Two Recent Road Trips

Dubbed Coronavirus Challenge I and II (CV I and CV II)

While I have never in these past 2 years made light of this pandemic, I have refused to change my whole life or be afraid paranoid of catching it. Last May, I took a 6,500 mile road trip through the Southwest and this month I completed a 5,200 mile trip through the northern west.

Ever since I could drive, I have liked to roam. When I went to school in Virginia, I would pick a new route each time when going across the country. Although with that kind of driving, having to “be there” in a week or so, one doesn’t have a lot of time for sightseeing. Although even 50 years later, I remember one route: US 50 through Utah, then old US 40 through Steamboat Springs and 11,000’ high Berthold Pass. Which if I remember correctly, is the highest year-round road in the country.

I did write some time ago about my “mini lap around America” in 2006.

One thing I did discover on my latest 2 “Mini Loops” around America.

I can’t drive the distances I used to.

In 2006, after visiting friends in Oak Ridge TN, I decided to visit New Orleans a year of so after Katrina.

650 miles?

No problem.

While I did do one stretch like that in CV I out of necessity (more on that later), 200-300 mile stretches are in my comfort zone. And when tired, pull over and take a snooze.

In the first drive, last May, I covered UT, AZ, NM, TX, LA, TN, IN, MO, KS, and CO.

Houmas House along the Mississippi, Louisiana
Just outside Colorado Springs is the road leading up to Pike’s Peak. Here is the old SL, a.k.a. “Gabriella”, at the 13,000 foot level.

The second drive, this month, I covered OR, WA, ID, WY, MT, SD, and ND.

Both times, I have wanted to see Gettysburg, Kitty Hawk NC, and the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. And New England. Never been to those places.

But by the time I got to the outer edge of the loop, it was obvious that I wasn’t going to make it due to a “return by” date.

I just can’t drive like I used to and even if I could, what is the point of just” blowing by” those places you did get to see?

Plus, I am easily dissuaded.

By the time I got to Louisiana in CV I, I thought I should start back. But first, I wanted to see the Henry Ford Museum. The place seems like a Smithsonian Museum where you could wander around for days in “America’s Attic”. But specifically, the Ford GT-40 Mark IV that Dan Gurney and A.J. Foyt won at Lemans in 1967 (and where Gurney, unknown at the moment started a tradition that continues to this day of spraying champagne all over people in the winner’s circle).

But along the way on I-55, I saw a billboard advertising the Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, KY. Realizing that going to Dearborn was at a minimum another 3 days (going up, seeing it, coming back), I stopped at the Corvette Museum.

I am easily dissuaded.

I found the Corvette museum fascinating, even having an employee card for Zora Arkus Duntov, who is considered the father of the Corvette. He really isn’t the father, but he took charge of the program shortly after its inception and turned it into the performance (and race-winning) car it is today.

The only thing I felt the museum was lacking was an example of the ’63 Corvette Grand Sport.

When Carroll Shelby came out with his Cobra they simply demolished the new ’63 Sting Ray. So Duntov made a special lightweight version ( 1,000 pounds lighter), that demolished the Cobras. He planned on making 125 for homologation rules, but GM nixed the program.

Since the museum is right across the street from the factory, and I suspect it has close ties to GM, this was a “persona non grata” car, although it would have been nice to see at least a replica.

But, for those other places, there is always next time.

First I should talk about driving under the Coronavirus conditions, of which a post by itself wouldn’t be unreasonable.

I have never taken this lightly and have taken some precautions. But I have refused to lock myself in my house. Things I have learned along the way during my 2 trips:

  1. It is hard to find a motel, (well, harder), and just because you see a “No Vacancy” sign doesn’t mean they are full. In fact, a motel owner in Buffalo, WY told me an industry secret. The average occupancy rate at this time is only 40%.

    So why the discrepancy? They can’t find enough people to clean the rooms. And many of the experienced people to clean them haven’t come back. This would bite me several times, the worst during CV I. I had finished the Pikes Peak Drive, and felt I should push on to Grand Junction, CO for the night. There were no rooms available there, nor in Green River UT. Finally further west in Salina UT I found one at 0200. I think I covered 600 miles that day.
  2. At least on the first trip, the National Park Service was restricting entry. I have wanted to see The Arches National Park since ColoComment recommended this wonderful route from Green River, UT through the Capital Reef Park. It’s a spectacular drive. At that time, time restraints precluded my visiting. Last May after a 70 mile drive from Green River (The Arches is at Moab, UT), they closed the park for entry a few hours before I arrived, suggesting that I come back at 1500-1700 to see if they would allow more people.

