TNY Main


Motel Sunsets, Installment 3                            Jason Baldinger






Day 23: Somewhere in Nevada in the Rain


Boise, Idaho to Elko, Nevada (370 miles)


How the hell did I get to Nevada?  Perhaps, the better question is why the hell did I come to Nevada?  I was originally to hit Vegas, which I skipped because what the hell am I going to do in a tourist trap gambling den when I prefer being neither.  I added Reno, subtracted Reno, when weather and miles intervened.  I then added Nevada’s northern tier just so I could say I walked on the sand here.  I have to say that if I were a town in Nevada I would aspire to one goal; becoming a ghost town. 


        All this nonsense and back story proves only one thing, you really can’t control a trip, especially one of this size.


        I realize all this as a foot or more of snow is falling tonight in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.  The snow pack in the mountains is still holding strong, and crossing that high elevation through rough terrain in a Saturn isn’t the smartest idea, let alone trying to sightsee it.


I have yet again to re-route, and I have reason for another future road trip.


None of this has anything to do with today which was spent mostly High Desert in Idaho, Oregon, and Nevada.  The desert has space for your mind to fill as I pass Chicken Dinner Road, Poison and then Succor Creeks.  In the distance you can watch storm clouds gather attaching themselves to the ground by ghostly black legs.  Those storms catch up, and as yesterday I have rain, ice, sleet and snow resting in the sagebrush as well as wildly fluctuating temperatures.


If I told you I found this weather at this time of year frustrating that would be an understatement.  At the same time, I have seen both rain and snow in the desert in May which has to be at least somewhat rare.


Tomorrow:  Salt Lake City; a Study in Scarlet






Day 24: Oceans of Sand, Oceans of Water


Elko, Nevada to Idaho Falls, Idaho (443 miles)


        Memorial Day miles across highways that whine and oscillate, sounding like Moogs and UFO’s.  Passing a prison in a town named Independence Valley, stopping at Nevada rest stops that are no more than Nevada outhouses I reach West Wendover.  Now the only thing that I can say is striking about Wendover is that being the last mountain for over fifty miles, you get an incredible view of the Bonneville Salt Flats.


        By this point in time in the trip I’m now very accustomed to just about any form of topography that comes my way, the Bonneville Salt Flats were still something new.  Stretching out for forty five miles before the road even bothered to bend, and another twenty before the first hill, the flats are an ocean of sand.  Staring off into the distance is blinding, hurting your eyes even on a mostly gray day, and with the movement of the car, it looks like waves of sand.  Also with the consistent rains, and slow snow melt, large chunks of the flats are flooded, creating small lakes of lime green water, mini oceans stretching farther than the eye can see.


        Salt Lake City is one of the most annoying cities I’ve ever had to navigate.  It’s so clean it sparkles, so silent it’s disturbing.  On Memorial Day, there is no movement, ghost cities in the bosom of mountains led by cults lucky to be called religion.  After vaguely figuring out the Rubik’s Cube grid, I decided my time could be better spent elsewhere, I move on.


        The highways from Salt Lake City to Idaho Falls washed in rainwater carry more accidents along them than I’ve seen since the last time I was in Alabama.  They are stacking bodies like cordwood to dam the swollen Snake River tonight.  The California waitresses can’t find any new ways to arm-wrestle their boredom. Road Warriors, shaken, can rest easy.  It’s Memorial Day; laundry and letters from a Motel 6.


Tomorrow: Sunning myself in the Gibraltar of Unionism.



Day 25: Everybody’s Having Fun, In the Warm Montana Sun


Idaho Falls, Idaho to Billings, Montana (434 miles)


Idaho becomes farmland, irrigation rainbows, mountains rise in the distance.  Montana, the triumphant return, mountains far as the eye can see.  Butte arrives by noon, two hundred miles passed before lunch, small cafés in the center of town. 


Butte could be a West Virginia mining town, hiding in the mountains that have seen boom, bust, labor strife, decline and now the beginnings of renaissance.  How far that renaissance goes is another story.  It’s not a pretty city, holding onto industrial grit, which usually scares off gentrification.  Bozeman is the opposite, an old cattle town now hip with microbreweries and boutiques, not my scene but it’s good to see a town thriving.  I’m sure most of that is generated by nearby Yellowstone park tourists who fall in love with the rugged terrain surrounding the city.


