Submitted by Amy Engbretson
May and it’s a full moon night.
We pull 9in with the trailer loaded, all the way from Ohio. We’ve been married for a week. Under the great blue sky, the love of my life has spent four months building a house.
The first dirt has moved while we were both there, dreaming as new lovers do about our life together. Before that, before we disturbed it, the dirt had lain silent for centuries. The creek that diverts into the canal had now gone through our place, beside the willow trees.
Maybe tepees had once stood there as well.
Maybe a war party had moved through the in the early morning, the sun looking out over the mountains just like it does now. But the grass grew serene, unt the day we, a little sadly, watch the excavator gash a large hole, dirt bleeding out the sides.
Where there was nothing, but wounded dirt, now stands our house. The House That Josh Built.
The love and hopes built in with the beams, the screws, the tile, the wood for the floors. And we marry and make our nest, finding strings and fluff weaving only with care.
For three years, we live there, the two of us alone in Montana. We watch the sun come up over the mountains every morning, know every morning our stunning luck to be here, to be given this to see.
We sit on our swing and feel thermals off the mountains in the evening. In the winter the mountains glow pink.
The grass is yellow and the larches are too, in the fall.
We climb mountains in the summer, stumbling over stones and sweating to the top, where we lay in the sun and eat sandwiches. Camp and sleep easy under a billion stars. Picnic at the edge of the timber by the canal. Float and swim the Flathead, the Jocko, the Blackfoot. Swim the lakes, Mission, McDonald, Flathead, high alpine lakes whose names I don’t remember now. Clear as ice. …
There were grizzlies in the neighborhood and one night we see and hear them, eating a deer a couple hundred yards away.
Once in the Flathead, I’m in the water, a warm, clean bathtub. The river is her beautiful self. Montana’s not names Big Sky Coutnry wrongly; the sky stretches into eternity at all edges of the earth….
Once, we ran out of water before we ran out of trail, coming down from Flattop Peak. We walk dry and hot, hot and dry. The sun swims in our eyese and shoes are string-tied ovens. If there’s a part of us not covered in sweat and dust, we have no idea where. My legs burn and wobble. At the base of the mountains, Ashley Creek comes on us suddenly. We sit in it, drink it and throw handfuls at each other.
Once we laid in the canal bank in the cold dark, not three miles from our house, and listen to a herd of elk on the other side of the canal. Cows grunting and moving and squealing, bulls fighting and bugling and thrashing wild. When they are tired, they move off, jumping a sagging wire. The bulls go last.
And then we have to leave. Not say goodbye, because the song says truth that you can never say goodbye to Montana, only goodnight. Goodnight to rivers, houses, lakes, mountains, sky. The larches will shine in the little jam spot of color that I can see out my window. The rivers will run clear and warm as they always have. The snow will melt off the peaks. We will not be here to see it.
December, it’s a full moon night. We empty the last of our things out of our first home. The sun will shine in the double glass doors, gilding the larch floors. The bedroom where our son was born will fill with moonlight. the breezes will come in the windows. We will not be there.
We will not be here, but some of here will always stay with us, memories of this wild and beautiful land. We have not parted until we have forgotten, and we will never forget.
We walk across the field to the loaded trailer, stopping to watch a round moon rise from behind the mountains. It would be black dark, but the moon is a great white light.
Dreaming of the day I return home
Submitted by Barbara Merriman
I had no choice but to leave Montana to attend medical school in the summer of 2009. It was so stressful to be away from such a beautiful place, for four years of grueling studies taking 28 credits per semester… but I have stayed in touch with my friends in Montana and subscribed to Montana Magazine as a reward.
Now, I am two years into my residency training in Pennsylvania, and dreaming of the day in two more years when I can return to the state I love once again.
For now, I dream of Montana’s sunny skies, white-capped mountains, clear, dry air, healthy residents, outdoor recreation, and perfect climate, until I can return for the last time and finally be home.
Dreaming of returning to ‘sunny skies’ and ‘white-capped mountains’
Submitted by Barbara Merriman
I had no choice but to leave Montana to attend medical school in Summer of 2009.
It was so stressful to be away from such a beautiful place, for four years of grueling studies taking 28 credits per semester… but I have stayed in touch with my friends in Montana and subscribed to Montana Magazine as a reward.
