by Susan Harrow
Sipping my steaming, dark-roasted morning coffee and gazing towards the snowy Swan Mountains from my Whitefish window, it dawns on me that over 20 years have passed since I arrived in Big Sky Country. I'm not sure just where the journey really began. There were college days in Ann Arbor, discovering a little bookstore where they had new-agey books and bluegrass music and tarot cards. I was hanging out with a tall cowboy guitar player who said he was from Bozeman, Montana (where is that, I thought) and sort of attending college classes in Creative Writing. Then suddenly I gave it all up to travel in Europe and gather material for being a great novelist (enough of those professors telling me how to do it). The next stop was New York City — where better to gather experiences I could write about: learning to be a waitress starting in a colorful little downstairs place where the cooks were drunk, mice were scuttling across the kitchen floor, and I was learning to love that creamy sugary dessert called flan. From Greenwich Village to uptown hamburger and shish kebob joints, East Side vegetarian cafes and brown rice eateries, I was seeking something besides tips. The discovery process continued and before I knew it, I was waiting tables in Topanga Canyon. Ah, California! Tables were on the patio next to the creek and the broccoli-cheese soup, homemade bread and desserts were more than worth the canyon drive. The gift shop featured fairies, crystals and more of those metaphysical books. This was kind of like the west coast paradise I had heard about, but it was also like a strange land to me. After the frenzied pace of New York, I felt a little lost amidst the health food stores, mellow attitudes, tropical fruits and Pacific waves. I yearned for a snowfall and just one day without that persistent sunshine.
Seeking higher elevation, I traveled north and discovered myself in the state of Montana in the mid-eighties, not quite sure how I had landed in such a place. The valley where I first settled seemed to go on for miles, was stark and filled with sagebrush, and there certainly wasn't any public transportation. But the mountains soared towards the sky. Never had I seen such a majestic blue canopy called sky, except maybe in the Swiss Alps. The clouds appeared close, ethereal, cotton-candy edible. One day I strolled over an old historic bridge crossing the wide, magnificent Yellowstone River. As I began to climb a hill on the other side, the movement of the water was the only sound I could hear under that endless sun-drenched sky. Although I was feeling like a speck seen from a satellite, I was struck in that huge silent moment by the revelation that I had absolutely everything I needed here, the cities no longer offered the excitement I was looking for and the adventure I was seeking was all around me.
The west did seem spectacularly spacious and rugged. I thought about the pioneers, discovering the mountains, the diamond-glistening rivers, the hot steam in what would become Yellowstone National Park. Apparently the trappers and mountain men who first told of fire, brimstone, geysers and waterfalls — even rumors of gold — were not even believed because the tales were just too wild. It was hard to imagine those hearty souls coming over a ridge in the early 1800s and seeing these incredible panoramas for the first time. Perhaps it may have seemed like God's reward after fathomless miles of dry mid-western America in a covered wagon or on horseback. The largeness of the land was becoming more exciting to me, so much more invigorating than the street vendors on 14th Street of Manhattan trying to sell me designer sunglasses. I was becoming enthralled and fairly certain that I had found a utopia right here in America.
As my first winter came on, however, I started having some serious questions. I had arrived from Southern California with my blue jean jacket and long flowing skirts. I started adding a few layers but wasn't prepared for what was to come. There I was, working in a modular unit kitchen catering food to workers about twenty minutes away (in Montana, you take on all kinds of jobs). Then the arctic blast rolled in. The wind and snow were rough but the temperatures were brutal — 30 degrees below zero. I donned some socks and boots and sweaters, which helped a little, but that blue jean jacket was useless. Even though I thought I was in the middle of the wilderness, telephones did exist and I quickly found the number for Eddie Bauer — send me a coat! I ordered the thickest, puffiest, warmest thing I could think of. Days went by, still 30 below. Not only was it hard to start the delivery van, we had to keep it running all night to keep the gas from gelling up. Not only was it snowing outside, the snow was drifting into the corners of the modular kitchen. No matter how many pots of soup and stew were on the stoves, we were cold all day. My coat finally arrived but it was almost anti-climactic. Now I was really beginning to wonder. I left California for this? Oh, for a few days of that boring sunshine and relentless seventy degrees. However after 30 below for 3 weeks straight, I discovered that when the temperature finally reached 20 degrees above, it felt perfectly balmy and I hardly needed the coat at all. Was I getting used to this?
