Wild West Heatwave

A Road Trip Through the Hottest Summer Yet

(Photo: Malcolm Brown)
(Photo: Malcolm Brown)

By Janet Mercel on 9.25.21

Driving across the belly belt of the country early this summer, there were reminders everywhere of the legacy of raw frontier in the American West, the good and the bad. The majesty and hardship of indigenous and settlement life and a spirit of rustic accommodation. And most of all, a powerful appreciation for the beauty of the land that compelled so many people into Manifest Destiny in the first place. The hotels alone that we passed through were literally and spiritually built out of some real pioneer lore, with origins as a blacksmith’s shop, for instance, an armory for the U.S. government, and a boarding house for Basque sheepherders.

Ric traversing the wild blue of the Mojave
Ric traversing the wild blue of the Mojave

As I headed west with my husband, a heat dome hovered over the Pacific Northwest, bringing us the hottest North American June in 127 years of recorded history and breaking a new temperature pretty much every time I turned on the radio. It wasn’t the first road trip we’ve taken together, or even my first climate-induced freakout while doing it. Last summer, while Ric sprawled out next to me in a well earned catnap, I started crying when the exterior temperature rose to 112 degrees while driving through Death Valley. I didn’t want to wake him out of existential fear of the car overheating, leaving us to boil to our death in the Mojave Desert’s imitation of planet Mars, but someone other than me should have been aware of what was happening. In the end, I did not wake him, and we did not boil.

Local fire warnings riding high
Local fire warnings riding high

This summer, starting all the way back in Brooklyn, friends warned us about the Colorado River drought, and weren’t we worried about driving into wildfires? We were. In a rough approximation of the Oregon Trail, we navigated ten states in five days. In every new town, people we met apologized for the extreme and unprecedented heat, as though our comfort was their city’s personal responsibility and their hospitality had failed us.

MISSOURI is where you start to feel a decided shift from East Coast energy. In St. Louis, (I love this city) we found the Angad Arts Hotel, in the century-old historic Missouri Theater Building in the Arts District. It still flashes its showgirl past as the original home of the Radio City Rockettes — back in the 1920s when they were still known as the Missouri Rockettes.

The new incarnation is a living art-gallery-as-hospitality experience, including the rooms themselves. Each is an eye-popping colorstory to be booked according to your mood. Since we were wilting from the heat and general road weariness, ours was Rejuvenation Green. 

The St. Louis Arts District at night
The St. Louis Arts District at night
A Rejuvenation Green Suite
A Rejuvenation Green Suite

Sculpture, paintings, crochet bombs, mixed media installations and every manner of artwork is displayed everywhere, but the real showstopper is the lobby lounge. A larger than life light sculpture that belongs in Nikola Tesla’s living room shows a never ending loop of film, stop motion and morphing colors. I’m a big fan of Angad’s rooftop Art Bar, encased in glass with an astonishing view of the city where we were treated to a showstopping thunder and lightning storm that briefly broke the humidity. 

Sunset at the rooftop Art Bar (Angad Arts Hotel)
Sunset at the rooftop Art Bar (Angad Arts Hotel)
The Sage Lady (Mango infused vodka, mango nectar, peach bitters and sage leaves)
The Sage Lady (Mango infused vodka, mango nectar, peach bitters and sage leaves)

The classic bistro Brasserie by Niche is a town fixture, or head to The Gin Room, a cocktail bar with 300 varieties of the spirit, or The Hill, a diverse neighborhood hub of restaurants and shops. I fell in love with queer-friendly Rise Coffee House, part performance venue, part cafe with great kombucha. It’s down the block from May’s Place, a great vintage with a lot of denim and really good old silver jewelry. 

Vintage racks at May's Place Vintage (4180 Manchester Ave, St. Louis)
Vintage racks at May's Place Vintage (4180 Manchester Ave, St. Louis)
Rise Coffee House (4176 Manchester Ave, St. Louis)
Rise Coffee House (4176 Manchester Ave, St. Louis)

NEBRASKA yielded a long stretch of road and one of the best dirty martinis I’ve had in my life at Applebees in Sidney. Driving into Wyoming, the land changes every 20 miles and the terrain is shockingly beautiful.

Homemade jam on the open Missouri road
Homemade jam on the open Missouri road
Mind boggling sunset crossing from Iowa to Nebraska
Mind boggling sunset crossing from Iowa to Nebraska

Long, swaying grasses, and red rocks that I had always thought belonged in Arizona. Then soft green ground cover and prickling scrub brush, and finally, everywhere, evergreens. At one point, a few drops of spilled oil caused the engine of our SUV to spew angry black smoke from under the hood and a very young, very worried Highway Patrol pulled us over. I’ll never know for sure if it would have flash smoked on its own had the sun not been so very hot that day, but I have my guess. 

