A non-hiker hikes in Montana

To understand the significance of me hiking Beehive Basin, I need to get one thing out of the way first. I have to give an accurate picture of how out of shape I am. I have never exercised more than three times in a week– actually, I’m probably being generous there- let’s say twice in a week. And those occasions were extremely rare. Like the times that I’ve exercised twice in week has happened maybe…. 10 times in my life. So yes, I am the person who gets winded walking a steep flight of stairs just a little too quickly (read: at a normal pace). Okay, so that’s me.

Andy loves to hike, loves Montana and he loves Beehive Basin, a hike in Big Sky, MT. He calls it his happy place and recently had the mountain range of the Spanish Peaks (the range at the top of the hike) tattooed on his arm. It’s a place in the world where he feels most at peace and most himself.

Andy’s family has been visiting Big Sky since the 90s and this is a hike I have heard the whole family talk about often. On our first trip out here together 5 years ago I twisted my ankle the day before the hike so this year was my chance at redemption and to see what all the fuss is about.

Andy told me the hike was 2 miles, so I thought it was weird we had packed a lunch, but whatever. And let’s also be clear- this is not a difficult hike for probably most humans on the planet. People in their 70s were passing me. I’d like to blame the elevation (a gain of 1600 feet up) and the length (turns out it’s between 6 and 7 miles total) or the time (I think we were gone for 6 hours) and any other excuse that sounds reasonable, but really, I’m just out of shape.

At one point when the hike got hard I looked down and I saw my arm. I saw where I had my brother’s signature tattooed a couple months ago. His writing was taken from a card he sent me years ago. My dad calls it, “the perfect Justin scrawl.”

We were in a flat part of the hike and I had gotten ahead of our little group of me, Andy and his mom and dad. (Which, PS, my in-laws can do this hike in their sleep. They kindly slowed down so I didn’t feel like I was the one constantly stopping us, though at the beginning, I most certainly did.)

Anyway, I looked at my arm and thought of my brother. And I also thought about his death. I thought about his last breath. And I reminded myself that I was alive, I had air in my lungs, and I could do this hike. I could keep going even when it was tough.

My brother doesn’t have breath in his lungs anymore, but when he did, he wanted to keep on living. It wasn’t his choice to die. So I kept going because he can’t. I thought of him and cried because I missed him. I cried because sometimes it’s hard to believe he’s really gone. I cried because I hate that he’s gone.

I was glad I had on sunglasses and was a ways ahead of the group for these thoughts and memories. I was cruising at this point, having something else to think about and focus on probably helped. Andy actually had to call out to me to stop because it wasn’t safe for me to be by myself in bear country.

After a while of processing all these thoughts and continuing to push myself further than I thought I was capable of, I stopped to take a picture of my arm. But the rear facing camera was on which made me laugh (because when is that ever a flattering angle?), so I grinned and got this one first.

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I switched the camera back to get a picture of my hiking motivation, my brother’s signature complete with a little heart and arrow he used to draw when signing his name on cards.

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My brother’s signature

I felt my brother’s presence with me on that hike which made me smile because I don’t think that hike would have been his first idea of a good time either. I got brave at one point and asked him what he thought of me doing this hike. He liked to tease me for being what he called, “unathletic” for well, my whole life. And when I asked what he thought, I only heard four words back, “I’m proud of you.”

And yes, I sobbed exactly like a woman talking to her dead brother’s spirit on a hiking trail.

When we got to the lake at the top and were rewarded with an up close view of the Spanish Peaks, I felt glad I had done something that was hard for me. And I noticed another feeling. I was proud of me, too.

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The view at Beehive Basin with Alpine Lake and the Spanish Peaks

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First Days on the Road

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Teddy Roosevelt National Park, channeling my inner Ansel Adams

Last week we left town for three-ish months on the road. As I hugged my mom goodbye she said, “Have enough fun for all of us who wish we could go with you!” I told her that was a lot of fun but we’ll do our best.

Here are some highlights of our first few days.

