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]

Vagabond Tales: Can Travel Writers Take A Normal Vacation?

I know what you’re thinking. Travel writers are always on vacation, so what a silly concept for an article.

Sure, climbing active volcanoes in Chile and staying in castles in Ireland sounds like an enjoyable time, and often times, it is.

But it isn’t exactly a normal vacation.

When others might be bathing on the sundeck of a dive boat on the Great Barrier Reef, travel writers instead find themselves interviewing the boat crew on the proper method for dealing with an irukandgi sting, lest they report an inaccuracy on one of the world’s deadliest creatures.

Or, when returning from four days in the Andes after having climbed over Peru’s Salkantay Pass, vacationing members of your tour group are enjoying $10/hour leg massages while you instead find yourself panting in the thin air of Cuzco in an effort to find an Internet connection because the four days in the Andes have left you woefully behind on deadlines.

Then, of course, there’s the electronic merry-go-round of attempting to keep all your gear charged. As the travel world gets sucked deeper into the shrunken screen of a smartphone, so too must travel writers add more tools to their yak hair belt. Writer, photographer, videographer, researcher, coder, Webmaster, blogger, ad sales director, marketer and, of course, social media ninja.

This constant juggle of responsibilities invariably leads to such pleasurable experiences as sifting through the markets of Pulau Bintan looking for a new adapter, clandestinely blogging from a van parked outside of a New Zealand McDonalds (free HotSpot!), buying camera lenses from a questionable Thai gangster in Bangkok and avoiding strange looks as you send emails from inside the airport bathroom because you’re on yet another six hour layover and it’s the only outlet in the whole damn airport.

Exciting? Yes. A vacation? No. Believe it or not, it’s actually a lot of work.

Which is why, on a recent cross-country road trip, I was bound and determined to simply take a normal vacation.

%Gallery-168852%I found, however, that this isn’t exactly easy. You can’t just go cold turkey on travel writing. On the very first day of my road trip in Asheville, North Carolina, I ended up having to sneak away to write about an experience at Bojangles, which was too good to not be told.

Thinking I had gotten it out of my system, the itch struck me again the next evening while grabbing a stout at the Broadway Brewhouse in Nashville.

When most normal people would simply enjoy the beer and figure out which bands they wanted to hear that night, I instead found myself crunching numbers in my head about how many breweries I would have to visit every day to write a book featuring every microbrewery in America (Answer: 5.82).

Similarly, later that night, instead of simply enjoying the music of Nashville’s hopping honky tonks, I instead found myself wracked with guilt for not compiling a “first-timer’s guide to Nashville honky-tonkin.”

And although I did better in Paducah, Kentucky, with only a ten-minute stop to take notes on the history of shipping on the Ohio River, I failed miserably once again about 90 minutes south of St. Louis when I learned about a winery inside of a cave.

“C’mon, it’s only a 15-minute detour,” I pleaded with my wife.

“Yeah, one-way.”

“But I really want to see this.” (Translation: This is the perfect topic for an article.)

And so the notepad came out once again, its tattered edges failing to collect dust in the way I had originally planned. A brief interview here, a few snaps of the camera there, and a sudden urge to a do a ten-part series on the oft-forgotten wine trail of the Ozarks. Sigh.

The problem for writers, I think, lies in our inquisitive nature. Towns on a map are not simply towns on a map; they are places with histories and stories to tell, and to pass by even a single place without uncovering its story is to commit the greatest form of travel sin. Rest and relaxation be damned, I want to learn about this place. And this one. And that one …

This thirst for not only knowledge, but the ability to compile and share that knowledge is not logistically amenable to a 4,300-mile road trip. The logical reality is that you can’t delve into the story of every single place you pass, and unfortunately, places are going to have to be skipped.

Which is why it was so painstakingly difficult to make the decision to pass by the 100th anniversary of the Mark Twain Museum in Hannibal, Missouri in favor of making it to the 100th anniversary of the Wyoming State Fair in the ranching outpost of Douglas, Wyoming.

