I collected our coffee from the KOA office and we went back into town. Dad popped into a mineral shop, looking for a few of his favorite specimen types. I enjoyed the fossils and mineral maps, as well as a display of a collection of nearly every Remington rifle and shotgun manufactured until the 1970s mounted high on both walls. A sign read, “Remington questions answered after $100 mineral purchase.” Another shop offered a great antique collection and a room full of historic arms worthy of a roadside museum. I bought Dad a little present for his birthday coming up on Tuesday.
We drove off toward Cody, Wyoming. After a short way across some hills, the landscape again underwent a dramatic change, switching to a desert theme. We stopped at what looked like an old mining town. We weren’t wrong, but we had also come across some sad history. A sign by the highway told us the story of the Smith Mine Disaster. In 1943 an underground explosion killed dozens of miners. Three escaped and a rescue effort with assistance from all over the region was mustered, but no one else was recovered alive. Those who had survived the explosion were poisoned by the methane gas that had caused it.
Miners are among divers, astronauts, and submariners in that it’s some technical system that keeps them alive. When that fails, one wonders about the experience of looking upon the certainty of death from within a mask or capsule as opposed to on a bed in an old body. We’re told two of the miners left us with words that might give us some response, writing;
“Walter & Johnny. Good-bye. Wives and daughters. We died an easy death. Love from us both. Be good.”
The mine’s little surrounding town is since abandoned and falling apart. It’s a tragic shipwreck poking up from among hills in a grassland.
We left the park from its northwest exit and arrived in a small town called Silver Gate, which featured a short strip with a few small motels offering rooms and cabins, some shops, and a couple of bars. It was a much more sensible and worthy place to support visitors at the edge of the park. We ate a lunch in the diner. While working on our food, our waitress (and co-owner of the place) ran outside with a small radio in hand. She was talking back to someone else about a helicopter in the air and saying, “Well, the rangers didn’t call us.” She explained to her patrons that she is an EMS provider and member of the local search and rescue group. She was anxious at the possibility of being deployed, but mused that the rangers in the helicopter may have just been looking for some hunters who wandered into the park. “If you’re hunting at the edge of the Yellowstone, you need to know where the boundaries are,” she said with more than a hint of sly.
Our next destination was the town of Red Lodge. Here I should provide some background. About forty years ago, my father hitchhiked across… well I don’t even know how far he went. But he made his last visit to Yellowstone on that trip. He left the park in a hearse (that had been converted into a camper van) and arrived in Red Lodge, Montana. He was so taken by the town that he returned to Massachusetts to bring my mother there, but it never happened. And so they remained in New England. I liked the idea of a sort of alternative homecoming, so our next destination was pinned on the map.
I pinched my nose and went back into West Yellowstone for our packing-up-coffee. I was done first and after the morning’s organization, we went toward the park. A short traffic line at the gate was quickly passed and I presented the Golden Ticket to the ranger at the checkpoint who waved us by.
We went down a forest road closely resembling the one leading to our prior campsite, with a key distinction being that there was a lot more traffic. Yellowstone gets a lot of traffic. For many visitors, it’s essentially a drive-thru park and our experience would not be so different. We stopped at a turnout and walked up to one of its famous hot springs. Sulfury steam rose from the water and its Technicolor mineral deposits along the shore captivated the eye. Visitors are led to this particular spring by a boardwalk, which is decorated with signs bluntly warning us not to leave the path or risk death.
As I left the springs, I saw a buffalo sitting in front of the tree line some distance away. Visitors along the boardwalk were snapping photos of it and I added my own camera to the volley. I was amused to hear a couple speculating on whether or not the buffalo was stuffed until it turned its head to settle the question; “Maybe it’s animatronic!”
We woke up in this wonderful valley, finding it in yet another wardrobe of light. We packed our things and continued south along the highway. The two mountain ranges on either side of us slowly withdrew from each other’s distant company. At one point, a truck’s tire burst, sending a cloud of rubber into the air and the truck swerving across its lane in front of us. The driver skillfully recovered and settled into a slower pace, allowing us to pass. At some point, we entered the territory of Idaho National Laboratories, though there was little to distinguish it from anything else except an access road rolling off toward an industrial park in the distance and aggressive, dire warnings against trespassing.
