… it looks like a straight shot on the map from Gardiner to Great Falls via US 89 … and .. you misread those contours and misread the actual vertical experience of the trip!
Travel from Gardiner to Livingston was as much a delight on the way out, as the way in — elk, osprey, eagles, and horses.
Take a right for seven miles on I-90 with the luxury of a divided highway.
Exit for the northern route on a full lane, full-shouldered, center & side-rumble stripped road to White Sulphur Springs — simply a delight of a road.
And then Lewis & Clark National Forest. This is where my “plan” met God’s Creation and the humility of budgets, engineering, and elevations. Oofah. My first miscalculation was thinking the trip would be similar to my childhood ones to Red Lodge Ski Resort and Bridger Bowl. Note to self: jettison the childhood passenger experience and misty-eyed lens memory view. I have to be the driver now!
The road at base level through the National Forest was well-used but peaceful; the slow-down of weaves and curves on a broken road a brilliant idea. Like many, I consider a less smooth road a good thing in a set-aside area keeping everyone a bit slower on the road than they might be otherwise.
Then the road, without any improvements, ascends up and up and up to an eventual pass of 7400 feet, the highest elevation maintained and kept open year round in Montana. Showdown Ski Resort and its 8,000 foot peak to the west and then a 9,000 foot peak to the east of the road.
The change is gradual at first with more and deeper turns. You barely notice the rise until on turns, Sheep Creek then Belt Creek now seem mighty far below. Looking at the map again, it felt much curvier than it looks on paper!
Glad no one was behind me with my top speed of 45mph. This was not my favorite drive with the curves at these elevations, tilting road at times, okay asphalt, barely-a-shoulder shoulder, and what felt like nothing on the edges (the guardrails seemed sparse and somewhat akin to Wyle E Coyote’s ineffectual umbrellas). To be clear, this isn’t a declaration of engineering shoddiness. It is about the magnificence and untameability of God’s Creation in these parts! The engineers and construction crews that design and build these roads allow goods and people to move in a manner unheard of even 100 years ago. No budget or engineer could build a lowland road of pastoral driving through a Rocky Mountain pass. (Even Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park, a work of art and gorgeous views, is for the passengers, not the drivers!) Grateful to be in Dad & Jo’s Honda Element — not the best for wind, but a really good vehicle.
The spring mountain snow blizzard (rain or nothing at the valley floor) capped the experience for me. The Montana experience of my youth caught me — how this was just one too many obstacles, and I wanted to quit. There was nobody else on the road, this was all too much, etc. but at that moment, God’s Montana lifts you up, too.
Mom was at the other end of this road, waiting in her apartment, and for my sake had encouraged me to take the days off time with her to go to Yellowstone. As the world was overwhelmed with the big fluffy snowflakes, the boy soprano in Handel’s Messiah sings “And suddenly there was with the angel, a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and as the coro bursts forth “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, good will towards men.” In that moment, the beauty of God’s Creation on earth, in weather, and in voice, transformed what might have been spring snow that broke this little camel’s back to the encouragement of a multitude of the heavenly host proclaiming the good news that we, including me!, are loved beyond what we will ever know in the moments or sum of our lifetimes. And God’s beauty carried me out of my fears.
But this segment of the trip in particular reminded me how acclimated I’ve become to my beloved Great Lakes region and how different being a passenger is to driving these roads. My childhood was filled with trips through the mountain passes of Montana, but Dad and his lifetime in these parts were at the wheel or my Mom and her fierce devotion to her children. Clearing King’s Hill pass and realizing I was heading back down to the valley floor was a heady celebratory moment. The road crews had ensured there was plenty of sand on the road to prevent slipping.
On reflection after a couple months, I realized the stress of the situation actuated all my trauma specific points — without any of the usual triggers. It was somehow wildly liberating to meet these experiences and pass through with the acknowledgement that this is where and how my body expresses stress … and I do not have to respond to it.
One friend consoled me that the view must have been magnificent. Even at a too slow for normal traffic 45 mph, I daren’t take my eyes off the double yellow in the center or lift a single finger from the double-clenched grasp of the steering wheel. Snow, yellow double stripe, and shrimpy guardrail filled my vision for an hour. 🙂
My descent was downshifted and glad the Forest Service had laid down a hearty layer of sand on the road. Sooooo happy to be on the base of the valley by the creek with little to no precipitation! Then one more elevated pass until finally level ground and easy-peasy into Great Falls. One river has jumped its bed in its meander. There is a huge riverbed bone dry near Belt Creek.