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Mountain high: Yellowstone Country Montana
by Kirk Williamson
2017-11-08

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Hi, my name is Kirk and I have problems with anxiety. From the moment the cat wakes me up at 5 a.m. with that ravenous look in her eye, to the seemingly endless procession of stop lights and drivers who don't signal, to the cable box on the fritz, to the sink full of dishes that never quite reaches the bottom, to the moment I double-bolt the door shut at night, life in this metropolis never fails to increase my stress levels.

I seek peace in solitude, exploration and the lure of wide open spaces and brand-new faces. It was this need for peace that led me inexorably to plan a road trip to Yellowstone Country Montana, a region in the southwestern part of the state which serves as the northern portal into Yellowstone National Park, 96 percent of which is in Montana's southern neighbor, Wyoming.

I struck out onto this epic road trip in my Chevrolet Suburban Midnight Edition at 7 a.m, early enough to just barely escape the city before traffic got too oppressive. The Suburban felt almost impossibly enormous when contrasted with the tiny parking spot behind my Rogers Park apartment, but once I got on the road and skyscrapers gave way to actual sky, I appreciated the spaciousness and bubbled with anticipation of all the finds I would return with by the end of this 10-day trek.

Leaving Chicago behind, I headed northwest through Wisconsin, then into Minnesota and ultimately just across the North Dakota border into Fargo for the night.

The following morning, I continued westward through North Dakota and the flat topography of the Midwest began to fluctuate, with gently rolling hills emerging and building the further I drove. Once I entered the painted hills of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the western end of the state, I felt transported to a land both ancient and refreshingly new with possibility.

From there, I finally crossed the border into Montana and was overcome by the sheer beauty of—well—everything. The sun shone brighter, the clouds appeared fluffier and the speed limit increased to 80 miles per hour. I steered heedlessly west toward the mountainous horizon until I reached my ultimate destination, Bozeman, Montana.

The city of Bozeman provides sparkling nightlife and authentic culture. You can see both queer and straight youth lighting up the dance floor at The Rocking R, refreshing sophistication ( in my case, in the form of a much-needed dirty Martini using Bozeman-distilled Wild Rye Vodka ) at Open Range and working-class revelry at the local American Legion Hall. Also, keep your eye out for all the brilliant neon signs illuminating Main Street at night, advertising everything from record stores to sporting goods to Montana's traditional Wilcoxson's ice cream, available at an array of shops, including The Chocolate Moose. I opted for the flavor Chocolate Runs Through It, a nod to the tranquil Brad Pitt film, A River Runs Through It, which was set in Missoula, but shot near Bozeman.

I checked into my room at The Lehrkind Mansion Bed & Breakfast ( 719 N. Wallace Ave., 406-585-6932, www.bozemanbedandbreakfast.com ), owned by partners Jon and Christopher, who had both previously worked as park rangers in Yellowstone. When they found this historic mansion up for sale, fate intervened and they became hosts for the interpid traveler. Each room at the bed and breakfast features local touches—such as the drop-front writing desk in the Leopold Room, originating from Great Falls, Montana—and a private bath for optimal luxury.

By day, I was able to further explore Bozeman and found it to be a mecca for the adventurous. Nearby attractions ( depending upon the season ) give you world-class access to skiing, snowboarding, hiking, ice climbing and anything you can imagine that involves thrill-seeking and mountain air. Outdoorsmanship is in the very DNA of this region.

Presented with a bounty of hiking options, I chose to take on the three-mile ascent to Lava Lake, a pristine mountaintop lake, reflecting the surrounding snow-capped peaks, majestic pines and volcanic rock. It's a showstopper of a sight to behold and every photo you take will turn out suitable for lagre-scale framing. Word to the wise on the hike: Whereas the climb up the mountain presents a logical challenge, the trip down actually proved to be more strenuous. I would advise you to make full use of your gym's StairMaster in order to train your descent muscles.

Working up an appetite was not difficult in Bozeman, nor was the slaking of that appetite. One culinary highlight for me was Saffron Table ( 1511 W. Babcock St., www.saffrontable.com ), specializing in local foods with the exotic flavors of India and South Asia. Order the Willow Spring Ranch achari lamb, whose spiciness was cut perfectly by the sweetness of the red onion, showing expert attention to detail in what, in less skilled hands, would have been a throwaway addition of a side dish. The palek paneer includes cheese made in-house from goat's milk from Kalispell. Accent all of this with a wide variety of savory naan.

After a two-night stay, I bade farewell to Jon and Christoper of the Lehrkind, packed the Suburban and headed southeast to Gardiner ( www.visitgardinermt.com ), the actual gateway city to the northeast entrance of Yellowstone. Given its proximity to the park, wildlife routinely spills into the streets. Expect to see nearly as many mule deer as cars. There are even frequent reports of bears haunting the local backyards.

The city of Gardiner is a rugged relic of the storied American west, dripping with cowboy lore and an untarnished spirit of self-determination and good, old fashioned American gumption. But it's also a great place to get a bite to eat. The Raven Grill features an array of fresh farm-raised seafood and red meats, including elk and bison. It's new American cuisine with a full bar. I experienced my first taste of wild huckleberry ( which is a treat synonomous with Montana itself ) in their huckleberry Martini. The shrimp tacos at Two-Bit Saloon are an easy must-have. The Yellowstone Mine also serves up generous helpings of meat and seafood, but in a wood-panelled atmosphere straight out of prospector days.

