My summer of waiting tables is underway in Big Sky, Montana, home of the biggest ski resort in the country. Located in the Southwestern corner of the state, around an hour’s drive below I-90 and Bozeman, the resort drapes the picturesque, freestanding Lone Mountain, which is neighbored by the Spanish Peaks to the North, and by the Gallatin and Madison Ranges to the East and West, respectively. Big Sky is in the middle of prime fly-fishing country, with the Gallatin and Madison Rivers nearby, along with the fishing hub of Ennis around the corner. But the gem of the region is about a thirty-minute’s drive south, that of Yellowstone National Park.
And which is where my friend Joey and I went a few weeks ago for a one night stay in its backcountry, followed by a caffeine-ridden road trip around the Northern end of the park and into the Beartooth Mountains. My Warriors had just finished their implosion the night prior, ceasing a 3-to-1-game-lead to Cleveland in the Finals, and I was in dire need of the wilderness to refresh me on how inconsequential sports actually are. That Joey is a die-hard Florida State Seminoles fan and has suffered a spate of suicide-inducing losses over his fan-career did help (Wide Right I and II), as he offered consolation.
When Joey isn’t roaming parks, he’s editing films for his Youtube channel My Own Frontier, which has garnered more and more steam since I first met him around a year ago in Glacier.
I drove away from Big Sky at nearly 2pm after shaking a headache left from the night prior. After snaking Southward along the Gallatin River for around 15 miles, I entered the park’s Northwestern corner, staying within its boundary for much of the way south until the town of West Yellowstone, where I met Joey.
I was optimistic after obtaining permits inside the Ranger Station for an easy, flat hike in and out. It was already four in the afternoon, with an hour’s drive into the park still ahead.
I loaded my gear into Joey’s white van, which he’s roamed the West with for the better part of three years now. Everything he needs is inside—a bed, organized bins and compartments, food, maps, etc.
We walked to a supermarket before leaving and bought a few six-packs, one good, one not.
We headed for the park entrance, cracking two pales after waving goodbye to the Ranger at the check station. I had never been inside the park aside from driving in and out earlier that afternoon. Last summer, Glacier National Park’s stupefying alpine scenery and baffling geological wonders persisted to overwhelm me. The dramatic scenery Glacier has to offer dwindles the stature of Yellowstone to many of its visitors’ eyes. Joey, himself, used to be one of those people. “It’s just not scenic enough,” he used to say of Yellowstone.
Now Joey likens Yellowstone to a girl who doesn’t attract you with her beauty outright, but who pulls you in the more you get to know her as you “start wondering what it is that makes her so amazing, you know?”
Joey often backpacks the park for 10-days at a time, deep into the backcountry, far from thronging crowds to where he says he feels alive. “Yellowstone has personality,” he said. “Glacier is for guys who like fake-tits and nose jobs.”
We drove East into the park along the Madison River before turning north along the Gibbon River. Roadside geysers and a few straggling bison kept us company, along with our six-pack of pale ale.
We pulled into our trailhead and set foot toward Gardner Hole, which was over a hillside forming the western slope of the valley.
The walking was flat, perfect for after beer. We knew it wouldn’t get much tougher so we stopped and cracked another. The trail was two split tire tracks, and Joey was voicing park knowledge on how lodges and roads that scattered the park at random, but for which hardly a trace exists anymore. Perhaps we were on an old road to a chalet. I realized how little I know about the world’s first National Park.
Electric Peak towered from the Northwest, with more of the Gallatin Range falling away, stringing the Western horizon. The wind kept the mosquitos from landing. All was going pretty well. I had a nice buzz settling to my bones, and Joey was Batshit as ever, telling stories and sharing his unique existential reflections he doesn’t know he possesses.
But then we found out that hillside on the other side of the valley was more than the loaf it appeared from across the way, and the sweat started coming faster than usual. I definitely didn’t need that last beer I was now finishing. Then the wind died, and we were busy swatting at mosquitos like madmen. Now you may think we’re irresponsible and disrespectful, but I was hiking with the best. Batshit Joey has you beat in the backcountry in every which way, from skill to authenticity. If he want’s some beers on a relatively quick trip, he gets them.
