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2003 - Trip Reports - More of the West

More of the West

July 12‑22, 2003 Led by Marian and Neal Johns Reported by Ann Fulton

Everybody's in charge of celebrations. The 150th anniversary of The Oregon Trail was celebrated several years ago with special events, spruced up trail markers, and particular attention to identifying artifacts and locales. This year the bicentennial of the Lewis & Clark expedition, 1803‑1806, is the cause celibre in many places around the country, but nowhere more so than in the states through which the expedition passed in their trailblazing, both coming to the Pacific Ocean and going back. The explorers split into two groups for part of the return trip. We visited some of the sites along William Clark’s eastbound route on the Yellowstone River.

We began this trip with our friends Marian and Neal Johns. They spent Friday night with us in Bishop after being in Ridgecrest to check its possibilities as a site for the next Desert Explorers Rendezvous. Saturday a.m. we’d packed up, locked up, and gassed up, but the Johns hadn’t been to one of our favorite haunts here in Bishop. We were dawdling until 10:00. That’s when Eastside Books (used books) opens. Marian, too, carries a list of books‑to‑be‑on‑the‑lookout‑for and happily found six of them, but just as much fun are the serendipitous finds in such a place. Neal came up with a nifty, 20‑year‑old volume about that author’s experiences in the Owyhee.

(click Read More, below, to continue reading)



Now you see you don’t. Northeast of Tonopah we drove up the Big Smoky Valley, basin and range country; scattered ranches, Kelly green in swaths thanks to irrigation; dotted with old defunct digs in the hills and new large‑scale corporate mining ops close to the pavement (have you noticed the absence of signs identifying many of these obviously thriving, remote facilities? Are they trying to achieve anonymity? be invisible? hide in plain sight from the Sierra Club?) By early evening, we were camping in Lamoille Canyon Scenic Recreation Area south of Elko to the sound of a tumbling creek and the embrasure of close canyon walls. Now that’s the life...

Call of the canyon. Sunday morning we left Elko and I‑80 for the 120 miles of dirt roads to Jarbidge, north through cattle country at first, then forested mountain grandeur. The crest at the downgrade into Jarbidge Canyon is a “Ta Dah” sort of spot. There’s a breathtaking steep descent with glimpses of Jarbidge River among the trees. Hidden in these trees, the little town is every bit as charming as cracked up to be. Neal and Marian found a shady nook along the river for an afternoon nap.

I think John’s desire for a tall cold one was the real motivation, but we used the hiatus to go see the famous backbar at the Outdoor Inn. We wonder how such a monumental hunk of furniture made its way to such an out‑of‑the‑way place. It began life in San Francisco, was later moved to the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas, and then it ended up in Jarbidge when the Golden Nugget underwent renovation. Alas, we were four years too late ‑ the Outdoor Inn had burned to the ground in November 1999. Not to fret. The owners had rebuilt the watering hole and commissioned a wonderful new backbar, some 30’ long, crafted of local juniper logs and finished cedar paneling that is in perfect keeping with its setting. The wheels were turning: how could we fit one of these into the Fulton homestead?

Murphy’s Law. The canyon walls just north of town as you cross into Idaho are peppered with some memorable rock formations, including arches and hoodoos. We headed to Murphy Hot Springs for the night ‑ we’d attempted to get to it from another approach on our May‑June trip but were brought up short by a locked gate across a public road. But it was not meant to be. The place was out of commission, boarded up, plastered with off‑putting signs in neon colors. We backtracked a mile or so to some lovely BLM campsites among tall conifers on the East Jarbidge River, the icy cold East Jarbidge River! This is the outskirts of Owyhee Canyonlands, as we were reminded the next morning by a large signboard right where we climbed out of the Jarbidge River drainage.

Another bibliophile magnet. At Rogerson, we entered Highway 93, a main road to Twin Falls. Marian pointed out wild asparagus growing on both sides of the road through this heavily irrigated area. As we were wending our way through the sprawl of Twin Falls, we came upon a Hastings bookstore (remember the one in Flagstaff?) ‑ that caused a quick application of the brakes. And Neal spotted an Italian restaurant for lunch; spaghetti Neal likes (there’s a news flash for you ‑ Neal likes something normal!).

