Yellowstone

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When I come back here with Fely and not my mother, I want to walk all the way around the Tower on the blacktop loop trail, and I hope to do it on a sunnier day. The rest of the trip was through rain over the border into South Dakota, ending up in Rapid City, which has plenty of hotels on the Mount Rushmore Highway out of town. This was as far East as we would go, halfway across the country, and it was far enough.
When I come back here with Fely and not my mother, I want to walk all the way around the Tower on the blacktop loop trail, and I hope to do it on a sunnier day. The rest of the trip was through rain over the border into South Dakota, ending up in Rapid City, which has plenty of hotels on the Mount Rushmore Highway out of town. This was as far East as we would go, halfway across the country, and it was far enough.
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Now we are come to day four of my vacation, and my favorite part, Mount Rushmore. The weather was sunny, perfect for viewing, but cold. The mountain was first visible as the left-most little squiggle on a ridge twenty miles to the southeast as you drive out of Rapid City past a veritable disneyland of touristy things. We got up there at about 8:30 AM, the sun was low in the dawn sky, and the Presidents all face due east. Ten dollars to park in a multi-level garage.

Revision as of 03:25, 5 February 2011

At midnight I put my girlfriend on a plane to the Philippines for her five-week family reunion, and then I went home to bed. At six AM my mother and I loaded the car for the first day of our vacation together. The first leg of our journey was a pretty much straight shot from Seattle to Columbia Falls, Montana for a total of 532 miles. The route I chose was apparently the shortest one, a later check of Google Maps came up with the same route. We drove over Snoqualmie Pass to Ellensburg, where the trees turn off like a light. Indian John Hill Rest Area at mile marker 89 is the first one east of Seattle, which is a long way to go for people who practically take coffee on an IV drip.

After Ellensburg I-90 climbs over a desolate pass adorned by the Wild Horse Wind Farm and drops to cross the Columbia River at Vantage, then climbs again sharply, presenting spectacular views, to reach the Columbia plateau. This is a vast arid land reclaimed for agriculture by irrigation. Here the freeway goes straight as an arrow for seventy miles, punctuated only by the city of Moses Lake halfway along. It was sunny but cool, and we saw bad weather far ahead of us to the east. At Ritzville the freeway made a gentle bend northeast to make a beeline for Spokane. Small lakes were seen along the freeway here. We stopped in the very small town of Sprague for gas, and perhaps an early lunch, but the menu was just for breakfast, so we walked out. As we approached Spokane we drove into the overcast weather, and pine trees began to be seen again in slowly increasing density. In downtown Spokane I gassed up again, and we settled for a quick McDonald's lunch.

Crossing into Idaho, we saw the beginning of the Rocky Mountains. This was the skinny "panhandle" of Idaho, only about seventy miles across here, but very beautiful and mountainous, highlighted by the jewel that is Lake Coeur d'Alene. All the towns here, Smelterville, Kellogg, Wallace, are strung out on a very narrow line that hugs the freeway as the walls of the Rockies rise close to each side. The freeway climbs up to Lookout Pass, 4725 feet, and at the top we entered Montana. Then down, down, down, 33 miles to St. Regis, where we got off the freeway, gassed up again, and began to travel back roads.

From St. Regis to Plains, the road hugged a winding river. Then we climbed some hills and dropped down into the flats which mark the southern terminus of the Rocky Mountain trench. Here the road goes on and on, straight as an arrow through farm country, which then makes a 90 degree bend to the right and travels through a beautiful but nameless flat valley bottom that meets the close mountain walls with hardly a taper. And this "lost valley" road took us directly to the shores of Flathead Lake, the largest lake in the Western US, bigger than Lake Tahoe even.

The economy of this area around Kalispell, Montana is dependent on tourism to Glacier National Park, but the season was winding up, and the park was mostly closed at any rate due to construction on the Going To The Sun Highway. The place is unspeakably beautiful, but there was a sense of everyone rushing to "laager up" for the winter. At Columbia Falls I visited my aunt and uncle for a few hours, we all ate out together at a very popular place for ribs, and just when my mother and I checked into the Super 8 for the night, a cold front passed through with horrific winds.

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This was day two of my vacation. We left Columbia Falls at dawn and drove down the eastern shore of Flathead Lake, which was dotted with all sorts of dilapidated inns and campgrounds which perhaps only came alive in the summer time. But the lake itself is beautiful. After hooking back up with I-90 everything I saw was new to me, because I had never even made it as far as Missoula in my life. The weather got progressively colder and grayer, and the elevation got higher and higher, but there was no precipitation until nearly sunset, and when it came, it was in the form of snow and rain.

