Win and I were glad to be with our folks. In a way we enjoyed the advantages of regular automobile touring. But something was lacking which only a more uncertain method of locomotion could supply. In our parent's Nash we would often ride for hours without talking with a soul save one another. There was no one to explain the interesting country, crops, and history of the region, unless we stopped and asked. And a tourist all too seldom does that Alone, Win and I rode with ten or fifteen different people each day. In most cases they would be residents of the areas through which we were traveling. Usually they took a liking to us. They wanted their particular section of country to make a favorable impression. People would take us into the fields to show us crops with which we were unfamiliar. They explained methods of planting, manner of growth and the ways of harvesting. They would drive miles out of their way to point out a site of historic interest. Few facts about the sections of country through which we passed escaped our attention. Nearly always, sometime during the day, we rode with a "native son" whose pride set his tongue ajar and kept it going with our eager questioning.
But the people themselves were by far the most interesting. They would find us kindly and sympathetic to what they said. They would realize we were strangers they'd never see again, to whom they could tell their innermost feelings. The confessions we've heard!
While traveling in the Nash with our parents our experiences were not punctuated with those rare glimpses of humanity, those intimate touches, which came from mingling personally with the local inhabitants.
Yet there were adventures aplenty.
Our blood tingled with anticipation as we headed farther and farther west. At Bismarck, North Dakota we hunted up the capitol building. Plain looking, made of brick, it was stuck out in a field near the edge of town. A slippery dirt road wound up to it through tall prairie grass. Near the capitol was the old log cabin in which Theodore Roosevelt had lived while ranching in western North Dakota. The tiny ferry boat "Marion" carried us across the Missouri River into the Rocky Mountain time belt. Winfield and I both shivered with excitement. We were in a new world.
Soon a sign at the outskirts of a small city announced: "Mandan, Where the West Begins. " In truth we found the West had begun. There was a broader sweep of landscape.
The cultivated areas became scarcer. The topography changed; the rolls and swells developed into abrupt buttes. Broad valleys were strewn with great, bare, massive rock mounds. It was a freakish landscape, a haphazard, majestic picture. A region of magnificent distortions—the Badlands of North Dakota.
Mid-afternoon one day the Nash pulled into Medora, in the heart of this strange country. Just north of here Teddy Roosevelt had ranched in 1883. Here he had strengthened his body, physically, and had, as one would think, inherited from the region some of its vigor and style.
Medora was a handful of buildings nestling in security in the shadow of a towering escarpment of granite. There was the Rough Riders' Hotel, the Red Trail Garage, a blacksmith shop, and a store or two. Here and there was a hitching post for cow ponies.
In our "growing up" days, Teddy Roosevelt had been a favorite of ours. He had been president when each of us was born. Our father had actually seen and shaken hands with him once, in Toledo, Ohio, at a public meeting. A floppy-eared brown velvet "Teddy Bear" which our folks had given me, was a childhood favorite of mine. They had also given us two large books— "The Roosevelt Bears." One bear was called "Teddy B" (Brown), the other "Teddy G" (Gray).
Win and I were traveling much the same as the Roosevelt Bears in the book. The story of the bear's adventures was told in rhyme. Sections of the narrative were strikingly similar to our own experiences:
"The Roosevelt Bears were born out West
In a big ravine near a mountain crest,...
They had heard of men of great renown
Who lived and died in Boston town,...
And of one they heard who works for fun;
The President at Washington...
They made up their minds that they would see
And learn about geography...
` And with bags on back and sticks in hand
They started their tramp across the land...
And journeyed East from town to town
And gathered fame and much renown."
This Medora area was "Teddy Roosevelt" land. Were the reclamation and environmental projects which he fostered in his presidency, we wondered, the result of these western years? All the history pages of our school days came alive as we thrilled with excitement at the color and western flavor of Medora. We decided to spend the night in this Teddy Roosevelt atmosphere.
The roads in this section of North Dakota, when dry, were passable. On the thirty-mile stretch between Medora and the Montana line we found out what such roads could be like when wet. A storm broke just as we were leaving town. Win and I put on the chains. No use. It was suicidal to drive on the slippery mud. Soon twelve cars were grouped by the roadside waiting for the storm to end.
While waiting, reports began to circulate about conditions ahead. Rumors spread that a bridge had been swept away as a large Buick had passed over.
The storm slackened, then ceased. The worst of the runoff water drained from the roads. Our caravan at length decided to start. Creeping along slowly, slipping in spite of chains, often with a car turning completely around and not always keeping out of the ditch, the twelve-car caravan made its way along the first lap of the drenched Dakota trail.
We reached the bridge. There was the Buick, not wrecked as rumored, yet in a sorrowful plight. The roadbed had been washed out at one end of the bridge and a few planks had given way under the weight of the automobile. The machine had not gone entirely through.
At this crisis a leader developed—a young fellow from Wisconsin who naturally assumed command of affairs and to whom others started looking for guidance. He directed the extrication of the stranded car and supervised the partial reconstruction of the bridge. With the members of the Buick party to swell our ranks we continued westward.
