Essays taken from a weekly newspaper column published in the Washington County News, Washington, Kansas. Look for my book, "Dispatches From Kansas," available from Amazon.com, or from the author.
Thursday, July 31, 2008
Storm moving in
Jenny Lake and the Teton Range
Oh give me a home (Part 8)
One side of the road contained million-dollar homes competing for expansive views of the Teton Range and the other a vast wet meadow stretching to the distant Wind River Mountains, home to bison, sandhill cranes, trumpeter swans and a single lumbering moose. The dichotomy was unnerving and surreal. Depending on which direction we looked we were either in the upper echelon of society or the Garden of Eden. Stopping at Dairy Queen for lunch only made it worse. While chowing down on burgers and fries and pointedly trying to ignore the other tourists who were unfortunately dressed exactly as we three codgernauts, I stared morosely across the street to a marshy area swarming with yellow-headed blackbirds and violet-green swallows, the panorama regularly eclipsed by heavy trucks, fancy cars and the occasional rattletrap truck. Regardless of its stellar wealth, its movie stars and celebrities, its upscale shops and stunning scenery, Jackson, Wyoming, was exactly like the hamburger in my hand: tasteless, plastic and overpriced.
I’m as clueless as the next guy over what a mountain town should look like but if we came here expecting another Lander we were nuts. People of all nationalities packed the streets downtown giving it a cosmopolitan atmosphere, almost festive, and if I could have lightened up I might have enjoyed myself. As it was I felt snarly and alienated and couldn’t wait to drop off our gear and escape back to the park. Being a curmudgeon isn’t difficult for me but here it came as natural as breathing.
To escape the inherent wealth this place attracts requires disappearing into the backcountry, something we had neither the time nor equipment for. There’s probably a mathematical formula proving the relationship of depopulation by the distance from classy shopping to mosquito-infested wilderness but I don’t know it offhand. We were fortunate to have arrived at the Tetons prior to the main tourist explosion and explored untrammeled areas nearer the road without having to fight for parking places, and dealt with the scenic hotspots in the best of codgernaut tradition, leering at the girls, comparing our photographic equipment with that of other photographers and making disparaging comments about the shoddy casting of the flyfishermen below the bridge.
Still, we were unprepared for our chilly reception at Jenny Lake Lodge, which the park brochure made sound like a cozy place for a meal with the Tetons framed through the dining room windows. It might be but we never got past the entrance. Our first clue that we were outmatched should have been evident in the vehicles parked in the lot. Or the well-dressed couple walking out who studiously looked away. We’d been pushing hard and might have had a little B.O. and certainly didn’t wear our sweaters casually draped over our shoulders in the best yuppie-fashion, and I admit my pants had a hole in one knee and my shirt was wrinkled and my hiking boots unpolished, but should that exclude us from partaking of a fine meal at an establishment within the boundaries of a national park owned by me and every other American citizen?
Apparently so. I’m not saying they would have tossed us out but when the gal at the front desk saw us her smile slipped a notch. So sorry but we were an hour too early for dinner but we were certainly welcome to look at the menu. While Chod talked her up Jim and I perused the night’s offerings and quickly concluded that if nothing was recognizable as food nor were prices evident other than bottles of wine costing almost a hundred bucks then we were probably outclassed. A sign asking that jackets be worn for the evening meal probably didn’t refer to our Gore-Tex shells, either.
The idea of backing into a Lexus was tempting but we slunk off as unobtrusively as possible. Who says choleric geezers are unmanageable?
An approaching storm shrouded the snowy peaks in luminous platinum light and raised a rough chop on the waters of Jenny Lake. If anything the mountains loomed larger, dominating and mesmeric so they drew the eye to the exclusion of all else. Behind them veiled in a gray nothingness lay thousands of square miles of wilderness I longed to disappear into. The range’s mood altered with each shift of luminance, each lowering cloud swirl or rain curtain obscuring the couloirs, cornices and snowfields radiant in the deepening gloom, and I knew that a lifetime could be spent studying that interplay without witnessing any repetition of light or shadow, that the spectacle could never grow tiresome or stale. Pulling ourselves away required an effort fueled by hunger and weariness of a day already long and eventful.
