The trouble is that this doesn’t feel like an ending. The sun has tucked itself neatly below the Salish mountains, the perfect purple-pink glow long since faded to black. The last wistful note of Jason Isbell’s “Outfit” settles in the air as the festival audience erupts into whoops and cheers. With the dimming of the stage lights, you’d almost expect credits to roll. But standing here, among the satisfied crowd now moving toward the exit, I don’t feel any closure.
Which is not a natural way to approach a concert, anyway. But pitch an adventure story and you better have some idea how it’ll end. This one was as easy as these things get: the pandemic had forced me to give up the life of road trips and concerts, long nights and longer drives. I traded them in for hours by my steel-barred street-level Brooklyn window, watching ambulances from Iowa, New Hampshire, and Alabama responding Code-3. Sirens and situps and stir craziness, watching the world burn through a three-by-two pane and thanking whatever I could that the flames had spared me. Every glance at a screen brought the heat closer to my face.
So I put on headphones and closed my eyes. Isbell, a name I had only heard in passing before that March, became my prophet through songs about redemption and hope, about what it means to be saved. Songs that made me realize that, despite my self-proclaimed love of music, I hadn’t been listening to much with substance. Songs that opened me up to more songs, art that made me understand the art form. First it was more of the same style, Turnpike Troubadours and Tyler Childers. Then it was everything. Actually listening, this time, to Fleetwood Mac, Queens of the Stone Age, Radiohead, Kanye West, The Band, and Nickel Creek. It wasn’t just that Isbell had given me a perfect album in Southeastern. It was that he had given me a perfect album at the perfect time, one that had opened me up to a musical renaissance when I was desperately searching for any sort of color in my life.
And then, after a year of voracious musical discovery without a single concert, I heard that Isbell would be headlining an Americana festival in the shadow of Glacier National Park. A fortuitously timed email from an overlanding outfit made the opportunity too good to pass up. Three phone calls to three friends in two cities sealed it. After a year without road trips, concerts, or impromptu visits with friends, a year without all of the things I thought made me who I was, I’d plan my best trip yet. A 2000-mile epic through Yellowstone, Big Sky, Glacier, and Whitefish with an Isbell concert as the grand finale. A perfect bookend, closure on a bizarre and traumatic part of my life.
Standing in the parking lot of Rossmonster Rentals, I can feel the validation. It’s the first time we’re seeing the Baja overlander organized for this trip, in all its lifted, brutish glory. Zoey, the company representative, begins the walkaround, showing off the integrated batteries and solar array, the induction burner, the raising top, the queen bed, the on-board fridge. Amir, Mark, Zach, and I trade glances and smiles, the sly grins of men that feel like they’re getting away with something. Surely our schleppy bodies shouldn’t be anywhere near a $200,000 apocalyptic fantasy machine. She hands us the keys anyway.
Night’s already on the mind. It’s 5 p.m. in Longmont, Colorado and the brightest hours are behind us. The mission is no sleep until Yellowstone. Five hundred and twelve miles is the challenge; over 1500 more lay between the Bridge Bay Campground and our eventual return. The first step is always only that.
Rhythm in these parts isn’t hard to find. The suburban slog slips away as we enter the great expanse and the Rockies rise in the distance like a quarantine sourdough starter. Peaks point us toward the Wyoming line; the towering Ford hits its stride at 80 mph and sways gently as it goes. The three of us trade aux-cord time and album recommendations, stories and jokes, occasionally pausing in awe as the scenery keeps on getting better. The distant mountains in the windshield become wallpaper viewed from side windows, with tufted grass and thin red soil texturing the unyielding wavy earth.
Pine trees and amber grasslands, plateaus and bare rock, deep greens and dry reds; the borderlands straddling the Wyoming line are anything but monotonous. There’s more natural diversity in these hundred miles than most states could claim in totality. The variation feels unending until it ends all the same. Somewhere along I-80 we catch up to Wyoming’s reputation. The towering rock formations and proud pines shrink and vanish in the tow mirrors. Emptiness takes their place.
