Monthly Archives: June 2013

The Road to Laramie

An uneasy quiet had settled in the car as we traveled through a desolate mountain pass when a lush, green line of trees and grasses appeared, paralleled the road and lifted our spirits. The vista widened again. The dreaded narrow canyons hadn’t yet appeared but the road steepened. Our top speed dropped to 20 miles per hour. The terrain was different to the Bighorn Pass the previous week – more open and rolling, not straight up the cliff face via an unending series of switchbacks. The steepest grades had been dynamited and chiseled away leveling the roadway to an uphill slog rather than a mountain climbing expedition. Nor did we have a red-faced, annoyed procession behind us although 10 minutes previously I would have welcomed some company other than vultures in the lonely countryside.

Cumulus clouds
Cumulus clouds (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the summit of 7,300 feet we were treated to a big Wyoming sky; it was grey and raining miles to the west; white cumulus clouds pumped themselves up against a clear blue sky to the east; the sun shone overhead and the snow-capped Rocky Mountains reappeared ahead of us – miles and miles ahead of us, perhaps 60 miles away (now that I look more closely at the map). We’d reach our destination long before we had to worry about the Rockies.

Rocky Mountains with snow stripes
Rocky Mountains with snow stripes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Snow fences, placed to stop winter snows drifting across the road, lined up to the west and “ski poles” – narrow stakes, eight feet tall with reflectors on top to mark out the road edges when the snow fences are overwhelmed and the road has disappeared under a drift of snow – predicted a harsh winter.

But on this day the outside temperature was still in the nineties as we cruised straight out of the barren mountain pass towing our “house” behind us and up to the Laramie railway line. We turned left and bowled into Laramie, elevation 7,165 feet.

Cropped screenshot of James Stewart from the t...
Cropped screenshot of James Stewart from the trailer for the film The Man from Laramie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, ladies and g’s, himself had every opportunity to be smug after our relatively easy journey which he had chosen after carefully studying the map, but that’s not in his nature. He just smiled to himself as he drove into Laramie, intent on following his Wild West dreams, set to music – The Man From Laramie – sung only in his head thankfully.

The Wild West – emphasis on Wild, and much to Jimmy’s chagrin –  was about to provide more than cowboy gunfights.

It Wasn’t My Idea to Come This Way

“How wide are we?” I asked my driver.

My expert driver managed this one. Surely a canyon in Wyoming would be no problem!
My expert driver managed this one. Surely a canyon in Wyoming would be no problem!

“Eight feet,” he replied. “Why?” with an edge to his voice.

“Did you see that sign? It said, ‘All loads over 8½ feet wide require pilot’ That doesn’t bode well does it?”

“Do you think we should turn ‘round?”

“I have no way of knowing,” I said, unhelpfully. You’re not going to catch me that easily. “You decide.” Jimmy kept going towing our eight foot wide box home behind us as I knew he would.

After I had studied the road atlas and found two routes for the day, he had chosen this particular byway to Laramie. I refuse to have the final say in choosing a route for our wanderings after our fiasco of overheating and driving at 10 miles per hour up through the Bighorn Mountains with an unhappy parade of vehicles behind us.

Gradients are not shown on our road map, only the steepest elevations. If the engine is going to blow up, let it be on his head, figuratively speaking, you understand.

Is that where we're headed?
Is that where we’re headed? There’s snow on those mountains!

“Well, it’s pretty so far,” Jimmy said, optimistically as we drove through rolling countryside towards the snow-capped bursts of the Rocky Mountains.

“Yes, well it’s flat so far.”

The sign I’d just seen was obviously niggling Jimmy and visions of getting stuck in narrow winding canyons must have been plaguing him when he said, “It’s that 8½ feet that worries me. We’ll have three inches to spare each side.”

“Yup.” He still didn’t turn around and as the road began to climb I wondered if we should have an altimeter installed in the car.

“It’s 98° outside,” Jimmy informed me, avoiding both the gradient and width issues.

Well, that will help the engine temperature when we start to clamber through the Rockies won’t it? I thought uncharitably. We maintained a groaning 35 mph in 3rd gear as we climbed steadily upwards. The peaks loomed nearer and looked even more daunting from our new height. “How far have we come on this road?” I asked Jimmy.

“About two miles. Why?” he said abruptly. He is always suspicious when I ask a question I should already know the answer to.

“We’ve still got 50 miles to go on this mountain pass.”

“I only picked this short cut to make you feel better about your navigational gaff last week.”

It looks like a dead end but I assure you it isn't!
It looks like a dead end but I assure you it isn’t!

