Day 60 – Chamberlain SD -> La Crosse WI

As we checked out of our room at the motel/fishing lodge, we took a last walk around to revel in the unique character of the place (even the wallpaper was decorated in a fish pattern!). Then we went into town to look at the Missouri River and to explore the Chamberlain community before getting a fresh tank of gas and heading out onto the freeway.

With 450 miles to go, today is the biggest driving day of the oddyzee. We have a wedding to attend tomorrow, so that defines our return deadline. We have to be home tonight.

Halfway to the Minnesota state line we pulled off at Mitchell, home of the Corn Palace. The inside of the Corn Palace is a typical municipal convention center/basketball arena/concert auditorium… a nice but common amenity for a city this size. But what makes this building special is how it looks from the outside.

The entire outside of the Corn Palace is decorated with corn and other local grains. Ears of corn of varying shapes and colors are arranged to produce some very complex artwork. There are several murals and a thematic motif, and the artwork changes every year.

Inside there is a long hallway lined with pictures of the Corn Palace from each year going back to the 1890’s. The Corn Palace is kind of corny, but it’s free, and draws enough passing tourists for the rest of Mitchell to prosper.

Sturgis was obviously winding down and emptying out as we made our way east. Everything that passed us was either a motorcycle, or something carrying motorcycles.

Holstein cows are a common site in our home region. When we saw some holsteins grazing near the Minnesota state line, we realized how long it had been since we’d seen any. We took in the sunset just before we passed Rochester, at a rest area as we watched the bikers rumble by.

The ambient sounds of the last week of our oddyzee stayed with us as we backed into our driveway at 10 pm Friday night. We unloaded the truck to the sounds of Harleys rumbling through town. But this time we had a room that they couldn’t take away from us … we are home.

Day 59 – Chadron NE -> Chamberlain SD

We left our room on the east side of Chadron just before check-out time and backtracked a bit through town to have breakfast. We found a place called Helen’s Pancake House, and it was full of jovial bikers on highway adventures of their own. By the time we got there, it was too late to get omelettes. After all, they’re mainly a pancake house. Their potatoes were good, the french toast was original, but the pancakes were bland and ordinary.

After breakfast we went east and explored some of the back roads between Chadron and Hay Springs, and eventually we turned north back toward South Dakota. We were on our way to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Most of us white folks grew up watching “cowboys and Indians” movies and tv shows, where the Native Americans were portrayed via stereotype and brutally disrespected. Later, our history teachers indoctrinated us on this period of history with lessons approved by the government that – as the Natives’ saw it – invaded, conquered and colonized the land that our country now occupies. Today we’d like to explore another side of history … the history of the settling of the West as experienced by the Indigenous inhabitants.

Our “reservation experience” began before we even got there. Various federal police agencies love to hang around the reservation and harass the Natives. As we approached the reservation boundary, we saw a beat-up old car pulled over on the side of the road, and the Indigenous people in the car were being questioned by police. As we continued on, we saw two more police cars approaching the scene. Each of the three cars had different markings, so three different police agencies were getting in on this “action.”

We stopped briefly in the town of Pine Ridge for ice and gasoline. As we left town and made our way toward Wounded Knee, we saw a series of roadside markers that gave the history of these places. The stories told on these markers are much more detailed and in-depth than most historical markers on the “white” highways. It’s as if the writers knew that this history may never be recorded anywhere else, and in a big way they were right.

One of these markers was at the site of the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890. During a standoff between federal troops and a large group of Natives, something happened that caused some of the soldiers to panic and begin firing into the crowd. During the ensuing mayhem, hundreds of Natives were killed, including many women and children. The soldiers fired so many bullets that a lot of them were killed by their own fire.

In the ensuing weeks, the government seemed to ask itself, “holy shit, what are we doing?” and overt hostilities came to an end. The less-obvious hostilities continue to this day, to the annoyance of the Native people. For instance, the massacre site – which includes the mass grave of the massacre victims – is now constantly under the threat of being taken over by the National Park Service. The people who have lived on this land for thousands of years deserve to maintain their own visitors center and to present their story, rather than the sanitized version that the Park Service would provide.

