Bears, Fires, and Beauty–the Lure of the American West

The first time my wife and I made a road trip across the western half of the United States, it was in a ‘68 Volkswagen Beetle—with two good friends. From Iowa to California’s Highway 1 and back—by the end, we were all still friends, but 5,000 miles in a tin can had turned us into contorted road warriors.
Forty years later, my wife and I revisited “The West” with another Iowa-to-California road trip. The car was a bit larger (Honda Civic), the roads were more crowded (Yellowstone is like a downtown parking lot if you don’t get away from the main draws), and the natural beauty of the land is still there (although development and raging wildfires add menacing alterations).

A few impressions from a drive-by admirer:

Lewis and Clark spent more than two years on their ambitious expedition across “The West”—without GPS, Uber apps, or fast food watering holes. We stayed along the Missouri River in Chamberlain, South Dakota, to walk with their ghosts and marvel at their accomplishments.
The Badlands are not just an eerie back drop for an epic Kevin Costner film. Big horned sheep, prairie dogs, and streams of tourists—the jagged beauty and the geological history make it worth the visit. And on its southern edge, the echoes from Wounded Knee and Pine Ridge blend in with the mournful sound of the prairie wind.
-Campers and trekkers who get away from the main roads experience the real Yellowstone Park—a few learn that bison do not necessarily want to do selfies, and grizzly bear encounters can be deadly. As a previous blog explains, my brother escaped with ripped jeans during a black bear attack when my family visited there in the 1960s. This summer, my wife and I drove through cool rain, heavy road construction, and—as we left the park—a sunset double rainbow that sent color splashing onto the road in front of us.
-The Grand Tetons were shrouded with clouds, Jackson had no room at the inns, and we therefore took a local’s advice and drove over a foggy, sleet-ridden pass into Idaho. A summer heat wave had engulfed the country and we were shivering. The motel in Driggs also had no vacancy, but the desk clerk sent us on a 12-mile trip (seemed like 50 miles) up a curving, misty mountain road to a ski lodge. When we woke to crisp, clear sunshine the next morning, we knew the white-knuckle drive was worth it. We rode the chair lift to 9,500 feet and saw the Tetons from the west side—the proper way to see them, according to the locals.
-As with many of these states, Utah has enough natural beauty to warrant months of travel. We stayed with a friend north of Salt Lake City, explored the mountain roads, and caught a segment of the Tour of Utah. World class cyclists were there for the 10-day competition, and we suffered whiplash watching them speed down one mountain segment at nearly 60 mph. Scenic beauty and human endeavors can be a dangerous mix—a few days after we left, a biker hit a support car and ended up in the hospital. Last year, a cyclist died while crashing over the side of the mountain.
-Our main purpose on the trip was visiting friends along the way, and the Holy Grail was a wedding in the Bay Area. Good times indeed—but lasting impressions of California certainly include drought and fires. Some reservoirs looked like drained bath tubs with rings around the sides and discarded items revealed at the bottom. We visited UC-Davis, a respected university undertaking research and techniques in efforts to deal with the ways drought affects agriculture. And we drove through a haze resulting from the constant battle—forests getting scorched, houses in flames, and smoke filling the air. We spoke with firefighters at a motel in Truckee—and a few days later we read about a firefighter’s death in that campaign.
Travel is much more than scenery. It’s a colorful historical tale from a local, a lunch special at Slim’s Pub (est. in 1879), and a few “those were the days” gab sessions with old friends. But the American West still has the majesty and power of the land—even if the view is from the front seat of a Honda, the edge of a mountain path, or the swaying seat of a sky-high chair lift.
by dan gogerty (poster from; fire pic from

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