I wake Dad this morning by talking in my sleep and let Caleb know an hour later that I was busy learning about philosophy, ambiguity, and feelings; not sleeping in like he thought. I step outside, laden with our gear, remove my mandatory mask (to be worn in federal buildings), and am enveloped in the beauty of this place.
I’ll sit in the mezzanine and appreciate the spirit of the Inn that hikers can stay up late at the bar, couples can watch Old Faithful under the stars, friends can play cards in the shared space, families can eat food they brought at the large table, kids can run around to the toilet and patio on their own. It’s easy to stay up late and wake up early as there’s always someone else up earlier.
There’s a spirit of exploration and everyone wanting to enjoy the most of the park, in their own way, in their time here. There’s a family that’s made a tradition of it, for 40 years, because grandpa used to come as a child and wanted to pass on the appreciation for the simplicity to be found in nature against the complexities we weave into our lives. I distract Dad while he’s in a conversational mood and realize I’m delaying his writing too.
We’ll leave just before 9am and it’s a good thing we’re not in a hurry (no one should be while driving through this park) because we’ll sit in a mile-long line of cars for over half an hour waiting on the one bison (who knows he’s the boss here) taking the road at his pace. We’re happy to meet him but apparently other park visitors are late for important meetings and can’t be bothered by some simple ungulate.
We make it to Mammoth at 11am where we turn on the Grand Loop Road that connects us to the 212 E that turns into the Beartooth Highway at its 10.5 mile dip into Montana before going 34.7 miles back through Wyoming and finishing south of Red Lodge, 23.6 miles into the middle of southern Montana. Back to the turn, we get to watch bison cross the road and a family stop to find out if they saw an elk or another uprooted lodgepole pine.
The high school age son is wearing a shirt that says, “Without agriculture, you’d be hungry, naked, and sober.” My shirt would say, “Without art, you’d be starved, bare, and dry.” Dad’s shirt, that “Without education, you’d be malnourished, unprotected, and dispassionate.” Caroline’s, “Without fiber, you’d be craving, exposed, and plain.” Caleb’s, “Without engines, you’d be ravenous, powerless, and temperate.”
While I’m creating my own shirt slogans, we’ll see a discreetly posted sign on the left: Montana. Stops are few on this winding and mountainous paved path through smokey terrain due to fires in the western states and parts of Canada. Animals are plenty but picture proof is hard to attain. We stop near the 10,947 ft summit to talk with a biker on his third annual trip from Kansas to Sturgis, this time with his wife, on her bike, who fears heights.
He says if it wasn’t for her he’d be throwing sparks around corners while still enjoying the view of the leftover snow in the distance. We’ll briefly mention favorite biker routes in the U.S. (this one being closed in the winter) and fatalities in Yellowstone (dissolving via hot springs vs. destruction via grizzly) before we all take off down the mountain to stay ahead of the looming rain.
We’ll enter Montana again 2.5 hours later while wondering how concrete gets laid or a new bridge built on a mountain side. There are videos on YouTube showing how, sometimes with a helicopter, some people like to live life on the edge. We move onto topics of how I dress and what I’ve read this year: mostly biographies of a nuclear worker, elite athlete, fossil collector, therapist, FBI most wanted, and F.L. Wright.
Enter Red Lodge, drop bags in room, sip chai at Coffee Factory Roasters until they close at 6pm while I try to read Simply Local Magazine, Billings and Dad tries to write while ignoring the Pikachu, philistine, and poverty-ridden conversations within earshot. Not wanting to eat pizza in a bar, dinner will be had at Piccola Cucina Ox Pasture at one of the two outside tables to avoid the two-hour wait required to sit inside.
This restaurant transfers its employees from NYC (pop. 8.4 million) to this tiny town of 2,300 residents (the 30th largest town in the state) to serve food for the ten weeks of summer in the authentic Italian style, to include the Cacio e Pepe, which surprised Dad when the server brought the dish out to be served from a pecorino cheese wheel. My pasta was as equally homemade and delicious but the pot held enough to feed three.
Having eaten a day’s worth of food in one sitting, being in an exploring state of mind, and both having spouses to talk to in different time zones leaves us ready to walk the length of Broadway from 5th to 14th with detours along the residential streets before I wander into a candy store to look at old signs. We stop at the closed gas station near the room (yay for small town working hours) and drive across town for some supplies.