Trans America Part II -- Rocky Mountain and the Central

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Continued from Part I - the West.

The next day, I continued east along Highway 80 into Wyoming. Now this was supposed to be the quintessential Wild Wild West of buffalo herds, cowboys, and native Americans. But along the highway it was just endless flat and dry ranches. Occasionally there would be a wind farm, a couple gas stations, or a giant haggard head of Abe Lincoln gawking at the highway (a memorial in Laramie) that broke the monotony.

 

I had an early lunch in Rawlins, WY, population 9,113 (2012). I was hoping to walk into a Western movie set, with a town square with a big clock, under which gunslingers could shoot each other at high noon, or a dark saloon with swing doors, a steamy train station, or better yet, a hotel with a stable, right next to a brothel. But, alas, none of those. Well, they did have an old town with aged buildings, a couple churches, a National Bank with ATMs, and a decent Thai restaurant. I could live with that.

 

But do you know what I was really glad to see at this point? A Walmart. I had no idea a Walmart could be so cozy and endearing to a wearied traveler. Yes, I know I know, that was low; and I would be nailed to the pillory by Nordstrom, Crate and Barrel, or even Target shoppers for saying that. But you have to understand, in rural America, where people would drive 50 miles for a loaf of bread, bringing in millions of riveting varieties of goods, with reasonable quality, at the lowest possible price, is a pretty big deal. With unmatched price point and convenience, Walmart has re-shaped the economic landscape of rural America in the last a few decades, for better or worse. Yes, it crushed lots of mom-and-pop shops; and yes, it signifies low living and bad tastes; but yes, it has taken over America, because it’s a more efficient model of capitalism (with Amazon looming from behind of course). For me, it was reassuring to spot that blue and white Walmart sign from a distance late in the evening, knowing that I can refurnish myself with everything I could possibly think of – beef jerky, fresh fruit, towelettes, insect repellant, caffeine pills, or even a cowboy hat – in one stop without being ripped off. Praise the Lord for that.

 

 

In the afternoon, I entered Colorado, the Rocky Mountain Empire. It looked like a tough country, because all motorcyclists removed their sissy little helmets and rode like a real man (though some were ladies). There was one brave helmet-less guy walking his bicycle right on the highway, quite oblivious of the swooshing-by traffic.

 

After a right turn into Route 34, the scenery quickly turned mountainous and the road became rugged and treacherously winding. It was about 4pm when I reached the Rocky Mountain National Park, the rooftop of North America. It was an enormous, 265,461-acre park with five distinct geographic zones, from the low altitude meadow, to high altitude tundra, to glacial peaks.

 

After a quick assessment, I decided to spend the rest of the day exploring the so-called “Heart of the Park” region, which was a cul-de-sac accessible by only one route. As the name implies, the area is located roughly at the geographic center of the park; and I think the name also refers the fact that the region condenses some of the park’s best alpine views along beautiful lake shore trails.

 

The Bear Lake was the most assessable alpine lake surrounded by conifer forest and a trail loop along the shore.

 

Another half a mile away was the Nymph Lake, which was more of a small pond covered by yellow water lily blossoms.

 

Along the way, I was greeted by softly running streams, wild flowers, Golden-mantled Ground Squirrels (Callospermophilus lateralis, and no, it's not a chipmunk), and occasionally a Snowshoe Hare (Lepus americanus).

 

I was feeling the high altitude stress now, but I managed another mile or so to reach Dream Lake, a serene body of water reflecting splendid views of steep, glacial-adorned cliffs. It was such a soothing scene, I stayed till it was getting dark.

 

The nearest community was Este Park, a small town with rich nightlife; but I couldn’t muster any energy to join the revelry. I found a room in a lodge, dropped onto the bed, and fell asleep immediately.

 

The next morning, I drove westward on Route 34, the Trail Ridge Road. I was climbing my way up to the highest continuous motorway in the US, a winding path on the rooftop of North America. The air was light and crisp; the sky was immensely blue and deep. In a distance, mountain tops were decorated with glaciers and snow caps, even though it was deep in the summer. I rolled down the windows to breath in such freshness one could only find in a very high altitude. It made me feel like a brand-new person.

