Sunday, September 21, 2014

On the Road Again... Part 13



 
A piece of  Truckhenge. (Photos by Bonnie J.  Schupp)

We're not in Colorado anymore,
but Kansas proves pretty cool


Truckhenge, and a rainbow for
 Westboro Baptist Church

TOPEKA, Kansas – We took the most scenic route back to Interstate 70 (there are only two ways, and we had driven in through the other route), on a Sunday drive taking us past the first evidence of the signature aspen trees’ brilliant yellow fall color, past the ghostly remains of the old gold mining town of Independence, and across Independence Pass –which tops out at 12,095 feet.

It was the starting point for what Mapquest said was a tad over 1,800 miles to get home – and could be driven in a mere 29 hours and 4 minutes. But not if you have to deal with highway construction along the mountainous portions of Interstate 70 or, like us, are easily distracted by sights along the way.

Color on the way to Independence Pass.
The distractions began rather quickly, since Highway 82 out of Aspen twists slowly upward to and down from the pass. The first patches of fall yellows, and even a hint of orange, carved patterns in the green of heavily forested mountainsides. (The last time I was up there was in the first week of October a decade or so ago, and snow at the pass was already 9 inches deep. This time, it was 46 degrees and very windy.)

There’s also the historic city of Leadville, which we have passed through on earlier journeys. The charming old silver mining boomtown, dating to 1877, now has a Safeway supermarket and several modern motels. They impose a 21st Century contrast to the 1879 opera house and other surviving old buildings.

We pick up Route 91 to Interstate 70 – the concrete and asphalt ribbon that would take us back to Maryland the quickest. But before we reach it, the eye candy continues as we pass Tenmile Range, a seeming line of mountains that fills the horizon and includes some of Colorado’s highest peaks.

Welcome to Goodland, Hon!

Goodland's giant easel.
But we manage by sunset to cross the border into Kansas, where it takes a mile before we see a small state welcome sign. We stop overnight in the town of Goodland – arriving at sunset, just in time for Bonnie to photograph its most famous (and maybe only) attraction: The world’s biggest easel. It stands 80 feet high, and holds a giant painted reproduction of Van Gogh’s sunflowers in a vase.

Dinner proved to be an adventure. Not much was open on a Sunday night, so we headed over to the Fox Sports Bar at the Sunset Motel (clearly a step down from our free-for-points luxury room at the nearby Holiday Inn Express). The main entrance was blocked by yellow police-line tape, keeping people away from the pools of blood and torn clothing from a bar employee who had been stabbed a short time earlier. I took a not-very-good cell phone photo from inside the lobby window and emailed it to the editor of the twice-weekly Goodland Star-News, along with a note saying it made this Baltimoron feel right at home.

Barely 20 miles into Kansas, and we’re already ... dare I say it... amused. Plus the half-pound hamburger and beer-batter fries were pretty good, and the 60-inch TV screen on the wall near our booth had the national telecast of the Orioles-Yankees baseball game.

Monday we drove about 350 miles across Kansas, which doesn’t look at all like the good parts of Colorado. There were some rolling hills and lots of flatland, although I did not realize until crossing the state that it is high-plains country, with an elevation of about 5,200 feet. Kansas is largely higher than Maryland’s largest mountains.
Ron Lessman shows off a few of his chainsaw sculptures.

A visionary art kingdom

Our destination was Topeka, where we had booked another free room and – more importantly -- Bonnie had come up with a couple of adventures. We called ahead to Ron Lessman to let him know we were coming, and he was happy to offer a tour of his nearly 60-plus-acre property that he calls Truckhenge Farm.

Nebraska, as we reported earlier, has Carhenge. Topeka has Ron Lessman. His Truckhenge creation proved only a small part of a visionary art kingdom that Ron has created in recent years on the property that he says has been in his family since 1879.
Ron says it took six years to build his home.

The tour starts with one of the half-dozen trees he has decorated with shoes. He points to the first one, in front of his giant Quonset-hut-styled home and studio, and quips: “It’s the tree of lost soles.”

