by Pat Branyan
It seems odd sitting here at home in Comanche in the wallowed out cushion of my couch looking across the room at Dahna on her own couch. It’s odd because we’re actually halfway through our big RV trip out west but, obviously, we’re not traveling. It doesn’t exactly feel like we’re “home” either…sort of a limbo state of being.
For those of you too bored to keep up with our exciting new strategy of long-distance travel, we left our camper in storage in Missoula at the end of the spring portion of the big western loop to be followed in August by the return-home Fall portion. We hightailed it back to Texas, sans trailer, in the interim in order to save Patty’s sanity and begin hacking back the jungle that spread over the place thanks to the incredible wet spring. You no doubt remember the rain regardless of where you live.
An El Niño-inspired, tightly-packed succession of Pacific lows marched ashore spritzing us good as we traveled up the Sierras. They really unloaded when they spun over the Rockies into the thick Gulf moisture awaiting in the Plains thanks to the Atlantic’s southeasterly trades. East meets West. Record flooding again and again because we now live on a different planet than we think we do. I’d guess that when it comes to east vs. west, oceans are more alike than continents. Right now, I’m thinking about how a westerner like me might consider how the two land halves of America, split vertically, feel different when traveling through them.
Simple things such as old sayings like “Back East” and “Out West” seem a good place to start. I don’t know if I should capitalize the E and W, but I think of them now as specific places rather than mere directions, so I’m giving them proper names. I’m really not sure whether or not to capitalize a lot of stuff, and that goes for where to put a lot of my commas too. I distinctly remember the thin little copy of Strunk and White I had in high school, but I don’t remember reading it.
Dahna and I seldom went east except when driving through the Deep South to visit relatives. And, we bought our ketch over in Ft. Lauderdale 20 years ago. But, I don’t include those states south of the Mason-Dixon Line when I think of Back East. Although my family came out of the Deep South, I think of it now mostly in association with Joseph Conrad. Nope, the two halves of the region east of the Mississippi have always been segregated, so to speak, north and south as they lie, still eyeing each other with suspicion.
Last fall as we headed northeast on the long ride up to Nova Scotia, the notion of Back East dawned on me when we got to Dayton to visit our friends, the Curtoys. They kindly took us on a tour of the town, and as part of that we found ourselves in an accurate replica of the Wright Brothers’ shop. It was easy to imagine, almost hear, the productive whirr of man and machine in motion there, part steampunk, part Apollo 11.
Maybe I didn’t read S & W’s Elements of Style, but I did read about Carnegie, Ford, Rockefeller and Morgan. They were real jerks alright, but they unleashed a lot of productivity and ingenuity with a huge, if unwanted, assist in courage from FDR, Guthrie, and Parks. Millions of others joined in with hammers, grain drills and slide rules in the Great American Hubbub. Back East, mostly. That part of the country was like a big noisy house with lots of busy people charging from room to room waving their blueprints at each other, raising their voices in a broad blend of accents.
I guess for a few of them it was too noisy, too crowded, just too much altogether so, when the wagons rolled by or the circus hit town they’d join up, hop aboard and go…Out West. Out to the land.
The desert southwest is home to me and Dahna, and we once lived high up on the western slope of the Rockies. Now we’re down low on its southeastern U.S. edge in central Texas. What hadn’t occurred to me until this trip was how near the desert seems to be everywhere you go in the west, even its northern reaches. Everywhere we went, from the Davis Mountains in south Texas to California to Montana, there it always was, the rocks, the big sky and, all around, the sagebrush. There is no doubt that if there’s a heaven, it smells exactly like the desert air after a shower wets the sagebrush on a sizzling summer day. Well, maybe bacon sizzling—it’s hard to choose.
Sagebrush and Antelope Bitterbrush in the foothill of Crystal Peak on the California-Nevada border near Verdi, NV
Antelope Bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) in bloom
So, if the east is a place steeped in history soaking into every picturesque town, hill and stream, I guess the west is an exhalation of relief, in a way, and a kind of private awe when breathing in the stupendous natural beauty. I suppose this is about right in the most general of senses, at least for us recent immigrants. But, if you look at the names of most of these places, it’s easy to remember that our veneer of understanding of this land pales before those who came so long before us. And yes, that is a pun.
