Wednesday, July 30, 2008

United Airlines

I apologize if this recent blog seems just like so much complaining. I guess I'm just getting old and cranky. But, I simply have no tolerance for terrible customer service (or big crowds, but that's a whole 'nuther topic) and, as I very infrequently add my personal opinions to the website, the blog is my outlet.

So, I stayed home all day waiting on our lost bags to be delivered -- no delivery, no phone call, no email, no nothing. I'll give them a call in the morning, but have already started inventorying what's in my bag for the claim that I feel sure we'll have to end up making. In the meantime, I also find out that our United delay on our outbound trip was very likely due to pilots calling in sick. (see news article) This is a Union tactic which is opposed to a pilot cutback which was announced last month. Ok, Mr. Union Tactics Manager, how's this working for you? The airline is already suffering financial difficulties, so let's force the airline to file a lawsuit to stop sick-leave abuse (costing yet more money), and piss of 36,000 travelers. I've a feeling that I'm not the only one of those 36,000 that have found my recent travel experience to be the last straw and refuse to ever fly United Airlines again. So, in the end, United has to rebook customers on other airlines, losing the revenue, and ultimately thousands of customers, so that they are forced to cut back more flights, more pilots, etc, etc, etc. Make sense? Maybe United's baggage handlers also all called in sick yesterday.

I'll probably get blasted for this, but I don't think there is a place for Unions anymore. Absolutely, I understand the need for unions when they were first formed, as employer's took advantage of employees and treated them badly. But, today? There are so many laws to protect employess from legitamate issues -- ranging from safety to discrimination, what is the purpose? If a company has financial difficulties, the bottom line is they often can't afford to keep everyone on board. I know from personal experience, that management is often the problem, and that tends to trickle down to the employees, which ultimately affects the customer in the form of poor attitudes and effectiveness. But, unions also protect employees that should have been gotten rid of years ago because of that very same poor attitude or performance.

Going Home

Ok, I’ll give Jackson a second chance -- at 8:00 o’clock in the morning. At this time of day, the town is “do-able” as it appears that everyone in the area likes to sleep in. We finally get a chance to see a little of the town without mobs of people and by 9:00 are parked on the town square, snapping pictures, peeking into a couple of the many shops, and picking up some souvenirs to take home. Now, this, I can handle.

Then we head a little south of town to see what’s out that way, when Dave’s lead foot almost gets him in trouble again when the Wyoming Highway Patrol finds him doing 12 miles over the speed limit. Now, I will give this officer an A+ for courtesy – one of the nicest folks we’ve met on our trip and not just because Dave gets lucky and off with a warning, he was just one very friendly man.

It’s now time to turn in our rental car. Another darn “zoo” at the Dollar Rent-A-Car, which is as unorganized as it was when we picked up the car. The same people who service the in-bound travelers who are picking up a car are also servicing those that are returning one. No one waiting outside with one of those slick little hand-held gadgets that automatically provide a receipt. No -- must stand in line with everyone else to reach the clerk at the front counter, who then goes outside after every customer to check the car and sometimes physically moves it, before returning inside to provide a receipt and wait on the next customer. Later, I pick up a local newspaper where I see pages of want ads, so apparently Jackson has a shortage of people to fill positions, which probably explains some of the poor customer service. Anywho, it was an unfortunate experience and you can bet I won’t be using Dollar Rent-A-Car on future trips.

Then, we’re back in line at the United Airlines to pretty much find more of what I expect from this problematic carrier – yet another delay. However, at this point, it shouldn’t affect our transfer in Denver to Kansas City, so we settle in to have some lunch and watch the planes take off. At the same time, American Airlines, whose performance has also fallen dramatically, cancels a flight and half of them are booked onto our flight which, when it finally takes off, is completely packed. But, we’re still ok as it looks like we will still make our connection, though we may have to rush a little. Nope, about the time we make it out to the tarmac, the pilot decides that the plane is overweight, so back to the gate we go and 80 bags are unloaded from the plane. Whose bags, nobody knows.

Sure enough, we miss our connection in Denver, which was supposed to take off at 3:29 p.m. United will be happy to book us on their next flight at 8:40 p.m. – more than a four hour delay. No, after our 5 ½ delay in the Denver Airport ten days ago, I remember a little known airline delay policy, referred to as “Rule 240.” Most airlines have this rule and I have since looked up United’s, which provides for rebooking on another carrier when the flight is delayed more than two hours. So, I just simply bring up the delay time and ask to be booked on another carrier. No, problem -- we quickly have reservations on a Frontier flight to Kansas City, and though we still have to spend a couple of hours waiting, it’s not as bad as it could be. When you’re traveling, do a “Rule 240” check on your airline before you go and this may alleviate some problems and frustration. The agents will not bring this up unless you ask.