Trailing the Snake; losing the Snake. Heading east toward Pocatello on I‑84, we followed along the Snake River, as much of our route was wont to do. True to its name, the Snake does loop‑de‑loops and “esses” all over the place, but mostly makes itself a geo‑feature that’s never far from sight; its sphere of influence is apparent for many, many miles across Idaho and west central Wyoming. Lava flows from Craters of the Moon to the north can be seen along the highway between Twin Falls and Pocatello. We did side trips to Oregon Trail landmarks: Coldwater Hill where wagon ruts are visible, Register Rock where some of the pioneers incised their names, and Massacre Rocks, site of a disastrous Indian attack.

We whizzed through Pocatello, an attractive city with trees, spread over some close‑packed hills and deep little valleys. We went south of the Snake next, into Bear River country. More historical trail markers in Soda Springs. Our plan of spending the night in the little town was thwarted ‑ no room at the inn. Our substitute was a U.S. Forest Service campground in Caribou National Forest. Beautiful setting, and, apparently, no bears as there was a row of standard trash cans for campers’ use. But, ah, the voracious bugs! We slathered on the insect repellant, wolfed down our dinner before we became dinner, and, foregoing all social niceties like campfire camaraderie, ensconced ourselves behind buttoned‑up screening, making an early night of it.

We passed into Wyoming through verdant Star Valley and its extensive agricultural lands. The Salt River flows through the valley. We stopped to watch several nesting osprey at a wildlife refuge south of Alpine. The disappointing haze over the Tetons turned out to be smoke from a forest fire; the highway to Jackson had just been reopened after a three‑day closure! Here we were again going along the Snake in a canyon that must be gorgeous, but we could barely see anything beyond the lines on the highway.

Calling all dudes. Jackson is glitzy and touristy, but fun nonetheless. After taking pictures of the iconic antler arches at the corners of the town square, we parted ways with the Johnses in Jackson as they had different things they wanted to do in this area and were bound for family reunions in Idaho and Washington; our ultimate destination was Glendive, Montana, to see our son Brian. But, even so, we ran into each other a number of times during the rest of the day and the next day ‑ at Jackson’s super‑duper, sod‑roofed Wyoming State Information Center, a Dairy Queen lunch stop, an art museum, and two places in Yellowstone).

John and I ambled through several art galleries in Jackson. We ventured into the virtually deserted (in the morning) Million Dollar Cowboy Bar to see the Paul Bunyan‑sized, burled lodgepole pine beams, display cases of western memorabilia, bars inlaid with old silver dollars, and saddle barstools. The bookstore we went in didn’t have any of local author Lise McClendon’s murder mysteries (recommended by Marian. Found one at Eastside Books in Bishop after we got home!).

John and I interrupted our trip through the National Museum of Western Art to find a motel before they all filled up, then went back and finished looking through the exhibit halls. The museum has twelve sections, one devoted entirely to Carl Rungius paintings, with representative canvases and bronzes of many famous artists of outdoor subjects, as well as up‑and‑coming artists. The building itself is striking in design and location, a long, low structure of deep‑hued, reddish sandstone with a rustic aspect, high enough up a grassy slope to command a view over the vast National Elk Refuge and itself be seen from the highway below as a fortress of glass and stone fit to house its treasures.

Our motel also surveyed the Elk Refuge ‑ no elk this time of year, but the marshy grasslands and meandering waterways host many waterfowl, including trumpeter swans, white pelicans, and raucous sandhill cranes.

A surfeit of vistas. We didn’t have reservations within the parks, so we spent just one day, a long day, south to north, driving and cramming in sightseeing through Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone. We saw our only bull moose of the trip at Oxbow Bend. We checked out Jackson Lodge with its 60’ high windows overlooking Jackson Lake.

We crossed the Continental Divide in the southern end of Yellowstone National Park south of Grant. Given the tremendous number of people during this high season, we opted not to take the road for Old Faithful, going instead along Yellowstone Lake, a section we’d not seen before anyway. The majesty of Yellowstone Lake as an attraction in Yellowstone National Park is frequently not emphasized in the publicity, with most of the attention running to Old Faithful and perhaps the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River. But “The Wyoming Handbook” quotes David Folsom from 1869, when he was with an exploring party going through this area. He described Yellowstone Lake as:

 an inland sea, its crystal waves dancing and sparkling in the sunlight as if laughing with joy for their wild freedom. It is a scene of transcendent beauty which has been viewed by few white men, and we felt glad to have looked upon it before its primeval solitude should be broken by the crowds of pleasure seekers which at no distant day will throng its shores. 