Moving on, we wandered through reservation land to find our way back to I-90, and it was interesting to notice the transition of the landscape along the way. Yesterday we were in the Black Hills, which are small mountains covered with pine forests.

Our route goes through the Badlands, a mix of mountain ridges and wide valleys carved into craggy forms by thousands of years of erosion. The Badlands occupy a barren landscape, so the erosion exposes the alternating layers of red, yellow and orange in the rock and soil.

Pine Ridge is a low but rugged land formation with a scattering of the woodlands found in the Black Hills, and the dramatic coloring of the land found in the Badlands. As we left “the rez,” we watched the transformation of the land from Pine Ridge to the Badlands.

Once we were done gawking at the Badlands, it was time to hit the Interstate for the 600 miles we still had to cover in the next 24 hours. But it was time for fortification, and finding decent food turned out to be a problem. Before getting on the freeway, we stopped at a cafe in Interior but we were repelled by the thick clouds of cigarette smoke.

The next town was Kodaka, and we found a buffet place called H & H Restaurant. This had to be one of the most awful places we’ve ever eaten. Nothing was made fresh, everything seemed to come out of a can, box or freezer. Some of the salad bar items tasted like they may have gone off. And for some reason, the entire decor had a Route 66 theme, even though that highway is three states south of us.

We got to the middle of South Dakota that night, and stayed near the Missouri River in the small town of Chamberlain. We were 200 miles from Sturgis at this point, and the vacancy signs were up. Unfortunately, so were the rates. The first two places we checked had their rates set about $20 higher than normal … $85 and $65. The last place in town was part motel and part bait shop. They tell us that Chamberlain has the best walleye fishing in the world.

Walking into the office, we found walls lined with fishing tackle and Polaroid pictures of guys with their fish. The number of Harleys in the parking lot was matched by the number of fishing boats. A portly bearded guy (he kinda looked like Red Green) told us he’d sell us a room for $45. We pointed out that everyone else in town had exorbitant rates, and he said, “you see they still have their vacancy signs up, too, don’tcha?”

Unlike most of the other motels in the area, they did not have to raise their rates to make up for the slow times, because they have no slow times. Fish people are out every week of the year, and when they come out to Chamberlain, this is where they go. And why not? You can get a room, all the bait and tackle you need, free coffee in the morning, and free whiskey in the evening, all in one place. The owners and staff were nice, fun-loving people, and they made our last night on the road a pleasant one.

Day 58 – Upton WY -> Chadron NE

Did we mention that the room we stayed in last night was more like a hunting cabin? That included a funky old stove, which enabled us to make our own coffee this morning. Soon we found ourselves racing across the prairie with a coal train highballing down the track alongside us.

We made a quick stop in Newcastle, Wyoming, to restock on cash and transmission fluid. We gave the truck a once-over and all was good. As we crossed the South Dakota state line, we left the prairie and entered the pine-covered mountains of the Black Hills. There had been some serious fires a few weeks ago, so most of the back roads in the national forest are now closed. Most of the fire damage we saw was from the past 2-3 years.

Our first big stop of the day was Jewel Cave National Monument. There are two entrances to Jewel Cave. One has walkways, lights, gift shops, big parking lots, and all the other amenities demanded by the crowds.

We went to the other entrance for the “strenuous” tour that lasts an hour and a half. During this time, our only source of light was from candles mounted in paint cans, so the cave looked a lot like it would have to the first people to discover it.

Our guide described how this system of caves is still being explored, and of the conditions endured by the spelunkers mapping out the hundreds of miles of passageways. She said that to get to the main staging area they must pass through “The Miseries,” a two-hour crawl through a half-mile passage with a minimum clearance of 7 inches and a maximum clearance of 11 inches. One must hold their head sideways to slither through that thing. The “strenuous tour” of this little half-mile of cave – with its crouching and ducking and stairways and ladders – is enough spelunking for us, thank you.

The rest of the afternoon was spent at the Crazy Horse Monument about 20 miles away. When completed, this monument will be over 600 feet high, dwarfing the nearby Mt. Rushmore. The visitor center complex includes a Native American museum (we saw some of the beads that the Dutch traded to the Natives for Manhattan Island), a craft market for local artists, and the workshop of the Polish-American sculptor who designed and started this memorial. Even though the sculpture is decades – if not generations – from being finished, miniature representations of the completed monument in a variety of sizes were everywhere we looked.

