Friday, October 14, 2011

Head East

Up to this point we’d been following an itinerary we’d sketched out before we left.  It wasn’t set in stone, but we’d made some hotel reservations and that determined an outline to our path.  But from here on in we had no plans and really hadn’t decided yet what we were going to do.  One option was to retrace our footsteps and mosey back to Grand Teton and spend the night in Jackson again.  We had loved Grand Teton and would have liked to spend more time there, and the idea of going back to the Jackson Hole Lodge and the Snake River Brewery was appealing.  But a) we’d done that and b) that would have meant a long drive on Friday to get within the radius of the Denver Airport that we had to achieve by Friday night.  Another option was to head South immediately and get back to Rocky Mountain NP, hoping that the ridge road would now be open and we could see the heights of the Rockies we’d missed.  But that looked like a time-consuming option itself and there was no guarantee we’d find joy that way.  Another option was to hang around Yellowstone for the first part of the day and then exit southeast by the quickest route … but going dead East to South Dakota intrigued us.  If we didn’t spend too much time at Yellowstone that morning and got as far East as we could that afternoon, we’d possibly be able to hit up Mount Rushmore and/or the NPs in far western South Dakota.  This was our plan.

We got up early, packed quickly (we were very used to the routine by now), and at a bit after 7:00 said a sad farewell to the Absaroka Lodge, which we really liked.  We headed uphill and went for the other breakfast place that had been recommended to us, since the Two Bit Saloon was not yet open.  This was the Eat Cafe in Wyoming MT right across the border from Montana WY, where Red Knuckles himself had been discovered (actually it was the Town Cafe in Gardiner MT, but it had “Eat” and “Cafe” on its windows and was very close to Wyoming).  We had a nice breakfast of eggs and toast (served by Mona we presume) and then picked up some things in their gift shop.  Not bad, but Red didn’t show and we were out of there soon and flying through the stone arch at the North Entrance and back up the hill, getting up to Mammoth Hot Springs by about 8:00.

Mammoth was under attack by a herd of hungry elk, who were nibbling the grass on the lawns of the historic buildings while magpies urged them on and snapped up the bugs that were disturbed in the process.  The Albright VC didn’t open until 9:00, and this was a bit of a setback because we were hoping to get another Ranger recommendation of where to hike along the road out toward the Towers-Roosevelt section and further to the Northeast Entrance.  Oh well, we had studied the advertised options at Towers-Roosevelt and settled on stopping at the Roosevelt Lodge and hiking on the Lost Lake trail, which promised a 2-3 hour trek and possible bear encounters.  This sounded like just what we wanted before hitting the dusty trail East.

We stopped at pretty little Undine Falls on the way and also at several pull-offs to take pictures of large elk and bison herds.  At one point I had to direct traffic while a line of bison lumbered across the road.  One herd was arrayed nicely around a small pond and one of them was delighting himself in kicking up the dirt and then throwing himself down and rolling in it, over and over.  The day was overcast and a little chilly but one of those promising days when you felt the sun might break out at any time.  We saw something red in the road and stopped, then realized it was a fox with a large, bottle-brush tail.  He walked right along the road with absolutely no fear of humans … much different than any fox we’d ever seen.  He was listening along the verge of the pavement for the noises of small rodents, ready to dive in after them at any point.

Made it to Roosevelt Lodge at 9:15 and encountered setback two of that morning: the lodge was closed and its large split-rail gate was swung shut.  The trailhead was up the road behind the Lodge and we hated to walk through a closed gate … did this mean that the trail itself was closed??  There was a Ranger Station nearby so we drove over to it to ask; it was closed but the Ranger was just leaving to do his rounds and stopped to talk to us:

“We’d planned to hike on the Lost Lake trail today,” we said. 
He nodded and said, “The trailhead’s up behind the Lodge.”
“But the gate at the Lodge is closed,” we said.  “Can we go up there anyway?”
“Well,” he said, “How’s your bear safety?  Do you know what to do if you see one?”
“Oh yes,” we said.  We’d been reading signs during the entire trip on how to handle bear encounters and we felt we were quite prepared.  “Uh, we have whistles!”
“Oh don’t use whistles!” he said.  That’ll just make them curious.”  He looked us over.  “Do you have bear pepper spray?” he asked.
“No we don’t,” we said, crestfallen.  “The apothecary in Estes Park laughed at us when we asked for it!”
“Oh,” he said.  “Well tell you what, follow me.”

