Mountains in Winter…


© 2012 dal neitzel



Its nearly November and I’m driving North along Hwy 20 on my way to West Yellowstone. Tom and I just stopped off at the drugstore in Driggs and grab a couple of milkshakes. Tom’s is chocolate/peanut butter. Mine is blackberry and it really gets my tastebuds hopping. Rich handmade ice cream slides like thick honey-velvet down my throat. Sweet fat blackberries clog up my straw. Who needs a straw? I suck it down so fast I have to stop so I don’t get a headache. I know it’s about 35 degrees outside the truck but a fresh fruit milkshake is certainly one of life’s lovely little treasures…can’t pass those up. Turn up the heat!

Black storm clouds to our right erase any sign of the 12,000 foot perky peaks of the Tetons just a few miles over. The road is dry and the driving is easy. My old truck knows this stretch by heart. This is Idaho’s potato farming region. The “Spud Drive-In” provides clear evidence of how folks in this valley make a living. The land seems flat and rich to the east, right up to the unseen Teton’s that abruptly snap upward like a vast broken two by ten.

West Yellowstone in a winter postcard scene from the not so distant past.

We’ve been over the Teton Pass and through this region of Idaho dozens of times. I much prefer the West Yellowstone entrance to the park. The South entrance means you travel through Jackson. Once a sweet little town where you could get a bed and a good climbing rope for about $15 with a hot meal thrown in. You could drink beer and listen to mountain stories at any crummy bar in town til well past closing time. I once saw a cowboy ride a horse into town, tie him up in front of a bar and then walk in, grab a six pack to go and then ride back out of town. I thought maybe I was in a John Wayne movie. But no, I was in Jackson and that’s how things were sometimes accomplished in Jackson back then.

Jackson used to be a place for ranchers and climbers…then they opened half a dozen ski resorts and folks with more good money than good sense bought up most of the ranch land and built a hot little town full of trendy shops, chic spas and endless galleries. The sidewalks are crowded with the sleek and tanned. You’ll still see cowboy hats propped up on lovely heads but for some reason I’ve never understood, those fancy hats now cost nearly as much as a brake job. No place for the wicked…unless you’re counting James Watt & Dick Cheney.

Tom is my step-son and wanderlust companion on this trip. We are headed up to the Yellowstone country to check on two spots where clues in Forrest’s poem lead us. Actually, that’s a lie. One of the spots is from Forrest’s poem. But the other is a mail-order spot. This interesting fellow from somewhere east has an idea but can’t get out here to check it out. Asked if I would look at it for him. I agreed. So we’re checking out two spots, one for us and one for this fellow back east.

Tom at our search spot in Yellowstone Country

Tom has traveled with me since he was 7 when I dragged him out of school to go on a CNN shoot with me. We did a story on the incinerators that the Army was planning to build near Hermiston, Oregon. The Army had a lot of poison munitions stored there and intended to destroy them in place by burning them. This all sounded reasonable to the Army. Not so reasonable to the citizens of Hermiston…and downwind of the incinerators. Tom was my sound man. He would hang wireless mics on folks while I set up lighting for the interview. At night we’d pull off some place quiet and pretty and walk the streams and sleep in the truck and then shoot more interviews in the morning. We’d usually take the “long way” back home. I suppose today I’d get arrested for “hindering his education”.

At about noon we pulled into the area near our poem-led spot, walked up the trail and commenced our search. The air was colder here and snowflakes the size of medium pizzas began to splat all around us. The air was so thick with them that I thought for awhile we might suffocate. We looked under rocks and around lots of natural markers but the unrelenting snow was covering things up faster than we could get to them. The cold was getting more-so and the mushy gray clouds were transforming to a shade of black that eviscerated my happy spirit. We consulted the sky and the air and decided this weather was going to get worse much before it would get better and the best thing we could do was head off this plateau and down to lower ground. So we did.

Through the windshield as weather worsens

On the way out, we stopped in the road near our eastern friend’s mail order spot and took a picture through the windshield to let him know why we abandoned ship before we had looked in his spot. His spot required a trot uphill in a forested region that looked semi-hazardous on a warm and dry day and now looked about as appetizing as lima bean jello. We were done. I was once again skunked by weather in the Yellowstone country. At least this time I was not frozen like a fresh caught tuna. At least this time I could still move my fingers and toes. This time I was riding in my truck with the heater cranked up and headed to brighter skies and a friendly lunch counter with my good traveling buddy.


PS…you can read the first blog story about freezing weather in Yellowstone HERE

12 thoughts on “Mountains in Winter…

  1. You do mail order treasure spot searching? Had I known that…I’d have saved gobs of monies. Nah, on second thought….wouldn’t have given up seeing any one of those spots I went too….well, maybe the time I had acquired burrs in my underwear…I see a spot like that again, I’ll ask you to go for me 😉 Have a friend who lives in Helena, Montana…says it’s 6 degrees and snow passed her knees.

  2. So descriptive. So Dal. I was right there in the truck with you…slipping and sliding on the fresh snow over slush. Now I’m thinking you’re putting your pick axe away until spring…or maybe bringing it out in February for those crazy treasure-hunting Hungarians.

    • Careful everybody cause it’s coming around again. Gonna get real nasty soon, carry chains and a shovel. A couple people last year got into trouble if I recall.

