Down The Rabbit Hole With Alice

Renee C. Johnson

© Copyright 2010 by  Renee Johnson

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

“You shouldn’t fly,” the ear, nose, and throat specialist advised my husband after performing an inner ear procedure.

“But the reason I had the treatment was to attempt to thwart vertigo on our trip west,” he replied, clearly thrown by the warning delivered too late.

“The pressure would be very painful. I suppose we could heavily sedate you for the journey from the east coast to the mid-west.”

Hearing the comment about sedation had me envisioning all sorts of trauma in a nanosecond. And the unpredictable outcome of mixing medications with flight schedules and a nervous public made us reconsider the entire vacation.

We packed for the beach instead and planned on driving to Cape Cod, taking in the sights along the way from Western North Carolina to the shores of Massachusetts.

We spent the first night at our little cabin in Virginia while I hastily prepared an itinerary that would take in a few vineyards and wineries as well as towns with names like Sandwich and Ipswich and Nantucket, not to mention Boston and Salem. It seemed perfect.

And then I checked the weather. Ten days of rain were predicted with thunderstorms indicated by the lightning bolt on each of the days in the forecast. Now, a little precipitation and fog along a rocky shore serves to inspire my writing. But every day? We talked ourselves into ignoring the likely bleakness by imagining bowls of clam chowder, whale watching, jeering the umpire at a baseball game, and chasing storm clouds along a roiling sea.

Until the headlines touted our president was headed for Nantucket with his family. The media was already assembling on the island paradise. The likelihood of finding a room seemed nil.

But we had the time off so we were intent on going somewhere. And after I figured the driving time to South Dakota, it wasn’t that much longer than the estimated travel time to Massachusetts. We took another turn in our adventure and pointed our comfortable SUV west.

The beauty of this was that we had no expectations, no reservations, and no schedule. We could stop along the way as we chose to do in Illinois at Rock Island – the site of a Civil War Prison and Cemetery – or at the Amana Colonies in Iowa – a communal society which began on the theory of “True Inspiration” as pertains to religious and spiritual values. Today, many artisans have established their crafts there as well as having prosperous wineries, tours, festivals, and delicious food which is traditionally German with American fare on the menu as well.

The sunsets became longer and more magical than any I had ever witnessed before. They appeared to go away into the distance, rather than to drop from the sky as they did at home in North Carolina.

We passed flat-bed trucks hauling long metal wings. At first we thought they might be part of a glider plane’s anatomy. Then we saw the giant windmills standing like sentinels in troops as they spun and turned with the breeze and we knew that was what the trucks were hauling along the highway.

We hadn’t gotten far into South Dakota when yet another surprise took us off guard. Fields in Elysian tradition beckoned. Heavy yellow heads bobbed in the sun, following it around the sky. But the fields were so flat that depth perception limited my attempts at capturing the enormity of their plantings. At times it seemed we were on a four lane highway through sunflowers as they dominated both sides of the road.

And then, as though we had left earth’s atmosphere and catapulted onto another planet, we pulled into the Badlands.

“What are you doing?” my husband asked as I snapped a photo of the temperature gauge.

“It is 107 degrees,” I answered. “I want to remember this.”

As verdant and supple as all of the mid-west had been up to that point, the castellated rock formations offered the diametric opposite. Craters, crags, paths through standing sculptures of stone were marked by simple yellow posts that hikers aimed for visually. Sometimes that required figuring out how to maneuver the tricky terrain and climbing up for vantage points from which to take pictures.

A group of college students led by their professor sought dinosaur bones and droppings. We wouldn’t have known one from a skimming stone but enjoyed their enthusiasm about their hunt. The one thing we didn’t want to find was the rattlesnakes that signs warned about.

We hiked around the jagged range of limestone through formations called ‘The Door’ and ‘The Castle’ before driving along Sage Creek Rim in order to hunt out a buffalo. After all, doesn’t everyone who travels west expect, wish and hope to see the wild roaming bison we associate with the American West?

We craned our necks and spotted the lone large beast in canyons and valleys as dusk fell. Suddenly we reached the end of the gravel road, no light in sight, no other vehicle approaching or behind. We pulled up onto another gravel road and right into the midst of a herd. They surrounded us, as curious about us as we were about them. They were everywhere.

