This story is continued from Western Kitsch: The Black Hills of South Dakota.
After our gripping adventure rerouting several hours out of our way from the Black Hills, we pushed on to Billings and then Livingston. Just 30 miles from our final destination, the snow began to fall. In my tiny Prius, we slowed to a crawl and inched our way toward the outskirts of Pray, Montana, to a cabin in the foothills of Emigrant Peak.
The GPS counted down the minutes, and each felt more hopeful than the last that we would be in our pajamas soon. We climbed the mountain one turn at a time while the snow accumulated and swirling flakes made it difficult to navigate the small, winding, gravel road. Then, just one half of one mile from our warm, cozy, safe little cabin, the Prius got stuck.
Two tickets to Paradise?
This freak April snowstorm (that was “more like a January snowstorm” according to the cabin owner) stranded us in blizzard-like conditions and single-digit temperatures with our dog in the car. We were forced to call AAA for a tow truck to this remote mountain road where I miraculously had a cell signal. An angel on earth named Brad from Whistler Towing in Livingston drove the 45 minutes out to get us out of this mess. Unable to safely get the car to the cabin, Brad pulled us back to a paved road.
Our cabin host reserved us a pet-friendly room at nearby Chico Hot Springs so we could get some sleep and try again in the morning. We arrived after midnight. Our eight-hour drive had exploded into 14. We were emotionally and physically exhausted. We were deeply relieved for a dry and warm place for all three of us to land.
A luxury winter cottage this room was not. The main cabin dates to 1900 and these restored original Craftsman rooms are on the National Register of Historic Places. (Guests can also reserve their luxury hillside chalets if they want a higher end experience.) Our last-minute room rental in the main cabin was just big enough to walk around the edges of the double bed we crammed ourselves into, and was on a floor with only communal restrooms shared with other guests. The microscopic room was broiling hot, and our jumpy dog awoke and shriek-barked periodically throughout the night. Still, we would stay less than half a day, and we gratefully accepted a few precious hours of safety and sleep.
I only saw the resort for a few minutes in the dark, walking Poppy in the snow in the silent morning twilight. Even at a brisk 15°F outside, it seemed quite lovely with steam rising from the 112°F hot springs with the snow crunching under my feet. I imagine I might enjoy some of the higher-quality and more private lodging the resort offers. A soothing soak in the springs or lounging in the historic Pool Building (Saloon) sounded awesome, too – especially after such a stressful day of travel. Another time, perhaps.
The cabin at the foot of Emigrant Peak
We departed for the cabin in the morning. Well, we went to the only car rental place in Livingston, Montana, rented a giant blue Jeep, stocked up on food so we wouldn’t have to leave the cabin if we didn’t want to, and then we went to the cozy cabin. We were still rocked by the travel experience the night before. With more weather to come, nothing sounded better than hunkering down for a few days.
The owner walked us through the cabin at the foot of Emigrant Peak. He shared that he bought it from a friend nearly 30 years ago, and how he has added to the original cabin and updated the property since then. A self-proclaimed packrat, every square inch of the log cabin walls are decorated with scavenged art, kitsch and keepsakes. Interesting miscellany hung floor to ceiling, including, but not limited to: forgotten great aunt art, shaky amateur paintings of quirky mountain scenes, needlepoints of woodland creatures, hockey gloves, a whole wall of deer art, kitsch and keepsakes, family mementos, crayon notes from previous guests’ children apologizing for being irresponsible and breaking something in the cabin, rusted steel machine parts, vintage tins and jars of all sizes, and the occasional bird’s nest. One of numerous printed and Scotch-taped notes on the fridge said the owner would be more than happy to ensure any left-behind cannabis (legalized in January 2021) didn’t go to waste for guests who can’t fly home with it.
Every detail was perfectly appointed for a cozy stay in a perfectly charming and characteristic cabin. A writer’s desk sat next to a wood-burning stove, in a window that framed the snowy mountain perfectly. A vintage red cooler contained hundreds of LEGO bricks to tinker with. Each book on the shelves seemed hand-chosen for cabin life. Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. The Book of Leaves: A Leaf-by-Leaf Guide to Six Hundred’s of the World’s Great Trees. (The selection was so perfect it was almost a shame I brought along my own two adventure and wilderness library books: Andy Weir’s The Martian and Mountain Rescue Doctor: Wilderness Medicine in the Extremes of Nature.)
