Mother Nature is a sometimes a tough mother. Something that Robin and Majsan will be well aware of when continue their trek through the Great American West during the storm of storms. If you missed part 1, you’ll find it American Trails no 12.
Words by Majsan Boström | Photos by Robin Laananen
Waiting to see what roads will remain open during the unprecedented flooding that’s closing down Montana, we pull into Miles City to have a drink at the legendary Bison Bar. They serve dad beers and Blue Moon. I order the latter. The group of regulars at the other end of the bar chuckle, and with one quick glance, I can immediately tell that they have pegged me for some ultra liberal, possibly from California. I wear a real straw cowboy hat, but I am also totally hipster styled with low cut boyfriend jeans, a Moncler down vest and Thorogood boots. My eyes catch a poster, taped to the mirror that announces a raffle for some semi-automatic assault rifles and without a flinch I say: “And I’ll take two raffle tickets.”
I see how the regulars exchange surprised looks and I smile. One-zero to me. They smile back. I know that they know that I am posing. And it’s hilarious.
The bartender doesn’t lead on, just asks in what state I live and tells me if I win, the rifle has to be shipped via a dealer. Just the scopes on the different prizes, an Aero Precision M4, a Howa HCRA 6.5 Creedmore and a Red Dawn Tactical, are worth thousands of dollars. If I win, I’ll sell the scope, plug the rifle and hang it on a wall, as a conversation piece.
The bartender says the owner will be back in the morning, so we retreat for a much needed night’s sleep. The regulars and I exchange nods as we leave.
Cowboy coffee at Bison Bar
A few minutes after 8 the following morning, I come in for what they call ‘cowboy coffee’, which is truly just coffee, served in those old-timey see-through glass cups on a stem, that I haven’t seen since like 1995. Mikki-Jo cracks a smile. “I heard about you.”
Mikki-Jo’s family has owned the Bison Bar for more than 60 years, and they’ve offered cowboy coffee for deer hunters and ranchers for as long as she can remember. We get into anecdotes, Gene Autry once stopped by for a drink, and they’ve had some pretty epic fights. The worst one, between bull- and bronco-riders, wasn’t all that many years ago, maybe ten. Mikki-Jo knew it was about to go down by the look in her partner’s eyes.
“I’ve never seen Tony nervous,” she says, “but that time, it was different. He looked over and said: ’Call the cops, we’re about to have the biggest bar brawl we’ve ever seen.’”
Tony was right. The fight spilled out to the street and when the cops broke up one cluster, it would flare up somewhere else. When I want to know what the fight was about and Mikki-Jo and the two patrons sipping coffee three stools down, look at me as if I’m slow and respond in unison: “Because they are cowboys.” And then the topic of conversation turns over to the weather.
Mother nature says hi
It’s June 2022 and Mother Nature shows us her will power. Unprecedented rainfall causes major flooding in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho. We have been rerouted, and rerouted again. We’ll miss the Southeastern Montana Burger Trail. We’ll miss the legendary Pollard Hotel in Red Lodge, and we’ll miss the world’s most famous geysers, the Old Faithful.
Since Yellowstone is a complete washout, we detour to Makoshika State Park, which is a sprawling mass of classic badland with rugged canyons, natural bridges and formations like cap rocks and pinnacles, right smack on the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail. Makoshika is also part of Hell Creek Formation, which is one of the richest dinosaur fossil grounds in the world. It’s hard to believe but these badlands were sub-tropical climate and vegetation 65 million years ago, a place of incredible scientific importance, especially to paleontologists. It’s not uncommon that regular hikers find triceratops and – tyrannosaurus rex – fossils.
As a shark’s tooth collector, I immediately start paying attention to the ground. What if I find a T-rex tooth? That would be the loot of all loots.
Disc golfers paradise
We don’t find a single fossil, but meet people on the hiking trail that have. Makoshika draws a mix of mountain bikers, campers, geologists, archaeologists, paleontologists, hikers…and disc golfers. Turns out that the second best course in Montana is located right in front of our eyes. Champion Lloyd Smith and his son Austin, take us around the course. Red, blue, green, yellow and purple discs swoosh between the sand colored rocks. I try. It’s not that hard, but I also don’t get offered a pro-contract on the spot. “We are building another course up there.” Lloyd points toward the badlands and brown–layered mountainside, where a large bird is stalking prey.