“Take a picture,” my husband urged and I hit the flash in an attempt to capture them. That was a mistake. A giant bull squared off with us, head down, horns dangerously close to our headlights.

Expletives! Our cell phone rang, further angering the charging beast. It was our son calling from home and my husband tried to back up with calves and cows crossing back and forth behind and in front. Then he tried to drive forward and the whole time he was on the phone and telling our son how I pissed off an entire herd – hundreds and hundreds – of buffalo about to flatten us due to my flash. Now I’m yelling at him to get off the phone. If it isn’t safe to drive in normal traffic while taking the occasional call, it can’t be safe to do so in such a life threatening environment.

After assuring our son he would call him back if we survived, he shifted gears again and the tires kicked up gravel. Luckily, the herd began to move and we continued through what we now know was the Grasslands. Whoo! We sought revenge at the Dakota Restaurant, the only one open as late as we got into town, by dining on buffalo burgers!

Custer State Park offered everything it claimed. Although a very nice but disappointed couple we met in the hotel from Tennessee cautioned us that they had seen no animals in the park, we saw almost everything predicted; pronghorns, prairie dogs, wild burrows, big horned sheep, mountain goats. We took the wildlife loop in the late evening and chose the path to the Wind Cave. This was one of those choices that you feel but can’t explain. It paid off. As the cars behind us turned left to stay on the traditional loop, we continued straight ahead and almost immediately spotted large whitetail deer.

And then came the moment that isn’t likely to ever be forgotten – the thrashing of three elk bulls thundering down a mountainside, swinging their giant antlered heads left to right as they aimed for the valley below. Our first elk and they were majestic! We watched with respect and finally left them in peace. A little further down, the movement above us on the cliff overhead grabbed my eye and I spotted more elk pushing their way through the thick brush. Wow!

We drove through the pigtail switchback of the Black Hills and right through a rock. At one turn the carving of Mt. Rushmore was visible through a v-shape in the trees. We were stunned. Suddenly something manmade had brought us to an awesome discovery. We continued toward it, paying to park in a massive concrete complex and proceeded through more manmade entrances – a blight on the landscape. Though it was well-maintained, I wished we had just enjoyed the distant view as the walls and buildings and paths and rails all made it seem tacky and commercial.

At this point we started the game of ‘it isn’t that much further to the next site’ and aimed for Wyoming, stopping in Deadwood and Sturgis for a little light sightseeing. Sturgis’ main event – the motorcycle rally – had happened the week prior to our visit. So there really wasn’t much to see there. But Deadwood offered Mt. Moriah Cemetery, the final resting place of western legends Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, as well as a great view of a sleepy old western town.

Our first stop in Wyoming was Devil’s Tower. I’m glad we experienced it, but I wouldn’t bother going out there again. It is the core of a volcano with myths and legends and nice areas to hike. The problem was that we packed for the beach – remember?

Montana called us. We felt compelled to keep going forward and headed for Billings where four wheelers counted as vehicles, though we did find it hard to adjust to the sight of them crawling along beside of us. But we also found Cabella’s and stocked up on things we didn’t bring from home. Hiking boots, blister resistant socks, light jackets. It was getting much cooler and the 107 degrees of the Badlands was but a memory. It felt perfect now, midday in beautiful Billings.

We toured the Moss Museum, one of the few mansions of the west. It was featured on the series about American Mansions and our curiosity found us buying tickets from the gift shop. After the tour, we also bought prints and wine charms. My friends would love a bit of jewelry for their wine bottles, I reasoned.

Everywhere we went in Montana – from Billings to Red Lodge - people suggested that we go to Yellowstone National Park via the Beartooth Scenic Byway over the Beartooth Mountains of the Rockies. We’re sold on the idea and not disappointed. But it is not for the faint of heart.

Corkscrew turns up steep mountain slopes with drop offs threatening make it difficult to enjoy the breathtaking views around every corner. Snow still nested in the rocky peaks and crystal lakes dotted the valley floors. We climbed into the clouds, going higher and higher and reached a place called ‘Top of the World’. Tall skinny pines thickets and groves of Aspens colored the landscape as the temperature sank lower and lower .