 

A right turn into the Horseshoe Park, a U-shaped, meadow-covered valley carved out by glacier some 15,000 years ago. Today the glacier has receded into patches high above the peaks, while the ice melted into streams and scattering kettle ponds.

 

Another few miles along the way was Hidden Valley, which used to be a renowned ski resort with a hair-raising 2,000 feet of vertical drop. It’s been defunct since 1991 due to restriction by the National Park Service (a ski lift was considered too commercial); but still the valley attracts plenty of hard-cored skiers and snowboarders in the winter.

 

Continued my way up on Route 34, the tree line soon receded above 11,000 feet. The sky became wide open; both sides of the road were covered with patchy alpine tundra. Wildlife became easy to spot. I stopped at the Forest Canyon, to mingle with a family of plump little Yellow-bellied Marmots (Marmota flaviventris).

 

About a mile down the road, in the Rock Cut, I bumped into a group of Big Horn Sheep (Ovis canadensis), the emblem of the Rocky Mountain National Park. The rams certainly looked masculine with their thick horns curling all the way back to the face. Three of them where licking the soil to ingest minerals not available in their regular diet.

 

Another fascinating creature was the tiny Pika (Ochonta princeps), a 6-inch long fur ball with funny rounded ears and tiny legs. It would be easily mistaken as a hamster at the first glance, but it’s actually more of a miniature rabbit. Such an adorable thing!

 

Across the road was the Tundra Community Trail, where I was able to examine closely the intricate ecosystem of alpine tundra. At this altitude (above 11,000 feet), ample sunshine and gusty wind prohibit the accumulation of snow or the growth of tall plants, so only tenacious plants that are affixed to the ground remain. In a distance a Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta), a gamebird that feed on the tundra plants and insects, took a long look at me before quietly disappeared.

 

A few miles along the road was the Alpine Visitor Center, the highest in the National Park System. It’s probably also the best visitor center for an alpine view, and the coldest one deep in the summer too. It was bone-cracking cold at the summit in August, I wondered what would it be in winter? I rushed into its cozy lounge, warming my fingers on a cup of hot tea, and gazing at the snow cap mountain scene right outside of the huge glass pane window. I hadn’t felt so relaxed and content in years.

 

Out of the visitor center, the road was clearly going downhill westward. At Milner Pass, I was held up by an imposing bull North American Elk (Cervus canadensis) furnished with sturdy, elaborated antlers. Unlike bighorn sheep, the elks shed their antlers every spring and re-grow a new pair during the summer – it’s a secondary sex characteristic to show off the bull’s health and ample food source. I wonder just how much vegetation they have to consume to accumulate all that calcium?

 

I found a sign Milner Pass labeled “Continental Divide.” It’s a mountainous hydrogeologic boundary that run longitudinally along North America. Right under my feet, ground water part ways and rush toward two different oceans.

 

On the west side, the water converges into Colorado River, which meanders through the Colorado Plateau and carves out an enormous valley known as the Grand Canyon. I was tracing the water source along the Colorado River Trail now. It was hard to believe this tame little stream was what created the most famous crack on planet earth.

 

Here was the remain of a wooden lodge of early settlers. Nowadays it’s a favorite graffiti site for any hiker who happened to have a pocket knife.

 

Near the water source, the density of wildlife was considerably higher. Along the trail was countless marmots, Three-toed Woodpeckers (Picoides dorsalis), and a huge family of bighorn sheep (ewes and lambs), which blocked the trail for a good ten minutes.

 

With that I concluded my Rocky Mountain tour. After a few miles of soothing meadows and conifer forest, I was out of the western entrance. Immediately I was greeted by Grand Lake, the largest and deepest natural lake in Colorado. It was the reservoir of the Colorado River headwater system – now that was something that matches its reputation in scale. All that water came from the same quite stream I hiked along a few hours ago; but near the lake it was stirred up into exciting waterfalls.

