Exiled to my own country


[Henry’s Lake, ID, just outside the western entrance to Yellowstone N.P.]

Back in the American West again, where I’ve always felt comfortable and at home even though I’m not from here and only ever lived here for a few years.

“Wait.  What?  I thought you were in Spain?”

You are correct.  I were in Spain but I had to leave in order to stay there.

” . . . ?”

I was there until a couple of weeks ago.  I decided I liked it and wanted to stay so I had to return to the US to make that happen.

“But, you were just a few hours outside the capital.  Couldn’t you just go to Madrid and take care of that?”

No.  Americans must apply for a residency visa at the Consulate that has jurisdiction over their home state.  In my case Houston covers Tennessee.  I had to fly back to the US, get some documents that require my physical presence here and then wait for my appointment at the Consulate.

“And is that soon?”

15 August.

“That is almost two months from now.”


“And then you get to go back to Spain?”

Nope.  That appointment is just to hand over my application and all the supporting documents, in duplicate and all translated into Spanish.  Oh, and I leave my passport with them so I can’t go anywhere else.

“And then what?”

And then I wait for their answer.

“How long does that take?”

The Embassy web site says two months or more.  The Consulate web site said, on the day I made my appointment, that they were then at a two week turn around.  So somewhere between two weeks and two months, or more.

Meanwhile I don’t have a job, I don’t have a place to live, I don’t have a car and I don’t know how long I will be here.  Oh, and after the Consulate makes a decision, I have to go back to Houston to retrieve my passport, hopefully with the visa affixed.

“Fun.  And you brought this all on yourself why?”

Yogi Boo Boo log

[Yogi Bear and Boo Boo are the property of Hanna-Barbera.]

Today is Friday.  I am sitting on a bench in Jellystone National Park watching Old Faithful not erupting.  Not erupting is what it does almost all the time.  I picked this bench because no one was sitting on it and no one was sitting on any of the benches around it so that I could scribble these notes in the little book of empty pages that I keep in my back pocket.

Now I am surrounded by exasperated parents and grandparents feebly trying to entertain their bored, unimpressed, shrieking children and to restrain them from running toward the geyser.

Wednesday morning I awoke relieved to be checking out of yet another hotel and move on to a month-long AirBnB rental.  For almost all of the last four months I have been in hotels in Spain and the US.  I enjoy traveling but eventually I tire of living out of a suitcase.  I can happily go for a week or two with just a backpack or a small carry-on size bag, but lugging all my stuff from place to place every few days gets old.  Fortunately I found a house on a lake here in Memphis with a pontoon boat and a kayak available for my use and a big porch overlooking the lake to sit on and read and write this drivel.

Reprieve . . . snatched out from under me.  I just got a text from the couple that owns the lake house informing me that they are at their home in Florida and won’t be back for another couple of weeks, so the rental is not available, even though the website took my money.

With no place to stay here in Memphis, I decided to rent a small, cheap car and head out vaguely northwest.  The states in the US that I have not yet visited are all in New England or the northern mid-west.

Two hours fighting the rental car company website ended in my eventual victory and a message that a compact car would be awaiting me at noon.  Another hour at the rental car office, listening to their completely reasonable explanation why their web site was wrong and no compact cars were available, and I was pulling away in an electric blue SUV.  Errands around town meant that I was not crossing the bridge and into Arkansas until some time after 3 pm.

With that late a start, my best hope was to get north of the Ozarks and in to Missouri before I had to stop for the night.  For once, my life-long companion, insomnia, worked in my favor.  I crossed into Wyoming at 2:50 pm Mountain time the next day and into Montana twenty minutes later.  By 7 pm I was in Billings and called it quits for the day.  1,490 miles in 29 hours on the road, including stops.  That averages out to better than 50 mph.


[Eastern South Dakota, day two.  Note bugs on windshield from overnight drive.]

I found a restaurant in the historic city center that was empty enough to give me a large booth to myself and the password to their wifi.  While eating a better than expected meal I found a local hotel and booked a room for three nights.  Billings is a small city of about 100,000 people with two interstate highways running through it, so it makes a good base from which to explore the greater area.

I schlepped my bags up to the hotel room, thought about going out to explore town and woke up ten hours later near 6 am.  I fetched coffee from the lobby and showered and dressed to go explore and hike in Yellowstone.  About an hour from Billings is the quaint town of Red Lodge, MT, not to be confused with the Black Lodge of Twin Peaks.  Nothing creepy here.


The only thing missing from this stereotype is the hitching posts on either side of the street.

Just west of Red Lodge, we climbed near the base of the overcast which now enshrouded the mountain peaks.


Another hour and a half drive, through the most breath taking scenery of the day on the switchbacks of the Beartooth Highway, brought me to the north east entrance to the park in a slight drizzle.  I didn’t really have a destination in mind but had nearly the whole day to explore randomly so I headed diagonally southwest toward the middle of the park.  There the two loops of the main roads meet to form a figure eight.