    I didn’t want to do that.

    I also visited the Gateway Arch in St Louis, which is also run by the NPS. There are “elevators” on both ends of the arch, but they had one side closed. It was only because I was single that they found room for me (one slot left) that I was able to go up and enjoy the 600’ view.

The NPS seemed to have relaxed the restrictions for CV II, as I visited 5 of them and had no problem. Incidentally if you are a “senior” the NPS park pass is a bargain, I got mine for $10 some years ago, they are up to $80 now (a ranger told me they were originally free). But show the card and you are in free. I visited 5 or 6 parks this last drive, and since entry is $30 that is quite a savings.

Economically, this country is in disarray. I lost count of all of the “help wanted” signs in business windows. At the same time, I noticed an occasional street person at intersections holding up a “Will Work for Food” sign.

Even in Bismarck ND.

Only in America.

In Bend OR I saw ads for a Ford dealer and a Subaru dealer both trying fill positions for….everything. From experienced technicians to parts counter people to receptionists. Imagine being previously an established (and hopefully profitable) business trying to restaff nearly every position. With inexperienced people.

The people that are working today have a work ethic and don’t want unemployment payments.

Had a somewhat amusing experience. As I have gotten older, those experiences that would have raised my blood pressure are now relegated to the “amusing” category.

I was having dinner at a regional diner (Black Bear) and learned it was apparently staffed with almost all new people.

I ordered meat loaf and waited patiently for 30 minutes., I then heard the chef say “we’re out of meat loaf”.

Was this after my order was filled or before?

I waited another 30 minutes, and then asked the server how dinner was coming.

“We’re out of meat loaf”.

This coronavirus has severely affected the supply chain too.

Other Things I learned along the way.

Signs telling you of interesting waypoints on the Interstate only tell half the story. You exit off the designated offramp only to learn your destination of interest is still 100 miles that-a-way.

Is it too much to ask to put the actual mileage on the Interstate sign  in parenthesis to let drivers decide before they commit to the exit?

I was absolutely amazed at the influence the U.S. Army had on the west. From forts that became towns in Texas (Fort Stockton and Fort Hancock), to now long-gone forts. When I visited Bismarck, ND to see the remains of Ft Lincoln, where George Armstrong Custer left on his doomed mission, I realized that he was transferred from Ft. Riley Kansas – over 800 miles from Ft. Lincoln.

Ft Riley, just off I-70 now, is still out in the middle of nowhere.

To be in the Army post Civil War and be posted to the plains must have been like going to sea. And he and the Seventh Calvary had been on patrol for 30 days from Ft Lincoln before they met the Sioux and Cheyenne 200 miles away.

Custer House (recreated), Ft Lincoln Site, Bismarck ND

Incidentally, at Ft Lincoln (a North Dakota state park), it was a rectangular-shaped grounds with the assembly-parade grounds in the middle. I could just imagine the gathering as the Seventh assembled in the middle to leave, and the pall that settled over the fort a month later upon the news that half of them were killed.

At the Custer Battlefield, there was a high wind which gave an eerie feeling.  I stood on the ridge trying to imagine what transpired that June day in 1876.

Site where George Custer (in black) fell. Bodies of officers were reburied around the country (Custer is at West Point) while enlisted buried at a monument nearby.

I met someone who must have been a retired Army or Marine officer explain to me exactly what happened. I didn’t know that the Indian encampment was across the river from the battle scene, and the Lakota and Cheyenne quickly chased the soldiers across the river and up the ridge, where the final battle took place.

The Indians had a valid point.

Site where a Lakota Warrior, defending his people’s way of life, fell.

“Hurrah Boys! We’ve got them! We’ll finish them up then go home to our station! “

–Lt. Col. George Custer

“You are fools to make yourselves slaves to a piece of fat bacon, some hard tack, and a little sugar and coffee”

–Sitting Bull, on reservation life.

It is good that the site has been renamed the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, and that both sides are honored.

Drove through the highest town in America – Alma CO at 10,353 feet.

I was surprised at how much of I-10 and I-55 is over Louisiana on pylons and not on Louisiana. That to me is a massive engineering feat largely unheralded. A Lexican from New Orleans told me it is the Atchafalaya Swamp, the largest swamp in America. I wonder how many workers died from snakes and allegators making this an effortless transit through Louisiana

I was fascinated by the history of Butte, Montana. Butte was to copper as Virginia City NV was to silver. In WW1, Butte supplied 70% of the nation’s copper. It was so critical to the country that in both wars, it was put under martial law. Miners could not join the military, and if a miner felt like not going to work, a soldier would be knocking on the door.

