When I crossed the Mississippi River at St. Louis, it felt like I’d officially re-entered the “East” and that I had also entered a magnetic force field pulling me closer and increasingly faster to my North Carolina home. For the first time, I could reliably predict when I’d be arriving home. Furthermore, El Guapo mysteriously started to limp. Though I couldn’t find and scars or trauma to his back paw beyond some swelling, he wouldn’t put any weight on it. So I didn’t consider any prolonged stops or extended exploration away from the car. It felt good that my pace was quickening toward home, but I still maintained my travel ethics by sticking to state highways rather than the interstate, and trying not to hurry too much.
I did still have a planned stop for this route home. I stopped for a night and morning in French Lick, Indiana to visit one of my favorite schools (and teachers) that I’ve worked with the last 5 years. They have already filled up their trip for March 2016, so there wasn’t much need for me to “promote” the trip, but I spoke with several classes about the trip and travel in general. As I looked into their small town faces and talked about visiting distant places, it often seemed I was talking over their heads. I thought of my Chelsea, OK upbringing and how there was little evidence that I would become a world traveler. I told them I didn’t come from a family with money or status, but that doors opened for me and they’ll have more doors of opportunity than I did when I was their age. I maintain that “curiosity” is the most valuable resource to grow up with. I also talked about my current road trip, and encouraged them to be curious about their own small town, and not to become too enamored with famous cities and famous names. Look for the local stories to tell.
Along with avoiding the interstates, I also largely avoided chain restaurants, but on my last day of travel, I made exceptions. During the summer, I’m a huge fan of “smushies” (My term to categorize a blended ice and fruit drink that could range from real fruit smoothies to synthetically flavored slushies). I am particularly a fan of Sonic’s 2-4pm happy hour fruit slushes, and thought I would make frequent stops during my road trip. But there’s not a lot of Sonics out west, or I never hit them at the right hour, yet I found one in Kentucky and indulged myself. Further down the road, I grabbed dinner at KFC in Corbin, KY. This was the location of the very first Kentucky Fried Chicken, so it was more of a “history” stop than a fast food stop. Even though it’s a global franchise now, its beginning is the story of an entrepreneurial individual who just tried to satisfy the roadside needs and tastes of long distance travelers. Way to go Colonel, nice to see your humble roots in Kentucky, though not so nice to see your branches in Colombia and Kosovo.
As I continued East for the final stretch, I passed in reverse direction a number of landmarks highlighting our nation’s Westward expansion. There was of course St. Louis’s Gateway Arch marking the entry into the Louisiana Purchase. Then later on the Wabash River at Vincennes, Indiana a memorial marked where the Americans captured a British fort during the Revolutionary War, and thus ensured that the Ohio valley up to the Great Lakes would be claimed and settled by the new USA. And when I finally started to reach the forested hills of the Appalachians, I stopped at Cumberland Gap Historic Site, which has some personal significance for me. It is almost certainly the route that my great-great-great grandfather Joseph Mosteller passed nearly 200 years ago when a branch of the Mosteller family left North Carolina for opportunities in the West, eventually settling in Indiana and beyond. In my genealogy research, I have the contents of a letter that was written at the onset of the Civil War from one of the “westward” Mostellers to the kinfolk back East. It says that he hadn’t heard from any of the eastern Mostellers in years. It gives a rundown of recent births and deaths. It says it would be good to see each other, but that he doubted he ever would make it back. It is likely the last attempt at communication between the family lines diverging with time and oncoming war. Joseph likely never did return to the East, and his offspring spread even further West, but I wonder when he reached the crest of Cumberland Gap, if he stopped to look back East and ponder that among his descendants years and years hence, there would be one, born in the remote West who would backtrack in his footsteps and return to home in North Carolina.
There was a time when I pronounced the state of Missouri as “Misery”. I lived in the state for 4 years total. The first three were very good years – my final three years of undergraduate studies at College of the Ozarks. I built upon that season of personal growth to go overseas and expand my horizons further, and upon coming back from the Peace Corps, I returned to live in the same area for another year and it was the worse year of my life. Amid intense reverse culture shock, I went through a failed romance and lousy jobs. So Missouri was by no means a new frontier for me, nudging me to come explore like the other states on my journey. I could have just as easily passed it by, but interesting enough, I found fascinating places to visit – not by reason of geography, but by way of different people in vastly different contexts I had cause to visit.
First off, an Asheville friend, Liat, was living in an agricultural commune called Sandhill Farm. It is near Rutledge, MO close to where I crossed into the state from Iowa. This intentional community was started in the 1970’s. While I’m not super close to Liat, she’s one of the most cheery and platonically affectionate people I know, so it was good to see her and exchange a nice long hug. It was also great to see how the small group of people do community working the gardens and orchards and producing sorghum and collectively sharing their income and resources. I was fascinated to see that nearby there were Mennonite farms, and how they are similar in their agricultural and consumer ethics, but how they are vastly different for religious convictions. I’m interested in exploring ways I might be involved in forms of intentional communities or co-housing in Asheville, and while I wouldn’t go to the extreme of Sandhill Farm, I admire those who go that route and enjoyed seeing a bit of their example.