“It’s a great sport, you get outdoors and the gear for this sport, you can bring everywhere,” Lloyd says and taps on his school-sized backpack.
Gratitude to Mother Earth
We get word that the roads are clear down to Cody, Wyoming, and from there we can make a big eastward loop around Yellowstone and cross into Idaho and the last on our five-state Great American West tour. But first, we’ve gotten a wish filled—to harvest sage. The way it’s supposed to be done, clipped not uprooted, with gratitude towards mother earth. The abundance of sage and its importance in Native American culture has been on our minds ever since Gus Yellow Hair at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota smudged us. Sage is everywhere, flowing alongside the mountains, like waves in different shades of silver and green.
So, with the help of the Southeast Montana Tourism people, who are slammed trying to handle the flooding crisis, I get a name. Cedar Rose Bulltail. Cedar and common law husband Mort Dwayne Big Medicine wait for us at their house in Apsalooke Nation, Crow Country.
As we follow Cedar’s little car for miles and miles down a dirt road, we see wild horses on the hillside where Native American children once kicked balls stuffed with antelope hair and slid down the snow on sleds made out of buffalo ribs. Nearly ten miles later, and coincidentally just a few miles away from Little Big Horn, they finally stop and we head out on the prairie.
When Cedar sees wild rose, eucalyptus or spearmint, she bursts out in greetings like: “Oh hello little ones!” like other people react at the sight of kittens, puppies or sweet children. She climbs the hillside with a backpack full of plant gathering accouterments, including a fold-saw and a shovel. The shovel looks pretty new and also serves as a walking stick. Or probably to use in case we run into a snake, I think and stomp the ground a little harder, even though Cedar doesn’t say anything about that. All she warns us about is ticks, but the tall grass on this prairie plateau looks like prime real estate for rattlesnakes to me.
“You have to thank the earth while you harvest,” she says as she clips branches off an especially thick sage bush. While Cedar botanizes, I keep Monteya, Cedar’s 5-year-old granddaughter who’s along for the excursion. We blow dandelions and take pictures of each other. She wants to wear my cowboy hat. Cedar sits down in the tall grass and begins tying smudge sticks grass (and I stomp the ground even harder.) She explains how the Native Americans were forbidden to practice their own traditions for nearly 100 years. “We almost lost it,” she says. “I am still learning, or re-learning, as I prefer to call it.”
Cedar used to go to lectures, the same one over and over with Alma Snell. “She was our last traditional herbalist.” Another important person to Cedar and her interest in re-claiming her relationship with mother earth was Winona Plenty-Hoops. She died in 2012 at 94 years old and was the last member of the Crow Tribe to fashion her own buckskin, from tanning to finished product.
Cedar makes balms, soaps, moisturizers, body scrubs and butters, seasonal teas and pomades. (Which I think she sells for way too cheap.) “Right now I’m into yarrow,” Cedar says and explains that it’s “a blood stopper, really good for bruising, aches and pain.” There’s something really powerful being out on the prairie with Cedar, Mort and Montaya and we buy some of Cedar’s skin products before we bid our farewells.
As Cedar buckles Monteya into her car seat, Mort Dwayne Big Medicine gets out of their car and knocks on our hood. I step out again. And Mort shakes my hand and thanks us for sharing “this” he makes a sweeping gesture over the landscape. “Nobody has ever done this before.”He doesn’t have to explain that nobody means white people.
As they disappear in the rearview mirror, I cry.
We are deeply touched by the level of poverty and despair that still exist on the Native American reservations. And I struggle with whether or not I should mention that Cedar and Mort do not have running water in their house. They are next in line on their reservation, and it will be within a year, but still – it’s 2022. We drive down to Wyoming, with our lip balms and sage drying on the dashboard. I’m wondering if I’ll ever dare to burn mine.