On a recommendation we tried Dornan’s, a full-service resort near the south entrance. Again the vehicles should have tipped us off but we marched inside and wended through the crowd of young and fit people to the counter where a menu was chalked in. No burgers nor Americanized fare, only pasta and pizza. Pizza sounded scrumptious but on second scrutiny we failed to discover any edible ingredients. The special had pizza with artichoke hearts and penne pasta atop a funky-sounding marinara sauce. Anything with pepperoni and mushrooms? Nope.
Back to Jackson and a tavern advertising “American” food. Prices on the menu were enough to flush my arteries but I ordered a mushroom burger that only cost ten dollars. I told the waiter to bring me coffee and lots of it. It was horrifically bad. My dislike for that town refined into a crystalline and perfect contempt.
(To be continued)
Friday, July 25, 2008
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Storm moving in
The number of Wests is proportionate to the area traversed (Part 7)
I sometimes wonder if the West I yearn for is an impossible ideal, a mythical place conjured from separation, distances, the romanticism of childhood memories and the insatiable hunger of longing. When we lived on the far side of the 100th Meridian I never knew doubt but existed utterly as one on his own homeground, undiminished and inseparable, or so I believed. It wasn’t until the advent of Kansas that the cracks began to form, leaving me now unmoored, a man ruptured with dual geographies and neither fully inhabited. The inevitable conclusion is that entering the West is akin to being flayed with razors or submerged in a deep cave, until, at least, I acclimate to my surroundings. After that I’m myself again, more or less.
But what is the West? Writers and thinkers much more astute than I have wrestled with this for decades. The more sensible consider the true West less a geographical expanse and more a mindset, though certainly the one cannot exist without the other. Geography informs and grounds us. And yet even the most contrary farmer or philosopher will agree that geography is more than the sum of its parts. At heart we are bound to a certain place as if our blood and bones commingled with the soil and stones. Where I exist in that realm remains in constant flux.
As does the West itself. At the gas station in Lander we noted mountain bikers cruising by garbed in multicolored spandex outfits, pretty college girls ordering expensive lattes and a beanpole-thin cowboy sauntering in so bowlegged that he appeared to straddle a barrel. “Now, there’s the real thing,” Chod said with a trace of admiration and perhaps a ghost of sadness for what was passing away before our very eyes.
Outside of town we ran into the mother lode of birds in a pond bordered by cattails raucous with the screeching of yellow-headed blackbirds. Hook-billed ibises and avocets foraged in the shallows while a dozen species of waterfowl plied the deeper waters. I tried pishing up a marsh wren but could manage only a common yellowthroat, a small yellowish warbler with a black bandit mask.
We crossed into the Native American West, sparsely populated, riddled with poverty, one miserly hovel linked by a long green hose to a water tank on the bed of a pickup truck, their only water supply. Arid sagebrush gave way to redrock bluffs and the snowy ranges of the Absarokas, the Wind Rivers and the distant Owl Creek Mountains. Fort Washakie, the only fort named after an Indian chief, appeared a rundown, cinderblocked husk littered with rusted government vehicles whose utility seemed questionable. Witnessing the decrepitude of the reservation came as a shock but only in the sense of its contrast to the white settlements with their obvious, if not ostentatious, wealth. The shameful treatment of America’s indigenous races is depressingly familiar, a marriage of greed cloaked in high intentions and a religion based on a special dispensation of grace to those with the most firepower. Try as I might I’m not sure but we’re going through the same vicious cycle all over again.
Once past the reservation the new money appeared in expansive log cabins and mansions infesting two- to five-acre plots of wet meadows fringed with quaking aspens and blue spruce and driveways sprouting BMWs and Volvos, and in whose mirrored windows reflections of similar tracts staring back. The drive to own a piece of the boundless American West is no less feverish now than it was a century ago but it’s become much more exclusive. Housing for service people and employees invariably lacked aesthetic appeal and amenities and remained hidden from the main road, though one such jumble of trailers caught our eye: The Whistling Wino Mobile Home Park. “Sounds like a place I’d like to live,” Jim said.