Then we’re off on Frontier – should have booked with them to begin with – nice folks, good customer service, nice plane, etc. Finally, we arrive in Kansas City about 9:30 p.m. and stand watching the baggage carousel go round and round. Surprise, surprise, no bags. And, we’re not the only ones. Seems as if there are others who were on that original United flight from Jackson whose bags are also floating somewhere between Wyoming and Kansas City. United didn’t get our bags transferred to Frontier and one bag is coming in on a United flight in about an hour and the other in several hours.

Thankfully, there’s nothing we have to have from our bags tonight and Frontier promises to deliver them tomorrow.

Falling into bed about midnight, we’re both exhausted and I can only feel terrible for Dave, who unfortunately, has to catch another flight out early in the morning for his “real job.” I, on the other hand, will be happily geeking away in my home office, in my pajamas for probably the entire day.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Back to Jackson, Wyoming

Today’s an easier day – we only have about 150 miles to go from Arco, Idaho to Jackson, Wyoming , plus a few more miles as we make a detour into the Teton National Park, as we didn’t do it justice on our way out some nine days ago.

From Arco to Idaho Falls, there’s a part of me that feels as if I’m back in western Kansas, with large expanses of flat lands, and wheat growing in the fields on both sides of the road. However, these thoughts are interrupted by lots of lava rocks here and there, bigger hills than belong in western Kansas, and crops of potatoes in between the fields of wheat. And, there are numerous barns of a type that I’ve never seen before, half buried in the hills and covered with sod on their sloping roofs. At this point I can only surmise, and research later, that this style must have something to do with the long, cold, and snowy winters.

After having a great lunch in Idaho Falls, washing all the dust off the rental car, and replacing the radio antennae that some jack*!s stole from our rental car, we head to Wyoming via the Teton Scenic Byway. The views immediately begin to change as we climb in elevation along the Snake River and spy several old homesteads on our way to Victor, where I must make a short side trip to Driggs. Why? Because there is a large potato on the back of truck that I just gotta see at the Spud Drive-In. It’s a great stop and a good addition to our “Quirky Idaho” stops.

At this point, though I’m enjoying the views, the traffic is getting heavier and heavier and I’m beginning to feel my neck grow more tense by the minute. Both Victor and Driggs have some history and a few historic buildings, but they can barely be seen between the real estate developers and agent offices. Yes, I know and understand that business is business and there are lots of people that want to visit these beautiful places, but it’s out of my comfort zone – I hate crowds! Not so much that it makes me avoid beautiful places, but enough to make my interest wane.

In any case, we travel on and make a short tour through the southern portion of the Teton National Park. Gorgeous views, though we have once again caught the sharp peaks at the wrong time of day for the best photo opportunities. Snap, snap, snap anyway. We try to avoid the major crowds, the people who stand in the middle of trails with a group taking pictures for ten minutes, the 50 cars that stop to look at a baby moose that left 10 minutes ago, and the inconsiderate folks who stand right in the middle of the path having personal conversations and blocking foot traffic. In any event, we do enjoy our short tour of the Teton National Park and will have loads of new photos to show soon.

We're now on our way to Jackson, though I’m already dreading it. When we came in 9 days ago on a Saturday, the place was an absolute zoo – bumper to bumper traffic, people standing in lines outside every restaurant and saloon, no stop-lights where there should be ones, no place to park, etc, etc. But, it’s a Monday – surely it will be better. Nope, it’s the same thing. I visited here about ten years ago and it was wonderful. It was June, rather than July, so perhaps not as crowded. But, I have no memories of these kinds of crowds, nor of buildings being spaced 10 feet apart in every single nook and cranny that exists in this valley. We thought about having a dinner out tonight – nope, it's pizza delivery, as neither of us have the energy to face those mobs again. This, of course, is only my opinion, but I would suggest avoiding this town, unless you love congestion, traffic, crowds and extremely expensive everything. However, if you’re determined to see the Tetons, you have little choice but “losing your wallet” in Jackson or any of the surrounding small towns.

Unfortunately, I may have to avoid these types of places in the future, though I know I will miss some beautiful views. As a rule, I don’t write about cities, due to their congestion, crowds, too often “poor customer service,” and because they have the resources to promote their cities to such a degree that they need no help from me. The Teton Valley, and unfortunately, the area National Parks, have become to me, no different than driving through a congested large city. Next time, we'll pass.

Last night we stayed in a little Mom & Pop Motel in Arco, Idaho (D&K Motel) that was very clean, had friendly folks working there, parked in front of the room for easy access, included a refrigerator and microwave and was a two bedroom suite with a kitchenette. It was $56.00. Yes, it was a little dated, but it had great internet, a comfortable bed and great hot water pressure in the shower.

