Total Miles: 1329.0
It's amazing how quickly things can turn. Mountains are fickle like that, especially in the “shoulder season”—that no man’s land beyond the heart of summer where autumn can so often confuse itself with early winter. Expecting the unexpected, and being prepared for just about anything is what hiking in shoulder season is all about. The calendar may only say the seventh of September, but that shoulder season has arrived early to the Yellowstone highlands, as we would soon find out...
The road walking that began late yesterday afternoon continued for another 10 miles. A smooth ride that makes for easy and quick miles, but it's one that I've consistently struggled with mentally on this trail. I can't quite say exactly why, but my mind goes myopic and begins to work in a much more transactional fashion, trading the minutes for an internal calculation of the distance they represent. Not a good recipe for letting yourself go, enjoying the scenery—even what little there may be in the moment—and giving yourself over to whatever lies ahead. Roads have been my kryptonite.
The upshot of the speedy miles is that we quickly made our way to not one but two important thresholds. The first was reaching the boundary of Yellowstone National Park, albeit with about as understated a welcome sign as you could imagine. The second came only 2 miles farther, crossing into our 4th state of the hike: Wyoming.
Before we'd left town yesterday and gotten the trail back beneath our feet, the weather forecast for the next 10 days had nothing but sunshine, with one exception. Today, a significant cold front would be pushing the warm weather out to pasture and replacing it with temperatures at least 20 degrees colder along with a period of a few hours in the afternoon when there was a 50/50 chance of rain or even snow. Guess which 50 we got.
Hiking down the morning roads and eventually onto trail once again, the sun went from unimpeded to passing between a patchwork of clouds from the advancing front. The breeze was still little to none and the day was still pleasant and comfortable.
As 3:00 passed into 4:00, however, the weather began to deteriorate rapidly. Thicker, more tempestuous clouds had shoved aside the earlier patchwork, the wind began to accelerate and tiny flecks of hail appeared here and there. On went the rain shells and mittens as we continued along essentially flat trail.
Within another 45 minutes, the hail that we'd smiled amusingly at was no longer just decorative. The wind had become a sustained force, and the cute hail was cute no more, the air now thick with snow being blown sideways on the breeze. On went the rain pants, rain mitts, and down jackets.
Sections of treeless meadow alternated with brief pockets of tree stands, with the former granting no quarter from the now full-fledged winter storm. We'd only hoped to make it another few miles, but after crossing another open meadow and realizing that the feeling in my fingers and toes was becoming an issue, I knew that Ace’s could only be worse. With an eye towards getting our hammocks setup safely before getting any colder, we decided that the extra miles could wait—it was time to hunker down in the nearby trees that offered at least decent protection from the brunt of the wind.
It may have been an early end to the day, but as we listened to the wind howl and watched the snow begin to pile up around us from the warmth of our cocoons of down, it was clearly the right decision. It may be a cold night—and an even colder morning—but the comfort of Old Faithful Village awaits a mere 11 miles ahead. In my mind, I'm already drinking the hot coffee and warming myself by the fire.