Part 1: Preparation
The last time I visited Yellowstone was over 15 years ago. I was 15, and as my parents liked to do during the summers, they loaded me, my sister, and brother in a van, and we drove there from Missouri on a big road trip. I regret to say I don’t remember a whole lot from the trip, but I have always retained the general impression. I enjoyed myself, and like many of the other places we went, I always imagined going back.
The opportunity would finally open up over the holidays--something that occurred to me a week prior to them. My daughter, M----, would be with her mom visiting family in another state, and I would remain separated from the rest of mine because of Covid. Yes, I would much rather have spent the time with them, but such as the situation was, I was not going to sit around feeling sorry for myself. I quickly began making preparations.
First thing, I Googled where in the park had all-season camping, and Mammoth being thus identified, I bundled up M---- and made a trip to REI for a map so I could explore that surrounding area. Currently I am a wildland firefighter, and after putting in a year’s worth of work in half that time during the summer, I enjoy the winter off season watching her during the day while her mother works. I think, too, she gets something of a kick from watching me, especially while in the excited state of planning a modest expedition.
She rides with me in the passenger seat of my Ford Ranger.
“You know what I need M----?” I asked. “M----! M----! Do you know what I need?”
“I need those cold-weather leather Carhartt gloves from ACE and a metal pail! Do you think we can go to ACE after REI?”
*More incoherent talk
“M----, what’s your name?”
“TWO!” she says.
“M-----, that’s your age! What’s your name?”
She continued repeating “two” with a huge grin on her face and an attitude that I found amusing. She knew what she was doing, but I knew she should be able to say her name at that point, as well as string together a few more words in sentences than I thought she was then doing. It’s nothing I am at all worried about, but I continue to work with her on it with flash cards, identifying common items, and narrating my actions. Oh, and of course, by reading.
We didn’t end up going to ACE, anyway. We went to the park. There are only so many errands a kid is capable of handling at two--on top of the holiday shopping ones she’d already been through-- and there was one last errand I wanted to do the next day. We were going to gather firewood. As I watched her trot her toy horse across puddles and patches of snow, I contemplated where we would go. Then I started growling at her, and we played chase.
Concluding on where to go for the firewood was not difficult--the Lolo National Forest, which is where my current fire crew, The Lolo Hotshots, are assigned. So, having spent a little time there last season doing training and prepping a burn unit, I know it alright. M and I started the drive south through the town of Lolo, where I noticed a trailer of pre-cut wood at an antique store. Hmmm, I thought, that’s a nice hefty-looking pile--more than I’d ever be able to collect with my hand saw and axe. But I wanted to get M out into the woods, where she could develop muscle toddling over uneven terrain and picking up fallen limbs, and so we continued until a heavy wet snow started to fall, and I came to the realization that the next turn I’d want to take was a little further than I remembered. She was starting to squirm.
“Hey, M” I said, “How about we go and get some hot chicken tenders from the store and then check out that trailer of wood? ...would you like that? Chicken.”
Now there was a word she understood, and her face lit up, and we did a U-turn to get some hot chicken tenders, which we both devoured greedily in my truck cab before pulling into the antique store parking lot.
There was the wood--Doug Fir, which I identified by the bacon-striated bark--and there was also a number, which I called. “$85 dollars,” the man said. “I could pay the man inside the store.” I walked into the overcrowded antique store and payed the maskless old-timer, who probably regarded me as some Missoula lefty, being I did have a mask on, and M and I made our way to the trailer, out of which I started throwing in rounds and halves as fast as I could into the covered bed of my truck. Snow still fell all around.
M stayed with me that night. We watched Polar Express, and the next morning I dropped her off at her mom's, ruffling her hair, saying goodbye and wishing them both safe travels. I still had a lot to do before leaving early the next morning, first being to unload the fire wood, stack it on a rack, which I made, then split it into quarters, and tie several bundles together that I would take with me. I accomplished all of this, and as a result, I now have a beautiful stack in my backyard where there wasn’t one before.
The stack is a good excuse to have many more fires, both in the woods camping and in the backyard chiminea with friends and family or just myself on lonesome, wintry nights and no more pay 6 dollars for every measly bundle, or even more, what it would have cost me to buy a chainsaw at this point and to pay the the gas for it and my truck to collect the equivalent. It would have been nice to cut, but I guess you could still say I am proud of making the purchase.
