Columbia Falls to West Yellowstone
I left for the Swan. I had thought about the Swan for years. Back when I lived in Montana I was all set to run the 100m crest but a broken neck put the kibosh on that plan. Every time I had been to Cliff’s house since we gazed up at the Swan Crest and just thought...damn, what a ride it would be.
Finally up at the top near Columbia Peak I looked over the Flathead Valley. A smoky haze dispersed over the area from down south, a fire in the Rattlesnake near Missoula. I kept my eye peering through the smoke trying to discern the core. I could not and hiked on quickly. Undulations persisted atop the crest with the occasional dive into cloaked basins with trees obscuring the views of jewelish lakes. After two days of sweltering heat I descended the crest into a furnace, a huge plume of new wildfire smoke billowing up over tall ridges. I had a gut feeling this new smoke was not from the Rattlesnake fire. I gulped. I fretted a bit. Yet I felt eager to great the Bob Marshall Wilderness with glee. At the South Fork trailhead of the Flathead River everything felt empty and desolate. I knew something was up.
From my poor vantage point I thought possibly the wildfire blazed on the east side of the river and that I could possibly sneak through. I knew closures would be in place and that those closures would put me in a pickle. Go back up and over the Swan Crest, wait for a hitch out a very long road in the opposite direction of travel, or peek my way through and adapt as necessary, like give it a go until otherwise unsafe. I encountered two dudes from Wisconsin who were headed back out after a couple days in the backcountry. They had been camped near the fire but refrained from going close to it. A heroic ranger with a pack train held the sole effort of wrapping the cabin in foil and fire proofing the surrounding immediate area to save the historic cabin. He also ordered all rafters upstream to depart downstream the day I saw them. They also told me the fire burned on the west side of the river, which was exactly where I had planned to go. The dudes felt there had been no sense of crazy urgency out there with a potential flaring up of the wildfire, but they also said that area was closed. All this beta gave me enough to settle on a plan.
I headed up Black Bear Creek drainage that directed me away and across river from the fire. The plan was to head over the divide situated above the drainage and cross over into the White River drainage. Surely, the whole forest, this enormous complex of wilderness, would not be closed. I hiked through an old burn area and the highlands above wore sheer rock. I felt very secure in my decision.
At the top I followed a path less travelled that resembled a goat part. Three black bears rooted around in a burnt basin below one of the craggy peaks. Huckleberries were prevalent and the bears weren’t the only ones picking at the purple and juicy berries. I snuck through a notch in the rocky crest and a vast ramp angled up to this incredible divide. I felt exhilarated, pumped up with enthusiasm not only from feeling confident in a free-wheeling decision made on the fly in a vast unknown but just being up there, so remote, so isolated, observing the wildfire below from up high, something that nary a person sees. I felt grateful, lucky. Walking along an eave of a mountain under ancient sea cliffs, limestone mountains angled profusely, the hard wind now the crashing waves, so I slowly tip-toed along the terrace feeling the wind whistle, like a burglar unbeknownst to the world stealing the secret joy of nature.
As this surprise wildfire event continued and the ensuing adventure, and after repeated 90 degree days, I woke up in Big Prairie hung low with smoke and draped in drizzle. I trudged onward in a short sleeve shirt singing ‘O Lord, wontcha buy me a Mercedes Benz’ in a gleefully yet low tone. Rain poured the day and I hoped the rain would drown out the fire. Atop Youngs Pass I sat slunk against a small boulder, a lonesome pass, a lonely mobile in an empty crib. I felt happy, happy that I adapted as necessary. So, I headed down into the tiny town of Ovando, for I could not push my luck any further by going towards the Rattlesnake fire. I just went where things felt right.