Site of an old copper mine, Butte MT

Like Virginia City, there are about 10,000 miles of mineshafts under the city. Unlike Virginia City, there was aggressive mining there into the 1970s. The “Copper King” mansion puts the Mackay Mansion in Virginia City to shame. Unlike Virginia City Butte is still a vibrant city, with the “old section” on the hill and the “new section” below it. There are all of these old magnificent brick buildings still in use today.

If you are going to Butte, I recommend taking the “trolley tour”, hosted by the Chamber of Commerce. Our guide knew Evel Knievel growing up. In fact, when I toured the old Dumas House Brothel (famous through out the West), there was a 1943 Calendar from the Knievel Tire Company.

He was known as “Robbie” as a boy, and always in trouble with the police. They rarely caught him, but would just go to his parent’s house and wait for him.

Incidentally another small fact about him – when he was trying his last stunt, the 1974 jump across the Snake River, he had a headstone made on the chance he would be killed. Which he used when he died years later in 2007.  Didn’t have time to stop by his grave in Butte.

The Alamo in San Antonio is a lot smaller than I imagined. And the “last stand”, which lasted all of 45 minutes or so, was behind the walls next to the church, where the women and children were told to remain. The remains of most of the defenders were buried en masse right in front of the Alamo.

Searching for a motel late at night, I landed in Wallace, ID. Only to learn the next morning that it was quite a silver mining town in its day. Didn’t even know the area had a silver history.

Didn’t know Yellowstone had a lake, or that it was huge. Didn’t know the park was so big, either. You can drive 100 miles within the park.

Yellowstone

While I did write some time ago about how naïve some people are around wildlife, they prove it every day around Yellowstone. The day I was there, some rangers had to chase away people wanting to photograph a bull elk “up close and personal”. I would imagine if you could sit down with some of these park rangers, you would find some incredible stories.

If you think Texas is all flat you haven’t been to Big Bend National Park. Or the Hill Country around Fredericksburg.

I was surprised at how empty car dealer’s lots are – some nearly barren. All because of thechip shortage”.

There was evidence of huge forest fires – in multiple locations – From Yellowstone National Park to Glacier National Park, to extreme Northern CA along US 97. The devastation was miles long.

Interesting Hotels Along the Way…

I wanted to stop at Marfa, Texas to see the old set where Giant (1956) was made. Well, I learned that it is on private land and after 60 years there isn’t much left.

And I wanted to stay in the hotel that the production crew used, the Paisano. It was here, while listening to the barman, that I heard his Elizabeth Taylor story. You can stay in one of the rooms any of the stars had.

This hotel has an interesting history. It was one of 5 built by a man in the 30s. Another, owned by the same family from Ft. Stockton, is the El Capitan in Van Horn, TX. I stayed there, too. If I remember the history right another was built at Carlsbad, NM, and I don’t know where the other 2 were. Or even if they still exist.

But these 2 are restored to their 1930s splendor.

While I didn’t stay here, on the advice of a Lexican I walked through the lobby and the bar of the Menger Hotel, where Teddy Roosevelt recruited his rough riders. I will stay there next time. It is right on Alamo Plaza.

I had wanted to stay at the following hotels in Montana and Wyoming, but they were full. They were mentioned in an article someone had written in my car club magazine, about driving on the Chief Joseph Highway and the Beartooth Highway. Teddy Roosevelt and a number of other western luminaries, such as Wild Bill Hickok stayed in them.

The Occidental Hotel, in Buffalo, WY takes you back 160 years. I had to stay in a conventional motel in Buffalo, but visited them the next morning. Naturally, I was told they would have vacancies that evening. That is the only problem with my mode of traveling. Knowing where you will be on a certain date with reservations makes a difference.

The Pollard Hotel in Red Lodge, MT is that other historic hotel.

Red Lodge is a charming Montana town near the Wyoming Border that is the start of one of the country’s most scenic roads, which leads me to the next section.

Memorable Roads Taken….

There are some memorable roads for scenery I have taken over the years. I can remember some years ago some friends took me from Manhattan along a road that followed the Hudson River to West Point. California’s Highway 1, particularly from San Simeon to Carmel (about 70 miles) is spectacular.

I’ll add 2 to the list from these 2 trips.