The second major item on the list was to refashion the top of my stove pipe so it wouldn’t risk torching the canvas and wooden poles of my tipi if it made contact with them for too long. This is a concern I expressed on the BushcraftUSA forum where I occasionally post. And though I didn’t then have a solution a gentleman with the tag @rbinhood made the suggestion that I:
“Get a section of stove pipe one size bigger than where your pipe contacts the tent. Slide it over your pipe and run sheet metal screws through the outer pipe so the tips touch the inner stove pipe. Tighten the screws enough so the inner pipe doesn't slide out, and is evenly suspended all around. You now have a double wall pipe where it contacts the tipi wall, with air space between the two pipes, so the outer pipe stays relatively cool”
Brilliant! But I didn’t have a larger section of stove pipe, so instead I used a roll of plate steel, and it seemed to have done the trick because I didn’t go up in flames.
Additionally, this same gentleman remarked on the mildew staining around the base of the tipi-- a result of me leaving it up in the fall when damp leaves fell all around it--and while I had previously tried scrubbing it, he also suggested that I try oxyclean. So I tried Oxyclean, soaking it in my bathtub a whole day, then taking it to a laundry mat to dry it in a big dryer. Some of the mildew and staining did come out, but a lot of it remains, which if Borax won’t work to further remove, will forever be a mark of my neglect and source of frustration. The tipi was relatively expensive, it cost me several overtime days on fires, and there’s always the chance, since the producer is a small business, that I couldn’t get another in the future. Lesson learned: take care of your gear!
All said, I accomplished everything I needed to and went to bed buzzing with wine, ready to pack and hit the road the next day with enough time to set up camp in beautiful Yellowstone.
Part 2: Yellowstone
I pulled into Mammoth campground inside Yellowstone just around 3:00 pm. That gave me about an hour and a half to set up camp before sundown. Plenty of time. The temperature hovered around 20, where it would remain most the days while I was there. I quickly unloaded everything from my truck, then started a fire. I’ve made this the first priority during cold weather camping, because it gives me something to return to for warmth.
Following the fire, is the shelter. I had mentioned I struggled with setting up the lavvu before, and, in addition to the metal pail and Carharrt gloves, which I did indeed up end buying at ACE, I also bought a stool there to make the process easier. I shoveled away snow on the platform at the campsite and leaned all the poles against each other, oriented my wood burning stove in the center and used the stool to secure the canvas to the top post. After that, I wrapped it all the way around and secured it on the inside, tying the top laces together at the top to give me a smaller opening for the door to fit into more tightly. I wanted to prevent as much heat from escaping as possible. It looked great out there against the backdrop of snow covered mountains, sage, and pine, exactly as it should be. I unfurled my sleeping roll inside, and feeling satisfied that I was fixed to the place--no amount of cold would drive me away--I returned to my fire.
I brought a thick ribeye to celebrate my first night there, and as I started cooking it on a cast iron pan over a Coleman burner, a fellow walked over who’d I’d learn was named Tex from Idaho. He informed me that he’d been at the campsite over a month, and he looked it. From under his Wiggy’s coat hood and out of the sides of a balaclava, long grey hair tufted from head and beard. He examined my lavvu through spectacles and informed me he’d been sleeping in a tent--which was no problem according to his cold weather philosophy. According to him, staying warm was all a matter of metabolism--the body generating its own heat inside a sleeping bag, and although he thought a wood burning stove inside a shelter seemed nice, I wouldn’t expect him to ever seek one out for his own use. As is the way of wily old-timers, he’d perfected a method that had worked for many years--perfect or not. I enjoyed chatting with him, while at the same time balancing fire and food, finally saying goodbye as I threw a rich piece of melting steak fat into my mouth.
The sun had, by this point, settled beneath the mountains an hour or so, and I figured I better get the wood burning stove going. I took one of the pre-tied bundles with me to the lavvu, lit a cardboard roll covered in wax to start the fire, placed a few quarters in, and stoked it nice and hot. I then set a pot of water on top of the stove to boil water for my sleeping bag and to keep it from freezing. The rest of the water I dumped into the metal pail in case I needed to heat if it froze over later. That was the whole idea of the pail--to practice self-sufficiency if there wasn’t a water spigot, but of course there was, at least at this campground, so the idea wasn’t really necessary.
