For those of you just joining us around the campfire, I recommend takin’ a quick step back to the previous installment to ensure you’re all caught up with the goings-on that led to today’s blog. Once you’re ready, crack open another cold libation and settle in for more adventure.
I’ve always enjoyed long drives on the open road. I have countless childhood memories of staring out the windows of our family station wagon taking in scenery in wonder and feeling a constant excitement that what I was seeing was something completely new to me. As an adult, this translates to taking any opportunity to load up my car and drive as far into the horizon as I possibly can to explore new scenery.
As you might imagine, my drive to Montana certainly didn’t come up short on breathtaking vistas. First the high deserts of California, Nevada and (briefly) Arizona filled my periphery with otherworldly beauty. Next were the bright red mesas of southern Utah.
On my second day of driving, I was treated to the company of the extensive Wasatch Range to the east, appearing first as a series of gently sloping pine-covered mountains and then becoming a long series of jagged peaks rising sharply from the floor of the Great Salt Lake basin to nearly 12,000 feet above sea level. Crossing the border into Idaho I drove straight through the remains of ancient eruptions of the infamous Yellowstone “supervolcano”. The immense craters left behind from these prior eruptions are knowns as calderas, and they form the vast and scenic Snake River Plain in Idaho. As I approached my destination for the evening in Island Park, Idaho, I was treated to an incredible sunset of vermilion, gold and violet splashed across the sky and the distant Teton Range to the southeast. After 15 hours of travel, this was one hell of a welcome to a place I’d only ever seen in pictures.
I had timed my arrival in the area to coincide with my birthday, so after checking into my cabin for the night I decided a cold beer and hot meal were the best way to ring in the next year of my life. I took a short walk down to the Trouthunter Lodge and took a seat and sank my teeth into a mouthwatering bison tomahawk steak that had me grinning from ear to ear with every bite. As I slowly sat back after my meal and enjoyed the rustic western beauty of the restaurant and the icy beverage in my hand, I realized that most of the patrons had filtered out and those remaining were beginning to congregate at the bar. I quickly recognized that these folks were the locals, several among them sporting the telltale insignia of the fly fishing profession: racoon-eye sunburns, duct tape patches on down vests, flip-flops on dust-covered feet, broad grins, mock gestures of fighting giant fish and an overall scruffiness comfortably worn by men and women alike. I knew immediately that these were MY people.
My assessment of the crowd was quickly confirmed as I walked to the bar and worked my way into an animated, if not heated, discussion between 3 gentlemen regarding the best cast to use for presenting a fly to a large, wary trout that had been spotted at *location redacted* earlier in the day. Everyone I spoke to was openly kind, and upon learning that I was celebrating my birthday by being in the middle of nowhere with strangers and trout, the entire crowd decided this was cause for celebration. Libations flowed and even the cooks came out from the kitchen to catch a moment’s respite and a quick dose of bourbon before returning to their tasks. Acquaintances quickly became friends and when the evening was over and I pulled my wallet out to settle my tab, the bartender leaned forward and with a sly grin simply said “it’s your birthday and you’re HERE - that means it’s already been taken care of.” I was beside myself, and not because of the beverages, but because I had never in my life experienced such an immediate connection with strangers, let alone such open generosity.
The following morning I groggily woke and made my way to a nearby fly shop to ask for fishing tips for nearby Yellowstone National Park, which was to be my next destination. In this particular fly shop I met an upbeat young lady named Michelle who I felt an instant connection with, and it came as no surprise that we shared many of the same passions. To my pleasant surprise, she invited me to come back that evening to celebrate her friend’s birthday at the same lodge as the previous evening’s festivities. I began to provide a half hearted excuse about having a campsite already reserved for the evening a couple hours drive away in Yellowstone National Park, but Michelle made an unforgettable and compelling argument by simply asking, “why would you want to sit in a cold tent all by yourself when you could be surrounded by the warmth of friends instead?” Her gentle voice hit me like a ton of bricks as it dawned on me that I’d found gold in this place where all I had expected to find were trout.
Inside Yellowstone Park I was awestruck by the free roaming wildlife, otherworldly scenery and fantastic fly fishing. It was here that I stumbled across yet another serendipitous encounter with a stranger. As I was walking out of the Firehole River toward my car, a lean, grey haired man with a wide smile walked toward me and introduced himself as Jim, then asked me how my day of fishing had been. My smile must have said it all because before I responded with words he said, “that good, huh?” and all I could do was laugh and nod. As we spoke, Jim explained that he was celebrating his 66th birthday with a dream fly fishing trip to Montana, something he had longed to do for decades. I could barely contain my excitement as I enthusiastically yelped “ME TOO!” before he could finish his sentence. Thrilled to have met in such unlikely circumstances, we made arrangements to meet for dinner and a beer once I made it to Bozeman, Montana, (my next destination) and parted ways with a handshake and well wishes.
That evening I set up my tent and sat and contemplated the many things that I’d experienced in just the first few days of my voyage. Certainly the geysers and mountains and fish were unparalleled in their beauty, but what had me most astonished were the people I had just met. How was it that I kept stumbling across such incredible people everywhere I turned? As if on command, a cool breeze rustled my tent and as I searched through my duffel bag for a jacket I heard Michelle’s voice echoing through my mind, “why would you want to sit in a cold tent all by yourself?...” I paused and pondered for a moment, before I responded out loud, “you’re right, why the hell would I?”
Moments later I was packed up and on the road back toward the Trouthunter Lodge in Island Park, Idaho. I walked in to cheers and pats on the back and there was suddenly no doubt that THIS was what I had driven 1500 miles to find. A broad grin overtook my countenance as the realization settled in that I still had plenty of road left ahead of me on this voyage.
This tale ain’t over yet, Outlaws! If you like where this story’s headin’ then I encourage you to tune in next week as I discuss the proper etiquette for tipping your fishing guide, learning to walk again, and how to take a vacation without leaving your cubicle.