First impressions show Salt Lake City to be an excruciatingly clean and tidy place, tucked-in and turned-down with nothing remotely unmade about it. True, there are a few homeless sprawled on the lawns of parkland and slumped on the swards but it still looks like someone has been busy putting this city together in as ordered a manner as possible.
The Church of the Latter Day Saints or Mormons are to blame. They had such a work ethic when creating this city, Utah would forever be known as the Beehive State in homage to those crazy workaholic insects that find it impossible to pull up a chair and relax.
Seeking to escape religious persecution, top Mormon Brigham Young founded the city in 1847 when he and other followers settled in this inhospitable valley. The valley was dry and surrounded by the Great Salt Lake, as well as being circled by the steep Wasatch and Oquirrh mountain ranges. (Average snowfall in the mountains near Salt Lake City is over 40 feet – nearly 5 times the average snowfall of Juneau, Alaska).
The streets of the city are wide, deliberately designed as such to accommodate the turns of wagon teams (without “resorting to profanity.”) It is also probably quite useful to contain those bloaters who are no strangers to the Kentucky Fried Bargain Bucket Feast. (The first Kentucky Fried Chicken was established in Salt Lake City in 1952).
Overlooking downtown Salt Lake City, Capitol Building is a striking architectural landmark, located on a hill, and set on over 40 acres of sculpted lawns, trees, flowerbeds and shrubs.
Temple Square is the main focal point that draws locals and tourists in, home to the granite-built Salt Lake Temple, and the neo-Gothic Assembly Hall.
The Family History Library houses the largest collection of genealogical information in the world with copies of millions of original records including the names of more than two billion deceased people.
In 1875, two 35-foot Australian whales were shipped to the Great Salt Lake, wherein they were released with the intention of creating a tourist attraction. Off they swam, never to be seen again.
The whales may have fared better in Bear Lake, a natural freshwater lake on the Utah-Idaho border, with a rich turquoise colour, and a shoal of species that occur only within the lake and no where else.
For those with piscatorial leanings, you may be interested to know that these endemic fish include a strain of Bonneville Cutthroat Trout, Bonneville Cisco, Whitefish, Bear Lake Whitefish and Bear Lake Sculpin. No sign of the rare Bonneville Whales though…
For those with Pleistocene leanings, the Bonneville Salt Flats are a remnant of the prehistoric Lake Bonneville and is the largest of many salt flats located west of the Great Salt Lake.
For those wondering who the heck Bonneville was, he was a fur-trapper and explorer in the American West, noted for blazing sections of the Oregon Trail. He was made famous by an account of his explorations written by Washington Irving (who also penned Rip Van Winkle while residing in Birmingham…)
For those wishing I’d just get on with it, we continued out from Bear Lake and made for said Oregon Trail, trundling along to the little town of Afton with its impressive arch of elk antlers and stunning chocolate emporium.
Jackson Hole is a valley, which has the rather majestic Teton Mountain Range ranging along beside it (that’s what ranges do). The town of Jackson is also very much into antler arches and has a selection looped around the George Washington Memorial Park. A few of us settled down to a beer perched on saddles at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar.
We were to spend a couple of days in the Grand Teton National Park, and checked into the Jackson Lake Lodge. The lodge is listed as a National Historic Landmark with a flat roof and huge windows providing stunning views of the Tetons with Jackson Lake shimmering in the near distance.
When the sun goes down there is another stellar performance lying in wait when the night sky floods with countless constellations and luminous whorls of stars.
…and the sunrises weren’t bad either.
A quiet welcome to the morning was provided by a rafting trip along the Snake River, which ran smoothly through a pristine natural landscape of open meadows and low forests with the ever-present peaks of the Teton Range keeping pace. It was really a gentle ten-mile float entirely within the Grand Teton National Park, covering this most scenic stretch of the Snake River in the Jackson Hole Valley.
