Most people thought we were crazy. Oh, they liked the idea of going out West for a summer vacation and seeing Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons. It was the other part, the part about driving the whole way, that made them choke on their frequent flier coupons.
``More than 5,000 miles in a car? Through the Great Plains and back? Don't you realize you'll be going through Kansas,' they said in frightful tones normally reserved for nuclear weapons, AIDS and Geraldo.Yeah, we knew about Kansas and South Dakota and all the other states where the great outdoors is just a little too great. In fact, that was part of the appeal. Having grown up in Kentucky, what I knew about the heartland, I learned from Orville Rendenbacher.
My husband, Jeff, had visited Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons as a kid on family vacations and had promised himself to return when he didn't have to sit in the back of a '66 Pontiac station wagon.
So, mindful that a lunatic in the Middle East could invade a neighboring country any day and drive the price of gasoline beyond our reach, we decided to take the odyssey in July. My map-lovin' husband plotted our two-week course, and we packed the Mondo Honda. What follows is an account of the weird and wonderful things you can see and do when you relax and leaving the driving to you.
After stopping in Kentucky and seeing my family - who gave us the requisite Styrofoam cooler that squeaked unmercifully until we accidentally lost our grip on it over a trash can - we drove to St. Louis, which lies at the juncture of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers.
St. Louis gets three stars on a four-star scale. Near the river, there's a restored area full of boutiques, restaurants, bars and the like. We ate at the Old Spaghetti Factory, a chain restaurant, for a total of $13, but there are lots of more expensive places, such as Bogie's, a steak place, and Hannegan's, which is named after Franklin Delano Roosevelt's postmaster general - a sure sign of good food.
The restored area is next to the huge park where the Gateway Arch stands. The night we were there, we lounged in the cool grass with hundreds of other people and watched a great fireworks show, which was very American in the sense that it was put on by a Japanese company.
Afterward, we walked down to the Arch for a closer look. Other than the Anheuser-Busch Brewery, the Arch is what most people want to see in St. Louis. Not that they can help it. The thing stands 630 feet tall at the apex and is made of stainless steel, meaning it'll blind you 50 miles away.
Designed to set off a park dedicated to westward expansion, the Arch was finished in 1965 and is a national monument, which means you can count on bus tours and clean restrooms.
A visitor's center (admission $1) and Museum of Western Expansion lies underneath the Arch. Good luck making heads or tails of the museum. It mingles excerpts from Lewis and Clark's diaries with displays featuring Martin Luther King Jr.'s ``I Have a Dream' speech. On the plus side, it has one heck of a stuffed grisly bear out front.
For $2.50 a pop, you can take a tram ride inside the Arch and look out little windows at the top.
One of the most striking things about the Arch is that it's so graceful, so perfectly proportioned. Another striking thing is that many people have scratched their initials into the surface. Yes, we were starting to see that people are much the same no matter where you go.
The next day, we hit Interstate 70 and headed west. After passing an area that obviously had been settled by Germans (billboards advertising Das Motel and Wunderbar Days were clues), we came to Independence, Mo., and decided to visit the Harry S. Truman Library, which could be more accurately be called the Harry S. Truman Auto Show and Memento Gallery.
Truman's personal papers are available to anyone who makes a written application to the museum director, and having forgotten to do so, we paid our $2 admission and settled for looking at a tan Chrysler that Truman tooled around in while he was a senator and a black Lincoln that was in the White House motorcade (no mention of whether Truman actually rode in the car, but that didn't seem to matter.)
The adjoining rooms contain historic mementos, including the circular table on which the United Nations charter was signed. It would be a great table for poker or bridge, but no mention is made of that. In the same room, behind glass, is a letter to a University of Chicago professor after World War II, explaining how and why Truman decided to drop the atomic bomb. In the same display is the order to drop the bomb, as soon as weather permits.
In another room, a mural by Thomas Hart Benton, an artist made famous by his Works Progress Administration paintings, covers one wall. Truman and his wife, Bess, are buried in the courtyard.
From Independence, we turned north on I-29, and drove up the western edge of Iowa. In the dusk, we watched a kid in a go-cart drive circles around a farm pond, water skier in tow, and we thought about what the airline passengers far overhead were missing.
