WRT IV: On and Off the Beaten Path

This is part one of two on a recent western road trip.

Another year, another hiking adventure somewhere in the West. The gang is all here: Jim, the founding father of these hikes whom I have yet to travel with; Ed, who is methodically knocking out sections of the nation’s great trails; my Uncle Bob, our fearless leader; Amy and Betsy, our moral support and frequently our source of entertainment; and my cousins Rob and Alex. We are set to disappear for four nights into the backcountry.

The Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness contains just shy of one million acres of National Forest lands across its namesake mountain ranges in Wyoming and Montana. It is best known for the Beartooth Highway, a 1930s engineering marvel that maneuvers some of America’s most spectacular switchbacks on its nearly 6,000-foot climb before disgorging its travelers into the northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park. After arriving in Red Lodge, I take part in the expedition to drop two vehicles at the Clarks Fork trailhead up along the pass. We will come here when we get off the Beaten Path, the name of the trail we will hike this year.

The exact length of the Beaten Path is a source of dispute on our hike. Most official sources put it somewhere in the neighborhood of 26 miles, while a map in my possession pins it at 27.5, and several segments tracked by step counters suggest the real number may be closer to 30. Regardless, it does not owe its beaten status to its ease: it is a rugged climb up above the tree line. The trail provides views of 16 lakes, countless waterfalls, and offers no shortage of inviting off-trail scrambles up toward higher peaks. Most through hikers begin at the Beartooth Highway and make their way down to East Rosebud Lake, a course that leads to a net loss of 2,000 feet of elevation; as suckers for a good view, however, we trust accounts that tell us the longer slog from East Rosebud is the more dramatic way.

The hike begins at an elevation of about 6,200 feet at East Rosebud, where a large trailhead sits at the end of a gravel road for which the word “washboard” cannot quite do justice. The Beaten Path follows two creeks for nearly its entire length, climbing up into the mountains along the valley carved by Rosebud Creek and then back down along Russell. Our first climbs take us past towering serrated spires of rock: the bears’ teeth that gave these mountains their names are not literal. Lunch comes in the shade along the placid waters of Elk Lake, where several families have day-hiked in for picnics and fishing. But after Elk, the trail takes on a new tenor. An ascent begins through a boulder field, baking in midday sun, and us three millennials in the party set off at our own pace so that we can establish camp and come back to relieve any stragglers of their burdens. The altitude has some affect on Alex, who also has the indignity of needing to rescue his hat from a pool in the creek when a strong wind blasts it off on the bridge across the outlet of Rimrock Lake. The scenery forgives such misfortune, however: the falls below Rimrock and its turquoise waters tucked between the rock faces ensure us we’re climbing toward a Shangri-La.

A few more climbs, a few more bends, and we’re above Rainbow Lake, an even more vivid azure pool. We wrap along a ledge of scree to a meadow on its far end, which is our home for the first night. We dine and toast to the late Mary Ellen, who joined this crew on its very first venture into this same wilderness a decade ago. I sleep poorly. The next morning, we have our customary slow start before we begin switching up from Rainbow Lake with repeated views back. The next landmark, Lake at the Falls, lives up to its name, the waters tumbling down from great heights into its substantial depths. We eat at the outlet of Doogan Lake, where the exposed granite rising from the creek evokes the glacier-worn Canadian Shield in my mind; at the lake’s far end, Impasse Falls provides the most dramatic cascade of the trail.

Today the advance party consists of just two: Rob and I fly on up to the far end of Dewey Lake, where we scout out a camp in a few depressions between its rocky knobs and again act as the cavalry. We recover easily enough, though: debate through dinner is vibrant as ever, and later, Rob, Amy, and I spend an impromptu evening on the rocks over the lake, watching as the stars come out, bright as in Joshua Tree or the Boundary Waters and tonight enhanced by the peak of the Perseids meteor shower. However beaten this path may be, it is stunning.

