Mr Blue Sky . . .

I’ve been a fan of ELO – Electric Light Orchestra – for several decades, and also followed ELO lead Jeff Lynne after he made his solo album Armchair Theatre in the 1980s. There’s an interesting story about how I acquired a CD version of Armchair Theatre that I blogged about some time ago.

Then there was Lynne’s collaboration with George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, and Bob Dylan as Otis/Clayton Wilbury in the Traveling Wilburys.

While I knew that Lynne spent most of his time producing hit albums for other musicians, and writing new material, I hadn’t realized how unpopular ELO had become since their heyday in the 70s. Apparently they just weren’t cool. That didn’t diminish my enthusiasm for the music and the intricate arrangements of guitars and strings that were ELO’s signature.

So it was a surprise to read last week that BBC4 would be broadcasting a live concert of Jeff Lynne’s ELO that was recorded in Hyde Park, London in mid-September. Now that one passed me by. I finally got round to watching the concert on catch-up TV last weekend – and what pure joy it was. I walked around afterwards with a big smile on my face for at least a couple of hours.

This was the first time that Jeff Lynne had performed live for almost 30 years. You wouldn’t think that from seeing him and his backing band (with original ELO keyboard player Richard Tandy, and other musicians who normally tour and back Take That!), and supported by the BBC Concert Orchestra, playing to an audience of 50,000. It’s reported that when tickets went on sale they sold out in 90 minutes.

During a 17 song set* Jeff Lynne’s ELO treated us to some of the more magical tracks that had been written and first recorded several decades ago. And they sounded as fresh now – perhaps better even – than all those years ago. Having been persuaded by Radio 2 DJ Chris Evans to play live, I guess Jeff Lynne wanted to produce the sound on stage that he had only been able to achieve in the studio. And with the impressive light show as well, he not only achieved his goal but surpassed it. It was simply wonderful, and I could sit down and watch it all over again. There was just one song from his Wilbury days – Handle With Care – as a tribute to deceased members Roy Orbison and George Harrison.

Reviews of the concert on social media sites and in the press were overwhelming in praise for Lynne and his musicians. The old dog can certainly show the pups of the pop world a trick or two! There’s even talk now of some more concerts in the UK and maybe even a world tour. Now that would be something to look forward to.

*All Over The World
Evil Woman
Ma Ma Ma Belle
Livin Thing
Strange Magic
10538 Overture
Can’t Get It Out Of My Head
Sweet Talkin Woman
Turn To Stone
Steppin Out
Handle With Care
Don’t Bring Me Down
Rock n Roll Is King
Telephone Line
Mr Blue Sky
Roll Over Beethoven


Hardly a high plains drifter . . .

Definitely not! ‘Drifter’ implies someone wandering aimlessly about. That was not us. We knew where we were going. We just didn’t know what to expect while we were getting there.

So why is that? After our tour of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, we had planned to return westwards from Cody on the last day of our roadtrip and travel to Billings, MT for our last night before flying back to Minnesota. But since there were major roadworks via the north entrance to Yellowstone, we opted to turn east – and explore a part of Wyoming that we had not planned from the outset.

US14 was our route, taking us through Greybull, WY and up into the Bighorn Mountains. We’d been on the eastern side of those in Sheridan. And what a revelation the Bighorns were. We crossed the Bighorn Basin – which you can really only appreciate from high up on the mountains looking westwards, wound our way up through the canyon near Shell, over the Granite Pass (at 9033 ft), and on to a broad plateau, snow-covered in parts.

USA 823

USA 830

On the high plain east of Cody we came across a couple of interesting signs, one marking the Bridger Trail, a route to the goldfields of Montana during the 19th century – and surely a source of conflict with the Native Americans of the region – and the other explaining about the wild horses in the area.

What is so impressive about the Bighorn Mountains are the gradients to climb and which you have to descend. On our descent there was a 10% gradient for 10 miles! At the bottom we passed a cyclist – fully laden – who was just beginning the climb. I wonder if he ever made it?

So although we never originally intended to make this detour, it proved to be an excellent way of spending our last full day in Wyoming and Montana. The sky stretched from horizon to horizon – Big Skies! And, for the most part, we had the roads to ourselves, such is the joy of motoring in the USA (something I really quite detest here in the UK because of the congestion that we encounter).

If you ever find yourselves in the vicinity of Yellowstone National Park, and you’re not sure whether to head east or west, you can’t go far wrong by taking a tour of the Bighorn Mountains. You won’t be disappointed.