From those remote farming communities, I continued South to the pleasant suburbs of Columbia, MO where my brother Sam lives with his wife and 3 kids. I didn’t plan my road trip around visiting family, but since they were close to my route, I definitely wanted to stop for a visit. We enjoyed a great dinner Sammy cooked on the grill, and I played the “Gimme 5” card game with the kids (it was actually a gift I had made for them over 15 years ago and had forgotten about). In the morning, I joined them for a little homeschool stroll around Pinnacles Park. It was great to get a break from the “lonesome” road and have some family interaction in a real house. El Guapo similarly enjoyed being in a house with his dog cousin Quincy to play with. It was a brief visit, but I’ll see them all again in a few months when we all get together in Kansas for Thanksgiving.
Then, as if to complete a triad of life experiences in Missouri – I followed up the farm commune and the suburban family with a stop in St. Louis to visit my college friend Steven who is an attorney working in downtown among the tall buildings. He took a break from work so we could catch up over lunch, which was a nice last minute bonus to my trip. Before heading out of the city, El Guapo and I walked over to near the famous Gateway Arch. It represents the gateway to western expansion, but we looked through it toward the East, the direction of home. Crossing the Mississippi River felt like milestone and made me feel that much closer to home. I had a few small stops in mind as I continued East, but overall my pace and my curiosity felt like they were going downhill – picking up speed and carrying me home. I’m glad I passed through Missouri and got samples of vastly different lifestyles – all admirable, and they were all unique from the lives I lived within its borders years before.
Among the places on my semi-planned itinerary, Iowa was one of the “must visit” states, not for any specific reason other than the simple truth that I had never been there. In fact, when I crossed the border, it was my 49th state to visit, lacking only Alaska, and thus completing all the “Lower 48 states.” But once I was inside having a diner breakfast at Main Street café in Council Bluffs and thus checked the state off my list, I was scratching my head about where to go. All of the other states, there were specific towns, cities, people, landmarks or landscapes I was intent on seeing, but I had no such intent in Iowa beyond crossing the border. But that absence of a plan was a welcome dilemma, and part of Iowa’s appeal. To just head in a general direction and see what came my way was refreshing.
Though flanked by our two major river arteries, the Missouri and the Mississippi, Iowa does not have a famous port city like all its neighboring states. None of its cities would be considered metropolises. In looking over my Rand McNally atlas, there were NO highways lined with green dots, indicating a scenic route. So I chose 2 lane highway 92 headed East and drove. Almost immediately I considered it a scenic route, as I passed through gently rolling hills of farmland. Unlike the huge industrial agricultural complex I saw in North Dakota that covered the earth like a giant checker board, the fields of Iowa were woven like a jigsaw puzzle. The towns I passed through all seemed pleasant, typically with a main square with the city hall surrounded by local business. It seemed to be a testimony to the liberty of rural America. Iowa is not known for big Industrial cities, like those decaying in the Rust Belt. Neither is it known for boom town profits based around mineral and resource extraction like out West. It’s an agricultural state on a smaller scale, and does not have the legacy aristocratic land owners and slavery like in the South. I think its reputation of being both rural and progressive at the same time is a big reason it is used as a litmus test in primary voting to gauge our national conscience. For all those reasons, I feel like Iowa is one of the best states just to drive aimlessly about from town to town.
Though I started out with no planned route, I did settle on a destination when I saw that Madison County was somewhat on my route East, and I thought it would be nice to go see its famous covered bridges. I’d read the romance novel years ago “Bridges of Madison County” and while I don’t recall if I loved the story itself that much, I do remember thinking it would be nice to go see those bridge one day. The bridges were nice, but I felt like I was taking part in a form of tourism reserved for sentimental old ladies. To balance things out, Winterset also happens to be the birthplace of the ultimate “man’s man” John Wayne.
I continued through to more Iowa towns: dinner in Osceola, overnight in the State Forest near Lucas, breakfast at the wonderful Continental Inn on the main square in Centerville. The town squares started to look the same, but in a pleasing way that assured me of their authenticity. I knew it wasn’t just a few tourist towns that had the “square” but that’s the way all the towns did it then – settled in the 1800’s and developed into the 1900’s. When they make the movie that idealizes rural America, it should be filmed on location in Iowa.
I sometimes wonder if those who grow up in mundane landscapes and non-progressive towns are disadvantaged or rather “advantaged” in life. I mean, does the lack of natural beauty and cultural affluence make one less imaginative, or on the contrary does it make one all the more imaginative out of a necessity of yearning for more? I would say the latter is true for me, and as I drove across the rippling sand hills of Nebraska, I had no desire at all to want to live there, but pondered what a winter birth in a featureless region deep in the middle of the country would subconsciously instill in a baby boy taking his first breaths and tastes of the world.
December 3, 1969 I entered the world in Ogallala, Nebraska. At the time, second child and son of Tim & Peggy Mosteller. We were only there for a bout a year before we moved on to other parts of the Midwest. Thus I have no memories of the place, but I hoped that while driving around somehow, something might click like an intangible smell, and seem familiar. But nothing did. I had to call my parents and rely on their memories to help me find our house (920 W. 6th) that I was brought home to from the hospital, and to locate the Church of God that Daddy had pastored (it has since been converted to apartments). While I have no personal memories of the place to attach sentiments to, it was still a sentimental experience to be there. I thought mostly of my parents, over a decade younger than I am now, living on $60 a week, trying to raise their first 2 kids out of 4, and trying to get established in ministry. Daddy’s career in the cloth eventually diminished after moving around to different churches, but he and Mama would become successes in the career of raising kids. I am ever grateful for their upbringing. Though it could be called under-privileged in terms of culture, finances, and possessions, it is immeasurably fortunate and wealthy in my mind.
