When Gary Ferguson set out on foot from his home in Red Lodge for the most remote place in the continental United States, he did so expecting to spend the next 11 weeks in considerable silence and solitude.
What he found was "as close to Grand Central Station as you can get."
From his perch in an old guard station called Hawks Rest, Ferguson chronicled the parade of humanity across the highlands in the southeastern corner of Yellowstone National Park.
Wannabe cowboys swaggered past a dozen at a time, greedy outfitters thumbed their nose at his - and all - authority, inner-city youths looked for a moment's peace in their otherwise tumultuous lives, park rangers tried in vain to enforce long-neglected rules, and wildlife biologists struggled to protect both the land and animals.
The Thorofare, as this piece of Yellowstone was nicknamed years ago, is "a kind of sanatorium for the disenfranchised, a way station for men riding and hiding spring to fall to escape whatever curses they imagine hovering in the culture at large," Ferguson wrote. "In these upper meadows of the Yellowstone is testosterone enough to light the woods on fire."
Ferguson's account of his not-so-solitary summer was just published by National Geographic Adventure Press; he'll talk about "Hawks Rest: A Season in the Remote Heart of Yellowstone" and read excerpts during two appearances Wednesday in Missoula.
National Geographic provided the "most remote" designation by asking its mapmakers to find the slice of wilderness farthest from a road. That place - the Thorofare - is just 28 miles from a road.
"I went into the project intrigued by the notion of writing a personal portrait of this most remote place," Ferguson said in a telephone interview. "I wanted to assess the integrity of the ecosystem, and imagine - if possible - what might be the great threats in the coming years."
And there was wildlife aplenty: grizzly bears, the Delta wolf pack, streams thick with native trout, the grandest trophy elk in the Lower 48. Ferguson and his traveling companion, 68-year-old LaVoy Tolbert, got an eyeful of magnificent animals.
But oh, did they have a lot of human company as well.
"Beautiful as it may be, this most remote place in the Lower 48 is by far the busiest slice of backcountry either of us have ever seen," Ferguson wrote. "Most days it feels as though we've stumbled onto a colossal family reunion - short on kids, long on lunatic relatives."
And the commotion wasn't anything new, he later learned. Forest Service ranger Gordon Reese reported contacting an average of 100 people a week in the same area 25 years earlier - and close to 400 horses and mules.
Another ranger from the same era capped his year-end report with this rant: "What they need up here is a platoon of Marines and a few heads knocked together."
The attraction, Ferguson learned, were the miles and miles of highland meadows - perfect not only for migrating animals, but for outfitter-led forays into the wilderness. Week after week, he recorded the parade of visitors, making special note of how their dispositions changed after even a few days in the Thorofare.
As did his.
"I have to say that despite the comings and goings, I still found the land to be overwhelmingly dynamic and so whole as far as the diversity of species and general health of the ecosystem," Ferguson said. "I found a very vibrant and vital ecosystem that on any given day was more than enough to thrill me and give me hope."
And there were, among the throngs, several families who had come into the Thorofare every summer for the past 20 or 25 years, he said. "They had a sense of history and memory attached to that place. You could watch the magic of that wilderness work on them. They became young again."
His job now, Ferguson said, is to share the magic with readers in hopes that they might protect the area from development. "I am worried," he said. "I truly and deeply believe that with some of the proposed changes happening with the Bush administration, what right now seems so wonderful could erode very quickly."
His summer in "the greater Yellowstone of lore," is out of sight, Ferguson said, "but almost never out of mind."
Reporter Sherry Devlin can be reached at 523-5268 or at email@example.com
If you're interested
Red Lodge writer Gary Ferguson will talk about and read from "Hawks Rest: A Season in the Remote Heart of Yellowstone" at 1 p.m. Wednesday in Room 202 of Jeannette Rankin Hall at the University of Montana. He'll read from and sign copies of his book at 7 p.m. at Fact and Fiction bookstore, 220 N. Higgins Ave. in downtown Missoula.