I Cheated

Okay, look…I don’t live inside Yellowstone anymore.  Yeah, it’s true that I could pretty much spit and hit the park from where I now live, but it just ain’t the same thing as actually living in the heart of the whole damned thing.

In summer my favorite places are incredible.  In winter they are…magical.

In summer, an erupting geyser is a reminder of the power and processes under our feet that we never really consider.  In winter…in winter, that superheated column of water and steam, in the right place and at the right time, turns to the finest of ice crystals in the blink of an eye.  Watching that diamond dust erupt and blow, watching it turn the nearby branches into “ghost trees”…  Yeah, it’s not the cold that gives you the chills at that point.

In summer, the trail from Wolf Lake to Cascade Lake is well-trod as a long(ish) day hike.  It is crowded, even.  In winter?  In winter, it is not a trail, it is a two-day marathon of snow and ice.

And then you have Mount Washburn, at the north end of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon…

The country north and east of Washburn has been closed to human traffic for several years.  This is because of the bears, of course.  Oh, it is not to protect humans from the bears.  Quite the opposite, actually.  This area (and a couple of others) are closed as “bear management areas” in order to provide space where cubs and juvenile bears can learn and grow without ever so much as sniffing a human.  No contact means no acclimation, and no acclimation means they will be far more prone to avoid humans for the rest of their lives.  That’s good for both of us, human and bear.

Unfortunately, the area north of Mount Washburn also hosts the only section of the Howard Eaton Trail that I have not yet hiked.


It’s a weird goal, I know, but ever since my first week in the park almost four years ago {Edit – five years, actually. Math is hard}, I have wanted to complete the entirety of the Eaton trail.  That trail, if you don’t know, is pretty much the original “tourist trail” in the park.  Howard Eaton himself was a local rancher and early guide who would lead 3-week horse tours through the park.  From up here in Gardiner, those tours went down to Old Faithful, and on to what is now Grand Teton National Park.  Coming north again, they would pass Yellowstone Lake, Hayden Valley, the Gand Canyon of the Yellowstone, then skirt the west edge of Lamar Valley and cross Blacktail Plateau to return to Mammoth and Gardiner.  The trail still exists, for the most part.  A couple of sections are “lost” and no longer maintained, but you can still find them if you know where to do the research, and what to look for.

I know. I know where to look, and what to look for.

I had completed seven of the eight sections by the time I left the park to move into Gardiner itself.  All I had left was the most “lost” of those sections, the one that left from Canyon Village, skirted Mount Washburn’s eastern shoulder, and continued north to Tower Junction.

Remember that closed area I mentioned, the one just north of Washburn?  Yep, you got it right, that’s it.  The trail goes right through the heart of that area.  In winter, however…

In winter, you can snowshoe/ski it.  If you know what you’re doing.  If you’re confident in your backcountry skills.  If you’re more than a little insane.  I am — ahem — all three.  

Along with a couple of friends who share my insanity, I just had to complete that last section.  Wait…“a couple of friends?” I hear you ask. “But you hate hiking with other people!”

Let’s put it like this — I’m insane, not stupid.  It was actually the hardest thing, in a physical sense, that I’ve ever done.  If you’ve never snowshoed, let me offer a little homework for you: go to the softest and deepest sand you can find, put on your heaviest boots, grab a fifty pound pack, now start slogging.

Congratulations, that’s still a world easier than snowshoeing over several feet of untouched snow and ice in some of the roughest terrain in Yellowstone.  We predicted a two-day trip, but prepped for four.  In the end, it took three, so let’s hear it for splitting the difference!  Yeehaw!  The two day prediction  would have been spot-on, by the way, except for that oh-so-fun shortness of breath that COVID left me with…

It’s tough to get into the heart of the park in winter, by the way.  The roads are closed, the few snowcoach trips are as expensive as they are limited, and snowmobile tours are even more tightly restricted.  Now, I have no problem with those restrictions.  I think they are a very good idea, as a matter of fact.  But, for a local, those restrictions make getting in to the heart of Yellowstone a pretty damned significant trip on skis or snowshoes.

Unless you cheat.

If you…umm…happen to have a friend or two who still live full-time inside the park, you can hitch a ride on their snowmobile.  You can also, if you bring offerings of booze and food (in that order), usually crash at their place for a day or two…

It’s not luxurious, and it certainly isn’t easy, but it also isn’t on any tour company’s list of offerings.

