Because I’ve driven it at least a dozen times in the last seventeen years. But it’s really the only logical route from Yellowstone to Missoula, so that’s okay. And it is pretty.
Up along Earthquake Lake, which is the only lake I’m familiar with that was created by natural forces in my lifetime [g]. The Hebgen Lake earthquake, which happened on August 17, 1959, caused a landslide that dammed the Madison River, killed over 25 people, and, incidentally and not at all disrespectfully, was part of what sent Charley McManis back in time to 1877.
Over the natural dam and down the river to the long, wide valley west of the Gallatin Mountains, which weren’t terribly visible today due to the weather – I’d harbored thoughts of going back down to the park and spending a second day, then camping at Baker’s Hole again tonight, but when I saw the rain coming down I changed my mind. I have spent time tromping around the Upper Geyser Basin in the rain, but I have to say the thought wasn’t all that appealing this morning.
So on I went, down the valley through the town of Ennis, which is a fly-fishing hub on the Madison River, where I discovered, much to my delight, that the local Town Pump (Montana’s answer to the usual convenience store/gas station combo) sold unsweetened iced tea. No lemon, but that’s what the juice in my cooler is for [g].
I got back to I-90 about 11:30, and reached Butte about noon. I had my mouth set for another pasty (Butte used to have a lot of Cornish miners the way Michigan’s Upper Peninsula did, and I’ve eaten them here before), but I couldn’t find anywhere to sell me one, so I ended up with a hamburger, alas.
And so on northwestward to Missoula, where I am for the night. In the rain. Which is okay, since I’m indoors.
I had an idea this afternoon, too. I haven’t driven over Lolo Pass (about which more tomorrow) in a long, long time. Not since I was researching Repeating History and went to the Nez Perce National Historic Site in Idaho at least ten years ago. So I’m going to do that again, probably spend tomorrow night somewhere around Walla Walla or the Tri-Cities, and drive on in to Tacoma from there. Why not, right? One more day won’t hurt…
And home again, home again, AKA bombing home on the Interstate.
It takes about a day and a half for me to get home from Yellowstone. A very long day and a half, but still. I left my cabin at Old Faithful early in the morning, feeling wistful as I always do, and comforting myself with the thought that I will be back. At the rate things are going, I’m not sure when my next visit will be, but return visits will remain inevitable until I become too decrepit to travel. A long time in the future, I hope.
I did not make any more stops in the park, as I hoped to get as far as Spokane that day, which is less than ten miles shy of 500 miles. I did make two stops in West Yellowstone, one for just enough gas to get me to the Interstate, where it’s about thirty cents a gallon cheaper than in West, and the other at the hostel to pick up the wristwatch I had inadvertently left there two days before. Fortunately, the cleaning staff had found it and set it aside for me. And, I discovered later, sent me an email to let me know they had it.
After that, well, Kestrel and I could probably drive this route in our sleep. North out of West to Hwy. 287, which runs along Hebgen Lake to Earthquake Lake, the site of the landslide caused by the earthquake I’ve been nattering on about for the last two weeks. Up and over the natural dam, and downstream along the Madison River, past the Gallatin Mountains and through the little town of Ennis, which makes a great deal of its living from the fly fishermen who flock to the Madison every year.
And on north. It takes about three hours to get from Old Faithful to I-90, headed westbound. From Old Faithful to Livingston is only about two hours, give or take an animal jam in the park, but that puts you an hour and half east from where 287 eventually debouches, so it’s not a time-saver that way.
Once past Ennis, the land opens up and the mountains draw back, but after I landed back on I-90 it wasn’t all that far to my last crossing of the Continental Divide on this trip, at Homestake Pass, then Butte, where my great long lasso of a trip reached its knot and I was back on highway I’d already traveled this trip. I stopped in Butte for lunch and gas, then let Kestrel really start eating up the miles.
It was about the middle of the afternoon, somewhere along about Missoula, I think, that I started thinking, why don’t I just keep going? Theoretically, if I drove straight through (something I have never done in all my Yellowstone trips), I could make it home before midnight.
I debated the idea for miles. All the way through the last 100 miles of Montana and the 60 or so miles across Idaho as far as Coeur d’Alene, where, in spite of the fact that I still had over a quarter of a tank of gas, I stopped to get more because I knew the price would jump forty cents a gallon as soon as I crossed the state line into Washington. However, the moment I climbed out of the car, I knew I wasn’t going to do it. One of the odd things about spending the entire day making miles is that I tend to not realize how tired I am until I actually stop. So I resigned myself to that one last night on the road.
I crashed and burned in a little mom and pop motel out by Spokane International Airport, and got up and out at the crack of dawn the next morning. I was pretty much sick of breakfast bars by that point, so I decided I would see what the little town of Ritzville, which is the next wide spot in the road after Spokane, had in the way of a diner. My mouth was set for pancakes. I did find some, or, rather one enormous one after the waitress told me two would be overload, bless her, but only after giving myself the grand tour of the entire town. It was worth it, though.
