Kathy Riordan

Kathy Riordan
Florida, United States
April 27
One woman's view of life and the universe. Follow @katriord on Twitter.


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SEPTEMBER 14, 2009 1:26AM

Sagebrush and Funeral Potatoes

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get-attachment-10It's hard to say when my romance with the open road began.  Sometime in the early '60's I remember my father bundling us all into cozy sleeping bags in the back of a paneled Chevy station wagon and heading for points south, Vegas by morning for cheap buffet breakfast, maybe Oceanside by the afternoon to dip our toes into the cold Pacific.


This trip was different.  For the many times I've crossed Interstate 80, that bone-straight ribbon of highway running east to west and back again across the midsection of the US mainland, dotted with windmills, sagebrush, and the occasional rest area, it was rarely creased with a sense of urgency or purpose as it was this time, a favorite uncle whose life was hanging in the balance, a longing for pieces of home.

18 days.  4,000 miles.  Interstate 80 from Wisconsin to Utah and Wyoming--and back--with a husband, a little white Cuban dog, and a baby bird.  I did all the driving. . .and the photography.


get-attachment-30  If you're going my way, you're going to see sagebrush.  Lots of it.  Like my ancestors did, and perhaps some of yours, crossing those great American plains on the Oregon Trail or the Mormon Trail.  It's a smell of my childhood, the prairie sage.  Sacred.  Hides ticks and rattlesnakes and what-not, and can be treacherous.  Looks desolate.  It can also be, in a crazy way, beautiful. 



get-attachment-42 Cottage with petunias, Garden City, Utah, near Bear Lake, on the Utah/Idaho border.  Get a raspberry shake if you drive through town on the scenic route up to Jackson Hole from Utah.  Better yet, pick your own raspberries.



 get-attachment-24If you ever drive Highway 189 north of Salt Lake City to Jackson, don't blink when you pass through the metropolis of Big Piney, Wyoming (population 500), or you'll miss my father's old oil derrick placed there by the local historical museum as a monument to the oil and gas industry so vital to the community.  Cattle and oil, cattle and oil.



get-attachment-23   19th century graffiti.  Lots of famous people, and a few not-so-famous, left their names scribbled on the rock at Names Hill, Wyoming, south of LaBarge, on the Green River, including trapper Jim Bridger.



get-attachment-9  Modern graffiti.  The Jim Bridgers of our day generally leave a name and phone number scribbled on a bathroom wall, and not this more general "Utah or bust" sentiment. 



get-attachment-35Taco Hole, Snake River Canyon, between Alpine and Jackson, Wyoming.  Some brave tourists are getting ready to shoot rapids off the far right of this shot.  This always reminds me of watching brave tourists do the same on the Bow River in Banff, Alberta, just beyond the Banff Springs Hotel.  Except without the hotel, of course.  These hairpin turns along the cliffs will take your breath away.  Keep your eye on the road, and not on the tourists below.  Or the elk.  Or the mountain sheep or goats.  Or the moose.  Or silly people pulled off the road taking pictures.



get-attachment-34  The world famous Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, on Town Square, Jackson, Wyoming.  Greenhorns will be outside on the boardwalk spilling their guts or tales of doing shots; locals will be quietly inside, tipping a few.



get-attachment-32get-attachment-33 That first breathless light.  Waking up before dawn, before everyone else, and driving up to see the sun rise over the Tetons.  A professional photographer from Arizona had the same idea (below) and was setting up tripod shots in the back of his Bridges-Of-Madison-County pickup while I breathed in, that first breathless morning light.  Below, catching the first rays of dawn just north of the elk refuge en route to the entrance to Grand Teton National Park.





get-attachment-27 One of the deepest glacier lakes in North America, Fremont Lake (above), Sublette County, Wyoming (elevation 7400+ feet), 12 miles long and nearly 600 feet deep, near the Wind River Mountains, close to the site where trappers and traders held their annual rendezvous.  Also the site where I learned to swim as a child (thanks to my late father for throwing me in to the deep water and scaring me to death) and made endless family camping trips (including one visited by a now-famous grizzly bear). Below, little white Cuban dog finds a warm new CCC pond near Fremont Lake and is mesmerized, never wanting to leave.



get-attachment-25The Cowboy Shop, est. 1947, Pinedale, Wyoming.  Yep.  Saddle on up, get your gear here.  Don't leave without a warm flannel Pendleton shirt.  Or a Stetson.  Be sure to leave your ride tied up out front.



 get-attachment-18 That thing which is Sundance.  Robert Redford years ago married a Utah girl and bought some land and an old ski resort up Provo Canyon named Timp Haven.   The rest is history.   



get-attachment-15 Silver miners and skiing.  Park City.  Where the Winter Olympics held many of their venues in 2002, and Sundance comes to play every January.



get-attachment-21  We say goodbye.  To a favorite uncle, who always autographed his books with weather reports.  To a man among men.  To RJM, rodeo rider. . .and gambler.  Mostly sunny day, some clouds.




get-attachment-7   Honoring those who've gone before, decorating the graves of loved ones, including my British great-grandparents, and an infant brother, on our way through a Wyoming cemetery.  