In between I failed to find a more off the beaten path ghost town.  Dirt roads rough with potholes, too far from civilization or home to want to take four wheel drive risk in a front wheel drive car.


I pressed across I-90, miles ticking every forty eight seconds, I reach day’s end in Billings.  The weather has finally broke; tomorrow I see sun for the first time consistently in a week.  The journey now runs south and east with nine days left to go.


Tomorrow:  Indian Wars, Revisited.



Day 26: Forever West


Billings, Montana to Sheridan, Wyoming (200 miles with detours)


        I’m holed up in Sheridan Wyoming, named for Civil War General Phil Sheridan who after pioneering scorched earth in Appalachia turned his attention to the Indian Wars.  I spent the evening between the Mint Bar, built in 1907, and the Rainbow Bar, which I have no idea when it was built.


        Sheridan is where Wild Bill Hickok started his hotel empire after gaining fame as a gunfighter; it is also been voted the best Wild West town in America in case you’re looking for a stopover in northern Wyoming.


        Billings Montana mornings spent chasing petroglyphs at Pictograph State Park after that there was a quick stop at Canyon Creek where Chief Joseph gave the United States Army the slip in his ill-fated run to Canada. 


        Mid Afternoon, Little Big Horn, Custer was not lucky enough to escape the Sioux almost 135 years ago today.  I have walked on many fields, some consecrated in battle and others with no special significance, here every inch of dirt speaks. Little Bighorn shouts as over two hundred American Soldiers as well as around one hundred Indian warriors of several tribes died.  We can commiserate with the Sioux in their attempt to preserve a way of life continually threatened by Manifest Destiny.  Perhaps, we can all commiserate with the white soldiers, who were mutilated and murdered for following orders, but the point is not to commiserate,  it is to understand the history that brings us here.  In failing to interpret our history, to reassess it, we are doomed to continue repeating it; blissful and ignorant.


        Montana is gone for this trip; Wyoming greets with their new motto “Forever West.”


I have drunk myself into a stupor in bars with dead animals and pool tables, with Chicanos from South Texas who have tried good naturedly to hustle me for beer.  I have been shouted at by bored white kids who have claimed that my red t-shirt marks me a faggot (I’m still not sure when red shirts became the sign of homosexuality).  It’s all ok, I sure there’s meth to be done somewhere.


Tomorrow: Fetterman and the Devil’s Waltz.



Day 27: Our Chief Export is Wind


Sheridan, Wyoming to Rapid City, South Dakota (288 miles)


        Red highways, warm sun, the last time I saw two nice days in a row was before L.A.


Fort Kearny, Fetterman’s Massacre, and the Wagon Box Fight all sit in the same area of Wyoming.  Each constitute major and minor chapters of the Indian Wars that occurred on the Bozeman Trail (The Bozeman Trail was the Montana Gold Rush Trail, which is has been paved and now known as I-90) between 1866 and 1868.  The major skirmish takes place in December of 1866 when Fetterman and eighty troops were killed, partly because they failed to follow orders and partly because the fired on a Sioux War Party that was taunting them.  The Sioux were inflamed by the building of the fort, a direct violation of treaty.  The difference between here and Little Big Horn is that Big Horn after years of tension is finally recognized the Indian Warriors who fought and died trying to preserve a way of life.  I say this to take nothing away from white soldiers, but in history there is always two sides, understanding both sides is imperative to understanding history.  Talking to the lady volunteering here, she can’t seem to understand why the state, or the Sioux, won’t allow the fort to be rebuilt making it a major attraction (Kearny was burned by the Army as they retreated, to soothe growing dissention by the Sioux).  I start to explain my opinions then remember I’m an outsider here, maybe it’s better to keep words to myself, instead we opt to talk about the weather.  She tells me “wind is Wyoming’s greatest export.”


        Crossing Crazy Woman, Wild Horse then Dead Horse Creek’s, landscape passes dotted by cows, sheep and an occasional Pronghorn Antelope, I arrive in Buffalo, making a stop at Pistol Pete’s Café.  Pistol Pete turns out a respectable hot roast beef sandwich; he also has a T.Rex head on the dining room wall.  Please note I’m remiss in not noting that diners turned to cafes somewhere on this trip, the imagined and mythical line slipped by, now they’re flipping back and forth between the two.  All I really want is a diner.


