South, Through Nebraska

Missouri River

I slept so good with a storm raging outside that had cleared up before we went to downtown Pierre looking for historic buildings worth sharing their facades and possibly their history. The only thing we found was the Harvey Wollman statue, the 26th governor of SD that was in office only five months. He was born in Frankfort, SD while Caroline was born in Frankfurt, Germany. This statue is just one of the 28 celebrating all the former governors of the state.

fields an hour apart

sorghum or broom corn

We admired the Missouri River before stopping at Scooter’s for matching lattes, mine minus the extra shot, only to find out later that we’d been given steaming cups of milk in place of needed caffeine (whether now or later); hence why there are mixed emotions when trying a new place. We enjoy the cows placed in parts of the rolling hills and stop on the plateau of the view to watch the sun fight to shine through the clouds.

the bottom of South Dakota

We stop in Murdo and talk with the man giving detour directions around the construction area that got rained out last night during the lit-up storm. The lightning in this region is definitely the night sky’s best light painting influence. We learn that this man is from Louisiana and served in Alaska for 17 years before managing a co-op in White River, just 29 miles from here, for 25 years before retiring three years ago.

Giant goldenrod, Solidago gigantea, state flower of Nebraska

He suggests we read Engineer in High Heels by Edna Arend Witcher, about a mother of four who helped build Alaska’s Arctic Road in the 1970s. Then he tells Dad and I our best option for continuing on the 83 S is to backtrack east on the 90 for 20 miles, turn right on the 53, and make another right onto the 44. So many right turns has me wanting to go towards the construction we just avoided – good thing Dad’s driving.

power lines

This detour costs us an hour as we drive 35mph over a gravel road with potholes and deeper ribbed portions that keep us from going the posted 55mph after the paved portion which was only a third of the route. We watch two pheasants cross the road, one running while the other flies, one flapping its wings while the other glides. The sun is out with light blue skies as we cross into Nebraska before noon.

plants of Nebraska

The city of Valentine, properly located in Cherry County, has red street signs, hearts everywhere, and bike rentals (surprising for a population under 3,000) via the Heartland Bike Share next to the Cowboy Trail – a rail trail running east for 321 miles from Norfolk, NE to Chadron, NE, over half of which is developed. Following us is the older, more narrow, version of the 83 that can be seen in parts.

old Hwy 83

Where the 83 S and the 2 W meet, near Thedford, Dad gets the train engineer to honk as he raises his camera to get the oncoming shot. The a/c gets tired again and stops blowing cold air so we turn it off as we drive through N. Platte at 30mph and marinate in 92°F with the windows down. We make it to Selden, Kansas where the conversation and the landscape start to flatten out, a welcome change for both.

Dad taking in the view, digitally

Give anything enough time and you’ll notice a difference. It doesn’t take long for us to see the thick clouds brewing south of Oakley, with threats of tennis ball-size hail, moving east as the storm warning updates. Dad was going to take us northwest but we’ll sit under a semi diesel station pump while around us is barraged with heavy rain and pea-sized ice pellets. A second storm warning emerges as a truck driver nudges us out of his way.

food in various forms

Dad reverses out of the spot as the downpour recedes temporarily. As the rain gets heavier, the day gets longer, and I start to get hungry, tired, and anxious that these feelings will cause me to act out like they would have when I was younger. My calmness is rewarded with beautiful and frequent lightning that get us to dinner at Cattleman’s Cafe II at 9pm when both spouses call. For being rated the best in town, the restaurant was a disappointment.

signs in Kansas

the sky, falling and forming

Reinvigorated with carbs and broccoli we went for sugar and dairy at Freddy’s. This gives us the energy needed to check-in to our hotel, call our spouses back, talk about the large topless tattooed man standing outside our door that’s near the window at the end of the hall, and for me to brush my teeth to be in bed by 1130pm. At some point in the day we stopped for drinks, forgot water, and had to swat ten flies out of the car.

stormy sunset

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Grasshoppers in Dakota

The car trunk is open again before we go downstairs to put our stuff in it. The trunk was open last night after dinner too but luckily nothing was missing. We go back inside the hotel to check the breakfast offerings and Dad will spend the half hour talking with Julie at the front desk while I eat, look at the Olympics on TV, and call Caleb. Julie happens to live in Arizona, close to Dad, but is from Scobey and returns for two months for the weather, her friends, and to help at the hotel.

