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Walking the Wild Trees Pt. 5: Avenue of the Giants, Dyersville Giant, Humboldt Redwoods Pk.

Tuesday, October 11
Cedar Lodge
Rio Dell, CA

Here’s a link to a photo page of our day in Humboldt Redwoods State Park, including some that show just how eye-droppingly huge the Dyersville Giant is.

We had breakfast at Tonetta’s Coffee and Bakery, along the main street of Rio Dell and, as far as we can see, the only restaurant in town except for a pizza joint across the street. But it’s a nice little place. Billie gets a croissant breakfast sandwich while I opt for the biscuits and gravy. There is so much gravy, I can’t see the biscuits. Nice little spot in an old building downtown, and it has a drive-in coffee window on the east side. A few jokes shared with locals hanging out drinking coffee.

One tree down and another root carcass. You just can't figure out how they got in these twisted positions.

As we got out on 101 toward Humboldt Redwoods State Park, we began to really notice the difference between the forests we have been going through so far and this, the first of three old-growth redwood forests we will be visiting. The first thing I notice as we exit 101 and drive into the Avenue of the Giants was the darkness – you could only see a short ways into the forest. Some of the trees are only a foot off the road. Shafts of light break through sometimes to the forest floor.

Just outside the park, we stop at a place outside Pepperwood that advertises a “room inside a live redwood.” It’s behind the business, a souvenir shop, and is a small room that, indeed, is inside a live redwood tree. That’s all I’m going to say. There are a few sculpted pieces of redwood, and some redwood timber stacked close by, and we’re off in a few minutes into the park itself.

Just to give you an idea how large these trees really are.

The Avenue of the Giants begins about five miles south of Rio Dell on Highway 101. Humboldt Redwoods State Park is the largest safe area for redwoods in the state, 53,00 acres of old-growth redwood forest, the third largest state park in California. More than 100 of the 137 trees over 350 feet tall are here, including the Stratosphere Giant, at 370.5 feet the tallest known living redwood until three taller ones were found in Redwood National Park, including Hyperion at just more than 379 feet.

The locations of these trees are a highly kept secret, and scientists who study these trees want to keep it that way. At first I didn’t like that attitude, but I understand their concerns that amateur climbers would seek them out and, if not kill themselves, endanger the trees themselves.

It is, as advertised, an avenue of giants, redwoods lining the road and as far as you can see into the forest on either side. We had read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle that talked about an albino tree, a redwood Christmas tree, in a grove off the avenue. We followed the directions in the article and wound up in the right grove. But after walking around the parking lot area for ten minutes trying to recreate the writer’s instructions, we gave up for the time being on the albino tree.

Another fallen giant begins its next phase.

Our first real, jaw-dropping stop was at the Founder’s Grove, home to the Founder’s Tree.

The Founder’s Tree is just a short walk from the parking lot, and then you follow a half mile loop trail out to the Dyerville Giant. Founder’s Tree is indeed, at 346 feet, still a giant. The height to the lowest branch is 190 feet. We walk around it, take some photos and head off counterclockwise, spending about an hour taking in the enormity of this redwood grove.

The cavities inside trees were cavernous indeed.

If there is a religion in nature, this is its cathedral. In 1917, after viewing this and some other like groves, the Save-the-Redwoods League was formed in 1921 to preserve these primeval forests, and this was one of the first. Today, 51,00 acres are preserved here of the 189.000 acres protected in California in a large number of state forests.

There are places, Katmai, McNeil River, Denali, McCarthy in Alaska, Yellowstone, Escalante National Monument and Capitol Reef among them, where you understand immediately why they have been set aside. But we have never been in anything like this, an ancient forest. No trees in here have met the sawblade. These trees fall when they’re ready. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see many of those collapsed trees, some whose trunks fade into the darkness and flora. Some trees have come to rest in the crooks of other, still standing trees. Others have been hit and tumbled and are strewn haphazardly, like giant building blocks cast aside.

We found one tree that had been burned almost completely at the bottom – we could walk through it and stand inside it — but it still grew just fine above twenty feet. Fire can take a redwood, but the redwood can come back, too. Redwoods send down thousands of pine cones containing millions of seeds, but only a few of those find the right conditions for growth. Since none have been cut, we don’t really know how old many of them are.

Billie offers a hint of perspective of the immensity of the Dyerville Giant.

As we walk farther along, the trail loops around a series of fallen giants until it finally reaches an especially huge uprooted tree. There is no identifying marker, but we know it’s the Dyerville Giant, which until 1991, was indeed the Giant of this grove. But it fell in that year, after at least one of these other redwoods hit it on the way down to its demise. The Giant was more than 370 feet tall. Now it lies horizontal. It will take hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, to eventually fade back to nothing, all the while providing nourishment for hundreds of species on the floor.

I literally gasp at its immensity. You can walk along the Giant to the top, 275 feet from the base. The rest of it broke up and is scattered somewhere around here. Some of the top branches are almost mulch already, just twenty years later. The major sections might take hundreds, thousands of years to pass away.

The Giant's Burl and a little view of its length along the floor.

After that opening gambit, we get back on the Avenue before stopping at the park’s headquarters, where I quiz a volunteer at the desk about wildlife (yes, there are plenty of critters but mostly in the western part of the park away from the roads, including bears and mountain lions), and he gives me specific directions for the albino tree. In front of the headquarters is Weather Rock. It’s never wrong! Everybody should have one.

Farther down the Avenue, we pay seven dollars to enter a little locally owned “park” that lets you drive through the Shrine Tree. Poor thing is being held up by wires today. But a particularly American kind of place. Corny but fun, and we got a good picture of the two of us at the Keebler mansion.

Later, after an outdoor lunch at the Avenue Café in Miranda, we took a good walk on a trail off a side road off the Avenue that took us past the Tall Tree. It was measured in the 1950s and was an early candidate for the tallest tree in the world, but has been taken over many times as taller ones were found. But it was a very large tree in a quiet, secluded grove on a trail that winds along some unnamed creekbed. Nobody out there with us but those old trees. It was in this area that Telperion, another giant that figures in one chapter of The Wild Trees, fell in the 1990s.

And we followed the guy’s instructions to the albino tree (stop at the white line, walk down a path toward a creek and across to the other side and look back across the creek). It was kind of interesting but not much to look at it. The albino, which doesn’t produce its own chlorophyll, instead gets its nourishment from the redwood it’s latched to – kind of a vampire of the redwood — and it isn’t very impressive. This one would make a mediocre Christmas tree.

After leftover dinner from Hunan Village last night, we drove up to Ferndale again. But first we drove west on Centerville Road for Mendocino Point, advertised as the westernmost point in the United States. We didn’t make that, but we did stop at Centerville beach just as the sun set. Our first look at “the vast Pacific” was memorable.

The beach was fronted by those concrete things they use to keep terrorists from running car-bombs into government buildings today. Vans and RVs are parked along the edge. We pull in and walked to a place where we could walk around the concrete pads and onto the beach. Neither of us was sure we weren’t looking at land, but soon we realized that what we thought might be little walls actually were big waves crashing in. Loud, strong, relentless waves.

"The vast Pacific": Jeff Bridges as Lewis Tater in Hearts of the West

Billie says: “Is it the vast pacific?” an old Jeff Bridges joke between us. But indeed it is. The waves hit, spread and scatter, coming closer to our feet with every crash. I look around, and there’s the full moon rising behind us, the sky in the west pink and blue and foggy at sunset. And what is that with its head down in the grass on the bluffs just below the moon? Cow. From a Buttercup mansion. And these waves crashing in, coming ever closer. The phlegm of an angry ocean. Mesmerizing. And a little unnerving, too.

Full moon fever.