Passing thunderstorms discouraged us from leaving as we got hungry, so we ate at the on-site restaurant. We shared a buffalo Polish sausage sandwich (an appropriate culinary marriage of the two cultures that made this place happen), buffalo stew and fry bread while enjoying a view of the monument bathed in the light of the setting sun peeking beneath the storm clouds.

As we left the Crazy Horse Visitor Center, crowds of bikers huddled under the canopies waiting for the rain to let up. It was dusk and too wet to camp, so it was time again to look for a room. The nearest town was Custer, which was packed to the gills with bikers. The name of that town was enough to make us not want to stay there. 30 miles south was the town of Hot Springs, where we found one vacancy sign, on a slightly upscale B&B type of place. We got to the desk just as the last room had been sold to – you guessed it – a biker couple.

On the way to Hot Springs we passed through Wind Cave National Monument, where we saw a very large buffalo standing on the shoulder facing the road. He was smart enough not to step in front of our truck, or he could have messed it up badly. A group of bikers was following us, and we’d hoped that they would not startle that creature, whose mass was probably triple that of each of their Harleys.

We went south another 40 miles to Chadron, Nebraska. Bikers were still everywhere, and the motels on the leading edge of town were all full. On the far side of town there was one little place, but they had vacancies. The room we had that night turned out to be one of the best rooms for the price that we had on this oddyzee.

Day 57 – Riverton -> Upton WY

We had planned to be starting the day in Buffalo, Wyoming. Instead, wildfires near Cody sent us to Riverton, which is hundreds of miles from where we had planned to be. We hoped that getting an early start (by our standards) would help us get caught up.

We went to one of the “drive-thru espresso” places that seem to be springing up all over the west. This place in Riverton had four employees waiting on two customers, but it still took 15 minutes to get our coffee. So much for our early start.

Our morning drive began in the Wind River valley of central Wyoming. We saw regions that looked as barren as the Moon, even though at midday they were emitting all the colors of the sunset. As we passed through a narrow canyon we saw signs by the road cuts that identified the geologic era of the newly exposed rock as well as its age. Many layers were billions of years old.

We stopped in Thermopolis, home of the world’s largest mineral hot spring. To get in the hot water requires either booking a room at the expensive hotel or spending a few bucks at one of the bath house/water parks that have sprung up in the area.

Fortunately, this place is far enough off the beaten path that the water parks are fairly low-key. Also, it was a very hot day (around 100° and dry), so bathing in hot springs was not an agenda item for many other people.

We went to a place called Hellies Teepee Bath House. For eight bucks each we had the place mostly to ourselves: 3-4 levels of hot pools, steam room, sauna, showers, and waterslide – and that was all indoors. Outdoors, there were more hot and cold pools and an even bigger waterslide.

Today, we finally learned the appeal of the big waterslides that are popping up all over the place. After a couple of hours of romping around the hot water park, it was time to get back on the road.

Stopping for gas, we checked the transmission fluid and found that it was almost completely gone. Whatever was done to the truck at West Yellowstone didn’t fix it.

Our route followed the Big Horn River, which flows due north into Montana and eventually feeds the Missouri. We followed the river and the railroad to Worland before we turned to cross the Big Horn Mountains on the way to Buffalo and the Black Hills well beyond.

The western slope of that route is known as Ten Sleep Canyon, and it was a scenic last hurrah to the Rocky Mountains. Some badly-needed thunderstorms cooled things off as we embarked across our last big ridge.

The traffic level had picked up quite a bit, and we were especially seeing a lot more motorcycles. We had no problem with the bikers, but we did have a problem with rudely slow drivers who wouldn’t use turnouts. They frustrated our efforts to navigate mountain roads with a finicky transmission.

We drive slowly a lot ourselves, but in many mountain regions it is illegal not to use turnouts if you are holding other traffic below the speed limit. There are good reasons for this, mainly that if people can’t pass when it’s safe, they’ll try to pass when it’s unsafe.

