Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Let Love Drive: A Road Trip with My Dad - The Gates of the Mountains

Itinerary: Corvallis - Helena, MT
Miles: 178

In June, despite pandemic and civil unrest, my 85 year old dad and I went on a 5000 mile drive through the mountain west, in his Buick, to see his sisters in Texas and Montana.

Screen shot from Gates of the Mountains Tour Gallery
Once it was decided that I'd be going on this trip with Dad, aside from visiting family, he had three places he wanted visit. The first was the Berkeley Pit, which we'll just have to make another trip in order to observe it (see previous post). The second place was The Gates of the Mountains. But this wasn't just going to be a quick drive by. Nothing is quick in the great mountain west. No, we were going on a guided boat tour of the actual location named by none other than Meriwether Lewis.

Per Wikipedia: 
Captain Lewis wrote on July 19, 1805:
...this evening we entered much the most remarkable cliffs that we have yet seen. these cliffs rise from the waters edge on either side perpendicularly to the height of 1200 feet. ... the river appears to have forced its way through this immense body of solid rock for the distance of 5-3/4 Miles ... I called it the gates of the rocky mountains.

We left Corvallis and Aunt Charlotte early. We had a three hour drive and the tour began at 11 a.m. Weather was looking good that day but not-so-good weather was on its way. Dad wanted to stop in Walmart to buy a point and shoot camera–the kind with the screen on the back. He only has a flip phone so I had been taking all the pictures. I could tell he felt a little left out. While planning for the trip, I looked to see if disposable cameras were still around as I knew anything above that would just be a frustration for Dad but he wanted a real one. I built this little detour into our itinerary so we had about 45 minutes to get this done. And as expected, since cameras aren't the popular gadget, they were all the way in the back corner of the Walmart. I told Dad I'd push him in wheel chair or he should drive the electric one and I'd sit on his lap. He was having none of it. Not at 8 in the morning, for sure. So we slowly made our way to the camera section. The selection was slim but we found one made my Kodak. As we're checking out I spotted the $5 CD rack and asked Dad to pick out some new road tunes. The current ones had run their course ten-fold. So he picked out Alabama, Hank Williams and one other. I have to admit, the change in music was nice, but truthfully, they didn't hold a candle to the old timers that Dad loved. Back in the car, I practically pulled a muscle trying to get the blister pack open. Good thing Dad never leaves his house without his pocket knife. Now I'm not nerd, but I do know we needed to also buy a memory card but I wasn't sure which, and since the camera was sealed tight I had to kinda guess. I put the card in the camera, showing Dad each step that I knew he'd forget in five minutes. I powered it on and of course I got an error message. Curses! So I opened the quick guide that is in 3-point type (how do old people function in this world with letters that small!) Oh and it didn't help that I had contacts in to help me see distance but are utterly worthless for seeing close up. My heart rate was climbing. I repeated the steps with the same result. Maybe I bought the wrong type of memory card? Then I thought, What Would Ryan Do? Look at You Tube! Huzzah! I typed the camera model and question about memory card install into You Tube and the first video I clicked on was done by an old dude who knew exactly what I had done wrong and after watching it a couple times, I got the relic to fire up. I was so stoked! We had about a minute to spare on our itinerary so all was well! 

Dad with his new toy.

The GOM headquarters is outside of Helena, Montana. According to Wikipedia, its genesis came from a settler named Nicolas Hilger. He was a judge and rancher (we drove through his family's ranch to get to the tour site). In the late 1800s, he had a steam ship made in Iowa and had it shipped in two pieces via the new Northern Pacific Railroad. After it was assembled, the ship, dubbed "The Rose of Helena" steamed its way down the Missouri to his ranch. For almost two decades tours were given to select people excited to see the wild west. But those tours went on for weeks, to Great Falls and back. Can you imagine what that was like back then! 

We arrived at our departure destination. There was a marina with both private and public boat docks and a wonderful lodge with a cafe and gift shop. Below the large deck that looks over the marina, was a historical timeline of Gates of the Mountains, Inc. complete with photos and objects, professionally mounted and displayed, unlike the original steam engine, "Rose", which sat rusting away between it and the boat docks. Oh the stories it knows.

Gates of the Mountains HQ

Our boat for the day.

This plate was on the original Rose of Helena.
I bought Dad a hat as a trip souvenir and a sticker for me from the gift shop. They also had books about the area. There was a historic fire that killed 13 fire jumpers in 1949. The author, Norman MacClean, penned the story about the fire titled "Young Men & Fire". He's more famous for the story that became a Hollywood film starring Brad Pitt called "A River Runs Through It" (one of my top ten movies). 

Finally it was time to depart. Dad and I wandered to the docks early since it required him to walk down a long flight of stairs. He was wearing his Korean Vet hat. 

"Where's the hat I just bought you?" I inquired. 
"In the car. I'm not sure if it fits." Of course.

Dad was first to board and he chose a seat outside, near the stern, on the starboard side, which was great, not only for the views but to keep Dad clear of potential Covid carriers! The Captain got on the mic and introduced himself and gave a few safety talks as we backed out into the lake. Slowly, we headed towards the canyon as the captain gave us the history of the Gates of the Mountains tour company, the land that surrounded it and the family who started it. That got us to the entrance of the canyon where his stories turned to those of Lewis & Clark and the Shoshone Indians that lived in the area. I noticed while he told these stories, he was looking up at the cliffs with binoculars and it made me happy to think that he wasn't just recalling a script but that he was still excited enough to be looking for something cool to share with us. And it paid off. We saw some deer, a giant eagles nest, and a smaller Osprey nest. He knew this area not only from the water's edge but also its backcountry, as a guide. One story in particular was about how he guided the grand child of one of the smoke jumpers who had died many years ago trying to put out the fire in Mann Gulch. He said it was very intense to be in the area that was the final resting place of this person's grandfather. 