Now I am two years into my residency training in Pennsylvania, and dreaming of the day in two more years when I can return to the state I love once again.
For now, I dream of Montana’s sunny skies, white-capped mountains, clear, dry air, healthy residents, outdoor recreation, and perfect climate, until I can return for the last time and finally be home.
‘It is not where I grew old, but it is where I grew up’
Submitted by Mack W. Borgen
I left Montana this month. Probably for the last time. I refuse to be sad, but even as I sit in the warmth of the California sun, I miss Montana. I always will.
For now, I just need to get this story down before the sights, the sounds, the thick quiet of the woods, and the many memories of my Montana fade with time.
I am not objective about Montana – for I am a part of it, and it is a part of me. It is not where I grew old, but it is where I grew up.
It is impossible to well describe Montana. It is more than the high mountains, the rivers and lakes, the deep forests, the dark winters, and the endless summers. Words cannot capture the expanse of the big skies, the open miles of the Big Open, or what it is like to drop down Paradise Valley into the Clark Fork, to cross over Chief Joseph Pass into the Bitterroot Valley, to watch the clouds creep over the Swan Range, to drive the paved ribbon of the Hi-Line, or to feel the sweeping winds of the plains.
The names and memories in my reflections just keep coming. Cut Bank and Plentywood, Roundup and Red Lodge, Missoula and Miles City, Big Timber and Butte and Bozeman. The Gallatin and the Beaverhead, the Flathead and the Yellowstone, the Musselshell and the Missouri – and yeh, in Montana, the Missouri is a river, not a state.
Montana, like all places, has its problems. There are school yard bullies. There are barking dogs and grumpy neighbors. There are rainstorms that won’t quit, and everyone gets a bit of the lonelies every now and then. Like all places, there are some stubborn bureaucrats, and I have had good and dear friends suffer from the whims and wrongs of conflicted, small-town politicians. Worse yet, good jobs are hard to find, and the bars stay open far longer than the churches. Too many quarters are dropped at the roadside casinos, and too many dollars are spent on payday beers. Some say that Montana itself has been lost ever since the mines were closed and the logging was shut down. Maybe it’s not surprising that Montana doesn’t really know what to do with the flocking tourists or the shopping Canadians who flood the borders. And Walmarts and strip centers have carved their way into the skyline, and the roads can get choked with RVs — but it is still good and the greatest wonder of Montana is not the ridgelines, the mountain trails, or the fishing. It is the people.
Montana is a tough place to live – wonderfully so. And maybe that too is part of the reason that Montana is home to some of the best people – best in all of the ways that matter.
Montana is where all of my family — three generations now – are buried and where the rest of us will join them soon enough. And Montana is home to some of my best friends — best, again, in all of the ways that matter. I have been blessed with knowing an artist friend who paints glory onto canvas and spreads a caring radiance wherever he goes. Another friend of mine from high school moved to Montana many years ago and, with his wife and family, built an incredible home and life deep in the woods – not off the road, but deep in the woods.
I have lived there so long that I have outlasted most of my neighbors, now long deceased, who read their way and hobbied their lives though the long winters and who came out each spring and re-planted their gardens.
I have lived there long enough to watch my son play baseball and football – night after night – in the cold, pouring rain – never thinking to stop or pausing to complain.
I lived there long enough to know my stretch of the river like the back of my hand; to watch geese hover on ice shelves and bald eagles drift downriver on ice floes; to see my wife feed the deer and track the animals in the snow; and to hold my breath as my son dove to the cold river bottom just to snag a few turtles to keep as one-hour pets.
But again, it’s the people.
There’s a lot of talk in our society about entitlement and taking, but there’s little sense of either in Montana. The people have their hopes. They say their prayers. But they keep their dreams close – like the personal treasures which they are. The people ask for little, and they don’t expect much. Flash is for losers, and boasting has no place. Maybe it’s OK elsewhere, but in Montana people aren’t allowed to round the truth or break their word. Handshakes still means something.
People expect to work; embrace the hardships. They ride with their truck dogs and keep an eye on their winter money. Fathers work. Mothers work. Nothing is really easy, and everybody has two jobs. The lucky ones have three. People split their rounds for firewood; shovel their snow tunnels to the door; shop in the thrift stores; bring food to the needy, and help out their neighbors whenever they can.
