Saturday, August 27, 2016

Trail Bumming

July 12-14

We left Custer for Casper, Wyoming, on the 12th and part of our route followed the Cheyenne-Deadwood Trail, which was used as a stagecoach route. Besides suffering from the natural elements—flood, dust, wind, etc.—and the occasional Indian attack, the coaches also fell prey to “ruthless road agents,” one historical marker told us.

Indeed, we stopped later at a rest area that was built near the grave of a stagecoach driver. 

Another marker stood at the former site of Fort Jenney (sometimes simplified to Jenny). The fort was built in 1875 by a group sent by President Grant to confirm the discovery of gold in the Black Hills. Walter Jenney was a geologist who was one of the leaders of the group.

It stood a long while, served as a stagecoach station for a time, and later as a home on the LAK Ranch. It was later moved to the Anna Miller Museum in Newcastle, Wy.

So of course, I had to see it. The fort is actually a log cabin outside the museum, which itself is housed in a former Wyoming National Guard Cavalry stable.

Anna Miller, for whom the museum is named, is regarded as on of the resilient pioneer women. Her husband. Billy Miller, was sheriff. He was killed in a fight with Sioux in 1903. Get this: the Indians were suspected of poaching.

Needing to support herself, she became a teacher, then superintendent of schools for the county, and was an all-round pillar of the community. Not sure, but she may have taught in the one-room schoolhouse next to Fort Jenney on the museum grounds.

We also stopped at Ayres Natural Bridge, which is in a county park not far from I-25, a few miles east of Douglas, Wy. (It’s sometimes spelled Ayers, but r before e seems to prevail.) According to a diagram, the stream that races through the park originally went in a horseshoe bend, but over a long time, it eventually undercut the rock wall until part of it collapsed to create a shorter route for the stream to follow.

We reached Custer sometime late in the afternoon and were surprised at the size of the place. Compared with Wall, Kadoka, and Philip, it’s a pretty big place—about 50,000 people. 

When we got to the Quality Inn in Custer, we asked about places for dinner. I wanted craft beer. We were warned that the premier spot, Wonder Bar, would be jammed all night because this was the day of the big rodeo parade.

The Fort, on the other hand, was a short walk away, so we went there. We got our first chance to sample Rocky Mountain Oysters. They are breaded and fried, a little on the chewy side, but much better than the gizzards we tried at the Badlands Bar in Wall.

We also had another regional specialty, buffalo rib-eye. It was remarkable tender for a low-fat meat. 

I still don’t find a tremendous difference in flavor between bison and beef. 

Bison’s not as different from beef as lamb or venison, the other red meats, are. Part of the appeal is that it is exotic by our standards back East, and maybe is a little better for our arteries.

Next morning, we went up the hill about a mile from the Quality Inn to the National Trails Center. It is a museum that recounts the history and culture of four trails that crossed the North Platte River at present-day Casper: the Oregon, California, Mormon, and Pony Express Trails.

The Oregon Trail took people to a purported land of milk and abundance in the far West. The California Trail led to the Gold Rush country. The Mormons were headed for Salt Lake City. 

After the Gold Rush increased the population of California, the Pony Express carried mail—for about a year and a half before the telegraph put them out of business.

The trails pretty much followed the Oregon Trail until they started to divide a little west of Casper toward their separate destinations.

We met a man in the parking lot outside the motel who gave us directions to Old Town. It’s a pleasant enough place to stroll. 

It is contained in about four city blocks—two on Center Street and two on Second—and looks like something built in the first half of the 20th century, not as old as some of the buildings in Custer, which date back to the 1880s.

It has the feel of a town center brought back from decay. There are business and government offices, but also places selling art or cowgirl clothes, and lots of restaurants. There are three old movie houses in those four blocks, so movies must be popular here.

For dinner we went to J’s Pub and Grill, on what I believe is the town’s west side. We shared an appetizer of pot stickers, which were close to Cantonese fried dumplings. 

We also split a dinner of buffalo meat loaf. It had an unusual flavor because the meat included green olive, in addition to an appropriate amount of chopped onion.

There was an amber ale that wasn’t very satisfying, but I was able to resort to an old standby on tap—Goose Island IPA. A couple of those set me right up.

On one of our trips in this direction, Joanna was able to get this shot of an old-fashioned oil derrick standing by the road as a monument.

On the 14th, to celebrate Bastille Day, we went to Fort Caspar Museum. The fort was built to protect a bridge over the North Platte River. 

