There’s something to be said for the views along the drive to a place. I first came to love mountains when driving down to Florida with family for Spring Break. I would wait in anticipation for the moment we punched into the heart of the Appalachians in Tennessee. Over the years, I can remember being in awe of the views driving towards so many destinations – the Pennsylvania Turnpike on the way to DC, I-70 between Denver and Idaho Springs, coming around the bend from Carlsbad to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. A week and a half ago, the views of the Great Divide Basin and the Wind River Mountains in central Wyoming had stunned me.
You know what doesn’t always get as much love? Views on the way back from somewhere. A lot of the time, when you come back from somewhere, you take the same route, which is less exciting the second time. You’re frequently tired. There usually isn’t time to stop and see something, because you just want to get home. For all of those reasons, there are so many great memories of the drive to somewhere, and so few corresponding memories of the drive back.
My memories of the drive east out of Yellowstone Park must be filtered through that lens. Even though you don’t want to take in the views on the way back from somewhere, it was still pretty incredible and somehow broke through that mental block. At first, the terrain was similar to the east entrance of the park – rugged, mountainous, and forested, a narrow valley through which the Shoshone River rushed. Gradually, the forest within the valley receded as we got into the east slopes of the Absarokas. Instead, the mountains began to take on a more desert vibe, with a wide valley that sort of reminded me of what we saw further south in Wyoming earlier in the week or the agricultural valleys of Utah. Then we approached the Buffalo Bill Reservoir, a lake cut into the broad landscape that only served to underscore how in the last hour or two we’d gone from the lush slopes of the Yellowstone caldera to one of the driest deserts in the United States. It’s probably no coincidence that the drizzle that had haunted us everywhere for the past three days finally began to recede within this desert, giving way to sporadic, fitful sunshine.
We arrived in Cody, Wyoming just in time for lunch. Pam got the chance to stretch out and not get crushed by all of the stuff teetering in the backseat for a little while, and I got the chance to try and eat some hot food on a still-cold day. Cody is every bit the western town that you would expect, but it had a local sandwich chain that I really wanted to try – BreadBoard, a sandwich shop scattered around some of the small towns of Wyoming. This place let you pick from different types of subs and customize the length of it to the nearest two inches – if I wanted to get a 10-inch sub for whatever reason, I could. Doubly to my satisfaction, the soup of the day was chicken tortilla soup. It hit home to the part of me that had been camping in the cold and eating semi-frozen ham sandwiches for days now. Maybe camping for a full week was pushing it a bit, in hindsight.
Cody also had an essential for certain other individuals on the trip – Starbucks. For the first time since our huckleberry coffee in Colter Bay, Elizabeth could be promised a hot cup of something from Starbucks, quaintly located inside a grocery store named “Albertsons”. This had the corresponding effect of lifting her mood for her portion of the drive across the badlands of Wyoming today, which is good. Un-coffeed Elizabeth is not a fun travel companion. Coffeed Elizabeth is a great travel companion, one who was willing to put in several hours behind the wheel so I could take a break. She took state highway 120 south out of Cody through some of the truly barren terrain of the western United States, within which only one town could be seen – the grand metropolis of Meeteetse, population 327.
Wyoming had one more grand, unforgettable view for us before we left. If you’ll recall, the previous week we drove upstream along the Wind River through Dubois toward Moran and Grand Teton. The river travels southeastward along the base of its mountain range before making a big turn toward the north and heading for Montana. So even though we were on a different route, this last incredible view of the trip came in the famed Wind River Canyon south of Thermopolis. Here, we had to wait for a pilot car to take us through the two-lane canyon due to construction, but once we did, it was a sight to behold. The canyon was deep, narrow, and had these yellow and black exposed rocks all over the place, all with the river tumbling through it. I didn’t know that I had the energy to look at scenery anymore, but this sufficed for a while.
That was probably a good thing, because at the top of the canyon where the Wind River peeled off to find its headwaters to the west, the terrain immediately went back to the bland desert that seems to typify all of the rest of Wyoming. I drove a long time through this outback, the wandering of thoughts only interrupted by a congratulatory call from my Aunt Kelly, who hadn’t had the chance to talk to Elizabeth and myself since our engagement. We chatted with her for a while, then went back to mind-numbing boredom and counting down the hours until we were in Denver. At least I was able to chew up mileage, especially once we got into Casper and I got on the “85 mph” I-25 (ain’t no laws in Wyoming). Bombing down I-25 on the east side of the very northern extent of the Laramie Range, it was official: we were no longer mountain people. Elizabeth and I would return to our native state as Great Plains people. We made one gas stop late afternoon for Elizabeth to take over for me, where I found this gem on Instagram:
Honestly, the thought of seeing old Scipio in 2 days took a lot of the edge off of the post-big-trip sadness. I really did miss the little guy, even if I wouldn’t admit it. I hoped he’d had a good time at the kennel over the last week. I hoped he’d forgive us for the massive amount of boarding we’d done for him over the latter half of the summer of 2021. There was a little bit of guilt there, but not so much guilt that I couldn’t loudly suggest and then subsequently enjoy Culver’s for dinner in Cheyenne. After all, Pam had never been there before, and sacrificing time with Scipio for cultural enrichment like that strikes me as a fair trade-off.
We had one final stretch to go with the sun beginning to retreat over the Front Range to our right. South of Cheyenne, the route back to Norman was exactly the same as the one we’d taken on August 12 to get to Laramie. This meant that I had to drive through some I-25 traffic since Elizabeth steadfastly refused to do so. This also meant that I had to find some (by 2021, not 2022 standards) expensive as hell gasoline in Fort Collins to top off the tank for the end of the night. And this meant that I had to bring Elizabeth, Pam and myself all the way on in to the Hampton Inn just outside of Denver International Airport. Like most Hampton Inns, it would function inasmuch as we would be able to get some sleep tonight. One feature stood out – the shower. I hadn’t showered since our last morning in Colter Bay, four long days in the past. Who knows how much mud, sulphur, sweat, and dust I’d caked on since then. Actually I do, since I saw the water come off of my skin in the shower. Let me tell you, this was a top 10 shower of my life.
One long day of travel down, one to go.