A couple of Bald Eagles, and an Osprey provided ornithological interest, and a female Moose munched away on a riverside salad.
The name of Snake River was derived from an S-shaped gesture the resident Shoshone tribe made with their hands to represent swimming salmon. Explorers misinterpreted it to mean a snake, giving the river its present-day name.
Then it was time to enter the legendary Yellowstone National Park.
Renowned for its unique geothermal activity, wide, sweeping landscapes and spectacular wildlife, Yellowstone has run out of boxes to tick. A little taster in the form of the Lewis Falls and the surrounding forests readied us for a similar cascade of memorable wildernesses that bubbled and steamed with fire and brimstone.
A Grizzly Bear was spotted swaggering along the Hayden Valley; Elk were spied sporadically, and there were plenty of Mule Deer, but it was the herds of Bison that bossed the park.
Yellowstone was the first National Park in the United States, and is crammed with natural wonders – many of which would burn, scald or eat you.
A stroll through the Upper Geyser Basin, the West Thumb Geyser Basin and the Norris Geyser Basin made you think there was more basin than bison in Yellowstone. The colours of the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone with its dramatic drop of the Lower Falls perfectly illustrated how the park came to be named as such.
Of course, you can’t visit Yellowstone without seeing Old Faithful, the reliable geyser, which has a good gush about every 90 minutes or so. The nearby Old Faithful Inn is also worth gushing about. Built with Lodgepole pine logs, wooden shingles and stone, the hotel features an immense lobby (complete with tree-house), plus a massive soaring stone fireplace and handcrafted clock.
Let the photos begin:
After departing Yellowstone, we travelled through the stark Shoshone Canyon and Absaroka Rocky Mountains to reach the Wild West town of Cody. En route we checked out the old hunting lodge of Buffalo Bill – now a trendy hotel.
Cody was named for William Cody AKA Buffalo Bill, which trips off the tongue a little more smoothly than the more accurate Bison Bill.
The Buffalo Bill Center of the West was built in honour of the great American Western legend. It is also a quite brilliant museum, or rather five museums rolled into one with whole wings given over to the history of Buffalo Bill, a Natural History museum, a Plains Indian section, an impressive Art Gallery, plus a detailed exhibition of firearms.
Buffalo Bill Fact: When touring England in 1903, one of the entourage gave birth to the first Native American Indian child born in England. They were performing in Aston at the time and named the child Alexandra Birmingham Cody Standing Bear.
Obviously not content with our appetite for the awesome, the landscape conspired to blind us with more staggering views as we crossed through the Bighorn Mountains on the way to Gillette.
After staying overnight in Sheridan, and with a Solar Eclipse looming large on the horizon, we headed over to the astounding Devils Tower, the stark geological feature that protrudes out of the rolling prairie surrounding the Black Hills.
It’s also difficult to imagine a more fitting location in which to witness the solar eclipse and, sunglasses at the ready, the eclipse was summarily witnessed.
Plains Indians depended on buffalo for most of their material needs – food, clothing and tools – but before they had horses, the buffaloes were hunted with bows and arrows. Tribes often joined in communal hunts by driving herds of buffalo over a cliff – one such is a natural sinkhole now known as the Vore Buffalo Jump. Huge volumes of bone and assorted artifacts have been held in place over time by the bowl shape of the sinkhole, and archaeological studies have unearthed much evidence about this period and its people.
A talk given by a Native American about this period was undertaken in the blazing sun amid tepee and props from the Dances With Wolves set. A piece of artwork commissioned by Kevin Costner rides over such a jump.
The wonderful Spearfish Canyon was the splendid setting for our next stop-over.
“How is it that I’ve heard so much about the Grand Canyon, when this is even more miraculous?” Thus spake Frank Lloyd Wright when viewing Spearfish Canyon.
