Tag Archives: books

Buffalo Jump!

Many of us are familiar with the concept of the “Buffalo Jump,” of course, but in all my travels, I had never actually seen the site of one before. After spending a dark and stormy night outside of Rapid City, I decided to duck over to Wyoming to visit Devil’s Tower. It wasn’t long after dawn when I spotted signs on the highway directing me to this noteworthy landmark:

Buffalo Jump

Very thorough explanation, isn’t it? But what, you may be wondering, as I was, does the buffalo jump actually look like? After considerable searching in the early morning light, I finally realized that it lay in an unmarked field just across the road:

Buffalo Jump 2

That’s one heck of a sinkhole, but it doesn’t seem as though buffalo could become effectively trapped in it, does it? Perhaps not – but it was a sinkhole, after all, that was responsible for creating one of the most spectacular archaeological sites in the world today – Mammoth!

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If you would like to see more photos from my cross-country travels, please follow my new Pinterest account at http://www.pinterest.com/lorilschafer/.

For updates on my forthcoming memoir The Long Road Home, which I am drafting during this road trip, please follow my blog or subscribe to my newsletter.

They Call It Rapid City Because If You Don’t Hurry, You Might Miss Something

It never fails to come as a surprise. The midwestern states always seem like vast stretches of nothing until, wham! They hit you with something truly spectacular. Or, in the case of Rapid City, with many things truly spectacular.

It doesn’t seem like much at first. A good-sized town tucked away in the northeast corner of South Dakota, not far from Sturgis of “Sturgis Raw!” fame, which fans of The History Channel will recognize in an instant as the site of one of the biggest motorcycle rallies in the world.

Knucklehead

They call this area The Black Hills. But it is perhaps best known for one rather grayish-tan hill:

Mount Rushmore

Every day, thousands of people flock to Mount Rushmore, to this ultimate homage to dead presidents. It is so cheesy, yet so reassuring. It reminds us that in fifty years currently popular celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Pitbull will be long forgotten – yet these four presidents will live on in the American imagination. Not because of their principles, not because of their achievements, but because some sculptor thought it would be really cool to memorialize their heads on the side of a mountain.

And you know what? It actually is really cool. And what’s even cooler is that they livened up that dull, colorless mountain by turning the entrance to it into an Avenue of Flags containing the banners of each of the fifty states:

Avenue of Flags

The whole monument is so cool, in fact, that another sculptor – with entirely different motives – decided to attempt a similar gambit some twenty miles to the south:

Crazy Horse Monument II

Any guess what famous figure that’s supposed to be? Maybe this will help:

Crazy Horse Model

That’s right; this mountain is – or is going to be – a monument to Crazy Horse, the famed Indian warrior who inspired such fear and admiration in the spirits of white men, and who, a century and a half later, remains an icon of the Plains Indian to both red and white men alike. This massive project – which, if completed, may be the largest sculpture in the world – receives no federal funding and has been a work-in-progress since 1948. However, I think it’s safe to say that even if the project is never finished, it has ensured that Crazy Horse will enjoy a permanent place in American history.

It is perhaps ironic that not far south of the Crazy Horse Mountain lies Custer State Park, named for the cocky yet ill-fated Indian fighter who met his doom on a Montana battlefield which I hope to see again later in my trip. It is perhaps fitting that General Custer and his outmoded ways of thinking have been commemorated by an equally antiquated theme park, which has been constructed in the city that also bears his name:

That’s right – in Custer you can order food from the Flintstones drive-in…

Flintstones Theme Park II

… or make a call from the Bedrock phone booth, which can be really handy if, like me, you have a third-rate cell service provider and your phone hasn’t worked in a week.

Flintstones Theme Park III

Yes, Rapid City has an abundance of special charms that you won’t want to miss. You don’t have to worry about hurrying down to nearby Hot Springs, though – this guy definitely isn’t going anywhere:

Mammoth

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If you would like to see more photos from my cross-country travels, please follow my new Pinterest account at http://www.pinterest.com/lorilschafer/.

For updates on my forthcoming memoir The Long Road Home, which I am drafting during this road trip, please follow my blog or subscribe to my newsletter.

With a Name Like Badlands, It Has to Be Good!

Join me, if you will, on a journey through one of the most forbidding destinations in the Great Plains. But I warn you – there’s danger in them thar hills, dire and perhaps deadly danger!

Unless, of course, you’re driving around comfortably in your car, as I was. Just play along, people!

