Field Trips: Seeing Home Through New Eyes

Wednesday, June 6th, 2018

For the past three weeks I've been crazy-busy even by my standards: Not only is my house renovation project going full-tilt-boogie, I'm working on a new book (more in another blog post) plus a feature article for Wildflower Magazine, and I've been caretaking TAC, a retreat center outside town.

The latter involves two trips a day to the center to feed two cats in two different residences, check on two guest houses, water gardens, and tend a few guests, plus help prepare for an event. The older cat puked in the house a few times, the traps caught mice, we got two inches of rain in about ten days, so for a while there was water everywhere; and a boiler pump in the main house failed during Memorial Day weekend. I raced out to the center at ten one night to shut off both the pump and the boiler. Never a dull moment... 

So when my friend Tom came to town to visit from North Carolina, I jumped at the chance to use what spare time I had to take a few field trips and show him a part of the world he'd never seen. 

One afternoon we drove down the South Fork Road, a paved and then gravel road that dead-ends where the South Fork of the Shoshone River issues from the mountains of the Washakie Wilderness. That valley, wide at its northern end near town, narrows to a gap in the Absaroka Range that has drawn me ever since I remember. I lived at the Forest Service work station near the end of the road one late summer and fall, a momentous period when I began to understand who I am and what I bring to this world.

In the background rises Carter Mountain, a long and high ridge that bounds the South Fork Valley on the northeast; those flowers in the foreground are Rocky Mountain iris (Iris missouriensis).

A few years later, when I was figuring out my then-new relationship with Richard and Molly, I set out from the trailhead at the end of the South Fork road, and walked solo through the mountains, emerging six days and 80 footsore miles later, my pack and spirits considerably lighter. 

On that afternoon field trip with Tom, we stopped to admire the spring-green valley and its wildflowers (including the Rocky Mountain iris in the photo above), and scattered pronghorn grazing on sagebrush and new green grasses. We also counted several hundred cow elk in the hay pastures along the river.

Upper South Fork: I have walked and ridden over this valley and these mountains, inhaling their scents, cataloging their plants, and memorizing the shapes of rock and leaf and wing and hoof. 

Seeing the valley through Tom's eyes on that leisurely field trip reminded me of what a magical place South Fork is. The high mesas, still snow-spotted , the deep canyons incised between them, the tall and twisting sagebrush along the river, the wildflowers... Some places etch themselves in memory, and no matter how long passes between visits, still welcome you back with a kind of cell-deep familiarity. South Fork is that place for me, the heart of the country I call home, a landscape as much a part of me as I am a part of it. 

Another afternoon, we explored McCullough Peaks, the shale badlands east of town that are wild as the high mesas around South Fork, but on a smaller scale.

McCullough Peaks in spring-green finery

We saw one of the herd of feral horses who run free there, plus more pronghorn; plump sage-grouse hens, horned larks, lark sparrows, and other grassland birds; dozens of kinds of wildflowers, and by Tom's count, at least four rainbows (I didn't count: I was driving). We also braved some fierce mud, but we and Red slithered back to the pavement just fine at the end of the drive, exhilarated by our immersion in the nearby wild.

Indian paintbrush (Castilleja angustifolia var. dubia) and big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) in McCullough Peaks

On Monday, I took a whole day off and drove Tom on a big circuit of some of the most dramatic landscapes my home territory offers outside Yellowstone (which he had toured on his own the previous two days). We headed north to Red Lodge, Montana, and then followed US Highway 212 south up Rock Creek and over the Beartooth Plateau, the largest contiguous alpine plateau in North America. 

The Beartooth Highway, an All-American Scenic Highway, switch-backing up the wall of Rock Creek to reach the plateau top.

Tom marveled at the switch-backing road as we ascended the near-vertical wall above Rock Creek, and then goggled at the sweeping views from up top, the dramatic glacier-carved geology, the crazy skiers hurtling down snow-filled chutes, the drifts walling the road in places (at 10,000 to 11,000 feet, winter lingers on the top of the plateau ), and the miniature tundra wildflowers, some just an inch or two high, dotting the wind-blown expanses. 

Spring comes slowly to the alpine tundra at nearly 11,000 feet elevation near Beartooth Pass on the plateau.

Looking south from the Beartooth Plateau at the peaks North Absaroka Wilderness.

We followed Highway 212 off the south edge of the plateau into the North Absaroka Range east of Yellowstone, took a detour to tiny Cooke City for huckleberry ice cream bars and a stroll among the historic buildings. After that break, we turned back east and followed the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone River downstream toward its dramatic canyon, passing Sunlight Basin, a long valley that cuts into the heard of the North Absarokas. We turned aside at Antelope Mountain to take a Jeep road as close as we could get to the edge of the canyon. (That's Red near Antelope Mountain in the photo at the top of the post.)

After crossing Sunlight Creek, we took the switchbacks up and over Dead Indian Pass, and back to the Bighorn Basin. The name of the pass between mountains and plains most likely honors Chief Joseph and his band of Nez Perce Indians, who fooled the US Army by descending from that ridge into the near-impassable Clarks Fork Canyon in their attempt to escape to Canada in 1877. (The Army caught them a month later, and "escorted" the 700 Nez Perce and their 2,000 horses to captivity at the Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho, a story that hurts my heart.)

The view from the top of Dead Indian Hill toward the plains of the Bighorn Basin, where the Army waited for the Nez Perce.  

By the time we got home Monday evening, I was worn out from that long but glorious field trip. And Tom was hooked on the beauty of northwest Wyoming.

Looking at the photos I shot on our various field trips, I am struck by two things: First, how fortunate I am to to be able to spend time in this extraordinary country. And second, how much these wild mountains, valleys, and sagebrush basins shaped who I am, how I live, and my vocation of writing and healing this world. 

Especially South Fork, the valley which opens wide its arms and welcomes me like a lover, suffusing my cells with that unmistakable combination of comfort and sheer joy that says simply, "home."

The South Fork Road, arrowing my heart home...