Yellowstone is spectacular – so much so that waiting in line to enter it can be like idling on L.A.’s infamous I-10. And, when you do finally get in, you experience all that splendor with 75,000 or so new friends (nearly 4 million people visit Yellowstone in peak summer months), many crawling along in RVs with tiny cars in tow. The vehicle-to-wildlife ratio in Yellowstone and America’s other signature parks is about 10,000 to 1. If you want to see Yellowstone, go to Yellowstone. If you want to experience the majestic solitude of wild places, set your compass for the national forests.
On Kate’s recommendation, I set out to to climb 11,000-foot Hahns Peak, an extinct volcano 80 miles northwest of Yampa yet still on her beat, in the vast Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest. My car lacked the clearance to traverse the boulder-strewn road that led to the trailhead, so I pulled off into a turnaround and loaded my pack with a liter of water, camera gear and a sweatshirt.
It wasn’t until I reached in to grab my ballcap that I realized it was September 11th. That blue cap bears two white squares that symbolize the towers of the World Trade Center and was was a gift from Tribute, a museum and visitor’s center in lower Manhattan. In the spring of 2002, as the effort to recover human remains at the site wound down, I visited Ground Zero on a magazine assignment to profile Lee Ielpi, a retired FDNY firefighter whose firefighter son, Jonathan, a member of FDNY Squad 288, was killed when the South Tower collapsed. Lee, co-founder and co-director of Tribute, subsequently became a dear friend. I call him every September 11th, but since I didn’t have a phone signal at the foot of Hahns peak, I dedicated my climb to Lee and Jonathan, said a silent prayer at the summit, and sent Lee a text with a photo late that night.
Hahns is a steep climb and the final quarter mile is truly daunting — a sheer, slip-sliding scramble up a vast, endless pile of loose rock. As I grabbed handfuls of grit and gulped lungfuls of thin air I kept repeating to myself, I will not turn back, I will not turn back.
I’m glad I didn’t. I spent an hour or more, alone, at the top, marveling at 360-degree views of lake-dappled wilderness. At the halfway point of my climb, I passed two dudes descending; on my way down, at nearly the same exact spot, I met three women who had gone as far as they intended. That was it. Yellowstone has Old Faithful. Hahns and other remote-but-reachable wild areas have Old Silence. I prefer the latter.
After descending, I reluctantly banked my car into a slow, arcing eastward turn, towards home — but not before making the most of my last days in the West, taking time to wander in South Dakota’s Black Hills National Forest and climbing its centerpiece, Black Elk Peak.
Capped by a Civilian Conservation Corps fire tower hewn from the rocky tor, Black Elk (known until 2016 as Harney’s Peak but renamed in acknowledgement of General William S. Harney’s complicity in a Sand Creek-style atrocity against the Sioux) is the highest point in the Northern Hemisphere between the Pyrenees and the Rockies. For good measure, I biked 50 miles on the fabulous George S. Mickelson Trail, which runs through Custer City, N.D., and spent a day pedaling through Badlands National Park.
The sere, moonscaped Badlands, carved by erosion over millennia, aren’t quite as deserted as the Medicine Bow-Routt wilderness, but not nearly as crowded as Yellowstone or Yosemite. Caravans of cars crawl between overlooks and conga over to the berm whenever wildlife sashays into view. I found it far better to pedal than to drive; I could glide down dirt paths and get away from RVs and closer to the critters. I was thrilled to weave through prairie dogs, bison and bighorn sheep.
At a respectful distance, of course.
Tomorrow, if I can find the stamina, I’ll drive 600 miles into eastern Minnesota, then another 500 the next day into Indiana. Then a few hundred more miles to home, my wanderlust sated – for now. I miss Gina. I’m ready for all manner of home cookin’.
I undertook this journey to visit my children and to revisit my country; I wanted to see for myself whether we Americans are irreparably torn asunder or still have some common ground to stand on.
All is surely well on the first count. The kids are alright.
I can’t offer any profound conclusions about the state of the nation. I’ll say this, though: I didn’t encounter a single sour or angry person. Didn’t see even one MAGA hat or yard sign trumpeting you-know-who – stuff I see every day in Pittsburgh. True, I didn’t visit the entire country and I avoided big cities whenever possible. I also didn’t watch much national news. In small towns I bought the local paper – when I could find one, alas – and discovered the columns were full of information of immediate import to readers: a ballot referendum on school taxes, water use, cattle auction results, musings on Friday night’s slate of high school football games.
Since I was constantly passing through one place on my way to another, I didn’t strike up the kinds of extended conversations I typically find myself in when I settle into a new place for a spell. I listened, though. And heard virtually nothing about national politics. The people I met or overheard talked about their jobs, their communities, their kids. They also talked – with palpable alarm – about the weather, which is drowning the east and parching the west in ways we’ve never seen before.
It’s a big country. It burns. It floods. It heaves up incredibly on the West Coast from time to time. It does these things more dramatically, violently and destructively than it used to. Climate change-deniers will continue to cover their eyes and ears until the moment they overheat and spontaneously burst into flames, along with the rest of us, but if you get your science from actual scientists rather than Hannity or paid shills for the oil industry, there is no doubt that climate change is an inexorable and urgent reality. I shake my head when I hear people say, we’re “killing the earth.” Nonsense. We’re killing ourselves. The earth will be fine, renewed and thriving — and probably relieved — eons after it expels the human race.
Did some of the nice people I met in my travels hold political views diametrically opposed to my own? Almost certainly. But since they didn’t offer to share them I didn’t ask.
I saw no first-hand evidence of “American Carnage” … nor of democracy dying in darkness. That’s not to say there are no bad people. The murder of a peaceable woman by a white nationalist in Charlottesville really happened. Scared, innocent kids really were wrenched from their parents’ arms at the border. The president remains malevolently confused between the job descriptions of the Attorney General and, say, Frank Nitti, Al Capone’s enforcer. Dr. Suess’s Once-ler directs the EPA. Liars, strippers, gropers and a creep who couldn’t stop taking — and sharing — pictures of his penis appear to be pulling the oars of destiny.
These are truly weird and dangerous times … but they are hardly end times. My travels confirm my choice of faith over fear. And affirm the solace I take from the words of Anne Frank (who is rarely quoted fully and in context): “It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.”
The people I met struck me as good at heart. I hope I made the same good impression. They — we — deserve leaders who have wisdom and heart. Let’s pray that the day one appears is drawing nigh. We’re strong enough to wait.
As I drove across the country, awed by its vastness, its resilience, its diversity, I wondered: Could the American design for civic living, whose essence has been shaped by the strength, valor, wisdom and intrinsic decency of giant figures such as Washington, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Lincoln, Edward R. Murrow, Rachel Carson, JFK, Martin Luther King, etc., etc., really be undone by a man as dumb and small and bereft of compassion and empathy — a figure so vainly and proudly heartless — as the one we now forbear?
That’ll be the day.