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Archive for August, 2008

For a girl who was fortunate, as a teen, to study in France, the hardest thing about visiting Dubois, WY, was forcing myself to pronouce the town’s name correctly by local standards: DEW-boys. Then again, I could have been faced with the name “Never Sweat,” the town’s original choice, reflecting either the warm, dry winds of the area or the avoidance of heavy work by the local men, depending on varying written accounts. When the town’s first postmaster vetoed the name in 1886, it fell instead to Senator Dubois of Idaho, who happened to be on the Senate Postal Committee at that time. As the story goes, the locals adopted the current pronunciation as a rebellion to the name change.

Dubois is a sleepy town, compared to fast-paced Jackson, ninety miles away. Surrounded by the granite rock formations of the Wind River Range, it exudes a western ambiance that is genuine, rather than touristy. For those who like to browse a town’s main drag, it offers a main street with a few shops and cafes. And with 2.4 million acres of surrounding national forest, there’s plenty for outdoor enthusiasts to explore.

At the Dubois Museum and Wind River Historical Center, visitors are able to learn about the logging industry of the early 1900’s, when the Wyoming Tie and Timber Company produced railroad ties for much of the United States. “Tie Hacks,” many from Scandanavia, worked year-round to keep up with the demands of the growing railroad industry. Tribute is paid to their hard work with a Tie Hack Memorial just outside of town. The National Bighorn Sheep Interpretive Center gives additional information about the local area, as the surrounding Wind River Basin is home to the largest population of Bighorn Sheep in the lower 48 states.

Once again, it was a historical log cabin that lured me to this quiet western town. Founded in the late 1800’s, Dubois has been home to fur traders, homesteaders, tie hacks, Native Americans and last, but not least, outlaws. It’s the latter that drew me to a cabin four miles out of town. I was following the trail of Butch Cassidy.

Jakey’s Fork Homestead is a small B&B operation on wide open land several miles east of town. The main house is modern and spacious and serves as the owner’s residence, with three upstairs rooms reserved for B&B guests. The first floor has common areas for guests, including a breakfast room surrounded with windows, offering an unobstructed view across the valley.

I was greeted by Carolyn, the owner, who welcomed me with fresh baked goods and a glass of ice tea. Accompanying Carolyn was the resident canine, Sunny, a Katrina rescue adopted by the family three years before. Our conversation gave me some history on the area, as well as advice on local restaurants, which I tucked away for later reference.

With formalities finished, I headed down a hillside path behind the main house, crossing the inn’s namesake, Jakey’s Fork, by means of a wooden bridge. I arrived on a lower level, stepped out of a cluster of trees and found myself facing a group of log buildings, the remains of the former Simpson Homestead. It was here that Butch Cassidy spent Christmas night in 1889 and here that I would spend the night more than a century later.

The cabin available to overnight guests is the original bunkhouse of the Simpson Homestead, In reality, it is three cabins together, as two additional cabins have been attached to the original, one leading off to one side with a modern bathroom, including claw foot tub, and one stretching off to another side, serving as a kitchen and living area. Aptly, it is called “The Bunkhouse.”

I fell in love with it immediately, the moment I stepped inside. The cabin was carefully decorated to reflect the lifestyle of the original homesteaders, with many additional welcoming touches – gingham curtains, quilted bedspreads, reading material, a vase of fresh wildflowers on the dining table. I was immedately sorry that I had only one night to stay.

Outside, next to the tumbling water, I found a wooden swing, a picnic table and a fire ring. A small, private beach of rocks allowed access to the water’s edge. There was a feeling of complete peace and privacy.

Just a few yards from The Bunkhouse was a second cabin, still in the restoration process. This was the cabin that served as the main household for the original homestead. Within those walls, Butch Cassidy and his partner, Al Hainer, shared Christmas dinner with the Simpsons. From the written account on the B&B’s website, it is said that “it was a jolly occasion, with lots of laughter, games and plenty of old-fashioned eggnog.” As this was one of the last stops Cassidy made before embarking on another crime spree, I could only wonder about the conversation that took place within those walls. Additional information about Butch Cassidy’s history and Wyoming connections can be found here.

