FAIRPLAY, Colorado — I crossed the border from Coutts, Alberta, Canada, into Sweet Grass, Montana, headed for Great Falls. The 120 long miles of brown plains under a big, mixed sky didn't feel like home, it felt like a memory. I'd re-familiarize myself on the Great Continental Divide Trail, a 2,767-mile plunge south to Antelope Wells, New Mexico, serving as my highway to wheeling adventures in the states along the route.
Some rubber housekeeping came first. I had a patched tire from my incident on the Dempster Highway and a flat from wheeling with MudBudz in Cadomin. I paid a visit to Lithia Jeep in Great Falls for two new rear tires and had a long chat with service manager Bill Riter. He's a Wyoming native who'd been wrenching and wheeling for decades. I asked if he knew any good trails in Wyoming, he recommended Moon Lake, near Dubois.
When I asked if the trail would truly tax the Jeep, Riter said, "Those last three miles, oh, definitely." And when I asked if it'd be a good place to camp, he asked if I had a rooftop tent. I said I didn't. He advised against camping.
"Bears," he said. "You'll be at snack height."
After the dealer, I celebrated overcoming the trip's first real challenge in Alberta, decorating the Wrangler's windshield with stickers calling out the fine folks at Rugged Ridge, MudBudz Wheelin, Barlow Adventures and patron saint Nena Barlowe, Factor 55, Leatherman, and LED Lenser.
Falcon 55 had given me a closed-loop hitch receiver shackle mount. There's only a single open hook under the Rubicon's rear bumper that points to the right; if you need a second winch point in the back to run a cable to the right of the vehicle, you're hosed. The Falcon 55 hitch shackle mount lets you do what needs to be done on either side, a brilliant piece of insurance. Leatherman gifted me three multitools, which came in handy when fuses started blowing in Wyoming. LED Lenser sent two flashlights and a headlight. These were the biggest surprise. They're made in the U.S., packaged like luxury goods, come with rechargeable batteries and cables, and are fantastic. The first time I turned on the MT18 in Canada I laughed out loud, in shock at the klieg lighting. I shone it into space and saw Starman in his Tesla Roadster 218 million miles away. He waved.
Patched and clean, I hit the highway to the Great Continental Divide Trail in the Helena National Forest. I cut through a corner of Flathead National Forest to Basin, then through wild public lands to reach Bernice and Butte. Between the ripped-up trails, farms, gated grazing lands, and hunting season, Montana was a festival of detours, map checking, and getting out to open and close gates. Cool, rainy, serene weather meant I didn't mind. This part of Montana was long brown valleys, brown hills tufted with stands of dark evergreens, alpine forests and meadows, a nerve system anatomy of creeks, rivers and lakes, and a great big blue sky that represents truth in tourism.
In the Beaverhead National Forest, I took a fork to the right and trundled in drizzle along a short ridge before a lengthy dive downhill. Scruffy trail turned into shale track, slicked by rain, 23 degrees on average, 27 at its steepest. At the bottom, I rounded a few bends that put me into a stand of trees and back onto dirt. A hundred yards down the way, cows emerged from the woods, followed by five mounted cowboys — leather hats, dusters, rifles, the real deal.
One of the cowboys rode back to me like he couldn't believe what he was seeing. I felt the same way. I rolled down my window. He shouted, "How did you get down here?! This ain't a road!" I explained myself, and he asked me to hang back for 15 minutes so the other cowboys could get the cattle down the trail some. While we chatted, he offered me a swig of homemade blackberry brandy from a repurposed, flask-shaped Hennessey bottle. I took a swig. Powerful stuff. We chatted some more, he offered another swig. I took it. "We live up here," he said. "We need this to stay warm." The brandy does its job. I'm still warm.
I crossed the northeastern boot tip of Idaho through more rain, on my way to Dubois. The end-of-season bustle of pickups, RVs, ATVs, and side-by-sides made do with wet fall colors, soggy trails, saturated plains, moody skies. Then came Wyoming, the Grand Tetons standing over Jackson Lake. And hordes of tour buses.
Dubois counts 971 people living at an elevation of 6,946 feet. The climb to Moon Lake starts with a wide dirt road, narrowing to gorgeous, rocky singletrack by the time you reach Moon Lake Trail at 9,800 feet. Dappled light flickered over a meandering, snow-dusted scrub. Three miles from the lake, the trail turned into boulder fields hidden by snow, mud, and water. I trusted the Jeep to get through so long as I picked a decent line and drove smart. Riter hadn't been joking. I'd driven the first 23 miles out of Dubois in a little more than two hours. The final three miles took a solid hour of crawling, pitching, tilting, sliding, and crunching. I said a silent "Thank you" to MudBudz and Spencer again; without the recent snow experience in Cadomin, those three miles would have taken days.
The last pip of trail to Moon Lake was another 23-degree tilt through tress, stumps, roots and rocks, maxing out at 27 degrees according to the Jeep's off-road gauges. I drove down only to see if I could make it back up. I ate a small lunch in the snow next to steel blue waters. After a 38-point turn to get the Jeep pointed up the hill, some walking, false starts, and a lot of throttle and a few BFG trenches, the Jeep got up.
A couple days later, I had to drive from Pinedale to Rawlins using back roads tracing the southeastern edge of the Bridger-Teton National Forest. I neglected to check how far the day's route was. Mistake. Wyoming, my favorite state, ambushes man and beast with violent, volatile weather. I started under livid skies and snow flurries, then came falling slush, turning the dirt into a mash of mud and ice that's the worst of both substances. A few miles beyond snow-dusted Atlantic City, the landscape looked like early autumn — cool, clear skies, umber ground. Then more slush and snow as the sun set somewhere behind the hazy white. Frozen mud soon caked the front and sides of the Jeep. Then darkness.
I hadn't seen a town or a human for more than an hour. Natives had the good sense to be out of this frozen brew, off this goat track. I checked the GPS. 97 miles to go to Rawlins. Oops. I slid off the road once, going too fast into a turn. I drove slower. Rawlins got further away. The Jeep picked up so much mush I had to beat it off the front — it froze on everything except the Mopar five-inchers. When I came to a cattle gate that needed opening, I had to repeatedly shoulder check the driver's door to get out. You gotta be a hard unit to live in Wyoming year-round. I reached Rawlins at 9:30 pm, after nearly 12 hours on the road, the Wrangler coated in a quarter-inch of frozen gunk.
I thawed out in Rawlins for longer than planned. A bad snow closed the I-80, a highway I needed to reach the next point on the trail. When the highway opened, my Garmin stopped working; without that, I couldn't follow the trail. The one-into-three 12V adaptor I used for my GPS, dash cam, and 110V inverter had blown a fuse. If only Jeep saw fit to give its hardest-core adventure vehicle more than one 12V outlet up front. The Wrangler uses a horde of Micro II two-blade fuses, which no nearby auto parts stores stocked. This being a Sunday, the dealer was closed. On Monday I bought a few fuses and headed for Colorado. A new set of alpine adventures awaited.
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