Monday, October 10, 2011

Long Road to Jackson

Woke up on Dad’s birthday with the alarm at 5:00.  Showered and packed quickly and were on the road before 6AM, heading Southwest back down 34 to Granby and then (after an early-morning gas, coffee, and ice stop still in the pre-dawn dark), due West towards Steamboat Springs.

The sun came up during the long run uphill through the Arapaho NF, where we crossed Muddy Pass back to the East of the Continental Divide at 8710 feet and then hopped back West over the Divide at Rabbit Ears Pass at 9426 feet.  We had beautiful views of the peak approaching in the fresh, slanting light, and then of the Gore range of the Rockies to the West when we stopped at the crest of the pass.  We were now in the Routt NF and there were trails at the summit for hunters and/or back-country skiers, and the funny thing was that the informational sign for the trails was six feet over my head.  Made you realize that most of the people reading the sign would be standing on six feet of snow when they read it, so it would be just right.  If they put it at ground level it would have been buried when it was most needed.

Boy was it cold up there with the sun just coming up, but the coffee was kicking in and we dived back into the car and screamed downhill and West towards the tony town of Steamboat Springs, past some million-dollar houses on the hillsides with views of the mountains and the valley.  This was a very ear-popping experience, but was just the start of the long day.  Steamboat looks like a fun place and is not totally commercialized since it takes some dedication to get to, but we didn’t stop as we blatted out through the rolling scrubland and jutting precipices West towards Craig, down in the bottom of the valley at 6186 feet.

On the map, the dotted green “scenic route” line stopped in Craig (a sign advertised a “house wine” special at the liquor store for $9.99), and we realized that we had two choices from there: a) head North in Craig and take the shorter path through the non-green-dotted Great Divide Basin in southern Wyoming to end up in Jackson (our target for the day) or b) take the long route and continue West through non-green-dotted western Colorado to Dinosaur National Park just over the line in Utah and then take a spottily-green-dotted route up through northeast Utah and southwest Wyoming to Jackson.  No question!  We kept on West from Craig and rolled through mile after mile after mile of nothing except fences, sage, brown clay hillsides, widely scattered cows, lots and lots of big sky, very occasional herds of pronghorn antelopes, and a sneaking feeling that maybe that horizon over there would never get any closer.

Finally there was a little bit of a change as the clay hillsides became eroded red-rock cliffs and then a mass of buttes appeared on the right.  The Yampa River had supposedly been following us the whole way … probably pretty dry … but at some point it veered right, we veered left, and then the buttes appeared and it ran downhill into them, while off to the South we slanted downhill more gradually past sudden oasis towns:  Massadona, Blue Mountain, and Dinosaur, towards the Utah line.  Cliffs appeared ahead, far, far away still, and we bottomed out into Utah where there were suddenly farms and we crossed the not-yet-mighty Green River as it slowly flowed South towards its meeting with the Colorado River in Canyonlands NP.  The town of Jensen materialized and we turned North on route 149 to the main Visitor Center in the small western finger of the huge Dinosaur National Monument.

We followed route 149 past pretty farms and rotten road for the seven miles up to the entrance of the Park, overlooking the Green River.  There’s nothing more beautiful than a curving, blue river cutting though an arid, brown and red landscape while green fields and clusters of cottonwoods hug the sinuous line.  This little break in our long day of road war was needed.  We pulled into the parking lot of the new VC at Dinosaur NM and took a deep breath of relief.

The “Quarry” at Dinosaur is a national treasure.  Paleontologists found this area in northeast Utah/northwest Colorado that preserved an incredible number of dinosaur bones due to timing and circumstance: sudden entombment of a river valley and upheaved strata.  The Quarry was discovered in 1909 and several visionaries, most importantly paleontologist Earl Douglas of the Carnegie Museum, realized the opportunity to preserve a record of a Jurassic find.  He envisioned a building that would protect the fossil dig, and it was constructed, poorly, back in the fifties and was then the visitor center.  It was eventually condemned (it had been built on shifting clay), but has been recently reconstructed on pillars that reach to bedrock, and a modern visitor center was built at the bottom of the hillside.  They re-opened this Fall.

