Archives For road trip

89 Midwest Hiway

Somewhere in the Midwest… from my 1989 road trip. Not much has changed.

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Borrowing from the Talking Heads, the title of this post perfectly describes the next few days of our trip. They don’t call it flyover country for nothing — because there ain’t much to see along the ground. We didn’t even take one photo!

Still, we did have experiences and memories, though nothing mind-blowing. And so, a collection of moments from nowhere…

Before taking off from Laramie, I needed to find a copy shop. Driving through the funky little college downtown with its Gunsmoke vibe, I thought of Matthew Shepard. As beautiful as Wyoming is, it seems like a lonesome, isolated place to be gay. I sent a silent hello up to him as we headed out.

We rolled across Wyoming and into Nebraska. It’s monotonous … just flat flat flat. No sense of mystery and magic like in the Southwest. We pulled into a motel in North Platte in late afternoon. The parking lot was empty. For the first time in our nonstop weeks of traveling, we both needed a nap. The hours of nothingness had drained the energy out of us. We were stunned to wake up in a dark room: we’d slept for two hours! The parking lot was full; I never heard a thing.

There weren’t many options for dinner. We went to a little Italian place that looked like a converted Arby’s. The food was okay; I wasn’t expecting Florence. I was shocked to see that beers were only a few bucks. I’m used to paying over ten in Boston. But what killed me was the house wine: Riunite Lambrusco. I didn’t even know they still made it! This was my sister’s drink of choice when I’d cross over into New Hampshire with my fake ID and we’d cruise around and crank tunes and party in my Camaro. Riunite…. wow. Maybe it’s still 1980 in North Platte.

The next day, still grinding across Nebraska, my oil change light came on. I Googled for a Jiffy Lube and headed off I-80 to Grand Island. I don’t know why it’s called that; we didn’t see any water around. Talking to the mechanic, he told me that the city had been nearly flattened by an epic tornado years ago — and that there’s a mountain of debris on the outskirts of town. I said tornados scared me, since they seem inescapable. He said that when the warning sirens go off, he grabs a beer and stands outside to watch the twisters move across the plains. Life in Nebraska, I guess.

In Iowa the scenery got a little more interesting. It was still farmland and barns, but I was surprised to see rolling hills. It lowered the monotony level a bit, but not much. My New Mexico friend Kelly grew up in Iowa. I don’t know how she did it — and I’m glad she got out.

Iowa has the distinction of my worst hotel for the entire trip. Why on earth did I pick a place that was an indoor water resort? I must have been delirious from weeks of driving. The rooms encircled a garishly lit indoor courtyard with pools and water slides. The entire place smelled of chlorine and felt more humid than Atlanta in August. It was disgusting. And loud. Two families with 37 kids next to our room banged their doors nonstop. Even Mtuseni, who can sleep through anything, was like, “WTF?”

The next morning we went to Perkins, a regional chain that felt nice and homey. I liked it, just simple eggs-and-toast breakfast — though it didn’t have the same hold on me as Waffle House. Sitting in the next booth were four hefty gay guys. One of them wore a “Pete for President” t-shirt. I was psyched. We were in Iowa, the first election of the upcoming 2020 primaries, so I thought the shirt was a good omen. I was Team Pete from the beginning, believing the country needed generational change. I even thought about working for the campaign, maybe in South Bend, after the trip was over.

On the second leg through Iowa, the rolling hills faded away — replaced by flat, agri-industrial land. The quiet rural beauty of the Midwest plains was fading away.

In the early afternoon we crossed the Mississippi for the last time. We’d seen it in New Orleans, then in Memphis, and now here, way up north. We stopped at a strange, deserted rest stop on a bluff overlooking the river. The trees and bushes, the scents and hints of fall color, all felt like home to me. It’s like we crossed the river and suddenly were in the Northeast. It brought a sense of comfort. I’d been missing that true feel of autumn as we got deep into October. Yet at the same time it made me feel a little sad. All those wild landscapes, the big skies, that indescribable Western vibration — it was all behind us. And the end of the trip felt very close.

Jackson road

After spending a day amid steaming geysers as Yellowstone prepared to shut down for the winter, it felt like a shift had occurred. The first days of our road trip — day after day after frikkin’ day — we trudged through stifling late-summer heat. Now we were scraping frost off the windshield in the mornings. It suddenly dawned on me how long we’d been traveling, and I was nervous about crossing the wide swath of flyover country that lie ahead. I’d driven it before in the opposite direction in 1989; it floored me how you could drive all day and still be in the same damn state!