Upon entering the park south of Wall, South Dakota, your first view is of this, the Pinnacles formation. It’s hard to convey in a single photograph just how massive this is – these formations literally go on for as far as the eye can see. How daunting it must have been to early settlers of the region, not knowing when – or if – the Badlands would ever end.

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The soil colors are caused by the decomposition of different plants at various points in the area’s geologic history. The layers became fossilized and were thus preserved in the “rainbow” arrangement we see today.

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This section almost reminds me of Arizona’s Native American cliff dwellings – except that no rational, civilized people would build a home here when they had a nice, comparatively comfortable desert available to them.

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There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of wildlife here, either, except for insects, and, of course, these lovely fellows.

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Notice the teeny little  structure up top – then imagine trying to climb your way up the sides of this enormous crevasse.

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I’m pretty sure this is what Tolkien had in mind when he pictured the land of Mordor. Let’s hope Sauron isn’t still hanging out in here somewhere.

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If you would like to see more photos from my cross-country travels, please follow my new Pinterest account at http://www.pinterest.com/lorilschafer/.

For updates on my forthcoming memoir The Long Road Home, which I am drafting during this road trip, please follow my blog or subscribe to my newsletter.

“Les terres mauvais à traverser” – Badlands National Park

Take a look and see if you can guess why French-Canadian fur trappers called this section of the South Dakota prairie “bad lands to cross.”

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If you would like to see more videos from my cross-country travels, please check out my new YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCb5RugrJMSHh6_4hkgHmkMA.

For updates on my forthcoming memoir The Long Road Home, which I am drafting during this road trip, please follow my blog or subscribe to my newsletter.

South Dakota – No Place I’d Rather Be

I have been awoken by lightning. Great, powerful flashes of it, flickering in an asynchronous beat all around me, in every imaginable rhythm, in every possible direction. It is as if the heavens have decided to let down their giant disco ball and are twirling it around the gods’ roller rink in celebration of summer.

I am sleeping in the parking lot of a casino just over the border of South Dakota. Technically I am on Sioux land; the flag flying in the wind by the casino door tells me so.

The sky was threatening to storm, all day, it seemed, not because of storm clouds gathering, or because of darkness overhead, but because of the heaviness in the air. You can feel a thunderstorm brewing long before you can see it. It assails the subconscious long before the senses.

The rain washes in torrents down my truck window. I have to go to the bathroom, but I’ll wait. That is the beauty of thunderstorms; what seems to differentiate them from ordinary rainstorms, which can last all day; the way they release their tension, and then travel down the road, to threaten some other town, or some other open prairie. They are like motorists, in that way; you rarely have to wait long for them to pass.

It has been about ten minutes now, and the rain has settled into a drizzle. The lightning flashes have grown fainter, and farther away; the party has moved on to another scene, another venue.

I climb out of the truck and walk down the road a ways to the nearby truck stop. It’s warm outside, very warm. It smells wonderful, like fresh rain on fresh grass. It smells like New England. It feels like New England, too; that heat of summer that never seems to let go, even in the night. It clings to your body, your bed, your home. To the earth itself.

It’s one of the aspects of the Bay Area to which I’ve never grown accustomed. How cold it is at night, even in summer. It never feels natural to me, the chill that descends in the evening, making you question whether it’s really July or August or September. How I’ve missed those warm, sometimes even scorching summer nights. How, even all these years later, I still long for them.

This heat, this midnight warmth speaks to me. The rain speaks to me. The lightning, yes, even the thunder and the lightning speak to me. They speak to me of home, of security, of comfort. My heart – in spite of itself – speaks back.

I am walking back across the parking lot to my truck. I feel as wonderful as the air smells. It is one-thirty in the morning, local time. I have slept for about three hours. I am almost tempted to move on, I feel so awake, so alive now.

But I won’t. I feel at home here, in the back of my truck, in the parking lot of an American Indian casino, in a largely uninhabited portion of South Dakota. It feels natural to me, being here, cuddling up in my little bed and sleeping here. This is where I wanted to be all along. I knew it, without knowing why. I still don’t know why. I only know that it suits my mood. It suits me.

I almost wish I could stay here for a while. I wouldn’t mind finding a little place to hole up in, and enjoying the rest of a truly rural, truly traditional – to my mind – summer, while it lasts. There would be plenty for me to do, plenty for me to enjoy. I could sit and watch the rain, then watch the sun dry it up. Sit and smell the grass; smell the rain feeding it, the sun feeding it, too. Let them feed my soul and feed my spirit, the sun and the rain. Let them fill me up, too; let them warm and wet me, watch me revive under their nourishment, watch me grow.