 

Connected to the Grand Lake were two even larger, albeit artificial, reservoirs called Shadow Mountain Lake and Lake Granby. They were constructed from the late 1940s to collect part of Colorado River headwater for nearby cities. Apparently, they were also popular sites for all sorts of water recreations. But I had no more time to linger – I had to make it to Denver before dark.

 

I spent the night in the suburb of Denver, and drove into the mile-high city in the morning.

 

At first glance it was another medium-size city you could find anywhere in USA, until I stopped in the Civic Center. I was intended to visit the Denver Art Museum, but it was not yet open. So I had a stroll around. Surprise… I had no idea that Denver was such a liberal city. There were homeless everywhere, some were sleeping right in front of the immaculate City and County Building, or the majestic State Capitol. These were not the weary, ragged, and weathered homeless I saw elsewhere, but neat, healthy-looing, and poised individuals. Later at lunch time, a SUV stopped by and haul out several large containers. The homeless would line up and receive a lunch sack and a bottle of water. Wow, room service for the homeless, I thought, no wonder these guys looked so damn radiant.

 

Another striking observation is Denver’s tolerance to its ubiquitous and highly visible drug culture. Right in front of me in the Civic Center Park, some dude was enjoying a nice roll of pot, a cigarette break perhaps. In front of the State Museum, an old man set up a table seeking signature to “legalize marijuana,” establish “marijuana smoking area in Denver,” and “support homeless veterans.” Way to go my friend.

 

Impressed, I returned to the Denver Art Museum, or DAM as the local affectionately called it. What grabbed everyone’s attention which was this astonishing spaceship-like building consists of a pile of geometric shapes. That was the radical work of celebrity architect Daniel Libeskind, which I thought quite suitable for its sourrounding and the liberal atmosphere of the city.

 

DAM was best known for its western and native art, which in my opinion was second to none. It was a comprehensive collection of the interpretation of the wild wild west from all possible artistic styles: classical, realistic, impressionistic, modern, post-modern... Only people really understood the west could have extracted its spirit so precisely and vividly, sometimes with simple lines and color blocks. I was mesmerized.

 

The Native American Art collection was equally high-quality and well curated. It reportedly contained artworks and artifacts of nearly every tribe across the US and Canada, from prehistoric time to the present. It was riveting, much like the elaborate headdress of the Native American warriors.

 

The Hispanic art collection from the colonial period, European collection, and modern collections were somewhat less prominent in comparison, but still very pleasant to go through. Apparently, the Mesoamerica received very limited influence from the Renaissance. Many of the religious artworks in the 1800s (first row) were still rigid and timid like from the Middle Ages.

 

Interesting furniture collection.

 

A view of the Central Park from the museum window.

 

Hours later, I walked out of the museum, exhausted, hungry, and disoriented. To my great delight, a row of food trucks, serving ethnic food from all over the world, have lined up in the Civic Center Park. Some pedestrian told me that it was a local culinary event, with live music and all. I ordered a substantial box of traditional Ukraine platter. Not the best I ever had, but wasn’t bad either.

 

 

I didn’t have the time to dwell on Denver, but spent the rest of day driving across the uninspiring flat plain of eastern Colorado and Kansas, known as “the wheat state.” Bill Bryson called Kansas the “quintessential American State,” where Superman and Dorothy of the Wizard of Oz grew up. What he really meant of course was that it was backward, boring, and forever stuck in 1965. I would at least have agreed with him on the boring bit. Consider an outworn billboard I saw on the side of Highway 70: “Pioneer Village, Nebraska #1 Attraction!” When even the Nebraskan smelled a business opportunity in veering off the course of a Kansas motorist for a 67-mile excursion (I checked the map), you know how boring Kansas must be.

 

Sustained by endless songs and audio books in the car, I was able to cruise through endless monotonous wheat fields and make it to Salina, KS. I was not quite out of the hypnotic embrace of Kansas yet, but tomorrow would be a better day. Well, I hoped.

