Larry McMurtry has always been one of my favorite authors, and Lonesome Dove is one of his finest works. Part of a trilogy that also includes “Comanche Moon” and “Streets of Laredo”, it is the story of two crusty Texas Rangers, Cap’n Woodrow Call, and Cap’n Augustus McCrae, and their adventures from Mexico to Montana. The cliche “saga” comes to mind, as an aptly descriptive term of this tour de force.
My pal Jimmy Reed (AKA ‘Junior’), whom you’ll meet in more detail later in one of my blog posts, and I have read and re-read this book scores of times over the years, and I consider it one of my top five favorites of all time, as does Junior. And the TV mini-series that featured Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones only added to the mystique of these two iconic cowboy lawmen. When I invited Junior to accompany me on a “guys road trip” to recreate the Lonesome Dove cattle drive from Texas to the Montana Territories, he replied, “How soon can we leave”? I had already laid most of the plans, and had arranged to borrow my daughter’s Chrysler Sebring convertible, so it was not long before we were off on our top-down odyssey in late July of 2001. I had managed to hook up a laptop to a GPS device, on a small custom made rack that fit over the center console, to give us a real time moving map of our current position on the Earth, and of course we had to decide who would be Woodrow Call and who would be Gus McCrae. Junior was the obvious choice to assume the role of Gus, I became Call, and off we galloped in the “Hell Bitch”. (If you haven’t read the book, put it on your “bucket list” of things not to miss).
Of course from the very start, we had decided to grant ourselves a little artistic license in deviating a bit from the actual route the book characters took in their drive north. We decided to divert a bit to the west, heading through Amarillo up into Colorado, and then above Gunnison, climbing up to mount the Continental Divide, through some of the highest and most beautiful mountains in America (the picture at the top of my blog was taken about 25 miles north of Gunnison, CO, at a place called Taylor Park, elevation 9,000 ft. The mountains pictured are all 14,000 ft +). Seldom dropping below 10,000 feet, we went through Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Yellowstone and across the Powder River into Montana, taking in such sites as Mt. Evans (the highest paved road in America at 14,246 feet), as well as another road in the sky aptly named “Oh My God” road, the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar in Jackson Hole (where you sit at the bar in saddles rather than bar stools – fortunately there were no “surly bartenders” that needed to be whacked), and spectacular Yellowstone (Earth’s next Big Bang, waiting to happen), ending up on a lonely, wind-swept grassy hill where General George Custer and his 7th Cavalry probably wished they had had a few Huey helicopters, like Lt. Col Hal Moore had in Vietnam.
It was easily one of the best road trips either of us had ever taken, and 10 years later we still talk of doing it again. One of the things that made it special was of course three old friends (Johnny Jennings accompanied us, in the role of Jake Spoon, but we generously decided not to hang him), the natural beauty of the American West, plus the fact that Junior, in his wonderfully unique literary style, kept a daily diary of our adventure. I am reprinting it here, with his permission, to give you a feel for such a glorious adventure, although without the choking dust produced by 50,000 head of longhorn cattle, and without a savage like Blue Duck stalking you! If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading this great story from a two-time Pulitzer winner, do it NOW!
Day 1, Lonesome Dove High Tour, July 27, 2001
by Jimmy C. Reed, MD-C
Itinerary: Oxford – Memphis – Little Rock – Ft. Smith – Oklahoma City – Shamrock, TX
The only way to comprehend the enormity of America is to drive across it. And as huge as it is, the sky above it is of such magnitude that mere mortals can only gape in awe.
Woodrow Call (Joe Seawright) and I (August McCrae) felt such awe in the open Oklahoma-Texas plains. With just a thin gossamer of clouds blotting out the stars, only a shard of moon, and no lights on land, we sat mute in our cruising convertible, in the totally black womb of the universe, keenly aware of how puny man is.
We took turns driving through the night, all the while listening to “ Comanche Moon,” a novel by Larry McMurtry, who also wrote “Lonesome Dove.” Joe, my lifelong friend, is the only pure genius I have ever known, and I am thrilled to be in his company. He built a special rack above the car’s console for his laptop and GPS equipment (in real time we know our position accurate to within 11 feet on the earth, our course, heading), and as we move along our route he plays the keys of the laptop as skillfully as he plays the piano. Always, we know precisely where we are, what our altitude is, what cities and landmarks are close by, our speed, fuel consumption, etc.
