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Archive for September, 2008

Remembering a tip I had been given by Dawn Wexo at The Occidental Hotel in Buffalo, WY, I slid into Nebraska with an impromptu plan. Half with the intention to budget my lodging choice for the night and half curious about following an unusual lead, I’d pulled over to the side of a South Dakota road and placed a call to Fort Robinson State Park. Thanks to Dawn’s helpful suggestion, I would be spending the night in army barracks.

Fort Robinson, now a 22,000 acre state park under the direction of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, began as an army post in 1874. Located in the NW corner of Nebraska, just three miles from the town of Crawford, it was originally named Camp Robinson and located 1.5 miles down the road. It moved to its present location the following year and acquired the name Fort Robinson in 1878.

Most widely known as the location where Crazy Horse was killed in 1877, it also holds historical significance for housing the Buffalo Soldiers of the U.S. 9th Cavalry Regiment from 1885 to 1898. Museum exhibits and pay tribute to both of these distinctions, as well as many other on-site events, such as the Cheyenne Outbreak of 1879. Visitors can brush up on these aspects of history by visiting the Fort Robinson Museum or by simply walking the grounds to view posted signs and exhibits.

Though I was intrigued by the history, I had been equally lured by the prospect of inexpensive lodging and I was not disappointed. I was given a room in the old soldiers’ barracks, upstairs and adjacent to a wide front porch. Furnished with basic necessities – bed, dresser, table and lamp – it was spacious, freshly painted in a soft blue with off-white trim, felt light and airy as a result of high ceilings and had a private bath. A portrait of Levi Robinson, the fort’s namesake, hung on the wall. A quilted bedspread added a perfect touch of pioneer homestead atmosphere to the otherwise military environment. For a total fee of 46.60, tax included, I was a happy budget traveler for the night.

I had arrived after the tourist season and knew the regular summer tours, living history demonstrations and activities such as horseback riding would not be available. In addition, the cafeteria was only preparing food for employees, but I had enough rations of my own to get by.

I occupied my evening time walking the peaceful grounds, admiring the warm red brick structures, the horse barns and the many wide open spaces, often used in the past for regiment practices.

Eventually, I retired to my room, stopping at my car to stock up on a few late night snacks and morning provisions. I attempted to read, but found the peaceful stillness of the building and grounds sleep-inducing and drifted off quickly.

Over a mug of steaming French Roast in the morning, I patted myself on the back for having dragged a coffee maker up from my car the night before, as well as a packet of coffee from one recent inn and a cinnamon muffin from another. I sat on the front porch of the soldiers’ barracks, propped my feet up on the railing and jotted down notes while enjoying my makeshift breakfast.

Post-checkout, I headed over to a section of the property maintained by the Nebraska Historical Society, where I checked out several of the buildings – the 1906 blacksmith shop, 1909 veterinary hospital and 1887adobe officers’ barracks.

Though I was only able to view displays from the outside most buildings, I had a stroke of luck when a member of the historical society saw me peeking through the windows of the 1900 wheelwright shop. He kindly offered to let me in to view historic wagons and gave me an informative lesson in the wagon wheel repair that was crucial to the transportation needs of the turn of the century soldiers. Having a chance to receive a private tour and view the wagons close-up was a real treat and I thanked my guide heartily.

Aside from being a military fort, Fort Robinson served a variety of purposes. It functioned as a distribution center for The U.S. Red Cloud Indian Agency, to pass out goods to the local tribes. It housed and trained a K-9 corps during World War II, training 5,000 dogs between 1942 and 1945 in 8-12 week sessions. And it functioned as a German P.O.W. camp between 1943 and 1945. Historical markers commemorate these locations, as well.

I couldn’t leave without strolling over to the log cabins serving as the post guardhouse and post adjutant’s office, which were reconstructed during the 1960’s. On this site, Sioux warrior Crazy Horse surrendered to the army in May of 1877, where he was also fatally wounded four months later.