When the mountains had become nearly forgotten humps on the horizon, we encountered a fork in the highway with a little farming town built in front of it. A little circle of community coaxed an island of green crops out of sea of rough sagebrush. We turned east, bringing ourselves into the direction of Yellowstone and stopped in Rexburg, Idaho for a late breakfast of pancakes. We left town as the local police began the chore of closing down the main road on the strip for reasons we never learned. A parade maybe?
It was my turn to drive and my dad napped in the passenger seat while I took the car across farming plains outside of Rexburg. Our approach to the mountains was met with yet another forest distinguished by its own particular flavor of color palette. Sometime afternoon we reached West Yellowstone. West Yellowstone is a town at the edge of the park founded sometime around the turn of the century. Initially it had another name I’ve since forgotten, was later renamed “Yellowstone,” and after that was given the name “West Yellowstone.”
Another stop had us looking out across an scrably plain before the distant Bitterroots. Small roads followed more strands of vegetation and cows grazed in disorganized packs, taking whatever pickings they found among the shrubs. I explained to my dad that this whole section of land was owned by the Bureau of Land Management, another federal agency charged with protecting these places and one whose work I reservedly admire. The BLM (as well as the US Forest Service) holds huge sections of the western US and manages limited exploitation of the land, such as the cattle grazing we were observing and takes a very permissive stance toward recreational use like camping, hiking, and hunting. We had seen pickup trucks coupled with RVs, surrounded by the trifles of temporary yards and figured that they were occupied by ranchers and cowboys who had paid the meager fee to raise their cattle on the plains.
As we continued on, the sun fell further in the sky and we needed to find a place to stay. I pointed that once again, unless there was a posted prohibition to the country and we weren’t interfering with the grazing, we could drop our tents anywhere around us. My dad was uneasy about setting up just anywhere, noting recent hoof prints and tire marks at some of the candidate sites we looked at. At another, a cow came happily trotting in our direction when she spotted our car. He complained about the possibility of a herd of cattle being driven over us…
Well, that’s reasonable.
Carrying on, we passed a lonely cafe around on bend on the highway and beyond it found a developed campsite kept by the BLM. And a free one at that! We set up and by the time our tents were arranged, we were rewarded with the sight of the full moon creeping above one of the nearer Bitterroots. We took photos.
We swung back to the café for dinner and were greeted with smell of cigarettes. The bartender smiled, a patron at the bar turned in welcome, a dog in the corner stirred, and an elderly woman reclining in a rocking chair under a blanket nodded her head. “What can I do you?” asked the bartender, playfully sardonic. We said we were after food and he apologized, saying the grill closes at eight – ten minutes prior to our arrival. We left, a little bit dejected, but I felt some gratification for seeing that homey little scene. We returned and cooked ramen noodles on our stove by the campfire.
People often ask me if I’m lonely when I go off into the woods for a couple of days on my own. I’ll fancifully connect it to notions of perfecting idyllic solitude and, even if they don’t really comprehend such things, they understand that there’s supposed to be an element of romance by cultural rote. Henry David Thoreau and all that. In truth, it doesn’t matter if the nearest person is a room away or a mile away. Where I go to at night, this doesn’t make a difference. Crude imitations of a feeling of companionship include leaving Netflix or the radio on. But when I’m off on some mountain side, well… sometime I’ll find a way to explain to you how all woods are haunted. Those hauntings become my company.
This night was a little bit different. The Sun had left with its colors and threw the shifting lights of its twilight upon the mountains as the moon rose in its second, dimmer, sunrise. After this ceremony, the moonlight was strong enough to just give shape to the land and to blue to the sky. We walked the length of the campground. Coyotes could be heard in the distance. We speculated one pack was in a pass among the foothills and another behind us somewhere. They sang their songs and their pups chattered. They were a good haunting.
I dutifully drove back to the lodge and fetched our morning coffee. We had previously determined that our main vague waypoint, Yellowstone National Park, was not readily reachable from the spur into Idaho we had taken. So we returned to Montana and resumed our course south along Interstate 93.
We stopped for a walk in Darby, Montana, a town that has maintained an Old
West theme on its main street to such extent that even their police station is decorated with an western facade, complete with cow skull mounted over the main entry, and is called the Marshal’s Office. I wandered into a sporting goods store, but found it mediocre. We lunched at another diner. Before leaving, I wandered into a store offering handmade Stetson-style headgear with no real intent to buy and couldn’t coax the owner into conversation. Oh well, that’s perfectly fair for a tire kicker.