First to board!

As we continued to float, my neck ached from all the cranking to look up the cliff faces. With the stories from the Captain fading in and out, my mind wandered to the time of Lewis & Clark and how these cliff faces affected the explorers (by this time Clark had taken another team on foot to find and make nice with Indians, so all accounts of the GOM are from Lewis's journals). From a few of the articles I've read, he wrote these were the highest cliffs they'd come across. I can only wonder what they would have thought of the Grand Canyon! 

We reached a point where the boat had to turn around due to the depth of the water and as the boat turned the boat ever so slowly, the captain told the heroic tales of the smoke jumpers, pointing to ridges and cliffs directly above us to pinpoint where the dead jumpers were later found. 

The last story as we turned our gaze back towards the direction we had just come, was how Lewis named this area the The Gates of the Mountains. As the Captain turned the boat around he pointed to where the space between the walls of the canyon were the most narrow at that very vantage point, but as we moved towards the center, the gate looked like it was widening purely due to perspective. It was a great way to visually understand how the name came about.

"Gate" in the middle partially closed.

"Gate" is wide open.
For the rest of the tour, the Captain said he would answer any questions but would remain mostly quiet so that we could take in what we were seeing and hopefully he would discover something new, as he claimed, usually was the case. We floated upstream on the other side of the canyon so we could see that side up close. The rock formations were interesting and very old. 

Indian petroglyphs.

Rhino Rock (Can you see the rhinoceros face?)

Dirt Girl back on land.
When we returned, Dad tipped the Captain and thanked him for the tour. I think it exceeded his expectations (and he got to use his new camera a lot, although I had to tell him what button to push at least 5 times)! As we stood around taking pictures of the boat, a man, probably in his 40s, came up to Dad and thanked him for his military service (his Korean War Vet hat was the giveaway). I'm not sure if this is a regular occurrence for him but this was the first of a few times to come when he'd get some appreciation from a stranger. The man was a 4th generation Marine. I could tell he was in a hurry to get back to his family when Dad began to tell a story, but he lingered respectfully. I've heard many stories from Dad about his time in the military but none with a bend towards "doing his duty" or "honoring his country". From my observation, his service was a job to him and a chance to travel to distant places. After Dad finished, the stranger shook his hand and thanked him again. It was a proud moment of witness. Then I made him clean his hands when we got back to the car! 

We were one of the last people to leave the marina. It was early afternoon and we had to make a choice about where to go next but the weather made it for us. The forecast for that region, starting that night, was predicting snow and rain for the next several days. I didn't want to wait it out, nor drive in potentially hazardous conditions, in a car that could probably handle it but I wasn't interested in testing the theory. Plus, if there's one thing Dad doesn't like to do, it's driving in anything but dry, sunny conditions. So, in order to stay out of the weather's path, we had to make our way east and south to Dad's next prerequisite stop: Cody, Wyoming to visit The Bill Cody Museum. Dad is a huge, huge, huge reader of Western novels. He loves anything to do with the Wild West and its tales of cowboys and outlaws who wandered the frontier. I often wonder had Dad's station in life been different, would he have traveled more or ended up putting down roots in the Gates of the Mountains somewhere? After many days in the high country, he was probably wondering the same thing. 

Monday, July 20, 2020

Let Love Drive - A Road Trip with My Dad: Sister Act 2

Itinerary: Butte>Corvallis, MT
Miles: 162

In June, despite pandemic and civil unrest, my 85 year old dad and I went on a 5000 mile drive through the mountain west, in his Buick, to see his sisters in Texas and Montana.

The morning we left Butte, the skies were dumping rain. It was the first day of bad weather so far. Bummed that we weren't able to see the Berkeley Pit (see previous post) we refilled our coffee thermoses at the hotel and headed towards Corvallis to see Dad's other sister, Charlotte, who lived alone with two cats and a dog in a trailer court. She offered Dad the guest room if he wanted and I could share her bed with her cats. How old am I, ten? 

The drive through the hill country was great despite the rain. At least we could get some radio stations and when the hit "Maybelline" came on, of course, we belted out the chorus because everyone knows that's what you should do. And it was then that the idea struck me. Maybelline would be the name of Dad's Buick but not just Maybelline—Able Maybel would be her moniker from that day forward. "Yeah, I like that", Dad said, and repeated the name. 

Prior to arriving, Dad seemed hesitant about visiting Charlotte. Dad's prone to argue with her more than his other sister and their phone calls, many times, end with one hanging up on the other. More than once she has called me when she couldn't get ahold of Dad. He'd eventually call her. "She just wanted someone to complain to," he'd say.

So, we took the long way, up through Missoula where we stopped for more coffee at a local shop and then south on a two-lane highway, minding speed limits as we passed through small town after small town. The Bitter Root valley was stunning. Mountains to the west and the Bitter Root River to the east. Large expanses of ranch land filled the voids between the mini metropolises. Despite it being a week day, the morning rush was in no hurry what so ever. I followed respectfully behind a new Chevy being driven by an old cowboy. This city girl had gone country.

We pulled into the trailer court. It was much larger and more spread out than where Barbara lives and it felt more like a neighborhood with trees and flowers. Such is the difference between living on the edge of suburbia and the edge of wilderness. Her trailer was double wide with a nice large covered porch. Not too soon after we arrived, she gave us the dime tour which included her yard and all the aches and pains of trying to keep plants and flowers alive. 

We spent all day, like we did with Barbara, chatting, or rather as Dad always says about their phone calls, listening. "I can't get a word in edgewise" he would gripe. That was indeed the case that day which was good because I didn't know any of the old stories and Charlotte was the keeper of the family history. She has one of those memories, unlike Dad and myself, where she can recall dates and names of family members current and deceased. She talked much of their mom but less of her dad, who is not the same as Dad's father. "I'm a bastard!" she exclaimed standing in her kitchen, wild eyed. "I'm not ashamed of it". And without missing a beat, Dad says, "I think it was the mail man." No wonder she hangs up on him! 