And then, in full moon fever, we drove back and literally bellied up the bar at the Palace Saloon, which reminded us both of Nebraska taverns back in the 1970s in Seward (Heumann’s, where I worked for a couple of years during college) and Lincoln (Casey’s, a legendary place that Billie frequented around the same time). I managed to get a little buzz from a couple of gin and tonics before our ride back to Rio Dell with the full weight of the moon hanging over us. Oh, yeah.

Next: Eureka, Trinidad, Patrick Point State Park, Arcata, Crescent City.

October 31, 2011   No Comments

Walking the Wild Trees Pt. 4: Truckee, Donner, Highway 36

Sunday Oct. 9
Cedar Lodge
Chester CA

Kokanee salmon at a spawning area, Tallac Historic Site, South Lake Tahoe, CA.

Our first on-the-road day begins with breakfast again at Ernie’s before we drove up the west side of Lake Tahoe. We stopped at the bridge where we had seen the crowds of people, realizing it must be a salmon spawning site. Indeed it is, and there are hundreds of fish at this location. They climb up out of the lake, spawn somewhere above, die, and then the runoff from the mountains sends the young back into the lake next year. And we get to go up and over that incredible short spur once again south of Vikingsholm. It reminds us of that spur north of Escalante on Highway 12 in central Utah.

The southwest area of the lake is pretty undeveloped beyond Vikingsholm, but there are more residences and strips as we get farther north. From there it’s a short drive to Truckee. Kind of an interesting place, it’s just two miles east of where the Donner Party was trapped in 1849, it’s kind of like Ward with a tourist area that comprises a historic downtown district and an interstate highway dumped through the back end of downtown. Truckee is one of those places that was once famous but now is left for tourists to ponder its past while wandering three blocks of restaurants, souvenir shops, bookstores and clothing stores. There is an incredible adaptive reuse of a gas station that is now a clothing store that is really cool.

Clothing store, once a gas station, in Truckee, CA.

We walk the entire strip and around some other back streets before stopping in a place that advertises banana cream pie. It’s not our favorite, but not too bad. An Amtrak train pulls into the station about the time we get there. A few passengers get on and off, and it’s gone in five minutes. Busy place on a pleasant Sunday afternoon. Then we climb to the Rocking Stone, which doesn’t rock anymore, but is famous for once teetering at the touch. Nice view of town and the valley and mountains beyond in Nevada from the Rocking Stone.

Truckee, CA from the Rocking Stone above town. To the right behind us, I-80 roars by.

The Donner site is perplexing. The museum is under construction, there are no historical artifacts, just a monument and the museum. This is one of those pieces of history that, today, has lost all its context and is impossible to imagine at this place at a point in time. Luxury homes dot the hillsides and forests, above bustling Interstate 80 less than a hundred yards away and Truckee two miles down the road. It makes me wonder about living in Truckee in the winter, however. Is it like Ward?

The drive north up to Chester was through a huge forest, though at times we dropped down into areas of pastureland and large cattle ranches. Near the north end, we drove through an area filled with deep canyons and heavy vegetation. We saw three small forest fires, one near a home that might have been controlled. Incredible that it’s this lush in October.

The Donner Memorial, Donner Pass, CA.

We drove back and forth along Chester’s main drag, past the airfield and strip malls, but we couldn’t find a motel except for a Super 8 at $89 a night. That’s too much, and we consider heading west, not knowing the next town with a motel would be Red Bluff, more than an hour away and far past Mt. Lassen National Park, which we want to drive through on Monday. We saw the huge dormant volcano sticking up a couple of times on the drive to Chester, and we’re pretty excited about seeing another recently blown volcanic area tomorrow.

But we find the Cedar Lodge at the far end of town west of the turn-off. The sign says No Vacancy, but I pull in anyway, and a nice woman at the office says she does have a room with a queen for fifty-five dollars. Paying her cash gives us five dollars off. She recommends La Casita, the local Mexican restaurant in town. Dinner was fine, but all the place served were wine margaritas, which tasted OK but packed no tequila punch whatsoever. Bummer.

We got back to the motel in time to watch the final episode of the fourth season of Breaking Bad. An extremely satisfying season ender. Don’t know where they’ll take it from here, but the finale had all of the great tension-and-release that we’ve come to expect from this intense program.

Monday October 10
Cedar Lodge
Rio Dell, CA

This is along state 36 west of Mt. Lassen, all volcanic. You can see the cloud cover we found all day.

We had caught a glimpse of Mt. Lassen Sunday afternoon as we were driving toward Chester. It was magnificent in the sunlight, with a snow-capped peak that looked like it had blown its top. Today we had planned on driving through the park on the thirty-mile highway that traverses it, but it was socked in this morning and raining pretty hard, and radar online showed no real break, so we decided to forego the drive and hope to catch it on the way back.

Instead we drove west on state 36 through an area created by old lava flows, now overgrown with shrubs, trees and flora, to Red Bluff, which is in the Sacramento Valley. We didn’t make the correct turn at some point in Red Bluff and wound up on Interstate 5 for a few miles before finding a crossroad that passed through a pleasant, ten-mile stretch of horse ranches before hooking up on 36 again.

The rest of the drive was wonderful. It wound up and down through a hundred and thirty miles of mountain rainforests, high passes and torturous, zigzagging canyon descents and construction zones. It took four hours to drive the one hundred and twenty miles. With almost no traffic, and even though it was overcast and foggy 99 percent of the way, the drive was almost ridiculously scenic. Talk about a snaky road; it seemed like we were going downhill for the last seventy miles.

Horse country, north of Red Bluff after we got lost. This was a great road to get unlost.

The Humboldt Gables Motel is the first one in view as we pull into Rio Dell, a small town just a few miles north of the north entrance to the Avenue of the Giants and Humboldt Redwoods State Park, where we’ll spend the next couple of days, and a heavy-set guy sets us up for two nights for about sixty bucks a night. And again, paying cash saves almost five bucks a night since he doesn’t have to process the credit card. This saved us about fifty bucks this trip.

On the innkeeper’s suggestion, we pack out our bags and then drive out to Ferndale, a real oddity in this seaside area. We wind up on this wide plateau with huge Victorian ranch houses finally giving way to a Victorian village, a couple of blocks of which is on the historic record.

Nothing looks particularly promising for a place to eat, however. We find out the town and the mansions on the ranchland, called Butterfat mansions, were built around the ranchers. So we drive over to Fortuna, which offers, finally, Hunan Village. The food is great, and we get to-go boxes that will give us another meal along the way. We are very excited about tomorrow.

Next: Avenue of the Giants, Dyersville Giant, Humboldt Redwood State Park.

October 29, 2011   No Comments

Walking the Wild Trees Pt. 3: Vikingsholm, Tallac Historic Site

Saturday, October 8
Apex Motel
South Lake Tahoe, CA

Upon the advice of our proprietor, we walked a block down to Ernie’s Coffee House, a large but warm and cozy breakfast nook, where we plan our day. We are interested in seeing Vikingsholm, a historic summer residence tucked away beneath some cliffs a few miles farther up the west side of the lake.

Emerald Bay, with the tea house island near South Lake Tahoe, CA. (click for larger image.)

A controlled burn near the highway north of town is blowing some smoke across to the lake. And after winding past Tallac and noting a bunch of people on a bridge near there, we drive up this breathtaking, short spur that leads to views of something I had briefly read about, something about a a tea house on an island. That’s what it looks like we’re seeing in this small, secluded bay, and soon we are in the Vikingsholm parking lot, located near a huge outcrop of rocks overlooking Emerald Bay and Fannette Island, the tea-house island.

The way to the home, which sits directly below the rock outcropping, is a mile walk down and back along a fairly steep incline, with warnings at the top for people not up to a walk like this. All in all, we find the walk less difficult than advertised, and well worth the effort, as it winds down through a nice forest.