I had not expected such an immense history lesson when I headed into Fort Robinson to grab an economical room for the night. But I certainly ended up with a renewed appreciation for some aspects of U.S. history and, between that and my bargain accommodation in the barracks, I was glad I had made a stop at this fascinating military fort.

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I blasted across central Wyoming in one day, determined to make it to Buffalo, a Wyoming town nestled against the east side of the Big Horn Mountains.

The Occidental Hotel has a long legacy of western hospitality. Built in 1880, it started with humble beginnings – a main log building with six rooms upstairs and a saloon and restaurant below.

It became a hub of activity over the years, eventually expanding into one of the finest hotels in the west. However, like many historic hotels, business started to lag after the Great Depression and, after many decades of continuous decline, it fell into disrepair and finally closed its doors in 1986.

Rescued in 1987 by Dawn and John Wexo, a ten year restoration put the historic structure back on the map. In peeling back the worn interior of the hotel, many authentic, original aspects remained, from the tin ceiling to the wooden floors. Now completely and meticulously renovated, The Occidental Hotel not only offers outstanding lodging, but houses museum quality exhibits, making it a worthwhile educational destination, as well as an excellent lodging choice.

The hotel has a former guest list that reads like a “who’s who” of the old west. Central to the transportation paths of cowboys, outlaws and various visitors of influential position, Calamity Jane, Butch Cassidy, Buffalo Bill and Teddy Roosevelt are just a few of the guests who stayed there. And now so would I.

Several rooms were available for the night, each unique and decorated in different, authentic western themes. My choice was the Hoover Suite, conveniently located on the first floor, down a long hall and away from the street. In 1932, President Hoover, the 31st president of the United States, stayed in one of the two rooms that now compose the suite.

Decorated in rich green and burgundy tones, the suite offered a sitting area with sofa, writing table and television and a separate bedroom with an old-fashioned brass bed, dresser and table. Both rooms held fascinating antiques, with attention paid to tiny details. It was like sleeping in a museum for the night – a pleasant change from ordinary lodging.

A private bath with claw foot tub was positioned between the two rooms. Though unusual in logistical arrangement, it only added to the feeling of residing in an old, historical building. Care had been taken to make sure the bath had detailed amenities, too. An interesting side note is the fact that the tub is the same tub that was there in 1932, during President Hoover’s visit.

Other hotel rooms are linked to the building’s historical past. The Owen Wister Suite, for example, which commemorates the famous author’s regular visits to the hotel and saloon, where it is said impressions for characters of his well-known novel “The Virginian” were formed. The General Sheridan and Teddy Roosevelt Suites also give a nod to past visitors, as well as The Bordello Suite, composed of three rooms that represent quite a different aspect of the hotel’s early history.

Especially impressive is the care Dawn has taken to detail historical aspects. Small signs with specific information and displayed items are abundant. To use the term “attention to detail” would be a massive understatement.

The Virginian Restaurant, housed inside the hotel, was not open during my visit, but has the reputation of being one of the finest restaurants in Wyoming. I was able to grab a sandwich in the 1908 saloon, while enjoying the modern benefits of wireless Internet access. Though updated in amenities, the saloon still speaks to the hotel’s past, from the 25-ft. bar to the original gunshot holes in the ceiling.

By the time I checked out, I had decided to continue east. On Dawn’s recommendation, I took a side trip to Devil’s Tower National Monument – a magnificent natural structure that seems to rise out of nowhere – and then continued on into South Dakota.

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Fifty miles west of Bozeman, Montana, I pulled out my scattered travel notes and found the phone number to an inn I’d had bookmarked for many years. Luck was on my side. There was a vacancy that evening, so I secured a reservation over the phone, put away my notes and hopped back on the highway.

Sixty-three miles later, I exited I-90 at Jackson Creek Road and headed north, wondering what kind of adventure I’d gotten myself into this time. Just over three miles from the Interstate, I saw the B&B’s rustic sign on my right. I pulled off the road, pausing to enjoy a telltale hint within the lettering – a paw print, substituted for the “o” in the inn’s name. I looked up the driveway to the house in the distance, smiled and proceeded the rest of the way.