The bridge is why all those trails congregated here. In the earliest pioneer days, people had to ford the river here. Many of them didn’t make it. 

When Brigham Young led the first excursion of Mormons toward the Great Salt Lake, he and his crew established a ferry here. 

They cut two logs in the shapes of canoes and put a platform on them. It was guided by ropes secured on both banks. It worked well, and Young assigned a team of men to stay and operate it.

It would serve later Mormon parties, and would carry others for a fee.

The bridge started out as private enterprise, too. A man named Louis Guinard built it as a toll bridge, and also opened a trading post. The site later became a stagecoach stop, a Pony Express station, and a telegraph office. 

In the early 1860s the cavalry came to protect the telegraph station and the bridge.

A large war party of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho attacked the bridge in 1865. A small cavalry force under Lt. Caspar Collins went out to reinforce a wagon train that was due to arrive. Collins’s command was overwhelmed by the Indians.

He and a few others were killed, and the rest of the column was driven back across the bridge to what was then known as North Platte Station. The wagon train caught hell too.

Later that year, the station was renamed Fort Casper. The orders misspelled the lieutenant’s name. (Another of the variant spellings we’ve met over the past few days.) They used his first name, because there already was a Fort Collins, the one in Colorado, named for the Caspar’s father.

We ran into a colorful character at the museum. He and I recognized each other because we’re both hard to miss and had been at the trails museum at the same time the day before.

He and his wife live pretty much the way I do. They sold their house and move around the country from town to town. 

He’s originally from Minnesota but lived in San Antonio most recently. That’s where they keep the POD that holds their belongings. 

He wears a large straw cowboy hat with a feather in the band and wildly printed cowboy shirts. He has been on the road for about six years.

Although he walks in and out, he tours the museums in a wheel chair. 

When he learned Joanna is Chinese, he went on about his love of Chinese food, and how successful Chinese are, and how smart. You take the top quarter of the Chinese population and it’s about equal to the entire population of the United States. 

His son has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, and when he got his degree, most of the other successful candidates were Chinese or Indian.

He once traveled to New York and spent a few weeks in Peekskill. He is part Dutch and wanted to learn about the Dutch in America.

He tried driving around Manhattan for a few days, but gave it up in favor of the train.

You get the idea. Way more information than I could hold in my head, but he was fun to talk to.

His wife says she plans to live forever and when her husband dies, she may have the POD sent to her son’s driveway in Albuquerque and take an apartment in the area.

Looking at the word count, I see that this, too, is too much information. So I’ll end this, and go look for beer.

Happy trails, all.


Friday, August 26, 2016

Monumental Achievements, or, Still Crazy

July 10-11

Sunday we went to visit Crazy Horse. I wanted to apologize in person for driving through the sacred Black Hills.

You can see the carving, definitely a work in progress, from the highway. This is all funded by private donations, entrance fees, and souvenir sales.

Work started in 1948. If the carving and blasting are ever finished, Crazy Horse will be the largest work of sculpture in the world. According to a film at the visitor center, the entire Mount Rushmore Monument could fit inside Crazy Horse’s head.

He is to be depicted stretching out an arm over his horse’s mane. The pose recalls a legendary exchange in which a white man taunted Crazy Horse by asking, “Where are your lands now?”

His answer, which sounds a little Serbian, was: “My lands are where my dead lie buried.”

The Indian museum at Crazy Horse has what you might expect: arrowheads, bows, feather bonnets, lots of almost miraculous beadwork, Seminole clothes, portraits of Sioux and Cheyenne who fought in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. 

A fascinating place to spend an hour or two.

The sculptor who began the project was Korczak Ziolkowski. His story is fascinating, but I won’t recount it here. He’s easy to find in a Google search. I mean, who else is named Korczak Ziolkowski?

We saw another unusual sight in the parking lot. It looked like a three-wheel convertible and reminded me of the old Dimaxion car of the 1950s. The driver saw us trying to snap photos of it and stopped.

It’s called a Slingshot and is made by Polaris. It is not classed as a car, but as a reverse three-wheel motorcycle.

After Crazy Horse, we went back to Custer State Park. This time we followed a road through the mountains past phenomenal rocks that stood up like needles or spires. And of course, that’s what they were named for.

The route took us through a couple of one-lane tunnels, which were kind of fun. There’s no light or signal of any kind. So it’s sort of like a game of chicken. The first one in has the right of way. 

We were able to walk to dinner our first night (July 9) at the Buglin’ Bull, which features house brand beers. I had a brown that was good enough, but like a lot of browns a little thin and watery. This one had a touch of sweetness, but not a lot. So that was in its favor.

