We’ve done a lot of hiking, my wife and I, these past 26 years. Needless to say, distances used to be farther, and a mile seemed a shorter distance than now. I am embarrassed to say that a mere two mile walk, 700 feet elevation gain, a few days ago, seemed longer and harder than that. But what can we do? Everything, every one ages, some slower, some faster.
First a side trip, not about a hike, but an encounter. We had settled in to Island Lake Campground last week, and set up for a four day stay. It rests at 9,500 feet in the Wyoming Beartooth Mountains, and has long been a favorite of ours. Not only is it nice to start out a hike at that elevation, but these days we bring kayaks with us, circumnavigating the lake before breakfast (but at my insistence, only after coffee).
Later in the evening, we have with us one of two improvements to life in camp, one a screened tent large enough to cover the picnic table provided by the campground. The other is a second Coleman cot. I vowed last year that I would never again sleep on the ground. 70 seemed a good age to give that up. I ordered it last year on our way back to Colorado.
There are 27 sites in the Island Lake campground, first-come first-serve. We were reasonably certain we would find a spot available, but if not there is a lot of dispersed camping in the area. We settled on site #19, large enough to accommodate the screen tent, but a little too close to Highway 212. This is the time of year when motorcycles make their way to Sturgis, South Dakota. I am going to be unkind here so skip ahead if you do not like it: More than a few of those bikes hold on them many kilos of excess human fat, usually riding on the bone structures of long-haired tattooed men on the front, and an equally bulbous females on the back. They all look and dress alike, these nonconformists, with their leather and chains and (what look like) Nazi skate helmets. We’ve had occasion to be in close quarters with them over the years, one time occupying a small cabin next to a large group of them. Members of this group enjoyed what I thought to be juvenile humor and large quantities of alcohol. I sensed arrested development.
I am painting with a wide brush stroke I realize. Anyway, the sound of motorcycles on the highway is a constant. But by evening they are off the highway, though I don’t know where they go. They move in large packs, so unless booking a year in advance, no motels are available. Years ago, in my first life when I lived in Billings, Montana, a large group settled in Half Moon Park, freaking out the people living nearby with lots of drinking, noise, and campfires. The noise they make on departure and arrival shakes the ground. After enough complaints from mothers and fathers of daughters, Sheriff Dean Betzer organized a 3AM raid, rousted their still drunk or hungover souls, and escorted them out of town. It was impressive.
We like quiet. We’re not unusual in that regard, and camping in the past we have chosen Pebble Creek Campground, eight miles inside the Northwest Entrance to Yellowstone National Park. There are two streams running by an through, the only noise. There too are 27 spots, and up until this year (it was closed last year) it was managed on a first-come first-serve basis. That meant that people would not usually plan in advance to stay there, as nothing could be guaranteed. We generally found that by showing up at 5AM we could get a spot. This year Park Service opted to put Pebble in the national reservation system, so that all spots except one (non-tent) were booked for the year way back in March. That’s why we ended up at Island Lake.
Pebble Creek allows motorized recreation vehicles, but does not allow them to run their generators. Those who have them have to leave the campground and drive to a nearby rest area to charge batteries and run anything on 110 volt circuits. Island Lake Campground does not have that rule, and allows generators to run until 10:00 PM. On our first night there as we sat soaking up the quiet, a generator fired up, only one, but enough to ruin the ambience. It went on for more than an hour, and I finally summed up the courage for a confrontation. I went to the offending campsite, and there was greeted (as if he expected me) by a long-haired bearded man in his thirties (?) drinking a can of beer. It went something like this:
Me: Would you mind turning off your generator?
Him: I will do so at the time that the campground regulations say I must.
Me: This place, in case you did not notice, is quiet. You re the only one making any noise.
Him: We are within our rights.
Me: I know that. But think about it – nothing but quiet here, except you.
Him: Not my problem.
Me: You can’t live without it, can you.
My wife tells me that my parting words were probably over the top. I told her that (as she well knows) I am gifted in that manner, that of leaving the last offensive words. After the encounter there was a loud discussion from that camp site, even some yelling. Then, shortly after, the generator was shut off.
The next morning the noisemakers left, but must have complained to the campground host about me. Around eight PM that evening our next door neighbor camper, Dale, fired up his generators, 7:57 PM to be precise. I said nothing, but the campground host, who rides a motorized golf cart, buzzed up the road and pulled in the site, and there were polite words exchanged, and the generator, which could have legally run for two more hours, was shut down. I can only assume that I had become legend the night before for enforcing my own rules on peace and quiet.
I know, we cannot change people, and I have to think that in my younger years, given my party habits and the people I hung out with, that I would have qualified as “redneck.” I’ve changed over time, I like to think, otherwise my partner of these last 26 years would not have endured me. So perhaps there has always been this element among us, those who view road trips and the outdoors as a time for motorized fun and drinking. When the two elements, quiet types and partiers, are combined, as they are in campgrounds that allow generators, there are bound to be conflicts. I began my own maturation process in my thirties, and so am a little distressed to see men and women in their forties and older still living the party animal life style.
Call that judgemental, I suppose.
When we hike in the backcountry, things change. The people we meet on the trail are well-mannered, interesting and serene. We met a group from Seattle at Island Lake, a trailhead as well as campground, who were setting off on an eight-day adventure in the Beartooth Wilderness. We talked for maybe twenty minutes, exchanging adventures. I felt like an old hand even as we do not backpack anymore. They’d never been in that area before. I was able to assure them that 1) each night they could have their own private lake, 2) there was no chance of getting lost as the shape of lakes always tells you exactly where you are, and 3) at the end, they would be filled both with exhaustion and exhilaration. I am so glad we did what we did while we were able to do it.
There’s a general sense in people I talk to about outdoor adventures that we are overrun by motorized adventurers, or “motorbacks” as I call them, and that generators are rude and intrusive. Thank God and groups like the Alliance for the Wild Rockies that we have wilderness, where the governing law, written in less politically correct times, says that
“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
No motorized instruments of any kinds are allowed, not even even chainsaws for the trail builders. If you need quiet, find your nearest wilderness.
PS: After leaving the Beartooths we had opportunity to spend a night with our writer Steve Kelly and his partner. They are gracious hosts, and Steve is a great cook, fixing barbecued lamb chops to go along with fruit and a trout-based cracker spread that did not last long. We stayed in a separate bungalow on the property, and wandered over there around sunset. There we were greeted by the distant outlines of the Madison Range, the Gravelly’s, Spanish Peaks, Tobacco Roots, maybe even the Big Belts and Elkhorns – I am not sure, as I am working from a map rather than memory. I do know that directly behind us was Saddle Peak, which we have climbed on several occasions, part of the Bridger Range. Everything in front of us was bathed in delightful red sunset. To add to the joy of the spectacle, a waxing crescent moon was accompanied by Venus in the distant sky. It does not get better. (I did not take a photo – my camera cannot handle such a spectacle.)
PPS: That sunset reminds me of a song by Ian Tyson about artist Charles Russell called The Gift: (Ear worm warning … I cannot get it out of my head now, especially that last line, “And Nancy Russell will make sure it’s just two.” My Dad, from Great Falls, told me Charlie would often sell sketches in bars for drinks.)
When the Lord called Charlie to his home up yonder,
He said, “Kid Russell, I got a job for you.
You’re in charge of sunsets up in old Montana,
‘Cause I can’t paint them quite as good as you.”