The original itinerary was to swing southward into Colorado, which Mtuseni wanted to see. But I hadn’t planned anything, and my head was too frazzled to do any research or just wing it. So we began the long trek eastward.

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Mtu JH cafe

The beginning of our last day in the West.

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Before heading out, we took one last walk through Jackson Hole. We had breakfast in a cafe that felt a little incoherent — man buns in Wyoming? C’mon! But the food was good, and I soaked up my last taste of classic old Western decor. We picked up the requisite souvenir t-shirts. And of course we got a photo at the antler arch. I felt sad pulling out of town; like much of the American West, there’s an energy in Jackson that just captures me.

Jackson arch

For some reason I remembered this antler arch stretching completely over a street in Jackson in 1996. Is it a trick of memory? Did I imagine it? Am I losing it? Still pretty cool.

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Jackson arch night

It’s pretty cool at night too. I think the purple was for Halloween.

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Heading south on Rte 191, a sparkling river meandered alongside us through emerald hills and rocky passes for miles. Mtuseni said he couldn’t believe how clean the rivers were. It felt like we were in the Alps; I thought I’d see Julie Andrews singing and twirling around the next bend. 

After descending through the mountains, we drove across the most beautifully desolate terrain I’ve ever seen. Flat. Dry. Just a few tufts of scrubby grass here and there. In all directions. For miles. There weren’t even many cars on the road. It felt like we were the only people on Earth. We pulled into a nondescript turnout for a pee break — and as we stood in the middle of nowhere facing the western horizon and leaving our manly marks, a prairie dog popped up out of a hole and watched us. I’d never seen one before — and we never saw another. It was so cute, and I marveled that he could live in what looked like a wasteland of nothingness. He had no inkling of all the crap going on in the world; he was perfectly content in his empty patch of land. It’s probably the most profound piss stop I’ve ever had. 

In a tiny blink-of-an-eye place called Daniel Junction, I pulled into a gas station/store to grab something to drink. The place had the typical tall false front of old west commercial buildings — like something out of Gunsmoke — and a little cafe in front, just a few tables. Opening the door, the intoxicating scent of barbecue and grilled meat instantly made my mouth water — and I’m not a big meat eater.

I bought a couple of freshly made tri-tip burritos from the guy at the counter. I swear each one weighed five pounds. As I got back to the car, I looked up and was overcome by a beam of light from the heavens and a chorus of angels. A tall, trim, tan guy in his 30s — in jeans and chaps, boots and spurs, and wide brim cowboy hat — was walking up the steps to a cafe side door in front of the car. Honestly, he looked like a model from the Ralph Lauren western collection. He looked directly at me, smiled, and in a deep, warm radio voice said, “Hey. How’re you doing?” For a second I imagined us riding off on horseback together into the sunset. And some other things. I replied with my usual terse Boston “Hey.” He nodded and went into the cafe. I felt weak-kneed and woozy, like a schoolgirl. God, I love the West!

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rockys fading

This snow-capped stretch of the Rockies stayed in view for hours, before finally fading away.

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From the time we left Jackson, I kept looking back at the snow-capped Rockies — the same stretch of mountains we’d seen leaving Yellowstone. They were so beautiful and, corny as it sounds, majestic. I was amazed that we could see them for hours. Then suddenly they were gone. I felt sad; the Western leg of our road trip was truly over.

We continued east through scraggly, uninspiring country. I’d booked a hotel online in Rawlins, but when we got in the entire place smelled like cigarettes. The guy at the desk told me that was impossible; we were on the first floor and the second floor was the “smoking floor.” It’s been years since I’ve been in a place where magical invisible boundaries keep cigarette smoke contained — like the farce of “smoking areas” in restaurants. I cancelled the hotel and went to another place in Rawlins… which also reeked of smoke. Evidently when cigarettes are still 50 cents a pack, people smoke like chimneys everywhere. 

It was already dark. And it being Wyoming — still, after hours of driving — there wasn’t another hotel mecca just down the road. So we drove another 100 miles to Laramie. I’d have to check my Expedia account to remember what the hotel was like; I was beyond tired. 