At the bottom is a castle-like home built by Mrs. Lora Josephine Knight in 1929. The coast here reminded her of her native Norway, and she built it with local materials. It’s a strange kind of American Craftsman-style, 38-room home, parts of which contain no nails or spikes. It’s quite lovely, almost completely hidden among the trees from above, and we take a lot of pictures as we stroll the grounds. The back was also the entryway, with small rooms as part of an enclosue that made an impressive entrance after the ride down. Emerald Bay is a popular lake boat tour stop, and a steady stream of tour craft, from small motorboats to a couple of paddlewheelers, circuit Fannette Island all day. Even in the off-season, it’s a popular spot.

Vikingholm, showing some of the intricate inlay work. (click for larger image.)

We also took a short walk a little past the house. A guy was in the stream taking pictures above a pool, and we are introduced to the Kokanee salmon. It’s spawning season. Last week South Lake Tahoe hosted the Lake Tahoe Kokanee Salmon Festival. The Kokanee here were introduced by holding ponds at the Tahoe City Fish Hatchery that overflowed, or so the story goes. Three years later, the freed salmon returned to the streams, and they have integrated into the ecosystem. All in all, a great way to spend a couple of hours.

Last night we caught a glimpse of the Tallac Historic Site as darkness descended on the forest. This time, walking among the tall trees with the sunlight streaming through the gaps, we got a quick glimpse at a past time of opulence in the early days of the white occupancy of this area. Three family summer cottages were here, and walking among them, you can easily imagine their heyday.

The Tallac site is really something. It’s in a deep forest along the shoreline. It was quiet, the almost full moon rising over the State Line high-rises in the late afternoon, a scene out of an era that, with our relentless need to redevelop, is disappearing. I guess I know I’m old when I realize this. But like Ojo Caliente before it was re-developed, this is one of those places you just don’t see much of anymore. The buildings, all made of wood with high ceilings and interesting ridges and roofs, are definitely of another time. Nobody would build houses like this today. Nobody.

Gardens at the Pope estate in the Tallac Historic Site. (click for larger image.)

The Baldwin estate, now the museum, closed for the season, was smallish, with nice gardens amidst the redwoods. Baldwin ran the casino that used to sit on one part of the park.

Next door, the Pope estate was particularly fascinating, with lots of small buildings behind the main house, which faced the lake, for the servants and help — a blacksmith shop, dairy, school room and tiny apartments for the seamstress, maid, butler and other full-time servants. The grounds included intricate gardens and lakelets and waterfalls. A table seemed to be hewn from one tree, with the branches woven into the cover.

The Popes even had a boathouse for their own boat, with tracks that ran 100 feet out into the lake, so that the boat could be hauled to land without the guests even getting their feet wet. Along the beach was a marooned sailboat, slammed into the sand with a Jolly Roger flag waving at a precarious angle. Wonder what happened there?

Next door to the Pope estate was the best of the lot, Valhalla. The home is the only one in actual use today, set up for weddings and receptions, one of which is going on during our visit. The Valhalla boathouse has been converted into a community playhouse, which, to my mind, is an enlightened way to “redevelop.”

Another view of the Pope estate. (click for larger image.)

We also walked around the area where the resort the Baldwin’s operated once sat. The buildings there didn’t have stone foundations, and today the forest has taken it all back, leaving folks to guess where the buildings stood. The only clue, which took us awhile to find, was a circular lagoon you can see near the front porch of an old photo on display. Another reminder, that like Tikal, given enough time, the natural world will take back what we have built and return to its natural state. That’s a little encouraging.

Hallway between the servants and main house at the Pope estate. (click for larger image.)

After the walk, we returned to Orchid Thai. We wound up in a corner next to a local couple who, according to the guy, had started drinking at 9 am to watch a football game. The woman, a bleached blonde who kept having to hitch up her jeans to keep her butt crack from showing, used to work at Orchid Thai, knew everybody who was working on this night. While we were perusing our menus, she suggested the pumpkin curry, which Billie got and was great. When the guy couldn’t figure out if Singha, the Thai beer, was like Sing Tao, the Chinese beer which he hated. I explained the difference. He interrupted his champagne to order one.

Another group came into our little nook, and one of the women was having a birthday. When they started singing happy birthday, the couple started in singing, and we all wound up doing a rousing chorus. The blonde, who was bombed out of her mind, helped everybody in the booth order, and finally, when they began taking pictures, she dropped onto somebody’s lap while the boyfriend took pictures of the whole kit and caboodle. We left after telling them that we hadn’t had that much entertainment in a restaurant in years.

Next: Truckee, Donner Pass, Chester.

Some smoke from a controlled burn north of South Lake Tahoe from the Tallac site.

October 26, 2011   1 Comment

A Night with Uncle George Na’ope, Kumu Hula

George Na'ope, kumu hula.

George Na'ope, kumu hula: Feb. 25, 1928-Oct. 26, 2009.

I just read the obit in The New York Times of George Na’ope, kumu hula and the keeper of Hawaiian tradition, at his home in Hilo, Hawaii. He spent his life committed to keeping Hawaiian culture and traditions alive. We certainly didn’t know Na’ope, but Billie and I spent a fascinating evening in Kona with him during a 1990 vacation.

From my trip-notes:

We drive up to the ramshackle town of Kapaau on the northernmost part of the Big Island, and stop at the Puukohola Heiau, a holy place for Hawaiians built in 1790-91 by Kamehameha I. We walk up to the ranger station, where we are given a short talk, with a model, on the heiau’s history, including a story about part of it being made later into a fort. The ranger’s name is Paul Andrade, an engaging Hawaiian man, and with no one else to give the talk to, we spend a half hour chatting with him. A poster of what the heiau once looked like keeps catching my eye while I listen to his stories.

Billie asks him about a book on myths that she saw on the shelf and mentions that it says the author was a man who brought back the real hula, and Andrade said that it was, and that the author was a kumu hula, or a master of the hula.  I had recently written a story about Robert Mugge’s excellent documentary film Kumu Hula: Keepers of a Culture, for the Colorado Daily, which I mentioned to Andrade. When he asked who was in the film, the only name I could remember was George Na’ope.

“George Na’ope was my teacher for sixteen years,” Andrade says.

It is a nice moment, made even nicer when Andrade mentions that George would be performing that night at the Keauhou Hotel in Kona.

He speaks very emotionally about the hula, originally a worship form, and the loss of the original chants and traditions. Like Na’ope, Andrade represents an element of Hawaiian society that wants to retain its heritage, almost destroyed since the missionaries decided to “enlighten” the populace about the Lord and brought with them the diseases that would decimate the native Hawaiians in a short time. When I asked whether real kumu hulas were performed in the hotels today, he says, rather matter-of-factly, “we have to make a living, too.” But, he complained, it would soon be necessary to be bonded to even appear in the better places.

Andrade is eloquent and quite opinionated, and as we walked out on the front porch, he points south to the scrubby brush and volcanic rock, and says that construction would soon begin on a golf course for a nearby resort out of sight near the water. I imagine green, lush fairways, deep white sand traps and palm trees instead of the shrubby no-man’s land there today. “At least I won’t have to look at the resort,” he says somewhat cheerfully.

He also explains about how George Na’ope would berate him when he didn’t live up to his expectations. How once Andrade had appeared at some live performance without a proper instrument or something, and George had showed up and given him holy shitfire for it. Andrade backs off when I asked if he was kumu hula because he didn’t want us to think he was cocky and he felt that too many cheap kumu hulas were around these days.

Later that evening we drive to the Keauhou Hotel and walk into an open-air bar right on the sea where a couple of women are playing instrumental music. A waitress informs us that George won’t start for another hour.

