Tales from the Trail: Montana’s Mountains of the Heart

The following story first appeared in Jim’s newsletter, Wild Wind.

C & L Creek. The Big Hole Divide.

I’m struck by the beauty of the place. Topographical maps can only show so much. They leave out the cold morning light playing in the trees. They never mention the bird songs on the still canyon air. They neglect the creek murmuring and winding its way through the narrow canyon, or a cow and calf moose trotting up and over the hillside, deer bounding through the aspen. The place is alive. Maps don’t tell you that.

     The Big Hole Divide is the ridge of low mountains separating the watersheds of the Big Hole River from that of the Jefferson. It’s a minor range running from the summits of the Continental Divide to the peaks of the Pioneer Range. It’s been hit hard from the impacts of human activity. The route I’m taking attempts to skirt those impacts, searching out a pristine path among the maze of roads and extensive clearcuts.

     The trail is good. The kind of trail I like to see. It hasn’t been overused. Nor is it worn deeply into the ground like some trails. It’s narrow and faint, soft on the tread. It twists and turns through the clearings and the forest as if a deer had made it. On this morning I feel like a deer myself, stepping lightly and watchful. I’m poking along, stopping often to listen, wandering off the path to observe. The pauses are not drawn from anything in particular, just the forest itself. It seems sharper, more defined this morning, requiring an extra look, a deeper appreciation.

     The morning slips past. The little trail leads me to a wooded pass where I veer off the track to make my way up the steep, wooded slope. A well worn elk trail, like an expressway, happens to be heading my way. An hour later I’m stepping out onto the top of Bloody Dick Peak at the crown of the Big Hole Divide. A refreshing breeze plays over the exposed summit. The cool bite is invigorating, while the sweeping panorama stretches my spirits just a tiny bit wider. Before me, in every direction, stretch mountain upon mountain, representing some of Montana’s most beautiful, and still wild country. It’s easy to sit and stare, soaking up the vast spaces, filling up my heart with that special mountaintop exhilaration.

     Much later, I move on, traveling a mostly forested ridge. The crest narrows for a time, marked here and there with the scars of old fires. Ghost trees bleach in the sun, hugging to the rocky crust, while new growth struggles to gain a toehold. Clark’s Nutcrackers flit from tree to tree, squawking and generally making more of a racket than I would prefer to have preceding me. I wish they’d hush up.

     The going is slow due to the scrubby trees, jagged rocks, and precipitous drops. Marmots and pikas abound in this stretch. I expect them. I do not expect to see anything else. The nutcrackers will see to that. Besides it’s the middle of the day. Not a good time to see critters.

     The ridge skirts a steep bowl. It’s bare of trees, laced with boulders, and almost covered with snow. I don’t know why I’m so surprised. This is a north facing slope, and I’m above 8,000 feet. Snow should be here, but with these last few days being so hot, I just haven’t thought of it. I’m starting to traverse above the bowl when another patch of white catches my eye. It’s more of a creamy white set against the snow. And it moves.

     A mountain goat treads slowly over to the base of the bowl. He moves as if each step were an effort; as if he had just enough energy to make that one placement of his hoof. Two others lie sprawled on the tongue of snow. He joins them, plopping down as if it too were an effort. This heat today is hard on them. They’re lying in the snow, panting heavily.

     The average response of a mountain goat to intruders is to run. And to climb. I don’t want to drive them to flight this hot day. It might kill them. I watch them for a few minutes then back off to the south side of the crest. I make my way along that side of the ridge confident that my noise will not disturb them. The ridge becomes broader and more heavily forested. The distant views are gone. I need my compass to tell me where I am on the mountain. I walk over an unnamed knob. Then another. The dense forest offers a cozy security. Also, a monotony which allows my thoughts to stray with each passing knoll. I’m drawn back to that view from Bloody Dick Peak. I’m trekking miles of green tunnel, and I’ve got panoramas of mountain upon mountain on an endless reel playing in my mind. Beautiful mountains. Wild mountains. Mountains of the heart.

     These wild mountain ranges dotting the Montana Rockies are the heart. They are the last strongholds sheltering the living core of the region. The year’s water flows from their snowfields. The remnants of the last wild populations of various species dwell in their untouched reaches. The uncut forests offer sanctuary to untold numbers of organisms. Their natural character shapes and directs the mood of this entire corner of the state.

     The biological integrity of the area is wrapped and woven with the health of these remaining wild ranges. A who’s who list of biologists ten pages long can vouch for the importance of keeping the untouched places just the way they are. Each range in the Northern Rockies still has a significant roadless area which should be kept so. But there are other reasons besides ecological health to leave them be.

     We as a species need to experience nature. Plain and simple. We need something to remind us of where we came from; something that says “you, too, are a part of this planet.” To often “nature” is but the roses in our suburban yard, or green grass in the neighborhood park. The fish in the aquarium are our only glimpse of wildlife. But they don’t count. These are imitations. Pruned, fed, and pampered imitations. Nature is a living system; a living system which can stand on its own. Wilderness is nature as it was meant to be. It just is. It’s birth and being does not revolve around human whims and whiles. Unfortunately, it’s presence in today’s overpopulated world often does depend on human care. Caring enough to leave it alone.

     The existence of natural areas has always been taken for granted in our society. There has always been a place for young people to go ; young people of all cultures, to seek their own visions, their own directions from the spirit of the Earth. There has always been another side to the mountain. A wild side. Land “out West” to find solace and silence in. Places “up north” to lose oneself and stretch our inner limits.

     Today those wide open spaces continue to shrink, and with them, the visions. The neighborhood forests and fields of our childhood have been paved over or buried under by super highways and monster malls. Where will the new generation go to find a soothing connection with their own planet? Where will humankind be reminded of our own wild heritage, the animal within us? Can a child feel at home on this Earth when contact with its rhythms, systems, and fellow beings does not occur? Can Life be nurtured by a computer game of ultimate reality?

     Reality is often a matter of perspective. It seems to me we’re watering down our quality of life with each compromise on the environmental front. We lose a bit of nature and then we get used to it. We lose a bit more and get used to that. Soon we’re living in a polluted, crowded world and we think that’s the way it’s supposed to be. The strength and spiritual connection wild places hold for the human soul is a value that cannot be measured in forest plans, fiscal budgets, and biological surveys. It dwells in the very root of the Earth’s existence, and thus, in ours. When we cease to have a connection with nature, and start to accept it’s imitations as true, we risk loosing something in ourselves, a little piece of our heart. Yes, these are indeed mountains of the heart.

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