Finally in the room, I unwrapped my burrito and tossed it after a couple of bites. The tri-tip — whatever that is — was like chewing leather. Mtuseni devoured his. He’ll eat anything that’s meat. As much as I lamented leaving the West, this delicate Easterner was ready for some sriracha noodles or oysters with mignonette or braised radicchio and orange salad.  

Yeah, it never would have worked with me and the Ralph Lauren cowboy.   

yellow sign

Our place in Jackson Hole was a motel, and when I opened the door the next morning to grab coffee, it was cold! In the mid-20s, the car windows all frosted. Looming just across the street was a steep ski slope covered in manmade snow. Mtuseni, who’s chilly when it’s below 65, was not gonna be happy! 

In the light of day — and sitting in the little breakfast room past the front desk — I realized this was the same place I’d stayed at when I visited in 1996! That’s crazy. And it just deepened my sense of connection to and affection for Jackson.

The day’s itinerary was the Tetons and Yellowstone. The park is big, so I was debating in my head how to approach it. But my options ended up being limited by that pesky low tire from Tahoe.

Heading out for the day — after making Mtuseni scrape the windshield for his first time ever — I saw the orange warning on the dashboard again. This time it was really low. I searched for a garage to get it repaired, which the guy said would take an hour. After waiting and walking around aimlessly, the guy calls and asks where the tool is to unlock the lug nuts. What!??

Evidently, the car’s prior owner had put locking nuts on the wheels. WTF? Who’s gonna steal tires off a Camry? I’d bought new tires for the trip. The shop never mentioned locking bolts — and they never put the unlocking tool back in the trunk, or anywhere. The mechanics went through the whole car looking for it. The bolts were locked on!

I called the tire place back east; they knew nothing. Thankfully the guy in Jackson said he could cut the nuts and put on new ones. I told him to do it on all four wheels. I didn’t want to deal with this again, ever. 

One good thing I realized later… thank god I never got a flat on the trip. If I’d waited for AAA to come change the tire on an endless prairie somewhere … and then found out the bolts were locked on, well, I would have experienced a new level of losing my shit!

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tetons wide

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So in the end, we lost two hours of the day. I was pissed, but the beauty of the Tetons quickly brightened my mood. They’re so majestic. In 1996, I’d spent the afternoon by an abandoned farmhouse, watching a snow squall blow through the peaks, near a shallow, rutted twin path heading north through the grass — the faded route of pioneer wagons so long ago. I never saw another person. And I’ll never forget that afternoon.

I looked for the farmhouse as we sped toward Yellowstone, but I couldn’t see it. We didn’t have time to stop anyway. Just enough for photos. I’d originally thought about hiking in the Tetons, but we were both freaked out by the bear warnings. You need to be in a group of at least three — and then I guess hope you can outrun your friends as the grizzly devours them! 

Check out our Instagram from the road to Yellowstone!

tetons pair

So glad there was snow on the Tetons! It just adds to their beauty.

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teton river

I just wanted to sit in this spot all day. Sigh.

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As with the Grand Canyon and Flagstaff, I’d forgotten how far it is from Jackson Hole to Yellowstone. I was hoping to do a sweep of the main park loop, through the main area where buffalo often block the road, then a quick hike to Yellowstone Falls, then finish off with Old Faithful. But Mother Nature and the Park Service had other ideas.

At the entry gate, the ranger told us the northern route had already been shut down; parts of the Rockies had been hit with a blizzard days earlier. The rest of the road was set to close for the season on October 15: tomorrow. She said our best bet was to head up to the geysers.

Yellowstone Park is big and sprawling. Unlike Yosemite, where so many sites are close together in the main valley, the key attractions in Yellowstone are separated by long drives through somewhat dull forest. A half hour later, we pulled into the fairly empty parking lot to see Old Faithful spouting off. Luckily it does that frequently, so I wasn’t upset that we caught the tail end of the show.

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old faithful

Old Faithful from deep into our walk. It’s actually better from afar.

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Mtuseni and I walked along the boardwalks. It’s like a moonscape there — but one surrounded by lush hills. Near the hotel lot, a woman jumped out of her car and ran with her camera toward a bison that was grazing. A woman ranger giving a tour yelled, “Lady, no! Get back! That’s a wild animal. He can charge you.” The woman stopped on a dime and sheepishly went back to her car. Mtuseni and I laughed. That ranger did not care about sounding polite: “Lady! No!” How many times does she have to do that during a season? People are so dumb. 

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Lady No!