So we drive back down to Kailua for fish and chips and a walk through Kailua, which is deserted tonight, the complete opposite of last night. When we return, George, immediately recognizable from the film, is playing to a crowd that consists of only three or four tables of people in a room large enough to make it conspicuous. At the next table is an elegant, well-dressed Japanese couple, and there are two women at another table behind us. A couple over by the bar are talking, and an older Archie-Bunkerish-looking man is talking to himself down by the stage.

George, who must be less than five feet and 100 pounds, is one of those charismatic performers (Willie Nelson and Ruben Blades are two others that come to mind) that can make you believe that he’s always singing directly to you. His fingers are covered with rings, and I wonder how he can play the gorgeous six-string custom ukulele he’s strumming. There is a guitarist and bassist backing him up.

Soon Archie Bunker is up, talking and harassing the shit out of George, who has obviously seen this hundreds of times, making cracks back at him between songs and grimacing when he interrupts a tune. Although Archie is drunk, it’s obvious he is knowledgeable about Hawaiian music. “George, he’s the best,” Archie is slurring, twirling around in a kind of stupor. “And look, there’s no one in here. Nobody knows.”

I turn away to the bar just as the woman sitting there falls off her chair. Her companion tries to revive her, and the waitresses all run over. Archie tells George that he’s been watching him perform for twenty two years, and he asks George about old singers I’ve never heard of and requests various numbers.

Onstage, George asks us where we’re from, and what we want to hear. I just want to hear whatever he wants to play, I say, and he does a few more songs. The woman is still on the floor, and Archie is moving over to our table, repeating that that George is the best musician in Hawaii and nobody knows it. We try to be tolerant.

Sometimes Archie cries as he sings along with a song George is doing. George says he feels sorry for “the Colorado couple,” but it goes right past Archie, who is explaining to us how he “messes up” a lot. “Am I messing up?” he asks the two women behind us as George struggles through another song. “You want to hear the truth?” one asks back, but Archie is beyond the truth. You don’t know whether to smack the guy up the side of his head or humor him because you feel sorry for him.

He drags George over to our table, and George sits down while Archie tells him again that he is the best singer in Hawaii and look how few people have turned out to see him and isn’t it a shame. Like a 45 single repeating itself over and over.

It turns out that the Japanese couple are hula students of George, and they speak no English. So Archie is trying to tell him that he’ll teach them the language while we talk with George.

George says he considers himself an American first and a Hawaiian second, because, at age 64, he has always lived in the islands under American control. He spends his time recording and transcribing the old hula chants that he even used in his set tonight. He loves studying the history of his people.

All through our trip we have heard stories of the resentment of the Japanese invading the islands, this time with piles of cold cash. But as George explains, there isn’t much Hawaiian music left in Hawaii. All of the real Hawaiian music is now in Japan, and the Japanese are the true audience for real hula today. Most “hula” in Hawaii is done for tourists and bears no resemblance to the original chants and dances.

Later, as if to prove his point, the Japanese man at the table next to us plays along with a chant that George does while his partner, responding to George’s chant, does a hula that is stunning and incredibly sexy in her muumuu.

George smokes tiny cigarettes that fit his hand size perfectly. He says he doesn’t make a lot of money, but he is comfortable enough. He makes one or two trips a year, in three-week spans, playing music in Japan. During those excursions, he doubles his income for the 46 weeks he is in Hawaii, he says.

He says he paid off his Lincoln Continental with the money from his last trip to Japan, and I am left with the image of this tiny man, the keeper of Hawaiian tradition, pulling away from the hotel in a big-ass Lincoln.

George Lanakilakeikiahiali`i Na`ope died Oct. 26, 2009, of lung disease. He was 81.

November 6, 2009   No Comments

On the Trail of Everett Ruess – This Time on Twitter!

Everett Ruess's remains might have been identified, but he's still on Twitter.

Everett Ruess's remains might have been identified, but he's still on Twitter.

So I’m sitting at my computer yesterday and I get an email. It’s from Everett Ruess. He’s on Twitter, and he announces that he’s following me. So I checked his profile, determined he wasn’t a threat or a security risk, and now I’m following him.

Ruess, of course, is the wanderer who disappeared into the Utah badlands in 1934, became a Western environmental icon and whose remains were recently identified and now reside no more than a half mile from my house on the CU campus. Twitter is the popular mobile internet messaging service that allows you to say anything you want as long as it’s less than 140 characters. (Which, if you’re wondering, is exactly the length of that last sentence.)

Wonders never cease. We spend two vacations chasing Ruess around Utah’s hinterlands, and now I’m following him down here on my computer. So far he just quotes (pithily) from his own works, but I’m hoping he’ll start answering some of the many questions left by the discovery of his remains. I won’t hold my breath.

Perhaps this is part of a new social networking trend. Doing some research for “Roots and Branches,” the Americana radio show I host on KGNU, I found that Gene Autry has a MySpace page, where he lives on even though the Singing Cowboy died ten years ago. With the right social networks, you no longer have to die – you can live on in MySpace, Twitter and Facebook. Maybe someone will develop a special app for that.

If you don’t know about Ruess’s disappearance and discovery 75 years later, it is a compelling story. National Geographic Adventure takes far too much credit (one headline reads “After 75 years, National Geographic Adventure solves mystery of lost explorer), which is really stretching it, since the story belongs to a Navajo family who tried to tell people the real story to no avail.

But the magazine’s coverage is excellent, with a short video of the pre-excavation, a photo gallery documenting the site and cache and Dale Roberts’ story about the discovery.

For some journalistic balance, however, The Navajo Times puts the tale of the discovery into its proper context without the Geo hype.

And my own personal feelings about the discovery and its connection to one of my favorite Dave Alvin songs.

Gene Autry is still singing about cowboys and riding Champion on his MySpace page.

Gene Autry is still singing about cowboys and riding Champion on his MySpace page.

May 5, 2009   2 Comments

They Found Everett Ruess’s Body …

A CU scientist used forensic science and Photoshop to identify the remains of Everett Ruess, missing since 1934.

A CU scientist used forensic science and Photoshop to identify the remains of Everett Ruess, missing since 1934. (Photo by Dorothea Lange)

Amazing news today that CU scientist Dennis Van Gerven has identified the remains of Everett Ruess, the eccentric young vagabond who, with his two burros, disappeared in the Utah desert in 1934, leaving behind a short life, a few snapshots and a sheaf of letters and paintings that have inspired naturalists, environmentalists, wilderness lovers and one of my favorite songwriters.

I’m happy for Ruess’s family, which finally learns the answer to a mystery that must have vexed its members over the decades. And the discovery is an astonishing story that will no doubt show up as a future episode of CSI. The mystery was solved through a captivating combination of ancient oral Indian family history and modern-day forensics technology and Photoshop.

But I feel a twinge of sadness about the discovery, too.

I came across Dave Alvin’s song “Everett Ruess” while working at KCUV (remember Colorado’s Underground Voice?) in 2004 when Ashgrove, the album it first appeared on, was released. Ashgrove was, to these ears, a concept album, a group of songs loosely arranged around the concept of growing older and learning to accept that fate. The title track was an unabashed look back at the former Blasters’ guitarist/songwriter’s days at the storied Los Angeles folk club where, as an underage teenager, Alvin was schooled in the ways of the great blues and folk musicians who inspired him. “Nine-Volt Heart” is a nostalgic memory of an older man’s youth, and “Man in the Bed” a penetrating snapshot of an aging man in whose dreams he is a young man again.

But “Everett Ruess” sealed the deal for the concept. Alvin had obviously read Ruess’ letters, and his song, written in Ruess’s own voice, tells the young man’s story as he builds a case around a notion that nags us all as we age.

I was born Everett Ruess
I been dead for sixty years
I was just a young boy in my twenties
The day I disappeared.

Into the Grand Escalante Badlands
Near the Utah and Arizona line
And they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

Ruess was twenty when he disappeared after leaving Escalante, Utah, in late 1934. But Alvin notes that among the many mysteries about Ruess is that there was no particular rebellion involved in his journeys. He wasn’t leaving because he wanted to get away from his family but because he found something particularly fascinating and illuminating about the wilderness.