In the morning I finally concede and take my first dump of the trip. Digging a hole with a trowel is perhaps the most exasperating wilderness task, but the satisfaction that comes from a successful purge can make a day. As such, I’m in good form even when the trail out from camp, despite a seemingly tamer elevation profile, proves just as rugged. Above Dewey the trees, already reduced to nothing but high-altitude conifers, begin to thin into alpine meadows dotted with pools of meltwater and rainbows of wildflowers. Snow fields remain on nearby peaks at similar elevations, and after a rest that somehow remains tiring amid plateau-top wind and relentless sun, we come to Fossil Lake, an austere, sprawling basin above the tree line that is the source of Rosebud Creek.

Bob says our time above the tree line will be life-changing. My 2021 to date has been one of tedium, delight in things that are only fun because they were not much available over the previous year and brightened by an usually large number of escapes to other places. July in particular was freighted by weighty family events of very different flavors, and while I do not normally advocate for running away from things, a week and a half somewhere else was definitely in order. Pent-up energy erupts in bursts up and down these slopes, and no lack of sleep can slow me. Finally, up here near the top of the world, I find a comfortable pace.

We wrap around Fossil’s probing arms and make a brief climb to the height of land on this hike, a small mound of stones at 10,000 feet. This feels like something one might find in the Himalaya, and I half expect to see Buddhist prayer flags fluttering around the stones. We make our contributions to the pile and begin the descent of Russell Creek, the relentless sun sapping our energy. We come to a crossroads of sorts between Unnamed Lake with Island and Ouzel Lake, struggling to tell which campsite is the one other hikers told us to take, but Alex finds a sprawling one just up from Ouzel that offers views down the whole valley of Russell Creek. This will be our home for the next two nights. I place my tent on a ridge overlooking the others and set up the hammock, while Rob dives into Ouzel, his reactions to the frigid water audible from over our small ridge; I supplement our bourbon supply with my mezcal, and the mix of freeze-dried dinners seems best this night. Finally, I sleep through a night, though there are still interruptions in the forms of hooves and silhouettes of mountain goats, visible along with the stars and Perseids through my open tent fly.

The next day is a rest day of sorts, but only Jim and Ed really hang back, and the other six of us set out on an adventure off the Beaten Path. (Yes, we made these jokes incessantly.) In consultation with Bob’s creatively cut and laminated USGS survey maps of the area, Rob and I calculate a route and lead the party across a boulder field on the opposite site of Ouzel. We scramble up a knot-filled, ankle-turning grassy slope studded with rocks and ride a ramp up to a small plateau. Here we cross open parks and skirt ponds, eventually traversing a saddle to a view down to Lake of the Clouds, a deep, lonely deposit of snowmelt that slips down a cliff toward Russell Creek below. We summit two small peaks on either side of our perch, one an arm reaching up toward Mount Rosebud beyond, the other with a stunning, broad view down the full valley of the Russell, out across an endless march of ridgelines past the Beartooth Highway toward jagged Pilot Peak and its towering neighbors. It is as good as they come.

We scramble back down, waylaid occasionally by false trails and questionable cliffs, before we find the route we took up. The ensuing hammock session is among the best I’ve ever had, and later, I dip my legs in Ouzel and wash myself off. I could repeat days like this one unendingly. The mountain goats return in the night, and again, I find some measure of sleep, peace brought about by comfort in my cocoon and pleasure at a day’s work and the poetry of N. Scott Momaday and, yes, I confess, a healthy helping of melatonin.

Our final day on the Beaten Path starts with an aggressive descent down to Russell Lake, yet more of the intrepid trail builders’ endless switchbacks taking us down to this lake where we can see the trout milling about even from some distance. Below the lake, Russell Creek sinks beneath a boulder field, gurgling steadily as we follow it. The forest spreads into stands of mature pines flecked by blowdown, providing little shade; our plan for lunch along Kersey Lake is temporarily foiled when the trail unexpectedly turns up an exposed ridge, and we are gassed by the time we settle in on the other side. Thankfully, the end is near. We push on to the Clarks Fork, the motorcycles on the Beartooth Highway welcoming us back to civilization. I drive Betsy, Alex, and Rob back down the great road, and we gawk at the switchbacks and shake our fists at the terrible driver in front of us and finally clean up before dinner at an old downtown Red Lodge hotel.