The town of Dubois bills itself as an authentic western town (“Where real cowboys work and play!”) as if on the shoulders of the Absaroka and Wind River mountains it could be anything but. And yet the incongruous juxtaposition of gourmet coffee shop and massive plastic jackalope complete with saddle and stirrups placed it squarely in the odious tradition of Fred Flintstone Village in the Black Hills and other monstrosities that should summarily be razed. My language upon seeing the jackalope was admittedly and unabashedly blue.
Smoke plumbed into the rarified air as a shiny fifth wheel blazed to cinders. Streams and rivers ran milky from snowmelt. We rose into a lush and privileged world of rarified air and tastes and breathed freely only when we entered the national forest.
This was our West, owned by ourselves and every other citizen of these United States, and to my relief it was as luminous as the West of my imagination. Snow lay deep on the passes and we began picking up montane species such as Stellar’s jay and Wilson’s warbler. But birds weren’t the main focus as we crossed the continental divide and began our descent—it was the Tetons, the iconic mountain range immortalized by Ansel Adams. At this altitude streams ran clear over colorful gravel, leading always toward some snowy massif. Woods were dark and mysterious and inviting. And when the first glimpse of the Tetons appeared we swerved to the shoulder and sat there slack-jawed. They were much, much bigger than I remembered.
Near Jackson Lake Junction we parked and spilled out with cameras ready. A group of Japanese cluttered the best view of the broad Snake River with Mount Moran as backdrop so we waited impatiently until they wandered off. Other photographers jockeyed for position.
“I hate tourists,” Chod said.
“We are tourists,” I reminded him, and turned back in awe to the majestic spectacle of the Teton Range.
(To be continued)
Thursday, July 17, 2008
The disappearing river and other Wyoming stories (Part 6)
The emigrants had the forts, McPherson, Kearny, Laramie, Casper and others, outposts of civilization in the middle of the howling wilderness where shelter, provisions and support could be found. We codgernauts had Lander, and if there were other refuges to follow, none so captured our imaginations nor made us so avid to rush home, quit our jobs, sell our houses, load our possessions pioneer-like and head to the foothills of Wyoming’s Wind River Range. Kansas be damned.
Camping brings its own set of deprivations of which we willingly partake. This, in turn, leads to a renewed appreciation for the trappings of modern society. Almost any city or town with hot food and flush toilets looks good after a night in wet sleeping bags, but Lander was different. With its classy microbreweries, fine restaurants and upscale coffee shops—one specializing in gourmet chocolates, a sure sign of humanity at its apogee—its beautiful college girls and scruffy cowboys and clean shaded streets and the snowy mountains rising beyond, the town resonated with us as only home can. Jim prattled on about ways to convince his wife, Patty, to leave Abilene, Chod envisioned a nice house on the edge of town with a little acreage, while I imagined a rustic writing cabin beside the river where I could dap a dry fly at leisure. Lori would come in a heartbeat, I knew.
As we cruised Lander’s downtown we were tormented by signs advertising wood-fired pizzas and hot wings, specialty ales and coffees, and I think in the back of our minds, or at least the minds of two of us, our return would come in the early hours of evening when we would partake of the nightlife and sate our ravenous appetites. That it never happened still surprises me.
Leaving town, we paralleled the Middle Fork of the Popo Agie River through lush wet meadows sprinkled with lavish McMansions, the first of many to come as we moved evermore westward. The canyon’s mouth was a narrow slash barely wide enough to accommodate the river and the highway. A few miles upstream it widened sufficiently for a small campground to squeeze between the road and the water, and it was there we stopped to make camp. It was not an auspicious site.
For one, the campground was almost full, with all the better sites taken. What remained was an unlikely duo jumbled with boulders, stunted lodgepole pines, aspens and wild roses, and the adjoining site swarming with a young redneck family group with the alpha male sporting a shaved head, bare chest and holstered Glock. The latter raised a host of questions, not the least concerning the location of the nearest law enforcement officer or park ranger. Also, there was a very real concern over what might happen during the night should a bear wander into camp, or a raccoon, skunk or crazed chipmunk. Mindful of flying lead, I stuffed my tent behind a large boulder in hopes it would provide an adequate barricade. I also wished I’d brought my own pistol.