The Armstrong IPA (Custer’s middle name) was another story altogether. It was beautifully fragrant with hops and very bitter. The bartender even warned me about the bitterness. 

We shared an appetizer of mushrooms stuffed with buffalo sausage and then split a huge pork chop.

Sunday night, the 10th, we drove up the hill to the Chophouse on the Rocks, a restaurant attached to the Bavarian Inn a short way from the motel. They had run out of sauerbraten, so we settled on jager schnitzel. This is a breaded pork chop pan fried and served with mashed potatoes and red cabbage. 

It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t great. There was gravy on the schnitzel but it looked almost congealed, so I figure that, like much of the food available here, it was factory processed rather than made in the kitchen. The meat was also dry, but that’s common with schnitzel.

We had a few glasses of red wine with dinner. Joanna had a pinot noir, possibly from California, where the best American pinots come from. I had a cabernet sauvignon, a blend of some kind recommended by the waitress, and a merlot. They were all lightweight, unobjectionable, but not outstanding.

Monday, the 11th, we headed for Mount Rushmore. It cost us a whole $11 to park there, and our old-folks passes to the National Parks didn’t count. But that was the only charge. 

We were able to park in a garage, out of the sun. That’s a real novelty here.

The monument is impressive enough: Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt sort of obscured by Jefferson, and then Lincoln all on his own. By the way, you can see Roosevelt’s pince nez spectacles.

The sight took us both back to Angkor Thom and the art lecture about faces with flat Cambodian noses. That’s because the faces in the monument have definitely Barang noses, which stick out. 

Joanna noticed that, although I may not be presidential material, I have a presidential nose. 

Truth to tell, as fun as the monument is to look at, that didn’t top my list of reasons for being there. We found the cafeteria and went in. 

This is where Eva Marie Saint shot Cary Grant with blanks. It’s one of the great scenes of American movies. Mount Rushmore through the window, and bang, a guy falls. 

I have only watched the movie on the small screen, but they say that the scene was shot several times to get it right. They say that in the final take, a boy in the background covers his ears before the shot is fired. 

Anyhow, it was very inspiring to be in the footsteps of Crazy Horse and Alfred Hitchcock on two consecutive days.

We went into Custer State Park again on the way back from Mount Rushmore. The road we took, U.S. 16A, is also known as the Iron Mountain Road. It has three one-lane tunnels, each with a view to the north of the Mount Rushmore Monument. We traveled south through two of them, but the third was around a bend and we faced north.

The road climbs steep hills and at three points runs under and over itself. We were on the way up, so we passed under a bridge and then crossed the bridge over the road we just traveled. They call them pigtail bridges.

We went back to the Wildlife Loop Road and saw a solitary buffalo bull walking by the road. Actually we saw two, but at different times.  I’m pretty sure the first one couldn’t have gotten ahead of us to appear the second time.


This time we noticed the prairie dog town. The little buggers were all over the place.

We also saw two herds of buffalo. One was so far away that the binoculars gave us very little detail. The other was up a hill from the road. We got out of the car, as many people did, to get a closer look. A large bull grazed at the edge of the herd, and we got close enough to get a good look at him, but he didn’t even look up at us, so we knew we were okay.

This time, the burros showed up. They frequent a stretch of the Wildlife Loop. They are not completely wild. People feed them and pet them. Someone fed a burro from inside her vehicle. The animal stuck its nose through the window trying to get more.

They are real traffic stoppers, not just because of their antics, but also because they stroll down the middle of it. 

Tonight we walked to Sage Creek Grill, a couple of blocks from the motel. I checked the menu online and thought I was going to be restricted to ginger ale. Not so. They had a Crow Creek IPA in a can; very good. Then I saw there was a draft list. I had The Knuckle Brewing Company’s pale ale and its IPA, both of which were very good. The Knuckle IPA wasn’t as fragrant as the Crow Creek, but it was bitter enough to make a fine dessert.

Here’s wishing everyone a fine dessert.


Custer and Discuster

July 8-9

We reached the Days Inn in Custer, S.D., around four on July 9, after spending much of the afternoon marveling at the big game in Custer State Park. We passed signs for Custer Gulch, Custer Mountain, and Custer Whatever.

He was a celebrity in his day. But I believe that, if he hadn’t been arrogant enough to attack the entire Sioux and Cheyenne nations with half a regiment of cavalry, we might not even remember his name today. 

