June and July 1997
Sorry about the delay in getting "The Wanderings" to you all. Yes, we are alive and well but Fred's laptop wasn't for awhile. Being without the laptop was both a pleasure and a pain. It was nice to have a break from work - something like Spring Break or a day off because of snow. However, it did put us behind and we are just now catching up. Guess everything has a price. So let's catch ya'll up to date.
Well, we are definitely in the "real" West. A land of vast space where distance is of note but hard to comprehend. Even a 10,000 foot mountain appears commonplace when surrounded by its 9,500 feet sisters until you realize that they are more than twenty-five miles away! Man-made structures have little significance. William Least-Heat Moon suggests the west starts at Kansas City, KS, a whole state away from St. Louis, Missouri. Perhaps it does but we found the transition of East to West is more gradual than
a river crossing and far more interesting.
After taking two days to pass through Missouri, we stopped in Abilene, KS and decided to stay for three days. Now, what, you may ask, is there in Abilene, Kansas? Frankly, very little other than our computer work and some really nice folk. And, it's President Eisenhower's hometown. We did some sightseeing, got caught up on work, and had a fabulous Kansas beef tenderloin dinner before heading for the Nebraska National Forest.
Yes, there really is a forest (actually, two) in Nebraska - totally man-planted forests of pine softening the prairie's profile. Our previous view of the Midwest had been along Interstates but now we see a difference. Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska are not that flat nor desolate when seen from State Highways. Although there may be more to see along the Interstates, more is happening along the State Routes. There are fields to be plowed, crops to be planted, hay to be mowed, dried, and baled, flowers to plant, grass to cut, bikes to ride, horses to be rode, cattle to move, neighbors to visit. So much activity. So much real life not seen from the Interstate's
We learned earlier this year Texas does not mow along its roadside until the wild flowers have gone to seed. This philosophy seems to be used by the Department of Highways throughout the Midwest. As we past through the rolling landscape of the prairie, the hillsides were shaded by yellow, purple, and blue wild flowers. The cottonwood trees, their fallen blossoms
appeared to be fat snowflakes caught in the grass, growing along streams in the little valleys between the hillsides, looked like rivers of dark green from the road. Dotting this landscape are the tall grain elevators (Midwest Skyscrapers) stand guard over railroad tracks. Above it all is a huge sky where clouds look small and the efforts of humans appeared even smaller.
Here everyone seems to drive a pick-up truck. (High schools, grocery stores, or golf courses - pick-up trucks dominate the parking lots.) And we have noticed an etiquette to greeting another pick-up on the road. When a pick-up truck is seen coming down the road, the driver moves their hand to the top center of the steering wheel. To greet the other vehicle the index finger is raised, as if ordering one cold beer, please. If you know the driver, the index finger and thumb are raised while the remaining
finger retain their hold on the wheel. Occasionally, a head nod is included with the hand movement but only from one male to another. Also "real cowboys" wear baseball caps when working and western hats when "going into town."
After the Nebraska National Forest we headed for the Badlands of South Dakota. This place is beautiful in a desolate, surreal way. The campground we stayed at had a view of "The Wall", the edge between the high plains and the low plains. ("High" and "low"refer to the height of the native grasses, not the topography.) Depending on the time of day, the Wall had a
different look. It is called Badlands for more reasons than the difficulty of terrain - most of the surface water is undrinkable, a steady wind pulls at everything, and, with little or no shade, it gets really hot. True it is a dry heat but so is the heat from an oven. Suzi is convinced the term "dry-roasted" was coined right here. However, even with the heat and wind, the Badlands is beautiful.
After the Badlands we had to return briefly to Nebraska to survey a brand new campground near Chadron. From there we moved on to the Black Hills National Forest. The Black Hills presented themselves like an island raising up from a sea of prairie grass. There must be something in the soil that gives the Ponderosa and spruce dark green foliage and almost black bark. Although the area was loaded with tourists, we did find some delightfully isolated dells were the beauty and mystery was very special.
The Black Hills has a national forest, so we had work to do. Our time in southern national forests may have spoiled us. The Black Hills National Forest's campgrounds, with hand-pumps and old-style vaults, were a reality check for us. The attitude of the Forest Service employees was also a check of sorts. The challenge faced by the Forest Service in the West is well
documented. And we have now seen the influence of the long and sometime heated debate between the locals (ranches, farmers, lumber-jacks) and the "Feds."
We spent July 4th in the little town (population 1,139) of Sundance, Wyoming. It's claim to fame - the Sundance Kid took the town's name as his after spending some time in their jail. It was a very quiet Holiday (no fireworks or parade) for us. During this time the laptop decided to take a break and had to be sent to Sioux City, SD for a two-week stay in PC Hospital.
Before leaving Sundance, we had the pleasure of meeting a group from the University of Wyoming working the Vore Buffalo Jump. These guys were quite literally up to their ankles in 150-plus year-old buffalo bones. The sinkhole had been used by an estimated seven different Indian Nations to hunt buffalo before the advent of the horse and guns. These college people are
helping to answer questions while raising others. Neat!
Than, it was time to start our work in Montana and continue our exploration for a place to settle. We got both the Custer and the Gallatin National Forests completed (that makes 53 down and 102 left). However, we didn't find any one place to settle that "knocked our socks off" and was within a reasonable distance of a teaching opportunity for Suzi.
The land here is so different from that in the East or South. It seems to be divided into two different types of topography - prairie or pine-studded mountains. We met a camper in Nebraska who complained he didn't like camping in Mississippi because he felt "closed-in" when he could not see the horizon. The campgrounds in the mountains have been disappointing because,
with very little understory beneath the tall pines, privacy between sites is lost. It is fun, though, to hear coyotes in the pre-dawn or at sunset, spot an elk or buffalo on the plains, or mountain goat on a ridge, and see the variety of wild flower "carpets." There is a true breathtaking beauty to these rugged and unforgiving mountains. They lack the lushness of the gentle Appalachian Mountains. But then, everything seems different in
We are ending July in Bozeman, Montana. A nice little college town (the reported population in 1994 was two-thousand less than the 1996 student enrollment at GMU!!!) with a Walmart and Safeway grocery stores!. The town has what looks like the beginnings of a bad case of the "sprawlings." They are making some attempts at getting it under control and we wish them luck. We will be attending their "Sweet Pea Festival" over the weekend. This Festival began around the turn-of-the-century but was discontinued before World War II. The Festival was rediscovered twenty-years ago and has been held every year since. (Why "Sweet Pea" you might ask and we have no idea - haven't seen a Sweet Pea bush within the city limits.) It is billed as a celebration of the Arts with lots of music and dance performances, arts and crafts for sale, Shakespeare-in-the-park and performances of contemporary writers' works. It should be a nice break before we start work on Montana's and Idaho's Beaverhead, Deerlodge, Bitterroot and Nez Perce National Forests. Well, at least you know we will be staying out of trouble - more or less.
Suzi and Fred