Over the loud background of the TV (she was addicted to watching Northwoods Law on Animal Planet) her stories bled from one to the next, unless she stopped to pay attention to something interesting on Northwoods Law like finally figuring out who was poaching local deer. 

"You know what I call those people?" Charlotte asked over the TV.

"No, what?" I asked, waiting from some kind of slur.

"Rebel rousers! People that cause a ruckus, that's what I call 'em!" I laughed to myself. I don't know that I've actually heard anyone say that word out loud. 

Dad chimed in a few times to add to her story but mostly he sat in the recliner, lip reading the TV. When they did share a story, it went back decades to a simpler, obviously much more difficult time. But despite those times, they also seemed to have found joys. He spoke of having to steal whatever he could get to eat or sell to get money to eat. One daunting story was when his aunt fetched him from the doctor for some kind of illness and she had to carry him. They walked by a market that had a sign reading mule meat 10¢ lb. She told my dad that he had to walk because she couldn't pass up the sale and couldn't carry both him and the meat. Dad told another a story about how his mom gave him enough money to see a movie but he had to pick between seeing a silent black and white film and have enough money left over for popcorn (which he still loves today, as do I) or see a color film but no snacks. He said he chose color because it was Pinocchio and he stayed in the theater all day watching it over and over 'til they kicked him out. Since Charlotte was younger, either she wasn't born yet or was too young to recall these stories. She shared stories of her high school sweetheart whom she eventually married ("But to the disapproval of his mother. I wasn't good enough.") From the photos she showed me, he was quite the looker and it seemed to me, despite her disdain for him at the present time (they separated long ago), she secretly longed for those days again of living a good life in California and eventually Montana. She had me get one of her albums off a high shelf that had pictures of her kids, which I had never met and whom Dad hadn't seen in over 30 years. She had no filter, telling me who she liked of her kids and who she didn't and why. And she seemed rather proud of that detail of her character, reminding me that you'll always get the truth, good or bad, from her. She told us we should go see her favorite son, Ray, in Cody when we stop there. 

As the day wore on, Dad was blinking incessantly, enough to cause Aunt Charlotte to ask why he was blinking so much. Dad said because they were watering and itching. She admitted to using a strong cleaning solution because she hated her home to smell of animals (which it didn't). Either he was allergic to the pets or the cleansing residue. Either way, that gave us the reason to get a hotel instead of staying the night. After a simple meal she made, we said good night and left to check into our hotel. The evening was young so we went for a drive, just to see what there was to see. We found access to the Bitter Root River and like I did back in Salida, I put my hand in the water and then grabbed Dad's, not only to share the shock of how cold it was, but also to say I'm glad I'm here with you, by a river in the mountains. 

It's interesting to go through the exercise of thinking about your parents as young people, long before the weight of parenthood and adulthood have taken their toll. I love this photo of my dad with his nephew, Guy. I can see my brothers in his face. His ears haven't changed one bit ("There are two body parts that never stop growing, your nose and your ears", he and Charlotte would say). 

The day's conversations shifted my perspective of my dad. For so long I've heard the same problems and struggles with his health and what-not, that I forget he was wild eyed and bushy tailed, like in the photo. I like to imagine the younger James Abbott as being similar to the character, Jack, in the movie Titanic: always hustling, street smart, kind, lean of judgement, and ready for adventure. 

As we drove back to the hotel, I felt bad that after all the traveling I've done over the last twenty years, it took this long for us to travel together. But I'm sure glad we finally did. Can't change the past so let's be getting on with it, he would have most likely said, had I mentioned this thought.

And so we did, capping the night with more cribbage games and beers. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Let Love Drive: A Road Trip with My Dad - Dinosaur CO to Butte MT

Itinerary: Dinosaur CO > Idaho Falls ID > Butte MT
Miles: 619

In June, despite pandemic and civil unrest, my 85 year old dad and I went on a 5000 mile drive through the mountain west, in his Buick, to see his sisters in Texas and Montana.

The day's drive was going to be our longest of the trip. The end goal was Butte, Montana or somewhere close. Dad really wanted to show me this giant hole he'd seen when he lived up in the area in the 80s. It was the result of copper mining and from his memory, he kept saying how the hole was so big that the trucks driving down its walls looked like toys. 

"Where is the hole, Dad?"

"I'm not exactly sure. We'll figure it out when we get there. Just tell your phone to get us to Butte."

We would end up driving west along the top eastern corner of Utah before turning north into eastern Idaho and finally crossing into Montana by way of the Bitterroot wilderness.  All said and done, we'd drive in four states that day!

Leaving Dinosaur, CO in the wee hours was like a vacation for the eyes. The high desert in the morning is an orchestrated dance of color and light, where the shadows get to dance before the sun burns them off. It wasn't long before we crossed into Utah and it looked much like the Utah I've been to in the more southern regions. Seriously, Utah is such an extremely rugged place. We've ridden bikes countless times in Moab and hiked around the Canyonlands. Bryce, Capitol Reef, Grand Escalante and Zion are absolute wonders of nature. I highly recommend going to Utah in the spring or fall when the temps aren't as hot and really getting into the interior. Capitol Reef and Grand Escalante are the lesser of the known areas which is fine by me. When we were there, we could get right up to the formations and see the lines of color at arm's length. Go. Now. 