But I know I can’t. I shouldn’t. I’ve got to be moving on. While there’s still time.

Here there doesn’t seem to be any time. Only the sun, and the rain, and the never-ending growth of new grass.

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For Amber Waves of Grain…

August 19th, 2014

Nebraska doesn’t have very many claims to fame. But boy, they sure do try.

In North Platte, you’ll find Buffalo Bill Cody’s Scouts’ Rest Ranch, where you can watch re-creations of his old Wild West show. Also in North Platte, you’ll find the Golden Spike Tower, which offers “a panoramic view of the world’s largest railyard,” the Union Pacific.

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Train

If you’re not interested enough in these particular attractions to fork over the cash to get the insider’s view of them – as I was not, as the above non-panoramic view of the railyard should make plain – you can also visit an original Pony Express station, or Scott’s Bluff Monument, a landmark on the Oregon Trail. But mostly, Nebraska is famous for this, and it’s entirely free to see:

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Crops. Acres and acres of crops. And where there are no crops, there are grasslands. Nebraska isn’t as flat as Kansas, as I recall, at least not in the northern part, where hills surround the roads leading north to South Dakota. But even those hills are covered in grass.

It’s farm country, the very heart of it, and everywhere you look, you find fields of corn and fields of greens and bales of hay and cattle munching away at the plentiful fields of grass. Nebraska, like Nevada, like Wyoming, has its own unique colors. Green and yellow, yellow and green. They’re everywhere: in the grasses, in the haze, in the sunflowers, in the corn. It’s a green and yellow world. Golden and glowing, yet green and growing; everywhere growing.

It looks calm, peaceful, harmless. One would never suspect that this gentle-looking land could be subject to such violent outbursts of weather, such as the severe thunderstorm that came upon me yesterday in Big Springs.

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You know it’s a bad sign when the National Weather Service breaks in on your radio station to warn you of a thunderstorm of such ferocity that it’s expected to damage vehicles and roofs with its 60 mph winds and quarter-size hail. They weren’t kidding about the quarter-size hail. I heard it striking the roof of the motel I had fortunately checked into just twenty minutes before, and then watched as it crashed down just outside my window.

If Nebraska has its characteristic colors, it also has its characteristic sounds. There are two that dominate what you hear when you’re out in the countryside: the noises of the irrigation equipment, and the noises of the insects.

The ground seems to be alive with them. The grasshoppers, especially. Also yellow and green, also covering the landscape nearly as completely as the grasses. If you walk upon the grass, you’ll be treated to a flurry of them, jumping up all around your legs, fleeing your unexpected feet. But even these are not nearly so abundant – or annoying – as the flies. All day I’ve been swatting them away from me. There are so many of them that they managed to permeate my motel room even with the windows closed, as well as the back of my truck, in the few minutes I had it open. I’ve never seen so many flies, and such determined ones. This, too, is likely characteristic of farm country. Undoubtedly they are drawn by the cows, the widespread manure.

Fortunately, Nebraska’s characteristic smell is not that of manure, as it often is in cattle country proper. Rather it is the smell of grass: of growing grass, or freshly mowed grass, or fading, yellowing grass. It’s a potent, powerful smell, powerful enough, perhaps, to cover the aroma of cattle, to extinguish the methane gas that’s generated by these beasts we love so much to eat, but hate so much to smell.

Nebraska has its charms. Still, I’m looking forward to leaving it, even though I was pleasantly surprised to find something here I have not seen since I last visited the East Coast:

Dunkin Donuts

It was not a part of my plan to come here – indeed, I left Wyoming much too soon, and will have to revisit it on my way back. At the last moment something happened to cause me to change my plans, and reroute my trip. But at least I’m headed north again. All along, since I began planning this journey, something’s been calling me north; I’ve yearned to go north. And although I won’t be going as far into the wilderness as I had originally hoped, I so long to get closer. Nebraska simply doesn’t suit my mood, not this time around.

If my body holds out and my eyes stay open, I will be spending the night in South Dakota. It’s one of the places that, often in the last several months, I’ve longed to be, goodness knows why. Perhaps as I’m wending my way towards Rapid City, I’ll remember.

