We left Butte after another sleepless night – this time due to the An Ri Ra, an Irish music festival. The drunks were howling Irish ballads well into the night. The following day, we headed into a part of Southwestern Montana called ‘The Big Hole’. It is a large valley nestled between the Pioneer Mountains and the Beaverhead Mountains dotted with small towns and working ranches.
First stop: Wisdom. We didn’t have a plan and decided to drive until we found somewhere we liked. E wanted to stay in Wisdom. She had the idea that we should all dip our fingers into the Wise River and then suck them so we would become wise. But the town was full.
So we carried on to a slightly weird place called the Elkhorn Hot Springs. It was a small crumbling hotel with a few cabins on the side of a mountain with an outdoor pool fed by the eponymous hot springs. As it was a getting late, we decided to check in. After paying for two nights upfront, we were told the place was run on the honour system. There were no locks on the doors, and we could simply leave money at the bar or at the pool if no one was working. It was part hippy commune, part hotel and part film set (although I wasn’t sure what genre: horror, comedy or suspense).
The people running it were wonderful as were the other guests who were mainly Montanans or visitors from neighbouring Idaho. Ranchers and cowboys came to eat and drink, too. But there was something spooky about the long shadows cast by the surrounding pine trees, the tattered carpets and ripped lampshades. Spider webs stuck to you as you walked across your room. There was a party of Germans staying. They come every year apparently to visit their Montanan relatives. I am hearing a few German accents in this part of the state. Maybe generations back some of the ranching families came over from Mittel Europe.
The charm of the Elkhorn wore off quickly for me. The walls were so thin that my bed vibrated from the man snoring in the next room. Every door squeaked and the floors creaked. When someone visited the shared loo down the hall, we ALL heard it. Despite the dirt, the discomfort, the lack of sleep, there was a strange magic here. Evenings were spent on the porch drinking the local brew watching hummingbirds. One night we were treated to lightning, thunder and a hail storm (yes, hail in August).
Crystal Mountain is five miles away along some windy roads. The ground here sparkles under your feet like the Yellow Brick Road. You can dig up however many crystals you like to take home with you. E of course loved this.
I enjoyed it, too, but it felt a bit like I was defacing the pyramids. This business of taking from the earth whatever one wants sits at odds with me. I wonder if those who allow tourists to dig up the land and cart away what they like are at odds with those who actually live from the land. Do they sit on opposing sides of a debate about the land and its uses. Another subject for me to get to grips with while I am here.
That night, we ate supper at the Elkhorn Lodge. When I got to our room after dessert, I realised I had left our small hoard behind. I ran down to the restaurant to find that the waitress had thrown them in the bin. She was very apologetic and said we could go through the garbage together. I did see a few crystals sparkling among the rice and bits of chicken and pie crusts scraped from people’s plates. But I couldn’t bring myself to put my hands in there, so I went to bed empty handed. Easy come, easy go.
The following day we made the short drive to the town of Wise River. It was similar to Wisdom in size and layout: one church, a couple of stores, one school and a smattering of houses, some falling down, some impeccably well cared for.
But the thing I really noticed down in this part of Montana which is proper old-fashioned ranching country, is the quiet. The people have a reserve to them. So far I haven’t been told of any embarrassing illnesses or about anyone’s tricky divorce. Nor, has anyone looked meaningfully at E and uttered those five words: “So, just the one then?” In fact no one has commented on E’s status as a singleton, which is a first for me. I normally get asked in sharpish tones about my decision to deprive her of a sibling. Here, one senses that people’s private lives are just that: private.
Children here hold doors open for adults, and at mealtimes they sit and eat all their food – yes, imagine, all of it and without a fuss. If they get bored they round up a few plastic cows with a plastic Border Collie. I haven’t seen one kid on a device. Not even one. A guy who works on the front desk of our motel in Missoula told me last night that Montana really is the ‘final frontier’ of a certain way of being. And you can feel it. I worry that this way of living, this closeness to the land, this deep respect for animals and humans and an acceptance of people’s lives being what they are (rather than what they should be), is under threat.
In Wisdom, I saw a pick-up truck drive past as I sat by the side of the road. In the bed of the truck were some empty, flattened cardboard boxes. A few flew out and landed on the highway. The driver, who couldn’t have been more than eighteen, reversed, stopped, got out and picked up the pieces of cardboard. And I realised then, that in the ten days I have been in Montana, I haven’t seen anyone litter. There is definitely a sense of personal responsibility here. I wonder if some of this is linked to the fact that so many rural Montanans work the land and are tied to it for their survival. I really don’t know. But whatever it is, I am liking it.
But the motel clerk, along with several other people I have met worry that this genteel, old-fashioned sense of respect for the land and an acceptance of otherness is fading. Wealthier Americans (particularly from California) are buying up property. It is easy to see why: every step you take is like walking through an Anthony Mann film. These emigrés from other states are pushing prices up. Younger Montanans can’t afford to stay and they are the ones who would be passing on this way of being. It is fragmenting. At times I feel more like an anthropologist here than a visitor. Montana is so different from anywhere else I have been in the US.
We will be leaving cowboy country behind and pushing up towards the Canadian border to a place called the Yaak Valley. As a change from our motel lives, we are renting a cabin. It sounds beautiful but there is one very big problem: it has been a very dry summer and the bears and mountain lions are hungry. The owner of the cabin (who is called Running Bear or RB for short) told us it would be a good idea to take not only bear spray on our hikes, but firearms. As we aren’t gun owners, we will see if someone up there might take us along with them hiking. I really want to immerse myself in that wilderness, and yet, I am utterly terrified of it. I keep thinking of the David Vann book, ‘Legend of a Suicide’ which is the most visceral description of two people unprepared for a life in the wild. But that is a work of fiction and this is real.
We’ll be out of any kind of phone or Wifi range until Saturday. Over and out.