Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Let Love Drive - A Road Trip with My Dad: Connecting with the Past

Itinerary: Visit the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody Wyoming
Miles: 83 

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.

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We left Helena ahead of a large storm system. Reports were coming in from farther north at Glacier NP that they were getting many inches of snow as eventually would Helena. I was so glad to be driving ahead of it because a ten mile stretch of interstate 89 was being resurfaced and we had to drive on gravel/dirt behind a line of vehicles. Snow or ice would have made for some sketchy driving conditions for sure. We drove about 4 hours to the town of Joliet, near the southern Montana boarder. It was a tiny town that serviced the railroad industry. I booked us two rooms at a train-themed hotel, opting for the cheaper digs in the unattached building behind the main hotel, saving us about $40. When I drove around to the back, the building was a single level structure, almost like those we had in elementary school when there wasn't enough room in the actual school for all the classes. I was a bit worried when I opened the main door. Inside was a washer and dryer. It didn't smell or anything but it was definitely more of a dormitory for rail road workers noting the linoleum floors, tight hallways and doors with heavy-duty locks. Luckily, the room was descent enough. Linens smelled freshly washed and there was plenty of room. Once I was able to get Dad's remote to work, I settled in for the night. 

The next morning, we took advantage of the free breakfast. Dad just got his usual coffee but I made a Belgium waffle with butter and syrup. Dad thought that was pretty neat. I think he ate a doughnut. All around the room were paintings of trains in beautiful places in the mountains. According to the desk clerk, the owners were huge Elvis Presley fans and in the entrance was a large display case of kitschy memorabilia. It seemed out of place, but it was the wild west after all.

We bid Joliet farewell and hit the road. Cruising through rolling ranch land on a two-lane highway, we passed through towns like Bearcreek and Belfry. We arrived in Cody around 8:30 a.m. so we could get in early at the Buffalo Bill Museum. This was a planned stop for us. Dad never made it to the museum when he lived in Montana and it was something he said he wanted to do when we first began planning the route. Dad is a fan of the Old West. He hooked all of us kids on Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns pretty early in our lives and they are still our favorite. My brothers and I would sit for hours on a Sundays and watch those long drawn out westerns on TV. Dad reads western novels and books by the dozen and so it was no surprise he wanted to see the museum. 

We were one of a few cars in the lot when we pulled in which was perfect. I didn't want to be inside a place with a bunch of people but Dad was excited and the museum is very large so we were able to spread out and even were in spaces alone. Not only did the museum tell the story of Bill Cody and his Wild West show in fine detail but it also housed a historical display on Indians (Bill Cody was a friend of the Indian, employing many in his traveling shows to tell their story) a western art wing and an entire wing dedicated to the history of firearms. According to Wikipedia, "The museum showcased the fame and success Cody attained through this 'Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show,' and addresses his influence on the economic and cultural development of the American West." All of it was very impressive. The collection of costumes and artifacts, even one of the actual wagons, was of the highest quality. It not only covered the traveling show but also his personal history. He was born in Iowa, lived in Kansas and was part of the Pony Express before he became a scout for the Army.

It was fun to watch Dad as he made his way through the displays. Though he had his cane with him, I thought for sure he'd only last an hour or more but to my surprise, he lasted many hours. Some of that was due to him trying to find the actual firearm he used in the Marines. The firearm part of the museum was extensive. I'm not totally sure we found THE rifle but we got close. He kept mentioning a detail about the scope on his weapon and that seemed to be the detail we couldn't find.

But what he did find was a new cane. In the museum's gift shop, he saw a bunch of hand carved canes with a carved deer antler on the top. The first one he picked out was the perfect height but he put it back for some reason. He wanted to think on it while we had lunch in the museum's large cafeteria, which was also quite large with tables spread apart for safety. At one of the tables was a family of three boys and their parents and when they got up to leave, all of them stopped by our table and thanked Dad for his service. (He had is Korean vets hat on). It was seriously precious and Dad just nodded his head to each one of them as they shook his hand (yes, I know what you're thinking). It was simple and sincere. 

"Dad, you're famous. Maybe you should wear your hat to a club. Get some ladies to dance with you."

"Really" he said with a twinkly smile.