Earth, wind, fire and water . . . Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks

Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in Wyoming were the planned destinations of our road trip last June across the Great Plains, although it didn’t quite work out that way. Including travel time through the parks, we originally planned to have three days exploring the various corners. In the end we stayed for just two. But this change to our itinerary was well worth it, as I explain in another post.

We entered Yellowstone through the northeast entrance, and had planned to depart through the north gate.

Northeast entrance to Yellowstone

Northeast entrance to Yellowstone

We also stayed at hotels well outside the parks – in Red Lodge (Montana), and Jackson and Cody (in Wyoming). Our scheduled third day in Yellowstone would have meant a long drive back west from Cody (about 70 miles) and then we faced a long journey north to get to our overnight stop in Billings from where we would fly back to St Paul. But there were major roadworks on this north exit road from Yellowstone and considerable traffic delays forecast. So we decided that rather than return to Yellowstone from Cody, we would head east and see what that landscape had to offer. But more of that another time.

As I have blogged elsewhere, Yellowstone was a little bit of a disappointment. Don’t get me wrong – the landscapes are truly magnificent, and the geothermal attractions all that I expected them to be. But there are quite long stretches of road that are almost completely closed in by forest on either side, and there’s not a lot to see. Fortunately we visited in early June so the tourist load was not that significant. I hate to think what Yellowstone must be like at the height of the summer. Nose-to-nose car bumpers I expect. And even in June we encountered several traffic jams as visitors hurriedly pulled off the road, whatever the prevailing condition, to catch a glimpse of a lonely elk or bison.

And the wildlife – or should I say the lack of it – was the other disappointment. I suppose my expectations had been raised through the many TV programs about Yellowstone that I watched over the years. Wall-wall wildlife? It was never going to happen. We did see a few small concentrations of bison (herds would be too strong a description) and a few elk dotted along the horizon. But that was it. although we frequently saw evidence that the wildlife was about and they visited the various geyser sites.

Nevertheless, we did enjoy our visit, and you can’t help yourself if the panoramas do sometimes take your breath away.

On our first day, we traveled through Yellowstone and Grand Teton from Red Lodge, MT to Jackson, WY following (for the first sector before we entered Yellowstone) the spectacular Beartooth Highway. We were fortunate that the road between Tower Falls and Canyon Village, just 19 miles, was already been open for the season, instead of a 51 mile journey via Mammoth and Norris. Click on the map below for an interactive version on the National Parks Service website.

And then we skirted west shore of Yellowstone Lake on our way south into Grand Teton National Park, and on to our accommodation in Jackson, WY.

The following day, we headed north along the west bank of Jackson Lake in Grand Teton National Park and the base of the Teton Range, heading back into Yellowstone, where we took the west loop road from West Thumb to explore the Geyser Basin including the mandatory stop to watch Old Faithful put on ‘her’ display. On the way to Old Faithful we crossed the Continental Divide at least a couple of times, then headed north through Madison, on to Norris, back to Canyon Village and the east entrance skirting the north shore of Yellowstone Lake. What’s special about the Tetons is that they just rise out of the plain to more than 6,000 feet above (12,000 feet above sea level). It’s just like a wall of mountains aligned north-south. No wonder the Rockies were such an obstacle to cross for the early pioneers.

There’s so much out there on the Internet to read about both national parks that I’m not going to attempt to emulate or surpass those sources. Let me however, provide a small pictorial guide to our visit below.

Scenes in the north of Yellowstone from the northeast entrance

 Sulphur Caldron

Yellowstone Lake

Old Faithful

 Colors of the Geyser Basin

 Landscapes of the northwest

Grand Teton National Park

And finally, we left Yellowstone heading for Cody by crossing the Absaroka Range once again.

We also don’t regret our decision to find hotels outside Yellowstone. Within there park there is limited – and expensive – accommodation. Taking hotels in Red Lodge, Jackson and Cody ensured that we really did see as much of both parks in a limited time.

‘The most beautiful roadway in America’

Well, that’s always going to be a matter of personal opinion. Beauty is, after all, in the eye of the beholder. I’m sure many would dispute this claim.

How about US101 on the West Coast for example, or iconic Route 66 (or what’s left of it)? Or some of the Fall Colors trails in the Appalachians or New England? Everyone will have their favorite neck of the woods and the roads that pass through. I have very limited experience of the eastern states – our travels have taken us mainly to the mid-West to visit family, and in the past four years we have chosen to head even further west for other vacation travels.

But I do agree that the Beartooth Highway (US212) between Red Lodge, Montana and the northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park, and straddling the Montana-Wyoming state line, can surely claim to be up among the very best in the nation. It really is spectacular.