I was a bit surprised to learn that Ogallala actually does have a bit of pride and culture of its own. It was the end of the line of the Texas Trail for cattle drivers connecting to the Union Pacific Railroad, and was thus an early boom town in the West back in the day, so it had a legitimate frontier, cowboy culture – as evidenced by Boot Hill, the pioneer burial ground overlooking the town. There are a few efforts at tourism to highlight this history, but I was more interested in my own personal history, so I dedicated some time to “shopping” at the downtown thrift store, buying some second hand “Ogallala” garments. I’ve done virtually no shopping on this trip other than buying food, but now I’ve got some birthplace garb to take back to Carolina. I look forward to wearing my “new” well-worn cowboy boots from Ogallala.
At sunset I continued East a ways to eat dinner in North Platte and sleep at a lakeside parking area. I spent the next day crossing through the state, stopping in some of the main towns and watching the transition from ranch lands to agricultural lands. I had breakfast at the “Farmer’s Daughter” diner in Grand Island, and let me tell you, this place is no joke. I officially name it best diner of my trip. Excellent food, generous portions, cheap prices, all locals, jovial wait staff, and a refreshing absence of hipsters and tourists (other than me).
I made it to Lincoln in the afternoon – a Saturday afternoon in fact, on a day when the University of Nebraska was hosting a home football game in the evening against… South Alabama. Okay, so it wasn’t a marquis match up, but in Lincoln that doesn’t diminish the devotion of the local fans. I was a huge Cornhusker fan growing up in Oklahoma – and each season I followed their roller coaster success in the Big 8 and eventual Big 12. As I got older, I lost some of that interest, and when Nebraska moved to join the Big 10 conference, to which I had no affiliation or allegiance, I nearly lost all interest together. Yet, I am still a fan – much like I am a fan of Star Wars. It’s not that I’m a sci-fi nerd or think the movies are great cinematic works, but it’s part of my youth that is worth celebrating and returning too with fascination and anticipation.
I thought I might try to buy a scalper’s ticket to go see the game in Memorial Stadium, but when I saw how close the stadium was to all the downtown and how many people were out tailgating and mingling to watch the game at all the nightlife venues outside of the stadium, I decided to do the same. I put on my Nebraska shirt (purchased at the Ogallala thrift store) and took El Guapo in with me to mingle among the fans. Every single one of them was wearing some type of Nebraska garment. It was more like a big festival, than a game. I found a place where a number of restaurants and bars shared a large open patio with a big screen. It was also dog friendly, so that’s where I went.
So far on this trip El Guapo has not been the attention getter and conversation starter I was expecting while traveling. Maybe because I’ve spent significant time in the National Parks where he has to stay in the car a lot, or because I have to be wary of him around families with kids, since they agitate him. That all seemed to change on this crowded patio of over-21 Nebraska fans. He was constantly being approached and petted and adored as if some plague had recently killed off the local dog population and they unleashed their longing affections on El Guapo. Some were students who missed their dogs back home. Others were just friendly drunks who were happy to see something that would receive their advances without question. I’m not sure if El Guapo liked all the attention, but he did enjoy sniffing out all the tid-bits of food and such that had been dropped on the ground. I was happy to have found such a big friendly party of fellow merry-makers who loved Nebraska and loved El Guapo. But then near the end of the game, I was startled when one woman looked at El Guapo and resolutely said, “That’s just wrong. He shouldn’t be here.” I thought she disliked dogs, but then she clarified claiming she was an animal activist, and that he looked distraught in this noisy crowded environment and I should promptly leave and take him home. Her point is somewhat valid, not just on this game night, but for this road trip overall, that El Gaupo does seem to be less of himself and less at peace without a consistent home context. But her condescending orders annoyed me. I told her that I was in the process of taking him home, which is North Carolina, and that I was going to stay and finish the game. She then quizzed me on when he had last eaten or if he had access to water (there was a water cup sitting right next to him) as if to reinforce to me that I was an irresponsible dog dad, but the other people around who had already become El Gaupo fans nudged her away from me, and continued to give him encouraging pats and strokes. In thinking of the incident, I concede that I often bring him along to settings that he might feel uneasy in, for the sake of my own companionship needs, but I did not adopt him 5 years ago to change my life to accommodate his dog needs. I invited him into my life to join me in the things I enjoy, and for that he is a lucky and happy dog on the whole. I am ever amazed at whatever it is in him that looks at me and says “wherever you’re going, please, please, I want to go too.”
After Nebraska’s victory, El Guapo and I headed back to the car parked by the Capitol building, having to find discrete places to relieve ourselves surrounded by the throngs of people leaving the game on the street. I grabbed a midnight burrito and headed out of town to find a private wayside near the Platte River to sleep. In the morning, I made a stop in Omaha just to see it. It looked like a healthy, manicured city. I particularly enjoyed the statues representing settlers and pioneer expansion, and that dogs were among the statues of people headed West. My Prius was beginning to feel like one of those horse drawn wagons, as it had taken a beating from the miles and forces of nature: dents and scrapes from the deer I hit, dust from the back roads I’ve taken, and a mysterious check engine light that I’m just going to ignore till I get home. My journey is East, so El Guapo and I loaded back up and crossed the wide Missouri into Iowa, leaving my proud birthplace, but happy to be one state closer to home.