I didn't realize our elevation until we started descending into Deer Valley by way of Daniel's Pass at around 8000 feet. It took a solid 20-25 minutes to get down the mountain and the terrain went from desert to pure alpine, with mountain sides thick with evergreens and budding aspens. Back country skiing is a big thing in Park City, home to the 2002 Winter Olympics. In fact, we could see they Olympic ski jump from the interstate. Dad thought that was pretty cool. We stopped at a gas station after the descent off the mountain. I needed to get gas and being back in the mountains, I thought I better buy another container of coolant just to be on the safe side. 

We gained some elevation on the way to I-15 and the Buick handled it fine. I was still driving and being in 80-90 mph traffic was a crazy wake up call since it was morning rush hour. We were too far north to see the Great Salt Lake. We drove parallel to the railroad and passed the sign leading to The Golden Spike National Historical Park. I kinda wished we would have taken time to stop but we had a long day of driving.

By lunch we made it to Idaho Falls and while stopped Dad's sister called. I could hear both sides of the conversation and so could everyone else in the Subway restaurant. Dad has bad hearing and even with his hearing aid in, if he chooses to wear it, he still puts his phone calls on speaker and talks LOUD and when he's feeling ornery, he'll answer the phone with "What" instead of "Hello" and today was one of those days.


"Where you at?" asked Aunt Charlotte.

"Idaho Falls."

"What are you doing all the way over there?"

"I'm on vacation. I'm seeing stuff."

"What stuff? Are you coming to see me or not?"

"I'm on vacation. We'll get there tomorrow. Bye"

This was the same conversation he'd had with his sister two times prior. He was getting bit over it.

We drove over to the actual falls of Idaho Falls and parked along a popular walking path. From what I could discern, the falls are just a beautified flood water management solution. It had a developed River Walk around it with lots of points to view and art installations. The businesses around it were quaint so it seemed that the area was in the middle of a revitalization. It was a good leg stretch stop for sure!

Idaho Falls

Sculpture on the River Walk around the falls

The man himself at Idaho Falls

With state number 5 checked off the list, we made our way to the sixth state of the trip: Montana. I'd never been to Montana and I was excited to finally get to the place my dad talks the most about aside from his military travel. Ryan's been there and many friends. I've been to Idaho and Wyoming and now I was finally going to see what Lewis & Clark dubbed the Gates of the Mountains and the land that birthed the Missouri River.

I asked Dad to take the wheel for the next stretch. Before we got on the interstate, we stopped for gas. Dad noticed the truck at the pump in front of us had a sticker or something on it that related to Butte. Dad went up to the group standing outside the truck while I pumped gas. I hoped Dad wasn't going to be too annoying.

"The hole is still there", Dad said when he returned to the car. "They drove by it this morning."

"Oh, yeah? Did you ask them where it was?"

"No. I forgot."
I rolled my eyes as I went around to the passenger side.

The next three hours was a mix of classic country on the radio where we got to sing On the Road Again and Ring of Fire before we lost signal. Then talk turned to Dad's days of living in Montana. He moved there after my parents separated. I was probably around 11 or 12 years old. I would hear from him occasionally by letter or by phone. He lived with his sister Barb and her family for while in Great Falls. His other sister, Charlotte, who we were on our way to see, had moved up there with her family as well so he had a support system. It seemed he bounced around depending on where the work took him. He had a fishing and hunting buddy and Dad claims his friend didn't like killing animals and would come along for the adventure but not actually shoot anything.

By the time we arrived in Butte, it was close to 4pm. After the roach motel in Dinosaur, I thought we needed a place a bit more upscale, where we felt we could shower in safe and sanitary conditions. I got us a couple of rooms on the first floor but one wouldn't be ready for a few hours (the hotel was short staffed due to Covid). So we put our things in one room and headed out to find the elusive Big Pit.

Dad remembered that the company running the mine was Anaconda Mining Co or something of that nature. There just to happened to be a town about 40 minutes up the road with the name of Anaconda. Seemed like a good place to start. What's another 1.5 hours of driving, right? My eyes were about shot but Dad was visually excited and unlike me, not exhausted, so I sucked it up and off we went. I looked up Anaconda, MT on Google and there was some kind of place where you could park and walk up to an actual smelter stack. Ok, things were looking promising. So we drove there and it was a pretty drive and we get to the stack and there are large mounds of coal, one after the other, along the road we were on. Dad was certain we were NOT in the right place. I asked him if it's possible the pit was back in Butte where the GIANT AF strip mining operation was that could be seen from the interstate. I believe his exact reply was "No. No. No." He told me to pull into the gas station we could see ahead of us and he'd go in and ask. I stayed in the car.

As I'm Googling the shit out of this pit thing, a lady knocks on the car window. Dad is standing behind her. I rolled down the window and she said the mine pit is back in Butte. I wanted to scream. I wanted to shout. I listened to her directions which were confusing AF and I asked her to just tell me what it's called and I'll plug it into the phone. Clearly, I was tired and hungry.

Aha! We had directions, finally, to the Berkeley Pit.

Forty minutes later we arrived back in Butte and went through an older part of town. When Molly said, "You've arrived" we were on a nondescript street. Our heads were spinning side to side. If this thing is as big as he said it was, like, it should be really noticeable. I pull a U-turn and then I see a sign on a shack-like building that says Berkeley Pit. I pull into the empty parking lot. The sign on the building door said it had closed at 5pm. It was almost 6pm! Dad looked confused. He looked up the hill next to the parking lot that had a fence at the top. He suggested we walk up to the fence. I disagreed and noted there was $2 entry fee that would allow us to get onto a viewing platform so we'd be trespassing (and Dad couldn't climb it anyway). Dad was deflated. His memory is pretty vivid of this place and he recalled seeing it from a high vantage point. Upon further research, as I write this, there is A LOT of information about the pit. It closed in 1982, about 2-3 years before Dad moved to Montana so I'm thinking at that point in time it probably wasn't a tourist site and he could walk right up to the edge. The pit is literally full to its brim of very poisonous water. The local who gave us the directions said it was supposed to hit its peak this year, as in it won't be able to hold anymore water. 

