The Marine View Driver: Cruising in a Rental to Yellowstone with them Furreigners

In which the author partially performs with appropriate pride a challenging and scary feat.

by Mike Smith

My oldest daughter lives in France.

Her in-laws are a very kind and generous typical French family. They have lived and worked all over the world. In fact, my son-in-law’s father was a programmer for a French company based in Cameroon that designed the first PC-based fingerprinting system. He had even spent time in Tacoma, because one of his clients was the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department. So very well traveled and rounded.

I think this experience with many different cultures has made them a welcoming and open-minded family. They have fully embraced us. When we visit we are treated like royalty.

We actually feel like country bumpkins in comparison since we only speak one language.

When we first met, we were sitting around the dinner table and a sister asked what we thought about France. My wife said we were surprised how friendly they were because we’d heard that the French don’t like Americans. They all laughed but Catherine said, “Oh, that. Actually we don’t like anybody. I don’t even like my next door neighbor.” Broke the ice in a way.

One summer they called and said they had decided they wanted to come and visit Yellowstone Park. Well, boy oh boy, I thought. I am expert on driving in Montana and since my own in-laws live just an hour from Yellowstone, we can escort and show them the sights.

I was quite humbled when I realized they had thought of this idea first. Imagine, worldly people in France recognized how helpful it would be to have ME as their tour guide and private driver for what must promise to be the trip of their lifetimes. I was resolved to not disappoint.

The day in late August arrived and we had a great time catching up. We did some sightseeing in Seattle for a few days then drove in their rental car to Montana and Wyoming for the park visit. We stayed at one of the famous lodges for a few days as we visited many sites in the park.

The real excitement for me was on our last day. We had planned to take the Beartooth Highway over the Red Lodge Mountains. This was the shortest distance to our in-laws on the ranch in Reedpoint, MT.
Bear tooth Highway

By the way, you are still an hour from the ‘top’ at this point.

I’m inserting the description of the highway from the town of Red Lodge’s website for your enlightenment.

An All-American Road:

Dubbed “the most beautiful roadway in America” by On the Road correspondent Charles Kuralt, the Beartooth Highway climbs to an astounding 10,947 feet above sea level. Since its completion in 1936, the Highway has awed millions of visitors with its astonishing views of one of the most rugged and wild areas in the lower 48 states.

As it winds its way from the northeastern entrance of Yellowstone National Park to Red Lodge, the Highway traverses an impressive range of ecosystems – from lush lodge pole pine forests to alpine tundra. At the highway’s summit, travelers find themselves in a sky-high world of glacial cirques, clear alpine lakes, and snow that lingers through the summer months. The brutal climate at this elevation deters the growth of trees and shrubs, and the plants that do grow here have adapted in remarkable ways. Some convert sunlight to heat, and many conserve water the way desert plants do. In late June and July, the fragile tundra blossoms in a lavish display of wildflowers – shooting stars, columbine, and Indian paintbrush, to name a few.

And it really is all of these accolades and adjectives in addition to being quite curvy and steep.

As we started the climb out of Yellowstone Park up the mountains we had no idea what we were in for. Curvy roads and not much of a shoulder. Oh, and the car runs a little rough as the thinner air effects the fuel mixture a bit. As the driver I tried to be a careful as I could, but I had never been to this part of Montana before and really wanted to see it. So I had a few close calls. These close calls would spark a bit of spirited conversation.

But I was having the drive of my life. Then we would reach a new altitude and the views were utterly, stupefyingly swerve-inducing. I simply could not believe how beautiful this part of the country was. After what seemed like hours of switchbacks, cliff-side driving and a number of challenges to my driving ability, we got above the treeline. The views became multiple-adjectivally huge.

I had control of the wheel house throughout the trip. Despite my best efforts, it was quite precarious and scary. The car actually seemed to be struggling. Our car was sort of sputtering at this altitude and progress was slow. I imagined our little band of tourists as if we were crew members of Endurance made famous during the Shackleton Expedition. We were challenging nature as intrepid adventurers!

Finally at one point, Michel, my daughters’ father-in-law, says he wants to drive. I think he wanted to have a hand at the wheel of the Endurance like I’d been enjoying. He may also have wanted to feel like he had some control over his fate. Despite my steady hand and careful navigation, a change of drivers occurred.

At the summit it was snowing. Because of the extreme elevation there is not much to see when the cloud cover comes in. Or in our case, when you arrive at cloud altitude. All I remember was something labeled as a ski lift, but it resembled a partially buried tow truck which I kind of thought was more of an emergency measure to rescue those who didn’t successfully navigate the hairpin turn you encounter just as you begin your descent.

At the top of the mountain pass, we modestly celebrated our accomplishment. We felt a sense of relief, satisfaction and accomplishment that we finally and safely made it to the top. Some actually talked about how they had been a little nervous about our ascent. But, we’d made it.

Beartooth brochureStill miles to go before we eat, though. So we climbed back in the car and braced ourselves for what we assumed would be an equally arduous trip down the other side.

We were carefully beginning our descent at the hairpin turn mentioned above when we witnessed a sobering and humbling site.

Some guy wearing a t-shirt was just finishing his climb up the other side…

…on a unicycle.

Did someone say “Endurance”?

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