Mrs P plans our road-trips with meticulous care, doing massive amounts of research via the internet, the local library service and our own collection of travel books. Of course, having visited this part of the USA often we are quite familiar with bits of it, so she is constantly seeking to achieve a balance between the temptation to re-visit favourite haunts and the opportunity to explore hitherto undiscovered gems. She thought she’d got it nailed a few months ago when she booked our hotels, but the other day she stumbled across the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad (C&TS)
We rather enjoy heritage railways, and have ridden a number over the years in the USA, UK and Tasmania. This one sounds right up our alley. The C&TS website does a great sales job when it says:
‘Climb aboard our National Historic Landmark for a 64-mile day trip you’ll never forget. Our coal-fired steam engine carries you through steep mountain canyons, high desert, and lush meadows as you zig zag between the Colorado and New Mexico border. Open your eyes to spectacular and rare Western scenery which can only be viewed from our train’s unique route. Ride in the Victorian elegance of our deluxe parlor car [and enjoy] a delicious buffet lunch.’
There are a few tickets available, so we snap up a couple. The only problem is that this means re-arranging the last few days of our itinerary, cancelling some hotels and finding alternative accommodation. We think we’ve found somewhere to stay, and book a room for two nights. But Mrs P smells a rat, or, more accurately, some skunk.
Colorado has legalised marijuana, and our accommodation promises to help guests source a local supply. Like Bill and Ben (the Flowerpot Men) I have no problem in principle with a little weed in the right place, but anywhere near me is most assuredly the wrong place. We cancel, and look again for something more mainstream, and book into the Indiana Jones B&B. I can’t begin to imagine what adventures we’ll have there, but whatever they are at least I should be able to remember them in the morning.
In praise of serendipity
The C&TS sounds fascinating, and is a welcome addition to our itinerary. But some things just can’t be planned, and one of the biggest joys of our trips is the serendipity factor. This is particularly true of wildlife watching, a case in point being Yellowstone in 2013 when we were walking in a wooded area and were confronted by two coyotes trotting down the path towards us.
The coyotes seemed totally un-fazed by our presence, and brazenly drank from a puddle just yards away. It was a wonderful experience, but two American hikers who also stopped in their tracks when they spotted the coyotes weren’t so sure. They seemed convinced that they were on the lunch menu, and panic set it. Running away was out of the question (the coyotes might chase them), nor could they bring themselves to approach further (the coyotes might attack them). Instead they remained rooted to the spot, no doubt praying silently. Eventually one of the hikers had a brain wave, and started to wave her walking pole in the general direction of the animals, causing the little bells that were attached to it to jingle gently. The coyotes glanced briefly in the hikers’ direction, correctly assessed that they posed no threat, and carried on lapping at the puddle. The whole encounter lasted just a couple of minutes, at which point the coyotes trotted off to get on with their lives. Meanwhile the hikers looked shaken, and took themselves off somewhere for a lie down. Prats!
Over the years we’ve come across people who take a very relaxed attitude to the logistics of a road-trip in the USA. They’ve probably got a hotel booked for the day of their arrival in the USA, and a vague idea of the direction in which they’ll be travelling, but otherwise they are free agents. They go where the fancy takes them, following their gut instincts as they drive off into the sunset, picking up accommodation along they way. Truly, these road-trippers are born to be wild.
It will come as no surprise to learn that Mr and Mrs P are cut from a different cloth. We don’t ‘do’ wild.
Central to our holiday planning is The Dossier. This is a weighty A4 spiral-bound volume that includes everything we need for our trip – details of where we will go and what we hope to see every day, as well as where we will stay every night. Nothing is left to chance, ensuring that every hour of our holiday will be used productively.
After many months spent scouring the internet, endless fine-tuning and a few curved balls like adding the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railwayto our itinerary Mrs P recently emerged from the study, flushed but triumphant, waving aloft the completed Dossier. I can therefore report that, as things stand, starting at Denver we’ll drive an anti-clockwise route of around 4,500 miles across seven states in 23 days. Our longest day will be a monstrous 462 miles, longer than we would have wished but necessary if we’re to fit in our trip on the railway. We’ll spend about week in Yellowstone itself, and will also take in parts of the Oregon Trail, the Grand Tetons National Park, Glacier National Park, Antelope Island and much more besides. We’ll be surrounded by spectacular scenery and, hopefully, tripping over magnificent wildlife every day.
