Top of the world

Perhaps when you were young you had dreams similar to mine. The nightmare rarely varied and they were always ended the same way: I would end up falling off something very high and feeling very panicked, knowing I was about to die. In the dream, I never quite actually met the bottom of the cliff and my maker. Perhaps they were a result of watching too many Road Runner cartoons, or perhaps they were vestigial memories of being in utero.

Perhaps this explains my vertigo. I am fine peering down over something from way up high, providing there is a guardrail or something similar to inhibit my fall. Otherwise I am incapable of getting near the edge of anything with a precipitous drop.

This phobia makes little sense as I can and do fly frequently. In fact, if the weather is nice, I prefer a window seat. Only a couple times have a felt panicky in an airplane, and only during moderate or severe turbulence.

I only rarely experience vertigo, mainly because I deal with it through rigorous avoidance. Occasionally though I have no choice. For those of us who suffer from vertigo, you should avoid Trail Ridge Road in The Rocky Mountain National Park. Up there above the tree line at altitudes from 10,000 to 12,000 feet there are miles of road where you drive literally along the side of the mountain with not so much as a guardrail between you, your car and careening thousands of feet down the side of the Rocky Mountains to certain death. Moreover you may be shadowed by tailgaters because you are going the speed limit of 35 mph and they want you to go faster. In short, if you suffer from vertigo like me the drive will be nerve wracking and heart pounding, and that is assuming that the weather is fine, which it often isn’t. The wind has been clocked at up to 150 mph at the Alpine Ridge Visitors Center, and you can get snow, hail or sleet on the road at any time of the year.

View from Alpine Ridge Vistors Center
View from Alpine Ridge Vistors Center

Granted, if you want to kill yourself, you should have a spectacular view on the vertical descent. You may piss off a few elk, big horn sheep and moose on the tundra on your way down. Yet, even if you suffer from vertigo, you might want to take Trail Ridge Road anyhow, for few roads command such a breathtaking view. You are only guardrail-less for a few miles and once you get below the tree line the feelings of vertigo should recede. Trail Ridge Road is as close as many of us ordinary mortals will get to being on top of the world.

The Alpine Ridge Visitors Center is only publicly accessible during the short summer months. During the winter the road is closed. The snowdrifts can extend up to thirty five feet above the road. It takes the National Park Service months to make the road drivable during its short driving season. As I discovered, even in August the weather can be bracing at the Alpine Ridge Visitors Center so bring a jacket and gloves. If you are not too faint from the thin air, you can take a trail a thousand feet or so to the summit and, like me (see picture) perch next to a sign that tells you that you are at 12,005 feet above sea level. This is likely as high up as I will get in my life.

Me at the top of Alpine Ridge
Me at the top of Alpine Ridge

When you vacation around The Rocky Mountains, you have to expect to be altitude challenged. I have flown to Denver enough times to no longer notice the thinner air, but move a couple thousand feet higher and I found myself short of breath and my heart racing, even while sitting still. East of The Rocky Mountain National Park is the city of Estes Park, which sits 7500 feet above sea level. My wife and I spent two nights in this mountain-lined city but even at that modest altitude my wife and I noticed the change in elevation.

Estes Park, a beautiful touristy city with expansive views, is something of a low altitude city compared to the last destination of our journey, Leadville, Colorado. Leadville is the highest incorporated city in the continental United States at 10,200 feet in elevation. It sits below the tree line, but not much below it. My wife and I spent a night in The Ice Palace Inn, one of dozens of bed and breakfasts in Leadville, a historic mining town that was once the largest city in the state and its presumed state capital. Even in August the weather in Leadville was bracing with cool blustery westerly winds and evening temperatures in the forties. Much of its lower temperature was likely due to its high altitude. Leadville can make an east coast guy like me feel humbled, for you can be at rest and still find yourself breathing heavily and your heart racing. Monday we took the Leadville, Colorado and Southern Railroad ride 900 feet higher into the mountains. While the view was breathtaking, you will probably find yourself hyperventilating out of necessity. I found myself constantly taking deep breaths. We were grateful later in the day to be back with my brother and his wife in Boulder at a mere 5400 feet.

Today we fly back to low altitude Northern Virginia where we can breathe effortlessly again. Our trip out west exceeded both our expectations. In addition to the places I documented, we also spent two nights in Laramie, Wyoming at a B&B called The Mad Carpenter Inn, absolutely the best B&B where we have ever stayed. There we toured the well restored Ivinson Victorian Mansion, a local art museum and the Wyoming Territorial Prison (a far more interesting a place than it sounds) which housed many a ruffian including Butch Cassidy. Overall Wyoming is a beautiful state, if vastly underpopulated and very dry by east coast standards. The whole state has just 533,000 people in it. By contrast, the county I live in, Fairfax County in Northern Virginia, has over a million inhabitants. To go from one city to another in Montana usually requires a journey by car of several hours. There are no large cities in the state, with Cheyenne being its largest at about 53,000 residents.

