The Big Trip, Part 5

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Denver, CO – Cheyenne, WY

Denver Art Museum

There is a Denver Cultural District with three museums situated adjacent to each other. We won’t say much about the Denver Art Museum except that it was by the architect Daniel Libeskind and looks more like an overwhelming sculpture than a building. Judging by today’s visit, it is also a very attractive venue for school field trips. Inside, there were many kids, some as young as seven or eight, so the atmosphere felt very crowded and noisy.

Clyfford Still Museum

For us, it was the museum next door that was the day’s highlight. We had come to Denver specially to visit the Clyfford Still Museum because we knew so little about his work.

Still was one of the originators of America’s Abstract Expressionist Movement in the 1940s and 1950s. His paintings were highly praised by both fellow artists and critics; however, there are only a few of them in the world’s art museums. Still didn’t sell many, preferring to keep 95% of his work for himself. His will stipulated that his paintings, works on paper, and personal archive should go to the city willing to build a museum to house them. The museum was to be for his work alone and was to have no café or restaurant.

Clyfford Still Museum

To walk through the Clyfford Still Museum with its large, sometimes very large abstract paintings hung on textured, grey concrete walls is a powerfully concentrated experience. Still believed that an artist’s work is best experienced en mass and without the work of other artists along side it. That is why he demanded a museum solely devoted to his work. It is a mark of his importance that he was able to get his wish.

Clyfford Still Museum

The style of Still’s most prominent paintings is distinctive. The forms are “jagged, locked-in shapes created from gigantic fields of bold color.” Some are composed symmetrically. Some are punctuated by small dabs of a contrasting color. A dominating characteristic is their verticality. I copied the following text by the artist from the wall next to one of these ‘vertical” paintings:

For days I’d wanted to have my hair cut, so at a Colorado Walmart, where we stopped to use the rest room, I finally had the opportunity. I doubt many of you have had your hair cut in a Walmart store, so I have to report that the result was not bad.  The difference was that instead of male barbers who go to work asking few questions, the young female stylist peppered me with more questions about how I wanted my hair cut than I knew how to answer.

We’ve become Walmart shoppers on this trip. In a Walmart lot there is always room to park the Beast, and inside we have one-stop shopping. We can buy sweatshirts, tools, work gloves, toothpaste, and anything else we need all at the same time. As for food, Walmart has a large selection of convenience items requiring little cooking beyond a microwave. This suits us well since our tiny kitchen doesn’t allow us to prepare elaborate meals. Finally, as the world knows, Walmart’s prices are the lowest to be had.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Cheyenne, WY – Casper, WY

Winter comes early to these parts. We left the kampground under a dirty, grey sky and hadn’t been on the road north more than half an hour before we encountered the beginnings of a snowstorm. By the time we passed the town of Chugwater the snow had increased, covering the grasslands along the road and making the road surface slipperier.

Our normal cruising speed is 65 mph, and I mostly keep that speed steady using the Beast’s cruise control. Today however, there were electronic signs warning against using cruise control on the slippery road. I also cut my speed to as low as 50 mph at times. I also became drowsy, and we had no sooner decided to pull in to a nearby rest stop when in my mirror I saw the flashing lights of a highway patrol car telling me to stop

As we were at the entrance to the rest stop, I stopped the car and waited for the conversation with the patrolman to begin. Instead of approaching the driver’s side, he went to Kay’s window and asked in a friendly way who we were and where we were going. He had observed us driving slowly and weaving slightly. Thinking that I might have been falling asleep, he stopped us to check.

We had already decided that today we wouldn’t try to go any further than Casper, another 60 miles up the road. Kay had used her iPad to make a reservation at a local Ramada Inn. The patrolman suggested we wait out the storm at the motel and continue tomorrow once the sun had come out and the snow on the road from Casper to Dubois had melted. Good advice! We heeded the first part today.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Casper, WY – Dubois – Jackson, WY

Weather-wise, this has been a day of sharp contrasts. As I returned our belongings from the motel to the Beast, the sun shone brightly, and it was very cold. It warmed up a bit during the morning, but as we drove west toward the cowboy town of Dubois, the sky darkened again.

Wyoming Prairie

For a long time, there wasn’t much to look at either. We were driving across a plain nearly 7,000 feet above sea level. To either side the land was flat and not much use for anything but grazing the black cattle we passed from time to time. The only habitations we saw were trailer homes and small, nondescript houses with pickup trucks parked near them. Wyoming is just about the least populated state in the country.

We made a rest stop in the small town of Shoshoni, and as we neared Dubois, our first destination, the scenery began to change and so did the weather. The two-lane blacktop was no longer straight and flat. We began to see unearthly rock formations carved by the wind from the hillsides along the road. And then the snow began again.

Dubois Main Street

On Dubois’ main street, the snow was falling so heavily that we debated whether to seek shelter there or continue further toward Yellowstone.

We decided to park across from the Cowboy Café and go in for pie and coffee.  I’d like to point out how the name of this town is pronounced: It’s Due-Boice, with an emphasis on the first syllable. The town was originally called “Never Sweat,” but the US Postal Service objected to that name. When the name was changed to Dubois, the townspeople showed their independent streak with their particular pronunciation for Dubois.

