Honesty on Uncle Tom’s Trail

Stairs in the TreesI first heard about Uncle Tom’s Trail during a ranger hike along the south rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Our guide told us that it was named after Tom Richardson, a ranger from the early 1900s who used to take visitors on a treacherous journey to get the best view of the Lower Falls. Tom would row them across the river and take them down a rickety, 500 step robe and ladder climb.

Today Uncle Tom’s Trail is a 300 step steel staircase, and while it’s much more stable, it’s still quite a trek. The ranger warned that it wasn’t for anyone easily winded or afraid of heights. When the ranger hike was over and the group was walking back, she pointed the interested parties towards the trailhead for Uncle Tom’s. The interested parties turned out to be me and two others, a middle-aged woman and her husband. We started down the trail but hadn’t gotten far before the woman abruptly stopped.

Photo of Stairs“I think I’ll stay here,” she told us.

The man and I continued down, exchanging basic info as we walked. I learned that his name was Chris, and he and his wife were from Colorado. He explained how she is terrified of heights, but had wanted to try anyway. Not long after we left her behind, the dirt dropped off from below the staircase and I saw 50 feet of open air under my feet. The staircase was the industrial kind, woven and open to allow rain to fall through easily. I’m not generally afraid of heights, but even I felt queasy for a moment.

“It’s a good thing she stayed,” Chris told me.

At the bottom of the staircase we stopped to take in the beautiful view of the falls. Chris insisted on taking a picture of me in front of the view, something strangers often insist upon. People back home always complain about how few pictures I’m in, so it seems I’m the only one who isn’t the least bit interested in photos of myself. I suppose it’s because I think I look like a goofball in any picture where I’m standing and smiling rather than trying to look like a goofball.

Me and the Lower FallsChris and I headed back up the stairs, and I told him about my hike up the Grand Canyon in Arizona. He told me about his work as a therapist, and somehow it came up that his wife smokes. A while back they talked about how she needed to stop, and she promised to do so. Now she smokes and lies about it.

“But that’s what addicts do,” he said, “So I don’t ask anymore, because I don’t want to be lied to.” Funny, it still seems like being lied to if you ask me.

We rejoined his wife on the way back up. She had made it a little further down before stopping. Chris and I assured her that she made the right choice, the stairs would have scared anyone. The three of us walked back to the parking lot together, but something felt heightened in me. Somehow I was part of the wife’s lie now. I was an accessory to her smoking when she says she’s not. And I was a part of Chris’s lie too, pretending I don’t know so we don’t have to talk about it.

Chris and I at Uncle Tom'sI’ve been a part of lies before. Every family and group of friends has secrets, and I’ve had several jobs where I was in charge of sensitive information. But I expect to hear secrets from my boss or my best friend. I don’t expect to hear them from strangers. The funny thing is, it happens all the time. On the road, you’re everyone’s sounding board. There’s no reason to keep anything from you, because in 20 minutes you’ll be out of their lives forever. I did the same thing with the strangers I met, telling stories in an open and honest way I know I wouldn’t have done for most people back home.

I’m starting to wonder if we’d all do better with a few more strangers in our lives.


Summer Snowstorm

There ought to be a word for the feeling you get when you realize you’re in danger and it’s too late to turn back. It’s a word I could have used at about 8400 feet as I crossed over the East Entrance pass into Yellowstone National Park. The volunteer I’d met at Wild Bill Dam warned me that he saw a snow storm on the horizon, but the clouds he’d pointed at were long gone by the time I entered the park. I thought for sure he was wrong. After all, the weather in Wyoming is extreme and unpredictable. Anyone could make a mistake.

By the time I hit the top of the pass the snow was coming down hard. I’d slowed my car down below a reasonable speed and turned off the stereo. It makes sense to shut out distractions like the radio when conditions are bad, but the result is almost worse: an eerie, dangerous silence. It seems like you shouldn’t be able to hear snow as it falls on your windshield, but you can. It’s a dull hum on all sides, and the quiet makes you hear sounds from your engine you never noticed before. My body tensed up as the my little cave reminded me of every other time I’d been unprepared in the snow.

On my way down the pass I caught up with a car in front of me, and someone else caught up with me from behind. We’re in this together now, I thought. I had my pace cars, and if anything happened to any of us the others would be there to help. I kept my eye on the pavement in front of me. It was still safe. The snow wasn’t that thick yet. Every time I went around another bend in the road I felt sure I’d hit a gust that would flood the area and leave me stranded in the snow. It wouldn’t take much for it to become too much.

I had packed for a summer road trip. I didn’t even have my ice scrapper with me.Snow at the General Store

The pass dipped down several hundred feet and the snow began to let up. By the time I got to my accommodations at Lake Lodge, it was still coming down but only enough to make everything beautiful. I went to check into my cabin space. The lobby was packed with people stranded by the snow. Some had intended to leave but didn’t trust the conditions. Others were supposed to be camping and needed some relief from the cold. I was so grateful I had opted to reserve a room back in April, rather than take my chances with a camp site.

I grabbed my room key and headed out back to where the cabins were located. My cabin was fully furnished and simple, but cozier than a standard hotel room. A bed, a desk, a few cozy furnishings. It was the sort of space I could almost call home, if I didn’t have so many possessions already. Someday I’ll get rid of them all.

I woke up in the morning to the sun rising over the glimmer of snow on grass, and steam rising from Lake Yellowstone. It was gorgeous, and I stood out in front of the lodge staring at it with all the other tourists. We couldn’t take enough pictures.

Panorama of the Snow and Lake