I grew up in California
And I loved my family and my home
But I ran away to the High Sierra
Where I could live free and alone.

And folks said “He’s just another wild kid
And he’ll grow out of it in time,”
But they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

Ruess traded prints with Ansel Adams, studied with Edward Weston, Maynard Dixon and Dorothea Lange and sent letters, drawings and poems of his travels to his friends and family beginning with his first Southwestern pilgrimage in June 1930. Though his 1934 journal wasn’t found, he never stopped writing. Were it not for those letters, nobody would have known or cared, and today’s newspaper headline would never been written.

I broke broncos with the cowboys
I sang healing songs with the Navajo
I did the snake dance with the Hopi
And I drew pictures everywhere I go.

Then I swapped all my drawings for provisions
To get what I needed to get by
And they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

Alvin speculates convincingly upon Ruess’ continuing detachment from civilization.

Well I hate your crowded cities
With your sad and hopeless mobs
And I hate your grand cathedrals
Where you try to trap God.

‘Cause I know God is here in the canyons
With the rattlesnakes and the pinon pines
And they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

Everett Ruess and his two burros prowled the desert Southwest in the early 1930's.

Everett Ruess and his two burros prowled the desert Southwest in the early 1930's.

Ruess left Escalante, New Mexico, on November 11, 1934, and was last seen by two sheepherders near the Kaiparowits Plateau several days later, who reported that he said he was heading for the Hole-in-the Rock area, a Mormon landmark where the Colorado River could be crossed.

Ruess’s burros were found in Davis Gulch, and the search for his remains was centered in that remote area of the Escalante. Most theories were that he was killed by cattle wranglers, fell to his death, took his own life in that same area or on Kaiparowits Plateau or disappeared and is living in Mexico. One major problem with any benign death theory is that his paintings, paint kit, journal, cook kit, food and money were never found.

This lends further credence to the Ute Indian murder story. His body was buried about thirty miles east of the area where the burros were found and the search for Ruess took place, so he must have crossed the Colorado and headed toward Monument Valley, which he had visited before. Without his burros, food or supplies, it would be difficult but not impossible to reach the Bluff area where his body was finally found.

Alvin weaves in several theories about Ruess’ death before putting everything into context in his last eight lines.

They say I was killed by a drifter
Or I froze to death in the snow
Maybe mauled by a wildcat
Or I’m livin’ down in Mexico.

But my end, it doesn’t really matter
All that counts is how you live your life
And they never found my body, boys
Or understood my mind.

You give your dreams away as you get older
Oh, but I never gave up mine
And they’ll never find my body, boys
Or understand my mind.

Billie and I visited Escalante, Utah, in 2005, where we first came into contact with the Ruess saga. There we bought Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty, the W.L. Rusho biography that included his writings. At times we felt we were following him around the wild areas in Escalante where he went missing, all the while staring in majesty and wonder at the same mind-boggling vistas that captured his imagination.

Reading Ruess’s words, and Alvin’s poetry, especially the lines “all that counts is how you live your life,” “you give your dreams away as you get older” and “they’ll never find my body, boys, or understand my mind” put a spin on his story that I still find deeply compelling. I really liked the idea of Ruess being lost, and staying lost. One part of me wished that he would remain unfound, a mystery – “they never find my body, boys.” Today’s news means that I will now only be able to take comfort in knowing that we will still never “understand his mind.”

April 30, 2009   2 Comments

Boom-Bust, Oil Towns and the Oldest Building in the World: A Drive From Boulder to Lander, Wyoming, and Back Part Two

Read Part One of our drive here.

The Top Hat Motel sign is a symbol for the fortunes of Jeffrey City, Wy.

The Top Hat Motel sign is a symbol for the fortunes of Jeffrey City, Wy.

The speed limit sign says slow to 50 as we pull into Jeffrey City, Wyoming, a forlorn and forbidding blot on the pavement in one of the state’s most beautiful settings.

The town’s origins stretch back to 1931, all of which I learned from reading John Egan’s excellent research paper “Home on the Range No More: Boom and Bust in Jeffrey City,” Beulah Peterson Walker and her husband, a poisoned WWI vet who had been given six months to live, moved from Nebraska to take over an abandoned homestead.

She called it Home on the Range, and her husband lived another twenty years in the arid Wyoming climate. When the highway was built in 1941, they added a gas station and a restaurant featuring Beulah’s home cooking. Two years later, when the Split Rock office closed, Beulah’s place became the Home on the Range post office.

After exploration showed that the area contained ore that could be processed as yellow cake, a uranium compound used to make nuclear fuel (Jan knows more about this than me), Beulah gave up the Home on the Range moniker, and Jeffrey City, named after Dr. Charles Jeffrey, a doctor and oil speculator who invested in the local mine, was created to service the mine’s workers.

As Egan points out, Jeffrey City’s heyday came and went quickly. Uranium producers offered a guaranteed price until the mid-nineteen sixties, and the business remained slow until 1975, by which time the mine was employing more than 800 people. Additional mines were opened, and Jeffrey City began its journey to community, with businesses, taverns and churches, even its own newspaper. A grade school was built in 1958, and a high school in 1978. A bond issue approved two million dollars for the construction of a modern gymnasium in 1980.

A row of boarded up barracks we called Desolation Row, Jeffrey City, Wyoming.

A row of boarded up barracks we called Desolation Row, Jeffrey City, Wyoming.

That was the same year the mine announced its first lay-offs. Though the wages were high, the mines were dangerous places to work, and the town’s weather and isolation brought increases in crime rates and problems with alcohol and drugs. After the Three-Mile Island accident in 1979, nuclear power went out of favor, and Jeffrey City’s decline was precipitous: More than 95 percent of the population was gone by the time Reagan was sworn in for his second term. The gymnasium, built in 1980, was rarely used and soon abandoned.

Workers angered by the firings trashed dormitories and duplexes. To add insult to injury, radioactivity was found in many city residences. Twenty five years later, only about a hundred hardy folks still reside in Jeffrey City, some with visions of a new uranium boom dancing in their heads, according to a story in High Country News a couple years ago.

The long-shuttered Top Hat Motel, its prefab buildings closed up, has always been emblematic of the town’s fortunes. The Split Rock Tavern and a small general store are open. But basically, Jeffrey City, a quarter century past its peak, is going back to nature as its buildings, including the long-vacant dormitories and duplexes, the K-12 school and multi-million dollar Reagan-era gymnasium, decompose and decay.

Driving around town is a gloomy, creepy experience. Empty storefronts and bare lots. Broken windows. Exposed, bulging walls, insulation flapping. Both of us say exactly the same caption out loud as I take a picture of derelict dormitories: “Desolation Row.” The waxing moon shines down on the whole pitiful scene.

The hardly used gymnasium, built as the town hit bust, crumbles at the edge of Jeffrey City, Wy.

The hardly used gymnasium, built as the town hit bust, crumbles at the edge of Jeffrey City, Wy.

At the west edge of town we can see what looks like a semi-modern school building. To get to it, we drive along streets whose pavement has cracked and is now almost invisible, clogged with grass and weeds. Empty lots with water, gas and electric hook-ups beckon to the wind. The school building we saw is the aforementioned gymnasium, its tile roof still shiny red, with windows boarded up and sand swirling in the driveway in front.

It is dark by the time we hit Sweetwater Junction rest stop. For the first time in memory, the American flag there isn’t blowing fiercely in the wind. Must be the hour. Across the highway is the museum dedicated to the Mormon handcart experiment, a twisted Brigham Young plan to get his flock westward by pulling their own carts. It’s dark as we drop down in the Popo Agie valley that shelters Lander.

