Heading out west on an open road
The Great Escape
by Bill Dixon
I’d had a tough summer. I’d spent most all of it tearing apart apartments and putting them back together again, in a hundred-year-old, three-story apartment building. I had three accomplished and experienced rehab guys working with me. While my guys were all were adept in a broad field of mechanical skills, one was the best at electrical work, another plumbing, and the third one carpentry. My mechanical skill set was a left-over from when I worked as an iron worker. I was never interested in becoming a “career” ironworker, though. I was only doing the work to pay for my school expenses. So, while I could bolt structural iron beams and columns together, or tie reinforcing rod down for concrete pours, I wasn’t much help on what we were doing in the old brick building at the corner of Buttles and Neil Avenues, in Columbus, Ohio. Accordingly, my job was to do whatever were the required tasks not already covered by the guys I had on the job.
The building was situated in “Victorian Village” in Columbus, and I’d bought it after leaving a hectic career in banking. I’d been dealing with bank failures, restructuring, angry boards of directors and frightened staff members at three different financial institutions, over an eight-year timeframe. I had gone through a heart-breaking divorce, and difficult personal financial struggles. Of the six original tenants in the still unreconstructed old building, just two remained now: one on the third floor, one on the first floor. I estimated that by the end of August, or maybe mid-September, I’d only have those last two units to finish up when they eventually turned over, and I was ready for an escape.
Since I had by far the lowest mechanical expertise on our team, I took responsibility for all the “gorilla” assignments: the strong back, weak skills end of things, that is. Tearing out walls, lugging five-gallon buckets of drywall compound and paint here and there, dragging lumber, fixtures and sheets of drywall up and down stairs, moving appliances, hauling trash, running to the lumberyard and to other suppliers of what the “A-Team” required, was my main job. On weekends, I went in, and figured out what we’d be doing the following week, filling up yellow legal pads with notes and lists of what materials we’d need to do it. Bookkeeping, rent collection, work inspection, tenant relations, cleaning and trash collection kept me busy until things started over again at 6AM Monday morning. I was wearing myself out.
I accumulated mental and physical scar tissue and worried about paying the guys, the mortgages, the utilities, insurance and my suppliers, every day. I got through it, by promising myself a two or three week getaway when I got Apartment #4, the final one of the summer schedule, finished and rented. The guys all pitched in, and in my mind, we were doing the very best rehab work anywhere in the Village. Not a week went by that they didn’t have more spending cash on Friday than I did, but I was building equity in the building, and seven years of putting myself through school had prepared me to live very frugally. I thought about what sort of low-cost adventure I ought to plan, when I could think about something other than my rehab projects. Gradually, it came together. First, I told the guys, well in advance, that we were going to shut down for three to three and a half weeks, and for them to take side jobs, or kick back for a while.
They were all happy to have a break in the action, and announced that the break would prevent the need for them to kill me, as they were planning, and seal me in one of the building’s basement walls. I told them that I’d planned to run them through the band saw, one at a time, so by setting a mutual break time, we could all avoid prison. We were all ready to take a break from one another, it was plain. I told the tenants about the vacation plan in advance of my setting forth, and got a property management pal of mine to agree to take care of any emergency problems that might crop up while I was gone. The tough part was putting together the actual trip details, I thought. Ultimately, though, I decided that maybe it didn’t need to be planned out, it just needed done!
I’d had a lot of fun fishing and hunting on my parents’ farm, about forty miles northeast of Columbus, but that was mostly just around the farm, fishing in one of the two ponds, or hunting small game, and preparing it for meals. I liked to fly fish, most of all, like my then literary hero, Ernest Hemmingway. I wanted to climb mountains and see distant places, take risks and have adventures, and do some roving. Three weeks wouldn’t provide too much of that, but I was determined to make the most of it, in the short time I’d have to spend.
The only time I’d ever been west of the Mississippi River was on a camping road trip years before with my wife, stopping in on college friends where we could, to save expenses. We went from Columbus, Ohio, west, through southern Colorado then down into Texas, but never further north than that. This time, that’s where I was going to go, I decided: maybe through the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming, whatever looked like a good idea at the time. I had a pickup truck with an aluminum shell cover over the bed area. I had an old tent, a cooler and a sleeping bag. I had fishing tackle. I was all set!
Time crept on at its petty pace, as Hamlet said, but the time eventually arrived. I’d gotten everything that I’d be taking stacked up and ready to go in my apartment, and it didn’t make much of a pile. I figured that I’d stop in laundromats as needed, for washing up my few articles of clothing, buy food en route, as needed, and fill up my water jugs (empty plastic milk jugs), as opportunity permitted. I took two full, clean jugs. I planned to sleep out whenever I could, in the cheapest places I could find; truck stops or camping areas, mostly sleeping in the back of my Toyota pick-up truck, whenever I could. I had some non-refrigerated food too, mostly for emergencies or road chow. A coat, boots, two pairs of Levis, a hat and a rain poncho, and the rattiest shirts and underwear I had. I didn’t plan on bringing much of it back with me, and I had no space in my truck to waste.