Most people that try to catch fish have stories about “the one that got away.” Photographers have their own versions of these stories. At Powder River Pass, just before the climbing turned to coasting, we saw an enormous bull elk with a rack of antlers that looked as wide as our little truck is long. He looked as if he could lift our truck with that rack of antlers. (All right, perhaps he wasn’t that big, but we have as much right to exaggeration and embellishment as anybody else) Our analog cameras were out of film, and our digital camera had been shut off and put away. By the time it could be unpacked and activated, the elk disappeared into the trees.

By late afternoon we had arrived in Buffalo. The first food place we saw there looked interesting and had lots of bikes parked around it (bikes as in big motorcycles … Sturgis is much closer now). We made a note of it and decided to take a look around the rest of the town.

We sat down in a place in downtown Buffalo – kinda homey but quiet – and a little kid came to our table with menus. It was basic cattle country fare, though maybe a tad pricey. Then we noticed if you had a few extra bucks you could order venison or buffalo, and for still more you could order elk … or moose … or bear. We got up and left.

As we got outside we asked each other that if there are enough bears to shoot and serve in restaurants, how come we never saw any? We went back to the place where all the bikers were. It was a very homey place called the Stagecoach Inn. The had an Old West look but they didn’t “buy” the look. Chairs were mismatched, old sewing machines were converted to tables… they made do with what they had around. The dinners were good, portions were generous and it ended up as one of our favorite places.

The sun was setting as we left Buffalo. We were seeing vacancy signs on motels, but it felt too early to stop, especially since we wanted to have the Black Hills close at hand Wednesday morning. We pressed on along I-90 to Gillette, which seemed to have thousands of motel rooms. But every one of them was full. We are now close enough to Sturgis for vacancies to be scarce.

We ended up in the tiny dusty town of Upton, on the prairie about 30 miles off the Interstate. We found a vacancy sign on the town’s only motel and paid $60 (no credit cards) for a room. The room was like a hunting cabin. The beds sagged like hammocks and we had to swat flies for an hour before we could go to sleep. The people who ran the place were nice people. Like most other motel keepers in the area, they took advantage of the high demand to crank up their rates.

They literally said to us, “Sturgis is the only time that we can make any money.” Next time we’re on the road in early August, we’re gonna avoid going anywhere within 500 miles of Sturgis.

Day 56 – Lone Star Geyser -> Riverton WY

Let’s talk about sounds. There’s a sound that’s made by a rice kettle when the water has come to a boil, and the heat is turned down to sustain a slow simmer. That gurgling sound of a slow simmer is what we heard coming from the ground below us as we slept last night.

Poking our heads out of the tent early in the morning, we were greeted by the howls and yips of coyotes, and later we heard the calls of cranes. While we were having breakfast on the riverbank, we saw the cranes.

It was a little past noon when we had our packs on our backs and were marching down the trail to re-unite with the Big Red Dog, which was at the trailhead four miles away.

At the halfway point was our third visit to the Lone Star Geyser. Just as with our first two visits, we arrived five minutes after the eruption was finished. When we checked the log book, we found the entry for the eruption we saw yesterday. It turned out we had seen the minor eruption. The major eruption happened a few minutes after we had left. Sigh.

It was another one of those perfect days that the high country provides in the summer… bright and sunny, warm and dry, and great for a leisurely hike down the mountain. We knew we were getting close to the trailhead when we could hear the rumble of Harleys on the highway.

After living for two days on trail mix, we were looking forward to some of the food that was stored in the truck. Our meal plan for the end of the hike settled on bagel and cheese sandwiches. But those plans dramatically changed when we opened the truck to find it filled with mouse turds.

Yellowstone mice are apparently quite adept at squeezing into vehicles, no matter how well sealed and secured they are. Everything that hadn’t been in a solid container (which wasn’t a whole lot, really … it just seems that way) had been invaded and had to be thrown out. This included our bagels and our tortilla chips. The time that we had planned to spend eating got spent emptying the back of the truck and cleaning out the little black pellets that rodents like to leave all over the place.

The mice left some crackers alone and they couldn’t get to the cheese, so that can hold us until we get back to civilization. Due to wildfires near Cody, the East Entrance to Yellowstone – our most direct route home – was closed. To get to Buffalo and I-90, we would have to leave via the South Entrance and swing a couple of hundred miles out of our way via Dubois and Riverton.

