WRT IV: On the Road Again

This post is the second of two on my 2021 western road trip. Part 1 is here.

For the fifth time in six years, I am headed west in summer, and for the fourth time, this venture comes by car. In part, it’s a matter of convenience: travel from Duluth by air would still take a lot of time, and it allows me to ferry objects like bear spray and fuel canisters that my plane-bound fellow hikers cannot. But I have also fallen rather deeply for the roads across the high prairie, for the open skies and the baking sun, for the sudden anonymity found in rest areas and scattered parks across badlands and foothills of great peaks. It is my own little nod to the myth of the West, a pursuit of the frontier in a world that now disdains them. To drink its possibility, if only for a little while, intoxicates.

I orchestrate a work trip across central Minnesota the day before my scheduled departure, and upon my release from those obligations, my trip starts in a traversal of mind-numbing St. Cloud and up Interstate 94. A malign haze has hovered over Duluth during this summer of fire, and upon first viewing, the big skies of the West are no different, shrunk down to size by the same dark cloud. The view from the 12th floor of the Jasper Hotel in Fargo, which should reach off to eternity, sometimes dies as close as one block away.

Still, thanks to some recommendations from a native son, Fargo proves it’s much more than a stereotype from a movie in which it didn’t really figure. Its downtown is booming, bustling, and filled with both newly developed and tastefully rehabbed old storefronts. The Jasper is chic, and the beers at Drekker Brewery, a former train maintenance facility, are top-notch. Having crossed the Red River into a red state, concerns about Covid have seemingly ceased to exist. My whole stay there feels like a throwback to sometime in my mid-20s, free to enjoy certain novelties as if they were new again, if perhaps shrouded in an uncertain fog.

Beyond those few square blocks of downtown, though, Fargo’s sprawl is dismal, and the smoke has made eastern North Dakota, one of the most boring landscapes on earth, even more boring. I drive on without stopping. For my listening pleasure, it’s some Plato on the prairie, a world away from the soybean fields I pass. But as usual, the rising hills beyond Bismarck signal the start of something new, and I pause to pay my respects to Salem Sue, the giant cow gateway to the West.

Last year, when I visited Theodore Roosevelt National Park, it felt like I had acquired a private 70,000-acre retreat. Across a two-night backcountry stay I saw only scattered visitors and three bison. This time, on a three-hour visit in which I don’t go over a quarter mile from the road, the cars crowd in, and the bison number in the hundreds. The combination of animals and humans makes for slow going, and the drought-plagued Little Missouri River is a sorry shell of its usual self, but my ventures somewhat off the road, both down Wind Canyon and out to a promontory off the Boicourt Trail, remind me why I fell for this landscape so completely a year ago. Its tumbled badlands still offer up that perfect mix of forbidding austerity and teeming life, an apt summation of the West and all that it has meant. I’ll be back again.

On this night, however, I push on another hour to Makoshika State Park, just over the Montana border and through the shabby town of Glendive. My campsite up Cains Coulee is a bit drier than Theodore Roosevelt and lacking in bison, but the things that make that park great apply here, too. I feel a bit silly as the lone tent camper surrounded by four RVs on my little circle of the campground, but overcome a tent malfunction to enjoy my dinner and loop up the bank of the coulee past the vertebrae of a hadrosaur for a few sips of mezcal from an overlook above my camp. The sun fades away behind a ridge and into the haze as my legs dangle off a bench made ever higher by the steady erosion of the badland dirt. A thunderstorm strikes not long after I return to camp, and I make do with a writing session in the car, the stressors slipping away as I fall deeper into this trip.

Evenings in car campgrounds in the West are inevitably spent among a unique subset of humans known as RV people. RV people are couples with an average age in their 60s, probably own a dog, and usually come from rural or semi-rural areas of non-coastal states. They are unfailingly nice and always make small talk, usually expressing something on a spectrum between admiration and concern for the choices of us tent people. Their lifestyle does have a certain allure. They have the comforts of home while living itinerant lives, a convenience that allows my three neighbors at Makoshika to just pull back the blocks holding their tires in places and roll off in the morning while I putter about stuffing various fabric objects back into sacks. On the other hand, my time among them involves being lulled to sleep by the dulcet drone of generators, their beds look rather sucky for anyone over six feet tall, and something always seems to be breaking in those big rigs. RV drivers also run the risk of being that big vehicle that clogs the ascents of mountain passes or piddle along at 18 miles per hour on their way out of Theodore Roosevelt, both prospects that mortify me at this stage of life. We’ll revisit these biases in a few decades and see if they still hold.

