The Kindness of Strangers
On my way to northwest Wyoming, I stopped over in Rock Creek, a bit east of Missoula. Rock Creek is a startlingly gorgeous narrow river valley, edged by steep slopes and popular to anglers. It is also embarrassingly known for its annual Testicle Festival. The latter being the reason I had not before ventured into this nook of the planet, instead passing by merrily and purposefully along I-90. I stopped at the Rock Creek Lodge for camping beta and was sent up the road about 12 miles to the Grizzly Campground, well off the beaten path and down a rocky, pothole-y, somewhat washed-out dirt spur.
On my way to Grizzly, I stopped across from an unlikely rock outcropping and slide area, snuggled up to a rustic cabin with a vegetable garden surrounded by prayer flags atop wire fencing. Beautiful. A mirage. Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep, all ewes, were eating the tender leaves and spring green grasses growing outside of the prayer-flagged garden. Some ewes climbed amongst the neighboring towering rock, their lambs running, nay veritably skipping, effortlessly up and down class-5+ scrambles. I turned off the engine and turned on the parking lights — I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon and, although I was stopped in the middle of the narrow byway, I hadn’t seen another vehicle since turning off the interstate.
Two lambs were especially playful, following one another up and down the slides, mystically leaping uphill from one rock to another. I caught my breath in one hand and held my heart in the other as one lamb ventured the highest of all before becoming airborne, leaping several feet outward and downward, directly over its playmate below, continuing her frolic up and down and over and over and up and down, tirelessly.
As daylight was waning and I still needed to find Grizzly, I reluctantly started up the engine and continued down the road. Once at Grizzly and still feeling buzzed from the prayer flags and Bighorns, I promptly backed into a good-sized rock strategically hidden by an evil clump of salal. I pulled forward and heard a nauseating clunk with a metallic scraping sound. After taking a peek under the car, I ascertained that it looked about as bad as it sounded, with much of my exhaust system now resting slothfully on the pine needles and loam below.
Ray and Mike, camped with their wives a few sites down and just about the only other human souls in Grizzly, walked commandingly toward my car, their superhero capes blowing confidently in the fragrant valley breezes. After exchanging very few words, the two immortals promptly crawled under my car, assessed the situation, and returned to their campers for supplies: metal coat hangers and pliers. Their wives returned with them to watch and take pictures as 86-year-young Ray and his son-in-law Mike, crawled under my car and MacGyver’d up the exhaust system so that I could maybe make it to a shop a couple of days later (it was currently Saturday evening).
We sat by their campfire that night and jawed into the wee hours. In the morning, before both couples took off for home in Missoula, they invited me back over for cowboy coffee percolated on a grill set over low flames. Later, I ventured down the road — car guts staying in place over the bumps and boulders — and borrowed Deb’s phone at Trout Bums fly shop, to see about finding a mechanic. I scored zero, so, making lemonade, I returned to Grizzly, pulled on my hiking boots and found a trail for me and my dog Arrow. Tsunami and her old shepherd-mix hips, stayed back at the tent to watch for squirrels and chippies. Along the trail, I met Daniel, who was successfully hunting the season’s succulent morels. Found out Daniel lives in a cabin with a garden and prayer flags and itinerant ewes and lambs. Beautiful. A mirage.
Wringing It Dry
Monday, I successfully made it from Rock Creek to Idaho Falls with the coat hangers still holding up the car junk (blessings upon you, Ray and Mike). In Idaho Falls, I stopped at a tire shop asking for a muffler shop; they sent me up the road to a local’s. After waiting to be squeezed in, about an hour or so with my big dogs in a grassy park nearby, it took all of 25 minutes and a modest $87.50 to have my car made whole and back on the road to the Hoback and beyond. I arrived at Sonja’s that night, somewhere between Daniel and Big Piney, in the midst of sage-filled fields back-dropped by three glorious northwest Wyoming mountain ranges.
For my entire stay, Earl, god of weather, fouled our backcountry skiing and camping plans with bouts of snow and hail tempered by daily rain and lightning storms. A late-spring melt rendered the USFS roads navigable only a short distance from pavement. The best laid schemes of mice and women … Making lemonade, Sonja and I arose early each day to visit her horses in the neighboring field, followed by dayhikes in the Wind River, Hoback and Wyoming ranges before the weather would hit, as it did each day by noon or so. I slept out in Sonja’s horse trailer along with the two big dogs, as indeed her rented hillbilly shack is diminutive. Afternoons would find us lounging in the shack with books, or settled in at the GRB enjoying shots of single-malt whiskey and a draft of beer.
Whatever, Earl, we put our arses to the wind and we rode it out. We wrung it dry!
On a muddy USFS road up the Wind, Sonja and I hiked beside fresh BIG black bear tracks running parallel with wolf tracks laid around the same time. The wolf tracks were at least three times the size of Arrow’s — and he weighs in at nearly 90 pounds. No recent sign of human activity was present, besides the boot prints Sonja and I were putting down.
Sonja’s recipe for Indoors S’mores, the absolute pick-me-up for stormy weather and thwarted back-county travel plans:
Bamboo shish kabob sticks
Stove burner (electric or gas)
Skewer marshmallows onto kabob sticks and toast over a low burner. Sandwich hot and bubbling marshmallows between graham crackers and chocolate. Allow chocolate to melt before biting into the gooeycrunchy mess. Laugh and point at the marshmallow and chocolate speared on your friend’s lips and cheeks, knowing you are suffering the same indignity. Chase this simple, childhood treat with one or two grown-up shots of whiskey. You will find this surprisingly refreshing!
It had been 10 days, so I packed up the big dogs, turned my car west and headed north to home in the upper Methow (Met-how). Through Montana, I traveled into more lightning and jellyfish rainclouds, their rain tentacles stinging the rivers and creeks into swollen anaphylaxis. Home again, home again, jiggety-jig.
Can’t we just leave things well enough alone? Don’t frack the Hoback!
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