He started up his Ranger-mobile and we started our engine and followed him way up the hill into the Ranger encampment (where normal people aren’t supposed to go), up to his personal truck.  He got out and got his canister of pepper spray (in a nifty holster) from the front seat and gave me a quick lesson in how to use it.  “Now keep this on your belt and always ready,” he said.  “Bring it back and leave it in my truck when you’re done.  You probably won’t have to use it, but…” he mumbled as he turned away.  He told us his name in case we were stopped by other Rangers when we came back.

This encounter made us a little nervous, but there was no turning back now.  We had to do that trail!  We returned to the parking lot in front of the Lodge, loaded up all our stuff, including the curiosity-inducing whistles (we figured we could throw them at least), water, cameras, and extra clothes.  The day had gotten even more chilly and there was a cold wind that might get stronger as time went along.  We ducked through the rail fence and hiked up among the numerous deserted cabins that surrounded the Lodge.  A small work crew was putting the last touches on closing down the plumbing there and we felt that the place possibly wasn’t as spooky as we had at first thought.  Then we got up into the woods behind the Lodge, found the trailhead, and there was a big “Due to BEAR DANGER, area beyond this sign CLOSED!” sign blocking it.  We didn’t know what to do!  We hated to walk through a sign saying “closed” and we definitely didn’t want to get eaten by bears, but the Ranger had as much as told us we could hike on this trail and he’d even armed us.  We didn’t think he was setting us up to get eaten, but then again…

We hesitated for a bit and then figured well what the hell, and started slowly up the path, which soon started to switchback sharply up a steep hill.  The woods were pretty open there and we kept a sharp lookout above and around us, as well as talking more and louder than we usually do … talking loudly is the best way to warn bears of your presence and encourage them to leave the area before you arrive.  We got up to the top of the hill and strolled along a beautiful ridge, at the end of which the path wound down into a fold of the hill that sheltered Lost Lake.  Late Fall wildflowers, water reeds, spruce and pines across the lake, and vistas of rolling hills covered with tall grass and sage were delightful.  But what was incredible was the number of tracks we saw in the trail and the surrounding area: horse, bison, pronghorn antelope, probably coyotes (or large foxes), waterfowl, and a few human boot prints.  Just standing still we could see more animal tracks than you’d see in a whole day of hiking back East, like this was some kind of highway or a meeting place in Narnia.  Oh, and I forgot to mention that we saw one very large and very distinct black bear print (we had learned the difference from a grizzly print back at the VC in Grand Teton).  And there was all kinds of scat too: coyote/whatever, huge piles of bison shit everywhere, and some very large bear scat filled with hair (no whistles though).  But none of the bear scat we saw was fresh and we saw no bears that whole hike.

We wound around past the lake and got to a draw between two steep hillsides that was screaming “bear ambush site!”  There were more CLOSED signs there and we hesitated again, but we felt that we were in for a penny and so might as well go in for a pound and continued on the trail, talking and clapping while we looked nervously around every corner.  Yes it was slow and nerve-racking, but the scenery was beautiful and we weren’t about to turn back now.  We passed the back of the Petrified Tree parking area, where some other tourists tried not to look at the people who were walking on a closed trail and were obvious bear bait, and then the trail went steeply uphill again and offered us even more lovely far views of endless meadows and rolling hills, and little hollows where bears were probably plotting against us.  The trail turned back downhill sharply after we’d been on it for three miles or so and switchbacked down through a meadow with scattered, lightning-struck Lodgepole pines to the back of the Ranger station and then eventually to the back of the Lodge.

We got all the way around to the trailhead without seeing a thing and laughed a bit with relief, that we had had such a wonderful hike and had had absolutely no encounters with wildlife (except for the tourists at the parking area).  We figured when we made it back to the car maybe a bear would pop out from behind it and say BOO!  Wound down through the cabins at the Lodge, ducked back through the rail fence, hit the vault toilets, and then drove back to the Ranger station to return the pepper spray.  We drove up into the compound and Sarah left it in the Ranger’s truck’s front seat along with a note she’d written, and then another Ranger (dressed to the nines in Ranger garb) held out a gloved hand to stop us.  I rolled down the window and told her it was all right, that John had lent us his bear spray and we were returning it.  She said “OH!” … and we all laughed that the pepper spray canister did look a bit like a pipe bomb.  Then she got a serious look on her face, “So where did you hike?” she asked.  I started to tell her that we’d gone on the Lost Lake trail and then saw her face turn even grimmer and I thought “Uh Oh!”

“Did you not see that the trail was CLOSED?” she asked with a menacing rising in tone.
“YES!” we told her (please don’t shoot us lady!).  “But John said it was all right to hike there, he knew we were going there!!”
“That’s strange that he approved of it,” she said.  “The reason we closed that trail is that there was a large bison carcass in that draw between the two steep hills.”

