In the Mountains, Part I

A few days before, over the weekend, M suggested we take a trip to the mountains near Butte for some mountain biking. While there, we could camp and bring the dogs along and have a grand time. I had no idea where we were headed or what camping and biking opportunities she was referring to, but I didn’t care. I was burnt out from work and needed a break, so anywhere that took me to freedom was fine with me.

It was early afternoon when we finalized our preparations and packed the last of our items into the truck. The packs and sleeping gear were up front with us, while the boxes and the dogs with their beds were in the back. The wind had been relentless all morning but it was sunny and warm and we were excited to go. With the long stretch of road ahead of us, M and I set out westward, ready to embrace our whirlwind camping and biking adventure over the next three days.

The wind kept up as we made our way out beyond Belgrade, Amsterdam, and finally Three Forks, out into the wide-open dry-country that made up the western part of Gallatin County. The sun shone through the window and the skies remained blue so I was happy. There’s nothing that gets me more excited about a road trip than sunny weather and fine destinations. Early in the ride, Buddy discovered the possibility of climbing on the cardboard box and plastic bin in the back so he could get closer to me and possibly stick his head through the window. Regardless of how much shouting and pointing I did, he didn’t get the point. Or maybe he did, he just didn’t care. For most of the ride he stayed up there, alternating at times with Rowdy to see who could ride the box the longest before falling off. Needless to say, the lid to the cardboard box was the first casualty of the trip.

It’s a short drive from Bozeman to our exit in Whitehall. The local National Forest Service office was next to the road so we pulled in and stopped to get some information. Neither of us had been there and since this was M’s idea I was willing to go along for the ride. I tend not to stop and ask for directions unless I really want to get to where I’m going or haven’t a clue about the general direction of a place. I’d rather go with the moment and see what happens but it was good we stopped because we found the information we were looking for (or so we thought) and were able to get on the road.

We made our way onto Highway 2 and quickly found ourselves away from Whitehall and in the middle of dry farmland that reminded me of my childhood school days in the farming community of Shields Valley. The only patches of green were found in areas of extensive irrigation, with the rest looking as if it hadn’t seen rain in months. This juxtaposition, along with our proximity to Bozeman, intrigued and excited me. I was learning new things about the region I had lived in for 18 years! This is why I love the mountains and valleys of the Rockies. This is why I love nature. This is why I love living in Montana.

The maps and instructions in all of the pamphlets and guides we were reading never gave clear details on which roads to take, other than providing Forest Service road numbers that inevitably disappeared as we drove by each of the roads we needed to take. After driving over the pass and down into Butte, topping off our gas, and then driving back up over the pass again and onto the eastern side, we found one of the roads we were looking for. Because we didn’t have a set campground in mind, we were going to look at two and decide between the two. After going about a mile in on a sketchy, sandy, narrow, and rutted road in M’s low S7, we turned around on the side of a hill and slowly drove back to the highway. Option one was no longer a possibility, so hopefully option two would be. If not, however, there were plenty of appealing spots along the road that would make great sites for the next two nights.

Finding the next road was a bit easier. We had already driven by it once with me remarking that it looked awfully similar to the road we were looking for. So, with the second time being the charm, we drove up Toll Mountain Road into what looked to be a beautiful, remote access road to Forest Service land. Little did we know it would soon become a dust-filled super-highway for all those people hiding out in the woods, but more on this in a minute.

After taking a slight detour that ended with us turning around and backtracking some, we finally found the campground we were looking for tucked in a small ravine, with heavy forests on either side, soft, leafy trees across the flats, and a small stream running through its middle. There were seven sites to choose from and we had the lot of them to pick from. We were the sole campers up there and it would remain that way through the night.

Campground View

Before we set up camp, we walked around the area for a bit to get a lay of the land and to see which site looked most inviting. It quickly became apparent to us the middle site would work the best and so we started unpacking the bins and bags and setting up camp. The tent was placed further up the hill from the fire and picnic table, on its own terrace held into the hillside by large, stacked rocks. It was still afternoon by the time we finished, and, after doing a bit more exploring and gathering some firewood for the night, we decided to go for a short ride on the bikes around the area with the dogs.

Camp Site

Our first part of the ride led us up a FS road that ended with a closed gate and a “Dead End” sign covering it. A stream was flowing next to it, so we got off our bikes and walked over to a large boulder area where the water flowed. It was perfect. The water gathered in a large pool by the side of the boulder in a hole below all the vegetation and soil, creating an isolated zen atmosphere in its tiny oasis. I took some pictures while Rowdy flew off the boulder, hastily jumped the creek onto the other side, and just as quick made it back on the other side again where M scolded him while I continued shooting.

Having filled me need for photos, we left the pool and went back to our bikes. Thinking we were going back the way we came, I got on my back and was ready to shove off when I noticed M heading up to the gate and opening the side entrance meant for pedestrians such as ourselves to go through. I was leery about the idea of going into an isolated, wooded area with no help to call out for if the need arose, but M went through and I quickly followed. I kept telling myself that it was still a FS road and we would be fine, but it wasn’t until we had made it all the way through to the last house that I became convinced we were in an area that was leased by the Forest Service to private citizens to have their cabins and cottages on. There was even a large pond, with several houses bordering it and a small water slide leading into it. The residences looked to be fairly maintained, at least as far as summer cabins go, and I slipped into thinking about what it would be like to spend a couple months up there, reading and writing and alone with nature. This didn’t last long, for we were back at the gate again and closing it to continue our way down the road.

