Sunday, June 14, 2009

Beartooth to Cooke City

Our trip along Beartooth Highway (see yesterday’s entry) was topped off with a hike to the highest point on the road—10,947 feet.

Well, it was actually a short walk to this sign. And with exchanges of cameras, a group of four Japanese visitors and our four heroes (l. to r., Mike, Joanie, Chuck, and Kate) each had a photograph of this "accomplishment."

Our destination, Cooke City, MT, was the western end of the highway through the Beartooth Mountains. Mike, who has been involved in fighting some of the major forest fires in the area, pointed out how close Cooke City came to being destroyed by a relatively recent fire.

In the early 1870s gold was found in the town and surrounding areas. Today, hikers, campers, and snow machine and ATV enthusiasts make seasonal visits to this funky town.

As we walked the streets, we were reminded of Talkeetna, Alaska, which served as the inspiration for the TV show Northern Exposure.

As we walked the dusty main street through town, a tanker truck made one of several trips on this same street, spraying water along the route.

We stopped in the Cooke City Store, established 1896 and on the National Register of Historic Places. This cash register was operated with a crank to complete the recording of the total sale.

Although we were completely out of our supply of gunpowder, we opted for a Wilcoxson ice cream sandwich and an ice cream bar instead.

So here we are in Cooke City, (population 140), and lunch is our objective. We walked down the street reading the menus at three different places and elected to go back to restaurant Number Two.

When we walked through the doors of Buns ‘n Beds, the first person we see was a man wearing a black apron with “Iowa Hawkeyes” emblazoned on the front. Could it be? An Iowa Hawkeye fan in Cooke City, Montana?

Not just a Hawkeye fan but a born and bred Iowan. As we began to talk, we learned that Dan was from LaMars, Iowa, the hometown of one of Chuck’s college roommates.

And not just one. There were two native Iowans. And even more amazing, Jan, the co-owner of the café (with her husband), was from my hometown of Clinton, Iowa. Who’d a thunk it?

On our initial menu-reading foray through town, I was intrigued by their Tumbleweed sandwich. Served on a six-inch, sundried tomato roll, this was cheese, cucumbers, mushrooms, black olives, lettuce, tomato, and red onion with a dill dressing. The sandwich came with chips, but I added an order of excellent potato salad.

The sandwich was full of good fresh vegetables and fresh vegetable flavor. The roll was crusty (Hooray) and the vegetables were crisp, and all in all this was one fine sandwich. The potato salad was made with red skin-on potatoes with just enough onion for crunch but not to overwhelm the wonderful sour cream based dressing. A fine lunch.

Joanie ordered the salad with raspberry vinaigrette. She had brought some nuts to munch on as we drove and tossed some of these on her salad. The two of us were feeling righteous as we watched our traveling companions wipe barbeque sauce from their hands and faces.

Mike and Chuck both ordered the special barbeque plate of the day. Buns ‘n Beds smokes some meat item every morning (the smoker sits on the café’s front porch) and that day it was a sandwich of thin sliced smoked pork in a Kentucky bourbon-based sauce. This came with a side of beans and a side of the good potato salad. The pork was, to use a time-worn cliché, melt-in-your-mouth tender, and the sauce was a little sweet and a little tart. The two of them had finished their meals before I had barely started the second half of my sandwich.

There was a disconcerting note to the meal – the two dogs (one beagle and one husky) patrolling the dining room. After I dropped a mushroom from my sandwich which was promptly snarfed down by the husky, I had two friends for the rest of the meal. In fact, the beagle spent the rest of the time with his/her head on my leg.

So as much as I would like to give my fellow Iowans a higher rating, I can only award 3.5 Addies. But if you like dogs with your meal, this is the place to go.

One last point. Buns 'n Beds (there are cabins for overnight guests) is also Pittsburgh Steelers' country. We're not sure why, but we would like to think there is an Hawkeye connection. In 1979, football coach Hayden Fry asked the Steelers to send him a jersey so he could order copies for the football team to help break the series of losing seasons. Whether or not it was the jerseys, the team improved considerably over the next years.

Beartooth Highway and Cooke City--what a combination!

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