This munching buffalo didn’t know the drama and hilarity he caused. The woman with the camera got about three feet away from him. “Lady! No! Get back!” LOL. (I zoomed in to get this guy from maybe 50 feet.)

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As we strolled among the the colorful bubbling pools and sulfurous steam, looking at the brittle crust that was off limits, we noticed big blobs of buffalo dung on it. We wondered how those heavy animals could just walk freely on that crust — but humans can fall in and turn into shabu-shabu. We joked that after dark when the visitors are gone, the bison probably relax in the geyser pools like hot tubs, laughing at the silly humans who are afraid to go near them.

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blue pool

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castle geyser

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Unlike in 1996, now there’s an app that tracks when certain geysers might erupt. I saw that Grand Geyser might erupt that afternoon. When we got to it, a bunch of people were waiting. But the potential window was about 90 minutes, and there was no guarantee: it’s a geyser, not a train. I wasn’t gonna sit there for nothing.

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grand sign

Mother Nature doesn’t give a guarantee on these things, and I wasn’t gonna sit and wait for nothing.

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So we kept following the path deeper into the geyser field. It’s a long, meandering boardwalk. We saw a few other smaller geysers erupt along the way. Mtuseni was pretty enthralled. At one point I turned to say something to him and saw Grand Geyser behind him start to erupt. I yelled, “Oh my god, it’s going!”

And then so did Mtuseni. He took off like a shot, running back toward the geyser. I trotted along behind, wanting to skip the meandering boardwalk curves and run straight across the crust of death.

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mtu geyser self

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It lived up to its grand name, spouting for a good 15 minutes with double jets. It’s better than Old Faithful, because you can get closer to it, and it creates a river of steaming water that flows under the boardwalk. It really is amazing. Later I watched Museni’s run to the geyser, which he captured with the GoPro and narrated continually. It’s hysterical. I’ve never heard someone say “wow” so many times.

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geyser river pair

This was the first day I had to pull out a winter jacket. A big change from the sticky, stifling September days in the South!

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When the show was over, we walked along another section of boardwalk. I wanted to show Mtuseni the stunning lobby of the historic hotel there, but it was already closed for the season. It felt a little bittersweet. We’d spent weeks in blazing heat and humidity at the start of the trip — and now places were closing down for winter. I felt the clock ticking…

I also knew this was our last really impressive sight to see for a while; there’s nothing spectacular in the Great Plains. But we were rewarded with a stunning view across a valley toward snow-capped peaks that seemed to be floating. It was breathtaking, and I knew we wouldn’t see any more snow on the trip.

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rockys lst shot

On the road out of Yellowstone. I had to get out and take this photo; there’s wasn’t even a turnoff! It’s like a glimpse of heaven.

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tetons fading

So long Grand Tetons. Till next time. (And I will be back!)

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We grabbed a few last dusky shots of the Tetons then headed back to Jackson. We had dinner at the historic Silver Dollar Bar, where brave Mtuseni ordered the bison chili. Actually, he’ll eat anything that’s meat. The place was packed, with TV screens showing baseball playoffs and a Monday Night Football game. Sports nuts Mtuseni tried to watch both… and learn the games. But he still preferred soccer.

The raucous atmosphere and sounds of football on a chilly night made it really feel like fall — and a good wrap to the adventurous part of the trip. I was dreading the days ahead of driving through flat nothing… and leaving my beloved West in the rearview mirror.

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cowboy bar

My old boyfriend in San Francisco used to call me cowboy. This place in Jackson brought back happy memories of him and those younger days. Damn, how quickly time flies.

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shoshone mtu cln

After a pretty nondescript breakfast at the hotel in Tahoe, we took off right away for Idaho — a stopover on the way to Wyoming. That is, we tried to. Picking up snacks at the local Safeway, I was surprised to see a warning light on my dashboard: an icon of a flat tire. Having owned the car for less than two months, I’d never seen this. I didn’t even know cars could sense low tires. 

Given that we were heading into pretty isolated country, I was a bit unnerved. I didn’t want to be stranded a million miles from civilization. After filling the tire we cruised back down the Sierras through Reno and off into the vast emptiness of Nevada. I’d only been to Reno before on ski trips from San Francisco. I never knew how barren and desolate Nevada is. Miles and miles of nothing but flat dusty plains with a few scrubby bushes here and there. 