Between the park entrance and the connection of the two loops, I crossed a mountain pass below Mt. Washburn.  Google Earth tells me that Mt. Washburn’s peak is roughly 10,200 feet above sea level.  The road below the peak is just a few feet short of 9,000.  The day before, when I was in western South Dakota just about to cross in to Wyoming, the readout on the rental car dashboard said the outside temperature was 104º F.  The next morning below Mt. Washburn:


34º F, snowing hard enough to be accumulating on 15 June.  A 70 degree temperature drop in about 18 hours and 300 miles.  What a country, as the philosopher Y. Smirnov said.

I made it down from the pass and the snow turned to a steady, but not heavy rain.  Low clouds revealed only the lower reaches of the mountains, but the view across the lush green valleys was spectacular.  Out west the highway engineers are not particularly big fans of guardrails, so my attention was on driving at this point to the exclusion of picture taking.  I headed out the west entrance to the park to the town of West Yellowstone, WY, where I had a decent, but uninspired lunch.

After lunch I took about a twenty minute detour to Henry’s Lake, ID (see first picture above) simply because I had never been to Idaho, and quite possibly will never be in this part of the US again.  One of the slightly silly motivations for this trip, aside from the soothing effects of being in the American West, was to check off several states that I had not yet visited.  Idaho was right up near the top of the list of the lower 48 that I didn’t really expect to ever get to.  I could not pass up the opportunity and since hiking and camping were ruled out by the steady rainfall, what better use did I have for a half hour?

I drove, pulled over at an overlook on the side of the highway, took my picture of the mountains overlooking the lake and this other one in West Yellowstone of a sign that I don’t expect to ever see in Memphis.


I re-entered the park and turned south to visit the geysers.  Without leaving the paved road, you see umpteen steam vents right alongside the road, just back a little bit in the woods and up on hillsides.  I had just enough geology classes in college to know the basic cause of all this steaming water rising from the ground, and in this case the knowledge is not comforting.  Not far beneath the surface of this place on earth is a giant pool of magma.  Liquid rock.

This is more than just a volcano, it is a thin spot in the crust that allows the molten core of the earth to nearly breach the surface.  [Yes, I know that is a bit of an exaggeration, but it sure sounds more dramatic.]  And thousands of us come here intentionally to walk around on this thin spot just above red-hot melted rock and hissing steam, assuming “What could possibly go wrong?”

Fortunately, today nothing did go wrong.  I finally got to the southern part of the park and pulled in to the vast parking lot at the Old Faithful Lodge.  More people were walking away from the geysers than toward them so I assumed that Old Faithful had just finished erupting.  Just as well for my purposes.  I found a completely vacant bench with a good sight line to the main attraction and sat down to scribble my notes in my little book that I carry in my back pocket.

After about a half hour of peace and quiet, and no rain, the benches around me started filling up.  About this time a tourist family sat down on the bench beside me.  All the younger members of the group plopped down heavily beside me, leaving an older woman (mom, grand mom?) standing.  I wasn’t keen on listening to their loud commentary on why they had to wait for the next eruption, so I gave my seat to the left out woman and moved down the line to a less crowded seat on the edge of the raised boardwalk and resumed my scribbling in peace.

By the time Old Faithful started making her preliminary spurts, rumbles and hisses, even this part of the area was filled with tourists.  I actually heard one young man (not a child but a twenty-something) ask those around him why there was a range of times when the next eruption would occur and not a scheduled show-time.  Before the full-blown eruption was finished I couldn’t take any more of the loud, inane commentary from those around me and left to go back to my car.

I crossed the park from west to east, passing along the northern shore of Yellowstone Lake.  I didn’t know of this lake before I got here and was impressed by its size – about 15 miles east to west and 18 miles north to south.  There are spectacular mountains lining the south shore and very large steam vents rising from the water at the western edges of the lake.  Quite dramatic and probably more so on a clear sky day.

From the north shore of the lake I made my way to the east entrance to the park.  Might as well take a different route back to Billings to see new places, so I aimed for Cody, WY.  The east entrance to Yellowstone sits at about 7,000 feet above sea level (MSL).  Cody is about 47 miles east if you could go in a straight line, and the downtown area sits at about 5,000 feet MSL.

Almost the entire route from Yellowstone to Cody is in the dramatic gorge of the North Fork of the Shoshone River.  The rushing river is rarely out of sight from the highway and the speed of the water as it makes the descent has carved very steep, jagged cliffs on either side.  This is a very fun, winding, steep road to drive when you are not pinned in behind a camper or timid driver.  47 miles is the straight line distance but I would not be surprised if the road miles are nearly double that.  I also would not be surprised if my actual achieved gas mileage was far better than 50 mpg, since it is 2,000 feet downhill the entire way.

Cody is another of the nice little cities where the locals wear boots and cowboy hats with no trace of irony.  On the western entrance to town was what I at first assumed to be the high school football stadium.  Nope.  This was the town rodeo arena, complete with high grandstands, most of which were under roof.  And that roof was probably more for protection from the sun than from rain, but I’m just guessing about that.