God watched over us this day. Road-weary, we arrived at a cheap little motel in Shamrock, Texas at 3 a.m.
Day 2, Lonesome Dove High Tour, July 28, 2001
Itinerary: Shamrock, TX – Raton, N.M. – Pueblo, CO.
9 a.m.: Departed Roach Hilton, destination, Pueblo. A quote from T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” is apt for this part of the world (much of it apparently existing only to hold the rest of the world together) “If there were rock and also water, and water, a spring, a pool among the rock… if there were the sound of water only, not the cicada, and dry grass singing… but there is no water.”
All here connotes dryness. Talcum white clouds, rare in number and powdery dry foreswear any hope of rain. Miles of gulches, arroyos, choked with harsh vegetation humped close to the ground, having waited eons for rain.
Town of slate-roof houses where lawns are unheard of, inhabited by hardy souls, many resembling the native moisture-disdaining denizens such as the horned toad, Gila monster, rattlesnakes and buzzards — people who, like these creatures, have adapted to the rigid, unforgiving rawness of the land and thrive on it.
Greed for gold brought the original settlers, greed for water keeps those here who now thrive. All around giant lush-green coins, up to a mile in diameter, watered by center pivots, hold promise of the bounty America never ceases to give Her people. Water is everything. Where the pivot stops, green stops, and barren aridity starts.
As we enter Colorado, the mountains, which seem to be so close but are whole cattle drives away, begin to show more hint of moisture, especially where there is a little snow remaining. The snow melts and feeds rivulets and streams, which in turn feed the breweries, which fill the Coors Light I am now quaffing. God taught mankind how to make beer because He loves us and wants us to be happy.
Arrived Pueblo, Colorado 3 p.m. local time. 1150 miles so far.
Day 3, Lonesome Dove High Tour, July 29, 2001
Itinerary (all in Colorado): Pueblo – Royal Gorge Bridge – Monarch Pass – Gunnison – Cottonwood Pass – Buena Vista – Leadville – Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel – Georgetown.
Humans are born with two instinctive fears: fear of loud noises and fear of falling. While standing midway of the Royal Gorge Suspension Bridge, 1053 feet above the Arkansas River, feeling the bridge sway beneath my feet, I got the full understanding of the falling fear.
Captain Woodrow Call, also known as Joe Seawright, and myself (Capt. Augustus McCrae) followed the Arkansas for miles, with mountains and granite cliffs all around. Many a time my eyes moistened when I reflected that the same hand that crafted this awesome, perfect splendor also made me.
11,030 feet: Monarch Pass. Descended to 7000 feet and stopped in Gunnison for lunch.
3:00 p.m.: Waded in mountain stream, so cold my feet turned blue. Now have white hair, red neck and blue feet.
Cottonwood Pass, 12,300 feet – reached out and touched the face of God.
Spent most of this day above 10,000 feet, higher even than Al Fava gets. Stopped to view Taylor Park Reservoir, an emerald colored lake nestled in an alpine valley, blocked on one side by a dam. A sign there reads, “scenic view.” How redundant! Every blink of the eye here reveals scenery too scenic to describe in words.
After descending from our highest altitude of the day (12,300 feet), we stopped for refreshments in Buena Vista, a storybook little village.
The original Call and McCrae had to climb over these mountains on horseback. Their 21st Century counterparts (also known as Seawright and Reed) simply drove through them – via the Eisenhower Memorial Tunnel. Spooky, knowing that billions of tons of granite rock loomed above us. A mile later we burst back into brilliant sunlight and blue sky.
Holed up for the night in tiny Georgetown, a short distance west of Denver. Two travel weary old guys, friends since boyhood in the Mississippi Delta, have experienced one of the most memorable days of their lives and are now safe, watching the sun slip below the mountains, thanks be to God.
Day 4, Lonesome Dove High Tour, July 30, 2001
Itinerary (all stops in Colorado): Georgetown – Idaho Springs – Summit of Mt. Evans – Winter Park – Granby –Steamboat Springs
4 a.m.: Joe and I both up, ready to resume the cattle drive. With two hours to kill before Keirn (Joe’s daughter) meets us in Idaho Springs with our third Texas Ranger, Johnny Jennings (Jake Spoon in “Lonesome Dove”), Joe decided to make a run up “Oh My God” Road, which climbs high up in the mountains above Idaho Springs.
