The strains of an African tune filled the car as we cruised through the wildly varying landscapes – from mountains to valleys, rivers to lakes and dense forests to open meadows. 700 miles of these over 5 days across Montana and Wyoming. We were graduating from being just good road trippers to real campers and adventurers.
It was nearing the end of one of the best years of my life. And it was the end of the summer of 2012. We decided to end it on a high note by visiting Yellowstone and Grand Teton – two of the finest national parks in the US.
Labor day weekend unlike many other long weekends is usually very busy since it’s the last weekend before fall starts and the gloom of winter sets in soon after. We decided to pick these two parks since they are among the lesser visited parks and because of the lack of proximity to large cities do not get as many visitors as parks like Yosemite or the Great Smokey Mountains.
We landed in Billings, Montana and started driving to Red Lodge which is an hour away. It’s the last town before we start ascending into the treacherous Beartooth Highway. There is something about small towns in the US that I love in the way they welcome travelers, the little cafes and bars that remain engraved in your memories and those people you meet along the way. The plan was to spend one night in Red Lodge and start early next morning towards Yellowstone National Park (YNP) via Beartooth highway.
The Yodeler Motel towards the edge of the tiny town of Red Lodge provided great accommodation. You could actually walk the whole length of the town in about 10 minutes. As we shopped for supplies for our camping in YNP, we marveled at the various little bars and cafes dotting the singular street comprising the town. We decided to stop by the Bar at the Pollard for a couple of beers and snacks. One of the great pastimes that we have is creating background stories of people we come across during our travels. Our waiter seemed to be a recovering addict and we had to give it to him for trying – especially in this tiny town where it is so easy to get sucked into depression and relapse. He seemed to be making a good effort even with his smokes in between serving us. We had a couple of pints of Guinness while remembering Sid’s Birthday. The taste of Guinness in the US is nowhere close to that in Australia – or maybe we just believe what we want to.
We decided to rest for a while because we were tired with the 8 hour long flight and later decided to go for dinner at the Bridge Creek Back Country Wine Bar and Kitchen – long name but then it lives up to it. One of the best things about traveling in US is the variety of local brews you find in every town and state. I tried the Beltian brewed in Belt, MT and it turned out to be the best Belgian White I have tasted so far.
The walk back was peaceful, calm and cold. Red Lodge is nestled among mountains such that in every direction you see you find mountains staring down on you. They are like guardian angels watching over you while you sleep. Maybe that’s what keeps the people in such towns happy and satisfied. I thought about all those nights we spend battling our fears and worries in big cities. I wondered if what was needed was to quit all those pipe dreams and do something worthwhile with your life. Maybe what was needed was to move to one of these towns and spend the rest of your life there. Maybe we were just too tied down. Maybe it was all in the head.
We woke up early and decided to have breakfast in Red Lodge before heading out into the mountains. Cafe Regis was a family run cafe which served an amazing breakfast which set us up until lunch. It was time to start driving towards YNP. The Beartooth highway is labeled as one of the most scenic drives in the US. It is a treacherous highway which goes through the Beartooth pass at nearly 11,000 ft altitude. It starts at Red Lodge and ends in Cooke city which is just before the YNP north east gate. It is only open during the summer months and even of then most of the highest peaks still have snow on them. It is a game of speed, fear and nature. You drive through quick switchbacks and short straights – always a game of fear versus nature. The entire way is like a never ending postcard. Green slopes and sharp cliffs along with lakes and creeks make it complete.
We stopped at a lake for a smoke and a few photographs. We met a biker fumbling with his helmet. He was a middle aged man riding a Harley Davidson motorcycle with a camera mounted helmet and was trying to create a video for his wife who couldnt come on the trip. He gave us some advice on the best parts of YNP and Teton and we were then on our way. We were bubbling with excitement of our first night in YNP and our first camping trip together. We finally made it to the park at 4 pm and decided to take a look at lower falls before we headed to the campsite. By 5 pm we reached the Canyon campground and found our campsite located in loop B. We now had to put to use all the rental equipment we had picked up from Billings, MT. For Neha it was the first time pitching a tent and it was fun. It was quite similar to other tents that I have used in the past and we had it up in no time. Once we were set with everything we decided to have a couple of beers and then started the fire. This is always the most difficult part. Luckily this time we were prepared and had some fire starters. And of course there are always the helpful neighbors who pitched in with some paper and twigs.
Nights in campgrounds are eerily silent. It’s a test of your patience and your comfort level with your companion. You can hear yourself breathe and every thought gets magnified multiple times. You’re afraid of someone hearing your thoughts, your apprehensions and your deepest secrets. But here in this world no one is an enemy. No one passes judgements except yourself. You think about your ancestors and how they survived in this hostile environment, how they battled with themselves more than with the forces of nature or wild animals and you realize how vain city life is. The dark, caressing shadows of the night rock you into a soulful sleep hoping you would wake up a different man.
Next morning was spent wrapping up the remains of the night’s camping and memories to last a lifetime. We drove off in search of another eventful day. We spent the better part of the day visiting the Sulfurous geysers and marveling at nature’s beauty. At Grand Prismatic Springs we were disappointed by the view from the ground. So we decided to hike up a nearby hill to view it from a vantage point near Fairy Falls Hill. Our climb was tense since it was a back-country trail and there was the inherent fear of bears. The hike was steep, short and strenuous but in the end the view was beautiful. We almost pitied the hundreds of people who were missing out on this experience.
Next up was a long trek to Lone Star Geyser. This was a backcountry trail and was infested with bears. It was a 6 mile long walk and we had to be very careful. It was my first experience with fear of a different kind. Being city bred I never had to worry or fear about animals and such. This was different. It was just you in the middle of the forest with a can of bear spray hoping it would be sufficient to defend against the beast. The trek was long and tiring but I think in the end it was worth every yard of the long long walk. At end of the trek we came across a clearing with a large stone spouting steam and standing graciously in the middle of the open space as if guarding its territory. The lone star geyser erupts every 3 hours and we were patient enough to wait for an hour and a half for the next eruption. It was magnificent. As we made our way back we came a fresh set of bear prints on the wet soil, but luckily no freak encounter with one.
Next up was a trip to Jackson Hole. It was a good 3 hour drive from Yellowstone while passing through the Grand Teton national park. On the way we came across Lake Lewis and decided to spend some time there and have a beer. It was serene and calm. We were alone and sitting there quietly hearing the little waves of the lake crashing against the boundary. It was a moment frozen in time and something I would remember forever. We always manage to carve a private spot right out of the madness wherever we go. This was one of those.
We continued on to Jackson Hole which was a beautiful little ski town built on tourism. We had some fun with the toboggan ride and a trip to the highest ski lift in the USA. The way back to Yellowstone was eventful with at least three separate animal sightings. We saw grizzly bears, elk and pronghorn deer. All during the same drive.
Soon as we reached back to our cabin, we started preparing to leave the next morning. We knew the trip was over, but it was the end of a terrific year together and the start of something new. Out there over the horizon there were many roads untraveled and many cities beckoning us. It was time to look to the future to all those road trips, the happiness of being in a foreign land and melancholic last evenings. It was time to look South, to the land of the Incas.