Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana and Yellowstone.
It’s been a busy couple of days.
Parts of last Monday were spent wandering around downtown St. Paul. As far as downtowns go, it’s pretty clean with what appears to be a thriving nightlife culture. There were a number of theaters and a few world-class restaurants. I didn’t spend too much time driving around it though as my hours were limited.
Crossing a bridge from downtown, I landed in Harris Island. It was a beautiful area with a large hill right smack in the center. I noticed a building built into a wall of the hill called “Wabash Street Caves.” It’s a dinner theater inside a large cave. Unfortunately, it was closed so no further investigation was possible.
Heading south down a narrow winding road (W. Water St.), I discovered a small regional park off to the side with a large “NO TRESSPASSING IN CAVES” sign.
You already know what that means. I parked the truck, grabbed my maglight and headed into the bush searching for caves.
Why the caves had been carved into the soft sandstone hillside is beyond me. Most of them were quite short, perhaps 3′ high, and a few of them tunneled 30′ or more into the hill. They appear to have been around for a while, collecting dozens of years worth of graffiti and engravings. They all smelled bad.
The caves are currently used for exactly what any remote, un-patrolled and un-owned structure would be used for: high school aged kids’ drinking, temporary homeless shelters and a variety of illicit activities.
The park itself was quite pretty, regardless of some of the garbage left behind by last week’s graduation bender. Streams ran in all directions and the trees sheltered a wide variety of birds. It made for a good hike.
Returning to Jack and Kathy’s, I learned that the “Wabash Street Caves” was once owned by Al Capone and was used for his “industrial” storage. The larger caves offer natural climate control and local breweries and boat owners have utilized them over the years.
The entrance to the park can be found at approximately N44 55.525 W93 06.625.
The largest cave (with a massive steel grate blocking the entrance) can be located at the end of the main path (south by southwest) at N44 55.252 W93 06.791.
All other caves, including various foot trails leading up the hill, can be found to the east side of the main path. Watch out for dense pockets of mosquitoes beginning 10-15′ within most caves where the air is still. Wear grubby clothes because the mud is thick and some of the caves drop in elevation sharply, leading to crouching knee-slides and hands covered in muck.
Explorations for the day had come to a close and it was time for dinner. I met up with Bob, Jack and Kathy, Wally and Kerry at Outback near St. Paul. We had a great time and talked for quite a while. Everyone seems to be doing really well.
After dinner I toured the Mall of America. The place is ungodly huge and was – unfortunately – quiet. I love malls for the people watching. For me, MALL = FREAK SHOW, so I figured WORLD’S BIGGEST MALL = WORLD’S BIGGEST FREAK SHOW. No dice, though. I was able to pick up some new music for the road. My selection had become pretty tired over the last month and I needed a new variety. Y’all wouldn’t believe the CDs I picked up: Eminem’s latest (yes, I actually like this but you have to listen to ALL of the lyrics a few times over to catch why), Shakira (this is what it sounds like when goats sing), Dashboard Confessional (highly recommended, particularly for fans of the Mountain Goats), Steve Maher (similar to Ben Folds Five with a touch of Five For Fighting) and some other disc that isn’t even worth mentioning (I don’t remember what it was called, it just turned out to be a wasted $20).
Minor truck problems delayed my departure the next day. A jammed intake valve set me back a few hours. The Blazer has been an absolute trooper over the last month. It’s held up so well, allowing me to average anywhere between 800 to 1000 miles per day. But, it looks like hell. The grill is a Buddhist’s worst nightmare: its covered with bugs from 12 states. There’s road dust from Montana on the outside, beach sand from Florida on the inside.
Once the valve issue was resolved, I packed up and bid farewell to Jack and Kathy.
I-94 heads west from St. Paul into North Dakota. The west side of Minnesota was pretty, though flat. North Dakota, on the other hand, is filled with a whole lot of nothing. It was a painfully dull state up until I reached Teddy Roosevelt National Park on the far west side late in the evening. I turned off into a small town called Madera. Imagine what Knott’s Berry Farm would look like if it was a town. That’s Madera. I took a dirt road just outside of it and drove for a few miles into a quiet camping area next to the Little Missouri River (N46 53.667 W103 32.333) and bunkered down in the truck for the night. It was a gorgeous evening. The rain had cleared about 2 hours prior and I was treated to the most amazing display of the galaxy. No one else was around, either. This little part of the world belonged to me for the night and provided some much needed quiet time.
I haven’t camped in a while. That night I realized how desperately I miss it. There’s something about curling up into a warm sleeping bag and drifting off to the sound of a nearby creek. There’s also a smell that is indescribable, found only out in the wilderness. If only I had a fishing pole, some firewood and some of the bare cooking necessities, I’d be set. Yosemite is starting to sound really good for after Father’s Day.