The first point of interest, West Thumb Geyser Basin, also gave us our initial, stunning look at the lake. We were privileged to see Twin Geysers in action ‑ one geyser, two vents (west vent erupts 70’ high, east vent 100’). We trod along a boardwalk to view the underwater hot springs and geysers arrayed for some distance in the pellucid waters along the shore ‑ the fish hovered in and around these.

Geothermal and geophysical wonders abound. Warning signs are sprinkled liberally in the park, but any sense of impending disaster or possibility of explosive new activity evaporated when we got to The Dragon’s Mouth Spring in the Mud Volcano area.  Through a cavernous arch in the hill, steam billows forth, accompanied by a rhythmic belching of water and a comical rumbling as if the depths were inhabited by a friendly, gigantic ogre. If I had to pick a favorite spot for this trip, this would be it. What fun ‑ Disney couldn’t do it better.

The Sulphur Caldron area can only be viewed from above; that was okay with me. The upper and lower falls of the Yellowstone (the latter pretty much like in Thomas Moran’s painting) were awesome. Mammoth Hot Springs is at the northern end of the park. It really is mammoth. This is one of the few active travertine terraces in the world. Several miles of trails with viewing decks and one‑lane roads spiral up and twist down and around all the primary and subsidiary fissures, bubblers, and cascades. The large visitor center below utilizes structures from the Army facility once active there and includes a nice little museum. There’s a display of watercolor sketches by Thomas Moran and photographs of William Henry Jackson that were used in convincing Congress to make Yellowstone our first national park.

Sunset was imminent when we began to call it a day in Yellowstone. The Gardner River and its hot springs are at hand just before you exit the park; we could see people enjoying the waters ‑ one of the places it’s okay to do so. Only the lateness of the day prevented John from hopping in.  The Gardner, named for an infamous fur trapper, joins the Yellowstone at Gardiner (the town name was misspelled by some lackadaisical soul way back when...). We had a reservation at the Best Western. The Yellowstone runs between high banks through town, so the hotel has provided an observation deck enabling guests to get a closer look.

Land of A. B. Guthrie / Thomas McGuane / Rancho Deluxe. Day 6 of our trip we continued north along the Yellowstone River. The 600‑mile Yellowstone is the longest undammed river in the lower 48. Its headwaters are in the national park, from which it flows north to Livingston then east across Montana and into the Missouri River in North Dakota. Gardiner is the northern gateway to the park and the southern approach to Paradise Valley and old Livingston. Movie star ranchettes are tucked here and there in Paradise Valley. Livingston has reinvented itself from a sleepy little berg to something a bit more vibrant, sporting art galleries and three museums. We forgot about finding the hotel bar where one of the scenes from McGuane’s 1975 western Rancho Deluxe was filmed (Jeff Bridges played one of the two shiftless cowboys).

We spent that night in Billings at a Motel 6 near John’s favorite eatery ‑ the Cracker Barrel. He likes their down‑home biscuits and gravy. Corn, hay, dairy cows, cattle, and mile‑long trains hauling coal from Livingston are in abundance as I‑94 and the Yellowstone River roll on from Billings. Pompey’s Pillar, a lone‑standing sandstone monolith, is 28 miles east. William Clark named it Pompy’s Tower from the nickname “Pompy” he’d given to Sacajawea’s son (Pompy means Little Chief in Shoshoni). The landmark is significant because Clark incised his name and date of July 25, 1806, the only known physical evidence remaining in situ from the entire journey. When the journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition were published in 1814, the rock was renamed to its present appellation. Wooden stairs wend around and up the formation for a compelling view of the countryside. It doesn’t take much imagining to envision what the Clark party must have seen. Directly below at river’s edge are majestic cottonwoods, the state park visitor center, and some mementos from eons ago that require no conjuring ‑ mosquitoes. If there are this many mosquitoes with the state’s ongoing abatement program, just imagine what it must have been like for Clark and company! Mosquitoes could probably have been scooped out of the air and fried up for supper, if one were starved enough.