Leaving Ovando, after having breakfast at my new friends’ house Dan and Jen, who coincidentally Dan knew Cliff very well; the smell of sweet grass in the low valley dotted with island glades of ponderosas rang sweet, the air redolent of sugar smothering the tall pines and farmland, sand hill cranes squawking in a gurgling yet harmonious tone, like a beefy accordion played with fat fingers; the little marsh birds fighting the wind, floating in a vacuum, the incredibly beautiful mountain blue birds, strikingly colorful blending in as a dart in the pockets of blue sky; I felt in tune with a moving cloudy sky, my stride timed with puffy clouds, so much so, the day flew on by. The method of my connectivity to bridge a gap squeezed out by fire, I used county roads within pleasant a Montana valley. Rolling mountains surrounded farmlands of wheat, country barns backdropped a rustic show, rural life in peace, mounds of hay rolled tightly like the sprawling community displayed over a mantle of warmth. I waved at the occasional vehicle on these isolated roads, the driver smiling and waving back. I neared the access road to public land, BLM land atop the Garnet Range where I could find camp.
A bald eagle circled overhead. Then, the baldy dashed back to a cottonwood by the river about a mile away. A couple minutes went by and the baldy flew back for further inspection. I could visually pick out the eagle’s sharp beak open and shut like a song bird in a rapid convulsion of tweets. The eagle chirped in a way I hadn’t heard before, more or less resembling the warning squawks of an osprey, the behavior very similar to the guarding communication of the osprey. It is good luck to see a bald eagle, I have heard. I thought of this but wondered about the eagle’s warning, a sign of freedom and good luck but with an alarm.
I passed a small junction, the side road leading to the highway. Trespassing signs faced the land on either side of the road, with nothing signifying otherwise for the road I was on. A tractor came tumbling along trailing a trailer of rolled hay. I pulled off into the tall grass to cede some room for the wide vehicle. The driver scowled. Befuddled I continued on as everyone I had encountered thus far in this big valley had been nice to me, waving at me. Around a near bend the road narrowed with a ranch house sprawling on either side. A yellow sign said: SLOW, CHILDREN AT PLAY, a silhouette of a boy kicking a ball. The tractor had just dumped off the hay and the driver idled the tractor between the gate for the lot and the driveway right off the dirt road. I neared and the rancher jumped out with intention. He walked briskly towards me, his shoulders squared and a pistol on his belt hip.
‘What are you doing?! Why are you going through my property?!’ He spoke loudly, almost yelling, though his face said it all. He was pissed. I kept cool, really not phased by the gun. Being from Los Angeles I have had them pulled on me before. Having walked thousands of miles over the years, I have seen more than my share too.
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t know I was trespassing.’
‘You’re about to go through my house!’
‘Look, I am very sorry. I didn’t know. I thought I was on a county road.’ I said with earnest. I didn’t want to start trouble. I am on a walk not looking for confrontation.
‘Well yea, you are on a county road, but it goes through my house. Didn’t you see the ‘no trespassing’ signs?’
‘I did see signs but they were facing the land on the sides of the road. I saw nothing for the road.’
‘Yes, you’re right. But the road goes through my house. And the Stitz property would be next. I don’t know who you are, coming in here walking!’
‘Again, I’m sorry.’
‘Why are you walking here anyways?’
‘To stay off the highway, and to access the BLM land. Like I said, I thought this a county road.’
‘Don’t you see how what you’re doing doesn’t make sense?! C’mon man! Can’t you agree with that?’ His gun dangling off his belt, easily accessible with his stature. His face became red, his eyes squinched from tension.
‘I don’t agree with you. But I do understand you are upset, so I’ll go back and get to the highway. I am very sorry you are upset,’ I said calmly. I really meant it. I wasn’t here to upend anyone regardless if I was in the right and he knew it too. But I wasn’t going to take shit from anyone especially if they tried to insult my intelligence. I didn’t care if he had a gun. In my eyes, it was him and me.
He pursued further questioning. What was I doing? I told him I was on a long distance hike across the country. He told me of the hitchhikers killed in Canada. I told him I wasn’t hitchhiking. He told me his wife was alone in his house, which put him on guard. I told him I wasn’t here to conversate with people, only to walk through to public land. He asked where I was from. I said Colorado.
