8.20.2008

What the Hell Good is a Damn Plan Anyway???

My plan Tuesday morning was to return to Yellowstone via a different scenic highway than the route I'd taken the day before and then take in some more sites at the park, especially Mammoth Hot Springs (it seemed as though there might be a good deal of mineral induced color there so I very much wanted to see it). You'll notice I used the word plan, because Tuesday's theme ended up being: What the Hell Good is a Damn Plan Anyway? I wrassled all day with the concept and got to see all sorts of relationships I have to a plan that aren't usually apparent to me. I learned a whole lot about myself, and I mean that in a good way.

The first part of my plan that failed was to head out from Cody by 9:00. I usually get up really early (by 7:30 at the latest), but most mornings I have a hard time weaning myself off the computer before 11 or so. "Ah well," I reminded myself, "it's not like you have to be somewhere at a specific time. Just leave when you're ready, for crying out loud!" There it was - the first skirmish had quietly been waged in what would be a day long battle.

Next, I somehow missed the turn off for the road I had intended to take to Yellowstone and was pretty far along the road toward Belfry, Montana by the time I had discovered my mistake. Now there aren't many roads out in that corner of Wyoming/Montana, so once you're off on the wrong road, it's pretty durn hard to correct your mistake short of turning around. I consulted the map, and the route I had taken by mistake was one I had toyed with taking anyway - just much further out of the way. Still, it was reputed to be an extraordinary drive and well worth the detour and it was a lovely day. What the hell! I think I'm so damned spontaneous, let's see what happens when I put it to the test! It was amazing to me, as I sat and conversed with myself, how driven by guilt I was. I felt really bad for missing my turn and thwarting the Plan-with-a-capital-P. Even though the only person I could possibly be disappointing was myself, I found myself fretting over and over about not doing things right. Here I am with the complete freedom to do pretty much anything I want to, and what I choose to do is feel guilty because I didn't stick to a plan? Okay, that's crazy. It really helped me to see that.

Happily, my erroneous route took me through the tiny town of Red Lodge, Montana just about the time I was in dire need of a late lunch. Naturally I came to a screeching halt when I saw the sign for the Red Lodge Cafe. Leaping Indian braves circling a giant red tepee! Perfect! When I sat down inside, I recognized the universal menu selections I'd seen in every cafe I'd eaten in for the past 5 weeks, but there were one or two glimmers of hope on the listing, too. One bright spot was that one of the featured sandwiches on the menu was a pork chop sandwich. Now that's not a sandwich you see everyday, and if it's prepared right, it's far more than delicious. I ordered an iced tea and a pork chop sandwich for my lunch, ambitiously eyeing the list of homemade pies which I knew in advance I would never have room for. The tea arrived in a giant opaque baby blue plastic tumbler, which had the immediate and wonderful effect of making me feel right at home, like my granddaddy had just fixed it up for me. It was good strong brewed tea, too.

The tumbler and it's effectiveness gave me pause to think. I looked around and began noticing that the Red Lodge Cafe had paid an extraordinary amount of attention to detail that is lacking at most cafes of it's caliber - I won't bore you with the details - but it did bode well for my pork chop sandwich as I saw it. The waitress came out from the kitchen after what seemed like an eternity and told me they had run out of pork chops, and that the cook had to BUTCHER some more and then bread them up and fry them and that's why it was taking so long! Can you imagine? At that moment I knew it was going to be well worth the wait and sure enough it was. The breading was crisp and delicious, as good as a perfect piece of fried chicken. The chop itself was moist and as lopsided as some of the mountains I'd be driving past just after lunch. It was obvious that the waitress hadn't just been pulling my leg when she said the cook had to cut the chops for me. Thankfully, the Red Lodge Cafe had managed to renew my affection for the small town diner, even after four weeks of dreary offerings all over the Midwest.