Although the Dossier is our bible for the holiday, we will inevitably go off piste from time to time. On the one hand, some side trips that look great on the internet just don’t work on the ground, while on the other we will doubtless uncover new leads during the course of our travels and follow them up to find unexpected gems. And sometimes, of course, you find the road blocked and have to think on your feet, adjusting your plans accordingly:
It’s well known that the visitor to Yellowstone National Park faces many potential hazards, including being eaten by a bear, gored by a bison, suffocated by the sulphurous fumes leaking from the bowels of the Earth, or incinerated by the super-volcano upon which the whole Park sits.
Another thing to worry about, of course, is altitude sickness. The Yellowstone Plateau has an average elevation of 8,000 feet (2,400 m) above sea level; while its most famous landmark, Old Faithful, sits at 7,349 feet (2,240 m).
In preparation for our trip I’m currently reading an excellent book about the Oregon Trail, in which the author – Rinker Buck – and his brother retrace the trail in an authentic replica of the mule-drawn wagons that were used by the original pioneers. I’m currently on page 274, where Mr Rutter is describing his journey across Wyoming, just a little south of Yellowstone. He’s getting very anxious about altitude sickness, and writes:
‘Hypoxia, or the oxygen deprivation experienced at high altitude, causes weariness … sore joints [and] impaired judgment … Short-term memory also begins to fade.’
All of which leads me to wonder how the hell I’m going to know if I’ve got altitude sickness, given that all those symptoms have been part of my day-to-day life experience for several years. Oh, the joys of getting old …
We endure a lousy 10 hours flight from Heathrow to Denver, cramped in economy. The heat is stifling. My seat is defective and needs re-adjusting every ten minutes if I’m to avoid life in the horizontal. My earphones (which were free of course, so I wasn’t expecting miracles) are knackered, and so am I by the time we touch down at 5.45pm local time. We agree that if we are to continue to fly long haul we’ll need to upgrade; our bodies are no longer up to the indignities of economy class air travel.
We stagger from Denver’s futuristic airport terminal building across the forecourt to our hotel, and enjoy a bit of luxury at last. We know from bitter experience that the best antidote to jetlag is to force yourself to stay awake, even though your body is screaming at you to sleep, so we tune the television into our long-time favourite programme. The Weather Channel (TWC) does what it says on the tin, being totally devoted to all things weather, 24/7 … always excepting, of course, the commercials which interrupt proceedings every ten minutes or so.
TWC is in fine fettle tonight. Tropical storm Gordon is about to make landfall around Biloxi, Mississippi, and there’s a faint whiff of impending disaster in the air. The studio presenter is banging on about flash floods and storm surges, power outages and random tornados. He’s putting on a grave face – it’s serious you know, property may be damaged, people could die – but you can tell that beneath his inscrutable veneer he’s loving this. He lives for days like this, is blown away by the sheer drama of it all.
The camera cuts to an outside broadcast. Somewhere around Biloxi rain is falling at a rate of two inches an hour, so they make some poor bastard do a piece to camera as the maelstrom rages around him. Decked out from head to toe in gleaming blue rain gear, he struggles to stand upright as the wind buffets him and rivers of rain threaten to wash him away. An occasional flash of lightning followed by a deep rumble of thunder adds a gothic twist, and encourages him to embark on more prognostications of doom. This is BIG WEATHER, and he can’t get enough of it.
In weather, as in so many things, America doesn’t do things by halves. American weather is big, bold, brash, totally in your face. Our first visit here was an organised coach trip in the early 1990s. Early on we went to Mount Rushmore, and although it was September the temperature was in the mid-nineties Fahrenheit. The party was totally unprepared for this, and pretty much cleared the local pharmacy out of sun cream.