Last February, when we were planning our trip from St Paul, MN to Yellowstone, I laid out a broad itinerary I thought we could follow, taking in a number of iconic landscapes and attractions on the way: the Great Plains obviously, the Badlands, Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills in South Dakota, Devil’s Tower, Wyoming and the Little Bighorn battlefield, Montana, before arriving at Yellowstone itself. It was more or less by chance that we decided to enter Yellowstone through the northeast entrance via US212. And since we made the trip in early June, we were lucky that the road had just re-opened after its annual winter closure due to snow.

So what makes the Beartooth Highway so spectacular? From Red Lodge (which lies at an elevation of 5,568 ft) the highway begins to climb quite quickly, and not that far south of the town there is an impressive climb of seven miles of switchbacks to bring you to the summit at Beartooth Pass (10,947 ft). Now I had imagined that we would actually pass through the mountains, but instead the road goes right over the top, and that’s where the state line separating Montana and Wyoming lies.

It’s a switchback down the other side, with magnificent panoramas over the Absaroka Range of the Rocky Mountains that skirt the northern edge of Yellowstone National Park. Landscapes to make your heart sing, and on the day we traveled the Highway, it was worthy of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah or Hubert Parry’s Jerusalem!

They fought to defend their way of life . . . June 1876. Just a few days short of the first centennial of the United States. It took several days for the news to spread to the east coast. Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer (Bvt. Major General) and many of his 7th Cavalry had been annihilated at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana. George Custer – the ‘poster boy’ of the US Army, hero of the Civil War, renowned Indian fighter – defeated? How had this come about? Who should be the scapegoats, if any?

The Great Plains Indian Wars of the 1860s and 70s (and beyond) were, to a certain extent, a consequence of Custer’s own ego and sense of destiny. He had led an expedition into the Black Hills and discovered gold, which led to a massive influx of miners and settlers in contravention of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie.

From: against Custer on that fateful June day were the combined forces of the Sioux nation – Lakota, Oglala, Minniconjou, and Hunkpapa, as well as Cheyenne, Blackfoot, Arapaho and other allies.

And chief among the Indian war leaders were Hunkpapa holy man, Sitting Bull, and Oglala war leader Crazy Horse (for whom there is no known image).

We visited the battlefield site on 6 June this year. We had set out from Sheridan further south in northeast Wyoming in driving rain, low clouds hugging to tops of the undulating hills that characterize the Great Plains in these parts. The day certainly did not promise much. But our expected route (I90) took us right past the battlefield, and being an aficionado of all things ‘western’, I included this in our itinerary when planning our vacation trip earlier in the year.

By the time we reached Garryowen, the site of Sitting Bull’s camp south of the battlefield, the rain had dropped in intensity, but it was still rather dank and dismal, and there was quite a breeze. Would the clouds ever lift so we could actually make an appreciation of this famous landscape?

Well luck was with us, mostly. For about half an hour the clouds did lift, and we were able to walk around Last Stand Hill, view the various memorials, and take in the harshness and emotive quality of this site. You can’t fail to be moved by all the markers – white for soldiers, brown for Indian warriors – that are dotted all over the battlefield site, but obviously with a concentration at Last Stand Hill.

A panorama of the battlefield site from Sitting Bull’s camp on the left (near present-day Garryowen) to Last Stand Hill on the right, marked by the memorial.

Some years after the battle, the bodies of the soldiers were exhumed and placed together in a mass grave, over which was erected a plinth. The marker stones indicate where all combatants fell. There is even a horse cemetery.

For me however, and much more emotive is the fairly recently constructed Native American memorial. It is beautiful in its simplicity. After all, they died just for trying to defend their way of life. It’s therefore ironic that both Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse met ignominious deaths some years later not on the battlefield, but while essentially in ‘custody’ at the hands of their own peoples.

Since visiting the Little Bighorn I’ve read two books that have made quite an impression upon me, and certainly provide better balanced accounts of the Indian wars. I can recommend Stephen E. Ambrose’s Crazy Horse and Custer that was first published in 1975. And during my recent trip to the Philippines, I saw a copy of a book I knew of but had never read. As an indictment of the perfidy of the late 19th century United States government and its various agencies and Army, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of the Indian Wars from a Native American perspective.

Another fascinating account, Nothing Like It in the World (also by Stephen Ambrose) describes the construction of the transcontinental railway beginning in the 1860s, and also contributing to the tensions and hostilities between US and Native American nations.