We stop in Redstone to admire the abandoned homes, except for the new helmets and keys in the fridge for the Harley. A guy drives by and tells us that for 99 years this town was a big deal for farming; it’s mostly empty now. Next stop, Plentywood for gas and Dad’s first time using a truck windshield squeegee, about three times the length of the car ones, to get the bug guts out of view as they continue to accumulate on the front of the car.

We are in North Dakota for 40 minutes before we realize we’re in another time zone, CST, now two hours ahead of our spouses, and that we’ve lost an hour of our day. I notice hay bales wrapped in an American flag design rather than the popular plain green plastic but both are doing their job to preserve the energy stored inside with a minimum of six layers to keep oxygen out and deliver better quality food to the livestock.

We’re still on the 5 E (also called the 52 and 40) and approaching what I thought were little roadside ponds. It turns out it’s the Upper Des Lacs Lake, which looks like a river on the map, that is 28 miles long and a half-mile wide. A stop in Mohall is almost as informative about the cashier’s car situation as the short visit in Fortuna, now a third of the state behind us, was about the former US Air Force station that closed in 1979.

We arrive at the Renville Corner convenience store intersection where the 5 E meets the 83 S and debate taking the one-hour minimum detour to start at mile 0 (if there’s even a marker) and decide that it will give us a reason to return. This decision in no way limits the amount of grasshoppers that we will encounter on the windshield, bumper, tires, and road – so many little crunching noises under the wheels and our feet.

In Minot, I notice the indoor tennis courts, the yellow painted intersection light poles, and the plastic drifting across the road that seems to have been used as filler for the road cracks. Dad agrees we need to stop at the Bearscat Bakehouse, known for their chocolate cake turd donut that they claim is not bear shit but an old cowboy term for donuts. We stop at the other end of town for something more substantial to eat before getting back on the 83.

It’s nice to travel with someone as curious as you, waiting to get phone signal sometimes, to look up what you’re seeing and learn more about it – Lake Audubon has a maximum depth of 60 feet; the smoke in the sky is from fires in Oregon, Montana, and Canada; and the cows we’re passing are Red Devon. Linton advertises having ’90 Businesses to serve you,’ which means according to their 2010 census, that’s a business for every 12 residents.

We enter South Dakota after 6pm. The windshield wipers are garbage, which isn’t so bad when it’s not raining grasshopper guts too and they’re getting smeared all over the glass. We pass through Mound City, population 71, and Dad calls Caroline. It’s nice to hear a supportive voice looking at the map as I am so she can see where we are, which is near Pierre, the second-least populous state capital where we will be having dinner.

Better to drive while the sun is up, enjoy the view, and build an appetite so we can eat when nature’s light is out. We get to Cattleman’s Club Steakhouse after 830pm and are both impressed with the taste of their garden squash. After dinner, we’re treated to fireworks, a passing train, and meeting Wanbli (means eagle in Lakota) who checks us in to our room. Words are written and read, photos edited and uploaded, lights off and eyes closed by 11pm.

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Dumb Ideas Are Our Territory

We both woke earlier than usual this morning as Dad had set his morning wake up call from Caroline the night before but we were up with our eyes adjusting to the lights before that. I’ll load half the stuff in the car and leave the hotel room door open so I could get back in but return to a locked front door that doesn’t open till 7am. Luckily there was a woman with a key who let me in so I wasn’t stuck waiting for a half hour.

Sat down to breakfast and were served water in Prindy’s Place personalized plastic cups and coffee in diner mugs. I can appreciate the small town conversational vibe but this morning is loud with excited bikers on their way to the biggest annual event for them with concerts and competitions. It also seems they have an hour jump-start on their caffeine intake. We’ll finish our meal and move our conversation to the car to drive up the 78 towards Roscoe.

We’ll get on the 87 and get some coffee. Between Red Lodge and Roundup we’ll have seen rolling hills with turkey, cows, and deer; a lone tractor and miles later a windmill. We’ll have driven over stony curvaceous land with dead trees on the top leading to green and late fall foliage below before empty meadows that are tired from hooves but re-energized by the summer sun.