Yeah. Yeah. As we reached a high plateau, the road ahead formed a thin, looping ribbon and disappeared into steep altitudes. The landscape was barren with rocky outcrops and low growing, arid-loving sagebrush. The road narrowed and its surface deteriorated so I looked up into the sky, hopefully, only to see two nasty looking turkey vultures circling overhead so dropped my gaze to a disconcerting number of skid marks showing hasty exits from the roadway into the ditch. At least here in Wyoming there aren’t the disturbing little white crosses beside the road that show traffic fatalities as in South Dakota.

Of the 600 species of animals purported to be in this area, I was unnerved to see only the creepy turkey vultures. I sneaked a look at the gas gauge and was comforted to see we still had three-quarters of a tank to get us out of trouble but became uneasy again when checking my phone. There was no signal. Jimmy became quiet as the turkey vultures circled hungrily and the thrusting Rockies taunted us in the distance.

Who would find us out here? We hadn’t seen another vehicle in an hour. The only signs of human existence were the deadly skid marks.

Turkey Vulture
Turkey Vulture (Photo credit: Jim Bahn)

If you don’t read any more posts please send out a search party.

Custer’s Last Stand Was Nearly Ours

Jimmy didn't/wouldn't/couldn't appreciate the views.
Jimmy didn’t/wouldn’t/couldn’t appreciate the views.

Back to the mountain and our journey to Garryowen. Jimmy’s eyes were bulging and arms straining as he leaned into the slope as though he was pulling the trailer up the mountain with a strap on his back. “My foot is on the floor. I don’t have any more gears!” he fumed as I slunk lower and lower in my seat. The route I’d chosen looked flat on the map. We crawled up to the snow-line and the temperature plummeted from a balmy 70°F to 40 degrees. With each twist of the road to the right, I could count the members of our procession in my door mirror. Before we could pull over we had accumulated eight cars, a motorhome, a pickup truck with trailer and five motorcycles – all following at a stately 10 miles per hour. How they must have enjoyed the opportunity to appreciate the scenery.

As we rose up out of the tree line we emerged into beautiful alpine meadows of wild flowers just as they were giving their short burst of summer color. Sweeping vistas for miles and miles to the horizon across the Bighorn Basin – once, millions of years ago, a sea bed – appeared and disappeared as we crawled up and up. “We’re at the top!” I cried again and again, hopefully, as each bend ahead appeared to be the last, until rounding it we could see yet another long loop of road – up.

Look out No. 2!
Look out No. 2!

As the air outside cooled, the engine temperature reached a record high. Thankfully, for me, the “Elevation, 9,430 feet” sign – matching the small print on the map I then saw – appeared before our car and my driver simultaneously combusted. We found a scenic turnout for a cooling lunch stop.

If I thought I was off the hook when engine and driver had chilled, I soon discovered that mountain passes don’t just go up to the top and then down the other side. Setting off once again, Jimmy commented “We seem to be doing an awful lot of steep up and not very much down,” oblivious to the fact that the descending miles flew past as he became a downhill racer hurtling ‘round bends.

No end in sight!
No end in sight!

The road was, thankfully, cambered but there was no guard rail on my side – a vertical drop to sure death – just dinky, little, single chevron signs > > > proclaiming the bleedin’ obvious as my speed demon careened down and around another hairpin bend.

On one steep descent, I got a swift glimpse of a brown information sign. “That sign just said that the granite here is 2.5 billion . . . no it can’t have been billion.”

“Yes, it said 2.5 billion years old.”

Oh, Lord, save me. He’s reading the tourist signs.

“Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” Jimmy shouted, with a devilish gleam in his eye as he stood on the brakes and hauled us through a more than 180° loop of this rollercoaster ride. “There’s a lot of weight in the back when you’re going down hill,” he told me, grinning.

“Have you only just realized that?” I asked a little hysterically.

Then suddenly we were in the little town of Ranchester, traveling on a flat, straight road at a sedate 25 miles per hour. There were no cars in this western town, only pickup trucks and Harley motorcycles, and the finest building in town was the Cowboy State Bank.

Soon we were thunk-thunking along on an old, concrete stretch of interstate – from downhill adrenalin rush to flat tedium within a matter of minutes. After exiting the highway, we needed to drive three miles south on Frontage Road – only there were two Frontage Roads, one on each side of the highway. Naturally we took the wrong one to a dead-end.

Now that we’ve been to the site of Custer’s Last Stand I really don’t know what to make of the man. I’m tempted to say that he was a bigoted, blood-thirsty glory-seeker doing the bidding of unscrupulous politicians, but what do I know.

