I’ve had reason in the last couple of weeks to think about the pioneers of the great westward migration, as we drove from Alabama to Wyoming. Granted, our trip was a whole lot quicker than theirs, but with all due respect to the residents of the prairie states, I suspect that some towns were settled simply because those on the wagon train were convinced that they might as well just stop and start farming, since the terrain was obviously never going to change anyway. Weeks turned into months and the wagons rolled on, but the landscape always looked the same. Then there were those who hung on for Oregon and probably wished, when they first caught sight of the Rocky Mountains, that they had stopped when it was flat. With our modern eyes and transportation, we see mountains and our first thought is of their beauty, their majesty, their splendor. We are awestruck. Putting myself in the shoes of someone driving a covered wagon, I believe my first thought on seeing the mountains would have been, “Oh %@$#, how are we going to get over those %@#&#^% mountains?” The prairie people had the last laugh after all.
While it can’t be argued that a whole lot of Nebraska looks like much of the rest of Nebraska, I actually enjoyed the drive. I like looking out the window of a moving vehicle and it gave me time to think or to read when I wasn’t driving, and every once in a while, I saw something that really piqued my interest. We drove through one intersection that really could have been where Cary Grant was dropped off in North by Northwest for the crop duster scene. It was a déjà vu moment.
We stayed a night in Minden, Nebraska, at the Harold Warp Pioneer Village campground, and spent a few hours at the Pioneer Village Museum the next morning. We could have stayed much longer at the museum but we had a long drive ahead that day. The museum is named for its founder and claims the largest private collection of American memorabilia in the world. I have no reason to argue with them. The name is somewhat misleading as the exhibits extend far beyond the pioneers, encompassing a broad swath of Americana intended to show how America grew. For example, they have over three hundred automobiles in their collection, along with planes, television sets, musical instruments—you name it, they’ve got it. Many of these pieces are displayed in period buildings including a pony express station, a school house, a livery stable, and so on.
We had intended to camp in Casper, Wyoming, the next night, but our reservation fell on the day that Casper broke the record for earliest measurable snowfall of the season. A cold, very wet rain changed to snow and they received over 2 inches of snow before midnight, with a few more inches overnight. We were naturally honored to be a part of Wyoming’s weather history, but we canceled at the campground and instead made a reservation at a nice dry hotel that night. The roads cleared up by mid-morning and we made it to Cody (named after Buffalo Bill Cody, of course), where we camped for two nights, sleeping in our van. It got down into the mid-20s our first night there, by the way, for those hearty souls who would sneer at us for our desire not to be cold, wet and miserable when we had other options. We did fine with adequate blankets, a down comforter, and a little ceramic heater.
There’s a whole lot to do in Cody. I wish we’d had more time there. When we checked in at the campground, they asked us if we were going to or coming from Yellowstone National Park. The city is only about an hour from the east entrance and I don’t imagine they get many visitors independent of the park, but it’s well worth a stop if you’re in the area. We had only one full day there and had to be really choosy with our activities. We spent the morning at Old Trail Town, a sort of recreated western town from the 1890s. The buildings are all authentic, although they’ve been moved from other locations and reassembled onsite. They include homestead cabins, a general store, a school house, several buildings associated with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and lots of others, along with assorted memorabilia. There’s also a tiny cemetery at Old Trail. Probably the most famous inhabitant is Jeremiah Johnston (with a “t”), made famous in the movie Jeremiah Johnson (no “t”). He died in Santa Monica in an old soldiers’ home and his body was moved to Old Trail Town in 1974. One of the pallbearers was Robert Redford, who had played him in the movie. Another epitaph that fascinated me was that of Belle Drewry, who seems to have led quite a colorful and –um–liberated life for a late 19th-century woman. She consorted with thieves and murderers and came to a bad end at the age of 30. She also appears to have had an appropriately raucous sendoff. When her body was disinterred for reburial at Old Trail Town, spent cartridge cases were found around her coffin.
We changed gears from the Old West later in the day and visited Heart Mountain Interpretive Center, a national historic landmark marking one of the more shameful events in American history. It’s the site of one of the internment camps set up for Japanese Americans during World War II, where over 14,000 Americans were interned because of their race. Over 2/3 of them were American citizens; others were Issei, first generation immigrants who had always been denied citizenship. Few of the original buildings at Heart Mountain remain; among these are the hospital building with its smokestack coming from the boiler that was used to heat the building. This smokestack is the symbol of Heart Mountain. There is a museum onsite with a number of exhibits about life in the camp, what the internees experienced and what they managed to accomplish while interned. For example, when it became obvious that the food served in the camp was inadequate, the internees finished the Shoshone Canal, needed for irrigation, which had been started by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Some of them from the west coast with experience in agriculture then set to work making good use of the land, with the result that the camp had extra fresh produce for canning and to send to other camps, and local farmers learned from their methods. Other internees worked within the camp as teachers and health care workers. They were paid a fraction of what white workers in the camp were paid.