South Dakota sent out a wildlife welcoming party as I crossed the state line as darkness set in. Deer were lining the highway, and though I was on alert, and though I tried to swerve when I saw the ones getting too close and even closer, I clipped one of them at a fairly high speed. I saw it lying in the road in my rearview mirror. I stopped and turned around and thought I should drag it off the road. But it got up, hobbled and collapsed anew. As I drove back toward it, it got up again and hobbled into the bushes out of my vision and to its unknown fate. I inspected my car and fortunately I avoided a head on, so the front and the headlights were fine, but the passenger side fender was dented, and the mirror completely ripped off. I collected the mirror and broken casing from the highway. Welcome to South Dakota.
With only some cosmetic denting, and a missing mirror, the car was still perfectly drivable and I had little choice but to keep going. I entered Sturgis, expecting to find a raucous town, but either it was late in the season or too late at night, but there weren’t many motorcycle gangs nor people for that matter. I went to The Knuckle Saloon and Brewery, and was pleased they had a large outdoor area that was dog friendly, though it was largely empty. Yet the size of the bar and patio, along with similarly grand arena bars in town gave hints that this town must be a huge party during the motorcycle rally.
After spending the night at a Black Hills National Forrest trail head, I drove at sunrise through Deadwood looking for a good breakfast diner. I was optimistic when I saw that many lights were on in the main street, but upon closer passage, I saw it was a string of small frontier themed casinos rather than local diners. I pressed on and was surprised to see that the National Forrest was actually quite commercial and residential – the surrounding hilltops and rock formations hinted at public lands in the interior but the roads passing through seemed to be spewed upon by kitschy tourism. I did eventually find a really great breakfast at Hill City Diner and filled up at the buffet and enjoyed the banter of eccentric ladies who worked there. Though it has a lot of tourists, it still felt very local.
When I finally reached Mount Rushmore, I expected to be liberated from the tackiness of private tourism interests, but learned that the “entrance fee” was actually a “parking fee” managed independent of the park service, and my Annual Pass I bought for all federal sites, would do me no good. In protest, I exited and parked at a nearby wayside and just walked in with El Guapo, and to find that dogs weren’t allowed beyond the parking lot. The view of Mt. Rushmore was already fairly impressive and I couldn’t imagine that getting closer would enhance it that much, unless you wanted to look up the presidential nostrils. So I just took my photos from the parking lot and very unceremoniously said to myself I’d seen it was ready to keep going.
I often find myself quizzing myself on random facts, just to keep myself entertained. Leaving Mt. Rushmore, I wondered why the sculptor Gutzum Borlgum put the Presidents in a non-chronological order, and that led to testing myself to see if I could name all the presidents in order (I am a US History tour guide by the way if you did not know it). I also needed to keep my mind active as I was feeling very droopy while driving. After many pauses, I counted all 44 of them out on my fingers, and I thought that at my next stop in Rapid City, I should look them up on my smart phone to see if I was right. Upon entering the city, I realized I wouldn’t need to consult the internet, as every corner in downtown was decorated with a statue of one the presidents. So I parked and enjoyed a stroll around town, and enjoyed identifying them one by one to see if I was right in my tally and my order. I was, although Rapid City seemed to be missing Chester A. Arthur 1881-1885. I liked how the statues were in casual rather than stately poses, and that even the obscure and awful ones were represented. Warren G. Harding 1921-1923 might have been our worst president of all, but even he looked likable with his dog and an open chair to sit in.
I drove a remote highway to the town of Scenic, which was not aptly named, and its gas pumps were not functioning, but it did provide a dirt road that eventually connected with the Rim Drive in the Badlands National Park. This National Park was a return to the non-commercial, undeveloped end of the spectrum of the NPS: a lot of open and un-used land. The day was overcast, but the true goodness of the Badlands revealed itself as a setting sun highlighted to eroded hills, ravines and peaks with shadows and golden light. It was really beautiful and helped give me a much better impression of South Dakota than I had received from the rest of the short time I’d spent there.
Before heading south in Nebraska, I fortunately was able to find gas at the little town of Interior, and as I drove to the outskirts of town to get a shot of the sunset, I happened upon the Wagon Wheel Saloon, and decided I’d just go ahead and eat there. There were a few tourists there, a few rancher locals, and a few Native Americans, and surprisingly a Colombian exchange worker behind the bar. I’ve seen a lot of international workers in and around the national parks, often from Eastern Europe, but this seemed like an odd place for this young girl to end up. When I saw that the opening game of the NFL season was on TV, I decided to order another drink and keep visiting with the locals and our foreign bartender. I suppose if I was to do a work exchange in another county, it wouldn’t be my choice to end up in a podunk village, but that could be a good thing as I’d become a part of things more fully than if I was in a cosmopolitan city with an expat community to tap into. Come to think of it, my Peace Corps assignment was about as an isolated small village as you can find on the planet. I wouldn’t do it again now, but I’m glad that’s how the cards were dealt to me then.
I crossed into Wyoming from Idaho on a Saturday night, hoping to get to Jackson in time to get a taste of the “night life”. When I pulled into the main square that’s adorned with arches made out of antlers, I immediately spotted (or rather was struck by) what looked to be the ideal place: Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, with its massive neon sign of a bronco riding cowboy. I paid the $5 cover and ordered some local drinks and a burger and found a bar stool (it actually was not a stool, but a saddle you sit on at the bar). There was a fun cover band playing country and rock classics. Some people were dancing. There were TV’s highlighting the games from College Football’s opening day. The place was packed. It was an interesting mix of folks: tourists, conference attenders and cowboys (at least people pretending to be cowboys. It was a lot of fun to observe, but not necessarily “fun” since I was there as a lone observer, not with one of the many clusters of partying friends. I did however have a conversation with a guy who was wearing a Highlands Brewery hat. I asked if he was from Asheville, and he said no, he was on a long road trip similar to me, and was glad to say Asheville was one of his favorite places he visited.
