Heading West: Being and nothingness

I have traveled to many lands but nowhere have I seen the landscape change as rapidly or as often as it did on our road trip through Wyoming.

I see the Tetons in the rear view now, white peaks contrasting against blue sky, as the highway winds downward into flatter lands formed of earth as red as Georgia clay. We drive into DuBois, a true cowboy town where the main road is dotted with a few eateries and shops and an old sign that says “Homestead.” We poke our heads into an antique shop filled with old spurs, bits and colorized photographs. We eat burgers at the Cowboy Cafe. They are big enough to fill the belly of any hungry ranch hand.

We keep driving, not knowing where we will sleep tonight. Through the Wind River Reservation, past cows and even elk, and into Lander, where a mean wind whips through a main street that feels empty. This is an old mining town. It was the westward terminus of the “Cowboy Line” of the Chicago and North Western Railway. This is “where rails end and trails begin.”

I close my eyes and try to imagine this place as it was a century ago.

There are plenty of dude ranches nearby. I am told that’s a source for tourist dollars these days.

We keep driving. Into an abyss of nothingness. Nothing we can see but sagebrush and rolling hills in the distant. There are stretches of highway where we do not see any trailers, ranches, animals. No signs of life anywhere.

It’s a strange feeling for me. I would not want to be alone here, I think.

It takes several hours to reach Rawlins. We think about staying there but keep moving. I can’t stand the melancholy of a another town past its prime hanging heavy on every corner.

We turn right onto Highway 287, which will take us back into Colorado. It is evening when we reach Fort Collins. Downtown is bustling in this college town. People are spilling out of cafes and restaurants. I hear one man discussing Jean-Paul Sartre’s brand of existentialism.

We had come from nothingness into being. Or was it the other way around?

Heading West: Grand Tetons

We drive out of Yellowstone through the south gate. For a few moments, the drive seems, well, boring compared to the visual feast that was before us all day long. But then, the highway bends and offers a glimpse of the peaks that form the Grand Tetons. Jagged mountains that rise a mile high from the ground, like gothic cathedrals reaching skyward.

We check into our cabin — The Willow — at Dornan’s Spur Ranch in Moose, Wyoming. My colleague, John Branch at CNN’s National Desk, recommended we stay there. He worked there once after he fell in love with the Tetons and could not bear to leave. The cabins are rustic but modern. And the best thing is the vast wine shop that rivals any in Atlanta.

Here’s what Dornan’s says about its wine:

“We know what you’re thinking… how did a family of hardscrabble pioneer homesteaders end up operating one of the finest wine shops in the Rocky Mountains?

Like most things around here, the story starts with Granddad (JP Dornan), and his mother(Evelyn). While she was the “official” homesteader, she chose to spend much of her time in sunny California, leaving her son to “prove up” on the property. While traveling back and forth, JP befriended many of the wine families in California, who were then (1930s and 1940s) just getting their businesses started. Their families and our families have remained close over the decades, and enjoying fine wines has become a Dornan family tradition.”

I am in heaven as I buy a bottle of Malbec, get comfortable in the restaurant and watch the sun set behind the Tetons.

The next morning, we begin the day early with a hike at Taggert Lake. Half the trail is still covered in snow. There are places where snow shoes might have been useful. We see a coyote but no bears.

We have lunch at the beautiful Jenny lake Lodge, where everything is just right. Even the butter is artfully carved in the form of a moose.

Jenny Lake is perhaps the most scenic place at the Tetons. Unlike the much smaller Taggert, Jenny is not frozen. The waters shimmer under the shadows of the towering peaks.

Another hike in the afternoon and then the drive back to the lodge. We decide to stop in and see the famed Jackson Hole ski village. On the way, we spot a moose off the highway, camouflaged perfectly in a boggy forested field.

For dinner we head into Jackson for an elegant meal at the Snake River Lodge. They have things like wild boar and elk medallions on the menu. Kevin orders the buffalo pot roast. I try a pork shank cooked in duck confit. How utterly decadent.

Our wiatress, Brandy Borts, says she came to Jackson 15 years ago and never left. My friend, John, will probably understand why, I think. I think it’s beautiful here but I am too much a lover of urban jungles to make a go of it in Wyoming.

Brandy says she loves to ski, can’t get enough of the landscape. So she works hard as a waitress so that she can stay.

Alas, we cannot stay. We have to make our way back to Denver soon.

Heading West: Yellowstone

We drive into Yellowstone on winding roads between towering snow banks. The east entrance will close at 10 a.m., we are told, because of the risk of avalanches. I stare upward at the white slopes and wonder when they might come crashing down.

I grew up hearing about Yellowstone but somehow, I never made it out here. Then in 2009, I wrote a story for CNN about Audrey Peterman’s crusade to get more minorities to visit America’s national parks. I learned about people like Shelton Johnson, a park ranger at Yosemite, who tells his mostly white visitors the tale of the African-American cavalry regiment, known as the Buffalo Soldiers, who protected the land and toiled to build trails and roads.