Google Street view

Google aerial view

screenshot from the internet street view

One website says: The Berkeley Pit is a former open-pit copper mine in Butte, Montana and now one of the only places in the world where you can pay to see toxic waste. The sheer scale of the site is something to behold. In aerial photos, it appears simply as a huge black splotch. The pit is one mile long by half a mile wide, and over 1,780 feet deep, 1,000 of which are filled with acidic water with high concentrations of heavy metals and toxic chemicals, including copper, iron, arsenic, cadmium, zinc, and sulfuric acid.

If only I'd had the name of the pit I could have planned this better. Considering all the info, even a website dedicated to the science of the pit, it's amazing I didn't find it online at first. My Google foo was definitely off that day. So, we decided we'd go to it in the morning. It didn't open until 9am so that meant we could sleep in a little. I was stoked.

But before we could even think of sleep, I needed to get some food. My headache was reaching epic stage.

Dad had been wanting to get pizza so we drove to a place across the street from our hotel. It was packed with a 20 minute wait. (The town had just relaxed some eat in ordinances so people were taking advantage of the new freedom). I didn't want to subject Dad to a noisy, non-mask wearing environment so we went to another place a block away that was connected to a casino. Dad was hoping to play some black jack. (Dad, hello, pandemic). But when we went in, the casino side was closed, of course, and the pizza side had literally just opened that day and was only fulfilling to go orders. Dad didn't want to do that so I looked up a third place that was back towards the mine and same thing, only to go orders, and of course a long wait. When I went back to the car to tell Dad, he said to just go to Arby's. Deal. At that point I was ready to eat horse meat, which is probably what I did but the curly fries made up for it. At least we could eat without a million people around. It's not the ideal experience but I was slowly starting to side with Dad's way of doing things. Keep it simple. He doesn't care about having a good culinary experience. Give him a hardy ham sandwich or a tasty burger and he's good as long as there is Dr. Pepper to wash it down. Menus just confuse him and loud places make it hard to communicate. Plus, he'll hate the food anyway or get upset about the cost of "two pieces of bread around some meat".

We got back to the hotel around 7pm or so. Before I went to my room I challenged him to a game of cribbage. Dad loves cards and he'll play with anyone who asks. (When he was in a rehab facility after he had surgery a few years ago, he was in paradise, playing cards with all the patients who were more than willing to pass the time with him). I went out to the car and grabbed one of his beers and one or two of my White Claws (it's all that the Cubby's had in Scotty City, Kansas. Sue me). I dropped off the drinks and went to my room to get a chair and a bag of popcorn I had bought along the way. Under multiple lamp lights (Dad needs lots of light to read and these new hotels do not have ceiling light) we snuggled up to the desk in the room. Dad and I played cribbage using an app on my phone for the board. It was fun. Dad has no qualms about winning or losing. He would make sure I had counted all my cards, even if it would put me ahead. Winning was not the point at the moment. After a couple games, I went back to my room, took a long bath and poured myself into bed, grateful to not have to worry about cock roaches or no air conditioning. It was heavenly.

The next morning, I got a call around 8 from the front desk. "Your dad wanted me to tell you he's up." I laughed. He was in the lobby getting coffee. I had been up so I walked out and could here Dad from down the hall asking the attendant about how to use the coffee dispensers. His suitcase was sitting next a chair. He was ready to go but unfortunately, it was raining like a banshee so we didn't get to see the pit. I didn't have any feelings one way or another but after looking at the photos on this website, it would have been pretty amazing to see.

"Well, we'll have to come back and see it", he said.

I totally agreed!

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Let Love Drive - A Road Trip with my Dad: Salida to Dinosaur CO

Itinerary: Salida to Dinosaur CO
Miles: 298

In June despite pandemic and civil unrest, my Dad and I went on a 5000 mile drive through the mountain west, in his Buick, starting in Texas and ending in Iowa where he lives. 

This day was going to be a day of reckoning. Either the car was going to go up and over Monarch Pass and we'd continue the journey or it wasn't and we were going to have to figure out plan B. (See previous post).

We were now in mountain time and getting up early was a synch, as my body clock was on eastern time. That morning Dad was up 'n at 'em when I called his room at 7am. For the rest of the trip, he wouldn't sleep in like he did in Kansas. But I'm pretty sure that was due to restless sleep at his sister's place. I made coffee for him after he tried brewing it himself using the coffee maker in his room without a filter. I had brought with me some instant Starbucks to-go packs which actually taste pretty good and are great substitutes for premium coffee stops. I prefer to support local coffee shops whenever possible, but a lot of small towns don't have them so I came prepared. For him, I just would add extra water to mimic something close to Foldgers. Dad is a hardcore coffee consumer, drinking it all day and into the night. But I suppose that's possible when it's as weak as he likes it. :)

Driving west out of Salida, the Sawatch mountain range was in plain view and hung heavy on my mind. I got a text from Ryan to make sure to ask Dad if he needed to "use the throne" before heading up to altitude. I did just that when we stopped at the last gas station to fuel up. Dad laughed and smiled and said no as he gulped down his coffee. I have no idea how he can drink so much coffee and not have to pee every hour. I did not get the camel bladder gene from Dad. My bladder is a force not to reckon with and when it's time to go, it's time to go. 

Speaking of going, it was time to test out the Buick and our new information on how to drive it up a mountain. We didn't need the a.c. that morning as it was in the 50s when we started out. Dad, being the king temperature checker back home, was all over the outside temp gauge as we climbed higher and higher. I kept the car at a conservative speed of around 50 mph until I could feel the pull on the engine. I shifted into low and used the +, - buttons to control the shifting. Per Ryan's suggestions, I drove as if we were an RV pulling a yacht. Slow and steady would win this race. 

