Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Into the Peace of Wild Things

So this trip covered a lot of ground and rather than have folks scroll through a photo album, I threw some pictures together into a montage. Ready to cover about 6,000 miles in three minutes?

Disclaimer: I have no idea why I sound like I have a lisp, and my apologies for the resolution of this. Its only a small, small fraction of how beautiful it really was.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Odyssey

Although I never left America, I feel a hint of culture shock coming back to the East. Yesterday I reached the fields and rolling hills of Pennsylvania, and am spending the day in my hometown before heading back to Washington, DC tomorrow. It feels fitting to be back here in the original frontier west of the Appalachians. Time for some reckoning up.

I didn't expect to see a pair of cowboy boots made for a child in the 1860s, or George Armstrong Custer's toothbrush, or the letter James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok wrote to his wife Agnes just three weeks before his death in Deadwood ("We will have A home yet then we will be so happy I am all most shure I will do well here."] The chair that he died in is still on display at the second iteration of the No. 10 Saloon.

I didn't think my dad would get pumped when I dropped in Janis Joplins' greatest hits and that he'd turn it up so we'd both be singing along to "Bobby McGee." I laughed when I saw how the grasshoppers really do plague South Dakota (just like in the Little House On the Prairie books), and not even incessent Mexican ranchera music at 2am at a campground outside of Dodge City was enough to make me forget how scattered and beautiful the stars were that night.

Coming soon will be a photo montage or some sort of denoument. For now, it's doing laundry, folding maps, and wondering how often I can get away with wearing my own boots in DC.

PS Photo is not the rosy-fingered dawn of Homer's Odyssey. This is what the sky looked like the first night I got to Bozeman.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Soul Food

I embarrassed myself plenty taking food pictures, and felt like I was on some kind of diet plan that required recording everything I ate. One of the best things about traveling is the chance to eat a lot of funky (and hopefully delicious) food. These are a few of the highlight meals. There were plenty of un-highlights as well - way too many fast food burgers, an immoderate amount of trail mix, and even one of those Backpacker's Pantry meals that you cook in pouch with boiling water and of course never really progresses beyond the lukewarm stage of rehydration.

A Dang Quesadilla

From Foundation Grounds Coffeehouse, St. Louis, MO. Yum! That's my sister on the other side of the table.

Texas Pit BBQ

Schoepf's Old Time Pit BBQ serves it up old-style off of I-35 in Belton, TX. Chop beef, pork, sausages, and more, plus plenty of sides and a back porch that seems to cover at least a couple of acres. You can bet that's sweet tea in the glass.

Cherry-Bourbon French Toast

This French toast and the accompanying coffee did much to restore body and soul after a late night on 6th Street. I asked for extra cherries and got them, and the bourbon-cream sauce was out of this world. From The Old Pecan Street Cafe in Austin, TX.

I also had "The Best Indian Taco in the West" outside the Little Bighorn battlefield (picture coming soon) and quite possibly the best coffee ever from Beta Coffee in Cody, WY (no picture or website, but I got a sweatshirt.) It was a robust blend of flavor and caffeine that was the perfect way to start the day. Maybe I could have spent more time analyzing the subtlety of the flavors, but I was too busy enjoying it.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


If America is a land of contradictions, then the West is even more so. There is a concurrent existence of beauty and ugliness, newness and age, growth and rot, and these things do not exist in simple opposition, but come together in infinite and emerging patterns that change and rearrange themselves through time and distance. I see shuttered towns, ripening fields of grain, poverty, mountain peaks, traditionalism, "progress."

One of the things I really wanted to do was put my feet on the ground. I didn't want to see the West from an airplane window, and I certainly didn't want to drive through it catching only glimpses. I wanted to walk it. So we stopped the car outside of Loveland, CO to hike along a trail called the Devil's Backbone as storm clouds kicked up over the Rockies. I hiked a piece of Yellowstone through a grassy valley partway up to a place called Observation Peak, and the stillness of the air and the warmth of the ground were something to be felt as we looked out over mountains and forests as far as we could see. It was backcountry. Thank God.

Inside, though, I was hankering for a longer hike, something to really sink my teeth into. My dad and I settled on a trail called Lava Lake outside of Bozeman that led up through the Spanish Peaks (in the Gallatin Range of the Rockies). When I say picturesque, I mean hiking out of a fairy tale - Cascade Creek that runs alongside the trail almost the entire three miles it climbs the mountain. Birds singing. Flowers blooming along the path, and the scent of pine trees and recent rain in the air.