Presidential faces in the sky

Crossing the Great Plains east to west, and west of the Badlands, you become aware of a dark line on the horizon. Is that an approaching storm? It could well be. But as you get closer you realize it’s an isolated range of hills, rising about 4,000 feet above the surrounding plains. These are the Black Hills of South Dakota, which have their maximum elevation in Harney Peak (7,244 feet). Sacred to many of the Native American tribes of the Great Plains – principal among which were the Sioux – their sanctity was violated when the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie (which had ‘supposedly guaranteed ownership of the Black Hills to the Lakota and other tribes) was broken following by the discovery of gold (ironically by General George Armstrong Custer). The United States government was unable (or incapable) of preventing the invasion of the Black Hills by miners. Conflict between the settlers and the Native Americans was inevitable.

For many – certainly on this side of the Atlantic – their first introduction to the Black Hills must have come from the 1953 movie Calamity Jane starring Doris Day in the title role and Howard Keel as Wild Bill Hickok. Certainly it was a highly sanitized (and fantasized) interpretation of events around that time. But who can forget this particular song? Released as a Doris Day solo, I certainly remember it very well from my childhood right through the 1950s.

Mount Rushmore
We were heading for Rapid City and the Black Hills with one particular destination in mind: Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t normally visit an attraction like Mount Rushmore. Like many others I’d seen my first images of this iconic location in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. I guess I thought the whole experience would be rather kitschy – and my fears were not allayed as we drove from Rapid City to Keystone in the heart of the Black Hills, and on to Mount Rushmore, just a mile or so beyond. Either side of the highway were various tourist attractions that I would never visit in a month of Sundays. Just not to my taste.

But how wrong I was about Mount Rushmore. In fact it was almost an emotional experience. The day was superb; hardly a cloud in the sky, and we joined several thousand more tourists (many from Asia) to marvel at the wonder of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial and how the faces of four famous presidents Washington (#1), Jefferson (#3), Roosevelt (#26), and Lincoln (#16) came to be carved into the side of a mountain. And why these four presidents were chosen from all the possible candidates. Although I guess the contributions of some presidents to the development and well-being of the United States are best forgotten.

There is so much more written about Mount Rushmore in the link provided above – and more than I can eloquently draft; other details are provided by the National Park Service.

I was overwhelmed by Mount Rushmore – no doubt the beautiful day helped. But I was also inspired, not only about the people who had the foresight to create this national memorial, but also that the choice of these four presidents encapsulates the history of their diverse nation. So let me tell some of my Mount Rushmore story through the images I captured that June day.

The Black Hills and Custer State Park
Traveling south from Mount Rushmore, and passing through several tunnels just wide enough for a SUV but no bigger, there is an opportunity of experiencing the beauty of the Black Hills – and appreciate why Native Americans held this place to be so special. In Custer State Park there is a healthy herd of about 1,300 bison, some of which we came across. A hugely damaging fire in 1990 opened up much rangeland, but even so, there is a bison round-up each September to manage the herd, and sell several hundred animals and keep the herd at a level which the park can sustain.

Taking a roundabout route back to Rapid City, we enjoyed the Needles Highway between Custer State Park and Hill City, and traveling north, we then took the back highway Sheridan Lake Road into Rapid City for our second night there. We didn’t visit the half-finished Crazy Horse Memorial, however. It was rather out of our way, but also it seemed to me to be a rather more exploitative and touristic attraction. There’s actually no known image/photo of Crazy Horse – one of the most important Indian leaders who played a pivotal role in the defeat of General Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in June 1876, and who perhaps deserves a more fitting memorial in any case.

South Dakota’s Badlands . . .

It was a Tuesday morning, early June. We’d reached Chamberlain, South Dakota on the banks of the Missouri River the evening before, having traveled down from St Paul, MN in glorious sunshine. To the west, however, there was an ominous glower in the sky that was already beginning to darken by breakfast-time. Checking the Weather Channel we learned to expect some thunderstorms as we crossed the Great Plains towards our next destination: the Badlands.

Stormy weather? That was that half of it. At one point it was raining so heavily I had to pull off the highway (I90) at one of the designated viewpoints. Not that we could see anything. However, after about 30 minutes we were able to continue our journey, and later found out that we had skirted the northern edge of a major storm tracking across the plains from west to east, accompanied in some places by baseball size hailstones. Luckily we missed those, and by the time we reached the Badlands National Park, the storm had passed, the skies brightened (a little) and we were able to enjoy the Badlands formations in all their glory.