It comes at a scale and totality unseen back East. Forty-mile stretches without a building in sight, dry grass running to the horizon and then a dozen miles more. Nothingness that plays for keeps. Highway exits become moments of occasion; real towns cause for celebration. With sunset on its way, we know the last gasps of cell service are best spent on finding dinner before the stoplights in these two-street towns start blinking.
Our last chance is Rawlins, an interstate town with a Marriott, a town center, and the only Wal-Mart for a hundred miles in any direction. The city counted 8221 residents in 2020, down about a thousand over the decade. You can feel that attrition in the quietness of the town center at 8:00 p.m., see it in the empty storefronts. Its tidy population makes it about half the size of the compact Cleveland suburb where I was raised. Out here, it’s the 12th most populous city in its state. Emptiness reigns.
By the time we’ve wolfed down meatball subs and pizza, the street lights are flickering on. Warm dusk is traded in for incandescents on the interstate until the traffic thins and the lampposts run out. Turning off of I-80 onto the country two-lanes, darkness comes like floodwater. It envelops us, seeping over every patch of light until all that’s left are the twin beams radiating from the Baja. Only the occasional passing truck interrupts the blackness.
Still a few hundred miles to go and the white lines are gettin’ longer. I’m trying to keep my mind alive through the monotony when Amir stirs behind me. About an hour’s time until the International Space Station passes overhead, he says, and the sky’s definitely dark enough to see it. We press on, buoyed by the new touchstone until the moment arrives.
The sight itself isn’t much. A bright light drifting across the sky. One of those moments, small yet saturated with significance, a chance to witness the absurdity of human exploration. That a dot drifting among the stars contains a remote enclave of human existence beggars belief. That it sits just an inch from us on the celestial scale is all the more unbelievable. Set against the everything and nothing of space, the ground below empty without end, the softly pulsing stars expose the frivolousness. A whole life running down roads like this wouldn’t reveal an inch of what we know to be, let alone the rest. Exploration is a goal without mortal end.
It feels infinite in the moment. The space station blinks again and slips effortlessly over the horizon, bound to wrap the globe thousands of times more. We get just a flash, a moment of reflection, before the reality of a hundred more miles sinks in. Exhausted from flying and driving, I hand the wheel to Zach for the last leg into the Promised Land. The music’s gotten softer in content and volume, the talk more sporadic and introspective. The crew holds on because we’re too close to stop now.
What would be a spectacular sprint to the finish looks forgettable in the darkness. The entrance of Grand Teton National Park is unoccupied and uninterested in our passing, the tall trunks clipped at their base by the cutoff point of the headlights. Winding roads and trees by the truckload, dazzling auxiliary lights and darting wildlife. The indifferent emptiness of the plains traded for eerie desolation. The roads and their signs were clearly built for the tourists, who have all doused their fires and sealed their tents.
So our first park passes without event or enchantment, a mass of gray trees against limitless blackness. The entrance to Yellowstone is just as unremarkable in the night, during which the gem of the great American West is nothing but a winding two-lane abutted by the same lumber that defined our brief Teton trip. Already creeping anxiety begins to set in. Twenty-four years of hearing about the most beautiful place in the world set unbearable expectations. To see mortal trees and unadorned campgrounds suggested what I thought I already knew. No natural place could live up to Yellowstone’s reputation. Even imagination couldn’t muster up a scene good enough to match the stories.
Dawn revealed what my own dreams couldn’t. I wasn’t just wrong to worry, I was wrong on a Biblical scale, wrong in the company of Neville Chamberlain and the Mayan calendar. At breakfast you could feel it in the stillness of the air and by lunch it was pounding me over the head. The depth and power of my wrongness assaulted me at every turnoff in the road, each an opportunity to stare slack-jawed at the best evidence yet for God’s existence.
We rarely go more than three minutes up the road toward the geysers without stopping to take it in. Spectacular in scale and intricate in its every detail, this landscape feels shaped by the elements into a state of serene perfection achievable only in nature. The glistening volcanic lake and the roaming bison, the daunting mountaintops and the craggy ravines, all of it makes you want to grab Teddy Roosevelt by the suspenders and plant one right on his big bushy mustache. The choice to preserve this and places like it remains one of this nation’s greatest achievements. So obvious was this need that Yellowstone was given protection and care by the U.S. Army 30 years before the Papa Bear of Parks created the agency that now maintains it. This land is so beautiful it gets its own battalion.
