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
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.
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!
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.
|Rhino Rock (Can you see the rhinoceros face?)
|Dirt Girl back on land.
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.