Later, I was taken with Ken Burns’ series on America’s great parks. Nowhere in the world are places of such monumental beauty maintained and presented to the public as they are in this country.

I knew I had to begin my journey somewhere. I chose Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons.

We are not disappointed.

At our first stop: a grizzly bear.

Then the smell of sulfur from the myriad bubbling pools of the acidic water that can scald you to death. here are more geothermal geysers in Yellowstone than anywhere else on Earth. Not sure how the buffaloes seem to roam so close. They leave plenty of evidence behind.

Old Faithful, was, well, faithful, spewing steamy water skyward shortly after its appointed time. It is not the largest of the geysers but it goes off regularly so tourists flock to the site.

The Grand Canyon at Yellowstone rivals its more famous sister in Arizona. The Yellowstone River crashes hundreds of feet downward in majestic falls and over the centuries has cut patterns and crevices into the rocks.

I marvel at the majesty of this place only to be told that the most breathtaking scenery still lies ahead.

Heading West: Winter in June and Buffalo Bill

We leave Deirdre’s house early in the morning. We have a long way to go.

We drive up Interstate 25, stop in Buffalo and then, Sheridan. It’s Memorial Day and the town is shut down. Even the J.C. Penney is closed. There’s a steady drizzle and I keep hoping that any moment, the sun will poke through the clouds. But not looking good today.

We think we might have lunch before the long drive ahead and step into the only place open: The Sheridan Palace Restaurant. A great big bear skin adorns the wall behind the cash register. The waitress is frantic. Why did they have to display the “Open” sign so prominently today. It’ a holiday for God’s sake. Who are all these people hungering for eggs, bacon or maybe a hamburger served with a mountain of fries?

It takes way too long to get our omelette. Then we begin the climb upward. We have to cross the Big Horn Mountains to reach Cody, home to the greatest museum in the West, save, perhaps, the Getty in Los Angeles. We drive higher and higher and then, the white stuff begins to fall and we are in the midst of a winter wonderland. Yes, winter, on the last day of May, when in Atlanta, my garden has already started to burn up without regular watering.

The white is majestic. I am not accustomed to such scenes. Kevin grew up in upstate New York. And even to him, the snow is amazing at this time of year. We step out of the car and marvel at the snow banks. They are almost as tall as me.

At Shell Falls, we walk down icy steps to gaze at a scene worthy of National Geographic. Torrents of water gushing down a snowy canyon. I kiss the cold stuff and we are on to Buffalo Bill.

At the museum, I marvel at how the pioneers lived. How there were colored folks here, besides the native Americans of course. I have to admit I did not know that much about the colorful life of William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody; that he received the Medal of Honor in 1872 for service as an Army scout. I gaze at a woolen suit worn by Annie Oakley, stitched finely enough to make the House of Chanel proud. There are rooms and rooms filled with native American pottery, bead work, baskets and blankets.

If you ever have a chance to visit this museum, do so. It’s a treasure.

We head west to the Absaroka mountains, through the Shoshone National Park and arrive at our mountain cabin. We eat trout in a dining room warmed by a wood stove, in front of another bear skin on the wall. Tomorrow, we must get up early for Yellowstone.

Heading West: Deirdre and her cowboy

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We meet Deirdre Stoelze Graves in Casper on a day when the clouds have given way to sun for a few moments and the wind is blowing like it always does in Wyoming. Deirdre came out here many years ago to get away from it all on the East coast. She got a job as a cop reporter for the Casper paper — even gave us the crime tour of the city — and ended up staying two decades.

Along the way she married a cowboy. I have only spoken to Dale twice — on the phone, when I called Deirdre to talk Dart Society business. That’s how I first met her, in 2008, when I won a Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma fellowship and spent a week in Chicago. I liked her instantly. She is such a free spirit. Crazy. Fun. Generous. Kind. And the heartbeat of the Dart Society.

Still, I am a bit unsure about staying with her. I have heard so much about her husband and the ranch but it all feels so alien to me, the city girl who revels in the bleakest urban jungle. Deirdre navigates us up Interstate 25 to Kaycee. A town had once thrived here but flooding destroyed much of it a few years back. Now, mostly, it is a collection of trailers and a few downtown buildings that survived, two bars and a general store that sells spaghetti for almost $3 a box.

From Kaycee, we drive anther 20 lonely miles inward. Rolling hills and fields of cattle and sheep give way to the sight of the Big Horn Mountains. This is Broke Back Mountain territory, where Jack Twist couldn’t quit Ennis del Mar in, perhaps, an exaggerated story of love between ranch hands. It snowed in the morning, Dierdre tells me. The mountains are white. We drive further in, past red sandstone cliffs that remind me of Arizona, before we arrive at the doublewide trailer that Deirdre and Dale and their little boy Elliot call home. It’s expensive to build a house out here, Dale says. It’s much easier to plop down a trailer.

