Losing Friends in Yellowstone

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A freeze-dried meal around the morning campfire is one of life’s rare, and misunderstood pleasures. The real breakfast of champions comes in a pouch, its eaten in the woods, and its delicious.
As I was preparing this misunderstood delicacy, Kyle was trying to get some sleep. He was still wrapped in the dorm room blankets he had brought from his work. Now that the sun was out, he was just starting to look comfortable. With over eleven miles to go, I was going to have to wake him up soon.
Kyle was still wrapped like a burrito in his blankets. It looked like he had finally managed to make himself comfortable in the dorm room blankets he had brought as his sleeping bag. The fact that we were severely under prepared was only highlighted by only having brown rice left to eat.
I wrapped the shirt in my hand around my coffee sitting in an old can of chili. It had been one of the coldest nights of the trip, and I woke up with some frost on the outside of my sleeping bag, despite it being the middle of August.
The smell of coffee brought Kyle out of his dreaming. “How about getting out of these woods and into a coffee shop?” I asked him.
“How about into a bar.” He said in response. I have to agree that he chose the better of the two options.
As we packed up, I looked once again to the large peak at the end of the valley, which was hiding the Hoodoo Basin. There were blue skies all around.
This was the fated day when we were going to meet up with our friends. After two days in Grizzly country, I was a little concerned, and I had to imagine that they would be anxious to see that we survived our 60 mile trip. Hopefully we would meet up in enough time to get out of the woods and hit a bar in Cooke City.

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As we walked out, we ran back into our friend from the basin. How he managed to beat us down the trail let me know how late we had woken up.
With more time to chat, we found out that he was a linen truck driver in the town of Canyon. He didn’t have to drive the truck very far, and spent most of his days fly fishing, or hiking in the Lamar Valley. He wasn’t making very much, but he was definitely living the life. We left him under the shade of a tree, where he was eating triscuts and smiling.
It wasn’t more than a hundred yards later when we surprised a mother moose standing in a field with her little baby. We were both surprised, but the moose was not nearly as pleased to see us as we were to see the moose. The distrust of animals is one of the consequences of being at the top of the food chain.

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Continuing through the winding valley, and following the bends of the river, we eventually made it to the campsite where we had last left our friends by the river. Other than some charcoal drawings of fish and mountains, there was no sign that our friends were still around.
“Huh,” I told Kyle, “Well it doesn’t really fit Tanner’s character to stick around in one spot. They probably went further up river to get better fish.”
“How do you know the fish will be better upriver?” Kyle asked.
“Everything is better upriver Kyle. It just has to be.”
“I bet the bars are much worse upriver.” There are in fact no bars up the Lamar River. We both nodded our heads at the wise words.
With nothing better to do than lie down and wait, the lactic acid in our muscles had enough time to work their black magic. We soon found out exactly how sore our legs were. Kyle had been complaining about his knees earlier, and he said it was getting slowly worse.
The afternoon slowly crept by, and a sickening feeling was filling the bottom of my stomach.
Where were my friends? It wasn’t out of Tanner’s character to go off on his own thing and not return until the end of the day, but this was the backcountry of Yellowstone. People died out here. And they didn’t have a map.
All of this worry was ruining the tranquil moment I was trying to have next to the babble of the river. It wasn’t a reassuring babble, but the babble of anxiety, asking me all of the questions I didn’t want to hear. Where were they?

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I get very restless when an issue presents itself, and I cannot immediately solve it. I got up and started half pacing, half limping around the campground, until I resolved to check the campsite further up the valley. It wasn’t more than a mile and a half up the trail, a distance which had become close to the equivalent of walking around the block. I ran into some fine looking prairie hens.
When they weren’t at that campsite, I began getting a little worried. We still had just barely enough sunlight to get us back into Lamar Valley, but leaving now would mean potentially abandoning our friends at the campsite.
I ran into a pair of through hikers on the way back. They were doing the continental divide trail, and said that throughout their trip from Mexico to our campsite, they had not seen our friends.
After asking Kyle what he thought, we both agreed to make a massive bonfire (our campsite was noted as being frequently visited by Grizzly Bears), and hunkered down for the night. If we didn’t find our friends by noon the next day, we would call them in as completely lost.

