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High plains drifters

It is so big, the American West, that it's good to view even a slice of the panoramas and geologic wonders with two pairs of eyes.

And to ponder and absorb these sights with two minds.

Maybe the discoveries also can help bridge the gap between child and parent.

My 10-year-old son Michael and I set off in late May to cut a high-speed swath through the high plains. We each had a book to write in, we each had a camera.

In our round trip from Denver's Stapleton International Airport, we crossed northern Colorado, edged into Utah, drove almost the full north-south and east-west boundaries of Wyoming and spent a busy 24 hours above and below South Dakota's Black Hills.

We ate a few breakfasts of dry cereal from the box as we tooled along, putting 2,018 miles and several dark smudges on the rental car. We sampled geology, natural history and man's impact upon the land.

It was a trip I'll never forget. I hope Michael never does either.

DAY 1: GENERATIONS, NOT EONS

My itinerary had me traveling alone in South Dakota and Wyoming for seven days, then flying from Rapid City to Denver Stapleton, arriving 65 minutes before Michael's flight from Tampa. My plane was delayed; his is early.

By the time I reach his plane's gate, a flight attendant is about to hand my son over to a co-worker. Michael has a smile on his face.

Less than an hour later we pull out in a rented Ford Crown Victoria that has plenty of options _ six-way power seat, adjustable steering wheel, power antenna. The two important ones are cruise control and a cassette player.

The license plates read 390-EEU; Michael translates that phonetically into eee-YOOOOO. As in "Yuck!"

His daily journal is a thin paperback titled Kid's Vacation Diary _ a fill-in-the-blanks log that poses the same questions each day. Our first day involves little more than his 3{-hour flight to Denver and a 208-mile drive through the Colorado mountains. Michael's entry under the heading What we did today: "9.8 miles into trip, I saw snow." He did, on the Rockies, west of Denver.

We spend the night in Craig, Colo., at the Black Nugget Motel _ too Western to be passed over for the Holiday Inn nearby _ and eat dinner a block away. It is Prom Night, the sign on the restaurant's special dishes board notes. I see two couples dressed for the big dance; added to their expected discomfort, everyone else in the dining room is in casual clothing, and more than a few adults call "Hello!" to the celebrants.

I watch Michael pick at his plate from the salad bar and wonder how he'll look going to his prom, seven or eight Mays from now.

DAY 2: DINOSAUR BONE YARD

Antelope grazing near the road are more common than cattle in some areas out here, but Michael misses his first antelope of the trip, at 7:48 a.m. He has his face turned to the Gameboy.

The antelope feed on tall clumps of fragrant sagebrush, leaving the natural grasses to livestock and deer. There are few ranches or farms visible from the highways. More obvious are abandoned farm buildings, junked trailers and dilapidated cabins _ failed dreams of the Golden West.

Just after we cross into Utah, we reach the 210,000-acre Dinosaur National Monument. Outside the fossil quarry building, a statue of the ponderous stegosaurus has been painted multiple colors.

A plaque next to it holds photos of other dinosaur representations, from crude statues at commercial outlets to a Godzilla movie scene. The rationale, here and inside, is to remind us that we don't know all the particulars of these life forms, much less their skin colors.

But the explanations for what we do know, especially about Dinosaur National Monument's remarkable hillside of fossils, are exceptionally clear. Through a glass wall, about 500,000 visitors a summer view 2,000 bones that have been exposed by paleontologists but have been left in place.

The hill slanting dozens of feet above and to the sides was originally a sandbar in a prehistoric river. Dinosaurs died in the river and before scavengers could scatter the bones, floodwaters washed their bodies onto the sandbar, where they sank in the mud, roughly 145-million years ago.

Gradually, the Earth's upheavals shifted the sandbar up at an angle, and in 1909, a paleontologist found one of the world's great fossil deposits when eight bones of a brontosaurus (now more often called apatosaurus) were exposed in a hillside.

Research continues at sites not open to the public: About a year ago, a dinosaur embryo was found in a block of volcanic ash.

Michael reads most of the signs and charts, rubs a fossilized thigh bone taller than he is and debates the idea of multihued dinosaurs with a park ranger. My son is a traditionalist and doesn't buy the expand-your-horizons idea.

Back in the car, we stop at a series of well-explained pull-offs. Michael is wowed by the prairie dog village and 1,000-year-old Indian petroglyphs (designs carved into rock) but is unimpressed by signs of Earth's geologic evolution.

But with 390-eee-YOOOO back on the highway headed north, that is what impresses me the most: the startling canyon roads and red sandstone cliffs of the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area.

Tempering my enjoyment is the need to ride the brakes, in low gear, along mountain roads. I'm pleased when, 339 miles after our day starts, we pull into the motel at Little America, Wyo.