Tonight, we check into a Super 8 Motel in Jackson, which we stay in a lot, with few problems. This place isn’t terrible, it's decor is nice, it is outside the mobs of people on the square in town, and it’s one of the cheapest places at $214.00/night. It looks ok and the rooms are clean and acceptable, but we have a third floor room. Where is the elevator? I ask. There’s not one. Problematic when you’re traveling with luggage for ten days. Who builds a 3-story hotel without an elevator?

I'm really going to rethink my whole idea of staying in "name brand" places and start giving the mom and pop lodging places more of a chance. My priorities are friendlieness, internet, cleanliness, and price and though I know these small motels can vary as much as their owners, I think it's worth a shot.

Tomorrow, we get back on a plane to Kansas City, with hopefully, not the typical United Airlines problems that we so frequently encounter. It’s been a terrific trip, but we are tired and it’s been too long.

Yankee Mining District & More

We’re up early as we are planning to cover about 450 mountain miles in the next two days. We continue on the Salmon River Scenic Byway eagerly anticipating beautiful views and historic tours through the Yankee Mining District. We’re relieved to see a visitor center (the first we’ve seen in Idaho) just west of Challis that gives us all the information we need to travel through the Yankee Mining District. Maps and information in hand, we head first to Bayhorse, Idaho, another old mining camp.

Bayhorse got its start when gold was first found here in the early 1870’s, but within no time, the mine failed and Bayhorse was almost a ghost town before it ever got started. However, when a rich vein of silver was discovered, Bayhorse began to thrive, populated by numerous businesses, homes, mines and kilns. As we check out this old town, we pass by the saddest little cemetery - only a few graves surrounding by tumbling fences and no markers. Sadly, when these fences decay, the lonely little graveyard will be lost in nature. Today, the ghost town has ambitions of becoming a state park, but not before an EPA clean-up. Due to this, we were unable to explore the town itself, but much of it could be seen from the road and we took the opportunity.

Backing out, we then make our way Clayton, Idaho, which once served as the center of silver mining activity in the area. A large smelter was located in this small town as the area produced a variety of ores through 1902. The town once again got a boost when silver prices rose in 1935 and the region became southern Idaho’s primary silver producer for the next 50 years. The Clayton Silver Mine finally shut down in 1986. Today, Clayton is a semi-ghost but still has a few open businesses and a wonderful museum located in the restored L.B. Worthington Store. There, we ask about the mine, as we know it is on private property -- can it be visited. The courteous volunteers say that there is sometimes a chain across the road blocking access, but we can see the mine for photo opportunites. As we travel a few miles northward, we never come across a chain and are pleased to arrive directly at the mine. It is clear that this mine operated much longer than most mines in the area as it displays more modern buildings and equipment. Respectfully we snap a few photos and make our way back out.

We’re then moving forward again destined for our primary objective of the day – the historic ghost town of Custer, and along the way, a peek at the old cemeteries and what’s left of the Bonanza Mining Camp and the Yankee Fork Gold Dredge in the Salmon-Challis National Forest.

Making our way up Yankee Fork Road, our first stop is Bonanza, which at one time, was larger than nearby Custer. The town got its start in 1876 when gold was discovered and the town was laid out the following year. It’s population peaked in 1881 at about 600 people. The town suffered two major fires in 1897 and 1889, which destroyed much of the town and most of the merchants relocated in Custer. Though there is just a few buildings left in this old mining camp, they make for some great photo opportunities, and up the hill are two cemeteries. The Boot Hill Cemetery includes just three graves – that of Richard King, Elizabeth King Hawthorne and Robert Hawthorne. Richard King dies in 1870 and Elizabeth and Robert Hawthorne die on the same day in August, 1880. According to the tales, after these three were buried in the cemetery, other townsfolk refused to be buried there and another cemetery was built. There’s a mystery here that we will try to uncover.

Next we explore the main cemetery for the entire Yankee Fork area which was utilized up until the 1950's. Seventy people who have been buried in this graveyard have been identified and their names recorded.

Next stop is the Yankee Fork Gold Dredge, which operated from 1940 until 1952, digging out rock and recovering gold by washing and separating the stones and dirt from the gold. During its active dredging years, which left both sides of the road lined with rocks, the dredge recovered some $1,200,000 in gold.

Just a bit further down the road is Custer, founded in 1878 as another gold mining camp. During the 1880's it was second in importance to Bonanza, reaching a peak population of about 300. However, after the Bonanza fires in the late 1890's, Custer superceded Bonanza as the most important town of the Yankee Fork. However, Custer’s heydays were numbered and by 1910 it had become a ghost town. Today, the ghost town is operated by the National Forest Service and the Friends of Custer Museum, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This once bustling miners camp continues to feature dozens of buildings and interpretive sites.

