Our train rattled in to Shelby, Montana at 8.30am. It had been a very easy trip from Seattle, with the four of us sleeping comfortably in the family room on neat little beds. If you ever decide to Amtrak it from one side of America to the other with your family, I recommend you spend the extra money and get a family sleeper room. It gives you a private space to hang out as well as full dining service included. Our boys really love it.
Shelby. How to describe Shelby, Montana? Small, quiet, bordering on desolate. We got in early so had time to sit in the bright warm sun for a while before our ride came – Jeff Agamenoni and his kids plus their French home stay student. Jeff and his family offered to look after us whilst we were in Montana – we’ve known Jeff for ages through Twitter and later Facebook. We had a crazy fun time at Disneyland in 2012 with him and his family plus Dean Groom and his family. It was really sweet of Jeff to invite us to stay with him at his home in Great Falls, Montana. I’m just going to say right now that it was an unforgettable 5 days and 5 nights.
As soon as Jeff picked us up we headed towards Glacier National Park. It was quite a long drive from Shelby and this gave us plenty of time to catch up and admire the green, green expanses of Montana – oh how the Australian farmers would weep to witness it! Coming into Glacier NP we were greeted by the park ranger with his cool ranger hat – just like the ranger in Yogi Bear! Not long after driving into the park we ran into a line of still cars – it was what we quickly learned was a ‘bear jam’, a traffic jam caused by a bear sighting! Guess what type if bear it was? A grizzly bear! Guess where it was? Right beside our car in the shrubs! Pretty neat! It was a yearling – about the size of a small car and only a year old! We were very, very lucky to have seen such a rare, wonderful creature in its own habitat just foraging without a concern about us. Of course, having sighted a bear so soon made me very nervous on our hike to the waterfall!
The hike to the falls took about 45 minutes and it was such warm weather that my boys were quickly regretting wearing their new snow gloves. Luckily as we approached the falls they saw a patch of snow about two metres wide – it only took them a couple of seconds to race to it and begin launching snow balls at one another.
On the walk back from the falls – which were beautiful, tumbling into a pea green lake – Lee decided that he wanted to take a dip in the lake. Jeff and the others were shocked but I wasn’t. Lee loves to swim in strange places, especially very cold ones where not many people would go. I think he keeps a mental list. He didn’t have any board shirts – sorry, swimming trunks for the Americans reading – so he stripped off and jumped in in his undies. Crazy!
As we drove out of the park we were treated to another spectacular and rate site – a mother moose and her baby walking through the trees. Adorable! The mother moose was huge and had this gracious, slow gait whilst the little baby scurried behind her trying to keep up. When we thought we couldn’t get more lucky with our wildlife spotting, we saw something even more special – another grizzly bear! This one was climbing up the mountainside just alongside of the road. It was scuttling across rocks with ease. We watched it for ages until it disappeared into the maze of rocks and trees. We quickly learned that seeing one grizzly in the wild is rare, but seeing two is just crazy lucky. Yay!
The next trip saw us drive up a steep, slightly unnerving road in another part of Glacier. There we saw a big glacier covered in ice and a cool sort of canyon carved through the rocky mountainside by a rushing river. I can’t remember the name of this place, so if Jeff is reading he might be able to add those details as a comment below. We saw more wildlife, this time less rare – deer! So cute!
On the way back to Jeff’s house we stopped for burgers in a tiny little village and I fell in love – with huckleberry! This little tart berry the size of a blueberry is divine. We ate huckleberry pie with icecream and so began an obsession. Back at Jeff’s we met his funny dog Buster. He was so excited to meet us that he nearly knocked me over. Awww, we love Buster and as I type this I miss him. Jeff is a great host and made sure we were comfortable. The next day was, we happily discovered, a ‘rest day’ – just what we needed because our trip had been insane up until that point. We spent the day charging our devices, washing clothes and then we headed to the local swimming pool for some fun before the lightning storm hit. That night Lee and I made vegetarian lasagne and salad for everyone – a surprising hit with all the boys and so nice to have a taste of home cooked veggie food!
On Wednesday we were up super early to hit the highway – we were on our way to Yellowstone National Park! Hey, hey, Boo-Boo!! The trip there was awesome – we went along Beartooth HWY. I was forewarned by Jeff that I might not enjoy the drive so much, given my fear of heights and the fact that we were driving mountains up to 10,000ft! Despite the heights, I loved it. Seriously one of the most beautiful drives I’ve ever been on – it puts the Great Ocean Road and King’s Canyon to shame. The mountains were so green I can’t think of an adequate simile or metaphor to describe them. Even our photographs couldn’t capture the depth and range of that green – you just have to experience it through your own eyes. As the road climbed higher the valley floor spread open below us and we could see the slithering river far below, winding through rocks and trees. Looking up we could indulge in the white, white snow capping the mountain peaks. Looming over that vibrant white in the far distance were angry grey clouds and the spears of rain. It was about 50 degrees Fahrenheit and the boys were hoping for a further drop in temperature so the incoming rain would become fluffy white snow. Well, young boys will dream! Our first stop was ‘half way up’, according to Jeff, but it was so high up I felt giddy looking over the lookout. I was pretty glad to be distracted by the lively little chipmunks who were so tame they ate peanuts from our open hands. This provided the boys and I with so much laughter – there wasn’t time for me to sob about the height, no opportunity to embarrass myself in front of Jeff! Dragging ourselves from the tiny bundles of cuteness – the chipmunks, not Jeff, lol – we got back in the car and headed even higher up the mountains.
