Monster Cookies

How Yellowstone sprang to life through the lens of my camera

 “Just wait,” is what he said. “Wait for a bison to separate himself from the herd then track him with your lens.  If he spots the right female, he’ll kick up a dust storm and then roll in it to attract her.”  Sound odd? This is the bison’s mating call, a nearly blinding swirl of dirt and sand and earth in the air.

Determined to return home that summer from Yellowstone with that shot—a bison apart from the herd, twisting on the ground, spinning in dirt—I fumbled with the shutter speeds and f/stop dials, hoping to catch the glint bouncing off one of the male's enormous eyes. My lens hung on the 2,000-pound beast, a bull with gleaming horns, his dark shaggy neck and beard rising up out of the dust against backcountry wild lands.

“Go!” he said to us, “Now!!! Shoot!” This was my chance.  It wouldn’t be as good as his shot, but I got it.

Tom Murphy, an award-winning professional landscape and wildlife photographer from Livingston, Montana, was our guide for a one-day wilderness photography nature tour. Since he spent at least a hundred days a year in the park, capturing the natural world on film for print and television, journeying through a gorgeous yet often inhospitable landscape, he knew every valley, every canyon, every back road. His talent was in capturing genuine moments, finding rare access, and sharing a perspective on what’s happening ecologically in the park.

“Tom Murphy goes out in winter in his silly red dress socks,” Tim Cahill wrote in the book introduction to Silence and Solitude (Riverbend Publishing, Helena, Montana), “and he brings back these wondrous, these stupendous images…He is a passionate naturalist, an artist of major distinction…this book is the closest most of us will get to a backcountry ski trip through Yellowstone.”

Travel the in-roads with a professional photographer for twelve straight hours and you will learn where to be at the right time to catch a herd on their migration route, how to predict the shot before it happens, and what to look for to see elk bulls lolling in the high grass. You will learn composition: how to make the picture not merely take the shot; and how to frame the shot so that the subject doesn’t get lost among other elements in the scene. After all this, you are going to get pretty hungry. By lunchtime, any food will do.

We sat like bumps on a log, the quintessentially scenic mountain views more than compensating for the plain old sandwiches we purchased from a grocery store the night before. Silence surrounded the grove. It was a moment only a Monster cookie could break.

Back home in Livingston, Montana, Tom’s wife Bonnie had baked scratch cookies for us and stuffed them into his day bag. A sumptuous batch of cookies, the clincher for fatigue, for exhaustion. Called Monster cookies, they were a fanciful name for a pretty basic recipe of thick, chewy, and crunchy oatmeal laced with chocolate chips, with overtones of peanut butter, the most American of all ingredients.  A concession to our American tastebuds that craved sweets.

Impressive. Filling. And huge. Were a hungry cowboy to stop by and water his horse at the creek, it would not be a bad thing to offer.

They were, I believe, superb because of our day peeking into the corners of the park we never would have found on our own. Because we waited out the time for the bison to run just a bit closer to our tripods and kick up a dust bath. Because our shots using a shallow depth of field melted the distant lodgepole pines and fields into a giant fuzzy canvas, making the image all the more beautiful.

Because we learned how to frame a waterfall through landscaping, and because we learned of the geologic wonders of a land formed by fire and ice. Nature produces beautiful things in excess. Hold your breath, you can hear your own heart beating.It was the kind of day that makes you a better taster of life.

It made me think about returning in winter to photograph the wolves. I heard that Bonnie served crisp hot wontons filled with elk meat along with a rich chowder studded with potato chunks and sweet red salmon that her husband Tom caught in Alaska.
Monster Cookies Recipe
Note: Read this carefully before you begin and use a very large bowl.
2 lbs brown sugar4 C. white sugar (Can decrease this a little)
1 Tbsp. vanilla
8 tsp. soda
1 Tbsp. Karo Syrup
1 pound margarine (not soft type)
2.8 lbs jar of peanut butter
18 C. quick oats
2 12 oz. packages chocolate chips
1 dozen eggs
2 cups walnuts or pecans (coarsley chopped)

Other options:
Bag of M&M's (but these don't keep as well)
1 box of raisins
1. Mix together sugars, margarine and eggs with electric beater or by hand until thoroughly mixed
2. Add peanut butter, vanilla and syrup
3. When this is thoroughly mixed add oatmeal, nuts and chips
Note: There is no flour in this dough and it is sticky
4. Form dough into patties about 3 inches across and 1/2 inch thick
5. Place cookies on a well-greased cookie sheet
6. Back at 350 for about 15 minutes
7. They will look puffy and like they aren't quite done, but they are best this way
8. Leave on the cookie sheet until they firm up and then dry on racks until cooled

As you will notice, this is a huge batch, but these keep very well in the freezer unbaked for ages. So here's what you do: divide the dough into about 8 sections and put it in Tupperware or plastic bags and just get it out the night before when you need a batch. Bake like fresh dough in the morning.

These are considered survival food in Montana. A couple of these in your pack and you can go all day.

This recipe was taken from our local paper, The Livingston Enterprise.
If you search online to find a guide in Yellowstone, you’ll find, as I did, at least 85 guides. This said to me that anyone can be a guide. But only 13, like Murphy, are professional photographers, and only a few live near Yellowstone, no one for 37 years like Tom.  

You can contact Tom Murphy at his Wilderness Photography Expeditions website:

Books by Tom Murphy: The Spirit of Winter, The Light of Spring, The Abundance of Summer, The Comfort of Autumn.

Bonnie Cooks: Bits and Bobs and Antelope Toes by Bonnie Hyatt-Murphy (Crystal Creek Press, 2009) photographs by Tom Murphy