The next day, Sunday, we headed back to Jackson stopping at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The canyon is quite breath-taking. No one is sure exactly how it was formed but the doming action of the caldera that lies under the park may have caused the ground to uplift and form faults exposing the various mineral layers to accelerated erosion. Glaciers periodically dammed up the canyon. When the ice dams melted, flash floods caused catastrophic erosion resulting in the V-shaped canyon we see today. The Yellowstone River is still eroding the canyon. Thomas Moran painted it many times.
On the way out of the park we saw a huge male bison ambling slowly down the middle of the oncoming lane of traffic like a big old Indianapolis 500 pace car with a couple of dozen vehicles behind him. He was setting the pace. No one was going to pass him, as he boldly asserted his place in the park.
We spotted more wolves from our vehicles and some grizzlies, but birds dominated our wildlife viewing. We saw a great gray owl, trumpeter swans, American white pelicans, two different kinds of jays and more. It’s really a good feeling to observe birds like the trumpeter swans, our largest waterfowl, that were on the brink of extinction make a significant comeback. I would say that my overall feeling from our visit to Grand Teton and Yellowstone is one of hopeful optimism in what can be seen as a pretty bleak time for our planet. We seem to be doing some things right but we need to do much more and I think we will.
We arrived back at the Lexington Hotel and Suites in Jackson a few hours before our farewell dinner with our fellow travelers. It’s probably unfair to describe the Lexington as “the hotel from hell” but it sure felt like that. To begin with, Noel and I were given keys to a room that was already occupied. Red faced, I profusely apologized to the startled guest after I unlocked the door.
As we headed into the lobby to get a new set of keys, a false fire alarm went off that freaked everyone out. Then, with new keys in hand, we were sent on our way, but the new room wasn’t what we had booked in advance. We had paid for a suite but were given a regular double. Back to the lobby again. I have to say that Juan the young bellman (who had only one arm and was handling our luggage with aplomb) maintained a cool, rational head through the whole room debacle, unlike the very confused young woman at the front desk. Apparently, there weren’t any unoccupied suites, but one of the Nat Hab staffers traveling with us volunteered to give us his suite. One problem solved.
Time to shower and get ready for the farewell dinner. But as soon as the water in the shower reached a comfortable temperature, the shower shut off. Apparently, there wasn’t enough water pressure during peak times to keep the hot water pipes flowing. However, we managed to “stivver through,” as my mother would have said.
But the worst was the *#!@ fire alarm that went off two more times at 2 am and then again at 3 am the next morning. The breakfast buffet was full of grumpy people. The hotel is clearly in need of a major infrastructure overhaul.
In spite of the all the sturm und drang regarding the Lexington, we had a terrific farewell dinner with our fellow travelers at a very interesting restaurant called The Gathering. It specializes in food for sharing which is what we did. One of the most interesting ingredients was beef bone marrow, a local specialty. We had it by itself on toast and in fried rice.
Noel and I like to bookend our guided tours with a day or two on our own which is what we did this time. We spent our last day in Jackson cleaning up and reorganizing ourselves for the drive back to Chicago.
The next morning was Tuesday as we retraced in reverse part of our route to Jackson from the week before, through Dubois and then the red rock formations along the Wind River surrounded by Shoshoni and Arapaho reservations. Our destination was Buffalo, Wyoming, in the northern part of the state where we had stayed two years before. It was a gorgeous drive off the interstate highways and on winding roads through peaceful valleys and up the sides of rocky mountains similar to the drive through the Black Hills. Part of the drive went through Big Horn National Forest on Highway 16, also called Cloud Peak Skyway. We passed through ski country with snow fences. There are periodic road signs identifying the geological eras of the surrounding country.
The Hampton Inn in Buffalo is one of our favorite places to stay. It’s close to some really nice hiking along Clear Creek with great views of the Bighorn Mountains. The inn also has beautiful gardens unusual for a chain hotel. Nearby is Winchesters, an exceedingly popular local restaurant. We started with deep fried spicy green beans and then had a fantastic chicken pot pie with carrots and peas on the side. The portions are huge, so we enjoyed a great meal revisited the next morning nuking up our leftover pie.