The deciding factor was that one featured a Dierks Bentley concert and the other one didn’t. Bypassing 900 miles of towns and their associated stories (Lincoln, Nebraska: “What It Means To Be A Cornhusker”, Chimney Rock: “Oregon Trail Icons” and Ogallala, Nebraska: “Towns You Can’t Pronounce And Have No Need To Go To”), I eventually wound up at a KOA campground on the outskirts of Douglas en route to a jam-packed country music concert.

“OK, Kyle,” I told myself. “You’re going to enjoy yourself like a regular traveler for a day. You’re not going to take videos of the concert and post them to your YouTube channel, you’re not going to research the 100-year history of the fair, and despite Douglas having been voted one of the ‘Best 100 small towns in America,’ you aren’t going to write an article detailing the friendly atmosphere of the main street diners where refillable mugs of coffee are still $.75 and ranchers gather for breakfast at 9 a.m. even though they’ve already fixed 12 fences and have been up since 2:45. And whatever you do, you’re not going to research how Douglas is officially known as the home of the ‘jackalope,’ and how hunting permits are sold for the jackalope hunting season, which runs on June 31 from midnight-2 a.m. Got it?”

“You’re also not going to draft quick posts about the happy hour special at Snake River Brewery that features three different types of meat (beef, elk, and buffalo), about where are the best places for encountering buffalo in Yellowstone National Park, or about how the Beartooth Highway was justifiably named by Charles Kuralt as the ‘most beautiful road in America.'”

You won’t do an expose on the Sunday afternoon pig races of Red Lodge, MT, tweet about the best places to stand-up paddle in Seattle, transcribe Lewis and Clark quotes from their famed landing in Long Beach, WA, or take any videos whatsoever while hiking the Hoh Rainforest of Olympic National Park or of touring the wine country of Oregon’s Willamette Valley.”

“You’re just going to put the computer away, put the notepad away, and try to enjoy yourself like an every day tourist. OK? The history of the Modoc Indians and digging in to the hippie/yuppie dichotomy of Mendocino, CA, can wait for another time.”


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

[Photo credits: Heather Ellison]

The Beartooth All American Road opens for its 75th year

Last fall we introduced you to the Beartooth All American Road, declaring it “America’s Best Drive,” and lauding it for its breathtaking beauty. The road, which passes through the heart of the Absaroka and Beartooth Mountains, begins in Red Lodge, Montana, and passes briefly into Wyoming, before wandering back into Big Sky Country, passing through the sleepy little town of Cooke City, before eventually ending at the northeast entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Closed from mid-October to mid-May, the Beartooth re-opened for the travel season last weekend – a travel season that will celebrate the 75th year of this iconic highway.

Construction on the road began in 1931, but due to bad weather, it was often suspended for several months each year. Even with those challenges, the 69-mile route was completed in 1934, officially opening on June 14th of that year. At the time, the road was a monument to modern engineering and construction techniques, and it remains an impressive feat to this day.

To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Beartooth, both Red Lodge and Cooke City have a number of activities on tap. Red Lodge will begin the festivities with a three-day celebration that gets underway on June 10th and runs throughout that entire weekend. The town will play host to a number of historical presentations and walking tours, a free BBQ, driving tours of the highway, and a parade. For a full schedule of events in Red Lodge, click here.

Similarly, Cooke City will also be hosting events to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the scenic highway and its historical roots in mining operations throughout the area. While the town hasn’t completely formalized its plans yet, you can see what they have on tap by clicking here.

If you aren’t able to make any of these celebrations, the Beartooth is always worth the drive any other time this summer as well. It is quite simply one of the most spectacular drives you’ll ever take and you’ll find yourself stopping frequently along the way to snap photos of the amazing scenery. My advice for the best way to experience the road however, is on the back of a bike with Beartooth Bike Tours. If you have the time, there is simply no better way to take in the sights.

America’s best drive: the Beartooth All American Road

When you think of America’s best scenic drives, a few popular stretches of road always come to mind. For instance, the Pacific Coast Highway is a popular option, as is the Overseas Highway in Florida. North Carolina is home to the Outer Banks Highway and of course the Going-to-the-Sun Road in Montana is incredibly scenic too. But amazing as that last road is, it turns out that it isn’t even the best drive in its own state. That honor goes to the Beartooth All American Road, a highway so beautiful, the late Charles Kuralt once called it “the most beautiful drive in America.”

