By Pat Branyan
Spring sprang with a vengeance in Comanche, but after about six weeks we managed to get every blade of grass cut on our 20 acres. That included the pecan orchard after picking up about a dozen trailer loads of limb fall and grinding up twice that much in place with the “shredder” (brush hog). On the positive side, the rain did generate a great hay crop and Angel rolled; 61 big bales in two cuttings. Of course, everybody else had a great crop too, so the price fell through the floor, landing well below production cost.
Our Personal Deer Herd Munching on the Third Cutting (sent by Becky Nelson)
That’s farming. Bad crop, high price; good crop, low price—either way you’re screwed. We farmers are a proud bunch of losers though because the president calls us great patriots. Even though his views of the loser community are well known, we’d gladly take a bullet from him on 5th Avenue. Maybe two.
The rains juiced our old pecan trees too. They’re setting good pecan clusters of three or four which we refer to as threesies and foursies. Some growers have trees that set threesomes and foursomes, but our trees would never do that.
By the time we left for the Fall Trip on August 13th, the place looked pretty darned good considering who owns it. Patty came up a couple of days early to housesit again, per usual, and, as we went over all the operations, she wore a sardonic mien. When I started to go over the steps involved in running the two old Cub Cadet riders, she gave me a look that said, ‘I know more about these mowers than you do, bud.’ That could be true since she’s mowed the place almost as much as I have.
It took us six days to get back to Missoula where we stored our Arctic Fox trailer after the Spring Trip. On the first day we headed back to the same motel in Dalhart, Tx. where we stayed coming home a few months earlier. It was good then; quiet, clean and a fine meal in the evening. This time the young lady desk clerk asked us if we’d like ear plugs because of the trains. I thought, ‘Huh?’ Being a wise guy I said, “We don’t need no stinkin’ ear plugs. We like trains.” She cooed through pursed lips, “Oooh-Kay,” and handed me the room keys.
Wild Raspberries in Yellowstone
I love trains, have since I was five when my granddad bought me an American Flyer “Comet” train set. I’d sit on the floor and watch it go around the little oval track gradually turning the transformer knob until it jumped the track and landed on its side, its silver passenger cars all askew. I still have that old train set, and it would be worth a lot of money if it wasn’t so banged up. The last time I rode a train was the Santa Fe out to boot camp from Houston to San Diego. I enjoyed reading Sammy Davis Jr’s paperback I bought at a depot on the way, Yes I Can. It was nearly three days of fine clickity-clack loafing followed by many more days of not loafing for a single minute.
Well, the moral of the story is this: When the girl offers you ear plugs, put your rapier wit back in your hip pocket and take the damn things and jam them firmly into your head’s big dumb ears. Later, while walking Sacha, the train blasted its hell horn, and I think it changed my identity. Sacha did the dog version of Saint Vitus’ dance and Dahna shrieked in agony but, like in space, you couldn’t hear her. Or anything else for about half an hour. Also, don’t order tacos al pastor in Dalhart. Anywhere in Dalhart. They’re not a thing there, trust us.
Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium) – Yellowstone National Park
Moving right along, we headed for Cheyenne, WY via the plains of eastern Colorado. We decided to take this route because I-25 isn’t much fun even in Colorado. U.S. 385 runs due north out of Dalhart and leads to Springfield, CO. I hadn’t been to Springfield in exactly 50 years, and I wanted to see how it changed from a dusty little town then to what it might be now. Sure enough, like most places, it had swelled in population and possessed all of the franchised accoutrements of what Greg Brown calls the blandification of America. Still, I was happy to be there again.
Back in the summer of ’69 I got the bright idea to drive from Houston to Colorado without a map, just using the sun and stars. I made a lot of good memories on that trip and suppressed the bad ones.
Magnificent Rock Formation in Yellowstone
The general direction was northwest and I was going good until I got into a spiderweb of gravel roads out in the Oklahoma panhandle. I broke into Kansas and fell back into Oklahoma four times and started to doubt my sanity when, finally, I crossed the Colorado line with a cheer nobody heard. I ate a good lunch in Springfield and moved on west. Somehow, I spent the night on the ground in the mountains with an encampment of Children of God cultists, but they were sweet back then and still sensible enough to leave me alone. Lots of stars.
The next night I met a group of college guys while shooting pool and drinking 3.2 beer in a joint in Boulder. They invited me to stay with them in their big rooming house nearby. The next day they left on a hike, but I stayed behind and watched the moon landing on a black and white TV with a lonely UC Physics professor who lived in the house. He explained to me the entire process from launch to touchdown in one of my life’s luckiest breaks. That’s when I first started thinking about the singular power of science. But, I never would have guessed I’d teach it myself one day. Kismet and all that.