Back at the junction that would take us back to our site or lead us out to the highway, we turned left and headed towards the highway and some of the other roads along that route. Between the junction and the road ahead we were planning on exploring was a steep hill that we slowly rode up to give the dogs a break and to keep us from getting too tired for the next day’s adventures. Arrival at the top led to a broad, open area that looked out across multiple valleys and mountain ranges. My heart leapt at the sight. It was wondrous indeed. The rolling, grassy hills filled with sage disappeared into the broad, dry valleys that were met once again by heavily wooded forests that rose up into steep, rocky slopes that topped out with patches of snow on the mountain peaks.

As we turned left on the main FS road and climbed another hill, I looked back behind me and found another set of mountain peaks, these ones part of the same range we were in and the same ones that can be viewed from the streets of Butte. After going a ways further on the road and running into all sorts of cars and dust and UPS delivery trucks, we decided we had gone far enough with the dogs and turned back for camp. On the way back, we stopped several times to take photos of the uplifting freedom of nature held before us, taking all the marvelous wonder in for a second time.

Back at camp it was time to start the fire and make dinner. Tonight’s food would be prepared on the camp stove M had brought along, with the fire being used for heat and as perfect energy for making smores later after night had fallen. We ate the food, I made a smore (they were too sweet for M’s taste), and then spent the rest of the night reading and relaxing by the fire before making our way to bed. We needed our sleep because tomorrow we would be riding a real trail and using real energy. I slipped into my sleeping bag, wrapped it around and over me, and zipped it up to make it snug and warm. I lay there for a few minutes, feeling the contentment of being alive along with the thrill of sleeping in such isolation, before I succumbed to the depths of sleep.

A Mountain Walk in June

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It had been raining in Bozeman all weekend and I was getting low on the inability to do much outside. Snow had been in the mountains since early Saturday and more had been accumulating today. I was tired of letting the weather stop me so, wanting to get away, Buddy and I drove up to Hyalite Reservoir to hike the Hood Creek trail.

We started from the road and quickly began gaining elevation. Down low there was still no snow and the clouds were so heavy and thick that I could not see the snow line on the surrounding slopes. It grew colder as we climbed and the mixture turned into wet snow drops, the type of snow a coastal city would get and one that usually falls in this part of Montana only during the early fall or late spring. The trail followed through tall forests of dripping pines and firs, enclosing us in a cold, tranquil scene. Because it was a Sunday and because of the weather, only a few campers and fellow explorers had ventured into the area, leaving this piece of the forest to Buddy and I.

As the snow grew heavier and I grew both wetter and colder, a small opening by the side of the trail appeared where I was able to look out across Hyalite Reservoir and see the bottoms of the mountain slopes on the other side. Above these slopes was nothing but an endless sky of grey that hung over the valley, clinging to the mountainsides. I gazed out across this expanse, taking it all in before capturing some pictures and continuing on my way.

We had been hiking for a half hour or so and I was still filled with the uneasiness, the edge and anxiety, that plagues me so often. I began our walk through the woods in order to work through this tension and I hadn’t been able shake it. I still had it in my mind that I was doing the wrong thing, that I was in the wrong place. I was thinking of all the productive things I could have been accomplishing if I had just stayed home or had made an entirely different decision long ago.

This was all present as I trekked up the trail and made my way to Wild Horse Creek. We continued climbing and the snow grew heavier and began to stick to the trees and grass. Another half mile and we were walking in several inches of snow, with even more on the grass and fallen logs that littered the trail. Along the way there were several clearings that allowed views out over the valley and even some mountaintops that were able to break through the clouds.

We reached Wild Horse Creek and stopped. The creek appeared through the heavy forest into a clearing that led to some beautiful steps, then down under the trail, and out again on the other side where it disappeared back into the forest. The snow had stopped for the most part and the clouds had begun to lift. With this peaceful stream flowing through the forest and the clearing, my spirits were lifted and I rejoiced at all there is in this life. For a moment I was able to forget all thoughts of worry, all my musts and shoulds, all my insecurity regarding life, and just let go and take the moment in. I was free, I was alive, and I was exactly where I needed to be. There was no judgment, no thought, no action, only the pure form of being. Then, as quickly as it had come, the moment passed and we made our way forward again, this time down the other side of the loop that led us back to the trailhead.

On the way down I began to grow tired and cold. Even though the snow stopped and the clouds lifted, I was expending less energy and was having to keep the circulation in my fingers going by putting on gloves and swinging my arms in rhythm to my walking. My mood was fluctuating as well. The nagging feeling that I was in the wrong place doing the wrong thing wouldn’t go away. When I realized that I was almost finished with the hike and still hadn’t gotten any closer to the peace I was seeking, I began focusing hard on my thoughts, on what I was telling myself in order to react this way. Rather than let them run rampant on their own and have them continue subverting my enjoyment of the moment, I began countering them with other thoughts, positive thoughts, thoughts that helped me understand why my self-talk was not only defeating, but altogether wrong. I was in control of my choices.

As I neared the end of this self-talk session, I found the clearing I had stopped at earlier to take some photos of the trail. Before, the clouds were so low that I was unable see beyond the trees at the edge of the slope. Now, I could see across the entire valley, up into the canyon I had hiked last summer that led to Hyalite Peak in the far distance. Once more, the beauty lay before me in all its wonderful glory, letting me take it all in as before, letting me take it with me back to Bozeman and into my life.

Strolling Through the Woods on a Lovely Evening

After work and a movie, I got home later in the afternoon and was really wanting to wander outside in the mountains some before it got too late. I’m too tired to write anything tonight, but hopefully I can get into it more tomorrow. For now, I am just posting some of the pictures from the outing.

Buddy staying on the lookout for any wild animals!
Buddy performing his circles around me while he maintains watch over our camp.
Is it a wild animal?! Nope. Just Buddy.
Creek from the Bridger Mountains

More content to come soon.