Montana. The problem is the solution.

Each of us brought unique handicaps to the situation. Any of these, individually, might have derailed the hike to this mountain lake before it even began.

At 300 feet deep, Mystic Lake is one of the deepest lakes in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.

I don’t believe either of us, by ourselves, could have completed this hike. Inscrutably, our individual impediments coalesced into collective success. Our goal was reached because of these weaknesses, not merely in spite of them.

To understand better, we’ll back up a bit.

Arriving in Montana, we knew nothing of the land or people.

Views like this are fun to drive to as a sort of reconnaissance, but they do not allow penetration into a depth of understanding. For that, one must walk through the valley, and along the way achieve sore muscles, bleed a bit or shed tears, perhaps despair some, and struggle.

Our crew wasn’t ready for a big hike in the beginning. Shortly after the snapshot above was taken, we enjoyed a half-mile scramble above treeline, reaching about 10,400 feet. Exuberation, a natural byproduct of proximity to natural wonder, produced unfettered locomotion in my son, who perambulated across the terrain as if adjacent to Lake Superior’s oxygen-rich 602. Returning to the vehicle, achieving that Rocky Mountain High, an asthma attack started rolling and building to the point of dizziness. Shawna experienced a taste of altitude sickness as well. Rescue inhalers were engaged in a kind of percussive duet. The only real solution was to descend. So, unthinkably, as the Beartooth Pass reached its crescendo at nearly 11,000 feet, we kept on trucking without stopping. The planned hike to Beauty Lake was also cancelled.

We dipped our toes into the closed portion of Yellowstone Park below the pass, and peeps gradually achieved stasis once again. Just to be safe, we took the long way home through Wyoming along the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway. Incredible mountains eventually gave way to a bonafide desert landscape. The long day of driving that ensued encouraged us to recalibrate our remaining days for minimal van time. If, and when, we return, I reckon he’ll work harder on his aerobic capacity in advance. It’s all about Max VO2: how much oxygen your blood can carry.

But that wasn’t the only obstacle. Another member of our party was deathly afraid of grizzly bears and rattlesnakes. A hundred dollars of bear spray and a powerful airhorn helped, but what she really needed was gradual, increasing exposure to the land for achieving comfort and a healthy understanding of risks. This seems intuitive. Taking risks prior to steeping in direct observation and contact is presumptuous. So, I didn’t apply pressure. The application of cold Vulcan logic as a sort of poultice fails to argue anxiety out of a person. Legitimate fear, after all, keeps us alive.

In service of increasing exposure, we travelled an hour up a remote gravel road, across several cattle gates, en route to the edge of the wilderness.

Montana is an open range state. If you don’t want my cattle on your land, it isn’t my responsibility. You must fence them out.

Arriving at Emerald Lake, I spoke of the hike to Mystic Lake, two lakes above this one, and just let it dangle as an option for the next day. Meanwhile, we pressed on to the road’s terminus at an even prettier lake, where we enjoyed a quick swim. After the dip, and observing two dozen vehicles parked for hikers and fisherman—indicating the area is well travelled—she was fortified with courage. Hiking to Mystic Lake became her idea.

Now, to bring my own weakness to the fore, I’ll mention that last night, back home in Duluth, my wife and I enjoyed a 10-block amble with the pooch. After creeping along impossibly slowly up the slight grade (a result of residual IT Band Syndrome that I cannot seem to shake), I joked I’d need to reposition my colostomy bag prior to stepping over the curb, as my speed was suggestive of an elderly man in rehab. The first real belly of my life also testifies to this handicap. Thus, I really can’t explain how I was able to manage an 8-mile hike through sometimes difficult terrain that included a boulder field, steep switchbacks, etc, other than to give credit to another member of our crew’s weakness.

I don’t believe Shawna has ever done a hike of this duration or quality, although I might be mistaken. Anyhow, it has been years if she has. I typically do these sorts of forays on my own. This time it was important that we all experience the wilderness together.

One of maybe a hundred rest stops.

We went so slowly, and rested so often, that neither my legs nor Joe’s asthma created problems. Therefore, Shawna’s weakness became key to our success. Oddly, in a way I’ve never encountered, we leaned on one another’s weaknesses to make it to our destination, forge memories, and truly come to appreciate Montana with some depth.

We paralleled the lake’s outlet until our big ascent to about 8,000 feet, and had an argument about swimming in this hole that appeared bottomless amidst the roiling river.

Eventually, after three hours, we made it. One of us felt somewhat emotional about slowing us down. I constantly reminded that our slowness was actually key to our success. Besides, none of us had dentist appointments to return to! What harm is it if a walk that on paper should require two hours takes three? It’s not as if we were venturing through purgatory. Views were stunning along the entire route. What better place to slow down and enjoy what once was unfamiliar territory?

Hiking downward to the beach.
The swim perked us right up. Temps were similar to Lake Superior reasonably close to shore, but quite frigid in the deeps. We were the only partakers.
Numbingly cold, this felt great on our return. Will my kids, who are so different from one another, find common pursuits to enjoy together after they fly the nest in a year’s time? Once again, I believe the problem is the solution. We’ll see how this shakes out in time.
That feeling of accomplishment can’t be manufactured.
Nearing the van, I looked back up toward Eden. Earlier in life, this level of satisfaction would only have been possible if we had pushed further up the trail to two more lakes, and then on to Granite Peak, the tallest peak in Montana. Instead, I was grateful to complete a simple hike that challenged everyone to maximum capacity for different reasons. What a joy!
Returning home to wide open spaces. Can you believe this was the road to our AirBnb? I’ve never stayed anywhere like this.

Arriving at home, the neighbors immediately checked in on us:

Following a splendid nap, I recorded a 9-minute episode for my podcast under the same name as this article. Is there anything better than a sound sleep in a hammock?

This was Part 2 of 2 in our little Montana series. The first begins at the ending. Go give it a lookie Lou.


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