After spending a day amid steaming geysers as Yellowstone prepared to shut down for the winter, it felt like a shift had occurred. The first days of our road trip — day after day after frikkin’ day — we trudged through stifling late-summer heat. Now we were scraping frost off the windshield in the mornings. It suddenly dawned on me how long we’d been traveling, and I was nervous about crossing the wide swath of flyover country that lie ahead. I’d driven it before in the opposite direction in 1989; it floored me how you could drive all day and still be in the same damn state!
The original itinerary was to swing southward into Colorado, which Mtuseni wanted to see. But I hadn’t planned anything, and my head was too frazzled to do any research or just wing it. So we began the long trek eastward.
Before heading out, we took one last walk through Jackson Hole. We had breakfast in a cafe that felt a little incoherent — man buns in Wyoming? C’mon! But the food was good, and I soaked up my last taste of classic old Western decor. We picked up the requisite souvenir t-shirts. And of course we got a photo at the antler arch. I felt sad pulling out of town; like much of the American West, there’s an energy in Jackson that just captures me.
Heading south on Rte 191, a sparkling river meandered alongside us through emerald hills and rocky passes for miles. Mtuseni said he couldn’t believe how clean the rivers were. It felt like we were in the Alps; I thought I’d see Julie Andrews singing and twirling around the next bend.
After descending through the mountains, we drove across the most beautifully desolate terrain I’ve ever seen. Flat. Dry. Just a few tufts of scrubby grass here and there. In all directions. For miles. There weren’t even many cars on the road. It felt like we were the only people on Earth. We pulled into a nondescript turnout for a pee break — and as we stood in the middle of nowhere facing the western horizon and leaving our manly marks, a prairie dog popped up out of a hole and watched us. I’d never seen one before — and we never saw another. It was so cute, and I marveled that he could live in what looked like a wasteland of nothingness. He had no inkling of all the crap going on in the world; he was perfectly content in his empty patch of land. It’s probably the most profound piss stop I’ve ever had.
In a tiny blink-of-an-eye place called Daniel Junction, I pulled into a gas station/store to grab something to drink. The place had the typical tall false front of old west commercial buildings — like something out of Gunsmoke — and a little cafe in front, just a few tables. Opening the door, the intoxicating scent of barbecue and grilled meat instantly made my mouth water — and I’m not a big meat eater.
I bought a couple of freshly made tri-tip burritos from the guy at the counter. I swear each one weighed five pounds. As I got back to the car, I looked up and was overcome by a beam of light from the heavens and a chorus of angels. A tall, trim, tan guy in his 30s — in jeans and chaps, boots and spurs, and wide brim cowboy hat — was walking up the steps to a cafe side door in front of the car. Honestly, he looked like a model from the Ralph Lauren western collection. He looked directly at me, smiled, and in a deep, warm radio voice said, “Hey. How’re you doing?” For a second I imagined us riding off on horseback together into the sunset. And some other things. I replied with my usual terse Boston “Hey.” He nodded and went into the cafe. I felt weak-kneed and woozy, like a schoolgirl. God, I love the West!
From the time we left Jackson, I kept looking back at the snow-capped Rockies — the same stretch of mountains we’d seen leaving Yellowstone. They were so beautiful and, corny as it sounds, majestic. I was amazed that we could see them for hours. Then suddenly they were gone. I felt sad; the Western leg of our road trip was truly over.
We continued east through scraggly, uninspiring country. I’d booked a hotel online in Rawlins, but when we got in the entire place smelled like cigarettes. The guy at the desk told me that was impossible; we were on the first floor and the second floor was the “smoking floor.” It’s been years since I’ve been in a place where magical invisible boundaries keep cigarette smoke contained — like the farce of “smoking areas” in restaurants. I cancelled the hotel and went to another place in Rawlins… which also reeked of smoke. Evidently when cigarettes are still 50 cents a pack, people smoke like chimneys everywhere.
It was already dark. And it being Wyoming — still, after hours of driving — there wasn’t another hotel mecca just down the road. So we drove another 100 miles to Laramie. I’d have to check my Expedia account to remember what the hotel was like; I was beyond tired.
Finally in the room, I unwrapped my burrito and tossed it after a couple of bites. The tri-tip — whatever that is — was like chewing leather. Mtuseni devoured his. He’ll eat anything that’s meat. As much as I lamented leaving the West, this delicate Easterner was ready for some sriracha noodles or oysters with mignonette or braised radicchio and orange salad.
Yeah, it never would have worked with me and the Ralph Lauren cowboy.