Ron is a staccato talker, and recounts in rapid-fire fashion his legal battles with the county and owners of neighboring properties over his endeavors – from digging out a huge pond that covers half the acreage, which he stocked with thousands of catfish, to creating art from old trucks and boats, and even from salvaged stone from construction work on the state capitol and demolition of an old state mental hospital.

“We try to have a little fun here,” he says, repeatedly. Having fun is his mantra. Some of it involves hosting parties of bikers and other groups, and even concerts on a ramshackle stage he built, and the more beer cans and bottles involved the better. He recycles them into giant sculptures, and even incorporated them into a mortar-and-bottle wall for his house. From the inside, with light from the late-morning sunshine, the bottles turn into patterns of color like a three-dimensional glass painting.

The concrete floor is a canvas, and a variety of painted fabrics hang in the cavernous lower level – a room the size of a large airplane hangar.

Everywhere around the house stand his tree-trunk chainsaw sculptures, of faces, animals, aliens, nudes, a two-headed croc with a wiggly tongue carved out of mulberry. Even a chainsaw-carved bobble head. He says some of them take just a few hours, except for the sanding.

Bus stop in Truckhenge.
We walk for more than an hour as Ron conducts the tour, followed throughout by his four dogs – one of them bolting after a fleeing rabbit. Each step is more incredible than the ones before. His creations are everywhere. Bicycles hang from trees, an old red crane rusts like a metal dinosaur in a patch of weeds and wildflowers, trucks rise at 45-degree angles in overgrown green thickets – some bearing messages of Ron’s philosophy. There’s even a giant mock headstone, bearing the name “Truth.”

Throughout, he talks so fast that I give up trying to take notes. Instead, I shoot a half-hour video. It’s just too much to fathom any other way.

In an old railroad car, Ron shows off the old animal bones and teeth he unearthed – mostly while digging the huge hole for his pond. Buffalo, camel, mammoth, whatever. He figures some of them are close to 20,000 years old, and he’s sorted them into bins. Its a charnel house of natural history. He pulls out a huge leg bone, then a knee bone, and grins as he puts them together to show a socket match-up. Ivory tusks, thousands of years old. Huge mammalian teeth. Fossils. Odd-looking stones. Arrowheads.  Stuff that goes way back before this land came into his family some 135 years ago.

Then we head back into huge house, along a pathway of stairs through more art and bric-a-brac, across floors made of wood salvaged from pallets, sanded and coated with polyethylene, and up to the second level where we meet his wife, Linda, 61. They’ve been together for 38 zany, wacky, eccentric years. The house took about six years to build, Ron says, and they moved in around 2002.

Linda has contributed to the novelties, hanging what must be more than a hundred baskets of all sorts from the ceiling. Ron says the kitchen alone has more than two dozen electrical outlets. He shows off the bathroom, with a double-wide Jacuzzi tub and a walk-in shower with sprays from multiple angles.

Ron revels in all of it – the art, the house, the legal battles he figures have cost the county and his neighbors millions of dollars. One of them, he says, tried to claim more than 100 acres of land beyond the pond – only to be thwarted when Ron pointed out that it was land owned by the city.  Since then, he says, the government has become less of a nuisance to him. He just doesn’t understand why anything he’s done would prompt legal battles. After all, he says of the neighborhood, “I’m surrounded by dumps, junkyards and sand pits.”

If you’re ever passing through Topeka, check out Truckhenge Farm – and give Ron a ring at 785-234-3486. There was no charge for the tour, but we offered a donation. And we’ll probably mail him some old shoes to hang in the trees.

As seen on TV, too many times...
'Fairy dust' in Westboro's face

Now it was time for another distraction on the other side of Topeka, on SW Orleans – a narrow residential street that appears to divide what we would view as the forces of good and evil.

