“You shouldn’t fly,”
the ear, nose, and throat specialist advised my husband after
performing an inner ear procedure.
“But the reason I had the
treatment was to attempt to thwart vertigo on our trip west,”
he replied, clearly thrown by the warning delivered too late.
“The pressure would be very
painful. I suppose we could heavily sedate you for the journey from
the east coast to the mid-west.”
Hearing the comment about sedation had
me envisioning all sorts of trauma in a nanosecond. And the
unpredictable outcome of mixing medications with flight schedules and
a nervous public made us reconsider the entire vacation.
We packed for the beach instead and
planned on driving to Cape Cod, taking in the sights along the way
from Western North Carolina to the shores of Massachusetts.
We spent the first night at our little
cabin in Virginia while I hastily prepared an itinerary that would
take in a few vineyards and wineries as well as towns with names like
Sandwich and Ipswich and Nantucket, not to mention Boston and Salem. It
And then I checked the weather. Ten
days of rain were predicted with thunderstorms indicated by the
lightning bolt on each of the days in the forecast. Now, a little
precipitation and fog along a rocky shore serves to inspire my
writing. But every day? We talked ourselves into ignoring the
likely bleakness by imagining bowls of clam chowder, whale watching,
jeering the umpire at a baseball game, and chasing storm clouds along
a roiling sea.
Until the headlines touted our
president was headed for Nantucket with his family. The media was
already assembling on the island paradise. The likelihood of finding
a room seemed nil.
But we had the time off so we were
intent on going somewhere. And after I figured the driving time to
South Dakota, it wasn’t that much longer than the estimated
travel time to Massachusetts. We took another turn in our adventure
and pointed our comfortable SUV west.
The beauty of this was that we had no
expectations, no reservations, and no schedule. We could stop along
the way as we chose to do in Illinois at Rock Island – the site
of a Civil War Prison and Cemetery – or at the Amana Colonies
in Iowa – a communal society which began on the theory of
Inspiration” as pertains to religious and spiritual values.
Today, many artisans have established their crafts there as well as
having prosperous wineries, tours, festivals, and delicious food
which is traditionally German with American fare on the menu as well.
The sunsets became longer and more
magical than any I had ever witnessed before. They appeared to go
away into the distance, rather than to drop from the sky as they did
at home in North Carolina.
We passed flat-bed trucks hauling long
metal wings. At first we thought they might be part of a glider
plane’s anatomy. Then we saw the giant windmills standing like
sentinels in troops as they spun and turned with the breeze and we
knew that was what the trucks were hauling along the highway.
We hadn’t gotten far into South
Dakota when yet another surprise took us off guard. Fields in
Elysian tradition beckoned. Heavy yellow heads bobbed in the sun,
following it around the sky. But the fields were so flat that depth
perception limited my attempts at capturing the enormity of their
plantings. At times it seemed we were on a four lane highway through
sunflowers as they dominated both sides of the road.
And then, as though we had left earth’s
atmosphere and catapulted onto another planet, we pulled into the
“What are you doing?” my
husband asked as I snapped a photo of the temperature gauge.
“It is 107 degrees,” I
answered. “I want to remember this.”
As verdant and supple as all of the
mid-west had been up to that point, the castellated rock formations
offered the diametric opposite. Craters, crags, paths through
standing sculptures of stone were marked by simple yellow posts that
hikers aimed for visually. Sometimes that required figuring out how
to maneuver the tricky terrain and climbing up for vantage points
from which to take pictures.
A group of college students led by
their professor sought dinosaur bones and droppings. We wouldn’t
have known one from a skimming stone but enjoyed their enthusiasm
about their hunt. The one thing we didn’t want to find was the
rattlesnakes that signs warned about.
We hiked around the jagged range of
limestone through formations called ‘The Door’ and
Castle’ before driving along Sage Creek Rim in order to hunt
out a buffalo. After all, doesn’t everyone who travels west
expect, wish and hope to see the wild roaming bison we associate with
the American West?
We craned our necks and spotted the
lone large beast in canyons and valleys as dusk fell. Suddenly we
reached the end of the gravel road, no light in sight, no other
vehicle approaching or behind. We pulled up onto another gravel road
and right into the midst of a herd. They surrounded us, as curious
about us as we were about them. They were everywhere.
