At nearly 11,000 feet, alpine flowers experience lives so brief that they make up for its brevity with beauty and abundance. They appear to leap out of the still-frozen earth immediately after the snow pack subsides. Frozen animation exists side-by-side with floral elegance that can’t be matched in the valleys thousands of feet below. No amount of wealth could duplicate their stunning display nor the clarity of the birdsong at that elevation.
For my birthday, my wife, Leslie, had gifted me an afternoon in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley and we had retraced the steps of our honeymoon as we ascended the Bear Tooth Highway from the south. Granted, it was only a brief glimpse, but better to have a moment of time in a place that amazes and inspires than to spend a thousand days ignoring the commonplace.
This road won’t last, so get in the car while you can and make the drive.
Every few years, the tiny towns of Red Lodge and Cook City that sit on either end, threaten to fold when nature comes to take the mountains back. The fact that man’s audacity built such a highway in the first place is a testimony to arrogance. In 2005 12 miles of the road were lost to rock slides and needed to be rebuilt. Even today the roads are closed each night for twelve hours of repairs in an attempt to forestall the inevitable. Massive cargo nets of steel have been placed in likely slide areas hoping to snare runaway boulders the size of apartment buildings as they go for a spring stretch after a long winter under the ice. Most seasons the road is only open for a third of the year, some years, not at all.
But you must go and be inspired. It is one of the few places other than the Hills that would engage all three of my sons.
Connor would chafe if forced to sit in the car all the way to the summit. He would have to stop every few miles to explore or he would explode. But there is so much to explore. All 27 of Montana’ peaks over 12,000 feet are in this mountain range. For my rock climbing son, it holds a lifetime of challenges.
Lane would be in awe of the alpine lakes. There are said to be less than a dozen waters in Montana that still hold golden trout. Several are in the Bear Tooth. Just dreaming about the chance to cast to a mythical creature that doesn’t exist at lower elevations would make his day.
Leslie asked me to stop and take a picture of stunning lupine flowers. I casually climbed over the guard rail and up to the mountain face. There at my feet was a tuft of hair from a mountain goat. The hunting possibilities are seemingly endless, from grizzlies to goats. Son Nate would catch his breath up here and peacefully glass the bears and bighorns for hours.
As long as I was momentarily off the beaten path. I decided to follow the mountain goat’s trail up and over the rock ledge. The view and the drop-off on the other side threw my heart into overdrive. I turned back to my bride seated safely and seat-belted in only a few dozen yards away and pantomimed how absolutely devastating that combination was.
I have a normal fear of heights. Any normal fear magnified by a thousand-fold pumps adrenaline through your body like a fire hose. At the same time, I have an abnormal love for all of nature’s beauty and the view from the top of those mountains is devastating. To think that I spent nearly thirty years in between visits left me heart broken and at the same time so incredible grateful for this small moment in time.
While living here in our own Garden of Eden, it can be easy to make due with our comfortable beauty of golden plains and welcoming hills. But magnificence is just down the road, owned by us all, and guaranteed to our grandchildren as a memory to be shared.