I let the fire warm for a while, while I enjoyed the stars outside. Around 8, I retired into a shelter, that even at around 10 degrees, I didn’t need any layers on to enjoy. I leaned into my Crazy Creek camp chair, read another section of White Fang, happy to be again living out some Jack London fantasy, and right before I fell asleep, I noticed the moon directly above the top opening of the lavvu. A sign of something perhaps. Maybe that I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
Periodically throughout the night--almost every two hours-- I woke up to add more wood to fire right before it died completely. Consequently, or not, this almost directly coincided with my sleep cycles, which makes you wonder how much of our DNA is tied into staying warm at night.
As a result of my efforts the lavvu was warm when I woke up, and I had no problem starting the day, first with smore’s Poptarts and coffee heated on the stove top. I wasn’t in a hurry, and in truth, I hadn’t much of a plan. After all the planning I did just to get there in the week since I’d conceived the idea, I didn’t put much thought into what I would actually do. Although, I did have a pair of cross-country skis that a friend had given me a couple years back. I never had a chance to try them, and I thought this was the perfect trip to start. Where I would go, I left to the Fates, who, once again, as I was pulling out of the camp to explore, put me into contact with Tex. I waved to him, and he ambled over to my truck and stuck his grizzled countenance inside my passenger window.
“Merry Christmas!” He said
“Merry Christmas to you Tex! How’s it going?”
He said he was taking off that day and asked what brought me out over the holidays anyhow. I told him my daughter went with her mom, and from there, a short conversation followed on the nature of relationships, particularly on that between a man, such as he, who felt like a caged, pacing animal inside four walls, and the previous woman he’d been in a long term relationship with, who would have been happier keeping him there. “It wasn’t her fault,” he said. “She deserved the kind of person who could settle down. It just wasn’t me, and it took me a long time to realize that, but now we’re both happier for it.” I empathized, but did not voice my own opinion that I’d like to balance the two--the domestic and the wild--although sometimes the wild got the better of me. And so there I was.
“Hey Tex,” I asked “Do you know anything about cross-country skiing in the area?”
“Well, there’s lots of it!” He said, and I already had my map ready to show me where.
After saying goodbye to Tex and pushing a herd of buffalo along the road, that’s how I ended about 30 miles to the east in Roosevelt.
I parked and for the first time, snapped into the cross-country skis having no idea, really, what I was getting into. It did take some time to get the coordination down, between skating one foot forward, and at the same time, pushing off the pole in the opposite hand, but really it wasn’t bad at all. I cruised a little faster than walking speed up the trail, passing a few people along the way and felt a great rush. “What a way to experience Yellowstone!” I thought. “In the summer this trail, not to mention the roads, would be jammed with people. I’m really doing it!” Thus, I arrived gloating to my first destination on the trail--a wood platform overlooking a gorge, inside of which was a steaming, stinking river, full of belching sulfur and oil. Very cool.
I admired it awhile, took a couple pictures and turned back down the platform where I met a couple from Bozeman who’d just skied up.
The couple and I exchanged holiday greetings. They informed me that this was a trip they tried to make weekly, which, I now realize among other attractions, is what has made Bozeman so popular. They were within range to easily do it.
“Have you checked out the waterfall?” The man asked, I think sensing my excitement in the new experience.
“No.” I said.
“It’s just up the trail. Where that couple is heading.” He pointed. “You could just follow them.”
God Bless the Fates. I followed. And there I found the waterfall, the outer layer covered in ice, water still rushing down the center--a beautiful phenomenon.
I retired to the lavvu that night and looked through some Christmas photos and videos of M---- playing with her cousin. I felt a tinge of sadness not being with her or the rest of my family, but also, I was grateful for all that I had seen.
I realized the next day that I had not been rationing my firewood very well, especially not with keeping the fire in my stove going all night, which wasn’t really necessary even at zero degrees--the coldest it would get, My sleeping bag and the hot water kept me plenty warm, and it was easy enough to just wake and start the stove in the morning, and yet, I still needed more wood, so I decided to drive to Gardiner about 20 minutes away, eat a big pancake breakfast, and buy some. It was a fruitful journey, but it got my day started late, so I mainly hung around the Mammoth area, skiing to a few more stinky geysers and exploring the Mammoth Springs Hotel.