“Take a picture,” my
husband urged and I hit the flash in an attempt to capture them. That
was a mistake. A giant bull squared off with us, head down,
horns dangerously close to our headlights.
Expletives! Our cell phone rang,
further angering the charging beast. It was our son calling from
home and my husband tried to back up with calves and cows crossing
back and forth behind and in front. Then he tried to drive forward
and the whole time he was on the phone and telling our son how I
pissed off an entire herd – hundreds and hundreds – of
buffalo about to flatten us due to my flash. Now I’m yelling
at him to get off the phone. If it isn’t safe to drive in
normal traffic while taking the occasional call, it can’t be
safe to do so in such a life threatening environment.
After assuring our son he would call
him back if we survived, he shifted gears again and the tires kicked
up gravel. Luckily, the herd began to move and we continued through
what we now know was the Grasslands. Whoo! We sought revenge at the
Dakota Restaurant, the only one open as late as we got into town, by
dining on buffalo burgers!
Custer State Park offered everything it
claimed. Although a very nice but disappointed couple we met in the
hotel from Tennessee cautioned us that they had seen no animals in
the park, we saw almost everything predicted; pronghorns, prairie
dogs, wild burrows, big horned sheep, mountain goats. We took the
wildlife loop in the late evening and chose the path to the Wind
Cave. This was one of those choices that you feel but can’t
explain. It paid off. As the cars behind us turned left to stay on
the traditional loop, we continued straight ahead and almost
immediately spotted large whitetail deer.
And then came the moment that isn’t
likely to ever be forgotten – the thrashing of three elk bulls
thundering down a mountainside, swinging their giant antlered heads
left to right as they aimed for the valley below. Our first elk and
they were majestic! We watched with respect and finally left them in
peace. A little further down, the movement above us on the cliff
overhead grabbed my eye and I spotted more elk pushing their way
through the thick brush. Wow!
We drove through the pigtail switchback
of the Black Hills and right through a rock. At one turn the carving
of Mt. Rushmore was visible through a v-shape in the trees. We were
stunned. Suddenly something manmade had brought us to an awesome
discovery. We continued toward it, paying to park in a massive
concrete complex and proceeded through more manmade entrances –
a blight on the landscape. Though it was well-maintained, I wished
we had just enjoyed the distant view as the walls and buildings and
paths and rails all made it seem tacky and commercial.
At this point we started the game of
‘it isn’t that much further to the next site’ and
aimed for Wyoming, stopping in Deadwood and Sturgis for a little
light sightseeing. Sturgis’ main event – the motorcycle
rally – had happened the week prior to our visit. So there
really wasn’t much to see there. But Deadwood offered Mt.
Moriah Cemetery, the final resting place of western legends Wild Bill
Hickok and Calamity Jane, as well as a great view of a sleepy old
Our first stop in Wyoming was Devil’s
Tower. I’m glad we experienced it, but I wouldn’t bother
going out there again. It is the core of a volcano with myths and
legends and nice areas to hike. The problem was that we packed for
the beach – remember?
Montana called us. We felt compelled
to keep going forward and headed for Billings where four wheelers
counted as vehicles, though we did find it hard to adjust to the
sight of them crawling along beside of us. But we also found
Cabella’s and stocked up on things we didn’t bring from
home. Hiking boots, blister resistant socks, light jackets. It was
getting much cooler and the 107 degrees of the Badlands was but a
memory. It felt perfect now, midday in beautiful Billings.
We toured the Moss Museum, one of the
few mansions of the west. It was featured on the series about
American Mansions and our curiosity found us buying tickets from the
gift shop. After the tour, we also bought prints and wine charms. My
friends would love a bit of jewelry for their wine bottles, I
Everywhere we went in Montana –
from Billings to Red Lodge - people suggested that we go to
Yellowstone National Park via the Beartooth Scenic Byway over the
Beartooth Mountains of the Rockies. We’re sold on the idea and
not disappointed. But it is not for the faint of heart.