I could tell it wouldn’t be long before evening fell, so I decided to head into town for a bite to eat, in order to return before dark. The driveway to the lower property was unpaved and rocky and I knew it would be easier to navigate in the light. In addition, the sky was threatening rain.

On Carolyn’s recommendation, I headed to the Sundance Cafe, a rustic, yet upscale restaurant back in town, overlooking Horse Creek. It was surprisingly crowded, but I managed to get a small table after a short wait.

The menu was limited, but excellent, offering entree choices of Moroccan Style Duck Breast, Hawaiian Pork Loin Roulette, Rack of Lamb in Middle Eastern Spices and Vegetarian Penne Pasta. I chose the pasta, decided to forego the appetizer choices of Escargot or Thai Shrimp Cocktail, and enjoyed live folk music from a local musician named Christina. Fresh bread and salad started off my meal, which turned out to be a blessing, as the kitchen managed to lose the ticket to my order. To the cafe’s credit, they comped my meal and still prepared the pasta to go.

As the kitchen mix-up kept me lingering, I drove back to the cabin in the dark and made my way slowly down the bumpy driveway, headlights on bright, hoping to not hit a moose or deer in transit. I’d been told earlier that a bobcat had been seen recently in a nearby tree, but I escaped any potential wild encounters between my car and the cabin door.

I cracked open the window so I could fall asleep to the sound of the river and soon a light rain added soft, tapping sounds. Contrary to all instinct, I set an alarm clock for the morning. By habit, I’m a night owl and I needed to be awake, dressed, coherent and up the hill for the 8AM breakfast that Carolyn serves. It turned out to be worth it. I had a little time in the morning to enjoy a serenade of birdsong, sitting by the creek with coffee, before joining other guests for raisin french toast, sausage, fresh fruit, pomegranate juice and yogurt.

After saying goodbye to Carolyn, I headed back through Dubois and passed another local eatery, The Cowboy Cafe. I was tempted to stop in, but breakfast had been hearty and I knew I had pasta from the night before. I ended up eating in a construction zone going over Togwotee Pass, which separates the Wind River area from Grand Teton National Park. Not the prime location for a nice meal, but the Vegetarian Penne Pasta was delicious and the construction delay worth it for the adventure I’d had.

From my hand written journal, before packing the car to leave:

I sit now in the Homestead Cabin in the exact one-room building where Butch Cassidy had Christmas dinner in 1889. Did he sit right here, where I’m sitting? Touch the wall by the front door? Walk across the floorboards that I have just crossed? I love the history and the hauntedness of it all. Must go. Very reluctantly.

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From my window at the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, I watched elk graze on the
lawn outside, a backdrop of sage behind them. The air had turned cool, with
evening approaching. I enjoyed a plate of eggplant parmigiana while thinking back over the day.

There’s a sort of magic that befalls Yellowstone National Park once the twilight slides into near darkness. Visitors settle down for the evening, traffic outside on the park road dies down and a current of conversation rises up inside lodges. Kindred spirits share stories and adventures, coming together from all over the world, yet united in their shared experience.

The interior of the hotel dining room has an art deco feel to it, with high ceilings and tiered chandeliers that seem not unlike upside-down versions of the mineral spring formations outside. It is a stately dining room, the atmosphere brimming with a sense of history – a fitting place to relax after an earlier stroll alongside the nearby historic buildings of Fort Yellowstone.

The hotel itself came into being in stages, dating back to McCartney’s Hotel, which was built in 1871, one year before Yellowstone became America’s first National Park. McCartney’s Hotel was replaced by The National Hotel in 1883, much larger and designed to attract and house tourists. In 1908 Robert C. Reamer, architect of the Old Faithful Inn, began steps to turn The National Hotel into a larger facility. An annex was built in 1913, which remained after the main hotel was torn down in 1936 and replaced with what is now the current hotel, an impressive cluster of hotel, dining hall and cabins.

After dinner, I headed over to The Map Room, set off to the side of the hotel lobby and named for an expansive map of the United States that adorns one wall. Made from 2,544 pieces of inlaid wood, the map itself poses a trivia challenge to visitors. Each state has its capital marked, with all but one showing the correct city. As to the one that is incorrect, that’s for visitors to figure out. Do I know which one? Well, yes, but I’m not telling. Why spoil the surprise for future guests?