It probably would have been the most boring drive of the trip… except that Mtuseni, who’s generally pretty quiet, opened up about his life like never before. After our massive argument in Yosemite the day before, he let everything spill out, nonstop, for almost two hours. He was like an oil well. It was cathartic for him, and enlightening for me. One of the gifts of long road trips.

Read my New York Times essay on the reward of long talks (and arguments) on the road. 

As we came into an enclave of small casinos and motels — called Jackpot — I figured it must be the end of Nevada. Sure enough, just up a hill and around a bend was the Welcome to Idaho sign! And then, one of the best views of the entire trip: Across a flat plain, the full moon rising behind a bluff on a crisp, clear October night. It was breathtaking, spiritual. I love the west.

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moonrise tall

How I wish I had a real camera — and a tripod — to capture this! Even the best phone wasn’t up to the task.

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moonrise wide

I wanted to follow that dirt road to catch the moon…

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We woke up the next morning in Twin Falls — merely a layover on the trek to Jackson Hole — but I was happy to see the place is aptly named. After a visit to the laundromat, we drove to Shoshone Falls, known as the Niagara of the West.

Mtuseni was happy to see a waterfall with some actual water in it. I felt bad that the falls in Yosemite were so meager, but autumn is a crapshoot for waterfalls there. Sometimes you’re lucky; usually you’re not 

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shoshone pair

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 After the falls we headed back to see Perrine Bridge, which crosses the Snake River Canyon. It’s right next to a shopping center. You can stand at the rim of this wild rocky gorge, then turn around and there’s like a Target and Taco Bell in front of you. Very strange. At least the center’s parking lots are nicely landscaped.

It’s high and scary — a 500-foot drop — though not as scary as the Rio Grande Gorge in New Mexico. At least I could get near the edge of this one!

Seeing a bunch of people along the rim stuffing sacks with brightly colored cloth, I realized they were base jumpers, We missed them by about a half hour! At the gift shop — (heavy emphasis on potato merch) — we discovered that the bridge is a common site for jumpers. I should have done more research, but I’d only seen Twin Falls as a place to eat and crash. 

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perrine tilt

Mtuseni took this, you can tell because he’s standing right at the edge of the gorge. The tilt makes it seem more scary. (It was scary enough for me without special effects!)

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mtu perrine

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After a few shots of the canyon, we headed out for Jackson, Wyoming, one of my favorite places. It’s a much more scenic drive than the moonscape of Nevada.

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woming pasture

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Wyoming creek mtns

Probably one of the most beautiful (unsanctioned) piss stops I’ve ever taken. 

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Wyoming road

I just wanted to pull a Forrest Gump and run down this road to wherever it took me. (I’d probably pass out by the third telephone pole. )

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Up in a mountain pass, Mtuseni finally encountered snow for the first time. He had to get a photo and a video, but he was not pleased when I threw a snowball at him. I guess when you don’t grow up with snow, you don’t realize that’s part of the fun. (And you’re supposed to retaliate!)

Despite his excitement, Mtuseni stayed in the snow for about five whole minutes. He hates the cold — which for him translates to anything under 65. (Don’t get me started on air conditioning in the car!)

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mtu snow

First time in snow! Clearly not the right choice of footwear.

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mtu snow portrait

Mtuseni was so proud to send a snow selfie to friends home in South Africa. 

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Coming down the mountain felt like a straight shot descent into Jackson. I swear the grade warning sign showed a truck practically heading downwards vertically. Seriously, it was a white knuckle drive. I don’t remember that from my earlier visit. Or else I was just young and fearless then. 

After checking into our motel, we walked the streets and wooden sidewalks of Jackson, and had pizza in an old renovated theater.

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teton pizza

Bad photo. Cool place. Good pizza.

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I’d been to Jackson in 1996, a much-needed break after quitting a stressful job. I’d eaten dinner at a very cool brewery — and my favorite t-shirt from the place had long ago dissolved from wear. After Mtuseni went to bed, I bundled up against the cold and tried to find it. After a couple blocks, sense memory kicked in and I turned down a dark side street. Sure enough, there it was!

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brewpub

Sense memory — or maybe just an instinct for good brew pubs, led me to find this place again after 25 years!

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Not the same name, but still a brewery. I popped my head in and thought back to that earlier trip … and what it felt like to be 36. I passed on getting a beer and a t-shirt. We had a big day ahead — theTetons and Yellowstone — and I certainly had acquired plenty of t-shirts already!

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wyoming sign

Another sign for the collection!

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