Thursday, September 10, 2020

Let Love Drive: A Road Trip with my Dad - A Homecoming

Itinerary: Cody WY - Sheridan - Devil's Tower - Bad Lands of South Dakota
Miles: 456

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

After leaving Cody, WY, the plan was to continue east, taking the scenic route to the Bad Lands of South Dakota. Dad had never seen them and neither had I. I know, I know. How is that possible given the many trips to Spearfish every Labor Day weekend? Well, I don't have a good reason other than we had other priorities on those trips but this time would be different.

The route we chose took us through the small hamlet of Sheridan WY, home to famous rodeos and also home to my good friend and former colleague Jenae Neeson. Naester, as she's known by those of us back in Omaha, is a woman of the mountains and always has great tales of adventures in the higher altitudes. It's always a pleasure to see her and a stop would be perfect timing for a coffee refill. But before we arrived, we drove through some of the most stunning scenery I've seen in that part of Wyoming. Now it's tough to beat Yellowstone and the Tetons but on this side of the state, where the Big Horns rule, there are amazing views to be had. One of those was the eye popping drive through Shell Canyon. Even though it was drizzling, driving between sheer cliff walls and a rushing river was worth every minute. Until it wasn't. On the back side, after we went over a pass, fog had yet to lift out of the canyon, making driving practically impossible. We wight-knuckled it for about 30 minutes as we crawled at 10 MPH down the mountain. The only thing keeping me on the path were the yellow lines on either side of the road. My biggest fear was not seeing a car in front of me until it was too late or someone coming on us from behind. We couldn't see for maybe 10-15 feet in front of us. I turned on my hazards and hoped for the best. We had no idea if we were next to a wall or next to a cliff, the fog was that thick. But Able Mable got us down without issue. When we could finally see blue sky and the road in front of us, even Dad said he was pretty nervous and didn't want to have to do that ever again! After a drive like that, I didn't need a coffee, I needed a shot! 

We arrived in Sheridan where we met Jenae at a small cafe. I walked in but didn't see her so we got a table. By the time I returned from the bathroom, she was walking by Dad who was spying the ice cream options. We exchanged big hugs, which I'm sure was terrifying to those in the cafe, but one can't be in Jenae's presence without a proper greeting. We sat for an hour or more and got her caught up on our shenanigans over the past week. Dad, being on vacation, ended up getting both an ice cream and coffee (it was only around 10 in the morning, after all) and chimed in a few times between bites. The time came too soon that we had to be getting back on the road. We said so long (it's never good bye) and headed off to Devil's Tower.

Dad took over the controls of Mable and we flew through the foothills of the Big Horns, home to ranch land and wide open sky. I'd never been to Devil's Tower and have always wanted to see the mammoth rock in the middle of nowhere. And as we drove I kept looking and looking but it wasn't until we were practically there that we saw it, which seems impossible. It literally juts out of the ground, completely out of place among the rolling hills.

We drove down to the entrance to the park but didn't feel the need to get any closer. It was good enough to see it from the point we were at. We stopped for a quick potty break and since it was so hot and full of tourists, we turned around and headed back the way we came, only this time I got back behind the wheel. Too much steep terrain for Dad which was fine. We hopped on 90 and drove east towards the Black Hills. On the way, we went by Spearfish SD, which is right on the boarder of Wyoming, where I've raced every year since 2006 in the Dakota Five-0. From the interstate, you can see the race route that took us out of town and up into the hills. It was up in the air at that time if the race was still going to happen. Ryan and I had signed up for it in April, not knowing the pandemic would literally crush any large gatherings for the rest of the summer. 

Our next drive by would take us through Sturgis and Deadwood. Both towns were full of tourists, and barely anyone with masks. Dad talked of the few times he attended the Sturgis Rally (which was scheduled to still happen, regardless). He went once by car and another by motorcycle. He even camped one year. Hard to believe considering how feeble he is now. He recalled enjoying seeing all the different types of motorcycles (he had a Honda Gold Wing at the time) but didn't care for all the T&A and fowl language. Dad has spent a solid percentage of his life in pubs, bars and seedy pool halls and yet he really has a low tolerance for fowl language, especially from women. 

