Deer Lodge, Montana

October 26, 2002

Week five of our amazing adventure finds our weary travelers in Minneapolis, Minnesota at shopping Mecca. We picked up a flier in the hotel the night before and discovered that we were a few miles up the road from the Mall of America! Why not? A week after seeing the best of America with bald eagles off the coast of Maine, we thought we’d take a look at what humans can do to a landscape. We didn’t even realize that the freeway crossed the Mississippi on our way to the mall, how soon we forget nature.

Approaching this place is like coming in to an airport. It’s vast. Freeway off ramps swirl around parking structures built for thousands of cars. Everything is designed to suck you in to the inner keep, like tentacles of some giant sea creature. Once inside there’s an information desk to help orient you, and a mall directory that covers an entire wall. This place even has a gift shop for the mall itself, so you can buy things that advertise the mall where you can come to buy things … In the middle of it all is a full-scale amusement park complete with roller coasters and a water ride.

This place is big the way Michael Bay’s "Pearl Harbor" is big. It doesn’t mean it’s interesting or a good idea. In the end, it’s just a mall, and you’ve been to all these stores before.

After spending the entire day inside and out of the cold, we drove for an hour south of the city to find another hotel. In the morning we woke up to find it snowing outside! The cars in the parking lot below us were covered with a couple of inches. We definitely made the right choice by getting a room rather than tough it out in a campsite.

Once back in the car we hit I-90 and hung a right. The west coast was getting nearer now at 75-mph. Goodbye Minnesota, hello South Dakota! The further west we got, the more we seemed to leave the Midwest storm in our rear view mirror. The sky cleared, the landscape opened up before us. We crossed the Missouri River and were now definitely in the West. Prairies stretched to the horizon in all directions. In Mitchell we stopped at the one and only Corn Palace, a building decorated from head to foot in mosaic maize. How odd. It’s the world’s biggest bird feeder, and the good folks in town completely redecorate it every year. It’s good to have a hobby.

We carried on along I-90 chewing up the miles. This is the part of out trip where we zip from one coast to the other. As the sun set we pulled into a campground at the entrance to Badlands National Park. A golden full moon rose over the prairies and we set up our tent. Stars peeked down between scattered clouds.

A few hours later Tiffany heard raindrops. Out we got out into the now freezing and very windy night, inky black clouds hovering over us as if waiting to pounce. Out of one storm and into another. We wrestled with the tarp, nailing it down as it buckled and flapped in the gale. We crawled back inside and tried to sleep with the deafening tarp tearing at its moorings.

After a near sleepless night that just got colder and colder, we peeked out to see we were now in a blizzard. The tarp was covered in a thick layer of ice, and powdery dry snow whistled sideways through the camp. If we could’ve figured out a way to pack up the tent with us still inside, we would have. We did the best we could though, and before frostbite could take hold, packed up in a flurry, I mean hurry, and piled into the car.

At the nearest gas station we bought a scraper for the windshield, though it turns out that in a pinch water bottle caps do in fact work. Now that we could see through the windows, and feeling was returning to our fingers, we drove on to Wall Drug for some breakfast. Snow blew like sand across the highway obliterating the road. We warmed up in the grand tourist attraction of the West, Wall Drug and browsed through the collection of fridge magnets before taking in the Badlands.

We had the park nearly to ourselves as we drove amongst the eroded earth formations. This place looks like a scale model version of an alien Grand Canyon. With the snow swirling around miniature peaks and coursing through valleys it felt like our car was flying though an exotic Himalayan kingdom.

In the afternoon we drove on into Rapid City to find some warmth. We plopped ourselves down in a café and got caught up on some postcard writing and sorting through pictures for this site.

In the morning we drove south to Mount Rushmore. The roads were icy and the trees covered in snow. We felt like we had the whole of the Black Hills to ourselves. We rounded a corner and there up on a rock outcropping were the giant heads of George Washington and Co. looking out across the land. We’re so used to seeing pictures of this monument that to see it in the snow was somehow more austere and dramatic. We wound our way through the maze of parking garages once again thankful that we aren’t here at the height of the tourist season. There’s a new visitor center and museum that told us all about the how, when and why of this massive sculpture. The rock carving itself is pretty impressive, though it feels far away and dwarfed by the surrounding mountains of granite. It’s also has a tendency to get a little lost behind the new buildings that have multiplied at its base.

We left Mt. Rushmore and drove further into the Black Hills to see the other giant stone sculpture here, Crazy Horse, the legendary Sioux leader. This one is on a scale that dwarfs our former presidents and is more exciting because it’s a work in progress. Alex was here 13 years and remembers thinking there’s no way this will ever be completed, it’s just too ambitious, too massive. The view then was one of a defaced mountain, scarred by dynamite blasts with a skirt of rubble at its base. Seeing the progress that’s been made in the years since is impressive. Now the image of Crazy Horse is slowly emerging, his face staring out at these sacred hills.

We walked around the museum and learned about the sculptor and his family who continue to oversee the work of carving. Through the picture windows that face the mountain we watched as clouds descended to obscure the view. We look forward to coming back here in a few years to see the progress that’s been made. This is a place to return to decade after decade to see the largest sculpture in the world take shape.

In the evening we drove into Wyoming to Gillette and wished for a nice warm hotel with a hot tub to soak our frozen bones. We pulled into town and after a Mexican dinner found exactly that! Our days of camping might be behind us, these night are just getting colder and colder. When the water bottles that we’ve left in the car overnight are frozen solid in the morning, we know it’s cold.