I finally got to sleep the night before, somehow, and hopped into my truck, which was fueled, packed and parked at the curb in front of my apartment. I was on the road by four AM. I’d decided that I was going to start driving north from Columbus, then, follow my whimsey: no set route or plan. By that evening, I was in Wisconsin. I pulled into a big truck stop / gas station, and slept in my sleeping bag in the back of the truck. In the early morning, I washed my face and brushed my teeth with a group of truck drivers, in the rest room at the truck stop. I got a tall black coffee, and chowed down on a sandwich I’d made for that purpose in Columbus, as I got back on the road.
I had no schedule or set destination, so I just rolled along, headed west. Out in the open country areas, I took my time and took in the scenery. Farms and woods, rolling fields, late September at its best: it was glorious weather. I thought that perhaps I’d treat myself, and find a cheap motel and crash that night. Maybe have a beer or two in a bar within walking-distance of my motel. It was a good plan. The next day, I drove into Minnesota, which was beautiful in the first days of autumn, with the farmers harvesting their crops and bailing hay for winter feed.
The leaves were already starting to turn. There I was, driving through a Grant Wood painting, down in the lower right corner, near where he’d sign the painting when it was done. I kept on driving, though, out of the other end of the painting. I stopped for the night in South Dakota, somewhere east of the Missouri River, and spent the night in my pickup, listening to the noise of the wind competing with the low hum of the eighteen-wheelers on I-90. I’d bought a six-pack of cold beer in a gas station, and drank about half of it after I’d parked for the night near an abandoned commercial building of some kind, off the interstate.
The night noises were steady and soothing, and all my responsibilities were left behind, a thousand miles away. They’d wait for me, of course, but the distance between the problems and responsibilities and me, allowed me to forget about them for a while. I slept in my pickup that night, at least as soundly as I had in the last several months in my own bed back in Columbus. I had shelved all of my problems and worries, and embarked on an unplanned and uncompleted adventure, with nothing ahead but a pleasant voyage for the foreseeable future. No one could get in touch with me, no one could make any demands on my time, and I felt very free.
About half an hour after daybreak, a South Dakota Highway Patrolman pulled in behind my parked truck, and checked to see that I was alright. I was, indeed. I enquired about, and he directed me to, a restaurant about twenty miles further up the road. He said that I could catch a good breakfast, and some hot coffee there. Life was good. I felt years younger, and as if a great weight had been lifted from my shoulders. It was a comfortable place to be, too: everyone else in the diner looked like they’d just rolled out of the truck they’d slept in the night before, too.
We chatted among one another about work, weather and life for a bit, and then scattered in every direction, a few minutes apart, each of us in going their separate way, with a nod, a word or a wink as they left. We were together and alone at the same time, I thought. I hopped back in my pickup truck, with the sun on my back and my foot on the accelerator. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It was exhilarating.
By mid-day, I was beginning to formulate a plan. I wanted to visit Yellowstone National Park. I’d never seen a bear in the wilds and I wanted to. I had seen them up close when I was a “keeper” at the Columbus Zoo, though, another of my paying-for-school jobs. Seeing them in a natural state would be a lot different: for one thing, there’d be no bars between them and me, and although I’d read that getting injured by a bison would be much more likely, there would be a little more adrenalin produced than a trip to the zoo. I wanted to see, and hear elk: (they “bugle”) I heard, establishing breeding rights and general territorial sovereignty over the area the bulls claim as their own. Since it was late September, the “rut”, or mating season would probably be starting soon. I figured I’d drift that direction, and get in a little fly fishing for trout, too. Good plan, I said to myself.
I drove to West Yellowstone, Montana, and found a dark bar with cold beer, next to an inexpensive motel, that was clean and quiet to boot. At that time of year, Yellowstone’s an iffy proposition. Late September snow storms aren’t unusual, and a “good one” closes the park to automotive traffic. Since then, I almost got snowed in, three years later, on a miscalculation in very early October. I barely escaped, out of the “South Gate” to the Park, which was the only exit still open.
The snowstorm was right behind me, until I’d gotten to lower elevations, twenty miles to the east. This visit wasn’t going to turn out to have snow problems, but the uncertainty keeps most visitors from entering the park, and I didn’t see a single one on my very first visit to Yellowstone National Park. The next morning, I stopped at the West Gate, and registered. I got a license to fish for trout from the park ranger, along with a list of park rules. Since I’d slept in a motel the night before, it was a sleep-in-the-truck night. I drove to a spot near “Slough Creek”, which was reputed to be teeming with native cutthroat trout, and after getting things ready for the night, did some explorative trips to locate “Madison Junction”, my main Yellowstone fishing destination.
