Montana

August 2020

Day 1. We were staying in Seattle at Bruce’s, on a long getaway from New York. With pretty much no country allowing access from the US due to high Covid infection, we booked another US road trip and another cabin…this time in Troy, Montana. With Bruce driving again, we took the I-90 through Spokane, stopping near Vantage at Wanapum Vista to look out across the Columbia River and up towards the horse sculptures on the ridge. ‘Grandfather Cuts Loose the Ponies’ by David Govedare, 15 life size galloping steel horses. Signs zipped by on the I-90 ‘Watch Fox News for Fair and Balanced’, ‘Trump/Pence 2020’, ‘God Bless All Hard Working Americans’. Passing turnoffs for Moses Lake, Ritzville, Sprague, Medical Lake and Dynamite. Onward to the 295, a sign on a barn “Barn Again” followed by another declaring “Second Chance”. To buy a barn?

Passing Stormin’ Norman’s bar and restaurant following railroad tracks we crossed over the Idaho State Line around 3pm. We detoured to find a community called North Pole Idaho hoping there’d be a town sign for a photograph; finding instead two dromedaries and an Indian Bull behind a chain link fence advertising Big Red’s Barn Indoor Animal Experience. Turned back to pass the huge wooden rollercoaster of the Silverwood amusement park, a tourist train chootling round packed with unmasked park visitors. The further you get out of the cities, the less folks wear them. There is a romanticism to following these long flat roads, kicking up dust, barrelling alongside the tracks with big old freight trains pulling stacked containers double high; the road peppered with John Deere dealerships, RV dealers and grain silos. Driving over Lake Pend Oreille in the northern Idaho Pandhandle and the largest lake in the state, through a town which didn’t seem to know how to spell itself on the different signs; Ponderay, Ponderey…why not Pend Oreille?

Fueling up at Bonner’s Ferry, a sign read “Big Foot Social Distancing Champion” but no-one did, no-one wore a mask. We stayed out of the store and paid at the pump. Pulling over at Moyie Springs after driving across the 464 foot high, 1,223 foot long bridge over the Moyie River Canyon…we looked out towards the dam. And then over the state border in to Montana, crossing the Yak River, over the Kootenai River. Through the small town of Troy to find our cabin, set back from the trail in woods, a short walk from Lake Creek. Unloaded and realised the 1 hour time difference…cooked dinner at 7 and ate indoors at the heavy wooden table. Wandering outside after to sit on the porch and wait for the night. A group of 8 or 9 Turkeys wandered around the cabin side, scratching and pecking at the lawn, making their mewing noises as they jostled each other. As if by command they lumbered, lifting in to heavy flight…one by one as if on a runway to fly up in to the trees to roost. The beat of their wings loud and steady and once up in the branches they called to each other, clucking, fussing, as they settled in for the night.

Day 2. The cabin is spacious. Private with only one neighbour quite a way behind us in the woods. We woke up to a chilly morning. The sun takes a while to reach us and heat the porch because it needs to climb above the mountain before it reaches us. Most comfortable bed I’d slept in for a time, so I stayed in it ’til 10am and the sun was hitting the grass. We had a relaxing day; sitting on the big wrap around porch listening to the wind in the trees. Reading, eating, watching for birds. I’m reading the Julia Child biography, not someone well known to the English. Her time living in France, learning to cook, write recipes; atmospheric descriptions of late 1940s/1950s Paris and Marseilles.

Wandering through the trees 5 minutes from the cabin down to Lake Creek. It ran fast and clear…too cold for a swim though the temperature had climbed quickly. In to the woods, me with my camera, Bruce with his binoculars and Dave armed with the bear spray…clipped to his belt-loop…testing that he could grab it and flip it open quickly like a childhood cowboy memory. I’m not particularly up for a bear encounter…from indoors looking out…sure. Face to face in the woods….no chance. Brown bears and Grizzlies are known to be in the area.

Turkey feathers lay among the wood pile. Wildflowers glowed burnt yellow and umber against dark green foliage of pine and fir trees. We found part of an animal’s skeleton, picked dry, bleached by the sun. Stacked cords of wood shed their bark. Rotting tree stumps smelled earthy, host to saplings growing from loamy mulch as the old life fed new. Everything floated against a dark backdrop of dense trees. Hundreds of dry pine cones crunched underfoot. We pushed back tall wildflowers, starting to turn inwards curling and dry, anticipating Autumn. Walking under towering electric pylons to access a different part of the creek we stood on smooth stones looking out across silvered fallen trees breaking the wash of the water.

