Sunday, May 26, 2013

In Pursuit of the Great Western Road Trip

For me, the words "road trip" evoke visions of sweeping vistas, vast horizons, miles of undeveloped lands and open roads with only occasional interruption by fellow travelers.  There is arguably no better place for such a journey than our American west.  I'm biased, I know, and I'm good with that:  in this vanilla society, where it seems in vogue to apologize for one's opinion and convictions, I'm perfectly happy to assert that I love the west and that other places pale in comparison.  I love long drives and little traffic.  I love small towns and roadside history and a good cup of coffee in a chipped stoneware cup at a rural diner.  I love being out of range of cell phones and email and the long leash of electronic communications.

It's only appropriate that the first vacation I've had in a couple of years (although some might argue that I'm enjoying a life of permanent vacation, and in all honesty, they might be right) was a road trip through my beloved west.  We ventured north from our home state that borders Mexico, going as far north as Montana -- which borders Canada.  Our jaunt encompassed eight days, six states, 2,800 miles, 1,400 photos, six national parks, eight museums, five battlefields, four burial grounds, one leather show and so many historically-significant rivers and vast national forests that I couldn't keep count.  It wasn't the race it might sound like from those stats:  we didn't do the stereotypical "American tourist" interstate approach ("Okay, honey, you enjoy the left side, I'll enjoy the right.")  Instead, we walked the battlefield trails.  We meandered through cemeteries, pondering weather-worn tombstones.  We spent joyful hours studying the firearms and saddles in museums, hopping in and out of the Jeep to take photos or read historical markers, and off-roading in search of outlaw hangouts.  We listened to some at-times-painful bluegrass music in Buffalo, caught up with friends at the regional leather show in Sheridan, and threw snowballs in Yellowstone.

Along the way, we enjoyed serendipitous finds:  the graves of pivotal figures of the Johnson County War in Buffalo, Wyoming; a dazzlingly extensive collection of western relics in the Don King Museum in Sheridan; a rain-spattered view of the Wyoming state penitentiary, where Butch Cassidy served time for buying a stolen horse; and spent some time in reverence of the man and his music at the Chris LeDoux memorial park in Kaycee.  Most of all, we were stunned by that great western landscape that never fails to make my heart ache with sheer awe.

I originally planned to write the journey as we traveled.  I figured I'd spend some quality time with my iPad every night in the silence of a cheap motel room, tapping out the day's adventures.  Technological issues and a saturated brain interfered with my good intentions; connectivity was iffy much of the time, and I soon realized I would need to approach the juncture of place and history at a more moderate speed.  Each place, each history, spawned more mystery.  I needed to do more research to fully grasp the sites and sagas we encountered.  Late sunsets meant plenty of time to drive further, walk later, and cover more ground.  We were unhurried but busy -- the key to happiness.

So here it begins:  in weeks to come, I'll be sharing not only our brief travels, but the historical footnotes of the areas we visited, in that order.  I hope you'll come along.

The road ahead beckons!  Above:  Monument Valley.