The river foamed just a few yards away, thundering between the narrow canyon walls. About a mile from camp it took a sudden turn and plunged into a cave. The resulting racket was as physical as it was audible, a bone-deep thrumming vibrating the very air. Rainbows danced above the fine mist generated by the funnel. This was the Sinks, and a quarter-mile downstream was the Rise, where the river re-emerged in a broad, placid pool. Between the two was a barren rocky channel.
For many years it was believed two separate rivers existed for the disjointed segments could not be more unalike. The river enters the hill with a deafening roar and exits with barely a whisper. There is also more water entering the Rise than flowing into the Sinks. When dye was poured into the upper river to make a final determination, the results were startling: it takes over two hours for the water to flow between the two points, but the Middle Fork was a single entity, even if divisible.
I’d first come here with my family when the boys were young and it seemed as if their presence lingered. I remembered how Joel eagerly pointed to the brown trout finning in the Rise, trout as long as his leg, and how frustrated we were at the signs proclaiming the area off-limits. Grouse of some kind passed through camp that evening but I wasn’t a birder and found them merely another curiosity. Now the birds were like old friends, western specialities such as Cassin’s finch—a lifer for both Jim and Chod—and Virginia’s warbler, green-tailed towhee, lazuli bunting and violet-green swallow. High above a peregrine falcon silently hunted. And best of all a young cottontail hopped from a thicket and gave me a happy bunny dance, reminding me of the family I left behind.
After dinner I led Chod to the upper part of the campground where a suspension bridge crossed the river. Dusk was falling and the raging waters luminescent beneath us and our movement caused the bridge to sway and bob. We crossed and climbed the bank into a sagebrush meadow and continued on into the trees. Under the pines the light turned purplish and dim and cooler, and we zipped our jackets and hurried on and came at last to a sign warning of cougars and the cliff seemed altogether more menacing, the stillness ruffled with soft footpads of taloned paws. Here in the mountainous west we’d dropped a rung on the food chain and it was oddly comforting as much as it was scary. Again I longed for a pistol until realizing that one doesn’t have to outrun a cougar, one must simply outrun a partner. Thereafter my plan of action was brief: grab a thick stout cudgel, bash Chod in the knee, and hightail it. Every man for himself!
(To be continued)
(To be continued)
Thursday, July 10, 2008
One pissed-off prairie rattlesnake
Independence Rock, Wyoming
Farewell to a friend (Part 5)
We crossed the North Platte on the outskirts of Guernsey, the early morning sun shattering into a thousand dancing orbs on its ageless riffles. The river was milky with snowmelt and running fast over smoothened rocks, and smelled perfectly like the inside of a trout-filled creel. I slowed to a crawl and parked on the bridge so we could scan the water for birds. A common merganser on the far shore added a new species to the trip. Does the river smell like trout or do trout smell like the river? The latter, I decided. Once I discovered my favorite stretch of the North St. Vrain bone-dry from dewatering and the few remaining trout gasping their last in a deep undercut pool. When the flow resumed the river smelled as it always had but the life had gone out of it. I never could return. And here on this bridge I recalled the first shock of icy water after stepping into a stream and for a moment the steering wheel became the cork grip of a nine-foot flyrod. “I am haunted by waters,” wrote Norman McClean, and in that sentiment we are blood brothers indeed.
A narrow dirt road led to a low ridge of piney hills gouged deeply by iron-shod wheels, the dry Wyoming air redolent of sage, pines and some unnameable quality. Three miles from here T. Parker paused long enough on his westward migration to carve his name on a bluff and the cut wherein we stood was a little deeper for his passing. He was here in this exact spot and if our kinship goes no deeper than name only it is more than enough to conjoin us to the trees and stones of this place.