Dahna was partying on an Italian ship in the Pacific coming home from a year in Australia. She’d watched the landing by satellite at sea and then saw the luminous streak of the Apollo 11 capsule high in the sky as it descended toward splashdown. That’s pretty cool too, but Dahna didn’t consider science until, as a math major, she took Dr. Walter’s Organic class. She changed her major (keeping math as a minor) and became a chemist. I’m pretty positive she’s the only person since Newton who could study Calculus while watching TV at full blast and still ace three semesters of the stuff. I ground out a low B in one semester myself and was grateful.
I knew for sure she was special in a Rain Man kind of way, but without most of the quirks, when I overheard her explain a complex organic reaction mechanism to one of her befuddled professors. Later, he came out to the house and brought her an expensive bottle of wine, but she fed him hamburgers. I still had some pull.
Dahna got tired of eastern Colorado quick because mountains are a big thing to her and there aren’t any there. I laid back in a slouch and drove along easy, relaxing all the way with a little smile that annoyed her no end. With a secret little giggle to myself I amped it up to 11 when I asked her to play K.D. Lang on the iPod. She hates K.D. Lang for some reason that’s a mystery to me, and she’d happily throw Emmy Lou (“What’s that bitch whining about?”) Harris into the snake pit too. Everybody else loves little Emmy Lou just like they worship Van Morrison. But, if Trump shot Van on 5th Avenue I’d have to consider voting for him.
When it comes to music, books, movies, pickups, dogs, whiskey or just about anything else (except religion and politics), personal tastes are almost infinitely at variance, and competence and good sense seem to have nothing to do with them. For instance, Pat Zelman does not like the soaring arias of Roy Orbison, full stop. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Heck, “Crying” was mine and Linda’s song in Jr. High back in ’62. My love for Roy is strong, but doesn’t approach my love for Pat. Nowadays, I have to listen to his operatics with a critical ear, rooting around in each song to find out where Pat’s displeasure lies. I’m still looking, but the clues are ethereal and waft away in the clanking windmills of my mind..
Apparently, just thinking about the plains of eastern Colorado can make your mind wander off just as fast as driving through it. Apologies.
It didn’t take too long to get back to Dahna’s mountains as we met I-25 north of Denver, barely nicking its crazy anytime traffic. Actually, every city, town and wide spot now has crazy traffic with jillions of people scooting around all over the place going wherever the hell they go. It’s way too many people having way too much fun sex if you ask me, but what can you do?
We got to the room in Cheyenne in fairly short order and nothing much happened which is typical of motels. I remember telling Dahna about staying in Cheyenne at a motel on that same solo trip in ’69 and that I watched TV from the bed and saw Milburn (“Doc! Doc!”) Stone co-host a local fair/rodeo thing. She yawned and asked, “And…?” I shrugged, “That’s it.”
Lonely Bull Bison-Yellowstone N.P.
In the hallway Sacha’s blue eye stopped a young guy sent on a mission by his girlfriend who stayed in their room. He was to take a picture of the moon with his phone that she told him was, in his own words, “wah wah wah…” Dahna lost patience and cut him off, “Waxing!” “Yeah, that’s it,” he said, “It had been in geb geb gib…” “Gibbous,” I said. “Right!” he was delighted, “That’s what she called it!” This little fandango went on for awhile until we taught him a little moon trick, and he took notes by ballpoint on his palm. He said, “Cool! I bet she don’t know ‘bout this.” He warned us about bears then stepped outside with his phone.
You probably do know ‘bout this but for those lacking in lunar literacy: If you can cup the lighted curve of the moon with your right hand, it’s waxing. If you can cup it with you left, it’s waning. If you can cup it with both hands, it’s full you idiot.
Since I donated my left hand to the Containment Theory long ago, the moon’s always waxing as far as I’m concerned. But, you’re good to go.
On the Spring Trip we made a pretty good tour of west Yellowstone, but we didn’t make it to the eastern side because the park’s too big. The west side is magnificent, but the east side appealed to us even more. Here you get the long, long valley view with the mountains generally all around but far enough back to get super wide side-to-side views upslope. The Yellowstone and Lamar rivers run through the whole thing in turn making its huge vistas perfect for spotting all the famous avian and terrestrial wildlife that wheel and romp there.