A couple of years later, I found myself a little more adjusted to western living. I had the outdoor wardrobe, and the wide-open spaces were beginning to feel a little bit more familiar. Gone were the gold mines and trading posts and horse rustlers (I think), but the hills echoed their memories. Roadside steams glistened in the sun and occasionally wildlife would greet you from behind a tree. Or once I met a large elk standing on the centerline of the highway. I'd even seen a few buffalo roaming…..the land of the free. Although I remembered the intriguing peaceful Swiss living in the Alps, the spirited and crazy New Yorkers and the mellow vegetarians in Topanga, nothing could match the adventure I was feeling discovering the new vistas and residents of Montana, especially in the glittering green days of summer. My new job was running a kitchen high up in a mountain meadow for a large conference. We spent long hours setting up and figuring out how to organize ourselves to feed lots of people and the excitement was building.
One fine afternoon I was descending the mountain in some hurry as the event was about to begin and there was still a lot of work to be done. The road was rough and rocky and kept turning corners — no visibility around those corners. One side was a wall of rock and the other was the creek. Leafy summer tree branches also hung over the road. However, I'd driven up and down that road many times now and knew those twists and turns. Rushing away, with my mind on multiple pans of macaroni and cheese, I turned a corner and looked up to greet a large flatbed semi carting a passel of porta-potties up that road. The deep gasp that impacted my throat and chest coincided with my foot slamming the well-worn brake pedal to the floor. My old delivery van (still driving it) skidded on that dirt road and my rear wheels swayed back and forth. I thought maybe the van was falling apart, or that I was, all mixed up in mac and cheese. Was this an example of the famous adage to expect the unexpected? In true Montana fashion, the semi driver downshifted and watched patiently as my van came to a stop. He gave me the famous Montana 'finger wave' (one finger raised from the steering wheel, a well-known greeting on rural roads) and by some miracle, we managed to maneuver our vehicles to the sides of the basically one-lane road so we could pass. Whew! I had better pay more attention, look around a little more closely, be more alert.
One glorious golden September, I headed off on a camping trip. I had that old van with me again, but this time it would double as my camping tent and home for a week or so. I started out in Yellowstone Park and took my first drive over the Beartooth highway, made famous by Charles Kuralt as "America's most beautiful road." General Sheridan first crossed these mountains in 1882 and encountered snow drifts 40 feet deep. The highway was built in 1936 and features a plateau above 10,000 feet where stands a little settlement called Top of the World, a combination store, motel and gas station (where prices are of course high). I was once again astounded by the sky, the rarified air, the alpine lakes and the very fact that a road had even been constructed around those mountain curves. Wildflowers waved and I happily descended into Red Lodge at the base of the mountain. Down by the crystal-clear creek was a delightful little campground, where you could tent or RV (or sleep in a van), but also take a hot shower and visit with the old timers that ran the place. Perfect. I was on a real adventure by myself and just loving it. I picked a campsite right out at the edge of the property, near the creek and far away from the other sites for the genuine alone-in-the-woods experience.
I made some kind of simple dinner, ate on the picnic table, arranged my cozy sleeping bag in the back of the van and curled in for the night, stars winking outside the van windows. Well, I was sort of sleeping under the stars. Sometime in the middle of the night, I heard noises. What could that be? Rustling and banging and it sounded very close by. After breathing in deeply a few times, I peered out the window in the back of the van. A bear! And he was investigating my cooler full of food, which I had left outside (somehow ignorant of bear rule #1). I was mad at that bear for messing with my food, but mostly very scared and not knowing just what to do. Then as quickly as he arrived, he turned and took off into the woods. Did he take some of my food with him? Then what did I do? I couldn't stay still and my heart was beating, but what did I do? (I find it hard to believe now). I jumped out of the van in my pajamas, grabbed that cooler and piled it into the van along with me, and slammed up those back doors tight. Now I could hardly breathe and spent hours awake. Would he be back? Could bears open car doors? Would he come banging on the window? Oh brother. I was never so glad to see sunrise.
