I go hiking for a variety of reasons, but this particular hike was supposed to be fun and pretty casual. Perhaps I have become a wimp in my old age, but I admit to myself that I am no longer game to go on in these conditions. This is not a situation in which testing myself or "roughing it" is the point. This hike was supposed to be about exploring the areas near our campsites, the hidden waterfalls and thermal areas; something that is decidedly less fun to do when it's rainy and chilly.
But I don't know how Laurie and Gary will feel. If they want to continue, then I will have to decide whether or not to hike back by myself, or to pluck up my courage and follow them into the sleet.
The drizzle stops and I can see that first light has arrived. I struggle into my Tevas and raincoat and head out to greet the day. As much as I love the fresh smell and the feeling of being in the woods, the sight is dreary and unwelcoming.
I head over to the bear pole and lower our packs, and soon Laurie is trudging up the path to the cooking area. She says they've had a pretty miserable night and Gary's sleeping bag is now wet. This is especially bad news given our itinerary. I tell her I think I need to turn back. She says they feel the same way. This makes me cry a little, perhaps in relief, or perhaps in giving way to the disappointment I feel that all our plans were for naught.
Alas for us, the weather is behaving just as predicted. Usually one can count on decent weather over Labor Day, but that's the way it goes sometimes. We recognize that rainy weather in September lessens the chance of forest fire, so there is an upside to it.
Anyway, once we are all up and having breakfast, we agree to end our hike and to return to the trailhead today. The fates seem to smile on this decision because the rain holds off while we finish our breakfast and break down our camp. The tension and worry I have been carrying the last several days finally leaves me and my appetite returns.
We head back in chilly temperatures. Usually hiking in a rain coat heats me up so that I only want a t-shirt underneath, but I was never tempted to remove my fleece jacket. Every once in a while I'd take off my gloves a while or unzip my coat, but soon I'd want them on again.
It rains on and off and snows several times, too, but the hike back is pleasant enough. The scenery is still varied and interesting and the abundance of trees keep us pretty dry. We meet several groups of hikers on our way out - hikers are going IN. I admire their courage but have no desire to change my mind. Most of these hikers are young men, sturdy and strong.
When we get to the thermal area close to the Firehole river crossing we see the steam from Lone Star and realize with disappointment that we have just missed an eruption. We consider sticking around to wait for the next one but the inclement weather urges us onward.
The last two miles from Lone Star to the trailhead and the car seem to us like the LONGEST two miles ever. We are still baffled by it - even though it is flat and we can walk three abreast it just seemed to take forever! I'm sure it's partly because we are in kind of low spirits from having put so much energy into planing the hike and then having it fall apart on us. I suppose we are each second guessing ourselves, wondering how wimpy we will feel if it suddenly clears up.
But we try to steer the conversation to what we will do instead with the time we would have spent in Bechler. We consider hiking to Union Falls, or several day hikes in other areas of the Park. After all, we are still in Yellowstone, our favorite place on earth.
Finally we get to the car and unload our burdens. We all know where we want to go first- a restaurant! We head to the lower Ham store and have delicious burgers. I soak my head in the bathroom sink and feel like a new woman.
Our next plan is to head down to Bechler to retrieve Gary's car. But we will stop in West first to see if we can get rooms for the night. Timing wise, we ought to be able to get down to Bechler and back to West before dark. I dislike driving in the dark and avoid it if I can. We agree on the Gray Wolf Inn.
When we arrive there, we find we are in luck - rooms are available for half price because people have been leaving in droves due to the weather. Laurie has an inspired idea - we bring our wet gear into our rooms and spread it all out so that it might be dry by the time we return.
Now, off we go to the next phase - the highway drive to Ashton and then the Bechler Ranger Station. Soon we are laughing and having fun again, as we become more and more convinced that we did the right thing. The weather does the convincing as we travel through rain, sleet, snow, hail, and more rain. In the big sky country through which we drive we can see that this weather is part of a huge front, moving none too quickly from west to east.
When they are not shrouded in rain fog, we can see snow on the mountain tops on both sides of the road. Since our camp tonight was to be the highest of the trip, it is obvious we would have been hiking in snow, camping in snow and would never have gotten a fire started.
We note the gas prices along the way, searching for a station with a reasonable price. Then as we head up a big hill with Forest Service signs on both sides, we suddenly see a line of stopped cars ahead. We stop too. For a while cars pass us in the opposite direction but soon they stop coming and there is no movement at all. People turn off their engines and step out to look. We are convinced this must be an accident.
We notice accumulated sleet on the sides of the road and wonder if the road became just slick enough to cause trouble. We are stopped about 20 minutes and when we finally get going we see that our guess is right. It's quite awful. Skid marks on the right lead to a pickup off the road in a field. The airbags are inflated but we see no one in the vehicle. Its wheels are turned way too far to the left and the trailer, carrying two ATV's is tilted on its side.
But on the left is worse, an SUV is in a ditch off the road, facing the road and tilted on its side, draped with some kind of sheet or cover. There are three ambulances and several police cars. It's very sad. Someone's vacation has been horribly ruined.
We continue in silence for a while, our hearts going out to the people involved, and feeling very lucky that this did not happen to us.
We make it to Ashton and turn toward Bechler. The gravel road is no longer dusty and we meet no other cars on our way in. We get to the Ranger Station about 5:30 and find the office closed. But Gary's car is here and we make the gear transfer and I celebrate with a cold little coke. The temperature here is 43 degrees.
Now we head out again, in two cars, joined by our little FRS radios. We have to stop in the road for cows to cross - my first "cow jam" in Yellowstone. When we arrive in Ashton I see Gary pull into the local famous restauant - Big Judds. It starts raining again and we dash in for dinner.
Big Judds is a wonderfully weird place, messy and unlovely but the wait staff is friendly and attentive. And they have great tater tots! Gary and Laurie explain their tradition of serving 1 pound burgers, which are free if you can eat the whole thing. Jake apparently did it once. Anyone who achieves this dubious distinction gets his photo on the wall. We search the snapshots for Jake but never find it.
Now we head back over the pass into Island Park and beyond. The sky is utterly amazing the whole way back. The front is not finished and again we realize we saved ourselves a whole lot of misery. As we near the junction of 20 and 87 we pass another accident - this one involving three pickups. So I feel lucky.
Finally, around 7PM as we approach West Yellowstone the western sky begins to break up enough to let some gorgeous sunset colors form and grow. But it doesn't last long and I get the feeling the rain is still not over.
We pull into the Gray Wolf Inn and I discover they have an underground garage! So we use it to spare ourselves further drizzle. We make one last plan before we turn in. Since abandoning our hike means we have missed the fun of communal soaking in the backcountry hot pot known as Mr. Bubble, we agree to meet in the front-country hot pot, known as Mr. Jacuzzi.
Laurie and I are ready first and we spend a nice 15 minutes soaking and relaxing. The foot jets are particularly strong and oooh that feels good on sore feet! Gary joins us soon after and we have a fun time. Certainly not the same as natural hot pots but we get some needed closure.
I bid them goodnight and head to my room. I am pleased to find that all my gear has dried so I begin to pack up everything up and get organized for the morning. The TV is on and I sort of catch up on the political scene of this crazy election year. I learn that Obama is telling the press to lay off Sarah Palin's pregnant daughter, which I think is classy of him.
I finally finish just about midnight and when I hit the pillow I'm out like a light!
Today I saw: bison, ducks, elk, ducks, geese, swans and two Loons.