For a week-long summer family escape, 12 members of the Malley clan assembled in a remote stretch of land in southern Montana called Paradise Valley. We stayed in a lodge + bunkhouse hilariously named the Pleasant Pheasant, and we woke up with the sun each day to take full advantage of the spectacular countryside. 

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Monday

River rafting and Yellowstone geysers

After an early morning yoga session on the front porch, river rafting the Yellowstone was the perfect amount of adventure to start off the week. The sun was strong and the water levels were high, and we all agreed to put Declan on the bow of the raft to see how long he could stay there. 

We spent the afternoon driving through Yellowstone Park, which is no easy feat because the park is enormous. We saw what's called the "Grand Canyon of Yellowstone," an impressive river gorge with a powerful waterfall on one end. We drove down the south rim road parallel to the river, and stopped for a few different vantage points. A short trail takes you to a lookout called "Artist Point" that's perched atop the cliff's edge for perfect viewing of the falls. 

We continued along the northern loop road of the park, and stopped for a hike through a valley of geysers at the Norris Geyser Basin. We walked the wooden plank piers laid in a lattice of trails across the hot, shallow water. The field of steaming holes and streams looked like a scene out of a prehistoric dinosaur movie, especially with a storm rolling in and the sky turning an ominous dark gray. 

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After a long drive out of the park, complete with sightings of a few herds of elk, we made it back to the Pleasant Pheasant in time for group dinner. We had arranged cooking crews for each night throughout the week, and night one was going to be hard to beat: Pat & Briana made chicken with peach salsa, and twice-baked potatoes with corn bread. After completely stuffing ourselves, we all meandered out onto the lawn and watched the sun slowly sink behind the mountains while Declan and Ian serenaded us with guitar songs for hours. Then we lay in the grass of the yard until midnight watching dozens of shooting stars pass across the sky. Montana is magical. 

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Tuesday

Float fly fishing the Gallatin

The next morning we woke with the first rays of the sun to drive to the Gallatin River for an all-day guided fly fishing trip. We got into pairs and followed guides into small float boats as they geared us up with rods and talked us through the technique. Briana and I, both novice fisherwomen, started off hesitantly. But we soon became the best boat on the river that day (no brag). Between the two of us, we caught over 30 fish: cutthroat, rainbow, whitefish, and a few brown trout. Briana was the queen of the rainbows, and even caught a few very sizable ones. I started out hooking mostly whitefish, but ended up with some big cutties and browns by the end of the day. 

The scenery on either side of the river was so stunning that sometimes I would miss a bite due to staring open-mouthed at the mountains. Toward the end of the day I noticed a small object scurrying down the bank and looked over to see a baby river otter, even cuter than the ones at the zoo. I think I may have scared our guide by screaming so loud in excitement. Even if we hadn't have caught many fish, I think Briana and I would have enjoyed the day tremendously. But since we absolutely rocked our first day, you could say we were hooked (hah!). 

Back at the Pleasant Pheasant, Kelly and Brandon made a gourmet steak dinner, topped off with an incredible homemade apple pie by Tess. 

The sunset that night was even better than the night before. The golden sinking sun lit up the endless grassy fields and threw long shadows from the wooden fenceposts. 

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Wednesday

Horseback riding

On Wednesday most of the group drove up the highway to a small family-run ranch to go horseback riding. A few of us (like Brandon) had never ridden a horse before, so this was an exciting morning. We rode up through a forest into an open field between two mountains, and the guide — an older crumudgeonly grandfather — told us stories about his past encounters with bears and wildcats. The horses were very well-trained, so everyone did just fine. 

We had to say goodbye to Will that day, who was headed back to Washington for a country music festival at the Gorge. We traded him for Matt Smith, who we picked up in Bozeman and immediately put to work on the cooking crew. He was a good sport about it, especially because dad made us "Cowboy Lemonade" to sip on while we worked in the kitchen. I'm not sure what's in it, but the recipe definitely involves a healthy dose of whiskey. 