Back on the highway, I stopped at a rest area to clean up, then took a glance to the west and did a doubletake. Was that Mt. Rainier? Surely not, I was still too far east. I fetched my binoculars and stared again. Lo and behold. Home.
You see, I have this theory. My theory is that there are place-oriented people and there are people-oriented people (kind of like the way there are introverts and extroverts). I am a very strongly place-oriented person, which is a good thing because a) I’m really bad at marriage, having tried twice and failed both times, and b) my blood relations are scattered all to hell and gone in places I wouldn’t live in on a bet. I was born in New Orleans and grew up in LA, Denver, and San Franscisco (my father was an engineer, which is the next thing to being military for getting transferred regularly), so it’s not like I have a hometown, either.
But home is the Pacific Northwest, and in particular, my corner of western Washington, where I’ve lived for the last almost twenty years. I moved to Oregon in my mid-twenties and loved it, but then I made the mistake of falling in love with a Midwesterner who hoodwinked me into moving to Ohio. He claimed that we’d only be there long enough for him to finish grad school before we moved back to Oregon. Then he got within two hours’ drive of his seven brothers and sisters and I never did pry him loose.
I finally managed to finish grad school myself, leave him, and find a job in Tacoma, Washington. I remember driving over Snoqualmie Pass in tears because, dammit, I was home. Never mind that I’d never lived here before. It was just like the John Denver song, only a different part of the country.
Anyway, I still had about two hundred miles to go, but I was home. Much as I love traveling, and as you can see I really truly do, I love coming home almost as much. Especially since this is where I get to come home to.
I hope you enjoyed my travelogue, and that you will stick around for more adventures. For one thing, I am in the process of adopting a pair of kittens, which ought to be good entertainment value. And there are always new places to discover, even in the old familiar stomping grounds. And beyond.
If you like my travel writing, you might enjoy my fiction set in Yellowstone:
In which I discover that Butte is not just a place to get lunch and gasoline on the way to Yellowstone.
Day two started damply, to say the least. I suspect it snowed a bit overnight, but by the time I woke up it had changed over to a drizzle just a few degrees above freezing. I packed up quickly and left out before my only neighbors in the campground woke up because I wanted to get the heat running in the car. I have a sleeping bag that has kept me warm in the snow before, but it doesn’t do much good after I get up.
Speaking of the neighbors, they were a retired couple from Florida who were spending the summer as campground hosts. The concept of a campground host is something I don’t remember from camping as a child, but it has become very popular over the last ten-fifteen years, and I think it’s a good thing, especially when I’m in an otherwise empty campground on my own.
The male half of the host couple and I had a very nice conversation the evening before, and the upshot was that he was the first person to whom I gave a Repeating History bookmark on this trip.
So. On the road again. My goal that morning was Butte, Montana. “The richest hill on earth.” (local slogan) “The noisiest place we ever camped.” (my mother) And what I’ve always thought as a rather ugly stop on the Interstate just west of Homestake Pass (aka the Continental Divide). Convenient, but ugly.
I don’t know how the World Mining Museum arrived on my radar, but it did, and so a week or so before I left my route changed from a straight shot to Helena to a slight detour to Butte. The World Mining Museum is on the campus of Montana Tech, which must be a very odd place to go to school. You see, Butte, Montana, appears to have been stalled in time, to back around the turn of the last century. The museum itself was fascinating, in a small-town let’s-collect-everything-we-can sort of way. There was an entire village of buildings full of antiques. Another village of vintage dollhouses. A room full of minerals (including a blacklighted section for those that glow in the dark). And a room telling the story of the richest hill on earth and one of the largest manmade holes in the ground on the planet, the Berkeley Pit, from which millions of dollars of copper were extracted up until the 1980s.
But it wasn’t just the museum that was arrested in time. The entire downtown (Butte has a nationally-registered historic district second in size only to New Orleans’), perched on the mountainside, looks like you’d expect ladies in long skirts and men in tailcoats to stroll by. The copper kings’ mansions (one of which I toured) have turrets and stained glass and gilded wallpaper and hand-carved staircases.
Absolutely none of which you can see from the freeway, from which vantage Butte simply looks like a dirty, gray huddle of buildings on the mountainside.
Then there is the Berkeley Pit. They quit mining from it in 1982. The last time I spent any time in Butte was in the late 1960s, when it was being mined 24/7 (hence my mother’s comment about the noise). It is now over half full with water so contaminated that the whole town is a SuperFund site. But it’s still pretty darned impressive to look at.
I spent most of the day in Butte, and found every minute of it fascinating. Yes, the town has problems the way Crocodile Dundee has a knife, but it’s still an amazing place. And not just a stop for gasoline and food.
Late that afternoon I turned north on I-15 towards Helena. Helena is the capital of Montana, and a very nice town I’d visited a couple of times before. Oddly enough, the farther north I drove (once I crossed the Continental Divide), the better the weather got. The cold drizzle in Butte changed over to sunshine. The views down the valley were beautiful. And it was a new road to me, at least for a few miles.
I had a date with a research library the next morning and the hope of handing out as many bookmarks as I could. After all, about a third of Repeating History is set in Helena. In 1877-8, granted…