On one side of the street is the reviled Westboro Baptist Church, which has attained notoriety as its leader and members went around the nation picketing the funerals of, among others, American military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan – on the twisted logic that it was linked to the nation’s tolerance of homosexuality.

On the other side is a modest house with a remarkably different message. It was painted in the gay pride rainbow pattern, the work of the nonprofit organization PlantingPeace.org. A former garage portion is under remodeling, and a small sign planted on the lawn reads, “Pardon our fairy dust.”
Equality House, across the street from Westboro church.
There's a rainbow donation box in the middle of the lawn, a “free library” that invites visitors to take a book and bring another, and a larger sign saying people are welcome to walk around, look at and photograph the property – unlike the “no trespassing” version of the heavily-gated church property.

I rang the doorbell, and was greeted by 33-year-old Aaron Jackson, one of three people who live in “Equality House.” He says there are about two dozen houses in the neighborhood, most of them owned by members of Westboro – but not the one next door to him, or a few across the adjoining street.

“We purchased the house about two years ago,” he says, “but came up with the idea about a year before that. The house became more famous than we could have imagined.”

Aaron Jackson
During the summer, about 150 people a day come by – the result of Westboro’s notoriety, and the location close to Interstate 70. The mission at first was about raising awareness of the problem of gay suicide, but the house has become a powerful symbol and the nonprofit benefits from Westboro’s homophobic activism.

“We do drag shows, a lot of quirky stuff, to raise money.”

When Westboro threatened to picket the recent funeral of Robin Williams, Planting Peace used that publicity-garnering stunt to stage a social networking fundraising effort on behalf of one of the comic actor’s favorite causes – St. Jude’s. “It’s brought in $112,000 to date,” Aaron says.

Despite Westboro’s enclave, Aaron says, “People around here are a lot more forward-thinking. No one wants to be associated with them. That doesn’t represent this community at all.”

We gave Aaron a copy of the recent CD, “Philosopher Dogs,” by our transgender singer-songwriter friend Georgie Jessup, and headed back to the highway – bound for Missouri, Ohio, West Virginia and home.

Bonnie eyes a selfie.
Spirit of St. Louis

The next distraction was a stop in St. Louis. We arrived in time for a sunset visit to the Laumeier sculpture garden, in the city suburbs, where Bonnie wanted to check out a seven-foot-high eyeball. And why not? 

But there was more sculpture to come. The city is dominated by a sculpture of sorts -- the famous arch that accents the skyline from any angle of viewing. The city center includes a two-block-long sculpture garden and a fountain of rushing water and stone. (Before Baltimore overhauls its McKeldin traffic island at Light and Pratt, its designers would be well served in taking a peek at St. Louis.) 

Portion of mile-long graffiti wall in St. Louis.
But we came for the graffiti. Bonnie found out about the display online – a mile-long wall about 14 feet high, beginning near the riverfront along an industrial road rife with signs suggesting no public access. We drove right in, and along much of the wall space – which stretched several blocks beyond the roadway. Think of Baltimore’s Graffiti Alley and make it a mile long.





Last tourist stop: Hello, Columbus!

Continuing along I-70, it was easy enough to stop in Columbus. Bonnie had scoped out a couple of novelties -- in particular, a giant praying mantis on the west campus of Ohio State University. Our road trip bible, RoadsideAmerica.com, had vague directions to find the huge bug, on Olentangy River Road near the overpass of Woody Hayes Drive.
David and friend.

We found the road in about 25 minutes, with no help from our old Tom-Tom navigator (her name is Susan, by the way).  A few students we hollered to for directions were no help in finding Olentangy, and were unaware of the bug. But I figured we were in the right area, since some of the agriculture studies buildings were on the east side of the road and an arboretum was on the west side. And I spotted the mantis, hidden or hiding behind some high bushes near the arboretum.

Naturally, I posed for a picture with it.

The other attraction was near downtown Columbus, on a seven-acre tract (about the size of Baltimore's Sherwood Gardens) formerly known as the Old Deaf School Park. Now called Topiary Park, it features a bushy homage to Georges Seurat’s painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Isle of La Grand Jatte.