Corkscrew turns up steep mountain
slopes with drop offs threatening make it difficult to enjoy the
breathtaking views around every corner. Snow still nested in the
rocky peaks and crystal lakes dotted the valley floors. We climbed
into the clouds, going higher and higher and reached a place called
‘Top of the World’. Tall skinny pines thickets and
groves of Aspens colored the landscape as the temperature sank lower
“Alice, what did I eat or drink
that has brought me to such a place?” I asked aloud, and my
husband thought I was having hallucinations. Was I not? Wasn’t
it mere moments ago that the heat seemed unbearable instead of the
shivering brought by the sudden cold.
A sign by the road warned against
interacting with the sheep guardian dogs. Sheep guardian dogs? I
didn’t know such things existed. But we were quickly
introduced. A herd of sheep meandered down the side of a green
mountain slope. The scene was worthy of Heidi one moment, and Cujo
the next. We were in the road, but had stopped to admire the sheep
and were spotted by the dogs who apparently saw us as a predator. They
surrounded us – barking, snarling, swirling until we were
afraid to move in the event we might accidentally hit one of them. The
sheep kept running towards us, further alarming the dogs. Geez.
We finally saw a break and took off
only to see a lone coyote sitting hillside watching the sheep.
“And that’s what they need
the guardian dogs for,” my husband said.
As soon as we passed the sheep hurdle,
we felt compelled to play in the snow. There were places here and
there where piles of it waited for the next seasons’
precipitation. It was mid-August, so if it hadn’t melted yet,
it wasn’t likely to.
From there we started the descent back
down from the Rockies and into Cooke City. Our official greeters
were a pair of moose – another first for us.
In the Lamar Valley, cars piled up
roadside and cameras rested on tripods. The wolves were calling,
their voices sending eerie shivers along my spine. While anxious
photographers awaited the priceless shot of the Yellowstone wolves,
we gave up at dusk, choosing instead to go just far enough to get
stuck in a traffic jam of vehicles waiting for the buffalo to cross
We spent the first night of the
Yellowstone leg of our journey in Gardiner, Montana – a neat
town with shops in Western style sprawled along a single strip of
road. I experienced a strange compulsion to buy things with tassels,
ruffles and spurs. I knew I would never wear these things after
crossing the Mississippi River headed East, but it seemed like part
of the experience was to wear a giant hat and say things like,
partner’. Fortunately I resisted both the shopping and the odd
The next day we wound our way through
the giant Roosevelt entrance arches and the Mammoth Hot Springs,
continuing to the geysers. The odor of sulfur filled the air and bit
at our nostrils as the hissing and gurgling competed with the
bubbling paint pots and crystalline blue basins trimmed in colorful
I wondered about the first humans to
stumble upon these places and had heard it referred to as
Hell’, after the man who traded with the Native Americans and
found himself amidst the sacred landscape. But how else would one
describe such a place where water boils, mud spits and gurgles, and
the very earth blows water out from its core at predictable
Alice’s wonderland could not have
been more curious. We walked along a black pebble beach where the
lake water rippled wave-like due to the activity below the surface
and got sprayed by the spontaneous eruptions of steam along a
boardwalk, watched a herd of elk in Hayden Valley and viewed the
Grand Prismatic Spring whose spectacular beauty was awe inspiring.
There are many geysers throughout the
park, with its star attraction being Old Faithful. The lodge there
was a thing of beauty with a center hub open to the floor above,
giant beams part of the construction and the decoration. Rocking
chairs hugged fireplaces, and restaurants and bars offered sustenance
while we waited for the next eruption.
In places like this, everyone seems
relaxed and it was easy to get to know the people sharing the lodge
with us. They were from all corners of the United States and beyond.
We all waited for the same show from Mother Nature and she didn’t
disappoint. After a brief introduction to Old Faithful’s
history and reliability by a knowledgeable Park Ranger, she began to
smoke and sputter, gurgle and spit. And then, the moment we had been
But everything in Yellowstone wasn’t
perfect. We were sharply reminded of the hazards when humans and
animals meet unexpectedly when a man’s body was found near the
park’s Grand Canyon. He apparently was killed by a grizzly
bear. This appeared to be a vicious attack, not like the one earlier
in the year when a couple accidentally got between a mother bear and
her cub. Park officials closed trails along the rim of the canyon
and posted warnings to stay in the car. It was a sobering reality of
life in the park.