 

The next morning, I woke up to another bright and broiling day – there seemed to be no other kind of day in the summer of Northwest Central. Continued westward on Highway 70, it only took me a couple of hours to cross the state line into Missouri, and the skyline of Kansas City was on the horizon. The name Kansas City was a bit confusing, considering that I just got out of the state of Kansas. To make matters worse, on the other side of the state line, across the Kansas River was another smaller Kansas City, KS – you got to be very careful when asking for directions here. The truth is, the Missourian Kansas City was founded in 1830 as a river port (at the confluence of Kansas and Missouri rivers), and thus was actually older than the state of Kansas (admitted in 1861).

 

The most celebrated attraction in Kansas City was the National WWI Museum, whose 217-foot tall pillar-like Liberty Tower could be spotted from afar. I’ve never visited a WWI museum, and probably wouldn’t have thought of visiting one except that it was the top destination in my lunch stop. I always had the impression that that the history of WWI was inherently uninteresting. The notion of a chaotic bar fight between nations, for no good reasons, on another continent a century ago was not particular enticing. That’s why there were few good stories about WWI. But boy was I glad that I dropped by!

 

Regardless of what you think of the WWI, it has profoundly changed the world much more than most people realized. As the first war that entangled all major global powers, its consequences were way beyond the cold stat of unprecedented casualties: gigantic empires crumbled; soaring nationalism triggered a wave of independence of new nations; communism arose; the seed of the next Great War was planted (so much for “the War to End All Wars”).

The National WWI museum was one of the most engaging and inspiring museums I’ve visited in recent years. At the entrance, all visitor walked pass a glass bridge over a golden field of poppy, which commemorates the 9 million lives lost in the war (reference to a John McCrae poem). It was an exquisite sentimental touch.

 

The exhibits, organized in a chronological order, were focused, comprehensive, and well-organized. Artifacts, documents, and replica of battlegrounds and trenches faithfully reenacted different facets of the turbulent days a century ago, which readily evoked empathy.

 

It’s not easy to tell a good story about WWI. The storyline is a bit of a muddle, and the events lack a glorious theme. Unlike WWII, which could be easily dressed up as the good guys (democracy) defeated the bad guys (fascism), WWI didn’t offer a clear line for moral judgement. It was more like a bunch of belligerent guys in a standoff in a bar. One little guy (Serbia) got overly excited and knocked off a few chips off a bigger guy’s shoulder (assassinated Austria-Hungary’s heir to the throne), and all hell broke loose. Previously the peace of the bar lied on an intricate network of alliance and a delicate balance of power - a Mexican standoff. Once the Austria-Hungary decided to beat the crap out of Serbia, the system collapsed like domino. The chain reaction dragged the whole world into 4 years of chaos and devastation.

 

Like in all wars, WWI was a powerful catalyst for technological innovations, which in turn made the war much more gruesome and lethal than ever. Never before had the fruits of the industrial revolution – tanks, airplanes, large battleships, submarines, machine guns and artilleries of unprecedented fire power, poison gases, and flame throwers – been so widely applied for effective mass killing and destruction. Although the war was often depicted as a stationary confrontation with soldiers living miserably in muddy trenches (in the West Front), motorized infantries, equipped with automobiles, motorcycles, and even bicycles, did emerge near the end and show unprecedented effectiveness. They would lay the groundwork of the much-feared blitzkrieg in WWII.

 

It wasn’t all ravage of course. A number of inventions, such as stainless steels, sanitary napkins, Kleenex, zipper, tea bags, wristwatches, daylight saving time, and air traffic control system, ended up changing the lives of the world in a more civilized way. But that’s a separate story.

 

For lunch, the cafeteria featured a “Eat like a soldier!” menu, serving “Trench Stew,” “Army Goulash” and the like, which sounded to me like terrible lunch ideas unless you were sitting on a crate in a muddy trench. Instead I order a KC-style BBQ plate with slow-smoked beef brisket, a local specialty. It was Juicy and tender, and I would recommend it without hesitation.

