The Life in My Years

An anthology of life

The Red Lodge, Montana area attracts hunters, fishermen, hikers and campers, but my single purpose was to drive the Beartooth Scenic Highway. Sixty five miles long, starting at Red Lodge, the Beartooth snakes up the Beartooth Mountains to an elevation of just under 11,000 feet before dropping down into the twin towns Cooke City and Silver Gate, and the northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park.

We took Highway 212 southwest out of Red Lodge. Along the course of Rock Creek you could legitimately call the Beartooth a highway.

It’s a gentle rise, almost a false flat until 10 miles into the drive, where the rise turns into a steep twisting climb. From 10 miles on, the term “highway” is a generous figure of speech as the Beartooth becomes a two lane road of harrowing switchbacks and hairpins. You don’t do highway speed here unless you yearn to take in the view from the unique perspective of a brief freefall before the hard landing in the canyon below.

On occasion I would glance up and see the roofs of cars weaving in smooth tempo, back and forth, along the switchbacks, growing smaller as they made their way up the flank of the mountain, ever more tiny until they disappeared. Sign posts in the distance above looked like twigs.

Cora tries to avoid heights if at all possible and when avoidance isn’t possible she turns to renouncing them. On the drive up or down notoriously steep Filbert Street in San Francisco, she looks down at her feet as she mumbles a few prayers to all the saints – and likely a few sinners – because you gotta hedge your bet. While I enjoy the view of the horizon from a glass elevator she reads the advertisements on the wall.

At about 8000 feet, I pulled over at a turnout and stepped to the edge. It was here that I had to coax Cora to take in the view. Reluctantly she got out of the car and fear gave in to amazement and awe.

We looked down on the Lilliputian scene in the canyon far below; highway 212 where we had just been driving, now in miniature, carried toy cars along the course of Rock Creek, now a silver thread, glistening in the mid-morning sun. We looked straight across at a snow topped façade of granite peaks and cliffs.

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At the northernmost edge of the town of Red Lodge, Montana, a cabin hewn of logs and caulking sits amid a ring of river stones in front of the Red Lodge Visitor Center. If the old cabin were sitting deep in the woods at the end of a dusty road it wouldn’t draw a glance, just another hunter’s shack. But this cabin, right smack on the edge of town, located, incongruously, across the street from a Comfort Inn Motel is an out of place oddity. The little shack, built in 1888, is a time warp.

It wasn’t always there, just a stone’s throw from a traffic roundabout. In 1986 the cabin was moved from its original location some eight miles away, near the little town of Bearcreek.

The cabin’s builder and original owner, a man christened at birth, either John Jeremiah Garrison Johnston, or John Garrison, depending on the source, was born in New York State in 1824.

Vague history places Johnston/ Garrison, in the Mexican War as a sailor on a naval fighting ship. At some point during his service he struck an officer, deserted, changed his name to John Johnson and headed west to become a mountain man and wilderness guide. He later earned the sobriquet, “Liver Eating Johnson.” During the 1880’s, Johnson became constable of Red Lodge and over a century later, remains a local folk figure.

After a drive that saw 100 degree heat in Greybull, Wyoming; after the lightning in the Big Horn Basin; after the wild wind on the way north to Lovell; after the dust and sand storm in Deaver; after the rain that turned the windshield into the big muddy; and after the skies had cleared and the wind turned to a whisper outside of Bridger, Montana, we arrived at Red Lodge.

Red Lodge, population 2300, rests at the panoramic convergence of the High Plains and the Beartooth Plateau. Between Red Lodge and Billings, the nearest city, are sixty miles of rolling ranchland.

At any given time you can look towards one or more points on the compass and see a backdrop of snow topped mountains.

Route 308 crosses Rock Creek and enters the old coal mining town of Red Lodge at its southern end.

From 308, I turned right onto Route 212, Broadway in Red Lodge, and parked creek-side to figure out where we were and where our home for the next three days was located.

A squat, black wrought iron fence fronted the small, older house. The two story, green home had the steep sloped roof prescribed by the town’s annual 129 inches of snow.

The inside had a brilliant wood floor the color of chestnuts. The furnishings were simple, snug, and plush. The dining room featured a heavy, chunky wooden table.

A narrow twisting stairway groaned in that pleasant homey way of old country houses. Our bedroom, warmed by the afternoon sun, looked out over a wooden deck and a fair sized backyard.

Lexi hadn’t had a backyard to roam in over three weeks and she made the most of the opportunity, sniffing the grounds and lingering at the most interesting traces. The doggy joy was short-lived.

I sat in one of the Adirondack chairs on the deck enjoying a beer and the late afternoon sun while Lexi nosed around the yard. When I called she dashed to the deck, tried to take the steps in one leap and slammed into the top step.

