A Week on the Yellowstone

A Week on the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers

June 3, 2004

Henry David Thoreau wrote “A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers”, a dry read. When an admirer puts his book down, one who has begun fully expecting to enjoy it, one who has eagerly read Civil Disobedience, Walden, and An Ode to John Brown, when such a one abandons the book on rivers, something dire has happened. As I now remember it, the tedious part was the botany; what was missing was his opinions about people and life.

My title is a lie. We, Mike Jones and I, will voyage only three days. We won’t navigate any waters. We will pass by two rivers, coming within their view. We count that. Our travels are for botany, history and scenery. And friendship.

So far the botany has been mundane. My favorite so far is a little purple flower, having four petals, growing within 3/8” of its root. It appears to grow out of moss. I spied it at 12,200 feet. Its 1/8” long leaves seemed fat and fleshy, in their miniature way. Sedum leaves were the closest thing in my experience. At 9,000 feet, on our descent, I picked  yellow-blossomed flower, whose leaves and odor were that of the carrot family.

We drove from Bozeman to an “emergency” stopping place south of Livingston. We smelled antifreeze and the temperature gauge registered higher than I remember being normal. We discussed water pumps, thermostats, radiators and hoses. We decided to continue. We thought we could buy a thermostat in Gardiner and a 9/16” wrench to carry with us. In Gardiner we purchased gasoline from Jim Blatter’s convenience store. Gardiner has no auto parts store. When we discovered this, though our fears had melted. The temperature indicator seemed to stay at a point just below midpoint.

I saw new country nearly all day, from Gardiner on. The Lamar Valley is where wolves can frequently be seen. We saw one. Just his head was visible. Then the wolf got up and moved. He was one half mile away. I was surprised by its darkness. Was he surprised by my lightness? (He surely didn’t care one whit for me.)

Park workers shad stopped traffic so they could load up an elk they had to kill due to its having had its hind quarters eaten out. Other mega-fauna we saw include deer, buffalo and marmot.

At the Beartooth Highway summit, I don’t remember seeing any shrubs, just grass, moss and lichen. At slightly lower elevations low shrubs ventured, then fir, Albicolus Pine, Limber Pine and juniper. Presently we are camped among Lodgeploe Pines here at the Greenough Campground. The campground is nearly empty. Our nearest neighbor, a retired motorsports dealer from northern California, came and greeted us.

The birds make our place happy with their half-dozen sounds. Nearby there is a 20’x15’ boulder whose passable routes have been slickened by use. It exists to give children a sense of mastery. I miss having my children here, so that I might watch them use it.

The views of rock faces, pinnacles, snow drifts, mountain ranges, gorges, gravelly mountain sides swooping 2,000 feet, partly frozen lakes, the subtle danger of driving narrow, curvey roads, and the marvel of road double backs all combined to inspire awe.

I mentioned to Mike,” I”d like to see a fast forward movie of this area being formed, really fast.”

He added, “Yes, me too, and from a safe distance!”

One pinnacle reminded me of the Matterhorn: Pilot Peak. We think we identified Lookout Mountain. I saw a tall, thin waterfall.

I have lately noticed that I have a short attention span. I carve my day into vignettes. I rarely do a task that requires two or more hours. I do email. Then I scan internet news. I read Epstein. I write Parley. I call people for a few minutes each. I read a magazine. I mow for 45 minutes. I go to a store. I review Portuguese for a few minutes. These are all short 20-45 minute activities.

Anything that requires more time gives the impression of bogging me down.

What would happen if I require of myself, or allowed myself, projects or sessions of productivity that were 2 hours long? Or a half-day? I could read and write. I could compose music. I could research. I could call and mail people about a single purpose, bundling the contacting.

A novelist cannot write a novel in ten-minute segments. How can my purposes be met dealing in snippets?