Continuing westward to Stanley, we turn south onto the Sawtooth Scenic Byway, through the way to busy and so glad we didn’t stay there area of Sun Valley, and continue on until we turn eastward again on U.S. 20 along what was once the Jeffrey-Goodale Cutoff of the Oregon Trail. We soon come upon the bizarre, lava encrusted landscape of the Craters of the Moon National Monument and can only wonder how in the world a wagon train could have possibly traveled through this area. Continuing northwest, we finally settle down for the night in the small town of Arco, Idaho.

Though this has been a wonderful trip, it has been long and exhausting. I just try to pack too much into our trips and we are looking forward to our last day of travel tomorrow, winding up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming for the night and flying home the next day. And double Arghhhhh on Jackson -- I knew it would be expensive - but $220 for a Super 8?? Can't imagine what the price of dinner might be.

Onwards to Idaho

Before leaving Missoula, we stop at Fort Missoula. Built in 1877 to protect area settlers from Indians, the soldiers saw an almost immediate engagement at the Battle of the Big Hole in August, 1877. The next several years, they saw little action, only dealing with minor Indian harassments. During World War I, the fort was utilized as a training center. Later it became the headquarters of the Civilian Conservation Corps. In 1941, the fort was turned over to the Department of Immigration and Naturalization and in 1947, was decommissioned.

The majority of the land is now in the hands of non-military agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and Missoula County. However, a portion of the military reservation continues to serve as an Army and Navy training facility and reserve center. Though some of the buildings were dismantled and moved. However, there are still many sites to be seen including the parade grounds, officer’s row, the Alien Detention Center, and numerous other buildings. The Historical Museum of Fort Missoula features yet more buildings that have been moved from various areas in the county that interpret local history.

We then head south on U.S. 93, making our way to Idaho through a number of small towns. Once in Idaho, we travel the Salmon River Scenic Byway, through some of the very same areas that Lewis and Clark made their expedition in 1805. We soon come to the old settlement of Gibbonsville, which got its start in 1877 when gold was discovered in the area. By 1895, the area had been developed to such an extent, that a 30-stmp mill was built and the mine employed some 600 men. Today, Gibbonsville bears little resemblance to the boisterous mining camp of the late 1800’s. Sporting about 100 residents, the town is filled with both new and dramatically restored old cabins. However, there are still a few remnants left of its mining days and a nearby cemetery that we found to be an interesting stop.

Beyond Gibbonsville, we continue south to North Fork before turning west and traveling along the Salmon River in search of the old mining camp of Shoup, Idaho. This is a very active recreation area as we spy canoes, kayaks and river rafts bobbing along the water, as well as numerous fisherman, and a lively boyscout camp. The actual town of Shoup, that once boasted a population of over 600 people and businesses and homes that lined both sides of the roadway, has been reduced to only a general store and the mine. Up until recently, it appears that mine tours were offered, but this too, was closed on our visit. However, we were still able to get some shots of the mine and rusting equipment before making our way back to the highway.

We are pleasantly surprised when we come upon a small group of young bighorn sheep and they still enough to accommodate a couple of photographs. We’re then back on the scenic byway and looking for a place to eat and a pillow for our heads in Salmon, Idaho.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Onward to Missoula

Sadly, we say goodbye to our friend Albert and once again make our way westward. Backtracking along U.S. 12, we make a side trip at Deer Lodge, Montana, the second oldest town in Montana. Today, this quaint little town boasts a population of about 3,500 and is best known for its Old Montana Prison Museum, which is actually a complex of museums which also include the Frontier Museum along with Desert John's Saloon Museum and the Powell County Museum, all of which transport the visitor back to the era of cowboys and the Old West. The Montana Auto Museum features over 120 vintage vehicles and Yesterday's Playthings is Montana's foremost doll and toy museum. Cottonwood City displays the Snowshoe Creek School and the Blood Cabin. It is this museum that draws us to Deer Lodge.

I am most interested in the Old Montana Prison which began operations on July 2, 1871. During its 100 year history, it held thousands of prisoners including at least one member of Butch Cassidy's "Wild Bunch." Over the years, the prison was expanded with the help of inmate labor, who built 1.2 million bricks and erected the 1896 cell house and several other buildings. A self-guided tour today leads visitors through the Cell House, Maximum Security, the “Hole,” and provide information and exhibits on original schedules, rules, prisoner artwork, and even moldering blankets on many of the iron cots in its prison cells. More lurid displays show a “Prison Life” photo exhibit, contraband items and homemade weapons; and guns, shackles and restraints utilized on the convicts. We also visited the other museums in the complex, but my morbid mind was most fascinated with the prison museum.