        The Devils Tower so named by a white man, and promptly typo-ed by a printer, after centuries of Indian Tribes calling it Bear Lodge or some variation thereof.  I love this story as told by N. Scott Momaday too much not to pass it along:      


“According to Kiowa legend, there is a deep story behind the birth of Devils Tower. Eight children were playing. There were seven sisters and their brother. The boy was struck dumb and started running about on his hands and feet. Before his sisters' eyes, he began to change into a bear. His fingers changed to claws and he became covered in fur.  The frightened girls ran and the bear began to chase them. The sisters found a stump of a once great tree. The tree told them to climb it. The girls did as they were told and the stump started to rise. The bear tried to follow the girls, but soon he was unable to reach them. His plan to kill girls was foiled. This made the bear mad and out of his anger, he made long marks on the stump with his claws. The seven sisters stayed in the sky and today they are the stars that make up the Big Dipper.”


Pressing onto Deadwood, and taking bets on how much I’d hate it and proven right.  South Dakota’s gambling paradise, sure the town is a historic district but the original 1876 town is gone leaving buildings built at the turn of the 20th century.  Still I have to admit being giddy coming down the mountain into the gulch, then greeted by gleaming trashy casinos, reality found me.


Rapid City burning, Wal Mart outside my door, Godzilla on television, Taco Bell wrappers scattered everywhere.  This is the last push, Monday I start for home.


Tomorrow:  Ghost Dancing, Nebraska.



Day 28: Sunset on the Prairie


Rapid City, South Dakota to Scottsbluff, Nebraska (321 miles)


        Santa Claus on the corner of 3rd and Omaha loves when the fat men sell flesh.  There are bagels in the Black Hills but goddammit I’d rather a donut.  So long to this sad fucking city, so long.


        Mount Rushmore still has faces of presidents on it.  I think Hitchcock, laugh at hitchhiking mountain goats, listen to stories of fugitive sculptors.  My patriotism is revived.  Faux diners trying too hard to throw one back to the future, girls in poodle skirts serving barbeque, it’s all mediocre.


        Crazy Horse Monument, someday to be the largest mountain sculpture in human history, after fifty years just a face.  It is spectacular, towering; it is rubble forming, it will make Rushmore look like a child’s toy.


        The prairie takes over from the elevation of the Black Hills.  Buffalo roam free, graze around Wind Cave, Prairie Dogs wrestle, tussle, squeak and squawk along the roadside.  As I count about ten buffalo, I’m reminded of writing of Meriwether Lewis:


“I saw immence quantities of buffaloe in every direction, also some Elk deer and goats; having an abundance of meat on hand I passed them without firing on them; they are extreemly gentle the bull buffaloe particularly will scarcely give way to you. I passed several in the open plain within fifty paces, they viewed me for a moment as something novel and then very unconcernedly continued to feed.


        There is an attempt to find Wounded Knee, but South Dakota in its infinite wisdom has long stretches of highway stripped to dirt.  There is also a misunderstanding as the proper Wounded Knee Museum is almost 100 miles from Wounded Knee in Wall.  There is however, an accidental find of a Wounded Knee museum, which turns out to be a memorial to the American Indian Movement siege of Pine Ridge (Wounded Knee is located in Pine Ridge Reservation)  in 1973.  I speak briefly with the great, great, great grandson of Red Cloud; they are burning sage and preparing for a gathering, which I felt I shouldn’t interrupt.  As I’ve read about what is called Wounded Knee Incident of 1973, it turns out that the siege was over conditions at the reservation, which was the murder capital of the United States from 1973 to 1976.  I can tell as I leave town that conditions are no better, the last thing I saw at the “museum” flashes behind my eyes: “The Indian Wars Are Not Over”.


        Nebraska grassland and buttes, Middle America as you would expect.  Sunsets spill colors over the grass, the first real sunset of the trip.  Dusk settles in Scottsbluff.  It’s Friday night all the teenage boys cruise along Broadway in their pickup trucks, shouting at passersby, I wonder if there’s a girl in this town, which reeks of cow shit. 


Tomorrow: The Man in the High Castle.