The Hoodoo Basin

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“This has to be the most appropriate way to see something called the Hoodoo Basin.” I said to Kyle as we began our trek up the mountain leading to the basin. The wind was howling over the peaks and through the valleys. It felt like we were walking into Mordor.
It was noon. A storm was approaching. The electric energy of thunder and lightning was coursing through the air, and burnt sections of trees showed where lightning fires had cleared away forests. As we walked, rain mixed with hail was beginning to fall, and we had forgotten our raincoats. The wind was howling in a way that sounded like crying spirits.
Reaching the basin had become a little bit of an obsession. I felt at that moment like Frodo going to destroy something in a faraway place like Mordor, but instead of a ring, I was destroying my ignorance of the Hoodoo Basin.
Just as I had imagined, the Hoodoo Basin has somewhat magical origins. It was one of the locations where Native American people would go on vision quests. There are even the remains of a stone circle where questers would sit and wait for their vision. I wanted to sit in that circle.

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But at that moment we were resting beneath one of the few remaining trees on the mountain. We were cold. It probably wasn’t smart to continue, but there was no way I was going 20 miles into the woods to see the Hoodoo Basin and turn back. This was my own personal vision quest, but with the more literal goal of finally seeing the Hoodoo Basin.
Within thirty minutes the storm had passed, as most afternoon rainstorms in the high plains desert of America tend to do. We picked up our walking sticks and continued walking, being careful on our trail that was now slick with hail. The rain had gone away, but clouds still hung over the mountains.

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As we walked higher, the trees got smaller, and we could see the alpine meadows that extended between the mountains like carpet. It would have been the best time to see a bear, but we never even saw a roving dot. Instead we saw a family of falcons and crows pin wheeling through the valleys in an enviable way. It reminded me of the eagles in Lord of the Rings, and I would have really appreciated a lift.

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The dirty remains of a glacier that created the mountains around us was now barely clinging to the side of the hill on our right. Its mountain carving days were over, and it had retired to being just a small dot on the hillside. The glacier had done its job well. The mountains around us were very beautiful.

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When we finally rounded the corner to the basin, we were on a hillside standing above the features as they extended further into the valley. Escaping from the side of the mountain were figures that looked like mountain deities that had decided to congregate outside of the mountain. They were as large as buses and had the shapely figures of human beings, particularly in the orb like shape of their heads. They had gathered in groups throughout the valley. We sat down to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
As we ate, the distant rumble of thunder returned to the valley. Looking westward, we saw that the sun was sinking closer to the base of the mountains. As we were thinking about the cold of the rain, another hiker appeared from the hoodoos.

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He was on a weekend trip from where he worked as a linen truck driver in Canyon, a town in Yellowstone. When I told him how far we had to go, he gave me the dubious look of a fourth grade teacher hearing an excuse about my missed homework.
“It’s five thirty right now. You have less than three hours to go ten miles. Do you have a flashlight?”
Kyle had luckily brought a very weak flashlight.
“Yeah we have a little one. The moon has been big the past two nights.” I said. It started raining.
“You had better get moving if you want to make it before dark.” He said. Then he tightened his backpack, and continued up the mountain.
There is nothing more terrifying than hiking in the dark. We had managed to make it back in the valley before complete darkness, but had to finish the final stretch without the sun.

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Before complete darkness, we had run into a large bull moose by the river that had been minding his own business. The light had gone just far enough to prevent a clear picture from being taken. Not every moment with wildlife can be a Kodak moment.
While this moment was exciting at the time, we were now stumbling through moose territory without a light. A mile away from our site, it was fully dark. The moon was casting its eerie silver light on the stumps in our path, making the dead trees come alive again as a bear or moose.
I had taken flashlight duty, while Kyle had the bear spray ready behind me. We figured it was better for both of us to only be holding one thing, as this allowed us to do either duty better, but I was starting to think about an encounter. I would have a weak flashlight to scare the hell out of me, while Kyle most likely got mist from the bear spray in my eyes. I spent most of the time singing really loud songs, and hoping that the bears stayed away from the path we were walking.

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The joy of finding out campsite still being in one piece was fantastic. We had been contemplating sitting in an open field and making a fire to keep animals away, but with just a mile to go the idea was ridiculous. Finally making it back was like Odyssious making it home after his 20 year long journey. We ate the last of our freeze dried fajitas.