Walked into the VC and had another great talk with a Ranger (actually a civilian volunteer who grew up in Massachusetts, long long ago).  He told us that to get to the new Quarry building we should drive right past the sign that said “closed” … and when we asked him if we could walk there instead he was overjoyed to tell us about the option of the several mile-long Fossil Discovery Trail, that we took and that taught us about the Morrison Formation, the Mowry Shale, and the Stump Formation.  It was almost hot through the desert that late-morning, but the wind was still very chilly and at least a few layers were needed … as well as dark glasses.

This was the kind of desert we’d seen before and it was delightful: rabbit brush, creosote, exposed layers of colorful clay, lizards, small ground squirrels, butterflies, beetles, a teeny garter snake, a flock of crows making a ruckus in the cottonwood spurs of the river, and some hawks cruising high overhead.  We had no problem doing a mellow walk with a few water breaks up the valley, past the sign that said “closed” (the Ranger had told us to turn left uphill past the closed sign), to the reconstructed Quarry building where we calmed down a British couple who were having a bit of a hard time feeling the delight in that harsh environment.

 Then the Quarry itself, which is a unique, marvelous building.  I’ve seen fossils and reconstructions of paleontological sites, but this was the real thing.  This was the actual stone wall that had made the paleontologists go “Holy shit, look what we found!” made into one wall of a climate-controlled building designed to preserve it in the middle of the desert.  If you ever find yourself in that out-of-the-way part of America and need even more of a reminder of your insignificance, you need to see this record of huge creatures on this planet from hundreds of millions of years ago.  Unfortunately their brains were small and they died, which might be said sometime by future paleontologists.

We’d gotten to Dinosaur around 10:30, hiked around, and were back at the VC by a bit after noon.  We pulled out our food things and claimed the only bit of shade that they had around there at that time of day to hang out and eat.  We talked with a family from Alabama who approved of the wisdom of seeking shade and were happy to meet sensible people from the exotic Northeast.  After grapes, leftover pizza, PB&J, and yogurt (and plenty of water) we refilled our bottles and prepared for the long road North.  Utah is such a pretty state, both what we’d seen in the Southern part and in this area of the northeast quadrant.  We left at 1:00 and followed 149 back to route 40 West to the mellow city of Vernal, and then turned North on 191, headed to Jackson, WY.

Soon all perceptions of mellowness ended, though our perceptions of prettiness were confirmed over and over.  Route 191 started immediately into the earnest task of reaching the top of the sky.  This being polite Utah they had nice signs by the side of the road telling us what layers of rock we were going through, but we barely had time to read them as the road bucked up and down and side to side and twisted us around so we had no idea what direction we were going in but that the net result was up, up, up!  As I say, they tried to throw in some genteel touches and the road had nicely painted passing lanes and guardrails where sensible people would have put them.  But cars and trucks were rushing up them at a speed I could barely keep up with.  We stopped a couple of times and looked at the incredible views over the green, yellow, and brown valleys down South and the massive Uinta Mountains off to the West.

We entered the Ashley NF and it got snowy and cold, then we went up even higher and the pines, spruce, aspens, birches, and snow fences started up.  We crested a pass of Mount Lena at 8428 feet, and then the road started some serious downhill towards the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area.  We had thought that we’d just be in Utah for a bit on this long trip, but Utah didn’t want to let us go.  We stuck to route 191 as it turned up the right side of the huge Flaming Gorge reservoir, formed by the dammed Green River.  We pulled over at the trestle bridge that cut over one arm of the reservoir at the bottom of the mountain, where it was cool, smelled of pine forest … though here it was oaks, pinyons, and junipers as well as spruces … and were sheltered to some extent from the wicked wind.  A huge rabbit was surprised out of one of the clusters of brush near the road when we approached.

We continued over the very high Flaming Gorge dam and started twisting back uphill through burnt hillsides (many trees that we saw on the trip had been burnt partially or completely by wildfires), stopping again when we got a good view of the dam and the southeast arm of the reservoir, that extends for miles and miles up into Wyoming.  We eventually passed into Wyoming ourselves a bit before 3:00 and then all semblance of gentility stopped as we veered away from the reservoir to the northeast, the remnants of forest dropped behind, and we shot up into the sky again (dodging a herd of mule deer crossing the road on the way) and back into the snowy elevations on long, long switchbacks.  We would have been totally confused about what direction we were heading in if not for the afternoon sun, that we seemed to be up almost as high as.  The road had to take us a long way East, then a long way West, and then on several long runs South(!) before twisting us around again and landing us on top of a huge mesa running North-South.

