Some Great, Smoky Mountains

Montana at last!  I’ve been looking forward to this, as it feels like we’re officially in the area of the country that I’ve been longing to get to.  Not that Wyoming isn’t mountain country, it certainly is, but up to now we’ve just been blowing through and destination oriented (got an appointment with an eclipse).  We’re now within striking distance, and seeing a part of the country I haven’t had much experience with.

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Note the little blip in the route over “Sheridan” in Wyoming – that was… let’s call it a “learning experience.”  We needed to take smaller roads to get back to the interstate due to the aforementioned road construction.  Not a problem, but they demand even more attention than the usual ton of attention, as the hazards (and turns you need to take – insert foreshadowing music here) are much closer to you and less easily spotted.  Compounding that, you tend to lose internet coverage, which puts a bit of a hurt on Google Maps, if you happen to be using that to navigate.  [aside: I bought a good old fashioned USA Atlas at a truck stop when we got our rig weighed, much to the delight of Tacco, who is quite old school in this sense.  It has turned out to be a very good call.]  So what happened is not so much that I missed the turn – I certainly saw it, I just blew by it and knew two things equally certainly: 1) we were supposed to be on that road, not this one, and 2) there was absolutely no way we were going to be able to slow down enough in the distance we had available in order to make that turn.  No big deal, or so I initially thought.  But as we continued to barrel down the two lane road to what appeared to be nowhere, I realized that two lanes and two shoulders is not nearly enough width to get the Davista/Toad beast turned around.  And pulling off onto any of the various dirt roads that disappeared into the distance in the hope that at some point they would lead to a turnaround point didn’t seem wise either.  Mile after mile passed in the wrong direction into dusty, hilly oblivion, and we were getting perilously close to just pulling over (still slightly in the road, mind you… the shoulders aren’t wide at all), disconnecting the car, making a 5 point turn in the middle of the road in the hope no one would drive up and get stopped by us (or hit us), reconnecting the car, and heading back.  I didn’t like that option one bit, but it was looking like the only one, when we spotted something resembling a town, or at least a settlement, approaching in the next valley.  Whew!  3 lefts and we were back in business.  That blip on the map doesn’t look as long as it felt.  Either way, lesson learned.

We crossed into Montana shortly thereafter, or more accurately, into the Crow Reservation.  Very near the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn, I noted the illumination of one of those annoyingly vague, amber caution lights.  This one looked at least somewhat like the outline of an engine, but without amplifying detail.  Hm.  In an aircraft, one of the first things you do when learning how to operate it is to memorize the exact meaning (and often corrective action) for every one of the status lights you might see.  Without the requirement for a type rating in the Winnebago, I’d neglected to do the same research.  So we pulled over at the first gas station, complete with a tiny Little Bighorn “museum” (read: cheesy store with cheesy music looping) to refuel and regroup.  Let me be extremely clear – this was not where I wanted to break down.

Fortunately, crisis averted again when I bothered to actually read the operating manual and learn that this particular light was equally vague in potential cause, and that breakdown wasn’t imminent.  Basically it was something to do with the emissions system (that’s about as much detail as the manual gave) and, if it didn’t go out on its own in awhile, it needed to be checked at the next service interval.  Ohhhhh-K.  I feel like they could make something that minor a less ominous-looking light, or at least a more informative one.  Maybe even make it green instead of amber.  Ford could take a lesson from Airbus or Boeing.  Anyhow, lesson #2 learned today.  Though that does lead to another bigger point, which is that unless you’re renting one of these things for a week or so and ensuring the maintenance is someone else’s problem, there really is no getting around the fact that there will be a ton of things that break.  Davista is brand new, and I’ve had the tool set out & pulling things apart not once, but multiple times in the few short weeks we’ve been gone.  There was a time when I wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing that; that feeling would be, if not a complete show-stopper, at least a very expensive and plan-killing proposition.  We were warned at the dealership that things would break, in order to set our expectations.  These expectations have been exceeded – a LOT of things have broken.  But the bright side is that they’ve all been relatively easy fixes given some basic troubleshooting and the courage to risk, you know, disabling your house.  YouTube helps too.

OK, Montana.  I’d been looking forward to doing this part of the drive and seeing Bozeman in particular.  Everyone who has mentioned it has raved about it, and everything I head made me think it would be my kind of place.  Deep in the back of my mind it occupies a place somewhere on “The List,” which in this particular case contains the places we might possibly settle after this year of traveling.