We were up early this morning. The ranch is located just below Sink’s Canyon State Park, a lush tropical riparian zone with native shrubs and trees and habitat for lots of critters, including black bears. It is also now a state park named for the place where the Popo Agie drops into a dark hole in the rocks (The Sinks) and surfaces a quarter-mile farther down the canyon (The Rise of the Sinks) It is well worth the visit.

The ranch is certainly in a beautiful location, and it takes us little more than an hour to transfer five Harley motorcycle engines from the back of a semi-truck crawling with mouse droppings onto Jan’s pick-up. We scrubbed up pretty good at the nearby foaling barn before heading back out.

Several miles east of Lander, 287 intersects Wyoming 28, which crosses the Continental Divide at South Pass and ends at Rock Springs about one hundred miles south of here. After finally reading about South Pass after our last trip up here, I want to finally see the only place that allowed wagons to cross the Divide and hundreds of thousands of emigrants to move west of the Rocky Mountains. Jan drove up here many years ago and wants to retrace his path.

Red Canyon is easily visible in this image from Google Maps.

Red Canyon is easily visible in this image from Google Maps.

Not far out of town we drive along a long, reddish escarpment. Stopping at the top of the rise to look back and take some pictures, we are absolutely blown away by the Red Canyon. I had seen this on Google Earth; the Quickbird satellite image shows it as a blood red blemish. From here the canyon is beautiful beyond description: miles of reddish, uplifted Jurassic nugget sandstone cliffs with sprinkles of red like spilled paint.

According to the BLM, Red Canyon was formed sixty million years ago during the uplift of the nearby Wind River range. Today’s highway is cut above the red cliffs. Jan drove this road in 1969, and he remembers looking UP at the cliffs. After we get home, I check Google Earth, and sure enough, there is a Red Canyon Road, unpaved but very visible because of the red dirt, that skirts below the cliffs, probably the route he took on his Harley almost forty years ago. It shows up as a winding red line in one of my photos.

Red Canyon is one of the most spectacular ridges in Wyoming, a state full of spectacular vistas.

Red Canyon is one of the most spectacular ridges in Wyoming, a state full of spectacular vistas.

The first oil well in Wyoming was drilled near here, and the area has produced more than ten million barrels of oil since 1884. It is significant wildlife habitat, and the Nature Conservancy owns and operates Red Canyon Ranch in the middle of the canyon, along the Little Popo Agie River, to help keep it that way.

South Pass is an important enough place in American history. Native Americans, of course, knew of the gentle, wide pass over the Continental Divide that allowed wagons, and early trappers found it, too, but it wasn’t until 1832 that a caravan of twenty wagons crossed. Hundreds of thousands of people followed.

“Most emigrants have a very erroneous idea of South Pass, and their inquiries about it are amusing enough,” wrote emigrant Lorenzo Sawyer: “They suppose it to be a narrow defile in the Rocky Mountains walled by perpendicular rocks hundreds of feet high. The fact is the pass is a valley some 20 miles wide.”

You almost expect Sugarfoot or Maverick to walk onto the streets of historic South Pass City.

You almost expect Sugarfoot or Maverick to walk onto the streets of historic South Pass City.

After passing a mine west of the road and a huge field of rows of rock walls across from it, we find the turn-off for South Pass City and pull in to get a view of South Pass itself, its broad expanse illuminated in the sun. The old Carissa mine, now being restored, is just above the village, which is nestled in a stream valley cut below the South Pass plateau.

We stop in the parking lot, and while Jan adjusts some of the load in back, I walk over to the historic town site. South Pass City began as a stage and telegraph station on the Oregon Trail in the 1850s and moved to its present location after gold was discovered in 1866. Population swelled to about two thousand before settling at about one hundred after the boom ended. The sign says the population today is “about seven.”

During the summer months, the old historic town is open to tourists, but today everything is closed down, and the empty streets look like a movie lot where Sugarfoot or Maverick might walk out any time. The buildings have been nicely restored, and except for wooden walkways and other safety features, the town looks much the same as it does in old photos.

We drive up out of town along an incline that is filled with snow, past the cemetery and out onto a flat plain, which as it turns out, is South Pass itself. After a couple of miles, both of us think that perhaps we are not going toward Atlantic City, another old mining village that Jan remembers. We spot another truck and flag it down to ask where we’re going. A guy in his late thirties, dressed like his teenage son in camouflage greens and browns, says we’re aren’t going to Atlantic City, so we turn around and follow him until he heads off on a side path. I’m guessing they were looking for antelope.

A few miles skirting the domed hills around the river valley, and we are in Atlantic City, a larger town with wooden shacks, homes and buildings spread out across a hill. There are two places to eat, and after finding smokers in the one Jan remembers, we settle on a sandwich shop next door. The waitress is friendly, the burgers, fries and coffee plentiful.

I manage to ask the Homer Simpson question: Why is the town named Atlantic City? Had I noticed that the village on the other side of South Pass City was called Pacific Springs, I wouldn’t have had to ask, but after mentioning that she got that one a lot, she said it is because the town is located on the Atlantic side of the Divide. Doh!

Noticing a laptop on the counter, I inquire about internet reception. “It’s dial-up,” she answers, frowning. “I tell my friends, ‘don’t send pictures’ because it takes forever to download.” However, she added, the state last year got a grant to bring wireless to remote areas, and they hope to be hooked up in a few months.

We’re back on 287 before two p.m., and we have decided to take another route back to Laramie through Medicine Bow and Como Bluffs. We turn left at the Muddy Gap onto Wyoming 220 and follow the Oregon Trail for some forty miles along the Sweetwater River to Wyoming 487, which takes us through Medicine Bow and into Laramie.

I love the architecture of the Virginian Hotel in Medicine Bow.

I love the architecture of the Virginian Hotel in Medicine Bow.

We pass a couple more Oregon Trail landmarks on 220, Devil’s Gate, a place where the Sweetwater River passes through the rocks, and Independence Rock, where some people are skittering around along its dome. (Next time we’ll stop a both.) The shadows deepen across the rock formations as we turn on 487 to cross the rugged Shirley Basin. On the long, quiet drop into Medicine Bow, the outlines of the giant wind towers that stretch across the Hanna Basin can be seen, lifeless in the gathering twilight.

The Fossil Cabin is made of dinosaur bones near Como Bluffs. (Photo by Jan Otto)

The Fossil Cabin is made of dinosaur bones near Como Bluffs. (Photo by Jan Otto)

Just as I am about to explain that trains are always running through Medicine Bow as we pull into the parking lot of the Virginian Hotel, a long freight train is rumbling through in the twilight, another one behind it in the distance. Nine miles east of Medicine Bow, we are at Como Bluffs and the beginning of this story. Hope it was a good one — Jan even got a picture of the Fossil Cabin.

November 13, 2008   2 Comments

Boom-Bust, Oil Towns and the Oldest Building in the World: A Drive From Boulder to Lander, Wyoming, and Back Part One

Saturday, November 8, 2008
Como Bluffs, Wyoming
5:18 p.m.

The light is dying as we reach Como Bluffs. I jump out of the truck to get a photo of the oldest building in the world, but even in big sky Wyoming, my lens won’t gather enough light to capture much beyond a dark structure silhouetted against the last twilight.

Oh well. We weren’t in any particular hurry to get home, but making Como Bluffs before daylight ended was the last goal of the drive. The Como Bluffs ridge, its outline vaguely visible to the north, is the site of major dinosaur discoveries and international intrigue that dates back to the nineteenth century. Some of the world’s finest dinosaur specimens come from this Dinosaur Graveyard. The ridge is also home to diamondback rattlesnakes, who like to nestle amidst the bones.