Yellowstone Lake – After The Fire
We only had a day to drive through east Yellowstone, so we reserved a room at an old motor court near the entrance, a bit west of Cody. Dahna didn’t like it too much, thinking it smelled a little musty. I thought it smelled a little doggy which was fine by me and Sacha. The amazing thing about the place was its clear view of the Smith mansion up on an high hill adjacent.
Frances Lee Smith was an well-respected engineer who lived and worked in Cody not that long ago. He got a bee in his bonnet about building a monument to himself, a mansion that reached for the sky. But, like the Tower of Babel, something had to go wrong. One day in 1992, working at the top without a safety tether, he slipped and fell five or six storeys to his reward, the Darwin, proving that stupidity isn’t confined to the lower percentiles of the IQ scale. The town left the thing the way it stood that day as a memorial to Smith alongside many others dedicated to its namesake, Buffalo Bill Cody, who’s just as dead but more famously. Still, you can read about Smith on the internet.
If you go to Cody try to find the little bar and grill a bit down the road toward Yellowstone. Can’t remember the name. They make just about the best hamburger, or bison burger (I guess), you ever had and that’s saying a mouthful. Wonderful fries with A1 sauce right there on the table without having to ask. No Fox, just good baseball on the big overhead TV with no sound and a wry, no BS, waitress right out of a Bogart movie. Perfect. You can gas up there just before the entrance to Yellowstone and fill up your car down the street.
Upper Falls – Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River
Lower Falls – Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
Below the Falls
The best hamburger I ever had before Cody was from the old Chuckwagon on Broadway in Houston’s east side where you stood outside to order and eat. Big guys dressed in splattered white aprons would make you a “wheel” if you were real hungry, or a “hub” if you were merely hungry, or a “spoke” if you wanted a hot dog for some reason. No fries, just chips, and it was plenty with huge black sesame seed buns and black pepper slung on the frying patties just right, heavy and with authority. Afterwards, Greg and I would jump on our Schwinns and belch basso all the way to the underpass. Sadly, the Chuckwagon is long gone and so is the one and only Greg Caraway, best friend a lucky kid ever had.
Grizzly at a Very Safe Distance
Black Bear At A Less Safe Distance
We only had a day to drive north up Yellowstone’s eastern side and loved every second of it. Unforgettable. But it wasn’t over yet. Both Rocky and Sally pointed out one of America’s most famous drives, the Beartooth Highway, and it’s hard to believe that I’d never heard of it. For a driver guy like me, that has to rank as unfathomable ignorance, a black mark on my life record. Fortunately, we took the road– better late than never.
When you leave a place like Yellowstone, you naturally expect a descent from a high state of beauty to a lower one, but that’s not what happens if you drive the Beartooth to Red Lodge, MT. Nope. It just gets more and more incredible until you want to bang your head against the wheel to make it stop. Seriously, it’s much too good to pass it by, and you shouldn’t. It’s not that far away, not like Patagonia or El Paso.
From the Top of Beartooth Pass
Like Cody at the other end, Red Lodge is packed in season with portly geezers like us lumbering around in pickups and Tahoes and trim young couples zipping by in Outbacks, CRV’s and RAV4s. The town looks like what it is, a prosperous tourist destination with a plethora of good restaurants, designer shops and lots of no vacancy signs.
Tailing a Couple of Indian Flyers Down the Pass
Sally Reid, close friend, author and high school girlfriend deluxe, recommended one restaurant in particular, the Carbon County Steakhouse. Aside from the fact that her daughter-in-law manages the place and her firefighter son, Ryan, helps out there too, it’s reputed to be tops in Red Lodge. Unfortunately, the day had no room for the CCS or any other restaurant. We were dead tired, more road weary than hungry and our “room” settled the question of why bother to even eat at all.
Descending the Beartooth
Dahna booked the room at the two storey, dog friendly motel months earlier. Since Sacha hates stairs and new places generally, Dahna reserved a downstairs room in case I had to carry her in. Down is easier than up in this universe. But “down” at this place was in a deep basement with a dark entrance leading to a landing, then down again—an intimidating eight mismatched steps that terrified Sacha and scared me too. Up would have been a lot easier as it turned out.
Where the Antelope Play…
Normally, Sacha doesn’t mind when I have to pick her up with her supportive “lifting harness” and carry her 55 pounds into a new room or hallway. This time she squealed through the whole descent, and I whined in empathy, partly for her. But the cherry on top of the whole thing came when we opened the door to our room and the fetid air of a thousand dungeons hit us like a hard right cross smack in the old schnozzola (Goodnight Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are).
Dahna said, “It’s a little musty in here.”
I said, “It stinks.”
She said, “A little doggie.”
I said, “Stinks.”
