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Famous people, famous destinations | Column

Native American teepees sit outside of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo.  - Chris Gimmeson/Buffalo Bill Historical Center
Native American teepees sit outside of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo.
— image credit: Chris Gimmeson/Buffalo Bill Historical Center

If a poll were taken of all the people of Europe and North America in 1900 and the question was: “Who is the most famous living person in the world who is not a head-of-state?” Buffalo Bill Cody would have won. Easy money.

While historians of the era agree that the great American Western frontier had finally come to an end by 1890, one man — Buffalo Bill — kept it alive, entertaining and fantastic for a number of years afterward. The American West was the source of myths, legends, stories and novels for all the world from Shanghai to Salzburg, from Quebec to Cuba and Coventry. Lewis and Clark, Kit Carson, Chief Joseph, Jedediah Smith and Buffalo Bill were names and adventurers that Europeans today are as familiar with as most Americans.

Visitors of many nationalities travel to the great national parks of America these days. Germans, Brits, Australians, Chinese, Russians and Brazilians can all be found on a typical summer day in Yellowstone, Yosemite, Death Valley or Arches National Park. That is true this summer even more, given the fabulous value that the weak American dollar offers to our visiting tourists.

Although on the surface, $4.50 gallons of gas do not seem to be the kind of incentive we need to hop in the family SUV for a road trip to explore the West, I find myself doing more and more getaways by car. Air prices aren’t getting any cheaper, and during most vacations, you still need a car once you arrive at Disneyland or Washington, D.C.

This past month, I revisited some of my favorite Big Sky haunts and discovered several new ones along the way.

The Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo.

Located two hours east of Yellowstone National Park, this Historical Center is really a museum, or more correctly, five museums in one. It immediately went on my list of the five best museums in the American West.

Driving in Montana and Wyoming is half the fun of the trip. I found myself heading east on I-90, passing the very active oil refineries of Billings, Mont., en route to Pompey’s Pillar National Monument, where the initials of Capt. William Clark of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery are still visible in this stone pillar from when he carved them in 1806 on his historic return from the Pacific Coast. From this Lewis and Clark touchstone, we headed south to the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in south-central Montana. Along the way, we spied a number of pronghorn antelope and a couple of fast-moving coyotes with an eye on dinner.

Normally, I am a huge fan of these National Monuments (the one at Fort Clatsop on the Oregon Coast near Astoria is a spectacular example), but I was uninspired by the Little Bighorn Battlefield display. After spending the night at the forgettable railroad town of Sheridan, Wyo., we took one of the most majestic passes to the west that I have ever driven — on SR 14 over the Bighorn Mountains, across 9,000-foot-high Granite Pass and into Shell Canyon, crossing the Bighorn River at Greybull and on into Cody, Wyo., an hour later.

I have to report that driving for 30 minutes and not seeing another car on the road is great therapy for this traveler. Sure, we saw a moose, lots of antelope, a herd of bison and several elk, but no cars for miles and miles. That is northern Wyoming.

Cody, Wyo., is on the list of travel writer David Vokac’s 100 best in his “The Great Towns of America.” The town was founded by Buffalo Bill Cody and several of his deep-pocketed investment partners as a place of fresh, clean air, sparkling rivers, distant mountain views of Yellowstone and open skies. There are few better, cleaner or more economically vibrant small towns in North America.

At one end of main street is the Buffalo Bill Historical Center (BBHC). I was impressed on entering the parking lot, which has space for over 500 cars. On a Wednesday in May, almost every space was taken and tour buses were lined up on the side. One step inside the Historical Center and it became apparent to me that these collections are massive in size and scope. Today, the Center contains separate wings for Western Art, Natural History, Plains Indians, firearms and one devoted to Buffalo Bill himself.

I am a student of Western Art, having logged lots of hours at the Charlie Russell Museum and home in Great Falls, Mont., the State Collection of Art in Helena, the Heard Museum in Phoenix, the Phoenix Museum of Art’s Western Art wing, the galleries of Santa Fe and Taos, and the Clymer Museum in Ellensburg. The BBHC’s Whitney Gallery of Western Art is the largest and broadest collection of Western Art that I have ever visited. All the big names are there: O.C. Seltzer, Albert Bierstadt, George Catlin, Thomas Moran — who first painted Lower Yellowstone Falls — N.C. Wyeth and Alfred Jacob Miller. But instead of having one or two representations of these famous Western artists, the Whitney displays five or sometimes 10 of their works.

But any discussion of Western Art must quickly move to Frederick Remington and Charles Russell. The Whitney Gallery at BBHC built two separate wings (or coves) for their 20+ collection of each of these artists’ works along with rebuilt renditions of their personal art studios, including many of their personal belongings. The art displayed is simply fabulous.

The Draper Museum of Natural History explores the eco-diversity of the Yellowstone region, with a huge circular cavern-like interpretive trail featuring full-sized natural forms — wolves, bears, bison, pronghorns, eagles — the animal and plant life. Children especially like this area.

