A Digital Journal

Photography by Tony Triolo

Westward Ho

Nobody can deny that 2020 has been a crazy year. The worldwide pandemic, social and racial division plus the most contentious presidential election in modern history has all our nerves a bit frayed, to say the least. The thing is, none of these issues seem anywhere near a resolution. COVID-19 is still spreading globally and it seems to be getting worse instead of better. Hopefully, recent news of a promising vaccine will prove effective and we can rid the world of this scourge. The election seems far from over as President Trump claims the results fraudulent and he plans to take his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, even though his opponent, Joe Biden and his transition team offer assurances that the election was on the up and up. Time will tell.

Courthouse Rock and Jail Rock near Bayard, Nebraska

It is for these reasons that my wife and I decided, several weeks ago, that this might be the right time to take a little trip, as a way to regroup and recharge our batteries. On top of everything else going on, we are also currently in the process of building a house on the lake. Add that stress to everything else and you can see that a little respite was definitely called for. The next order of business was to decide where to go. Initially, my wife wanted to head north to New England. She thought it would be nice to see the fall colors and it would give her a good excuse to visit her brothers and other relatives along the way. The idea sounded reasonable, but when we checked the COVID restrictions states like Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Virginia had imposed for high-risk states such as Alabama, we quickly realized that a drive north was not going to be feasible during this latest wave of the disease.

So, where to go? If New England wouldn’t take us in, maybe the mid-west and some western states would welcome us with open arms. We checked their COVID restrictions and found virtually none. That settled it. As Horace Greeley once proclaimed, “Go west young man.” Well, I’m far from a young man, but I was more than eager to take that advice, so west we went.

Our ultimate destination was North Dakota for the simple reason that we have never been there before, and we felt that we could manage that long of a drive in the fifteen days we had allotted for our trip. Did I mention that our daughter decided to join us on this excursion and she brought along her dog “Chunky”. We welcomed her company and her dog travels very well so it was all good. The only problem was that some some hotels and most restaurants do not allow dogs, but fortunately, Chunky is a certified therapy dog so many places made an exception.

Our daughter Jennifer with her BFF “Chunky”

We set out from Alabama and worked our way up through Tennessee, Kentucky and into Illinois. We stopped in Springfield, the state capitol, for a couple of days for two reasons. The first was that my wife wanted to see the home of Abraham Lincoln there. It is the home he lived in while practicing law between 1844 and 1861 and just prior to him winning the presidency. His house is located in an historic district which is beautifully maintained as it would have appeared during Lincoln’s day. There is also a fantastic museum in Springfield dedicated to the 16th president.

The second reason for stopping off in Springfield was to visit the Dana-Thomas house, one of architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s premier designs. Visiting the house has been on my bucket list for some time now. The house represents a good example of Wright’s Prairie School style, demonstrating the principles of organic architecture which he embraced. Built for socialite Susan Lawrence Dana in 1902, it was one of the few projects Wright took on that had an unlimited budget. The house, which incorporates the existing original family home, contains over 12,000 square feet of livable space. Almost everything inside the building, including furniture, windows, lamps, etc. were designed by Wright himself.

South facade of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Dana-Thomas House

From Springfield, we headed west through Iowa, Nebraska and into South Dakota. The cornfields of Iowa and Nebraska appeared endless. It seemed like we could feed the entire world with just what we saw. Wind turbines were everywhere generating electricity from the seemingly ever-blowing prairie winds. We checked out one of the Pony Express way stations in the town of Gothenburg, Nebraska and saw some beautiful natural rock formations near Bayard, like Chimney Rock, Courthouse Rock and Jail Rock. In Scottsbluff, we drove to the top of the butte there. It was so windy in places, I thought the lens on my camera might blow off.

Chimney Rock near Bayard, Nebraska
Atop Scotts Bluff near Scottsbluff, Nebraska
Scotts Bluff Monument

Next, we headed north and up into South Dakota. No visit to the Black Hills would be complete without a stop at Mount Rushmore to see those magnificent carved faces of four of our greatest U.S. presidents. My wife and I had been there several years ago, so this visit was mainly for our daughter’s benefit, but seeing that incredible sculpture again was no less special the second time.

Mount Rushmore

Custer State Park is a short drive from Mount Rushmore. Located within the Black Hills, it may have been the highlight of the trip for me. Encompassing 71,000 acres, it is a wildlife reserve and home to herds of bison, pronghorn antelope, elk, mountain goats and even a band of burros. Prairie dogs continuously pop up and down from their burrowed homes making photographing them a real challenge. The most magnificent creatures in the park were undoubtedly the bison. Close to two thousand bison graze the grasslands giving visitors somewhat of an idea what things must have looked like, not long ago, when millions of bison roamed the western prairies.

Bison, pronghorn deer and prairie dogs at
Custer State Park in South Dakota

Driving further on from Rapid City where we spent a few days, we reached the Badlands National Park. Just prior to that, however, we made a quick stop in the town of Wall, South Dakota to visit the famous drug store there. Wall Drugs started out at a small establishment that soon staked out its identity by promising westward travelers (along what is now U.S. 90) “free ice water.” Weary travelers could take a break from their exhausting and dusty trip, and enjoy a refreshing cup of ice water, something in short supply along the road. Today, some two million travelers make a stop at Wall’s, not just for the promise of cold water, but for anything else they can think of. The roadside attraction has grown into a huge retail space covering 76,000 square feet. To be truthful, we thought it was basically a tourist trap and we didn’t stay long.