Day 29: Seeing the Elephant


Scottsbluff, Nebraska to Cheyenne, Wyoming (180 miles)


        There are themes that occur on this trip, some planned, some happenstance.  Congruent with the later, today I follow the Oregon Trail.  Just a short ride from the motel, stands Scottsbluff National Monument, once a stop off on the Oregon, California, and Mormon Trail as well as being a Pony Express Depot (for its brief year and a half of existence).  Scottsbluff is the marker for the first third of the country, the first sign of life the grasslands give post St. Louis, and the ominous sign of what was to come crossing the Rockies in the journey to Oregon or points west.  There are stories that there were ten graves to every mile, as diseases such as cholera took people by the scores, those same people planted in shallow hastily dug graves became food for animals who promptly scatter half eaten body parts across the trail.  Keep in mind as well, that dead pack animals also lined the trial, paintings of Bruegel and illustrations of Dore come to mind. 


In travelling three hundred miles daily, it almost inconceivable to me to move fifteen miles a day considering how unforgiving the landscape is, and at that speed how slowly it would change.  They say that the road to Fort Laramie, as well as the road beyond was littered like a free store with unnecessary goods westward moving settlers left to ease their loads as wagons carried on along the rising terrain.  The next stop, sixty miles or three days away by Oregon Trail standards is Fort Laramie.


At the time of the Oregon Trail, Fort Laramie was the last outpost of “civilization,” it stood so until 1890 when following Wounded Knee the frontier was officially considered settled.  If you are thinking in terms of walls, Laramie doesn’t have any, it is a cluster of buildings (some rebuilt by the park service and some ruins) on the open prairie (it was decided that defending Plains Indians with walls was futile).   A bull snake crosses my path, as it slithers from the parade grounds, across the road and under the steps of the officer’s quarters.  If this were the 1880’s there would have been a gaggle of children there to catch and torment it within minutes, here we are now, mostly alone, giving each other a wide berth. I watch it as it slides along, fascinated, it’s been years since I’ve seen a snake this size. 


My imagination of ghosts, of towns, ghosts of the past, and towns that are maybe already ghosts stays with me.  Joining the highway, onto Cheyenne where on a Saturday there may only be ghosts.  On the corner of Lincoln and Chase, Tom Horn whispers the story of his set up, the noose still around his neck.  I think he’s seen the elephant, maybe I have too.


Tomorrow: Things to do in Denver When You're Dead Broke.



Day 30: Feng Shui the Universe


Cheyenne, Wyoming to Denver, Colorado (120 miles)


Cheyenne Sunday, Charlie Feathers crackles outta the radio; I cross the Union Pacific Yards, sunshine, silence.  Goodbye Railroads, Goodbye Rodeo Towns, hello again Colorado. 


“Watch Nunn Grow” the slogan of the dirt street, grain elevator, agricultural center from another century, watch the tumbleweeds blow is more like it.  Sixty miles in racing trains past cowboy church, road don’t get dustier, miles don’t get longer.  Greely waitresses give devilish grins serving up ham and hash browns with eggs.  Another forty miles, the air smells like shit, the road is stained interstate. 


        Denver, Neal Cassidy running wild in a stolen car chasing down rendezvous with Cherry Mary.  Follow Colfax to record store sunsets, hit the People’s Market watch the artist, watch people trying to feng shui the universe.  Circles around town, past the City Mission, the homeless sprawl in across the Denver afternoon. Following Broadway outta town, I’m comparing everyplace to Pittsburgh in my head, this town carries some of that flavor with it.  I stop in an amazing pulp fiction specialty shop where I could go broke, if I wasn’t already.


        Littleton Colorado, I make new friends with a recommendation from home.  Lynn and John Hornik offer their home up as well as a fine meal of fresh salad and pasta.  Conversation spins the waning light out, beer bottles and wine bottles line the tables, maybe we’re all trying to feng shui the universe.   The wind chimes in on occasion, the dog reminds me of a pet my uncle had. The air begins to take on cooler undertones, the pine trees sing to the mountains.  All is set to rest, desk and lamp, pen and paper, 1860, a country getting ready for war.


Tomorrow: Take the Lonely Road to Cincinnati. 



On the Road Home


Day 31: Dying of Boredom in Bloody Kansas


Denver, Colorado to Larned, Kansas (450 miles)


        There is something about home, or even places that resemble home that after thirty days on the road make you wonder why you left yours.   A bed, a room of your own, sheets that have not been used for dubious purpose, not opening the door to the buzz of traffic on the interstate or the sprawl of corporate consumerism and hot water.  Down time sitting on the back deck of the Hornicks' house, watching the morning, relaxing getting ready to start the way home.


