Big Sky: Wyoming and Montana


In September, Sonia and I went to Wyoming and Montana. Part honeymoon, part artist residency, it was a very much needed break. The plan was drive to Yellowstone National Park for the weekend, then head up to Bozeman for a week at the Silver Streak Residency, then head further north to Glacier National Park. Things didn't quite go as planned, but the trip was still amazing. If we hadn't already been planning a big cross country move to New Mexico for the end of December, I would have refused to go back home to Chicago. It was this trip - the mountains and landscape of Wyoming and Montana, that was the inspiration for the newest collection: COLLECTION VIII.

Driving out of Chicago – we headed up through Wisconsin towards Minnesota, stopping for the first night in a motel on French Island in the Mississippi River. That next morning, as we drove through Minnesota’s farm land and saw the beginning of the thick haze that we saw almost everywhere else on our trip. Once we made it to South Dakota, the haze was so thick, and everywhere. I had heard that you could see the badlands on the drive without getting off the highway, but we couldn’t see a thing. There was the suggestion of some rock formations on either side of the highway, but beyond that, only someone else knows. 

We stopped for the second night in the first big town in Wyoming – Sundance. It was a small place, near the Devil’s Tower. Turning off the main road, we saw a deer, just standing there, as if welcoming us to town. 

yellowstone lake
mammoth hot springs

We left early the next morning, after a quick swim in the small motel pool. The water was freezing, and was a much better wake up than the weak motel coffee. Getting a few hours of driving in on Thursday evening meant that we could be in Yellowstone by mid-afternoon, so we decided to take the scenic route. It took us through more of the park, via the eastern entrance near Cody WY. We winded our way on mountain roads with trees on either side, until we could see the glimmer of Yellowstone Lake through the trees. We stopped for a quick visit. It’s a big lake, and relatively quiet, there was one or two boats out on the water, and a few other folks hanging out on the beach. We were staying in the northern edge of the park, in Mammoth Hot Springs. From Yellowstone Lake Lodge to Mammoth Hot Springs was an hour and a half drive. We got our first taste of the Yellowstone traffic on our way up. When lots of cars are pulled over on the side of the road, it usually means that someone has seen an animal, and if there are tons of cars it's likely a bear. We saw a couple of clusters on our way – and then one gigantic cluster of cars, and crawled through them at a snails pace. We couldn’t see what anyone was looking at, but folks were everywhere with a camera in most hands. Finally a man on motorcycle at the side of the road yelled “BEAR!!!”. 

When we pulled into the Mammoth Hot Springs village – it was bustling. There were lots of cars near the entrance – where there were lots of wooden walkways around the terraced hot spring formations. There was a main drag with a gas station, a diner, a general store, the hotel, a post office, the visitor center, and lots of small cabins. Slightly tucked away and down the hill was a whole lot of park housing.

Our cabin was very cute and surprisingly eco-friendly. Lightly painted yellow, it had a small front porch, with porch furniture made from recycled plastic. Inside, the trash “can” was actually a shelving unit divided into trash, compost and recycling, and had a label explaining how it was made from 200 plastic milk jugs. There were water cups from repurposed wine bottles. There were no tiny disposable soap containers in sight, only larger refillable glass bottles – with some very nice smelling soap, lotions and shampoos.

The general store had a little bit of everything – hand scooped ice cream, a tiny selection of sandwiches, salads, produce, Wyoming whiskey, purple black bear onesies, postcards, and bear spray. I offered to get Sonia the onesie, but she declined. But we did grab a salad and bear spray for tomorrow’s hike.

The dining hall was on the main drag, with big black and white striped awnings. It’s wide open room and high lighting reminded me of alternately, the Shining, and Dirty Dancing. Neither of which I’ve since learned has Sonia seen. The staff wore name tags with their homestate on them. Dan Illinois gave us our hotel keys. Rachel Wisconsin showed us to our table. In addition to their green cabins, the park’s dining hall had a menu that highlighted their multiple gluten-free and vegetarian options. We were impressed, Sonia could eat lots of things on the menu. We overheard our waiter (Steven Michigan) tell the table next to us that they were out of coffee until Tuesday - as long as we’re staying. So in the morning, Sonia pulled out her camp-stove and made us pour-over coffee on the front porch. Camp coffee is the best coffee. 

mammoth hot springs

We drove out to the trailhead at Mt. Washburn, along some windy mountain roads. All of the park signs warn about bears on the trail, so we packed our bear spray, and hoped we wouldn't use it. The trail was pretty open, dry and and rather desert-y which both of us are less used to in mountain hikes. A german couple passed us early on, and we caught up to them fifteen minutes later. They asked if we’d seen the bear – about twenty feet from the trail. We’d been half heartedly looking for one but also being kind of afraid of them we’d been talking loudly (as all the signs tell you to do – travel in groups, carry bear spray, make noise…). From then on, we scoured the trees for bears. Further up we did spot some rustling in the trees below us – but it was instead two hikers cutting through the switchbacks, and spooking us.

