It was late June when my sister, Elaine, and I rented a car in Kansas City and started a drive to Seattle to spend the Fourth of July with my Uncle Dan. It had been a pleasant trip so far and we had taken the time to do some major sight seeing along the way. We had stopped in Mitchell, South Dakota to see the infamous Corn Palace. It is the local auditorium in Mitchell that every year is decorated with various parts of corn, from the stalks to ears and even individual kernels. It seemed like a silly thing to do at the time, but really, how often does one go through Mitchell, South Dakota to have a chance to see it? It was interesting and I believe we were both glad to have made the stop.
After spending an hour or so at the pride of Mitchell we headed across South Dakota towards our goal of Rapid City, where we planned to see Mount Rushmore and the always in progress carving of Crazy Horse. As we were heading into Rapid City Elaine spotted on the map a scenic route that would take us through a portion of the Badlands. We decided to take it as we had plenty of time and it was a choice that we ended up being grateful for taking but it was also a choice that would have a great impact on our trip. The Badlands were beautiful as we drove through in the late afternoon just outside of Rapid City. I think it was during this drive that Elaine decided we would take any scenic route that didn't seem to take us too far out of the way.
After spending the night in Rapid city and taking a day at Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse we sat through a night of terrible storms with tornado warnings around us before heading westward on the third day. This was going to be a day that would rank right up there with one of the most interesting parts of the journey.
We were heading towards our next goal of Yellowstone Park when Elaine began to study the map. We were right on schedule to hit Yellowstone before dark when Elaine discovered another red dotted trail on the map indicating another scenic rout. The scenic route was Called Beartooth Pass Scenic route and on the map, it didn't look like it would take us that far out of our way in getting to Yellowstone. I made a fateful decision by agreeing with her that yes, we should take this scenic route. The last scenic route had worked out so well and we had seen things we hadn't expected to see, surely this scenic route would bring more of the same.
We saw the mountain looming ahead of us as the highway took us to the pass. Soon we began to notice that we were moving upwards and the road was getting a little curvy. Then we came to it. The East Face of Beartooth Pass. It was a tall mountain. It was a very tall mountain and the way you got up and over was a series of switchback roads going back and forth across the east face slowing climbing higher up the mountain side. Once we got on the mountain it became painfully clear how long of a drive this was going to be. The road was narrow and three feet off one side of the road was the mountain itself. Three feet off the other side of the road was air and a long drop back to the bottom of the mountain. You had to drive slowly and the higher I drove the less I was able to look down over the side. I was becoming slowly terrified of this road and it showed no signs of stopping. Just driving back and forth a few feet from certain death for a very long time. At last we arrived at a view point site where you could park the car and look out over the Rockies and the pass. We did not hesitate to stop and rest.
There were restrooms there and the scenery was wonderful. Elaine made friends with a couple of chipmunks and I began to relax. For some reason I turned and look at the face of the mountain and began to lift my head to see how close we were to the summit. My stomach began to churn as I realized we were only about half way there. As I was contemplating this a group of bicyclists came coasting down the turns. This did not lighten my load. I quickly walk over to Elaine and told her to look up. She turned pale immediately. We both decided to get into the car and get this over with. We started again the slow trek up the East face of this great mountain, trying not to run ourselves off the road.
After quite a drive snow started showing up on the sides of the road. Not just a little snow but snow that was about eight feet deep. Now we were driving on this mountain road that fell off into nothingness with a great wall of snow to hide the edge of the mountain. We were getting tired but did not get on each others nerves as we neared the summit.
The summit was marked by a ski lift. And not only was there a ski lift up here where the mountain dropped almost straight down but there were fresh ski tracks on the side of the mountain. I then retold myself one of my favorite philosophies, "It is a fine line between being brave and being stupid." We passed the ski lift and suddenly the land leveled out. the snow was about six inches deep on the flat summit and there was a beautiful lake half frozen with evergreen trees surrounding it and snow all around it's banks. It was like a Christmas card had come to life. We were at the top and we got out to take in the beauty of the lake.
We got back in the car and headed down the west face of the mountain. It was not as steep and the curves in the road were more sweeping then sharp. I found I could coast the car at a reasonable speed and feel relaxed on the descent down the mountain. Elaine did not, however, feel as comfortable with the speed I was taking so I slowed a bit. We stopped at one scenic point that look out over a vast valley. You could see deer grazing easily and slowly. I thought at the time that this little moment made the climb over the mountain almost worthwhile, but not quite.
We then began our trek on into Yellowstone. It was dusk when we finally arrived at the gate and we were met by an Asian girl who gave us information and told us some rules or something. To be honest I really have no idea what she said. About a mile down the road a couple of Rangers stopped us. They asked about our experience at the gate coming into the park. They asked about the girl who gave us directions and I flatly told him "To be honest, couldn't understand a word she said." I hope I didn't cost her a job.
We finally got into the little town just outside Yellowstone to find we didn't have a room to stay in, but the motel did the right thing and got us a better room at a better motel and picked up the extra charges. It was dark by now. We were both exhausted and hungry. It had been a long scenic route full of stress.
It was worth it.