But the smoke.  From the point where we got onto I-90 near Billings and continuing all the way to Bozeman, the sky was hazy and brown with smoke from the multiple forest fires in the West.  I guess it’s a bad forest fire season this year.  Or maybe it’s normal, but it seemed quite bad.  Such a shame in a way that you can drive through an area one time, and the particular conditions of that day stick in your head as “how that area is.”  In my mind now, eastern and central Montana is smoky and a little smelly.  OK, I’m able to discern and understand that this was temporary and to see the beauty of the area despite the smoke, I get that, but still, first impressions, and all that entails.

That said, the area to the north of Yellowstone was stunning and would’ve been stunning even if the whole thing was on fire.  You’re basically following the Yellowstone River upstream, and the mountains just to the south rise steeply and impressively, made even more impressive by the knowledge that they contain what’s essentially a super-volcano.  Livingston, where the river turns the corner and heads up into the park and its source, looked especially impressive.  But then you drive through a pass and into the valley in which Bozeman sits, and it’s quite different.  Tacco was a bit disappointed; I think she had similar expectations about Bozeman first impressions.  I knew from many overflights that it wasn’t as nestled against the mountains as other Montana towns, so I wouldn’t say that I was exactly disappointed, but with the smoke, the mountains disappeared entirely.  No small feat when they’re 5-10 miles away!  The effect was that it looked like flat, dusty, smoky farmland and could’ve been anywhere.  Tacco: “This is not what I expected.”

We made our way to Bozeman Hot Springs, west of town.  It’s one of those hot springs where they build a complex / spa over the actual spring and direct the water into various swimming pools.  And they did a good job of it.  It looks like they’re expanding and improving it, but it’s great as it is, with 4 or 5 outdoor pools built around natural rock outcroppings, and an indoor soaking area / gym, which we avoided.  There’s also a campground / RV park attached, which is the reason it was our destination, and the overnight stay included unlimited access to the hot springs.  It’s a nice campground, too, with lots of amenities and a little stream running through the sites.  Things were looking up after the initial impression.

The kiddos were excited to get into the water, so we made quick work of setting up camp and headed over to soak for an hour or two prior to heading into town for dinner.

I now see why everybody digs Bozeman.  It’s a really cool town.  Lots of great options for eating, but we gravitated to Montana Ale Works (I might’ve provided a bit more of the gravity than others) for beer, cider, and big bison burgers.  It was excellent.  Thereafter we walked around town and loved the vibe.  Funky and mountainy, but zero pretense.  There were MSU students (I assume) on many of the corners playing various instruments for cash, but we saw more violins and cellos than we saw harmonicas and guitars. That doesn’t seem to jibe with the “no pretense” thing, but you’d have to see it – it absolutely does.  Another thing I noticed was that the women seemed dressed up more than I would’ve expected, yet not in a “look at me!” way.  It’s hard to explain, but Tacco and I discussed it, and agreed that the vibe was like a very confident, very “we love this place and we do whatever we feel like doing and we really can’t be bothered what anyone thinks of us or our town.”  i.e. ultra-cool, but not at all precious about it.  Loved it.

All in all Bozeman is now probably struck from “The List,” as the coolness and access to the outdoors wouldn’t be enough to overcome the difficulty in commuting to work from there, but I Get It now.

Tomorrow we finally hit the part of our adventure that has been planned for months, and the excitement has been steadily building.  We’re converging on Grand Targhee ski resort, just into Wyoming from Idaho and on the west (“back”) side of the Tetons, with two other families.  One are dear friends from Seattle and old squadronmates, with whom we’ve been trying to get together and spend shared family time for a few years now (thwarted, sometimes at the very last minute, by sick kiddos).  We’re all camping in the ski area parking lot there and are planning to arrive near the same time, enjoy all the ski area has to offer, and then watch the eclipse on the 21st from what should be one of the best vantage points there is.  There’s predicted to be 2 minutes or so of totality there, and we’re hoping for a breathtaking view of the Tetons to complement things.  Expectations are high – I really hope it all comes together.

By the way, the vaguely ominous but actually pretty benign engine light went out on its own.  Sweet!

2 thoughts on “Some Great, Smoky Mountains

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