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“Well, we’re not in the middle of nowhere, but we can see it from here.” ~ Thelma & Louise

It seemed that way sometimes, those times when we got a little bit lost and found ourselves on a long stretch of a desolate county road. It’s on those roads when you haven’t seen a passing car for miles and miles on end that you feel as if you’ve driven yourself out of civilization.

We got lost in Arizona and drove 50 miles on two rutted lanes to a shack and some outbuildings that Google tried to sell me as being the Painted Desert. It was certainly desert but the buildings were in sore need of a coat of new paint. Except for the reds and browns of distant mesas, the land had an ashen complexion.

Yet even in what seemed smack in the middle of empty, we always saw random traces of civilization, either abandoned or lonely or somewhere in between.

We passed old barns suffering the ravages of time and seasons, rain, wind and sun. Though rotting and dilapidated, they take on a character that they never possessed in the days of their newly painted youth. They aren’t unlike people in that way.

We saw rusting metal shacks, and enough hulks of old cars to put together a respectable vintage car museum.

And the single wides. Plenty of those. The nearest neighbors are coyotes and jackrabbits. Out front, in a plot of dirt that passes for a yard, as if the whole of the barren land isn’t the yard, we might see a giant satellite dish. They belong to the loners who live on the outside lines of the grid. The others, the real hermits, they’re the ones without a dish. They either left the grid or never bothered with a grid.

A rail corral might house a horse or two, maybe a cow.

I imagine if you drive down the dirt road that leads to one of these hovels, you’ll be greeted by a barking old mongrel that wears the same dust he donned when he was a pup. That’s the movie stereotype anyway.

Between the shacks and mobile homes are wide sweeps of nothing.

Cora wondered aloud how they survive. She was looking at it through suburban eyes, someone who holds her manicurist, trusted doctor and local supermarket close to heart.

On the other hand, I wonder what it would be like to live that sort of solitude. Is it peace and freedom from worldly stress or is it an empty, friendless isolation?

I made the argument that this is likely the life they choose, are perfectly happy with it and wonder how we can tolerate suburbia.

I actually wouldn’t mind giving it a try. That would be easy though, knowing that I always have suburbia to fall back on. But what’s it really like? Really, meaning that there’s no back up plan.

At times it wasn’t a case of getting lost but more a purposeful, “I wonder what’s down that road?”

In South Dakota we took a county road that went from paved to potholed to gravel. We took that road until I decided that whatever it was that we were looking for wasn’t worth the anxiety of having a breakdown in the middle of desolation.

Was it South Dakota? Maybe it was Wyoming or Montana or New Mexico. I’ve lost track of those lonely little roads.

And then there was the long stretch northbound on Highway 49 in Missouri, headed towards the crazy little women and barbecue of Kansas City.

Joseph City, AZ

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The COVID Chronicles is a series of pieces that I began at the start of the pandemic. The series is a journal of one person’s experiences and impressions in an unprecedented time. 

The Church Of The Misconception is an odd congregation. As religions go it’s rather new, having shown up at the start of 2020. To call the Church Of The Misconception a religion is being generous, as it’s more of a cult.

It isn’t hard to become a member of the Church Of The Misconception. While it isn’t a prerequisite for membership, one should be firmly rooted in the belief that science is suspect and that medical science is nefarious. Beyond that all that’s required is a baptism in snake oil and the regular partaking of the unholy sacrament of Kool Aid.

Early on, the high unholy priest of the Church Of The Misconception was Donald Trump. While Trump is still active in the Church Of The Misconception, many of his leadership duties have been taken on by some of the lesser priests in the hierarchy. You may be familiar with some of them;
Ron DeSantis, Greg Abbott, Rand Paul, Peter Navarro, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Tucker Carlson, just to name a few.

Like many religions, the Church Of The Misconception has its own set of commandments.

Thou absolutely should lie and spread patent bullshit.
Thou should worship false idols.
Thou really doesn’t have to give a damn about thy neighbor because thou hast rights – dammit.
If thou givest a virus to thy father, thy mother or thy children, oops, my bad.
Thy freedom is more important than thy social responsibility.
What, me worry?

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Two routes lead from Sheridan, Wyoming to Red Lodge, Montana.

The quicker is to take 90 north into Montana, till you get to Hardin. At Hardin, you make a hard left and head into Billings, born as a railroad town in 1882, and grown up to be the state’s largest city. From Billings you slide southwest on the map into Red Lodge.

That first section through Hardin roughly follows the course of the Little Bighorn, a river that would be just another inconspicuous watercourse had it not been for a famous battle that occurred along its bank, about 71 miles north of Sheridan.