We were amazed by the friendliness of people we met. We found it disarmingly easy to slip into intimate conversations with relative strangers. Perhaps the lack of people in states like Wyoming makes people naturally friendlier and inquisitive. In Estes Park, Colorado we had continental breakfasts at a Comfort Inn with the same two couples two mornings in a row. One couple left us their name and address so we could visit them in Western Nebraska.

The West has much to teach us somewhat insular East Coasters, including the somewhat lost art of friendliness. We will be back again. Perhaps we will retire out here.

Buffalo, Wyoming: Mayberry of the West

Small town America used to be ubiquitous. Even if you are fortunate enough to live in a small town, it has probably changed for the worse over the years. The Wal-Mart just outside the town might have made Main Street a sad and mostly boarded up place. Or you could live in a small city like this one where the principle industry went elsewhere leaving behind a poor tax base and lots of boarded up houses. So when you find an authentic and healthy small town in America today that feels kind of like Mayberry, it should be noted.

My wife and I rediscovered small town America by spending a night in Buffalo, Wyoming, population three thousand or so as well as the Johnson County seat. I picked Buffalo as a place to spend the night on our vacation because we had planned our day around visiting Devil’s Tower National Monument in northeastern Wyoming. Devil’s Tower was so worth the trip, but finding a good place to stay near Devil’s Tower was next to impossible unless you had an RV. So instead we chose to drive two hours to its west, to the town of Buffalo, and sleep there instead.

Main Street in Buffalo, Wyoming
Main Street in Buffalo, Wyoming

Buffalo is an eastern gateway into Yellowstone National Park. The Bighorn Mountains frame its western horizon. The aptly named Clear Creek runs through the center of town. Its clean and abundant mountain waters doubtless made it a logical center for commerce in the area. Our destination was The Occidental Hotel on Main Street. To call it just a hotel is to give it short shrift. It is a hotel, a saloon, a fine dining establishment and perhaps most importantly something of a private museum. The hotel was actually constructed in the 19th century. Among its early guests were the western notables Calamity Jane, Butch Cassidy, The Sundance Kid and Buffalo Bill Cody. No less than two U.S. presidents have also slept in the Occidental Hotel. You can find and sleep in Teddy Roosevelt’s suite on the upper level, or if you prefer sleep in the somewhat humbler Herbert Hoover Suite on its lower level.

We chose the Herbert Hoover Suite. Hoover is infamous as the president at the start of The Great Depression, so perhaps sleeping in his room was not that great a privilege. He was campaigning for reelection in Wyoming when he arrived at The Occidental Hotel in 1932. In the room you can see pictures of him somewhat overweight and in a full suit and tie.

It was a strange experience to spend a night in a room inhabited, however briefly, by a president of the United States. The original claw footed bathtub is still there, so I stripped and showered in the same place as a U.S. president. I am sure the bed has been replaced since the 1930s but presumably we were sleeping in the same spot as President Hoover as well. The room, like all the rooms in the hotel, feels very early 20th century. Our room came complete with a number of old books, including a book about “The World War”, which when it was published meant World War One. Inside it was a letter postmarked in 1918 from the original owner of the hotel. This, the old fashioned radio, the antique furniture, and the ancient wooden flooring that creaked under you as you walked on it made it feel absolutely authentic which, in fact, it was. The room’s only defect was its walls, which were authentically wooden with no soundproofing. Fortunately by ten p.m. the hotel had quieted down. This and my silicon earplugs ensured that my sleep would be undisturbed.

The hotel sells its history and ambiance as well as a night’s rest. The clerks behind the counter are exceptionally friendly. In the hotel lobby, rife with antique furniture, you can play a game of chess or gaze at the many stuffed animal heads on its walls. Pre-ragtime music sounding like it came off a Victrola can be heard overhead. The hallways abound with vintage pictures and historical documents, most of them marking events of notables staying at the hotel.

A trip into the adjoining saloon reveals the hotel’s likely naughty past. A large painting of a naked woman hangs on the wall. Perhaps she was a naughty lady of the house that could be found in many western hotels and saloons in the 19th century. Today the saloon attracts a higher class of clientele, who principally are guests of the hotel. Its counters and floors gleam. In a room in the back is a pool table that might have been heavily used a century ago. Next to the saloon is The Virginian, a restaurant affiliated with the hotel, which is doubtless the best dining available in Buffalo, and probably within a hundred miles. My wife and I enjoyed steak dinners in our own private dining alcove. Appropriately, my wife chose a buffalo steak.