Leave Red Lodge on Highway 212 and you are on the Beartooth Highway. Through 68 miles you will see dozens of switchbacks. At one point you will discover that in 10 or 15 miles you have gained 5,000 feet. You will go above the tree line to almost 11,000 feet and come out at Cooke City and the northern entrance to Yellowstone National Park. It is absolutely spectacular. If you are wondering why it is called “The Beartooth” towards the end you will see a mountain peak that looks like a ….bear tooth.

Beartooth Highway near the summit of nearly 11,000 feet

The other road – I learned from a book suggestion. If you like scenic drives this book is a must-have.

The Going To the Sun Road traverses Glacier National Park East and West, and is 50 miles long. 25 miles of it is carved out of the mountains as you survey the massive valley and lake below made by the glaciers. The 2nd 25 miles takes you past the massive Lake MacDonald, 500’ deep. Which was formed by the water of those glaciers.

Going to the Sun Road, Glacier NP

I started the Sun Road at St Mary on the eastern side.

Memorable Conversations along the way.

There was the high school class and teacher I met at the Gateway Arch. The well dressed man at Houmas House, and the petite blond with the Glock pistol at a New Mexico service station, all profiled here.

Heather (right foreground) and her group of students

I spent much of a day driving (at waiting for buffalo traffic to cross roads) at Yellowstone, and thought I would spend the night in Cody WY. Didn’t get there until it was dark, and found most of the rooms under $250/night were unavailable.

I decided to call my motel of the previous night in Red Lodge, MT (about an hour’s drive) and they had a room available so I drove back to Red Lodge.

Incidentally, having seen various critters up close and personal (deer would wander into town, and while stopped at the roadside a night a red fox came up to visit me!), I realized that hitting a deer at night was a very real possibility.

I got back at Red Lodge at 0100 and asked the clerk where I could have dinner at this time, and he said the only place available was a convenience store/Conoco station with ready-made sandwiches.

I wasn’t picky so drove across town (5 minutes) and picked up a sandwich.

The cashier said that I couldn’t buy it.

???????

Turns out the shift was just changing and the new manager hadn’t arrived.

There was one other customer there, a young woman clutching some things and it turned out she was the manager of Bogart’s, the Red Lodge restaurant where I had my coconut shrimp tacos and Montana Porter (brewed in Red Lodge!) the night before.

We were both too hungry to simply leave so we stubbornly held on to our finds and waited for the indeterminate time for the manager to show up.

In the meantime, I learned that the owner of Bogart’s is a serious Humphrey Bogart fan, and anyone wanting to work there is given some reading assignments beforehand on Bogie.

So I promised her some Bogie information I will send once I get back.

Aftermath

Between the 2 “mini loops”, I covered 11,700 miles. While I came back from the first one last May healthy I apparently brought an unwelcome passenger back on the 2nd loop.

And I didn’t even know I had it. I had what I thought was an allergy, a dry hacking cough. But since I had been visiting my elderly mother nearly daily at an extended care facility, I thought that I should get tested at the VA. And I am positive for COVID-19.

 So I have been sitting at home in the penalty box for my 10 day sentence.

Better than to infect the facility full of frail, elderly people.

I had had my 2 shots and thought I would be immune. In any event what I did catch didn’t affect me badly enough that outside of my desire to visit the extended car facility, I wouldn’t have gotten tested. I do not feel that out of sorts.

But the trips were worth it. You never know when you will get the next opportunity, or if you will get an opportunity.


10/04/21 – With so many experiences I could write a book on these travels, but one other sight should have been mentioned last night.

The North Dakota capitol.

Yes, “ol”, denoting the building and not “al”, denoting the city, which is Bismarck.

So what is so unusual about the North Dakota capitol building?

Well, it is probably the only capitol building in the 50 states that you wouldn’t initially recognize as a capitol building. OK, researching this I learned there are 1 or 2 other non-conventional capitol buildings, one being in Nebraska.

There is no dome, or cupula. It’s a 21 story art-deco tower that was built in the 1930s. Numerous things impressed me, starting with the expansive lawn in front manicured such that it would have been at home at Pebble Beach Golf Course. I asked a man, who turned out to be a state representative, how they keep it so “carpet-like” with the brutal subzero winters.

He replied that he didn’t know, but they “probably spend a lot of money”.

I wandered around for probably 45 minutes seeing dozens of portraits of famous North Dakotans, such as Peggy Lee, Louis L’Amour, Theodore Roosevelt (I guess made an honorary native), and on and on…

To the Senate or House chambers which looked both modern and classic.

Senate or House Chamber at the North Dakota Capitol Building, Bismarck

And brass.

Brass everywhere, all shined.

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