The next morning one of our number announced pompously that it was going to snow. We all looked at him like the sun had addled his brain, but he stuck to his story and explained that he’d heard all about it on television where it was big news. We humoured him without believing a word of what he’d told us, but as we drove west the sky darkened and the temperature plummeted. Soon it was snowing, and before long word came through that the road we were proposing to take into Yellowstone was blocked by snowdrifts. Our itinerary was hastily re-arranged, and we eventually entered the National Park a day late and by a different route.
And there you have it. The temperature had dropped by over sixty degrees in just 24 hours and a couple of hundred miles. This was not the sort of namby-pamby weather event that dominates the airwaves in the UK, a quarter on an inch of rain here, a smidgen of mist there, a slight chill in a brisk wind. In Yellowstone that time, as in the Biloxi area today, real weather was on the menu and the media were having a ball.
That’s the thing you see: weather’s Big in America.
5 September 2018, Denver (Colorado) to Douglas (Wyoming): 316 miles
On the road again
We wake up at 2.45am, so there’s plainly some way to go before we’re over the jet lag. Taking breakfast as early as the hotel allows, by 8.30am we’re doing battle with Budget Car Rentals. They are determined that we need to hire a vehicle as big and sturdy as a World War 2 tank, even though we’ve made it quite clear that something the size of a Toyota Corolla will suit us just fine. It’s bloody annoying and emotionally exhausting, but by 9.30 we’re on our way, heading north through the suburbs of Denver on Interstate 25.
The I-25 is more like a UK dual carriageway than a motorway, and the traffic thins out quickly as we leave the outskirts of Denver. We’ve a long journey ahead of us, so Mrs P locates a classic rock station on the radio, I slip the car into cruise control, and we sit back and watch the miles fly by. Proceedings are enlivened briefly by the sight – against all reason and probability – of two camels chewing the cud in a field by the roadside, but for the most part the interstate is uneventful.
Shortly after crossing the border from Colorado to Wyoming we turn off the I-25 on to a road that is altogether less grand. We’re deep into cattle country now, though bizarrely we pass by the odd field of sunflowers that briefly bring some colour into our lives. There’s nobody about, and in 30 miles we see just a single vehicle. It’s a salutary reminder that ‘the West’ is huge, and mostly empty.
The legacy of the pioneers: Fort Laramie
The history of the America’s westward expansion is indelibly written in this part of Wyoming, and the legacy of the nineteenth century pioneers can be seen everywhere. Our first stop of the day is Fort Laramie National Historic Site, which for much of the nineteenth century served as a trading post and military garrison that both served and protected the pioneers. It was a major investment by the guys back East, but necessary if you were going to put your mark on this land and wrest control of it from the Native Americans. Although many of the fort’s original buildings have disappeared, some remain and have been furnished to give a good idea of what life must have been like for the men stationed there. Most impressive – and most sobering too – are the cavalry barracks, built to accommodate the extra troops that were brought in during the 1870s to put an end to the Native Americans’ occupation of their traditional hunting grounds.
The pioneers travelled from East to West in covered wagons drawn by mules or oxen, enduring terrible hardships along the way. Tens of thousands of pioneers travelled the Oregon Trail in the mid-nineteenth century in search of a better life; thousands more died on the way. Fort Laramie was an important staging post on the route west. In his excellent book on the Oregon Trail, Rinker Buck paints a vivid picture of the frenetic activity at the Fort:
“The wagon trains arrived at Fort Laramie trading post in eastern Wyoming to find the usual frenzy of discarding and wagon abandonment as the emigrants lightened their loads or converted to pack trains. Outside the fort, some of the wagons were even burned, and they were surrounded by a wasteland of the emigrants’ castoff possessions. While parents foraged through another family’s ditched goods for what they might use, the children were put to work breaking up the boards of scuttled wagons for cooking fuel. Once more the trail reinforced a natural American bent towards waste, followed by avid recycling. Wagons that six weeks ago had been purchased for top prices along the Missouri, making a considerable dent in a family’s savings, were now warming another family’s bacon and antelope steaks.”
