John Clark sharing tales and photos from our recent jaunt through six western states. When the dip in COVID cases came back in May, Beth and I decided it was time to take a vacation outside Maine. I was leaning toward a river cruise in Europe, but she was hesitant to leave the US, so we decided to book a tour through YMT Vacations, a company we had used a couple times in the past.
We flew from Bangor to Charlotte, NC and then on to Denver. We were extremely fortunate to have an excellent bus driver in Mitch, and a terrific tour director in Cassandra Ashley. She had a collection of background and historical DVDs relating to almost every place we visited, showing them as we traveled.
Day one took us to the Colorado state capitol where we passed through security screening and got to see the art, décor, and a cultural exhibit. From there, we headed to Estes Park where five elk were dozing under the welcome sign. We were treated to our first view of snowy mountains, a remnant of the 18” dropped by a storm three days before. That snow limited our time in Rocky Mountain National Park as the high road we were to take was blocked. It was on to Wyoming, but we had an unexpected treat on the way. It started with smoke on the horizon, followed shortly by a thundering roar overhead as the Blue Angels flew past. We learned when Cassandra looked online that they were practicing for a weekend air show. They were visible for close to fifteen minutes, soaring and swooping in varied formations. Perhaps the most impressive for me was watching one fly sideways at fifty feet above the ground.
Wyoming is flat, the kind of flat I associate with Kansas and Illinois. There were places where we could see for at least fifty miles. We also saw several coal trains that were close to two miles in length, making me realize just how difficult getting people who live there to accept how change in their lives and economy will be if we’re going to stop global warming from carbon emissions.
Over the next couple days, we saw Fort Laramie, a major stop on the wagon trail west, saw the state capitol in Cheyenne, toured a mammoth excavation site that has been slowly unearthing numerous mammoth skeletons since it was discovered fifty years ago, and had our picture taken while standing on the disc marking the geographic center of the United States, something that had to move about 500 miles after Alaska and Hawaii were admitted to the union.
Our next stops were in South Dakota where we got up close to the four faces on Mount Rushmore as well as visiting the still in process sculpture of Crazy Horse. It’s mind boggling to realize that was begun the year I was born (1948), and may take another 40 years to complete. NO government funds have ever been used in its creation. In fact, when it was first proposed, the federal government refused to release the land where it sits. The sculptor whose second and third generation family members continue work on the project, got around the refusal by staking a mining claim on the mountain. In addition to the sculpture, there’s a beautiful outdoor gallery of copper images of birds, animals, plants and dinosaurs, plus a not-to-be-missed Native American museum inside. Another stop in South Dakota was in Deadwood where Wild Bill Hickock was shot while playing poker. He was holding aces and eights, hence its description as a dead man’s hand. Rude t-shirts, chainsaw art and more slot machines than residents, complete the town’s attractions. I tripled my money on one of them, inserting two one dollar bills and walking out with $6.51 fifteen minutes later.
We paid a bit extra for an open jeep ride through Custer State Park. It was well worth it. The driver was a local rancher who was well versed in the park’s history and inhabitants. We saw how much damage remains from a huge fire in 1987. The random pattern left behind of live trees adjacent to scorched land is intriguing. During the ride, we saw mountain goats, close to a thousand bison, pronghorns, and a couple colonies of prairie dogs. Afterward, we stopped for lunch and I sampled buffalo chili.
We went up through the Big Horn National Forest on a steep and curving road. Clouds limited the view and everything was covered with snow. We spent that night in Cody, WY after a tour of the Buffalo Bill Cody museum which has another terrific Native American collection, as well as a firearm collection that’s as extensive as any I’ve seen. I was particularly impressed by the 26 pound monster used by the King of France in the 17th century.
You can see all the pictures and videos in the world and still not be prepared for Yellowstone. We were able to explore four different areas where hot springs abound, perhaps the most intriguing being Mammoth Hot Springs which looks like a huge waterfall of solidified minerals. Across the road at least ten elk were snoozing on someone’s front lawn. Yellowstone also has two waterfalls on the Yellowstone River that lead to a very deep canyon. After staying overnight in West Yellowstone, Montana, we headed south.
Our next to the last stop was in Jackson, Wyoming where 8,000 elk winter on a preserve. The town square features arches made from elk antlers on all four corners, as well as views of the Grand Tetons which frequently wear a crown of clouds even on a sunny day. We went west through part of Idaho, going under an even bigger 75 foot wide arch of elk antlers, up into more high country to enjoy the view of a lake rumored to have its own monster. The final tour stop was in Salt Lake City to see their state capitol building. When we entered, instead of security screening, a very relaxed guard waved from his desk, saying “Come on in.”
Great trip, worth every penny, but spending eight days at altitudes between 5,200 and 9,000 feet above sea level had me short of breath more often that I’d like.