Road Trippin’Yellowstone with Mom-the Details
with Steve McCarthy
Well, we did it. 3800 or so miles, 2000 of which my Mom was with us. We all survived. Better than that, we thrived. For a lot of reasons, this may have, no, check that, WAS the best trip we’ve taken so far. Obviously, having Mom with us presented us with some challenges, but nothing serious. Mostly logistical. We couldn’t wander the shops as much, but when we did, we scored big time. We also had to be more aware of food stops and finding places to let her out close by. At 85, she’s doing really well, but, hey, she’s 85. None of this was a big deal at all. We could talk, listen to her family stories (I never knew my Great Grandfather was almost shanghaied from a saloon in Sacramento! He was slipped a mickey and managed to stumble OUTSIDE the bar before he passed out. If he’d collapsed INSIDE the bar, he’d have been on a boat to who knows where! Hmmm, wonder if we can induce some of our dear legislators into that bar?) and marvel at some of the world’s most spectacular scenery. DAMN this is a gorgeous country!
Last month, I charted out the route, and we managed to stick with it mostly. The only thing we missed was the National Automobile Museum in Reno. The rest went (unusually) by plan. We stuck mostly to the dreaded Interstates for the obvious reason that they afforded the best opportunity for places to stop if a real need arose. Luckily, it never did. Even so, There are some VAST wide open, lonely stretches of road out there. Even in a modern car, take food and drink and a jacket. At least.
What I thought I’d do then this month, is to engage in some Miscellaneous Ramblings (with apologies to John Bond, if you don’t get the reference, ah well) and give you some notes on what we saw, what we ate, and where we stayed.
Sacramento: As I noted last month, this is the family’s Old Stompin’ Grounds. We spent a day with the whole bunch looking at key places in our family’s history. My Grandparents’, Great Grandparents’, and Great GREAT Grandparents’ houses are still there. We knocked on one door and the lady who lives in the house my Mom grew up in was charming and invited her in. Little has changed inside and it was great to get photos of all three with my kids out front. Lessee, they would be SEVENTH generation Californians! Indeed, Daughters of the Golden West! On the way out of town, we managed to find the first house my folks bought ca. 1953 for some $12k. Place looks good and still has the brick trim and back fence my Dad built.
Auburn: This town has some great possibilities. It’s an old railroad and gold mining town and the Old Town looks well restored and vibrant. On a less time constrained trip, it’s well worth the time to stop and poke around.
Truckee: This is another railroad town, built specifically as a service stop on the original Transcontinental Railway. Trains still roar through, but few stop. The town itself is full of cool shops from higher end jewelry to happycrappy. And there is great food. Going on a pure hunch, based on it’s old original sign, we tried the Wagon Train Cafe. WOW! Best fries in a long time, AND a BACON WRAPPED MONSTER HOT DOG! What more could you ask for? Mom and Marianne had food equally as good. Give this place a try, you won’t regret it!
Donner Pass: We took as much of the old Lincoln Highway as we could find through all of this and it was worth it! Great scenery of course added to the amazement that this nasty, twisty, treelined road was for decades the main highway! What made it even more personal was my Mom’s stories of being a counselor for a Campfire Girls’ camp up there, and driving an old pickup truck (double clutching all the way) up and down that same road, loaded up with girls in the pick up bed. Try THAT one today! Donner Lake is gorgeous, and the memorial for the Donner Party is not to be missed. The same is true of the Snow Sheds built by the Southern Pacific to help keep the tracks clear of snow. There’s a lot of history up there, read up up in some so you know what you’re looking at!
Reno: We buzzed through the Biggest Little City in the World, only pausing for gas. Because of out late start, we gave the Auto Museum a miss. What was cool was seeing all the hot rods returning to California after Hot August Nights in Reno.
Elko, NV: TRAVELERS’ ALERT!!!! DO NOT HIT ELKO ON A SUNDAY!!!! Elko is closed on Sundays. At least any hope of decent food is not happening! We checked into the Thunderbird Motel on Elko’s main drag and were delighted to find a clean, nicely decorated, comfortable Old School Motel. That was the good part. The Star Hotel Basque Restaurant, the place we’d been really looking forward to was closed. As was EVERY OTHER DECENT LOOKING EATERY! The only places for dinner were the two aging old time casinos. We were the ONLY people in the cafe. The prime rib was, well, average, the service was nice but clearly it was the training staff on duty (what kind of beer do you have on tap? Uh, I don’t know…), and we were hungry enough to eat most of it. So, you are warned.