On the eighth, we prowled the Prairie northeast of Wall. The road passes a huge Wall Drug billboard accompanied by a green dinosaur facing east on a bluff over interstate 90.

Then you dive into that rolling sea of grass. We entered the town of Philip. With a populaton of 858, it is bigger than Wall by 40 souls.

There is a small park with a log cabin that was a schoolhouse at the end of the 19th century. It has been placed next to the clapboard one-room school house that was the town’s original school.

We went back to the Badlands; it’s hard to keep away. We rephotographed the south wall. We also revisited the section called the Yellow Mounds. The yellow resulted from the burial of an ancient jungle. The jungle came back, was buried by more deposits, and this time turned the earth red. 

We went to the Red Rock Restaurant in Wall for dinner. Even with all the farms around us, this is processed-food country. I think the clam chowder was not made from scratch in the kitchen. Ditto the breaded wall-eye filet. Not bad, though, for a change from buffalo and beef. 

The bar serves Barefoot wines. I tried the chardonnay and pinot grigio. They were light, and I think the chardonnay had more flavor than the pinot grigio. I had a cabernet sauvignon, too, and it was fine.

Of course, I have almost never tried a wine that I didn’t like.

We went to Wall Drug for pie.

Then we set out to see the sun set over the Badlands. The shadows put many of the formations into high relief. The Yellow Mounds are gold and red. Buffalo are said to be active at dusk, but we didn’t see any.

Custer State Park, on the ninth, was a different story.

You enter from the east side on U.S. 16A. You pay $20 for a ticket that’s good for a week, so we’ll probably be going back there once or twice over the next few days.

The park is in the Black Hills, not far from where Custer’s expedition of 1874 found gold. The Black Hills were ceded to the Sioux by treaty, but the gold rush was on. The cavalry sent the first trespassers home, but when the big rush came, gave up. Or didn’t care. Anyhow, it was the end of yet another treaty between the United States and an Indian nation.

The Black Hills are covered with dark evergreens. I understand that is the origin of the name. 

The animals in the park are apparently enured to traffic. A group of young pronghorn rams drew quite a crowd of cars and motorcycles. They were right by the side of the Wildlife Loop Road, and were perfectly undisturbed by the uninvited company.


We saw a cluster of wild ponies grazing in the distance, and a couple of herds of buffalo. We needed to use the binoculars to see them clearly.

A solitary bull buffalo was lying on the grass maybe 50 feet from the road.

Later we saw cars going up a side dirt road called Four Mile Draw. This was yet another herd, maybe a hundred or so, bulls, cows, and calves. They came right up to the edge of the road. Cars were lined up and arms were sticking out of them with cameras and cellphones.

Ignoring the advice at the visitor center, I got out of the car. Those animals couldn’t have cared less about me. They didn’t even look my way. I can’t blame them. They were hungry, and besides, all one would have to do is step on me if I got out of line.

I got lost for a few minutes on the way out of the park. I had started out toward a few features in the far north end. These are narrow tunnels, and something called the Needles Eye. Joanna looked at the park map and said, “That’s near Crazy Horse.” We’re going there later so I decided to save it for another day. 

I told Joanna that I’d turn around and head for Custer. She thought we didn’t have to turn around. But we’re on 87 North, I told her, and pointed to the map.

She pointed out some landmarks that we had just passed. She was absolutely right, and I was so damned sure I knew where we were. 

The first gold prospectors were a family named Gordon. They entered the Black Hills illegally and after a year were driven out by the U.S. Cavalry. They had built a stockade near what is now the western entrance to Custer State Park.

There is a reproduction of it just outside the park by the highway. It was raining, so we didn’t stop. 

Custer is bigger than Wall. It has more than three restaurants and even has a car wash.

Joanna and I are headed out for dinner soon. The man at the desk told us we had to eat dinner early, because the town closes up by 9:30.

But that’s all right. After a day on the road, so do I.

Be well, all.


Thursday, August 25, 2016

Buffalo Hunt

July 6

We enjoyed the burgers so much at the Badlands Saloon that we went looking for more buffalo today. And we found some, too, but couldn’t get within range.

I picked up my prescription at Wall Drug. But we had breakfast there in the Wall Drug Cafe. Billboards all the way to the state line advertise what Wall Drug has to offer, including home-made donuts and 5-cent coffee. So in addition to eggs and bacon, that’s what I had. Joanna had some very good pancakes.

After breakfast, we walked around and looked at some of the attractions. I bought a cheap switchblade and a conventional folding knife in the camping goods department. Joanna bought a travel pillow and some myrrh-scented balls.