The next day, we hit South Dakota, where you don't expect much, and therefore get a whole lot more than you bargained for.
My personal favorite is the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D. This auditorium topped with striped Moorish onion domes is paneled, inside and out, with mosaics made from corn, grasses and grains - a testament to what humans will do if they have a lot of time and a few crops on their hands.
Built in 1892 as place to celebrate the corn harvest, the Corn Palace has played host to Bob Hope, Tommy Dorsey and Lawrence Welk. As if the place needs any more legitimacy, town hall is right next door. Beautiful. Hilarious. And, best of all, free.
Down the road a way (200 miles in South Dakota talk) is the Badlands, something Mother Nature threw together because she was getting as tired of the grasslands as the rest of us.
The result is an area of pale peaks that look like sandcastles with edges blown sharp by the wind. The gray-white rock, striped with red in some places, came from dust that settled from a long-ago volcano. This is the land of prairie dogs, coyotes and badgers. On this afternoon, we saw a lone antelope lurching, like a gawky teenager in a distant field of knee-high grass.
Having experienced a bit of the sublime, we plunged straight into the ridiculous in the nearby town of Wall. If the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were normal turtles at one point, then Wall Drug must have been, at some point, a normal drug store. But that was a long time ago.
Now, the place, situated on a street lined with ice cream parlors and gold shops, offers everything from fresh fudge to paperweights filled with water and Cheerios: ``Donut Seeds.'
We drank the free ice water advertised on billboards for hundreds of miles, doled out $1.70 for some kitsch and ran for our lives.
The next morning, after staying in the thoroughly pleasant town of Rapid City, we headed for Mount Rushmore. The ponderosa pines that give the Black Hills their name and the cracked, rounded outcroppings of granite don't look like a hospitable environment for a sculptor. That, and the fact that the faces of the presidents are so well done, made me have more respect than I ever thought I could for a man with a name like Gutzon Borglum.
A Swede with a passion for taking on projects others wouldn't touch, Borglum worked on the project from 1927 to 1941, when he died at age 74. He never finished what he had envisioned; He wanted to show George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln to the waist, and he wanted to make a Hall of Records behind Lincoln.
In the visitors' center, there's a free videotaped explanation of exactly how Borglum and his ``powdermen' made the monument. Borglum's studio is at the bottom of a steep trail, but it's well worth the trip to see the plaster models that are 1/12th the scale of the actual figures.
Welcome to Wyoming
The transition into Wyoming was an easy and beautiful one.
We got off the interstate and entered the Bighorn National Forest, which was bursting with lavender wildflowers that filled the air with soft, sweet perfume. That almost offset our surprise at finding there were no motel rooms in Cody, Wyo., which forced us to the tiny town of Powell, where we took the last room at the last motor court. Until then, we had forgotten the charm that neon orange bedspreads and glitter on the ceiling bring to a room.
The next day, July 4, we stayed for the parade in Cody, where jeans, boots and cowboy hats are the favored dress of real cowboys and everyone else, and then followed the rushing Shosone River to Yellowstone National Park, which became the world's first national park in 1872.
Most people will remember that Yellowstone was hit hard by fire two years ago, but the park and the tourists have bounced back.
We stayed at the Old Faithful Inn, within spitting distance of the famed geyser that goes off every 72 minutes. Exploring the inn, with its spectacular lobby done in native lodgepole pine, could take an afternoon, but your time would be better spent walking the boardwalks that crisscross the silica-coated geyser basin outside.
The reason there's so much hot-water stuff in Yellowstone is that it's the crater of an old volcano, and the earth's molten core is closer to the surface there than in most places. The rain and geyser water seeps into caves where the water is superheated and comes bubbling back up, sometimes in a thundering show.
This, and lots of other information, is easy to find at Yellowstone. The ever-cheerful rangers lead nature walks, slide shows and campfire talks, which made us feel good, for once, about the use of our tax dollars. It also was a pleasant surprise to hear the rangers encourage visitors to strike out on their own and see nature firsthand.
Looking at the wildlife is enough to keep anyone busy. We saw bison, marmots, bighorn sheep and mule deer during our stay. We also staked out some meadows we thought might draw bears and moose, but, alas, no chance to try our tree climbing skills.