Fully cognizant that we’re all wildly different in our tastes and so happy knowing there’s no accounting for it, I’d have to say California is the most beautiful state and it has a climate to match. I see why we stole it from Mexico. I’m pretty sure most Californians feel no guilt over this since we also swiped Texas thus relieving the Mexicans of a terrible burden. But, and this is true, every Californian we talked to spoke of their love for the state but also expressed real dismay at the cost of living. And, they wondered how long they could continue living there.
Stellar’s Jay – Verdi, Nevada
Dahna and I are big on progress and California is nothing if not progressive. But, we’re old enough to remember the general prosperity of FDR’s New Deal when progress, and lots of it, didn’t price everybody out—quite the opposite. So, there’s a disconnect there, one I really don’t understand about California even speaking as an expert American, latter day. Can it be that ping-ponging endlessly between beautiful beaches and beautiful mountains across beautiful fruited valleys in perfect weather not only inspires lofty avant-gardian thoughts but also overcrowding, clinical neurosis and housing bubble economics no pin can pop? SNL used to have a recurring bit about it, but I’ve known from boot camp in San Diego long ago that I could’ve happily lived there forever.
I have to admit that even as an expert American, I had no idea how lovely northern Nevada is. I always thought of the entire state as a giant sandbox sparsely littered with grubby casinos and hucksters and girls lookin’ good in neon and not much else. America’s perfect metaphor, even more apropos at the moment. Well, we’ve all been there, and I hate to confess to it, but there comes a time when you have to say, “…done that.”
Before we reached Nevada we toured Yosemite, and during our five days there, I had a teeny-tiny accident. I missed the turn into the parking lot of the Mexican restaurant in Groveland by a few feet on its little Main Street. There wasn’t much traffic, so I backed up fast to turn around and tapped a wooden post supporting the porch roof of another business lining the street. The red lens of the taillight broke in a little tinkle, and after I parked we went back, picked up the pieces, kicked the base of the post about an inch back into plumb and then walked to the restaurant. We had a great meal and lots of fun playing peek-a-boo and making faces with a little Muslim girl sitting in her highchair. Back at the park we also met the Milhouses which proves that if you move around a little you’re bound to bump into history and have a good time doing it.
A few days later we camped near Reno and Dahna called the Chevy house to find out how much it would cost to fix the truck. About $500.00! Grrr. She hung up and mused out loud, “I wonder what our deductible is?” I couldn’t remember either, so I said, “Call and find out.” She got a woman from USAA on the phone and soon found herself answering questions about my little mishap. Finally, she told the lady that she didn’t want to file a claim, just find out what our deductible was. It was $500.00 so, naturally, we shrugged it off and Dahna went straight to YouTube, the DIYer’s paradise of how to.
A few minutes later she said, “Heck yeah. We can do this ourselves. There’s only two screws holding the whole assembly in.” Being the man of the house, I told her to call the Parts Dept. and see if they had one in stock. The guy told me they did in fact have one and he’d hold it if we got there pretty quick, which we did. We changed the thing out in 10 minutes flat in his parking lot at a total cost of $227 plus change. That did include a military discount puffed up a little because the parts guy really liked Marines. You’re probably asking yourself why I’m telling you all this. It’s because I want you to benefit from our experience.
Spotted Towhee – Verdi, Nevada
A few days later we got an email from USAA stating that they were processing our claim. I won’t bother you with all the details of my call to their agent, but let’s just say it was, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “…nasty, brutish and short.”
His position was that we reported an accident and it was their policy, therefore, to file a claim automatically. He said that since I was a good driver and fixed the truck at my own expense with no cost to USAA my rates might not go up, but he couldn’t guarantee it. According to the neighbors, I said, “I remember a time in this goldarned country when an American had the prerogative to file his own dang claim. I didn’t report an accident and I didn’t file a frickin’ claim.” There’s more but even the euphemisms are unprintable. BTW, don’t get the wrong idea about my “once upon a time in America” rant. I haven’t gone all MAGA out there on the endless crumbling highway.
The point is, it’s like having a gun. Don’t point it at somebody unless you intend to shoot them. Likewise, don’t call your insurance company unless you intend to file a claim. If you have to call them for any other reason, you ask the questions. Never answer one of theirs. Just hang up on the bastards. Memorize your deductible amount. You won’t always have easy access to your policy if you’re normal.
