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Archive for July, 2008

I sat in a wooden glider on the pool deck at the Bar N Ranch in West Yellowstone, MT. I had arrived later than intended and was frazzled from a long day of driving, but the cool evening breeze soon settled my nerves.

I’d taken The Colter Room, the smallest of all the rooms in the lodge – something I do on purpose when I travel alone – and it was perfect, from the mountain decor to the ready-to-light wood-burning fireplace. A jetted tub, refrig, microwave, coffeemaker, plush robes and luxurious sheets were all part of the deal. A back door led to a quiet deck with table and chairs, offering a view of the expansive property. Just the right spot for a morning cup of coffee. Or a little late night writing.

Stepping into the great room of the lodge, it felt immediately warm and inviting. Native American woven rugs surrounded leather couches and chairs. Soft jazz flowed from hidden speakers. The stairway’s twisted railings were spectacular. The river rock fireplace would be striking on a cold winter night. The overall feeling was luxurious and down to earth at the same time, the best of both worlds.

I spent a little time meandering around the property. Several guest cabins sat across from the main lodge, flanked by a pond and a lifelike sculpture of a moose. Employee housing was artfully hidden behind the false front of a western fort. With two hundred acres of open land stretching out in all directions, the location felt utterly remote in spite of its proximity to the main route into nearby West Yellowstone approximately six miles away.

Back inside the lodge, I readied myself for dinner. One of the best features of the Bar N Ranch is its top-notch restaurant and I was not about to miss out. I’d heard great things about the cuisine and it didn’t take long to find out that it lived up to its reputation.

My lemon-pepper linguini with artichokes, tomato and asparagus was delicious, as was the salad that preceeded it, decked out with feta cheese, olives and carrots. A fresh baguette accompanied the meal. Lulled into comfort by the soothing atmosphere of the dining area and excellent service, I fell to temptation and ordered peach-blueberry cobbler – a la mode, of course – and decaf coffee. It was a perfect meail.

It came as no surprise to me that I slept soundly. Morning found me up with the sunrise, coffee in hand, fireplace glowing and my spirit gliding slowly into the new day. I indulged in several hours of relaxing, reading and writing before heading downstairs for breakfast, included in overnight accommodations.

Again in the dining room, the morning atmosphere was fresh and invigorating, a contrast to the upscale dining ambiance of the evening before. Sunlight streamed in through the windows, lighting up the room with new energy. I was served a Firehole Omelette – cheese, onions, salsa – with a huckleberry pancake, fresh fruit and a cold glass of fresh squeezed orange juice. The presentation was beautiful and every bite was delicious. Needless to say, the meal left me well-fueled for an active day of area exploration.

Where to head next? Northeast into Yellowstone National Park? South to Mesa Falls? There were many options. I would see where the day took me.

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I entered Idaho from the east, following State Hwy 34 out of Freedom, WY, along the Pioneer Historic Byway and through the scenic Caribou National Forest. From the flat farmland that made up the final stretch, I approached the fairly non-descript town of Soda Springs, ID, passing various industrial properties and scattered residences on the outskirts. Crossing railroad tracks, I made a left turn and found myself on the main drag and right in front of my destination.

I had driven past The Enders Hotel on previous trips, never giving it more than a passing glance. But a recent Internet search had turned up something that made me curious to take a second look. A unique, inside view of the hotel was available through the perspective of Brandon Schrand, who had detailed his life growing up within its walls in his book, The Enders Hotel: A Memoir. The account of the author’s life as a young boy, riding a tide of hotel ups and downs and watching a revolving door of colorful characters, won him the 2007 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize. It sounded intriguing and it wasn’t long before I felt the familiar tug inside that I get when I yearn to explore something a little more closely. What better way to get a feeling of the place, I decided, than to book a room, buy a copy of his book and read it while staying there.

I checked in during the late afternoon, choosing a second floor room with a bath down the hall, a typical set-up for old hotels. As often is the case, the smaller rooms in historic hotels are a good bargain and this was no exception. My lodging rate for the night was $65, including a credit for breakfast the following morning. The receptionist opened the hotel’s gift shop so that I could purchase a copy of the book. Though there were other guests on the third floor, I was fortunate to find myself the only one on the second, which allowed me the quiet and isolation to fall into the story I held in my hands. I grabbed a quick sandwich downstairs at the Geyser View Restaurant, lugged my overnight bag up the stairs and settled in for an evening of reading.

From the very first page I found myself drawn into the story. This intriguing memoir sent me sliding through a time machine, landing firmly in the past. I could almost hear the author as a young boy, slipping through the halls. I vividly imagined the shot of a gun that had taken down a man in the bar downstairs. I felt the presence of previous guests and tenants in nearby hotel rooms or in apartments they had inhabited along the side of the hotel. When the wind rattled the door late at night, I could sense their spirits passing by. I had the unique luxury of stepping literally into the story, as I paused at passages and tiptoed down the halls to find the very spots the author described. Sometimes they were identical to what the pages painted. Other times the hotel’s restoration had changed their physical aspects. But in all cases, the sense of the story was almost tangible.

