I set out this morning from my dumpy little hotel in Cody, with the intention of driving to Cooke City, via the Beartooth Hwy. Passing thru’ Cody, which is essentially one road, and a sudden turn out of town, I made a wrong turn. There in front of me was this cool looking coffee shop: The Beta Coffee house. I decided that an iced (decaf) coffee would be a great way to start, and I might as well make use of my wrong turn. Amazing little gem of a place, so I got my lap top and decided I’d write for an hour or so, listen to the good music playing and absorb some of the culture/vibe I’ve missed. Before you know it, the sky totally opens up and it begins to just POUR. The gal behind the counter said: “good thing you stopped in, that road would not be fun or safe in this!” So I stayed for 3 hours and just wrote, wrote, wrote. The rain came and went, a couple of times and the place was so comfy, I just hunkered down and took advantage of the respite.
I was told that I’d have no phone service for the next 2 days, so I called home to check in. EM called me and we got to catch up a bit, as I sat on the side of the road in the blazing heat. I would have driven, but the call was dropped any time I rounded a hill. I got to speak to EL as well, so felt liked I’d touched base with 2 out of 3 of my babes. Mostly a good thing, but I’m still grateful for my 48 hrs more of solitude. It was good to hear how they’re doing and what’s been happening in my absence.
When I got on the road, I had no idea how long it would really take to get to Cooke City, but I had read that Charles Kuralt (a God among men, I believe) called it one of the most scenic roads in America… so I expected some pretty views. Today was THE most harrowing, spectacular, peculiar, and spiritual day of this entire trip… and will likely hold a prominent spot on the memories of a life time list! First was a long straight road that passed along spectacular vistas of desert and plateaus on one side, rising mountains on the other. The photo at the front of this entry, was taken along this stretch. I stopped over and over to snap photos and began to realize it might take a while to get there!
At about 5:15, I took another wrong turn and found myself in the small town of Red Lodge, MT. What a gem of a place it is! I probably could have spent a few hours just exploring, but I figured I might as well grab dinner before heading up in to the pass, and then get on my way. It would be one of the best decisions possible! I dropped in to the Pollard Hotel, because they had a braised lamb sandwich that sounded too good to pass on. However, once I’d ordered my ice tea, I found out that it was dinner menu only and there were only “tapas.” I ended up with a roasted beet salad with stilton cheese and tuna tataki with edamame. Got my veggies at least. A wonderful guitarist was playing and every song he performed was a favorite: Simon and Garfunkle, Jim Croce, Beatles (Here Comes the Sun)… really talented musician. It was a slice of unanticipated heaven, in food and music, and I left feeling relaxed and excited for my ride.
My navigation kept telling me to take a left out of town, but I was sure the Beartooth went right. About 10 miles out, I had to turn the thing off, so the warning wouldn’t continue to worry me. Well, Charles K may have been right about the beauty, but there was not enough mention of the drama! I was totally unprepared for the road ahead; I have NEVER driven a road like this in my life! Hairpin does not begin to cover the turns that were every 500 ft or so. U-turns was more like it, each switch back taking me 45 degrees one way and then back the other, with sheer drops on one side, and countless “Danger, rock slide zone” signs on the other… hello? Is there something you’re suppose to do about that?! I have never seen slide zones like this. Huge, heavy duty metal fences strung from one gap to another, with hundreds to a thousand feet of boulders, in channels leading from the road, straight up.
It was disorienting to try and look at the road ahead, because often the next section of road was directly above me or across from a chasm from me! A couple of times, just trying to watch ahead, I felt vertigo and had to just look at the road directly in front of me. Pull outs are great, except when there’s no guard rail and they abut the edge of a several thousand foot drop! This was a road to the clouds and a drop to no where.