Then we’re back on U.S. 12 and looking for the Montana’s first gold discovery at Gold Creek in 1852. This little town provides a peek at just a couple of old buildings but appears to primarily be an agriculture town today. We wind through, looking for glimpses of its former mining days and find an old pond filled with mining equipment, but little in the way of ghost town type buildings. Was still a pretty drive, but we make our way back to the highway and head west again to the ghost town of Garnet, Montana.

Garnet got its start in 1862 as a gold mining town and over the years the Nancy Hanks Mine produced some ten million dollars in gold ore. The rich veins of ore continued to produce off and on up until the 1950s, when the mines closed forever.

At an elevation of some 6,000 feet, Garnet today is one of Montana’s best preserved and least visited ghost towns. The townsite is managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the Garnet Preservation Association and is located on both public and private land. The old mining camp features some two dozen buildings including Kelly's Saloon, the Dahl Saloon, a blacksmith shop, a school, the jail, stores, numerous homes and miner’s cabins, and most impressively, the 1897 three-story J.B. Wells Hotel. An absolutely wonderful stop and you can be sure we will be digging up the history and writing all about Garnet in the near future.

We finally land in Missoula for the night, eagerly anticipating glimpses of Idaho tomorrow.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Helena Region

I’m up early with everyone still sleeping and step outside to see a mule deer in the meadow –beautiful. Then, out here in the middle of nowhere, I have the opportunity for a little catch up work, utilizing the internet. Albert then makes us a fine breakfast – no “continental serve yourself cereal version" here and I plan our day. Soon, we’re off getting a personal tour and history of the once busy mining camp of Marysville. The camp got its start in 1876 when a rich vein of gold was discovered and developed into the Drumlummon Mine, which produced some 30 million in ore over the years. Like other camps; however, the prosperity wouldn’t last and as mining expenses outweighed the price of gold, the large mine closed and the vast majority of people moved away. Today, Marysville displays a number of historic buildings and has seen a small revival as people have developed new cabins in the area. This; however, could be just the beginning, as, with the increased price of gold, the once silent Drumlummon Mine has reopened.

Then, with Albert driving and acting as our guide, we head westward to the old mining camp of Remini, just south of Highway 12. This community has also developed into a summer retreat with both new and restored cabins dotting the hills. While there are several historic building worth the stop for a photo, we are somewhat disillusioned, as this community appears to be in some type of Hatfield-McCoy type feud (though I doubt guns are involved, just "killin' words") over politics, the EPA naming the town as a “Super Fund Clean Up Site,” lack of follow through from the EPA, and a federally imposed sewer and water development plan. Some of its citizens seemingly want to maintain the town’s independence from the government and posted all throughout town are posters insisting on independence and a newsletter that is at best, mostly a rambling commentary on independence and includes many specific “digs” at other residents. Left a bad taste in my mouth.

We then make our way to Elliston, which Albert says has a saloon with one of the best cheeseburgers in the area. And, he’s not wrong. At Stoner’s Saloon, we not only get a great burger and a beer, but also the hilarious story of “Big Foot Captured,” a hoax that took place in the early 1990’s and made news worldwide.

Backtracking to the southeast, we make our way to Comet, yet another 1800’s mining town. But, Wow, Wow, Wow – this is one of the best non-restored, non-preserved old mining camps that I’ve ever had the opportunity to visit. The town got its start in 1885, booming to about 300 people but by the early 1900s had been deserted. However, it developed another boom in the 1920s and 1930s as the mine reopened bringing numerous people back to the small community. In the 1940s it died again and people moved on. Today, the townsite provides glimpses of more than two dozen buildings in various states of disrepair, along with the still intact mine and operation buildings. I’m on a “super-high” making my way through the weeds and exploring this great site, but am appalled when Dave and Albert say they have met a man who is loading the back of his pickup with scrap iron. The man says he comes out every weekend to help “clean-up” the site.

This town is privately owned and it’s amazing that it isn’t entire fenced. However, this kind of wreckless activity by this man, could easily make it so. There is one remaining resident left in town and Albert calls upon him to let the resident know of the theft taking place by this irresponsible man. Though the resident does not own that particular property, he does know the owner and will report both his activities and license tag. Hopefully, this might save the site from more plundering and keep it open for future visitors. Boy, oh, boy, do people like that just make me madder than hell!

Anyway, we’re off to or last stop – Elkhorn, Montana, parts of which are now a Montana State Park. Two buildings remain in excellent shape and are open to the public. Very cool. The rest of the town is privately owned and many of the cabins have been turned into permanent or summer retreats. However, the mine and cemetery can also be viewed, along with a variety of buildings in states of disrepair.