Our babysitter gets up in the dark and waits for her school bus every morning. She waits in the cold; standing solitary in the dark and at the end of her road. Some days she’s lucky, and it’s not raining. Some days she’s lucky, and it’s not snowing. And she never thinks twice about the 45-minute ride to school – or the 45-minute ride home at the end of her day.
When compared with the hustle and bustle of the cities, some of the highlights of Montana life seem modest — the IGA chicken, the Dairy Queen that never closes, and the county fairs and Fourth of July parades that are a big things.
You can’t get Montana onto a postcard, but if you are lucky – as I have been – you can keep the memories and try to be better. But, once again and as said so often, it’s all good.
Maybe this story is too sloppy, too touchy, too feely — but even those words are city words, and a head bob from the neighbor down the road is still a lot better than another eblast from Macy’s or press release from Goldman Sachs.
It’s not my place really, but in closing, allow me to encourage you to find your own Montana. Montana is not the only Last Best Place. Yours may be in the mountains of Colorado, in the woods of Maine, or in the Blue Ridge of North Carolina, but almost wherever it is, your Montana is there for you. Don’t get buried in the clamor and procrastination of life. Don’t listen to what “they” say. Wherever your Montana is — you can still get there …. from wherever you are now.
Robert Sallee: A tribute to the final Mann Gulch survivor
Submitted by Philip Downs
- Read more aboubt Robert Sallee here
Robert Sallee passed away this past May 26. His name may not be familiar to you, but it is a name that stirs my soul, floods me with memories of my father, and causes me to reflect on the quiet strength Mr. Sallee exemplified.
When you are 10years old the world is a huge, fascinating place full of energy and possibility. Ten-year-old children are fully engaged in the process of measuring themselves against it. They swim, run, climb, experiment with the laws of physics and get dirty exploring all that God has provided just for them. The intensity brought to bear in these activities is due to an unconscious awareness in the back of their minds of Ernest Becker’s famous quote, “to live fully is to live with the awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything.”
The world is never bigger than it is to a 10 year old and, when the rumble of terror reveals itself, the lessons it teaches them are intense and can capture their imaginations for their entire lives.
My father and I both spent our childhood summers in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and in our respective tenth years, the rumble of terror captured our imaginations and continued to haunt and teach us.
For me, it was the 1975 wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. There are few little boys who are not fascinated by the Legend of Big Fitz. That I have seen third grade art projects, lovingly created, with Gordon Lightfoot’s commemorative song “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” playing on a loop as background music, testifies to the visceral attraction of nature’s fury and the emotional shock of mankind’s failure to overcome it. The mysteries conjured by that November night never let go of the children who hear their siren calls. My son played a cassette tape of Mr. Lightfoot’s classic song until it broke. For my son, how the cassette broke is yet another mystery grown out of a fateful night. But not for me…I can only take so much.
In 1949, a small fire in Montana near the Gates of the Rockies turned into an inferno within minutes, killed 13 elite smokejumpers, scarred the lives of three others, and radically changed the study and practice of fighting forest fires. This was the Mann Gulch fire and was my father’s rumble of terror.
When I was 27, Norman Maclean’s “Young Men and Fire” was posthumously published. My father rushed out and bought two copies of the book, one for him and one for me. The book is a fabulous telling of the Mann Gulch fire, part history, part science, part philosophic, and part mystery novel. We read the book together and had long discussions about it: Maclean’s fantastic prose, the beauty of the terrain, the romance of the smokejumpers, the terrifying accounts of the fire, the fascinating science. We were 10 years old again.
Viktor Frankl said we can discover meaning in our lives in three different ways: by creating a work or performing a task; by experiencing something or encountering someone; and by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering. Ten year old boys don’t spend much time thinking about finding meaning in their lives. But 27-year-old men with two children are forced into it. The obsession of my father’s youth began to gnaw at me in ways very different from my Big Fitz fascination. Ten year old boys view the disaster as the main character. I now found the people’s reactions to the disaster as the main focus.
Mr. Sallee was 17 at the time of the Mann Gulch fire. He was a member of the elite Smokejumpers of the U.S. Forest Service. The Smokejumpers’ job was to parachute into fires in remote areas and contain them before they could grow into major fires. They were first class, top notch, incredibly tough woodsmen. Unlike other firefighting outfits, they were trained to think on their feet and to improvise. They were the John Coltrane of the firefighting world. They were the best. For a boy spending summers in the woods of the Upper Peninsula, they were the ideal of what a guy was supposed to be ‑ either that or play for the Detroit Tigers; preferably both.