        I’ve taken ten thousand miles of road; I have driven in some one horse towns, three horse towns, sprawling metropolises and some genuinely awful places, but let me just say one thing, Colorado Springs has the worst drivers in America.  Fuck you Colorado Springs!


        Next stop Sand Creek Colorado, just north of Chivington via dirt roads, where in November of 1864 over 165 Arapahoe and Cheyenne Indians were massacred, over 2/3 of them children.  The Massacre effectively ruined the military career of John Chivington, who was the hero of the Battle of Glorieta Pass, the farthest western battle of the Civil War also known as the Gettysburg of the West.  Sand Creek is one of the newest National Monuments, showing we are making some strides in healing wounds inflicted over years of Manifest Destiny.  It may also help that Chivington is now a ghost town, if only that were his only legacy.


        Flat boring Eastern Colorado gives way to flat boring Western Kansas, the Dirty Three play on the radio opening the landscape.  Waves of Grain, waves of Alfalfa, a Grain Elevator for every person, the legacy of Middle America; end scene in Larned Kansas where evening ceases to breathe.



Day 32: Kansasouri


Larned, Kansas to Columbia, Missouri (400 miles)


        There is no hot water in the motel, and it’s way too early for cold showers, I must brave another triple digit day this time un-bathed, the inside of the car will not be pretty.  Classic Country stations crackle on AM and FM, in the rare occasions when I climb a hill the landscape is beautiful.


The Flint Hills give shelter in shade from the endless Kansas landscape.  After 277 miles Wilbert Harrison flashes in my mind even though it’s only the suburbs, Shawnee record stores evaporates the remainder of the afternoon.  Racing rush hour, meeting I-70, the evening ends in Columbia.  Another bland faceless college town, and even here 120 miles from the Mississippi and 30 miles from the Missouri River you can’t get a good bite of fried catfish.



Day 33: Strange Bugs and Junk Shops


Columbia, Missouri to Seymour, Indiana (400 miles)


        The Ozarks take shape, only to be ignored; racing early to get some breathing room in the afternoon, difficult concept as I cross time zones and lose hours.  In Illinois I re-meet Route 50, respite from interstate, miles of farms and forest, past towns where William Jennings Bryant and Miracle Whip were born, past towns rife with junk shops, past towns that have albino squirrels.   


        The luxury of another Classic Country station, making the miles roll easier, keeping miles within parameters, cohesion in road dust addles the brain.  I read Raymond Carver at a rest stop; I was reading Carver as a driver in Kansas. I watch strange bugs wheel down the highways, holding up traffic.  The faces I pass painted with the stress of delay, their plans slowly escaping. 


        I cross the Lewis & Clark Trail one last time in Missouri.  Meriwether Lewis never returned to Pittsburgh, where he set off for his long voyage in July of 1803 (Lewis instead descended into alcoholism and depression committing suicide in Grinder’s Inn Tennessee in 1809).  I think over the swollen Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, too full this late in spring.  I think of town named Loogeetee and rivers named Embarras and what there entomologies may be.   I think I’ll be home tomorrow, the end of the travelling, yet still trying to find words for what this trip means.


Tomorrow: Last Dance



Day 34: Ghost Dance, Pittsburgh


        There are strange concepts of time, even stranger concepts of place.  Thirty four days wandering looking for meaning in America, meaning of America, meaning of self or of self lost in America.   There is irony, not back for twenty four hours, nothing looks the same, little smells the same.  I am changed and yet unsure of how.  There are moments where it already feels like I have never left the spot I’m sitting at.  Perhaps I imagined eleven thousand miles and now I’m left to sift the scattered pieces of my imagination.  As before I left, I see Utah and it was as I imagined and realized.  I averaged three hundred miles a day, I saw America, whatever stamp has been placed will take time to erode through my skin to then appear on the surface.    






Jason Baldinger has been published in The New Yinzer and Shattered Wig Press. He is author of two books of poetry, The Whiskey Rebellion (with Jerome Crooks) published in 2011 by Six Gallery Press and The Lady Pittsburgh published in 2012 by Speed and Briscoe Press. He has two new poetry books forthcoming in the spring of 2014.