Fall



You might drive right through the town of Red Lodge, Montana on your way to the northern gate of Yellowstone Park. That would be a mistake. Because Red Lodge is more than a mere gateway town: this historic town of  2300 souls is a destination in its own right, one you don’t want to miss if you’re headed out west.

During the first week of September, my husband, sister, and brother-in-law flew into Billings, Montana, rented an SUV, and drove into Red Lodge where we had reservations at the Pollard Hotel for two nights. Friends of ours who live there—even though they travel all over the world—had invited us to visit their charming hometown. We arrived at lunchtime and weren’t due to meet them until that evening. It was a sunny fall day, with rain expected the following day, so we decided to take the acclaimed Beartooth All American Road (Highway 212) to the famous Beartooth Pass. After all, Charles Kuralt from the television show On the Road had called the route “the most beautiful drive in America.” Why not check it out for ourselves? We purchased a Styrofoam cooler and sandwich fixings at a local supermarket and headed out to explore.

Taking the Beartooth Highway.

We’re climbing, and climbing, and climbing…! After stopping at a turnout for a photo-op at 8000’ elevation, we enter a series of switchbacks that take us over 1,500 feet in seven miles. Lush forests and pristine vistas rapidly change to twisted gray trees and alpine tundra. There’s a story behind those massive chain-link fences we’re seeing. In May of 2005, a week before the highway was scheduled to open, nine inches of rain fell in three days, causing a massive mudslide that tore down the canyon, dislodging more than 500,000 cubic tons of rock. The reconstruction effort that summer cost $20 million, the same amount (adjusted for inflation) that was spent to build the road in the 1930s.

About 20 miles into this adventure, we reach Vista Point Rest Area. As we leave the parking lot, we round a series of curves called the “Mae West curves,” after the buxom star of the 1930s. Reportedly, that descriptive sign was taken down because it was too risqué! After rounding those curves, we’re astonished by the expansive vista to our right called the “Hellroaring Plateau.” The road climbing that side of the valley covers the same elevation gain in half the miles, it’s unpaved and rocky, and there are no guardrails. Needless to say, we’re not going there!

After exactly 23.9 miles on Hwy 212, we spot the Welcome to Wyoming sign, reportedly the highest welcome sign in the U.S. This is also the 45th Parallel, meaning we’re now halfway between the North Pole and the equator. At 27 miles, we reach Beartooth Basin. Here you can ski at 10,000 feet during your summer vacation. Just check beartoothbasin.com for conditions. Thanks, but no thanks! Soon after the basin we spot the Gardner Lake pullout. What an incredible view of stunning cobalt-blue lakes set into undulating waves of rock! It’s an ideal setting for selfies, but you could die if you keep stepping back to get that perfect shot. We decide to take pics of our mates instead, yelling “smile but don’t move!”

 

Suddenly we realize that we must head back from here if we are to be back at our hotel in time to check in and enjoy the evening. On the way back, we stop again at the Vista Point rest area to enjoy our lunch.

Beartooth

Wayfinding on the Beartooth.

Historic Red Lodge.

The Pollard Hotel is fascinating. Built in 1893, this was the first brick building in town, cost $20,000 to build and had 35 rooms. A glass case in the sitting room displays and explains its history. Famous guests include William E. “Buffalo Bill” Cody, Martha “Calamity Jane” Cannary, and John “Liver-eatin” Johnston. Our friends Don and Rebecca join us for drinks and dinner. We have a marvelous time. Of course, they advise us what to see in their historic town the next day.

We spend the morning walking the town, beginning with the Carbon County Historical Society and Museum. In 1990, this three-story Labor Temple building was gifted to the Historical Society. It had been built in 1909 by the Red Lodge Miners Local No. 1771 and put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. The basement level contains an excellent interactive coal and hard rock mine exhibit. Afterward, we take the downtown walking tour, five blocks of Broadway lined with historic brick buildings on both sides: the Carbon County Courthouse, the Blackburn Building, the Red Lodge State Bank, and finally, the Carbon County Bank where Kid Curry and the Sundance Kid were reportedly captured after a foiled bank robbery. Before turning back we stop at a few art galleries and the old railroad terminal.

Broadway main street in Red Lodge

Broadway the main street of Red Lodge.

Driving through the Wilderness: the West Fork of Rock Creek.

We have the afternoon free, so we decide to take a self-guided sightseeing drive until the rain comes. At Gunter’s urging, John turns onto “the road less traveled” past the local Red Lodge ski area, the Girl Scout camp, and up into the wilderness. We have no idea where we are until we see a You Are Here sign. We’re at the West Fork of Rock Creek Trailhead in the million-acre Absoroka-Beartooth National Wilderness—one of the highest and most rugged areas in the lower 48 states. Yep! Gunter has a reputation for getting us into adventurous “situations.” But we’re here so we may as well…drive onwards. There must be more to see.