Before heading to the Bad Lands, I took a look at Google Maps to see if there was a more scenic route instead of taking 90 into Wall. Good thing I did because the more scenic route was closed due to Covid. The road into the western entrance went through Indian territory and to keep the virus out of those communities, they had closed access. Good for them! So it was back onto I-90 and to the town of Wall. It was late afternoon by the time we arrived but I was able to get us the last two single rooms in a small motel. We unloaded our bags and decided to head into the Badlands NP to see what there was to see. 

Immediately after entering, a large mountain goat was standing in the middle of the road. And to Dad's giggling joy, an adult buffalo was not too far off. Que the music: "Oh, give me a home, where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play." Like, literally, that song was playing out before our eyes. But apposed to the next lyrics, the skies were a bit cloudy which played to our advantage. Not many people and it made for some pretty spectacular photos. 

We stopped at the first pull out that had a long flight of steps down to another level. The sun was cooking us so Dad stayed in the car while I played tourist. As we drove along, the people became fewer and fewer and the colors better and better. Like in Cody, driving back from the Sunlight Bridge, Dad started getting into the excitement of seeing some pretty strange terrain and would look up from his book and tell me to take a photo of a certain area. He never got out of the car but that was fine. I on the other hand was like a kid in a candy store, pointing my phone in all directions. On our way back towards the entrance, the storms in the distance were in full view and was just marvelous to watch the clouds and curtains of rain float across the horizon.

Then, just as we were about to exit, I spotted a group of mountain goats, looking to be settling in for the night. We drove up a gravel road and pulled over to admire the grazing animals. Then to our surprise, a baby goat popped up over the cliff edge and it was all I could do to stay in the car. The timing was perfect and not another car in sight. We saw a few more buffalo as we left the park and thought maybe we'd return in the morning. 

By the time we got back to the motel, we were starving. I found what looked to be a modern looking bar and grill that was open to the public. There were barely any cars out front, which boded well for social distancing. We both ordered BLTs and a couple of drinks, and proceeded to toast the end of our trip, save for the drive home. Dad's a talker and will weave a tale til kingdom come so I figured at the very least I'd given him some new material to draw upon. We both agreed this was a very fun adventure, thinking maybe we should go somewhere new next year. He even offered up his surprise at how smoothly it went and how much he enjoyed being able to see new things and not be on some kind of agenda to get somewhere. It's interesting to me how I'm one who yearns to take the roads less traveled; who dreams of adventures to come, while Dad has never been one to take a real vacation. And maybe it's because he already lives a life of leisure on a river that provides all the necessary room for an aging fisherman to wander and wonder about mysteries of life. I'll never really know. But what I do know is this: I am the lucky one. Life gave me a gift, despite all the signals to the contrary, to have this extraordinary experience with my dad. I heard stories never told to me, met relatives who welcomed me and was given a chance to see my Dad in a different way, from a different time. All of these things only strengthened our bond, making us even better friends. And even though we have some things in common like a love for the outdoors, Dr. Pepper and Clint Eastwood westerns, this trip has given us a shared experience that we will be able to talk about and relive together many times over.

Truth be told, I was skeptical of this whole venture at first. With so many on the fly logistics, Dad's stubbornness about certain things, (and my short temper surrounding those things), plus the uncertainty in the world, I worried that it would be fraught with roadblocks. But what I learned and what came to fruition was that if you let love drive, and if I may paraphrase Henry Miller, the destination becomes not actually a place, but a new way of looking at things.

11 states in 13 days
6 mountain passes
4829 miles

Thank you, Dad, for trusting my driving, my motel choice (aside from the roach motel) and believing that the best views are the ones yet to come. I love you. 

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.