At the campsite we parked on a high bluff, overlooking the countryside. Jimmy’s driving must have repeatedly opened and slammed shut the cupboard doors in the trailer as it leapt behind us. Teabags and ginger cookies littered the floor on arrival at four o’clock – tea time. How appropriate – an invitation if ever I saw one. We had a good view of the interstate while we drank our tea and could hear the freight trains all night. We felt right at home.

Oh, and the journey was 190 miles zigzagging through the mountains, not the 140 mile easy route on a flattish road Jimmy had chosen. Oops.

The Wrong Way

“The next time I choose a route, we’ll go that way.”

A cute distraction while our car overheated.
A cute distraction while our car overheated.

“I know,” I said contritely.

“I don’t want you to interfere.”

“I know.”

”You can’t leave anything alone.”

“No.”

“I expect the other way was shorter as well.”

“Yes.”

“I can’t turn around now. The engine is overheating. I can’t even stop on this steep grade. I’m afraid we’ll never get going again. I don’t even know if we’ll make it to the top. What will we do then? I can’t reverse down the mountain. You had to . . . .”

“Awright! Awright! Awright!” Any little inkling of contrition I had felt was seeping away with this barrage, despite it being (possibly) justified. Jimmy’s estimated “easy” 140 mile leg of our journey towing our travel trailer to Garryowen had turned into a mountain climbing expedition. Our V8 engine was happily slurping gas as it whined uphill in first gear at 10 miles per hour towing 7,500 pounds behind us.

No end in sight!
No end in sight!

I had simply looked at the map before we set out from Cody, Wyoming and saw what I thought was a more direct route than Jimmy had chosen to Garryowen, neglecting to notice the tiny symbols denoting the Bighorn Mountains. They bisected our route with the road peaking at a summit of 9,430 feet while skirting Bald Mountain at 10,042 feet and Hunt Mountain at 10,162 feet. Also, the Closed in Winter designation should have been a hint that it was going to be a tricky road, but I had only judged the distance with a quick glance. A flashing yellow sign warned “Steep Grades Ahead!” some time after we had set off but I kept schtum hoping himself hadn’t seen it. We were already committed.

Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, 1885
Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, 1885 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A little background to these little known western towns. Cody is named for William Cody, better known as Buffalo Bill, apparently the most famous American at the turn of the 20th century. He was by all accounts a splendid chap – handsome, smart, a family man (though is rumored to have had an affair with Queen Victoria), enterprising, heroic – and used his superior shooting and horse riding skills to produce “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show” which toured Europe and America for 30 years. Appearing in his show over the years were Annie Oakley, of sharp-shooting fame, Calamity Jane, an illiterate alcoholic and part-time prostitute (did Doris Day know?) and Wild Bill Hickok, a gunfighter whose early demise while playing poker makes me uncomfortable sitting near the door of a restaurant even now. Not that Bill frequented restaurants, but if he’d sat with his back to the wall at the saloon in Deadwood I wouldn’t have this hang-up.

Garry Owen (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4m7RPjQxjmA) was Custer’s favorite marching song and now is the name of the only town within the battlefield of The Battle of the Little Bighorn or Custer’s Last Stand. It is little known that George Armstrong Custer was the George W. Bush of his day – a lousy student at uni and a questionable military strategist. George C. graduated bottom of his class at the United States Military Academy. George B. was an average student at uni and was accepted into the Texas Air National Guard with the lowest possible passing grade on his written aptitude test. George C. arrogantly (can be interchanged with overconfidently, patriotically or zealously depending on your point of view) attacked an encampment of Sioux and Cheyenne Indians under the overall command of Chief Sitting Bull. Instead of waiting for reinforcements, George C. was wiped out along with over 200 of his men by 2,500 Indian warriors. George B. . . well you know that sorry tale.

George Armstrong Custer, U.S. Army major gener...
George Armstrong Custer, U.S. Army major general, killed in battle at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We will return to our badly planned mountain climbing expedition in the next exciting instalment!

For my followers: We’re back in the USA, but I’m sure you noticed that.

Au Revoir France and Cute Dog!

Don’t leave me! Please don’t go!

How could you leave a face like this?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Every day during our walks around our French village this little sweetie would follow us along the boundary of his property, put his front paws up on the wall and give us this look. He never barked, just looked. Awwwww!

How long do you suppose it would take to get a doggie passport?

And what do you supose French law is with regard to dognapping?

Au revoir France and cute doggie. For now.

P.S. Does anyone know what breed of dog this is?

