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Posts tagged: Beartooth Highway

A Path of Desire

    I rested the side of my head on the cool glass of the small oval of the airplane window and gazed down at the ground below the wing. We were flying east, moving beyond the Cascades and toward the Rockies, covering hundreds of miles an hour.
    Patchwork squares of gold and brown and green were stitched together across the landscape, rising and falling, rippling from one edge of the horizon to the other. Roads and highways dissected the pattern, connecting farms and towns and cities.
It all reminded me of a model train display, roads at right angles and tiny trees planted along fence lines and around boxy white farmhouses with driveways and walkways leading from the house to a barn or garage.
    The plane followed a river, wide, winding and serpent-like, snaking between mountains and through canyons, twisting and turning, carving deeper into the landscape, bordered by a ribbon of green fed by the moisture.
    From 36,000 feet above, I could see the bends and turns the river made as it rushed headlong toward the sea. It was like a giant living thing crawling across the earth.
    But what interested me, was that from my view, I could see where the river had run before, before it had changed its course. Ghost canyons stretching across the grassland, no longer filled with water, often choked with homes and entire communities. There were faint scars on the crust of the earth, evidence that a river, like people, when left to its own, choses its own path. It wears away at the boundaries, carving, breaking and widening the road it wants to travel.
    Just like us.
    I thought of the river again later that week, as I rode up Montana’s Beartooth Highway, following switchback to switchback, circling up to the top. Looking back down at where we’d been, the ribbon of asphalt and concrete unfurled behind me. To my right, I could see the faint track etched into the steep hillside, made long ago, by pack animals threading their way up to the top.
    The mountains were there first. But, like the river, the earliest people chose a desire path, the term landscape designers use for the shortcuts people and animals make. They wanted to get over the mountains so they made their own way. Later, trappers and miners and explorers followed that early trail. Then came the tourists, making another kind of pilgrimage.
     In the summer of 1931, during the bleakest part of the depression, work on the ambitious project of building the Beartooth Highway began and in the span of four short years, primarily 1932 to 1936, it was done. A desire path that covers more than 60 miles and reaches a summit of more than 10,000 feet. Today, three quarters of a century later, the road still shines.
    Standing at the summit, I looked up at the tall Montana sky already heavy with snow even on a late summer day. And I gazed over the edge of the plateau to the valley below.  And, for a moment, I was filled with a fine sense of happiness.
    There are roads and rivers and even invisible navigational routes in the sky that carry us to where others have been before. But occasionally, often when we least expect it, we find the courage and the freedom to create our own path of desire.
    

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Wheels and Wranglers

Each of us builds a future in our own way. Some are the caretakers of an established family legacy. Others roll up their sleeves, lay new brick and create a fresh start. Today, I experienced both.

A bicycle built by two

This morning, I rode a freshly painted rehabbed biodiesel school bus, towing a trailer, up the five hairpin switchbacks of Montana's Beartooth Highway.  The driver was a petite woman just barely beginning to show with her first pregnancy. Beside her, in his signature Utilikilt, her husband looked over the back of his seat and grinned widely as he talked.

Welcome to Beartooth Bike Tours.

The couple, Doug and Suzanna Bailey, are the creative energy and enthusiasm behind the business. Their year-old enterprise carts passengers and bicycles up the winding highway to an elevation of more than 10,000 feet. After taking photos at the Wyoming state line sign (we drove right into a late-summer snow storm) and strapping on helmets and getting a few safety tips,  everyone hops on comfortable Cruiser-style bicycles and, as Doug likes to say, “It's all downhill after that.” Riders simply coast down the next 14 miles, tapping the brakes now and then. Stopping frequntly at turn-outs, there are plenty of opportunities for taking photos and asking questions.  No pedaling. No struggling in the thin mountain air. Just the feel of the wind in your face and a wide horizon filled with breathaking scenery. The business, Doug told me, was conceived as a way to stay in a place they loved. And, as he looked over at Suzanna behind the wheel, “to provide for my family.”

Maintaining a Montana Dynasty

After lunch, we pulled into the Lazy E-L Ranch in Roscoe. The 12,000-acre spread was homesteaded in 1901 by Malcom Mackay, who was just 19 at the time. Today, the ranch is still intact and now managed by great-grandaughter Jael Kampfe.

Kampfe is a pefect blend of cowgirl, business woman and hostess. She runs the summer grazing program, feeding and fattening more than 2,000 head of cattle each year, while operating a successful guest ranch. Kampfe, the first woman to head the ranch, has taken an established, successful and respected legacy and brought it into the 21st Century. Surrounded by cabins rich in Montana and Western history, she guards the old while looking for ways to stay relevant and contemporary. It is no easy task.

As we drove back to Red Lodge, in the deep Montana twilight, they were all on my mind. The young family breaking rocky soil to put down roots and the smiling, determined, woman who calls the shots at a beloved family ranch.

Going forward isn't necessarily easy. But it's still the only way to get where you want to be.

(To see photos of Doug Bailey and Jael Kampfe click Continue Reading)

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

 

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About this blog

Cheryl-Anne Millsap's Home Planet column appears each week in the Wednesday "Pinch" supplement. Cheryl-Anne is a regular contributor to Spokane Public Radio and her essays can be heard on Public Radio stations across the country. She is the author of "Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons."

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