Well, we almost fainted at that one but told her that if we had seen a carcass we definitely would have turned back (every bear-safety sign tells you that).  She didn’t seem to quite believe us but let us go with a stern look.  Ever since that episode I go crazy wondering what the third act of this play was??

Act One, scene one: Sarah and Jon drive into Yellowstone and discuss where to hike.
Act One, scene two: Sarah and Jon look sad in front of closed Lodge gate.
Act One, scene three: Ranger John gives pepper spray demonstration and sends Sarah and Jon skipping away to their destiny.
Act Two, scene one: Sarah and Jon hike up to CLOSED sign, long tortured speeches about moral responsibility ensue.
Act Two, scene two: Sarah and Jon comically hike along while arguing about 70s TV shows to keep bears away.
Act Two, scene three: The Ominous Other Ranger gives Sarah and Jon a hard time about hiking on a closed trail.
Act Three: Ranger John and the Ominous Other Ranger meet and ?????

I figure Act Three would probably be either:

1. Ranger John laughs gently at the OO Ranger and says, “Oh that carcass has been gone for a while and I’m just about to re-open that trail.  Those folks were perfectly safe.”
2. Ranger John says, “Oh My God, I forgot that trail was closed!!  I sent those poor people to THEIR DOOM!!!”
3. Ranger John and the OO Ranger take off their human disguises to reveal their true ursine forms.  “I can’t believe those people escaped the clever trap we laid for them!” “Rats, foiled again!!”

We were out of there a bit after noon and we turned off towards the Northeast Entrance.  But there were miles and miles of Yellowstone still to traverse and we saw more and more herds of bison, beautiful rivers, and majestic hills.  We were slightly bummed though: all this and we had not seen a single bear!!  Geez, what did you have to do?  And then we turned a corner by the Lamar River and saw cars sprawled all over the road while people lined up their cameras.  Could it be?  Yes it was, a lone grizzly fishing in the river about 50 yards away from us.  We pulled over and didn’t get out of the car, but had a great view of him swirling his arms and torso around in one branch of the small river, split by a low island.  He found no fish there and so trundled his huge mass across the rise and over to the other half of the river, where he almost totally submerged himself, watching upstream for signs of fish, and then disgustedly got out, shook himself off, and started to lumber away.  A lone pronghorn stood as still as he possibly could while all this went on, trying to convince the grizzly that he was just one of the tourists.

Yay!  We had seen a bear!!  We high-fived and then hit the road for the Northeast Entrance, psychologically ready to put Yellowstone, mountains, and grizzlies behind us … we were headed for South Dakota.  There was only one problem: there was much, much, much more of Montana and Wyoming to deal with first.

Actually this was not a problem and was one of the most incredible, breathtaking parts of the trip.  We started to go up and up again along Soda Butte Creek and passed between the gorgeous, snow-covered and rocky Barronette Peak on our left, looking like some ancient Mayan tomb on an impossibly huge scale, and the steep and craggy Thunderer and Abiathar Peak on our right.  We crossed back into Montana and got dumped out the Northeast Entrance into the sister towns of Silver Gate (7388 feet) and then Cook City, still going up and up past thick trees and log houses.  We were on the precarious Beartooth Highway, part of which was already closed for the year.  We pulled over and had a few donuts and a grapefruit for a quick lunch where a river wound its way down the cliffs, and then headed back uphill.  We topped off at Colter Pass at 8040 feet and several miles past that the road split: the fork to our left up to Red Lodge was closed for the winter already but we followed the one to the right and started downhill on route 296, also known as the Chief Joseph Highway.  This was thick northern woodland like you wouldn’t believe, mixed in with steep bare hillsides of sharp rock, miles and miles of green and brown and gray mixed with swaths of snow lurking in the crevices.

Woops … we thought that now we were on our way downhill, but there were many miles of ups and downs, twists and turns, switchbacks and precarious straightaways to go.  We crested the shoulder of Windy Mountain and then stopped at Dead Indian Pass (8048 feet) to gape at the rugged Absaroka Range to our southwest and the Beartooth Mountains to our northeast.  They had an informational kiosk there and I read all about Chief Joseph leading his Nez Perce tribe out of the Yellowstone valley just steps ahead of the US Cavalry who were out for their blood … it was soon after the Battle of Little Big Horn and the US Army wanted to kill.  The tribe reached that pass and split up, then near there in an open meadow the horsemen ran their steeds around and around in a circle to make a confusing mishmash and then backtracked down to Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone to return to Idaho.  The US trackers couldn’t figure out which way they had gone and the only capture they made was of a dead warrior who was left on a nearby peak …hence the name of the pass.  Chief Joseph is all right with me and is one of the heroes of our Western heritage.  White or red, we’re all Americans and we’re still learning how to live together on this incredible continent.

