I am on the verge of entering Yellowstone National Park and leaving the Great Plains behind. Tonight I will be sleeping with the buffalo and bears. At least that's the plan.
I fill up on gas and head south for a few miles until I turn west onto Goosberry Cook Road, a secondary farming road. It is still open treeless land. In some places it looks prehistoric and it is. I turn north onto a larger highway, Route 120. There's more traffic, a few tractor trailers. The hills feel a little larger, the view of open grass land a little more constrained. Eventually a sign for Cody comes into view.
Cody, Wyoming, as in Buffalo Bill, is a western town in every commercial way it can be. It is the eastern gateway to Yellowstone National Park too. I pull into a McDonalds to check my route, which I assume will be directly west into the Park. Outside, in the parking lot, a man in a car parked next to me and showed real curiosity about my bike and trip. I had a paper map in my hand and I showed him my intended route into the Park.
He looked at me and asked if I had ever been in the Beartooth. No. He traced a route north out of town then onto Chief Joseph Highway and finally right onto Beartooth Pass Highway, ending in Red Lodge, Montana. He said this was a particularly beautiful area. He and his wife love riding it on their motorcycle. His look was one of sincerity and I immediately changed my plans.
A few minutes later I was north out of Cody heading for a left turn onto Chief Joseph Highway. No regrets. This was by far the most serendipitous route ever offered me.
From Cody to Red Lodge by this route is about 100 miles. It is almost exclusively in the mountains. There are endless hairpin turns. Turnouts are plentiful. The views get better and better with each mile. The air is fresh and filled with moisture. My sinuses are thankful.
Before connecting to the Beartooth Highway, Chief Joseph Highway drops down into a tight river valley. A fishing lodge appears. I go in. While there a hard rain begins. It seems like a temporary storm. I change from my wind breaker to a full rain suit. It's good I did. The climb up the Beartooth has intermittent rain. The temperature is cool. There seems to be no end to this wonderful road.
The climate and terrain changes. It becomes alpine. The smell of pine and sage fill my soul bringing me waves of joy. This for me, is heaven. I am nearly overwhelmed by my joy and reaction to its unexpected appearance. I keep pulling over and breathing in the ecstasy. I fight back tears.
The road goes above tree line and everything changes again. There are no trees, the wind is cool to cold, and there is snow. Not snow covering everything, but mini and micro snowpacks. I reach an open place that must be the summit, but there are no signs. I walk around looking for a good photo, but there are no good angles. I move along and find the road rises again a mile on. There is a pullout with several cars. Here is the unmarked summit. There is no elevation sign, but we are at 10,900 feet. There is a ski lift. No chairs are on the cable. The snow that remains is too patchy for to skiing.