The legacy of the pioneers: Ruts, and the writing on the wall
So many wagons made the journey west along the Oregon Trail that in places their wheels wore down the ground over the which they travelled, leaving ruts that are still visible today. We are pleased to see this at the Guernsey Ruts National Historic Site, where the wagon wheels cut a narrow channel several feet deep in the soft sandstone.
One of the things Buck’s book taught me was that ‘the Oregon Trail’ is a bit of a misnomer. It suggests that absolutely everyone followed exactly the same path. The reality was far more complex. Where the landscape allowed it, multiple trails spread across the plains, albeit all heading in roughly the same direction, a spaghetti of tracks making their way towards the setting sun. Elsewhere, such as the spot we visit at Guernsey, the topography forces everyone to follow the same path and carve out ruts.
And then there’s the matter of cut-offs. While the first pioneers followed one another slavishly, it wasn’t long before some bright spark came up with a shortcut, a cut-off that lopped a few miles off the journey, or avoided a particularly tricky piece of terrain. This is illustrated at Guernsey. Rinker Buck describes the sequence of events as follows:
“At Guernsey the “main ruts” proceeded due west along the south bank of the Platte toward Casper. In the 1850s, however, an Oregon Trail cutoff was blazed through the Black Hills. This northern detour for Casper was called The Child’s Route, after a gold seeker from Wisconsin, Andrew Child, who followed the northern banks and published a map of his eighty-mile route in a guidebook in 1852. The Child’s Route was busy with wagon traffic after 1853, and was one of many instances of nineteenth century cutoffs that, once blazed, proved as popular as the main ruts.”
God only knows how deep the Guernsey ruts would be if many of the wagons hadn’t chosen to travel via the Child’s Route cutoff instead. Wyoming’s very own Grand Canyon, maybe?
Just a couple of miles from the Guernsey Ruts we visit Register Cliff, a sandstone outcrop on which the many hundreds of pioneers carved their names. Although there is – inevitably – a vast amount of modern graffiti too, it isn’t difficult for us to pick out names that had been chiselled into the rock more than a century ago.
A bad end to the day
We’re due to spend the night in the town of Douglas, Wyoming. Douglas is famed in the USA as the place where the jackalope hoax was born. The jackalope is supposedly a jackrabbit with the horns of a pronghorn antelope. The first jackalope was created by a Douglas Herrick, a local hunter and taxidermist, by grafting antelope antlers on to a jackrabbit carcass and selling the combination to a hotel in the town. Far from being embarrassed to be associated with the hoax, Douglas has embraced the jackalope, and apparently styles itself the Jackalope Capital of the World, though I can’t help thinking there aren’t many other contenders.
Other than the jackalope, Douglas appears to have little to recommend it. I suppose it may have some redeeming features, but if it does it keeps them well hidden. The town’s website proudly proclaims “City of Douglas Wyoming. Home of the Jackalope. We know Jack.” Sums the place up perfectly, I reckon.
It’s a sad state of affairs when a burger joint apparently offers the town’s best prospect of a decent – or at least edible – evening meal. On closer inspection however we may have got this wrong. What is put in front of us defies description: even ‘death-in-a-bun’ doesn’t do justice to its sheer, unremitting awfulness. To add insult to injury, the hot drinks machine is completely knackered so we can’t even wash away the grease with a mocha.
We don’t fare much better at our accommodation, where almost none of the lights in our room work and the woman on reception is in no hurry to fix them. It appears to be a hotel frequented by workmen on their way to, or from, somewhere more exciting than Douglas (plenty of choice there, of course), and everywhere there are rules posted telling them – and us – what we mustn’t do in this wonderful palace of hospitality.
Oh, and did I mention that when we brought our luggage in from the car we saw that one of our suitcases is broken? Thankfully Mrs P always takes gaffer tape on holiday (doesn’t everyone?), just in case of an emergency like this, so we manage to make a temporary repair. This minor triumph cannot, however, disguise the fact that the day hasn’t ended well. Indeed, on a day when the sighting of a pair of camels rates as one of the high points, it should come as no surprise that we’ve got the hump.