This Buick, the only one without chains and ill-prepared for the struggle, soon gave trouble again by failing to negotiate a sea of mud. All hands were called on to provide aid. The group next gathered for consultation at the edge of a temporary lake. A man in a Ford gingerly wheeled down to the water's edge and, gathering courage, plunged through safely to the other side. The other twelve cars made the plunge with equal success.
Our caravan made the crossing just in time to aid a Colorado car, traveling eastward, which was stranded in the mud with a broken axle. The best we could do was to pick the machine out of the mud and find a place for it on terra firma. A Vermont car, nestled precariously in a ditch, occasioned the next stop. Some ranchers were already at the scene and the undaunted fleet continued on.
Throughout this whole time not one car could stop, even to adjust a chain, but the whole caravan would draw up in the hope of offering aid. Such was the cooperation which emergency made necessary and without which none could have made the passage. It took the caravan nine hours to traverse fifty miles.
Just at sunset good roads appeared ahead. We felt as I imagine a sailor feels who has weathered the storm and sees the clouds draw away to reveal the rainbow. As quickly as the group of cars had come together at the need for concerted action, they now separated as the need was gone. We sped westward to Glendive, Montana. The sunset that night, in contrast to all the recent mud, seemed more beautiful to us than any sailor's rainbow.
The country underwent another change next day. We were passing through open range land and began to see the real thing in the way of cowboys. Late afternoon brought us to a flat, level plain. This was desert country and the sagebrush extended on for thirty miles to the borders of Wyoming. The occasional squatters' shanties were all deserted.
A haze appeared along the horizon to the southwest. It was the first range of the Rockies! The outlines of the mountains became bolder as we sped along, until by dusk there was a range of well-defined peaks with the haze of other ranges in the distance. As the sun sank between two peaks which formed the eastern gateway to Yellowstone Park, the plains were bathed in a softened, golden light. Even the dim, gaunt mountains were lit up for a few minutes before dusk. Then, just after dark, came the lights of Cody, Wyoming.
The little city was named after Buffalo Bill Cody. Win and I had once seen him, in person, riding a fine white horse along the Howell streets in a western circus parade.
Cody commanded the eastern entrance to Yellowstone. It was as breezy and "western" as its namesake. Cowboys in full regalia strolled up and down, and their sleepy horses lined the streets. Big game trophies were on display in the shop windows. Loud music floated out of the theater doors and added to the happy confusion.
Before leaving for the campground, we loaded our Nash with eleven dollars worth of groceries, which would be the food supply for the four of us while touring Yellowstone. The automobiles in camp were from almost every state—outfits of every kind. Nearly all available space on the grounds was occupied. It was late before a place for our tent was found.
Yellowstone Park was a giant eyeful—or rather, nearly a week of snow-peaked, steaming, geyser-strewn, mudpotted, grizzly beared eyefuls—of excitement and wonder. Old Faithful was true to its name. The mudpots were like bubbling panfuls of chocolate fudge. Yellowstone Falls was like a mountain Niagara. The bears were actually friendly. We even met and talked with the superintendent, Stephen Mather.
Yellowstone Park was a high point of our trip, both figuratively and literally. The Continental Divide wound and twisted through the Park like a coiled snake. At one point our road followed right along the crest of the Divide, across tiny Lake Isa, at 8,240 feet elevation. The lake waters on one side of the road drained into the Missouri River system, flowing down to the Mississippi, then to the Gulf of Mexico and eventually the Atlantic. The Snake River drainage system claimed the waters on the other side of the road, carrying them to the Columbia River and out to the Pacific.
Leaving Yellowstone at the southern entrance, we explored the wonders of the remote Jackson Hole country, then braved a mountain road "over the top" through Teton Pass into Idaho. Rain was dogging our trail. Through Driggs, Drummond, Ashton, back again over the Continental Divide, our embattled Nash then made its way up through the Gallatin Valley toward Bozeman, Montana.
A rain-soaked entry in our diary describes that jaunt.
"They had told us the roads would be nothing extra. That information was surely no exaggeration. That 100 miles through Gallatin Valley held a good chance of being the worst stretch of roads which we had ever traveled. Naturally rough, the awful rains which had just preceded us turned it into a literal 'slough of despond.' But we made it, with our only casualty being one broken spring. We had that fixed in a half-day layover in Bozeman."
That layover provided a colorful reward. Banners and signs—and half a dozen people—conveyed the message that in just three days the great Bozeman Roundup—"She's Wild !' would get under way.
The tourist camp was already taxed far beyond capacity; all cars were being turned away. We drove over to nearby Livingston, to have our last night with the folks. Win and I would then return to Bozeman to absorb the excitement of the first genuine rodeo we'd ever seen.
The Livingston camp brought another surprise. The Davies family, including the two daughters, were there. We'd met them back in North Dakota. There was a joyous reunion. More good times. More visiting.
That night, the last we would be with the folks for a year, was spent talking around a big campfire. Our parents would head home in the morning by way of Denver. The Davies would tour Yellowstone before returning to their home in Kansas City. They invited us to visit them on our way through their state. Win and I would take in the Bozeman Roundup then hike back through Yellowstone on our own and head south to Salt Lake City.
As the fire burned low there was a touch of loneliness that comes when trails are parting.
- Category: Foot By Foot Through the USA
- Written by Grace McKay
- Hits: 1974