We reentered Idaho from a more favorable position and somewhere along the highway the landscape changed again. The plains became flatter and more arid, the mountains drew closer and more violent in shape. The color palette emphasized yellow and orange reds. We stopped for a short walk up a pass serving as the start to a long distance trail. Maybe if my companion had younger bones…
During the routine of breaking camp, I was assigned to find our morning coffee. I went back to the Missoula strip and found a Starbucks in a Target. Such a departure this trip has been from our wilderness ventures into Canada!
At a gas station in Lolo, we decided to step into the neighboring state of Idaho and vaguely set a town called Elk City as our destination. We liked the name. While setting our course beside the pumps, a stranger told my father he was the spitting image of a Forest Service doctor who died ten years ago. I began calling him “Doc.” As we broke west and entered the Bitterroot National Forest, the hilly plains became sparse pine forest upon the hills and mountains again. We saw ranches and small farms on either side of the road, but also evidence of wildfire in the previous season. Each of these little farms is marked by a ranch gate: two vertical pieces support a third horizontal beam that protrudes from each end, like serifs in text. Sadly, there was not actually a home behind each gate, likely taken in the fires.
Dad spotted a sign for the National Bison Range and immediately turned off the highway. This is something that would have been a pin on the map had we bothered with any planning ahead of time. Theodore Roosevelt, distinguished for his contributions to the modern conservation movement (and counter intuitively shooting a lot of animals in the process), among his legacies, left the National Bison Range. It is a reserve encompassing a section of these plains and some small mountains within it, for the protection of the bison.
We paid $5 to drive the roads winding about the preserve and within minutes were rewarded with the sight of buffalo silhouettes on the hillside. We rounded a bend and encountered a herd of them, with some of them actually crossing the road just a few tens of feet away from us. I frantically worked my camera, leaning far outside the window, snapping away. As I filled a memory card, I ripped it from my camera, cut open the package to a fresh one I had just purchased (but hadn’t anticipated needing so quickly!) and resumed my photography.
I woke up before my father, packed up my tent, and went for a short hike around the state park’s trails. When he rejoined the conscious, he sent me off in the car to fetch coffee. I drove back to a roadside combination café/casino (really a diner on the side of the road with slot machines) and made our purchase. Talking to the woman at the counter, I learned she was from Oregon and had a college roommate from Massachusetts. She playfully called me a “Mass ass,” but I corrected her, noting that the proper slur is “Masshole.”
Upon my return, we set off driving south again, entering the Flathead Indian Reservation again and enjoyed a drive through the country along the lakes the hills surrounding it. We took some detours to drive a few of the long dirt roads providing access to and marking the boundaries between the cattle ranches in the area. Eventually we arrived in a town along the lake and stopped at a diner called Betty’s Café – where they serve all-day breakfast! A delicious helping of scrambled eggs with sausage and the diner’s choice of potato innovations was happily enjoyed.
Moving on, we saw signs for the “Miracle of America Museum.” Anticipating some minor attraction, perhaps a cabinet of curiosities in a shack, consistent with roadside America’s reputation, we pulled off onto Memory Lane in Polson, Montana. Stepping inside, we were awed. Our six dollars for admission gave us access to an incredible collection of vintage motorcycles, carriages, and knickknacks.
My dad, Michael, and I have a tradition of attempting to do a road trip together every fall, whenever we can both spare the time. This series follows our most recent journey through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and a little bit of South Dakota (by mistake) as told in a series of messages sent to a close friend. They have been modified somewhat to remove some non-trip related personal remarks, for general copy editing, and to preserve some of the road’s secrets to keep among those who travel it.
Monday, September 12, 2016
Awoke at 5:30 in preparation for our 8:30AM departure to Minneapolis and from there, on to Kalispell, Montana. We checked our bags and I was groped at the TSA checkpoint. Our first flight was uneventful and in the second, my father and I sat next to each other. We had the woman in the window seat laughing as I apologized to her in advance for all of our bickering. As we descended near Kalispell, the plane broke the clouds and we were greeted with the sight of farmers’ fields and ranchers’ pastures forming the texture of the valley plain against the Rocky Mountains.