On Thursday we headed out across a bleak Wyoming. The plains here were a study of white on white. It’s like something out of the movie Fargo, frost covered fields and frozen wire fences all under a blank white sky. Things began to change when we started climbing up and over the 9000 ft. Bighorn Mountains. We emerged from the clouds into dazzling mountain scenery. The road climbed steeply, lit up now by the blazing sun under a sky of pure blue. Ravens circled overhead and powdery snow fell from the laden trees.

The road dropped again to the plains as we closed in on Yellowstone National Park. Outside of Cody we passed a sign that said the east entrance to the park was closed. We called the park’s recorded updates on road conditions and it only said snow tires were required. We decided to press on through, hoping we wouldn’t have to backtrack for hours if we came to a closed gate up there in the mountains. Once again the road began to climb. We saw our first bison beside the road as clouds gathered before us and the hills in front were dusted with snow. We were heading into a harsh environment. After 30 miles of winding roads that climbed higher and higher we finally got to the park entrance. It was open! We flashed our trusty National Park Pass and drove on in to the magnificence of Yellowstone. Immediately it began to snow. Thick flakes obscured the sun and obliterated the road. Thank goodness for four-wheel drive!

We skirted the shores of Yellowstone Lake, stopped to see steam coming out of the ground, and encountered our first herd of elk strolling calmly across the road as we rounded a corner. The sky cleared somewhat and the sun was sinking low in front of us. Snow brushed from the trees swirled in the air like gold dust. The clouds over the lake glowed pink.

We got to Old Faithful in the dark and crunched our way through the snow with a group from Japan and an Irish couple. We were the international contingent in search of a geyser. Since Old Faithful only does its thing every 90 minutes or so, there was no way of knowing how long we’d have to stand there in the cold. The Japanese were the first to cave, walking slowly back to their car. We chatted with the Irish couple for a few minutes before they too carried on into the night. We had the place to ourselves. A few minutes later the gurgling and steam increased. A few feeble spurts shot about ten feet into the air, then calmed down again. We thought that was about it, so we too returned to our car. Of course, once back in the ice covered parking lot we heard the real eruption begin. We could see steam and water shooting into the night on the other side of the visitor center. Dangit!! We were cold and it was dark. We would come back in the morning.

We still had 20 miles or so to drive to get us to the other side of the park and to a hotel in West Yellowstone. On the night drive we saw more elk barely illuminated by our headlights in the trees by the roadside. We pulled into the Ho Hum Inn in the now asleep town. They were no phones in the rooms so we couldn’t even check our e-mail. Booo! We had dinner that night with the local hunters at the only place left open, and Tiffany ate a bison burger!

On Friday we crawled into the icy car and drove again in to the park. Morning mist rose off the rivers and elk grazed in frosty meadows. We walked around Fountain Paint Pot where boiling water and mud bubble from the ground. We returned to the car to find a humongous raven pecking on the windshield trying to get the donuts inside. There are signs everywhere telling people not to feed the wildlife, but these birds were obviously used to handouts. Apparently there are quite a few people who think this is one big petting zoo here for their entertainment. From here we made a beeline for Old Faithful. It must have been waiting for us because a few minutes after we arrived it erupted, shooting scalding water 80 feet into the air. A huge plume of steam billowed into the clear morning sky. After this we drove north to the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone to get a view of an impressive waterfall. On Artist Point Alex followed in the footsteps of countless other painters and artists and sketched the falls.

Just up the road we were stopped by a herd of bison strolling casually down the road. The wildlife in this part of the country is truly inspiring in its magnificence. To make eye contact with a wild bison that’s taller than our car and standing a few feet away is awesome. We were both in awe of our surroundings. At the same time we are constantly confronted by the multi-billion dollar hunting industry and the attitudes of manifest destiny that are so prevalent here. The dichotomy is jarring. At every turn this troubling contradiction hits us square in the face, awe-inspiring wilderness on the one hand and those who see it as their right to subdue and control nature on the other. We find ourselves driving around this park torn emotionally between extremes of beauty and outrage.

As the sun was setting we walked around a valley full of geysers and boiling pools of emerald water. The sun shone low through the trees creating ghostly shadows across curtains of steam, and casting golden rays all around us.

Between Canyon Village and Norris, Tiffany's adventure-mobile hit the 100,000 mile mark! We slowed to video the roll over and Tiff celebrated by running a victory lap around the car J

As we drove out of the park we caught a coyote in our headlights. Alex slowed down and the coyote trotted right up to us and sat in the road beside the car. We pulled forward and it got up to walk along with us. We stopped again and it approached again, looking right at us. Again we drove on slowly, the coyote keeping pace with us. Finally Alex rolled his window down and told the coyote that we couldn’t feed it. It got the message, dropped back into our taillights and disappeared into the night.

On Saturday morning we checked out of the Ho Hum and drove north through the park to Mammoth Hot Springs. This is a mountain of calcium deposit terraces left from overflowing hot springs. We walked around the frosty walkways then back to the car where yet another herd of elk had gathered. People were approaching within a few feet to get their pictures. A man said to us, "I guess there’d be signs if the animals were dangerous." We thought he was kidding because there are in fact hundreds of signs all over the park saying exactly this. This petting zoo attitude is so ingrained that people ignore warnings while gorgings and close calls happen every year.

We said goodbye to Yellowstone and drove north and out of the mountains. We crossed into Montana and had lunch at the one horse town of Gardiner as pronghorn deer grazed in the field across the highway. We hooked up again with I-90 and cruised along to Butte where we found it to be completely lacking in personality. After an abortive attempt to find a hotel we carried on to Deer Lodge and found a nice family owned place with pumpkins decorated by the kids out front.

We are now deep into big sky country where every restaurant has animal heads hanging on the wall and all the trucks are American. Next week it’s north to Canada for a trip to Tiffany’s old haunts, then perhaps the west coast …



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