In June, Yellowstone National Park was devastated by flooding from torrential rains and rivers full from snow melt. Roads and bridges washed away. Visitors were asked to leave, some needed to be evacuated. The park was closed for a week so that damages could be assessed. Some entrances have reopened, but the northern tier entrances are still closed, having sustained the greatest damage.
A few weeks ago, I saw a post on Facebook by Silver Gate Lodge in Montana. They are one mile from the closed northeast entrance to the park, and it’s had a severe impact on tourism, the source of their livelihood. Please come, the post said, offer what you can afford. I called the next morning, thinking that they’d be booked by then, but to my joy, they had availability.
It’s a twelve hour drive to Silver Gate from Castle Rock, too long a drive for me to make in a day. I decide to spend the night in Sheridan, WY, at a KOA Campground, a safe way to solo tent camp for the first time, and a baby step toward my ultimate goal, to be able to camp in Mother Nature’s arms.
It takes seven hours to drive to Sheridan, from the congestion through Denver, detours for road repairs, and two twenty minute stops to charge Freedom. I enjoy those stops at three hour intervals to get out and walk.
My favorite songs come in and out of awareness as I watch the landscape roll by. I enjoy being the only car for miles, the road a long tongue licking the horizon, as puffy white clouds drop shadows like drapery over the mountains. The rolling hills are pale yellow, baled hay in rolls along the roadside. There are herds of black cows grazing. Every so often there is a metal sculpture on a butte: a bison, a cowboy on a horse, and then a dinosaur, on the other side of the road, oil rigs pump its remains out of the ground.
I also see billboards that make me think, Wyoming! Land of Exclamation Points!!! The campaign slogan for a gubernatorial candidate is, “Fossil fuel, yes!” Liz Cheney’s opponent proclaims, “Ditch Liz!” And, in case you are hungry, a roadside market offers, “Beef! Hogs! Lamb! Wild Game!” I’m not kidding!
From Sheridan, I drive HWY 14 through the Big Horn Mountains. I think it’s probably the most beautiful drive I’ve ever taken, and just when I think it couldn’t possibly be more beautiful, it is. Sometimes there are majestic sandy colored mountains with magenta veins running through. Then I see a hazy valley below of pastel pink, tan, and yellow-green, with strands of turquoise running though. I descend to the valley and learn that those turquoise strands seen from above are the Big Horn River. I wish I were an artist to paint what I see of color, shape, and texture….
Silver Gate, Montana is one mile from the northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park. It’s a block long on a two lane highway, cradled in a valley along the Absaroka Beartooth Mountain Range. On the southeast side of the road is the Trading Post and the Log Cabin Café. On the right side of the road is the Range Rider Lodge, and the General Store, where I check in to Silver Gate Lodging. I’m greeted by Katie, a young woman who radiates a zest for life. She gives me the keys to the School House Cabin, and all the information I need to be comfortable during my stay.
After I settle in, I walk around to get a feel for this beautiful place. I’m filled with awe looking at the majestic mountains. There is an outdoor fireplace and one of the other guests is feeding logs into it. There are six other people there, from the Carolinas and upper Michigan. Everyone is friendly and we chat late into the evening.
There is a pleasant chill to the evening air, and it’s quiet. There’s no noise pollution from traffic, and no light pollution from city lights. I put my head on the pillow and fall into a deep, restful sleep, the best night’s rest I’ve had in a long time.
*No cars are allowed into Yellowstone National Park, but you can walk or bike for six and a half miles into the park, then the road drops off, having been washed away during the floods six weeks ago. A thirteen mile round trip hike is a stretch for me, but I walk as far as I am able to see as much of this beautiful landscape as I can. The entrance to the park is blockaded to vehicles, but park rangers are on site, and Loren greets me as I walk through. She instructs me on care to take around wild animals. She says bears attack only when surprised and will move on if they hear someone approaching. She suggests that I make noise or sing as I walk. I’m thrilled. No one ever suggests that I sing.
Soda Butte Creek wends its way below the road. It’s a beautiful shade of blue-green, and the sound of water rushing over rocks is soothing. There’s an abundance of wildflowers in bloom, fanciful flowers that look like a faerie garden. I sing and hum from time to time, to keep the grizzlies at bay. I hope to see some of the wildlife that live in the area, but see only a chipmunk and a deer, both too fast for me to capture on camera.
Bannock trail to Bridal Falls is heavily forested, with cabins tucked in among the pine trees. I cross the creek where the road washed out from the floods. Mother Nature has healed herself, and wild roses and wild strawberries are in bloom. Only what was created by human hands remains damaged and in need of repair or rebuilding.
I walk deeper into the forest, breathing the fragrant pine air, enthralled by the beauty of the flowers, and the birds singing to each other as they flit about the trees, then realize that I’m walking away from the mountain, the source of the waterfall. Tolkein said, “Not all who wander are lost,” but I’m a wanderer who tends to get lost… in the beauty of what surrounds me, in the moment. I turn around and cross the creek again where the road washed out. A resident drives up on an ATV and stops to chat. He says I just passed the trailhead to Bridal Falls on the other side of the creek, and that a mother moose and her calf have been seen grazing in the area.
