Cover photo: Yellowstone River cuts through the Paradise Valley north of Gardiner Montana
“My God, this place is at the end of the world,” worried Cora. Cora doesn’t do dirt roads very well. It did seem like a long ride up the mountain from the main highway. It was unpaved and pocked with debris and holes but it wasn’t horrible. In comparison this road was much better than Highway 880 through Oakland which has worse stretches, deeper holes and the extra added excitement of big rigs hurtling past just an arm’s length away as drivers try to negotiate the narrow lanes at 65 miles – an – hour while texting and eating an Egg McMuffin. Oh and we shouldn’t forget the occasional freeway shooter.
We were headed for a cabin in the woods, my idea as part of our Yellowstone trip to both experience the solitude of Montana’s Big Sky Country and, since the place would have a fully equipped kitchen, save some money on meals. I’d shopped the Vacation Rentals By Owner (VRBO) website, pared the choices down to 5 cabins and asked Cora to narrow it down to 3. From there we chose a place advertised as “a secluded cabin by a creek, where you might see wildlife out your front door and be serenaded by howling wolves at night.” There would also be no phone, no TV and very little if any internet service. No internet? That sealed the deal. Where do I sign?
Every time I would take time off from work, my standard out of office Outlook message would include the cautionary alternative fact that I would “not have access to internet or phone service.” I could be headed for the Ritz-Carlton in Chicago and I would always claim the place has “no internet or phone service.” This time I would actually be telling the truth. I double and triple checked with Cora, who has become very connected to being connected. She grudgingly said she was okay with it.
The cabin was northwest of Gardiner, Montana, our final stop in the Yellowstone area. The little town of Gardiner is located on highway 89 less than a mile from Yellowstone Park’s Northwest gate. The highway enters straight into the downtown which is about two blocks of small businesses, some souvenir shops, a few outfitters and a café or two. The shops are on one side of the road only, facing the park and giving them an uninterrupted view into Yellowstone. Once through the main drag the highway fishhooks and then shoots straight north, deeper into Montana past some motels, more outfitters and a few restaurants. It was October and summer was done and gone, along with most of the tourists. The holdouts were those like Cora and I; older with no kids in school and the relative freedom to travel when we wish.
The town was literally closing up shop for the season. All of the outfitters were closed save one that was selling outdoor gear and clothing at 50% off. The little burger shack that offered bison burgers was shuttered. The front door of the ice cream/candy store bore the sign; See you next year. The paunchy middle aged men wearing Bermuda shorts and flip flops who shopped the souvenir stores for t-shirts bearing images of Old Faithful or snarling wolves were all back in their urban hells. They’d been replaced by the local men, standing about in little knots outside the taverns wearing the local uniform that consisted mostly of outdoorsman’s wear. No flip flops for those ol’ boys – they clash with camo jackets.
Once we hit the dirt road, the GPS shut down on us so Cora was the navigator, tasked with reading the instructions for finding the cabin. Sometimes said navigator has this annoying habit of reading the instructions at auctioneer speed. The result is that on paper she’s arrived at the destination long before I’ve reached the first bend in the road. “Huh? Can you give me the instructions one at a time?” And so she starts over and by the time I get the first turn down she’s three turns ahead again. “Damn it; stop. Can we go back to the second turn?”
“Follow the creek.” “
What creek? I don’t see a creek.”
We pressed on, creeping up the unfamiliar, narrow road. Around a turn and there it was; a creek. “We’re good.” We passed a mailbox with a number; 406.
“What’s the number of our place?” I asked.
After passing mailbox numbered 406 the instructions told us to look for the first property on the left and then our cabin would be the next property up. Either someone would be there to meet us or the cabin would be open and we would find the key and a welcome note. There was the first property on the left and there just beyond was a mailbox – 501.
There they were, a creek and a little parking spot for two cars just like the instructions said. This must be the place – right? On closer inspection, and it didn’t have to be very close, we could tell that something was very rotten here – like for starters the wood that loosely made up the tattered front porch and most ot the little hovel teetering in front of us. Cora said, “What’s this?” There were a couple of Adirondack chairs on the porch, just like in the picture. Beyond that it looked nothing like the ad. Ramshackle would’ve been high praise.