After spending the night on the banks of the Snake River, and getting breakfast in town, I entered Grand Teton NP. I had to leave El Guapo in the car while I ran a 6 mile circuit near Taggart and Bradley Lakes and another few miles near Jenny Lake. After a cold, but refreshing swim in Lake Jackson, the day was winding down and I felt ready to move on into Yellowstone. I loved the Tetons, and am considering a return trip to backpack deeper inside the range (the airport is actually inside the park boundary so it’d be fairly easy logistically). It’s also a great biking destination as there are flat greenways that run the length of Jackson and the NP.
While the Teton visit was fairly quick, I thought I might also pass through Yellowstone fairly quickly, but that was not the case. The two parks are like the Vatican: The Tetons is the Basilica: Outwardly grand and dominating the surround plain, but after taking it in after a few vantage points, you feel like you’ve seen it the structure and the views won’t change much as you walk around it. Yellowstone is more like the interior and the Vatican Museum, full of corridors of little and large wonders. You can’t take it in via a panorama. You have to drive, park, and walk thru innumerable stops and and information placards. Even the park service map did not list all the pullouts, stops and trails as they’re just too abundant to fit in. And that I arrived over Labor Day weekend additionally made it feel overcrowded with other gawkers.
I ended up spending two days in Yellowstone and even that felt rushed. I spent the first night and day at Old Faithful village and moved north toward Mammoth. I can’t even recall the names of all the geysers, colorful steaming, hissing pools and mud pits, waterfalls as I try to highlight them. I ended the day with a soak in Mammoth hot springs, and felt I still hadn’t seen much of the park. The next day I headed south and east, driving through fields of wildlife (Elk and Buffalo) and hitting the overlooks and trails around the Yellowstone Canyon and its two massive waterfalls. Even when I had decided I’d done as much as I could and was ready to move on, it still took a long drive (with more bonus stops) before I actually exited the park boundaries. Despite the fact that I was very impressed with Yellowstone, I felt touring fatigue setting in, and found myself saying “No more wonders!” and looked forward to getting on the road onto highways across the Great Plains where I did not feel as obligated to be stopping all the time.
I will also note that Yellowstone had a much more commercial vibe than the other national parks I’ve been too. It had several “villages” that were really like small towns – with lodging, restaurants, and stores. There were many touring buses, mostly made up of internationals, akin to what I’m used to seeing in my tour work in DC. It’s a testimony to how unique a place it is on the planet, and why it was our first National Park to be designated as such. While in my fantasy world, it would be nice to visit these wonders with no one else around, I’d say the Park Service has done a good job and I’m proud that they’ve made such accommodations and conveniences for visitors from all around the world, in a manner that protects the natural wonders. I even took advantage of those conveniences, enjoying some cooked meals at reasonable prices. I also appreciated that several of the restaurants stuck with “American” themes, set up as old diners serving traditional diner fare. Maybe those international tourists will enjoy their eggs, bacon, toast, pancakes and hashbrowns as much as I did.
When I finally left Yellowstone, I made a stop in Cody. It seemed like a nice town; similar to Jackson in that it’s a park Gateway town that plays up it’s cowboy, ”Buffalo Bill”, old west heritage for visiting tourists, but with all the real ranches I saw around it, there’s definitely an authentic frontier vibe too. I would have liked to have more time to visit the highly regarded Museum of the West. After eating a massive hamburger at the dog-friendly patio of the Silver Dollar Bar, I headed on and spent the night in a park in Powell.
I got up an hour before sunrise, and went into town to McDonald’s to get a frappe and get some work done on the free wi-fi. Part of the “vision” of my road trip was that I would avoid chain restaurants and eat local, and for the large part, I’ve fulfilled that vision, but there’s been times when it just made more sense to go with the more convenient option, particularly when I needed to get online and get some work done. Also, I feel like those of us in the “eat local” movement can be prone to snobbery and elitism. I noted this when I showed up at this McDonalds at 5:30am, and there were already two older local gentlemen there having coffee. In the course of the next hour, perhaps 20 more showed up, all seeming to know each other, clustering together around various tables talking about whatever was going on in the world. Like it or not, McDonald’s serves a need in that community. Sure, it’d be nice if it was Aunt LouAnn’s Diner downtown that was meeting that need, but its not, and we shouldn’t look down on these who meet that need at McDonald’s. In Asheville, we’re fortunate to have a number of cool local cafés that have that vision of community; although often times the people in them are tuned out to physical community and are tuned into their devices, much like I was in this McDonald’s off to the side on my computer. So hats of to the McDonald’s in Powell, WY and the gentlemen who show up at sunrise to start their day together.
After catching up on some work and emails, I continued east, thinking I was leaving the mountains, cold weather, and high elevation behind me, but the “scenic route” I’d chosen took me through Bighorn National Forest and up over 9,000 feet, and even gave me a little taste of one of the sights I’d been wanting to see: the aspen trees changing colors alongside evergreens in the mountains. I think it’ll be another few weeks before this happens throughout the Rockies, but this little sample was nice. I stopped in Sheridan, still in the morning to have my second breakfast of the day, at the Cowboy Café getting a great downhome breakfast, to complete my morning.
