Beartooth Pass at Midnight

I had been here before, in 2001, attempting to recreate a scene of the night sky reflected in a calm alpine lake.  I didn’t succeed then, but here I was with another opportunity.  I’m still not fully satisfied; I guess I will have to come back and try again!

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Beartooth Pass, Montana
25 July 2011
Canon EOS 20Da, 17-55mm (17mm), ISO 1600, f/2.8

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10 Traversing Wyoming

10.1  Chief Joseph’s Revenge

It had been a very satisfying night at the top of Beartooth Pass.  I had enjoyed the company of nearby curious campers, seen stars reflected in clear calm water, and I had even made some exposures of the deep sky.  The new day came sooner than I wanted and the other occupants of the makeshift campground behind the “Top of the World” store made their early starts as I struggled to stay asleep amid the noise of their departures.  When I finally climbed out of the tent onto the rock-strewn alpine tundra, I no longer had any company.  The half-dozen brave RVs that had bedded down here among the rocks with me were gone.  I packed up my stuff and followed suit.

The drive back down the pass was pleasant, the weather nice, traffic light.  My backtracking had not gone very far before I encountered the branch off this scenic route to Yellowstone onto the road across Wyoming.  On the map it looked easy enough, but I was aware that it went over a pass by the name of Chief Joseph, the famous Nez Perce leader.  The road was well designed, well paved, and I drove many casual miles before any hints of elevation gain.  The road was so well conditioned, that it took me a bit by surprise when it seemed that my trusty old minivan was making a little more effort to keep the pace.  The straight stretches of road became shorter, the curves more frequent, then suddenly they became continuous and steep, walls of rock preventing a view to the road ahead.  Traffic backed up behind me as my engine gasped for air and my hands clenched the wheel.   The shoulders on the road had vanished, replaced by tight guardrails on one side and a narrow rock-adorned gully on the other.  Scenic pullouts were impossible, there were no wide spots in this road.

Perhaps because of the limited view and my previous oblivion to what I was about to drive over, I had no sense of how far or how long it would be until I reached the top.  Each new set of curves and climbs seemed like it should be the last, but it was always immediately followed by another turn, and another set of switchbacks.  I could do nothing but keep climbing and try to enter that mental state of zen driving, mountain road style.

Eventually of course I did reach the top.  It was not an obvious single point in the road, because I continued to climb, but now there were occasional downhill curves to complement the uphill ones.  The uphills became less frequent, and now I was clearly on the other side.  Ah, the other side.  The other side, and riding the brake!  I switched into lower gears to avoid overheating the brakes and the poor minivan whined with the rpm.  Maybe I should use the brakes a little more and give the engine and transmission a rest. 

I was relieved when the road pitch evened out and I could see it entering the great basin ahead.  The blood returned to my knuckles as I commanded my fingers to release their death-grip on the wheel.  I coasted a little to celebrate the successful maneuver through Chief Joseph Pass.  I’m not sure I would agree that he “will fight no more forever”.

The morning had been spent in intense concentration on driving.  The road was again wide and smooth and easy.  The town of Cody was just ahead and I looked forward to stopping for lunch, perhaps at the famous, but aging Irma Hotel, a stopping place I remembered from family road trips.  I rolled into town, passing familiar landmarks:  the Plains Museum, which I knew included a section containing more guns than even a couple of 12-year old boys could take in, the rock shop, now closed, where my son had spent his allowance on prize specimens.  And the Irma, Wild Bill’s business interest in the early days of Cody.

I located a parking place across the street and eagerly found my way into the restaurant.  The food was unremarkable, and the service awful, but I’m not particular, this is just a refueling stop.  Besides, the furnishings are always intriguing- huge stuffed wild animal heads guarding over the massive cherrywood bar and the other artifacts on display from an earlier rustic era.  I take the moment to examine my roadmap and make some notes.  Eventually I run out of reasons to stay, the bill is paid, and I prepare myself for returning to what looks like a long dry road ahead.

I start up the car.  It runs rough for a moment and then dies.  I start it again, dance with the gas pedal, put it in gear to enter the traffic on main street, and the engine kills again.  What’s going on?  Ok, I’ll take all possible load off of it.  I turn off the AC, the fan, the radio.  This time I manage to get into the lane and start driving, but something is seriously wrong.  The engine threatens to die unless I pump the gas pedal.  The car lurches down the street and it’s obvious I’m not going to get very far, but I managed to turn off of Main Street onto a side street and into a parking lot.  I got out and discovered a blood trail behind the car, showing in a wide wet stripe on the road exactly how I had gotten to this point.  Under the hood it was a mess, with fluorescent green coolant everywhere.

I looked around.  I was in a bank parking lot.  (I think “how convenient, I was hoping to find a cash machine anyway.”)  There is another bank nearby, and across the street, a building marked “Law Enforcement Center”.  I’m not quite sure what this means, but it sounds like it might be a police station, and maybe someone there could help me figure out how to get my car repaired on a Sunday afternoon in a small town in the middle of Wyoming.