Finally his shoulders slunk from a stiff posture. He was from Lakewood, a retired police officer. He explained further the area had no cops, no sheriff, and that crazy people are out there in the world. He questioned me on this and I disagreed again with him. I told him I have walked thousands of miles in rural places and he is the first to react this way.
‘It’s ok, man. I am really sorry. I’ll just go around.’
He reached out his hand to shake mine, his way of peace. I shook his, but stayed tall and keeping eye contact right into his. I wasn’t going to stand down. But I was still going to respect that he felt a certain way. I understood he had deeper issues going on. And I wasn’t planning on solving them. It’s his turmoil.
‘Well, you can go through. Just make it quick.’
‘Nah, I’m good. I got time and feet, so I’ll go around. No biggie.’
‘That’ll take time.’
‘Like I said, I got time and feet.’ There was no way I was accepting his invitation. I wasn’t acquiescing to his paranoia, let alone trying to dissuade his paranoia. I wasn’t appeasing his fear. Fuck him I thought, but I didn’t feel that way. I’d rather let him be, alone on his island.
‘Hey man. I am sorry I upset you. Like I said, I didn’t know. Have a good evening.’ I turned and walked away, unphased in my stride, but agitated by this microcosm of fear I hear and see in America these days. I play the middle; the extremes in either direction just scream and shout and look for fights. Good luck with that, people. I’ll keep on walking along in this world. I am certain there’s more good than bad, more sane than psycho. The land is free but the people on it are not. Whether stricken emotionally, internally, or philosophically most of the time we set our own confines.
I had another encounter soon after with the next landowners, this time with a different tone that I decided to set. Even amidst leery eyes and grimy teeth I emoted a charm, a kindness people should give and equate with each other. Eventually I got the old woman to smile. I knew by her eyes showing agreement, her husband politely so by her side. Even with the snide comments about being in grizzly country without a gun I opened and closed the gate for them so they wouldn’t have to get off their four-wheeler. They saw no harm in me, and likewise I saw no harm in them. We communicated before reacting, simple as that.
The concept of landownership versus being a groundskeeper, entitlement outside the realm of a sense of place, caring for it rather than owning it, controlling the land for security or wealth or refuge against my love of the land, so many things I am confused by and baffled by how far apart most folks seem to be on the spectrum. Seems that commonality is lost, simple good behaviors are out the window for the cause of forcing other people to believe in your way. There’s something so false about that, so profusely aggravated to cause separation. My truck has always been to try and establish the connection with the land with these rural folks. Nevertheless, is not easy when their ideologies fuel a fire not ready to be put out. I want to not rant too much here but it is hard to ignore, especially after having someone purposely display a pistol like that to scare you. I see their pretentious belief system solely based off fear and arrogance, anger. How can we connect, communicate, with so much anger infused into one person, let alone the impressionable folks around him? We severed our humanity with anger, with ideology. I find the irony in me identifying, or relating to a coyote. A varmint, a pest, unknown, killed off by folks who refuse to try to understand. It’s the nervous eagle from afar, a symbol of freedom safe in a tree yet trembling from something realistically a non-threat. This is not a knock against eagles, rather a knock against raging ideologies. I write this wondering what the fuck is freedom? When, especially, the real irony is that we all are hurt deeply in someways, scarred from something that gouged deep enough for us to distrust everyone. That being said, those scarrings give us no reason to yell, to threaten, to coerce, or to not share. I refuse to be a slave to those entrapments to reflect my actions on other people. My scarrings are my scarrings, not your’s. And your’s are definitely not mine. ‘Am I making sense?’ ‘No, use your intelligence rather than your hate.’
Maybe I need to keep being the coyote, the symbol of connection between man and nature. That’s the symbol of freedom I acknowledge.