At the top of this 11,000 ft peak, I felt like I was driving on the top of the world! Rolling meadows, with snow fields everywhere. There were places where the road was like a tunnel, with 12′ drifts on either side! Other spots, I could see forever. The setting sun made the shadows especially brilliant and magical. So, I pull over at this spot where there’s a gorgeous lake, melting fields, mts and trees reflected in the water. There was an older gentleman pulled over a ways behind me, taking a photo too. I just ignored him at first and took my photos. I had noticed his big truck, with Florida plates, coming up. As we both headed back to our cars, we looked at each other at the same moment, and to be polite I waved hello and yelled out: “That’s some road!” He couldn’t hear me, so walked a little closer. He had on a funny cap with all kinds of pins on it; sun glasses; a peace necklace, as well as a small cross, and some kind of claw; had a scraggly beard and a small pony tail, and jingled when he walked. He explained that they were his “bear bells, and he wears them everywhere here, as you never know when you’ll need them.” I could not have met a more colorful character, on the top of the world, if I tried!
He introduced himself as Russ, but then added that his Cherokee name is Siyon Yona: Hello Bear. He shared that he’d hiked the entire Appalachian Trail, the Pyrannese and had buried three people he loves in the past 13 mths. We ended up talking for about a half hour up there, and he confided that he had no where to stay tonight and wasn’t sure where we were headed. He was actually a very sharp guy, but had a few memory issues. So, he followed me down the mountain (the western descent much more manageable than the trip up) and we stopped in Cooke city to see if we could find him a place to sleep. “I’m pretty sure we found each other for a reason” he said, as we headed to our cars. “I’d like to buy you a martini at the bottom.” Right about then, a drink was sounding might good!
There was no room in town, so they sent my new friend on to the next town, 3 miles down the road. He promised me he’d be back though, and asked me to meet him at the Miner Bar and Grill in about 30 minutes. Time’s a bit different when you’re in your late 70’s, so I was just thinking he’d stood me up, as he was 30 minutes late (I waited outside, as there were a few too many guys, who’d had a few too many inside), when his truck came back through town.
We spent 2 hours talking in Miner’s, him doing the majority of the talking. He told me all about his “lady” who had died of pancreatic cancer a year ago, and his sister… his first great-grandchild, who he’d just met for the first time, in Montana, and the “love of his life now.” He told me all about his adventures on the Appalachian trail, his tour of duty in Korea, his failings in life and his joys.
Then, out of the blue (I’d only told him I had 3 kids, and was on a road trip), he took my hands, across the table and said: “I’m on this journey to finish my grieving. You’re on a journey to figure out what you want. I believe the Lord brought us to the same place on that mountain, to help us both. Just these few hours, you’ve brought me so much joy, and I am sharing my losses with you. And I can tell you some of the things that you’re trying to figure out.” Some of what he said to me was freaky perceptive (at one point, he suddenly said: “You’re Jewish, aren’t you?” What!), and a lot of it was very moving. But one of the most powerful things he said was: “you are very loved; those kids love you. But you have big feelings and a lot in there. As an artist, you need to find a way to express y0urself and take care of yourself… write, write it all down.” I swear, that is what he said. I had not told him a thing about writing or art.
He asked me if I’d travel in the park with him tomorrow (back to Yellowstone), as he wanted to see Old Faithful for the first time, “with a friend.” I’ve agreed, but told him that these are my last 48 hrs on my own, and I can only spend part of the day with him. “See love, that’s taking care of yourself!” he said, with a wink. The universe is a very magical place sometimes. I walked the half mile back to cabin in the moonlit night. The sky was gorgeous, and the air smelled so sweet. It was the first time this whole trip, I wasn’t worrying about bears… despite the signs all over town that say: Grizzly country, use caution. Just as I arrived back, Russ came by in his truck and yelled, “Sweet dreams dear.”
Much of today was like a Twilight Zone episode: crazy and scary and weird and wonderful all in one. If you look up Twilight, the dictionary says:
“The soft glowing light from the sky when the sun is below the horizon, caused by the refraction and scattering of the sun’s rays from the atmosphere.• the period of the evening during which this takes place, between daylight and darkness.”
Today, a few wrong turns brought twilight and magic all day.