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…

Perfect Hiking Weather

Note: A couple of years ago, I started doing semi-regular posts that focused on pictures from Yellowstone…I figured today was a good chance to re-start that tradition.

It’s Memorial Day weekend, that means Spring is In full-swing!

Now, for most folks — those from, say, California or Florida or Colorado — the concept of Spring conjures images of blooming flowers, warm breezes and lovely, vibrantly green vistas.

Erm…when you live in the caldera of a supervolcano?  Yeah, not so much…

This is what I woke up this morning, standing right in front of my trailer (and, yeah, my front yard doesn’t suck): B4984518-E43F-4536-B58F-C29FF57ED199

So, me being me, how did I react to a nice late-season snow?  I immediately put on my good boots, grabbed my gear, and headed for a favorite trail of mine: A1D0EDC0-E350-49F7-B2AC-9BA577F9364C

By the way, that thing about “good boots” was no exaggeration — this is what most of the trails look like during the late spring snow-melt: 728CF9D7-6C20-4D6D-A0DA-46BD5E6E495E

No matter how much you warn them, new hikers in this park are always surprised by the (relative) lack of trail markers.  It’s not for a lack of trying, that I can promise you.  Unfortunately, when a 2,000-pound bison decides to scratch, no signpost in the world is going to remain standing for long: 8BBB6170-D5EE-4BE1-A1AB-F455B53DA461

Okay, so the other thing you have to really work to get across to visitors and new staff is just how “nearby” the predators really are.  The bears and wolves are around…and they’re bigger than you think.  This (not particularly large) wolf was a couple of hours ahead of me on the trail — she was accompanied by a pup, but the little guy’s tracks were too faint to photograph well: EE3B9479-1DA5-4E4E-AFD5-915B09738F0E

This grizzly was ahead of me also — he was also not particularly large, but he was…ahem…big enough: FAFF67E0-992C-44D6-9A0D-34226DDB7398

Although the trail itself runs all the way from the Canyon area down to Fishing Bridge (about 15 miles), my destination was only about five miles in — this is one of the major wildlife areas of Yellowstone, and one of the coolest places to hang out.  Take a nice gander at the “animals’” view of Hayden Valley, and keep in mind that it looks one hell of a lot different to the humans on the road a few miles away: 1E248229-B37C-4782-9C93-0A29140ADCB2

I’ve had people ask me, “I can understand living one season in Yellowstone, that would be cool, but why go back?”  My answer?  “Gee, I wonder…”: 7A6745F7-740D-4FD2-BCBF-A75E4747B394

And, finally, just a handful of other pics I took on my walk:

They Lied To Me!

The folks I bought the trailer from ran through a checklist for me of all the stuff they had done to get everything ready.  One of those things was, “filled both propane tanks.”


I ‘bout froze my testicles off from that one!

Look, I know I should have checked the damned bottles myself, just to be sure they really had filled them, but…well…headed into Yellowstone for six months like I was, I had a lot of other crap on my mind at that point…

533F3DB3-8CFE-4EFE-A781-761C2CA49D53I should probably point out something about Yellowstone in spring: it ain’t really spring until summer starts.  Look, it’s May 2nd as I write this and there is 3 feet of snow on the ground.

Well, a few nights ago, the temp dropped to -10 farenheit* and…okay, I think we can all guess what happened then…

*For you Celsius folks, that’s freaking COLD — that’s something like -23 C

Yep, you win the prize!  My freaking propane ran out!

Do you know what happens when the furnace in a 28-foot trailer conks out in that kind of cold?!

Tears, that’s what happens!5F48ECD4-0D02-47A5-AB69-DF75CE577593

The bastards lied to me. They had half-filled one tank, and ignored the other entirely. That deserves a major HARRUMPH!

I would be more pissed, I should add, except…


Except…I’m back in the middle of the damned wilderness.  My house may be small, but my backyard is fucking awesome!

The baby bison — called red dogs, and cute as hell — are just being born right now…

The wolf pups are cautiously coming out of the dens with their parents…

The bear cubs are going absolutely nuts, playing in the snow…

Everything is hungry as hell right now, from the bison down to the chipmunks, so they are all out and eating everything in sight.  Just this evening, in fact, I already had my first close encounter with a grizzly. He was a small one — barely a juvenile who had just recently struck out on his own — but it still was a great reminder just how NOT on top of the food chain I am in this place.

8CFB9B28-9B56-4FD2-8DFC-0E5A4744BF04It was also a majorly cool reminder not just of where I am, but why I’m here.

I can feel the chains falling away, and the words coming back.  I can feel the rhythms and cadences of sentences and phrases and scenes.  I can feel the emotion, and the truth, that is the best driver for any writing.  I sat already, I should add, in a place I wasn’t technically, umm, allowed to be, and the words and images just started to flow on their own…

Not Actually A First-World Problem…

So I come home from a hike this morning.  I went early into the backcountry, just to spend a couple of hours before the coming storm hits.  The snow back there is knee deep at this point, so I’m tired from the workout.

No problem, I’ll just go inside and get out of my wet stuff and pound some coffee.  That’ll fix me right up.


What the hell?

Why the hell are there THREE moose hanging around the door?!

1193190949_1Hey, I used to watch Rocky & Bullwinkle, I know how this works.  They’re just harmless, cute ruminants.  They’ll probably just skedaddle when they hear and smell me.

Oh, wait, they’re not deer, they’re fucking MOOSE.  They don’t “skedaddle” for anything, they stand and stare and contemplate converting to carnivorism.


It’s not just three moose…it’s a mother moose and her two daughters.


So, a quick lesson for you, if you’ve never encountered a moose up-close before.  They’re, uh, kinda big.  I don’t mean big like an NFL player, I mean big like in a moose vs. car fight, the moose wins.  They’re not as huge as bison, but they’re not far off, either.

Anyway, I came to a stop about fifteen feet from Momma Moose and she…well, she stared.  She stared like any mother who was worried about her daughters would.

I wasn’t a guy just trying to get inside to relax, in her world I was some creeper in a trench coat on a playground…

It’s a reminder of an old joke, “What can a fifteen-hundred-pound moose do?  Anything it wants.”

images.jpegDeer would’ve just run.  Elk would’ve just run.  Hell, even a mama bear would’ve started herding her cubs away.  Momma Moose?  She owned that damned area, and I was the one who was gonna have to leave.

I am, just to let you know, typing this over breakfast at the cafe down the road…