In what must have been a horrific 10 minutes, the small fire they had jumped on blew up into a fire that consumed the entire gulch. As the fire chased the Smokejumpers up Mann Gulch, Wag Dodge, the leader of the Smokejumpers, in a moment of desperate improvisation, lit a fire ahead of himself and tried to get his teammates to lie down in the ashes with him as the big fire passed around. The rest of the team, driven by terror, continued to run up the very steep gulch. Sallee and another Smokejumper named Walter Rumsey were cut off by Dodge’s escape fire and had to turn to their left. They were able to reach a rocky ridge and slide through a crack in the rock to safety. The three were the only Smokejumpers to survive: one through gut instinct and the other two by blind luck. Once the fire was out, Sallee helped to remove his brother Smokejumpers from the gulch.
How was he able to do that? How did he deal with the controversy and attacks on his character in the inevitable post-tragedy finger-pointing? Robert Sallee made a few more jumps and then left the smokejumpers to work in the paper industry. He went to college and worked his way up in the industry. He got married and had a son. In 1978, Norman Maclean talked him into a return trip to Mann Gulch as Maclean was working on the book. After the Storm Mountain fire in 1994, he began to publically speak about the Mann Gulch fire and became a soft-spoken advocate for firefighter safety.
I never knew him, but Mr. Sallee’s quiet strength, his toughness, his pursuit of meaning in the life he was given on that slope in 1949 in the face of unspeakable horror are an example to me. We don’t need to be giant figures on the pages of a history book to be heroes. All we are to do is to jump out of a figurative airplane into the smoke of our lives, improvise in pursuit of a purpose or meaning, and hopefully watch our children experience the excitement of this beautiful world as they measure themselves against it and learn its lessons.
A poem for the Big Sky State
Submitted by John Hartlieb, Whitefish
Photo by John Harwood Photography
Always dreaming of a better life,
one lifted by the soaring mountains
capped eternally with snow in
time and photos, I had to go.
I believed those that came before me,
drawn down the long road to the west.
Fool I was, thinking I would find peace
everlasting in the Montana.
Who also the fool, bequeathing
the word on unsuspecting souls.
Was it meant to draw me in,
the very word rising above all else,
lifting my spirits with visions
of pinnacles reaching ever upward.
Heaven is promised for all souls.
If only I could turn back time
and get it right.
Observe, the beauty is not from above.
It lies within the life giving fields of green,
grains of gold or seasonal colors ever changing.
The waters, cool and clear, turning,
twisting ever slowly, allow the soul
the time to accept life everlasting. . .
falsely promised by the higher appointed one.
It is from here, the gentle rolling terrain,
the real state of mine should arise,
the Flathead, Bitterroot, Big Hole,
the Gallatin and Paradise, all ignored and
overlooked by those that decreed before.
My promised land is not the Spanish word for mountain,
I would grant it forever the Spanish word. . . Valle,
for I now believe Montana is most beautiful in its valleys.
Memories of Moore
Submitted by Jo Anne Russell Pauling
Dear 1930s Moore Montana,
Lately, I’ve been dropping off to sleep, thinking of you.
There couldn’t have been a better place for little kids to grow up, a place where they knew all the adults in town by name, where they lived, where they worked, … knew all the kids, their ages and names, had the run of the town, just as long as they got back in time for meals.
As far as I know, you had the only school playground with giant-strides. I spent many
happy hours alone, running and coasting on them.
Just wanted you to know, I haven’t forgotten you.
Thanks for the memories,
Jo Anne Russell Pauling
Jo Anne Russell was born in Great Falls in 1932 and raised in Moore and Helena. She graduated from Helena High School in 1950, and went to the University of Montana where she met and married a wonderful Canadian, George Pauling.
Written and submitted by Willena Burton
Queenie had been gone for four days.
I could hardly wait for four o’clock and dismissal from the small one-room school that I, my younger sister, Pug, and two older brothers, Abe and Doc, attended in the Bull Mountains of Montana. There was a place that we hadn’t searched yet, and when Doc finally joined me after school we struck out for a coulee by the river where we had so often hunted rabbits with Queenie, a small brown and white fox terrier.