As usual, hiking is a jumble of emotion. We delight in beauty and yell angry things at hills, depending on our moods. Hours of preparation and veteran wilderness competence occasionally collapses into farce, a fate from which none of us are immune: there is the failed flush of the water filter that forces frantic purification by tablet, and the realization that the missing container of booze has, in fact, been in a side pocket of one of our backpacks the whole time, never in a bear can and practically begging for a nighttime visitor. Chicken fettucine accidentally becomes tuna fettucine with a hint of chicken, and we endure the usual struggles of sunburn and frequent pack adjustments and, in my case, the loss of a basket on a hiking pole serendipitously overcome when Bob finds a matching one at a later campsite. By the fourth night, I decree that even the tastiest freeze-dried options begin to lose their luster.

But these mishaps only enhance our tales of the trip, and several in the party rank this among the best hikes the group has ever done. We have followed the Beaten Path and beaten out a few new paths along the way, the views and satisfying aches worth every small annoyance. These chances to escape do not change a life overnight, but they do give spurts of inspiration that can, in time, come to form the basis of something. It is up to those of us who tread these paths to make good on that promise.

Here is Part 2.

Road Trip Journal V: Seattle to Minneapolis

(Part IV)

Day Ten: Reasonable and Prudent

We wake early in Seattle the next morning. My friend goes out to grab a better breakfast, while I make do with mediocre hostel fare. We’re on the road shortly thereafter, headed east on I-90 over Lake Washington and through Bellvue before our final date with the Cascades. The mountains are shrouded in clouds today, with the sky a steely Seattle grey; the lowest of the peaks are lost in white, and some peek out above their airy halos from time to time. The passes here aren’t nearly as extreme as they are along I-80, and it’s a straightforward descent into central Washington, where the sun comes out and the temperatures rise.

Washington east of the Cascades just isn’t a place I’ve ever given much thought, and I’m surprised by how empty it is, its vacant highlands and amber waves of grain none too distant from Nevada or Wyoming. There are a few more towns, and the Columbia River gorge and crossing are a welcome and impressive break from the plains, but a mountain range leaves this area a world away from Seattle. This is the only place on the trip where we see a serious number of Trump signs along the highway, which says something considering the amount of deep red territory we’ve covered. Spokane passes quickly, and we leave Washington behind.

We make our lunch stop in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, a lake resort town that we’re drawn to by pretty pictures we’ve seen before. Coeur d’Alene, it turns out, is no secret. Just thirty miles from Spokane, it’s packed on the Friday before Fourth of July weekend, with traffic backups and multitudes milling around its high-rise hotels. We eat a quick lunch along some cement steps leading down into the lake as boats buzz by beyond us and a seaplane comes in for a landing. But even if it’s not wilderness, it’s a welcome break. My friend takes a dip at the beach, while I wade in a little and admire the Idaho beach bums and the cartoon moose statuary.

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This is another day of extensive driving, and another one that leaves me impressed by the extent of the interstate highway system. It was a colossal infrastructure project, and while its story has its dark sides—ask anyone displaced by freeways punched through poorer parts of cities—it’s also a triumph of engineering and a marvel for interstate commerce. Even when clogged up by construction or congestion, it moves people with remarkable speed. Its construction radically remade small towns everywhere, as businesses shifted out of the core to little stops at exits. In Wallace, Idaho, we pass one of the towns that refused to bend to these changing tides. The residents of Wallace held out for years to resist the destruction of their historic downtown, and had it registered as a landmark in 1976. It took until 1991 for the government to complete a viaduct around it.