The Little America _ this is the original of a chain _ claims on its billboards that its 65 pumps make it the world's largest gas station. I think the 26-inch TVs in the spacious rooms would be a better draw for the billboards.

Michael's entry for Things I liked best: "The gift shop," and for What I saw that was funny: "Zebra-striped dinosaurs."

DAY 3: OLD NAMES, OLD PEAKS

We drive west for an hour or so to Fossil Butte National Monument but spend little time there.

Fossil Butte is about 20 miles from where Utah and Idaho meet Wyoming, and it's proclaimed the site of North America's largest collection of freshwater fossils. It was a massive lake about 50-million years ago, but now the area is arid high plains, dominated by the pale butte itself. The lake is long gone, and the butte is a core of what had been hundreds of feet of sedimentary build-up.

It's hard to keep straight in your mind that the buttes towering over these flats were once the bottom of the land, not the top. Millions of years of water and wind erosion have carved the surrounding layers.

Highlights of the visitor center include: stony sheets of multiple fish skeletons that scientists interpret as a sudden fish kill; marvelous fossils of a large crocodile and a tiny snake; plus multimillion-year-old insects the size of dragonflies.

Back outside, we decide to bypass two interpretive trails; the park's brochure notes that you're unlikely to come across a fossil on your own anyway.

On the way north on U.S. 189, we pull off at Names Hill, a bluff that bears dozens of names and dates carved by passers-by, including the most celebrated of all mountain men, Jim Bridger. Now the hill carries an entry about 150 years newer than Bridger's: Mike J 1993.

I put 320 miles on the Ford today; my notebook reads:

"Long drive but the reward is tremendous scenery. Lunch in Pinedale (Wyoming) and a cowboy hat for Michael.

"On to the Tetons _ jagged masters of the high plains. Words can no more capture the grandeur of these 13,000-foot, snow-covered peaks than man could build them. They fill the horizon."

Less awe-struck, Michael's entry for Things I liked best: "Mountain scenery."

DAY 4: WILD KINGDOM

John D. Rockefeller Jr. is credited with selecting the site for the premier accommodation in Grand Teton National Park; he did a good job. Even indoors, I fall in love with the park again and again.

Climbing the staircase to the dining rooms in the Jackson Lake Lodge, you reach a lobby whose western wall is a multistory picture window perfectly framing several of the Teton Range mountains. On each of the five trips I make up the staircase over two days, I am buoyed by the beauty of the mountains.

On a patio immediately below this huge window, guests gather at dawn and sunset to oooh and ahh at the critters that graze in the marsh. One evening, within 45 minutes, I watch six moose, four antelope, two large cranes and a beaver who stays busy by circling its lodge just below the patio.

Michael and I spend a couple of hours this morning slowly rafting down the Snake River. As friendly as boatman/guide Glenn Hansen is, he's no match for the effervescent young staff at the casual restaurant in the lodge. They find common ground with Michael in discussing the comic strip characters Calvin and Hobbes.

Driving through the park, we stop at the Colter Bay Visitor Center. Michael prowls a well-done exhibit devoted to American Indian culture and clothing. Each display case _ one shows dozens of moccasins, another has clubs and arrows _ holds his attention better than the animals we pass as we drive.

The afternoon we checked into the lodge, he had built a snowman (named for the mythical snow goons of the Calvin cartoons). Today he passes time by clobbering it with pine cones and rocks. The day's drawing in his journal is of our placid raft trip, but his version is just this side of The Poseidon Adventure. His journal capsules the day: "We went on a float-trip down Snake River; killed Snow Goon with rocks. I saw a buffalo!!"

DAY 5: THE DREARY INDOORS

A scenic, 48-mile drive north to and into heralded Yellowstone National Park, which takes up a corner of Wyoming and slivers of Montana and Idaho. The free newspaper visitors receive entering the park holds a bright-yellow flier with this warning:

Many visitors have been gored by buffalo.

Buffalo can weigh 2,000 pounds and can sprint at 30 mph, three times faster than you can run.

These animals may appear tame but are wild, unpredictable and dangerous.

Then, somewhat unnecessarily, it concludes:

Do not approach buffalo.

Fair enough.

Michael and I enjoy the imaginative exhibits at the Grant Village Visitor Center on the ferocious fires of 1988 that still have much of Yellowstone looking like forests of tall sticks. The exhibits side with those environmentalists who say that fire is a natural element that helps renew the forests.

What I learn: The firefighters use hand-held calculators that help predict damage according to various factors, so they can most effectively battle the flames.