I stayed at the Sunny Slope Lodge ( www.yellowstonevacationrental.net/cabins.php ) in nearby Jardine, and by "nearby," I mean up into the mountains. Luckily, the Chevy Suburban was up to the task. This three-bedroom lodge, complete with a wood stove, full laundry, a loft and stunning mountainside views, is tucked neatly away from all traces of civilization. How better, then, to enjoy my first night there than to sip some Bobcat Gold bourbon from Bozeman Spirits ( www.bozemanspirits.com ), snack on some huckleberry sea salt caramels from Alpine Valley Kitchen ( www.alpinevalleykitchen.com ) and stare at the stars from the open porch? It set the tone of sheer relaxation and recreation for the rest of the trip.

The clear highlight of my time in Yellowstone Country Montana was my personal guided tour of the park by MacNeil Lyons of Yellowstone Insight ( 406-640-1164, info@yellowstoneinsight.com ). MacNeil had also worked for many years for the park, but took his talents into tailoring one-of-a-kind experiences, providing tourists with opportunites to focus on Yellowstone's geology, history, photography or wildlife.

During my daylong excursion with MacNeil, I began to learn the ways of the wildlife, guided by his years of first-hand experience in tracking the daily habits of the varied fauna of the park.

After a brief tutorial on the three things to look for when looking for predators, we were treated to a real-life example, as a female elk, running top-speed, surpassed our vehicle and kept on at that same clip into the valley. Sure enough, a mile up the road, we were able to view the wolf pack from whom she had narrowly escaped with her life.

Other wildlife revelations included a postcard view of elk on the horizon at sunrise, a group of grazing pronghorns, herds upon herds of bison and the odd coyote.

Nothing, though, could match the iconic grandeur of being able to see ( and properly photograph ) a mother grizzly bear and her two cubs as they made their way through a valley and across a stream. It was an event that left even MacNeil—who does this for a living—speechless. It's the unpredictable thrill of the wild, revealed with respect.

The road trip then took me to Red Lodge ( www.redlodge.com ), a resort town further east at the feet of the BearTooth Mountains. Charming boutiques and restaurants line the main thoroughfare of this tolerant mountain berg; I was even pleasantly surprised by rainbow signage in some of the windows of the town's businesses. It was a welcoming touch.

Red Lodge serves as a home base for two scenic drives not to be missed. Unfortunately, I just did miss the Beartooth Highway drive ( www.beartoothhighway.com ), as mountain snows force the closure of the road from the middle of October through the spring. I did, however, get to experience the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway, a 47-mile stretch connecting Cody, Wyoming, with the northeast gate of Yellowstone, and named after a Native-American chief of the Nez Perce tribe. The route crosses the Shoshone National Forest through the Absaroka Mountains to the Clark's Fork Valley. The Chevy Suburban made quick work of the winding path, alternating in steep grade up and down the rocky peaks of the Absarokas.

While in Red Lodge, treat yourself to a sumptuous gastronomic experience at Carbon County Steakhouse ( 121 Broadway Ave. S, www.redlodgerestaurants.com ). The New York strip comes topped with a traditional mushroom demi-glace, which was suitable to be a world-class meal on its own. As this was my last night in Montana, I decided to bookend the experience with one last dirty Martini, this time using vodka from Dry Hills Distillery in Bozeman and some of the funkiest, most pungent ( therefore: the best ) blue cheese-stuffed olives you're bound to find anywhere.

Inevitably, the time came to once again pack the Suburban to head back to land of traffic and bills, leaving my new friend, Yellowstone Country Montana, behind. The overall senses of relaxation, adventure and acceptance I had come to foster over my time in the area stayed with me and helped me create memories of the bliss of an American road trip that I will hard-pressed to ever forget.

My return trip was carried out over three days, instead of the two-day haul I embarked upon earlier. This freed up extra time and a more meandering route, allowing me to pack in more adventures on the way home. I happened upon an auction in eastern Wyoming, where I outbid a room full of cowboys for an antique camelback chest and a kiln. The ample cargo space of the Chevy Suburban was gladly filled that day. I popped in to see George, Teddy, Tommy and Abe up on Mt. Rushmore, near Rapid City, South Dakota. I spent the night explaining the workings of a drag pageant to a straight guy and a recently-out 50s-ish gay man during the Supreme Bitch pageant at The Max in Omaha, Nebraska. It was a road trip for the record books!

You'll definitely need wheels to navigate all that Yellowstone Country Montana has to offer. However, if you choose not to drive the full 3,717 miles that I did, consider the new direct flight to Bozeman from O'Hare. It's three and a half hours, as opposed to two or three days, if that's how you want to fly.

Impossible as it was to even scratch the surface of experinces awaiting you in Yellowstone Country Montana, please visit them at www.visityellowstonecountry.com to see the full spectrum of both winter and summer trip ideas and to get a jump on planning your own Montana vacation.

Thanks to Yellowstone Country Montana for providing accommodations for the trip and to GM/Chevrolet for the use of the Chevy Suburban Midnight Edition.Kirk


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