We passed the spot where we stalled the day before and we let out a cautious yahoo. I rubbed the dashboard and gave the car some words of encouragement. I watched the temp gauge like a hawk and backed it off at the slightest indication it wanted to move up. We were alone on the road. We came up on a tanker and after thinking I'd just sit behind him the whole way, I actually took a chance to go ahead on a passing lane. The engine temp gauge didn't budge what so ever. The outside temp gauge was a different story and Dad was fixated. By probably 10K feet, the temps were in the high thirties and I could almost feel dad shivering. He hates being cold, hence the double layered flannel shirt over his other flannel shirt. The morning was glorious. Crystal blue skies and the sun beaming through the lodge poll pines that resided across the mountain sides. Dad worked in a gardening center in Omaha before he and my mom ran their own lawn service and he tries to recall types of trees, plants and shrubs out loud all the time. Most of the time I think he just makes up the name but it doesn't matter. What matters is that he's paying attention. He's making himself be present and notice the landscapes and views around him. It'd been a long time since he'd seen a mountain, let alone be driving up one, so I had a full heart believing he was having fun.

Then, we saw it. Or at least we think we saw it. For 85, my dad has great long-view vision. Comes from years and I mean decades of staring down the river, observing its soul and learning its temperament. Dad lives on the Missouri River and he's been fishing on it for much of his life. Once he returned from his military duties, he was never too far from that river for any length of time. Staring hard and squinting, we think we see a large deer or elk right smack in the middle of the two-lane highway. Not far up from it is a bend in the road so I fix my sights on it because that animal was not getting out of way for me. Its head was bent over as it was eating something off the pavement so I slowed down and swerved to the right. The beast looked up like it was annoyed that I was disturbing his breakfast. "You're going to get nailed, buddy" I said as we passed by. I continued up and sure enough as we went around the curve, a large truck with a trailer was coming down the mountain. I tried to get his attention by waving and then pointing to my eyes, military style, and pointing back over my shoulder. Just before we disappeared around the turn, I could see break lights in the mirror. We both hoped it turned out well for all parties.

We continued our accent. Dad decided it was a good time to tell me the story of when he and mom went hunting and had to be towed up this very same mountain. Oh, really? Gee, did it not have any transmission fluid in it? Not the right time to tell me this story, Dad. He rambled on about some part he tried to fix before getting a tow. But before he could finish his story, we made it to the top of Monarch Pass and the continental divide! We pulled into a lot that I've stopped at numerous times. The visitor center was closed (thankfully Dad didn't have to use the throne) and there was only one other vehicle in the very large lot that is usually packed. We parked by the famed sign marking the altitude and location. Luckily, the couple in the other vehicle offered to take our picture after I offered to take theirs with their dog. The image of Dad and l on that perch is one I'll always cherish, not just because of the adversity we overcame to get there but because it's a place we both have been at different times in our lives and at that moment despite all the craziness in the world, it was just me and Dad doing this thing, together. I told him my stories of being dropped off here only to ride up higher on the trails, while it was actively snowing, to get to the start of enduro race stages. He thought it was pretty neat but also that I was crazy. Yeah, I thought the same thing at the time.

As they say on Everest, getting up is only half way. You still have to get down and so it was on Monarch Mountain. I was pretty nervous since the breaks shuttered so much but we took our sweet time and made it down easily. The huge valley on the other side, I told Dad, is one of my favorite views of all the places we've traveled. It's like the earth sighed and took a break from all the violence and energy it used to create the Sawatch Range. It was beautiful, with a babbling river snaking below the green hills, lush with tall grasses and wild flowers. Puffy clouds, like a herd of buffalo, silently moved along above us, casting shadows on the ground below. I felt my shoulders finally relax and my grip loosen. We might actually make it, I hoped.

I put in one of Dad's CDs. It was time to start having fun again. As Dad belted out one of his favorite tunes, I thought, how was it that he (and I) can recall such old melodies but our recent memory of detail is so crappy? It gave me an idea. Dad was having trouble remembering his pin number on his new debit card. He would sometimes punch in the last couple numbers backwards. Eventually, I just kept the card and would do all the gas pumping and purchasing but even I needed recalling the new pin number. So as we drove in the shadows of the mountains towards Gunnison, I made up a song that had his pin number in it and sang it like one of the old western tunes. It went like this:

Fifty-three fourteen
Is my new pin number
It will help me remember
If I sing this song.

Fifty-three fourteen
Is my new pin number
Singing'll help me remember
So I don't get it wrong.

I sang it many times in a row to hopefully get it stuck in his head. It worked for me. I caught myself singing and even humming it the rest of the trip. I hope I never forget it. Even now as I recall the memory, I can see Dad's face in the passenger seat looking out the window smiling at my singing, unsure if it was at my self-claimed cleverness or its absolute absurdity. 

By late morning we were just outside of Gunnison, Colorado. We enjoyed the solo tour through the rich ranch lands that were home to herds of cattle and goats. When we pulled into town, Dad said it was time for more coffee. Ok, dude, you're speaking my language. But I warned him that he may not like where I get it from. He didn't put up too much of a fight so I took his thermos into the shop we usually hit when in town. It had changed since we were there last with a new name and updated style. Since they didn't have drip I ordered two Americanos, one with extra water. Since COVID didn't allow them to pour directly into our thermoses I had to take them in cups and pour into the thermoses myself, which actually was a great way for me to control the amount of water and temperature. I ended up taking his into the bathroom and turned on the tap to hot. I poured out about a half cup of his Americano and filled it with water. Perfecto! He lapped it down, without complaint, as he dunked his gingersnaps. 