I was getting sort of nervous as I looked down over the edge of the narrow road, but suddenly it opened up into a winter wonderland of snow and sunshine! Our boys were nearly wetting themselves with excitement and before too long Jeff pulled up the car and we all rushed out onto the snow. There was more snow than our boys have ever seen and they were delighted. It was rather cold though and my decision to wear a dress without tights was quickly regretted. After about twenty minutes of mucking around in the snow, we once again headed back onto the highway. We were outrunning the rain now, making our way to Yellowstone NP.
Jeff had earlier organised a cabin for us to stay in, Sunrise Cabins, which he had stayed in with his family the week before. It’s just three easy miles from Yellowstone. The cabins were so cool – rustic with antlers tacked above the door, classic mountain-style accommodation. Jeff built a campfire for roasting hotdogs and s’mores whilst the boys played in the patches of snow around the cabins. The owner has a beautiful little puppy called Agnes who just loved the boys – well, the love was reciprocated once she showed them she was happy to play with them in the snow, digging holes and rolling about! After dinner the rain finally arrived, so we headed inside for an early night, knowing the next day would be big!
Waking at 5.30am, we were in the dining room for 6.15am for a delightfully healthy breakfast of fried eggs, homemade potato hash and slices of tomato. I even had a cup of chai tea. Before we knew it we were on the road, into Yellowstone and caught up in traffic. But this was good traffic – it was a bear jam! We climbed out of the car and joined the growing group of tourists standing on the road, staring into the green ahead of us. Quickly we saw her – a black bear no more than 20 metres away, foraging for flowers and other natural delicacies. To our surprise, we saw she had three adorable little cubs. They were initially happy to chase each other through the grass, but something spooked one of them, causing it to climb up a pine tree with the others hastily following it. You haven’t seen cute until you’ve seen three black bear cubs chasing each other up the narrow top of a pine tree. We could have watched them all day, but the rest of the park was waiting, so we got as many photos of the bears as we could and left.
The next stop was lower Yellowstone falls. Here I nearly lost my composure – the walk down to the top of the falls was steep and slippery. It had been raining in the morning. It was, however, worth the anxiety as I’ve never seen such a sight! The Yellowstone river is a powerful beast, fed by the melting snow from the mountains. It roared over the narrow rocky edge, careless of who or what lay in its way. We stood on the small ledge over the falls and looked down into the gurgling waters as they pounded into the river so, so far below. Wow. Another short drive took us to a second vantage point for the same waterfall, allowing us to fully appreciate its size and power! We took so many photos but I doubt any captured that beautiful sight.
As we threaded our way through the park we saw plenty more wildlife – mostly bison. I must confess, I loved them. Something about them is graceful yet grand. They seem almost wise. I know that’s weird, they are probably quite stupid animals. I just loved it when we came across one close to the road and we could look into its dark brown eyes as it looked back unconcerned by our presence. Awesome. Yellowstone is also know for its geothermal activity – it is the super volcano that could one day bring about the end of mankind after all! We stopped and checked out a lot of sulfur smelling pools of bubbling mud and boiling waters. The range of colours in these places impressed me most – from dull brown to emerald and turquoise water and rocks that came in all shades of orange, red and brown. There’s these little micro-organisms living in the hot waters of Yellowstone, blanketing the rock with colour. Of course we took the time to sit and wait for the famous geyser, Old Faithful, to put on its show. Boy was it busy! It amused me greatly that people waited over 30 minutes for it to erupt, only to leave within 5 minutes, not waiting to see its end. After all, it’s just water spouting out of the ground. I did think it was impressive, reminding us that there are much, much bigger forces at play in our world than those we humans can control. As we left the park we saw an elk and her three calves, totally cute! The long drive home to Great Falls was long and I can’t thank Jeff enough for being such a great guy and driving my family the whole way. You rock.
Friday was a day for the boys – trout fishing on the Missouri River. It was cool to finally get to hang out with Joanie, Jeff’s wife, cos she’d been working all week. She’s the first woman I’ve spent time with since my brief time with Suzie Boss in Portland! Joanie is so cool and funny – she taught me to make a great salsa and we joked about our men and boys. Moments I’ll treasure. The boys headed to the river – and Uncle Tom’s cabin – earlier. They took a row boat and some inflated inner tubes, cruising down that ice cold river – brrr! When we got to the cabin the rain had followed us – oops – so we all gathered in the cabin to eat salsa, guacamole and pickle dip with loads of chips, washed down by soda. So cool. The cabin was full of curiosities and I wish I’d taken more photos – the heads of a range of animals lined the walls, Uncle Tom is a hunter, and a basket of BB guns sat in the corner, much to the excitement of our 12 year old. After the rains quit it, we headed out to fish for trout. Despite a long time with no success, by the time the boys headed home they had caught three trout. One they brought home to cook.
That night we ate yummy home made tacos – soft shells, oh Australia you have a lot to learn! Then Joanie made her famous gooey butter cake, served with whipped cream and I thought I would have a heart attack! Probably the most decadent, rich and delicious cake I’ve ever eaten. It will be worth the heart palpitations!
Sadly, that ended our time in gorgeous Montana and as we said goodbye to Joanie at Shelby train station I actually felt like I could cry. We are insanely lucky to know such beautifully generous, funny, clever people. No words are good enough to describe or thank them. I hope this post will serve as a symbol of how much fun we had and how awesome we think the Agamenoni family is.