The next morning I continued west into Montana. The east side of the state is just a continuation of the doldrums encountered in North Dakota. Until, of course, I took highway 212 southwest from Billings into Yellowstone National Park. This here is God’s Country (Please deposit $20 for the park entrance fee). I stopped at a peak near 10500 feet to feel crushing snow beneath my boots and to view all of God’s creation for a few blistering cold minutes.
The north road of the park, from east to west, drops in and out of Montana and Wyoming, leading to highway 89, then west onto the 90 again.
The drive through Yellowstone was gorgeous. Early summer is ideal. While the park was far too crowded for me, according to a ranger this was relatively quiet. In a few more weeks all the campgrounds will be full and you’ll need reservations.
Seeing massive bison just kicking it at the side of the road was spectacular. I cannot begin to describe how HUGE these creatures are. I read somewhere that two large bison, diced into bite-size pieces, can feed close to 3500 people. Granted, it would take 2 months to prepare. I guess I shouldn’t be looking at animals in a state park and wondering how they would taste with garlic and onion. That wasn’t my first thought, but it did strike me nonetheless.
[I spotted bison, elk and wolves along the drive. They weren’t more than 20 feet from the side of the road, mostly uninterested in the humans and vehicles. It’s like a great big zoo out here.]
Actually, my first thought was, “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, WILL YOU PEOPLE PULL OFF TO THE SIDE OF THE ROAD BEFORE YOU STOP TO TAKE PICTURES OF ELK?!?!?!” This is part of the minor frustration inside Yellowstone. There are simple two-lane roads throughout the park and the speed limit is 45. Rarely do you ever reach those speeds because most drivers are taking their time (understandably, as they should), viewing this amazing countryside. The real problem occurs when there is actual wildlife to see: drivers simply stop right there in the middle of the road. Sometimes two or three cars are just parked. God forbid should someone coming from the opposite direction notice the same animal because they’ll be stopping too. All of this is fine, really, until the family pours out of the vehicle, standing in the road, taking pictures and pointing at the big hairy animal off in the distance.
The bitter little Calvin in me wanted to honk the horn to scare off the creature, ruining the show for the clueless family. Of course, I didn’t actually do it (it would have stressed out the animal and that just isn’t right), but it sure would have been fun.
I’m surprised at what a mean bastard I want to be at times.
The rain came hard that night as I was heading out of the park. The campgrounds were full of people and I desperately needed a shower. A hotel would have to be my destination for the evening.
My stop was in Bozeman, Montana. Andy, a great friend and fellow young widower, lives here. We met a year or so ago while he was living in San Diego. We have a great deal in common, our first bond was knowing that had our wives actually met each other, they probably would have become spectacular friends. Christina and Larissa had an amazing amount in common with each other.
Aside from that, Andy is a natural geek and outdoor junky like myself. We hit it off great and have been pleased to stay in contact during both good and horrible days.
He lives with his best friend who is a fire fighter for the forestry service. The crew has been on duty elsewhere for a few weeks now so it’s been quiet around here. Hopefully I can liven things up for Andy while I’m here. We’re off to a good start.
I’m at his place now, cranking this out on the laptop, sitting in the cool (70 degree) Montana breeze. We hit the town pretty hard last night and it was a blast for both of us. I don’t remember laughing that hard in a long time. There’s something about the way he and I talk that always seems to pleasantly surprise both of us.
I’m looking forward to another day or two with him, catching up and exploring more of Montana.
Then I’ll be off to Sacramento to meet up with Heather, another young widow I met a few months ago. I’m looking forward to that.
This puts me back into Southern California by the end of next week, all in time for my goddaughter Christiana’s baptism.
On a side note, ex-attorney Jeffrey “Jerk-off” Raynes appeared for us in court on Wednesday. We’ve been granted an extension until late September. Thank goodness. I’ll need that time.
I hope everyone is doing well. My cell phone doesn’t work in North Dakota, Montana, parts of Wyoming or Idaho (thanks for nothing, Nextel!!) so if you call, don’t expect me to answer for a few days. Leave a message, though, because I’m checking them regularly and I’ll try to get back to you a.s.a.p.
All-in-all I’m doing really well. The road has done things to me over the last two months that I’m still discovering. That strange “road hunger” kicks in every now and again, signaling the time to head out. Yet, my confidence level, my general comfort and my emotional stability are all so much stronger now than they were just nine or ten weeks ago. Its strange, but good, to feel.
Have I discovered the purpose I was hoping to find? No. That’s okay though. I know now exactly where I want to be and I’ll be there before long. Seeing that in the not so distant future changes everything. I’ll make every day until then count.
Take care. The road calls.