The next day’s driving was to Bismarck, North Dakota. We took I-90 once again toward Rapid City. We passed the turnoff to the Devil’s Tower in northeastern Wyoming. We had made a stop there two years before. It’s basically a huge butte that rises 1200’ above the Belle Fourche River and definitely worth a visit. It was a major plot device in the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” You can hike around the perimeter of the butte as well as climb up it. The perimeter was good enough for us.
Near Sturgis, South Dakota, we left I-90 for SR-85 that took us up to I-94 into North Dakota. I expected to see mile after mile of oil wells and fracking sites as we entered North Dakota, but instead we saw only one oil well and a large field of windmills. It turns out that most of the oil wells and fracking sites are on the Bakken Formation, a geological rock formation located in the northwestern part of the state and into northeastern Montana and southern sections of Saskatchewan and Manitoba, Canada. I-94 just skirts the southern boundary of the Bakken Formation. North Dakota is really beautiful, not the environmental catastrophe that I thought it would be, at least not in this part of the state. It was a straight shot east on I-94 to Bismarck, North Dakota’s capital.
We had set aside two nights in Bismarck because we had put in two pretty long driving days. It had been raining during most of our drive there the day before and continued the day after we arrived, so we decided it would be a good day for some inside activity. Close by was the Heritage Center Museum run by the North Dakota Historical Society for the State of North Dakota.
We were just bowled over by the museum. It is a truly fabulous place with extremely well curated shows superbly installed with up-to-date electronic enhancements. We saw a very interesting show entitled “The History of the Horse in North Dakota.” At some time we were both led to believe that the Spanish brought the horse to North America. Emphatically, not so! The horse originated in North America and then through eons spread throughout most of the rest of the planet. Then, for reasons being hotly debated, the animal became extinct in North America. The Spanish brought the horse back to this continent.
The museum also devotes a lot of space to the early peoples of North Dakota. I was especially impressed by the collection of artifacts and the large-scale cyclorama of a 1550 Native America village. Another gallery tells the story of the geology of the state and the prehistoric life forms that adapted to the climate changes in the environment. There are life-size casts of a T. rex battling it out with a Triceratops. My favorite was the nest of baby Pteranodon, giant flying reptiles, with their parent hovering nearby like a robin.
That evening we ubered to a highly recommended restaurant called Pirogue. No, not “pierogi,” our favorite Polish dumpling. “Pirogue” means canoe in French. Early European settlers in this part of the US were French. We had one of the best meals of our journey at Pirogue. Noel violated the bison rule laid down by our Casper, Wyoming gourmand and ordered bison medallions with a bordelaise sauce. I had breaded and sautéed walleye pike. The food was sensational. The restaurant also exhibited really interesting artwork by local artists.
Friday, the next day, we drove to St. Cloud, Minnesota. We didn’t see a single oil well on our way through the rest of North Dakota, but there is a lot of agricultural activity. In St. Cloud we had dinner at a most interesting spot, an Indian (not Native American) restaurant called Kohinoor Bar and Grill. It didn’t look anything like the usual Indian restaurants. It looked like you would expect any small-town bar and grill to look, but it served really good Indian food and American cocktails.
On our last full day on the road we drove to La Crosse, Wisconsin, and stayed at the same downtown Hampton Inn and Suites as we had two years before. Downtown La Crosse overlooks the Mississippi River and is a good area to walk around in. After getting our 10,000 steps in, we went to dinner at Lovechild, a restaurant on the same high level as Pirogue in Bismarck. The décor is very elegant with beautifully upholstered loveseats and tables instead of the usual booths. We shared an outstanding farro salad to start.
Our Sunday drive home to Chicago was uneventful. We were very happy to see that our gardens were still blooming beautifully. We didn’t miss any of the anemone and fall-blooming clematis. I don’t know when our next road trip will be but this one was a corker.