I’d catch some cutthroats for breakfast, and then head to the spot where the Madison and Yellowstone rivers flow together at the junction. It was absolutely beautiful! I had to “catch and release” any trout I caught at Madison Junction, but I wanted to eat the trout I caught for breakfast the next morning, back at Slough Creek. It was below freezing that night, but sleeping in my clothes in my sleeping bag, I did just fine. I thought I heard a “huffing” noise during the night, but the wind was blowing, and I dismissed it.
The next morning, I walked to the trailhead to Slough Creek, clutching my fly rod, creel slung over my shoulder. There was ice around the stream edges when I got there, but that didn’t bother me. What bothered me was the “Closed: Bear Sightings” sign on the sawhorse across the trail. I wanted to see a bear, but didn’t want an argument with a Grizzly, so I decided that I’d eat breakfast in West Yellowstone, then head for Madison Junction to fly fish. Thinking about the huffing noise I’d heard the night before, I didn’t dawdle on the hike back to my truck. Eggs weren’t my first choice for breakfast, but since freshly-caught trout were out, they were just fine.
Madison Junction, the point at which the Yellowstone and Madison Rivers joined, was spectacular. I put on my waders, and went to a spot in mid-stream that looked promising, and began to cast streamer flies. On my left was a broad meadow, with bison in the distance, grazing in hip-deep vegetation. On my right, a steep, rocky hillside rose several hundred feet, through picture-perfect pine woods, to the clear blue skies above. As I fished, elk began filtering down the steep hillside, toward me.
I felt several pick-ups on my artificial baits, but the brown and rainbow trout in the river were catch and release schooled, and dropped the flies as soon as they picked them up, sensing that something wasn’t right, immediately. In spite of that, I caught a beautiful brown trout after a while: spotted with red, black and gold, it was lovely. I caught it, unhooked it, and then slipped it back into the water. A few minutes later, one of the park rangers materialized from the nearby woods, and sauntered over to chat. We talked about trout and Yellowstone for a while, and then he went on his way. I suspected that he had been watching me from cover, to make sure I didn’t take any illegal trout home for dinner. That was fine with me.
The elk, several cows and yearlings and a bull, had moved on upstream, but I could hear the bull elk bugle for quite a while as I fished. I took a lunch break, granola bars and GatorAid, and returned to fishing until it started getting dark. Driving back to West Yellowstone, a group of pronghorn antelope looked up at me from grazing near the road, and then returned to their business at hand. I grazed on a cheeseburger and draft beer, and elected to spend that night in my nearly-vacant motel. No huffing disturbed my slumber.
I fished in several more spots in Yellowstone over the next week, but kept returning to Madison Junction. I also found another spot to catch a few cutthroat trout for my breakfast, and cooked them over a propane camping burner in my folding skillet. Delicious, but once was enough for this trip to Yellowstone, and I decided to head east and south, to the Wind River Mountains, and do some fishing and hiking there.
It would be about twenty degrees warmer there, and the little town of Thermopolis, nearby, had a hot spring bathing area in a cavern that sounded like a good thing to try out. It was. The water was warm, milky colored, and full of dissolved minerals reputed to cure all sorts of ills. I decided to do some morning fishing in the Wind River, and release anything I caught. Then, maybe I’d hike up one of the mountains, and go back to “Thermop” as the locals called Thermopolis, and soak in the warm water until it started getting dark. I went most of the way up Copper Mountain, but turned an ankle on a loose stone, and had to head back. Perfect!
Now I had something to soak in the hot springs. I did so, and struck up a conversation sitting in one of the warm pools, with a Native American. He told me that his car wasn’t running, and asked if I was driving toward Delsey, Colorado. He had a girlfriend in Delsey that he wanted to see, but lacked transportation to get there. I told him that I was about to start driving back east, and couldn’t help. He made up a song, on the spot, and sang it to me as we soaked in the mineral water: “I got a girl, way down in Delsey….”, which is all the lyrics I can remember now. It was a nice song, and he had a good voice. We talked a while longer, and parted friends.
In the morning, I headed to Shoshone, Wyoming, population (allegedly) 300. I think that was about a hundred high. There was a bar and restaurant there, and a single breakfast-only place. I went into the former, to get a beer, and wash down the dust, as they say. There was a drive-up window, over near the end of the bar, and a dusty cowboy in an old pick-up pulled up to it, and rapped on the sliding glass window, closed to keep the dust out. The owner/cook/bartender threw open the sliding glass, and greeted the cowpoke by name: “Whiskey and soda, Jeff?”
The cowboy nodded his head. “Pay you Friday, Jimbo,” he said, as he took a swig out of the tall plastic glass and drove off. I kind of liked that. A guy could get used to a town like that, but I needed to head home and face the music, after indulging in the two-plus weeks getaway. I bid Jimbo goodbye, and left, with the sun on my back, but I didn’t do it as well as John Wayne, in my estimation. When JW left, riding a big palomino, he wasn’t headed to Columbus, Ohio, to haul five-gallon buckets of drywall compound around, two days later, but I was.
I never saw any bears, by the way.