Pure Terror! The road is nothing more than a car-width sliver of gravel, terraced in switchback turns, unbelievably dangerous and dizzy…up, up, up. Just the slightest skid, or seismic shake, or tectonic tremor would have catapulted us thousands of feet to violent perdition. We actually saw one twisted, rusted car that had fallen from a cloud-level switchback, still lying in the woods where it came to its final grisly end years ago.
Joe, Keirn, Johnny and I drove to the top of Mt. Evans, 14,246 feet. Got close to mountain goats and bighorn sheep. Johnny was pleased to see me so excited and attributed my elation to the fact that I had run into family so far from home. Johnny and I hiked to the absolute summit – one huge rock teetering precariously over footless halls of nothingness. I was shaking all over, and not just from exertion. We photographed each other and got the hell down from that eagle aerie. Just too damn high for fellows raised in the Delta, where terra firma is only 100 feet above sea level.
Keirn had to finish a paper (she’s in law school), so we dropped her off and we three Texas Rangers headed west.
Ran into two fellow Mississippians, and as folks from my beloved home state always do, we immediately began connecting the “Do you know so-and-so” dots. They were from Fulton, and have come out here for the past 22 years to trout fish. All were pleased to learn we had mutual friends.
Visited Winter Park, a ritzy ski resort, then drove through some of the most serene, most pleasant farming country I’ve ever seen.
Arrived in Steamboat Springs at 5 o’clock. Stayed the night in an exquisite, chateau-like hotel. Our room overlooks the main drag and has a kitchenette and front porch. Beer, whiskey, friendship, as the sun dips below distant mountains.
Day 5, Lonesome Dove High Tour, July 31, 2001
Itinerary: Steamboat Springs, CO – Craig, CO – Jensen, UT – Flaming Gorge Dam, UT – Rock Springs, WY – Pinedale, WY – Jackson Hole, WY
NOTE: Apologies for the one-day delay in this post. After staying too long at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar in Jackson Hole, WY, Captain McCrae was a guest at the Jackson Hole Jail. Unfortunately they had no Internet access. We are sending Day 5 with Day 6.
6 a.m.: On the road again. Stopped in Craig to give Hell Bitch a bath. For those who haven’t read “Lonesome Dove,” Captain Woodrow Call rode the finest horse of all the cowboys on the cattle drive to Montana. He called the mare “Hell Bitch” because she would give all she had sunup to sundown, but you’d best not give her the slightest opportunity to kick or bite you.
10:00 a.m.: Stopped at headquarters, Dinosaur National Monument, then entered Utah. Hazy, imposing bluffs paralleled the road … “for purpled mountain majesty, above the fruited plains.”
Jensen, Utah – visited a dinosaur quarry. Once a bend in what is now the Green River, the quarry was the final stop for countless different kinds of bloated, putrefying dinosaur carcasses 500 million years ago. Then, tectonic forces pushed the riverbed to its present vertical position, exposing a 30-foot-tall museum of bones frozen in time, like figures on a Grecian urn.
I suppose God never tires of experimenting. A half billion years ago, He created these behemoth brainless monsters and eventually wearied of watching them slaughter each other. In time, God destroyed these dominant creatures and replaced them with the current puny, but large-brained dominant creature, who also craves mutual slaughter. In time, I believe God might make monkeys masters of rock # 3, simply because He will become totally disappointed in man.
11:30 a.m.: Stopped for lunch and gas (made from dinosaurs).
Motto on Utah’s car tags: Greatest Snow on Earth.
1:30 p.m.: Entered Wyoming. Sign said, “Welcome to Wyoming – Like no place on Earth.” Spooky to look across miles of arid, totally treeless hills and prairies. Desolate, featureless moonscape. As we neared Jackson Hole, wild game became plentiful. Saw ospreys, antelope, deer, etc.
The city of Jackson Hole is absolutely beautiful and classically Western. Park in middle of town features four entrances, each built entirely of elk horns. We found a neat place to spend the night, log cabin room with three beds, not far from the center of town.
Day 6, Lonesome Dove High Tour, August 1, 2001
Itinerary: Jackson Hole, Wyoming – Yellowstone National Park – Cooke City, Montana – Billings, MT – Hardin, MT
6:30 a.m.: On the road. COLD! – 50 degrees, thereabouts (in August)! We enter South Gate of Yellowstone. Rangers warn of huge forest fire raging out of control – East gate closed. Evidence of major fire three years ago – thousands of acres of dead trees.
