The last time Tom Murphy skied all the way across Yellowstone National Park from south to north, he was 34 years old and weighed 165 pounds.
When he sets out on Saturday to re-create that expedition, he will be 64 years old, with a weight of 180 pounds.
“I’m sure I can do it,” he said Monday in a telephone interview from his home in Livingston. “That truly is not a concern of mine. The concern I have is whether I can keep up with these young people.”
The young people include two filmmakers who plan to make “The Journey Through Yellowstone,” a documentary chronicling the actual trip while exploring Murphy’s decades-long quest to capture the essence of wild places with his photography.
Murphy will be accompanied by five people in all, and their presence will mark the biggest difference between this trip and the one he made in 1985.
Then, he was all alone on the 14-day, 125-mile trek, continually breaking trail and carrying everything he needed on his back. It also snowed, often with the force of a blizzard, for 12 of the 14 days.
Part of what makes Murphy something of a legend is that he didn’t even take a tent on that trip, sleeping instead under the shelter of a single tarp. He plans to sleep under the same tarp on the adventure that will begin Saturday.
Retracing the 1985 trek was first suggested by Rick Smith, a 35-year-old filmmaker and owner of Bozeman-based Mirror Plateau Productions, who’s known Murphy for about 10 years.
“I thought it would be a good project for a film,” Smith said, and after not much coaxing Murphy agreed.
The other filmmaker who will be joining them is Shane Moore. Smith and Moore have had their work featured on NBC, the National Geographic Channel and PBS, and their clients have included Disney, the Discovery Channel, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and and the Nature Conservancy.
Rounding out the crew is Murphy’s friend Brian Chan, a retired Yellowstone National Park ranger; Clay Dykstra, Murphy’s nephew and frequent camping partner; and John Williams, a friend of Dykstra’s whose role in the expedition is officially listed as “porter,” which translates as “the one with the biggest pack.”
“The expedition itself will provide a big part of the film, but it won’t be the entirety of it,” Smith said. “The film is a story about Tom … his background, where he came from, how he got into taking pictures, what drives him.”
“He gets out there and goes places other people don’t go and he brings back these amazing images,” Smith said.
Does he ever. In his “Silence and Solitude: Yellowstone’s Winter Wilderness,” a stunning collection of photographs published in 2002, each photo seems to harbor some hidden vitality, or to convey secrets about the park’s landscapes and animals.
A good image, Murphy said, “tells some sort of story. It captures the viewer and teaches them something.” That’s what artists do, he said—they engage their readers, viewers or listeners and draw them into a new world.
“And my world is outside in as wild a place as I can be,” he said.
In addition to “Silence and Solitude,” Murphy has published five other books of photography, as well as calendars, cards and posters. He also leads wilderness photography expeditions around the world. But Yellowstone National Park is his home base.
In a press release announcing the upcoming trek, Murphy said he spends 80 to 100 days a year in the park. He’s been to Lamar Valley 2,000 days, he said, “and it’s different every time—a lot different. The variety there is phenomenal in terms of weather, light and season.”
Murphy grew up on a ranch in western South Dakota. There he learned how to deal with intense, prolonged cold, and he also learned that he didn’t much like cows or horses, which he worked with on a daily basis for years.
“Whereas with wildlife, I’m just an observer, but I’m a guest in their living room,” he said. “So I love my job.”
The silence and solitude of the book title came out of that first solo trip across Yellowstone. You can often hear your heartbeat after some exertion, Murphy said, but on that trip, and only on that trip, it was so quiet that he could hear his heart beating almost every waking moment.
Besides having company this time, Murphy will also be accompanied by more technology than a camera or two. The public is invited to experience the journey via live updates on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. But those updates will come from members of his entourage, not from Murphy.
“I’m not going to be typing, I’m not going to be Tweeting,” he said. “I don’t even own a cell phone.”
The trek will take the team from Flagg Ranch, a few miles from the park’s south entrance, along the southern border of the park and into the heart of the Thorofare region, said to be the most remote area—in terms of distance from a paved road—in the lower 48 states. When he passed through there in 1985, Murphy said, a ranger told him nobody had traversed the area in the winter for 12 years.
They will several spend days along the eastern shore of Yellowstone Lake and expect to reach Fishing Bridge, near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River, in 10 to 14 days. There they will pick up more food and stove fuel, continue past Canyon and Tower Falls and ski across Blacktail Plateau before ending at park headquarters in Mammoth.
What is continually attractive about Yellowstone, Murphy said, is that millions of people visit it every year and yet parts of it are so remote, so rarely visited.
“It is a truly wild place, about as wild as you could possibly get,” he said.
The expedition, with its live updates, his photography and the documentary-in-the-making, represents an opportunity “to tell the story in a better way,” Murphy said.
And that is the ultimate goal of his work, of all his trekking through Yellowstone and taking photographs—to make people appreciate the wilderness so much that they will be inspired to support efforts to preserve it.
“Some days I’m pretty optimistic that sometimes I make a difference,” he said.
The expedition team is still working to raise funds needed to complete the making of “The Journey Through Yellowstone.” You can go to the project’s website to make tax-deductible donations. Starting Saturday, you can also go there for a GPS app that will allow you to chart the team’s progress in real time.
Reprinted with permission from Last Best News, an independent online news site dedicated to telling the story and covering the culture, people and places of Billings and Eastern Montana.