Some stores in Roundup have been closed for 20 years and others maybe only two. This is just one town of many like it along historically popular routes through parts of America. At one point, people were out here for railroads and resources. Now, travelers such as Dad and I can come and photograph and fantasize about what used to be and what stories and treasures are still held within the walls of decay.

Drive through Petroleum County and see more miles of straight road with both living and dead cows and pronghorn between the road and the fence that used to contain them than we do the one oil pump. The road begins to curve again as the hills return with some treetops just as high and a large pond with migrating birds taking advantage of the bathroom and breakfast amenities.

Dad reminds me that I’m not from California as I wasn’t born or raised in the state, but have spent six years in San Diego. This is a question that comes up when meeting fellow travelers and my answer has changed over the years. Sometimes I start with the country I was born in (Germany, 1986) or the state I was raised in (Texas, 91 – 04), or the state I met my spouse in (Virginia, 2005). I choose to start with where I live as an answer to small talk or to compare the distance traveled to be in the same place at the same time.

I used to tell people I was from Texas but my mother no longer lives there. When in the Middle East it’s ok to just be from America. I know how lucky I am for all the places I’ve been and don’t feel the need to brag about it, except on this website that’s all about me. I want to listen to others to gain insight and inspiration to help tell a story that began thousands of years before me and that someone else will carry on when I’m gone.

Stopped at Ezzie’s Wholesale in Malta and skipped the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum. The bank sign in Hinsdale shows 39°C. We’ll skip the six-mile Cut Across gravel road and continue on the 2 E through Glasgow before going north to St Marie where there are old forgotten houses with steel cabinets next to newly painted houses, same for the garages. I take the cabin air filter, with dead bugs in it, out of the car and feel the temperature drop.

We roll the windows down to let the a/c defrost and Dad reminds me that there’s no wiper fluid either, to help tame the mass slaughter of grasshoppers taking place on the windshield. I don’t remember being taught to have an abundant supply of Clorox wipes in your vehicle over other matters that should be on a safety checklist, but I also was never in an official driver safety course; which is why I still struggle to parallel park.

We see a couple coming out of a neighboring house with the same curiosity as us about the military housing for the old Air Force base in St Marie. We’ll explore a few more as we drive around before continuing on to rolling hills covered in beautiful yellow, green, brown, and white grasses. The sun is in the clouds, the pronghorn in the field, and the hawk on the fence post (the one we can’t capture on camera).

Found a barn at one-third capacity of barley next to a cute (from the outside) house that was falling apart inside. I’d have walked in but the doors are blocked with debris so I grab a long board and shove myself half in the window in an attempt to get a pan off the antique stove for Dad. I get the pan halfway across the stovetop when it rolls to the floor, where it shall probably remain for another 60 years.

We see deer by Ophiem on our way to the Canadian border near West Poplar, SK. We also passed sheep and one of them appeared to temporarily be a tapir on a vacation high north from home in South America. We get to the border and an agent drives up, on his way to work across the parking lot, to tell us not to go under the gate, eh. We let him know we wouldn’t be going that far and he said that was fine.

We get to Scobey around 8pm and the hotel clerk advises us to get dinner before bothering with check-in before we’re out of luck. I run into the pizza bar that doesn’t serve food on Thursdays past 3pm so we drive to the only other place in town that does – Scobey Golf Course & Club House. A lady at another table asked how we’re doing, surprised we’re way out here, and excited to suggest we visit Canada and the local Daniels County Museum, which looks like a well kept pioneer town.

Our drinks arrive via Erin, a 19-year-old headed to Missoula University, whose parents, Don and Laura Hagen, engage us in conversation. We listened to their history, married in 2001, and are impressed with the 4,000 acres they own to grow the wheat that makes spaghetti; at least before companies started using beans and veggies too. Stories of Europe leave us all wanting to go to Ireland and though we love the small town kindness it was time for us to get to one of the only hotels within 30 miles that doesn’t require a passport.