The clash between five companies of the U.S. 7th Cavalry, led by Lieutenant-Colonel, George Armstrong Custer, and a superior force of Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho, is one of the most famous battles in American History. At the end of an estimated two hour long battle, Custer and his entire command were killed. Custer’s body was found on a hillock that was christened, Last Stand Hill. A monument to the 7th Cavalry sits atop the hill.

My original idea, before we left home, was to take this route and stop at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. I’ve a long standing interest in military history and the Little Bighorn had been one of those bucket list places.

Having read two books on the battle itself, along with Custer’s own memoir, My Life on the Plains, I’d already known Custer to be one of the most notorious characters in the long running drama of the Indian Wars.

Custer is a study in conflict. He attended West Point where he gained a reputation for being an insubordinate troublemaker who would eventually graduate 34th in a class of 34. Custer was a braggadocios, egotist; a self-promoter who was known for designing his own flamboyant uniforms.

In 1868, after having served a ten month punishment for desertion and mistreatment of soldiers, Custer revived his military career by leading an early morning attack on a band of peaceful Cheyenne near the Washita River in Oklahoma that resulted in the slaughter of 103 Cheyenne, including a number of women and children.

Ever since the famous battle at the Little Bighorn in 1876, Custer has been alternately cast as either a racist incompetent, whose hubris led to the massacre of 268 U.S. Troopers, or a man miscast by history. Custer’s reputation has pin balled between misunderstood hero, narcissistic villain, and tactical blunderer.

The night before we left Custer, South Dakota for Sheridan, I’d decided to take the other route to Red Lodge.

The time that we spent in South Dakota had me weary of paeans to Custer and the U.S. Cavalry; the names of places, streets, towns, schools and monuments that commemorate Custer, his officers and a genocidal war.

That two towns along 90, near the battlefield and located on the Crow Reservation are named Garryowen after the title of the 7th Cavalry’s regimental song, and Benteen after one of Custer’s officers seems to add chauvinist insult to injury.

The other route to Red Lodge heads west until the town of Greybull, Wyoming and then swings northwest towards Red Lodge. This route takes in a section of the Bighorn Scenic Byway.

At the Wyoming-Montana state line we planned to take a short detour into the Pryor Wild Horse Range, a place that I’d wanted to visit six years ago but had to cancel due to bad weather.

Done with touring The King Saddlery on Main Street I stop to fill the tank before we leave Sheridan.

There’s plenty of gas in the tank but ever since the Mojave Desert a few thousand miles ago I’ve been in the habit of not letting the tank get below halfway. This from someone who often runs the tank down to fumes back home in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The price of gas is starting to creep back up here in Wyoming. When we left the Bay Area gas was over $3.00 a gallon. One of the things we enjoyed about Texas was gas at $2.55. Here in Sheridan it’s $2.75, and I imagine the locals consider that to be a highway robbery instigated by Joe Biden.

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Fashionably late.  Again.

I’ve managed to lag behind in the photo challenges so why should this week be any different?

The subject for LAST Saturday’s Lens Artist Challenge is Getting Away. What an appropriate title for 2021.

We were stuck in 2020. Cabin fever, depression and not a small amount of despair.

In the late summer of 2020, my wife and I dipped our toes in the getaway waters by traveling down the California coast to Morro Bay.

The indoors were still shuttered but outdoors it was beautiful, bracing, welcoming and healthy. Healthy for body, mind and spirit.
Below, images of Morro Bay and environs.                     

I’m checking out an otter who’s checking me out in return. Morro Bay Harbor.

 

Mornings were foggy and brisk. Morro Bay Harbor

 

A wave explodes in a 1/10th of a second exposure.

Our short period of getting away gave us a welcome feeling of harmony.

The little town of Harmony, just up the coast from Morro Bay

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Early in 2020, when rumors of the coronavirus became reality I began a series of posts that I called The COVID Chronicles, a journal of my own personal experiences and feelings in the midst of a global pandemic. I thought I was done with the series.

“You ready to put your mask back on?” he hollered.

“Yep,” I answered tersely.

He’s one of the maintenance guys who works at a local apartment building. I see him almost every day when Lexi and I pass by the building during our morning run. It’s always been no more than a wave and a, “Hello, have a good day.”

This one particular day was different. I paused during the run and he took a break from his work. We talked.

We agreed that we weren’t happy about having to pull the masks back out of the dresser drawer, or wherever one keeps masks. It isn’t so much the masks themselves, it’s having to do it because of the rising cases.

I told him that back in May, Cora and I had travelled through 16 states and in some places, in some states we hardly saw any masks. Told him about Amarillo, Texas, where it was a maskless free for all.