get-attachment-8  October 8, 1998.  A day I won't soon forget.  I was on a troubled Northwest flight out of Salt Lake City to Minneapolis that lost an engine and ended up skirting the sagebrush of southern Wyoming along I-80 like a cropduster until it made an emergency landing in Denver.  When we landed, we heard a young man had been tortured and killed in Laramie, strapped to a split-rail fence with barbed wire.  Barbed wire.  I've never seen it the same way since.  Here's a stretch of that same barbed wire, near Laramie, where a young Matthew Shepard lost his life.



get-attachment-43The Lincoln Highway.  Something fitting about old Abraham Lincoln presiding over the spot between Laramie and Cheyenne, near the highest point on Interstate 80, over 7000 feet above sea level.  Something fitting.  



get-attachment-44My little jackalope.   Self-explanatory.  Stopped to say hi to this one, a distant cousin of my own, both directions, at the gift shop at Little America, Cheyenne, Wyoming. 


get-attachment-36  Rattlesnake country.  Should read:  IF YOU CAN READ THIS SIGN YOU'RE ALREADY TOO CLOSE.  The most disturbing rest area announcement of the entire journey, posted right in the middle of the "pet exercise" area, western Nebraska.   Rattle, rattle, rattle. . .



get-attachment-11 Snow fences.  A familiar accessory to my childhood.  The world Annie Proulx wrote about, and Doc Close.  Won't be long now, won't be long.



get-attachment-45 Maid-Rite.  Iowans will know what I mean.  Aside from the pork tenderloin sandwich, the most important contribution Iowa has made to the culinary scene, the world's first fast food restaurant, opened by Fred Angell in 1926, serving loose-meat hamburgers on buns at Maid-Rite counters throughout Iowa and the midwest.  The original recipe is still a closely guarded secret, but for you, a close approximation:

1 pound ground beef/ground chuck

1 cup water

1/4 cup beef broth

1/4 tsp. salt

hamburger buns, yellow mustard, minced onion, dill pickle slices

Brown beef and crumble into small pieces using potato masher.  Drain excess fat.  Add water and beef broth.  Simmer at low temperature for an hour or so until liquid is absorbed, stirring occasionally.  Serve on buns with mustard, onion and pickle.  Ketchup is verboten, having been pulled from Maid-Rite counters in the early days when hobos would steal it to make soup.



get-attachment-38  Harnessing the wind.  You'll find no end of windmills along this route, in some cases, dozens of them gracing a hillside alongside I-80, harnessing the wind, farmers turning over their land to a more profitable venture than crops.  This particular one is in western Iowa, but it could as easily have been in Nebraska or Wyoming, where there are hundreds dotting the landscape. 



get-attachment  Finally, literally.  Light at the end of the tunnel.  I remember when some of the roadways were redone in Wyoming, and mountainsides blasted into to create tunnels and roadways, a treacherous undertaking where there are lots of rockslides.  These tunnels were in southern Wyoming between Green River and Rawlins.



get-attachment-19 The gold at the end of the rainbow is funeral potatoes, a staple at every Mormon funeral, at least in Utah. 



6 cups diced potatoes (baked and cooled, then diced, or frozen diced hash browns) 

1 can (10 3/4 oz.) condensed cream of chicken soup

1/2 soup can milk

1 cup sour cream

1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, grated

1/4 cup grated onion or green onion (optional)

salt and pepper to taste

3 tablespoons butter, melted

3/4 cup corn flake crumbs (Special K will work in a pinch) 


*Place potatoes in large casserole dish or cake pan.

* Combine soup, milk, sour cream, cheese and onion, and salt and pepper to taste.  Mix well.  Spread sauce over potatoes.

*Melt butter and combine with corn flake crumbs.  Sprinkle crumbs over casserole.  Bake uncovered at 350 F. for 30-45 minutes or until hot and bubbly throughout. 

Traditionally served with cooked ham, rolls, Jell-o, and green tossed salad with ranch dressing. 



get-attachment-40  Sun setting in the rear-view mirror at the end of the trip, a few miles from home.  


(All photos taken on an iPhone 3G by Kathy Riordan.  Itinerary:  Amana Colonies, Iowa--Grand Island, Nebraska--Cheyenne, Wyoming--Logan, Utah--Jackson, Wyoming--Pinedale, Wyoming--Provo, Utah--Park City, Utah--Laramie, Wyoming--Omaha, Nebraska--Des Moines, Iowa--Minneapolis, Minnesota--starting and ending in Wisconsin.  August 24-September 10, 2009.

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Wow Kathy! Beautiful words, beautiful pix. You'd make a helluva traveling companion. Can I come along next time?

Sure, John. Just three words: Can you drive?
Thanks for taking us along on your wonderful trip! I, too, love the long car rides across America.
My brother drilled in Big Piney for a while. He said he never saw a pine tree the entire time he was there.

