Not New Hampshire Anymore

Dana Benner's picture
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An Easterner’s drive along the Beartooth Scenic Byway.

How does one describe Hwy. 212, commonly called the Beartooth Scenic Byway? Travel magazines use superlatives like “amazing,” “magnificent,” and “a must-drive,” and while they all apply, the byway is much more than that and something different for everyone. This was my experience.

 Beartooth Highway

Summer in Cody, Wyoming: I had ten days to get a laundry-list of stories researched and put to bed, but many of the locals kept asking me, “Have you driven the Beartooth?” After about the tenth time, I decided to see what the fuss was all about.

Leaving early in the morning, my goal was to drive the Beartooth Highway out of Red Lodge and follow it to the junction with Chief Joseph Scenic Highway in Wyoming, and then take that back to Cody. Once on Hwy. 212, I didn’t really know what to expect, but how bad could it be? Growing up in New Hampshire, driving mountain roads was nothing new to me, and after all, we have Mount Washington. I soon found out that I wasn’t in New Hampshire anymore.

The highway quickly narrowed as I began climbing. As trucks and cars whizzed past, going down while I was going up, the distinct smell of burning brakes assualted my nostrils. During the climb, the road was barely two cars wide: to the left, a rocky cliff wall, and on the right, a sheer drop-off. I envisioned my demise every time a camper appeared from around the numerous blind curves. I’m sure the rental company is still trying to remove the marks my death-grip left on the steering wheel and clean that stain out of the seat… coffee stain, that is.

After a while, the climb leveled off and I took advantage of a pull-out. Then I saw it: a truly magnificent sight. I had no idea how high I was, but as I gazed down into the valley, I realized I was looking down at a soaring eagle. I figured that I had to be near the top. Yeah, that’s right, just around the next bend…

Climbing higher and higher, and rounding bend after bend, the top was nowhere in sight. I half-expected to see an oxygen mask drop out of the ceiling. I pulled over at the next available place. The views were breathtaking (or maybe it was the altitude). Not too far away, a marmot sat nibbling on a blade of grass. It looked at me as if to say, “Darn flatlander,” and then went about its business.

Marmot, Beartooth Highway

I finally made it to the top, somewhere around the 11,000-foot mark, and what greeted me was an alpine scene straight out of The Sound of Music. I expected Julie Andrews to come running across the hillside at any moment.

The Beartooth Scenic Byway is a true driving experience and I am glad that I did it. There is nothing like it back East. To fully get what this drive has to offer, take your time and drive slow. Stop often. Get out and walk around. Experience the adventure and take in all that you can. Photos are nice, but they only scratch the surface of the true experience. If any place can be called “God’s Country,” this is it.

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