By lodging standards, it’s a small bed and breakfast, with three guest rooms tucked upstairs in a family home, plus a guest suite over the garage. The rooms are comfortable, with nice linens, convenient amenities and many other niceties associated with well-run B&B’s. Guests receive a full breakfast and have use of an indoor hot tub, Finnish sauna, pool table, entertainment center and more. But what makes this inn so dramatically different from others is not what can be found on the inside of the spacious log and stone building, but what awaits on the rest of the property.

Howler’s Inn is not only a bed and breakfast, but also a wolf sanctuary, a safe haven for wolves who have been bred in captivity, abused or unwanted. The wolves who find refuge at Howlers’s would not be able to survive if released into the wild. Though federally licensed and supervised by the USDA, the sanctuary does not receive any federal funding. It relies on donations from friends and guests, income from the bed and breakfast business and the hard work and love provided by the owners, Chris and Mary-Martha Bahn.

The wolves who live at Howler’s Inn arrive as pups and remain there for the duration of their lives. Because the sanctuary does not breed or sell any wolves, they are spayed or neutered when they arrive. Surrounded by trees, boulders and meandering streams, they live in one of two large, fenced enclosures and have free run of their natural setting.

I was fortunate to arrive in the late afternoon and have some time alone on the property before other guests arrived. The sky was overcast and rain was threatening, so I dropped my belongings off quickly in my room, grabbed my camera and headed down to see the residents. Mary-Martha cautioned me to stand at least five feet away from the fences. I was happy to follow any words of warning and grateful to be allowed to wander on my own.

Wolves are nocturnal, so most were still sleeping, but as the sun moved lower in the horizon, one by one they began to stir. In observing, and later speaking with both Chris and Mary-Martha, I came to recognize each wolf as having an individual story and personality.

Mohawk and Grizzly are the Alpha male and female, respectively. Both timber wolves, Alpha was born in 1997 and shows territorial and protective behavior. Grizzly was born in 1996 and was the runt of five pups, the only one of the five to survive an attack of Parvo. Chief is the largest, weighing approx. 100 pounds. Sundance is the Omega, the lowest wolf on the totem pole, and is very skittish. Cheyenne is an Arctic tundra wolf who was the alpha female until she was ousted by the pack. She was allowed back in when the newer alpha female, Ninja, was ousted herself. Ninja is the oldest of all the wolves, born in 1994. She remains distanced from the pack and lives on a deck outside the house, though still within the fenced enclosure.

I spent some time observing the main pack, keeping the recommended distance from the fence that surrounds their three acre space. I then moved on to the smaller, one acre enclosure, where the two younger wolves live. Kiowa and Comanche came to Howler’s Inn in 2007 as pups and the intention was to integrate them into the main pack. When they were not accepted by the other wolves, Chris and Mary Martha built them their own, one acre enclosure.

I found Mary-Martha at the edge of the enclosure, with both Kiowa and Comanche just on the other side of the fence. She motioned for me to come a little closer and told me there was a chance Comanche might allow me to approach the fence. Of all the wolves in the sanctuary, he was the most “dog-like,” she informed me. I watched as she stretched her fingers through the twists of metal, scratching Comanche’s soft, gray and white fur. He raised his head towards her in appreciation.

Cautiously, I stepped a little closer, watching for Mary-Martha’s cues. The wolf watched me approach, but did not move away. Once I stood directly next to Mary-Martha, she felt the wolf had accepted me and told me I could slowly reach through the fence, as well. To my amazement, she was right. I let my fingers brush the fur behind Comanche’s ears. It was surreal. I was actually petting a wolf.

Kiowa, the other young wolf, was more hesitant. Not as distant as the older wolves, but clearly not open to a pat on the head. Comanche was an exception, a behavioral rarity, Chris and Mary Martha explained. Wolves are wild by nature and cannot be trusted to react as anything else. Since the wolves at Howler’s Inn know and trust their owners, Chris and Mary-Martha are able to enter the enclosure to feed them or visit.

