A Mountain States Vacation/Bee
Bill Long 6/22/07
Every year about this time I make a pilgrimage to Cheyenne, WY to participate in the National Senior Spelling Bee (you have to be 50 or older to participate) and then explore the mountain states for a few days before returning home. This year was particularly remarkable, not because I won the Bee (I did win the written round of 100 words handily, but bombed in the orals) but because of the richly-textured series of memorable trips, meals, encounters and learnings gained in the week from June 14 (when I left Oregon) to June 21, my return. This and the next essay give an overview of that trip; subsequent essays will explore some details.
One brief note at the outset, however. While I was away, my college-age son Will purchased a video camera so he could begin to tape and post his comedy routines on YouTube. He is quite a funny kid, probably having derived much of his humor from observing the fits and starts of my life. In any case, I am going to have him teach me how to record and post some of my essays in video form on YouTube. I will let you know when that happens.
The Trip--Early Days
I arrived in Denver late on Thursday June 14, spent the night in a cheap motel and then headed north on Friday. I couldn't help but stop in Boulder for a late morning meal in the University Hill area. When you are in Boulder in mid-June, sipping juice and eating healthy food, with crystalline skies and 80 degree weather, you feel you are in a world of unmatched idyllic pleasure and freedom. Just as I love to drink at the thespian oasis of Ashland, OR about once a year, so a June morning in Boulder refreshes me in ways I can't fully understand.
But then it was on to Cheyenne up I-25. You know you have arrived in WY when the freeway signage, advertising everything from Little America to the Motel 8 in Cheyenne, hits you full bore at the WY line, about 90 miles north of Denver. Many states ban this kind of billboard advertising, a kind of permanent litter or scar on the landscape, but WY does not.
Those who live in Cheyenne are usually happy to be there and proud of their cowboy past and present, but I haven't found the city that enthralling in my four trips there in as many years. The Spelling Bee folk are unfailingly courteous and competent but the opportunities for young people and for creative outlets in that town seem pretty limited. I stayed in the premier old hotel in town, the Plains Hotel, where the Bee was held. Across the street on Friday and Saturday nights was the annual brewers festival which, on closer inspection, seemed to be little more than an opportunity for young and old alike to get drunk in public. After a disappointing showing at the Bee, I decided to get out of town on Saturday night, heading about 45 miles West to Laramie, home of the University of WY and the cultural capital of the state. Instead of taking I-80, I wended my way through the back roads between those cities, taking Happy Jack Road through Curt Gowdy State Park before joining I-80 at the summit (8600' or so elevation) about 10 miles from Laramie, where an enormous statue of Abraham Lincoln above a rest stop makes it look as if Lincoln is relieving himself.
Well, Laramie wasn't booming on the night of June 16, but I was only looking for a pleasant venue to eat, and I found it in Jeffrey's Bistro on East Ivinson. It had received high marks from other travelers, and I was delighted with the array of quality non-beef items they had on the menu. Continuing on my commitment of eating and drinking things which I wish I knew how to spell (such as caipirinha, nopales and various kinds of cheeses), I decided to order the dopiaza (they spelled it "dopiazah" but the former is better attested in English), which turned out to be among my most tasty meals of the entire trip. My guest's salmon tetrazzini was no less enchanting.
On To New Mexico
We left Cheyenne on the morning of June 17, heading 500 miles South through Colorado to Santa Fe, desiring to get as much distance between my miserable showing in Cheyenne and my new destination as was comfortably possible in a day. My historical sense and longing was kindled as we got closer and closer to New Mexico. Stopping off at Trinidad, CO (my guest kept calling it Tobago for the rest of the trip), I was immediately drawn into the vigorous Hispanic character of the place as well as what I perceived was a significant mining history. But just as our watiress at lunch wasn't a skillful multi-tasker, so I can't take the time here to multi-task and describe Trinidad. Suffice it to say that this little town, the chapel of Mornay high above the highway, the history of the latter community as a "Rockefeller-owned" mining town and crossing into New Mexico on the "old" or "Raton" route of the Santa Fe Trail immediately took me back anywhere from 100 to 300 years in Southwest history.
I don't believe that there is a capital city of any size (Santa Fe has about 70,000 people) in the Western USA which is quite so charming as Santa Fe. Phoenix, Boise, Denver, Salt Lake City and Sacramento sprawl; Olympia, Helena, and Carson City are too tiny or recently settled to have much culture or history; Salem, where I live, puts new meaning into the concept of dull. But Santa Fe electrifies the alert person with its tri-cultural past, its wealth of historical and art museums, its incomparable restaurants and ambience, and its "spirit" which charms as well as instructs.
What also made Santa Fe also so memorable to me was that I finally learned how to "eat right" during a vacation while there. What I mean was that we discovered a Whole Foods store near downtown that was equipped not only with a wonderful array of food (I insisted that we buy quinoa so I could spell it correctly for the rest of my life) but also had numerous booths where you could eat the food you bought. Since I have lost more than 40% in my stock investment in Whole Foods (just because a company is into good things doesn't mean you should invest in it!), I decided to pour some good money after bad by purchasing at least three meals there and eating the food where I could watch the rich and wannabe-rich of Santa Fe pay for their groceries. I made up little narratives in my mind about some of the people whom I was watching; the things to think about in life are nearly endless.
It was, however, the history and the arts that began to take my breath away, first in Santa Fe and then in the rest of the trip. The next essay describes how this was so.