The impressively large room is used at various times for presentations and remains open all night, providing a comfortable location for guests to congregate. I watched several wander through, admiring the map and identifying and commenting on misc. states. A father played cards with two sons at a side table. A female guest curled up in a chair with a book.

As with just about all historic hotels, Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel was not built with sound-proofing in mind. On the top floor – small room with bath down the hall – I slept well, in spite of a few echoing door slams somewhere in the building. It’s a part of old hotels, the noises that accompany the peaceful, historic atmosphere. With the right attitude, it can add to the charm.

Morning brought with it the opportunity to explore the limestone terraces just a short distance from the hotel. Well-planned boardwalks provide easy access to viewing the spectacular formations that have developed over millions of years. The mostly white mineral deposits seem to exist in a ghostly city of their own. They are a stark contrast to the deeper blues and orange-golds of the mineral pools found in other areas of Yellowstone and well worth a visit.

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Searching for a dose of the old gold rush days, I headed up through Yellowstone National Park and out the west gate, where I picked up Hwy 191 North towards Bozeman, MT. I turned west onto Hwy 287 and aimed my car towards Ennis, a well-known hot spot for fly-fishermen. Beyond Ennis, I continued another fourteen miles, arriving finally at my destination: Virginia City and Nevada City, MT, two richly preserved towns that stand in honor of the old mining days of the west. It was here, along the edge of Alder Gulch, that early prospectors mined nearly thirty million dollars worth of gold during the 1860’s.

I had planned an overnight trip and had several options for lodging, but had not made a reservation in advance. The Fairweather Inn, nestled into the main street of Virginia City, had nicely restored rooms and several vacancies. I made a mental note of approval and then headed just over a mile down the road to Nevada City to check out my other possibility, the Nevada City Hotel. There I found another batch of restored rooms, furnished in period Victorian pieces and ready for overnight guests.

Either of these lodging establishments would have made a fine choice, but I had one more option that intrigued me. The Nevada City Hotel is also home to a set of pioneer cabins, restored to nostalgic perfection and equipped with comfortable furnishings, old-fashioned quilts and modern plumbing. I couldn’t resist. I picked up a key to an authentic, sod-roofed cabin and settled in.

My cabin was one of several behind the hotel, off the main road. It was spacious, with two double beds, a dresser, desk and chair. I was disappointed to find the walls whitewashed, rather than showing the natural logs underneath. But it was immaculately clean, peacefully quiet and the quilts gave it a homey feel. No phone, cell phone coverage or wireless access. It would be a night of quiet reading and writing.

Across the street from the hotel, I found a cluster of old boxcars, soaking up the last of the afternoon sun. I wandered between the cars, balancing on train tracks and peering in windows. I crept up the stairs of several trains to peek inside at tattered seats and rusty metalwork.

Just beyond the railyard, a mining museum offered additional rusty photographic subjects. It was a bonanza for a camera buff and I took enough shots to fill the evening with some trusty Photoshop companionship. First, however, was the prospect of finding something for dinner. I left the boxcars and mining equipment behind and looked up and down the empty street, contemplating my rumbling stomach.

It was a good thing I hadn’t planned on gourmet dining, not that I would have on this type of excursion. As I stepped out of the cabin, darkness was quickly falling and Nevada City greeted me as the ghost town it had been many years before. I drove into Virginia City, only to find I’d just missed the last hours at the two restaurants in town. Directed from one of them to the Bale of Hay Saloon, I found only frozen pizza and nachos on the menu. I took a suggestion from the bartender and drove over to Alder, where I was told I could find a decent dinner.

Nine miles down a dusty, bumpy road, I finally arrived at the Alder Steak House, one of very few buildings in town with lights on. It was still open, as the bartender had promised, but the scene was less than encouraging. I found my way through the deserted dining room to a small corner table, after calling out to the kitchen to let them know they had a customer.

Over a checkered, vinyl tablecloth, I glanced around and took note of the red carpeted walls and eclectic room decor, A full-sized American flag covered most of one wall, but left enough room for some assorted farm tools. Plastic flowers adorned the tables, Christmas lights surrounded the windows and a “Karaoke Every Night” sign hung near an empty stage. It was 9PM, but there were no drinkers at the bar. Apparently I was the entire clientele, at least for that portion of the evening.