From Michael's journal on Yellowstone, What we did today:

"Saw buffalo, elk, moose, coyote, marmot, blue bird, Canada geese and pikas. Saw Old Fateful (sic) erupt, saw paint-pots and millions of other geysers. Saw results of 1988 forest fire, too!"

Things I liked best:

"Seeing marmots, they look like real fat and big guinea-pigs. They're brown."

What I saw or heard that was funny:

"Bubbling geysers and paint-pots, going, "Blopp, blopp, blip, BLOOP!!'

"

Well put, son. He doesn't note the elk who nibble on the grass and bushes by the hotel driveway. Nor does he write about our spartan room in the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, which is old and looks it. Michael tells me that he doesn't want to stay again in a room that "doesn't have electricity" _ his way of condemning the lack of TV, radio and phone in our hotbox. You can almost hear the sole elevator wheeze; our $53-a-night view overlooks the garbage dumpsters.

DAY 6: COWBOYS AND INDIANS

In our early morning drive out of Yellowstone, we pass several of the afore-mentioned buffalo and an elk with impressive antlers, all grazing on the roadside. Photos from the car seem appropriate.

We gingerly look past the strong fence at Inspiration Point and down into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. This is a gash in the Earth about 20 miles long, up to 4,000 feet wide and as much as 1,200 feet deep.

On our way to Cody, Wyo., Michael dozes and misses a spectacular set of chocolate- and orange-colored cliffs in the Shoshone National Forest.

The road is dotted with numerous signs for dude ranches and horseback rides. Sure enough, at a pull-off in the Wapiti Valley Recreation Area, two cowboys are loading saddle horses into a van, having just completed a trail ride. Several Japanese tourists are photographing each other, the horses and the cliffs. It must be their dream of America's West; it's close to my own.

At Cody, we check into the Best Western Sunset and mosey on down two blocks to the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. The gaudy, gun-heavy cowboy displays I half expected turn out to be an impressive, thoughtful museum.

Our first stop in the spacious building's four wings is at the Cody Firearms Museum, with its collection of more than 6,000 firearms dating from the 15th century. They are carefully arranged and explained; a computer with touch-screen provides the history of each gun displayed, as well as general information on its type. There also is a re-created stagecoach stop matching one built 20 miles south of this city in 1903, when the stage was still regular transportation.

The rest of the Historical Center includes a gallery of Western art _ from portraits of Indian chiefs brought to Washington to sign treaties, to contemporary works _ a large display of Plains Indians artifacts, and the Buffalo Bill Museum.

This last wing details something of a Renaissance man in buckskin. Best known as animal hunter, Army scout and Indian fighter (he won a Medal of Honor for a battle in Nebraska), Cody also spoke out for the rights of women and Indians, promoted conservation, founded this town, acted in melodramas and established an acclaimed Wild West show that may have been the largest source of Americana for Europeans at the end of the last century.

But I wonder if he ever faced frustration like I face one night while we're here _ making five trips to the coin laundry because the dryer wasn't doing its job.

DAY 7: NO PARK-AND-RIDE LOTS

I know from planning the itinerary that this day's drive will be the longest, with perhaps the least reward. It turns out I'm only half right: We do put 413 miles on the car, but we have the best night of our trip.

Leaving Cody, on the western side of Wyoming, our destination on the eastern side is Devil's Tower National Monument. This is the odd granite pinnacle made famous in Close Encounters of the Third Kind as the aliens' rendezvous point. The landscape of the aptly named Cloud Peak Scenic Highway breaks the tedium of the ride.

Dave Bohling, a Nebraska native who is a tourism executive in the region, had told me the previous week that "There's a worldwide religion out here _ the (crop) markets and the weather." This segment of the trip proves him right.

The most-frequent highway signs advise: "Open Range/Loose Stock," meaning watch out for roaming cattle, sheep and horses. Other signs list the radio stations that give weather information. I hear the same report four to six times an hour, along with the notation that my station is part of "the Northern Agricultural Network _ for you, the producer of food and fiber, coming to you in your home, your pickup or your tractor."

Finally, as we approach the Black Hills National Forest, we see Devil's Tower some miles off, impressive because it's both large and different. Up close, it's still large and different _ 867 feet from the pile of granite rubble at its base to the 1{-acre top, and it is raked with incredibly straight furrows.

The Kiowa Indians attributed the columns to the claw marks of a giant bear that was trying to reach seven girls on the top. Scientists decided the furrows are simply cracks in the cooled-off center of a dormant volcano. Again, the Tower is a lesson in erosion _ the rest of the volcano long since washed away by the Belle Fourche River.

Yellowstone was the nation's first national park, Devil's Tower its first national monument, dating to 1906. Although it looks formidable, between 2,000 and 6,000 climbers annually attempt to scale it. We settle for walking the path around the boulders at the base.

