Great 48: Idaho & Montana

After the late and nerve-wracking return of Josh & Lindsay from Mt. Hood and our harried ground-beef-juice cooler contamination conundrum, we were all situated and in the car for our first night on the road. It would be almost 10 hours to Idaho’s pinnacle: Mount Borah. 

Dave and I took turns driving through Eastern Oregon and into Idaho to our destination for Borah: the small town of Mackay. Along the way I made my first “stop the van!” proclamation for a photo opportunity. I’m trying to be conservative in these sudden pull-offs, and also, make them fruitful.

Mackay had the one thing we needed—a gas station with water. The trailhead for Mount Borah lies on shared public land, so we navigated the cattle guards (and cattle themselves). Josh and Lindsay suited up in light packs, water, and running shoes: Borah is no volcanic or glaciated peak. Realizing that Dave and I have been running on paltry sleep (we were needed to be or wanted to be awake at each peak, and obviously needed to be awake on the road), we both took a good chunk of the afternoon to be ready to drive yet another 6 hours to Montana later that night. Because we have no time to spare between climbing and driving (and Josh and Lindsay have been masterfully climbing at a breakneck-pace), Dave and I needed to sleep, organize, and plan when we both wished to be “out there” more.

While we kept the ship in shape at the trailhead, the only person we ran into happened to be another high-pointing enthusiast, Roger, from Virginia. In a mundane afternoon, his quick friendship and generous spirit was such a blessing.

He and Dave stretched their legs on the mountain trails (Roger planned to summit early Thursday morning) while I napped and went back into Mackay for an on-the-road dinner once everyone returned. Amy-Jo’s Steakhouse was our only choice. Bacon BBQ Burgers it is. 

On my way out to the van, a spry man on a golf cart with a long grey beard hummed by. He stopped and said, “Just last week all of those mountains were covered in snow!”

I could only think to reply with,”That’s amazing!”

And he said, “You’re damned right it is!”

Josh and Lindsay were back in time to meet Roger (we hope to see you on Mt. Rogers in Virginia, Roger!)… and then we were on the road. 

The trip to Montana was mostly in the dark, through the twisted roads of Yellowstone and out the other side into the Beartooth Wilderness adjacent to the park. 

I longed to see the hills and valleys of Yellowstone in daytime; I longed to see the springs we smelled, to catch a glimpse of Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon. Indeed, I longed to make it a ways up Borah. And I longed for a more spectacular view from foot of the mountain. Borah was largely shrouded from view by other mountains, and I saw not one inch of Granite Mountain in Montana.

It was only two days into the world record clock and I was feverish with longing. More than the spectacles before me, and in the ways they were. It was somehow inadequate to have my feet on the feet of millenia-old ranges, not mediated by a screen or a frame or a narrator. Indeed, the only barriers anywhere are barely-visible barbed-wire fences and my own will to seeing what’s over, around, or on-top-of. 

In that very lack of mediation—it’s imminentness—The West holds in one hand an unmatched power to create longing for discovery and revelation, and in the other, a keen ability to remind me of my limitations and smallness. It’s an ever-present challenge to one’s will, determination, and ability to put one boot in from of the other. 

But, the same longing and hope that brought homesteaders and prospectors west—the same promise of freedom and Milk and Honey that Bierstadt and Moran painted—easily rots into a ruining and inconsolable discontent. And the same humility that properly reminds of our existential state—our creature-hood and mortality—can easily turn into despair that quits looking for the soul of things.

So, while I didn’t set eyes on Granite Mountain, I was the only human witness to sunrise over a quintessentially-Montana lake in the heart of bear country. It was rugged and primordial: buggy, muddy, ungroomed and overgrown. It existed, exists, and will exist for no one’s gaze. The ancient moss and lichen that covered the granite hills mocked my shortness of life just as completely as any mountain could. And just as any mountain can slap us silly with its grandeur just to get us to marvel for a mere moment, a skinny & bearded man on a golf cart can accomplish the very same task.

On to Wyoming from Montana, with many more mosquito bites (and many more to come). On to the next mountain with hope for more clouds at sunset, more spectacle, more time to hike: yes, all of those things. But also, hopefully a well-tempered hope to be surprised in however small, strange, or personal ways.