Now, I’m the first to admit that a steak house is not a perfect dining choice for a vegetarian. But I thought surely I could find something. I called again to the kitchen to see if they had a menu. Bypassing steaks and seafood dishes, I decided on a plate of assorted fried veggies. No luck, not in stock that evening, so I settled on a grilled cheese sandwich, which soon landed on the table with a thud – white bread with a sliver of American cheese, slathered in grease. I took a bite or two to be polite and left the rest with enough money to cover the bill and tip. It was hardly a fine dining experience, but it was still an episode of life on the road, which in itself is rewarding, in an odd way.

I drove back to the cabin in the pitch dark. Nine miles is an interminable distance on a bumpy back road, alone, late at night, without a single light other than headlights and nothing but the sound of gravel under the car tires. Once I was settled in for the night, I pulled out my emergency stash of honey-roasted nuts and set up my travel coffee maker for the morning, finally drifting off to sleep with a little late night reading.

Morning arrived with crisp, cool air and ethereal, early light filtering through the windows. I clicked on the coffee maker, showered, slurped down a little French Roast and headed over to the Star Bakery, an easy walk from the cabin. Here I found enough ambiance and culinary delight to more than make up for my previous evening’s Twilight Zone dining episode.

The Star Bakery was bustling with activity, clearly a favorite with both locals and visitors, but I managed to find a table near the back of an enclosed patio. No red carpeted walls here, only flour, salt and sugar sacks intermixed with dried flower arrangements – a huge improvement. Placemats offered historical information about Hwy 287, the Vigilante Trail. The sole road through town, it was formerly a primitive dirt road which served as the route between Glacier National Park to the north and Yellowstone National Park to the south.

A delicious veggie omelette, home fries and sourdough toast erased my memories of the night before. I left the Star Bakery with the satisfying feeling that comes from good old home cooking. I checked out of my pioneer cabin and spent a little more time exploring the area.

Nevada City is now a Historical Museum, filled with authentic log buildings and historical exhibits varying from antique calliopes to old boxcars. There’s no need to search for the entrance to the museum; it encompasses the entire town, all within easy walking distance. And between Memorial Day and Labor Day, visitors can hop a restored 1910 Baldwin steam locomotive to travel between the two towns.

Virginia City is larger than Nevada City and offers visitors a full assortment of town fare. A National Historic Landmark since 1961, it was originally founded by gold rush fortune seekers in 1863. During its heyday, it served as the capitol of the Montana Territory, until dwindling gold resources resulted in nearby Helena acquiring that status. It followed the frequently seen rise and fall of mining towns before being rescued in the 1940’s by Charles and Sue Bovey, who saw the valuable heritage both towns could offer to future visitors. Through their restoration efforts, the area is now a lively center of activity, offering living history presentations, as well as all the usual western tourist experiences: gold panning, stage coach rides, ghost tours and old west theatre productions.

I was fortunate to slide in late enough in the season to avoid the crunch of out-of-town visitors. But there were still shops and restaurants open for browsing. Rank’s Mercantile offered western and Victorian clothing, just as it did when it first opened in 1964. Candy shops, ice creameries and gift emporiums occupied other historical structures along the main street. Up the street from the Bale of Hay Saloon I found the Metropolitan Market, which offered old-fashioned atmosphere, a cozy, antique couch and a mouth-watering assortment of baked goods. There I was able to enjoy a vanilla latte and pick up wireless Internet access, something I was not able to do back in Nevada City.

I couldn’t leave without taking a little jaunt up to Boot Hill, which looks out over the town. Here I found the graves of five lawless “road agents,” sent to their final resting places by the Montana Vigilantes. Surrounded by plain, wooden grave markers, I took a few minutes to admire the view of Virginia City and the rolling hills of the Alder Gulch area. Wind whipped through my hair and the distant sounds of town activity mixed with the soft rustling of nearby grasses. Alone on that hill, in the ghostly company of the road agents, I knew once again I had found a truly unique road experience.

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