After checking my map every quarter mile through all of Lamar valley, I turned left into the pullout for the trail. There were about 4 other cars there, and I pulled into a spot in the middle. I brought my bag with me to the trunk of the car, which I opened by using my right hand to squeeze the latch and my left to pull up on the blue webbing I’d used to make a handle. Bag of granola, camera, water bottle. My trail runners were still wet from Mt. Washburn so I slid into my sneakers, almost falling over with the effort to not let my clean socks touch the ground. I sprayed sunscreen on my shoulders, arms, chest and neck, rubbing it into my face and ears. I learned my lesson earlier this summer, and my sternum still sported some scabs from my horrific burn. One last check over and I slammed the trunk shut, watching the glued on handle bounce and headed off to the trail behind a French (or French Canadian) couple carrying fly fishing equipment and bear spray.
The Trout Lake trail, located near the Northeast entrance of Yellowstone National Park, is a .6 mile lollipop loop. I was surprised by how steep the stem of the lollipop was as I walked behind the couple. I knew it would be short so there was no point in taking a break but it was making me breathe a little harder than normal. After a few dozen paces the couple let me pass them, which I wished they hadn’t because every time I stopped to take a picture of a view or a flower we ended up awkwardly in the exact same place and would play the “You go,” “No you go,” game. For such a short hike the reward was disproportionate. Trout Lake is an almost perfectly round lake, surrounded on half by thick coniferous forest, and the other half by a gently sloping fields of flowers that lead up to the stark contrast of the mountains, all hard grey rock and rivers of snow snaking down them. I walked clockwise around the lake, startling a snake, then a frog, then a boy who was fishing with his dad.
I crossed the bridge over the stream that feeds trout lake, and when I looked in the water I could see several trout, swishing their tails back and forth languidly, barely moving. I sat down on a rock and pulled out my granola and my water, watching the fishermen struggle. This was so different than the last time I was here.
The last time I was at Trout Lake was the last time I was in Yellowstone, on a road trip with my mom when I was 13. It had been overcast and not as warm as it was this day where I lounged under a perfectly blue sky. And it had been at the height of my bear fear on the trip. One of the two heights actually, the other when I refused to sleep in the tent in our campground because the ranger station had pictures of a grizzly bear walkingthrough our exact campsite. Mom slept alone in the tent and I slept in the car. Behind every bush there could be a bear, and every burnt log or odd shaped tree was clearly one waiting for an unsuspecting middle schooler. Somewhere, before my first Trout Lake hike, recently, I’d been to a visitor center that was playing a film about a photographer who had been killed by Grizzlies. I can still, to this day, see the eyewitness who was interviewed afterwards, hear his words: “I’ve never heard a scream like that. It didn’t sound human.” Just recently the Grizzly Man and his poor, along for the ride, girlfriend had also been killed by Grizzlies. And here we were in Yellowstone, hiking alone in this wild place, a whole .3 miles away from the safety of our car. I was terrified.
As I crunched on my granola I thought about what a pain I must have been on that road trip. We went to hike Mount Washburn because I wanted to see a pika, and then didn’t get to the top because I couldn’t do it. We drove out to West Yellowstone because I wanted to see a moose. No dice. I made my mom sleep in the tent alone because I was afraid a grizzly would come. That was really nice of me, “good luck with the grizzly bear that I’m sure is coming, mom!” And I was so freaked out I almost ruined Trout Lake. But even so it had been an amazing trip. On our way up Mount Washburn via Chittendon Road, there were snow flurries in July. When we were in West Yellowstone we got to go to a diner and have amazing pancakes while we watched the snow fall in soft flakes. And at Trout Lake there had been river otters that gamboled along the water’s edge as we followed them around the lake,and the stream had been full of fish and surrounded by wildflowers. And my mom had been so patient with me. I had come so far, sitting there at Trout Lake by myself. The day before I had summited Mount Washburn, not via Chittendon Road, but on the trail from Dunraven pass, which was entirely covered in snow, sometimes more than 5 feet high, and I’d seen 3 marmots. That night I’d slept in my tent alone, and then I hiked to Trout Lake, alone. I’m still scared of grizzly bears of course, but I have a wide repertoire of Disney and Country songs to sing while I’m walking. Musicals are good too, but I only ever know songs that belonged to whoever my brother had been cast as in high school because I heard him practice so much (my Les Mis knowledge is almost exclusively Red and Black, thanks Enjolras).
I put my granola away, dusted off my shorts, and continued clockwise around the lake, back down the hill to my car. I still had a week and half a dozen parks and monuments left in my road trip, but I already felt like I’d reached my destination at Trout Lake.