I hadn't seen much staggering scenery by the time I arrived in Red Lodge, so I was beginning to wonder about my decision to go this route, even as good as my sandwich had been. But it wasn't long after I'd returned to the road that I realized I was now driving pretty much straight up a mountain and all of a sudden I was right in the middle of the mountains I'd been seeing off in the distance all morning! I climbed and climbed and climbed. Every time I turned a corner, there would be another stunning view that would cause me to hurriedly pull off and FIRMLY apply the hand brake. I tried to take pictures, but every single one of them turned out deadly dull and do nothing to represent the sweep of being in that magnificent place in person. Bah. I can't even post them, they're so bland. Here instead is a picture of tiny raspberries I found growing at one of the pull outs, just before I put all five of them in my mouth at once with a happy giggle. They were delicious!
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And this is a picture of an inquisitive little fellow I met at another pullout that was absolutely swarming with chipmunks, many of whom were fat and sleek from being plied with tourist nibbles. Some of them were also quite bold. This one came right up to me while I was trying to snap his picture and seemed to be mostly interested in what I held in my hand which turned out to be inedible and poof, he was gone.

As I drove along, hairpin turning back and forth among the very tops of those extraordinary mountains, I tried hard to drink in the concept of barreling along at 10,000 feet with such relative ease. Unlike many mountain drives I've been on previously, the roads of the Bear Tooth Highway take you right to the TOP of the mountains, a place you don't often get to go without strenuous climbing. In fact, the elevation of the Bear Tooth highway is such that it's usually closed to all traffic from September to May because of snow accumulation that can't possibly be cleared. Quite often, I'd execute a thrilling 180 degree turn and find myself smack dab at the summit of yet another beautiful mountain. I chose one of these summits, the one that seemed the very highest of them all, to make a rock stack in order to celebrate my ability to be there. It was windy (as you might expect) and cold - around 58 degrees - and rain clouds hovered overhead, large drops plunking down around me from time to time. I finished my stack and went back to the car to retrieve my camera. When I returned, I had taken only one picture when the wind decided the exercise was complete. This made me happy as my preference in such things leans strongly towards impermanence.
At right is an image from the West Summit observation area (altitude 10,947 feet) that shows the fires that had blanketed the entire area with dun colored drifts of smoke for the past two days. I had not been able to see the source of the fire clearly at low altitude, but it was obvious from this vantage point exactly where the blazes were located.
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Another delight of the path I took were all the beautiful little alpine lakes that dotted the route. Crystal clear and inviting, the water was ice cold, so much more scenic than swimmable.


I eventually came down out of the mountains and was soon thereafter caught in rural highway repair hell in a tiny town named Cooke City that sits just outside the West gate to Yellowstone. This necessitated my sitting and waiting for around 10 minutes for a pilot vehicle to ferry the group of intrepid fun lovers that had been caught with me down a four mile stretch of active road resurfacing. As I sat waiting, I started fretting. It had taken me on the order of five and half hours to get from Cody to the other side of the Bear Tooth Mountains and I hadn't even reached the west gate of Yellowstone yet, much less made the drive to Mammoth Hot Springs! I got cranky and worried and petulant. Damn it, here I was locking horns with the Plan again, even though I had sworn to do without one! I fumed as I traversed the construction and the few additional miles to the Yellowstone gate, worrying about what the right course of action was. I asked the ranger (I love those damn hats!) how long the drive to Mammoth was and she informed me it was a good solid hour and forty-five minutes. Quick math: 4 hours of driving to see a travertine formation because that was the Plan? If I threw caution to the wind and went for it, I would miss seeing the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway (the road I had tried to find on my way out) on my way back to Cody. Arrrrrrrrggghhhh! What should I do? This struggle with choosing was fascinating, albeit a bit annoying.

Finally, I calmed down and decided that a lot more driving was NOT what I wanted, regardless of how gorgeous Mammoth might turn out to be. I opted to pull out of the entrance gate, turn right around and exit, before I had gone 10 feet into the park. A weight seemed to be lifted. The Plan had not succeeded in seducing me. I had finally triumphed.