The first transcontinental railroad rumbled by here on the way from Laramie to Rawlins, and the first transcontinental highway followed, passing Como Bluffs and Medicine Bow, about eight miles west of here. The Fossil Cabin I’m trying to photograph, constructed in 1933 by Thomas Boylan, is made of bone fragments from the nearby site, hence the designation “oldest building in the world.” It is about the size of the body of the huge Diplodocus skeleton found on the ridge that now hangs in the New York Museum of Natural History. (The Fossil Cabin, an adjacent two-bedroom house with barn, outbuildings and corral, all on the National Register of Historic Places, can be yours for $275,000 or any reasonable offer.)

Wyoming is filled with strange landscapes like this one along the Sweetwater Uplift looking west from Split Rock on U.S. 287.

Wyoming is filled with strange landscapes like this one along the Sweetwater Uplift looking west from Split Rock on U.S. 287.

Had we come one week earlier, before the clocks fell back, the timing would have been perfect. But no daylight savings this week and no photographs.

It is a minor disappointment in a two-day excursion whose origins date back a couple of weeks ago when I offered to accompany my friend Jan Otto to Lander, Wyoming, where he was going to pick up some motorcycle parts from his sons’ ranch. He took me up on my proposal, and we had a great time passing through some long, lonely stretches of Wyoming. Jan has made the trip to Lander many times, and it is part of our regular route to Yellowstone. But there is always something new to learn on these roads.

Billie and I love traveling more than just about anything, and learning more about places we visit or drive through has become a major part of the experience. When I was younger, it was enough to just have a visual image that correlated to the place on the map. Today I yearn for context and some familiarity with places I pass through. Jan shares the same inclination, and since we’re in no big hurry, we manage a leisurely drive that allows me to take lots of pictures of all the places along the route that have interested us over the years.

We left yesterday about 10:30 a.m. Veterans of the slog through the northern Front Range metroplex from Longmont through Ft. Collins, we skirt the west sides of Berthoud, Loveland and Ft. Collins, patient in the knowledge that the real drive doesn’t start until we hook up with 287 again at the north end of Ft. Collins.

It’s noon by the time we get to that point, and we are soon heading up canyon, past Livermore and the Red Feather Lakes, where a diamond company wants to do exploratory drilling, an idea that strikes me as not good for anybody except perhaps the company doing the drilling. It is one of the most scenic areas along the route, and to me, a large diamond mine would destroy the wonder, along with the road system, water, animal life, residential area and habitat above the Cache la Poudre River. Local residents oppose it, and you should, too.

We stop in Laramie at the Chuckwagon, and Jan fulfills his craving for a donut while I grab a grilled-cheese sandwich and some coffee before we hit I-80 for the ninety-mile drive to Rawlins. We do get some wind, which you can never escape, and a couple of squalls produce brief snow flurries on the windshield, but it is the benign version of The Eighty that greets us today. The Elk Mountain anticline has its own weather system, and the Hanna basin looks as dry, weather-beaten and lonely as ever. It is really windy as we pull into Sinclair, where Jan fills up the truck. A couple of gulls and a raven are trading chances to ride the wind and hover motionless over the parking lot for short periods of time while I take some shots of the refinery.

Mountain Lions are sculpted into the fountain in the Parco Historic District, Sinclair, Wy.

Mountain Lions are sculpted into the fountain in the Parco Historic District, Sinclair, Wy.


Sinclair was founded in 1923 as Parco, an acronym for Producers’ and Refiners’ Company, after the refinery was built. Parco was the definition of a company town; PARCO owned the stores, town buildings and homes. In 1927 the refinery exploded, killing 16 people, still the worst loss of life in a Wyoming fire. PARCO soon went belly up and was sold along with the town in 1934 to the Consolidated Oil Company and renamed Sinclair eight years later when Consolidated became Sinclair Oil Company. The refinery is the largest in the state, and according to an RCRA Facility Fact Sheet can convert up to 85,000 barrels of crude each day into fuels and asphalt.

It wasn’t until 1967 that people were allowed to buy their own homes in Sinclair. Most of the town was listed, in 1987, on the National Register of Historic Places. There are a total of ninety-three buildings, including an ornate hotel and forty-nine buildings and homes considered contributing.

The town was designed by the Denver architectural firm, Fisher and Fisher. What is unique and wonderful is the Spanish Colonial stucco style and tile roofs of many of the buildings – ubiquitous in the Southwest but not easy to find around here. The contrast between the refinery’s monolithic, metal structures and the plaza’s refined architecture couldn’t be more striking.

The twin towers of the once stylish Parco Inn are the dominant elements of the elegant plaza and park. I have seen websites that say the Parco is being restored, but it still looks in pretty bad shape, and nothing seems to have changed from the last few times we have stopped by.

A Sinclair Pipeline Co. website says that its 24/7 computerized control center, which monitors flow and pressure of the extensive pipeline system, is located here, too. “Our pipelines carry crude oil and refined petroleum products. Federal government statistics show that pipelines have a safety record unequaled by any other mode of transportation,” the company boasts. “We need your help to keep it that way.”
That last sentence is no exaggeration. What the website doesn’t mention is that in the early 1990s, the Wyoming Department of Environment found extensive contamination in the ground below the town because of – what else? — the refining activity. “Hydrocarbon and metals contamination from refinery operations has been identified in the soils and groundwater in and around the refinery.  This includes contamination identified in groundwater beneath the Town of Sinclair located adjacent to and west of the refinery.  Twenty-five areas have been identified where past or present wastes were/are managed, and there are an additional 18 areas identified where there is concern environmental impacts may be present.”

So the company has been complying with a clean-up operation since then – up to a point. I could find violations dating through at least 2007. Both the government and the company agree that the site can’t be officially detoxified until the plant is closed down. And since the United States hasn’t built a new refinery in thirty years, that is not likely to happen until every speck of oil is sucked from beneath Wyoming and the surrounding states. Too bad for Sinclair residents.
Today, for some reason, the fountain in the circle in front of the Parco Inn catches my eye. Mostly that is because multiple images of mountain lions are carved into the stone. I had not noticed this before, and though I can find references to the fountain on the web, there is no explanation of who did the work or why the mountain lions are there.

We stop in Rawlins for a latte at Deb B’s, the drive-in shack where Billie and I always pause. While we are waiting, I get a photo of a leaking oil tanker in the parking lot and the Hoot and Howl restaurant in the Quality Inn with the familiar Rawlins mountain backdrop across the street. Then it’s north on 287 to the Muddy Gap.

The sign always says "open," but Grandma's Cafe, in Lamont, Wy., never is.

The sign always says "open," but Grandma's Cafe, in Lamont, Wy., never is.

Wyoming 287/30 here runs along a eastern flank of the Rawlins Uplift, a kind of failed mountain range that gets geologists all jiggly, before dropping down into the far eastern end of the Great Divide Basin and past the old oil town of Lamont, now just a café, a couple of shacks and outbuildings. We could be in a Twilight Zone episode, pulling into a parking lot where the sign in the window of Grandma’s Café says OPEN but it never is.

Lamont, along with Bairoil a few miles west, was an outpost for the Lost Soldier-Wertz Oil Fields. Discovered in 1916, Lost Soldier has been a particularly large and steady producer of both oil and natural gas ever since. Lamont is in the eastern part of the field. According to the Wyoming Places Wiki, the district was named after two soldiers looking for whiskey who were caught in a snowstorm and never returned. The search area became known as Lost Soldier District, a name that stuck after oil was discovered.

The light of the late afternoon sun catches the mysterious Ferris Mountains east of Lamont, Wy.

The light of the late afternoon sun catches the mysterious Ferris Mountains east of Lamont, Wy.

The late afternoon sun comes out from behind the clouds and illuminates the flatirons along the Ferris mountain range behind the café; the uplifted rocks look like huge discs stuck in the side of the mountains by Pecos Bill.