After some crawling traffic due to construction, we enter Montana, where speed limits are an afterthought. So much of one, in fact, that for a spell in the 1990s, speed limit signs along highways simply instructed drivers to go “reasonable and prudent” speeds. When the courts found this too vague for enforcement, the state settled on a poorly monitored 80 MPH limit. We rocket around bends and over mountain passes, though we’re far from the fastest car on the road. We pause in Missoula, where we continue our visits of college campuses and make a loop through the University of Montana.

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Through much of Montana, the road follows the Clark Fork, a river among the many features in this part of country named for Lewis or Clark. If there had been vacancies, we would have camped at the Missouri Headwaters State Park east of Butte, but with our tent long gone, it’s just as well that we’re now forced to plow on. We catch up with a storm near sunset, one that opens up in little spurts here and there in the hazy sky over the mountains, creating little sheets of rain with rainbows here and there along the route. Behind us, the sky is brilliant hue of pink mixed with sinking clouds. Another burst of energy to carry us through the final few miles.

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It’s dark by the time we arrive in Bozeman, where we’re the guinea pigs for a new Airbnb host. He delivers for us, and we grab a quick bite at a bar that caters to the Montana State crowd, one of the few places that still has an open kitchen. It’s too late to see much, and my friend is tired, so our list of Bozeman sights to see goes, regrettably, untouched. This may have been our most relentless day of driving, with few stops and no real thrilling destination at the end. The trip is definitely winding down, but we’re not close enough to the finish that we’ll miss any of it yet.

Day Eleven: Born to Run

We wake refreshed after a comfortable sleep in Bozeman, and Bruce Springsteen serenades us on the way east across Montana. The ranges of the western half of the state give way to craggy badlands and little ridges flecked with ranches. We catch our last glimpses of snow-capped peaks along the way, and pass just a bit too far north for a stop at Little Bighorn. I take over the driving somewhere east of Billings, after we’ve split north onto I-94. Today, I’m in a driving zone, just cruising along without distraction and drinking it all in. As is so often the case in the west, the freeway is in a valley along with a river (this time, the Yellowstone) and a train track, the rivers, roads, and rails all united in the easiest passage through the rough land all around.

We cross the North Dakota border and stop for lunch at a rest area, where we’re greeted by the most North Dakotan of scenes: an endless green plain of farmland, stretching out as far as the eye can see. Things change up a little further along, though, as we come to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It wasn’t in the cards for this trip, but it’s toward the top of the list of sites I want to see in the West. We make do by pulling over at the Painted Canyon overlook, where we’re treated to endless marches of painted badlands bubbling up over creeks and gulches. The spotty cloud cover adds to the contrasting colors, harsh and beautiful. Just a long day’s drive from Minneapolis, this park beckons me back in a way others haven’t. I feel that same pull that must have sucked in T.R. over a century ago.

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The badlands peter out shortly thereafter, and then it’s just North Dakota in all its glory. The state is particularly proud of its large manmade objects. We catch a glimpse of the bird-and-eye sculpture at the Enchanted Highway, pause for gas by the world’s largest sandhill crane, and see signs for the world’s largest buffalo. Our only real stop, however, is for the world’s largest Holstein cow, a beauty named Salem Sue, who stands proudly atop a hill outside tiny New Salem. Sue gazes out from what has to be one of the higher points in the state relative to its surroundings, and longs to graze on those endless green fields.

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The original plan had been to spend our final night on the road at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, which is just south of Bismarck. Now that my tent is the property of some homeless San Franciscan, however, we’re forced to make contingency plans with my friend’s aunt outside of Fargo. Still, we have ourselves a pre-paid pass to Fort Lincoln, so we stop in for a brief visit. The visitor’s center tells us the tale of the Mandans, who once had a large village on the banks of the Missouri here. A few of their round earthen homes, deceptively large, have been rebuilt for us tourists. We wander down to the river, where a sandbar just out from the bank is overloaded with locals on boats enjoying the water. Opposite the wide Missouri is Bismarck, and the bizarre tower that passes for a state capital in North Dakota lords over it all. On our way out, we drive by the fort’s buildings, their unassuming architecture belying their historical significance. George Custer set out from here on his ill-fated final trek, off to the fields of Little Bighorn in southeast Montana. This outpost was the end of white civilization in the 1880s; now, it’s the end of the West for two travelers.

