Posted on July 28, 2011
I was tempted to title this blog “100 Ways to Die in Montana.” Having just spent two days there, mostly awestruck by what may be the most beautiful landscape in America, I was also struck by the dangers of the place. The toughest neighborhoods in New York and Detroit and Chicago have nothing on Montana. Consider all the ways one can meet an untimely end (and I’m not making these up).
You could be:
1. Eaten by a Grizzly, has happened just a couple of weeks ago in Yellowstone;
2. Step on the fragile coverning of the boiling hot springs below and break through (signs everywhere);
3. Charged by an elk (saw the picture);
4. Bit by a rattler;
5. Knocked off your motorcycle by a falling boulder (happened two days ago in Glacier);
6. Slide down a snow field and off into the abyss (a group of Carroll College students almost went that way);
7. Pulled under by the current while fly fishing (yup — yesterday too);
8. Upside down in your kayak caught in the current (son of friends almost went that way);
I could go on. Montana’s farms and ranches offer myriad ways of being crushed, decapitated, or maimed. The meth labs that are the scourge of rural America blow up with some apparent regularity. Frankly, this aging plane I’m on as I write doesn’t look all that reassuring. You gotta be tough to live in Montana and I’m not sure your run-of-the-mill Crip or Blood or Hell’s Angel would have what it takes.
But the pay off for simply surviving is amazing. I took a couple of vacation days to visit with old graduate school friends on my way home from a meeting in Salt Lake City (just a one hour flight away from Helena). We drove down to Yellowstone National Park, a first time for me in our country’s oldest park. Driving south through the valley we passed enormous ranches with fields of gold, green, and sage and always a backdrop of mountains, many still capped with snow. The uncharacteristcally heavy rains of the spring have meant of riot of prarie flowers and many shades of green in what is usually a brown and more parched landscape at this time of year.
Little towns like Enis and Martinsdale and White Sulpher Springs pop up up in the great, broad landscape and their dusty main streets usually offer at least one good bar (the Mint Bar and The Stockmen’s Bar and Grill are reliable bets), a gas station, a small grocer, a hardware store, and often not much else. In Enis I learned:
A) to talk a lot slower;
B) not to bother looking for the NY Times.
But in larger Livingston, the old gateway to Yellowstone, we found an excellent bottle of wine in a speciality food store run by a Maine refugee who came out one summer and never left, a fabulous breakfast in the Northern Pacific Beanary (situated in the old train station where we could watch a long coal train pass by as if on cue), and we ducked into the lobby of the Murray Hotel to see the enormous elk horns on the lobby wall and the small shrine to director Sam Peckinpah, who killed himself in one of the hotel’s suites.
In Martinsville stopped by the Crazy Mountain Inn, winner of the Best Pie in Montana Award more than once — and this is a place that knows pie. We also got to visit with Ruby, the Inn’s darling Yellow Lab who is about to have puppies any day. I almost signed up for one, but Pat would kill me.
The latest census shows that there fewer rural Americans than ever, now just 16% of the population, but those who remain seemed like the friendliest and hospitable and hard working people you could ever meet. My friend’s mom Amelia had us over to dinner in her tidy, little Helena home. She was a homesteader, daughter of a Norwegian grain farmer in North Dakota, and her garden was ample evidence that she has not lost touch with the earth. Her walls were covered with pictures of her grandchildren and the whole family still comes over for Wednesday night dinner and Saturday morning pancakes. I was struck by a photo of her and her siblings taken on the family farm many decades ago by one of the traveling photographers who roamed the countryside. The wind that bends the field of grain behind them also tousles their hair and, as if in a Rockwell painting, they look healthy and fair and strong.
It is easy to romanticize all of this Western virtue (after all, they have the aforementioned meth labs, their own Tea Party crazies, racism towards Indians, and young people have to leave to find jobs), but as always when I travel I am reminded of how basically good most people are and the culture here adds a healthy dose of self-reliance, hard work, and down-to-earth sensibility.
Back to Yellowstone. I want to tell every European tourist getting off a plane on the east coast to skip Boston and New York and Washington. After all, we really can’t out do Paris and London and Rome. They should head west and see our parks, see this landscape unmatched by any vista in all of Europe. We drove back roads for hours and never tired of the sheer scale and magnificence of the countryside around us. And then the park. I was impressed by two things. One was the endless variety of landscapes it offers: pristine meadows with sparkling trout streams running through them; craggy gorges with roaring waterfalls, fields of eerie sulpher smelling hot springs, hillsides springing back to life with new growth after enormous fires, rare obsidian cliffs, and more. The second impression was that the earth seemed alive below our feet. While everyone stops to see Old Faithful (and I mean everyone), the park is alive with hot springs, and weird holes of scorching hot bubbling mud, and other pools colored vivid blue by strange microorganisms that live in the high temperatures. The spouting creates sulphur fields of many colors and strange rock “terraces” and steam comes from fissures in the earth and signs everywhere warn of the dangers. We know from elementary school science that the earth’s core is molten, but this is the first time I really sensed it. Those fissures seem like tunnels straight to the hot beating heart of the planet.
Seeing a herd of elk grazing in a meadow made me want to sign up for every conservation and wilderness protection society that exists. Though truth be told, we saw more elk up close and strolling untroubled through a parking lot in nearby Gardener, which also had a herd of bison. To honor their sacrifice, I did have a bison burger along the way. I said I was moved, but not to become a vegetarian.
This was my first visit to one of the great national parks out west and it has inspired me to add Glacier, Zion, Bryce, and others to my travel list. I tend to be a city and town traveller, preferring good cafes, museums, cathedrals, and neighborhoods to countryside landscapes, but this 48 hour taste of what might be the best part of America has whetted my appetite for more. I am eager to get back to New Hampshire and to campus and I know in my heart that I would struggle to live outside of New England, but I can now see why my friends from out west feel claustrophobic when they live in the east with its close in forests, hilly landscapes, and lack of vistas. It is all on a more human scale and maybe that is reassuring in some existential way, for the west is at once deeply humbling and soul expanding. If it doesn’t kill you first.