Having now traveled across the Great Plains for several hundreds of miles, my respect has increased enormously for the early pioneers who crossed these open spaces in the 19th century on their way to the west coast, in California and Oregon, to make a better life for themselves. Not only did they have to combat the natural obstacles of the landscape – the plains, the Rockies, and the Sierra Nevada – but also hostility from the native Americans whose land they were crossing. When the era of the building of the transcontinental railway began in the 1860s, tensions and hostilities multiplied, but by the 1890s the various native American tribes had been defeated (massacred in many instances), moved to reservations, and their nomadic way of life (along with the vast herds of bison) had disappeared for ever.

Surrounding the Badlands is the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, and one can imagine what the Great Plains must have looked like in their original pristine state. There are also some important Indian reservations to which various tribes were banished in the last quarter of the 19th century – Wounded Knee is quite close by as well, where the infamous massacre took place in December 1890.

Leaving I90, you turn south to reach the Badlands National Park Northeast Entrance, passing by Minuteman Missile National Historic Site – which we didn’t bother to visit. We were much more interested in beautiful landforms, that echoed our visited in 2011 to Arizona’s Painted Desert (although it is much warmer there). The winds really blow on the Great Plains.

In the park we took the main Loop Road, but then continued on the Sage Creek Road for about 5 miles before turning north and rejoining I90 at Wall.

All the main viewpoints (‘overlooks’) are well sign-posted, the views spectacular, and on the day we visited, the contrast between the landscapes and the sky gave us some pretty dramatic images to cherish. Stretches of grassland are home to a herd of bison, and you are left wondering what these areas must have looked like in the mid-19th century when these magnificent beasts could be counted in their millions.

All in all, South Dakota’s Badlands are worthy of anyone’s time – they are truly magnificent.

A close encounter of the igneous kind . . .

I posted my first story about our USA vacation, across the Great Plains to Yellowstone National Park, at the end of June. A lot of things have generally kept me away from my blog over the past couple of months, but once my commitments to the 4th International Rice Congress are completed by the beginning of November, then I’ll be able to turn my attention full-time to this personal blog.

I’ve decided not to write the account of our trip in chronological order. Each day was different, with new sights to see, places to explore.

On Day 4, we left the beauty of South Dakota’s Black Hills and headed north through Spearfish Canyon into southeast Wyoming. Our destination? Devil’s Tower, that iconic volcanic plug immortalized in Steven Spielberg’s 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

While our vacation route followed I90 more or less the whole way, we could make diversions from that artery to explore various places that took our fancy. When I was planning our trip way back at the beginning of the year, I discovered that Devil’s Tower, in northeast Wyoming, was a relatively short diversion (in USA road travel terms) north of I90.

Heading west and cresting a low hill on the undulating plains, there was Devil’s Tower dominating the landscape on the distant horizon. It’s certainly a feature that you can’t mistake for anything else. And as we approached it just seemed to rise up in majesty from the surrounding countryside. This was our first glimpse of the rock, and we pulled into a viewpoint lay-by to have a picnic lunch.

Being a bright sunny day, with hardly a cloud in the sky, Devil’s Tower was quite busy as one might expect, but not as busy as it was likely to become later on in the season once the school-age children were on vacation. Parking, right at the base of the Tower, was easy and plentiful, and it was just a short 100-200 m walk from there to the Tower itself. And somewhat extraordinarily, this is as far as most visitors reached. Steph and me like to get our money’s worth, and decided to circumnavigate Devil’s Tower on the Tower Trail, a walk of about 1½ miles.

Once we were only about 100 m round the south side of the rock, there were hardly no visitors, and we had the place to ourselves. Peace and silence, generally. Just the tweeting of birds in the bushes, and calls of falcons soaring along the sides of the rock itself.

Devil’s Tower is sacred to many Native American tribes, and visitors are requested to respect any artifacts that might have been placed there. In 1906, Devil’s Tower became the first national monument, proclaimed by President Theodore Roosevelt.

I guess we must have left Devil’s Tower around 16:30 after about three hours. Distances can be so deceptive on a road map, and I anticipated it would take about 15 minutes to travel to I90. In fact it was nearer 40 miles. And then when we did reach I90 we discovered that Sheridan (our base for that night) was a further 127 miles! No matter. I put the Kia into cruise mode, and off we headed through some rather bleak terrain (it reminded me of the Pennines in the UK), and one of the world’s largest coalfields near Gillette, WY. But as we descended towards Sheridan, there to the west were the Bighorn Mountains which, at that time, we had not figured on visiting. We changed our itinerary later in the trip, as you can read soon in another post.