At the beginning of the war, all Japanese Americans were declared ineligible for military service because their patriotism presumably couldn’t be depended on. In 1943, Nisei (second generation Americans) were allowed to enlist, and in 1944, they were declared eligible for the draft. Some resisted on principle because their families were still in internment camps, and these young men were in turn sent to prison. Many former internees went on to serve their country with distinction. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an all Japanese American regiment, is the most decorated unit in U.S. military history.
The interpretive center was built with input from those who actually lived in the camp. One of its missions is to remind people that the injustice done to Japanese Americans was not an isolated event. They’ve posted a quotation from Charles Evans Hughes, Chief Justice of the United States from 1930-1941: “You may think that the Constitution is your security. It is nothing but a piece of paper…You may think that the elaborate mechanism of government is your security—it is nothing at all, unless you have sound and uncorrupted public opinion to give life to your Constitution, to give vitality to your statutes, to make efficient your government machinery.” The Heart Mountain community was among the first to speak up in support of Arab Americans and the Muslim American community after 9/11.
Our ultimate goal when we set out from home was Yellowstone National Park, which was a bucket list destination for both of us. Everything else was on the table. Given that we were undecided about traveling until about six weeks prior to leaving, we were really lucky to reserve a cabin in the park for two nights, and that saved us a lot of driving time back and forth. Some facilities in the park were closed because of the pandemic, and the restaurants and snack bars that were open only had take-out options. The snack bar below our cabin, where we got all our meals, had green discs all over the floor to mark six-foot distances where people could stand and wait for their orders, and someone was always at the door to control the amount of traffic going in.
Yellowstone is America’s first national park, established in 1872. It seems that there was some discussion about making it a state park as Yosemite was at the time, but this wasn’t possible because Wyoming and Montana were squabbling over it. I knew it had a lot of hydrothermal activity but I wasn’t aware that the park contains over 500 active geysers, over half the world’s total. They’re all over the place, along with hot springs, mud pots, and steam vents, about 10,000 in all. They’re even in lakes and rivers, which must give the occasional fish a nasty shock. Add to all this spectacular scenery and abundant wildlife that many of us have never seen outside of books or movies, and—well, you’ve just got to go there. We saw elk and bison, including one lonely bachelor bison who became WAAAY too interested in us after we pulled over to take a couple of pictures, and pronghorn, although those were outside the park.
When we left Yellowstone, we headed south through the Grand Tetons (also spectacular—no surprise there) and eventually into Colorado, Pike’s Peak being on PJ’s bucket list. Pike’s Peak, at 14,115 feet, is the 30th highest mountain in Colorado. According to a Colorado website, it’s called America’s Mountain because of its role in inspiring Katharine Lee Bates to write “America the Beautiful.” The mountains, including Pike’s Peak, are definitely majestic but in the interest of impartial journalism, they’re not purple, whatever the song says to the contrary. From the bottom they really look grayer and on the top brown, but I suppose that a song about “gra-aay mountain majesties” didn’t have such a great ring to it.
There are people who hike to the top of Pike’s Peak. We weren’t among those. We drove to mile marker 13 and, as requested, switched to a shuttle bus to go to the top, since they’re constructing a new visitors’ center at the summit and don’t have the parking to accommodate a lot of cars. I felt the change in altitude, the first time I’ve been that high up since our trip to Peru last year. I felt just a tiny bit light-headed and like I couldn’t quite catch my breath, but fortunately, that didn’t prevent me from climbing over assorted rocks and enjoying the view of a lifetime.
From Pike’s Peak, we drove into New Mexico, stopping in Santa Fe for two nights. Most of the museums and other places of interest in Santa Fe were closed due to the coronavirus. Everyone we saw was wearing a mask, which felt—well, comfortable and familiar, since we come from a place with statewide and local mask mandates. It gave me kind of a warm, fuzzy, we’re-all-in-this-togther feeling. The fact that some of the places we wanted to see weren’t open means we’ll have to go back sometime. We walked around the Plaza, the heart of downtown, and went into a few shops, and we were able to go in the Loretto Chapel.
The Loretto Chapel is now a wedding chapel that was constructed in the 1870s for an order of nuns who had moved to Santa Fe to set up a school for girls. It’s a beautiful little Gothic chapel, designed and built by an architect from Paris, using locally quarried stone and imported stained glass windows. Its claim to fame is a spiral staircase leading to the choir loft. Most churches of the day had ladders to access their choir lofts, which worked perfectly well for the garden variety all-male choir, but this didn’t prove adequate for the nuns and girls from the school. The size of the chapel didn’t allow for a regular staircase and the architect had died, so everyone was puzzled as to what to do. Legend has it that the nuns prayed a novena to St. Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters, and on the last day of the novena a carpenter appeared, a stranger to the area, and began building the staircase. It took six months and when he was finished, he left, refusing payment. The staircase had no visible means of support and was made of a strange wood that has since been identified as spruce, which of course is not native to New Mexico. Some of the nuns thought the mysterious carpenter may have been St. Joseph himself. The chapel is an easy walk from the plaza and an interesting place to visit, although I found the piped-in music just a little kitschy.
After Santa Fe, we turned our faces homeward, which made for two long days of driving. It was an ambitious trip for the amount of time we had, in fact, and we really didn’t have enough time anywhere we stopped, but I generally feel like that whenever I go anyplace. It’s such an interesting world.