We crested the slope (not the ridge, for we sort of rounded mountain’s mid-section) to an awesome view of the Gallatins. We walked in and out of scattered pine clusters into Garden Hole, weary of a lurking Grizzly.
We arrived to our campsite and set up our tents on top of the Gardener River, which resembled more of a creek this far upstream. I collected a bunch of firewood far up the hillside, as most had been used nearby. Joey gave me hell because I didn’t have my bear spray. We ate a bunch of ramen and polished another six-pack while talking over the campfire until well-past mid-night.
Joey makes for good campfire banter. While his peculiar van-side lifestyle fuels endless story-telling, his outlook on life—what he lives for—is what really holds my attention. He isn’t your stereotypical vagabond lashing out against society over a joint, but rather someone who, in his words, “isn’t scared to not do what he’s told to do.” Makes for some good wisdom, especially for a twenty-six-year-old lad like myself, who has no idea which direction life is taking him in. Who knows, maybe I’ll join him next summer for a tour of the West.
I slept horrible from the booze inside my fluorescent tent under the morning sun, which showed itself at around 5:30. Joey woke with a little bit of hangover himself. We ate oatmeal and were off for the van at around half-past ten.
Sleep-deprivation coupled with dehydration made for a punishing walk back to the van. The sun was warming my neck above my heavy pack, and I just wanted to get the damn hike over with. I recalled the hangovers I’ve sweat out roofing under a hot California morning sun. I wasn’t really reflecting on the immediacy of the moment as one should while escaping civilization’s dust, as the Ancient Taoist poets dubbed it, other than the fact I wanted it to end—immediately. We had a Yellowstone road trip in mind, and windshield sight-seeing over a cup of Joe sounded stupendous.
As soon as we hit the van, Joey handed me a department store branded energy packet, which I shook up in my bottle. The powder turned the water into an orange acidic syrup that tasted delightful. Suddenly, I was perked up like a damned rabbit, hopping in and out of Joey’s van at turnouts, leaping boardwalk railings and onto guardrails to snap photos.
We drove north from the trailhead, downstream along the Gardener River, which was now swollen in a narrow canyon. We arrived at Mammoth Hot Springs, a spot crowded with tourists, who elk gather around for shelter from predators and for food handouts. Seeing such large mammals—but not such wild ones—mingle with so many people amid the old styled buildings makes for a bizarre sight, but a cool one nonetheless. It was hot, and Joey’s van doesn’t offer the best ventilation, but I maintained my caffeine buzz through it all as we turned east across the park’s Northern half.
Again, we crossed back over the Gardner, which was roaring north toward the Yellowstone River. We stopped in the town of Tower-Roosevelt for coffee but bought ice-cream instead. We headed farther East, crossing the Yellowstone before entering Lamar Valley, which opened up into a sort of Serengeti, with the Lamar River running through its middle, and thousands of bison herded on the meadows, looking like ants dotting the grassy mesas in the distance and like the beasts they are up close and personal along the river and road. It’s invigorating to see such an eco-system playing out before your eyes, especially seeing it for the first time, and one that’s in your own country.
I entered a fly-shop in Big Sky a few weeks prior to this excursion to pester its employees for nearly two hours about the lay of the land. I bought a few maps and circled some spots they recommended for fishing, and the conversation carried on about rides and hikes. But they recommended one drive in particular that is a must: that of Beartooth Pass. Joey was game, and I promised him more gas than he needed to do so. All we had do is stay on the road out the Northeast entrance and carry onto Highway 212.
The drive to the gate was exhilarating. We followed Soda-Butte Creek upstream at the bottom of deep canyon shadowed by Barroette Peak (10,404) to the West and Abiathar Peak (10,928) to the East. People were stationed roadside with telescopes searching for Big Horn Sheep and Mountain Goats on the aforementioned mountains.
We made it through the gate and passed through Silver Gate and Cook City, towns you could miss with a blink of an eye. Soda-Butte was still flowing, although barely, on our right side.