Topiary Park in Columbus.
I'm not much of an art critic, but it was very cute. Except maybe for the homeless people who, in late afternoon, pretty much outnumbered the topiary visitors. I posed for a picture of course, with a pair of topiary folks who were considerably shorter than me. Or maybe French people were shorter, back in Seurat's day.

We also happened upon a few murals on the sides of buildings just off  High Street. One of them was a twist on an old friend from our drive through Iowa -- American Gothic.

Classic version of 'Turn a Frown Upside-Down'.
A final thought on visiting Columbus -- bring a parking sign-interpreter. In Baltimore, I'm fond of looking for loopholes in parking restrictions. But finding this one, on the side street near this 'American Gothic', was  an epiphany.
Sweeping restrictions.

It seems an appropriately crazy ending to a crazy road trip. Almost-final statistics:  7,060 miles, 32 days. And we're looking forward to the next credit card bill, if only to see how many hotel points we earned!

Note: In addition to all of my posts with Bonnie's photos here on The Real Muck blogsite, Bonnie offers some thoughts in her Journeys blog on the amazing changes in technology compared to our road trips of 30 years ago:

http://bjschupp.blogspot.com/2014/09/travel-30-years-later.html

And here are links to earlier road trip installments of The Real Muck:

Colorado
http://ettlin.blogspot.com/2014/09/on-road-again-part-12.html

Montana and Wyoming
http://ettlin.blogspot.com/2014/09/on-road-again-part-11.html

North Dakota
http://ettlin.blogspot.com/2014/09/on-road-again-part-10.html

South Dakota
http://ettlin.blogspot.com/2014/09/on-road-again-part-9.html

Redig South Dakota Post Office
http://ettlin.blogspot.com/2014/09/on-road-again-part-8.html
















Friday, September 19, 2014

On the Road Again... Part 12



Newlyweds Ross and Farrah. (Photos by Bonnie J. Schupp)


A Rocky Mountain high,
and we never even saw a pot shop


Nearly four weeks into the journey,
celebrating a wedding in Aspen

 ASPEN, Colorado – This Great American Road Trip was inspired by my nephew’s wedding in Aspen, and after nearly four weeks and 5,120 miles of wacky travel we finally got to Colorado. We could have dropped in from Wyoming on the rugged western side, but wanted to catch up with an ex-pat Baltimorean living near Estes Park. And that meant driving past Denver.


Not that there’s anything wrong with seeing Denver, but I’d been to a baseball game at Coors Field a decade ago and saw a bit of the city then. Big cities consume a lot of time. We even stopped in Golden back then, and took a tour and tasting there at a brewery – and not the Coors plant. It was , would you believe, a Japanese saki brewery.

So we drove past the big city and arrived in Estes Park – gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park -- and had a nifty time during our one-night stand. It has a reputation of being an expensive town, but I found online a nice motel, Discovery Lodge, for just under a hundred bucks. And Bonnie found a barbeque restaurant online that had good food and was truly inexpensive.

And we found Jason Wilder. The last time we saw him was about six years ago, when he sang a few of his songs and played his guitar on our back deck. Then he moved west hoping to make a name for himself, and some money, as a singer-songwriter. I’d been communicating with him on Facebook, and let him know we were coming. But getting in touch proved to be tricky, since he’s been living in a camper in boonies so remote that he had no cell phone or computer connection. He drives into town to connect with cyberspace.

Turned out that Jason had a secret life, spending more time blogging about the outdoors and roughing it than he was devoting to his music. He wasn’t getting rich, but  he was surviving – and told us his blog had about 2 million hits. (I’ve been blogging since 2008, and have had a tad over 70,000.) His guitar was in storage.