It was a longer route, but it wasn’t a bad route. We got to dip our toes in the water and climb on rocks at Lewis Falls. That’s where we noticed we’d been playing road tag with a gay biker couple who had also stopped to romp in the waterfalls. After that, we got a glimpse of the Grand Tetons and found a spectacular under-appreciated drive to Dubois.

The Grand Tetons as seen over Jackson Lake.

Just before dark, we found a roadside eatery in Dubois that displayed the four magic words: All You Can Eat. After three days of hiking in the mountains while living on trail mix, cheese and crackers, we were hungry. We got filled up, but we’re starting to notice that the quality of restaurant food has been declining as we get further from the coast.

We drove another hour into the darkness to the next town, Riverton. The budget motel had a vacancy, so that was where we spent the night.

Day 55 – Lone Star Trail WY

There were rip-roaring thunderstorms during the night. Not a dangerous amount of wind, but lots of thunder and lightning. We woke up to a stunningly blue sky. Our full day in the wilderness promised to be sunny and cloud-free without being oppressively hot or humid.

When we got our permits yesterday, the site where we started the day was already reserved for tonight. So today we need to move to another site about a mile and a half upstream. But before that, we hope to experience an eruption of the Lone Star Geyser. So we packed up the entire camp except for the tent and our camp chairs, and stored our gear in the tent.

While we were lounging on the river bank we got a visit from a ranger. Our conversation produced an explanation for the “no fires” rule for tonight’s campsite. The last time someone had a fire there, they thought they couldn’t put it out. No matter how much water they put on it, it kept smoking.

What they thought was smoke was steam. Underground steam vents in that area are getting close to the surface under the fire ring. That makes the ground warm enough to boil away any water that comes in contact with it. (At this relatively high elevation, the boiling point of water is lower than normal.)

Of all of our backcountry hikes, this was the first time we’d had a ranger come by to check on us. We were assured that the fires near Cody were comfortably far away from us, and we got to learn a bit more about this area of the park and what to expect.

We took a day hike back to the geyser and checked the log book that’s kept in a little box near an observation area. The last eruption was at 11:08am, and we were there at 11:30.

This was when we met the Geezer at the Geyser. He was a tall guy wearing a safari hat, probably in his 70s but with the excitement and enthusiasm of a seven-year-old. Asking when the last eruption was, he said “The major? It was about a half hour ago, and lasted [this many] minutes, and then it let off steam for [that many] minutes.”

We decided to wait around for the next eruption and claimed a little patch of shade under some nearby pine trees. We watched the Geezer at the Geyser bounding around and checking things out. He seemed like a retired geology professor who had been cooped up out of the field for too long. Once he was peeking into one of the holes while his companion was reading from a guide book, “boiling water can squirt out of these holes with no warning.” He stepped back upon hearing those words.

As we lounged under the trees waiting for the geyser to go off, our soundtrack was the distant excited voice of the Geezer at the Geyser, as he raved to his companions about this unique and special place. It was actually kind of adorable.

After an hour or so, the geyser got restless. This flatulent restless stage kept any boredom from setting in while waiting for the next eruption. Over time, the restlessness got more intense. Finally, we saw a continuous stream rise 30 feet for a few minutes before the geyser fell silent. Assuming the eruption was over, we slithered back into the woods.

We stopped at our campsite from this morning and packed up the tent for the hike to tonight’s campsite. A mile beyond that campsite, the trail crosses the Continental Divide. Between our campsite and the pass was what looked like a huge meadow, but in reality it was the marshes that formed the beginning of the Firehole River.

One of Rozie’s goals was to go to the source of the Missouri River. We had followed the biggest of the three branches (the Madison), and then followed the biggest of it’s branches (the Firehole). Our campsite is where marshes end and the Firehole River begins, and we’re drinking water that could have eventually flowed through Kansas City, St. Louis and beyond. We are at one of the sources of the Missouri River.

Day 54 – Beaver Creek Campground MT -> Lone Star Geyser WY

We got a good night’s sleep at this campground, and it was surprisingly quiet, even in the morning. Before heading out toward West Yellowstone we got our packs prepared for our upcoming overnight hike. That will be one less thing we have to do at the trailhead.