We didn't have a real agenda outside of making it to Dinosaur, Colorado, so we drove to Crested Butte, another destination that is a favorite of mine and Ryan. We've taken our most bold riding friends here as the terrain requires you to be a good rider. As we drove up the only paved road into town, I told him a few stories, one being when we hosted our friend Larry's 50th birthday party up in a lodge that we could see from the road and that it was infested with mice I also pointed out the famous butte of Crested Butte and where Ryan and I camped next to the local school along with others when we were there for a multi-day stage race. The race promoters had not secured a location for campers until we brought it to their attention and that was the spot the city allowed. But to our luck, because the town was physically being taken over by Bud Light for a festival, the event's beer vendor wasn't allowed in the city boundaries, so they had to camp where we were. We had real beer for the entirety of the event, so thank you Budweiser! 

Elk Mountain Range
The town of CB was alive with travelers and locals milling about. Outdoor yoga was happening on a stage. Mountain bike skills were being taught in a common open space (no masks) and the main drag, Elk Ave, was open for business. We drove by Al's Bicycle Heaven and of course it was open, helping customers with rentals and such. I told him it was owned by an Omaha native and how I got to meet her when I was there for a race that she was also competing in. I pointed out that many homes had bikes in the yard and that CB has a long history with mountain biking. I tried to recall as many details as I could about the history and the legendary ride over Vail pass by those that are now considered to be the inventors of the mountain bike. Anyway, it was fun to share this place with Dad that is so special to us.

We went back to Gunnison the way we came and Dad said he was ready for a coffee refill. I was caffeinated to the hilt so I decided to go through a drive through place on the edge of town. They didn't have drip either so I told Dad this was going to probably be stronger than the one he just had and he mumbled something about having to get over it. 

The next few hours were visually stunning. We drove by and over the Blue Reservoir, a large natural body of water that was so vibrant against the red rocks above them. Dad really enjoyed this segment of the drive, commenting on the types of boats that were out. I stopped a few times to read some of the site interpretations so I could give Dad some of the details of what he was seeing. Really fun was telling him how old some of the rock layers were. "They're older than me" he said. Yep, way older.

We weren't decided on if we were going to drive into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, the 5th steepest canyon in America, where some sections only get about 30 minutes of sunlight per day. Ryan and I visited there one summer when we were traveling to Telluride. We got a glimpse of one of its canyons as we descended down into the Grand Valley south of Grand Junction. We got stuck in some construction traffic and that kinda took some air out of our balloon until we passed the crewman with the "slow" sign, who was dancing and waving at each car that passed by. Dad thought that was great. But the turn off to the Black Canyon came and went and we decided to keep going. I had to make a potty stop or I was going to pee my pants and it took me a few u-turns to finally find a place and a spot to grab a sandwich. Of course, Subway is everywhere and luckily, that's what Dad prefers because he can watch them put the extra jalepenos and banana peppers on his ham sandwich. We dawned our masks and got in and got out. I made Dad sanitize his hands on the way out! 

Whew, it was hot! High desert and aired confirmed we were definitely in western Colorado. We pulled into Fruita (I pointed out the mountain biker painted on the side of the tall silo and you come into town). We stopped for a quick bathroom break and to book our motel in Dinosaur. Then I drove Dad around the town circle before getting back on the interstate. I missed the exit on the circle so had to do another go 'round. Listening to the phone give me directions and trying to read the signs while traffic was merging in and out of the circle was stressful. Dad thought it was funny that "Molly" was telling us to go the wrong way. But she wasn't. The driver was just confused. 

On our way out of Fruita, I pointed to the Book Cliffs and told stories of riding on trails known as 18 Road and pointing in the general direction of my all time favorite trails in Rabbit Valley, where I've ridden and taken others to ride, along ribbons of trail above the Colorado River. Absolutely stunning. The exit to those trails was the exit we had to take to continue north. From there forward, I would be driving through unfamiliar lands. In fact, after we went through the town of Loma, we saw a sign that read no services for 70 miles. I prayed we wouldn't need them.

The terrain in the north western part of Colorado looks similar to eastern Utah with lots of red rock cliffs towering above green pastures. We saw little sign of life and I couldn't get a radio signal for longer than a couple minutes. Towards the end of the valley we had been driving in, about 50 miles since the exit, the road started to go up. Like we did the first time over Monarch Pass, it was in the hottest part of the day and I had to pull down the sun visor on the side of my face b/c it was so hot (I ended up with a sunburn, actually). We put a flannel shirt on the dash to keep the heat from radiating off of it. I turned off the ac and turned on only the fan. We opened the windows and slowly started to climb the steep switch backs. I noticed the engine needle started to move up. SHIT!!! There was no shoulder and the other side was a sheer drop to the valley below. Come on car!! I told Dad about the gauge but he was not deterred. Shouldn't matter if it gets a little hot. Well, tell that to the car! I was going super slow. A group of motorcycle riders went passed. Chug-a-chug-a-chug. We were the little car the could. I think I can. I think I can. The road continued up and on one section where it was somewhat straight, we saw a cow crossing warning sign. My dad was like, wait, what? How does a cow get up here? I had to admit, I was just as confused about it. Maybe the highway guys installed the wrong sign. Maybe it was supposed to be a mountain goat and they were like, close enough. We went around a couple of pretty tight bends with just a railing between us and certain death. Wouldn't want to be here after dark, Dad said. I couldn't agree more and when we saw the top I was so relieved. We pulled over to get a picture atop Douglas Pass. The moto guys had pulled over as well, and as Dad does, he struck up a conversation about his old Gold Wing, and how he had driven it to Sturgis one year. They were great guys and had been on the road for some time, heading back to Salt Lake. When they asked where we were from, they had heard about the area and the scenic Loess Hills. When we said where we had driven from that day, they were all too familiar with our route. It was fun talking with them. Dad even suggested he take their picture. I was like, good job, Dad. Jumping on the photo wagon. I think he was just excited to be talking to someone else. Haha.