She said, “Okay, a lot doggie.”
I said, “A lot doggie where they all died three weeks ago.”
She: “So? What do you want me to about it? The whole frickin’ town’s booked.”
Me: “Call the desk and get ‘em to bring some air freshener or something.”
She: “You call them!”
Me: “With what phone?”
“No phone?? Christ on a cracker!” (* her Catholic upbringing)
“Use the cell.”
“Still in the truck.”
“Well, I ain’t going up there.”
“Then shut up.”
The volley gave Sacha that doleful look of misery only dogs can muster, and we both laughed when we saw it. We gave her kisses and hugs and that made us both feel better. All three of us were beat and not up for anything. We weren’t hungry, happy or sad, just done. Using her acute powers, Dahna observed that we both could miss a meal, suggested a stiff drink instead and it was so ordered. Then another. Soon after, we collapsed on the bed and stayed there in surrender watching TV and reading a little. The miasma of the place settled over us, saturating our disposition and our clothes and, befittingly, paralleled the news of the day. We might have slept. Can’t remember.
It dawned on Dahna that places that take dogs aren’t necessarily the Ritz, and, in fact, couldn’t be if they wanted. She thought we should be glad so many were available to us on the way. I concurred with the caveat that basements were out in the future. I never understood the basement concept anyway. I consider good luck and overbuilt houses to be the best defense against tornadoes, and who wants to carry a pool table down a flight of stairs anyway? I don’t know how our house smells to other people, probably not great, but I don’t think about it much since our friends are all dog nuts and likely don’t care.
We agree that Yellowstone deserves its ranking as a terminal destination for us in the foreseeable future, maybe two years from now. Aside from the pleasures more YS will give, we’ll have more visits with Linda, Rocky and Elaine, and maybe give the Carbon County Steakhouse a chance to soak us for a couple of its renowned steaks. We left the “motel” with an Obama-esque shoulder flick, complete with Dubya smirk, and it was off to Helena to see Linda and a much better evening, that’s for sure.
Bison Babies Enjoying the Sunshine
Our night in Helena was our last before picking up the RV in Missoula. The room that night was the nicest by far, and the reunion with Linda made it even better. She came down to Comanche to visit a couple of years ago not feeling her best to put it mildly. A couple of years before that she trudged through the snow to her barn intending to feed her horses when a stacked hay bale fell down breaking her leg in a terrible compound fracture. Just try to imagine making the long crawl back to the house like Wyeth’s Christina, but in agony, dragging a broken leg through the snow in a Montana winter and living to tell about it.
The operations and medications took a heavy toll and ended a lifetime of competitive and pleasure riding that stretched from her girlhood in Houston to heading Montana’s racing commission and beyond. She found good homes for her horses and began the process of reordering her life, now on a new, unexpected and unwelcome path. I suppose most people go through this process as they grow older, but not so suddenly.
We were, therefore, thrilled to find the Woman of Horses we’ve known for 50 years, that pretty Scandinavian hippie chick with the quick laugh and bright eyes, back with us and sparkling once again. She took us to a snappy bar and grill where we sat on stools at a high table and ordered big gooey sandwiches. Linda had a good reuben and tried a local brew, while Dahna and I split two French dips, one heavy with bacon, one thankfully without. Wonderful.
Afterward, she drove us around town in her trusty Subaru, and I asked her to take us by the old house she used to own with her partner, Dave. Forty-three years ago Dahna and I hitchhiked from our old farm in SE Utah to Helena to visit them there, and I wanted to see if my memory matched up with reality. It did some but only a little. The house looked great, remodeled like the rest on the street, and I recognized some aspects of it but others slipped in memory.
We stayed with them for a couple of days listening to good music through giant speakers, played a game of Hearts with an unhappy Dave partnered with a flustered Dahna, new to the game, and watched a sudden hail storm beat the living crap out of their garden. Linda remembered that and beamed, “You know that little garden came back, big time!” I just shook my head, “Unbelievable.” The storm had pounded it flat right before our eyes. Brutal. Back at the room we laughed and reminisced about the good times and bad, all those years, and talked of our plans for the future. We kissed her goodnight as she left, read a little and drifted off to sleep, pleased and on a good bed.
We’ve enjoyed the beautiful ride coming into Missoula from the east several times. The mountains and valleys always keep our mood good, and this time we were happy as clams just by the thought of retrieving our comfy camper, truly our second home, from storage in nearby Florence. We called ahead and met Elaine at their nifty house near Clinton, tucked in its own picturesque mountain valley. We stopped to pick up a couple of items we shipped ahead to their address. One was an electric mattress pad we bought online from Target to replace the old electric blanket that didn’t fit and always tripped us in the dark with its loops of wires hanging out like snares.
