It'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.
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.
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.
If 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.
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.
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.
Taco 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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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.
Silver miners and skiing. Park City. Where the Winter Olympics held many of their venues in 2002, and Sundance comes to play every January.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
My 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.
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. . .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)