Literally a highway to nowhere.

Looking back on the road we came up.

Dad's got his captain hat on Douglas Pass.

A tad windy up there at 8268'

The long haulers' bikes.
We left our new friends and continued north. We passed through the small town of Rangley and Dad decided, when he saw the words ICE painted on the local mini-mart that he wanted ice cream. So I did a u-turn to get him some ice cream. He came out with two pints, one for each of us. Since I was driving, I put mine in the cooler. Dad got after his and it was hard as cement but he eventually got it soft enough to eat. By the time we pulled into Dinosaur, he had consumed the whole thing.

It didn't take long to find the motel, as it was the only one. The town was on the edge of the Dinosaur National Monument but I have to say, the town in and of itself was a dinosaur. It had two gas stations, two dispensaries and one bar. The motel was actually up for sale and that had me a bit worried. That worry was reinforced when I saw a family of kids hanging out the front door of one of the rooms on the end and another man on the stoop in front of his door. The lobby was once probably a barn-shaped shed and the check in was all virtual, using a phone and the doorbell app. After calling the number on the door, I was let in and then told to answer the land line phone if it rang. After filling out my check in card, the phone rang and I was told what keys to grab. So weird. I walked back to the car and gave Dad his key and then when I tried to get into my room, I couldn't get the door open. I called the number I used to check in and she said she'd ask the motel manager (aka the guy a few doors down who lives there) to come help. He got it open and he was very nice about it. The rooms were dark and run down. But they were cheap and you get what you get. 

It was late afternoon so we did what you're supposed to do when it's hot as a well diggers ass in summer- day drink. We drove across the street to the Highway Bar & Grill to belly up and cool off. The inside didn't match the weather-warn exterior. It had been recently purchased by the owners working the bar and the decor was a mix of old and new, with high ceilings and funny signs. And as luck would have it, a large pool table was the center piece of the space. There are two things that Dad loves more than anything: fishing and playing pool. He's been playing pool since he knew how to hold a cue and "back in the day" was a mild-mannered hustler. Now he says he's never hustled anyone in his life. He always played on the up and up, making sure both he and the other new the rules of the game. Even at his age, and weakening vision, the guy can still call the hole like a pro. My brothers can beat him more these days but Dad's no quitter. He won't make it easy. We played one match and he helped me with some of the shots. The bar owners' kid was waiting tables and asked if he could play. I was like, have at it! I knew Dad would have a blast playing someone who knew what they were doing and even more fun against someone 70+ years younger. We were the only ones in the bar by the second match. I ordered another round of jack n Coke and a beer for Dad (no Busch heavy!) and put some funds into the digital juke box.

"Hey, Dad. Hank senior or junior?"

"Senior. Don't ever make that mistake again". 

So noted.

We were the only ones in the bar. I sent this photo of Dad to my brothers reporting that Dad was in the middle of nowhere and Heaven all at the same time. 

After Dad tired of playing, we ordered some burgers and ate them on the outdoor patio. Some local rowdies pulled in on their bikes and it was a sign that we were to be going. Instead of driving straight back to the motel, we drove to the entrance of Dinosaur National Monument, about 5 minutes away. I didn't plan on driving into the park, but that's exactly what we did. There wasn't anyone at the entrance so we just drove in and stopped at the first viewpoint we could see: Bull Canyon. It was stunning! And because it had a paved foot path, Dad got out and walked to its edge. We had fun reading the sign about the ages of the layers we were looking at. It was a bit breezy and the sun and clouds were dancing, creating some great color for our solo tour. From what we could tell, we were the only ones there. We drove on and stopped in almost every pull out to get a picture of the ancient expanse. Dad stayed in the car while I took full advantage of the scenery with nobody else around. I would hold my breath and listen to the wind try to tell me the story of the land it had help form. We probably drove for an hour before we decided to turn around. 

Plug Hat Butte, Dinosaur National Monument

We went back to the motel. After a few minutes, I went to check on Dad and of course the TV didn't work. I tried the remote a few times and I couldn't even get a signal so Dad went down to the "manager's" room and banged on the door. I could hear him ask in his usual, crabby way, "Can you come down here and help us figure out this damn remote." The guy was very nice and didn't know how to figure it out any better than us. He messed with it and finally I told Dad that we should switch rooms so he could have the TV that worked and I could have the air conditioned room. Deal! The manager kept messing with the remote for a good half our, even calling the land lord. He even offered a different room but I was like, nah. I don't need it work, so can you please get the hell out of my room already! 

After he finally left, I read for a bit and then went to bed. I had a restless sleep and good thing because when a cockroach decided to crawl on me, I was on it like murder hornet, killing it with the closest thing to me, which was my Kindle. Yeah, my e-reader was a bug killing weapon. Sue me. Needless to say, I really didn't sleep worth shit after that. The next morning, Dad told me about his night's adventures that included killing not only a cockroach but a myriad of other insects. Sorry, Dad. I'll try not to book us in a roach motel again! 

I was none to glad to get the hell out of Dinosaur, where even the streets were named after the prehistoric creatures. Imagine having to fill out paperwork with addresses that included Stegosaurus Street or Brontosaurus Way.

photo credit to https://anorcadianabroad.com/

photo credit to https://anorcadianabroad.com/
I guess not even having fun street names brought many people through town anymore. From what the manager said, the motel was used mostly by those coming to stop at the dispensaries. I thought about that as we drove out of town because I remembered I left the pint of ice cream Dad bought me in the freezer of the mini fridge. I laughed at the thought of the next person to rent that room, who after smoking a bowl, would go to the mini fridge to see if there was something to eat, and then imagining the joy on their face upon discovering a pint of Raspberry/Chocolate swirl ice cream. Good job, Dad.