Just up the road was a large lake called Earthquake Lake. In 1959 a major earthquake caused a landslide that blocked the Madison River. Earthquake Lake is the large lake that was formed by this event, and a waterfall now cascades over the landslide.

We weren’t sure whether any repair shops would be open later than noon on a Saturday, so we tried hard to cover the remaining 25 miles to West Yellowstone before then. We didn’t get out of the campground until 11:45, so it’s a good thing there was a shop that was open all day.

While the truck was in the shop, we had a few hours to get other stuff done. First thing on the agenda was breakfast at the Running Bear Pancake House. It was kind of average, but it was priced well for a busy tourist town.

Heading back to the repair shop, we passed what seemed like hundreds of tacky storefronts hawking t-shirts and trinkets. It represented everything we hate about major tourist towns like this.

This is a much larger town than we expected, and it mainly exists to serve as a base for exploring the park. So the tacky trinket hawkers are complemented by necessities like motels, cafes, outfitters, and repair garages.

The truck wasn’t ready yet, so we walked to the backcountry office. West Yellowstone is built right up against the border of Yellowstone National Park, so the walk to the backcountry office was just a few blocks. We filled out some forms, watched a fifteen-minute video that included the bear drill and assorted do’s and don’ts, and left with our backcountry camping permits.

Back at the shop, our mechanics had finally finished installing a new gasket and fluid filter on our transmission, and they changed the fluid. Ninety dollars later we were on our way to the park gate, and the Wyoming state line followed quickly.

The main area of Yellowstone National Park is the caldera of a collapsed volcano. They say it erupts once in 800,000 years, and that it last erupted 800,000 years ago. Comforting.

The molten rock is close enough to the surface to boil the ground water, so Yellowstone has more hot springs than the rest of the world combined. (WARNING! Even though they may look inviting, Yellowstone hot springs are deadly dangerous. If you jump in, you will cook like a lobster.)

This park is enormous… it’s bigger than some states, and the entire park is riddled with holes of all sizes that are oozing, spitting, spurting, spraying, spewing, belching and gushing every possible combination of steam and boiling water.

As we drove from West Yellowstone to our trailhead 35 miles into the park, we saw many areas where plumes of steam rose from the ground. The Madison River eventually split into the Firehole and Gibbon Rivers. Our destination was on the Firehole. We passed many lines of parked vehicles where people had stopped to photograph herds of elk, or an elusive moose lurking in the trees or tall grass.

A small thunderstorm passed overhead just as we began our hike on the Lone Star Trail. This was the first rain we had encountered since we were in Arizona. But much like the desert storms, this turned out to be a brief but annoying shower.

The first part of Lone Star Trail was once a narrow paved road (making it one of the few trails open to bicyclists). This made for a fairly easy hike. It wasn’t long before we came to a field of hot pots, which until then we had only seen from the highway. Up close and personal, it was amazing how alive the geology of this place is. As incredibly beautiful and active as these hot pots were, they were common and ordinary in this park.

Our next reward was to see a mother moose and calf – this time clearly and in broad daylight. The Firehole River was between us, so neither of us felt threatened by the other.

At the end of the crumbling blacktop trail is the Lone Star Geyser. “As the crow flies,” Lone Star is 5 miles from Old Faithful, but it’s a 2.5-mile hike or bike ride from the highway. It has a very consistent 3-hour cycle, and its eruptions are equally spectacular to those of its more famous cousin. But when Lone Star erupts, there may be a dozen other people watching with you, compared to the thousands that may be at the other place. This geyser was much more our style.

The Lone Star Geyser shoots water 50 feet in the air for 10-20 minutes, then it blows steam for a while after that. We arrived about 5 minutes after the steam phase had ended and the long quiet phase had begun. Such was our luck, but we were so happy to merely be there that we couldn’t be disappointed.

We were running out of daylight when we got to our campsite, so it was time to put our “bear drill” training to good use. Every campsite was equipped with some sort of a horizontal beam about 25 feet in the air, usually lashed to a tree on each end. We started to call this thing the “bear bar,” which conjured up images of Far Side cartoons.

