Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Trek to Cooke City

On our recent trip to Montana for the wedding of good friends, Garrett and I decided to spend some time in Yellowstone National Park. We didn't have very much time--we landed in Billings, MT on Thursday evening and had to return for a Saturday evening wedding--but we were determined to make the most of it.

Neither of us quite knew how much driving the trip would entail. Google Maps told us that it'd take about 2.5 hours to get to the Northeast park entrance, but gave us no time estimate beyond that point.

Blissfully na├»ve, we rented a car and headed out to Cooke City (the border town of the NE entrance) that night. It was our original plan to do the full drive to our Yellowstone campsite, but we decided upon arrival to Montana that we wanted to see the park by day. Had we known better, we would have also wanted to do the drive to Cooke City by day, too. We had no clue that we would be driving through the Beartooth Pass, supposedly one of the most scenic routes in the U.S., and climbing 10,300 feet of elevation.

Beartooth Pass by day. (Obviously not my picture--thanks, Wikipedia!)

As we gained elevation, the switchbacks became more plentiful and intense. Though heralded to be beautiful, I'm not sure if I would have rather done the drive in the daylight opposed to in the dark--was it better to not quite know what we were driving on top of? Was it better to not be able to see over the cliff that we were so carefully navigating?

Luckily, the steep incline and sharp turns didn't bother Garrett. He took both in stride, gracefully and expertly, as I shut my eyes, gripped the door handle, and prayed on repeat.

After about an hour of "please don't let us die, please don't let us fall over the cliff, please don't let us die," we arrived in Cooke City around 10:00pm. Cooke City is no city, mind you, but a stretch of buildings along a main road. In the late hour of our arrival, the town was dead.

Garrett and I trekked from hotel to motel, searching for a room to stay the night. Because our original plan had been to pitch a tent and camp, we hadn't booked anything in advance. All hopes of camping took flight, though, as we saw sign upon sign claiming "DANGER! BEARS!". So there we were, all alone in a quiet town, poking our heads in windows and walking into empty lit-up lobbies. We joked that had I been pregnant, our night would have resembled Joseph and Mary's.

As we gave up hopes of a bed and decided to sleep in our car, I spotted a few men walking into a bar across the street. The bar just so happened to be next to a motel that, though closed, had a vacancy sign.

I looked at Garrett.

"Maybe the bartender owns the motel?" I said with a shrug of my shoulders.

"Good idea," he agreed, "and if he doesn't, at least I'll get a beer."

Much to our luck, the bartender did own the motel. Yipee! We totally got ripped off (paid the same price for that dingy motel as the Plaza in Billings), but were beyond the point of caring. In no great rush to retire to our humble accommodations, Garrett and I grabbed stools at the counter and ordered the only thing they had on tap...good old PBR.

After a couple of beers, the bartender Rick warmed to us. He inquired what we were doing in Cooke City and after learning that we were departing to Yellowstone in the morning, pulled out a flashlight and a yellowed old map of the park. He showed us good fishing spots, certain drives we had to take, where we would be stopped for road work, etc. etc. And then he bought us shots. It was pretty awesome.

This was a piano in the bar...pretty sweet, eh?

I retired to bed shortly after, but Garrett decided to stay out and drink with Rick. When Rick spotted Garrett re-entering the bar after he walked me to our room, he yelled, "Hell yeah! Droppin' off the wife and comin' back to party!" And then he proceeded to buy Garrett more shots.

After downing more drinks courtesy of Rick, Garrett got to meet some of the locals. His favorite (and mine too after hearing the story) was a man named Kale.

Kale, with eyes red from drink or something else, sat down heavily on the barstool next to Garrett. He introduced himself by saying, 

"Hi. I'm Kale. Like the salad. What's your name?"

In the 30 minutes or so that Garrett spent with Kale, he reintroduced himself, complete with the salad definition, three times. He also asked Garrett to repeat his name on each occasion. Their time together ended with Kale slurring to Garrett,

"What's your name?"

"Garrett, what's yours? Kip?" Garrett teased.

"Hi Kip, I'm Kale," he leaned in real close and said quietly, "like the salad."

And that's where Garrett called it a night.

Lying in our motel room, Garrett and I recalled that hours before, we were just two out-of-staters that had been lost in the night, searching for a bed and hot shower. Now, slightly restless on a stiff mattress, we felt comforted by the roof above our heads, the "charm" of the locals, and the warmth in our bellies from the bestowments of bartender Rick.

Cooke City, you showed us a good time. Maybe, just maybe, we'll meet again.

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