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For more photos and videos from my cross-country travels, please follow my new Pinterest account at http://www.pinterest.com/lorilschafer/ or check out my new YouTube channel here.

For updates on my forthcoming memoir The Long Road Home, which I am drafting during this road trip, please follow my blog or subscribe to my newsletter.

Wyoming – Not Just for Cattle

August 18th, 2014

There are very few people in Wyoming.

I suppose I had always known this; however, the full force of it had never struck me before quite so insistently as it did this time. Perhaps it was more jarring than usual because of the crowded feel of Salt Lake City, or perhaps because, for once, I was not coming from South Dakota or Montana or Iowa, all of which are also comparatively unpopulated states.

I entered Wyoming via a back road, Route 6, which wiggles its way through the mountains in the southwest corner of the state, through miles and miles of empty wilderness.

Cattle Land

Except, of course, it isn’t wilderness. True, there are few people there, but you can tell from the fencing that most of that open space is ranchland, open space for cattle.

This, too, is an amazing drive. Rural highways aren’t built like interstates; they don’t refrain from being terrifying. In many spots you find yourself driving along the edge of what seems to be a sheer cliff, the view of which makes you feel as if you’re on top of the world. It’s a wonderful way of seeing the land.

Cliff

But the interstate, too, has its charms. There aren’t too many places in the nation where you can shut down one lane of a two-lane interstate for construction and not create so much as a blip in the traffic.

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There also aren’t too many places left where it’s forty miles to the next town, and where it only takes you half an hour to get there, because the speed limit is eighty mph.

The city of Cheyenne, the capital of Wyoming, has a population of roughly 65,000 people. As you drive into town, you see a sign boasting that Cheyenne contains 2300 hotel rooms. To put this in perspective, the Circus Circus in Reno has 1600 hotel rooms. One hotel in one not-so-large city in Nevada, which, is, itself, not one of the most populous states.

Sixty-five thousand people. That is fewer than the number of people who live in my suburb of a suburb of a suburb of a suburb in the Bay Area. It’s incredible, and wonderful.

Sometimes I think I’d like to live in a place like this, were it not for the winter weather. I don’t even mind the snow very much, as long as I don’t have to drive. It seems to me as if you wouldn’t want to drive here in the winter, if you could avoid it. At numerous places along Interstate 80, you see signs like this:

80Closed

Can you imagine what the response would be, if I-80 in the Bay Area (which is the same road, by the way) was shut down due to weather? Traffic would be backed up for weeks.

It seems a fair trade. Our traffic is backed up daily, if not hourly. Perhaps having your highway closed several times a year is a small price to pay for no rush hour, or, in our case, rush morning, rush evening, and rush afternoon.

Yes, it’s a different experience, being out here where there are probably more cows than people. I was so exhausted that I crashed in a parking area – not a full rest area, but a parking area with no facilities, the kind that truckers use. I suspect that my truck looked rather small, given the company.

Trucks at Parking Area

States like Wyoming provide more of these types of amenities, probably because their towns are so few and far between. And in a place like this, away from even the small cities, on a highway unilluminated by any lights but those of the headlights of the occasional trucks passing by, it is so dark, and the sky is so clear and free from smog, that you can see the Milky Way. Do you know how many years it’s been since I’ve seen the Milky Way?

Urban lights are beautiful, too, in their way. There’s nothing quite like gazing down from a hilltop over a vast field of multi-colored city lights, white and yellow and green and red and orange, as if the city itself is some sprawling, highly decorated Christmas tree. Or making a turn on a dark rural highway and spotting the lights of a city in the distance, lights that offer promise, security, human companionship. Those lights beautify the landscape in a different way, in a way that speaks to our most human of instincts, the desire to be with others of our own kind. The lights are a sign, a symbol, an indication that there are more of us waiting just around the bend – they are not merely lights, but welcoming beacons.

Yet in a state like Wyoming, they seem but pale reflections when matched against the glowing, glorious, gigantic field of stars.

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If you would like to see more photos from my cross-country travels, please follow my new Pinterest account at http://www.pinterest.com/lorilschafer/.

For updates on my forthcoming memoir The Long Road Home, which I am drafting during this road trip, please follow my blog or subscribe to my newsletter.

Utah – A Land of Transitions

Western Utah

Utah contains landscapes similar to those of many of the states that surround it. Perhaps its most famous area is in the south, where you find all of the fantastic national parks with their brilliantly colored rock formations, which are reminiscent of northern Arizona and New Mexico. But not all of the state is like that. To a large extent, central western Utah resembles Nevada, with its brown hills dotted with shrubs and its wide expanses of desert.