Wells, NV: Now we’re talking! We decided to give the casino diners a miss for breakfast, trusting that something would turn up. And it did. In Spades! Wells is an almost Ghost Town. At one time, it was clearly a stop for those to tired or slow to make it to Elko from Wendover. Old, mostly vacant motels fill what once must have been a pretty wild town. The centerpiece is the crumbling El Rancho Hotel, complete with a great animated neon sign. Amidst all this emptiness is Bella’s Espresso House. No, this is not a roadside drive though wannabe GotBucks. It’s a Diner with a capital “D” and the best breakfast of the trip. Funky decor (old aprons for curtains?) and GREAT blueberry waffles and REAL sausage (meaning with crispy casings that snap when you bite into them) and even refills on my hot chocolate made this place a winner. Ya have to look for it, but do it!
Ashton, ID: All I can say about this tiny town is WOW! What a great place and what great people! Between the good breakfast and the wonderfulness of Ashton, I don’t remember if we even stopped for lunch! First, this is a SMALL town. REALLY SMALL! Second, our motel, The Log Cabin Motel is a MUST STOP! Second best accommodations of the trip! You’ll learn why it’s “only” second best later. Believe me, it’s not an insult! This place was built in 1928 or so and Holly the owner has had charge of it for the last dozen or so years. Yes, it gets it’s name legitimately. The motel is a bunch of tiny, very real log cabins. At first glance, it doesn’t look like much. My Mom in fact was really concerned. “Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know about this, maybe we need to look for something else…” Sorry, we made reservations, the only ones’ we made on the trip. “Trust me, it’ll be great!” It was! The place is clean and well maintained, the beds are comfy old time spring supported, there’s satellite TV but no wifi. Seems the place is in some kind of wifi black hole. No matter, it’s not a great loss. It also seems that this is THE hot place to stay for fly-fishermen. For eats, the Trails Inn is THE place. Corn breaded Rainbow Trout and FAMOUS Twice Baked Potato. Of course! What ELSE would you eat in Idaho? I think it’s some kind of law that spuds MUST be eaten. This was a great meal. The trout was perfect and the potato weighed in at about 10 pounds. Filled with cheese and peppers it was, well, you can imagine. For breakfast, we tried (at Holly’s suggestion) the Chocolate Moose Royale. In reality, a coffee bar inside another business, but the mocha’s and my Hot Chocolate Royale were great, but the PIE WAS FANTASTIC! This and some kind of nut bread was all the eats available, but the pie was worthy of a Great Breakfast. Made by a “local legend”, these pies had REAL lard crust.
West Yellowstone: This is essentially a tourist trap town at the west entrance of the park. The hotel rates are too high. We did score a couple of nice beaded belts in a shop there. Marianne in particular had this on her List of Stuff To Look For. She’d brought along her Dad’s HUGE turquoise (what else) buckle and wanted to find a belt for it. We scored.
Yellowstone Park: OK, it’s crammed with tourists in August. The roads are pretty packed, especially when the bison (buffalo is a misnomer) decide that they are going to cross the road (so, why DID the bison cross the road? Evidently to jam up traffic a lower the IQ of the average minivan/suv driver by at least 50 points), the weather is iffy (we got dumped on by thunderstorms), and stuff is WAY overpriced. Still, this is a place NOT TO BE MISSED! Ol’ Ma Nature really puts on a show. Sure, there’s what seems like 10 gazillion people waiting to see Old Faithful (in reality, Old Moderately Reliable) but it’s STILL SO COOL! The other vents a geysers and bubbling, sulfurous mud pots, the mountains, the lake, the whole damn place is AMAZING. Also, make CERTAIN that you drive out the east side. This is possibly THE MOST SPECTACULAR ROAD IN THE WORLD! OK, I know, I’ve maybe said that before, but this road is special. Sure it’s twisty and a great drive, BUT, do it at a gentle pace. The scenery is not to be missed. Oh, a Top Tip: Most of Yellowstone is 7000-8000+ feet. DRINK LOTS OF WATER AND SLOW DOWN!! The altitude WILL get you!
Cody. WY: Under different circumstances, this looks like a neat town. Our problem was two fold. One, we’d been delayed in The Park by the Bison Sigalert(s) and it took a LONG time to get to Cody. My Mom managed to get cell service and called the Comfort Inn. They were full. There was a RODEO in town that week! They transferred us to the Buffalo Bill Cabin Village. The price my Mom thought she heard was NOT the price we were charged. This place, although nice enough, is WAY overpriced. Kinda old faux cabins that were comfy, and an attentive staff, but too pricey for what you get. I DO have to say that after dinner, Mom went in to the office to “clarify” the bill. They DID feel bad. Not bad enough to lower the tab, but at least bad enough to give us all vouchers for a FREE full breakfast. THAT had to be worth $40. For dinner, there are a lot of choices but even on a Tuesday, everything was crowded. We settled on Bubba’s BBQ and had a pretty tasty slow cooked brisket. I kicked myself though. Well after I ordered, I spotted a card on the table touting Mountain Man Sausage. Bison, Elk, Antelope, Wild Boar. In the same sausage. I think I really missed out on this one!