Hoping to see mama moose and her calf, I cross the creek again and find the trail marker amid the debris from the storm. The path is strewn with fallen trees and limbs. After clambering over a few, I decide this isn’t a hike to do alone.
The General Store is the gathering place early in the morning or in the evening because that’s where there is internet connectivity. It’s been wonderful disconnecting from the outside world, still, it’s good to be able to communicate with family and friends a few minutes a day. I seek out a table on the side of the store where there is some shade. Hypatia and Leslie are sitting on one end, happy to share the space with me. We start talking and I feel as if I’ve known them forever. Hypatia is a ceramicist and Leslie is a chef. They are both from Georgia and I love their soft southern accents. Hypatia’s brother, Henry, is the owner of Silver Lodge. I say that I would love to ask him some questions for my blog. She corrals her brother, and she and Leslie are off to pick rhubarb from Henry’s garden to make a cobbler for dinner.
I carry my camera around, adjusting the lens for shots of the mountains, of buildings and streams, and close ups of flowers. Now, talking with Henry Finkbeiner, I feel as if what I’m experiencing here is coming into focus, and he is the heart of the picture.
Henry is a soft-spoken man. He says that his grandparents brought him to Yellowstone when he was ten years old. The experience made him a lover of nature. He says that the ecosystem is larger than himself, and separation from it is illusory. When talking about Nature he says, “Our only job is to love Her back.” Henry believes the meaning of life is to be a kind human, and to participate in a positive way.
In 2000, he bought Whispering Pines, across the road from Silver Lodge, to use as a summer camp for underprivileged children, to introduce them to the joy of being in nature, and to act as a mentor. It worked well, but the groups he worked with found it difficult to get the children here.
Later, Henry bought the General Store, Silver Gate Lodge, and the Range Rider Lodge. He realized that he could be a mentor to the young people he employed by creating a community for them to feel involved. It appears to be succeeding. His employees are upbeat, friendly, and helpful.
He gives me directions to Silver Falls on Mineral Mountain and lends me bear spray to carry. He says, “It’s like taking Prozac. You probably don’t need it, but it makes you feel better.”
On Mineral Mountain, Silver Falls streams more than one hundred feet over a limestone cliff face. I hike up through alpine meadows and over scree. As I photograph the stream that flows into Soda Butte Creek, a family passes me. Nearing the falls, I hear them laughing. I stay at a distance to photograph the falls, so they can have privacy, and the joy of being a family in this marvelous place.
Terry Ward came to Yellowstone years ago and never left. He’s a manager at Silver Gate Lodge, and is known as Terr Bear and WBB (World’s Best Boss.) He gives me a tour of the Range Rider Lodge. The lodge was built in 1937 and opened in 1938 as the Gorham Chalet.
They had just hosted the annual Hemingway Conference. Ernest Hemingway and his second wife, Pauline, lived at the L-T Ranch in neighboring Cooke City from 1930-1939. They came to the Royal Wulff Tavern every Saturday night for dining, dancing, and drinks. Some Hemingway memorabilia is in the lodge.
I ask Terry about the recent floods. He says it started with rain or snow every day since the end of May. By June twelfth it rained five inches a day and didn’t stop. Water ran down the roads and visitors were asked to leave. Soon, everything was under water and the employees were mandated to leave.
“We drove against the water until we came to a slide on the road, The kids (the employees under his management) moved rocks and trees to make a lane for cars to get through. Two days later, the southeast side of Silver Gate was covered with mud. Trucks carried out mud a foot deep. Within four days, it was cleaned up.”
Because of clean-up efforts, Silver Gate looks pristine, as if the floods never happened, but repairs to some personal residences, businesses, and roads are ongoing.
Every evening, I hope to see starry skies and the Milky Way, but clouds mask the heavens, and some nights it rains. I’m rewarded when I wake pre-dawn one morning to see Venus shining in all her glory. Alone in front of the General Store, sipping a hot cup of coffee, I watch the sky brighten with the approach of the sun, and listen to the birds sing their praises to the new day.
Even though I didn’t see the wildlife I’d hoped to see: moose, elk, bison, and bears, or star filled skies every night, my stay in Silver Gate was magical. The air was fresh. The days were warm, and the nights were cool. The landscape filled me with awe, and Mother Nature arrayed herself with garlands of glorious flowers. It was so quiet that my thoughts slowed down, and time became meaningless. I did have solitude, but the other guests, residents, and employees of Silver Gate were warm and friendly, and I never felt alone. I will go back, and next time my stay will be longer.
The navigation system routes me back to Sheridan via HWY 212, the Beartooth HWY. It reaches an elevation of 10,947 feet. There’s a delay due to road repair work, but the drive provides spectacular vistas, as well as frightful hairpin curves with nothing but metal railings between you and all the way down. I see a bear cross the highway. It’s the biggest thrill of all.
*A recent news update states that major construction repairs on the Northeast Entrance Road to the park has begun. Hikers and cyclists will still be able to go as far as Warm Creek trail head, two miles into the park. Repairs are projected to be completed by October 15th. These repairs are temporary, and alternatives are being considered for the permanent reconstruction of the Northeast Entrance Road that have the least impact on the environment, are most resistant to natural disasters, take advantage of unimpacted existing road infrastructure, and are the most expedient and cost effective.