The parts guy raved about Lake Tahoe, and we knew it was a big deal since Chevy named a big SUV after it. We drove almost around the whole thing but didn’t see much of it because of the ritzy condos and lodges blocking the view. There were a number of turnouts, but they were choked with Japanese vehicles (we like Outbacks). It is a beautiful deep lake in a fine alpine setting. But, it’s not a lake you can just go to like our Lake Proctor up the road from the house. Tahoe is a destination it’s best to prepare for in advance. Come as you are but bring money.
Cinnamon Teal – Lake Washoe State Park, Nevada
We had to detour to Carson City three fourths of the way around Tahoe due to a road closure and it worked out great. North of town is Lake Washoe, fully accessible and a wildlife refuge lousy with birds but not people. Where we were on the shore there were no restrictions, and we let Sacha run wild which worked out fine since she dislikes water and never chases wildlife except rodents like squirrels, gophers and prairie dogs. She imitates prairie dogs by sitting upright on her haunches and waves her front paws in the air to tease out a belly rub. Our quirky girl does lots of other things that cause onlookers to say, “Never saw a dog do that…hmmm.” She’s perfect for us.
When planning this trip I worried about how to get gracefully from Reno to Yellowstone. I was worried because I had a misconception of northern Nevada. I pictured it as the vast aforementioned sandbox of bleached skulls and maybe a fly-specked diner out of “The Petrified Forest” with Duke Manatee and his boys lurking about. I wondered if you could still get a water bag to hang off the hood to cool the radiator like in the 50s.
We had to stop somewhere, and I picked out a miserable looking spot in the tiny town of Wells. Dahna checked it out and immediately stamped “VETO” all over it. She found another little RV park outside of town and made reservations for three nights. When the time came to leave Reno and Lake Tahoe and head that way it was with no little trepidation that I fired up the big Silverado. Wrong again.
It was one of my favorite drives of all time. The desert was a lush silver green from the frequent spring rains and there were mountains on both sides all along the way, beautiful out in the distance and harmless as a pillbug to even the laziest driver. It was easy to lean back and spread my elbows way out on the armrests and sail the clean sagebrush air. When we finally slow rolled into Welcome Station RV park I was pleasantly surprised once again. It was a gem of an oasis out in the desert. Way out there. Not expecting that.
Yellow Warbler – Welcome Station RV Park, Wells, NV
The place was small but expertly managed and maintained. Again the heavy spring rains had done their work and it was so green it almost hurt your eyes. The grass could have stood in for a Pebble Beach fairway, and on each side ran a clear babbling brook straight out of Disney with all the right gurgles. Birds for Dahna too. Lots of them. Nancy, the owner, filled me in why Sacha didn’t like water. “It’s in their genes,” she said, “A husky knows if it falls through the ice it’ll die.” Got it.
Pat & Sacha Out for a Walk near Welcome Station RV Park, Nevada
Spotted Sandpiper – Welcome Station RV Park, Wells, Nevada
Everybody had a great time there with only one little dark cloud at the laundromat in Wells. That’s where Dahna, you know her, met the World’s Most Irritating Woman. The poor woman was very lucky that day, and so was I not having to spend the rest of my life on the lam. But, soon it was time to leave the welcoming arms of Nancy and Steve’s Welcome Station for the Snake River’s Lake Walcott, Idaho—our last stop before Yellowstone.
Yellow-headed Blackbird – near Rupert, Idaho
The rain followed us to Lake Walcott S.P. and the drive was, as per the routine, stupendous. I was starting to feel like I’d eaten too much chocolate. To get to the park we had to drive through Rupert, the weirdest little town that a befuddled stranger ever tried to navigate. I swear, that town deliberately made me take the “wrong” road out to the park, the extra long way that hugged the Snake, and it was, you guessed it, stupendous.
Western Tanager, Lake Walcott State Park, Idaho
It rained most of the time, but it stopped long enough for Dahna to discover that she was sitting in the fat middle of the Garden of Eden of birding. She went wild with that Nikon and fanned that digital shutter like the Waco Kid in “Blazing Saddles.” By the third day I knew I had to act, so I bribed her with breakfast in town at a cafe I found on the internet. The only problem was finding the place because it was in Rupert.