Butte, Montana has a huge hole in the ground which was a mining operation, but they wanted you to pay to see it, and the ticket office was closed at any rate. At the Homestake Pass just east of Butte we crossed the Continental Divide, but the pass seemed to be a relatively short and tame one because we were already so high. Livingston, Montana is the gateway to Yellowstone's north entrance, and it sits at a narrow gap between tall mountains that looks like a literal gateway, with open rangeland beyond. When I return here with Fely we will fly to the Bozeman airport and pass through this way in a rental car. We followed the Yellowstone River now down its course to the Missouri River. The Rockies were left behind, but there was a wide band of foothills we had to climb up and down like waves on the ocean for many miles, and some of the trees were burnt by fire recently.


Finally at Laurel, Montana we left the freeway and headed southwest to Belfry, Montana, about forty miles away, to visit a friend of my mother's. The entire town is pictured above. We almost ran over two deer on the way in. There's a sign that says, "What part of SPEED LIMIT 25 MPH don't you understand?" because people rush through on their way to Cody, Wyoming and there's a little school. My mother didn't have her friend's address, but she knew what her car looked like, so we drove every road in the town until we found it, which only took a few minutes. We got pizza from a Casino/Bar/Grill that had 16 slot machines being played by the same six locals who sat there every other day. On the way out of town we almost hit another deer. It got dark, so we checked into the Best Western in Laurel for the night. Total driving distance today was 533 miles.

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Day three of my vacation, we only covered 416 miles because now we're starting to stop and look at stuff rather than just drive. Also it was a little slower going because there was heavy snow most of the way, especially around Billings Montana. Our first stop was the National Cememtary at the site of Custer's Last Stand, where 260 US Calvary men (and 100 Indians) lost their lives at the Battle of Little Big Horn. I wanted to grab a picture of Custer's tombstone but I couldn't find it. The visitor's center, however, was interesting. There was a display of the weapons used by both sides, and the story was laid out. The Indians, of course, were right. The government had promised that the Black Hills would be theirs forever, but the instant gold was found there, we wanted it back. Some things that happened in our American history were not so nice. Then again, by the time of the Navaho code talkers in World War II, we were all fighting as one people. The monument was staffed by Native Americans who lived nearby on the Crow Reservation, but they were just ordinary Americans like me, also worried about driving in the snow. Pictured below is Custer's actual dress uniform (the piping yellowed by age) and a picture of him wearing it. I love things like this.

The town of Buffalo, Wyoming had just been socked with a heavy snow storm, and all the power was out. I found one gas station with power, but I had to wait for the pump to reset before I could get more gas. Road construction in town shellacked my car with mud that would remain for the rest of my trip. But I never needed to chain up, I was using Fely's front wheel drive Ford Escort, which eats snow and ice for lunch.

Near Gillette, Wyoming, I got pulled over by a Stater and was given a warning for a cracked windshield. I ALWAYS get harrassed by the Wyoming staters when I drive the freeway there. One time they thought I was a Mexican sneaking over the border. I think in the future I will stay on the back roads. We got off the freeway and drove over beautiful country to the Devil's Tower. The clouds were so low I thought I wasn't going to see it, but when we got close, the clouds lifted a bit and I saw it, just like in the movie Close Encounters:

If I had more time I would have liked to explore the park around the Tower more, there's a canyon and some weird red rocks, and a "town" of Prairie Dogs. There's no place flat enough for a UFO landing strip, however. The road spirals up and up, until it hits a parking lot at the very base of the talus eroded from the tower, and this is what you see:

When I come back here with Fely and not my mother, I want to walk all the way around the Tower on the blacktop loop trail, and I hope to do it on a sunnier day. The rest of the trip was through rain over the border into South Dakota, ending up in Rapid City, which has plenty of hotels on the Mount Rushmore Highway out of town. This was as far East as we would go, halfway across the country, and it was far enough.

Now we are come to day four of my vacation, and my favorite part, Mount Rushmore. The weather was sunny, perfect for viewing, but cold. The mountain was first visible as the left-most little squiggle on a ridge twenty miles to the southeast as you drive out of Rapid City past a veritable disneyland of touristy things. We got up there at about 8:30 AM, the sun was low in the dawn sky, and the Presidents all face due east. Ten dollars to park in a multi-level garage.

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