On back to the pristine cabin, for another restful night before heading out in the morning again, alas, without our helpful guide and great new friend, Albert.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Butte to Marysville

We’re off to Marysville via a round-about way westward from Butte taking the Pintler Scenic Route north, which features not only beautiful scenery, but yes, you guessed it -- a couple of ghost towns -- then hitting Highway 12 eastward to a cut-off just before Helena, to make our way to the old mining camp of Marysville, and our final destination of a remote cabin in the wildnerness that belongs to our “old/new” friend Albert Hall.

Before leaving Butte, we explore the city’s historic district, its array of historic mining buildings, headframes, large open mining pit atop Granite Mountain, and the Granite Mountain Memorial.

Butte got its start in the late 1800s when gold and silver were mined in the area. But, its most prominent ore was copper and when electricity began to be used in abundance, there was a soaring demand for the red ore. The town soon began to mine copper almost exclusively and by the turn of the century the town was buzzing with miners and large mines. When World War I began, the demand for the precious metal soared and the small town became one of the most prosperous cities in the country, often referred to as “the Richest Hill on Earth.” During this time, more than 14,000 miners were working on the hill, and down below the town was prospering with numerous saloons, brothels, and every other imaginable business to support the many men and their families.

Butte's happy heydays were interuppted however, when, on June 8, 1917, a large fire was sparked some 2,000 feet below ground, which spewed flames, smoke and poison gas throughout the underground tunnels. Though immediate rescue attempts were made, 168 men lost their lives. The Granite Mountain Mine disaster is the worst hard-rock, metal mining disaster in U.S. history. The mining boom continued in Butte up to the 1950s when the ore began to decline, putting the many mines out of business. Today, these many relics of more prosperous times sit silent atop Granite Hill.

We pass by a few more mining remains as we travel westward on Highway 1 and turn northward to the Pintler Scenic Route. We pass by Georgetown Lake and begin to look for the road that takes us to the old mining camps of Georgetown and Southern Cross. Alas, Georgetown is right below a ski resort and virtually all signs of any mining activites or historic views have been replaced by new cabins, fully restored old buildings, and new condos – progress! That’s ok, cuz we continue to make our way along the road and are rewarded with several remnants in what was once Southern Cross. There appears to be a large boarding house or hotel, along with a mine building and a few scattered cabins. However, the area is buzzing with bulldozers and other equipment that show strong signs of more development for the nearby ski resort and lake. Could be these building are in for a short life span.

Backing out, we continue along the scenic route passing by a number of picturesque homesteads and barns before nearing the quaint little town of Phillipsburg and the turnoff to the ghost town of Granite. Driving along a rugged road upwards we come to the townsite and though I am surprised that it doesn’t have more remains than it does, as the town was quite large at one time, there are still lots of photo opportunties.

Back-tracking once again, we head north, before turning onto Highway 12 east towards Marysville, where we are meeting Albert at 4:00. Arghhhhhhhhh!! We come upon highway construction and it’s bad. We are forced to travel 20 miles behind a pace car whose spedometer never climbs higher than 30 miles per hour. This continues through several small towns and I am fussing loudly. Where we come from, road construction is done in smaller chunks, stopping and starting before and after small towns. Oh, we are going to be so late!!! Frantically, we try to call Albert – no phone reception. Double Arghhhhhh! Well, we can only hope that our “old” friend who we’ve “met” through the website, but have never “met” in person, won’t become disillusioned and leave. An hour late, we finally arrive in Marysville and lo and behold he’s still there.

Albert has been a long time reader of our newsletter and last year graciously invited us for a visit if we were ever in his direction. When the Montana trip planning began this year, I contacted Albert, and yup, his offer still stands. His quaint and fully modern cabin sits some six miles southwest of Marysville in a quiet little meadow, surrounded by mountains and filled with wildlife. It is great to finally put a face with a name as we meet Albert at the Marysville House and after enjoying a beer, we follow him up a rugged road that crosses the continental divide and twists and turns within a mass of trees as we slowly make our way deep into the Helena National Forest. His beautiful little cabin (the only one we’ve seen for miles) finally comes into view and we step out to take a look at this pristine abode in the wilderness. No old miners shack here, but a modern, fully equipped cabin that inegeniously uses the resources of the surrounding land to provide electricity and water. AND – he has sattelite internet!

Albert says the folks “in town” call him a hermit, and the remoteness of this place would seem to make it so, but, though he loves his solitude and peaceful surroundings, he’s not a “hermit” in any sense of the “generic description” in my mind. He’s smart, well-educated, witty, articulate, social, and one of the best hosts we’ve ever experienced. (I love my job! -- We meet the greatest folks!) He entertains us with tales of his life before retirement as a California detective, an art teacher, and a walk-on extra in several movies. After retirement, he then traveled the nation in an RV for a couple of years, looking for that perfect place to spend the rest of his life. In the meantime, he’s barbequing us an absolutely perfect steak, opening his well-stocked liquor cabinet, regaling us with regional tales and promising to play “personal guide” for tomorrow.