These devices really save propane when you’re traveling in cold climes like we do sometimes. RVs are heated with costly propane you buy wherever, but the electric costs are built into the flat price of the site rental. It’s okay if the cabin temperature drops a lot through the night as long as your bed is toasty, and your husky whatever mix won’t mind a bit. It’s a kick to get goosed by a cold nose when she bellies in to snuggle between us on frigid mornings. Three happy peas in a pod, snug as a bug in a rug, the middle one with urgency issues and a whappy tail.
About six hours after leaving Elaine we had the trailer set up in our site and running, the new electric mattress pad lying in wait under the clean sheets and bedspread. We got to the Sehnerts’ about 7:00 PM for dinner of Rocky’s special soup, crusty bread and wine—very European, very good. Sacha loves their place and that night overcame her fear of the hardwood kitchen/dining floor. After timidly walking out on it from the safety of the living room carpet and not falling into the abyss, she had free run of the house and deck. Everything but the back rooms where the cats lurked in ambush.
Sawsepal Pentsemon (Penstemon glaber)
On the third day in Missoula, Dahna awoke to hives on her arms and stomach and in her ears. She went straight for the Benadryl, popping a pill and slathering the gel all over. The hives went away. The next morning they were back just as bad. More Benadryl. We stripped the bed and removed the new mattress pad and repackaged it and then washed the sheets. The morning after that…no hives. Dahna, being a scientist, studied the data set and concluded, “This damn thing is going back to Target and I’d better get my money back.” She did.
The wonderful thing about doing business with a leviathan like Target is that the clerks are always on your side, at least when their managers aren’t snooping around.
I needed to get my truck serviced so Rocky met me at the Chevy house in his truck. The plan was to fool around in town while they worked on it. I showed him my back left tire that only had about 1/8” of tread left compared to the three others that looked okay with about twice that much. I thought maybe I should buy a new tire, but Rocky told me something I didn’t know about tires and four wheel drive vehicles. He said the tires on these vehicles had to be the same size because of the way their differentials work. He said, “I doubt they’ll sell you a single tire because the difference in size puts too much stress on the rear end.”
Sure enough, the Chevy house wanted me to sign a waiver holding them harmless if I went with a single tire. They recommended a full set. Rocky just grinned and shrugged with his arms crossed. The paranoia lobe in my brain screamed, ‘Tire Scam! Tire Scam!’ So, I showed them and ordered a single tire. Rocky just shook his head. The tire wasn’t in stock and had to be ordered and that gave the nellie nervosa lobe in my brain time to freak out. What if my differential exploded in some God forsaken place like Canada where they all speak French gibberish and I can’t find my passport and…and…and so on. So, I cancelled the one tire and ordered a whole set.
You’re probably wondering why the hell I’m buying tires from GM, and I don’t really have an answer for that. Especially when they decided to hit me with a $45.00/tire overcharge for the terrible burden of having to load them on the truck in Butte. Look, I enjoy wasting money as much as the next guy, even more sometimes, but that day I just wasn’t sympathetic to their plight. I cancelled the whole thing.
In the meantime, Rocky had researched his subscription to Consumer Reports and gave me a comprehensive breakdown of their top picks, complete with sub ratings. He also gave me the names of several local tire shops he trusted. Dahna and I shifted into high gear and went out for bid on the cell. We got a good deal on a set of Michelin All Season LT 265/17s with a 121 load rating, an E load range 10 ply and an R speed rating that’ll let me run on these babies all day at 106 MPH, no sweat. And I’m happy. Happy but broke. Of course, now I’m worried about the trailer’s tires but, thankfully, I can’t afford them.
Angling for Cutthroat Trout
We had a great time with Rocky and Elaine, good food and talk, and we left Missoula a little wistfully headed north for Kalispell and Glacier National Park. We wondered when we’d see our old Montana friends again, geography being what it is. But if this trip has proven just one thing, it’s like Jim Morrison said, “The west is the best.” The scale of it, the beauty, draws you back again and again, so it might not be too long before we come back.
Right now, it’s the late afternoon on the last full day of our seven days in in the midst of Canada’s biggest pearl, Banff National Park. Adjoined by four other incredible parks, Jasper, Yoho, Glacier and Kootenay, there are no words to describe what your eyes cannot believe. That’s why I’ll let Dahna tell you all about it. Incredible photos come with and even a few short videos you’ll love. Stay tuned.