Any visit to Yellowstone should also include the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, with its Upper, Lower and Tower falls, as well as the other-worldly Mammoth Hot Springs, where steaming water runs down limestone steps the color of snow.
It's almost too good to be true that the Grand Tetons National Park lies just to the south of Yellowstone. And it was almost too much for us to see the long sought-after moose within 30 minutes of our arrival.
We learned pretty quickly the best way to sight wildlife is to sight people first, especially folks clustered by the side of the road. So, we knew when we saw a small army near Christian Creek, just south of Jackson Lake Lodge, that there was something good in store.
There at the bottom of the embankment, in the yellow-green meadow circled by pine, spruce and aspen, was a giant bull moose the color of dark chocolate. He was wading a meandering stream, pulling wet grass from the bottom and occasionally lifting his head to show his broad antlers and sopping beard. He made everyone smile, including one tourist who crossed the road to bark at his wife, who had stayed in the car.
``You shoulda got off your butt for this one,' he said. And no one disagreed.
The highlight of our stay at the Grand Tetons was a 10-mile raft ``float' down the Snake River, which allowed us to see blue heron, osprey, bank swallows and two bald eagles.
We also got a lesson on the jagged, slate-gray mountains themselves. Dotted with glaciers, the youngest mountain range in North America was named by French explorers who thought the peaks looked like big breasts.
Obviously, they had been in the woods a little too long; none of the men or women on our raft agreed with that description. The chuckles, boatman's stories and peaceful scenery was well worth the $21-a-person price tag.
Colter Bay, the village where our cabin was, included a marina with canoes for rent, trails, a free Indian museum and campfire programs on subjects such as birds and wildflowers. We tried everything, including the park restaurants. The Mural Room at Jackson Lake Lodge gets the best recommendation, with its daily pasta specials and good wine selection.
It was tough to leave the Tetons and the white-socked jackrabbit who nibbled clover around our cabin, but we did and followed the Snake River into Idaho, where we picked up Interstate 15 into Salt Lake City.
In the few hours we spent there, we took a free tour of Temple Square, the block that contains the Mormon Temple, Assembly Hall and Tabernacle. We had a impressive Chinese meal at Charlie Chow in Trolley Square and ventured out to the Great Salt Lake, which has all the allure of an open sewer.
Of course, we should have picked up on this when a nice Mormon lady in town told us, ``Sure, you can wade into the lake, if you can get past the flies. They get pretty thick around the edge, you know. They eat the brine shrimp, which are the only things that will live in the lake.'
A barren land
Suffice to say that I'm sure the Salt Lake area is a wonderful place to snow ski. Utah's landscape is pretty barren, and my estimation of the state has absolutely nothing to do with its overzealous state troopers. My impression was boosted somewhat by a visit to Arches National Park, where wind, water and frost have carved arches in red sandstone. The adjacent town of Moab was surprisingly bustling with a Pizza Hut, a Haagen Dazs ice cream parlor and other signs of civilization.
From there, we drove into Colorado and through the Rockies, landing in Denver long enough to sample Larimer Square, a restored downtown district that contains restaurants, boutiques and sidewalk cafes awash in classical music that spouts from speakers mounted on lamp posts.
We also checked out the U.S. Mint and strolled through the lobby of the opulent Brown Palace Hotel, with its stained glass roof, before striking out for Kansas.
In Kansas' defense, I must say that it's not as bad a drive as it's cracked up to be. Yes, it's flat, but at least the golden stubble of freshly cut wheat makes a nice patchwork with the green fields. And, I must say, it's the only place I've seen with enough guts to sell night crawlers from vending machines outside convenience stores, although I hate to think of the thirsty person who mistakes those machines for a soda machine.
We closed our trip the same way we started, with a stop in St. Louis to see the Cardinals lose yet another one, and a swing through Kentucky.
We pulled into our driveway 5,703 miles after we started. Yes, the driving got a little boring at times, but nothing that can't be cured by reading, talking or weaving from lane to lane while trying not to run over the reflectors.
And, no, we wouldn't trade the experience for anything. After all, do airline passengers get to see how slowly but surely the landscape changes? Can they stop and pick a wildflower to press in a book? And do they get to stop at a McDonald's where all the seats are saddles?
I rest my steel-belted radial case.