Vagabond Tales: Where Is The Roof Of North America?

For some reason, every continent seems to have a roof.

Bolivia is known as “the roof of South America” for its high, empty and multi-colored altiplano that has an average elevation of 12,300 feet.

Mt. Kilimanjaro has been called “the roof of Africa” for its glacial, 19,340-foot summit that presides over the equatorial plains.

The Tibetan plateau, meanwhile, is such an expanse of high altitude emptiness it’s not only regarded as the roof of Asia, but it’s gained the lofty title as “the roof of the World.”

So if South America, Africa and Asia all get a roof, can North America have one too? Moreover, if North America were to have a roof, where exactly would it be?

Basic statistics point to Mt. McKinley, the 20,320-foot pinnacle that stoically dominates the center of Alaska. Since McKinley is the highest point in the North American continent, it seems it would only make sense. As with California’s Mt. Whitney, however, (which at 14,505 feet is the highest point in the continental United States), the promontory is too much of a lone pinnacle to ever be considered a proper roof (thereby throwing the Kilimanjaro title out the window as well, I suppose).

Would it be the Great Basin of Nevada, a seemingly lifeless expanse of rock and sand that hovers silently around 7,000 feet? Would it be the spine of the Colorado Rockies that somehow manage to cram 53 different mountains of 14,000 feet into an area the size of Maine? Or would it be the Yukon Territory and the St. Elias Mountain Range – places, which contain the 18 highest peaks in Canada, 12 of which are higher than anywhere found in the Lower 48?

While all could be considered as viable options (I suppose the Great Basin is a stretch), I’m going to propose an alternative, which has not yet been mentioned, but could make a strong case for keeping the title in a trophy case on its windswept, high-altitude plateau.That place – that Roof of North America – would be right on the border of Montana and Wyoming along a stretch of road known as the Beartooth Highway. Snaking its way from Cooke City, Montana, to Red Lodge, Montana, this 69-mile stretch of road tops out at 10,947 feet and is so high, so remote and so gloriously empty that the famous Charles Kuralt once referred to this juncture of heaven and Earth as “the most beautiful drive in America.”

What’s more, the locals – what few of them there are – aren’t fazed by the fact that it snows in the middle of August, as it did when I was last there.

When I asked the woman working the counter at the “Top of the World Store,” elevation 9,400 feet, about if they had really just gotten snow the evening before (as I had seen on the regional weather forecast), she looked at me as if I had just asked if Hawaii had recently been sunny.

“Yeah,” she drawled in an I haven’t-seen-a-customer-in-two-hours-and-now-I-have-to-deal-with-you sort of apathy. “We get a lot of that up here. Don’t even notice any more.”

In fact, the Beartooth Highway gets so much snow that the road itself is only open for a few months out of the year. According to the official website for the Beartooth Highway (real roads have websites), opening day for 2013 is slated for June 14.

What makes this remote plateau the roof of North America, however, is the dramatic ascent that is required to reach the summit. This, and the way in which the Beartooth Pass has a way of making you feel small.

When many people stand on the summit of mountains, there is an instinct to unleash a guttural scream as an auditory manifestation of your accomplishment. And why not? You’ve climbed a mountain, and you are on top of the world.

As Ray Smith, one of the legendary characters of Kerouac’s novel “Dharma Bums” claims to his climbing partner, Japhy Ryder, upon summiting a mountain in the Sierras, “Dammit, that yodel of triumph of yours was the most beautiful thing I ever heard in my life.”

On the upper reaches of the Beartooth’s, however, you are not struck by the urge to scream. If anything, total silence is the communicative method of choice.

Whether you begin the drive in Red Lodge, Montana, or on the northern entrance of Yellowstone National Park, the road keeps climbing higher, and higher, and higher yet still, until you have climbed so far into Montana’s famous Big Sky that you swear you’ll find the Hubble Telescope orbiting just around the next bend.

The road makes its way past alpine lakes and forested groves, which cling to what little oxygen is left at these heights. Slowly the tree line fades away behind you, but yet the road climbs higher still like an asphalt serpent reaching out for the clouds. The rocky terrain begins to look somewhere between Hobbitton and the surface of the Moon, and 20 peaks surround you, which all stretch to over 12,000 feet.

In the far distance, Granite Peak – the highest peak in Montana at 12,799 feet – stands lonely, cold, isolated and challenging. Even though there are eight states with mountains that are higher, Granite Peak remained unclimbed until 1923, thereby making it the last “highest mountain” to be conquered in any state.

Considering that most geologists place the age of the Beartooth Mountains at an astounding two billions years old, the 90 years that have passed since man conquered that summit barely even register on the historical time log. If two billion years were to be the height of Granite Peak, then the time in which man has known the view from the top equates to .25 percent of one millimeter – smaller in height than the depth of a snowflake falling in the middle of August.

To once again quote Ray Smith, Kerouac’s protagonist who just set up camp in the upper reaches of the mountains: “the rocks, they were just solid rock covered with atoms of dust accumulated there since the beginningless time. In fact, I was afraid of those jagged monstrosities all around and over heads. They’re so silent.”

This is why the Beartooth Pass gets my vote for the “Roof of North America.” Not because of the scream you’ll let out when you’ve finally reached the top, but the overwhelming silence that comes with not knowing what you’re supposed to do when you get there.

Want more travel stories? Read the rest of the Vagabond Tales over here.

[Photo Credits by Heather Ellison and Shiny Things on Flickr]