The Enders Hotel is deceiving from the outside, hiding as a typical older building lost amidst a main street that spans only a few blocks. A passing traveler would never guess that the inside holds a beautifully restored lobby boasting smooth, refinished banisters and pristine original lighting fixtures. Care has been taken to restore hallways and rooms with detail and authenticity. Furnished with antiques, it’s not difficult to imagine the hotel as it was when it first opened in 1917.

A museum occupies a good portion of the second floor, free of charge. Carefully arranged rooms present displays of early life in Soda Springs. Visitors can view old photographs of the town and its inhabitants, antique equipment for sewing, cooking and dentistry, with historical information accompanying each category. Sadly, at the time of my visit, a gun that belonged to the Sundance Kid had been recently stolen from the museum. But many other artifacts remain as reminders of the town in its early days.

I slept well, in spite of an eeiry sensation that seemed to hover around me. As it is, the hotel has the reputation of being haunted, even without the additional insight I had gained from Schrand’s recollections. When morning arrived, I ventured downstairs again to the restaurant, this time for breakfast. Having read much of the book the night before, I looked around the eatery with a new familiarity. I could easily imagine the young author sitting at the counter, ordering an after-school snack and chatting with familiar waitresses. Though the cafe was renovated along with the hotel, I now saw it as it appeared decades ago.

I checked out reluctantly. This was a peaceful, economical and inspiring place for me. I could have stayed much longer. Perhaps I could have lived there, as Brandon Schrand did many years before.

Before leaving Soda Springs, I strolled over to the Soda Springs Geyser, a natural geyser that, now regulated by a timer, erupts every hour on the hour. Several others stopped by in time to see the hourly show. Situated right behind the hotel, the geyser’s location held stories from Schrand’s memoir, as well. A small building had served as a clubhouse for the author and a cemetery bordering the back of the geyser’s hill had been regular stomping grounds.

My visit to Soda Springs was a fascinating excursion into the past, The Enders Hotel stands as a testament to the hidden treasures that small towns hold. They say not to judge a book by its cover. I say not to judge a hotel by its façade.

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The sleepy hamlet of Lava Hot Springs rests alongside Hwy 30 in Idaho, west of the even sleepier town of Soda Springs and southeast of the busier city of Pocatello. Had I not been clued in about its existence by a former employer who raved about the town’s inexpensive massages and outstanding Thai food – unrelated to each other – I probably wouldn’t have found it.

Deeded to the state of Idaho in 1902, along with the Portneuf River, Lava Hot Springs was originally part of the Fort Hall Indian Reservation. It later entered a treaty agreement between the United States government and local Shoshone Indians.

As with many mineral spring areas, use of the hot springs as healing waters long preceded the treaty, going back centuries. Trappers and traders called the area home, including a locally well-known trapper by the name of Bob Dempsey, who married a local Lehmi Tribe chief’s daughter. For a period of time, the town was called Dempsey.

Aura Soma Lava is one of several lodging establishments in town and offers a variety of options, from street front motel rooms at their Oregon Trail Lodge to private suites, a chalet and a cottage. In my perpetual quest for seclusion while traveling, I chose the latter and was glad I did.

The cottage was ideal, just the type that makes me want to move right in and make it my own. Set alongside an expansive lawn, it had a bedroom with king bed, cozy side room with daybed and trundle, full kitchen and private bath and a back deck with private hot tub. The rooms were decorated in soothing colors and I felt myself relaxing the moment I stepped inside.

Small towns are convenient for walking. Though back far enough from the main street to be quiet, the cottage was an easy stroll from most everything in town. I left the car parked and did my exploring on foot, including my trek to the mineral pools.

Lava’s Hot Mineral Springs are filled with natural mineral water that flows into the pools at temperatures between 102 and 112 degrees. More than two million gallons of water pump through the multiple pools daily, emptying out into the Portneuf River. Minimal landscaping adds both foliage and flowers to the property and the city’s park-like Sunken Gardens overlook the property, adding even more of a natural touch to the scene.

In case the hot mineral pool soaking itself isn’t enough to turn muscles to putty, a massage studio is conveniently situated on the grounds, I took advantage of both and somehow managed to slither back to my cottage without having to be carried, though I was so relaxed, I’m not sure how.

Visitors have flocked to Lava Hot Springs since the railroad first came to the town in 1905, yet there is a remarkable absence of tourist development. A small handful of commercial businesses can be found along the main street, but they are scattered and varied.

Aura Soma Lava has a semi-trendy, yet down to earth coffee shop located on Main Street, just up the block from the cottage. Wifi is available to customers and I purchased a miniature coffee cup from a shelf of gift items.

There are quite a few choices for lodging, yet dining options are few. But yes, there is excellent Thai food to be found at the east end of town at the Riverwalk Thai Restaurant. I made sure to fit that into my visit.