The Range Riders Museum in Miles City is extensive and well worth the stop to traipse through its copious collections and exhibits and several buildings ‑ huge gun exhibit, all manner of tools and paraphernalia, a vintage photo line‑up of Indian chiefs and warriors renowned for their pivotal roles in battles and treaties during the western movement.

Who’s ever heard of Glendive? Brian loves Montana and is at home in Glendive. He’s an outdoors person through and through - loves to hunt, fish, rockhound, and explore, so this wide- open-spaces country is for him. One of his friends located and excavated a triceratops skull recently in an open badlands area. Glendive has several claims to fame. It’s a fishing center for the huge paddlefish in the Yellowstone River (found elsewhere only in the Yangtze River in China). Makoshika State Park abuts Glendive at its southern extremity. An attractive visitor center cum museum graces the entrance. Numerous dinosaur skeletons have been found in the exposed strata. The park encompasses Death Valley-like, eroded barrens at its lower elevations, but the road to the interior quickly climbs to heights affording far-flung views and more visually-stimulating terrain. There are juniper and pinyon clad slopes, hogsback ridges, fluted hillsides, pinnacles, and caprock ornamented buttes. Montana, and the Yellowstone River around Glendive in particular, is known for its jewelry-quality agates; Glendive is thought to be the best agate collecting site in the state. Dendritic or moss agates are the treasures with their patterns reminiscent of landscapes. Brian gave me a couple of baking-potato size agates he had stashed in his desk drawer at his office - says there are more where these came from.

As the crow flies, more or less. We ended up coming home the most direct route, sort of; even so, it took three days. Of course, there was no particular rush and our vehicle is hardwired to (1) stop at each and every historical marker and (2) turn at every side road that leads to a special site.

Yet another early USPS screw-up. Broadus, a little cow town southwest of Glendive on the Powder River, was settled by the Broaddus family (note two d’s), but Washington bureaucrats mistakenly dropped one d when a post office was established there in 1900. My maternal grandfather was Foley French Broaddus, so I have an interest in the pioneer family. We struck out on gaining any information as the museum and library are closed on Sunday, our day to be there. They have oral histories in their archives, enough reason to plan a future side trip this way.

Alternative Wyoming. In Wyoming we went through Gillette, coal mining and gas field center (one-quarter of the nation’s coal comes from here), and Buffalo, a picturesque little city with attractive renovations and wonderful statues and sculptures, at the very foot of the Big Horn Mountains and Big Horn National Forest. We drove through Ten Sleep and, after Powder River Pass at 9,666’, dropped down into Worland. The economy in this part of Big Horn Basin depends on farming (sugar beets, malt barley, navy beans), cattle and sheep ranching, oil production, and manufacturing (aluminum can factory turning out 3 million cans a day and a Pepsi bottling plant that uses a lot of those cans).

One spot we have on our not-to-be-missed list for the next trip up this way is the Medicine Wheel. It’s accessed from the northern traverse through the Big Horn Range, Alt. 14 between Lovell and Sheridan. The wheel is characterized as one of the best-known and least-understood archaeological sites in America. It measures 80’ across with 28 rock spokes radiating from a central hub and six rock cairns scattered around the rim. A variety of lesser rock sculptures surround the Medicine Wheel on nearby slopes. There are indications that the Medicine Wheel was a pivotal point in a larger system of trails and rock markings at some distance elsewhere. The theories abound about the purpose of this remarkable site and make for interesting speculation.

John wanted to stay at the Holiday Inn of the Waters at Hot Springs State Park in Thermopolis - always great fun. The world’s largest hot spring is here. Thermopolis is the third most popular tourist destination in Wyoming, after Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. Our room this time overlooked the pool, hot springs tub, strip of park along the river walk, and the Big Horn River. Mature old shade trees and green lawns beautify the whole area. The rooms themselves are a kick, spacious with lots of comfortable furniture and lamps and a whole mirror wall. There was a ceiling-high, slightly exotic, erotic picture over the bed in this room (it had a black background with two gold-outlined black panthers in front of a golden pyramid, matted with a mirror surround and black glitter!). The Safari Club restaurant and lounge in the hotel is one-of-a-kind. It’s architecture is “western sophisticate” with wood, glass, and stone, and the walls are covered with trophy heads from the owner’s hunting expeditions all over the world. I tried to ignore all those glassy eyes looking my way and concentrated on my vegetarian salad.