Five star B&B Albert!! Thank you so much!!

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Ghost Towns of Southwest Montana

Now, how could I be more excited about this day than yesterday? Because it’s ghost town day, and some of these I have been looking forward to seeing for years. We head westward through Bozeman along the Bozeman Trail, where we can actually see remnants of the historic path and see the few remaining buildings of the mining and stage station town of Red Bluff. We then begin to cut southwest on our way to Virginia City.

Though by definition a ghost town, Virginia City is very much alive. Frozen in time this early settlement provides one of the best-preserved examples of the many mining camps of the American West. Gold was discovered in Alder Gulch in 1863 and within a year, some 10,000 miners had made there way to the area, lining the hills with tents first before beginning to build permanent buildings. In 1864 Congress created the new territory of Montana, separating it from Idaho Territory. By the following year Virginia City had gained so much influence that the capitol was moved from Bannack, to become the territory capitol. Virginia City and nearby Nevada City became known as the site of the richest placer gold strike in the Rocky Mountains. In the first three years alone, an estimated $30 million worth of gold was removed from the gulch. Today, Virginia City is a National Historic Landmark District, which features more than 200 historic buildings from its prosperous mining days.

Next we travel the few miles to Nevada City, whose history is much the same as its nearby neighbor, Virginia City, though it was never as large. Today, the site features not only original buildings from the mining camp, but also historic buildings that have been moved in from the surrounding area.

Then we’re headed southwest once again and choose to take a dirt road shortcut and got a bonus when we stumble across an old community called Silver Spring that we didn’t know existed. Though only two buildings remain, it was a cool stop. Then we’re headed to Bannack, but “Tommy” (our TomTom GPS) gets us lost – well not lost, but takes us down more bumpy dirt roads instead of directing us back to a highway. We finally emerge at Dillon, Montana and make our way to the ghost town and once thriving mining camp of Bannack.

Gold was first discoverecd here in 1862 and by the following year was filled with some 3,000 miners. It was in Bannack, that Sheriff Henry Plummer was said to have led a gang of road agents that terrorized the region. He was hanged by vigilantes in 1864. Today, Bannack is a Montana State Park, which features over 60 original structures. The town is preserved, rather than restored, and visitors are allowed to enter the buildings. This is a great opportunity to get a real feel of the Old West.

Taking the Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway north from Bannack, we our surprised to find that there is another ghost town along the way. Though the day is getting a bit late, I just can’t bypass a ghost town opportunity, even though it winds up being just a little bit of an ordeal. While in Bannack, the sky decided to open itself upon the world, drenching the region and generating some fairly large wind gusts. We weathered out the storm inside the old Meade Hotel.
In any event, the storm took more of a toll along the byway, as we pass a number of downed trees, and as we take the four-mile detour off to the mining town of Coolidge. We find we have to hike the last ½ mile in, which feels more like at least a mile. But it was well worth the trip, even though our shoes are soaking wet and hordes of large misquotoes have made dinner of us. The site, which once featured the large Elkhorn Mine across the stream was a significant company town. Today, numerous structures continue to stand, but the vast majority have fallent and are slowly being reclaimed by nature. Unfortunately, the mine and mill across the river are not accessible, the road blocked by a gate and a “do not enter” sign.

Ok, we are done! It’s almost 10:00 p.m. by the time we reach Butte, stop for fast food, eat in bed and are gone!

Cody & Yellowstone

Bright and early before the crowds begin to flood the streets of Cody, Wyoming, we’re out taking photos and exploring the historic and reportedly haunted Irma Hotel. Built in 1902 by William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, the hotel still caters to travelers today. Then we’re off to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, which features five separate museum and thousands of artifacts, photographs, paintings, true life exhibits, and lots more.

Last stop is the Museum of the Old West at Old Trail Town, which features an assortment of storefronts and clapboard cabins gathered from the region and assembled on the original town site of Cody City. The site includes a collection 26 buildings, dating from 1879 to 1901, one hundred horse-drawn vehicles, plus an extensive collection of Native American artifacts and memorabilia of the Wyoming frontier. Another great stop and lots of great photos.

Then we’re finally on our way to Yellowstone National Park. The oldest National Park in the United States, the park attracts some three million visitors every year, and I think we met at least half of them. Of course, this is peak season for all National Parks, and I expected the crowds. We enter through the east gate and pass by Yellowstone Lake, the largest high elevation (over 7,000 feet) body of water in the country. Absolutely, beautiful, we’re snap, snap, snapping away with the camera. Then we visit a number of basins with spitting, boiling pots, before making our way to Old Faithful. We, along with hundreds of other people sit waiting for the expected 100 plus foot eruption of water and we are not disappointed.