One exception to the area’s lack of commercialism is the Olympic Swimming Complex, situated at the west end of the town. Waterslides with a 60’ vertical drop provide faster paced activity for those seeking more than a peaceful soak in mineral waters. In addition to the outdoor pool, which closes during winter months, an indoor aquatic center is open year-round.

A developer might look at the area as having untapped potential, yet part of the charm of the area is the lack thereof. I weighed this as I took a walk through town before leaving, taking in a few final views of the surrounding scenes.

The historic hot springs pools held small clusters of guests relaxing and the Sunken Gardens were quiet and peaceful. The tube rental shacks appeared non-pretentious and the sight of the tubes bouncing along the river came across like a simple scene of natural, outdoor fun. I came to the conclusion that Lava Hot Springs is perfect just the way it is. I hope when I return someday that I find it unchanged.

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I found Lander Llama Company the same way I find a lot of places on the road, by running endless Google searches for interesting accommodations. Cabins, cottages, historic inns and hotels: they’re all possibilities. Anything out of the ordinary becomes a potential destination. And so I had bookmarked the llama company’s website, waiting for a chance to escape the flurry of Jackson, WY, summer activity in order to hide away with a few friendly beasts. At the first chance, I hit the road and headed to Lander, approximately two and a half hours east of Jackson.

Lander is situated in the Wind River Canyon area, a breathtaking, glacier-carved slice of Wyoming. It is a heavenly area for outdoor enthusiasts. Pristine wilderness settings offer exceptional hiking opportunities. Local rivers and streams are treasure chests for trout fishermen. And photographers would have to search hard to find any direction that was less than picture perfect.

Teresa and Scott Woodruff founded Lander Llama Company in 1985 and, along with their young daughter, Skylar, and a fetch-crazy black labrador, run the thriving business year-round. Formerly a dairy farm, the property is now a working ranch, with an exquisite group of llamas, whose jobs are either to accompany humans on wilderness pack trips or to breed. It was my good fortune to arrive when a new member of the family – less than forty-eight hours old – had just been born. The adorable baby stayed close to its mother’s side, often resting on the ground, but also spending some time standing on wobbly, newborn legs. I was amazed to find how big the baby was, considering its youth.

I decided to jump into the barnyard and hang out with the in crowd. Scott had already coached me a bit on llama behavior, informing me that they would accept my presence in their territory, but would be wary of being petted. Contrary to their reputation, he assured me that llamas need to feel a high level of anxiety or fear before resorting to their much-hyped behavior of spitting. Fortunately, his predictions of good llama behavior proved to be true while I was there.

As is frequently the case, my travel destination included some type of lodging. In the case of Lander Llama Company, this came in the form of The Bunkhouse, a single cabin-type accommodation situated not far from the llamas’ housing.. The structure featured rustic yet artistic lodgepole décor and was comfortably outfitted with modern amenities, including a private bath and shower. (It now has wireless access, too, though it was not yet installed during my visit.) A fully stocked kitchenette offered fresh fruit, popcorn, coffee and tea, as well as homemade cinnamon rolls, pancake mix, cereal, milk, juice, bagels and English muffins, all ready for a fix-it-yourself breakfast in the morning. No need to make a grocery run into town and no chance of going hungry. The comfortable queen bed was all I needed for my visit, though a family would be able to benefit from three additional single beds in a loft area, as well as a fold-out couch.

A front porch faced the babbling flow of the Popo Agie River and offered a small table and chairs for outdoor relaxation. Through a rear door of the structure, a narrow back patio gazed over the corral area. Web, the Woodruff’s black lab, provided good canine companionship in either outdoor area, napping at my feet while I admired the pastoral scenery and jotted down notes.

As tempting as it would have been to hide away from the world for my entire stay, I decided to do a little local exploring in town. I took some time to browse small shops and bookstores along Main St. With a few new books for future reading tucked away, I stopped in for a delicious dinner at Cowfish, a trendy, modern eatery located within the historic Coalter Block Between the artistic brick and glass interior, the clever logo – cow head, fish body – and the excellent food, I was impressed. I indulged in linguine with spinach, tomatoes, pine nuts and feta cheese, prefaced by salad greens with caramelized onions and balsamic vinaigrette and followed up with warm berry crisp ala mode. It was the class of restaurant that could have been found in Malibu or Carmel. Yet with an easy, five minute drive, I was back at The Bunkhouse, where I relaxed into a cozy evening in front of a gas “wood stove.”

Over a hot mug of freshly brewed coffee in the morning, I spent some time on the front porch. Puffs of white floated down from a row of Cottonwood trees. Web showed up again to visit and enticed me into a few rounds of fetch. Before packing my overnight bag in the car, I took a stroll to say goodbye to the llamas and caught up with Scott and Teresa to thank them for their hospitality. It wasn’t easy to leave, but I have Lander Llama Company and The Bunkhouse bookmarked for return visits and will be definitely recommending it to others.

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