From here the trail entered a new kind of terrain, the high sagebrush desert. Trees grew scarce except for stunted willows lining watercourses and the occasional cottonwood towering above the silvery-green pungent sage. Horizons drifted back to eternity with the Laramie Mountains a snowy bulwark to the southwest, a broad serrated arc bending westward and the historic trails like the modern interstate skirting it as a river takes the path of least resistance. God, but this country was breathtaking and barely more inhabited now than when covered wagons crawled its length. What it must have been like to cross it at their glacial pace and to embody it at least for a short while. Their eyes of course were set at a farther resolve, their concerns beating an early winter to the high passes which they feared, and ours tamer by far.
Their eyes on the short haul, too, the landmarks whose names still resonate: Mormon Ferry, Emigrant Gap, Avenue of Rocks, Prospect Hill, Devil’s Gate, Split Rock. Some were visible for days before and after, and some marked the deaths of many travelers. An estimated one in ten died along the way, an astounding figure. And some landmarks crept up unawares, seeming to rise like mirages from the shimmering sagebrush flats. Independence Rock was the most famous of these, a 128-foot-tall granite boulder measuring more than 27 acres at its base. It was not there one moment and there the next and I braked and whipped into a parking lot surrounding covered tables and restroom facilities and passed on through and looped back on the main highway to where a singletrack cut toward the massive stone.
“There’s gotta be sage thrashers here,” Jim said.
Slow jaunts over dirt roads demand a certain protocol: unsheathe binoculars, roll down windows, stare hard at any movement. For the driver one overriding command supersedes all others: stop on a dime when commanded to. I was ready when the call came and there on its namesake shrub before us was the thrasher, and a Brewer’s blackbird beyond. Two new species.
We spilled from the truck and scattered in several directions. It’s not that we were tired of one other but that each had his own vision to pursue. Mine was the perimeter of the rock itself and the views of the distant Wind River Range with the sleepy Sweetwater River meandering through lush wet meadows. The place had been an oasis for mountain men, emigrants and Mormons alike, and a sort of calendar as well. If they reached the rock by July 4 they knew they were on schedule; if not, they needed to speed up. The rock also served as a register, its surface pocked still with inscriptions dating to the mid-1800s. If T. Parker added his it’s long since disappeared, or else I never found it. I wondered if he made it this far and felt in my bones that he had. He was here and carried on and survived to see the Oregon Territory. He did and that was the end of it.
The urge to scale the stone was irresistible. Circumnavigating its base we watched for likely places to ascend. Unfortunately, Chod also found a prairie rattlesnake sheltered under a narrow cleft and its distinctive buzzing inaugurated a cautionary atmosphere that ultimately kept us grounded. Plus we were no different from the emigrants in having time constraints, with miles to go before nightfall.
The slow purl of the river pulled me as rivers always pull me. I toed the water to become a part of it if only briefly and looked downstream toward the way we’d come. I imagined the trail stretching back to the banks of the Missouri and every single mile a hard slog for people tougher than we can imagine. T. Parker watered his oxen in this river and looked back and saw the miles he’d come but it was nothing compared to what he still faced. The continental divide a few miles farther and all the rivers flowing to the west. Halfway there.
I was reluctant to leave and had to force my feet to move. We codgernauts rejoined at the truck and set off, and soon came to the ice slough where emigrants found ice well into summer, and turning toward Lander left the Oregon Trail behind us. Silently and sadly I bade T. Parker farewell, and vowed that before the end of my days I would follow him all the way to the Promised Land.
(To be continued)
Thursday, July 03, 2008
Chod and Jim and the big umbrella
Jim Mayhew on the observation deck
The Castle and Laramie Peak
Questions for the long view (Part 4)
So much has changed. Where once bighorn sheep scampered up sheer rock ledges a two-lane paved road now winds skyward, disappearing into blind curvated tunnels, hanging precariously on the outermost edge of Scott’s Bluff and ending at a broad parking lot where the immensity of the Great American Desert inserts its presence to become a livid, breathing entity. The sheep are gone and the buffalo and grizzlies, and the Brule Sioux, too. In their stead is a city spreading like an oil spill, a steady stream of tourists making the pilgrimage to the summit, and the road itself that takes us there.