On the hotel’s patio are two sets of rocking chairs where you can enjoy watching life on Main Street pass by. You can hear Clear Creek babbling to your right. During the evening, horse drawn carriage rides are available for a modest fee, which you can conveniently board at the hotel. Or you can amble up and down its considerable Main Street, stopping if you wish at a local ice cream parlor. The closest thing you will find to a chain store on Main Street in Buffalo is a Rexall Drug. In the evening you may notice, as we did, an owl perched on the top of the court house.

The character of Buffalo is borne out simply by crossing the street. Motorists will happily stop to let you cross, even if you are jaywalking. Eat breakfast as we did at the Main Street Diner and you may find a kindly local willing to move a seat down on the counter to make room for you. The Main Street Diner, like the Occidental Hotel, is an experience that should not to be missed. Behind the counter are four very hard working people serving twenty to thirty patrons. Our young blonde waitress was efficient, pleasant and personable. I found her interesting to observe, her hands constantly in motion as she orchestrated the complex process of serving all the patrons, managing the counters, calculating all the tabs (on paper) and processing all the payments. If you like getting great value for your money, you will find it at The Main Street Diner. The portions are beyond enormous. I ordered a western omelet, to find fully stretched across an enormous plate, along with toast and hash browns hanging on the side. It was good but I only ate half of it, certain I was already consuming far more fat and calories than I should. Perhaps the portions were sized assuming you were going to spend the rest of the day roping steers rather than driving a rental car.

In short, our brief stay in Buffalo, Wyoming made us wish we had booked a second night at The Occidental Hotel. To me, if felt very much like I was in a time warp. From the nearby City Hall to the county courthouse built in 1886 next door, to the elegant grand hotel itself, to the babbling brook, to the nostalgic diner on Main Street, it struck a resonant chord of comfort in my heart. I did not find Sheriff Taylor or Floyd’s Barber Shop, but perhaps I did not look hard enough. However, I did find boys biking along Main Street, blissfully unaware of how special their authentic small town experience actually was.

If you were to drop Mayberry somewhere in the West, you would most likely find it in Buffalo. I feel like I left some part of my heart in the town, and I sure hope I live long enough to return for a proper and extended visit.

South Dakota’s enchanting Black Hills

For most of us air travelers, America’s north central states are just flyover country. I have flown over the Dakotas more times than I can count. Yet until Sunday I had never set foot in the Dakotas. Perhaps this is because they are so hard to get to. The airlines give the Dakotas short shrift, making flying into these unpopulated states difficult and expensive. So we fly over them instead and mostly what we see out the airplane window seems featureless.

Yet, the western side of South Dakota is anything but flat. It is framed by The Black Hills, which push up against Wyoming’s eastern edge. While not quite The Rocky Mountains, The Black Hills are an appealing destination nonetheless. There is a surprising amount to do in The Black Hills. A family could easily spend a week or more there without feeling like they had seen it all.

Getting to The Black Hills from our starting point of Boulder, Colorado (where my wife and I spent a couple days with my brother Tom and his wife) made for a memorable driving journey through the eastern half of Wyoming. It takes about six hours of driving to get to Rapid City, South Dakota from Boulder. You pass through hundreds of miles of empty land. It is not empty desert as you might find in Nevada, just miles of buttes with virtually no people and little in the way of trees to obscure your view. This is big sky country. For a while The Rocky Mountains shadow you to your west, and then they recede altogether. I-25 reveals a land dappled with vegetation which is not quite desert. Occasionally you pass picturesque places like the Platt River, but mostly the area consists of enormous ranches where widely scattered groups of cattle graze. For an east coast guy like me, Wyoming is appealing for its remoteness and its feeling of being unspoiled. It is not quite unspoiled. If it were unspoiled, it would be rife with bison and Native Americans on horseback. The bison were hunted to near extinction long ago and the Native Americans are now largely sequestered on Indian reservations on far less interesting land. Eastern Wyoming is a pacified west, with only an occasional oil derrick to spoil its majestic view.

Pass from Wyoming into South Dakota and not only do you find yourself in the gently rolling Black Hills, but you also feel you are in a different climate. Wyoming feels dry but South Dakota, at least its western side, receives more rain, so there is more vegetation, more green things on the fields and plenty of pine trees and gently winding roads. Yet like Wyoming, it still feels remote. This is something of an illusion. While South Dakota remains one of our least populated states, if you travel through The Black Hills you will find plenty of tacky tourist traps, roadside family restaurants, inexpensive campgrounds as well as some first class tourist attractions.