The Plains Indian Museum illustrates the culture and the art of the Native Americans and how they experienced their daily nomadic lives. It includes an 1850s Nez Perce buffalo hide teepee, lots of Northern Plains art and tools, and seasonal displays of the years of life before the white man came to the West.

The Cody Firearms Museum includes examples of firearms from the 16th Century to the present. Along with hundreds of arms, the Boone and Crockett Room features trophy game animals.

The Buffalo Bill wing interprets the full life and times of Bill Cody from the Civil War through the 20th century and his famous days barnstorming in Europe and North America, hob-nobbing with kings and queens and prime ministers, as well as an expansive collection of wagons and stagecoaches of that era.

If all this seems overwhelming, it is — impressively so. Since the price of admission (adults, $15; seniors, $13; students, $10; and youth 5-12, $6) is good for two consecutive days, my advice is to plan to be there for two days. It is that good. If you can’t stay overnight — and by the way, Cody has lots of above average hotel and motel options — then plan to take a break with a lunch at the Mustang Grill. Amazingly, the Grill offers good meals, fresh soups and salads and buffalo burgers at rates far below the typical gouges found at most museum eateries. So eat, relax, enjoy, and then take on another wing of the Center.

Yellowstone National Park

This was my fourth visit to our first national park, and as luck would have it, all three visits spread over 45 years happened in either May or June. Three were gorgeous, and this one was overcast. All three were cold. In May and June, during most years, sections of the park are closed because of spring snows. This year, Memorial Day was no exception. As for animals, we saw all the major mammals except for moose and bear.

The highlight for me was timing Old Faithful luckily so that five minutes after arrival in the parking lot, we saw Old Faithful deliver on time. After we had a very tasty and inexpensive lunch at Old Faithful’s classy, historic lodge dining room, we emerged an hour later to catch Act Two of the geyser at work.

Just outside the park at West Yellowstone is the new Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center. I’m usually skeptical about these displays and businesses outside of park boundaries, but this one is a good value and offers amazing viewing of live wolves and grizzlies in well-designed settings with lots of room for viewing and for the animals to get lots of exercise. Inside, the Center offers educational experiences and a detailed, well-shot, lengthy movie about the re-introduction of wolves to the Yellowstone Park area — worth a good 90-minute stop.

The Lolo Pass Lewis & Clark Trail

Students of the Corps of Discovery’s heroic crossing of the continent know how tough and dangerous that trek really was. The gang would portage a falls, discover a mountain range to cross, then another river, then more mountains. Finally, after meeting with helpful Shoshones including Sacagawea’s brother, Lewis and Clark gathered their strength at “Travelers Rest,” a meadow with hot springs pools just west of Missoula near the border with Idaho. Today, Idaho’s State Route 12 leads from Travelers Rest at Lolo Pass across to Idaho and down the Lochsa River to the Clearwater and finally empties into the Snake River at Lewiston with Clarkston on the Washington border. That is the route taken both going west and returning east by the Corps of Discovery, and that is a road I have wanted to drive for 30 years.

We did it going east to west, in other words, following the Lochsa down from the Pass through the Bitterroots at Lolo, and I now take my hat off to those brave men who followed Lewis and Clark and never complained. The Lochsa Canyon is narrow and deep, and the Lochsa River is fierce and fast. With winter on the horizon in late September, it was urgent that the Corps get out of the mountains and to the Pacific Coast before the snows set in. The fastest way to travel — in fact, the only way to make headway — was to travel on the whitewater that the Lochsa offered.

As I drove along the two-lane highway (the sign at the highway’s entrance at the Idaho border reads “Next Service 70 miles”), we were never more than 30 feet from the Lochsa’s edge. We passed several groups running the river in rafts (ROW adventures at www.rowadventures.com), and they looked wet and stimulated to the max. The waters have been running high and hard throughout the West, due to a big dump of snow this winter and a very late, short spring. When Lewis and Clark canoed and rafted the Lochsa, it was early fall and the waters were quieter — fortunate for them. I doubt that they would have made it had they attempted this spring.

The drive on Highway 12 goes through Nez Perce land, and it is worth taking your time to visit the towns of Kooksie, Kamiah and Orofino. Students of Lewis and Clark know that their encounters with the extremely helpful Nez Perce (providing food, horses, storage of gear, guides, tents, romance and friendship) meant everything to the Corps, both going and coming. In a four-day weekend or more, you can find out if that western hospitality still exists in north-central Idaho along the Clearwater and the Lochsa.

This is a trip that children and grandparents would like. The roads are not boring, the land is massive and gorgeous, and there are stops all along the way. Montana is particularly good at placing interesting and often humorous roadside historical signs. It’s a trip every Northwesterner should take, with time to soak in the feel of the land along the way.

Bill Morton can be reached at www.secondhalf.net.

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