Great photos.
Thanks, Debbs. The headline on the cover is a tad misleading--we didn't know we were heading to a funeral when we first set out on this trip three weeks ago, were still hoping for a happy outcome, and managed to make lots of yes, pleasant memories along the way.

ocularnervosa, the pine trees are about 20 miles west of town, in some of the most spectacular scenery you'll see anywhere, but I heard while there that the road had slid in to Middle Piney Lake and access was only by ATV at the moment. Wind Rivers are pretty pined up, too. Big Piney itself is sagebrush and cottonwoods at 8,000 feet, high desert, and plenty of oil and natural gas, as you know from your brother. My dad started out as a roughneck there, so I grew up a child of the oil fields. FYI, the name "Big Piney" means, in some native American tongue, "many waters." It has nothing to do with pine trees. There are several nearby bodies of water that contain the name "Piney." You can tell your brother.
Great photo essay, adorable dog and comfort food recipe. I'm only sorry for the unhappy outcome. Glad you are safe.
wow, thanks for the trip!
In spite of the sad outcome, I enjoyed tagging along on this trip. Beautiful and interesting shots.
I love roadtrips! Even if they involve sadness at the eventual destination (although from your loving description of your uncle, he sounds like a man who really LIVED his life). Great photos with a revealing backstory of memories-growing-up makes for an enjoyable ride for the reader, too -- Thanks for sharing the trip! (I want to see that sunrise & I REALLY want to hit that bar...)
My condolences on your loss.

I have yet to travel west of the Mississippi, but your photos sure make me want to hit the road.

And I can practically taste those funeral potatoes. That's my kind of comfort food!
Thanks, Patricia. It's a roadie/foodie/aw. The journey could have gone either way. Obviously we'd have preferred a happy outcome for my uncle, but there was a celebration of his life, and we enjoyed the trip, as he would have wanted, I'm certain. These are all important places in my life, pieces of my history, happy to see them again.

LuluandPhoebe, yikes is right! Do you believe that? We "exercised" elsewhere. Yes, baby bird was a good traveller, loves hotel rooms, and what he thinks is room service, even driving through McDonalds. His favorite new phrase, which appeared en route, is "Come on, let's go!" which he likes to say at red lights.

marcelleqb--You're quite welcome.

SuznMaree--Ditto. Glad you could come along. There were lots of photos I didn't include; I realize these are heavily weighted in favor of Wyoming/Utah shots.

suzie--You absolutely must do both on a trip to Jackson Hole. I got lucky with the sunrise, and snuck out while everyone else was sleeping.

Jeanette--West of the Mississippi is a trip not to be missed. They make a variation of those funeral potatoes around these parts in Wisconsin, but leave out the cheese, and call them "party potatoes." Does that mean that cheese makes it sad?
Kathy, I'm just now getting to this. It's such a luscious gorgeous post. Your words are perfect. Your images are perfect. A very poignant photo essay. I just love that image of the tetons, the one with the plaque and the one with the photographer.

Simply gorgeous.
What trip - thanks for taking us along - in spite of the reasons you made the trip.
(That should read what "a" trip.)
I've traveled the same roads several times. Love the pictures, but love the words as much. The bits I could see of your Havanese closely resemble our two Maltese. Learned my something new for today: funeral potatoes.
bbd--Coming from you, that's the highest praise. Thanks for the words, and for appreciating what I did here.

OSW--"What a trip" indeed, and it was happy in spite of the loss, truly. Happy to bring you along. Next time, can you pass the Girl Scout cookies?

Julie--You'll have to crash a Mormon funeral sometime, I guess, or make your own. Yeah, make your own; that works. Thanks for the kind words from someone who knows the roads. And the dogs. My Havanese looked just like a Maltese as a puppy, was frequently confused for one. He's a great traveller, world class, had been out West more than once before, but it was baby bird's first excursion to that part of the universe. Both were troopers.
Kathy, they leave out the cheese in Wisconsin?

This simply does not compute. (And, no, cheese is not sad!) :-)
It's been years since I've been on a long car drive (I spent too many years traveling full time for work). But I've always wanted to do a "lap around the Midwest" to revisit areas I lived in ND, MN, IA and WI.
You had a grand adventure! Thanks.
Lovely words and pics. Know it was a hard journey for you.
Jeanette--Does not compute, is right. Maybe they add beer. Or ginseng.

Walter--I hope you get to make that trip one day.

Lea--Actually, it was quite pleasant, and not as hard as you might imagine. On the way out, we'd been told my uncle was doing better, and thought things might go another way. We then went up to Wyoming for the weekend, and were on our way down from Jackson when he died. The funeral was a happy celebration of his life, and the opportunity to see lots of family. We managed to enjoy the journey regardless. Yes, I would have preferred a different outcome, but none of us has control over that ultimately. Thanks for your kind words.
beautiful pics and post.

i will say that if it's still there, there is a scarier (in my opinion) sign on the road that leads into Estes Park, Colorado. jagged cliffs with a narrow, winding, one-lane road cutting through. sign says, "in case of flash flood, climb to safety."

i still curse myself that i didn't stop to get a picture of it 5 years ago.
What a road trip! Beautiful pictures. I'm sorry about your uncle. :-(