Back on the porch squirrels whirred and chirruped, a Pileated Woodpecker swooped down, his call a loose squeaking wheel turning a cart. A dying dragonfly, his veined wings glinting in the sun, arched its body on the deck in a final death-throw. His green markings and yellow-eyed wing tips still full of luster. We waited on the porch after dinner hoping the Turkeys would return. No sign of them tonight.

Day 3. Drove 3 miles from the cabin to the small town of Troy. ‘Bring Back The Blue’ in support of police and Trump signs posted up outside homes and businesses all over the town. A small movie theatre, post office, the original town jailhouse with adjoining historical brothel. A pretty town. Bars and restaurants closed because of Covid.

The railroad tracks lay right through the middle of Troy with huge freight trains clanking by pulling loads; oil and double stacked freight containers. The train whistle blowing low and long, hard bouncing off the mountains on either side of the valley. We got talking with a local wildlife photographer walking his dog Ibis. Said he moved to Troy as a Forestry firefighter, met a gorgeous girl who had a job, all her own teeth and could cook…so he fell in love and stayed. Together they climb mountain trails when he isn’t away on photography assignments. He told us about the many local trails and mountain passes and got in to a long discussion with Bruce about birdwatching…said he’d seen Mountain Lions and bears on the trails…quipping “As long as you don’t have an accent you’ll be safe!” Told us of his love for his adopted town but sadly how divided it had become in recent years. It’s an occurrence echoed globally.

Back in the Jeep we took the road up in to the mountains, climbing higher and higher up King Mountain. Overlooking China Mountain and the atmospherically named Pulpit Mountain…stopping now and again to look down across spectacular views. We could see a shooting range in the distance; gunfire echoing around the mountain and the pop-pop-pop of semi-automatic firearms. Who will ever need a semi-automatic weapon? Still climbing with plunging drops to the side, the road well maintained but loose rocks bouncing under the tires…a small group of Grouse picked their way hesitantly out of the shrubs disappearing again as we got closer. Reaching the top we pulled over to eat Pringles and sandwiches, ‘sammies’ to Bruce…sitting among wildflowers, a breeze turning their heads. A dying tree spun with moss its silver branches like a towering cathedral spire. It brought to mind Gaudi and Barcelona.

After eating, exploring and peeing in the bushes…we took the road down until we connected to a larger one leading to Alvord Lake. A woman and two younger people pulled a small boat out of the back of their vehicle….the woman taking it straight on to the lake in a calm efficiency, directions being called from the bank from the others guiding her to find a sunken fish hatchery. Driving again we crossed Rabbit O’ Brien Creek Road, heading on down Foote Road back through Troy to the cabin. I cooked up a British classic, Bangers and Mash with baked beans. And the turkeys were back! An aggressive tussle between two of them, one pinning the other by the neck to the ground. I counted 17 birds. At dusk they lumbered again up in to the trees, one alighting on a branch unable to hold its weight. We cried out in surprise as it tumbled 20 feet down, crashing through branches flailing wings scattering feathers… laughing in relief when it landed unharmed on its feet.

Day 4. Lazy late morning start. Raining outside. Overcast, the mountain in front of the cabin obscured. Once the rain had stopped we drove 15 minutes or so to Bull Lake. Clear but grey and cold….dark under a heavy sky. Took Highway 52 to Ross Creek Cedars (where the campground is called ‘Bad Medicine’)… an extraordinary forest of ancient Cedar trees, some up to 500 years old. They towered above us, some with a huge circumference, roots locked in to the ground…immovable giants. Rotten fallen cedars crumbled on the forest floor, some blocking the trail. One Cedar still standing yet hollowed out. We each scrambled under it’s elevated roots, crawling through the soil to stand inside; looking up…way up, to the opening above. Cathedral like and captivating, we whooped and whistled…children again.

A rock slide overspread by a living carpet of moss and sprouting ferns. We walked to the dried out creek bed now an impromptu art installation where pebbles and rocks, hundreds of them, stand precariously balanced. Covering the creek bed, some stacked atop fallen tree roots. Bruce and I added our own. Following the trail loop for over an hour marvelling at these giant trees, some grown so close they’d become joined. Coming off the trail a little on the return, Bruce picked his away across a fallen tree over the water to pick up the final part of our trail back. Dave and I clambered across a massive upturned root and to cut across some stagnant water we go on to a fallen tree…. our feet sinking in to the fibrous hollow of it….soft and dusty under our feet. I wondered how many years it takes for them to reach this stage, how much life it’s supported and still supporting.

