There’s no away to hide the dramatic backdrop that struts jaggedly behind the row of modest homesteads on Mormon Row. The Tetons are hulking and intimidating in their firm embrace of this open country, and the old barns and homes seem to hug to the shadows in an attempt to ward off the notorious Wyoming winters.
It’s quiet now, except for the bustle of photographers that come just as the sun rises or as the storms sets in. The images of these historic sites are so ubiquitous that we all fight tooth and nail for the one photograph no one has ever managed to capture, the piece that will pull us out of the pack.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, there were 27 homesteads here, complete with barns, drainage systems, barns and corrals, a tight-knit community called Grovont.
The Moulton barns are the most popular, built by John and TA Moulton on today’s Antelope Flats Road, just north of Jackson.
They lived and farmed here as late as the 1950s, and water still flows in some of their irrigation ditches.
The entire district was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997. Jonmikel and I have lived in the area for years and go to Jackson many times a year, and this summer was the first time we wandered down into Antelope Flats. Not sure why it took us so long to see one of the most recognizable cultural sites in North America.
The scenic town of Wallace, ID is tucked away in the clear-cut mountains of the Idaho pandhandle. As the backdrop for the movie Dante’s Peak, it’s clear that there is something special about the blocks of brick buildings and classic Western architecture. In fact, the entire town is on the National Register of Historic Preservation.
But beauty is only skin deep, as many of the scenic facades give way to dusty interiors and bad 80s decor.
But quirky is forever, and Wallace has plenty of quirks. For one, it’s the Center of the Universe. For two, the people of Wallace love their town so much that they held hostage the plans to build I-90 down Main Street until the state agreed to build the highway OVER the buildings.
For three, visitors can head downtown to sit in a spaceship. Because that’s what you do in Wallace.
The scenic small town of about 800 people is the perfect jumping off point for people who have just made the long, boring trek east on I-90 across Washington or the long, boring trek west on I-90 across Montana. It’s friendly, with numerous BBQ and burger joints and bars in old brothels. Stop over on Bank Street at Wallace Brewing and take a tour of the small brewery and try some suds in their tasting room. Their beers are readily available at the cafe next door.
I am in love the with the cool summer breezes and the clear glacial waters and the green green green of trees that go on forever.
I love the moss and the mush and spongy earth and the little ponds that collect after the rains.
I love the fog that drifts through in the early mornings and creeps back to bed with you as the sun goes down.
I love that there are giant, hand-sized slugs.
I love the endless wet and the rivers that meanders through every step of the landscape.
I love that the trees are massive and the summers brief and the snows still thick in the heat of July.
I love the mountains that fill my memories with everything I have always imagined mountains should be.
I love everything about Mt. Rainier and the Northern Cascades.
The well manicured trail to the ice caves, one of the nicest in the Cascade Mountains, began at the base of this mountain. Once home to an elegant hotel, the meadow was now only inhabited by a lonely brick chimney. People have been coming here for over a century to make the short hike to the famous Big Four Ice Caves.
As you wander through the immense flush of evergreens and thick, swampy mosses, swatting at mosquitoes and sticky in the heat, you can’t help but disbelieve the possibility of snow just a mile away.
Each year, these massive piles of snow, built up by the almost endless Cascade winters, begin to whither away, spring devouring them from the inside out. Snowmelt from above seeps down, carving out frozen passageways that eventually open up to the crowd of curious onlookers.
This year, however, the snowfall had been so massive that the castles and domes of the Cascade snows hadn’t even begun to wilt.
So we chilled our beers, instead.
We stand and stare up 4,000-foot walls of sheer rock and watch as the powder of an avalanche poofs and shimmers. The sound of cracking ice hurdling down the cliffs catches everyone’s attention.
Because avalanches and cave-ins occur regularly when the ice caves begin to form, hikers are forbidden from hiking on the snow fields. Just last year, a young girl was killed when the ice shifted and collapsed, and tragedies happen regularly.
Carefully, we played in the snow, enjoyed a couple of beers and made our way back down the mountain.
As our last mission in the Black Hills, we aimed to climb the highest peak in South Dakota (in fact, the highest peak between the Rocky Mountains and Europe!). At a staggering 7,244 feet, it might not seem like much to those who bag 14ers in Colorado, but from the top, you can gaze out into the plains of South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska and Montana.
To reach the summit, we took Trail No. 9 from the Sylvan Lake day-use area in Custer State Park. There are supplies there, if needed, though at only 7-miles round trip, the trail should not take you all day. No permit is required, but they do request that hikers register at the beginning of the Black Elk Wilderness. There is a small fee to gain entrance to the state park.
We set out early and soon overcame and passed the only other people on the trail. There is an abandoned fire lookout tower at the peak, and you are free to climb around and play in it. From the views, it feels as if you can see everything. The entire world is right there, sitting just at the horizon.
As the first to reach the top that day, we were lucky to find a dozing mountain goat, just waking up from its slumber in the basement of the lookout tower. He popped out looking a little dazed, and then a little annoyed that we had woken him up so early.
From the top, standing precariously on the tips of cliffs that drop down into empty black gulches, it’s easy to image why these hills lay virgin until as recently as 150 years ago. While the rest of the West was being tamed and tortured, the Black Hills sat aloof, above it all and dangerously imposing.
The vastness of the West from the summit also gives way to the same visions that quite possibly came to Black Elk as he sat upon the stones, alone, a wondrous survivor of both the Little Bighorn and Wounded Knee.
As Black Elk said: “I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being.” — Black Elk Speaks
We took time for a mid-morning snack, testing fate by eating right on the edge of eternity.
And as the rest of the world caught up to us on our secluded mountain, we packed up and headed out, in hopes of finding (successfully) a funky pub in downtown Custer.
Gold was discovered in these hill in 1874, a legacy of the ill-fated Custer. The rush to get rich overtook the territory, turning what was supposed to be the last safe haven for the free-roaming tribes of the West into a White Man’s playground.
The Homestake Mining Company built the first railroad in 1879, and from then on the Black Hills were a Cat’s Cradle of rail scars and the pockmarks of mines.
The Burlington and Quincy Railroad built this path and its cars in 1880, and the rail has since brought a barrage of miners, investors and — now — bright eyed tourists to the wilderness between Hill City and Keystone, South Dakota.
Today, the 1880 Railroad rattles along the ties that bring together history and kitsch, the past and the ineffable present, Hill City — a town of wineries and roughnecks — and Keystone, the town that will always represent the arrogance of the American government as they carved faces of white leaders into land that was supposed to belong to Indians.
But the ride is quiet, lumbering, pleasant. It passes through fields and farms, idling by homesteaders and cabins that have seen better times in the last 100 years. There are followers — local train enthusiasts, our conductor assures — one man with a beard down to his navel on a Harley and a young ferroequinologist, a yuppy in an SUV. They race after us, SLRs in hand, sometimes meeting us at a crossing and at other times just missing us in a fog of whistles and steam and trailing gravel from the tracks. Just to see the train in action.
We arrive in Keystone and find a quiet place to sit and drink, watching the costumed employees flounce around for the tourist groupies. We discovered early on that the walking tour of Historic Downtown Keystone would be more exciting if it were of the open, empty prairies of Wyoming, so we settle in and wait for our next train.
Adopt the pace of nature… her secret is patience.
… said Ralph Waldo Emerson.
… unaware of the terrifying ferocity with which nature can consume all things patient and calm.
Nature is ferocious and tenacious…
… it takes what it wants without regret or retrospection…
… all with an angel-sweet smile on her face.
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