Friday, Septermber 16
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.”
I hate West Yellowstone.
Thursday, September 15
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…
Wednesday, September 14
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.