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Hiking In the Hills

We choose this Wednesday to sleep in till 6am, like a bunch of loafers, but what I don’t know yet is Dad’s definition of a hike and that we would need the energy for the day of exploration ahead. I’ll try texting Caleb while also looking up trails in the area, though Dad had already decided on one before we got here.

I’ll choose to eat the lobby buffet breakfast, out of wrappers, while sitting on the bed and letting Dad write. We’re out of the hotel at 830am and it will take us two hours before we’re signing into the West Fork Rock Creek Trailhead. That time is spent driving slow on 13 miles, part dirt road to avoid throwing dust, unlike the trucks passing us, and so we can see yellow-bellied marmots and take their pictures as they pose on the roadside.

We wonder who the “No grazing in wilderness” sign is for so Dad eats his granola before the hike as a precaution (as we were unaware this trail is shared with horses) and that there would be an abundance of raspberries to pick along the way. We’ll make up an anti-bear song, “we’re not as tasty as we look…” in place of the other repellents that Dad forgot… or did he? Another hiker lets us know that we’ll be safe because there’s too many humans out today for the bears. Then you ask yourself if salmon think the same way.

The first hiker we passed said we were about halfway to a waterfall, shares a photo with Dad, and then tells us to take the unnoticed trail to get the best views. I think his advice only helped to slow us down more as we looked for multiple ways to access the river; though even if we had gotten in we wouldn’t be able to show or explain the way it felt to be out in the wilderness together, the essence of this place, but that didn’t stop us from trying.

We pass the Kent family from Idaho, all 14 in total, with kids who have great trail etiquette – they’re not loud and moved to the side as they announced us to the rest of their group. We’ll stop to talk with Amelia and David, parents who dropped their daughter off at a nearby one-week rock climbing camp after driving over from Ohio. David lived in Buffalo for seven years after college and asks if Dad has family there because of his last name; he was born there.

Next group on the trail is four guys and a dog coming from Montana, California, and Texas; then three guys with a kid who camped for five days and are ready to go back; a guy with his three daughters who were out for two days; and finally two guys with a bear cub of a dog. The trail seems quite busy as so many return from other hikes that branch from this one or campsites that go further than we plan to.

I’m carrying my camera in one hand, we’re taking turns carrying Dad’s extra lens, and have two (should’ve been four) liters of water on my back with no snacks. We get to the seven-mile marker at 230pm and turn around. Going downhill increases our speed but doesn’t keep us from seeing three snakes within 30 minutes in the land of burned trees and tiny raspberries. Two guys will follow us out from a distance for the last mile which we are surprised to see the cars again so quickly.

Along the way, we saw willowherb epilobeum, Mormon fritillary butterfly, Arctic aster, elderberry, white everlasting flowers, giant red Indian paintbrush, penny bun mushroom, trumpet cup lichen, Clodius parnassian butterfly, Sierra garter snake, Western terrestrial garter snake, and Trentepohlia algae.

It took us three hours to hike the seven miles back. We’re a bit dehydrated and sunburned but find a liter of water in the cooler that we finish on the way to dinner; a second night at Piccola Cucina Ox Pasture. One of our waiters, as the staff seems to rotate so we can meet them all, went to ASU and shares the love Dad does for Andreoli’s Italian Grocer where the bread, pasta, cheese, and chocolates are made on-site.

The bread smells sweet and is the perfect mix of soft and crispy. Dinner is delicious, again, but tonight we’re saving room for dessert – tiramisu made table side and an espresso so we can make it back to the hotel. What a fantastic meal. A walk after dinner has us stumble upon a Shakespeare in the Parks show that’s over in minutes but seems to have attracted a crowd of 300 for the two hour event.

Caleb and I had a good day, interesting in their own ways. I’ll air my feet out as we finish our call before joining Dad in the room where he’s editing pictures. We lay down after 11pm, caffeine coursing through our veins, and I think about how all things take time as we search for our own waterfall or meadow. I’m glad to be in a good mental space where I can learn more from Dad and appreciate the knowledge he’s gaining from growing older. As soon as we acknowledge that we can’t sleep, we’re out.

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Beartooth Summit

I wake Dad this morning by talking in my sleep and let Caleb know an hour later that I was busy learning about philosophy, ambiguity, and feelings; not sleeping in like he thought. I step outside, laden with our gear, remove my mandatory mask (to be worn in federal buildings), and am enveloped in the beauty of this place.