It’s not that the bluff is all that high but that everything else around is so flat, plus the dry western air cuts the haze making distant objects appear closer than they are. It’s almost an optical illusion and one that confounded many an emigrant, though it wasn’t until I made a reverse emigration and saw firsthand the obscurant nature of humidity that I understood their plight. I was born with the long view.
The incident with the helpful park ranger unsettled us. While it gave us fodder to snipe at Chod, who as a budding wildflower expert and docent at Konza Prairie Biological Station hardly qualifies as a greenhorn, it also conjured a question no man likes to ask himself: how do I appear to others; and more specifically, how do I appear to people of authority?
Clearly, we must have looked like cretins if the ranger felt we couldn’t distinguish prickly pear from pine needles. Or was, in fact, the ranger at fault? Fresh out of school perhaps, armed with a puppy dog eagerness to please and a little knowledge of the local flora and fauna (a little knowledge being a dangerous thing), proud of his starched uniform and shiny badge and an unquestionable authority among the humanity crowding the peak, and yet utterly incognizant of the various classifications of tourists. Had Chod been wearing plaid shorts, black socks and leather wingtips, the ranger would have been well within his bounds to offer identification pointers. But to us grizzled veterans weighed down with thousands of dollars of photographic and optical equipment and dressed shabbily to boot? Open your eyes, man!
We descended in a huff and with much conversation about the pretty blonde ranger manning the front entrance. Had she been the offending party things might have turned out better, though it’s possible our fragile manly feelings would have been crushed all the more. At any rate, we parked at the visitor’s center and got out and immediately festooned ourselves with cameras and binoculars. A little blue bird zipped past, the second time since our arrival, but this time I tracked it to the top of a tall ponderosa.
“A blue grosbeak!” I shouted, and lowering my binos found a pimply-faced ranger materialized before me. Chod and Jim backed off as if the fellow were contagious, leaving me to fend for myself.
“Are you birders?” he asked.
There are many ways to answer such a question. Some are even polite. I stared at the apparition and choked out a weak “yes.” It was all he needed. He launched into a checklist of the birds we might find and where we might find them, from purple finches (most assuredly not) to rufous-sided towhees. Those, he declared, could be found in the thick shrubbery behind the amphitheater, and jabbing one arm for directions, asked if we’d like him to personally lead us there.
An awkward silence fell as I struggled to get past the towhees part. I was entangled in it, snared in an internal argument over how many years had passed since the bird had been called that. A decade? More? And shouldn’t the ranger be more up-to-date with bird nomenclature? I blinked and found the young man awaiting a reply and the codgernauts beyond and on their amused faces the dead certainty of hell to come.
I thanked the ranger and told him we could find our own way around. As he skipped off to be friendly and informative to other unwitting tourists, Chod sidled over and asked, “Seen any rufous-sided towhees?”
I told him graphically and succinctly where he could put his towhee.
Wyoming at last, sagebrush to the horizons and the mountains ahead. We entered Torrington and stopped to buy gas.
“I got drunk here once but I don’t remember much,” Jim said.
“That’s the way it usually works,” I said.
The old trail leads on to Fort Laramie and Register Cliff where T. Parker scribed his name in the soft limestone over a century ago but clouds were building and we pushed on to the campground above Guernsey. Before making camp we continued to the overlook where in the 1930s the Civilian Conservation Corps erected a massive shelter house with a 360-degree view. Lori and I discovered the place years ago and it was my intention to share the majestic view of Laramie Peak through the monumental archway. As intentions go it was excellent but the sight ripped the breath from my lungs and I could not breathe but gasped helplessly while something within me crumpled.
“How could I have left this?” I asked of no one.
Some questions are never meant to be asked. Teetering on the lip of a vast and deep depression, I struggled to pull back, cursing my inability to enjoy the land without being hammered with emotions. There was a pittance of success but a dark cloud hung over me until bedtime, when at last I crawled into my sleeping bag and inhaling deeply of the wet sage promised myself that tomorrow would be better.
(To be continued)
(To be continued)