Sitting in the car looking at the dilapidated shack, movies came to mind. Deliverance for instance. Was that the twang of a banjo I heard? It could easily have qualified as a crooked shack from one of those mountain man movies; you know, like The Revenant – only not quite so upscale. The instructions had said there might be someone there to meet us. Given the condition of the shack I was a little thankful that there wasn’t. I imagined the owner to be toothless and reeking of chewing tobacco and dead beaver and sporting a flintlock musket. She didn’t actually say it but everything that came out of Cora’s mouth dripped with, “What in the “F” have you done?”
I offered a tarnished silver lining to the angry storm cloud of that warped rat trap, “Maybe it’s really nice on the inside. That’s what counts, right?” Cora shot a look at me that warned of a mixture of amazement and homicidal malice. You know, one of those “Don’t test me,” looks.
I got out of the car and stepped up onto a rickety porch and tried to peek through one of the dirt smeared windows but could see nothing except for what looked like buckets and an assortment of junk. I pulled on the screen door – locked. I tried to call the owner to ask her what she meant by this outrage and when would I be seeing a refund in the mail. No phone service. “See Cora? That part of the ad is true.” She glared and a chill ran through me.
We sat in the car waiting for someone to show up. Nobody. Now what? There was a cabin just down the hill but it looked to be unoccupied. We decided to go back towards Gardiner until we got phone service and then call the owner. As we drove down, a car passed going up. Could that be the owner?
I found a place to turn around, headed back up and pulled back into Tobacco Road hoping to see the car that had passed us. Nothing. We sat in the car and stewed as a few raindrops spattered the windshield – rain – perfect. As I stared at the splats of rain on the dusty windshield, wondering how many years Cora would bring this debacle up or if it would all just end with a quickie divorce a man approached from the cabin down the hill that I’d thought to be unoccupied. I took it as a good omen that he wasn’t wearing a bear skin coat or a coonskin cap and was unarmed. I rolled down the window.
With a friendly smile he said, “If you’re looking for the rental cabin it’s the next one up on the left.” Sighs of relief.
“Thank you so much.”
We drove about 50 yards up the road and there on the left was the cabin in the ad. Four Adirondack chairs sitting on a nice clean porch in front of an immaculate cabin overlooking the gurgling creek. The owner wasn’t there but just as advertised the door was unlocked and a key and instructions were on the table in a nice neat, well-furnished little cabin. And the nice guy who set us straight? He’d probably had a good laugh with the boys down at the tavern in Gardiner about the two old fools from California. “He was probably wearing flip flops!” (Just as an aside I only wear flip flops at the beach or by the pool, thank you).
That little cabin lived up to the VRBO ad right down to the spotty or nonexistent connection of any sort. Being connected has been something of a bone of contention between the wife and I. On the first night in our little cabin she tried to connect to a signal of some sort – any sort would do. She walked around the kitchen, the living room and around the perimeter of the cabin looking to get a bar or two. In the meantime I’d turned my phone off and tossed it on the kitchen table and said to Cora with irritating self satisfaction, “Won’t be needing that.”
We don’t understand each other on this point. I looked forward to abandoning the grid while she seemed a bit lost. Before we left she’d realized that we might be cut off from civilization, at least the internet part of civilization and so she came prepared with plan B, a little clock radio stashed away just for this occasion. After minutes of tuning and fine tuning she managed to acquire a fuzzy station that soon disappeared into static and then she scanned the band again to find another station that also went from murky to oblivion. We had a few words until I got disgusted and retreated to the bedroom to read.
She tried again the next night and a short argument retired the radio for good. She turned to plan C when she found a book in the cabin’s bookshelf on the history of Montana. Turned out she was enthralled and during the days as I drove she would regale me with stories of Montana that she’d read about the evening before.
That didn’t mean that getting connected was completely off the menu. In Gardiner we found a place to park where she could get reception so that on the way to and from Yellowstone I pulled the car over and she got her internet fix, complete with Facebook.
Every day just before the sun went down I would sit on the porch with the notion of doing some reading but the book turned out to be a prop that just sat on my lap unopened. I was too busy being unengaged – with the book anyway. Too busy just sitting there letting my senses drink in and savor bucolic serenity. Besides, books provide an escape. Why would I want to escape this?
There was something both invigorating and quietly spiritual sitting on that cabin porch in the warmth of the late afternoon sun, listening to the gurgle of a creek not 10 yards away. Aside from the creek the only sounds were the occasional screech of a circling hawk and the wind rustling the leaves of aspen trees lining the creek bed. The green, yellow and orange leaves shivered in the autumn breeze, giving them the appearance of brilliant multi colored coins. Off to the left were towering cliffs, home to bighorn sheep who I imagined often looked down at the little cabin from that mighty perch.