I’ll sit in the mezzanine and appreciate the spirit of the Inn that hikers can stay up late at the bar, couples can watch Old Faithful under the stars, friends can play cards in the shared space, families can eat food they brought at the large table, kids can run around to the toilet and patio on their own. It’s easy to stay up late and wake up early as there’s always someone else up earlier.

There’s a spirit of exploration and everyone wanting to enjoy the most of the park, in their own way, in their time here. There’s a family that’s made a tradition of it, for 40 years, because grandpa used to come as a child and wanted to pass on the appreciation for the simplicity to be found in nature against the complexities we weave into our lives. I distract Dad while he’s in a conversational mood and realize I’m delaying his writing too.

We’ll leave just before 9am and it’s a good thing we’re not in a hurry (no one should be while driving through this park) because we’ll sit in a mile-long line of cars for over half an hour waiting on the one bison (who knows he’s the boss here) taking the road at his pace. We’re happy to meet him but apparently other park visitors are late for important meetings and can’t be bothered by some simple ungulate.

We make it to Mammoth at 11am where we turn on the Grand Loop Road that connects us to the 212 E that turns into the Beartooth Highway at its 10.5 mile dip into Montana before going 34.7 miles back through Wyoming and finishing south of Red Lodge, 23.6 miles into the middle of southern Montana. Back to the turn, we get to watch bison cross the road and a family stop to find out if they saw an elk or another uprooted lodgepole pine.

The high school age son is wearing a shirt that says, “Without agriculture, you’d be hungry, naked, and sober.” My shirt would say, “Without art, you’d be starved, bare, and dry.” Dad’s shirt, that “Without education, you’d be malnourished, unprotected, and dispassionate.” Caroline’s, “Without fiber, you’d be craving, exposed, and plain.” Caleb’s, “Without engines, you’d be ravenous, powerless, and temperate.”

While I’m creating my own shirt slogans, we’ll see a discreetly posted sign on the left: Montana. Stops are few on this winding and mountainous paved path through smokey terrain due to fires in the western states and parts of Canada. Animals are plenty but picture proof is hard to attain. We stop near the 10,947 ft summit to talk with a biker on his third annual trip from Kansas to Sturgis, this time with his wife, on her bike, who fears heights.

He says if it wasn’t for her he’d be throwing sparks around corners while still enjoying the view of the leftover snow in the distance. We’ll briefly mention favorite biker routes in the U.S. (this one being closed in the winter) and fatalities in Yellowstone (dissolving via hot springs vs. destruction via grizzly) before we all take off down the mountain to stay ahead of the looming rain.

We’ll enter Montana again 2.5 hours later while wondering how concrete gets laid or a new bridge built on a mountain side. There are videos on YouTube showing how, sometimes with a helicopter, some people like to live life on the edge. We move onto topics of how I dress and what I’ve read this year: mostly biographies of a nuclear worker, elite athlete, fossil collector, therapist, FBI most wanted, and F.L. Wright.

Enter Red Lodge, drop bags in room, sip chai at Coffee Factory Roasters until they close at 6pm while I try to read Simply Local Magazine, Billings and Dad tries to write while ignoring the Pikachu, philistine, and poverty-ridden conversations within earshot. Not wanting to eat pizza in a bar, dinner will be had at Piccola Cucina Ox Pasture at one of the two outside tables to avoid the two-hour wait required to sit inside.

This restaurant transfers its employees from NYC (pop. 8.4 million) to this tiny town of 2,300 residents (the 30th largest town in the state) to serve food for the ten weeks of summer in the authentic Italian style, to include the Cacio e Pepe, which surprised Dad when the server brought the dish out to be served from a pecorino cheese wheel. My pasta was as equally homemade and delicious but the pot held enough to feed three.

Having eaten a day’s worth of food in one sitting, being in an exploring state of mind, and both having spouses to talk to in different time zones leaves us ready to walk the length of Broadway from 5th to 14th with detours along the residential streets before I wander into a candy store to look at old signs. We stop at the closed gas station near the room (yay for small town working hours) and drive across town for some supplies.

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