For a while beyond Dubois the road was nearly dry, but as we climbed higher it began to snow again, this time more heavily. By the time we reached 9,500 feet at the top of the pass (its odd name escapes me) the road was completely covered; no lines were visible, and it was thanks only to the vertical reflectors lining the sides that I kept the Beast on the road.

We crawled along at 30 mph for what seemed like a long time while very few vehicles passed in the other direction. At one point on the steep descent, a person with a stop sign and an orange flag made us wait until a passenger car with a sign saying PILOT CAR, FOLLOW ME came to escort us down past men working at something along the roadside.

Jackson Hole’s Snake River

At last, we were on flat terrain and the weather changed again. The snow was gone, the road was dry and we were in beautiful Jackson Hole, a great valley among the Teton Mountains. At one point we stopped for me to take photos of the Snake River far below us in a deeper valley.

Jackson, Wyoming

Because we weren’t sure what lodging we might find open and available at Yellowstone, we chose to drive into the upscale town of Jackson to find a motel and a meal. We had our choice of both. Kay, using her trusty iPad beside me, booked us into the Pony Express Motel before we reached it just before dark.

Friday, October 26, 201

Jackson – Yellowstone National Park – Idaho Falls

One goal of this long drive across Wyoming has been to visit Yellowstone Park. It was America’s first national park, and one of its most famous. Until today I had never seen it. Unfortunately, due to the weather, the visit was not what I expected and not very satisfying.

The Beast

To get to Yellowstone’s south entrance from Jackson we needed to drive through Grand Teton Park. Ordinarily this would have delightful; however, several inches of snow had fallen and the highway through the park, although plowed, was snow-covered and slippery. I drove slowly, never faster than 40 mph, and paid great attention when driving downhill and crossing icy bridges. I knew that if the Beast got stuck, it would have been costly in time and money.

Grand Teton National Park

The highway through Grand Teton and then through Yellowstone is lined on both sides by dense pine forest. The fallen snow had draped them in white. Other than an occasional glimpse of a lake or a river, these piney roadsides were all that we saw for four hours. All the side roads leading to other attractions were closed. There was nothing to do but keep driving straight ahead.

Yellowstone Visitor’s Center

The one part of Yellowstone not closed was its most popular, the section above the active geothermal area where the geysers are located. We arrived to find cars and other RVs in the vast parking lot, and the Geyser Grill to be open. This was a good thing since it was nearly 2 p.m. and we had had nothing to eat since a light breakfast in our motel room at the Pony Express.

As we ordered our cheeseburgers we were directed to a notice informing us that the next eruption of Old Faithful would occur at 2:47 p.m., plus or minus 10 minutes. We ate our burgers and at 2:35 were standing in the cold with about 100 others at the observation point, waiting for the famous geyser to erupt.

Although several times during the next twenty minutes, clouds of steam would suddenly appear from the Old Faithful’s cone, these were false alarms.

Old Faithful

Finally, it happened about ten minutes behind schedule.  A column of steam and boiling water shot high into the air. Were the sky blue instead of its dull grey, the effect would have been more dramatic. Yet, the fact of all this eternal geothermal activity just below the surface where we were standing is very impressive to think about. In the distance beyond Old Faithful we could see other vents emitting steam, and on our drive toward the park’s west entrance we passed even more steam vents. Sometimes, due to the underground heat, the snowy road would become clear and dry for a couple hundred yards.

It would have been great to have camped at Yellowstone for a couple of days, hiking a bit and looking at some of park’s other unique sights like the patches of bubbling mud. As it was, there was no reason to stay longer and no convenient place to stay either. The lodges and campgrounds were closed. This just wasn’t the time of year to be here.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Idaho Falls – Boise, ID

Idaho Scenery

Our drive west across southern Idaho was pleasantly varied. For a time, there would be distant, snow-capped mountains, then nearby, dun-colored, rounded hills that looked soft like the tummy of a stuffed teddy bear. At another point both sides of the road contained jagged, rocky terrain of the kind left after a primordial volcanic eruption. The sun shone intermittently; interesting clouds formed on the horizon.

Downtown Boise

We delayed eating lunch until we arrived in downtown Boise. Near Idaho’s capital building is a neighborhood of trendy shops and restaurants with names like Piehole, The Bitterroot Brewing Company, Zeppole, Fatty’s Bar, etc. We chose a place called The Red Feather Lounge recommended by our guidebook.

Although the Red Feather’s food, including a delicious corn-and-potato chowder, was enticing, the bar’s real claim to fame is its huge inventory of wines, beers, and spirits. It has 1,000 wine selections, 50 of them available by the glass. A menu contains a list of artisanal beers half as long as my arm. And then there were the spirits, including at least 20 brands of bourbon. There were pages describing the composition of the many cocktails on offer. It was an education to read them. Clearly whoever owns this bar wants to be known as the region’s leader when it comes to serious drinking.

The local KOA on the outskirts of the city is one of the most carefully developed and maintained of any we have seen so far. Instead of dirt and gravel, its network of driveways is paved with asphalt, and all the buildings and fixtures look new and sharply maintained.

From Boise to Portland, Oregon will be an eight or nine-hour drive.