The Road Trip--Beartooth Mountain Pass
As we left Yellowstone, we came to what for both Kevin and me was the most incredible part of journey. Early that morning we had taken a tram up to the top of Rendezvous Mountain, an experience that I had obviously very much enjoyed. Now about to make the same ascent, but in the car. We took the Beartooth Mountain Highway from Wyoming into Montana. This highway is only open from Mid-May to Mid-October because of the snow and danger. We began to climb and before too long, we were saying very little but "Oh, wow...." Soon, we were looking down on the August snow/algae. (This is where Kevin realized that he'd been had by his boss, although he still wasn't admitting it. In the face of his denials, I was almost frantic: "Okay, stop the car! I'll go freaking get you the snow!")
You can see as we go up the road that there are poles set in guard rail through the whole upper range of the road. This, we found, was to guide the plows so that they didn't inadvertantly drive over the edge of the cliffs that the road was carved out of. The fact that these poles were 10-15 feet tall seemed rather ominous to me....
We were now about two hours behind the schedule we thought we could achieve, but now it didn't matter so much. As we neared the top of the pass, the sun was setting behind the mountains and we were treated to a display of beauty. Nature is not neutral.
At the top of the pass, 10, 940 feet above sea level, we had to stop. The road at this point might be labeled "insane," with hairpin turns twisting back around themselves. I, however, prefered to reserve the "insane" label for Kevin's driving, which had continued at a pace that I couldn't reconcile with my survival instinct. As we got out of the car, we saw a pair of other cars creeping along the same turn we had just made. Kevin wondered aloud if perhaps he had been driving too fast. Apparently, my word hadn't been strong enough testimony. Hmpf. We left the car on the side of the road and walked over to the guard rail and looked down. And down. And down. The road at this point was perched hundreds of feet above the valley, if not a few thousand. Unbelievable. Pictures, I'm afraid, cannot even begin to describe the view and the experience. You must go there, but only when it's safe. Actually, I don't know if it would ever be safe, really. Anyway, Kevin nonchalantly went over and sat down on the guard rail, with the abyss yawning behind him.... I was a bit more tense as I took this shot.
Honestly, there may be nothing that can compare to this place in the United States. I've heard many different places described as the "most beautiful drive in the country," but this one may have a real claim to that title. Despite being on a highway, one of the things that stands out in my memory is the silence of the place: hardly any sound but the high mountain winds sighing past you, unconcerned and unstopping.
At this point, the altitude and comparative lack of oxygen apparently began to have a negative effect on Kevin. While we were both abnormally giddy and giggling wildly, Kevin suffered even more strongly than myself and began to roll around in the middle of the road, posing provocatively and screaming about his love for life. Well, we were quite literally on a high. I suppose I should have been prepared. As it was, at the time it seemed pretty normal and appropriate to me, so I suppose that I was pretty far gone, too. We were rather surprised when we developed the pictures, though.
As I'm typing this, I happen to be hearing Mozart's "Rondo alla turca" in the background. That might be the best music to understand what this place felt like, especially as it moves to its conclusion: giddy, joyful, uncontrolled. Going to places like this fills you with pure joie de vivre. Life itself. I don't know--words fail me. You know the experience. Madness. Sanity. Leap into your friends' smiles and laughter. Go to church.
At last we climbed back into the car and began to inch down the mountainside, perhaps a bit more slowly now. I had a moment of absolute confusion as we drove across a field and as I looked out of the window, there was a covered wagon parked on the plateau with two horses unhitched and grazing nearby. I was so perplexed by this sudden vision from the Old West that my camera sat completely forgotten in my hands as I stared and shouted to Kevin, "What the hell is that?!" In a moment, the vision was gone, hidden by rocks. "What the hell was that?!" I continued to yell with undue frequency. Hallucination? I couldn't imagine anyone getting horses to haul a wagon to this height. For that matter, I couldn't imagine anyone getting road-building equipment up to where we were either. Only later did I find out that the area had many Basques who've come into the area to continue in their high-mountain, heavily-isolated grazing culture. Technologically, they continue to live simply, not caring for much of the 20th century's clutter and mess.
We continued to head down the mountainside, weaving back and forth across the face of the mountain. The air grew hazy again with smoke, and for the first time I could smell it: I had never thought of what a forest fire smelled like before. Burning leaves. Naturally. In Illinois growing up, that was the smell of autumn: burning leaves in the yard. It might have been a chore, but it was a good homey smell that meant all was right in the world. Not here. Here, in the west, that was a smell of terror. I had never even considered the idea. A bit more nervous, we headed down in to the smoke and made our way to Red Lodge. That night we were staying in the comfort of the Willows Inn. You couldn't ask for greater hospitality in the States. Under a smoky twilight, we pulled into town, a few hours late, but still five minutes ahead of our dinner guest, who was also running behind.
What a trip! How could there be more?