Day 7: Grand Teton Old West Covered Wagon Cookout

We had a final breakfast at Pahaska Teepee Lodge, just outside of Yellowstone. I learned a few things at breakfast from the old-west newspapers that serve as the menus. The inside is the menu, but the front and back are mock news stories about Buffalo Bill, the Old West, and a bank robbery that has just occurred. I will admit, I probably should have known some of this, but when you grow up east of the Mississippi, there are some things you miss.

  • Buffalo Bill was a lawman, not a bad guy.
  • His real name was Colonel William Cody, having served in the Civil War.
  • Though he was one of the good guys, he liked a good gun fight nonetheless.
  • The town just east of Yellowstone Park (where Pahaska Teepee places its address, though it is quite a few miles west of town) is named after Col. Cody.
  • Buffalo Bill was a friend of both Sioux Indians and settlers.
  • Sioux Chief Iron Tail, known as a wise counselor and a diplomat, was said to be Buffalo Bill’s best friend. Cody was often quoted saying, of Iron Tail, “He is the finest man I know.”
  • Buffalo Bill’s Sioux Indian name was Pahaska, which means “long hair.”
  • It is clear from whence he gets his name.
  • Pahaska Teepee was Buffalo Bill’s Lodge, built in 1904.
  • Buffalo Bill had a vision for the development of the East Entrance to Yellowstone. He believed it could become the most popular entrance. It is certainly the way to get in these days, from all points east, unless it’s winter, in which case, the entrance is closed, as is Pahaska Teepee Lodge.

This is Buffalo Bill Cody on the porch of his Pahaska Teepee Lodge. We mailed a few postcards from the little blue mailbox attached to the side of that porch, and headed back into Yellowstone to be on our way to Grand Teton National Park, which lies directly south of Yellowstone. In fact, the parks are 8 miles apart. This 8-mile strip was named the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway as a way of joining the parks and to honor the Rockefeller family for their contributions across the country to National Parks.

I love the National Park slogan, by the way. National Parks: America’s Best Idea.

I agree. Certainly, one of its best ideas.

The Teton Mountain Range is the focus of Grand Teton National Park, and Grand Teton is its highest peak. At the base of the Park is Jackson, WY. The whole area, lying between the Tetons to the west, the Gros Ventre range to the east, and Jackson to the south, is called Jackson Hole. It is best known for its skiing, of course, but summertime is spectacular. We arrived just before dinnertime at our hotel for two nights: Twogotee Mountain Lodge (pronounced tow-ga-dee). The Lodge lies in the Twogotee Pass, east of Grand Teton National Park by 16.5 miles. The parking area was dry, very dry. Dust clouds rose as we got out, coating the inside of the car with a thin layer of road dust.

Before we started our trip, we took a few planning steps. We mapped out the trip day by day, deciding where we would sleep every night and, based upon the distances between the locations, generally what we would do each day (which park, or when we would travel). We made hotel reservations at each location. We put all of this into Mapquest, which pumps out directions (helpful, but not what we used for turn-by-turn . . . the Nav System in the Odyssey is better for that). Mapquest was fun, though, because it places all the destinations on a map and we can see where we’re headed and where we’ve been. I also created an itinerary in the form of a spreadsheet that listed, day by day, our current location, our destination, our driving time and travel time (including stops), our recommended start time and estimated arrival time, and the general ideas we had for activities that day.

So far, we’ve found this itinerary and the planning we did to be plenty. We’re enjoying figuring out how to spend the day as we go. The first night in the Tetons, though, we had made a plan for how to spend the evening . . . and we were very glad we did!

Castagno Outfitters offers a number of activities in the Jackson, WY area, both in summer and winter. One of their best summer activities is an Old West Cookout. We had purchased tickets for the Cookout and received directions from the hotel when we checked in. The Cookout was to begin with a covered wagon ride leaving from a parking area on a back road for which we had been given a tiny little map. The Cookout was listed as starting at 5:30, but we’d been told to be there at 5:00. We were also told that it would take 15 minutes to get there, but we should leave at 4:30. It seemed that everyone was building in cushions to their timing, and we were to soon find out why.