We saw the replica mine, walls and walls of historic photographs, the jackelope, and even an animatronic T-Rex.


We also stopped at the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands visitor center, which is a block up from the drug store in the two blocks that constitute downtown Wall. According to a ranger, most of the bison are in the Badlands National Park. The national grassland wraps around the park, and there are some buffalo in the section south of the park.

So we headed in that direction. We went back to the park, entering this time at the gate where we left the day before. This time we took a gravel road, Sage Creek Road, through part of the park we skipped yesterday.

There is a section labeled Roberts Prairie Dog Town. That is apparently a misnomer for Prairie Dog Metropolis. It stretches for miles along both sides of the road. There is an overlook where I was able to get out and walk on a couple of short tracks throught the town. The prairie dogs sat at the doors of their burrows and squeaked in protest.  

Farther along the road, we saw some dark spots on the prairie. Even with the binoculars we couldn’t be sure what we were looking at. One silhouette looked like the mismatched halves that make up a bison—the huge head and hump and the relatively small ass end.

Another mile or so, there were cars parked on both sides of the road. That’s an indicator that somebody has seen something. This was a smaller herd, but much closer. Even without the binocs, I could make out the shapes of buffalo bulls. With the binoculars, I could see the calves following the cows.

Curiouser and curiouser, though, were a small herd of almost tame bighorns. They were ewes with young, four adults and four lambs.

They were on a bluff below a viewing area, and just walked by us all, and passed between two parked cars, one of which had its engine running. All, that is, save one ewe and the lambs. The ewe waited for the running car to leave and then joined the other adults, which were grazing at the roadside. 

The lambs went a few yards back down the hillside and started grazing there. They had the same attitude toward humans as that monkey in the Cambodian temple. 

It ate fruit from a bag and ignored the Chinese tourists who posed for photos that would look like they were petting it. 

Ignored them, that is, until one came too close to the bag. that brought a quick hiss and a show of teeth.

Nobody pretended to pet the sheep.

We continued on the gravel road till we left the park and eventually came to South Dakota Highway 44. This is one of the roads we traveled through Hutchinson County a couple of days ago. This time it  took us through the Badlands and across the Grasslands, with nary a buffalo in sight.

We did see some workers on the roadside who appeared to be out to kill prairie dogs. Now, given my experience with something as small as chipmunks, which were able to undermine my driveway a few years ago, I can understand that.
But then we took a gravel road north back to the Badlands National Park. Shortly after we turned onto it, we saw a sign: "Prairie Dogs Have Plague." It advised us to keep our pets in the car.
We also ran into a traffic jam of sorts. Nobody honked any horns. They just mooed. Unfenced cattle had decided it was time to cross the road. 

They must do that a lot, judging by the evidence. There was cow shit lying in the middle of the road for the next mile or two.

The wall of the Badlands is very clear when you see it from the south. It really is a barrier. It reminded Joanna of the Great Wall, which she visited a few years ago on a trip to Red China.


The trip back to Wall took us through the striking section of the park with the gold and red mounds. 

We rested at the motel for a while and then went out to dinner. We tried a new place, the Cactus Cafe. It took me three tries to order a beer. The waiter kept disappearing before I could ask for anythng. When I finally asked for a New Belgium, which was on the menu, the waiter looked at me and said, “I have to ask.”

I asked him to explain. I have to ask to see if we have it. Well, yeah. 

He seemed surprised that it was his job to find out. He went and came back and said they had three ales. One I didn’t know. I asked him about it. “I don’t know,” he said. We said good-bye.

We had salad, mashed potatoes, and a rib eye at the Badlands Saloon, where we had the buffalo burgers yesterday. We tried some chicken gizzards, too, as an appetizer, but it was like trying to chew leather. We gave up on them.

I had a New Belgium Fat Tire, an amber ale that I have had a few times before; the Deschutes Fresh Squeezed, the IPA I had yesterday, and something new to me, Moose Drool, a brown ale from Big Sky Brewing in Missoula, Mont.

Joanna asked the waitress about a supermarket. There’s one up the street from the bar. In fact, it’s just around the corner from our motel. So we walked there to buy some fruit and a few other supplies.

We tried to get some pie (also advertised on billboards) at the Wall Drug Cafe, but it was almost nine and the place was shutting down. I keep forgetting that 9 p.m. is late in much of the United States.

So that’s another day in former Sioux country, gang.

Be well, all, and to all a good night.