A mystical fog lay low on the surface of Sheridan Lake when we drove Rosie around the perimeter at dawn. The road into Deadwood was nearly empty, and we found it quite colorful to drop down into this piece of history from higher elevations. My cousin in Missouri explained to me that Deadwood was a wild west town where Wild Bill Hickok was shot and killed, that he was buried here on the hillside above town, and that buried next to him was Calamity Jane. My cousin went on to explain further that Calamity Jane was one of our relatives. I have tried to verify the connection, but think I need to dig pretty deep to do that. The family story is that the Osage native woman in the Ozarks who prepared our grandmother for her burial, and later became a member of our family through marriage, grew up with Calamity Jane, and the two of them were cousins.
With this bit of history understood, we poked around some in two museums in downtown Deadwood, and read through some of the literature about Jane that local historians had shelved away, but we could find no family connection. We ate breakfast in a casino–Tin Lizzy–and drove around the town. I had heard of Deadwood, but did not know the significance of it until this day. It was a gold strike boom town, like those in California, where people in the 1800s swarmed with an eagerness and passion to become instantly wealthy. Prospectors literally ripped up the streets of downtown looking for gold, and, of course, all the saloons and houses of ill repute sprung up along the main drag. For me, Deadwood was just a point on the map to reach on a certain date to ensure that our adventure was on track. I would like to have stayed longer and spent more time just feeling the ambience of this busy little place. Vacationers, hunters and fishermen, and gamblers keep the local economy from going dead.
We drove 200 miles on Interstate 90 in the late morning over to Sheridan, Wyoming. Much rolling hill country, void of people and civilization. A few trees, an occasional lazy creek, gorgeous skies filled with my favorite pillowy, soft clouds. Some grassy hills bared their rocky bones to us, as we had seen in Utah, but not with the same extravagant design. Rock formations resembled the famous chimney-rock country, but not as well-formed. We missed seeing Chimney Rock, near Scott’s Bluff, Nebraska–too much deviation from our main route.
We stopped in Gillette, Wyoming for gas and bought a couple of ten-dollar T-shirts in the gas station. My T-shirt had the iconic Wyoming cowboy hanging on to his bronco for dear, sweet life. As I pumped gas, a couple on a touring-style motorcycle pulled up, and we swapped stories about our road adventures. They had ridden out from the Sacramento delta region and had been on the road for a couple of weeks. They first went through the southwest, Arizona and southern Utah, but opted to go north for the next week because of unbearable heat. In their late fifties, they that had raised kids and were now looking to live their own youth a second time around. I had been seeing many couples motorcycling. They rode tandem on one bike, but some couples each had their own. Some traveled in small packs, maybe six or eight in a group–a whole subculture out enjoying the byways and back roads of this country.
A large grass fire bled heavy, black smoke to the north. We were told it was well out of our way. We pushed on to Sheridan, turned west on Highway 14 from Interstate 90, and climbed another series of twists and turns into Bighorn National Forest. This granite wall of a mountain stood out for miles in the distance. On the summit, near Medicine Wheel Pass, at an elevation of about 9,000 feet, we saw much smooth granite and sparse vegetation, similar to what we’d seen in the Rockies above Estes, Colorado. Thunder and lightning in the distance, hints of rain coming as droplets splashed Rosie’s windshield, we began looking in earnest for a place to get off the road and make camp. I had hoped to see a bighorn sheep or two, since the park was named for them, but was once again disappointed, and thought that “No Bighorn” might be a better name for the park.
We slept this night at Prune Creek, a national forest campground, where my senior pass allowed us to stay for $7.50 rather than the $15 that youngsters must pay. The campground host wanted to talk. Camping season had nearly ended. In another couple of weeks Prune Creek would close for winter. He told us there had been a bear sighting last week. A mother and cubs had crawled inside a cabin in a Boy Scout camp, but no one was hurt. Sister Janis trembled some when she learned of the possibility of bears close by, so we ate early and spent the evening inside the camper, rather than outdoors. It would be a cold tonight, maybe snow. Summer slips away so early in the high country.
At dawn we were back on Highway 14 with a cup of coffee under belt and hoping to find a quaint roadside cafe where we might sit for breakfast. Driving for an hour or two before eating had become our routine. We had plenty of food in the camper at all times, but enjoyed getting out and mixing with the local people in some of the small towns. Not much was open in the national forest, however. We stopped at one cabin and motel complex in Elk View because we saw a light on, but were told by a couple of elderly native American women that we had to drive to Greybull before we’d find anything to eat. We came out of the high country and down into the humble little town of Greybull, on the banks of the Bighorn River, at just the right time for a couple of wandering cowpokes to be turned loose on breakfast platters in the local cafe.
The last few miles of road from down into Greybull yielded some of the most interesting and unique scenery of our entire trip. Shell Creek, which is not particularly wide and certainly not full this time of year, made huge and dramatic plunges over falls and rocks as it cascaded down a treacherously narrow gorge. The road got twisted up badly in here, so that I had to drive very slow, while wanting to stop and examine each bend more carefully to take pictures and view the hundred different varieties of falls and splashes, as well as view how the early morning light treated the watery, misty walls of the zigzag gorge. If I could do this stretch of road again, I would choose to coast on a bicycle, so that I might dwell longer at each of the myriad viewpoints. Above this narrow canyon you can see a natural wildlife trail that is heavily used in spring and fall by migrating deer, elk, sheep, and moose. We studied the trail carefully with binoculars, but all the animals must have reached their destinations.
Greybull is a town where you feel a spirited love of the great outdoors, where the romanticism of the American west continues to flourish. Some towns in Wyoming have prospered because they are set up to appeal to tourist dollars. Greybull appealed to me for its simple authenticity. In another hour, however, we’d be in Cody, Wyoming, gateway to Yellowstone. We stopped in Cody for a walk in and out of more souvenir shops. Indian-crafted goods, T-shirts, cowboy hats, agate jewelry–so much stuff to look at that would only clutter my house and closets, were I to bring any of it home, but fun to look at it as it lay on store shelves in this picturesque old town of red brick buildings. The streets were decorated with bright-colored flowers growing in planter boxes, adding liveliness to a strip of asphalt or concrete. Someone must come and care for the flowers, so someone must care how the town appears to others.
We missed touring the Buffalo Bill Historical Center on the outskirts of Cody because of warm morning air that inspired us to want to be outdoors in this scenic country through which we knew we must quickly pass. Many people did stop and tour, and I am sure the stop is worth the time and money. This massive complex spread over many acres, is, apparently, a must see. For us, it was an unexercised option.
Highway 14 leading into eastern Yellowstone National Park is quite stunning, almost as interesting as coming down Shell Creek earlier in the day. We looped along the shore of Buffalo Bill Reservoir and followed the Shoshone River through more rock formations and canyons that caused me to want to stop and capture the raw splendor of this wide-open country with my narrow little lens. At the park entrance, my senior pass worked once again. When we entered the park we stopped to study the map the ranger handed out. We thought the park might be quite crowded and we wanted to make sure we had a place to camp that night, so we made our search for a sleeping spot our top priority. We pulled Rosie into Bridge Bay Campground in the heart of Yellowstone in the early afternoon, paid extra for camp fees, and found a site with a view of Yellowstone Lake. We didn’t rack up a lot of mileage this day, but the driving had been tough on me because of the lack of straight road, plus all the mountain scenery that compelled me to stop and shoot.