I rustled into my clothes and crept out of the back of the van, looking both ways. The only thing I knew was that I had to better move to another campsite, and went to look for the campground owner. This guy was authentic Montana. An older man in a plaid shirt and overalls, quite weathered but with a wry smile. His quiet eyes sparkled a little as he greeted me, "Mornin'….. how'd ya sleep?" (Did he already know what I was going to say?) His smile widened slightly as my story poured out and I presented the drama of my sleepless night and the sight of my first bear. "Oh, he comes around almost every night and checks out the garbage cans," said the owner with a little chuckle. My heightened anxiety and the supposed uniqueness of my experience deflated quickly. "And sure," he said, "you can move to the campsite right near the house and showers…..that little bear doesn't come over here very much." A seemingly earth-shattering night had been resolved in a moment. The rest of my camping trip was idyllic and comfortable - no more nighttime visitors, warm oatmeal over the butane burner, reading and writing at the picnic table and the sparkling creek to keep me company. That old timer didn't look like my idea of an angel, but I sure felt protected. As the years have gone by, I've discovered that almost everyone who lives in Montana has their very own bear story, many much scarier, and mine was just part of getting to know my western home.
Now icy roads — no problem, just take it a little easy. After years in New York City taking public transportation and more time in California, I hadn't driven too much on ice and snow. However, this was a minor issue and I just hadn't paid it much mind. One fine day, I was headed down the valley in a small truck borrowed from a friend. The sky was brilliant and blue despite the very cold temperature. If there wasn't music on the radio, I was singing anyway driving so close to the magnificent mountains. There was a stiff cool wind but it seemed insignificant under the beaming sun. As I reached a place where the road was wide and open, the wind cornered the back of the little truck. I probably hit the brakes, obviously with no thought involved. The next thing I knew I was sitting straight upright in the truck, which was now facing the opposite direction from which I had been driving in a deep snowy ditch off the highway.
Now what? I climbed the side of the ditch and ventured to the side of the road, encountering the bite of the wind. Not too many cars were passing, but even fewer were stopping. I knew I couldn't stay out here too long. Even with the sunshine, the wind and single-digit temperatures were not to be fooled around with. Finally a car stopped. An elderly gentleman got out in his long wool overcoat. He looked at me and looked down into the ditch at the truck, "I can't help you out," he said earnestly, "but I'm going to stay with you until someone does." Wow. And before we knew it, along came two young men in their pickup truck, complete with towing equipment. With laughter and ease, they managed to drag the little truck out of the ditch and they sent me on my way. The elderly gentleman seemed to just magically vanish. I was a little shaky and drove pretty slowly to my destination where I tried to tell my story. It was hard for anyone to believe that the wind blew me off the road. However Montana, as I said, is both beautiful and rugged. Had I learned to pay attention yet?
At the end of one long summer of hot and steamy work at a restaurant, I took off to the north aiming for Glacier Park, but with no set schedule or reservations. One of my favorite restaurant customers, a Montana native, had given me the route on the back roads. I followed his markings on the map, and even though there were places that could aptly be described as 'the middle of nowhere,' I was overjoyed when I was greeted by infinite fields of undulating wheat, horses of all colors grazing peacefully, quiet farmhouses and simple homesteads, tractors in action and lake after astounding shimmering lake. The burdens of hard work flew off my shoulders as my drive continued, and the Montana panorama was beginning to feel like home. As I headed further north, the road took on an almost hushed quality as towering trees lined both sides of the highway. I felt like I was driving through a cathedral - miles of quiet deep forest and the fresh aroma of evergreens. Logging trucks whizzed by as I passed through a small town and was noting how friendly it felt. Even this tiny hamlet broadcasted espresso, rocks and crystals, plus the corner drugstore and a large snowmobile shop. However, my destination was only a couple more hours away and I motored on.
A few minutes after I had left that little town behind, I whizzed by a big sign that read CABINS in bright red letters. I drove for another minute, remembered that this was meant to be an unplanned adventure and found a place to turn around. I drove back and entered the grounds of a cozy collection of renovated cabins sitting on the north end of the glittering lake. I was met by a cheerful family and accommodations with tiny kitchens, fluffy beds and every little at-home convenience you could think of, plus a dock sitting over the water. The gift shop had postcards, huckleberry jam and delightful drawings by the daughter of the family. I quickly scrapped my plans for Glacier and stayed for a week, sitting by the water, walking the trails, trying to record the beauty of the trees and water in watercolors, meditating and reading, soaking in the utopian pine air, getting pizza from town (where the pizzeria was in the gas station) and meeting some of the residents of this little Montana town. What word could I use for them? Real? Open-hearted? One night the wife of the resort owner greeted me at my cabin door with a piece of warm homemade apple pie. "Oh, we had a little extra…..," she said. Yes, I thought, I could get used to this.