That is partly why I got unsettled that Sunday in Salem, Oregon years ago. I had no series of engagements to occupy me. I quickly ran out of the few activities that were available to me which seemed fitting for the Sabbath.

I have noted that I don’t watch television. The twenty-eight hours other men spend every week watching, I fill with other things. Neither do I watch videos. Most of my time is spent communicating with others. These others are:
My wife- in person
My children- through phone calls with Jessica and Emily, emails with Parley, and visits to Abe.
Bishop and Greg- in meetings, a little by phone and email
Governor’s Council members- in meetings, by phone or email
Roger and Anne Koopman- during this primary election season
My parents
My siblings
Missionaries- from our extended family, 3rd Ward priests- and former University Ward members
My employees- informal questions they pose, assignments I give them, questions I ask them, sit-down “short visits” and reviews
Bill Slingsby and other contractors
Customers- with problems and concerns or questions, or selling them what they want
Suppliers- straightening out mistakes they or we made, negotiating price, asking them for special items
Advertising salespeople- asking them questions to better understand their proposal, the validity of their claims, evaluating their price/viewer-reader.
Calling church members to positions
Stewardship interviews with auxiliary leaders
Attending bishopbric training meeting

All of the above are face-to-face, telephone and written communications. I ought to be concerned that my voice, words, praise and training are uplifting and purposeful.


Preston Thomas Commemorative Trek

The Preston Thomas Trek

November 11, 2003

Tom Burnett and Mike Jones

Journal Entry: November 10, 2003

     Mike Jones and I just arrived in Wamsutter, Wyoming. The motel is dark and filthy, but we are both grateful to have lodging out of the wind. The owner is a stubby, gregarious woman in a flannel shirt. She lacks several teeth.

    “Plug the heater in, turn it on, and keep the bathroom door closed so my water don’t freeze!” she said.

Driving here, we watched the landmarks of the Mormon Trail pass by: the Platte, the Sweetwater, Independence Rock, Devil’s Gate, Martin’s Cove. We stopped at the Historic Trails Museum in Casper. It is closed on Mondays. We enjoyed tail winds from Bozeman to Billings. Those same west winds blasted the passenger side of the car from Billings south to Rawlins.

My Journal Entry: November 11, 2003
With excerpts from Preston Thomas’ Journal of November 22, 1853
He penned his entry upon arriving at Green River, in the vicinity of present day Rock Springs and Green River. His previous journal entry was dated November 7, 1853 when they were apparently on the Platte River. I have sometimes preserved Preston Thomas’ phrasing, spelling and punctuation, and sometimes altered it.

    Brave of heart, we walked at first where shallow snow alternated with patches of mud. The BLM land was free for the walking. Using it seemed more authentic. But after a mile, we climbed the fence and walked on the freeway shoulder. Packing the muddy boots seemed imprudent. We knew we could not make twenty-two miles with the extra weight.

    “The morning after we left the Platte, a mountaineer and a Snake Indian followed after us and overtook those who were behind and gave them some information in regard to the road to Green River. The distance they said was some 250 miles. They further said  there was no grass or as good as now, (none),  and not a single stick of wood upon the whole route. They had just passed across from there and they were nine days in crossing. It was the damdest hardest road they had ever traveled in their lives and no money could induce them to return that way. This very unfavorable account of the road to Green River completely discouraged some of the party.”

    We verified that not a single stick of wood could be found, not a tree of any species, not any bush other than sagebrush. The only trees we saw were the carefully tended cottonwoods of Cottonwood Corner. That was the name of the convenience store where, in the morning, we pitched our tents so they would be waiting for us after our walk. (We drove back to Wamsutter, parked and walked from there to Cottonwood Corner.) The two cottonwoods gave us anchor points so the wind would not rip our tents away and send them to Cheyenne.

    At the seven-mile point, we stopped at Red Desert, a convenience store, where the surly owner, Marvin, warmed some Schwann’s Ham and Cheese sandwiches and chimichangas for us in the microwave. We talked of business and ranching. He has 70 head of cattle on 13 sections, (nearly 8,000acres). Grass is scarce.

