Montana Headwall » Head Trip

Oh, Pioneers!

A newbie backpack trip to Torrey Lake that would make Darwin proud



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And yet, for whatever reason—perhaps the old spirit in me, or the principle of the thing, or Jason's gentle coaxing—the two of us decided to shake our fists at the sky and go through with our plans. We figured we'd spend one night out instead of two, owing to the forecast. If it got really bad we could turn around and hike the 17 miles in a day.

The night before the departure we sat on my apartment floor sorting out what to bring.

"This will be the first time I've actually backpacked," Jason announced as we sat amidst the sleeping bags and fishing gear.

I paused, stunned. I was the transplant here. Jason grew up in the Northwest. How had he missed backpacking?

"Um...well...put the heavy stuff lower in your pack and close to your body," I offered, lamely.

At this point I took a really hard look at the gear strewn around us. And it hit me. There, surrounded by food, clothes, tent and other sundry items, Packus everythingius was about to make the mistake so common to that species.

We were going to be gone one night, and he was cramming enough food and clothing into his pack for a week-long expedition, including a thick, inflatable bedroll suitable for car-camping and a two-foot-long plastic, foam-filled, vinyl-encased box for his fishing rod.

"Are you sure you really want to bring all of that?" I asked. My spinning set was tied up with rubber bands.

"Why not?" he innocently replied.

Jason and I both enjoy sleeping till noon—something I loved about him after having been married to a fanatically early riser. Somehow we managed to hit the road by seven.

It only took a few seconds to load my stuff in the truck. I was bringing a daypack, an uber-light setup I'd used even on weeklong trips. Jason was still carrying enough for a trek up Everest, minus the sherpas, and with an ill-fitting, Costco-bought pack that dug into his shoulders. When I'd tried to give him advice the night before, he'd just smiled and said, "I can handle it," and went back to packing. I'd kept my mouth shut.

After leaving I-15 for Montana Highway 43-W, we drove the scenic serpentine along the Big Hole River toward the town of Wise River, the start of the 49-mile Pioneer Mountains Scenic Byway. Fly fishermen cast their lines in the early light, appeasing the urges, common to Montana males, to stand in frigid waters hoping something would bite their lures.

The miles drifted away with each fisherman. So did my confidence.

"Did we already pass Wise River?"

"I don't think so ... maybe," Jason offered.

"Pull over, please," I said.

He stopped at the next sight of a fisherman, and I hopped out.

"Excuse me, sir, where's the Pioneer Scenic Byway?"

The angler turned watery eyes toward me, his nose red with the telltale signs of long years of alcohol consumption.

"Pioneer? There's no such thing. You mean the Pintler Scenic Loop. Well, you're in the wrong place. You need to..."

I interrupted him. "No, no—the Pioneer Scenic highway—it goes between the Pioneer Mountains..."

He stared at me blankly.

I sighed. "Where's Wise River? The town?"

He smiled a near-toothless grin and pointed in the direction we were heading. "Just go down there another half hour or so and you'll find it."

Five minutes later, and with a huge sigh of relief at not having been lost after all, we reached Wise River and its six buildings—two of which are bars—and headed south on the byway, past the mountains, pastures, and old homesteads in a landscape that has changed little in centuries. The meadows and hillsides, surprisingly, still clung to their early summer green.

Twenty-two miles down the road we pulled into the Mono Creek parking lot. The cold air froze my sandaled feet almost instantly upon our arrival, but the sky held some promise of sunshine, so we decided to camp at the lake. A group of horse packers studied us for a while as we organized our gear, then one of them walked over and asked about our plans.

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