To begin with, there were no street signs. My (free) advice to you: if you need to go some place from a hotel you’ve never been to and you have a time deadline, you know, such as a covered wagon departure or somesuch thing, get very clear directions with landmarks and approximate distances. Do not assume that roads will be labeled the way we do it in the suburbs. That is just not how things are done out here.

By driving a dirt road for 8 miles, with a sense from the GPS that we might be heading the correct direction, we finally found the Castagnos and our wagons. It was a beautiful drive, and a few miles into it, we confirmed that we were, indeed, on the correct road. The navigation system knew the name of the road! I’d like to thank my friend, Dan, who develops the content for navigation systems. Where would we be without you? Certainly not on our Covered Wagon Cookout.

As it turned out, we arrived by 5:15, with 15 minutes before our wagons departed. We quickly discovered that every family on the Cookout was from Illinois: Galesburg, Carlinsville, and even Arlington Heights.

Ryan Castagno, our driver, brought along his three boys for the ride (ages 13, 10 and 5). This is a family of cowboys. The boys wore boots and hats. Their Dad wore a cowboy hat, work boots and chaps. I’m not sure if the chaps were primarily for effect, but as the 8th grader told us, his Dad works with horses all year long, every season.

We were privileged to have a 20 minute ride each way with Ryan Castagno. He is clearly a man who is invested in the community and the land and the wildlife in the area. He casually commented about the flowers that were in season (yellows drying up, purples coming in . . . yellows were around late because the weather had been so cool up until the past few weeks) as we bumped along the dirt and gravel roads to our dinner site. He gave us a mini-lesson on the differences between the different kinds of federal land: National Parks, National Forests, and National Wilderness. Fascinating.

Did you know that in a National Forest, anyone can set up a tent anywhere, for free, and stay there for up to 16 days? Then you have to move locations, but you could move a bit and stay there for 16 days, and so on.

Did you know that aspen grove in groves and share a root system?

Ryan also gave us a little education in horsemanship. His team, Trixie and Dixie, are the primary team he works with, both for the Covered Wagon rides, as well as for the elk interpretive tours he does by sleighride in the winter. Trixie and Dixie are the fast wagon haulers, he says, but are not trained as in-town stage-coach horses. They are trained to follow the paths they normally ride, as well as to obey his commands. He clearly had an enormous respect for his team, their strength, and what they contribute to his livelihood and the enjoyment of the visitors who come through town. Ryan demonstrated how he speaks to Trixie and Dixie and how their ears tune in to his voice. There is a powerful relationship between a man and his horses.

We also got a crash course in elk and their habits. Ryan suggested that the best time to see elk was in the evening hours because they don’t like the heat, but they must drink lots of water each day, so they can often be seen heading to and from water sources in the cooler evening hours. While we didn’t see any elk on this trip, we have a better idea of how we might do that on another trip! Ryan also described the controversy surrounding the Elk Feeding Program in the Jackson Hole area. The start date for feeding depends upon the weather and when the elk will start struggling to find food. The program has been successful; the elk population is increasing in the Jackson Hole area. I was thinking of telling you more about the Feeding Program. It was quite interesting. I discovered, though, that there has been litigation about the Program. We heard one side of the issue from Ryan, but there is clearly controversy about the Program. I’m not interested in drawing Google attention to Ryan’s opinion, so I’ll just leave it at that. If you’re interested, Google “Elk Feeding Program Jackson” and you’ll get a lot more information.

Ryan told us a bit about what it would have been like to cross the prairie in a covered wagon. The wagons we rode in had benches on each side, were about 6 feet across and maybe 15 feet long. They were authentic, but were used as Church Wagons. If you lived the farthest from town on the frontier, you kept the Church Wagon at your house. Come Sunday morning, you drove on in to town, picking up families as you went. Everyone enjoyed visiting on the ride into town. Yesterday’s Facebook or Twitter, Ryan suggested.