Approaching the Tetons from the east is like driving into an Ansel Adams photo. There are different stories behind the name of the jagged 40-mile mountain range in the Rocky Mountains, which has peaks upward of 14,000 feet. The French named it the three nipples. Go figure. There are lots of titty-related geographical names in the parts of the world the Europeans set out to explore and then colonized. We chose the Native American option, that they were named for the Teton Sioux, also known as the Lakota.
Unfortunately, the hikes that will award some real views in the Tetons are at least 7 miles, so we have to settle for a little leg stretcher. But we do see a triple rainbow, and stop in the middle of the road, screaming. I run out in just my socks, in order to snap a photo before it’s too late. I only manage to capture one and it’s the flattest rainbow I’ve ever seen, hugging the horizon.
Mother nature is delivering on all accounts and there are no more alerts of hail the size of baseballs, but the flooding keeps taking out roads and wreaking havoc north of us. So we keep going south, skirting Yellowstone and roll into Jackson, where we find Soluna Café, a newly opened vegan restaurant. The owner who’s cooking, serving and cleaning, finds time to give Robin, who’s near tears at the reality of warm food that’s not Brussels sprouts, bags full of to-go boxes to sample. She gets traditional vegan tacos, a falafel plate, an RnB bowl with avocado, and carrot ginger soup. I get into the soup too. It’s amazing.
Crossing into Idaho, we hit some icy roads and the vibe changes from western frontier to outdoorsy. Ford and Chevy doilies with horse- and livestock-trailers are -replaced with Mercedes Benz RVs with 10 thousand -dollar mountain bikes strapped onto them. The southeastern corner of Idaho also resembles my native country, Sweden a great deal both in vegetation and landscape. The elderberry bushes and the melting snow piles in shadowy places next to creeks and rivers remind me of home.
It is June 21 and summer solstice by the time we arrive at the Craters of the Moon, and a complete opposite kind of landscape we have experienced so far. For ten days we’ve mostly been busy looking upward and outward at view after breathtaking view. Now we are hiking across barren land with burnt red and black cracks scarring the earth. It’s flat as a pancake and scorching hot. It looks like something out of a sci-fi movie, and the 343,000-acre preserve is a geologist’s dream with almost every type of basaltic lava and many other volcanic features like lava tubes, which are huge caves. We climb down into the Indian Tunnel, which is majestic, thirty feet tall, fifty feet wide and 800 feet long, and with only a hole big enough for us to crawl out of at the end.
Dirty, dusty and incredibly sore after our many days on the road, we decide to splurge and check into the Miracle Hot Springs in Buhl. They have huge swimming pool and offer massage too. And glamping-style cool little -geo-domes for overnight stays, but we are there for the private hot springs, available by the hour. Enveloped by the warm, warm water I keep falling asleep. It feels like winning the lottery.
We don’t have time to go to Boise or Sundance on this trip so we settle for Twin Falls, where we’ve heard that the Perrine Memorial Bridge, a transportation hub for crossing the Snake River, is a popular destination for BASE jumpers.
We find men and women who are prepping colorful ‘chutes on the grassy area surrounding the visitors’ center right on the edge of the Snake River. A young woman says she’ll jump in about 30 minutes and points toward some older guys and says: “But you should talk to that guy, he’s pretty famous.” She’s right.
It’s Miles Daisher, a skydiving stuntman, BASE jump coordinator, coach and aerial artist. He’s 53 and started jumping in the early 1990s when he was a ski bum in Lake Tahoe. Now he lives in Twin Falls with his wife and kids, and “Lucky for me,” he says, “we have Perrine Bridge.”The four-lane truss arch span is 486-foot tall and is supposedly the only man-made structure in America where BASE jumping is legal. Miles says it’s also the most user-friendly, where you can jump year around and without a permit.
BASE stands for buildings, antenna (radio masts), spans (bridges), and earth (cliffs). It’s the extreme sport of all extreme sports, one of the most dangerous recreational activities in the world. A quick search yields some alarming numbers. The fatality rate is 43 times higher than parachuting from a plane. More than 400 people have died since 1981, several of them were Miles’ close friends. Perhaps the most legendary of them all, Frank Gambalie, died after being chased by park rangers in Yosemite at 28 years old. Shane McConkey was 39, when he died in the Dolomites Mountains, Italy. Frank got Miles into the sport and Shane was his best friend.
