It is, indeed, the smallest of things in this life that can make the biggest difference.
For nearly two years we, like most of us, have spent too many months isolating and/or quarantining. The more thoughtful of us have masked and social-distanced; we’ve been vaccinated and boostered, tested and re-tested and tested once again. We’ve learned to adjust aspects of our lives in ways most of us could never have imagined in our wildest dreams. We’ve learned new social protocols, giving up weekend nights at our favorite watering holes and restaurants. Some have learned to work from home, while others have lost their jobs and then their benefits. Friends and neighbors less vulnerable to COVID-19 have done our shopping.
Shops have closed and businesses have gone under. People have lost their homes, been evicted from their apartments, or otherwise displaced. Homelessness is on the rise. Security seems at a premium and our health is in a perpetual state of uncertainty.
On Thursday, we did something we haven’t done in what seems like the longest time. We went for a drive. Not for a drive over the hill to a doctor’s appointment, or across town for a grocery or pharmacy pickup, but for a drive with no purpose other than to get out of the house and appreciate where we live.
Driving south from Livingston, Montana, a town of about 7,500 we’ve called home for almost thirty years, you leave town and its roadside businesses—a campground typically vacant this time of year, the shuttered fireworks stand—to travel through a narrowing of Route 89. We noticed the Pop Stand, a burger-and-a-shake place in the Happy Days style, is now a marijuana dispensary. It shares a parking lot with a long-abandoned nightclub called The Melody, where people once gathered on weekend nights for cocktails, live music and dancing.
To our right, the canyon walls start a gentle rise, and the two-lane blacktop heading south offers an unfolding view of the Valley, specifically, the Paradise Valley. In the distance are towering, snow-covered peaks of the Absaroka Range—a sub-range of the Rocky Mountains—that arc westward. This valley is a wide expanse bisected by the Yellowstone River. It measures about fifty miles from the edge of town to the North Entrance of Yellowstone National Park, which on March 1, 1872, became the world’s first national park.
It is the crown jewel of America’s richly diverse national park system and offers unique hydrothermal and geologic features. Within its 2.2 million acres, there are unparalleled opportunities to observe wildlife in an intact ecosystem, explore geothermal areas that contain about half the world’s active geysers, including the iconic Old Faithful, and view geologic wonders like the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. It’s home to hundreds of animal species, including bears, wolves, bison, elk and antelope.
It is also home to the Yellowstone Caldera, a super volcano in the northwest corner of Wyoming. It is huge, potentially life-threatening for hundreds of miles, and it is ready to blow anytime now—give or take ten-thousand years.
We quit worrying about it years ago.
And we certainly weren’t worried about it as we took an unpaved offshoot from the highway. The snow-covered, barely two-lane road dipped and rose across many miles. Officially, the road is the Old Yellowstone, but everybody seems to call it Trail Creek. It is a long and winding road that takes travelers through yellowed pastures awaiting spring for its return to a verdant green. The cattle, most of them black Angus, huddle around the hay racks. They are on both sides of the road, held in by fences—some of which seem ancient and in need of repair. Other fences seem to announce that there is an estate beyond the electric gates adorned by No Trespassing signs, with the additional, if not downright redundant, caveats that hunting and fishing are not allowed.
It’s about an hour driving time from the beginning of Trail Creek to where it officially becomes Trail Creek. There’s a fork in the road, either tine taking you to a road of the same name. The almost-stagnant waters to the east disappear as the Yellowstone River comes into view over a dramatic rise, its shores wider this time of year. From there we saw a bald eagle silhouetted against the afternoon sun. Or maybe it was a magpie.
We never saw a vehicle in motion. Three trucks were parked at a turnout, and we could see their owners working on an irrigation pipe. Unlike the county and city workers—characterized by one worker and two supervisors—these men were all at work. It was cold and windy, which it usually is between November and April.
The wind is the only sound one hears. It’s pure, with no leaves for it to quake—the cottonwoods with their lacy tendrils reaching to the sky. And it’s too windy for its sound to be pierced by the bugle of an elk. We see no elk this day, but their tracks leading up the roadsides are ever-present.
The mansions we knew were behind the board fences were, for the most part, unseen. Several trailers and smaller houses were close to the road’s edge. One house had a playground set in a side yard. There were gas-fired grills on some of the porches, and bird-feeders swinging from the eaves. We assumed the help lived closest to the road.
We came across one rather impressive stockpile of junk, off to the north of a cluster of barns. Farmers and ranchers, perhaps taking their cue from Maine dairy farmers, live by a credo that says, “make do, get by.” Somewhere in that heap of scrap metal, discarded parts, and broken implements are the makings of needed repairs.
The pavement was yards away and we turned onto the highway toward town.
It was a good day for a drive.
Photography by Courtney A. Liska
Though we settled for drive-thru coffee, the pan bagnat is perfect road trip food.
Split a baguette lengthwise and smear with an olive tapenade. Layer with canned white tuna, sliced red onion, roasted red bell peppers, tomato and sliced, hard-cooked egg. Dress with mustard vinaigrette. It should be made and wrapped tightly in cellophane a day or two before eating to make sure the flavors have fully melded and soaked gently into the bread.
1/2 pound pitted mixed olives
2 anchovy fillets, rinsed
1 small clove garlic, minced
2 Tbs. capers
2 to 3 large fresh basil leaves
1 Tbs. freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
Thoroughly rinse the olives in cool water. Place all ingredients in the bowl of a food processor. Process to combine, until the mixture becomes a coarse paste, 1 to 2 minutes.