Desert Utah

This is pretty far south of the Great Salt Lake area – but even here you can smell the salt in the air. At least here it doesn’t get all over your feet and car!

Salt Lake Mountains

Sunrise comes slowly in the shadows of the mountains surrounding Salt Lake City and its many suburbs. I was surprised by the amount of traffic that now pervades the area – it really seems to have grown in recent years. Not, in my opinion, an improvement.

Route 6

Route 6 east of Salt Lake City – the road leading towards Wyoming, as you can tell by the greener, more tree-filled landscape. There’s far more traffic through here than one would imagine. A truck came barreling down the mountain on me so fast it nearly ran me over! Fortunately I realized the driver wasn’t going to be able to stop in time, and I took advantage of a nearby pullout to get out of the way.

Descent into Price

The descent into Price, Utah. Those are some rocks! Perhaps one of the most incredible things about Utah is the way the roads have been built. They did an astonishing job of putting highways in where it seems no highway ought to go. This reminded me of the drive along I-15 from Arizona, where the cliff faces hover so close over the road that they nearly seem to be trying to crowd you off it.

Stratified Rock Layers

Stratified rock layers in the so-called “Dinosaur Diamond” in the upper northeast corner of Utah near Colorado. All along the highway you see signs identifying the age of the layer of exposed rock and the fossils that can be found there.

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If you would like to see more photos from my cross-country travels, please follow my new Pinterest account at http://www.pinterest.com/lorilschafer/.

For updates on my forthcoming memoir The Long Road Home, which I am drafting during this road trip, please follow my blog or subscribe to my newsletter.

Dinosaur National Monument – Where Jurassic Park Doesn’t Come to Life

August 17, 2014

Today I visited Dinosaur National Monument. It’s part of what they call the “Dinosaur Diamond” in the upper northeast corner of Utah and northwest corner of Colorado. This is an area in which a large number of dinosaur fossils have been found, mostly thanks the combination of mountain-building forces and erosion, which led to the exposure of previously buried layers of rock.

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But even for this fossil-filled area, Dinosaur is stunning for the number and variety of dinosaur bones that have been found there. While they do have some reconstructed skeletons on display…

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… the main feature of the Quarry Exhibit Hall is a giant wall of rock in which literally hundreds of bones are embedded and clearly visible.

Dinosaur Wall

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You can even touch the ones you can reach; evidently they aren’t harmed by the oil from your fingers, as so many relics are.

Dinosaur Don't Touch

There’s a rather sad story behind this amazing paleontological find. Evidently the site used to be a riverbed. During a drought, many dinosaurs died in the area. In the course of subsequent flooding events, their skeletons were covered with mud and sedimentation and eventually fossilized. Later they were exposed by the uplifting of the Uintas Mountains, which caused the rock that had been beneath the ground to be pushed up out of it, leading to paleontologist Earl Douglass’ amazing discovery back in 1909.

You can experience a bit of what Douglass did by taking the Fossil Discovery Trail, which is an outdoor trail that walks you through various rock formations in which, if you study carefully, you can find exposed fossils! Not as plentiful, and you have to search pretty hard to see them, because they certainly aren’t obvious. Their colors blend perfectly with the rocks, which I guess is a part of the process of fossilization, but if you look closely, you can pick them out, because the shapes of bones are there, and also, they tend to be a bit shinier. It’s tricky, though. I can’t even spot the one I found in this photo – can you?

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Dinosaur is a very neat place – well worth the visit and the searing desert heat. But I must confess that the rarest fossil I found was actually in nearby Vernal. I mean, dinosaur bones are one thing, but I never dreamed of seeing one of these again:

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If you would like to see more photos from my cross-country travels, please follow my new Pinterest account at http://www.pinterest.com/lorilschafer/.

For updates on my forthcoming memoir The Long Road Home, which I am drafting during this road trip, please follow my blog or subscribe to my newsletter.

Arches National Park – Videos

My visit to the amazing Arches National Park near Moab, Utah.

A view of the Windows Arches – and the gloriously full parking lot of people waiting to see them!

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If you would like to see more videos from my cross-country travels, please check out my new YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCb5RugrJMSHh6_4hkgHmkMA.

For updates on my forthcoming memoir The Long Road Home, which I am drafting during this road trip, please follow my blog or subscribe to my newsletter.