Author Theresa L. Goodrich presents Two Lane Gems, Vol. 2: Bison are Giant and Other Observations from an American Road Trip in serial form. Enjoy!
We’d chosen to overnight in an Extended Stay in Billings and, well rested, I practically jumped out of bed. Today was Yellowstone Day! And, AND, not only was it Yellowstone Day, it was Beartooth Highway Day!
I was a wee bit excited.
After a few days of emotional, information-packed experiences, we were ready for a pretty drive and a couple of nights in the first National Park. It was the beginning of June, and Beartooth Highway cut through the snow-capped peaks I’d been ogling the day before. From year to year, there’s no telling when this scenic drive will be open. We’d lucked out. This year, the plows cleared the final stretch on May 18, a little less than three weeks before our excursion.
Our route to Yellowstone was US-212, and although we could have taken it all the way from Belle Fourche, we would have missed Devils Tower, Sheridan, and Little Bighorn. While those destinations exacerbated our convoluted, roundabout route, they were worth the extra miles.
The road from Billings to Red Lodge was a fairly straight course through a flat plain. It looked like it was going to dead-end at a big wall of a mountain in our windshield. Through the town, 212 was lined with two-story buildings flying U.S. and Montana flags. We passed a Carnegie library, a theater marquee advertising handmade chocolates, and a church that looked like a rook. A wayside exhibit near the end of town informed us that the Beartooth Plateau was made up of the oldest exposed rocks in Montana and some of the oldest on Earth.
Five minutes out of town the road curved, and curved again, following the swerves of what was now a valley. We climbed higher. Deciduous trees gave way to evergreens. A creek (crick? spring?) gurgled and cascaded. We pulled over to listen to it for a bit, then hopped back in and continued ascending higher and higher until we reached the open gates telling us that Beartooth Highway was open for business. Charles Kuralt considered this stretch of road “the most beautiful drive in America,” and we were about to see for ourselves.
It was a partly cloudy day, and the landscape was random splotches of gray and green with streaks of snowy white. As we got higher, the valley got greener and the shoulders got steeper. More rocks, less grass. We followed the switchbacks up up up and could see where we’d be, eventually. We pulled over and jumped in the snow, startled when a man wearing ski boots came out of the woods.
Driving higher and higher, there were large swaths with no growth at all, and I imagined an avalanche clearing everything in its path. The higher we drove, the shorter the trees. Maybe they just seemed shorter, because everything else was beyond a measurable scale. Melting runoff trickled here and there, feeding the creek we’d left some time ago. It was nearly all brown now. Just a few trees holding things in their place. The blacktop, considering its annual freeze and thaw, was in excellent condition and I wondered how often they repaved it.
At 9,190 feet we pulled off at Rock Creek Vista Point. We walked to the overlook and chipmunks scampered. (That’s what they do, right? They scamper?) A raven flew and we looked over the tops of peaks and down down down into the valley below.
In the distance the clouds grew darker, so we left the vista and continued towards Yellowstone. And climbed up. And up. And up. Being the passenger, my view was a whole lot of air. There was a guardrail, at least, but I wasn’t sure how much protection it would provide. Thank goodness there wasn’t much traffic and Jim is an excellent driver.
Soon the trees were gone and we were in the clouds, driving between ever-deeper snow banks. Stakes lined the shoulder to indicate where the road was supposed to be when the snow covered the pavement completely. We entered Wyoming again. We drove through a passage where the stakes were completely buried and after a few more turns came across people skiing. Ah – that’s where that guy had come from.
The darker clouds were no longer in the distance. They were coming in fast, and lightning peppered their approach. We began descending through rain and sleet. Finally we drove into patches of blue and the storm stayed behind like a petulant child.
With the squall safely behind us, we pulled off at Beartooth Lake. It was simply breathtaking. Pines stood on half of the opposite shore, and a bare slope and butte rose out of the other, both reflected in the alpine water.
Just past the lake we crossed a tall bridge and noticed a waterfall. We pulled to the side of the road in front of a few other cars and walked back. This was unlike any waterfall I’d ever seen, or heard, or experienced. The sheer power overwhelmed the senses. I couldn’t fathom the volume of water pummeling through the canyon lined with pines, and the noise drowned out every other sound. The current was entirely froth and, despite the onslaught, a tiny tree growing out of a rock in the center held fast. We hadn’t even gotten to Yellowstone yet, and I could barely speak.
Beartooth Highway turned north back into Montana, cut through Cooke City, and 68 miles from those open gates it ended and Yellowstone National Park began. The Northeast Entrance station, like the visitor center in Devils Tower, was also constructed in 1935 and with the same rustic style. The ranger gave us our map and our Visitor Guide and pointed us in the direction of Madison Campground. I had reserved our spot back in April, somehow securing the last reservable campsite for the dates we wanted to be there.
We were soon back in Wyoming, and we’d be in that state for three nights. We wouldn’t see Montana again until we were headed back east, and then Jim would show me his childhood.
One of the tenets of fiction is creating a suspension of disbelief. The author’s goal is to construct a world that’s so real that the reader forgets it isn’t.
Mother Nature needs to work on that.
The deeper we ventured into the park, the more vivid the colors became. We were soon drenched in emerald grass and pastel blue skies and more of those bright white cotton ball clouds that seemed to show up with regularity on this journey. A herd of bison rambled and lollygagged along the side of the road. We pulled off by a wide, meandering creek studded with sandbars and smelled a hint of sulfur. This was the Lamar Valley and we were getting closer to the caldera, the hotbed of geothermal activity.
We stopped at Tower Falls because we knew we wouldn’t get back that way again. Then we drove through groves of bare lodgepole pines, remnants of a past fire surrounded by new growth.
And then, steam billowed from the earth and we were in the dragon’s lair.
Growing up in Missoula, Montana, Jim had been to Yellowstone before. He’d seen the hot breath of the burning center of the earth. For him, it was the stuff of experiences remembered and the excitement of seeing them again. For me, it was a whole new mythical, unbelievable, world.
We reached the campground a little after seven. Our sprawling site backed against the woods. Fellow campers included families, a couple of guys who slept in hammocks strung high enough that the bears couldn’t reach them, an adventure guide leading a tour, and a group of students from Teton Science Schools.
This was bear country, which meant that just about anything we weren’t wearing, sleeping on, or sleeping in, had to be secured inside Jeannie the Jeep. The idea of setting up our camp kitchen just to break it down and store it again was more than we could bear, so we settled for cold bagels and went to bed.
Tomorrow was going to be a beautiful day.
Portions of this chapter were previously published in Driving the Depression-era Daring of Beartooth Highway and A First-Timer’s Visit to Yellowstone National Park