I had the good fortune to see Chris feed Kiowa and Comanche that evening, decked out in safety garb – a special jumpsuit and gloves to avoid scratches. The wolves at Howlers are fed a high-protein dog food mix daily, plus a twice-weekly mixture of red meat used for sled dogs and racing greyhounds. I had arrived on a dog food night. After taking all of fifteen seconds to consume their huge bowls of food, both Kiowa and Comanche took turns sitting in Chris’ lap to be petted and played with. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. But, then, I would never have believed I’d pet a wolf.

Evening fell and I scrounged up my own dinner of crackers, fruit and other misc. edible items I had in the car. I didn’t want to miss any time at the inn by making a run into town for a meal. I retired to my room, cracked open a window facing the wolf enclosures and settled in for the night.

Maybe it was midnight, maybe before, when I heard the first howl. It sounded like a distant cry of an owl, only lower in pitch. Soon it was joined by another. And then another. Before long I was audience to a midnight concert, some voices coming from the other side of the sanctuary, others starting up below my window. The sounds echoed across the open fields and wove themselves into my dreams. I kept the window open all night, just to hear the music.

Morning brought more drizzle and I knew I had to start preparing for a rainy day of driving, But I was determined to visit the wolves once more before leaving. I was served a breakfast of Orange French Toast with fresh fruit and juice, which I enjoyed while visiting with other guests B&B style. I picked up a T-shirt in the gift store – a hutch with assorted items that help support the sanctuary – and made my way back down to the enclosures.

I know I did not imagine that Comanche saw me coming. We eyed each other from many yards away. I moved closer to the fence and so did he. I stood against the fence and he moved right up to meet me. I was able to run my fingers through his fur just a few times before I had to leave. I gave him my thanks for letting me know him. In return, he gave me a forever memory of his gentle spirit.

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I drove into Boulder, MT and arrived at Boulder Hot Springs Inn and Spa completely unannounced. I’d had no idea where I was going to stay that particular night, not even any certainty that I’d be in that area. But when I found myself meandering between Butte and Helena, I landed in a serene Montana area aptly known as Peace Valley.

The inn itself dates back to 1863, when the first building was constructed. It has a long history of additions, changes of ownership, restorations, declines, improvements and varied uses. In 1990 it fell into the ownership of Anne Wilson Schaef, well-known lecturer and author of numerous books, including the popular, “Meditations for Women Who do Too Much.” Under her guidance and through a current limited partnership, the historic inn has been given new life. Today it stands as a majestic structure against the scenic backdrop of the Deerlodge National Forest. It is a remarkable building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Rising tall in the midst of 300 acres of wetlands, it can easily cause approaching visitors to catch their breath.

There are downsides to traveling without reservations and, even more so, in sliding in without so much as calling ahead the same day. In this case, I arrived to find the inn had suffered an episode of water damage the night before that necessitated closing down a good portion of the main building. As a result, it had been decided not to take on overnight guests that evening. I sat down in the lobby and was trying to figure out another plan when they offered to give me a tour of the building. I readily accepted. After all, I was there. I figured I might as well see what I could.

The building was impressive, with restoration completed in the west wing and plans for other remaining areas. Staircases, hallways and archways were beautifully restored. Guest rooms were furnished with a soothing blend of simplicity and artistic flavor. Common areas included a warm, inviting lounge, as well as a quiet, outdoor porch with rocking chairs. By the time we finished the tour, I was thoroughly enchanted. Shamelessly, I managed to talk them into letting me stay for the night.

Given a choice of several remodeled bed and breakfast rooms, I chose The Homestead Room, which looked out over the front property. As with each bed and breakfast room in the inn, the theme and decor were unique to that particular room. It was furnished in antiques, with personal touches added throughout. Every inch of the room was immaculate and inviting. A quilt in soft green, blue and rose tones covered an antique brass bed. Crocheted doilies accompanied a ceramic pitcher on the dresser. Framed prints on the walls and a detailed wooden model of a covered wagon added to the room’s pioneer ambiance. I felt right at home. With a private bath and writing desk, I was set for the evening.