We three geezers arrive just in time to see Old Faithful Geyser erupt. Geezers meet geyser. This is one of Mother Nature’s grandest displays. At the climactic moment, several hundred spectators emotionally climaxed in a chorus of oohs and aahs. God sets His watch by Old Faithful.
Ate breakfast at the park lodge. When Johnny told waitress we were from Mississippi, she said, “Geez, I thought you guys would be muddy.” Bitch.
Got within 50 feet of a moose herd. Huge animals, totally unafraid of three muddy Mississippians. Stopped at Excelsior Geyser, a turquoise pool surrounded by steaming, bubbling, sulfurous mud flats, with rivulets ofscalding water pouring downhill in hot yellow crags. Once, the wind shifted, and the steam engulfed us. Whoo! Got to work on being a better Christian – sure don’t want to go where this hot stuff is coming from.
All through Yellowstone, huge boulders are randomly strewn, some completely isolated, out in open areas. Untold millions of years ago volcanoes flung these monoliths in all directions. They landed, and have never moved. No doubt, God thoroughly enjoyed this biggest of all rock concerts.
2:40 p.m.: Entered Montana. No wonder they call this Big Sky Country!
Drove through Billings and headed on to Hardin, Montana, for the night, since it’s not far from the Little Bighorn Battlefield, the site I cannot wait to see.
This has been one of the most eventful days of my life. Two of my very best friends and I have seen a breathtaking geyser. We saw moose, antelope, wolves, bison. We saw topographic grandeur no poet can describe, no artist can paint. We saw our America and experienced the joy of living free in a free country.
Oh, God in Heaven, You have blessed this country more than any other, and three of Your children saw today countless examples of those blessings, countless reminders of Your love for us. Thank You, my Lord, my Master.
Day 7, Lonesome Dove High Tour, August 2, 2001
Itinerary: Hardin, MT—Little Bighorn Battlefield – Gillette,WY — Devil’s Tower (near Moorcroft, WY) – Gillette, WY – Douglas, WY – Cheyenne, WY – Denver, CO
Well, we finally got the cattle herd to Montana. Captain Call, Jake Spoon, and I celebrated completion of the long drive by feasting on juicy beef burgers at Hardee’s. No mad cow disease here.
Actually, we shouldn’t have brought more steers to Montana. Currently, 1.58 million cows reside here – three for every two-legged Montana meat eater.
Little Bighorn: Heroism lingers ever and always in the air on the hill where Custer and his 220 soldiers made their last stand. You breathe it and are humbled by it, standing only a few feet from a marker showing the spot where Custer himself drew his last heroic breath. I wept.
When the battled ended that hot June day in 1876 and surviving officers asked about Custer and his men, the tragic answer was, “All dead, Sir, all dead.”
Johnny photographed Captains Call and McCrae beside a sign reading “Powder River.” In “Lonesome Dove” this river is significant because it is the last one the herd had to cross before completing the final leg of the journey to their ranch in Montana.
And on three old guys go — convertible’s top down, shirts off, cruising under the world’s biggest sky, heading for one of Nature’s most unique rock formations. “I cannot rest from travel…I will drink life to the lees” (Tennyson, “Ulysses”).
From the rolling plains and the Belle Fourche River at its base, Devil’s Tower rises to a height of 1280 feet. Unique in that there are no other rock formations around, Devil’s Tower appears as a massive cylindrical monolith with a perfectly flat top, perhaps used by God as a footstool. Indian legend holds that four little girls, fleeing a ravenous grizzly, climbed atop a rock. They prayed for God’s help, and the rock saved them by rising to its present height. Prayer works, for young Indians, old rednecks, for anyone.
Rest of this day spent driving through drab, treeless, almost totally unpopulated rangeland.
6:10 p.m.: Re-entered Colorado.
7:15 p.m.: Arrived in Denver, went to Brad and Keirn’s house. Ate delicious Italian food at Carmine’s Restaurant. What a day! Traveled 600 miles.
Day 8, Lonesome Dove High Tour, August 3, 2001
Itinerary: Denver, CO
10:00 a.m.: Joe and I took Johnny to airport. Beautiful day — crisp, sunny. Feels like October cotton ginning weather in the Delta. Johnny had business to attend to back home, and I was sad to seem him go. No one’s personality and sense of humor are more appealing than his. He’s a dear friend, a joy to be around.