We arrived at our first stop, Teddy Roosevelt National Park in ND in the pouring rain. Andy said, “Let’s go take a pic at the scenic overlook!” and he took off running. I yelled, “Oh, you’re serious!” as I pulled up my rain jacket hood and ran after him. We took a pic and got soaked. It was a great first stop.

After the rain moved on we drove through the park and we got out to do a hike. Andy said it was like walking in mud slippers as the clay stuck to our hiking shoes. There were sage bushes everywhere that smelled amazing.

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Andy’s mud slippers

After this hike we did another short one. At the end of the trail there were a couple benches to take in the scenery. Andy jumped up on one and yelled, “I’m the King of the World!” Excited to be the Kate Winslet to his Leo I jumped up too and grabbed his arms ala Titanic. Andy did a quick jump back and he does this on heights sometimes to fake me out like he’s falling. But then I heard him whisper, whoa! I followed his gaze and about 15 feet away was a huge buffalo eating some grass on the hill just below us. We stood frozen, watching him, until the buffalo made eye contact and I whispered in Andy’s ear, “time to go!” We walked briskly back to the car and watched as the buffalo walked right up the trail we had just been on. Very cool, but we don’t need to be that close again!

It was nearing sunset at this point so we needed to find a place to sleep. The park campground was full but I had seen a run down sign that said “campsites” with an arrow a couple miles back in Medora, so we went to check it out. There was karaoke going on outside and that sealed the deal. After we set up the tent we went back to listen and cheer on the brave singers as they sang everything from Achy Breaky Heart and a teen who killed it with Halo by Beyonce. Andy even did a duet with another camper of Sweet Caroline for the closing song of the evening.

I kept smiling all night telling Andy this was my best camping experience ever. Every campground should have live karaoke. This was the perfect ending to a really great first day of the trip.

The second morning we did some more hikes in Teddy Roosevelt National Park, the sky was spectacular and looked like a Microsoft background of clouds had been laid behind each gorgeous view we were treated to hike after hike.

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After a few hours we hit the road again to head to Montana. We stopped at Pompeys Pillar that has the last physical evidence of Lewis and Clark’s original exploration from when Clark etched his name into the rock and dated it on July 25, 1806. Next we drove to a family friend’s home in Joliet, MT which had gorgeous views of its own. She treated us to a home cooked meal and great conversation, so kind and fun- she even sent us off with homemade cookies!

We drove into Red Lodge the third morning and took the Beartooth Highway, the highest elevation paved highway in the northern Rocky Mountains. It’s 68 miles total but takes about 3 hours to cover due to the slow speeds for the switchbacks and hairpin turns. Also, it’s beautiful so there was lots of stopping to take in the views.

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Overlook in the Beartooth Mountains

We slept in Wyoming at a campsite next to Beartooth lake, making our fourth night in a row of sleeping in a different state each night. The next morning we drove to Yellowstone National Park and did some exploring of the Lamar Valley as well as taking in the sights of the lower falls near Canyon Village.

At one point we pulled over to watch a bison who was eating some grass. Andy was in the driver’s seat and I had my door open to take some pictures. Suddenly the bison started walking toward our car so I closed the door but kept taking pics through the open window. It was less than 10 feet away before Andy yelled, “Holy, Wow, Sheesh!” and hit the gas and got out of the way.

After leaving Yellowstone we found a taco bus for a late dinner, with authentic Mexican and handmade tortillas in West Yellowstone. The back half of the bus was converted to a kitchen and the front half had bar stools and a small counter for diners. Maybe we were just hungry, but we both said it was the best tacos we’ve ever had.

Once we were tucked into our campsite in West Yellowstone, at about 12:30 am lightning filled the sky and the rain poured down on us. It was the worst rainstorm we’ve seen while camping since our small group camping adventure in 2008 (remember that, friends?). The storm lasted for 9 more hours. We stayed dry and packed up the sopping wet rain fly and tent the next morning.

We’re now visiting with Andy’s parents who are vacationing in Big Sky, Montana for the week with beautiful mountain hikes and views. It’s wonderful being in one place for longer than 12 hours, and the chance to sleep in a bed and wash hands in a sink- oh the little things I had forgotten I take for granted!