“Frank showed me a video, where he flew in a wingsuit and I was like ‘Dude, you’re flying.’ He said: ‘I know.’ And I was like ‘No, dude you’re flying.’“The hardest part with this sport is to walk away from it,” Miles says. His favorite is flying in a wingsuit, but today they do ‘chutes. They all head out on the rust-brown bridge and climb up on the railing. Super scared of heights, I hold my breath, and Robin gets the camera ready.
Miles and his friends count “3-2-1 See ya!” and then the big and colorful parachutes descend toward the green water. Moments later all three perform a perfect landing on what looks like an old airfield next to the river.
Suddenly we feel as deflated as the parachutes Miles and his friends are gathering almost 500 feet below us. The trip, 3,161 miles and 14 days through five states is almost over. And after near outdoors and nature overload, we excitedly take an unexpected exit off Interstate 80 and pull up to the Wyoming Territorial Prison, which is a museum nowadays. It held outlaws and desperados in the late 1800s. Like all prisons the inmates carried stone, made soap, candles, and cigars, and in the blistering cold winters, sometimes -20 Fahrenheit below, cut ice blocks for the Union Pacific Railroad. The most famous inmate to have been locked up at WTP was Butch Cassidy.
Outlaws and desperados
We walk through guard quarters, infirmary, and cell blocks. The museum is extremely well curated, complete with 3-D wall-sized maps of the different routes and bandit hideouts of the Great American West. And pretty much Butch Cassidy’s complete story. His real name was Robert Leroy Parker and he took his last name from the guy who taught him to rustle cattle. His first crime was stealing a pair of jeans and some pie at a country store, but he quickly moved up to train robberies and other -bandit operations. Soon after his release from the Wyoming Territorial Prison, Cassidy formed the “Wild Bunch” and recruited Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, also known as “the Sundance Kid”.
Not much later we arrive in Cheyenne, having to look for parking is a strange feeling after two weeks on the road and no stops in cities really. Downtown Cheyenne is a bit of a picky shoppers dream with vintage record stores and exclusive boutiques. Like so many other towns of the “Wild West” Cheyenne saw gunfights, brothels and vigilantes… but also gave rise to the suffragist movement and women’s guarantee to vote. Wyoming made it legal for women to vote almost 50 years sooner than any other states (and Europe). They had the first female governor, Nellie Tayloe Ross, who served from 1925 to 1927.
On a quick shopping spree, we pop in to Alexis Drake’s, where the leather goods are crafted in a backroom behind the storefront. Handmade wallets and bags, bathroom kits and pillows. Six women sit by sewing machines around a large table (the only man, who puts the hardware on the bags and wallets, is out this particular day), working and chit chatting. It feels like an unusual and welcome sight in 2022, where so much is imported from who-knows-where. After we learn about dyes, special zippers and hardware that go on different clutches, we bring up the feminist backbone of Wyoming. They know their history.
“It was also because there were more women than men here,” production lead Jen Cuevas says a tad cynically. Cloud Kleine, who’s making a slim fold women’s wallet nods: “They also needed votes.”The romanticized idea of Wyoming being a feminist state is really nothing but pragmatic.
We continue browsing vintage record boutiques and then the huge western outlet, The Wrangler, because after this trip we too need high-waisted Wranglers. Unfortunately, all the options in the 13,000 square-foot store with rooms upon rooms of boots, hats, and jeans blinds us and we leave empty handed.
As we set the GPS on Denver International Airport and the mountains of Wyoming fade behind us, I realize how much I desperately needed to come out and immerse myself in the Great American West.
It’s been 14 days of immense beauty, intimate -meetings, intense emotions, and an insane schedule. Thank you South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
Do you want to go?
If you want to to the real West, see amazing nature, have a beer with the locals or bring your whole family on a road trip of your lifes, go to Great American West to get all the info you need for your roadtrip or visit. Click here!
All the five states have excellent sites too: South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho.