Earlier this week Kirsten and I were on our way from Cooke City, MT to Red Lodge via the incomparable Bear Tooth highway. A cold front had come through several days before and clouds were still hanging low and cold over the peaks. For two days, in the second week in June, the just opened high mountain road was closed again for blowing snow and ice.
I was in line waiting to use a Forest Service restroom when I asked a woman waiting in line with me if she had come from over the summit. With abundant animation she replied in the affirmative. “I am from Manitoba where it is so flat you can watch your dog run away from home for three days,” she said. “I know flat and let me tell you, this place is NOT flat! Add to that you can’t see twenty feet in the fog up there and I mean it when I tell you I need to use a rest room.”
Kirsten is a big fan of plaques and roadside interpretive signs and markers. We pull over a lot when we are on the back roads. At the next pullout toward the Bear Tooth summit she was talking to a man from Britain. As I walked up he was saying to Kirsten, “I don’t mean to be disrespectful but I have to tell you I am finding that your gorgeous America is wasted on a lot of Americans.” We laughed, only able to guess what or who he might have run into on his travels. He went on to say he was on a tour with just one other couple in Teton N.P. when the bus was pulled over by park police. The officer just had a beacon the tour group had left behind to give to the driver. As he left the bus the other fellow on the bus said to his wife, “It’s okay dear, you can put your gun back in your purse.” Welcome to ‘Merica, land of the free, the ignorant, the paranoid, the heavily armed.
We were on a last minute getaway for Kirsten to take a break from the constant busyness of publishing, especially publishing while temporarily without a staff to help. Three years ago we came up to Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley with Torrey House author Susan Imhoff Bird to start researching Susan’s book Howl and fell in love with the place. In the late spring the valley is green, the streams are swollen and wildlife is abundant. Of particular international attraction are the wolf packs. At one stop we chatted with a fellow from Paris, whom we had dinner with later that day, and shared our spotting scope with a family from China, a father from India with his adult son from New York, a group from Britain, and an American woman with her pre-teen daughter. These folks have come a long way to see the natural, wild West and they were transfixed and delighted with a chance to watch a pack of seven take a nap nearly a mile away. On another slope a grizzly sow could be seen with her cub. Bison grazed in the same meadow with the wolves. Nearby was a prominent osprey nest. Between here and there was a small herd of female Rocky Mountain Bighorns. We saw pronghorns, black bear, spawning cutthroats, beaver lodges, pika, moose, deer and groundhogs. It is a treasure that all the world holds dear. Smart folks.
Or most of the world holds our protected, natural, national places dear. But not all of the world. While we were traveling, our new Republican Secretary of the Interior Zinke recommended shrinking the newly formed Bears Ears National Monument. While Republican Secretary Pruitt continues to undo environmental protections and disclaim climate change in favor of obsolete coal profits. And just while Republican President trump pulled ‘Merica out of the Paris climate accord.
We stayed most of the time in rural Cooke City at the Antler’s Inn where we had the distinct experience of being only tolerated for our money by the local owner operators. Parked next to our old Audi Allroad at the motel was a late model black SUV from Texas with the bumper sticker, “God, Guns and Guts.” Kirsten was dying to have a rainbow colored bumper sticker saying something like “Love First” to conduct eco-terrorism with and paste over the offensive slogan. America, indeed, is wasted on too many ‘Mericans.