We did our grocery shopping at The Gardiner Market, a little institution that’s been there since 1904. It’s a neighborly, welcoming place. Folks know each other, stop to catch up or simply exchange greetings and go about their business. There is no hurry, no impatience, no bellowing, no huffing, no puffing and no annoying cry of “THREE’S A CROWD.” The market’s employees engage with customers instead of leaning against a counter scrolling on a cell phone.
This was the home of bears, coyotes, deer and mountain lions. We’d been told that on a lucky evening you could hear wolves howl. Late at night, while Cora slept I would get up out of bed and step out onto the front porch, leaving all the lights off just to look and listen. Autumn’s chill had set in and the air was sharp, pricking my skin still warm from the cozy indoors. The moon above was so big and bright that it seemed to be dangling inches from my nose. The sky teemed with all of the stars that in the city are just urban legend, maybe a recollection of a long ago camping trip. Late at night the rifling creek was amplified as if it were running right between my feet. I’d hoped to hear those wolves but unfortunately that was not to be. I would sit in the chill enjoying the night sounds and the brilliant sparkle in Montana’s big sky and then I returned inside to warm myself in front of the embers still glowing in the wood stove.
For a short time I was in Eden. Surely if Eden exists it must be Montana, right there under deep sapphire skies mottled with pillows of clouds. Paradise is undoubtedly the aptly named Paradise Valley that starts in Gardiner and stretches north, tucked between the Gallatin Range to the west and the Absarokas to the East; the valley a table of lush grasses where the Yellowstone River flows as calm green pools or sparkling riffles.
After our stay at the cabin, our trip took us southeast back through Yellowstone and out the east entrance towards Cody, Wyoming. The scenery would change drastically once we’d cleared Yellowstone and made our way towards central Wyoming.
After spending two nights in the Cody area we headed back west to Pinedale, Wyoming where we spent three days visiting my paternal cousin Patti. It had been over 30 years since I’d seen Patti. There was a lot of catching up to do and we did so while drinking Black Velvet from coffee cups. It only seemed right to talk over old times with a cup of Black Velvet, which over the decades since Patti and I were kids was our parents’ whiskey and by the default of tradition the whiskey of choice for family reunions.
On the day we left for our trip Cora had picked me up from work and we left a Bay Area that struggled to release its grip on us – traffic. Traffic out of the Bay Area; traffic into Sacramento; traffic out of Sacramento. By the time we’d finally cleared Folsom the roads were clear and I released that deep breath and flashed the relieved smile that signified having left the daily treadmill behind, disappeared beyond the Sacramento Valley and the East Bay hills.
If there’s any downside to a vacation, any vacation, it’s the notion that slowly seeps into your consciousness that the escape is transitory. You usually don’t notice it until you’ve realized that you’ve reached the halfway point that begins to signify borrowed time. After Pinedale we made our way towards home. By now I was in that purgatory between carefree recreation and tedious toil.
It’s the drive that I’ve always dreaded because by this time what was once the annoying notion of work has become the dread reality of spiraling back into the office rut. The excitement of what’s around the next bend has been replaced by the knowledge that lying in wait at the office is an Outlook inbox containing 500 or more emails; some of them worthless drivel, some of them cries for help from a salesperson, that tells the story of your back up having given up on your stuff three days after you left, leaving a mess for you to clean up. And still other emails relate the saga of a phony tragedy. Maybe it was a shipment of wine bottles from China that got hung up at the Port of Oakland for a day and all the ensuing, all hands on deck, catastrophic drama, as if Putin now possessed the launch codes. And lets not forget that question that burns in your gut asking you over and over and over if you left something vital undone and you’re going to be summoned to some vice-president’s office for a dressing down; or worse, “Can I see you at the H.R. office please?”
Crossing the Nevada/California stateline was like crossing the border into the work week, leaving the little cabin in the woods a distant but always sweet memory. We still talk about that cabin. We laugh over what turned out to be a storage shack and Cora has since confessed that it was travelling the dirt road that was worrisome while she enjoyed the cabin itself with that quiet peace and warm wood stove. And to this day we both agree that the smell of cooking bacon and eggs is so much more delicious when it’s in a little cabin in the woods.