At the lake, the trees opened up and the water spread out quiet and blue, with an occasional ripple as a fish surfaced. We heard the hiss of line as two fly fisherman cast. More peaks behind the lake, a little pica scrambling on the rocks below us. An eagle swooped in over the water and came up with its talons empty, its shadow gray over the lake.

There were other trails out there too, with names like Hellroaring and Storm Castle. For now, these are the road not taken. Not yet.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Behind Cowboys and Soldiers

So I've spent the last three nights camped out near Bozeman, MT. Montana was the American end of the old cattle trails up from Texas, and those routes have been the basis for my northward drive over the past week. Along the way I've been diving into the past backwards, reading accounts written by the men themselves of life along the trail.

There's a cowboy diary in Oklahoma City I picked up in the first week of the trip. Jack Bailey trailed a herd from Texas to Kansas in 1868, journaling in a battered notebook along the way. The cover is half worn away, but the pages still bear his strong, angled handwriting in brown ink that is still clear to read. I imagine him writing as the cattle are bedded down, or in odd spots along the trail (he records writing by a lakeshore at night, or under a tree ahead of the herd, or at the counter of the drugstore in Emporia, KS.)

I had read the diary twice through in a printed edition before seeing the original in the flesh, but the seeing the handwriting is like hearing someone talking. There is now a voice to the words. Jack dates each entry and includes the day of the week as well - sometimes he draws little curlicues and dots around the Ts on Tuesdays and Thursdays. No print edition could have told me that.

In Cody, WY I leafed through the old photos and papers at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center on the hunt for William Levi "Buck" Taylor. Taylor had been a star performer in Buffalo Bill's Wild West (the British Prime Minister dropped by to say hello during the show's 1887 tour stop in London) and he had an international reputation as "the King of the Cowboys."

Despite the fame, the long intervening years have caused his trail to go cold. Newspaper reports after he left the show suggest that all was not well. There were stories of an elopement with a young lady from Baltimore, assaults, a Buck Taylor impersonator. Letters home from another Wild West performer fail to mention Taylor's name. His story is a hazy one, half-wrapped in legend and sensationalism. I found little that could be definitively traced to him, aside from period photographs and Wild West Show programs. Nothing that he had touched.

That night, I moved back to the present to watch rodeo cowboys. The Cody Nite Rodeo happens every evening throughout June, July, and August and gives a slice of Americana so thick it seems almost caricatured. After the opening prayer and national anthem, Bill Idol's "White Wedding" kicked on over the speakers. I watched as men rode and roped and bucked steers and tied calves. Women and girls did barrel-racing and a few brave ladies did give the calf roping a try. Part of this trip was undertaken to find my limits, and I found some at the Cody Nite Rodeo. There's no way I could do what they do.

Cowboys aren't the only archetypes out here. Driving south and east out of Montana today I stopped by the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn. On June 25, 1876 George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Calvary were decimated by an alliance of Sioux and Cheyenne warriors. To my disappointment, the battle site was crowded. I had hoped to walk alone and collect my thoughts on what this clash had meant then and why we are still drawn to it today. It seemed a hopeless mess from the start: the officers of the frontier Army could not coordinate their attack, the Cheyennes and Sioux were fighting with everything they had, and neither side was willing to accept a partial victory. It was all or nothing.

From my vantage point of the 21st century, there is no glory in America's decision to purchase the success of one civilization through the death of others. Custer had it coming.

And although I pass judgment on his actions, I feel sympathy for his fate. Standing on the ridge, facing the small hilltop where Custer and a handful of soldiers made their famous Last Stand, there is a shallow ravine to the right. The ravine is filled with clusters of white gravestones. They mark where the soldiers fell, some in groups, a few cut down alone. Those headstones march up along to the hilltop in a white trail, completing the run these men did not make in life.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Hurricanes and Other Hazards

The atmospheric drizzle of last Thursday evening turned into a fullscale torrent by Friday afternoon courtesy of Hurricane Alex. Not enough to stop intrepid adventurers from bravely exploring Austin's downtown and venturing across Lady Bird Lake. Once on the other side, the rain hit full tilt and I ended up spending half an hour huddled under an overpass with some stranded joggers. Strangely, it was the most relaxed moment of the trip to date. There was nothing to do, no place to be except right there, watching the rain.

That evening, Circe and I headed to the Broken Spoke, one of Texas' oldest, old-school honkytonks. Its the kind of place where the floor tilts and if you stand close enough to the dance floor, you can feel the vibrations of peoples' feet hitting the boards coming up through the soles of your shoes. During one turn around the floor my partner asked where I was from, and when I replied "Washington, DC" he said, "The last time my people been up there, they was ridin' with the Confederates. Ain't been back since and don't mean to go back." I wasn't sure if I was supposed to laugh or not but I did anyway.