The Badlands National Park is a special place. The landscape resembles something you might envision on another planet. The topography is comprised of layered rocks, steep canyons and majestic spires. The layers are colored brown, yellow, rust and even red which seem to change hues depending on the time of day. As in the Black Hills, wildlife thrives here with bighorn sheep, bison, mule deer and badger taking center stage. We didn’t see any bighorn sheep at Badlands, but we did at Custer State Park. I’ll admit that it was a long way off and I had to use the longest lens in my bag to get a halfway decent photo of him, but it was great to be able to add another animal to the growing list that we spotted along our way.

Badlands National Park

It was about at this point that we decided to make a major change to our travel plans. Our daughter kept hearing from friends and coworkers, via texts and emails, to make sure to add Glacier National Park to our itinerary. They said it was beautiful and not to be missed, especially since we were so close anyway. Well, close is a relative term. Yes, we were basically only one state away, but Montana is one hell of a big state. Not only that, but we’d have to cut through a corner of Wyoming to get there. We tried to think of what we’d miss if we didn’t stick to our original route and destination (North Dakota) and soon realized that the answer to that question was – nothing! We were hard pressed to come up with a reason to see that state other than the fact that it is one of only a handful of states we have not yet visited. When we checked Wikipedia to see what North Dakota is famous for, we found out that the state is the nation’s number one producer of honey and dry edible peas. Guess we’re off to Glacier National Park!

Along the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park

As I mentioned, we had to cut through the northeast corner of Wyoming, so a stop at Devil’s Tower was a no-brainer. If you are a fan of the 1977 film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, you will immediately identify this unique natural formation formed from volcanic activity eons ago. The tower is the country’s first national monument and it soars almost 1300 feet above the Belle Fourche River Valley. We hiked the trail around the base of the tower and spotted several native prayer flags, feathers and other items placed high in the branches of trees. Several Indian tribes consider the tower to be sacred ground. As we approached the south side of Devil’s Tower, we could see climbers attempting an assent, although conditions, to us, didn’t seem ideal as it was an extremely windy day.

Devil’s Tower

By the time we got to the town of Whitefish, Montana, the weather had deteriorated. Whitefish lies just outside of Glacier National Park and it was our plan to spend a couple of days here exploring the park as well as this pretty little ski town. Unfortunately, Glacier lies so far north that by October part of the main road through the park is already closed for winter. We did drive the portion that remained open, but the day was rainy and the temperature was dropping. Snow and ice were predicted for the next day, so we began to get concerned. Would we get snowed in for a time and have to delay our return home? That was our fear, so we did the prudent thing and left Whitefish for warmer weather further south. We headed to Yellowstone National Park back in Wyoming.

Visitors brave the chilly conditions at the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone

Yellowstone Park turned out to be a bit dryer, but possibly even colder than it was back in Montana. The temperatures didn’t deter visitors to the park however, and it was quite crowded. Although the park’s most identifiable geothermal features like its numerous hot springs and geysers produce heat, we shivered as we waited for Old Faithful to erupt. Once it finally did blow, its usually towering spray seemed somewhat diminished, as if to tell all us tourists, that was the best it could do in those frigid conditions. Old Faithful seemed to be telling us to come back in the spring .

The Grand Prismatic Spring

Well, if Wyoming couldn’t welcome us with warmer temperatures, perhaps we should drive even further south, we thought. Our daughter heard that Colorado was pretty and especially at this time of year. Maybe we’d catch the Aspen trees before they lost all their golden autumn leaves. So, we made a beeline south down past the magnificent Teton mountain range and into Jackson Hole where we stopped for dinner. Every hotel within our budget was booked, so we were forced to continue on. I don’t even remember where we did stop that night, but I do remember it was very late.

Cottonwood trees turn golden in the Fall in Colorado

Our ultimate goal was Colorado Springs, which we arrived at the next day. Mercifully, the weather improved and the temperatures warmed up considerably. We toured around, my wife acting as travel guide. We drove to the town of Cripple Creek, an old mining town. The mines have long since played out, but the town has found new life as a gambling center. Dozens of casinos line the main street accompanied by gift shops, cafes and bars. As remote as the town is, we all had to wonder just how successful this newest endeavor could possibly be.

From Cripple Creek we drove on to Bishop’s Castle which seemed a fitting end to our trip. We began this vacation by touring one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpieces, the Dana-Thomas House in Springfield, Illinois and we ended it by exploring another example of classic American architecture. Bishop’s Castle is an elaborate and intricate “one man” project started in 1969 and is still ongoing. For the last forty years, Jim Bishop has been constructing his “castle” from native rocks quarried from his property that he purchased when he was just fourteen years old. Begun as a vacation home for his family, it has evolved into quite the structure complete with turrets, towers, stained glass, spiral staircases and even a functioning fire-breathing dragon.

On our final day before heading home we decided to get in some horseback riding. Our daughter had never ridden a horse before, which for a former veterinarian technician, we found somewhat surprising. I went with her mainly because the trail would take us through the Garden of the Gods, a national natural landmark comprised of magnificent sandstone rock formations in the shadow of some of Colorado’s most majestic mountains including Pike’s Peak, the tallest summit of the southern range of the Rocky Mountains.

The Balancing Rock at Garden of the Gods

We drove home almost straight through back to Alabama. All three of us shared driving duties and we made it back in two days. Needless to say, we were all exhausted once we arrived, but we were happy for the experience, grateful that we arrived home safely and content knowing that we had a wealth of stories to tell our family and friends and more than a few photos to post to social media.

When we arrived home, the world-wide pandemic was still raging, social unrest was still rampant and the presidential race was getting even nastier, but somehow we all had a renewed sense that we would survive whatever came our way, but still looking forward to the end of 2020.

November 17, 2020 Posted by | Photography | 2 Comments