He took us to a bar where its weekly Wednesday Open Mic Night was about to begin, and borrowed a guitar to perform a few of his songs while I shot a video of the brief performance. I’ll add the link here when Bonnie uploads it to YouTube – and maybe the performances of a few others. Particularly Doc Larry – local neurologist Lawrence Meredith -- with the looks of an ‘America’s Got Talent’ jaw-dropping surprise, a serious blues habit and hot hands on a guitar.

Then we walked with Jason back to his car to chat a little more, before wishing him well and heading off for the next morning’s adventure – driving across the Rockies. But we had not even gotten out of town before our attention was diverted by a large farmers’ market. A very high-end farmers’ market, with all manner of unusual and expensive goods. Bonnie bought the smallest container of an organic, non-chemical bug repellent for $15, and we sampled lots of food. It was like grazing the samples at a Costco store, only the food was a lot better. Elk sausage, for example... excellent!

For what it’s worth – and I never really contemplated this before – the Rocky Mountains are, in fact, rocky. So kudos to whoever thought up the name. They’re also high. But I still wonder what kind of “high” John Denver was singing about in that ubiquitous song.
Clouds below us nestle between mountains.

The beautiful mountainsides are not without their problems. One is the obvious large patches of brown amid the forests of green pine – trees killed by a ravenous invader, the pine beetle. Those critters have eaten uncountable thousands of trees, but so far the attack appeared much heavier on the eastern slopes. It seems a matter of time before the same thing happens on the western side.

Scenery like this is, however, intoxicating. And you have to force yourself to keep eyes on the road, traversing the mountains at elevations as high as 13,000-plus feet on a two-lane switchback highway.

Chip checks out Bonnie's camera.
 The sight of a couple of elk munching greenery alongside the road was a traffic-stopper, and at one overlook chipmunks were checking out the tourists and begging for handouts.

We took two days to reach Aspen, arriving at the Gant condominium complex several hours before the Friday night rehearsal dinner hosted by the mother of the groom, my sister-in-law Natalie Ettlin. (The Gant was our priciest lodging during the road trip, but that’s understandable considering the real estate prices -- $650,000 for a one-bedroom, and a million bucks-plus for two-bedroom.) We were splitting our two-bedroom with James, a friend of the bride, who has a tech job and managed in minutes to fix our laptop’s settings.)

The bride and groom, after cutting the cake.
The next afternoon, Natalie’s son Ross Ettlin, proprietor of Rocky Mountain Pet Supply in the center of Aspen, wed Farrah Fry, a dog trainer who grew up in Aspen and Ohio. There were about 40 guests, but just half a dozen from the groom’s small Baltimore-area family – including Ross’ sister, Carol Clabaugh of Naples, Fla., brother Greg from Pikesville, and Carol’s son, college sophomore Jadon Axe.

It made us feel good just to be there, but even better when we saw that another was there, in spirit. A memorial display, with a photo, had been set up at the Gant rooftop wedding site for Natalie’s late husband, Larry Ettlin, my brother, who died in 2009.
Memorial tribute to Larry.
And at the dinner-reception, projected photos of the bride and groom and their families included one of Ross’s parents taken a few years earlier at Aspen’s prettiest viewpoint, known as the Maroon Bells. As Ross had the obligatory dance with his mother, the image of Natalie and Larry briefly appeared on the wall behind them. Jadon and I both wiped away tears.

We could have stayed home, of course, and enjoyed that Saturday’s celebration of the Star-Spangled Banner bicentennial. But as I have said about this trip, family comes first. And that moment during the dance will stay with me forever.


On Sunday, the bride’s parents put on a brunch, and then it was time to head home. Mapquest indicated it was a tad over 1,800 miles away – not including the two miles above sea level for the first part of the return journey.

Elk with an attitude crosses road in Rockies.
Rest assured, the drive will not be boring. 



Coming soon: Leaving Colorado, crossing Kansas and meeting a state trooper in Indiana.




Thursday, September 18, 2014

On the Road Again... Part 11



Slow-going along the road through Yellowstone. (Photos by Bonnie J. Schupp)



Making hay in Montana,

shooting bison in Wyoming

We find the spirit of Sacajawea in a Native American cemetery and have some fun in an old prison gas chamber...

