Journey through Big Country –
A front row seat to one of nature’s most beautiful places….
BY REBECCA JONES / PHOTOS BY KEZIA MATSON
January can be hard at the beach; business is slow, the weather can be bad, the holidays are over and New Year’s resolutions seem to have lost their motivation. This is the time of year I keep my spirits up by playing travel agent. I google and search, daydreaming about things I want to see and places I want to go. I compare prices and feasibilities. I research trip advisor, noting other traveler’s two cents on different times of year, what to pack, what to see and what to avoid. From this method I have traveled hundreds of places in my sweats and slippers from the comfort of home. This is how my trip out west began. Big country.
Openness seemed appealing during the dark confines of that winter. I have fond childhood memories of weekend trips thru portions of the Appalachian Mountains, Pisgah National Forest, the Great Smoky Mountains, Pigeon Forge, the Blue Ridge Parkway; Gatlinburg, Johnston City, Cherokee, Brevard…. If I try hard enough, I can evoke the smell of coppery stream water, sweet and spicy rhododendrons mixed with faint traces of skunk and once wet leaves commingled and mellowed in scent by the baking sun. I wanted a piece of mountain magic and I wanted my daughter to have a slice of her own mountain memories. I was thinking big that winter: Colorado, Montana, and Wyoming- why not?
We had a week. August 6-13th- Tuesday to Tuesday, reading somewhere-or is it just urban legend?-that flights are cheaper on Tuesdays- either way-I’ll go with it. My daughter, fourteen at the time, and I flew from Wilmington, NC to Denver Co. We rented a little silver economy car. We had lunch downtown Denver, right down the street from the Patagonia store, already feeling like a pair of outdoorsman dipped in this environmentally appreciative culture.
We got it in the car and drove. We drove and drove. We were going to stop In Laramie, just inside of Wyoming, but it was so early; we could get some more time on the road (my father’s daughter) and so we drove on- the landscape was incredulous, dips and valleys, flat but at the same time surrounded by mountainscapes in the distance. Rawlins would have been a good stop over- but both hotels were booked, catering to a big highway job- no problem- we had a full tank, I was feeling good, we would just head on to the next town.
The terrain was breathtaking, reminding me of every Sunday afternoon John Wayne movie-was that sagebrush? It was enchanting…. for the first hour…. My GPS, that I had carefully brought from home- I now realize how naive I was- my GPS, my safety feature,(along with the can of bear spray picked up near the Patagonia store)didn’t get a signal. Was there another town? I thought about the half bottle of water and the bag of pretzels from the flight, and tried not to think of NBC dateline episodes. Not another car, sign, anything- just a vast black hole of openness. I had no idea how big Big Country was! Not like New England, where the town lines thread against each other, crisscrossing back and forth; or like my home state, North Carolina, where there might be respectable 30 or so miles in between, nope -a lot of active mileage out here. Just when I was thinking how we could ration the water and share the pretzels, we drove over a crest into Lander and found the welcoming piney cabin facade of the Lander Wyoming Best Western.
Our first morning, we found in order: coffee, a map, and to our delight -a little thrift store that held a gem,- a Bruce Springsteen CD, the Seeger Sessions- oh Mary don’t you cry no more- we were ready.
We drove and drove and drove some more. We stopped and took pictures of the red rocks, up to twenty feet tall cliffs of red sandstone. There was a VW “vanagon”, parked in the valley off the ridge, the side door was open and the driver was napping on the makeshift bed- he had a pretty good set up- little fridge, stove top; take a snooze when you’re tired- that’s the way to do it! Quietly – we drove on.
We drove to Jackson Hole and stood under the antlers in the town square. We followed the Snake River. We stopped at the visitor’s center and explored the frontier museum, learning that Wyoming was the first US territory and then US state to grant women the right to vote- very pioneer.