I spend my morning hiking Makoshika. The first stop is the Cap Rock trail, where I go in search of a natural bridge but see it only from the top and from some distance, as a family and I are twice thwarted by sloppy slides down the infamous, sticky mud of the northern badlands. Enough of this: I drive to the end of the road in the park, a horse trail that rides along a high ridge and feeds out to an overlook named Artist’s Point. The vistas along the way match those in most any national park, the baroque twists of this furtive land weaving out in every direction. There is a campsite here, tucked in a pine grove atop the cliff, and even with no convenient water, I file this one away for some future venture.

The high plains keep me alert as I drive west toward Billings, up and down the washes and along the Yellowstone River through towns bearing names of figures from the Plains Wars, some of whom appear in my audiobook choice that carries me through the rest of the trip, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee. Its tone is a necessary corrective to the common lament about the Native American experience often served up in learned circles, and one I was drinking in fully on my trip through here last year. Yes, it is a sad tale of many deaths and betrayals and declines, but it is also one of perseverance, of continued existence even in the face of improbable odds. The message from its Ojibwe author, David Treuer, is, well, truer and more heartening than the easy cynicism of privilege-checking progressive thought.

My hiking companions on this trip are forced to come from Denver, the nearest place they could guarantee a car rental, and Uncle Bob calls to say they are three to four hours behind my pace. I take a detour to Pompeys Pillar National Monument, a promontory above the banks of the Yellowstone where one William Clark, split from Meriwether Lewis to explore this river on his return from Oregon, graffitied his name on the rock. A jog up the stairs to the top of the rock wakes me up, and a stroll through the cottonwoods along the riverbank has me feeling fresh. This pleasure fades some in Billings, whose dust- and smoke-choked strips I negotiate to collect some bear spray for our party. I worry the West is fully shrouded in wildfire, but an hour later, in Red Lodge, I see the bluest sky I’ve seen in weeks.

Red Lodge is a resort town, which means that, unlike the dismal highway strips I’ve traversed over the past two days, it has actual charm. Boutiques and restaurants line Broadway through its center, and its occupants range from wealthy tourists to hordes of motorcyclists to ski bums scraping along through the offseason. Bucolic scenes in the West, however, come at a price: $350,000, namely, for in-town, bland, out-of-date homes. Red Lodge also suffers from the same Covid Era crisis of rural escapes everywhere: lacking workers, many of its eateries close early, and the milling throngs wait in lines for the few places that are open. As with my fellow hikers’ journey from Denver, nothing is as easy as it used to be.

Our sojourn in Red Lodge provides us with another, less savory taste of Western life: an encounter with small-town police, who prove noxious busybodies as they harass one member of our crew the night before we begin our hike. Upon our return to Red Lodge later in the week, we make a joking show of checking every light on my car, and I put it in cruise control at 25 down Broadway. It may not have been excessive: as we leave dinner at a restaurant, we see the police fly off a side street and nail someone else. Gotta hit that quota, I suppose.

In search of some variety, I choose a longer road home: instead of plowing straight back east along I-94, I’ll swing follow a more southerly route to knock off a few new scenic sights. It doesn’t quite go to plan. Due to fires, I am denied a two-lane side trip across the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations on US 212 and forced to swing south on I-90 through Sheridan, Wyoming. Still, the Big Horn Mountains above Sheridan enliven the raw high plains, and the Wyoming wastes encourage a certain awe. I leave the freeway to stop at Devils Tower and circle the great butte on foot, stretching my legs amid 95-degree heat and hawks on updrafts and Native American prayer cloths and the crush of tourists from around the country. The Black Hills are swamped with motorcyclists in town for Sturgis, joy-riding here and there and everywhere. I have dinner on the Wall Drug strip in Wall, South Dakota, which is an experience if nothing else, and from there make my way south into Badlands National Park.

I arrive at Badlands near sunset. Ethereal beams from the sun filter through the clouds and bring a grey-pink light to the craggy slopes. Looming thunderheads light up in the sun’s presence, and as I wind my way along the park’s highway, the sun turns to blood red as it peeks between clouds. A prairie wind flits across the whole landscape, and here and there travelers have stopped atop the craggy landscape to sit and drink it in. I am loath to rush my way down the road, but nightfall is quickly shrouding the slopes in darkness, and for my trouble the rain begins just as I park at my very exposed site in the car campground. I deal with bathroom tasks and wait it out beneath the picnic shelter, watching the great thunderheads roll through before I set up camp by headlamp. I nod off as the day cools into a bearable temperature, content with a final night in a tent.

There is nothing to say about the rest of the drive; the road from the Badlands to Mankato, Minnesota, is deathly dull, before the banks of a low-water Minnesota River provide some intrigue for the final push into Minneapolis. This part is just the down-payment before cashing in on the rest, the West in all its stark beauty and forlorn silence and the crowds that come to seek it. The open road beckons, and I know I’ll answer its call again.

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.