Pressing east, I mapped out a route that utilized some back roads, some of which were long gravel roads with frequent cattle guard crossings. I intentionally made a stop in the town of Recluse. A town with that name in our least populated US state certainly deserved a visit. The sign board at the all in one general store, which as closed, said: Population 7. Some locals eyed me as I got out of my car and took pictures. I imagined them saying, “Well, so much for getting away from it all. This town’s getting too crowded with all these out-of-towners; let’s go find some place even more reclusive from humanity.”
Further east, I stopped one of the world’s more unique natural wonders: Devil’s Tower, a huge protrusion of massive stone columns rising up to the sky like a giant tree stump. Most of my route through Wyoming was actually going the reverse route that my family did back in 1981, so this wasn’t my first time to see these parts of Wyoming. But I remember being particularly awed by Devil’s Tower as a kid, and it still struck me with awe as a grown-up. How does something like that happen naturally in the world? The info panels explained it was a mix of volcanic forces, erosion, and time, but the science of it did nothing to distill my sense of wonder at it again.
As the sun set, I crossed the border into South Dakota. Wyoming was a very fascinating place, and I’m glad I got to cross its expanse, with a backdrop of country music playing form the radio. From the northwest corner of the state with world famous National Parks and trendy frontier cities that tout the Old West image, I transitioned into rolling ranch lands where a scattered people made their living, not for show, but for a livelihood. I thought of William “Buffalo Bill” Cody and our infatuation with cowboys and Indians and the American West. How so few of us now, and even in Cody’s day, ever lived that life, and yet that image hangs like a favorite shirt in our national closet.
When I passed through the northern panhandle of Idaho a few weeks previous, it didn’t make that great of an impression. There was no “Welcome to Idaho” sign on the interstate, and while the towns and national forests I passed through were pleasant, they were not necessarily memorable. This time around, headed East, crossing into Idaho from Oregon, I at least got a welcome sign, and this Southern stretch of the state presented me with more miles, and more time to transverse it.
My first order of business was “business”. One of the schools I’ve worked with for several years both as travel planner and tour guide, is Cole Valley Christian School in Boise (suburb Meridian). Their 9th grade class travels to Colonial Virginia and Washington, DC every year and are one of the best schools I work with. Great students, staff, and parents. I went to their chapel service and I got a big cheer from all their upper classmen who went on the previous three trips with me. Then after chapel, I met with this year’s 9th grade who will be traveling next spring. I spoke with them about the DC trip, as well as my current road trip. I even brought El Gaupo in for them to meet. I thought that I should take after SNL’s Matt Foley and open my motivational speech with the words… “My name is Isaiah Mosteller, and I am a motivational tour guide, and I live in Prius down by the river!” It’s true most nights of this trip I’ve spent in my car parked by rivers or lakes, which I also bathe in, but since this was a “business” trip I used the company credit card to be a bit more professional for one night – I stayed at a dog-friendly Motel 6. It was great to see the students and staff on their home turf and I look forward to seeing them next spring.
Before leaving “the city”, I had a crack in my windshield repaired (flying rock on the highway) and was pleased to find the process fairly easy through my insurance. I also stopped briefly to see the state capitol and Boise State’s blue football field. Heading East on highway 21, the city promptly gave way to empty valleys and countryside with no cell reception. At sunset I made it to Stanley, and stopped for dinner at what seemed to be the only restaurant in town. I immediately got a good vibe from the place. Though the town has a low year round population and relies heavily on tourism, it felt more like a local place. The bearded server guy working that night was really laid back and friendly. He gave good tips on where I could soak in a natural hot spring that night, and find waysides to spend the night.
I slept well on a country road pull-off near Sunbeam, though it got cold. It started raining steadily on my rooftop in the middle of the night. When I woke up with first light, I thought the rain had stopped since I couldn’t hear it on my roof anymore, but I looked out to see that it had actually turned to snow and had left a muffling layer of slush on my car. It wasn’t below freezing, so the snow didn’t really accumulate much, but once I got a view of the higher elevation summits of the Sawtooth range, I could see they had a lovely white dusting on them that was not there the night before. Before getting into my day, I visited another hot spring “boat box” to get a nice hot soak from the cold night.
I got ahold of a basic hiking guide pamphlet, and decided that I would spend the afternoon hiking/running a loop trail that goes to Alice Lake and Towaway Lake, among other smaller lakes. Feeling confident from the 20 mile run that I did a few days previous at Lake Waldo in Oregon, I figured I could easily do this 12 mile, 1,500 foot climb route in 2.5 hours and I set off with El Guapo and no food or water apart from a packet of eight jelly beans. Once I got into the run, I realized I misunderstood the trail description. It was actually an 18 mile route with 3,000 feet climb. We still did the whole thing, despite my lack of prep, and weather that vacillated between rain and sun, and it took me 5.5 hours. I don’t regret the unexpected extra miles at all, nor that it took me a lot longer. It was an incredibly beautiful hike and I was constantly stopping to take pictures.
I can say confidently that Stanley and the Sawtooth Mountains were my favorite part of the road trip thus far. I appreciated this national forest area in that it felt lived in – local people and nature mixing, unlike the National Parks which preserve nature by removing human enterprise. There were ranches still in obvious use. Local people worked at the restaurant rather than in-sourced foreign students. The trails were dog friendly. Road side camping and parking was plentiful and cheap (or free), and there’s always hot water to get refreshed in. Stanley wasn’t on my radar coming into this trip, but I’m so glad that I went there.