A picnic lunch at a table among the trees then back on to Highway 52 heading back on ourselves to visit the suspension bridge. The parking lot almost full, visitors everywhere, none wearing masks, crowding together…we didn’t feel comfortable during Covid times so pulled out of the lot, heading instead for the nearby town of Libby.

Libby is a small town, sitting in the Kootenai Valley between the Cabinet Mountains to the south and the Purcell Mountains to the north, there’s a sense of close knit community here, a timeless quality about the place in its small cinema and local shops….sadly deserted of tourists and the bustle of life because of the virus. We encountered very few people as we wandered its streets. The economy now geared more towards tourism but built around logging and mining, it fell victim to a Vermiculite mine discovered in 1919 in the mountains. By 1963 Libby was producing 80% of the world’s vermiculite. Containing asbestos it was also used in so much of Libby’s construction and landscaping….over time resulting in a devastatingly high rate of asbestosis among the residents. Almost 10% of the community died with many more suffering from related health issues. Nearby Troy was also affected and millions was spent in a huge clean up to remove contaminated materials and soil from the communities. As we walked around we noticed a higher than usual presence of health related businesses but thankfully the areas are now perfectly safe to visit and worth your time. It’s a shame we were here during Covid and unable to see Libby at its best.

Day 5. Chill out day for me at the cabin. Happy to kick back with a good book and the sound of the wind in the trees. The cabin had a copy of ‘A River Runs Through It’ the semi-autobiographical novel written by Norman Maclean about growing up in Montana with his brother Paul…their devotion to fly-fishing described akin to religion. Great to read whilst in the area. Dave and Bruce went out in to the Kootenai National Forest and climbed up the North West Peak for views of the upper west fork of the Yaak River…but still no bears. I lazed on the porch, watching a furry caterpillar…bristling yellow and black stripes arching and falling…arching and falling… as it made the length of the deck before slipping in to the grass.

Day 6. Dave and I kicked back all day, wanting to make the most of this peaceful place, unwinding and letting go…life in New York during Covid temporarily lost to the distraction of nature…the quiet solitude that can be rural life. Bruce feeling energetic in the afternoon, drove out to find Spa Lake…returning at sundown where seated again around the heavy wooden table we talked and ate together. Out on the deck, Bruce listening to his bird recordings as we all watched the sun drop golden turning the mountain a deep russet copper as it sank from the sky.

Day 7. And then it was time to leave. I wanted to get a look at the Eileen Dam on our route back to Seattle, but google maps sent us on a goose chase. We followed Eileen Road passing a farm and a dog who ran to snap at our wheels, barking and chasing us past a lumber mill. Leaving him behind we crossed a rail track but then a rutted out road which we walked along for a while, but it obviously wasn’t a road big enough to lead to a large dam. Giving up and turning around, back in the car we got on to the highway, driving back through Bonners Ferry, Sandpoint, across to Newport, turning on down towards Spokane. Stopping at a pretty rest area in Sprague with a view over train tracks, eating sandwiches as a long freight train passed through. Picked up the I-90 to Seattle, more signs flying by ‘The Brews Brothers’, ‘The Man Shop’. ‘Hilary Clinton for America’…her name ghosted over in thin white paint but still showing through. A dustdevil gathered speed in a tilled roadside field, spinning itself out. On the other side of the road smoke hung low from wildfires raging in Evan’s Canyon in the Wenas Valley in the northwestern corner of Yakima county. Back to Seattle, where we awoke to our own smoke filled days….but the chance to drive through Idaho and Montana had been a brief exhilaration.

Once settled again at Bruce’s in Seattle I started on another book. ‘Winter Notes from Montana’ by Rick Bass and read of his experiences living in that beautiful place, the harshness of winter, their hunting dogs, the Yaak River running with fish. It is mountain literature, notes about fitting in and finding you feet in these wild places. An insightful tribute to the state they refer to as ‘Big Sky Country’.

“I don’t belong in a city, and I’m not sure I belong in the spring and summer. The fall, maybe…
Winter covers some things and reveals others. I admire the weasels, the rabbits, and the other wild creatures that can change with the seasons, that can change almost overnight. It’s taken me a long time to change completely—thirty years—but now that I’ve changed, I don’t have an interest in turning back.
I won’t be leaving this valley.”
(from Rick Bass ‘Winter. Notes from Montana’).

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