Thursday, July 3, 2014

Return to the scene of the crimes...

Now this is what a book tour should be like! I’m sitting at a table outside of the Bearclaw Bakery in Cooke City, MT (year-round population 110 at last census, it is a CDP or “census-designated place”) and a friend I met last year, Cathy Pate, (whose son, Nick, played for the New Orleans Saints when they won the Super Bowl over my beloved Colts) walks up with a copy of the Oprah magazine that featured Those Who Wish Me Dead, tosses it on the table, and informs me that the postmistress made her wait until she’d finished a page in the book before conducting any Official Government Business. That’s the kind of response you like to hear!

The post office is not hard to visit – I could throw a baseball through the window from where I was sitting at the bakery, and I don’t have much of an arm – so I stopped by to thank Kara (the post master general for Cooke City/Silver Gate) for reading the book. I’m signing her copy when the door opens and one other person steps inside and says from behind me “It is a hell of a good book!” This is the owner of the Elkhorn Lodge. I haven’t met him before, but this is the way I prefer to meet people, and wish that it would happen more often. Clearly, I need to spend more time in Cooke City.

To say that the communities of Cooke City and Silver Gate have been supportive and generous in their enthusiasm over the book would be an understatement, and I can’t say enough just how much of a pleasure it was to see that. When you write about a real place, you try to do it justice, to get as much right as you can, and that’s not just locations on a map, it’s the feel of the place. You also hope that the locals will approve, and you better believe that those in Cooke City/Silver Gate wouldn’t be shy about offering opinions, good or bad! It meant a lot to me to see the book around town, to hear that so many people were aware of it, and appreciative of it. Now…about those things you try to get right – you better fess up when you get them wrong, too. I got a big one wrong, and I need to come clean. There’s a reference to a character walking down the sidewalk between the Cooke City General Store and the Miner’s Saloon. Well, as the storekeep’s daughter, Tessa, who tends the store more often than the storekeep himself as far as I can tell, got to that portion of the book, she said, “There ain’t no sidewalk.” And of course she’s right. I’ll defend myself only this far: there is a sidewalk in front of Miner’s, though it doesn’t go anywhere else, and most of the times I’ve exited the Miner’s Saloon, I’ve been in a state of, ahem, diminished observational capacity due to excessive hydration. (At high altitudes it is critical to stay hydrated. Ask any survival instructor). But Tessa is right, and I suspect that she is about most things.

The idea of my “Trace Jace” plan took a serious hit from the weather. Where Jace walked with Ethan, and then with Hannah, and where I have walked before, is unreachable now due to snow. In fact, most of the high Beartooths are unreachable due to snow, at least for hikers. I selected an “easy” route into the mountains and packed out a four-season tent. The easy route, on June 25, still featured stretches of snow that were three feet deep. Fortunately, it poured rain during most of the trip, which helped keep my mind off the snow. The better news yet was that the mosquitoes existed in clouds, which helped keep my mind off the rain. This is employing Reggie Bennett’s #1 survival priority of keeping a positive mental attitude: if you don’t want to think about the snow, think about the rain. If you don’t want to think about the rain, think about the mosquitoes. And as for the mosquitoes? Well, I was reminded of a quote from my friend, the stoic Bob Bley, who once advised Mike Hefron on how to handle wearing a cloud of mosquitoes as a shirt with the following instruction: “Just don’t mind them.”

The fourth official day of summer in the Beartooth Mountains

Hiking back out, we followed bear tracks so fresh that they hadn’t yet filled with rain. This would have been disconcerting if not for the fact that there were also cub tracks, and as everyone knows, there’s no safer situation that walking right up on a sow and her cub. It appeared the pair had gone down toward the Broadwater River to do some fishing. I let them take that path and fish in privacy. It’s the courteous thing to do; you never invade somebody else’s fishing hole, after all.

Hiking Buddy!!

I’m covered in mosquito bites, my knee aches from a bad twist in the snow, my nose somehow got so sunburned between the thunderstorms that it’s peeling in strips…and all I’m feeling right now is sadness that the trip is winding down. There’s no other place like the Beartooths, at least not in the lower 48, and as Hefron always reminds me: “If it was easy, everybody would be out here.”

That’s the beauty of it. The solitude and the wilderness. The way the mountains are always changing, and always gorgeous, no matter the weather. The way you can sit at your campsite and see an incredible expanse of wilderness but not another soul in sight. Then you get out of the wilderness, and back down to Cooke City and Silver Gate, and to a cocktail party on a cabin deck looking out over the mountains where every person in attendance has a different and fascinating story, and it should be little mystery why this area holds a special attraction to a writer. There’s a story at every stop here. Some might be found after sweating and gasping your way to a peak; others might be found over a beer and conversation. But the material sure isn’t going to run out.