We drove and drove. I thought of Arapaho and Shoshone tribes. I thought of riding horseback, thru the rocky cliffs, what was it like? A lone motorcycle came up behind, out of nowhere, and passed, soon out of sight….maybe something like that…
We drove thru the Grand Tetons National Park driving into Yellowstone National Park. We made it to Old Faithful, just in time to see the big geyser erupt, discovering that all the people we hadn’t seen on the road- were here.
We drove to the big lake, explored the manor, with massive fireplaces on each side. We drove thru the west side of the park, towards Cody, home of Buffalo Bill, and came across an eerie patch where the Mountain Pine Beetle blight has destroyed hundreds and hundreds of white bark pine, leaving a scraggly graveyard of trees and the whir and hum of beetle larvae boring away remains, sitting on top of the silence.
We drove and drove, north up thru the Bear Tooth Highway, touching into Montana. Turning around was out of the question-each steep curve and twist was higher and more narrow than the last- and- there wasn’t anywhere to turn around- you could only go up- how high does it go? Pretty high. The tops of the mountain peaks are snowcapped- in August! We stopped at the overlook, equally taken with the view, as with the assortment or travelers: cyclists with packs, motorcyclists in a pack; families, retirees; young and old, taking advantage of the overlook and the views spread forth like a generous gift after the winding climb.
We drove onward, heading southeast, singing along with Bruce; we knew all the words by this time. The landscape became less jagged and more pastoral with great wide expanses of prairies, hay and sugar beets. We passed a town sign-Hiland, population 10. We stopped the car and took a picture. In Cheyenne, the state capital, we explored the old train depot and train museum.
We drove on, back into Colorado, having lunch in Fort Collins, an active energetic town, home to the University of Colorado. We stopped in a little shop and bought imported Tibetan prayer flags.
We drove and drove. We drove ourselves right up -till way past dark-to the airport Holiday Inn Express in Denver for our early flight in the morning. We must have covered 1000 miles that week. More than I had intended. Looking back, I realize that was a ridiculous amount to cover in a week. But-it was okay. I loved the landscape, and the scenery. I loved the adventure of what’s next along the path, like the time we pulled over to watch elk cross a shallow portion of a river in a narrow ravine, then climb up the other side. We shared this experience with a man and his grandson, who had also paused to witness. The man, a rancher, with a pick-up truck full of hay, told us how the elk would follow the train tracks down the ridge to get to the grassier side.
Or the time in northwest Yellowstone, there was a traffic jam of cars, campers and RV’s, watching a moving herd of buffalo. We had seen postings warning of charging buffalo- in my inexperience I had almost dismissed the warnings, but they became an all too real possibility. I wasn’t as envious of the free riding motorcyclists at that moment; they seemed small in comparison to this herd – a huge majestic mass, noisy with hooves, snorts and grunts making their way across the road. Their lumbering by is deceptive, they can move quickly in a blink of an eye, leaving a wake of dust and dirt. So close to the car-you could smell them- don’t make eye contact-and roll up the window!
Or at the one overlook where the family of chipmunks stole the show from the sparkling river basin. The collective group of travelers, shared smiles as the chipmunks worked the afternoon crowd, entertaining for picnic scraps.
Above all I enjoyed the simplicity of sharing time and experiences with a loved one. I’m not sure what my daughter’s mountain memories will hold for her- she did read five books while riding shotgun thru the miles and miles, (her love of reading, and not my lack of good company, I like to think). I know my memories are all the miles covered driving that little car, a front row seat to one of nature’s most beautiful places, breathtakingly beautiful-stirring a heavy lightness in my chest while observing every shade of color and creation. If I had a “do over”-maybe I would narrow my scope, or plan for a longer stay- maybe- I’ll keep that in mind for the next pioneer planning- however for this road trip- much, much, much more road, than I had imagined-I wouldn’t want to change a thing: keeping in mind the wisdom from sage travelers and philosophers alike: it’s not the destination but the journey.