I know, that sounds very odd.

HERE AND THERE, Out West – We’d been to Montana, Wyoming and Colorado before, but some places you just need to revisit. There’s always something new to discover, and it didn’t take long after crossing the border from oil-drilling country in North Dakota.

For one thing, Montana looks different just about immediately. Rolling hills of grazing land on ranches too large to imagine, and only an occasional giant grasshopper head bobbing up and down to pump black gold from somewhere in the earth. Big oil seems not so big a deal, yet, in eastern Montana.

Hobo art inside caboose.
Our first stop is Culbertson, along U.S. Highway 2, home to a surprisingly large history museum and its oddest oddity – a railroad caboose formerly occupied by an anonymous hobo who thoroughly decorated its inside wall space with his take on the Bible’s Revelation to St. John. With magic markers. Visions of the Apocalypse. Yet another piece of oddball Americana that would be right at home at Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum.
 The Culbertson Museum also features, in room-by-room displays, depictions of ordinary life over the decades – a schoolroom, a doctor’s office, the barber and beauty shop, an early homesteader’s house. Each is populated by mannequin figures, and crammed with antique bits of the past, down to the little bottles of early remedies. There’s clothing, pots and pans, ink-well desks. And outside there are old tractors and other machinery, even an old fire engine.  It was way too much to take in during our short, but rewarding, visit. (Admission there is free, but donations are appreciated.)


Winner of the 2014 Hay Day competition.

Hay there!

Our big destination was the town of Hobson, where the Sunday after Labor Day is celebrated as “Hay Day.” It was that rare opportunity when we could get to a place where something exciting is happening, not a place where that something happened last week or will happen next month. It was a “now” and a not-to-be-missed event linked to the harvest of a major local crop – hay.

I have to admit that hay makes me sneeze. But in Hobson, it made us both laugh. Bonnie, the fearless navigator and Web surfer found it online, and it sounded so zany that we drove more than 300 miles across some lonely, narrow (and high-speed) back roads to get there.

Along a 22-mile stretch of two-lane blacktop between Hobson, Utica and Windham, folks of all ages create hay sculptures that must be up by 8 a.m. that Sunday – and they’re supposed to survive for a week of viewing pleasure. The speed limit is usually 65, but on Hay Day the reality was 15 MPH as folks drove what is called the Hay Bale Trail to take in dozens of whimsical works of hay art.

They had names, of course:  Pork ‘Hay’ Pig, Scoob-Hay-Doo, Win-hay the Pooh, Pork-Hay-Pine, Croc hay dile, Rudolph the Red-Nosed ReinBale, Godz-hay-la, The Very Hungry Cathaypillar, Boob-hay trap, She thinks my tractor’s sex-hay (a hay bale tractor with a couple of cute gals waving from it to passers-by).

Movies, music and current events were represented: The Lhaygo Movie, Straw Wars, Because I’m Happhay, the Ice-Hay Bucket Challenge all had their Hay Day in the sub. One clever participant put out a simple bale of hay, and a sign with its title: “We are not CreHayTive.

Fanc Hay Pants, John Hay on the Spot, Needle in a haystack. Back in Hobson’s tiny business district, there was a Hay Zoo that includes El-Hay-Plants Blowing Bub-Bales.

And it was Sunday, so we cannot leave out the Meth-hay-dist woman.

Want to get yourself into the picture? There was a frame set up in front of hay bales for taking... wait for it... a self-hay.

After about two hours of laughter and photo-taking, we were back in town – dropping off our ballots in voting for the top three entries (and, in the ballot envelope, a cash donation to support the annual event). Bonnie and I agreed on the best – and we learned from an online report later in the week that it won top honors: Haypunzel, Let your hayr down. Straw Wars and Win-Hay the Pooh finished second and third, respectively and hilariously.