Can’t imagine it was hard to find soldiers for that force. One afternoon in Yellowstone is more persuasive than every high school Army recruiting presentation put together. Sixty percent of this Earth’s geysers bubble in these woods, with Old Faithful not cracking the top ten in terms of beauty. Tropical blues and impossible oranges all shouting for your attention. The beauty is so overwhelming it explodes out of the ground and singes your nostrils.
Miles of walking later and we’re not ready for it to end. We fall back into the Baja, more grateful to Zach than we thought possible for sweet-talking the park staff into letting us stay another night even though the campground is booked solid. Forget the next stop on the trip; being here forever sounds all right. The new campsite is even better, with a view of Yellowstone Lake enchanting enough to relieve you of your senses. There’s no argument when Zach proposes trekking across the grassy, tick-covered field for a not-so-legal swim.
Braving the biting cold, Amir and Zach charge in while Mark and I shiver. It’s hard to tell if it’s the view or the cold, but the breath’s left my body all the same. A red-tinged sky, a crystal-clear lake, an island silhouetted against the mountain; it’s a Thomas Cole rendered in real life. It stands to reason that there must be one perfect place where all of the world’s most beautiful features meet. It just doesn’t make sense that I’m standing in it.
Cold and satisfied, we trudge back through the field for hot dogs and whiskey, participants in a grand American tradition. But this sacred land hasn’t shown its entire hand. As the boys stoke the fire, we’re treated to a sunset that could end a movie. This is the one that, in a year where I’ve tried to see as many as possible, makes every other day feel incomplete. The colors and the tranquility stop me in my tracks. I stand in the field in silence and just let it happen, trying at first to capture it in my camera, learning yet again that the best things can’t ever be contained. I’m reminded of Roosevelt again, this time his quote about the Grand Canyon.
“Leave it as it is,” he said. “You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see.”
To believe that, he must have felt what I can feel here: a totality of conviction that spans generations. I myself am proof that even his audience’s children’s children’s children benefit from that love. Realizing that he felt it for an entirely different but equally majestic place only makes it more exciting. Because the next morning, on our way out, we made it to the similarly-named Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. A cascading rush of pristine blue-green water, bounded by vaulted yellow stone walls, accented by skyscraping pines that looked almost dainty thanks to the sheer scale of their surroundings, an unfathomable wonder the likes of which none of us had seen. Our jaws didn’t quite shut the whole time we stood there, transfixed. To think that this is not even our nation’s grandest canyon is to reckon again with the endlessness of it all.
We couldn’t shake it as we ambled north and west in the vague direction of Kalispell, Montana. From backcountry camping in Flathead National Forest to dipping in the glacial runoff of the West’s largest freshwater lake, each bend in the highway revealed a new chance to revel in the glory. The wonders we saw are not just staggering in their individual beauty, but in their abundance and accessibility, their essential goodness inexhaustible on a human scale.
No one trip would be enough to see it all. We had both too little time at Yellowstone and too much, seeing a tiny fraction of it but pushing Glacier National park out of reach for our six-day trip. Before the lights came on at Under the Big Sky, we’d already agreed to come back next year, maybe that time hitting Olympic and Glacier. And of course in between we’d have to see Yosemite, maybe Zion too. After all of this it’d be insane to doubt Teddy, so add the Grand Canyon to the list.
This trip would be one we could never forget. Countless miles of great music and great scenery, discussing the big questions over campfires and open roads. Closer to answering some questions but brimming with new ones. Newfound love for overlanding, country music, each other, and the great outdoors. Not that love was lacking in any of those categories to begin with; there’s just more of it now.
We walk through the gates of the festival somewhat new men, or at least better versions of the men who landed in Colorado. Here for another thing that can’t live up to expectations until it does. Because it’s not just Isbell. It’s Paul Cauthen and Mipso, Colter Wall and Emmylou Harris. Beauty as infinite as the West, as captivating as these mountains. It’s only natural that Isbell doesn’t feel like an ending. There’s none in sight. We’ve still got a whole second day at the festival, and a thousand miles after that.