The French (and My) Obsession

The 'fruits' of our shopping excursions to Beziers Flower Market, a vineyard and the boulangerie.
The ‘fruits’ of our shopping excursions to Beziers Flower Market, a vineyard and the boulangerie.
A perfect croissant to have with morning coffee.
A perfect croissant to have with morning coffee.
Our hostesses for lunch.
Our hostesses for lunch.
Just for starters! A poached egg and bacon salad.
Just for starters! A poached egg and bacon salad.
You may remember this main course from a previous post but  I'm making you look at it again!
You may remember this main course from a previous post but
I’m making you look at it again!
As if we hadn't eaten enough already (and this was only lunch!) the creme caramel and chocolate mousse were too tempting to resist.
As if we hadn’t eaten enough already (and this was only lunch!) the creme caramel and chocolate mousse were too tempting to resist.
Manuela and Valerie holding me up after lunch. I've eaten too much to stand unaided.
Manuela and Valerie holding me up after lunch. I’ve eaten too much to stand unaided.
This delicious strawberry tart accompanied afternoon tea.
This delicious strawberry tart accompanied afternoon tea.
The source of our tipple - thousands and thousands of acres of vines.
The source of our tipple – thousands and thousands of acres of vines.

We happened on some bathroom scales in a pharmacie in a village where I’d stopped to buy some indigestion tablets (I’m sure the irony isn’t lost on you). We both weighed in, memorized the number of kilos and stepped outside to convert the kilos to pounds using our phones.

To our surprise, we hadn’t packed on as many pounds as we had feared despite my increasingly prominent muffin top and Jimmy’s new belly.

With a gain of only three or four pounds each, we felt liberated to continue to stuff down pastries, croissants, baguettes with butter and jam or cheese, three course lunches with midday wine (as well as an evening aperitif and dinner) and calorific desserts with creme anglaise – a thick cream-colored sweet soup that makes absolutely anything taste better.

Vive la France!

France is all in Code #3

Madame Pittino in front of her bread selection. I'm behind the flash. Jimmy has just spotted the pastries.
Madame Pittino in front of her bread selection. I’m behind the flash. Jimmy has just spotted the pastries.

A seemingly straightforward mission to buy two croissants was turned into a farce by moi. The croissants were not the problem. They sat on the counter next to the till after I’d asked for them in the boulangerie/patisserie.

I was poised with a five euro note when the pastries seduced himself and he bent over to study them in the glass case.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAUn moment,” I said to Madame Pittino. She waited. I waited. Jimmy salivated. I could see his eyes burning a hole in the apple tart slices. Madame had made her way ‘round from the bread counter to the pastry counter.

Un pomme de terre, s’il vous plait;” I requested confidently. Madame P. stood looking at me quizzically. After a moment’s thought I heard what I’d said. The translation process always has a time delay in my head, like the news anchor interviewing someone thousands of miles away. You see the interviewee listening for a few seconds more after the question has been posed before they answer. Also, what’s nestling in my head and what comes out of my mouth is not always the same thing.

Non! Tarte au pomme!” I had asked for a potato instead of apple tart.

Notice there is an apple tart slice missing at the back of the row. Jimmy ate that.
Notice there is an apple tart slice missing at the back of the row. Jimmy ate that.

We have almost unfailingly been treated with patience, politeness and good humor in France.

Except for the waitress in Orléans who rolled her eyes at me when I enquired (in French) about the dish of the day. “Fish. Fish! FISH!” I would like to have known what type of fish but daren’t try her patience further. A Union Jack pin on her apron implied she spoke English but her vocabulary in this instance was limited to fish.

If she had spoken to me in French and said saumon I would have understood and ordered it instead of chicken. The salmon did look delicious on a plate in front of madame on the next table.

Oh, and then there was the young girl in the shop who, when I asked for the roast chicken I’d ordered the day before (again in French but it must have sounded like Swahili to her) said, “Combien de tranches?” I knew perfectly well what she was asking but as I cowered under her onslaught of “Combien? Combien? COMBIEN?” I experienced brain freeze.

“She’s asking me how many slices I want. I don’t want slices,” I said to Jimmy. “I want the whole thing.”

“Un poulet entier, un poulet roti.” The words finally surfaced from the cold depths of my brain and escaped. A whole, roast chicken. The shop girl must have experienced brain freeze as well and stood mutely by, not acknowledging my care-ful-ly e-nun-ci-a-ted French, until her superior finished serving another customer.

Chantal, who’d taken my order the day before and understood me perfectly, retrieved my hot roast chicken after a quick dignified exchange in French. I was so glad to flee my previous traumatizing inability to communicate that I didn’t look back to see if young mademoiselle looked suitably chastened.