    Tractor-trailers pound this road. Interstate 80 is a main arterial for the nation’s goods. Counting both eastbound and westbound lanes, an average of 7 semi-tractors pass every minute, day and night. The freeway, defined by streams of headlights 30-40 miles into the distance, is the very definition of a straight line. No waterways cross our route.

    “The road we found to be pretty good but the scarcity of grass and water and the want of wood for fires caused us to suffer and our mules and horses intolerably.”

    We faced wind all day, especially forceful the last five hours of our nine-hour walk. At the half-way point, we used Lance Armstrong’s gooseflight technique. Instead of walking abreast, we took turns in the lead. The wind originated directly in the west and our route was due west, so the person following close behind had an easier time. We estimated wind speeds of 20-40 mph all day. At times it blasted harder than average, arresting our progress. We leaned forward and put extra effort into the next step to regain momentum. Perhaps our twenty-two miles was like thirty-three miles without wind. We could not understand each other’s words if we spoke from a distance greater than one or two feet.

    Our packs added to the wind resistance. My orange pack extended above my shoulders a few inches on each side of my head. It held extra long underwear, socks, pants, water, apples, granola bars, an emergency kit my employees gave me and two books, The Aeneid, and O Livro de Mormon. I read from each while walking. Stock would have tired rapidly pulling high-profile wagons into that relentless wind, in the same way that our fatigue was worsened by our packs.

    The last antelope we saw were fifty miles north of Rawlins, about eighty miles from where we are now. A roadside sign extolled “Wyoming Wildlife”. It seemed an oxymoron. While walking we saw a crow, flocks of tan birds that might have been sparrows, and the carcasses of a bird and a mouse. Carcasses of jackrabbits, plentiful on other Wyoming roads, were scarce on our twenty-two mile portion.

“I continue to hunt but without success- saw only a single sage (grouse?), and a mountain rabbit I killed.”

“We ate the last piece of our antelope and we had nothing but one sack of flour containing 100 lbs. and a little salt. I immediately put all upon half rations, from during today I hunted faithfully. I found both buffalo and antelope but could kill none, reason was, I had a very poor gun, it was one belonging to Franklin Coats, and was entirely too small for buffalo.”

“The night we lay at or near the top of the Divide, then fell a deep snow which greatly impeded our progress. After this the weather turned intensely cold and on the second night after, my splendid mule, “Texas”, was frozen to death. This was a severe loss to me and I felt somewhat sad at his loss. The saints whom I came with from Texas purchased him at a cost of $125 and gave him to me and he had served me faithfully for so long a journey. I could but feel sorry for his loss, but his value, though very great to me I cheerfully parted with as I have for the sake of this kingdom suffered so many sacrifices in friends and relations in Missouri, and in lands, in homes and farms, in silver and gold, in toils and sufferings, that now there is hardly any sacrifice that I know of which the Lord might call me to make, which I would repine at.”

I kept looking at the landscape wondering where “Texas”, the splendid mule, might have frozen. His bones may still be visible if the site could be known, for the arid climate and lack of scavenging wolves might have left them dry and ignored. We crossed the Divide at 3:30 p.m.

On the drive from Bozeman, I told Mike that I hoped he fared better than Preston Thomas’ faithful companion, “Texas”.  We jokingly wondered if we should introduce ourselves as Preston and Tex.

If the temperature had been twenty to forty degrees colder, travel or camping would have been much more bitter. We estimated the temperature to be 28-30 degrees.

“Since that time, (here he refers to the day, November 7, when they left the North Platte Fork), we have had three snowstorms and some very severe cold weather.”

