Driving Chief Joseph’s Highway in a Blizzard (With Cows)

Dude, Where's My Car?Our conference in Red Lodge ended this afternoon, yet before we could begin our trip back home to Yellowstone I had to shovel my buried car out from under two feet of snow. Even more impressive, the snowdrift covering the back of my vehicle rose to over three feet in height. 

The first storm of the season wanted to make a good impression and it certainly succeeded. Snow has fallen steadily since Thursday afternoon and has no intention of stopping.

Embracing the Horror of WinterShowing my usual good judgment, I decided to drive back to Yellowstone instead of staying an extra night in Red Lodge. I reasoned that my Subaru could handle the conditions—once I was able to unbury it—and the resulting boost in morale at escaping from ground zero of the snowstorm would certainly outweigh the dangers of travel.

What I didn’t factor into my thinking is that Montana and Wyoming consider plowed roads unnecessary and cowardly. What’s a mere two feet of snow to drive through since everyone here owns half ton trucks and snowmobiles?

Our Bovine GuidesI did not, however, lose all of my good sense. Despite venturing into the unknown, we took good winter travel precautions—before leaving we secured a pizza from Bogart’s and ensured the iPod was fully charged.

Chief Joseph’s Highway, named for the famous Nez Perce Indian Chief, runs 46 miles from Wyoming to the northeast corner of Yellowstone. It’s also known as Sunlight Basin Road, although I saw scant evidence of sun during our journey. Dead Indian Pass, which marks the highest point on the route, rises to 8,060 feet. And on this day, a blanket of snow covered the entire 46 miles of road.

Unlike the wet, heavy snow I was accustomed to in the Sierra Nevada, the light, powdery snow in the mountain west drifts across the land like “white smoke.” The wind, partnering with the snow, can transform the landscape into a blank white screen. Needless to say, this doesn’t make for ideal driving conditions. Yet the mighty power of the Subaru (and our pizza slices) propelled us over the pass, along with some friendly cows wandering the terrain, who acted as bovine cairns marking our route.

I surely do love winter!

Pilot and Index Peaks from Chief Joseph Highway