Back to the mountains

With five travel days left before our scheduled arrival in Aspen, Colorado, it was time to head southward – but not necessarily in a straight line. We left Montana through the entrance to Yellowstone National Park, where road construction inside the gates resulted in a delay of more than half an hour. And we avoided a route to Old Faithful that was closed for road repairs. Instead, we followed U.S. 89 through the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (where we had rented a cabin last time through), past the bubbling and smelly mud pits, around Yellowstone Lake, and south through an edge of the Grand Teton range.
Part of Yellowstone canyon

What’s left to say about great spectacle? We found elk and bison roaming the parks, and Bonnie got a classic photo of a bison leading a line of traffic down the road.

Lucky find

We followed the AAA map’s dotted path onto U.S. 287, heading southeasterly, and crossed the Wind River Indian Reservation – lucking into one of the most interesting places of the entire trip in Fort Washakie, spotting the only sign pointing to it down a narrow reservation roadway. Not even a mention of the distance, and down that road not even another sign showing where to turn. Some local folks driving out of their neighborhood pointed out the left turn to get there.

Sacajawea statue.
It was the gravesite of Sacajawea. Or maybe the purported gravesite of Sacajawea. There seems no certainty in the historical record about when she died or how, but on the highest ground of a Native American cemetery at Washakie stands an eloquent statue depicting the woman who, as a teenager, served as a guide to the Lewis and Clark expedition exploring and mapping western reaches of the continent.

The statue had been adorned with flowers and rings, and a variety of objects and coins left as offerings at its feet.

The Sacajawea Cemetery below the statue was fascinating, with each grave mound heavily decorated by friends and family of the deceased – creating a colorful patchwork of flowers, beer cans, jewelry, clothing, toys and the like. Even boots, and tennis shoes.
It was these artifacts decorating the graves that gave us a real sense of the humans buried there—unlike the uniform, traditional flowers and headstones adorning graves in other cemeteries.

It was, in a word, haunting.
Entrance to the cemetery.
A patchwork quilt of grave decorations.

... and throw the key away!

Continuing down the road, we chose a route toward Colorado based, in part, on the likelihood of a comfortable motel for our third night since the crossing into Montana. We ended up in Rawlins, where Bonnie had found yet another distraction: The Wyoming Frontier Prison, where you can get an hour-long tour of the way it used to be for folks who should have behaved better.

It starts with a scale-model demonstration of the Julien gallows – named for the inventor of this Rube Goldbergian contraption that was triggered by water draining from a bucket, so no executioner was needed to pull a handle. The last sounds the condemned would hear was about a minute of trickling water, then the trapdoor would be sprung.

The prison had a very good baseball team early in the century, playing on a field behind its high concrete walls. Visiting teams from the region would come in through a double locked gate behind home plate. But, alas, the success was not lasting – after the prison team went undefeated, its star catcher (convicted killer Joseph Seng) was gone -- hung from the gallows in 1912.

Trying a cell on for size...
We saw a series of cellblocks, and how their style and mechanics changed over the decades. None was very nice. But there was art – murals in the mess hall painted by a one-armed, two-time inmate with a record of theft and forgery.

Hanging was replaced by a gas chamber in the 1930s, and since we were joined only by one other couple on the 10:30 a.m. tour, there was time for me to try out its metal seat. It was not very comfortable.

When I posted the picture on Facebook, some of my friends suggested I belonged there. One was offended, pointing out that our people had been gassed by the Nazis. But lighten up, folks – this gas chamber was used individually only five times, lastly in 1965. The state’s statutory method now is lethal injection, and there’s apparently been only one in Wyoming since the gas chamber was retired.
Don't drop the acid!

The gas chamber is just a bizarre relic of its era, just like this prison – operated by a local foundation with grant funding, gifts, tour fees ($8 for adults, $7 for seniors), and sales in its gift/book shop. Almost bought a reproduction prisoner outfit. Halloween, you know – or maybe some fun stock photo poses.

Up next: Colorado, a wedding, and the turn toward home