After a nice dinner at a chop house it was only an hour and a half drive back to Billings and another solid night’s sleep.  The following day, Saturday, I awoke to steady rain and temperatures in the mid-50s F.  I turned on the World Cup match of that morning and watched from bed, falling in and out of sleep throughout the morning.  By mid-day I the rain had not let up and temperature had not risen so I declared it a rest day.  I watched soccer most of the day, went out for fast food take-out early afternoon and did not venture out until early evening when the rain had finally let up.

Billings has a very nice area of six or eight blocks downtown where the older buildings have been redeveloped into stylish restaurants and micro-breweries.  It is also set up to be pedestrian friendly with ample cross walks that appear to give pedestrians right of way over cars.  I found a cider mill that appeared to have been a warehouse across from the train station.  The restaurant retained the old structure but it was kitted out in sleek modern furnishings.  Somehow the two elements did not clash.  More importantly the food and ciders were delicious and once again, the staff were extremely friendly and cheerful.


[Last Chance Pub & Cider Mill, Billings, MT]

Sunday dawned technically, but not actually.  The darkness merely progressed into gloom as the rain had returned even worse.  I ditched the plan to relocate to Jackson Hole in the Grand Tetons and decided to leave late and leisurely and make a short day heading back east.

Not far east of Billings is the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Park.  The hill and the stone monument atop it are visible from Interstate 90 in the broad river valley.  Less than five minutes from the interstate I am in the parking lot walking up the hill to the monument and historical markers.  I have been in many state and national parks that commemorate the bravery, heroism and sacrifices made in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.  They are somber, but inspiring places.  This was the first National Park that made me mad.  I left angry that the vainglorious stupidity of one man could cause this much waste, pain and suffering.  I suppose those who steadily promoted him and gave him additional commands bear some responsibility, but the poor soldiers who were under his orders deserved better.


The markers in the foreground are not headstones.  Lower down the hill, in the center of the picture are about 260 graves of the civilians and soldiers who died here.  The native Americans, a gathering of three different tribes, were camped en mass in the river valley in the background of this picture.  They suffered only about 40 casualties.  The white markers in the foreground are the location of fallen US troops and civilians as determined by a team of archaeologists after a wildfire cleared this area a few decades ago.  The marker in the lower center with the black blotch on it is where G.A. Custer himself fell.

A bit more than 260 miles east of Billings put me in Moorcroft, WY, just far enough south of the Devil’s Tower to be out of the tourist priced zone.  The next day I awoke early and walked next door to Donna’s Diner for breakfast.  I’m pretty sure my waitress was Donna.  Everyone in the place knew her, as well as each other.  I stood out as the only stranger in the place.  A good country breakfast almost made up for the Bates’ Motel experience of the previous night and then I was on the road early, as I knew this was a day chock full of unproductive progress toward home.

An hour’s drive north on US and State highways brought me through mildly hilly country until, topping a hill this popped into view.


Devil’s Tower is real and was not just a prop or special effect in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  It was dramatic because it didn’t creep up on you from far away.  You climb a hill and it isn’t there and then as you crest the hill, it suddenly pops into view only a couple of miles away.  The drama lessens as you approach it, however.  It is a dramatic structure with near vertical walls.  This is, if I recall correctly, the congealed plug of a now dormant volcano where everything but this cold magma has long since eroded away.  But from the base it is relatively puny by western geological standards.  It is not imposingly vast like a mountain, but visually interesting all the same.


Close Encounters of the Third Kind

From here I set off on another, longer silly detour to check off one more state from my list of the unvisiteds.  North Dakota was a three hour’s drive from here, but when am I ever again going to be three hours from North Dakota?  So Bowman, ND, became the next waypoint on this zig-zag day.

North Dakota is a mildly hilly, lush green state in June.  Every bit of land that I saw was either cultivated crops or rich pasture land.  Like its cousin to the south, North Dakota cows outnumber humans by a substantial margin.  The only thing lacking is trees.  They exist, but in stands of five or six here and five or six in a clump a few miles away.

By mid-afternoon I was back in South Dakota, slightly hillier and slightly more trees.  Same preponderance of cows though.  By nightfall I was in Mitchell, SD, in the eastern third of the state and again slept as in a coma.


One unexpected pleasure of this trip was a flash-back to childhood.  I did not know that Sinclair gas stations still existed.


That green dinosaur mascot was a favorite of mine in the 1960s.  Years later when I was a bit older, I was again amused to make the association between this friendly green dinosaur and the mythical source of oil and gas being decomposed dinosaurs.

From Mitchell I made one last overnight push to cross Iowa, a short detour into Nebraska, Missouri, Arkansas and finally across the bridge back into Memphis.


3,852 miles in six and one half days

Six new states visited:  South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, North Dakota, Nebraska

Remaining unvisited:  Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, Utah, Nevada, Ohio, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut

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