Michael and I drive on to Deadwood, S.D., to claim a room in the Bullock Hotel. It has to be the Bullock because the Bullock is haunted, and that's what Michael wants to experience.

I had told him the hotel's history, as told to me the week before by the Bullock's owner/restorer, former Denver resident Mary Schmit:

Seth Bullock, a sheriff in Montana, had joined the Gold Rush to the Black Hills in 1876 _ not to prospect but to continue his successful hardware business. After Wild Bill Hickock was murdered in the boom town, Bullock was appointed its first sheriff. He also was a successful rancher and farmer, and his friend President Theodore Roosevelt appointed him U.S. marshal for South Dakota in 1905.

Following a devastating fir in Deadwood, Bullock built the three-story hotel in 1895. His ghost has appeared more than 30 times to hotel employees and guests since Ms. Schmit rebuilt the place.

Seth doesn't show up the night we stay there, but John McEuen does. Former lead player of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, McEuen appears regularly in Deadwood, organizing summer rock concerts and even creating a promotional video for the village.

It is the only place in South Dakota in which casino gambling is legal, so its main streets are nothing more than 80-plus gambling parlors, each with up to 30 tables or video gaming machines.

Ms. Schmit introduces her friend McEuen to Michael and me while she goes about hotel business. McEuen relates Western lore and explains he embraces Deadwood because it is a working democracy: Residents' committees decide its future and its use of gambling revenues.

McEuen also gives us an audiotape of the music he produced and performed for a TV documentary titled The Wild West, telecast nationally in March. He also shows Michael how to use a tightly folded dinner napkin to flick a pat of butter onto the ceiling.

Michael's journal entries for Things I liked best: "The Bullock," and for What I heard that was funny: "The beeping and booping of video gambling machines."

DAY 8: FINISHING WITH A KICK

I have a lot planned for today but, as it turns out, not enough.

From Deadwood it's about 55 miles through the Black Hills _ so named because they are covered by the dark ponderosa pine _ to Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Michael thinks at first the heads are "small," but once we get to the main viewing terrace, he's suitably impressed.

We drive another 17 miles to the Crazy Horse Memorial mountain sculpture. Visitors view the mountain from about a mile away, and the family doing most of the laborious work of carving a mountain into the world's largest sculpture estimates that it might be finished in 25 years.

The family has been at it for 45 years, and it takes both recognition of that effort and the ability to conceptualize to appreciate the memorial. I have to talk Michael into posing in front of the mountain, telling him that he might bring his own children here someday and could have a neat picture to show them.

On to Jewel Cave National Monument, which includes 92 miles of explored caves, 2 miles of which are open to the public. Explorers have named various passageways and rooms: Rum Runners' Lane, King Kong's Cage, Torture Room.

During our 90-minute tour, we start at more than 230 feet below ground and descend another 150 feet or so. The cave is named for its spectacular calcite formations; I see nothing that sparkles as much as the brochure's illustrations. But Michael's entry for Things I like best: "Jewel Cave, it's neat!"

It's also the last sight to see on our trip out West. We head 390-eee-YOOO west into Wyoming and then south. This was the one night for which I had no room reservation, and it is the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. This is a mistake even in spacious Wyoming, the least populated state in the nation.

But it has its rewards: While I drive another 242 miles from Jewel Cave south to Cheyenne, Michael amazes me and amuses himself. He scavenges through the car and our litter bag to fashion "Super Gladiator" from a wax Pepsi cup, a tissue, a couple of price stickers, some aluminum foil and the corner of a paper bag. For more than two hours he re-works, plays with and assaults Super Gladiator. My appreciation for his imagination and creativity soars.

In Cheyenne we book into my new favorite, the Little Wyoming. In this one, each of the queen-size beds has five throw pillows on it.

That night, we sit down to a real meal in the motel restaurant, which boasts a wine list, pate, lobster and a lounge combo, the Men of Note.

DAY 9:HOME

A mere 110 miles later, past cows grazing on top of the land and grasshopper wells pumping oil from beneath it, we reach Denver, and an afternoon flight home.

Somewhere over Oklahoma, Super Gladiator meets his match, in Michael's fist. The trip is over.

EPILOGUE

On this trip, I mistakenly planned to do too much, leaving too little time to relax and enjoy the landscapes, people and monuments.

Having already spent seven days in the region before Michael arrived, I had gathered information for two major articles _ and more important, gotten a feel for the area and its residents. At age 10, Michael doesn't need that sort of in-depth look at a place so different from his native Florida.

But I probably ignored the advice I've given in the past, about including your children in planning the vacation. Michael saw a lot, but I don't think either one of us came away from the trip relaxed.

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