The snow, left by the first Chinook wind, was deep and heavy crusted with ice. Soon that snow would be icy rivulets racing into the coulees, filling the trails and falling over the cut banks in miniature waterfalls.
Deep in thought, I followed Doc’s tracks in the drifted snow. I knew that Queenie, an inveterate hunter, often went into the hills by herself, returning late in the afternoon, exhausted, her wiry fur matted with the orange-brown pulp of old rotten logs.
Queenie loved chasing rabbits. Although she never caught one, she never gave up trying, digging her way into the log where the rabbit was hiding.
It was beginning to get dark when Doc and I reached the snow-choked coulee. Though we searched for any sign of life, the only tracks to be found were those of a pack of coyotes or wolves. We called hopefully, but only hollow echoes of our voices came back. Disappointed and tired we turned back, floundering through the snow crusts that sometimes gave way and plunged us waist deep into the drifted snow banks.
“There’s one good thing about it anyway, Doc, Queenie is so light she can walk on top of the drifts,” I said hopefully. Doc looked skeptical but said nothing.
We were nearly home when we heard the wolves. The high-pitched nearness of the howls, echoing in the cold, dry air sent a shiver up my spine. Wolves were common in the mountains around us but they had never been known to harm anyone, even the livestock. There was plenty of other small prey, such as mice and rabbits to satisfy them. I drew closer to my brother and fear gave wings to our feet as we hurried on to the welcoming lamplight ahead and Mom’s anxious face pressed against the kitchen window.
With questioning looks in their eyes every head turned as we came stamping snow from our overshoes. I could feel them thinking,
“How can she be so sure that Queenie will come back? Doesn’t she know that Queenie is probably already dead?”
Everyone was quiet, knowing the search had been unsuccessful. Silently Mom filled our plates as we joined the rest of the family around the table.
I knew that all of us believed that prayers were answered, especially Daddy. I also remembered that Daddy had told us that sometimes God said, “No.”
I had already run this and a hundred other things through by mind, and after all had been duly considered, I knew that God would take care of Queenie and send her home to me.
Daddy was always the last one to go to bed. I could hear him walking around as he banked the fire and turned down the kerosene lamp. Then, I could hear him scraping frost from the window and thought, “Daddy’s looking for Queenie, too.”
I lay wide-eyed after saying my prayers and listened to the wind sigh through the pines, the creaking of the windmill and the yipping howls of the coyotes. Slipping out of bed, I scratched a patch of frost from the window and stared out into the clear winter night, searching the shadows. The sparkly-bright snow glowed in the moonlight and every star in the universe seemed to be out.
“Queenie can see her way home,” I thought with some relief as I jumped back into the flannel sheets, freeze-dried and sweet smelling. I fell asleep, dreaming of winter wheat, oatmeal cooking on the stove, and Queenie. All the sudden, Queenie was licking my face and I turned away laughing, trying to escape that rough little tongue! Someone was shaking me and Queenie was still licking my face!
I didn’t want to give up my dream, but the gentle shake was insistent. Was I awake or was I dreaming?
Daddy was sitting on the edge of the bed, his face soft and unguarded. “She ate four fried eggs! She must have hung up in a rotten log and starved her way out,” the words came out in a rush!
“I knew she’d come home, I just knew it!” I said.
Half laughing, half crying, I hugged her skinny, fur-matted little body close. The whole family came awake, crowding into the room to exclaim over Queenie’s miraculous return. As she was passed from one to another she basked in the attention she was getting and wagged her tail weakly.
After everyone but Daddy had gone happily to bed, Queenie snuggled down comfortably in “her” spot on the pillow. Suddenly she sat up and took stock of her surroundings, which included Daddy’s formidable presence.
Remembering former scoldings, she scuttled under the covers to the very foot of the bed. Feigning a look of stern disapproval, considering a “dog” in the bed, Daddy’s face broke into a resigned smile as he closed the door behind him.
Queenie squirmed from under the covers and with a tremendous sigh of relief settled herself back on the pillow beside me. And again, I fell asleep to dream of tomorrow, of sunshine and Chinook winds, of melting snow and waterfalls, of crocuses and pine-covered mountains to climb with Queenie and the reassurance that, with God, all things are possible for those who believe in Him.