By Amanda Mack with Marnie Piehl

My memories of my mother as a child were as follows: she was pretty, worked hard and I always knew she loved me.

However, she could throw a fit. She was a woman with a lot on her plate, and after a demanding work week, too many chores undone, and not enough time in a day, she’d really let us have it.

But she never really asked us for much around the house or in the workplace. She usually just got it all done better and in half the time it would take anyone else. And her pace hasn’t slowed down much. These days she feeds her extended family and friends amazing meals, helps to run a business, ferries and cares for her grandchildren, and serves as the heart of our family.

For these reasons and many others, we decided we had to do something special on her 70th birthday.

So, I laid it down. I told my mom and sister that we were going to Chico Hot Springs in Montana without kids or husbands to celebrate Mom’s 70th birthday and that was that. I know it’s hard to believe, but I received not a single objection.

Hitting the road
We left it to our husbands to deal with our absences. Out-of-town grandparents arrived, friends pitched in, and we absconded. We hit the highway with our cell phones and credit cards in hand, threw off the yokes of motherhood, wifely duty, work demands, and gave into celebrating 70 years of such work well done.

Our first night’s destination was Red Lodge, Mont. En route, we had an early lunch at Upin Thai in Dickinson. This whole-in-the-wall restaurant elicited the most food-induced swoons of our journey including Chico’s five-star restaurant! Also, we had to stop at Prairie Fire Pottery in Beach for my husband’s birthday. That final home duty realized, the trip officially became about me – I mean us – just as we hit the state line.

One thing this trip highlighted is our very different natures. The first of these differences occurred when we nearly ran out of gas in the long stretch of open road before Miles City. My sister the driver insisted that driving faster to get to the next gas station would maximize fuel efficiency while I suggested she slow down to conserve gas. Fortunately, we made it and didn’t have to argue about who was right, but, for the record, it was me.

Another difference arose regarding the itinerary. Marnie firmly believes that no girls’ trip is complete without a little shopping, but shopping wasn’t exactly on the agenda which was heavy on scenery, but light on malls. We rolled into Billings about 5 p.m. and hit a hip, downtown wine bar for tapas and drinks (Bin 192) before making our way to Red Lodge. That stop was indicative of the balance we would strike throughout our adventure and served as the perfect bridge between civilization and the wilds we were headed toward.

Facing our fears
My mom and sister both have a significant fear of heights. Therefore, I knew the moment I started planning this trip that I would be the driver on the Beartooth Highway. This amazing stretch of road is one of the most scenic drives in the United States. It offers “breathtaking views of the Absaroka and Beartooth Mountains, and open high alpine plateaus dotted with countless glacial lakes, forested valleys, waterfalls and wildlife (”

The road out of Red Lodge begins to climb almost immediately and it doesn’t stop until you reach the clouds. The road hugs the mountain on the driver side and drops a couple thousand feet down to the valley floor on the passenger side. Backseat passenger, Marnie, and front seat passenger Mom, laughed at their parallel leaning toward the median as we made our way upward toward the sky.

Red Lodge is pretty refined, and we had spent the morning stocking up on essentials like gourmet cheese, salami, fig crackers, wine and other goodies. So when we hit the high alpine plateau, we pulled over for a picnic to catch our breath. Exhilarated by our high altitude climb, we basked in the warm sun and placid waters of the crystal clear lake we happened upon with the same appreciation and joy that you’d find in mountain climbers who had just reached the summit.

From there, we made our way to Yellowstone National Park. After a night in a rustic cabin with leftover Thai food and a wild game of Scrabble, we spent day three witnessing the grandeur of Old Faithful, exploring the great lodge, standing in awe of boiling mud pots, mighty waterfalls and steaming hot springs before arriving at our ultimate destination, Chico Hot Springs. We settled in for three days of warm soaks in the spring-fed pools and prepared ourselves for massages and salt scrubs.

Orienting ourselves
After our spa treatments, five star meals, hours of uninterrupted reading, and utter relaxation, Marnie and I decided to take a mountain day hike giving mom some alone time with her book and a glass of wine. As we neared the trailhead our travels uncovered another difference in our worldview. Marnie was feeling unsettled and emotional in the midst of our perfect day.

She said being somewhere so rugged, remote and intriguing made her question her life choices. She felt inadequate, like she’d done it all wrong, taking the path most traveled rather than the less traveled and more interesting path. I feel that same dismay in big cities where I feel inadequate in my career path, my clothing choices, my way of being in the world, whereas I feel entirely at peace in the quiet of a mountainside. She explained how she feels more validated in the city,energized by the noise and fast pace – the exact opposite of me. Our paces are different.

This realization was cathartic for both of us. We learned what fuels ourselves and each other, gaining amazing insight.

And our mother, at 70, is at peace with her pace, her choices. She was utterly present in the moments we shared. She won’t ever stop achieving. Watching two do-ers (my mother and sister) trying to adjust to doing very little, proved that. But she seems to be going into her next decade in a state of joy.

This trip showed us that the three of us have arrived at a stage in life where we are friends as well as mother and daughters. While my sister and I still need a little mothering at times (especially as we mother our own children), alone together on this trip, we never stumbled upon past resentments, lingering conflicts or competition. Instead, we reinforced the foundation of respect, love and enjoyment we find with one another.

Marnie was able to do some shopping. She snagged a great sweater at an upscale boutique and a skirt at a secondhand store in Livingston, the nearest provisioning town to Chico. And her playlist for the trip was most excellent. Who knew that Amy Winehouse and Yellowstone were such a nice pairing?

Word to the wise: Scrabble brings out Mom’s least motherly instincts. Don’t play Scrabble alone with this woman. Without a third party, she blatantly dismisses objections and disregards any questions about her fictional words. Honestly, are episeized and cybris words? I’m getting a Scrabble dictionary before the next trip.