The architectural design and color of the Hotel stood out neatly against the snow with the sun shining on its long exterior wall. More impressive still, is what I found inside-- a painting from an artist who’d I later find on Wikipedia, Thomas Moran.
“(February 12, 1837 – August 25, 1926) Thomas Moran was an American painter and printmaker of the Hudson River School in New York whose work often featured the Rocky Mountains. Moran and his family, wife Mary Nimmo Moran and daughter Ruth, took residence in New York where he obtained work as an artist. He was a younger brother of the noted marine artist Edward Moran, with whom he shared a studio. A talented illustrator and exquisite colorist, Thomas Moran was hired as an illustrator at Scribner's Monthly. During the late 1860s, he was appointed the chief illustrator for the magazine, a position that helped him launch his career as one of the premier painters of the American landscape, in particular, the American West.
Moran along with Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Hill, and William Keith are sometimes referred to as belonging to the Rocky Mountain School of landscape painters because of all of the Western landscapes made by this group” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Moran
I stood a good time admiring the painting, the colors and light, the drama he had managed to capture. “It’s wonderful,” I thought. The fact that someone could capture this scene on canvas, and that I could stand and admire it at the beautiful Mammoth Springs Hotel in Yellowstone NP, one of the greatest conservation efforts accessible to anyone from anywhere to experience, really made me appreciate people in spite of all the terrible things we are capable of doing to each other and to the environment.
This thought and the image of the painting I carried with me into my final day. I wanted to make the best of it and started early on a long drive to Cooke City to see what roadside animals and vistas I might admire along the way, of which there were many. It was nice. I picked up coffee at a roadside cafe--the whole town blanketed in thick snow--and I made my way back to the spot where I planned on going on a longer--10 mile--cross-country ski run, since I about had the hang of it.
The exhaustive effort skiing really helped clear my mind--the crispness of the weather was perfect, only a few people on the trails. I tried to take some more photos, as I also did along the drive, but none of them really turned out in dramatic fashion, a la’ Thomas Morton. It was mostly overcast, for one, and one can only hope for so much from an Iphone. However, as I was returning on my ski route, I did get a picture I like.
I think it portrays more subtlety--the red willows and white fir in the foreground. The mountain peeking out behind them, the big, unabashed cloud, and the happy little ski trail to the left. Thomas Morton it is not, but I do think it is a picture that Bob Ross could appreciate, and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.
The final night, I had a big ol’ ripping fire, cracked some scotch ales, cooked a mean meal of Kielbasa, peppers, and pineapple, and played Tony Rice over my bluetooth speakers, which I felt the most appropriate--bluegrass by a legend who on Christmas had passed away. I really enjoyed my own company but did feel a little loathe that no one else in the campground shared my spirit. Every night, the half dozen or so people who pulled into camp at around 5--just around sundown, mostly stayed either in the camper, van, or tent. What were they doing in there? Come out and have a beer I wanted to howl. This vitality in me had grown throughout the days I was there. And in White Fang, I found the same sentiment expressed.
Jack London says of the wolf, who grows in strength and spirit:
“There were easements and satisfactions. To have a full stomach, to doze lazily in the sunshine--such things were remuneration in full for his ardors and toils, while his ardors and toils were in themselves self-remunerative. They were expressions of life, and life is always happy when it is expressing itself. So the cub had no quarrel with his hostile environment. He was very much alive, very happy, and very proud of himself.”
I broke down camp the next day. The leather Carhartt gloves, which I had not worn to the time, came in very handy to fold the freezing tarp and metal stove. The drive home I blasted AC/DC and admired a mountain range before Butte where our crew had hiked up to, slept several shifts, and worked a fire the previous summer.
I don't often take vacations and will probably never make it to a tropical island or France, but I think now, sitting in my recliner reflecting on the experience: give me 4 nights in sub-freezing Yellowstone, and for the rest of the year, I will be fine.
It’s been a pretty crappy year, but I hope everyone has a happy New Years eve; and the world, a better year to follow.