When I finally got off the trail and back on the road, I headed to Ketchum and Sun Valley. As I entered town, I could tell immediately in the shop-fronts on the main streets, this town catered to a high end tourist. I drove a few blocks off the main streets, and happened upon Lefty’s Bar that had an outdoor patio with people and dogs who definitely looked local. I ate there and had a drink. Turns out Boise State’s opening game of the season was going on and most of the place was glued to the TV. I chatted with some local folks, including the guy who appeared to be the town’s drunken good-will ambassador, who told me his name was “Bunker Hill”. I tried to impress upon him that I also come from a really festive mountain town, but I lost all credibility in his eyes when I told him I didn’t know who Bob Weir was. He took both disgust and pity on me, and gave me good tips on where some hot springs and car-camping spots were outside of town. I also learned that the next day (Saturday) there was a big festival in town called “Wagon Days” with a pioneer theme and a parade of horses and wagons/carriages.
After sleeping in the national forest on the outskirts of town and soaking in another hot spring, I came back into Ketchum and took advantage of the community pancake breakfast. El Gupao and I walked around and then watch the Wagon Days parade. I don’t’ know if it was just for this holiday festival, but a lot of people were dressed in cowboy attire. This wasn’t however the garb of “country bumpkin folk.” These were the same people shop who at those high end shops. So while they had cowboy boots on their feet and Stetsons on their heads, it was yoga pants and North Face down jackets in between.
Once the parade ended, I headed out of town passing through less noteworthy towns. I did make a stop at Craters of the Moon National Monument, which is a massive lava field made of mounds, rock formations and craters. I don’t know if it was just the weather that day, or the high desert plain is always this way, but it was some of the strongest winds I’ve ever braved. It seemed to add to the desolate mood of the place. Some National Parks had to be preserved and protected from the interests of man in its natural resources, but this landscape seemed to be devoid of life, not by mandate but by the sheer inhospitably barrenness of the earth.
I continued East through Idaho Falls with barely a stop, trying to get to Jackson, Wyoming while there was still a bit of “Saturday Night” left to be enjoyed. An amazing sunset bade me farewell from Idaho. From the warm welcome at Cole Valley to the warm waters and friendliness of the people in Stanley and Ketchum, I really enjoyed Idaho and I felt like it represented more the “idea” of my road trip than how I’d spent my time in other states. A much better balance of people interaction and landscape exploration. In some ways, it may seem that Idaho got the shaft, since it has no famous National Park like all its neighbors do, but I get the impression that’s something they might be proud of, the way locals often like to hoard their favorite haunts from invasions of tourists. Idaho has an enormous amount of federal and state lands for the public to enjoy, but since they don’t have the renowned distinction of being National Parks, they’re a bit under the national radar, and thus had a charm that made me want to stick around for a spell, beyond taking the obligatory photo and moving on.
During my travels, I’ve compared a lot of things to Asheville; not so much as a standard I hold other cities and towns up to, but more as my own measure of how I’d like to spend my time. As I enter a city that I’m not familiar with, I might say to myself, what side of town would be like the South Slope (converted warehouse district) or what neighborhood might be like West Asheville? What nearby park or forest space might be like Bent Creek? As I entered the state of Oregon, my “Asheville” senses were on high alert.
I crossed the Columbia River directly into Portland on a Saturday morning and dedicated the day to experiencing its unique districts: breakfast and the “Tin Shed” on Alberta Street, relaxing in Mt. Tabor park, smoothie and food truck torta on Hawthorne Street, a pint at dog-friendly Lucky Lab Brewery, and finally going to a local Contra dance. An Ashevillian hanging out in Portland is like being a dedicated fan of “The Office” TV show, and then learning the show and the characters were originally created and popularized in Britain. You don’t feel quite as original. Ironically, the hipster fashion and the independent restaurants identify themselves as being different and unique, but they’re starting to all look the same. That said, with respect to both cities, Portland is a much larger and robust city, bringing both pros and cons; it’s more ethnically diverse, especially with Asian flavor; and they’ve also done a better job of creating space for food trucks, but differences aside, much of my day was spent day was spent spying streets, bars, eateries, and the people themselves that caused me to name their doppelganger equivalent in Asheville.
From Portland I drove down to Eugene and met up with an Asheville running friend, Scott Williams, and joined him for a 20 mile trail run around Waldo Lake. Though up in the high mountains, the trail itself remained a fairly easy gradient for running as it looped around the lake, and I was pleased I was able to do it in 3.5 hours on a rainy day.
When we finished the run and parted ways, I studied my map and saw I was relatively halfway between Crater Lake and Bend, two places I wanted to visit. And thus the order I chose to do them in would also dictate which direction I would progress in the overall trip: South or East. All along, my plan had been to proceed down the coast into northern CA, visit a few more schools I work with, and more national parks and more cities/towns, but I had also kept options open where I could play every day by ear. And so for the first time, I asked myself if I really wanted to extend my trip down into CA, and I initially answered that I did, but in my own answer I saw a pattern in myself that I was growing weary of. When I tour/explore a place that I’m unsure when I’ll return to it, I feel obliged to do and see as much as I can. For example, years ago when I went to the Louvre Museum on the discounted entry a few hours before closing time, I studied the floor plan map as I plunged in and made sure that I walked through every gallery, rubber necking the walls as I walked by without stopping so I could say to myself that I “saw” everything, regardless of whether or not I stopped to appreciate it. In the middle of Oregon, I felt like I was treating the West Coast like the Louvre – more like a FOMO obligation (Fear Of Missing Out) than to just enjoy it. I wasn’t pleased with myself that the pace I was keeping didn’t allow me to just relax in the places I went. I hadn’t been reading the books I brought; I had barely used the hammock and lounge chair I brought; I hadn’t had many lengthy conversations with local people beyond ordering food. So I made a decision: while I wanted to “see” CA and NV (parts of which I’d been to before) I had “museum fatigue” and to go that route would only increase that sense of fatigue AND lengthen my trip. I felt a sense of relief when I told myself, I could skip it. Thus somewhat unceremoniously, I realized I was charting a course eastward; I had already hit the Pacific, my trip was geographically over halfway complete, and I was headed toward home. That felt good.