“Upon this trip my heretofore indomitable spirit almost failed me beneath my accumulated sufferings and three times when lying down at night I prayed to the Almighty that I might never awake to see another morning so great were my sufferings. My feet were badly frostbitten; my old boots were entirely worn out. I had a new pair but they hurt me so that I could not wear them. The snow was deep and I was obliged to walk with all the brethren save little Thaddeus Crandall, who from long sickness has been confined to the wagon and is now barely able to drive the team. This we have been compelled to do from the weakness of our team.”

We were relieved to reach Cottonwood Corner. That is an understatement. Barbara, the manager, with whom we had conversed that morning, had a daughter, Hillary. Hillary was on shift when we arrived. She said she had been waiting for us to arrive before shutting down the store. We bought food, ate and warmed up. The Dolly Madison Pie, sandwich, nuts and juice I purchased was fabulous compared to what Preston ate upon his arrival at Green River.

“Thus from day to day we have struggled through the snow with not half enough to eat. Upon reaching Green River we found good grass. It was early in the morning but we camped and turned out our mules and boiled a little rice, all we had left. We then raked up a little corn which lay scattered upon the bottom of our wagon, it having been spilt in pouring out of the sacks in order to feed our mules.”

Hillary and her boyfriend, Trevor, suggested we stay in the back room, near the pot-belly stove. We consented, not even feigning resistance. The tents we had set up were left to make their whipping sounds in the wind where they could not disturb us. We slept on either side of a pool table. It was better than Preston’s buffalo robe, I am sure.

A few days later: “At Yellow Creek, some 75 miles from Salt Lake City, I left the brethren with the wagon and started to go in ahead in order to send out some help in order to get our wagon over this Big mountain. All day I traveled along upon my little Cherokee Pony. Just at dark I reached the Weber River. After traveling down the valley some two miles I turned aside and camped in a little kanyon some distance to the right of the road. Solitary and alone, I camped where I had good grass for my pony, good wood and water. The night was clear and beautiful and I felt very happy alone as I was. I ate my small loaf of bread and rolled up in my buffalo robe and slept as sweetly as if I was in Eden.”

Trevor told us of an oil field worker who had frozen to death nearby, last week. Co-workers found him frozen, beside his pickup truck, a mere three hours after they parted company at the end of the work day. The snowstorm that accompanied that cold spell caused 400 auto wrecks between Evanston and Rawlins. He said all these things to impress upon us the inadvisability of sleeping in the tents. He told us much about the oil and gas business. He is an electrician.

The travails of Aeneas to found Rome against the elements and the odds seemed parallel with Preston’s odyssey. What Preston Thomas did redounds today. Mike and I calculated his posterity could number 26,000. He started with 21 children. If each of them had 7 children and succeeding generations had fewer and fewer until, in the generation that I am part of, each had 4 children, that is how you can arrive at the 26,000 figure. Many of these thousands believe in the cause of the restored gospel Preston espoused at the age of 30. The 1853 trip was in his 40th year.

My eyes got wind-burned late in the day. A “glory”, sun behind a cloud with rays streaming down, inspired my last minutes of daytime. Then, the sun behind the distant mountains in the west-southwest shone a conduit of orange, like a pipeline. This display lasted five to ten minutes, coming from the direction of the Salt Lake City Temple. It seemed to beckon me, as the hope thereof, for the actual temple had not yet been built, might have beckoned Preston Thomas. Poor Mike, limping behind me, was too lame in his feet and legs to lift his eyes from the path and be cheered by the scenic displays. We walked one and one-half hours in the dark.

The next morning we hitched a ride with trucker Dee Luce and his wife, Carmen Asher, back to Wamsutter. We are most grateful to them. Our walk was to take two days and end at Bitter Creek, but exhaustion overcame ambition. Our hostess at Wamsutter inquired about our walk. Heading north, we stopped at Martin’s Cove. Feeling somewhat revived by mid-afternoon, we walked 5 miles around the site, scaring deer and thinking about exhausted, cold, hungry pioneers that did and did not perish there.