Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Red Shale, Yankee Jim

Six nights in a tent, three in motel rooms. I’d say we got our money’s worth out of our new tent, acquired this spring. Especially in Montana. At Custer National Forest just off US 212, there’s a campground called Red Shale, since the soil is redish orange and rocky. At one time the Park Service must have collected a fee for it — I saw a rusty container that once held fee envelopes, for instance. But maybe the regional office decided that collecting fees cost more than was being collected.

Maintenance had also been cut. The water pump was busted. The campsites were so weedy that it was sometimes hard to tell where they were. In fact, it looked like the only attention anyone paid to the place was in the toilet building, which did have toilet paper. But this inattention led to a rustic charm, especially pleasant considering what we paid. It was a cold night and the stars shone very bright. Late at night, while snug in the tent, I was sure I hear coyotes in the distance.

Gallatin National Forest has some campgrounds on the road to the north entrance of Yellowstone. We picked one of them, about 15 miles from the entrance, the better not to deal with crowding in the park itself. A wise choice, because every Yellowstone campground we later saw looked jammed.

The campsite in Yankee Jim Canyon, by contrast, never filled up. About a half-dozen sites were occupied each night, out of 20 or so. Like the Red Shale site, it too was free — quite a surprise so close to Yellowstone. Also like Red Shale, there was no water, no maintenance and no other services except a daily delivery of toilet paper by unseen Park Service hands.

Yankee Jim Canyon is a rocky place. Boulders everywhere, both way up the sides of the mountains and next to the campsites, with a lot of smaller rocks here and there as well, and a handful of gnarly trees thrown in to keep things interesting. At night, a near-constant light wind blew through the canyon, but we pitched the tent — and it was hard to drive those stakes — among some boulders that served as wind breaks. We had the presence of mind to store all of our food in the car at night, in case of bears, but there was no evidence of anything bigger than a rabbit around the campsite during our entire stay.

And the wind blew. Wooooooooooooooo, a relaxing sound to fall asleep to, once we realized that the tent wasn’t going to blow over. It reminded me, strangely, of the night-sounds at the hut we rented overlooking the ocean in Bali, with its constant crashing waves. That was a nearly perfect aural experience. The winds of Yankee Jim Canyon were close to that.

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