We’re all alone back here. We stop, park on the gravel road, and listen to the creek. No-one wants to break the silence, but occasionally we whisper to each other. Please take a minute to see what I saw and hear what I heard:

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Rain clouds are forming and AAA might not want to rescue us here, so we hightail back to Red Lodge. We rest in our hotel while a soft rain drenches this town we have come to love. In the evening, our friends meet us in the hotel’s main dining room where they have made reservations to kick back and experience their favorite local band, The High Country Cowboys. What a way to conclude a memorable stay in this quaint-but-fun mountain town!

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page.


“To plant a tree is to believe in tomorrow.”

Planted Maple

Lois stands by one of the six maple trees she planted at Northern Bliss. She also planted a variety of ornamental trees and bushes. She calls this phase 1, a start toward replacing those 22 trees lost during the tornado.

Natural disasters take their toll on the environment, but also on the human spirit. At first, everyone rallies around the victims. The disaster—flood, fire, hurricane or tornado—dominates the news cycle. Reporters interview eyewitnesses; curious onlookers drive by to view the destruction; scrappers and scammers come a’callin.’ At first, survivors of disasters are fueled by adrenaline. They are thankful that they and their families are safe. “It could have been worse,” they mutter while surveying their ravaged homes and property.

But in less than a week the news dies down, immediate help is gone, and victims are left alone to clean up the mess. Recovery is a much longer process than most expect. Insurance companies are swamped with claims and professional services are overloaded. Soon the realization hits home: the damage is worse than they thought. Cleanup will take a lot of time and resources. Many survivors have to go back to their “real jobs” while they continue to restore their property on weekends.

On July 19th 2019, Gunter and I, along with his siblings, experienced a F2 tornado at Northern Bliss, our summer lake home in Wisconsin. I published a story about the storm and its immediate aftermath. That story ends on Saturday evening, the day after the tornado, when all of our helpers left to go back to their families and jobs. This story is about our recovery process—internal and external—that still continues 2 ½ months later.

We were more fortunate than most; we four seniors were alone for just one day before my grandson Brett and my son Jeff and arrived in his work truck complete with log splitter and tool chest. They had driven straight through from Houston to come to our aid! After evaluating the situation, it was clear that the two of them could only do part of the work, a tree service replete with heavy equipment would be necessary. Professional tree services I’d used in the past weren’t even returning calls. We would have to hire one of the men who had stopped by to offer their services. By Monday, we had engaged Nemo Tree Removal Services to topple the trees that had partially fallen, haul away the root balls, and saw up the rest. For days, they cut trees, dumping branches into one pile and cut logs into another while Jeff and Brett worked the splitter. Nemo fished some trees out the lake. In one case, he employed two cranes with baskets, working in sync, to remove a monstrous oak branch that could fall onto the house during a storm. We discovered that an enormous old oak we’d hoped to save had a gash so large that it too, threatened the house. Always, there were decisions to be made—which trees had to go and which ones could be saved. Each time yet another of the few remaining trees had to come down, my heart sank. In all, we lost 22 trees on our one acre of land. On a 100-foot section of lakeshore, every tree fell.

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Mike, the roofer we’d used to remodel the cabin last year, helped that first week as well. What a relief to have that job done quickly! Part of a branch was still inside the roof. Mike repaired the structural damage and provided estimates for interior repair to the kitchen and rec room to be done over the winter. Our insurance company had over 400 claims and only 4-5 adjustors, so work had to be subcontracted. The adjustor assigned to us lived in Duluth, Minnesota—over 100 miles away. Needless to say, claim processing and payouts proceeded at a snail’s pace. My job was to file claims as soon as we received estimates. The process was frustrating: I learned that trees are not covered unless they cause damage to housing or structures. They don’t pay for prevention, e.g., trees that had been so damaged that they might fall on a structure in the future.

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Disaster work crews—whether public or private—proceed on a triage basis. That makes sense, but slows down the process of recovery for homeowners. Clearing fallen trees from rural roads for electric line workers and emergency vehicles is the first priority for local governments; clearing driveways to get to those roads, and providing access to home entries are the first priority for commercial workers. Think snowstorms, except that trees instead of blizzards were preventing access. The next priorities are clearing trees that have fallen against structures. Trees down at the lake or in a back yard are last priority. All this means that in our situation, work crews completed some emergency work, then moved on to other customers, returning to our place later. Stump grinding (necessary before replanting can begin) is the very end of the tree removal process. That was shoved out to the 4th week of recovery and beyond; in fact, we still have stumps to remove from the lakeshore before we can restore our lake bank.

It takes a while to process grief. After shock and denial comes anger. When I was in that phase, my friends were reassuring me, “You’ll make Bliss beautiful again—even better than it was before. Granted, it will never be the same, but it will still be a pleasant, peaceful retreat. That was difficult for me to believe. As I looked at the 60 feet between the house and the dock, all I could see was a tangle of trees that had fallen on top of each other like dominoes. I couldn’t even see the dock! I could make out a speck of white that I hoped was our pontoon, way out there past that jungle. Imagine seeing a 100-to-150-foot pine lying flat. Now imagine a pile of pines. I was tempted to climb on top of the stack to see what the dock looked like, but I didn’t dare. Safety first.

