The Return Trip Part 2: Wyoming & Montana
Anuk and I left Jackson Hole and headed for a campsite I found about an hour away in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. It was off the beaten track, just a few campsites widely spread out, no amenities, and totally free, but the best part was that it was in full view of the Tetons. Coco scrambled up the rocky road, and we found an empty campsite in a dirt clearing nestled between the sage brush and the quiet road with the forest growing up on the far side. There was a sign pointing out that this was indeed a campsite and a firm reminder to practice bear safety. I wondered again if I would see a bear, and prayed that I wouldn’t. I set up camp and we settled in for the night.
The sun set over the Tetons shamelessly boasting the glory of the natural earth; the simple combination of rock and sunlight turned into beauty beyond words. I took a couple photos, but I knew that they wouldn’t do this place any justice. I sat in my camp chair and attempted to absorb the moment in that quiet nook of Wyoming. I was thankful more than ever to be alone with Anuk with the freedom to chose our next steps. I ate a simple warm dinner as the temperature started to creep down into the forties, and I considered our options as we settled in for the night. I had grown accustomed to taking this trip one day at a time, open to the opportunities that arose and the suggestions of locals and fellow travelers. This made every day a new adventure to discover. I had little to no reception here so I needed to follow road signs to get back north through the Tetons and Yellowstone the next day, Google Maps was no longer of any help without data reception. I studied my road atlas and kept it open to the state of Wyoming on my dashboard.
The new day warmed quickly as the sun rose, and I pealed off layers as I broke camp. I was surprised to be greeted by cowboys who led horseback tours on a nearby trail in the sage brush. The first horse scared Anuk, and she did her best to leap into my arms and then hid in the car. I guess I wasn’t so far off the beaten track after all. The wild is getting smaller and smaller.It seemed that in Wyoming the wild is packaged and sold to tourists on horseback. I was a tourist too; I paid for the “Gold Roughing-It” package with a loose plan that I figured out moment by moment. It was worth every sacrifice and every penny!
We headed back north on almost the same route through Grand Tetons and Yellowstone as the day before. We hiked around a lake in the Tetons to capture the still reflection of the mountains in the water, and I found a chapel for a much needed pause. It reminded me of the time I found solace and protection from the rain next to a statue of Mary outside of a Catholic church when I wandered the streets of Singapore. Both moments were the result of searching and finding a place of security, an oasis of stillness in this life of constant motion, where a single prayer is answered with, “Yes.” Both moments were overwhelming in a way where words are useless, and all I could do was cry.
When we continued north through the Tetons, we ran into bumper to bumper traffic; thankfully the view was nice. I guess a crew was painting new lines on the road. What a contrast of nature and civilization colliding for the low low price of $35. We finally started moving again and made our way back into Yellowstone. It was an erie déjà vu seeing the same spots again now tainted. Even now, I still get nauseous when I think of Yellowstone and the man I hope to never see again. But we stopped at new spots along the way to hike around and take photos where there weren’t any people. The weather was a perfect 60-70 degrees, sunny with a pleasant breeze.
There was a waterfall along the way which I thought could be a good stop. I saw a couple walking their dog and presumed that I could bring Anuk along. But the signs leading to the paved trail said otherwise. I talked to the couple about it, and they said that the took turns looking at the sites in Yellowstone while one would watch the dog. Yellowstone isn’t a dog friendly place. The husband was gracious enough to also watch Anuk while the wife and I walked the short distance to the falls, waited our turn to get a clear view of it, and took a photo. What a waste of digital space; the waterfall was totally anticlimactic. I thanked the couple and retrieved Anuk. We made our way through the crowd eating ice cream, pausing several times to let children and their parents say ‘hello’ to Anuk, and then we hopped back in the car and continued on our way.
I heaved a huge sigh of relief when we finally exited the North-East entrance to the park. We were greeted by ‘Welcome to Montana’ signs, and then the road brought us back into Wyoming. I found a campground in Shoshone National Forest in a place called Crazy Creek. I picked a campsite with a view of the BearTooth Mountains, and I watched the sun set red over them looking both formidable and amazing. There was a ranch in the creek valley below. It looked like a slice of real Wyoming, picturesque and inviting to the rural life. The night was chilly, in the 40s for sure, my fingers tingled and started to go numb. I met several of my fellow campers who were intrigued by my Florida plates and puppy companion (she makes friends everywhere). They gave me recommendations of places visit and which to avoid in Montana. I drew stars next to cities and a line along a route to get me there. I found a tiny red squiggle of a road that led north into a town called Red Lodge. My plan was to drive there the following day, find a coffee shop, research/download maps for the road ahead (it was tough reading a road atlas while driving) and pick up some food provisions.