The haze was strong, so we couldn’t see all the mountains in the distance, but it was still a stunning view. Closer to the top, above the treeline where all the cool lichen covered rocks take over (my favorite part), the haze seemed to intensify, and we could see the final ascent to the fire lookout hut at the top. It was the end of summer and everything was parched, all the grass was yellow, the sky was hazy, the orange trail markers blended in. As we rounded the mountaintop, we noticed a bunch of folks sitting with cameras out – there was a pronghorn family just sitting in the sun on the side of the mountain. Sonia asked the nearest hiker what they were, and she replied that she spoke only Spanish and French – so off they went in French – She was Columbian and living in Paris, and they’d already been here for several days. They’d been watching the animals for a time. And they’d found the most amazing hot springs to swim in, right near where we were staying.

mt washburn haze
Mt Washburn Yellowstone National Park

Coming down around the first curve, the thick haze began to break up and the view opened up. It became more and more clear over the descent. A light haze remained, on the edges, but it felt lighter on the way down, which was great since it was definitely much warmer! 

We had enough time left before dark to wander out to see all the hot springs – there was a network of boardwalks crisscrossing and weaving around. So many strange and otherworldly type formations come from this hot water that pours out and trickles down. The hot springs are amazing. 

Mammoth Hot Springs Yellowstone National Park

We had arrived on the moon.

Mammoth Hot Springs Yellowstone National Park

From the up on the hill at the hot springs, we heard a commotion down below and saw flashing lights. My first thought was car crash, or someone is hurt. Wrong on both counts. Instead, it was an elk standoff, and the flashing lights were to try to keep the tourists with their cameras away. Just another day at Yellowstone.

The next morning's coffee was even better than the first. Sitting out there bundled in the cold, we watched folks beginning to stir and someone walking past told us there was an elk nearby, so we ran to catch a peek. There is was, one cabin over, with its head in the tree.

Elk at Mammoth Hot Springs
yellowstone river

While we were driving to Wyoming, and exploring Yellowstone, all over the country new wildfires were starting and taking off. After a really dry season, and some Labor Day Weekend carelessness, fires in Oregon, Washington, Canada, Montana had all grown in size and number. By the time we made it to Bozeman, the fires in Montana had gotten worse, including the Sprague fire in Glacier National Park. The smoky haze in Bozeman was much more noticeable than it had been in Yellowstone. 

Bozeman, Montana

We came to Montana to do a week long residency at the Silver Streak, a rehabbed Airstream camper just outside of Bozeman. The beginning of Fall is an interesting time to be in Montana, as the temperatures drop to almost freezing at night, but are still climbing to the eighties at midday. Sonia and I spent our time here exploring the area, prepping for our artist lecture at Montana State University, and working on our joint project Strata.  During the day we set up a worktable outside in the field, and at night we would draw in our little Airstream. 

The Silver Streak
outdoor studio

Halfway through our time in Bozeman, the fires were showing no signs of improving, and conditions at Glacier National Park got way worse, even burning the old park building the Sperry Chalet. We decided to cancel our trip to Glacier and instead made plans to head south to Grand Teton National Park instead. 

clear skies

At the very end of our stay in Bozeman, the winds changed. The smoke blew away. The skies cleared and we finally got to see some blue Montana big sky. Speaking of which, we drove through Big Sky on our way to Grand Teton, and it deserves its name. We would definitely go back. To get to Grand Teton, we drove back through Yellowstone, this time going into the park from its west entrance, closer to all of the geyser activity that we had missed on our previous time there. Skipping the insane crowds at Old Faithful, we went to Fountain Paint Pots to see the Clepsydra Geyser and to the Grand Prismatic pool nearby. Yellowstone is such a weird and wonderful place. We were glad to get some time to explore in the southern part of the park, and the geysers are so amazing. Though because the crowds can get so intense, I definitely prefer the mood of the northern side of the park, at Mammoth Hot Springs, and would recommend staying up there, and just visiting the southern part. Especially Paint Pots and Grand Prismatic!

Grand Prismatic at Yellowstone National Park
Clepsydra Geyser at Yellowstone National Park

After a day of driving, with stops to see all the cool things in Yellowstone, we made it to Grand Teton National Park. Just in time to catch a swim in Jackson Lake before the sun went down. The water was freezing. But after a day of driving, utterly refreshing. It was also just cold enough, that it provided a sense of camaraderie for everyone who braved the frigid temps. We soon learned that all of the other swimmers had also had to reroute their travel plans to avoid the fires at Glacier, and we had all ended up in Jackson Lake in Wyoming. 


We had just one day to explore Grand Teton, so we decided on the hike up to Amphitheater Lake, a pretty alpine lake. On our early morning drive to the trailhead, we drove past a momma black bear and her cub, running through the field. They froze when they saw us coming, looked up at us, and then went on their way. We'd been carrying around our trusty bear spray this whole trip, and hoping we would finally spot one somewhere, so we were happy to be rewarded on our last day. We hiked up to the lake and picnicked on some rocks. Sonia decided to keep going and check out the view from the top of the mountain ridge, but I decided to hang out at the lake for a bit. I overheard some folks mention seeing a bear on their way up. So when Sonia and I headed down the trail, we weren't surprised to spot a large cub hanging out in the trees. We watched for a minute or two, and then started making our way noisily down the trail, so as not to spook him. No pics to share here, but he was cute. 

amphitheater lake

Driving out of the park, we were rewarded with this lovely view of the Tetons in the late afternoon sun:

Grand Teton

Hoping to make it back here soon...