The most important part of dealing with bears is to keep all food, food waste, utensils, empty beer bottles, toothpaste – anything with a scent that might attract a bear – all that stuff goes into a bag. Tie a rope (or stout string) to the bag, and tie a rock or stick to the other end. Fling the weighted end over the bear bar, and hoist the bag of food to the middle of the bear bar until it’s needed.

Another element of the bear drill is to make a lot of noise. They say that as you hike, you should clap and sing. We alternated between “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” and “Lions and Tigers and Bears – Oh My!”. Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” seemed appropriate, but we avoided the Grateful Dead’s “Fire on the Mountain,” especially with major wildfires in the park 50 miles from us.

So far, after all these backcountry hikes, we still haven’t seen a bear. We try to be careful what we wish for… we don’t want any bears in our camps. But the ideal bear encounter (from the truck window, across a river while hiking, basically a safe but photo-friendly distance) has never come to pass.

Once we were all set up, we hung out by some hot springs on riverbank until dark. With storms brewing in the area, we kept all of our gear in the tent with us as we slept.

Day 53 – Missoula -> Beaver Creek Campground MT

Missoula has a decent health food coop which was our first stop this morning. First we got some coffee and snacks, and once we were fed and caffeinated we could face restocking. We had a two-night back country hike planned for Yellowstone, and there was nowhere for the rest of the trip where we could count on such a food source, so we had to load up.

Properly resupplied, we set off to cover over 250 miles between us and Yellowstone. There was no way east that didn’t involve the concrete slabs of I-90. Looking for an alternative, we took an exit that led to a series of mountain streams in the Lolo National Forest. We started to feel like we were driving into a pseudo-spiritualistic fishing movie directed by Robert Redford.

Unfortunately, our “alternate route” quickly degenerated into a gravel road which soon became washboard. This wasn’t going to work, especially with the truck in a funky mood, so we turned around.

Back at the exit we found a cowboy bar with banners advertising an upcoming festival. It’s their big annual draw called the Testicle Festival. Out here in cattle country, it’s common to see “Rocky Mountain Oysters” on restaurant menus. But these are not seafood. They’re bull testicles.

Early in their lives, non-breeding bulls get neutered because it’s a Bad Idea to let them hang out together with all of their testosterone intact. The residents of this humble little burg do not hide the products of these neuterings behind culinary euphemisms. On the contrary, they glorify the bull testicle, complete with cartoon drawings of bulls in ver-r-r-ry defensive positions.

Back on the Interstate, we stopped at a rest area and saw a sign for free coffee. A stand had been set up by a group of Christian bikers as a means to connect with other bikers on their way to Sturgis. Half-a-million bikers go to Sturgis, South Dakota each year in early August for one of the world’s largest motorcycle rallies. That explains why we were seeing so many more Harleys on the road.

Due to a major traffic jam, it took half an hour to cover the last 5 miles to our exit in Butte. Shortly afterward we crossed the Continental Divide, putting us back into the eastern watersheds for the first time since the beginning of week 2. We came close to a place called Three Forks, which is where the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin Rivers join together to become the Missouri.

We followed the Madison River upstream to the south, through a series of small towns where the “Old West” look was mostly authentic and only partially contrived. Between the towns we saw country that made us understand why Montana calls itself “Big Sky” country.

We followed an old and partially overgrown set of railroad tracks, and we started to wish we could be riding a train along a refurbished version of those tracks. Rozie remembered that her grandmother had taken a train to Yellowstone for her honeymoon, and we wondered if she could have ridden on those tracks.

In the low sunlight of early evening we could see a plume of grey smoke trailing behind the truck. Pulling over to investigate, we found that leaking transmission fluid was burning as it landed on the exhaust pipe. This was going to need some attention. Slowing down, we continued out of the valley and got to a campground in the mountains.

We were close enough to West Yellowstone to hopefully get the truck looked at early tomorrow.

Day 52 – Glacier National Park -> Missoula MT

During the darker hours of the night, the hissing and droning of traffic noise from the other side of Lake McDonald was less continuous. Occasionally a vehicle would make its way along the lakeshore, and we’d listen as the sound migrated from one end to the other.

Before hiking out in the morning, we spent some time wading into the lake and checking out rocks. It took a few hours to get back to the truck, and we observed some of the advice we got from the bear drill: make noise. Bears don’t like being startled or surprised.