A major draw to Boulder Hot Springs has always been the healing water that bubbles up from local mineral springs. Piped in at temperatures ranging from 140 to 175 degrees, it is cooled with natural well water and offered to visitors for soaking. Guests can relax in two indoor plunges and steam rooms or opt for a larger pool outside. There’s no need to worry about the water quality, as harmful chemicals are not added to the pure water and the indoor plunges are emptied, cleaned and refilled every evening. Being the only guest on the property that evening, I had the luxury of slipping into the outdoor pool to enjoy a little serenity under the stars.

I slept soundly – so soundly, in fact, that it took a knock on my door the next morning to bring me to the embarrassing revelation that I had overslept breakfast. I opened the door to find Connie, the cook, smiling and forgiving. She encouraged me to come down to the dining area so that she could prepare something to help start my day.

Food is treated with reverence in the inn’s kitchen and my morning breakfast was prepared with fresh, wholesome ingredients. I was greeted with the welcoming aroma of hot coffee and seated in a sunny room, surrounded by walls of artwork, part of a program to provide artists an outlet to showcase their work. Soft music played and sunlight flowed through the windows.

The inn takes care to attend to special culinary needs, with an emphasis on using fresh ingredients for nutritional benefit. My vegetarian status fell right in line with the available optiions. I was given a half grapefruit topped with sliced apples and cherries, which was followed by a mushroom, cheese and onion omelette. Potatoes and cauliflower accompanied the egg dish, with silver dollar blueberry pancakes for extra measure, served with both plum and maple syrups. Needless to say, I knew I wasn’t going to leave the inn hungry.

Before leaving, I hiked up a trail leading to artist and author Dr. Frederick Franck‘s “Seven Generations” sculpture. One of fifteen such sculptures in the world, this work of art pays tribute to the Iroquois philosophy that decisions should be made based on how they affect the seven generations that follow. Set high above the inn and overlooking Peace Valley, the surrounding vista offers yet another opportunity for meditation and reflection.

With the extensive buildings and grounds available, the inn is able to offer pool use to daily visitors, overnight accommodations to travelers, spa services by arrangement and a wide variety of classes, conferences and retreats. Upcoming programs at this time include yoga, journaling sessions and drumming workshops. Recycling and conservation are priorities; pride is taken in functioning in harmony with the earth, rather than using unnecessary resources.

If guests can manage to pry themselves away from such a nourishing atmosphere, nearby areas offer everything from antiquing to fishing to exploring Native American stomping grounds. Ghost town exploration is also a short jaunt away, though there’s always the possibility of seeing the resident ghost, Simone, without even leaving the property.

Boulder Hot Springs Inn and Spa is a fascinating work in progress, continually being restored to new life through the dreams of Anne Wilson Schaef and the caring efforts of a dedicated staff. Its magic flourishes in an atmosphere of personal commitment and love. Fortunately, this means many moments of peaceful relaxation and self-renewal await future guests.

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When President Abraham Lincoln signed The Homestead Act into law in 1862, it opened up opportunities for pioneers to move west. Mormon settlers arrived from the Great Plains and homesteaded land in northwest Wyoming, following three requirements: filing an application for ownership of 160 – 640 acres, tending and improving the land for 5 years and filing for title at the end of that period of time.

The land they claimed was spread along the valley floor of what is now known as Jackson Hole, with the magnificent mountain peaks of the Grand Tetons as the backdrop. Over time, the homesteaders developed a full community, including a school, church and other assorted town buildings. Eventually, the Rockefeller family’s Snake River Land Company bought out all but one acre of the area, offering tempting cash in exchange for the homesteads. This settlement came to be known as Mormon Row, a must-see area for visitors with a penchant for history and a well-known spot for avid photographers. It is now a National Historic District and part of Grand Teton National Park.