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Thursday

Yellowstone National Park

As is typical for a Pat Malley vacation, we got up at the crack of dawn to maximize our sightseeing time. We commenced the 2-hour drive into the heart of Yellowstone National Park, where we explored the Lamar Valley in the warm, quiet morning light. We stumbled upon a few huge herds of bison, which we learned are the largest North American land mammal. We stopped along the Lamar River and searched for bears with our binoculars. We discovered a huge osprey nest through the spotting scope (courtesy of P-Mal the bird nerd). And we even had a close encounter with a black bear! Briana spotted him out the window of the moving car, so we turned around to find him crossing the road right in front of us, close enough for us to see the texture of his dark fur.

The landscape in the Lamar Valley was even more beautiful than we expected, with wide rivers rolling through a valley bordered by hills, canyons, and mountains. We came across a hillside completely covered in yellow wildflowers. It felt like we were on the set of Heidi or The Sound of Music. A few fishermen were out early wading in the river flats, but the roads were fairly empty. The usually-crowded park was mostly still, and it felt like we had discovered a perfect corner of Yellowstone just for us.

We drove by lots more geysers throughout the afternoon, including the famous Old Faithful... where we had an amusing experience. We pulled into the (very crowded) parking lot and got out to head over to the viewing area for the geyser. We're still about 100 yards away when we see, above some tall pine trees, the top of the eruption from Old Faithful. Which only happens once every 90 minutes or so. Declan and Ian sprinted over to it and caught the last bit of the water, but by the time the rest of us reached it all that was left was a sad little bubbling. We looked at each other, decided it still counted, and walked right back to the car!

Next stop on our circuit of the park was Yellowstone Lake. The lake has 110 miles of shoreline, and is blue enough to be shocking upon first sight. After hugging the western shore for half an hour, we arrived at Lake Village, which includes a post office, hotel, lodge, and a small boat marina. The hotel (built in 1891) is a long, stately, yellow structure with four pillars flanking the grand front entrance. We did our best to clean our sweaty, dusty bodies to make ourselves presentable at the elegant building. In as remote a location as this, a grand hotel feels both out of place and entirely welcome. With cold cocktails in our hands, we sat in the sun room listening to a string quartet and enjoying the view of the lake. 

After dinner we geared up for the 3-hour drive back out of the park and up the highway to our home base. I'd volunteered to be one of the drivers, and was honestly dreading it. But as we made our way north on the narrow road, we passed through the most stunning landscapes that I needn't have worried about falling asleep. The sun was slowly sinking down, but almost seemed as if it were hanging just above the horizon to extend the golden hour as long as possible. It reflected off wide expanses of the Yellowstone River, glinting golden and pink. It lit up the entire sky after falling behind the mountains, so that everything glowed fiery orange and pink. When we'd turn a corner and face another new vista, I would audibly gasp and accidentally wake up the sleeping passengers in the backseat. 

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Friday

Fly fishing

Fittingly, we spent our final day in Montana on the river. Matt and I paired up with a guide from Minnesota, who took us up a narrow dirt road that hugged a steep cliff to go to his secret creek. The fish were small, but we couldn't keep them off our lines. We tried a range of different flies, mostly nymphs. I'm not going to say I had excellent form on my cast... but I caught a few little guys anyway! Matt, on the other hand, was a natural. 

On a different stretch of river, Ian and Declan and Will were reeling them in. At one point, Ian waded out past the halfway point of the rushing river and began to dramatically slip and slide on the rocks, trying frantically to keep the water from going into his waders. Declan, naturally, was supremely unhelpful and filmed the entire thing while laughing uncontrollably. 

That night Kelly found out about a concert happening just a few minutes up the highway from us, at a bar-grill-motel that is quite truly in the middle of nowhere. I mean this place is at least 30 miles from any town, on a back highway in the middle of farms and fields. Which made it even more unbelievable that there happened to be a show on Friday night by an artist that Kelly had seen before. So naturally we had to go. 

The concert took place in a back patio area behind the bar, where they had strings of little light bulbs draped above the stage. The band, The Young Dubliners, rocked out for hours and had everyone dancing by the end of the night. A very fun — albeit unexpected — way to end our trip.