The Devil’s Stairway

“There’s just one particular harbor … so far, and yet so near … ” — Jimmy Buffett, 1987

So how was I to know that in June of 1971, standing at the on ramp to I-95 outside Fort Liquordale, Florida, with my protruding thumb pointed north and west, that 72 hours later I would land a job washing dishes in Yellowstone National Park?

And how could I know that in 1976, after three years of being caught up in the running “boom,” that on b-day July 12th I would run 22 miles across Yellowstone’s Central Plateau, three times longer than any run I’d previously attempted?

Then surely I couldn’t know that after turning fiddy in 2001, that, in defiance of that fiddy milestone, I would run up Pikes Peak in the Ascent race, and even go back again in 2002.

Or that, left with a residue of fitness, I would go back and do the long Yellowstone run again that fall? Or that, in 2009, with the stiff heaviness of years of running skiing biking abusing, I would be back at it?

Best thing I’ve ever done.

Hayden Valley, the Central Plateau, is one of the few remaining wild epicenters in the Lower 48. The place crackles with electricity, charisma, danger. I’ve only gone in there alone.

It’s home of the grizzly — Hayden is where the famous brothers, Frank and John Craighead, did much of their research in the 1960s for their heralded book, “Track of the Grizzly.” I’ve never not seen grizzly sign back there.

It’s the stomping ground of the Nez Perce pack of wolves (and where, on another run, I was one sock away from slithering nekkid into a hot spring, and saw two cans of lupus adults that had been watching me from twenty yards away the whole time. They sauntered off; I slithered in).

Across the Central Plateau. Past geothermal areas that a dozen … few dozen? … of Yellowstone’s 3.5 million yearly visitors ever see, perhaps 0.0005%. (The Park Service does not permit backpacking anywhere along that 22-mile route.)

The trail over Mary Mountain and the Central Plateau follows the old stagecoach route before there was a Craig Pass out of Old Faithful in 1892. Coming in from the west, you still follow two-track before it crosses Nez Perce Creek and into thick lodgepole pine forests.

You sick MG-reading adrenaline-addicted enduro-fux don’t wanna do this chit. Go away.

Okay? Reason with me here.

Reason 1: It’s either 22 or 24 miles across, depending which signs you believe. Or 20.2 if you ask the backcountry office. Yes, the major predators are there (evidence of recent activity abounds): grizzlies and wolves, also the tormenting mosquitoes and the kamikaze deer flies in July. If you stop to adjust or glance at the map, you’re done. Blood donor. They’re insane back there. You bathe yourself in DEET, then you gotta keep moving. Your options are one.

Oh yes — it’s gorgeous in that primal Yellowstone kind of way as you jog along Nez Perce Creek, crossing the old wooden bridges, into the shady forest, across the floor of a volcanic caldera. Entering a special place. A portal back in time some eighty thousand years, before homo e-wrecked-us.

Reason 2: You’re gonna get mad at the trail. Because no one goes back there, and because there’s so much verdurous growth, you run into these open meadows and the trail disappears and you slow as you jog

through uneven sedges in the direction that feels right. The white part of an otherwise green topo map denotes marsh and it does not lie.

There’s one! An orange sign, and you pick up the pace back to an Anasazi Shuffle and consume more miles.

You stop and read a 60-year-old inter- pretive sign; you’re standing where Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce camped out on their terrible and sad retreat from the U.S. Army in August 1877.

Onward, then, through uncleared fallen lodgepoles. Damn lodgepoles! They’re ev- erywhere, and you gotta decide if walking around or climbing over is better again and now where’s the trail?

Then you get to run up and over Mary Mountain. Did I mention the mountain?

Dusty, crusty, obsidian and pulverized volcanic tuff, and it’s steep. You gotta leap back and forth over a small drainage for the best line, and the crushed obsidian acts like ball bearings, so you slip as it climbs to a twelve-percent grade.

(This was the Devil’s Stairway in the old stagecoach days. The dudes and dudettes were requested to walk to lighten the loads for the four-horse teams. In 1890 Congressman Guy Pelton died while walking up this road; the beginning of the end for this route.)

Me likes this part. I start at eight in the morning. Now the sun’s climbing high, I’m baking … basking … in the glow of a good mountain sweat, a semi truck in low gear grinding my way uphill and …

“Whoa … !” Large male grizzly track, unmistakable in the powdery volcanic ash … “Whoa! Hello!?” … scratch marks on that lodgepole … seven feet up … You wanna come up with a song at this point. You wanna make a lot of noise.

“Hello bear … are you there … I do care … if you eat me…”

And just because your panting-ass lungs are having a heave, forget about it — you better keep making some noise. Old Ephraim (in mountain man lingo) is around, and he’s close.

“There’s no business like show business … ”

And no puking, either.

So you’re on high alert and the safety cap is off your pepper spray, but the forest opens up and finally you’re over and … there’s the cabin.

A log cabin with a personality (as most do). Safe, solid, cozy and gracefully Feng shuied in the center of a stately lodgepole forest. Thirty steps to the lake, twenty to the pooper.

Eleven miles in now, half way, I empty out my Camelbak onto the picnic table, shoot up more DEET (skeeters not as bad here, 700 feet above the swamps), and gag down a Clif Bar. (Please send me a case of the choco p-butter for the dubious plug, thx. cg.)