Female Bullock’s Oriole – trying to use fishing line for nesting material. Sadly, this results in severe injury and death to many birds. Please properly dispose of old line.
I’ve never seen a place like this. First of all, the main drag slashes through the town at a 45 degree angle which is enough to cheese you off by itself because half of the businesses present themselves at an angle too. You can’t see their signs until you’ve overshot and have to turn around, also at an weird angle. Then, to add insult, the drag, and I mean that in every sense of the word, consists of two separate streets running parallel with a bizarre arrangement of railroad tracks running between them. But wait! There’s more! The whole town has a street numbering system that makes no sense to anyone using base 10. Dahna punched the address for the cafe into Apple CarPlay, and we soon found ourselves in the driveway of a lonely farmhouse sitting out in a field. I’ll admit it was a pretty picture sitting out there like that.
Canada Goose, Family in Tow at Lake Walcott, Idaho
Even though Rupert is Rod Serling’s idea of a town, we finally found Sophie’s Chatterbox Cafe and it looked normal enough walking in. It’s useful, though, to remember that when you’re in an electromagnetic vortex like Rupert, normal doesn’t have to mean anything if it doesn’t want to. Case in point: After a few minutes of silent and thoughtful chewing, Dahna pointed her fork at me and said in a whispery voice, “This is the best omelette I ever had…no, wait…maybe the best breakfast I ever had!” I couldn’t remember a better breakfast myself, and I think we both got a little spooked. A couple of days ago out in the shop, while bolting on a new carburetor to the old rider, she shook her head a couple of times and roared out, “Damn that was a good omelet!” I took the wrench away, put my arm around her and brought her back to the house.
The Lovely Wilson Theater in Rupert, Idaho (Someday you might be able to get to it). There’s something about Rupert…
Red-winged Blackbirds – Lake Walcott State Park, ID
I imagine Sophie cribbed the name of her cafe from the mythical Chatterbox Cafe from “A Prairie Home Companion.” All things considered, it could be that Garrison Keillor might well have stumbled into Sophie’s while doing his broadcast from the Wilson Theater and lifted the name instead from her very own actual, possibly magical, cafe. Who knows? It’s a mystery. Speaking of mysteries, anybody heard from Garrison lately?
Lark Sparrow – Lake Walcott State Park, Idaho
Yellowstone. The last time Dahna and I went to Yellowstone was in the summer of ’76 hitchhiking through the northwest. We couldn’t get in because the campground was full, so we had to catch a ride down to Jenny Lake in the adjacent Grand Teton National Park some distance away to pitch our tent. It was a nice consolation prize anyway. This time we did get in and got to see the huge park in all its magnitude. Well, not really. In point of fact, Yellowstone is a monster not unlike Bruce the shark in “Jaws” and most of it lurks beneath. All you can see is on what’s on top. Let’s revisit the word “magnitude” and reflect that Yellowstone’s magnitude should read, “magmatude.”
Young Buck at Lake Walcott
A great deal of Yellowstone’s surface is a caldera that keeps the lid on a massive super volcano simmering below. When we watched Old Faithful go up my thought picture of the big geyser changed from a nice piece of Americana to a suspicious mole you’d better keep an eye on. It is, of course, a little demonstration of what will happen if the caldera lets go and the sudden eruption blows a good chunk of the continent right up America’s collective, overfed butt. The scientists claim that it’s not going to happen, but they also failed to predict the zombie apocalypse now eating brains inside the D.C. beltway and beyond.
Don’t let paranoia get the upper hand though. Just chill out and take a walk on the wild side. Yellowstone is magnificent without question and it’s impossible to find fault with any part of it. And, no that’s not a pun. Relax and take your time surveying its incredibly wide vistas. Enjoy the bison grazing in the valleys with their calves bouncing around and the eagles and ospreys gliding above ready to dive. If you’re just a little lucky you might catch sight of a bear ambling around poking its nose into something. Maybe a crafty wolf stealing by that might remind you of a beautiful dog like our girl Daisy, now gone.
White Pelican – Lake Henry, Island Park, Idaho
You might do what I do and go back a post or two to Dahna’s photo essays on Yellowstone and the big Californian parks. Or Google them and plan a trip or maybe send a donation. Remember, the National Park Service took a big hit when their already scarce funds were diverted to the tune of $2,500,000 for Trump’s military spectacle on the Fourth of July.