God, I needed that.

Post Script — I get tired of people asking about the “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” thing. I have heard far too many tourists say, “It’s just marketing, honey. They borrowed the name from the real Grand Canyon.” *sigh* A picture, at least, might help to explain the name. And, yes, I have hiked down into the Canyon. I have camped on the river. And I have hiked (inevitably) back up that steep-ass wall…

Moments Taken for Granted

There was howling last night.  That’s somewhat rare, so close to town.  Oh, there are wolves around — at least two packs have territories that touch the outskirts of town — but no wolf with more brain cells than your average shoelace wants to come anywhere near all that noise and chaos.  Worse, none wants to come anywhere near all those damned humans.

Wolves are too smart for that.

On the other hand, this town is an all-you-can-eat buffet for carnivores right now.  The elk are in winter-mode.  That means they don’t spend any energy they don’t have to.  To us, a field full of elk laying down to warm themselves in the afternoon sun is a wonderful picture. To a wolf, it’s the irresistible call of the dinner bell.

I had to leave the house yesterday (more on that later), but couldn’t actually get to my truck for a good thirty minutes.  Now, I don’t mind when the cute girls are hanging out around my yard…

I don’t mind, even, when the guys are standing around and acting all nonchalant and cool while they scope out those girls…

But the grumpy grandma?  The old biddy with the stink-eye and a chip on her shoulder the size of Montana?  Yeah, she’s less fun to have in my yard.

Oh…and before you ask, waving your hands and saying “Shoo!” to a 500+ pound animal with a bad attitude and a propensity for breaking things with her kicks isn’t generally a recipe for success.

Needless to say, I was late for my appointment.  Of course, it helps that I happen to live in a place where “I couldn’t get out my door because there was a bear/bison/elk waiting…” isn’t just an excuse, it’s one we’ve all had to use.

Hey, at least it was only thirty minutes!  A friend of mine was once trapped inside a bathroom for two hours because of an ornery bison!

Okay, so why did I have to leave?  A test to see if the COVID is gone.  A test to see if I can — finally — rejoin the rest of the world.  Now I just have to sit and wait for the results.  36 hours, the testing lab says.  My friend, the nurse, just laughed at that estimate.  “Minimum 48 hours,” she warned, “and quite probably more at this point.”

It’s the “big” cities, you see.  Okay, “big” for Montana.  Anyway, as soon as Yellowstone “closes” for the winter, my little town once again becomes nothing more than a few hundred people living at the ass end of nowhere.  Hell, even Amazon deliveries take an extra day.

Oh well, there is hope…and that is what matters!  I don’t actually have anywhere to go, nor anything to do, but as soon as I’m officially free,  I’m gonna go run screaming through downtown Gardiner just because I (finally) can!

Streaming shows and movies got old by about day two, by the way.  Since then, it’s been nothing but books and video games* and work on background material for stories.  I did try to actually write some scenes — some flashfiction, too — but my concentration just wasn’t there enough for that.  

*Yes, they’re childish.  On the other hand, I am quite literally nothing more than an overgrown adolescent at the best of times.  C’mon, we’ve already talked about this! I tried being an “adult.”  I spent years burying my sense of wonder and magic and joy at the simplest of things.  I did that, and it almost killed me.  So, now, I take a stupid amount of joy in playing mini-golf, making fart jokes, dreaming about the ways things should be, and in general being an arrested adolescent.

One of the worst things about watching the world through your window is just how much you miss.  You don’t always miss it, however.  Picture the scene…

I’m sitting there, feeling better.  I pop out my door to stand on the deck and get some sun.  The girls are visiting again, of course.  They brought some boys with them, this time.  There are a good dozen elk in front of my place.  But that isn’t what got me.  That is, in fact, pretty normal for this time of year.  No, what got my attention was the tableau at the edge of the yard.  There was a big boy, there…

No, really, a big boy, with a rack to make any trophy hunter go weak at the knees.  And nose to nose with him, nervous as hell, was a teenager.  A young boy whose antlers were nothing more than the shortest of bare poles…

It was so perfect, that scene.  The big bull, in full glory, interacting with the young kid, all spindly legs and awkwardness.  It was almost human, that scene.