Lodging in Jackson Hole is notoriously expensive, especially during the jam-packed summer season. There are few options for tourists once the park and town lodging facilities get booked up. The few lodges in the park are sold out far in advance and cancellations are few and far between. The town of Jackson and nearby Teton Village are packed with hotels and inns, offering everything from basic motel rooms to suites at the Four Seasons. Those, too, are booked solid most nights. Having worked at a lodge all summer, there were numerous times I had to inform impulse visitors that the closest accommodations available were over Teton Pass, in Idaho. If anything in town was available, it was most likely a basic room in Teton Village for a hefty price tag of around $400-600. per night. Yes, you read that correctly. That would be for a basic room.

So imagine my shock when an online search turned up a small cabin on Mormon Row that could be booked for a mere $80. It was unheard of. I had to see for myself if such a place really existed, so I drove 13 miles north of town, turned east on Antelope Flats Road and parked along the dusty Mormon Row dirt road.

Wandering along, I passed the remaining structures of the former Mormon settlement, small cabins and sheds, tattered fences and two rustic barns known as the Moulton barns, frequently featured in photographers’ collections on the area. Eventually I came upon the one acre of land that was still privately owned and, sure enough, a small sign advertised cabins for rent. Accompanying it was a “No Vacancy” sign, which was no surprise.

Fast forward through two months of checking the cabins’ website daily, always pulling up an availability chart that was completely blocked full. Until one day when I looked at the chart and my eyes grew wide. A cancellation had opened up one night. I called the owners immediately and booked myself in.

When the long-awaited day finally arrived, I packed lightly – one change of clothes, my journal, camera equipment and laptop – and drove the short distance up to Moulton Ranch Cabins. Owned and operated by Hal and Iola Blake, descendants of the homesteading Moulton family, the small cluster of cabins sits in direct, unspoiled view of the Tetons, within a whitewashed fence, amidst a garden enthusiast’s dream of sunflower fields, tin tub planters filled with petunias and artistically arranged flowerbeds of every shape and size imaginable.

Iola introduced herself and showed me to The Cottage, the smallest of all the cabins. It was adorable, as I had expected, with a fishing theme, old-fashioned furnishings, a sweet, blue quilt, a tiny kitchenette and a half bath. A private full bath and shower was located just steps away in a separate building – a worthwhile compromise for such a bargain rate.

In contrast to my usual travel adventures, I was in familiar territory, since I was working for several months just a short distance away. I wasn’t about to head back into town for dinner, so I drove north, instead, to Colter Bay Village’s restaurant, an indoor eatery with a Chuckwagon theme. Ordering a favorite menu item, lasagna, I ate half and saved half to stash away in the cabin’s small refrigerator.

That evening I settled into my cabin for a quiet night of reading and seclusion. It was blissfully quiet and I felt far away from town. It was wonderful.

A chilly evening, I cranked up the thermostat a little too high and woke up in the middle of the night, kicking off my quilt and yearning for cool air. I cracked open the cabin door and stepped out for just a moment, only to find myself instantly mesmerized by the brightest stars I had ever seen. Had I ever known there were that many stars in the sky? It was a magical moment, accentuated by a perfect, still silence, and it took my breath away.

Lodging in cabins is a typical choice for me and I had come prepared. In the morning, I pulled open the drapes to let in the sun, clicked on my travel coffeemaker and unwrapped a muffin I’d brought along. With that for breakfast and the leftover lasagna for lunch, I was set for the morning and afternoon.

Hal came around before I checked out and gave me a little tour, showing me another old barn that he’s converted into a dance hall/meeting room space. Renovation is an ongoing challenge with older buildings and the Blakes work hard to keep improving their more than a century old property.

Because the roads to Mormon Row are not plowed during Jackson Hole’s long winters, the accommodations at Moulton Ranch Cabins are only open from Memorial Day through mid-September. During the rest of the year, the Blakes reside in Idaho Falls and work on other projects. Still, the cabins book up a year in advance and only book for one summer at a time. It takes pre-planning – or a stroke of luck – to nab a reservation there. But with the prime location, breathtaking views of the Tetons and stars that make the heart skip a beat, it’s well worth it.

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