Yet maybe I sympathized with that encounter to act differently with the other landowners. To make them feel comfortable, approach them and stem the hate and judging before those feelings could even come out. Besides, I needed to to continue on my path, in my direction. Sometimes being a human being intertwined with other people you must compromise. And I find myself back at the root of my whole story I am telling over this hiking season and perhaps beyond. I have always wanted to tell stories, share stories. This is my way of connection. But as I have grown I have wanted—no, needed, yes, needed, more than anything, to live a story. That is probably the most egotistical thing I have done. That is my ideology. However, within that choice, behind my beliefs, trying to evolve in this world along side others’ evolvements I am often perplexed about what I am giving up, about the fear of being like everyone else. I see now, at least the beginning of something that one day can form more honest relationships with strangers, even with family or a community or a job. It is not what I am giving up rather than what I am giving in to.
The next day I stumbled into a ghost town after navigated misguidedly through a maze of logging roads. I pondered the meaning of this stumbling. The old mining shacks and trellises, the tailings, the delapidated huts and rusted parts, the spirit of what once was and how a spirit lives on. Things are now, not what they were. But ghosts haunt whether we think the ghosts are intending to instill fear or replenish times and feelings afore.
Moons past. A bright full moon led to shavings of something full with hope. Yet the moons hung until the early daylight morning. Two beacons in the sky brought my pondering back to freedom. A spectrum in the sky which we hold time within, in which our cycles flow and grow, everything tied to these orbs up high. Our freedom is tied to nature and not necessarily human nature. We are confined by human nature, vulnerable within nature, and that scares the shit out of us.
I came into a clearing, the grassy slopes grabbed the early morning sunshine, the rays of warmth shimmering off the Indian paintbrush and purple lupine. I noticed quickly a squirrel’s tail flickering in the sunlight atop a root wad. A tad confused because the squirrels out here in these mountains do not have bushy tails. I squinted my eyes for a more inquisitive inspection. A darting blur came into clear sight. Now I could see the velvet glimmering in the sunlight, and I knew right then that the bushy tail were moose ears and the root wad was a rack.
No more than 20ft away from me, my first notion was to marvel at the monumental rack on this bull moose. In a half second I realized how close I was and that notion of admiring deleted from my naturalist memory. My adrenaline kicked up instantaneously, as the bull moose reared its enormous head and antlers. Majestic, yet dangerous and imposing, so dark brown he was black, he had been basking in the morning sun too. I knew I was too close. My heart almost leapt out of my chest and I breathed deeply to keep my cool.
‘Hey bub,’ I said in a table talk voice, not too loud and not too soft. I pulled the Velcro off my bear spray strap which clung from my chest. I widened my path and hastened an exit. I tried to give him as much room as possible while giving him space to move within. As I unclipped my bear spray the moose turned towards me. I kept my cool and restrained myself from bolting out of there, although I hiked quickly. But I was willing to pull that trigger on the spray as I thought there would be no use in running from such a large animal that close to me in relatively open terrain. I kept looking over my shoulder believing he was about to charge, a harsh reality coupled with a long distant memory scarred within me, a trauma uncontrollably triggered.
For those that don’t know, not too far from here and a little over 9 years ago, say a 40m walk across some ridges and drainages, I had an ordeal with a young bull moose. The chase, feeling him so close I thought he was going to club me; the pain I felt in my neck and shoulders, my left hand numb, no feeling; the 45 minutes up in a tree, blood from cuts on my forearms from failed tree climbing attempts dripped on the long snout; the moose diving into hidden willows, my retreat, the hike out scrambling from climbable tree to climbable tree, and the 2.5 hour drive to the ER—-a day long ordeal with a broken neck.
I felt every bone in me tremble in my recollection. These close encounters are rare. And I got lucky in this instance. I holstered my bear spray as I got a safe enough distance away. Five minutes later I encountered a mountain biker with 2 dogs. I told him of the bull moose. He heeded the warning not only because I probably looked afraid but because his 2 pups had been acting weird. We chatted a bit and he told me an amusing story where last fall a bear sniffed at his tent. He hollered out and the bear grunted. He sprayed his spray and so frantically he sprayed in a complete circle which encompassed his tent and his head. The bear ran off and he laid in the dark night convulsing and crying in the burning bear spray.
