I’d been there before, many years ago, and the vast wonderful emptiness of it is something that stays with you forever. You never forget how the wind blows in your ears and the silence is something you can feel. The stars seem closer and the smell of sage is potent in the air. Whether looking out at the flatness of the plains or gazing up to the soaring mountain peaks, you just feel overwhelmed by the unique beauty that is this Big Country. A few things that I learned on the trip; the Snowy Mountains and the Big Horns are freakingly high. Togwatee Pass in the Bridger-Teton National Forest has an elevation of 9,584 feet. Jackson Hole has grown by leaps and bounds. The scars from the immense fire of 1988 still mar the otherwise beautiful Yellowstone. While standing at the Little Big Horn Battlefield, where so many died, you know it is a sacred place. Floating down the Snake River on a raft is a peaceful and lovely time. Watching bison, pronghorn, and horses graze in pastures beneath the mountains does wonders for your soul.
A truth that I read somewhere along the way stays with me: “Our national parks and monuments are America at her best.” From the craggy tips of the Grand Teton and Mt. Moran to the golden canyons of Yellowstone, to the wonder that is Devil’s Tower, our national parks and monuments are truly what is best about America. I sincerely hope that greed, mismanagement and lack of foresight never allow them to disappear from our land. It will be sad day if that happens.
One thing I love to do while on a trip like this is to stop at historical markers and museums along the way. Some of the places we visited this time were the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, WY, and the Wild Mustang Center in Buffalo. I also discovered Buffalo is the setting for the Longmire books and that the author, Craig Johnson, lives “just down the road.” No trip through South Dakota is complete without a visit to the landmark that is Wall Drug, and while there I also went through The Wounded Knee Museum. It is, to say the least, a sobering experience.
Visitor centers often offer museums and displays as well as a history of the area, and they are also great places to find books. These are the books I bought on this trip: The Spirit of Indian Women; Covered Wagon Women: Diaries and Letters from the Western Trails 1875-1883; Bedside Book of Bad Girls: Outlaw Women of the American West; The Log of a Cowboy: A Narrative of the Old Trail Days; Orphan Trains: Traveling West to a New Life; Bleed, Blister, and Purge: A History of Medicine and the American Frontier. Now I just have to purge a bookshelf to make room for them!
This is a scene of the Buffalo Valley and a Teton morning, before the peaks were covered up by clouds and snow. It will keep me inspired while I'm writing Tetons by Morning, the working title of my book-in-progress.
I’d like to thank the staff at the Heart Six Ranch in Moran, WY, for their hospitality and a good time, and for all those people with vision who sought to preserve the places in our country that are “America at her best.” My fond hope is that another trip west is in the not-too-distant future.