A&E Columns

This must be the place: ‘I felt like lying down by the side of the trail and remembering it all’

Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest in Wyoming. Garret K. Woodward photo Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest in Wyoming. Garret K. Woodward photo

Is there a more exhilarating feeling within your heart than that of preparing for a road trip? I think not. The wandering, pondering rambler inside my soul vibrates wildly thinking about what routes to take, where to stop, who to stop and see and what kind of wondrous happenstance will occur throughout the journey. 

The current endeavor of dirt roads, paved highways and byways, mountain peaks and steep valleys below, gas stations and truck stops, roadside diners and dive bars lit up by the neon lights of the unknown night now aims in one direction — westward.

The two main anchor points are the Telluride Bluegrass Festival (Colorado) and Under the Big Sky Festival (Montana). Beyond my coverage from the trenches of these gatherings, there are several “must stop” spots to see old friends and meander through familiar places and well-worn paths from my extensive past within the West.

I’ve mentioned many-a-times throughout the 11 years of this weekly column of my time living in and traversing the West. First news reporting gig post-college was the Teton Valley News in Driggs, Idaho. I was 22 years old when I rolled into the tiny town. The year was 2008. By that point, I’d been around the West several times as a kid from Upstate New York vacationing with family in the 1990s.

Since I headed back east in September 2008, since I took this position of arts/entertainment editor of The Smoky Mountain News in August 2012, I’ve tried my damnedest to hop in the rusty, musty pickup truck and aim the nose of the vehicle towards Interstate 40 West, onward to the ancient Rocky Mountains and points beyond. 

In those 16 years following the “Driggs Experiment” of a “Damn Yankee” taking on the high desert of Eastern Idaho, Western Wyoming and surrounding states of vastness, emptiness and glorious solitude, I’ve been lucky enough to head that way a handful of times, more so in recent years post-COVID, where closely-held dreams of travel have become more urgent to do so.

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Pack up the backseat of the quad-cab truck with just barely enough clothes and supplies to make the out and back cross-country trip without overloading the pickup with too much unnecessary crap. Take what you really (truly) need to be comfortable in constant transit, in campgrounds and hotel rooms, onsite at music festivals and in the midst of unexpected events.

Last year, however, was my first non-solo trip in ages. My girlfriend, Sarah, and myself. Two weeks of organized chaos up and down the Rockies last July. An inexpensive direct flight via Allegiant from Asheville to Denver. Hustle to acquire the rental car. Get quickly acquainted with the vehicle and merge onto I-470 in the fading sunshine behind the towering mountains cradling the Mile High City.

A joyous rendezvous and dinner with my former photographer and cosmic brother-from-another, Andrew, and his wife, Greta, at their Boulder home. Having traveled around 42 states together as journalists back in the day, I hadn’t seen him in 11 years. Never met Greta, either. Hearty laughter and genuine conversation before goodbyes and plans to do it again next year. Honk the horn of the rental car in solidarity. Merge onto I-25 North for the Wyoming line.

The better part of the next two weeks became a blur of humanity and existence. This barrage of random hotels, restaurants, bars, faces (known and unknown) and miles ticking away like some universal clock of time and space high above in the grand ether. Handshakes and pats on the back. Big bear hugs and ear-to-ear grins in sheer gratitude for the unfolding moment at-hand.

An old motor lodge in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Late afternoon trail run and toes in the ice-cold waters of Clear Creek in Occidental, Wyoming. Cowboy bunkhouse for the night in Billings, Montana. Breakfast along I-90 West. Tractor-trailers flying by. The last sign of winter in July being snowcaps atop the nearby peaks. Greasy burgers and cold Rainier beer at the Missoula Club. The fading sunset as darkness consumes you along Route 93 towards Flathead Lake. Memories of childhood trips and seeing the pristine waters of the massive lake. Surreal, just like I remembered.

Awaken at a Apres lodge in downtown Whitefish, Montana. Head to the Under the Big Sky music festival for the weekend. Scribble down notes in haste. Loud music and manic fandom. Thousands of folks from seemingly every corner of the United States and Canada. Immersed in music, together. Late night shenanigans at the Remington, Great Northern and Palace bars. More loud music and camaraderie. More handshakes and bear hugs. More Rainier.

It was all a blur come Monday morning. Grab some strong coffee, your laptop and notes, too, and head for the front patio of the Apres Whitefish. Crank out the festival coverage and slam the laptop shut an hour or two later. Pack up the travel bags, but not before a quick load of laundry on the second floor. Say your goodbyes and merge back onto Route 93, south towards Missoula and thereafter.

Take the long way back to Denver. Random stops at unknown lakes and streams to dip our toes and eventually jump into the refreshing waters. Two-lane roads and not much traffic. Return to I-90 East. Exit at Butte, Montana. Head south on I-15 towards Route 287. Pull into Wade Lake, jump in and then catch some much-needed sunshine. Stumble upon a roadside cabin for the night.

One more daytime stop at the beloved Knotty Pine Supper Club in Victor, Idaho, before the long trek into the utter desolation of Wyoming. More handshakes and bear hugs with old friends from the “Driggs Experiment.” Over the Teton Pass into Jackson, Wyoming. Endless miles through the Wind River Mountains and Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. More trail runs and cold lakes. Down to Colorado and the Denver International Airport. Back home.

It all happened and more. And it’ll all happen once again in due time, hopefully late June or early July, depending on when I can finally slip my collar and run with a reckless abandon towards the open gate of freedom from 9-to-5 workloads, obligations and responsibilities. And I can’t wait. For what else is there in the big ole world of mystery and discovery, nature and nurture, eh?

Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.

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