We screamed up the mesa past miles of snow fences with the sun now definitely on our left along with some widely scattered pickup trucks of various vintages as 191 hugged the edge like we wanted to look down into that bottomless valley we’d just left.  The sky was huge, the clouds were gigantic pillows, the light was soft but brilliant, and by now we’d left all water behind so the landscape was again the endless rolling hills of clay, red dirt, and sage with some incongruous groups of cows.

It’s amazing how much land is dedicated to raising beef.  I can’t imagine that a lot of the wasteland that we saw would have much use besides grazing, but it was shocking that on every desolate hillside, dry wash, empty bottomland, high slope, and burnt mesa we saw out West that there might be fences and there would definitely be cows somewhere.  There were some stretches of open range, but most of the endless grasslands and prairies we saw were owned and fenced by somebody.  We finally crossed the Bitter River and stopped at Cruel Jack’s Truck Stop in the middle of nowhere, right before 191 becomes interstate 80 for a few miles.  Refilled on gas and coffee and got my first glimpse of the ubiquitous gambling room in the everything store connected to it…

Digression On Gambling – Some states in this country have less restrictive gambling laws than we currently do in the Northeast states, and so in various places … both where you’d expect and where you wouldn’t … we saw clusters of gambling machines in Wyoming, Montana, and South Dakota.  I’m a libertarian at heart and feel morality/behavior should not be legislated unless it affects others rights.  Gambling seems like a small vice in places like England where it’s always been legal … and I’m no stranger to vice myself: we were sometimes in these places because we were buying beer or cigarettes.  But the evidence I’ve seen in places like Las Vegas and at times on this trip is that gambling seems to suck the soul out of people (or maybe people who’ve had their soul sucked out spend their time gambling).  We’d go into a small store connected to a gas station or a convenience store in a strip mall and catch a glimpse of the gambling room or corner there, that smelled of stale air and would be packed at all/any time of day with men/women with grim expressions on their faces, clicking buttons or pulling levers.  Well, I don’t understand it but I don’t see how this could be healthy.

Back on an interstate highway!  We throttled the Rav4 up to 80MPH for a few miles of sane road before we approached Rock Springs (6271 feet) and then turned back North on 191 across endless southwest Wyoming.  Any hint of varied climate was soon left behind as we thundered for hours on straight roads over the small, dry, clay hills, only interrupted now and then by towns and dry gulches.  But after a while we saw what we knew we were going to see sooner or later: the Wind River range of the Rockies closing in slowly on our right and the Salt River range even farther away off to the West.  These are both arms of the massive Bridger-Teton NF and we were heading … slowly … up towards their embrace in the middle of the far West part of the state.

Eventually we got to Boulder WY where the signs for ski areas returned and the highway started to be lined with farms, ranch houses, and small factories.  The road on the map was now marked with green dots, but we had to argue … this wasn’t scenic yet.  Deer migrations were apparently an incredible problem here.  There were high, strong wire fences on either side of the road as well as some stiles designed to let deer out from the roadway but not in.  They had built some and were building more subways under the highway for the deer, though we mostly saw cows using them.

It was only when we got as far North as Hoback Junction and started to follow the valley of the Snake River that we felt we were finally back in the good stuff.  We had to jam on the brakes for a cow in the middle of the road, with an embarrassed cowboy giving gentle pursuit.  It was really strange here: we thought we were approaching the mountains and they loomed up higher and higher around us, but we were heading downhill not uphill, and at a very rapid rate into Jackson, which we later learned is at the Southern end of the sunken plateau of Jackson Hole (don’t get me wrong, it’s still over 6K feet elevation).  By then it was getting pretty late and the sky was suddenly overcast.  The houses turned to strip malls and big-box stores and the road added a lane, side streets, and stop lights, and then we were suddenly in the big town of Jackson.  We finally saw the Jackson Hole Lodge (where we had reservations) and pulled in to the empty parking lot in the cold, whipping wind that signaled a change in weather at almost 7:00.