“Alice, what did I eat or drink that has brought me to such a place?” I asked aloud, and my husband thought I was having hallucinations. Was I not? Wasn’t it mere moments ago that the heat seemed unbearable instead of the shivering brought by the sudden cold.

A sign by the road warned against interacting with the sheep guardian dogs. Sheep guardian dogs? I didn’t know such things existed. But we were quickly introduced. A herd of sheep meandered down the side of a green mountain slope. The scene was worthy of Heidi one moment, and Cujo the next. We were in the road, but had stopped to admire the sheep and were spotted by the dogs who apparently saw us as a predator. They surrounded us – barking, snarling, swirling until we were afraid to move in the event we might accidentally hit one of them. The sheep kept running towards us, further alarming the dogs. Geez.

We finally saw a break and took off only to see a lone coyote sitting hillside watching the sheep.
“And that’s what they need the guardian dogs for,” my husband said.

As soon as we passed the sheep hurdle, we felt compelled to play in the snow. There were places here and there where piles of it waited for the next seasons’ precipitation. It was mid-August, so if it hadn’t melted yet, it wasn’t likely to.

From there we started the descent back down from the Rockies and into Cooke City. Our official greeters were a pair of moose – another first for us.

In the Lamar Valley, cars piled up roadside and cameras rested on tripods. The wolves were calling, their voices sending eerie shivers along my spine. While anxious photographers awaited the priceless shot of the Yellowstone wolves, we gave up at dusk, choosing instead to go just far enough to get stuck in a traffic jam of vehicles waiting for the buffalo to cross the road.

We spent the first night of the Yellowstone leg of our journey in Gardiner, Montana – a neat town with shops in Western style sprawled along a single strip of road. I experienced a strange compulsion to buy things with tassels, ruffles and spurs. I knew I would never wear these things after crossing the Mississippi River headed East, but it seemed like part of the experience was to wear a giant hat and say things like, ‘howdy partner’. Fortunately I resisted both the shopping and the odd colloquialisms.

The next day we wound our way through the giant Roosevelt entrance arches and the Mammoth Hot Springs, continuing to the geysers. The odor of sulfur filled the air and bit at our nostrils as the hissing and gurgling competed with the bubbling paint pots and crystalline blue basins trimmed in colorful bacteria mats.
I wondered about the first humans to stumble upon these places and had heard it referred to as ‘Colter’s Hell’, after the man who traded with the Native Americans and found himself amidst the sacred landscape. But how else would one describe such a place where water boils, mud spits and gurgles, and the very earth blows water out from its core at predictable intervals?

Alice’s wonderland could not have been more curious. We walked along a black pebble beach where the lake water rippled wave-like due to the activity below the surface and got sprayed by the spontaneous eruptions of steam along a boardwalk, watched a herd of elk in Hayden Valley and viewed the Grand Prismatic Spring whose spectacular beauty was awe inspiring.

There are many geysers throughout the park, with its star attraction being Old Faithful. The lodge there was a thing of beauty with a center hub open to the floor above, giant beams part of the construction and the decoration. Rocking chairs hugged fireplaces, and restaurants and bars offered sustenance while we waited for the next eruption.

In places like this, everyone seems relaxed and it was easy to get to know the people sharing the lodge with us. They were from all corners of the United States and beyond. We all waited for the same show from Mother Nature and she didn’t disappoint. After a brief introduction to Old Faithful’s history and reliability by a knowledgeable Park Ranger, she began to smoke and sputter, gurgle and spit. And then, the moment we had been waiting for.


But everything in Yellowstone wasn’t perfect. We were sharply reminded of the hazards when humans and animals meet unexpectedly when a man’s body was found near the park’s Grand Canyon. He apparently was killed by a grizzly bear. This appeared to be a vicious attack, not like the one earlier in the year when a couple accidentally got between a mother bear and her cub. Park officials closed trails along the rim of the canyon and posted warnings to stay in the car. It was a sobering reality of life in the park.