“That was a bugger of a climb.” Spake me thus, after inadvertently following the route up to the rim of the canyon rather than the recommended preprandial recce to the local waterfall. It was a decent slog up to the top with wide vistas across the canyon, and ever-diminishing views of the spacious hotel we were lodging in.
Custer State Park is renowned for its beauty and serenity, and home where the buffalo and antelope roam. On a scenic tour of the back country by jeep, suitably attired in cowboy hats and neckerchiefs, close encounters with Bison were inevitable and we enjoyed getting up close and impersonal with the shaggy beasts. Pronghorn antelopes roamed about in small herds, Prairie Dogs chuntered around their network of burrows, and there was always a Mule Deer peering out of the forests.
Finishing the jeep tour in a secluded canyon, an authentic Chuck Wagon Cookout was served up with Old Western entertainment providing the tunes.
Crossing the high plains to the Black Hills of South Dakota, we made our way to Deadwood, the town made famous during the gold rush of the 1870s. Famous residents included gunslinger and gambler Wild Bill Hickok and not-much-of-a-looker Calamity Jane. It is not difficult to imagine the Old Western days of warring gunslingers here despite the sidewalks being paved and bereft of tumbleweed.
A cool beer was taken in the bar where gunslinger and gambler Wild Bill Hickok met his end, shot in the back of the head while holding the playing cards that would become known as Dead Man’s Hand.
I think that a lot of the conflict that happened in the Wild West could’ve been avoided if town planners in those days just made their towns big enough for everyone.
Here’s a photograph of Deadwood from 1876 to help with the imaginings:
Probably the Black Hills most famous landmark is the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, a carved mountain monument to presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt (Ted to his friends). Jefferson was originally intended to appear at Washington’s right but the rock was unsuitable – the original unsatisfactory result was dynamited out and a new figure was sculpted to his left.
Elsewhere in the Black Hills is the much larger Crazy Horse Memorial, carved into the granite rock face and constructed to commemorate the famous Native American leader as a response to Mount Rushmore. It will eventually be nearly ten times larger than Mount Rushmore.
“My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes also.” Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear insisted.
The United States had seized the area from the Lakota tribe despite it having been granted to them in perpetuity (might have had something to do with gold being in “them thar hills.”
Crazy Horse took up arms against the U.S. Federal government to fight against encroachments on the Lakota territories. He helped defeat US Army Poster Boy George Custer at the Battle of Bighorn, forever etched in history as Custer’s Last Stand.
Work on the memorial began in 1948, and it will eventually depict the Lakota warrior riding a horse and pointing into the distance. Crazy Horse refused to have his photograph taken so it would be interesting to know what he would have made of the memorial. (“My friend, why should you wish to shorten my life by taking from me my shadow?”)
Time for some Native American wisdom:
Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.
When all the trees have been cut down, when all the animals have been hunted, when all the waters are polluted, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover you cannot eat money.
When the white man discovered this country, Indians were running it. No taxes, no debt, women did all the work. White man thought he could improve on a system like this.
Denver was our final destination on our group tour although several did escape in Rapid City en route. Rapid City proved a bit of a diversion for the rest of us, trying to identify the statues of former U.S. presidents that loitered on every corner.
Denver, the Mile High City and capital of Colorado, lies at the base of the Rocky Mountains, and dates back to the Old West era. I was already hooked by the fact that Colorado produces more beer by volume than any other state and Denver ranks first for the U.S. cities.
Denver’s bustling downtown is centred on 16th Street Mall, a mile-long promenade with free buses shuttling up and down it.
In between sampling some of that voluminous beer, there was time to visit the Colorado State Capitol with its rather fetching gold-plated dome, and the prestigious Brown Palace Hotel with its massive atrium and equally impressive guest-list. Having played host to presidents and pop stars alike, the Beatles seemed the least impressed with the plush surroundings of the hotel and didn’t even bother coming out of their room.
Now for a Photography Masterclass:
…and now for the official group shot:
Next morning, it was time to fly out to Boston.