Now we begin to make our way to the north end of the park, eagerly anticipating the sight of some stunning wildlife, which we have heard is more prevalent there. Unfortunately, the best we do is the butt-end of one buffalo who has his head buried in the trees, and the head of another who is sitting in tall grass. It’s all ok though, we’ve got a lot of trip left. Making our way through the area that was severely damaged 20 years ago in the devastating fire of 1888, the views of new growth, with toothpick like stripped trees is stunning.

Finally, we reach the great state of Montana, bedding down for the night in Livingston with big plans for the next several days.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Northwest Wyoming

Ok! Yes, this day is what I’m talking about. Determined to have a great day, I awoke chipper and excited to put yesterday behind us and get after seeing some of the great state of Wyoming. We’re headed for a couple of Freemont County ghost towns -- Atlantic City and South Pass City, mining towns near the Oregon Trail.

The morning is absolutely gorgeous, and we follow along the Wind River by towering orange bluffs and lush green valleys to our first stop of Fort Washakie. Like ghost towns, I can’t pass these historic forts, without taking a look. First known as Camp Brown, the fort was built in 1869 as a sub-post to Fort Bridger on the newly created Shoshone Indian Reservation. In 1878, it was renamed to Fort Washakie in honor of the last chief of the Eastern Shoshone tribe, Chief Washakie. It served as a military post from 1869 to 1909. In 1913, it was transferred to the Shoshone Indian Agency and today serves as the headquarters for the Eastern Shoshone tribe. A number of the old fort buildings continue to be used today for various Shoshone administrative purposes. While there, I took lots of pics of the historic buildings and we visited Chief Washakie’s grave in the Washakie Cemetery, as well as Sacagawea's grave at the cemetery named for her. Sacagawea was a young Shoshone Indian woman who was instrumental in aiding Lewis and Clark in their journey.

Then, we’re off to Lander, with breakfast on our minds, but make a quick detour at the Museum of the American West. Though it is too early to be open, the museum features several historic buildings in its Pioneer Village that we are able to view, including several cabins, a barn, a retail establishment, a school and more.

Beyond Lander we’re on our main mission to the historic mining of South Pass, Wyoming. Along the way, we see stunning views of Red Canyon before making our way to Atlantic City. This was once a mining camp that got its start following the 1867 gold rush in present-day Freemont County, Wyoming. The town began to die when the gold was played out, but today is reborn with some 57 full-time residents. It’s dusty streets feature a more than two dozen historic buildings including the 1893 Giessler Store, which now serves as very cool saloon; the 1911 St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, the bells of which were ringing during our visit, calling its congregation for services; the century old Carpenter hotel, which today serve’s as the Miner’s Delight Bed & Breakfast, and many more. A wonderful stop.

Then we’re on our way to South Pass City, just a few more miles down the road when we spy a large mine perched atop the hill. Hmm – is there any way to get closer. We’re looking for a road and are ecstatic to find one a mile or so down the way, take the detour and yes! – it leads us directly to the mine. Another great stop, the historic location features not only the mine itself, but several outbuildings.

South Pass City is today a State Historic Site, which features more than 20 restored original buildings. The city got its start as a stage stop along the Oregon Trail during the 1850s, but boomed when gold was discovered in 1866. Growing to a population of some 2,000 just a few years later, the town sported numerous buildings and businesses. Like other mining towns, it dramatically declined as the gold played out and its buildings began to fall into disrepair. By the 1950’s, it was a complete ghost town, and for the next two decades became a privately run tourist attraction. By 1975 it was owned by the State of Wyoming and soon became a state historic site.

While in South Pass City, I purchase a Wyoming Ghost Town book, and discover we have missed a site along the way – the un-restored camp of Miners Delight, just a few miles from Atlantic City, so we backtrack a little. Located on BLM land, the camp was also known as Hamilton City. The site requires a short hike back in the woods to about a dozen tumbling buildings which have not been restored, but have been saved from crumbling into complete ruins with supports.

Backtracking to Lander, we’re now on our way north again, with the final objective of landing in Cody, Wyoming. We’re once again viewing some great scenes along the Wind River, then through Thermopolis, which features the Hot Springs State Park and the largest Mineral Hot Springs. While we really wanted to make a stop at the Hot Springs, we’re really trying to make up some time after United Airlines stole a day of our vacation, so we blow past making our way to Cody. For a change, we get a great room at the Holiday Inn – expensive as all get-out, but by this time, we don’t even care. Tomorrow, a tour of Cody’s Old West and on to Yellowstone.