Montana — I love the name, the way it rolls off the tongue and the images it conjures in my mind. Mountains, prairies, and forests filled with creatures long gone from my native Pennsylvania. Rivers and streams filled with trout. Montana—mysterious and elusive. My love of the outdoors is part of me. Hearing stories from my parents and sisters of that trip to Yellowstone a few years before I was born. Tales of bison and elk. Mountain lions. Grizzly bears walking along the roads like nobody’s business. Steam coming out of the ground, bubbling mud and water shooting out of the earth. Those fuzzy, out of focus slides. I loved it when on a Sunday, after dinner my mom would hook up the projector and show the pictures of that family vacation, circa 1960s. My sisters, gangly with tousled hair and Old Faithful shooting up in all her glory behind them.
Montana — Yellowstone — a place that time forgot. But I didn’t.
April, 1999. Traveling across the country, everything I owned, but not everything I loved, packed into a tiny green 4-door sedan. Interstate 90 across America. Cities give way to towns, towns give way to prairies and then the Black Hills. In the distance—MOUNTAINS—something I had only seen on the television.
There — there it is! The Welcome to MONTANA sign. I stop. There is snow still on the ground along the highway. Perfect to make snowballs to hurl at the big, wide open sky. Back into the car.
Livingston, Montana — It’s late, it’s dark. I sleep in the car.
Sunrise — I can see what was not clear in the dark. Snowcapped mountains, blue skies, pickup trucks with horse trailers. People—I can tell they live here by the easy way they move with purpose. I am tentative.
Highway 89 south to a place called Gardiner, the northern entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Leaving Livingston, the road is lined with trees and homes and then a curve and the valley opens in all her glory, they call it Paradise. No need to ask why. To the east, what I would later learn, is the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness and to the west the Gallatin Range. And much to my delight— what had been hidden in the dark the previous night as I traveled along the interstate-the Yellowstone River winding along the same path as the highway. What lived in her depths? Trout of course, but what kind? Rainbow? Brown? Yes, and as I was later to learn, a species I had never seen let alone caught, Yellowstone cutthroat.
Horse and cattle ranches, I learned not to call them farms. And in the pastures alongside the cattle and horses- mule deer, white tail deer, and bouncy pronghorn. Big birds in the sky–- I recognized the bald eagles. But what were those others birds? Massive, glinting brown in the sun, others white and black – golden eagles and osprey. Canadian geese and mallard ducks floated lazily in the water alongside species I had never seen.
Up ahead, the road turns and appears to narrow. Yankee Jim Canyon named for a man who, in 1871 settled on what was the only trail from Bozeman, MT to Mammoth Hot Springs, WY. Lucky Jim, because in a few months Yellowstone would be designated as the world’s first national park. He did improvements on the trail, built a cabin and began charging a toll which was said to change with his moods. But alas for Jim, his luck ran dry. As the story goes the railroad came and took his road—he tried with all the tenacity of a mountain man to chase them off but he was no match for the railway men’s determination to forge ahead.
The canyon itself is majestic with soaring rock walls. Railroad tracks long gone but Yankee Jim’s road it outlasted them all. The Yellowstone runs faster here. Upstream and downstream are turned around on this side of the continental divide. The river runs north. High water in the spring make it fun for whitewater rafting.
Through the twists and turns of the canyon, the road opens up again to the Gardiner Basin. Idyllic, exciting. To the right a giant swathe of red cut in the mountain. Devil’s slide. A tale for another time. The Yellowstone river is slower here.
The last curve — the sign tells me to drop my speed — I see the sign: Gardiner, MT. I see Gardiner. Small, quaint. A real mountain town. There are deer walking between the buildings! The first hotel I see has a sign “elk stay for free”. They aren’t making it up, the first herd of elk I have ever seen! Right there on the lawn. I am amazed. I drive through town, and there, right there, the sign – it says Yellowstone National Park. To the right massive basalt stones form it- the arch, Roosevelt Arch and inscribed upon it: “For the Benefit and the Enjoyment of the People”.
The town is surrounded by rolling hills that have pronghorn, deer and elk spotting the hillside and a massive snowcapped mountain named Electric Peak looks down on us.
I book a hotel room. The hotel with the elk in the yard because I want to watch them.
What adventures lie ahead? What will I discover- about the land, about Gardiner, about myself?
What will you discover? What will you feel? What will you take away with you? That is for you to decide.
If I may- one bit of advice; Gardiner, Montana is a great place to start that journey but this is all for now because:
The Mountains Are Calling and I Must Go
~ John Muir
Barbara Shesky~ Executive Director Gardiner Chamber of Commerce/CVB