I am aware of the walking contradiction I am. How clumsy, how incredibly goofy, wobbly and heel struck, how changeable and meek we are in this wide world, just how scared we are, how we vacillate back and forth, how we hide behind masks of philosophy, beliefs, and emotions. I understand there’s more out there. There’s other people who deep down want to connect, as well as people who do not want to connect. Most importantly I understand there is nature, the human kind and nature kind, the freedom and the connectivity between both realms that are affected by our clumsiness, by our fears. And I wonder, after all this—the miles, the lands traversed, the experiences—I just wonder more than ever who owns the land now.
I left Big Sky feeling a bit miffed, grumpy at the loud trucks blaring by hauling rock and dirt, the tourism industry that does not cater to the worker, and to the scarring of land of ‘privately owned’ ski hills and gaudy ranches. Supreme motorbikes towing a high class SUV passed consistently by and every time I imagine a look of scorn rose over my face. Money seems to rule the world, I thought. Yet I also thought my experiences have been invaluable. I pulled off on a doting and slurped a liter of fresh water under the heat of the day. I felt lucky to able to do what I am doing. I work hard to earn this time to freely go where I please. I do not make a lot of money, only working 5-6 months out of the year to live simply and travel by foot the rest of the year. I do not come from money; I am poor yet rich at the same time. Rain fell from the sky as towering clouds hovered in overhead. I let the drops drench me and cool me off, to clean me.
I had been filthy, getting those types of looks from a town with money that give a sneering eye, the look that those rich people assume certain things of me. But, shit, it don’t matter I guess. That landowner with the pistol sure assumed something. All these events invalidate my experiences I suppose. I know they don’t however. I attained the backbone of the Gallatin Range as the sun sunk over the western horizon, the sky dimmed in a purple light. The moon rose late again but glistened through most of night that the stars were not nearly as present as I had hoped for. Refreshed in the morning, I woke up from my perch and looked around at the vast landscape, the land here more valuable than other land because rich people said so. I have seen prettier places in poorer areas, but this place right here, this place where the sky is big, the land is wealthy, more valuable. The discrepancy between places is of a non-necessity really, the land chosen less of reason and more for greed and isolation, the disconnection between people.
I shelved my negativity thinking the rotating pessimism too toxic. I walked on. Above Onion Basin, a vast shelf of greenery beneath a rim of rock, I saw two grizzlies rooting around below me. They were probably a mile a part separated by an undulating meadow and glades of firs. I observed them as I hiked along the rim as they foraged for onions. This basin was their home, probably in their DNA to keep coming back to this basin to root for onions. I tip-tied across the rim in their home feeling honored to be a part of something whole, of observing something whole. I efforted the day to walk the Sky Rim through uncomfortable humid heat with so much hill climbing I profusely sweated. But the views, the perch atop the this wide landscape, was worth it, worth the weight of any gold. Exhausted, I set up camp in a tiny meadow under a lodgepole. That night I had a dream and in that dream, in an unexpected moment, a wolf appeared. At first I thought the canine was a large coyote but I realized the wolf stare. I was not sure if the symbolism or I couldn’t recall the whole dream, but I just knew the wolf was communicating with me. I woke up from the dream in the wee hours. Deathly silence rang through the forest, the moon glowing through the trees yet the forest still felt dominated by the darkness. A few hours later I woke up to a howl echoing throughout the forest, a lamenting howl piercing the dark and silent air.
I am gathering an understanding, a surmise of emotions, of my role or place in society, among so many things this hiking season as I near the last three weeks. I mean, I am not completely aware but I am more ready to communicate the stuff inside, more ready to compromise. Maybe my narrative will change, maybe I will keep surprising myself. Maybe my encounters with people will harbor more valuable connection, even love, even a community, a family. Maybe the world will change around me. Maybe the world will communicate openly and with respect. Maybe the land will overwhelm, the wild reclaiming a freedom we only try to control. Maybe I will find a home through all this wandering. And maybe I will still able to keep walking, lonesome in nature, tramping in openness, a character in a play playing a part in a story.