The rooftop of the museum offered an excellent view of Kansas City’s skyline. From there it looked peaceful and plain, just like any other medium city in the country. I heard there’re over 100 KC-style BBQ restaurants out there, but before long I felt like a piece of brisket on the grill myself, sizzling under the scorching sun. It was so hot and humid even cicadas seemed to lose the will to live, lying on the staircase, all but dead.

 

I trudged back to the car and found it an intensely pre-heated oven. Even with the AC blowing at full power, it took me a few minutes to cool it to a more livable temperature, before I could cruise along Highway 70 towards St. Louis.

It was about 4pm when I reached St. Louis. The embodiment of the city, the shiny Gateway Arch, greeted me from a distance. I’ve finally reached the gateway to the South. St. Louis could be viewed as the south-most Northern city, or the north-most Southern city, depending on the perspective. The city itself seemed to have a kind of identity crisis, didn’t quite know which side they belong. As far as I could tell, St. Louisan mostly identified themselves as Midwesterners. I could see their stride did have a certain northern tempo instead of a typical Southern laziness; their dialect lacked that slurry Southern twang; the city had a strong industrial base, which resembled a Midwestern city; St. Louis was a predominantly blue stronghold in an overwhelmingly red state in the 2016 election. However, the city did have its inerasable Southern imprints: the shadow of a slavery heritage, which could be traced back to the Dred Scott vs. Sanford Decision, would always linger; the unbearable humid summer heat was more Southern than Midwestern; it’s a river town, a Mississippi River town – what’s more Southern than that? It also had a large African American population (49.2% in 2010). Its Hooter girls, I couldn’t help but noticed, were all black.

 

 I didn’t know anyone still remembered or felt anything under the imposing Renaissance-styled dome of the Old Court House, but until 1861, this was where slave auctions took place. In 1853, Dred Scott, an enslaved African American who has been taken by his owner to free states and territories, filed a law suit against his owner to ask for his freedom. The case went all the way to U. S. Supreme Court, and in March 6th, 1856, the Dred Scott vs. Sanford Decision was handed out right here in the Old Court House. “A negro, whose ancestors were imported into the U. S., and sold as slaves, could not be an American citizen and therefore had no standing to sue in federal court.” Ouch! That was no doubt the worst Supreme Court decision ever made, by far. It quickly ignited a blazing wave of anti-slavery sentiment. Five years later, the Civil War started.

 

Looking east from the Old Court House, right in front of the Mississippi River, was the impossibly lofty, sleek, and funky stainless steel Gateway Arch, gleaming in the twilight like a portal to the unknown dimensions. The tallest arch in the world at 630 feet, it dominated the skyline and changed the vibe of the whole city – that alone made St. Louis more Northern than Southern. It was absolutely stunning when stood at its base, watching the glinting blade cut into the night sky like an enormous butter knife.

 

Better yet, you could get into a special elevator, which brings you into the very top of the arch to have a panoramic view of the night light of St. Louis through two dozen of small windows. It was the highest ground in St. Louis, as well as the highest point in any Missourian building. Below, the Old Court House was besieged by boxy modern structures, all flashing intensely with colorful neon signs. On the other side, the timeless Mississippi quietly washed away all the grief and sorrow.

 

The next morning, I dropped by the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, its massive green dome being another icon of St. Louis. Before entering, I was greeted by a stainless-steel sculpture labeled “Angel of Harmony” in the garden. The winged angel’s facial feature was clearly African American – now that was something I’ve never seen in a Cathedral before. I decided that I rather liked it, and walked into the vast interior. Like all great cathedrals, the basilica inspired reverence and awe simply with its sheer size and quietude. I looked up at the 227-ft high ceiling of the main dome, agape in wonder.  The only reason to create such enormous volume and immense space between me and the ceiling, I thought, must be to make me feel so damn small and insignificant. And maybe also to provide a cool and refreshing refuge from the summer heat – that was something I would very much appreciate.

 

It should be noted that the Cathedral Basilica was not just about the size. It boasted the most elaborated Mosaic decoration this side of the Atlantic. All in all, it took 41.5 million pieces of tiles and 76 long years (1912-1988) to finish the interior decoration. It was a wonderwork, I had to say.

 

Next stop, the South.

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