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I drove the 20 miles back to the turn off for the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway with a renewed sense of freedom and ease. I prepared myself for yet another astonishing trek through the mountains, this time on the route taken by Chief Joseph as he led the Nez Perce Indians out of Yellowstone and into Montana in 1877 during their attempt to flee the encroaching U.S. Cavalry and escape into Canada. I already felt completely saturated with beauty, so I was truly amazed to find that I was even MORE moved by the scenery of this incredible highway. How could it possibly be more gorgeous that what I had already seen that day? But it was. It was more varied and more exotic somehow. And as a bonus, it was even more fun to drive, moving as it did through valleys and plateaus in addition to cresting the mountain tops. I cranked up the stereo, rolled down the windows and fully engaged in the delicious exercise of driving the sort of road you see in a car commercial. It was also the golden hour, making for dazzling brightness and smoky purple shadow. What a rich reward for abandoning the Plan! Note to self: freedom feels way better than guilt.

I spotted a viewing area along the route that seemed to hold a good deal of promise and pulled over. It was where a nice sturdy steel bridge spanned a deep, deep gorge, with a wild river running below, churning with white water. The observation area sat high up on a cliff (see if you can spot my car in the photo on the left) and gave easy access to the bluffs around the span. A lone car had pulled into the parking area ahead of me (believe me, there wasn't a lot of traffic out there) and as I prepared to get out and walk over to the bridge, I noted with amusement that the car contained two young cowboys, both adorned with large brimmed gaucho hats, and REAL spurs. I'm not talking, I'm-going-to-the-Broken-Spoke-to-line-dance spurs, no, I'm talking I-ride-a-horse-for-a-living spurs! I was delighted to hear the classic jangling sound ringing as they walked ahead of me across the bridge. One fellow sported an enormous handlebar moustache to complete his outfit. The cowboys quickly crossed the bridge and veered off into a grassy area on the other side of the road, apparently on a mission of some sort. I puttered about, enjoying the view of the precipitous drop just below my feet when I noticed the pair returning from their mission. The first fella, the one with the whimsical moustache approached first, holding an enormous rock. "What on earth?" I asked myself. Was it some sort of valuable mineral sample? Was it for his garden? Was it to crush the skull of some unwary opponent? I remarked exhuberantly as he approached, "Lookee there! You got you a fine looking rock there! Good job!" His eyes sparkled as a smile played across his lips, "Yes ma'am, I got me a nice one!"

Soon after, his pal emerged from the screen of tawny grass with his own large rock, heavy enough to take concentration in handling. I continued on my path across the bridge, over into one of the overlook areas. I kept turning it over in my mind, what were they collecting those big rocks for? In retrospect, I can't believe I didn't figure it out right away. As I carefully picked my footing to descend a rocky outcropping overlooking the river, I heard the obvious sound of a large rock hitting water, far far below. Of course! Boys + rocks, on a bridge = splash! It tickled me to no end.

The cowboys dawdled a bit more, and then just ahead of me returned to their car and were off. As they pulled out of the parking area, I noticed a garment bag hanging in the back of the car, emblazoned with the name of a tuxedo rental service. Hmmmm. All sorts of intriguing story lines played through my mind. The plot thickened pleasingly when I turned a corner shortly after resuming my journey and saw a tell-tale plume of dust indicating the pair had turned off on a long dirt road and headed off into the hills, likely to a far distant ranch. I liked that development because it gave me the notion that these two had been sitting around killing time when one of them had likely remarked, "Hey! Let's go throw some rocks off the bridge!" It was the perfect expression of what I was struggling so hard to achieve myself that day.

I continued on my journey, enjoying the play of light interacting with the rich colors of the rock. The smoke from the days fires had massed in the distance and created a lovely orange glow behind one of the prominent peaks as the sun set in the distance. It wasn't long before I found myself back in Cody, exhausted from a long day of driving, but filled with the staggering beauty of existence. I pulled into my wonderfully comfortable motel and sunk into a deep sleep. My struggle with the Plan had been victorious, but had left me tireder in addition to wiser. A good, good day.

1 comment:

Robert said...

Shiree,
You must stop making your blog so
darn interesting. I am spending way too
much time that I am supposed to be
working, reading about all of your fun.