An ad infinitum judgment of isolation is pinned to the town by the immutable saw-toothed ridges of the Absaroka and Beartooth Mountain ranges. As I step outside the truck to see the town from the proper height, the eclipse from a large tree envelops me in its satiny cold field. A puff of wind pushes strands of hair into chapstick. Clawing to locate and extract them, I step from the shadow into the light. Cars stowed on concrete porches, lower story windows boarded against a late afternoon sky alternating between aureate October lightness and winter gloom shedding snow like a strip tease, make for an ambiguous sense of place.
Lamps in upper story windows toss beacons of welcome. But the one sound – sips and sighs of intact blankets of smoke hanging above each chimney as they’re forced to separate and dissipate, arrests any notion of coziness. Make no mistake, winter here is serious and it’ll not stand for an outsider’s romanticized projection of it upon a town it’s preparing to overtake. It stamps the ground with a suffocating updraft; a demand for respect.
No faces have shown themselves and as I begin in earnest to discover one, I wonder if the 2nd coming hasn’t occurred during my drive from Cody, Wyoming leaving me the only hapless soul in town. There is but one road into Cooke City, Montana from the outside world. The wildness of Yellowstone’s Super Caldera lies on the other side. This is the end of the road. As I glance over a shoulder to see my exit darkening, I feel simultaneously favored and cursed by the chimerical scene before me.
I consider the effort to clamor into the Cooke City General Store for food (do boarded windows have adequate finger/footholds?) and try to imagine the eventuality of being eye level with 2nd story windows, elevated there by a platform of snow. Like lying on your back, head dangling from the edge of a bed while pretending the floor is the ceiling, the ceiling the floor, it’s a strangely appealing, altered perspective.
Cooke City, Montana has done with its remote birthright what it could. First mining, then Yellowstone National Park. Originally named Shoo-Fly, the mining town was renamed in 1880 in an attempt to flatter a Northern Pacific Railroad executive into putting a stop there. Coming over BearTooth Pass at 10,974 feet on Highway 212 out of Red Lodge, Montana or Dead Indian Pass, 8,066 feet on the Chief Joseph Highway out of Cody with views of the Absaroka’s Pilot and Index Peaks (11,708 & 11,313 feet) should have given the townspeople clues as to the outcome of their flattery – no way, no how. In 1877 this country helped hide the Nez Perce Chief Joseph and his 800 or so band of hold-outs from General Howard’s 2,000 strong Cavalry for three months. Railroads don’t go where outnumbered bands of undersupplied men on horseback can elude a United States army for months.
Cooke City has a year-round population approximating 100. Three hundred cavort on the one paved street in the summer months of July and August. Even though it’s considered Yellowstone’s Northeast entrance gateway community, Silver Gate, a few miles past Cooke City, actually claims the ranger station.
Take note, if you’ve not entered the Park through this least-traveled entrance, you’re missing a lot more than a momentary gut-check about the 2nd coming. Yellowstone’s wildness is epitomized by this small community and the drive to get here.