Our last travel day on the Spring trip was close to a six hour ride northwest up through Montana from West Yellowstone to Missoula. It was, once again, a gorgeous drive, one that got better and better the closer we got to Missoula where our old friends Rocky and Elaine live. We stayed in nearby Lolo for five nights giving ourselves plenty of time to prepare the RV for storage plus quality time with our friends.
A few hours after we arrived they brought fried chicken and trimmings out to the camper making the living easy. Isn’t it wonderful having friends you can impose on with impunity?
Cedar Waxwing – Rupert, Idaho
A day or so later Rocky cooked a flank steak for us that through some sort of sorcery turned the humble cut into one of the best steaks we ever had. Sacha loved their place too and quirked it out like only she can by trapping herself within the invisible force field of their living room carpet. She would not step onto the hardwood floor of their kitchen for all the wienies in Pelosi’s caucus.
Anyway, Rocky is a landscape architect who has now turned his attention mostly from flora to the legal protection of wildlife fauna, wielding the spoken and written word. I hope to post more about this in the future regarding his ideas involving the legal avenue of the Public Trust Doctrine in pursuit of that objective as well as wider ones.
Little Larkspur (Delphinium bicolor) – Lolo, Montana (a little blurry, taken with my iPhone)
Elaine is an admitted thespian, both actor and director, and can also be thought of as Missoula’s Florence Nightingale of pet rescue. These days she volunteers at the animal shelter where she recently worked as an employee. Only now she purposefully takes on the most boring chores like addressing envelopes in order to free up the staff’s time for more hands-on animal care. I’m trying to remember the last time I did something like that. I’m sure it’ll come to me eventually. I like to talk politics with Elaine because it’s good for me. Where I’m all roundabout, she gets to the point like a rifle. Bang!
Well-fed Evening Grosbeaks on Rocky & Elaine’s Back Porch – near Missoula, MT
We spent three nights and four days driving home from Missoula to Comanche. Our first stop in Billings was nice enough, and I don’t remember much about it. But our next reservation was in Ft. Collins and I do remember that. When we got to the fraying Quality Inn the rain was leaking heavily through the windows of the lobby while the desk clerk spent ten minutes sparring with two tough looking and irate customers. I don’t know if you saw “The Florida Project” movie yet, but our motel was a dead ringer for the one one portrayed on the screen.
It came with groups of guys hanging in the doorways checking us out as we commiserated over the place’s condition with our neighbor, a young tattooed lady who told us to bang on the wall if we needed help for any reason. We thought about leaving, but then we thought, ‘Hey, that girl was really nice being willing to mix it up on our behalf, heart of gold, and besides…we’re supposed to be better than that, liberal and all.’ So, we stayed and enjoyed a few brief and friendly acquaintances on the earthy side. I probably should rephrase that, but it’s getting late and Sacha’s halfway to the bedroom and looking over her shoulder at us.
The trip from Ft. Collins to Dalhart was long and rainy, but I like it when you leave I-25 in Raton and slant southeast to the Texas Panhandle on Hwy. 87. The mountains drop back out of sight as you slide down onto the flattest place on earth, and we cruised along with the wipers metronoming us almost unconscious. Getting close to Dalhart Dahna got on the net to check the forecast and discovered it was under a tornado warning. I looked past her and there it was, south of town about seven or eight miles.
It was pretty big and on the ground but the funnel was “rain shrouded,” as they say. Little funnels sprouted from its side high up then dissipated. Dahna then read the warning statement which said it was moving south which meant away from town. I’d never heard of a tornado moving south, but I guess this one got lost or something. I said, “Boy, I sure hope they’re right,” and we drove in to the motel. The tornado wasn’t a killer, but the meal at the XIT Woodfire Grill sure was. Named after the famous ranch, the aroma of its barbecue smoke mingled with the tang of feedlot as we walked in the big door. It was good to be back in Texas, land of the meat sweats.
I remember nothing of the drive to Comanche until I parked by the house. Sacha jumped out and made a beeline for the great black cat, Doghouse Riley, stretching out in the yard. When he fanned her face with his tail we were all happy. Happy to be home.
TO BE CONTINUED…
At Home With a Few of The Branyan Peach Eaters