I woke up from a deep sleep, not quite sure where I was. It took me a moment to realise I was in a motel off I-90 just across the Montana border. Memories of the previous day’s adventures came flooding back as my gaze settled upon the clock on the night stand. It was too late for the continental breakfast of soggy croissants and stale coffee that was standard motel fare. I took consolation in the fact that at least I’d woken up before my friend, and Sprocket was still sleeping happily, his paws twitching as he chased after some imaginary animal in his dreams.
Soon we were up and running, grabbing a quick bite and some proper coffee at a local restaurant and then we were back on the road. Sprocket hopped happily into his crate in the back seat without hesitation and with almost no sign of drool. We praised him for his remarkable bravery and rewarded him with kisses on the top of his head. Things were looking up. Montana’s endless blue skies spread out before us as we drove east along I-90. I’ve heard the monicker ‘Big Sky Country’ many times before, but never truly understood the truth behind the name. This state is the jewel in the crown of US landscapes; its beauty is beyond belief. I lost count of the number of times we caught our breath as we crested another hill and the sky exploded into view.
Just before Bozeman we turned off I-90 and headed south towards Wyoming and West Yellowstone. A road trip wouldn’t be complete without at least a quick jaunt through Yellowstone Park. I’ve wanted to see Yellowstone for as long as I can remember, and although we couldn’t linger long there, my friend wanted to show me at least a little corner of its beauty. After a quick stop for lunch and a walk for Sprocket, we entered the park via the west gate and headed east. Off to our left, a golden eagle gazed disdainfully at us as we ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’. Sprocket was unimpressed, curling up in his crate and taking a nap.
A little further along, a graceful elk was grazing by a river. We had a few moments of grace, admiring this noble creature with its velvet-covered antlers in blissful solitude, and keeping a distance large enough for this wonderful animal to happily ignore our presence, I got a few photos using a zoom. All too soon, however, a rowdy crowd of Yellowstone tourists gathered and the elk wisely chose to find another spot to graze. It always troubles me when I see people treating wild animals like a sideshow attraction, disturbing them in their natural habitat and allowing their children to get dangerously close. In our rush to dominate the planet we have left precious little of it for the animals. This is their land too. Show some respect.
We headed towards the northwest exit along highway 212, stopping along the way to view a spectacular geyser of steaming turquoise waters and a herd of buffalo who were sprawled lazily in a meadow. There were other visitors to the park watching too, but thankfully they were rather better behaved than the people we’d encountered earlier.
The daylight was fading fast so we pressed on, but couldn’t resist getting out at the top of a mountain to watch the sun set behind a thick mist and a startling blood red moon rise over the park.
It was completely dark by the time we exited Yellowstone and found ourselves in the quirky little town of Cooke City. The fact that it has ‘city’ in its name is rather misleading, as it boasts a population of 140 and covers roughly ten square miles, but it packs so much neon into its main street that its aspiration to city stature is well-founded.
After another walkie for Sprocket, we consulted our road map. The next city along Highway 212 was a place called Red Lodge, so we called ahead to book a motel for the night. It was about 65 miles away so we figured we’d be there within an hour, which was perfect. It had been a long day and we were ready for an early night, so we piled back into the car and set off along 212.
And then things started to get very strange indeed. About fifteen miles out of Cooke City the GPS display started doing a dance. The bright orange glow indicating the road ahead turned from a straight line into a wave, and the road we were travelling along started to weave from left to right and up and down. Road signs dotted the way, warning of winding roads ahead, and then the GPS display erupted into a swirling tangle of orange that more resembled a plate of spaghetti than a road.
We giggled nervously as my friend grasped the steering wheel and slowed down to a snail’s pace. We swung to the left, lurched up an incline, stuttered right, staggered up another incline. As more and more signs shouted ‘Curves up Ahead’ our giggles turned to groans. I was beginning to feel queasy and my friend was beginning to lose feeling in her hands. She was clutching the steering wheel so tightly I could see her knuckles had turned white. Poor Sprocket must be in hell, I thought to myself, and looked over to find him drool free and sound asleep.
“Well, at least ONE of us isn’t drooling” I commented to my friend, and we erupted in gales of near-hysterical laughter. We rolled the windows down to sharpen our focus, and were assaulted by the unmistakable smell of snow. Exactly how high up were we? The road turned from curves to switchbacks to zigzags so abrupt we almost met ourselves on the way back, and we drove slower and slower, now aware that we were above the snow line and unwilling to plummet off a precipice and disappear into the abyss below. To add to our sense of impending doom, we passed a sign indicating that the white markers along the road were places where past travellers of Beartooth Highway had perished. Up until that point, we had assumed the markers which lined both sides of the road were there to keep vehicles on track, rather than a memory of those poor unfortunates who had gone perilously, mortally very far off track.
It took us the best part of three hours to make it to Red Lodge, where we sat in the motel car park in silence, my friend still with a death grip on the steering wheel, and gathered our wits before rousing Sprocket and checking in at reception. “You drove Beartooth Pass in the dark?” the receptionist gasped with a look of horror. “You shouldn’t have done that.”
You can say that again. We found out from a brochure in the lobby that the elevation of Beartooth Pass is 10,947 feet; no wonder we smelled snow. We also learned that Beartooth Highway is billed as one of the most beautiful drives in America… during daylight hours. Here’s a short video of our second day on the road.
We staggered away from the reception desk, our eyes still bearing the traces of unadulterated terror. Sprocket gamboled along happily beside us, refreshed from his nap and ready for a walk before bedtime. By the time my head hit the pillow, I was asleep and dreaming of plunging off snow-capped mountains.