On the map, a lodge waited at the southern tip of the park’s edge called Flagg Ranch. We headed for it at the end of our final day in Yellowstone and arrived three minutes past eleven. The lodge closed at eleven.

You should just know that they mean this. We could still see people meandering around inside and certainly they could see us through the giant glass door. But the bolt had been thrown and that was that. My husband thought additional banging on the door would garner attention and he was correct. Security was alerted and we were quickly approached by two men in uniform.

But this was the friendly West and in the tradition of not turning away travelers at the ranch, we were offered a cabin. They couldn’t get us into the lodge because as we had discovered, it closes precisely at eleven. But they could rent us a cabin and took our credit card.

It was dark and the star studded sky sparkled. Our cabin nestled neatly in a grove of pines. But it was also late and we were tired so we just collapsed for the evening. The next morning I decided to take my coffee outside and swept the full length curtains back revealing a porch and a couple of rocking chairs in the foreground. But it was the background that amazed me.

It was the Tetons! Snow pebbled, jagged rock bulging straight for the sky! A path ran away from the porch through the sagebrush and small shrubs and I was so excited about the scenery that I shook my husband awake.
“You’ve got to see this!” I announced. He was less enthusiastic than me, but only until he actually got a whiff of the sweet air and a full glimpse of the grandeur that is the Tetons. We wrapped up as the temperature was in the upper thirties, and head out for a stroll through wonderland. I chuckled as I pulled on layers of thin clothing. Even the extra clothing we purchased at Cabella’s was too flimsy to offer much in the way of warmth. But the walk was brisk and fulfilling. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I was traveling through seasons as much as through scenery.

After a fantastic breakfast at the lodge, we proceeded through the Tetons’ lap; majestic peaks and mirror lakes surrounding us. Back east a hurricane was beating up our coastline and an earthquake rattled parts of Virginia which our son felt at home in North Carolina. Other tourists noticed our license plate and asked about our property and if we had heard any news.

We met people from California, Idaho, Maryland, and even England. The beauty of our surroundings had softened us all.

Then we arrived in Jackson Hole.

People in Jackson were angry about their tax dollars going to the aid of residents on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. They felt like they had knowingly endangered themselves and should suffer the consequences and they wanted us to know that.

“We’ll pass that along,” was about all we could do to commiserate with them. (Or was this the part of the story that involved a red Queen eager to chop off the heads of those who had offended her?)

We didn’t really want to anger them further by pointing out that we live in the mountains of North Carolina and nobody would care what we thought, much less what they thought. After all, they liked playing with guns and have a shootout right in the street a couple of times each day. I wasn’t eager to be the next target.

And we had a hamburger to tackle. A friend recommended Billy’s Giant Hamburgers.  Trust me when I say that it tasted as good as it was touted to be.

We walked off our meal slipping in and out of the quaint shops and bars that lined the board walkways around the center hub where bar stools were likely to have once served as a saddle for a horse. Giant arches of elk antlers covered the entrance to the park. There were so many different activities going on simultaneously. A pair of unicyclists got the crowd revved up. The sheriff was about to have a showdown with a bad guy right outside of the store I wanted to browse for belts and bracelets, and a bookstore had a resident photographer autographing copies of her just released book.

And we were starting to get tired, understanding that a lot of road lay ahead of us. It’s a long way back east from Jackson, Wyoming and I had been adding days to my leave as we journeyed further and further beyond our original destination. A friend called and joked that her partner didn’t understand how we ended up in Wyoming since we started out for Massachusetts. She explained that it was relatively close to the way they started out for Asheville and ended up in Tennessee.

Sometimes these adventures happen and they are perfection, becoming like the seed head of the dandelion bloom and blowing across terrain that would not normally fall underfoot, such as the return trip through the Painted Hills where the scent of the wild sage permeated the vehicle even through closed windows.

Photo of a western vista.

We followed an inner beckoning and took the trip we wanted to take, though the path to it had many twists and turns. This is the trip I wish for all who enjoy travel. Throw away the itineraries and the schedules. Leave the course that others are taking and chart your own. Drop into the rabbit hole. Alice and I will be waiting there for you.

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