Okay, okay…that’s anthropomorphizing to the nth power, but it really was the feeling that came with that scene.  The bull in his prime, sharing a quiet moment with the adolescent so desperate and hopeful that he will, one day, grow up to be like that…

A month ago, it wouldn’t have happened, of course.  Even in the dying days of the rut, that teenager wouldn’t have dared to come anywhere near a bull like that.  Nor would the bull have allowed it.  That particular fight wouldn’t have lasted any longer than a 7th grader in a UFC match.

It was only a minute or two before the two moved apart.  The lure of the still-somewhat-green grass for one, and the warm sun for the other, was too strong to resist.  An all-too-brief moment, like so many others up here.  A moment, like those others, that I take for granted far too often.

It was a moment that I failed, by the way.  Oh, I didn’t fail it in any metaphysical, spiritual way. No, I failed it in the most practical way: I didn’t record it.  Remember that bit of writing advice I’ve given so often?  You know, the one that says “when a thought comes, you write it.  Right freaking then, you write it.”  Well, that applies to photography just as much as it does to writing.  When a picture is there, you take it.  Even with nothing more than a cellphone camera, you always take the picture!

I didn’t take the picture.  That’s as bad, to me, as forgetting that great idea that came at three in the morning because I couldn’t be bothered to get out of bed and write it down…

The Cutest Girl

So, there’s this little girl who likes to hang around outside my place.

She was born late, this girl.  Her sisters and cousins are all nearby, of course, but she is that annoying younger sibling who tags along at the end of the group and wants to be a part of everything.

She’s irresistible, in her way.  C’mon, you know what I’m talking about: the little girl who is the absolute definition of “cute”…

That’s the problem, however.  This little girl…she’s been all around town.  Everyone knows her, everyone helps her.  Worse than that, everyone has taken care of her.

Everyone is killing her.

She was born in early August, this girl.

That’s pretty late…especially for her family.

This cute little girl — this girl whose charms I can barely resist — she won’t survive to see the new year.

It takes a certain amount of bulk to survive the winters up here.  It takes size and endurance to walk through the drifts and piles of snow.  It takes mass and volume to maintain body temperature in the sub-zero temperatures.  It takes power to push aside the snow and find the food hidden beneath.

But for a little girl born two months after everyone else?  For a tiny cutie the tourists have coddled and fed?

She won’t survive.

Every slice of bread offered up will kill her as surely as would any hunter’s bullet.  She hasn’t learned to survive, she’s learned in her short life to rely on humans for the food she desperately needs.  Except that there are no humans around, now.  Not any that will feed her, anyway.

No, as sad and hard as it is to say about a little one you watched grow up, the wolves need to eat, too.

Not Funny

I was going to write something light-hearted today, something about an incident here in town.  It was going to be something similar to a joking post I wrote a few years about “terrorism coming to Yellowstone.”

Then I drove by the incident and started to think about it.  I mean really think.

Even with all the tourist traffic, Gardiner, Montana is a small town.  It doesn’t take a lot to really hit this town.  More importantly, it doesn’t take a lot to really hit the people of this town.

COVID hit us pretty hard to start things off.  Although the worst of the isolation and quarantines happened before the Yellowstone season kicked off, we were still pushing 80-90% unemployment for several months.  Even now, even with the numbers of park visitors picking up — to about 50-60% of normal — we still are pushing a 20%+ unemployment rate.

Then the incident…

Y’all know I like dive bars.  Y’all know because I’ve written about it often enough.  Well, one of my favorite dive spots here in town — you know the one, the dive with the crazy locals and the sticky floor — caught fire last night.  Now, I was going to write a joke about the place finally cleaning up.  I was going to write about the Nero school of “urban renewal.”

Then I drove by.

F91536C1-8C2A-4A33-B539-A5B63DB34A14Half a block burned.  Half a block of businesses that employ locals.  Half of block of places that keep this town alive.  The only thing that kept it down to that half a block, by the way, was the fire department — all-volunteer, and all people I know and like — using a bulldozer to knock down a restaurant in order to finally stop the spread.

I drove by today and it’s still smoldering and burning.

All the blood, sweat and tears of those who built those businesses are burning.

All the jobs are burning.

I hesitate to say it, but after this past winter and spring it feels like hope itself is burning.