Driving Day—through the Beartooth

After the My Little Pony incident, I did sleep a bit. Then the first of many camp striking rituals (striking = tearing down) commenced. You always go into a camping trip thinking about how long it’ll take to put up the tent, but you rarely think about taking it down and putting it way. Then repacking the car. We were two people in a civic for two weeks, so there was quite a bit of gear along for the ride. Every time we unpacked, it had to be fit together again like Tetris in the trunk. A lot of stuff in a trunk if you fit it all in correctly! It dawned on us here at the first campsite that this repacking ritual might just get really old really quickly.

TIP #2 ON A ROADTRIP: Get a tent that is easy to put up and take down.

Happily, the next two nights were going to be spent in a lodge room in Yellowstone, so we would only have to unpack the backseat of the car of the food, coolers, and our duffel bags. We would be free from the setting up and striking, so more time for seeing things, right?

With the car repacked and temperatures once again above 40 degrees, we headed out of Theo Roosevelt and due west (again) into Montana.

Montana is my home state, dear readers, whenever I enter the state boundaries I am instantly comforted. This is good, since we had a minor Spider In The Car incident right before crossing the border. This is harrowing tale, so be warned: Marie was driving. It is a good thing I was not, or the reaction would have been much worse. I was looking down at maps (I love maps) and all of a sudden there was a loud gasp and an “OMG OMG OMG OMG” (may have actually been other words…) from the drivers side. I instantly look out at the road in front of us for the road peril Marie had just witnessed. But there was only wide open road, under construction. Not perilous. What caused the gasp was a Large Darkish Spider up by the drivers side sun flap, popping suddenly in and out of hiding. This is worse than road peril, it was peril in the car that MIGHT JUMP AND LAND ON YOU. With the added scary thought that Large Darkish Spider could be a black widow. And of course this, happens in the construction zone so there is nowhere to pull over and exit the car hastily. Luckily, an exit appears as if a mirage (still in North Dakota, remember) so we pull off the road and search every possible crevasse in the visor area, but could not find the Large Darkish Spider anywhere. We finally decided in a likely effort to make ourselves feel as if we had control of the situation, that Large Darkish Spider had crawled into the screw holes that hold the visor in place. So we stuffed those holes with Kleenex, theoretically squishing Large Darkish Spider, and hesitantly drove on. 50 yards later, on the entrance ramp in construction where there is no shoulder, Large Darkish Spider made its appearance again. I flipped, yelled calmly to stop, Marie then quickly stopped the car while simultaneously personally freezing (quite a trick), so we were at a dead stop in the entrance ramp of a construction zone where there was no shoulder with a Semi bearing down on us. I do not recommend doing this—Little Honda Civic vs. Semi is not a good matchup. We managed to pull off to the side a bit more, other vehicles of which there were suddenly a LOT could pass, the spider was killed. Killed, extra killed, and then tossed out the window just in case.

TIP #3 ON A ROADTRIP: sunroofs are great, but don’t leave them cracked open overnight under trees in a wilderness area. You may gain unwanted passengers in your car.

Eastern Montana is another long straight flat drive. Gas stations seem a bit more prevalent than in North Dakota.

Billings was the planned grocery buying stop, that little side jaunt took us on an unplanned detour through more construction. The Civic can handle the ripped up streets without a problem, especially when driving 5mph behind the steamroller that won’t pull over to let the twenty cars lined up behind it pass. After the grocery stop and meeting up with a family friend for a quick sandwich lunch, we were off again!

By ‘off’, what I mean is off the GPS grid. The plan was to drive south from Billings to Red Lodge on highway 212 through the Beartooth Pass into Wyoming and Yellowstone National Park. The Beartooth is not plowed in the winter, so it is closed from approximately Mid-October when the snow starts mounting through approximately Memorial Day. This must be the reason the road was not in the GPS we were using. It kept insistently recalculating, then just gave up. To the civilized computer, we were completely lost & beyond help. But really, we were enjoying a beautiful drive up through the first mountains of the trip. I felt at home. First mountain pass to test the car on—through all the steep switchbacks and up to almost 11,000 feet in a short distance, it did just fine. People did pass us… but that’s more likely because they were mountain drivers used to the route, instead of the car not keeping up. Mountain pass driving is a learned skill, to a point. And we didn’t want to speed through the scenery!

There are pullovers along the way and a large parking area at the almost top. The Beartooth is a scenic alpine road that people travel to the area just to drive in the few months it is open. The guys we chatted with at the top of the pass were from Australia—they had flown to the states for this trip expressly to bike (motorcycle…) through the west and the Beartooth pass. This is not uncommon.

I mentioned the road isn’t taken care of in the winter, yes? Road workers were attaching 15-foot wooden poles to the road markers at the time of our drive. Realization dawned that these were snow poles, placed so the plows know where the road is when they clear it in the spring. Sitting in a low car, looking up at the tops of the poles, I was pretty impressed at the height they needed to be. Also impressed at the fact we were driving through in early September and the state was already preparing for snow.

At the top, you’re above the tree line on a high flat plateau. The air AND view could only be described as gorgeously pristine. You are also completely at the mercy of the elements up here. It was a nice day to this point, but mountain weather is more unpredictable than Midwest weather, and there were clouds rolling in to an area known for violent thunderstorms. Don’t be afraid of this, embrace it. Feel the power of mother nature. This sounds cliché, but that doesn’t mean it should ever be dismissed. Feel it, it’s awesome. Majestic. Pull over and view the pristine lakes, the distant mountain peaks, and marvel at the tundra. You’re on the top of the world (or at least Montana), and it feels like it. Breathe it in.

As I am always calmed by entering Montana, I am likewise always sad when leaving. The border into Wyoming is at the top of the road, you can tell since the road becomes narrower and the surface switches. Also, the road signs point it out.

We stopped at one pullout along the way to make snowballs. “What?” You say? Snowballs? Yes, snowballs. In early September there were patches of snow still around, and it could start snowing any day. New snow will cover up the old snow that remained, so last year’s snow never gets a chance to completely melt. Keeping this in mind, here’s something to ponder and perhaps blow your mind: how old do you think the snow in this snowball really is?

Once you’re done thinking about THAT, on to the rest of the drive to Yellowstone.

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