Sunday, February 24, 2013

The silence of the mountains and the pony tail kid

Julie Andrews had it all wrong. The hills are not alive with the sound of music. They are alive with the sounds of silence. The wind touching the hills and ridges. The songs of the birds, the chirping marmots. And in the Alpine region, add the bells of the cattle grazing in mountain meadows. I'm a mountain man at heart. One trip, back in the 1990s, will forever stick in my memory.

While planning a vacation in 1995 or so, I need to check for the exact year, memory failing here, I came across an editorial in Men's Journal: the 10 best roads to drive in the USA with a four wheel drive vehicle. One of the featured roads was the Gravely Range Road in the Beaverhead National Forest in southern Montana. Now, we had planned a trip to Glacier Park and Essex in northern Montana, and we were going to do this in a Ford Explorer. There was no need to elaborate on this, on to the Gravely Range road it was after spending a few days in the splendor of the Montana Rockies.
As it turned out, much of the Gravely Range Road, a one lane dirt and gravel road that would bring you into Wyoming, could probably be done in any high clearance vehicle with two wheel drive. But we had the Explorer in all wheel drive mode, because it adds extra traction on the gravel on the often steep slopes. And there were some side roads that even required low gearing.

Did it bring what I expected from it? Even more. The road started out friendly, amidst mountain meadows with grazing cattle. We had to wade the Explorer through a small mountain stream, and then the 'road' would guide us through forests, take us higher and higher, mile after mile, until we reached the treeline, and we were surrounded by fields with even in July sizable snowbanks. There was no other traffic, safe for just two pickup trucks, farmers maybe, during the maybe four hours we spent on the Gravely Range Road. The silence and solitude were overwhelming. No tourists, no noises, nothing. Vistas that are hard to describe, but proving that Montana really is Big Sky Country, as the Montanians call it themselves. But despite the lack of tourists and hikers, whoever was responsible for the maintenance of the Beaverhead wilderness area, was so thoughtful to add a spacious restroom in the middle of nowhere. On top of a hill, so it required some hiking – but when you got there the sign even said that the facilities were accessible for disabled people. How they would get on that hill in a wheelchair was an entirely different matter, and obviously not the responsibility of the wilderness rangers. Hey, if you make it here, you surely should be able to climb that hill. 

So, were we alone? No, we were not. Driving up the track on a steep slope a young ponytailed kid was walking next to his mountain bike, loaded with camping gear. We waved, as you do when you meet the only human in a remote wilderness and slowly climbed up in four wheel drive mode. After driving over a ridge and around a corner, the trail stretched out even further and steeper before us – and suddenly we felt sorry for the poor kid. We stopped the car, and waited for him to catch up. After maybe ten minutes the young explorer emerged around the corner – and was very grateful when we offered him a ride to the highest point of the Range, so from there on he only had to ride downhill.

I envied the kid. The maybe 19 or 20 year old guy was between colleges and taking a bike trip through the Rockies with just some essential camping equipment. When we finally arrived on the summit of the range, where our roads would part, he pointed to the horizon and said "look there, at left, that's Yellowstone Park. I was there a week ago. But it is far more beautiful here. This is so serene. Yellowstone is flooded with tourists and RV's”. And then it hit me. When Yellowstone is there at left, then surely, those three small peaks there at right can't be anything else than the Grand Tetons? “Yeah, I suppose so,” said Ponytail. “Haven't been there, but I may be going there by the end of my trip.”

So there I was. Staring at mountains I always wanted to see, a childhood dream from the colorful Wyoming vacation brochure I cherished since I was a teen. There were the mountains I never dreamed I would ever see. I saw 'm as tiny profiles sticking up from the distant horizon. That's why I envied the kid. He was going to the Tetons. And I had to turn back, probably no gas enough to drive the entire Gravely Range Road into Wyoming, too late in the afternoon to find lodgings there if we would continue. But I've seen the Tetons! And the ponytail kid? He got on his bike, expressed his gratitude for riding with us uphill for all those miles, and vanished all alone around the next bend, downhill to Wyoming. Into the wild he was, setting up camp somewhere in Beaverhead to spend the night. I wonder, will he ever think of that encounter with two Dutch guys in a Ford Explorer in the middle of nowhere?