We were back in the sporty/tony world of expensive recreational pursuits in this suburb of the Grand Tetons, where if you didn’t ski, rock-climb, mountain bike, etc. you were lame.  But that was fine!  The hotel seemed empty at first, but that was just a shoulder-season thing and it turned out to be really nice, Sarah’s favorite hotel on the trip.  They had organic toothpaste samples and free copies of the local daily, in-scale maps of town, and WiFi with sensible login procedures.  We parked right near the room and settled in, then got ourselves together and headed for the Snake River Brewery, about 5 blocks away through the suddenly spitting, cold rain.  Lots of hotel stock, young people, and families packed into this town, and we actually had to wait for a table on a Monday night in October.  But we grabbed stools at the upstairs bar and didn’t have to sit there long before we were seated at a table in the quasi-families/old people area for a great Cobb salad and buffalo chili.  Also some great beers…

Digression On Beer – We had some fine beer (as well as some disappointing stuff) throughout the trip.  Here are some highlights:
  • New Belgium Brewing Company – Bought a sampler 12-pack of their Ranger IPA, Belgo Belgian IPA, “Hoptoberfest,” and Fat Tire Amber Ale.  I could drink the Belgo for the rest of my life, it had just the right combination of musty Belgian yeast, American hop crispness, and specialty malt background.  The only thing that would keep me from drinking it constantly would be the presence of their Ranger IPA, a dark and powerful IPA that turned up the black patent malt taste as well as the hops (and that had me singing Rubblebucket’s Rescue Ranger over and over in my mind).  The Octoberfest and Amber were ordinary.
  • Grand Lake Brewing Company Grand Lake is such a small town that the brewpub doesn’t do enough volume to keep many beers on, especially in the shoulder season of October.  They featured their Fall Fest, which is an excellent session beer with a smooth lager finish and some great malt notes.  The pale ale was nicely hopped, their Scotch ale had a good peat taste but needed age, and their dry stout was yummy.  I love local places like this that make their own beer on their own schedule by their own rules, and I hope they thrive.
  • Snake RiverBrewery – This is a high-volume brewpub located in the sporty-ritzy town of Jackson WY … this is the big leagues of American beer and I’d give them a very high grade.  Pako’s pale ale was just the kind of thing I like: a great balance of sprightly foretones with a single-hop taste (Simcoe), though it’s advertised as an American IPA.  Their “International Beer of Mystery” (English, like Austin Powers) was a very refined special bitter with that subtle British hop taste.  The Zonker Stout was a fine export style and the OB-1 Organic Ale (say it fast and you’re a Jedi Knight) had the green, grass-like flavor that a fine malt beverage can achieve. The Sisisicu IRA was a roggen mixed with wheat and barley that was a masterful concoction … don’t try this at home.   I’d go back there for the beer any day, and the food was great though as you might guess, don’t go there if you want a quiet place with ambience.
  • Bozeman Brewing Company – We tried some of their “Bozone” beers at Rosie’s in Gardiner MT.  Their IPA doesn’t yet have a name but gets my seal of approval for balance and flavor.  Their flagship Old Faithful American pale ale is uninspired but a fine session beer.  Their Cold Smoke could be an award winner; it’s an excellent, incredibly smooth Scotch wee-heavy that is set to become a cult beverage.
  • Shadows Pub and Grill – Overblown burger/sports bar that makes their own beer … which is actually OK from our experience.  Their ESB was very balanced and nicely done, though it was a bit stale the other night.  Their brown ale was highly drinkable.  Note that this place is a) in the historic Cheyenne train depot, b) is therefore filled with echoes and makes you feel like you’re in a train station, and c) serves 100 times as much Coors and PBR as it does good beer … good beer is one of those quaint things that this place features and is largely ignored.

Back to the room through the rain.  We’d traveled 4 ½ hours West to Jensen (242 miles) and then 5 ½ hours North to Jackson (298 miles) and we felt we’d done a million feet of up and down in the meantime.  A fun and awesome but exhausting day!  Download, blog, post, charge, and bed.

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