The wagons that crossed the prairie, however, were much narrower, only 3-4 feet across and 10 feet long. They could carry up to 750 lbs of cargo, so the space and weight couldn’t be wasted on healthy passengers. All healthy travelers walked the route, alongside the covered wagon. By the time families were walking the prairie in this manner, they had a sense of how many miles they needed to cover each day to allow their food to last until they arrived at their destination. You may wonder how they measured the mileage. [I know you were wondering.] That, my friends, I can answer by telling you about some of the chores that children did to help their families across the prairie:

  • collecting buffalo chips for campfire fuel in less-forested areas (yes, those buffalo chips),
  • fetching water for washing from the nearest stream, and finally,
  • counting the revolutions of the wagon wheels.

Families would tie a “cowboy scarf,” what we normally think of as a bandanna, onto a spoke of the wheel. One of the children would have the job of counting the revolutions of the scarf. Families knew how many revolutions per mile, and could then calculate how far they’d traveled. If a livestock injury or weather delayed them one day, they might need to make up mileage on another day so they would not be left without food by the end of the journey. Families would get up before sunrise to prepare for the day and depart. They would stop and rest between 12:00 and 2:00, and then continue on until dusk. On some slower days, at the end of the day, they could look back and see where they’d made their camp the night before. You would certainly need to be convinced that you wanted to arrive at your destination to be willing to make that trek.

We also learned that Ryan is a BYU fan; that his boys are all wrestlers and they travel for tournaments in the winter; that he quit his job to start Castagno Outfitters because he wanted to spend more time with his wife and kids, that the 8th grader goes to middle school in Jackson, and that the bus picks him up during the school year between 5:00 and 6:00 AM. All that in 40 minutes in a covered wagon with a man and his boys.

We pulled into a clearing and were greeted by Don & Shirley, an older couple who told us they were from Texas, but sold their home a decade ago and bought an RV. They spend every summer up here serving chuckwagon dinners and entertaining the guests. Shirley did a little stand-up, while Don cooked the steaks. Seriously. She was a funny lady. Dinner was excellent: lots of food and all delicious. I’m not a huge red meat eater, but this was probably the best, tenderest, flavorful-est steak I’ve ever had. Baked beans. Baked potato. Fruit. Corn muffin. Brownies. Lemonade, water, coffee and hot chocolate to your heart’s (and stomach’s) content. Shirley was pure southern hostess. She wouldn’t quit offering seconds and stopped to talk with each of the families as she went.

Once Don was done with his steak-grilling, he got out his guitar and played a few cowboy songs for us while we ate. Next thing you know, he gets out his accordion and sings a few more. And finally, out comes his fiddle for a few waltzes and polkas for good measure. What a sweet couple. Some of the Castagno family joined us up at the dinner: Moms and kids, cousins of the boys on our wagon. It seems like a nice partnership: Castagnos run the horses and the wagons, and Don & Shirley serve and entertain for the evening.

After the entertainment and dinner, there was a little hokey-pokey and chicken dancing, but fortunately, we have no photos of those. To end a sweet evening, Don got out his guitar once more and we had an old-fashioned cowboy sing-a-long: Home on the Range, You are My Sunshine, She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain, and Mansion over the Hilltop, a country-gospel song recorded by Elvis. What a terrific evening. Don had hugs for everyone as we re-loaded the wagons. It was a privilege to enjoy this wonderful evening together with Don, Shirley and the Castagnos.

We’d been told to bring sunscreen and bug spray on our Cookout, but had found the dinner area to be fairly bug-free. Our return trip demonstrated that the bug spray was for the parking area. A generous tip for Ryan and hospitality, and then we hopped back in the van. Returning to Togwotee, we took the paved road this time and watched the bank of the Snake River for elk as we went.

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2 Responses to Day 7: Grand Teton Old West Covered Wagon Cookout

  1. Pingback: Day 16: Mesa Verde to Red Rocks | life on purpose

  2. Pingback: Day 18: A Recap | life on purpose

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