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The road east from Bismarck is a blur, and my friend’s aunt is ready to spoil us with dinner and drinks and political conversation late into the night. Her town, Casselton, is as sleepy as they come, and a single mother of two Harvard students is happy to pass the night a couple of Georgetown grads with steak and ice cream. It’s late, but I’m up writing anyway. I have a lot left to recount, and the final thoughts for tomorrow are already writing themselves.

Day Twelve: Return to Lake Wobegon

Throughout my childhood, Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion was required listening on Saturday nights. We weren’t a churchgoing family, so the News from Lake Wobegon was the closest I got to a weekly sermon. We’d begin dinner sometime around the start of the show’s second hour, and I always sat and listened, even if dinner had ended. I haven’t listened regularly since I left home, and I won’t pretend to enjoy his singing or his seeming exhaustion by the end. But this weekend marks Keillor’s final show, so it’s only fitting that we listen to his final episode as we drive back into Minnesota.

The last morning of our road trip only adds to the above average idyll. Our host for the night, my friend’s aunt, is a Lutheran pastor, so we sit in on her Sunday service before going out to brunch in Fargo. Her homily on her son, who just had his wallet pickpocketed while backpacking through Peru and the kindness he encountered from strangers, resonated with a couple of travelers fresh off their own encounter with theft. We leave Elim Lutheran not to cross the Red Sea, but merely the Red River of the North, back into Minnesota.

At first, the landscape in the western half of the state resembles North Dakota. But slowly there are more towns that seem positively dense after the Great Plains, and more deciduous forests for the first time since we left this state twelve days ago. All is thick and green, and the smattering of the 10,000 lakes that line I-94 are all packed with holiday weekend boaters. As if we need any more reminders of that small-town Minnesotan literary legacy, we pass signs for Sinclair Lewis Avenue in Sauk Centre and the Lake Wobegon Trail just beyond.

The Minnesota myth has its demons, and Garrison Keillor is probably complicit in its creation. I’ve poked at it on this blog before, and I’ll never embrace it fully. But it’s become part of that vague haze of childhood rightness that I’ll never shake, and has a place somewhere in my loyalty to this state, even as I grumble about it. I’m sure I owe Garrison more than a few assists for the novel draft I cranked out between undergraduate life in Washington and graduate life in Minnesota, one focused on a town in Lake Wobegon country, filtered through the eyes of a jaded teenager from Minneapolis. The draft needs some work, but the story it told grounded a drifting kid in this state that a visiting Georgetown friend once labeled “the last bastion of the American Dream.” It allowed me to understand home.

Minneapolis suburbia comes gradually, the woods and freeway walls all but hiding the fact that we’re in a city until we can see the Minneapolis skyline. One last round of construction delays a few blocks from home allows us to get through the final News from Lake Wobegon, in which Garrison reflects on some townfolk who have passed on, and on the anonymity that follows death. My roots here aren’t that deep in years, really, but they’re deep enough to have seen some tragedy. My late brother, on my mind frequently over the past two weeks following what would have been his eighteenth birthday, had the middle name Garrison. A somber note as I end this trip, perhaps, but it’s all part of a broader narrative, complicated and rewarding all the same.

I’ve spent these twelve days as a tourist, a shopper among cities, a consumer of superb experiences. It was delightful, and I’m ready for another trip soon. But no package of fine living and cultural intrigue and and weather can ever define home. The land can evoke a sense of home, but for all its permanence, it isn’t what makes a place. That will always be deeper.

In true Keillor tradition, I’ll close with a poem, with my usual Greek twist on things:

Ithaka

C.P. Cavafy

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery,
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pear and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you have reached the island,
wealthy with all you have gained along the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

***

It’s good to be back. On to the next chapter.