That little red squiggle of a road (the 212) turned out to be one of the most jaw-dropping, breath-taking drives and highlights to my whole trip. Its called Beartooth Pass, and it led up into the snow-capped mountains that I saw in the distance. There were impossibly blue mountain lakes, edged with rich evergreen trees and lush grass attempted to cover the flecks of white rock all around. The sturdy mountains reached up to touch the bright blue sky. I saw dozens of places I wanted to stop and explore. One place I saw had many tiny pools leading one to another with water so clear I could see the rocks on the bottom. My one regret in life is that I didn’t stop there; it was a place from a dream I wish I had. The two-lane road wound tightly around S-turns hugging sheer drop-offs that made for slow driving and there was little room to pull off anywhere, so stopping was rarely an option. And it continued to get better as the road wound higher and higher until I was actually face to face with the snow I had seen below. It was unmelted in the sunny 50-something degree weather at 10,947 feet. I wondered how cold it got there at night in the middle of summer.
Winding down the Montana side was grayer, drier and rockier. There was less to see and more steep cliffs to avoid certain death, so I kept my eyes glued to the road. I found out later that snow storms sometimes hit Beartooth Pass in the summer, making the road impassable, and one had even hit in 2019 on the first day of summer. It was hard to imagine a snow storm on such a beautiful sunny day.
I made small talk with locals at the coffee shop and found my best route to Helena, MO. The men I met and saw were friendly and generally and very easy on the eyes; Montana had its appeal. The women however were rarely friendly. The young woman at the grocery store checkout was very friendly to the man in front of me but wouldn’t even acknowledge me. I thought it was just her. Then later I stopped to use a bathroom at a small grocery store where a sign said “Restroom for customers only.” I figured I could easily buy a bag of ice, a constant need for preserving my food. When I asked the older lady at the counter for the key, she very rudely reiterated the sign. I told her I would indeed be buying something but needed the restroom first. When I returned the key she glared at me. She rang me up for several items and attempted to be nice, but her kindness was useless at this point.
The afternoon was gray and chilly and I took Anuk for a walk across the street where there was a tiny fenced in ‘run’ for dogs to do their business. I walked her around it; I had no intentions of subjecting her to that sad patch of dirt. There are many places of staggering beauty in the United States, and there are some that are just downright depressing; I left this one far behind.
Time was always biting at my ankles, driving me onward to keep going so I could make camp before dark. I pulled into Moose Creek Campgrounds in Helena National Forest ($5/night), and I found a spot in front of a rock face and paid for two nights. There were toilets here, no running water, but there was a little river. I gathered water from the river for a bucket bath and for washing my dishes; it was ideal! I was told later that drug deals went on near the entrance of the campgrounds, but luckily I was set up near others at the ‘nice’ side of the campgrounds.
The next day I found a road that was the rockiest most dangerous mountain road I have ever driven on in my Mini Cooper to hike to a trail head with Anuk that we never found. Every driver we passed on the way back down engaged me in friendly conversation. I guess these men were curious what I was doing out there in the middle of nowhere. I think women might be in short supply in this part of the country? Back at camp, I took a cold bucket shower using my car doors as ‘privacy’ and ate an early dinner (a peanut butter and bagel sandwich) before the rain came at 6pm. It turns out my propane tank had a leak and it ran out of gas, so I couldn’t warm water for my bath, cook dinner or make coffee the next day. But I did have leftover coffee from the coffee shop in Red Lodge which would be enough for a few sips in the morning. It didn’t bother me too much me at this point in the trip. I settled into my tent when the rain came and began to journal.
When I came out to use the restroom, I met some of my camping neighbors who’s dog Ruby was eager to say hello. They invited me to join them for some beers out of the rain in their camp trailer. I accepted and brought over some Montana craft beers, and they shared their Bud Lights. Anuk and Ruby played together marvelously in and out of the rain, even cuddling up together at one point. My neighbors were three guys who were camping there for the weekend to hunt nearby. Two of them were brothers from Minnesota, one lived in Helena and the other had just driven in from Minnesota. They definitely had the iconic Minnesota accent. And the third guy was born and raised in Montana.
They introduced me to butt darts, sheepishly ate their giant hunks of smoked meat and kept referring to themselves as the Clampetts. I guess they were a bit self-conscious being around a vegan from Florida, not that my life was any fancier than theirs. They did not change my opinion of guys from Montana (even if two were really from Minnesota). They were polite, friendly, and kept handing me drinks even before I finished what I had. They were perfect gentlemen and made what could have been a dreary night in the rain into one of my best nights camping. Sadly I can’t remember their names, I should have taken better notes, and the only photo I took was of Anuk and Ruby curled up together, but I would thank them for their hospitality if I could.
I declined the Minnesota brother’s invitation to carry a quarter of the deer they would be hunting the next day, and made my way instead north to Glacier National Park where they assured me was the most likely place to get attacked by a bear. I would just have to take my chances.