Stillwater dawned blue-skied, the late spring heat held in check by a gentle southerly breeze. One last sweep of the house to make sure we had everything for our trip. Warm clothes for the mountains. Coolers for the beer and wine we planned to haul back. And passports. Vancouver beckoned, far away.
After dispatching a set of keys to a friend and fellow homebrewer who had agreed to tend the Kölsch and Scotch ale I had fermenting in the garage fridge, we set off on our road trip to celebrate an important anniversary with family and friends. In between lay some twenty-five hundred miles of asphalt joining high plains, mountain passes, desolate wasteland, and verdant farmland. That, and a few breweries, brewpubs, bottle shops, and taprooms.
North Americans have long maintained an infatuation with the open road stretched across limitless horizons and punctuated, occasionally, by saw-toothed mountain ranges – a fascination with the long-distance journey that predates both the automobile and the transcontinental railway. With naught but two weeks for our entire trek, though, we had to roll. Plenty of distance, but a dearth of time. Time trumped our desire to tarry with the wind-hewn mesas of Utah, or the trout streams, woods and sequestered mountain valleys of Montana and nearby Yellowstone. Distance – this broad expanse of a continent telescoped somewhat by Eisenhower’s postwar Interstate system – remained absolute, as if to spite a modernity countersigned by the automobile. Massive slabs of granite thrust at angles a mile into the sky remain impressive, even at seventy miles per hour.
Beer Travel on a Shoestring Temporal Budget
Time and distance also had a predictable effect on how I approached the beerscape of the various regions we traversed. Several thousand miles took precedence over carefully-orchestrated beer travel. The result? Brewery and brewpub drop-ins that were pleasantly haphazard – a welcome change from the (albeit enjoyable) brewery visits I’ve arranged since starting work on A Tempest in a Tankard. This time around, the absence of advance planning allowed me a bit more freedom as a critic – an interesting issue I’ll address at length in a future piece. And it left the door open to serendipitous discoveries unclouded by the prejudices and pre-selections that invariably accompany the planning of itineraries.
What happens when you leave town on a long road trip without having done much research on the various brew scenes dotting your route? After a week of exploration around the time of 2013’s GABF, I have a good sense of what flows from the taps in Denver, Boulder, and Fort Collins. The same goes for Oregon and Washington, mainly because a fair number of their beers enjoy wide distribution. But what about places like Idaho? Sure, I can name a few breweries, but their beers rarely find their way into my stein. What would we find if we were to just roll into a town like Cheyenne, Wyoming, without knowing what the city or region had to offer? And British Columbia? I grew up in Vancouver’s shadow, but haven’t spent much time in that rainy city since its beer scene began to burgeon.
A Beer at the End of the Line: Cheyenne
Oklahoma and Kansas blended together, the horizon interrupted only by farmhouses, small towns, cattle, and bluffs planted to slow down the wind.
And the wind. Relentless and virtually unhindered, save for the ant-train of cars and eighteen-wheelers snaking their way westward along the I-70, the wind was a constant wall scouring the land, bending trees in an eternal northward bow.
Arrow-straight the I-70 unfolds until, near the state line separating Kansas from Colorado, the road curves back and forth to form a wry smile and a wink. An ironic commentary: still several leagues to travel before any obstacle other than critters or wayward livestock will block your path. But the terrain starts to rise, imperceptibly. And imperceptibly, the landscape takes on a more rugged countenance, scored by gorges and canyons delineating the ubiquitous and lonesome ranch lands.
The wind has abated and we pull off the road, like so many before us, to rest under an afternoon sun that has baked the ground beneath us golden. But unlike those intrepid wagon-train travelers who passed to the north of us a century-and-a-half ago along the Oregon Trail, we doze off serenaded not by the susurrus of the prairie grassland. No, great-great-grand children of the Industrial Revolution and contemporaries of the Information Age, we catch snippets of sleep laced with the pre-recorded National Weather Service forecast broadcasting itself in its strangely-intonated digital monotone, mingling with the purr of engines and the hushed whisper of tires flowing along the asphalt stream yonder.
Just as the fog in that poem, dusk comes on little cat feet. Less so the Front Range of the Rockies, looming up in the distance beyond the glass and steel spires of Denver, shrouded in a veil of cloudy twilight. After hours of westward travel, we thread our way along the seam that separates the foothills from the plains spreading all the way to the Great Lakes, destination Cheyenne.
But where’s the damn beer?
~ Stay tuned ~
Vancouver’s English Bay: F.D. Hofer
Western Idaho portion of the Oregon Trail: F.D. Hofer
Storefront, Cheyenne, WY: F.D. Hofer
Oregon Trail Map (1907), from Ezra Meeker, The Ox Team, or the Old Oregon Trail, 1852-1906: Wikipedia
Wyoming Welcome: F.D. Hofer