Known locally as U.S. Highway 212, the Beartooth officially begins about an hours drive southwest of Billings in the small town of Red Lodge. From there, it winds up into the Absaroke Mountain Range, passing crystal clear lakes and over breathtaking vistas, while briefly drifting into, and out of, Wyoming, before descending into Cooke City, 69 miles farther down the road. At its highest point, the highway reaches 10,947 feet above sea level, well above the treeline and into the rarefied Montana air, where the views can take your breath away just as easily as the lack of oxygen.

To get the most out of the drive, you’ll want to start in Red Lodge, a small town with a lot to offer visitors. While there, you’ll want to drop by the Montana Candy Emporium to grab lots of tasty treats for the road and stop to stroll the same streets as such legendary old west figures as Calamity Jane, Butch and Sundance, and Buffalo Bill Cody. If you plan to stay in town, drop by the Pollard Hotel, which has been open since 1893 and offers incredibly comfortable and modern rooms.The more adventurous visitors will want to check out Beartooth Bike Tours, which offers a 14-mile ride, all down hill, along a winding stretch of the Beartooth Highway. It is a fun and exhilarating way to take in the scenery.After setting out from Red Lodge, you’ll begin a slow, but steady rise up into the mountains, before hitting the infamous Beartooth switchbacks that will see you gaining altitude at a much more accelerated rate. At the 21-mile mark the road climbs up to 9190 feet before arriving at Rock Creek Vista Point, a spectacular spot to stop and take photos. From that location, you will find magnificent views of the surrounding valleys that quickly plummet away from where you stand on the scenic overlook. Bring a very good camera though, as words can’t do the place justice and you’ll want to capture the sight for posterity. The views that stretch out in all directions are amongst the most picturesque you’ll find anywhere on the planet.

Continuing up the road you’ll pass a host of other places where you’ll want to stop for photo opportunities as well, including an amazing view of Hell Roaring Plateau, as well as a pair of mountain lakes surrounded by rocky rocky outcroppings. You’ll also swing past the famous Beartooth rock formation, from which the highway draws its name, and the Top of the World store, the local equivalent of the Kwiki-Mart.

After cresting the Beartooth Pass, the road begins a slow, but steady descent into Cooke City, a tiny mountain town that traces its origins back to the late 1800’s when gold miners flocked to the area seeking their fortune. This sleepy little village is home to just 90 people and is best accessed by snowmobile during the long winter months. This end of the Beartooth Highway is definitely more remote and rustic, offering up some great hiking, backpacking, and mountain biking trails during the summer and snowshoeing and cross-country skiing routes when the snow starts to fly. Outdoors enthusiasts will enjoy the fishing, hunting, and climbing as well, but be sure to turn off your cell phone when you arrive. You won’t have any kind of service anyway.

While in passing through Cooke City you’ll want to stop into the Cooke City Store, an old fashioned market that first opened in 1886. The building still uses a number of the original fixtures from the 1800’s, and the two old fashioned cash registers are a sight to see. Walking through the front door is a bit like stepping back in time, and while the merchandise may be modern, the service and hospitality is a throwback to a bygone era. Definitely a treat!

Once through Cooke City, there are only a few more miles left on the Beartooth Highway, but perhaps it saves its best secret for last. The road comes to an end at the little known, and seldom used, Northeast Entrance to Yellowstone National Park, one of the crown jewels in the National Park System. So while you’re likely to be sad to leave the beautiful Beartooth Highway behind, you’ll have a host of new adventures awaiting you in the park, including even more beautiful landscapes and spectacular opportunities to spot wildlife too.

2011 marks the 75th anniversary of the Beartooth All American Higheway. It was first opened back in 1936 and has been wowing drivers ever since. If you plan to make the drive for yourself, you had better hurry though. It will only remain open for about another month or so before winter conditions force its closure until spring. Traditionally, the road reopens on Memorial Day weekend however, offering full access to all of its natural wonders once again.