It has rained and snowed and is now raining again and the fields, normally dry at this time of year, are like vats of peanut butter mud. My boots sink in and my mind in taken back instantly to Iraq, where trekking through mud on U.S. military bases had become a daily thing.

We get inside Deirdre’s cozy abode and fill our bellies with salami sandwiches and homemade pumpkin pie. It is so quiet here. No distractions, save nature’s fury and the barking of Clyde, the family dog who is ordered to chase the neighbor’s beef cows away from Deirdre and Dale’s property. They’ll eat every last blade of grass, Dale says.

Dale is tall, lanky. He’s not wearing cowboy boots or a cowboy hat. He’s gentle and tolerant of Deirdre’s friends who have interrupted the solace of his Sunday. But he’s unmistakably a cowboy. The sun has deepened the lines of his face. They run like the rivers that cut the canyons out here.

Dale drives us to one of those canyons. We stand on the very edge — no tourist barriers here — and I strain to see the water many feet below. Deirdre and Dale were married here, they tell me. Suddenly, heaven seems closer and it doesn’t matter that the rain has started up again. I am well covered in Dale’s oil skin ranch coat and Deirdre’s cowboy boots.

I’d seen all this only in movies before.

Deirdre says she feels too isolated out here these days. She craves interaction with people who can relate to her. Most folks around here see her as a hippie chick, the only Obama supporter around for many miles. But Dale grew up here and besides a vacation to Italy, he’s hardly left Wyoming. And never will. Ranching is in his blood. He wouldn’t know how to make a living any other way.

My dear friend has to reconcile her love with her lifestyle. She talks about it as we cram into the back of Dale’s pickup and slush back to the house. Inside, Elliot prances about the counters and furniture. If he could, he’s climb the walls. He has Deirdre’s energy.

She breaks out the white linens for dinner. We sip tempranillo and watch the sun go down. We watch The Red Wall, as the sandstone is known, glow in the light. And listen to the silence outside. It is a life I could not have imagined before.

Wild West: first stop

From Denver airport, we drive to Steamboat Springs — a place that is as pretty as its name sounds. The slopes are closed for the summer but plenty of people are still around. As is the snow atop the mountains. On this day, everyone is excited about the sun. It’s the first day in a while that the wet stuff has stopped, the clouds have vanished. A magnificent statue of an elk graces a public park by the river.

At Chocolate Soup, Chelsea serves us a savory scone and strawberry rhubarb waffles. I can tell this vacation will be filled with many lazy afternoons and heaping plates of delicious food. Never tasted a waffle with rhubarb before. It made me think of the pies at Yoder’s in Sarasota. Only better.

From the picturesque Colorado ski resort, we drive northeast, through more rugged country. Just before the Wyoming state line, we come across the Hoopla shop in Walden — elevation, 8,100 feet. Amy Symonds grew up here. Her father was a caretaker of a flourspar mine. That’s the stuff they make fluoride out of. And very pretty pendants.

Her store is in the middle of a broken town. Nothing but a saloon, a barber shop and a host of trailers here. The opposite of Steamboat, I think.

Tom Waits is on the CD player. Symonds is wearing a giant fur hat on her head and stands behind the counter to greet her customers, all two of us. She sells all sorts of pelts — mink, ermin, skunk. She sells hat boxes, vintage hoop skirts and handbags, jewelry, furniture and a bunch of other assorted stuff. Her shop was featured in a western magazine. She’s happy about that. She sells me an old silver ring with a heap of copper on it. Looks like someone forgot to mold it into a more shapely sight.

We meander down the road, catch sight of a moose. I’d never seen a real live one before. We stop at Woods Landing, more out of curiosity than thirst, and sit at the bar with a folks who watch Fox News and hate CNN. On weekends, the dance hall is filled here with wranglers, ranchers and pretty girls. Bartender Mary Albright serves me an ice-cold Corona and tells me to never mind all those anti-CNN sentiments. She watches Anderson Cooper every night, she says. Tapes it when she can’t watch it live. She was born in Germany, grew up in Nebraska and worked at Home Depot in Denver before she came to Woods Landing four years ago. Now, she makes a mean vodka tonic and watches people twirl on the century-plus-old floor.

After a refreshing drink, we are off on a lonely highway, through Laramie, the town that became notorious for the torture and murder of Matt Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming. Must be tough to live in a town that’s become synonymous with something that evil.

The drizzle gets heavier in Laramie. The skies are gray. It’s the end of May but feels more like mid-winter in Atlanta. We hit the highway to Cheyenne, the state capital. My colleague Matt Smith lived here once and suggested we stay at the Plains Hotel, a no-frills lodging in a beautiful old building. Matt said we ought to eat at The Albany, and so we did. The place used to be brothel, named after the Union Pacific trains from Albany, New York. They carried troops going off to fight in World War II who had some fun on their stop in Cheyenne.

There was a lot of gambling and prostitution here until the interstates shut all that down, says owner Gus Kallas. I stare at a photograph on the wall of the Thomas Heaney saloon taken in 1888. I notice one of the workers behind the bar. He is a black man.

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