So to alert the bears, harmonicas were played. We would march along humming songs like “Teddy Bear’s Picnic.” Since we were in Montana, the lyrics to Frank Zappa’s song “Montana” were recited. Eventually the idea of becoming a dentil floss tycoon gave way to navigating a pock-marked jeep road back to the paved highway.

We decided to use some of our remaining daylight to explore the Road to the Sun. We went north and started climbing toward the face of a mountain range. Then we turned west for a while as we climbed up the face of the mountain to a place called “The Loop”. That’s where the road makes an abrupt and tight turn, then continues up the face of the mountain going east.

We went about a mile past the loop before we found a safe place to turn around and return to West Glacier. If we were to continue, we’d have gone over a high mountain pass and found ourselves on the plains. We weren’t ready for that.

As we started down US 2 out of West Glacier, we noticed that at a certain speed the truck was shifting back and forth between 2nd and 3rd. We checked the transmission fluid while we restocked on gas and ice, and it looked ok. We continued on reassured, but concerned that the Big Red Dog was not the same truck it was when we entered the park.

We turned south toward Missoula, and just as the sun was setting we found a place to eat dinner called Mountain Crossroads. It’s the clubhouse of a golf course, and it was filled with smokers. Fortunately, there were a few tables were outside, where we could enjoy our dinner while watching night fall over the golf course. We were pleased to find a few vegetarian options on the menu. There wasn’t a lot of food but there was enough and it was tasty. It was a nice place considering it’s the only place for miles.

Our route to Missoula would have to go around Flathead Lake. Flathead Lake is the largest natural fresh-water lake west of the Mississippi. The well-beaten path follows the western shore, so we went down the eastern shore. The fading twilight gave us a good look at the lake from the north end.

As we drove into the darkness we covered many miles with low speed limits, and passed one cherry farm after another. Montana is not easily identified with being cherry country, but this area had the biggest concentration of cherries that we saw anywhere.

Day 51 – Logan State Park -> Glacier Natl. Park MT

Obbie disappears into the forest along the Lake McDonald trail in Glacier National Park.

We woke up to sounds of heavy machinery doing maintenance work on a neighboring campsite. That’s one way of shaking a couple of night owls out of bed, especially after an unfavorable time change. We had made some coffee last night, so all we had to do was to heat that up and drink it while we packed up the rest of our camp, and we were on our way.

Today we plan to hike in to a backcountry campsite in Glacier National Park. The first obstacle in our path is the town of Kalispel, where we got sucked into a Chinese buffet for lunch. Once we got moving again, the town went on and on. The entire population seemed to be concentrated within three blocks of the highway, so it seemed to take as long to get from one end of Kalispel to the other as it took to get from Kalispel to Glacier.

By the time we got to the backcountry office at the park, it was 3 pm. Allowing time for getting to the trailheads and the hiking distance from there to the campsites, there were very few campsites that we could realistically get to before dark. We sat through another “bear drill”, got our permits, and headed out.

Lake MacDonald is the glacial lake nearest to the west entrance. The park’s main through-fare, The Road to the Sun, runs along one side of the lake, and a hiking trail runs along the other. Our campsite was on that trail, four miles from the backcountry office, or two miles from the trailhead at the far end of the lake.

We didn’t know it then, but the easiest way to the campsite would have been to hike the four miles from where we were. We weren’t told that the last two miles of the 13-mile drive to the other trailhead had holes so big we had to drive through them rather than around them. On the other hand, bad roads keep the mutants out.

Visually, our campsite on the lake was idyllic. The lake water was refreshingly cold and indescribably clear, and the variety of rocks on the bottom displayed a rich rainbow of colors and an endless collage of patterns. Towering trees gave us shade, and rugged peaks reflected off the water.

The audio environment was not so idyllic. Motorboats whizzed up and down the lake pulling water skiers or showing themselves off. We could hear the guides on passing tour boats giving their presentations over loudspeakers. It’s amazing how far that kind of sound can carry.

The highway through the park was a mile across the lake. The traffic noise was not exactly loud, but it was constant. Of course this site did not do justice to this park. The next time we come here we must camp on one of the more remote lakes.