My wife and I took in three such attractions on Monday, working from our home base, a Country Inn & Suites in Rapid City. Rapid City, like The Black Hills near which is sits, is a pleasant city in its own right. While the East Coast sweltered under a heat wave, we enjoyed blue skies, dry weather and highs around eighty degrees. There are lots of dead presidents in Rapid City. Since it is something of a way station for people on their way to Mount Rushmore, it plays up its association with U.S. presidents by placing metal sculptures of presidents on its street corners. It is also a thoroughly white area of the country. If you are Anglo Saxon, you will find plenty of your own ethnicity in this state. Rapid City also ensures that you have to wade through plenty of traffic lights on your way to Mount Rushmore. Naturally there are plenty of businesses catering to tourists along Mount Rushmore Road. We noted some pretty inane tourist attractions, including a Cosmos Mystery Area and an Old MacDonald’s Farm that would make even Mr. Rogers retch.

Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore remains a worthy destination, but what makes it distinctive is not just the chiseled images of four great presidents on the face of The Black Hills, but its frame of the beautiful Black Hills themselves. One can of course marvel at the engineering involved in making Mount Rushmore back in the 1930s, but the geography only allows you to see it from a few angles. There is a large promenade and theater which sits before the mountain that will tell you more than you probably want to know about the memorial, and a trail you can take with many steps that will take you half way up the mountain, but no further. You can look at models of the memorial in a sculptor’s studio.

Crazy Horse Memorial
Crazy Horse Memorial

To my mind, far more impressive is the Crazy Horse Memorial some twenty miles away, which sits atop its own mountain not too far from the town of Custer. It is a work in progress. Some sixty years since construction began, the memorial consists mainly of Chief Crazy Horse’s head and an exposed tunnel of granite. When completed, this memorial will dwarf Mount Rushmore. In fact it will be in the largest chiseled work of art in the world, surpassing even the Great Pyramids. Construction might have proceeded at a faster pace had Korczak Ziolkowski, the obsessed visionary who also helped chisel Mount Rushmore not spurned government money. The Ziolkowski family still directs work on the mountain, and supports its construction primarily with fees contributed by visitors. At $10 a person or $27 for a carload, it looks like the project will remain well funded through private sources. For an extra $4 you can take a bus ride to the base of the memorial, or you can observe it from a distance, and enjoy the many buildings on its campus. It is hard to find fault with the project, which seeks to honor a distinguished and fiercely independent Native American chief for all posterity. There are many Native American artists selling amazing works of art on premises. The scope of the project is audacious and is unlikely to be completed in my lifetime, or even my daughter’s. To get a sense of the scale of the project, Crazy Horse’s face, which has been completed, is much larger than the engravings on Mount Rushmore itself. Still one cannot feel more than a bit humbled by the size and scope of this amazing engineering endeavor and labor of love. I do hope that one day it is fully realized. If so it will be a new wonder of the world.

Jewel Cave National Monument
Jewel Cave National Monument

After seeing so much enormous statuary, we were glad to end our day underground touring Jewel Cave, also located in The Black Hills. The Crazy Horse Memorial and Mount Rushmore are monuments to man’s audacity and ambitiousness. Jewel Cave is a monument to Mother Nature, who has the luxury of time to dazzle us with underground delights. Over the years I have gone on a number of cave tours, but our tour of Jewel Cave was by far the most extensive and interesting of the bunch. Jewel Cave is enormous, measuring 146 miles. It is likely a lot larger, since based on air pressure calculations only about three percent of the cave has been mapped. The site was designated as a national monument by President Teddy Roosevelt, so it is perhaps fitting that his face is chiseled in granite on nearby Mount Rushmore. Two elevators take tourists down nearly three hundred feet below the visitor’s center. We had an excellent park ranger who guided us on a ninety minute tour of the cavern. We marveled at the diversity of rock formations and crystals in the cave, which is second in size only to Mammouth Cave in Kentucky. Having the cave managed by the National Park Service made quite a difference compared to places I am more familiar with that were privately run. The park ranger provided a great deal of cave history and explanations for the natural works we witnessed. The extensive sets of staircases made traversing the cave as painless as possible. The forty nine degree temperature made it invigorating after being outside all day.

If you have been flying over South Dakota like me, you are doing yourself a disservice by not stopping by for a proper visit. It is time to consider South Dakota as a vacation destination. For those enamored with natural wonders, there is much in South Dakota to enchant and delight.

Back from Yellowstone!

We are back from an abbreviated vacation in Yellowstone. It will take me some days to chronicle our little vacation. I won’t do it here, but if interested in learning a lot about Yellowstone and our brief adventure in the park you can find the details here. Within a week the history should be complete so keep checking back!

Meanwhile, I have some new ideas that have been percolating inside my brain that I will post here shortly.