The Nebraska sun takes a much needed break
The Nebraska sun takes a much needed break

The car recovered, we passed the White Mountain Petroglyphs in Sweetwater County, the sandstone etchings left about a millennium ago by the Plains and Great Basin Native Americans. Then came the Landscapes of Power, sand dunes sacred for ceremony and prayer for thousands of years. 

Wyoming Red Rocks (Photo: Ric Pipino)
Wyoming Red Rocks (Photo: Ric Pipino)
Wyoming open road (Photo: Ric Pipino)
Wyoming open road (Photo: Ric Pipino)

WYOMING. Outside Jackson Hole, the Grand Tetons looming overhead, we landed at the Anvil Hotel, site of the former blacksmith. Built out of the original 1950s inn, it was refurbed to modern rancher perfection by Post Company (formerly Studio Tack.) It’s also right near the center of Jackson’s bumping town square. 

It feels like being at a cool friend’s beautiful, newly acquired dude ranch. Glossily rustic, with wool blankets and brass everywhere and doilies for coasters. I am charmed and extremely into it. 

The view of downtown Jackson beckons
The view of downtown Jackson beckons
No vacancy at the base of the Grand Tetons (Anvil Hotel, Jackson, WY)
No vacancy at the base of the Grand Tetons (Anvil Hotel, Jackson, WY)
Jackson hospitality
Jackson hospitality

You could eat every night at Anvil’s restaurant, Glorietta. The handmade pasta, the wine list and house made gelato (sold by the pint at the onsite gelato stand, Glori Gelateria) pay excellent homage to the original motel’s red sauce joint from decades ago.

The energy in the village, though, is too good not to branch out. No tumbleweeds here. Go down the street to the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar and join the lifelong ranch hands who come from miles out of town to dance at near pro level. (50 cents to use the onsite alcohol breathalyzer machine.) 

Downtown Jackson's Cache Street at night
Downtown Jackson's Cache Street at night
Glorietta's charming facade
Glorietta's charming facade
Breathalyzer to go at the infamous Millionaire Cowboy Bar (25 N. Cache Street, Jackson)
Breathalyzer to go at the infamous Millionaire Cowboy Bar (25 N. Cache Street, Jackson)

Snake River Brewing has an enviable yard and firepit, and there’s the Stagecoach Bar that’s been around for over 70 years, with its drive-thru liquor store. Or The Local, where, during my first visit to Jackson I was escorted by, happily, a longtime local.

I regret not staying longer. The hot springs, the white water rafting, the fly fishing, mountain biking, or, had it been winter, the snowmobiling. Everything that draws people to Wyoming. I did manage four things I wanted: a trail run under the mountains, a Kale Yeah and Brekkie Bowl at Healthy Being. (I dream about the food at that place.) I poked around the Pendleton store, and forced Ric onto the Cowboy Coaster, a freakishly open air roller coaster on the top of Snow King Mountain that’s one of my favorite things on earth to do. (For which he still hasn’t forgiven me.) 

 

 

Incomparable nature a mere 10 minute walk out of town
Incomparable nature a mere 10 minute walk out of town
My recreation highlight, the Cowboy Coaster (402 E Snow King Avenue, Jackson)
My recreation highlight, the Cowboy Coaster (402 E Snow King Avenue, Jackson)

MONTANA. A four hour drive later: Bozeman. My god, Montana. I’d never been to Big Sky country and it was everything I needed it to be. We showed up at Kimpton Armory in Downtown just in time for July 4th, hot, dusty and overdone. The Armory is straight up majestic. Within 15 minutes I extended our stay another night and disappeared up to the Sky Shed bar to avoid sunstroke and find a vodka Disco Lemonade. I’m pretty certain it’s also the first time I’ve been in a rooftop pool with 360 degree panoramic views of extraordinary mountain ranges.

Ric cuts the steam on a blistering July 4th weekend afternoon (Rooftop, Kimpton Armory, Bozeman, MT)
Ric cuts the steam on a blistering July 4th weekend afternoon (Rooftop, Kimpton Armory, Bozeman, MT)
Savior of mind and body: Disco Lemonade at the Sky Shed (Vodka, strawberry and lemon)
Savior of mind and body: Disco Lemonade at the Sky Shed (Vodka, strawberry and lemon)
The majestic facade and former site of the historic National Guard Armory
The majestic facade and former site of the historic National Guard Armory

Originally the weapons cache for the Montana National Guard, it was built in the early-mid 20th century by the architect son of a Civil War Union Army veteran. 98% of the original structure is intact, and maintains its roots. Instead of a soundproof room where the National Guard Band used to practice, there’s the 500 seat Armory Music Hall, drawing headliners from all over the country. 