Trees being cut into wood

Worker on top of fallen trees

As the clean-up moved on, those tall trees were sawed into manageable lengths and stacked using skid steers that tore up what was left of the lawn. Branches were dumped into huge piles and eventually hauled off by the truckload to the woodchip factory in Luck. Always curious, I learned a lot about the logging process. The roar of skid steers, bobcats, and cranes and the continual buzz of chainsaws drowned out my anger; I had too much to do. I hadn’t made breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a work crew since I was a child growing up on a farm, but I soon remembered how to sandwich meal preparations for Jeff and Brett, in between laundering their work clothes and helping where I could.

I had entered the third phase of the grief process: bargaining. But not with God. With the tree services, insurance companies and loggers. I was consumed in a beehive of activity as the constant buzz of chainsaws continued from morning ‘til night all across the lake. Our world had closed in. It had become our family, our workers, our White Ash Lake neighbors—all compressed together and becoming one. When we had a minute to get on-line, we didn’t tune into news or politics; we checked the White Ash Lake Facebook page to see how folks across the lake were faring and what help they might need. We could see their damaged roofs and tarped windows; the wind had violently ripped away the privacy curtain of trees that had surrounded each home.

I began to appreciate gifts that the tornado had left behind: our bright red canoe; special clay pots; the renovated cabin and its rock gardens; the stalwart Swedish couple made of concrete who miraculously escaped between two falling trees; the deer statue Nemo lifted out of the lake with his crane. Gunter ordered a flagpole and a new U.S. flag. Jeff and Brett raised it one day as we all saluted. Brett rescued a garden trellis, pounded out the dents, and re-cemented it into place. I reattached the honeysuckle vine, which still lives. All these are precious now.

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After three weeks of nonstop activity, my son and grandson left and the same day previously- scheduled August visitors arrived. I smothered my exhaustion and tried my best to entertain. After both couples left, Gunter and I slumped into depression. The bliss and magic were gone and this beloved summer home no longer brought us joy. I took out my purple pen and journal and began to write. It was then I realized that I had been navigating the five stages of grief and had fallen into that dreaded fourth stage: depression. However, we had planned a September trip to Yellowstone and the Tetons with my sister Ret and her husband John, our favorite travel partners. We love to travel, but were we up to it? So much work remained.

Gunter had a great suggestion: “Why don’t you make a list of trees you want to plant? Get creative. Let’s do something new and different…now that those oaks and pines are gone.” My spirit lifted. I’d rather create than restore anytime! For the next few days, we tossed about ideas and came up with a list of nine trees and two shrubs that could be planted yet this fall. We would make another list for spring, when those recalcitrant tree stumps along the lake shore would be gone. I ordered the plants to be delivered from the nursery the week after we’d be back.

After a wonderful trip, we returned to Northern Bliss with renewed energy and vigor. Two weeks of that fresh mountain air had refreshed and invigorated us. Full of anticipation, we watched Abrahamson Nurseries deliver and plant the new trees. Pure bliss!

“Each tree you plant is a personal testament of your having lived,” ecologists say. Just the act of watering those new trees forced me to think beyond myself. For many years, we enjoyed the marvelous oaks and pines provided by those who came before us. Now, these new maples and ornamentals will be gifts to our children and grandchildren and for generations to come. As Author Nelson Henderson said, “The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”

And that fifth stage of grief: acceptance? We’re way beyond that! We’re into creating something new—another Paradise. Just you wait and see. We may even add a bench underneath those Autumn Blaze maples.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page.

 

 


This is the season I’m overcome with mixed emotions: I love the brilliant colors and subtle hues of autumn; I revel in the crisp cool air and bright blue skies, and I’m energized by the fierce storms magnified by crashing thunder and sparks of lightning. We have weather here.

But with each leaf that drifts toward the ground, covering it with a blanket of yellow, orange and brown, I’m reminded that winter is coming. And that’s the season I’d rather not be here. Trees are barren and stark. Shrubs slink back into sorry masses of yellow-brown brush. The landscape cries for a lid of pure snow to hide it all.

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Knowing what’s in store, I slog through the fall chores at Northern Bliss, our Wisconsin lake home.  I cut back the spent flowers—except for black-eyed susans, sunflowers, and any others with seeds or pods for the birds. I supervise the “fencing” of the fruit trees, so the deer don’t demolish them in the early spring before the forest grows its bounty. And I arrange for the pontoon, lift, and dock to be stored on the lake bank and alongside the garden shed—all the while cherishing memories of the delighted screams of grandchildren as they jumped off the pontoon into the lake or were pulled in a tube—a sport they call “tubing.”

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I buy butternut squash at the farmers market and bake an apple crisp to serve during the final week-end here when family and friends will stop by to say their goodbyes. Then next week, we’ll store all the lawn furniture and pots, winterize the cabin and set the heat in the main house to 50° to prepare for freezing temperatures; they can reach 30° below zero in January.

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We’ll soon return to our condo in San Diego and I know that when we watch the sun set over Sail Bay with streaks of orange and red, we’ll fall in love with the Pacific Ocean all over again. But for now, there’s a nostalgic sadness in my heart. I’m leaving my beloved Northern Bliss.

Upcoming blogs will continue the series covering our September trip from Germany down the Danube.

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