"Although you may not be able to reach the peak, I will continue to try. And when I get to the top of the mountain, for both of us, I will fly." ~poster quote, at the top of Mt. Washburn
After leaving Artist Point, we pointed the car towards Mt. Washburn. This was to be our next destination, and our final adventure in Yellowstone......climbing the 10,243' peak. But as life would have it, a curve-ball was thrown before we could get there. This time it came in the form of a galloping horse and rider. The two caught Cote's eye just as they slipped over the ridge from the back corner of her passenger-side window. Cote sucked in her breath, swiveled her head, and immediately began to beg.
"Please, oh please....can we ride horses while we're here?"
"What? Cote.....we don't have time. We still have to climb Mt. Washburn, and then somehow get out of Yellowstone to find a place to sleep tonight. It's too much.....We just can't do everything."
"But riding horses would be the best! How about we just stay here tonight, and then ride tomorrow?"
"We can't. There's no lodging. I saw the sign this morning when we pulled through the gate."
"But it looks like so much fun. C'mon, Mom. When we will get here again? If we don't do it now, we never will. Let's ride horses!"
We found the nearest corral on our map, and pulled in. I thought for sure this would be a hopeless cause. But if someone else could tell Cote it was impossible, then maybe I didn't have to be the bad guy.
"Hi. Can we book a couple of horses for an afternoon ride?"
"Sorry. The last group of the day just left at 3pm. We won't go out again until tomorrow morning."
"Oh.......huh. Well.....ok then." (I'm ready to leave, but puppy dog eyes from my daughter have me choking out the next question.)
"Ummmm.....well.......what time do you have available in the morning?"
"Ten o'clock has two spots open if you want them."
(Puppy dog eyes, with a head shaking up and down.)
"Ok, put us down. Last name's Witt."
We left the corral with two pre-paid passes, and a whole new agenda. We couldn't leave the park now. Somehow, somewhere, we'd have to find a place to sleep for the night. And the only option I could see was the Ford Edge sitting in front of us.
"Whoo, hoo! Thanks, Mom!"
"Yeah? Well, don't be thanking me yet. We still have to climb Mt. Washburn, and now it looks like we'll be sleeping in the car tonight."
"C'mon. It's all part of the adventure, right?"
Yeah. All part of the adventure.
But we still had to be smart about some things. It was getting late, my watch revealing it was well past 4pm. I wasn't sure if there was a cut-off time to climbing the 3 miles up Mt. Washburn. We had been told, this was the hike to take, if only one hike could be taken while visiting Yellowstone. But the sundial was ticking. Could we do it? Six miles round trip was no everyday walk in the park. Especially if half of it was spent going up. I wondered just how fast night would fall here in the mighty hills, valleys and prairies of Yellowstone. And, just how many wild animals were we talking about? Hiking back down--after dark--in untamed and unfenced wilderness--didn't sound too smart to me.
As luck would have it, a Yellowstone Visitor's Center appeared around the next curve on our way to Mt. Washburn. I pulled the car over. The ranger on duty was an older gentleman, white-haired, with eyes full of untold wisdom. We asked for his expert opinion.
"What's the latest time you would suggest for someone to begin a hike up Mt. Washburn?"
"Ohhhhh, no later than 4:30, I'd say. You don't want to be caught up there after dark."
"4:30, eh? Hmmmm.....It's almost that time now. Do you think we can still make it?"
"Um.....yeah. I think so. Parking lot's not too far down the road. You should be alright."
I can't quite put my finger on it, but somehow I walked out of the center with less confidence than when I walked in.
But, we were here. And we were staying. So, we might as well start hiking. Whether or not we could reach the top would have to be seen, but at least we could make the most out of our remaining afternoon hours here in Yellowstone.
Cote and I pulled into the Mt. Washburn turn-off, and parked the Edge. We grabbed our camera, and donned our tennis shoes. I threw a light backpack across my shoulders, a water bottle tucked inside. We started up the steep incline, thinking that around the first bend, surely things would level out a bit. We happened upon a marmut, nibbling the wildflowers along the path. We stopped to snap his picture, and comment on how cute he was, before continuing on. When we finally rounded the first corner, totally winded, we found ourselves a bit intimidated by what we saw. The path didn't level out at all. In fact, it continued pretty much in the direction of up. Cote and I looked at each other and teased about who's idea this was, but plunged forward. After switchbacking several times along the massive mountainside, we began to brainstorm how we might outfox the daunting challenge ahead of us. We decided to cut our own trails, scaling straight up, from one lower path, to the next, barely visible upper one, picking our way through the rocky treeline. Trying to cut out the switchbacks, proved futile, however, as it took us just as long to recover our breath after conquering each incline, as it did to methodically follow the twisting and turning marked trail. (See pictures below.)
Cote and I kept going, though. Slow and steady. It was not lost upon us that the few other hikers we did see were coming down, not going up, at this hour of day. Did they know something we didn't? Were we crazy to be heading in the direction we were?
To our amazement, almost as if our promise had been etched in stone, we reached the top at exactly 7:00. We twirled 360 degrees with the wind whipping against our out-stretched arms, the cool air filling our lungs. No one was in sight. We had the mountain all to ourselves. The panoramic view was incredible. It felt like we were flying, even though our bodies were heavy and exhausted from the climb.
We entered the lookout station and found a book of names displayed in front of a huge plate glass window. Written in pen to prove that they had been here, the notebook contained names from around the country and from around the world. With a dose of thankfulness and a smidgen of pride, Cote and I added our own. We became part of something larger than ourselves that day, joining a group of people we would surely never meet, but with whom we would hold a connection with for all time to come.
We couldn't stay too long on the mountaintop, the clock was still ticking. It had taken us 2.5 hours getting up here. Although we were pretty sure going back down would be faster (you gotta love gravity in these kind of situations!), we still had a full 3 miles to cover before nightfall. Cote and I took one last spin around the peak, and then began our descent. We half jogged, half skipped a majority of the trail back down. The terrain was now nothing new, but the setting sun softened every view, casting a feathery hue across the entire landscape. Nevertheless, it was the conversation that gently and unexpectedly arose with my 18-year-old daughter that I'll forever take with me from this mountain-high hike.
It started innocently enough. Cote asked a seemingly simple question about choices in life. The dialogue that followed, however, was incredible, and deep, and honest. We talked about how each of us has to decide what is right, what is true, for who we are. I could see her as the young woman she is, standing on the edge of life, and wondering whether her wings were fully developed and ready to fly. We talked about choices that are presented at the tender age of 18, and other choices that come 15, 20, 25 years later. We discussed the prospects of marriage, and what it means to find the "right" person. We talked about not regretting events from our past, because if we're patient enough, we'll see how they eventually shape us into the person we are to become. We spoke of love, and loss, and finding one's footing after being knocked off center. About life being a journey to discover who you really are, and not being afraid to be that person when others are around. We defined the difference between compromising and conceding, and the benefits of being careful but not to the point of risking the opportunity to become.
By the time we reached our car, it was closing in on 9 p.m. We were utterly exhausted physically, but mentally our spirits were good. Our legs hurt, our feet ached, but our minds were resting in a soft, peaceful place. We crawled into the Edge, and let the leather seats cradle our collapsing bodies. Night was falling, dusk had slipped quietly away. It was time to find a place to spend the night......