1:00 p.m.: Went to Professor Goodbellow’s Antique Portrait Parlor. Joe and I have been close friends for many years, but the good professor bound us permanently in 19th century daguerreotype portraits that are as timeless as true friendship always is.
Goodbellow dressed me in a costume identical to what Augustus McRae wore when he broke the “surly” bartender’s nose — knee-length boots with jeans tucked in them, gun belt, bib-type shirt, bandana scarf and wide-brimmed hat.
Joe wore what Woodrow Call would have worn as boss of the cattle drive — a black vest, bolo tie, and high-topped 10-gallon hat. We both sported ranger badges and held huge Henry rifles. On the saloon bar behind us stood A Jack Daniel’s whiskey bottle. There is no doubt these portraits will become family heirlooms.
For me, our evening activity was an experience I’ve long anticipated. We went to Coors Field and watched a professional baseball game — the Colorado Rockies versus the Pittsburgh Pirates. Rockies won 11-7.
As I had always imagined, this quintessential American pastime intoxicates all five senses. You SEE crowds of happy Americans watching superbly athletic fellow Americans perform their sport to near perfection; you SMELL popcorn, hotdogs, cotton candy and parched peanuts; you HEAR collective roars and groans, the shouts of hawkers peddling tempting delights, you sing along with the public address system (“take me out to the ballgame….”); you TASTE cold beer served in large glasses and the taste is as golden as the brew’s color, and you become euphoric; you FEEL the occasional breeze lift your hair, fan your cheeks, you experience the tactile, palpable electricity in the charged circumambience when the home team strikes a mortal blow, and smile when your best pal pats you on the back.
Baseball in America is an experience that maximizes the capabilities of all five senses.
Day 9, Lonesome Dove High Tour, August 4, 2001
Itinerary: Denver, CO — Goodland, KS — Topeka, KS — Kansas City, KS — Columbia, MO
Joe and I arose early, packed, said farewell to his dear sweet daughter Keirn, and spurred the Hell Bitch homeward.
We traveled the entire length of Kansas, west to east, stopping only for gas. Each time we stopped, a hot, dry wind, not unlike the one that blew Dorothy and Toto to Oz Land, assaulted us with the redolent reek of steer shit.
Kansas is a giant, square granary, and I’m mighty glad it belongs to Americans, not gooks. Let them eat fish heads, rice and bamboo shoots while we enjoy corn, beef and fresh bread.
Exhaustion set in after traveling 720 miles in 11 hours, so we stopped in Columbia, Missouri for the night. 4300 miles total so far.
Day 10, Lonesome Dove High Tour, August 5, 2001
Itinerary: Columbia, MO — St. Louis, MO — Oxford, MS
6:20 a.m.: On the road, final leg. Arrived in Oxford 2 p.m.
Joe and I have traveled 4,530 miles. We were on the road 77 hours. We experienced the contrast of near 100-degree temperatures where the humidity is a suffocating 100 percent, and where it is only 15 percent.
We climbed and descended to altitudes above sea level that varied from 300 feet in Mississippi to nearly three miles in Colorado. We passed through forbidding badlands, giant metropolises, cultivated agricultural regions, and majestic mountains.
We marveled at the vastness of the most powerful, most beautiful nation on earth, and could not begin to comprehend how pioneers traversed this same vastness in crude covered wagons.
Joe “Woodrow Call” Seawright and Jimmy “Augustus McCrae” Reed lived a dream. We turned a vicarious, imaginary journey into a real-life odyssey, a 21st Century saga in which two lifelong friends retraced the adventures of two 19th Century lifelong friends.
We chased, but did not catch Blue Duck, the cruelest Comanche savage ever to torture, rob, rape and murder countless innocent white settlers. In a way, I’m glad we didn’t catch him. Blue Duck’s reign of terror must be stopped, and only two trail-hardened, Indian-savvy old rangers like Call and McRae are up to the job.
Some day, God willing, I’ll experience again the adventure of a lifetime, hunting down Blue Duck with Joe Seawright, the most honorable, most courageous, most intelligent man I’ve ever known. Thank You, Heavenly Father, for riding with us.
– – Jimmy Reed – –