Now you’re probably ten miles from the nearest human and you gotta think about the last time you were ten miles from another human.

And: No Service (yeah, I ran with one), no television, no CNN, no escaped convicts, no pooters.

How many people have never been a mile away from another person? A hundred yards?

I’m thinking that after owning and operating Callowishus (!) Tours for twenty years, the Park Service might bequeath the Mary Mountain patrol cabin to me. Backcountry ranger Becky riding up on Saturdays with supplies. I’ll have to ask.

Ten minutes of being epicentered, a short stretch, and it’s back on the trail. Before every tendon and muscle freezes, starved of glycogen.

Now the trail meanders through Highland Hot Springs and it does not seem possible that out there somewhere, out past your envelope of sweat and endorphin and wonder, the world can be going on. There can’t be a rush hour and Wall Street and hate-war violence and environmental destruction and how could anyone not clamor to be where you were right then? Sneaking across an impending volcano, seething, hissing and geologically late for a big eruption. The caldera. The crucible for all things good and vibrant.

The hypnotic buzz from running hours at this pace, shivering in the glow of it all.

And don’t forget about Old Ephraim.

Singing, “Hello hello, what is it, you want to know?”

You catch the signed cutoff — thanks Ranger Bob — away from the old stagecoach road that thins out into nothing.

“Ohhhh!” You jump three feet in the air … “Fuck!”… Big Bison, wide-eyed, he jolts then you skid backwards grasping a tree. “Ahhh!” He stampedes away through the young trees, tossing up a dust storm.

“Dude, you scared the crap out of me!” Bitch.

You moron. With that squirt of adrenalin, you used up 18% of your remaining energy … coulda touched him! If that was a bear …

Then ninety minutes after Mary Cabin, it’s all about to change again: Hayden Valley! A huge rolling meadow of green stretching forever and the brown dots are buffalo and where’s the trail? Well, you still have like seven miles and it runs northeasterly. Shuffle.

The Park Service puts up posts with orange markers, but say the buffalo like to rub up against them, knocking them over.

You keep plodding east, jog when you can, walk if you must, uneven sage meadows. You know to run on your toes in rough terrain, but the muscles balk. It’s hot. Slight tail breeze. Long way to go.

You have topo-choices and get lucky, up that middle ridge was correct … and there’s a fallen Park Service post with an orange trail marker. You prop it up, again commence the shuffle.

A little map surveillance. There’s a big, inviting geothermal steaming way over there, but you’re not about to veer two miles extra.

Trail on, trail off.

You think about getting back, what you want to drink first, second, then third. The water warming in your sweat-soaked Camelbak isn’t cutting it. Civilization is six miles ahead, and you just want a root beer float before you go back to the cabin to stay.

You’re eighteen miles in, you pick up the scant trail, up and over yet one more ridge and there, orange marker, obvious trail that leads out.

You don’t want to go back to the mechoworld, but you can’t go back the way you came, so you sit. You think to yourself, this is it, I found it here, but you’re not sure what “it” is. Perhaps it’s the combination of fatigue, endorphins, the primal beauty, of the sense of impending accomplishment.

Why Abbey went on those long walks toward the end, I suppose.

You’re mainly trail shuffling, but then

again you got your buffalo. 2,000-pound bull standing two yards from the trail and your choices are again: one.

Snorting: the rut has commenced.

Around, preferably upslope toward the trees. If the grizz was to get you now, you really don’t care that much. You’re ’bout done.

Your shuffle is no faster than Elder Hostellers advancing toward the vegan buffet line after a five-mile hike.

And did I mention the seeps? Go way up high again where those people went? Or right through the middle? Yep. Slosh slosh suck muck squish slosh muck suck. Add heavy muddy shoes and now, whacking through sage and sedge, a bit of decorative plant life chaffs your heel and a coupla small rocks are annoying your feet and you’re down to two miles.

And I won’t mention the two secret treats …

Quit walking, you lactic-acid pussy.

So you trudge because it counts for running miles in the story, and you’re try- ing to break six hours. Hikers with poles coming your way … you don’t want to see them or the cars in the distance now, but you shuffle on and there is that root beer float … I bet they can make it with chocolate ice cream. Then grape juice on the rocks then beer. Lots of beer. The buf- fet back at the Inn. Rum and hot chocolate and Advil for dessert.

One more seep crossing, two more buffalo aversions, and damn: there’s the end. Cars everywhere and plump tourists taking pictures of Canada Geese. They don’t know that I’ve just returned from eighty thousand years ago. That I found an epicenter.

1:58 p.m. I walk to the turnout, stick out my thumb.

Well, for reasons aplenty, I’m gonna do this run again come fall; dry trails are just one positive.

I might even entertain the idea of tak- ing along a co-pilot or two. email me. I left a scratch mark on this thin piece of tree, how to find me.

You don’t want to do this chit. Best thing I’ve ever done.

Long-time contributor Cal Glover lives just over the Teton Pass from Jackson.

2 thoughts on “The Devil’s Stairway”

  1. Thanks Cal,…what a run…..I always stick to marked road for running,…I’m not one for the trail,…I get lost walking home from the store….but after reading about your adventure,….well,…maybe…..

  2. definitely one of the better well-written “adventure running” story/articles i’ve encountered. i thought the cover, mad-lookin’ guy with the wolf-dawgs was ME! as i tromp thru’ the high desert with a few dawgs 4 company …

Comments are closed.