting for the vertical striations in the face of the tower. It is a type of igneous rock called phonolitic porphyry, according to the geologists. Apparently hot magma seeping between gaps in softer rocks cooled underground and then everything eroded around it. I need to bone up on geology -- the West is a geologist's (and archaeologist's) dream! Everywhere you look, there's some strange feature of rock, a riot of colors, rivers still carving up everything, and avalanches of stone in the making. Devil's Tower was more interesting than I expected it to be and worth going out of the way for if you're traveling in the area. It was not terribly crowded when we were there, even though it was Memorial Day. We had a little lunch on the way out at an overpriced grill, so you'd do better to pack a sandwich or go a little further out for food. Now, to head north again.

(To Be Continued)

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