On the map, a lodge waited at the
southern tip of the park’s edge called Flagg Ranch. We headed
for it at the end of our final day in Yellowstone and arrived three
minutes past eleven. The lodge closed at eleven.
You should just know that they mean
this. We could still see people meandering around inside and
certainly they could see us through the giant glass door. But the
bolt had been thrown and that was that. My husband thought
additional banging on the door would garner attention and he was
correct. Security was alerted and we were quickly approached by two
men in uniform.
But this was the friendly West and in
the tradition of not turning away travelers at the ranch, we were
offered a cabin. They couldn’t get us into the lodge because
as we had discovered, it closes precisely at eleven. But they could
rent us a cabin and took our credit card.
It was dark and the star studded sky
sparkled. Our cabin nestled neatly in a grove of pines. But it was
also late and we were tired so we just collapsed for the evening. The
next morning I decided to take my coffee outside and swept the
full length curtains back revealing a porch and a couple of rocking
chairs in the foreground. But it was the background that amazed me.
It was the Tetons! Snow pebbled,
jagged rock bulging straight for the sky! A path ran away from the
porch through the sagebrush and small shrubs and I was so excited
about the scenery that I shook my husband awake.
“You’ve got to see this!”
I announced. He was less enthusiastic than me, but only until he
actually got a whiff of the sweet air and a full glimpse of the
grandeur that is the Tetons. We wrapped up as the temperature was in
the upper thirties, and head out for a stroll through wonderland. I
chuckled as I pulled on layers of thin clothing. Even the extra
clothing we purchased at Cabella’s was too flimsy to offer much
in the way of warmth. But the walk was brisk and fulfilling. I just
couldn’t shake the feeling that I was traveling through seasons
as much as through scenery.
After a fantastic breakfast at the
lodge, we proceeded through the Tetons’ lap; majestic peaks and
mirror lakes surrounding us. Back east a hurricane was beating up
our coastline and an earthquake rattled parts of Virginia which our
son felt at home in North Carolina. Other tourists noticed our
license plate and asked about our property and if we had heard any
We met people from California, Idaho,
Maryland, and even England. The beauty of our surroundings had
softened us all.
Then we arrived in Jackson Hole.
People in Jackson were angry about
their tax dollars going to the aid of residents on North
Outer Banks. They felt like they had knowingly endangered themselves
and should suffer the consequences and they wanted us to know that.
“We’ll pass that along,”
was about all we could do to commiserate with them. (Or was this the
part of the story that involved a red Queen eager to
chop off the heads of those who had offended her?)
We didn’t really want to anger
them further by pointing out that we live in the mountains of North
Carolina and nobody would care what we thought, much less what they
thought. After all, they liked playing with guns and have a shootout
right in the street a couple of times each day. I wasn’t eager
to be the next target.
And we had a hamburger to tackle. A
friend recommended Billy’s Giant Hamburgers. Trust
me when I say that it tasted as
good as it was touted to be.
We walked off our meal slipping in and
out of the quaint shops and bars that lined the board walkways around
the center hub where bar stools were likely to have once served as a
saddle for a horse. Giant arches of elk antlers covered the entrance
to the park. There were so many different activities going on
simultaneously. A pair of unicyclists got the crowd revved up. The
sheriff was about to have a showdown with a bad guy right outside of
the store I wanted to browse for belts and bracelets, and a bookstore
had a resident photographer autographing copies of her just released
And we were starting to get tired,
understanding that a lot of road lay ahead of us. It’s a long
way back east from Jackson, Wyoming and I had been adding days to my
leave as we journeyed further and further beyond our original
destination. A friend called and joked that her partner didn’t
understand how we ended up in Wyoming since we started out for
Massachusetts. She explained that it was relatively close to the way
they started out for Asheville and ended up in Tennessee.
Sometimes these adventures happen and
they are perfection, becoming like the seed head of the dandelion
bloom and blowing across terrain that would not normally fall
underfoot, such as the return trip through the Painted Hills where
the scent of the wild sage permeated the vehicle even through closed
We followed an inner beckoning and took
the trip we wanted to take, though the path to it had many twists and
turns. This is the trip I wish for all who enjoy travel. Throw away
the itineraries and the schedules. Leave the course that others are
taking and chart your own. Drop into the rabbit hole. Alice and I
will be waiting there for you.