The Muddy Gap turn-off picks up the Oregon Trail along the Sweetwater Uplift, a flat stretch that wagon travelers in the 19th century found particularly hospitable, with food, water and hay for the animals and perhaps a bit of shelter from the fickle Wyoming wind and weather. Just past the turn-off is Split Rock, at more than 7,000 feet an important Oregon Trail landmark. The landmark could be seen a full day’s wagon journey from the east, and for two days behind as they continued westward.

The Oregon Trail wasn’t just one trail. There were many routes west, but nearly all of them converged on this stretch. The Sweetwater Valley led across the Great Divide Basin to South Pass, the gentlest grade over the Continental Divide into present-day Utah. The Sweetwater was opened to homesteading after the Ft. Bridger Treaty of 1868, and though most small ranchers couldn’t make it, some large ranches still drove herds sixty miles to market in Rawlins into the 1930s.

The Pony Express used this route. “Split Rock Relay Station was a crude log structure with a pole corral and was located on the south side of the Sweetwater River,” says a Pony Express website. “Pony Express lore tells that William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody exchanged horses at Split Rock Station on a record ride from Red Buttes Station to Rocky Ridge Station and back. Due to another rider’s untimely death, Cody was forced to do an extra leg to his normal relay and eventually covered a total distance of 322 miles in 21 hours and 40 minutes, using 21 horses in the process.”

Split Rock can be seen all the way to Jeffrey City, twelve miles away.

Split Rock can be seen all the way to Jeffrey City, twelve miles away.


Whatever. As the road heads west past Split Rock, the formation looks like a gun sight for a giant musket aimed right along the highway for twelve miles into Jeffrey City.

Next, Jeffrey City, Lander, South Pass and Medicine Bow.

November 12, 2008   2 Comments

Driving Through the Clouds Into Yellowstone

Sunday October 8, 2006
Pine Edge Cabins
Silver Gate, Montana

We left Thermopolis this morning. On our way to Cody, we saw the Squaw Teats formation for the first time, though just barely, at exactly the spot where our Roadside Geology of Wyoming said it would be. When I typed Squaw Teats into Google, the first entry linked to a 2000 story on stateline.org that says that “more than 1,000 different geographical features had Squaw in them” in the United States. Some states, Maine is mentioned in the story, are working to change all those names. Apparently, this Wyoming rock formation has escaped the wrath of politically correct Native Americans. It’s a wonder somebody hasn’t complained about Teats, too.

Looking at the map, there is serious wilderness on our left. That is the Wind River Range out there, and it contains many of the highest peaks in the state. No major roads for sixty to eighty miles in any direction and hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness, it is an important buffer for wildlife coming in and out of Yellowstone from the east and south.

If the state has its way in a protracted struggle with the federal government wolf delisting plan, it would also be a place where a Wyoming citizen could kill wolves, for any reason, a position contrary to the wishes of the federal government, environmentalists or anybody with a lick of sense in their heads. This wilderness is the wolves’ best protection, and Wyoming wants to turn it into a shooting gallery. Assholes would line up twenty deep to kill a wolf.

After we stopped for a couple of forgotten items and lattes in Cody, we head out Wyoming 120 and then Wyoming 72 for Red Lodge, where we pick up Beartooth Pass. After stopping for the sublime banana-cream pie at the Hungry Bear restaurant in Bearcreek, Montana, we head up the steep drive out of Bearcreek valley, above the lovely-in-the-fall town of Red Lodge and onto U.S. Highway 212.

The 70-mile-long Beartooth, opened in 1934, was called “America’s most beautiful highway” by Charles Kuralt, but it still doesn’t bring a wave of tourists into the northeast entrance to Yellowstone. It crosses from Montana into Wyoming and back again during this part of its route.

There are two passes that lead into the northeast entrance, and we try to use both. This year we are going in over Beartooth and back on Chief Joseph Scenic Highway. Beartooth was closed last year after mud and debris slammed down and damaged the switchbacks in a couple of places. Beartooth is only open about five months max anyway, and it usually closes sometime in October.

The valley west of Red Lodge, heavily reminiscent of German alpine terrain, was socked in a heavy fogbank, which continued more than 4,000 feet through the narrow switchbacks, hairpin and U-curves that lead to the mesa at the top. We pulled out at one spot at about 6,000 feet and were blessed with a view of what we had just driven through, now looking like an overdose of whipped cream lapping at the entire valley.

At this turn-out, I finally solved a personal mystery. We stopped at this same spot on our first trip over this pass in the nineteen eighties, and I remembered the Precambrian rock across the valley looked like the crumbling remnants of ancient civilizations. When we came across two years ago, I couldn’t find this place. And though I couldn’t see ancient Jerusalem this time, I realized that it was the same rocks. The shadows of the early morning sun had given me that moment almost two decades ago.

As we climbed to treeline, snow was blowing across the road and sticking, and the swirling clouds limited our exposure to the twenty peaks of the Beartooth Range that are above 12,000 feet. You never think that you’ll ever reach the top after what seems like hundreds of switchbacks. It was a stirring passage, and the Aerostar performed admirably all the way up to 11,000 feet and back down.

Riding across the mesa at the top, I always like looking back down into the Bighorn Basin from whence we came this morning, but it was far too socked in for those kinds of views, which gave us time to concentrate on the wonders along the side of the road itself — rows of cliffs, scattered rocks and fissures and frigid lakes. The western slopes were blissfully free of snow, and we were in Silver Gate by three. By 4:30, with Anne Whitbeck, our friend and longtime wolf guide onboard with her walkie-talkie, the Aerostar was heading into the park.

Anne caught us up on the latest news about wolves, bears and the Wolf Watchers who keep track of them. The road across Dunraven Pass is closing tonight, and there has been activity up there, both wolves and bears.

And she informs us that Beartooth Pass also closes tonight.

No wonder it was so weird up there at the top of the world this afternoon. We were among the last few to get over before it was closed.

Anne’s unerring senses are on once again, and we spend half an hour with four black bears in the high forest along the newly paved road.

First was a mother and cubs who walked along about fifteen or twenty feet from the road on a shelf about ten feet below us. They were foraging in the snow, mostly oblivious to the 20 people taking snapshots, pointing and shooting – when will these show up on YouTube?

They are in search of pine cones, and the mother gives two lessons: 1) how bears find food and 2) why they tell you not to climb a tree to get away from a black bear. Mom suddenly bolts up this conifer, and in less than a minute she is near the top, about 35 feet, after no real effort whatsoever. When she gets to the top, she begins to break off limbs with pine cones and dropping them for the young ones. (Her move appears to signal that she isn’t concerned about our proximity to the cubs, although I’ll bet she could come back down just as quickly and easily.

About a minute later, one of the cubs climbs an adjacent tree, just like a pro. Black bears learn to climb trees to avoid danger at a young age, and there are good reasons for that. I have seen a black bear treed by a grizzly over in Slough Creek, so if you’re a black bear, it’s a good skill.

But the cubbie, once it gets to the top, doesn’t seem to know what to do and is just swinging back and forth up there in the wind. Soon enough, both of them climb back down just as easily as they ascended, and soon the trio have disappeared down into the shadows of the forest. About a mile farther, we get a pretty good look at a cinnamon black bear beneath Mt. Washburn. It seems to indicate a desire to cross the road at one point but scampers back up in the trees high above the road as the voyeurs gather. Good bear.

It was our first time over the pass on the new road, which was completed again this year, and we stopped at a new pull-off with signage about the activity here – the major eruptions that have taken place here and the magma changes below Lake Yellowstone going on today.

One of the reasons we climbed Mt. Washburn two years ago was to stand at the northern end of that last eruption, and this place offers another good angle on the gap created more than 250,000 years ago. As the sun went down, the snow-capped mountains to the south turned first a fiery orange, gray and, finally, metallic blue.

October 8, 2007   No Comments