As we decided what to do next, he said he was going to go buy the cane. I was glad he did. It wasn't that expensive and he'd have a great keep sake from our trip he'd actually use. After I made sure he found the gift shop, I trotted off to the bathroom and to look at the artwork in the art wing. When I returned to the gift shop, I couldn't find Dad anywhere but the security guard told me he was outside. Time to go, I guess. When we got back in the car, he said he was outside because he was hanging out with the security guard who was also a Vet. I loved seeing the connection he has with others. I made sure he sanitized his hands before we drove off. :}

We still had some time to kill before we met up with my cousin, who I'd never met and who Dad hasn't seen in 40 years. I'd been texting with his wife when to meet and where and they offered us their home for the night. They wouldn't take no for an answer even though we had only got a hold of them that morning. I felt like we were intruding! So to find something to do I did some Googling on places to see in the area and I landed on the Sunshine Bridge and the Chief Joseph Byway. Trip Advisor has it a five-star rating and it was exactly that. The byway started about 18 miles north of Cody and is actually 46 miles in total, and ends at the North East entrance to Yellowstone National Park through the Beartooth Mountains (we didn't go that far). The reason this scenic highway is named after Chief Joseph is because the road follows the same route Chief Joseph and his Nez Perce people took as they were running from the U.S. army during the Nez Perce War of 1877, trying to reach Canada to avoid being forced on a reservation.

The start of the drive wound around gradual switchbacks through grassy foothills. Every turn out had an amazing view. At the top out was a interpretive spot to read about the how this exact point served as a lookout point for the Nez Perce scouts.

Pointy mountains definitely look like a bear's tooth!

Very friendly locals.
From there we had a choice to turn around or go see the Sunshine Bridge that spanned the north fork of the Yellowstone River. We decided to keep going and it was a drive to remember with gorgeous views. I was that tourist who had to get out at every turn and take a photo! But each switchback took us lower and lower and I kept thinking about Mable Able and what if she were to over heat on the way back up! About half-way down I voiced my concern and Dad said we came this far, might as well go all the way. I'm so glad we did!

The view from the bridge was outstanding. Dad made it only to the parking lot fence. It was windy and cold and the trek to the fence from where I parked the car next to the bathrooms kinda did him in. I was bummed he didn't want to come out on the bridge but he said from what he saw from the fence, he was pretty impressed. The gorge was about 1200 ft deep and with the mountains in the background, it was a sight to behold! I crossed over to the other side of the road to peer over that edge as well. When I got back to the car, Dad had it running with the heat on. I drove him over the bridge and though we couldn't see down very far he did get a close up view of the canyon walls. 

The drive back up went fine. Mable did just dandy. As we headed back down hill towards Cody, the sun was hitting the red cliffs and we could see storms breaking in the distance, all of which made for some pretty spectacular scenery. And Dad noticed it too. With each switchback, we had a better and better view so he'd tell me to pull over and get another shot! I couldn't have been happier to do it and it's one of the stories I've heard him tell, how the red rock was brighter and brighter with each turn. It was this exact type of moment I was hoping to have on this trip, where we were both enjoying the same thing in the same way. It was a true bonding moment.

By the time we arrived back in Cody, my cousin was off work so we headed directly to their house. Somehow I picked the wrong house and as I was knocking on what I thought was the correct door, I heard someone yell from across the street. It was my cousin's wife, Patt. She was waving us over. Dad was laughing at me as we walked across the street, knowing full well that this was probably something he would have done and glad that he wasn't the idiot. I parked the car in front of their house and was greeted with the warmest of welcomes. We were family, though distant, but family none-the-less and that was all the introduction we needed. After a bit of get-to-know you talk, we headed out to dinner with two of their close friends. Dad had a ball retelling the stories of our trip and of the drive earlier that day. Many drinks later, we headed back to the house and quickly to bed. They had to be up early for work and we had to be on the road just the same. 

Looking back on the trip, this segment was one of my favorites. We took a spontaneous side trip and it turned out to be one of the most memorable. In Cody, we were welcomed by family who we had just met but by the time we drove away, it was as if we'd known them forever. Though I travel to get away from humanity, in the end, it's the personal connections we make that help define who we are and sometimes take us in new directions. It had become clear to me that the connections Dad made in his life had been meaningful. Each extended family member we met greeted us with warmth and generosity and I could tell Dad felt it as well. He'd come so far to assure these connections were still in place. I can only hope I'm as brave as he is to do the same.

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