To my great joy, we were invited to the most patriotic and authentic of events an hour away in Ennis: the rodeo. Clowns with absurd jokes, bull riding, bareback queens and joyful locals of every stripe. I drank alcohol out of a can and wore vintage Tony Lama cowboy boots I’d bought that afternoon at Head West into the flash flood mud from a summer storm while late night fireworks flashed overhead into a pitch black fairground. 

Rodeo Queens!  (Photo: Malcolm Brown)
Rodeo Queens! (Photo: Malcolm Brown)

I returned twice for breakfast to Treeline Coffee Roasters for hand pies from The Ugly Onion, and ate rhubarb pancakes in a lumber yard under the mountains at Apples & Anglers’ popup. For the best wood fired pizza in town, there’s local favorite, Blackbird. Afterward, go find tiny local music venue, Live From the Divide, in an ancient building on a backstreet off the old rail yard. 

Boots on boots at Head West (24 W Main St, Bozeman)
Boots on boots at Head West (24 W Main St, Bozeman)
The Ugly Onion hand pies at Treeline Coffee Roasters (624 N Wallace Ave, Bozeman)
The Ugly Onion hand pies at Treeline Coffee Roasters (624 N Wallace Ave, Bozeman)

Bozeman sits between the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park in Gardiner, Montana and the west in West Yellowstone. There’s a lot of road-dirt eye candy to take in from there to Idaho. Creative local signage, beautiful burly men at gas stations with authentic Legends of the Fall hair, rest stops and truck stops and their truckers.

Bears Exit Now
Bears Exit Now
Sightseeing
Sightseeing
Legends of the Fall is real
Legends of the Fall is real

IDAHO. By the time we reached Boise, it was 93 degrees in the shade. I was out of clean clothes, and the radio was filled with updates of the Billionaire’s Summit happening in Sun Valley. All I wanted was to make it to Los Angeles. 

Checking into the Mad Men chic Modern Hotel changed my mind. It’s the legacy of two sheep herders who lost all their sheep in the Great Depression and opened a boarding house for Basque immigrants and transients. Today, the Modern stands in a refurbed Travelodge run by their granddaughter. 

Mid century chic incarnate at The Modern, Boise, Idaho
Mid century chic incarnate at The Modern, Boise, Idaho

As the sun dropped lower, travelers from all over trickled into the bar to escape and discuss the broiling earth, drink Tempranillo and eat Spanish Tortilla and Buffalo Egg tapas. The cocktail menu (Iceberg Slim! Midnight to Midnight!) is a literal work of art, a graphic novel by a local artist they let me purchase for $10.

Every page of The Modern bar cocktail is frame-worthy
Every page of The Modern bar cocktail is frame-worthy
Idaho spuds!
Idaho spuds!

Catching an explicable second wind, we found Downtown. Walking by the dark glass facade of Neurolux, I got a twitchy feeling in my palms, which historically always leads to something good. Man, I was right. The live music venue was just a huge, empty bar that night, with dimmed arcade lights, pool tables  and the vibe of a closed amusement park. The sullen bartender brought to mind every lovable jerk who’s ever served me on the LES, or maybe Buffalo. I commandeered the jukebox with Bryan Ferry to his grudging nods of approval, and everyone was happy. Thanks to Boise and a few tequilas I didn’t know I had the steam for, it was one of the Best Nights Ever of the whole trip.

Downtown Boise on a simmering summer night
Downtown Boise on a simmering summer night
That Boise tequila just hits right (Neurolux, 111 N 11th St, Boise)
That Boise tequila just hits right (Neurolux, 111 N 11th St, Boise)

Into the heat of the next day and fueled by The District, an Architectural Digest Most Beautiful Coffee House, past Idaho wine country and through Oregon. Past the banks of a diminishing Walker Lake and not a minute too soon, we finally reached California.

Boise vintage spoils
Boise vintage spoils
Idaho's Most Beautiful Coffee Shop: The District (219 N 10th St, Boise)
Idaho's Most Beautiful Coffee Shop: The District (219 N 10th St, Boise)
Are we there yet
Are we there yet
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