  3. Last November around Veterans day, I, three of my kids and one of my kid’s friends piled into our pickup and took off on my 2nd treasure hunting trip. My first one was in october of 2011 and I had promised my mom that I wouldn’t go over the Tusas again until spring. So, when we left, nobody knew anything about it except for a short e-mail that I shot to Mr. Fenn on the day we took off. I had a particular country road in mind that was just begging to be explored by this up and coming treasure hunter. We made our way through the Jicarilla Aache reservation, through Chama, on to TA and then turning left towards Tres Piedras. The ride over the Tusas heading to my location was uneventful if you don’t count the spectacular scenery and breathtaking vistas that invade your sight around just about every bend and curve in the road. On other trips over these mountains, I have found myself up at the top late at night, pulled over at the side, outside of my vehicle just staring in awe at the brilliance of the stars whose numbers are so vast that you can almost feel the weight of them pressing down and threatening to crush such a seemingly insignificant creature as a solitary human being. Not that I’ve ever went alone on these trips, I’m too chicken for that. During hunting season in the fall, I never saw elk, but in the spring, drive carefully because they are everywhere up there.

    Anyway, after making our way over the mountains, through Taos and stopping at the Vietnam Veterans memorial outside Angel Fire, we were finally nearing my road. We found it easily enough but wouldn’t you just know it. the road itself was on private land and the no trespassing signs were a reminder to me that even in the US, there are places I am not free to go in to. I wondered how much trouble I could get into if I went up the road but the sign saying violators will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law told me quite a bit so I didn’t do it.

    After driving around a while, it started to snow a little and a decision was made to head back. There was snow in the canyon heading towards Taos but that was nothing compared to what awaited me in the Tusas. Tres Piedras looked allright, the road was wet but no snow, so we headed up. Everything seemed fine, the sun was even peeking out here and there as if to tell me there would be no problems. We climbed the mountain in my little truck and the sky darkened and became heavy, the air foggy and snow started to appear on the sides of the road. The weather had been busy since the drive through here earlier in the day. The road itself was fine so we kept climbing with no thought of turning around. Spots of snow and ice showed up in the road in ever increasing abundance and then the snow began. From the start, the snowflakes fell hard and thick and visibility was shortened to just a few car lengths in front of me. Other trucks,bigger, probably with four wheel drive and better tires plowed by me at normal speeds while I had slowed down considerably. The road had become snowpacked in frightenly short time. I was up too high already and places to turn around were few and far between. Besides, I couldn’t decide what was worse, turning around and sliding down the mountain or heading on up into the unknown. After thinking that we were past the point of no return anyways, I resigned myself to getting up and over this mountain. I hoped that I would see TA again. After a while, it really was dark, night was upon us and nobody passed us anymore. I knew we were almost at the top and was pretty sure where we were. At the spot where the road was exposed on both sides by huge valleys. The drop on the right(north side) must be at least a thousand feet before a falling vehicle would even hit anything. We were exposed to the wind here and it buffeted the truck violently on all sides. No guard rails, the road was not going around a curve, it was straight here. We were still climbing. And then the truck started sliding. Backwards. I know you are not supposed to hit the breaks when a car is sliding on ice but instinct made me do it anyway. The car slid more and now at a slant heading straight for the edge and all the while backwards.

    Some of the kids in the back are asleep and don’t know what is going on but my daughter is awake and she stares with me in silence as the car slides. I start to cry and pray. I ask the blessed mother to plead with her son to save us because my kids don’t deserve to die because their mother is stupid. I force myself to take my foot off of the break against my better judgement as I was just sure the truck would only slide faster. The truck slowly started to right itself and as luck would have it, I had slid to a section that was flat and the truck stopped. Just in time too. The truck had mostly slid backwards along the road but was steadily, although slowly moving to the right and we were almost off the road and well, the shoulder wasn’t much to speak of and beyond the shoulder, the drop. After a few moments, I pressed the gas and the truck was moving again and climbing back up the way we had just slid down. I was surprised the vehicle would climb at all on that snow packed road going only five miles an hour but it did. We crept the rest of the way up and we crept down at the same speed. It took hours but I saw Tierra Amarilla again and knew the worst was over. I was grateful to get home to Farmington but treasure hunting fever has not left me and still lives in me a year later. I hope that I’m forgiven for my foolhardy choices and am not opposed to traveling in late fall and winter to treasure hunt, just not over the Tusas.

  4. Yikes! I can’t even imagine being in that situation and then to have all those little one’s with you while going through that…… Oh my gosh….so glad your ok.

  5. Thanks. I must have made it look like I had small children. My “little ones” are 20, 19, 18, 17 and 15. But of course that’s no excuse for putting any of them in harm’s way. They have been very tolerant of their obsessed treasure hunting mom though and at least a couple of them always accompany me on my trips. I still think about what could have happened up there. Nobody would have known where we were. I am more careful now.

    • I’m glad your not silent anymore 😉 Fun to hear all the stories. You had me on the edge of my seat on that one though. Look forward to more stories.

  6. I know how scared you were, Cloudcover. Been up there myself under the exact same conditions. Slid most the way down that road – even in 4 wheel low. That pass is very treacherous, even if it’s sunny when you start out…beware to others!!

    Glad you made it safely.

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