Having made the decision, I drove some back roads to Crater Lake NP and arrived while it was blanketed in a mix of mist and residual smoke, and a strong wind at an elevation over 7,000 feet introduced me to the first really cold weather of my trip. While I picked out a discreet wayside where I could park and sleep, I spent a few hours just hanging out in the warm and seemingly luxuriant lounge of the NP lodge. A warm bowl of chowder, some drinks, and sitting down to complete a communal puzzle at one of the tables seemed to affirm my change of pace. A nearly full moon welcomed me back to my “parking” site, and El Guapo and I snuggled in the car to stay warm in the night.
I awoke to sunrise over Crater Lake and to clear skies. I went on a short jog up to one of the crater’s highpoint overlooks, and then began to circumnavigate the lake as the sun rose higher and warmer, revealing the famously blue waters in their rightful glory. This deepest lake in America is supplied completely by snow melt through the centuries, rather than rivers that wash in sediment; hence its extremely clear water and diffusion of blue rays. I stopped for short jaunts at nearly all of the overlooks and even hiked down to the one place you can access the waters and went for a refreshingly cold swim, the day having turned hot by mid-afternoon. I highly recommend this National Park for anyone who hasn’t seen it.
I continued on to Bend in the early evening where my first order of business was to eat a proper meal, since I had basically been “snacking” my way through the last few days. After walking around a bit, I ended up at the very dog-friendly 10 Barrel brewery, and as it got dark, the guy at the barstool next to me told me I could easily find a place to park and sleep by taking the same road we were on to the outskirts of town a few miles. I did so, and found that Bend basically borders National Forests to the west. I parked and slept by a trail head. I was awoken at sunrise to find that I was at Bend’s equivalent of Bent Creek, as my car became surrounded by ambitious locals meeting up for early morning mountain biking or trail runs. I felt like I should get up and get on my way down the road, but then thought “wait a minute; I’m not an interloper; this is what I do; this is my community.” So I put on my running shoes, studied the map at the sign board, and El Guapo and I went for a 6 mile run.
The run was interrupted by a phone call with a “technology emergency” with work. I finished up the run and went to a river side park where I could turn my phone into a Wi-Fi hot-spot and spent a few hours getting on top of some work communications. I still had a nice chunk of the day to enjoy Bend. I had lunch at Deschutes Brewery. I had pieced together some things I heard with a bit of Internet research and learned that Deschutes is the same “undisclosed company” that is in talks with Asheville to potentially purchase a large track of French Broad River frontage property just a mile from my house. A decision hasn’t been made yet, but I think it would a good thing for our neighborhood, much like the New Belgium’s East Coast expansion in the River Arts district has been a catalyst for much needed greenway and recreation enhancements. I hope it comes to fruition.
I spent the remainder of the afternoon by the Old Mill district and inflated my SUP so I could paddle out on the Deschutes River at, against and with the current. I certainly wasn’t the only one out there. There were lots of tubers and paddlers, and while the sight of El Guapo on the edge of my SUP usually elicits entertained stares elsewhere, it was more common place in Bend, as I saw a number of other dogs on SUP’s. The dog park there even has an enclosed section with river frontage so they can go swim and play fetching toys from the water. I was in Bend for the total of a day, but I felt like I enjoyed it like a local – a trail run, doing some work in modern mobile fashion, eating and drinking local, enjoying park and river resources. All with El Guapo by my side. I didn’t feel like a tourist and I felt like I was taking my time.
I was told Bend was a lot like Asheville, and I would certainly agree – mostly because of the size of the city is about the same, they’re surrounded by great natural resources for recreation, and local initiative and entrepreneurship is evident everywhere. But these sister cities have their differences too. While Asheville has better architecture and a more abundant music, dance and art culture, Bend is stronger on the health and fitness side, and seems to have the affluence you’d expect of a popular ski town. I liked it a lot, but also had a bit of the sense I got some years ago during a visit to Boulder, the quintessential progressive outdoor city. They’re cities that share the same ethics and values as the Asheville I love, and they’re doing a “better” job of it than Asheville, but they’re also full of people who appear to have the money to live out those progressive values. Whereas Asheville has a lot more people who DON’T have the money to live out those same values, and yet they’re doing it anyway. There’s a do-it-yourself frugality and an un-manicured struggle living itself out in Asheville that I admire, and while I think it’s a good thing that I’ve seen the populace of Asheville take on a more professional and moneyed flavor in the 9 years I’ve lived there, myself and many others often lament the transition. We look forward to the enhanced recreational and cultural infrastructure, but don’t want to lose our warehouses and shanties of weirdness.
I bade farewell to Bend, and headed toward an appointment I had set up in Idaho. Spent the night on the crest of a little used highway in the Painted Hills of central Oregon. Slept solid. I hiked through the Blue Basin and drove through through towns whose frontier style clapboard store fronts made me feel like I was time traveling. This was a frontier, as evidenced by the many murals in Vale, the last town I stopped in. They commemorated the Oregon Trail and America’s expansion to the West. I was on that trail now myself, only going the opposite direction: East, toward home.