Outside, the woodpile was stocked with freshly cut logs, and indoors there was a wealth of kindling stacked neatly and drying indoors next to yellowing editions of The Livingston Enterprise. Poppy’s kennel nestled nicely next to the wood-burning stove, where she could curl up in a ball under her Mexican falsa blanket and warm up after a romp in the snow.
Once free from the constraints of the car or cabin, Poppy raced through the snow at top speed in huge circles like a greyhound racing out of the gate. During our stay, she chased sticks, discovered assorted Cervid bones, rolled in the snow, darted after the occasional deer, stuck her head in the menacing holes of unidentified creatures, and sampled all vintages and varietals of wildlife poop. This well-traveled adventure dog is living her best life.
The weather forced us to truncate our trip to Yellowstone National Park, but we hiked the land around the Absaroka cabin and enjoyed the 360-degree views right where we were. The cabin is nestled in Paradise Valley, bordered by the Absaroka Range with views of the Gallatin Range and Crazy Mountains Range.
I trudged around in the snow in my duck boots photographing scenes and wildlife. From the cabin, the snow melting in the Absaroka foothills creates wavy stripes of snow, just askew of parallel from one another.
The day we arrived, the homeowner pointed out a chute on nearby Emigrant Peak that had been prone to avalanches in the past, explaining how wet and dangerous the snowpack can be high on the mountain, which reaches just under 11,000 feet in elevation. Early in the stay, wind and snow came and went. The fast-moving clouds often made for dramatic scenes in the mountains.
The nearby Gallatin range had some of the best blue hours I’ve seen. Several evenings I put on my snow pants and sat down on the ridge to photograph the range in the cool blue-purple light.
Each morning waking up at the cabin, beautiful Emigrant Peak filled the large windows in the main bedroom. When I went to bed at night I fell asleep staring at the moon over the mountain through the skylight window. The peak paints evokes entirely different feelings at different times of day and different weather conditions. One clear night, I waited until well past midnight to capture the waning gibbous as it rose just over the top of Emigrant Peak.
A giant herd of elk winters in the Paradise Valley at the mountain’s feet, and on most days we could enjoy them grazing in the foothills at golden hour – sometimes with my binoculars at a distance, sometimes right up the hill in front of us. One afternoon I took the Jeep to the banks of the Yellowstone River to photograph. Its waters are famous for fly-fishing and water sports like kayaking. I returned to the mountain find a field full of mule deer and hundreds of elk racing up the mountain.
On our last night at the cabin, the evening sky put on a colorful show for us. The alpenglow on the Absarokas alone was stunning, but the purples in the sky paired with the golden grasses and scrub brush with the softly rolling green hills made it all pop.
Gratitude and silver linings
I never know how to gracefully conclude the stories about my trips, so I’ll share this. Before bed I write gratitudes in a journal. This is what I wrote for my week in Montana:
Journal Entry, April 17-24, 2022 - I’m thankful for a largely excellent remainder of our road trip vacation; great chances to photograph; child-like fun; gratitude for genuine help; relief; meaningful connection; freedom; quiet; teamwork; a history audiobook that we shared on long drives; AAA and tow trucks; Brad; fish & chips at Neptunes; wildlife; weather driving practice and 4WD; even the stress had silver linings; Poppy’s joy; the moment I thought to myself, ‘This is exactly what I wanted when I pictured what my life would be, but better.”
Bonus: History and hidden connections to home
There is a rich history of the Paradise Valley region. The valley was the only route to enter the national park at the time it was founded in the late 19th Century. Long before that it was once neutral hunting territory for a number of Indigenous tribes, including the Crow (née Absaroka née Apsáalooke), Blackfeet, Flathead and Shoshone. Later came white explorers, the discovery of coal, the trading and trapping industry, and finally the agriculture and ranching we know today, raising cattle and sheep.
A few hidden gems arose in my research about Emigrant Peak history revealed small connections to my home in the Midwest. For example, Martha Jane Canary, aka Calamity Jane, grew up in Mercer County, Missouri, and called the Yellowstone area home for a time during her nomadic life and married a Livingston local, according to Yellowstone Country.
I also stumbled on a wild story in the Billings Gazette with a historical connection to Kansas. In 1962 a plane crash occurred about 8,000 feet up Emigrant Peak and killed four Air Force veterans – all under age 30, all married. The Captain, Bill Faulconer, was native to Kansas. His parents lived and operated a dairy in El Dorado and his sister attended Wichita State University at the time of the accident.