Wow, this was beautiful and was just a small bit of northernWyoming.  We shot downhill after that to route 120 into Cody WY (5016 feet) and of course the prettiness stopped and the signs and trash heaps commenced.  We got gas and then followed Alt 14 out of town to the northeast again.  This is a civilized, agricultural valley along the Shoshone River in a gap between mountain ranges in northern Wyoming.  The route was flat for miles and miles, lined with potato farms and train tracks on each side (we saw several mountains of potatoes with dump trucks dumping more on them, kind of an incredible sight itself), and then passed slowly downhill towards the dammed lake of the Bighorn River in the Bighorn Canyon NRA.  We started to mellow out, and then the road dropped its mantle of civilization like a shoddy garment and the wild started again.  OK, the first bit of the uphill was graded and the highway curves were built up, but we were screaming uphill again into the way high and lonesome Bighorn NF.  [Here’s a video you’ve gotta see of going down the side of the mountains we went up.]

You might wonder how many times I’m going to say it, but this was it.  We were up above the sage, above the pines, above the aspens, up where the drifting October snow was deep and the vistas were endless and the sky was uninterrupted by anything.  We passed the Medicine Wheel NHS and then up to the unnamed summit at 9430 feet, where the temperature had dropped to the 20s.  We stopped there and got out of the car to see the most incredible views and feel the most incredible wind, height, exhilaration you could imagine.  The wind was so strong and wild that we had to hold our glasses on our faces or they would have been whipped away into the blue, white, and black distance.  And then it went on from there: the East side of the Bighorn Mountains stretches on for miles and runs downhill very gradually over those miles.  It seemed we were descending slowly through a dearth of oxygen but a surfeit of sky over an expanse without end as far vistas enticed us forward to the East, the sun dropped slowly behind us and drew our shadows out in front of us, and the high plains and snow went on and on and slowly disappeared.  Up in the heights the only signs of civilization had been ranchers, dragging trailers full of horses or snowmobiles or ATVs to check on their cows, adrift on fields of sparse grass up in the sky.  As we descended along the Tongue River to Dayton (3926 feet) and Ranchester, civilization with all its trappings started up again and we saw where those ranchers lived, in small but well-heeled towns centered on their high school football fields.

I think it was at this point that we rolled through a small town and noticed everyone gathering in the dusty town square.  We pulled over and I asked a guy what was going on.

“They’re gonna hang Brown Paper Pete!” he told me.
“Brown Paper Pete?” I said.
“Everybody knows Brown Paper Pete!” he said indignantly.  “Brown paper chaps, brown paper vest, brown paper hat …” he went on helpfully.
“Well what are they going to hang him for?” I asked.
Rustlin’” he said, hurrying away.

Wait, what did that sign say?  We were finally approaching the interstate we’d seen on the map of Wyoming, back when we thought we knew where we were going!  Seriously, the Absarokas and the Bighorns had blown our minds so much … we were amazed that we hadn’t been pasted into the sky by the wind and the endlessness of it all.  Great stuff.  Anyway, we were back on the interstate now (highway 90 to complete the troika, we’d gone as far South as 70 and were on 80 a bit in southern Wyoming) and we bumped the cruise control up to 80MPH and wondered how far we’d get that night.  It was already 5:23 when we hit 90 and Sarah started frantically working her Kindle II, trying to pick up a 4G signal long enough to get some web-based information on hotels between here and there.  We settled on a Best Western in Gillette WY and watched the miles roll by as we cruised.

Pulled off at exit 124 onto route 50 around 7:00.  In ninety minutes on the super-highway we’d done over half as many miles as we had in five hours over the mountains that afternoon.  We checked into the Best Western Tower West Lodge in the busy town of Gillette (4544 feet), and they took pity on us and give us free drink coupons for their bar and discounted breakfast coupons for the morning.  That was great with us and we were totally fine with unloading the car into our second-floor room in their huge hotel, staggering to the hotel restaurant and bar for some free drinks, and having dinner right there: the small steak for Sarah (and baked potato with bacon, cheese, and sour cream) and the Caesar with chicken for me.  This was serious cattle country and the guys at the next table were eating more beef (they were pretty beefy themselves) than you would find on all the tables at an East coast restaurant.  Even my chicken tasted of beef (or maybe that was just my imagination).

Back to the room for download, blog, charge, and post … there were strange noises in the background but we fell asleep quickly.

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