Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

The Rockies: Close encounters of the wondrous kind

Roger St Pierre hits the open road

Fireweed and the Teton Mountains
Ray Brown walking across America
Basque pride

The United States is jam-packed with wonderful sights – both natural and man-made. But for me the major joy of an American road trip is not these things but the bevy of colourful characters you meet en-route.

There I was, driving halfway up the long, winding 8,429 ft Teton Pass that would take me from Idaho across the state line into Wyoming when ahead I spotted a man pushing a shopping trolley bedecked with two large stars-and-stripes flags.

His name proved to be Ray Brown, a retired schoolmaster, and the business card he gave me revealed that he was engaged in “A walk across America supporting American history, the Constitution and the bill of Rights”

Staying in touch with his family by laptop and mobile phone, this fascinating character was both making a political point and fulfilling a dream he’d had from childhood.

I’d actually found many characters from the minute my flight from Chicago had touched down in Boise, the state city of Idaho and cited as the most remote urban area in the US – the nearest cities of any size being Salt Lake City (336 miles southeast), Spokane (379 miles north), Reno (425miles south) and Portland (430 miles west).

That leaves lots of wide-open country to explore in-between. The pioneer spirit lives on in these hills and eccentricity seems a natural lifestyle choice.

But while it’s at the heart of a recreational and scenic wonderland, Boise is no backwater. Founded as an army outpost in 1863 it is now home to approaching 600,000 people and the corporate headquarters of several Fortune 500 companies.

There’s a thriving arts and cultural scene, spacious parks, lots of trees, a vibrant downtown, numerous good restaurants and bars, abundant street art, an imposing Capitol building and, wait for it, the largest Basque community outside Spain.

That’s why I was in town: to attend the unique Jaialdi International Basque Culture Festival – the largest such event in the world.

Michael Flatly eat your heart out! Basque dancing proved to be like ‘Riverdance’ on speed. The Basque sports, with lots of manic speed wood chopping, hay bale pitching and 20 more competitive challenges were spectacular too.

This colourful event, held in the last week of July each year, involves the US-wide Basque American community, from toddlers up to the amazing 105-year-old Luciana Aboitiz Garatea, and attracts a large contingent from the old country.

I started my Rocky Mountains’ visit on a high and that set the tone for an amazing week on the road, every fuel or food stop introducing me to some new character.

I left Boise on a rollercoaster blacktop highway that seemed lifted from a Hollywood movie. It led me towards the high mountains, the Yellowstone National Park and that iconic tourist draw, the Old Faithful geyser.

Idaho claims to be the whitewater capital of the US while Wyoming is a mecca for all manner of summer and winter sports, with Jackson Hole a world-renowned leisure resort. An amazing 97 per cent of the 2,697,000-ace county is public land.

Despite having a year-round population of just 20,000, Jackson has a world-class arts, theatre, dance, music and film scene – and it’s brim full with painters, art photographers, sculptors, poets, bearded bikies and latter-day hippies.

Though totally commercialised, Jackson still has the flavour of the Old West, except it’s Harleys rather than horses that are today lined up outside the numerous eating places and watering holes.

Take a short drive outside town and you’ll find the National Museum of Wildlife (+1 307 733 5771, wildlifeart.org). Founded in 1987 and housed in an impressive red sandstone gallery clinging to the hillside, the museum showcases more than 550 artists and in excess of 5,000 catalogued items.

It was the lure of the open road that dragged me away. A major historic landmark ravelled by thousand of westward emigrants during the mid 19th Century; the arrow-straight 7,760 ft South Pass is today a lonely, lightly travelled highway. This is the very epitome of the fabled ‘Big Country’.

Take a short detour off the main road down a dirt track and you will come upon the unlikely named Atlantic City, a one-time mining encampment that somehow managed to avoid becoming a ghost town. Here you’ll find the Miner’s Delight Inn B&B (+1 307 332 0248, minersdelightinn.com), whose atmosphere-laden bar features a superb selection of single malt whiskies.

I carried on though to another one-horse town, Elk Mountain, whose eponymous hotel is run with passion by Susan and Arthur Prescott. Locally sourced produce – American country cooking with European flair – is the cornerstone and the rooms are charming.

My next day took me on through Laramie, Cheyenne and other pioneer towns whose names leapt off the pages of the Western yarns I read as a child. I could have driven north instead to Devil’s Tower, the volcanic plug featured in ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. Whichever way I headed I knew I’d find characters aplenty.

Where to stay

Red Lion Boise (+1 208 344 7691, redlion.com): Conveniently located for the airport.

Teton Springs Lodge & Spa (+1 208 787 7889, tetonspringslodge.com): 22 ultra luxurious 3m 4 and 5 bedroom wooden cabins, 25 miles from downtown Jackson Hole.

Old Faithful Inn, Yellowstone (+1 307 344 7311, yellowstonenationalparklodges.com). Massive 100-year-old wooden built construction right next to the geyser. `The restaurant is cavernous, the food hearty American fare.

Snake River Lodge & Spa (888 367 7625, snakeriverlodge.rockresorts.com): In the shadow of the Tetons – spacious rooms, a classy restaurant and extensive leisure facilities, including golf.

Alpine House Inn & Spa (+1 307739 1570, alpinehouse.com): Tucked away in a quiet Jackson Hole backstreet – superior boutique hotel accommodation.

Historic Elk Mountain Hotel (+1 307 348 7774, elkmountain hotel.com): British run but a slice of traditional America, beautifully located in a tiny hamlet.

Why should I visit the Rockies?

Open highways, sweeping vistas, flavour of the Old West – it’s an ultimate road trip.

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