Nightscape Odyssey

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9.3 The Top of the World

The Top of the World Store, on the road to Beartooth Pass photo courtesy Dean W. Gehnert,

These are the thoughts that occupy my head as I drive up the road to Beartooth Pass, the sensory salve of driving a beautiful mountain road through forests and meadows providing the background music to my mind’s meanderings.

I encounter the turnoff to the first of two vehicle-accessible lakes. It instantly tests the mettle of would-be sportsmen by becoming a gravel washboard. The intrepid are rewarded with a boat-launch into a beautiful lake protected by rocky hills. I have frequently sought such ramps into quiet waters as convenient locations to set up my own photon-catching equipment. The lake offers an open view to the sky, the ramp is unused after dark, a solid base to place a tripod. In this case however, the lake is a bit too protected, the bluffs on the far side of the lake are too high, cutting off the lake’s reflected view of the sky.  Clearly this is not the lake Rich and I encountered, but I mark it on my map as a candidate for future deep sky work, if not reflections of startrails.

Keep climbing. The trees diminish in size, thin out, then become merely an occasional twisted shrub as I reach higher elevations. The terrain is now rocky tundra, with rugged patches of grass tenaciously gripping the stony soil. The road is not really climbing anymore, just rolling with the topography. I pass an outpost of civilization, a store, its sign declaring it to be “The Top of the World Store”.

The summit of this pass extends a great distance. It seems that I’ve been rolling at the top of this road forever, but in a few miles, another turnoff.  This time the lake and its associated campground are right off the road.  Maybe this is it!  I explore the small net of gravel roads that penetrate this area. It includes a boat launch and trailer parking area. This lake seems a bit larger than the previous, its far shore less consuming of the sky, and there is a picturesque island, complete with trees, giving this lake its descriptive if unimaginative name, Island Lake.

Whether it is the exact lake I am looking for or not, it is perfect for my photography plans: take prime focus pictures of deep sky targets and set up my fixed tripod cameras to record startrails over the lake. And there is a campground right here too!  Ah, but that would be too easy.  It is late in the afternoon on a weekend, every campsite is spoken for, and probably were occupied even days before.

I consider my options. I could just stay out all night making pictures and when dawn’s twilight arrives, try to get some sleep in my car.  I’ve done it before, but I also know that this is not a very good solution. Sleeping in my car is a challenge, and I would not be very rested when the activities at the boat launch started up.  (Avid fishermen like to get out on the lake at dawn).

Instead, I returned to the Top of the World Store, where there was a sign advertising camping. To most of the world these days, camping means parking. If you have a few spots where someone can park their recreational vehicle overnight, you have a campground!  I don’t have an RV; I must pitch a tent to provide protection for my bedroll and so my demands on a campground are more excessive than average.  The campground at the Top of the World was actually rather nicer than most commercial campgrounds. It comprised a short gravel road that faded into the tundra after a hundred yards. No designated parking pads, just open space, enough for maybe half a dozen campers, and me, a tent pitched at the end of the path.

This was working out very well! A site to take pictures, and a home base only a mile away to return to. And it was still afternoon. I decided to let down for a while, I fixed a gin-and-tonic from my cloudy night contingency provisions, opened my notebook to make a few recordings for this day, and then napped, resting up for the evening.

Nightscape Odyssey
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9 Beartooth Reflections

9.1  Lost History

I’m on my way to rediscover a bit of personal history. As a young man I embarked on a road trip with my best friend Rich McMartin. We were college students with little experience and even less money, but Rich owned a functioning car, and we set out one June to see the Rocky Mountains. It was an adventure that left many lasting and wonderful impressions but, like many of my life experiences, the details of where we actually traveled and when and how we got there have been lost to the decay of aging synapses.

But some of the memories are so permanently etched that there are valuable clues to follow. One in particular has held a certain fascination for me, as it is the motivating inspiration for many of my startrail compositions:  I am trying to capture the feeling Rich and I shared after we drove up a mountain pass one night, stopped at the top, and looked out at a sky that was so dark and deep and star-filled that we couldn’t find our favorite constellations!  The dome of jewels that filled our eyes extended even beneath us as we momentarily lost our balance at the invisible shores of an alpine lake that mirrored the sky.

Did one of these lakes cast a spell on me that night long ago?

In the years since that powerful experience I have often wondered where we were that night, and now whenever I summit a mountain road, I look around to see if a familiar lake is nearby.  On this day, leaving Yellowstone and its road construction behind, I realize that there is a famous pass on a road that would not be on any of my usual homeward routes, but it is not very far from here. Beartooth Pass!  I’ve not been over it for many years; maybe this is the location of our nighttime trance. Even if it isn’t, it may hold a place for me to setup my equipment and take pictures in a remote alpine setting.

The forecast is for winds, and the clouds are intermittent at medium height. They aren’t the puffy cumulus blobs that evaporate at night; this is a troubling indicator. But I’m here, I should keep going.  It may not turn out in my favor, but if I’m not there to try, there’s no chance at all. My task is to place myself at the right place and time, the weather is beyond my control.

Nightscape Odyssey
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