“I’ll bet they start wearing masks again,” he said.

“Nope. Not in Texas. Not in South Dakota. It’s a different world out there.”

He was stunned. I guess he doesn’t watch the news much. Doesn’t realize that Texas Governor Greg Abbott has not qualms about plays political roulette with the lives of the people under his watch. Has no moral compass, no heart, no common decency.

We talked about the rise in COVID cases, mostly among the unvaccinated.

He told me that he’d been late to the vaccination party. I guess the hesitation wore off or the fear creeped in but he finally got his pokes.

It was the only time we’d stopped and talked and we agreed, we’re sad, we’re baffled and maybe most of all, we’re pissed off that we’re turning back the clock.

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“Black and white is mix of toughest simplicity and easiest complexity.” ~ Vikrmn, Corpkshetra

I’m a late arrival to this party, the black and white photo challenge, hosted by Anne Sandler. Better late than never?

“There are some locations I go to and they scream black and white to me because of the ambiance. For me, great black and white images fall into two categories: very dramatic with stormy skies and bold compositions and at the other end of the spectrum a calm and minimalist composition.” ~ Helen Rushton

Who could disagree with Ms. Rushton that some locations scream black and white?

Graveyards for instance? Not cemeteries – graveyards. There’s a difference.

The image below was shot on a sunny afternoon. It was washed out, bland. Editing to black and white the photo is suddenly transformed into a spooky moonlit, nighttime scene.

Silver Terrace Cemetery, Virginia City, Nevada

Silver Terrace Cemetery, Virginia City, Nevada

Silver Terrace Cemetery, Virginia City, Nevada

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Monday, June 7, 2021
Day twenty-two.

It’s another of those gotta get out early days, and this time we’ve actually managed to get out early. It’s not a matter of beating the mid-afternoon heat but of finding parking. This day’s plan includes a stop at Devil’s Tower along the way to Sheridan, and the National Park Service website warns that the first come, first served parking at Devil’s Tower is very limited.

On the way out of South Dakota, we continue through the green, green mix of forest and ranch land.

When you cross the state line entering Wyoming from South Dakota, you leave Black Hills National Forest behind and enter Thunder Basin National Grassland. Two lane Highway 16 cuts through an arid land that’s roughly carpeted with tall grass and scrub. In the distance mesas and rolling hills add some relief to this craggy table.

It’s not an unattractive land but any appeal that it might have is largely spoiled by the appearance of oil wells. They appear as giant, malevolent steel birds pecking unceasingly, boring deep wounds in our Earth’s skin. The thought occurs to me that I have no righteous standing. By the very act of being here, driving past these unsightly rigs, putting thousands of miles behind me with thousands more to go, I’m simply whetting the appetite of these monstrosities.

We pass through Newcastle, a decent sized town that’s described by the Black Hills and Badlands Website as an area of “Cattle ranches, oil wells and coal mines, a perfect mingling of industry and agriculture, blend with the area’s past.” Is this meant to be appealing to the tourist?

We pass through little Osage, so little that it’s a mere flicker on the map, a moment’s drive-by.

Fifteen minutes later we arrive at Upton, Wyoming, which claims the title of “The Best Town on Earth.”

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When we started out, we hadn’t included a ghost tour in our plans. Thing is, when you cover 8000 miles over sixteen states, the diverse American story is bound to offer up a collection of spectres.

The ghosts that we encountered weren’t those mischievous, annoying spirits who move the furniture about while you’re out of the house, or scare the hell out of you with unholy middle of the night shrieks. We didn’t come upon the tormented souls of long dead soldiers who, it’s been alleged, float among the trenches of the battlegrounds of old.

The ghosts we discovered are the shadows of hopes dashed, dreams unfulfilled, plans turned sour and the simple, inexorable erosion of time. They’re still out there, those ghosts, scattered about the country.

Unlike the goblins that secret themselves below floorboards and in the cracks of an old house, these ghosts are easily spotted but like any self respecting spook they can take many forms. They’re the crumbling concrete, rotting wood and rusting metal of places that were once alive with purpose but now wait for an exorcism by human hands or the beating of nature.

Goffs, California.
There’s a time change thirty miles or so east of Goffs, California, at the Arizona border where the clock advances by one hour.

At Goffs though, the clock stopped advancing for good in 1931, when a bypass of Route 66 abandoned the town and left it to its own fading resources.

Once upon a time, Goffs was a railroad town, housing workers for the AT and Santa Fe Railroad. Today the long freights still pass through Goffs along with a few ghost hunters who come to view the remnants of the town and the renovated old schoolhouse.  Nobody stays anymore.

 

For more on Goffs follow the link to Route 66 California: Bottle Trees and Ghost Towns

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