In late September 2014, we made our second trip of the year over the All-American Beartooth Highway. How different the landscape looked from our previous drive in early June. Then a shawl like white ermine had wrapped the meadows and mountains. Under September’s autumn sunlight, mountain slopes above the tree line appeared as smooth as the skin of soft buckskin leather covering a teepee. Rocks that lay under deep snow in late spring, littered slanted mountainsides in the warmth of early fall.
On our September trip, we entered the Beartooth from Chief Joseph’s Scenic Highway (Wyoming Highway 296), running north from Cody, Wyoming, and connecting with U.S. Highway 212, which is the Beartooth Scenic Highway. The route crosses the Shoshone National Forest through the Absaroka Mountains to the Clarks Fork Valley. Summer and fall are the most predictable times to travel the Chief Joseph and Beartooth Highways. On our autumn drive, grasses and scrub vegetation nestled in coppery colored meadows between fir forests. Groves of aspens like bright yellow sunspots accented the dark green of the firs, their golden leaves rustling in the wind like crisp taffeta skirts of a debutante’s ball gown. In one honey-hued meadow, three black-tailed deer ripped grasses, occasionally eying our cameras with curiosity.
At a pull-out on the Chief Joseph Highway, we looked over the edge of a steep mountain to the loops of road on the valley floor, criss-crossing like ribbons on a May Pole. We read information on large table-like signs, telling us about the pursuit by the U.S. Army of Chief Joseph’s Nez Perce tribe over the rugged mountains that on that September day peacefully stretched before our eyes. However in 1877, the rugged terrain appeared hostile and forbidding to the fleeing Nez Perce, following their leader, Chief Joseph, to what they hoped would be a new home in Canada. After the Battle of the Big Hole in Idaho in 1877, Chief Joseph led about 1,000 members of his tribe over an 1,800-mile trek through Yellowstone, trying to escape capture and orders for the Nez Perce to settle on a reservation. White man wanted the Nez Perce hunting grounds for their ranchland. While crossing Yellowstone, the Nez Perce briefly captured several tourists before going north up the Clarks Fork River. They aimed for Canada across steep mountains covered in thick forests. After the six-day Battle of Bear Paw in northeastern Montana, the tribe halted—only 30 miles from the Canadian border. In his speech of surrender, Chief Joseph expressed dignity and defeat with his famous words, “Hear me, my chiefs, I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.” Despite promises to allow them back on their lands in Wyoming, the U.S. Calvary forced the Nez Perce tribe onto reservations in Oklahoma and Washington. We stood overlooking the tall mountains and deep valleys and pondered the trouncing of a vibrant culture.
Still reflecting on the injustice forced on the Nez Perce, we continued on, over the winding road we had overlooked, passing rustic log structures—some abandoned, a few still sheltering cattle and people. At a bend in the road, we took a short trail to an unnamed cascade that tumbled over layers of ancient rock. Frothy white water, constrained by the creek’s narrow passage through tall stone walls, caught rays of the sun in a rainbow before racing under the manmade bridge that formed a viewing platform. Around another curve, we stopped to watch two cow girls on horseback, circling a small herd of cattle, their trained dogs gently nipping the heels of the black steers.
After joining U.S. Highway 212, we turned west on the Beartooth to find a restaurant for lunch in Cooke City, a gateway to the scenic highway. About eight miles east of the town, bright yellow aspens lined a stream of sparkling water gurgling over a brown stone creek bed. In the distance, Pilot’s Peak, stretching its pointed summit to the blue sky, stood like a sentinel over the Beartooth’s pristine landscape. After a hearty lunch, we pointed our compass east again to zigzag along the Montana-Wyoming border climbing to the 10,947 elevation of the Beartooth Pass. The distant mountains, snowcapped when we made the drive in early June, stood bare under a hazy sky. At a point called “Top of the World,” (but it’s not!) we once again photographed the sign that previously had almost been buried in snowfall. We passed small blue mountain lakes close to the roadway—lakes that had gone unnoticed because they were frozen solid in early June.
We descended on more curving switchbacks on the opposite side of Beartooth Pass, enjoying the beauty of yellow aspens dotting the fir mountainsides. The Beartooth ends at Red Lodge, Montana. We were in time for a nice dinner in a hometown restaurant. Returning to Cody, Wyoming, in twilight, we took a different route—a shorter highway than crossing the steep mountains of the beautiful Beartooth. We bid the winding roadway farewell, wondering if we’ll ever travel it again. Soon, snowflakes will fall and make the switchbacks impassable until next summer. We know we won’t be back in 2015—and after that, we do not know what adventures will call us. But we will always carry our memories of the beauty of this roadway, called “the most beautiful drive in America,” by the late CBS correspondent Charles Kuralt. We are blessed to have traveled it in two seasons—spring and fall—and to have seen and photographed its changing beauty.
Traveling in their motorhome several months each year, Arline and her photographer husband, Lee Smith, make their permanent home in Heber Springs, Arkansas. She currently is a presenter for Workamper Rendezvous, sponsored by Workamper News. Arline has dozens of magazine articles published, as well as five books: “Road Work: The Ultimate RVing Adventure” (now available on Kindle); “Road Work II: The RVer’s Ultimate Income Resource Guide”; “Truly Zula; When Heads & Hearts Collide”; and “The Heart of Branson”, a history of the families who started the entertainment town and those who sustain it today. Visit Arline’s personal blog at ArlineChandler.Blogspot.com