The fly-shop employees told me what was ahead of us is a top-ten drive in the country and is comparable to the Glacier’s Going to the Sun Road. I sort of let the lofty assessment fly over my head, as I try to do with most scenic observations I’m about to experience. Not knowing what to expect makes for a more baffling surprise. I had my reservations as we made our way to pass.
But the Absaroka Range already imposed itself from the South within miles of the park entrance. I had to lean my head close to the window to glance the peaks, which continually exceeded 10,000 ft. Peaks from the Beartooth Range could be seen on our left, in the North, as we snaked our way through the valley between the two chains.
The Absaroka Range now strung the sky behind us after turning Eastward to ascend the Beartooths. I told Joey I hadn’t seen such an impressive ear-to-ear horizon span of peaks since viewing the Himalayas while hiking just outside Kathmandu, Nepal, several years ago.
The drive through the high alpine of the Beartooths was plenty rewarding, with pristine lakes, one after the other, sitting within jagged rocky terrain. The environment was alien, and the highway started snaking into switchbacks, propelling us to the pass in a hurry.
We pulled over to snap some photos of a jagged mountain dropping into a lake glistening blue, and I revamped my caffeine level with some more of Joey’s orange acidic, but delightful, concoction.
The switchbacks pulled us above the alpine lakes toward the ridge. Once we crested, Earth fell away into an abysmal lake-bottomed, U-shaped valley; its Northern wall, uneven, plateauing or quickly giving way to a neighboring valley; its open Western end dropping into an even more vast valley in the distance. The canyon/valley landscape is shadowed by the Upper-Beartooths, where Joey and I, now at nearly 11,000 ft., were now amid. We drove along for few more serene miles and turned back around to enjoy it all again, the unnerving switchbacks suspending us over the valley. I knew that Joey, who had done this drive before, was having a hard time keeping his eye on the road. The actual Beartooth itself came into view, its salient pointy peak nestled in the broad, snow-capped expanse.
Comparing this drive with the Going to the Sun is a worthless endeavor. Both can be categorized as jaw-dropping alpine beauty, yet are still unique. Concerns over such trivial matter can take away from the experiencing it for all it’s worth.
We started to wind our way out of Beartooths, back toward the entrance of the park. The Absarokas were now on our left, the Beartooths on our right. We stopped at a roadside waterfall for some pictures, where I would take another dose of caffeine as well.
Daylight was thinning, and the pointed peaks, along with the roadside pastures and cabins, had me feeling like I was in Switzerland. We reentered the park at around 7 pm with the hopes of seeing some more wildlife.
We drove back down Soda-Butte Creek and on through the Lamar Valley until the town Tower-Roosevelt, where we turned south toward Canyon Village, the town adjacent to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. We passed Mount Washington in the East, and crossed over Dunraven Pass. We could see the Absaroka Range in the distant East on its deep Southward progression.
We stopped at a few turnouts on the ridge of the canyon, with the Yellowstone River roaring so far below, you had to crane your neck outward to glimpse it. We watched the massive Lower Falls in the distance, admiring Yellowstone’s landmark versatility. The canyon walls were of an array of colors—pink, yellow, brown, resembling the cliffs at Zion National Park.
We walked to a few other view spots and hopped back in the van. Daylight was now dwindling, but we still had time for a quick drive into Hayden Valley, which a relatively tamed Yellowstone River crosses before dumping into the canyon. Light forested hills rolled from the valley’s edges. We watched a herd of elk meander the trees across the river and passed a buffalo herd on our right, almost hidden within a fold of hillside. It was almost dark when we decided flip the van back around North. That herd of bison we saw in the hillside just a few moments earlier was now causing a traffic jam, sauntering by head on.
The fifteen minutes we sat for in traffic was minimal compared to when herds hold cars for several hours. Batshit Joey was trying to get me to pet one, but I thought better of it.
It was now dark as we made our way back to West Yellowstone. Joey was telling some good small-town stories about some crazy family members, and we discussed future plans for the summer. We pulled into McDonalds at half-past ten, where I would buy Joey a meal to pay off some gas debt.
Thanks for reading.