Today I dropped Circe off at the Denver airport and picked up my father. The Rockies beckoned. We drove to Estes Park and soaked up a few fleeting hours of sunshine. While hiking a trail called the Devil's Backbone, we came across a chubby snake sprawled out in the middle of the path. We looked at each other, trying to assess its' species and debating on whether to shoo it away or just try to get a running start and jump over it. After some very long seconds, the snake inched its way into the grass and away from us. As it slid by, we saw a two and a half inch rattle at the end of its' tail.

The sunshine and warm temperatures disappeared the second my father and I crossed the Wyoming border. It is 51 degrees here and threatening to drop even further. I'm not terribly afraid of snakes, but I'm not too keen on sleeping out the next several nights in the cold. I suppose it wouldn't be true West if it didn't give me a little kick from time to time.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Love, Texas-Style

Ahhh, Texas. I hit the northern plains Wednesday afternoon and knew immediately that something was different. The skies seemed to open up a little bit, the land got a little bit wider. Sure the sides of the highway are built up with motels and gas stations and fast food joints, but I can't help but wonder how the land struck those early pioneers who'd grown up in the New England woods or Southern pine forests.

The first thing I did when I got to Texas, crosseyed from having driven from Oklahoma City that morning and the air hot and muggy enough that my shirt is sticking to my back within 2 seconds of stepping out of the car, was to dive into the Baylor University library. I was digging around their manuscript collection looking at papers of ranching families from the late 1800s. Maybe it sounds dull, but it was actually fascinating to unravel parts of life stories from the paper trail they had left behind. And that's how I stumbled across the love story between Clitus Jones and Lily Sutton.

In the middle of a thick folder of papers a little note pops up, written on faded blue-lined paper.

Miss Lily Sutton,
Can I have the pleasure of your company for a drive this evening?
Your friend,
E.C. Jones

I turn over the note, and to my delight and surprise, there is Lily's reply.

Mr. Jones, I accept your invitation for a drive this afternoon with pleasure.
Your friend,
Lily Sutton.
Cuevo, Texas. May 8th, 1881.

The formality of the language and the quaintness of it all is, frankly, adorable. I read on breathlessly as their courtship unfolds. The pair progresses from "Mr. Jones" and "Miss Sutton" to exchanges of "I never wanted to see any body as badly in my life" and "An intire [sic] week passed away before I heard one thing of you for your letter only came today. It is needless to say how much pleasure it afforded me to hear from you.” They ditched the platonic "your friend" for "ever yours" or "ever your own loving Lily."

I wonder when Clitus is going to ante up and finally seal the deal. The pair swaps letters for nearly a year and a half, writing to each other at odd hours, promising to keep the missives short but somehow, can't seem to stop themselves from writing on and on.

At last, the wedding invitation. It is a plain white rectangle of paper, simply announcing the marriage of E. Clitus Jones and Lily Sutton at the Episcopal Church in Cuevo, Texas on January 17th, 1883. As far as I can tell, they did live pretty happily. After nearly a decade of marriage, Clitus was still sending Lily letters from his business trips, addressed to "My Dear Little Girl."

That evening, I was ready to emerge from Victorian-era romance to the 21st century by way of downtown Austin. After almost a week of traveling solo, I connect with my good friend Circe and we proceed to get knee deep in what the city can offer.

We start with dinner. One of the tattooed guys hanging out in front of one of the endless places to get inked in this town recommended Stubb's Bar-B-Que . It was all we had hoped it would be - large plates of meat upstairs, a band downstairs, cool exposed brick mixing happily with neon signage. From there, we roll to a bar called The Library because my curiousity was piqued by a place that has floor to ceiling bookshelves and also serves booze. Turns out its a Texas chain, but still a fun place for drinks and people-watching. There is live music everywhere. Seems you can't throw a rock without hitting a guy with a guitar, and that is just the way we like it.

We end the night at Maggie Mae's. Yelpers are all over this place, and justifiably so. The staff are friendly and the crowd this Thursday evening seems relaxed and readu to have a good time. We listen to Jeremy Steding and his band (tagline: "A Damn Good Ride") and they do crowd-pleasing covers of Johnny Cash and Tom Petty. While on break, Jeremy stops by at every table to distribute smiles and business cards. The kicker of the evening, though, is an amazing guitarist (also a pretty good dancer) named Adam Rogers who gets onstage and makes that thing wail. His acoustic rendition of the notorious "Thong Song" stunningly enough actually sounded good.

Yes, this is a long, long way from 1881.