Montana-Wyoming 2011 - Tetons to Gillette

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July 20th 2011
Published: July 30th 2011
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After a violent thunderstorm the previous evening, after which we finally ate a delicious dinner in the Mural Room with a table by the large picture windows looking out onto the mountains, we headed north again. By driving back through part of Yellowstone, we were able to save substantial mileage.That turned out to be fortuitous, because the drive out the East Entrance of Yellowstone was one of the more beautiful drives we took. After passing Mary Bay, underneath which lie the hottest parts of the park, you climb out through a high pass with new snow patches and waterfalls around every bend. Eventually, on the other side of the pass, you enter an area of fantastically carved hoodoos in soft welded ash and rhyolite rock. Streams and lakes abut the highway. Eventually you come out onto the plain, and in short time are at Cody.

Named for "Buffalo Bill" Cody, the town retains its western flavor, and seems largely centered around the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. Inside there is a fairly impressive collection (although relatively small) of western and native American art, as well as collections of memorabilia from Cody's days with the army (he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, a rare honor for a civilian with only 8 ever thus awarded) and running his Wild West show. He won and lost several fortunes, and at the turn of the century was arguably the most recognizable celebrity in the world. He died in 1917 and was buried atop Lookout Mountain, Golden CO, apparently in accordance with his wishes, and despite the town of Cody reportedly offering a reward of cash to anyone who could return his body to Cody, the town he helped found.

From Cody to Buffalo is a scenic drive of some note. After leaving the small town of Shell you shortly are in the Shell Canyon Scenic Byway on U.S.14. Since that highway also goes past Devils Tower and through the Spearfish Canyon in SD, it probably deserves recognition as one of America's most scenic roads. As you proceed on through the Bighorn National Forest, you are surrounded by vistas of large meadows, rushing streams and mountain peaks, climbing some 4000' for Shell on the west side to Burgess Junction on the east side. Shell Canyon has been cut through hard granite by Shell Creek, and is named for very ancient shell fossils found in the shallow sandstone layer on top of the granite.

The drive through central Wyoming is not one destined to become one of America's most scenic byways. Rolling hills and plains are dotted with ranches and small herds of pronghorn, and little else evokes the slightest interest. It is a land of oil and gas and coal production.In the center of this vastness lies the small town of Buffalo.

Nestled in the foothills of the Big Horn Mountains, this town of about 4000 is a hunting and winter sports center, but is also home to the Occidental Hotel. This is where the Harvard lawyer-turned-writer Owen Wister lived for 3 years while writing The Virginian, often noted as the first cowboy novel and the progenitor to the series of books by Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour. The saloon hotel in the Occidental has now replaced Los Ojos in Jemez Springs NM as my favorite kick-ass bar. The walls are adorned with the heads of about every four-legged local beast you can imagine, other than a black angus cow. Over the bar itself is a Tiffany-style half-round shade, with a prominently displayed painting of a "soiled dove", beneath which is a book on local prostitutes featuring the painting on the cover. The liquor collection is extensive, and the several beers available on tap are high quality and cold. It don't get much better than that.

Leaving (reluctantly) the saloon, we headed to Gillette. Gillette is something of a boom town right now. Surface coal mining and production of coalbed methane are a hot industry now, and the landscape is dotted with production facilities of various sizes. Although the coal mining can go on almost regardless of conditions, coalbed methane extraction is very dependent on temperature and is an intermittent process. Coalbed methane, sometimes called "sweet gas" because of the lack of hydrogen sulfide, is adsorbed in the coal and comes out when water is pumped from the coal seam. The process can be more expensive than other forms of methane production, but produces methane with relatively little gas liquids such as butane and propane.

Although we found a reasonable chophouse where we could have supper, Gillette is not a town with tourist aspirations or appeal.

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