The Road Through Yellowstone Country

Story by Jess McGlothlin

Posted: February 22, 2017
 

Sometimes taking the road less traveled does make all the difference.

Perhaps the great Western writer Zane Grey said it best when he penned the words “I need this wild life, this freedom.” One can only imagine the literary giant was speaking of the unbroken Western lands he so loved to capture on paper.

The West isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s big sweeping places, stark mountains rising to kiss the clouds, endless sagebrush ranges dotted with herds of grazing bison and elk. It’s rushing rivers, so crystal clear you can see the rocks lying beneath, rocks that have been there for ages past and have seen the settlement of this rugged country. It’s weather that can change in the blink of an eye; smoky, hot summers and dark, cold winters. It’s a hard land, one that breeds people equally suited to the harshness of the landscape.

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The West is adventure, and this is where our travels took us.

There’s something magic about wide open spaces. You know the ones — those places that make you feel impossibly small, that remind you there are bigger forces at work than the drama at home or the politics in the office. One can’t help but think if everyone was humbled by nature now and again, the world might be a very different place.

Because when you strip away all the drama, all the unnecessary things we tend to accumulate, life tends to clear up. Detaching from the routine, upsetting that day-in-day-out rhythm, tends to produce some pretty fantastic results. Weird things happen, awesome people pop up in unexpected places, and we go fishing.

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Adventure in of itself is simple. Break the routine. Go do something different. See something new. Experience something you’ve never done before. Veer away from normal. It’s about learning and exploring and maybe scaring yourself a little bit now and again. How else do we grow?

We gathered the ingredients for a good adventure: Phoebe, an Idaho sheep ranch girl; Jackie, a Northeastern angler who had never been West; Jenny, a Bozeman local and consummate outdoorswoman; myself, a Montana girl with a camera; and a beat-up Land Cruiser quickly christened Rudy, then stood back to watch what happened. The results were various antics, long hours on the road crossing some of the most stunning country in the world, and endless laughter.

From misbehaving trail horses who decided abruptly that moving rapidly backward was a better alternative to forward, to Rudy’s randomly bottoming-out oil gauge and check-engine light, to a bison roadblock in Yellowstone, there was no shortage of the new and exciting. We were nestled in the country of mountain men and trout; bracketed by great big mountain ranges such as the Gallatins and the Bridgers. Our path tracked along rivers of great renown. From the canyon section of the Gallatin, made famous in the movie A River Runs Through It, to the smooth, bubbly riffles of the Firehole River inside Yellowstone National Park, to the blown-out, raw, riveting power of the Yellowstone River, both water and mountains defined our travels.

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And in a place still as wild as Yellowstone country, there was bound to be a plethora of animals to keep us company. Rudy dutifully trucked us alongside great big herds of shaggy bison, pairs of elk basking in the afternoon sunshine, and bighorn sheep casually bopping along the mountainside. As Jackie rather aptly said with a sigh as we watched another bison rolling contentedly in the dirt, “It’s a bison’s life.”

We ran into a cow moose and her baby while on horseback (interesting), laughed as pronghorn bounced along the sage, and watched vast herds of elk and mule deer dot the aptly-named Paradise Valley. Golden eagles cruised alongside Rudy before dropping down to capture a vole for dinner, and bald eagles and ospreys soared easily over the rivers, looking for their next meal.

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Late afternoon on our day in Yellowstone, the shadows were growing long as we trekked back to the Lamar Valley, returning from the Northeast Entrance Station near Cooke City. Spying a car stopped in the middle of the road, Jackie began chanting “Be a bear, be a bear, be a bear.” Phoebe and I, having spotted a bison resting in the same little meadows on the way to Cooke City, shrugged off her enthusiasm and casually peered over, prepared to see another resting brown shaggy.

It was a bear. A little black bear, rustling around in the undergrowth for a snack. Whether Jackie somehow summoned it up by sheer willpower or if it was just dumb luck, she had her bear for the trip. Rudy was filled with laughter all the way to Mammoth. Maybe, in a place as big and grand as our first national park, it is possible to will some things into being.

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Somehow Rudy’s top speed of 55 MPH dictated the mood for the cross-region road trip. Forcibly slowed, we began to appreciate the little nuances of the land. Hills necessitated a rousing cheer of “Come on, Rudy,” while downslopes meant sighs of relief and an easy glide. Each day the sun trekked overhead like an inescapable clock; we laughed off the harsh midday light and rejoices in the pink and golden tones brought by each sunrise and sunset. Large spaces made us feel incredibly small. I find it hard to spend time in the mountains without taking a moment to pause and think about it all — animals, scenery, seasons — fit together.

Travel has always held an inescapable allure for the simple way it pushes you from your comfort zone; for the way it requires you to think on your feet and let go of all pretenses. On the road, we can become someone new. No one knows us here. But there’s a difference side to travel as well… it brings people together. From the shared, impromptu meals cobbled together in a small beach hotel room to tag-teaming bear watch tactics while fishing the Upper Madison, travel breaks down barriers. There is no closer friendship than that created with someone you’ve experienced incredible things alongside; someone you can sit side-by-side with and simply enjoy the silence of the river and the mountains. Shared experiences bring us together.

Maybe, at the end of the day, that is the true magic of travel.

Jess McGlothlin Media

www.JessMcGlothlinMedia.com