Bozeman, MT: Ok, when you enter Montana, the sign says “Welcome to Montana, Check Your Veggies at the Door” and “VEGAN FREE ZONE”. This is indeed BEEF COUNTRY. (Brooks, you’re gonna have a tough time here!) We took another great road north out of Cody to the I-90 and by Bozemon, we were ready for lunch. This is a pretty vibrant college town, which has enabled it to restore the older part of the city nicely. We had no idea where to eat, so St. Serendipity did her thing and I spotted The Garage Soup Shack & Mesquite Grill. A converted old gas station, this was another real find. Bison/Bacon/BBQ Burger? OH YEAH! Marianne had the “Duesenberg” Burger w/artichoke hearts. Mom had the biggest chicken/spinach salad she’d ever seen (OK, I lied, you can get chicken in Montana, but, why would you?). The place is well thought out, the service is great and friendly. A perfect stop.
Butte, MT : OK, it’s a family joke. “Butte? Hahahahahaha” Little kid humor at it’s best. I’d heard about the one time opulent wealth of this Bastion of the Copper Kings, but really, they may as well drop the “e” from the end. This is a sad place. The old buildings are spectacular! The old mansions even more so. But this is a dying town. The Old Town is too far off the interstate and there is little to attract visitors. It’s in desperate need of revitalization, but is doomed to failure. The economics just aren’t there. The buildings are too big to fix. The cost too high. It’s very sad, but it’s also a cautionary tale of One Trick Pony Economics. I wonder if Dubai will look like this in a hundred years when the oil runs out?
Missoula, MT: Another funny name and another college town, this time, filled with new freshmen and their families, getting ready for Orientation. So were the hotels. We found a nice Comfort Inn (basic box like corporate faceless “luxury”) and set out for dinner. Sometimes, the AAA guide book comes through. After failing us in Cody, it turned up trumps in Missoula. The place is “The Depot” and was the best meal of the trip. Since Missoula is also a college town, it’s vibrant and the Old Town has undergone the usual renaissance. The Depot is part of this. Located across from the old Norther Pacific train station, it’s in what was once a railroad hotel. It’s casual, but excellent. The filet needed no bacon to wrap it. It was larded with garlic and sauced with a cabernet/mustard sauce that made me wish for more bread. The garlic mashed potatoes were topped by large shavings of parmesan. AHH! Marianne had Surf and Turf Skewers and Mom had a flat iron steak that was almost as tender as my filet. All for about $100! A real deal!
From there we headed west to Olympia and a few days rest there, then, on the way home, we treated ourselves. My Mom was generous enough to pay for most of the hotels and some of the meals and even some gas, so, we were feeling like we needed a treat. On the recommendation of our good friend Bruce Jones, we hit the Benbow Inn in Garberville.
OH. MY. GOD! This is a REAL hotel. A resort built in 1926 in the grand style of Resort Hotels of the era. This is no little log cabin motel. This is no generic Comfortholidayqualitydays Express. This is what a real hotel is all about. It’s a Must Do. The lobby and rooms are filled with antique furniture that wasn’t antique when the place was built. Hell, for the first time ever, I had the Bell Hop bring our bags to the room. No, he didn’t have the snazzy uniform with the pill box hat, but hey…
The room was small but the windows opened and the bed and desk and bureau were real walnut and not MDF Veneer fakery. On the top of the bureau was a decanter of sherry and two glasses. In the bar, Marianne had an excellent Cosmopolitan (this is not the kind of place on calls it a “Cosmo”) and I had a Tullimore Dew. Dinner was prawns in a creamy Pernod sauce and the cheese/fruit plate. The crowning glory of the place? NO TELEVISION! On can lounge in the lobby and play chess or checkers or help fill in a couple of jig saw puzzles. The only jarring note was that the guests (ourselves sadly included) were not dressed to fit. We just didn’t have room to pack the white dinner jacket. Sigh. To add a note of Small World, it talking Road Trips with the maitre d’, we found out he knew the late, great Martin Swig! Small world indeed.
From there it was a stop in Pismo with Marianne’s sister Peggy and her hubby Dan, Great Western Cinnamon Rolls, and home. Almost two weeks, 3800 miles and the Dart averaged 35+mpg! This was a trip for the ages. Good food, comfy places to stay, family, great scenery...Why in the WORLD would you fly?