Early sojourners. Some other side trips we postponed for next time would be a great nucleus for a future Desert Explorers’ trip. There are three premier archaeological sites in this part of the state. Between Thermopolis and Meeteetse at the foot of the Owl Creek Mountains is the Legend Rock petroglyphs site, reputedly one of the finest such sites in Wyoming. East from Shoshoni and Riverton is Castle Gardens, noted for its wonderful, oddly-sculpted sandstone spires and incised rock art. Dubois-Dinwoody Creek northwest of Shoshoni-Riverton-Lander is another culturally provocative area of petroglyphs. Members with lots of knowledge about these sites are Anne and George Stoll and Vicki Hill (Anne as an archaeologist; George as a photographer and petro-chemical engineer - did some of his graduate work in Wyoming; Vicki is a talented amateur archaeologist and artist).

Higher and deeper. The highway from Thermopolis goes south the length of Wind River Canyon. From the Popo Agie River basin and Lander, we entered the Rockies again and took the unpaved loop to fabled South Pass City. Thirty buildings remain of the original 300. After the Continental Divide, we went through a country junction anchored by old Farson Mercantile. Farson’s is reputed to be one of two best places in Wyoming for ice cream (the other is in Shoshoni). We lined up right along with a few other tourists and a big oilfield crew spilling out of Schlumberger trucks. “Small” cones are two-fisted concoctions piled with four generous dips. I had Caribou Caramel. The passing thought about how that name related to what I was eating - the ingredients featured heaps and heaps of chocolate and butterscotch roundels - made no dent at all in my appetite. Forget finesse. I was a sticky mess; John slurped faster. Eat your heart out, Lewis & Clark.

State Route 28 west of Farson takes you along the Sandy River to Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge. It’s a paved two-lane through an area almost surreal in nature - totally devoid of human habitation, the only signposts along the 28 miles to the junction with State Route 372 down to Green River show silhouettes of the animals that call this high country home. One board had a pronghorn antelope and the message “Cross traffic at 55 MPH”; another sign advised caution with the outline of a very substantial moose and “Heavy traffic conditions.”

Cutting corners in Utah. From Evanston, in the very southwestern corner of Wyoming, we bypassed Salt Lake City, taking the “back way” into Provo past Park City, Jordanelle Reservoir, Heber, and the road to Sundance. This last night out we stayed at a lovely, little Best Western with jaunty blue and white stripe awnings and skylights in the rooms. Provo, home to BYU, is a sparkling clean city with upbeat businesses and the immediate backdrop of steep mountains. We took U.S. 6 west off I-15 south at the first opportunity next morning. This took us through rustic Eureka, Tintic Mining District, in the mountains beyond Utah Lake.

They slept around.... You know there’s something special ahead when you approach Great Basin National Park in Nevada. The scenic highway designation is mostly superfluous information. After skirting the park, Ely is the place for hungry travelers to haul up. We went to the old Nevada Hotel and Casino for lunch as the clouds showed every sign of getting serious. The hotel is six stories high and was the tallest building in Nevada for 20 years after it was built in 1908. John Wayne, et al, slept there.

The route across the center of Nevada on U.S. 6 goes successively over the southern verges of several mountain chains and through the drier interstitial valleys. It had been mostly notably hot all over the West, but coming home was refreshing. The normally rather desolate central strip of Nevada was pretty, driving as we did under lowering thunder heads rent with the occasional lightning bolt, and massive cumuli when you could see the sun.

Winding down...and up. We arrived in Bishop to the same lovely, cooling weather. Hurricane Claudette, in combination with our normal Sierra summer monsoons, had been making for fantastic skies and rain in the mountains every afternoon with the promise of rain over Bishop - sometimes we get a deluge too, but, more often, just some big splashy raindrops.

We unpacked batches of reading material collected from stops at visitor centers, BLM and USFS ranger stations, and Chambers of Commerce - maps, pamphlets, chronologies, anthologies, books, annotated, illustrated goodies that have cropped up as a result of the stirred-up interest in Lewis & Clark’s “Corps of Discovery.” Guess we’ll celebrate with a readathon.