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Schnaus Cabin is one of 144 Forest Service cabins and fire lookouts available for public rental in Montana. Most were built by Forest Service workers between 1930 and 1950, when rangers on horseback used them as base camps. The Civilian Conservation Corps, a program of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, helped build many of the cabins and lookouts, and CCC workers spent time in them while maintaining trails. Now reserved for public use, the structures are a popular resource among those who know about them. They cost very little—typically $20 to $30 a night, which can often be split among groups of four to 12, which makes them five times cheaper than a downtown Missoula hotel room, with scenery that’s five times as spectacular.
I’ve stayed at dozens of Forest Service cabins and lookouts, starting as a young kid. My parents would set my brother and me free to wander nearby fields and forests, presumably just within sight, though boundaries never concerned us. As for what they were doing that whole time? Who knows. Boring grown-up stuff, probably. We’d return to the cabin by dusk and Dad would start the fire as Mom put dinner on the table. We’d eat and then explore our indoor digs, each old cabin providing a new setting for the pioneer lives we imagined.
A lot of Forest Service cabins are truly bare bones; others aren’t too different from a furnished vacation rental, complete with refrigerator and coffee pot. As I’ve gotten older, my favorites have been rustic and well stocked with character, like the Hogback and Morgan-Case homestead cabins, both up Rock Creek near Philipsburg. Morgan-Case has a water pump, electricity and vintage furniture that gives it a romantic feel. If I needed a retreat to go write the Great American Novel, Morgan-Case would be it.
Schnaus Cabin doesn’t have the Hemingway vibe. It’s furnished with a couple of couches that look like they were designed by Bill Cosby’s sweater maker circa 1985. There’s no electricity, no running water and no indoor bathroom, which means that if you forget your flashlight (like I did), it’s a dark, middle-of-the-night stumble to the outhouse. The cabin could conceivably sleep 12 people, though most of the beds—one double and four twins—are crammed into the loft like an old-fashioned summer camp or an orphanage. On the main floor, two bedrooms house a double bed and two twins, respectively. We divvied up the space, one couple in each bedroom, my husband and I in the loft overlooking the common space. We set up our Pack ’n Plays and I started dinner—white bean chili with pork—while everyone else started in on the IPA.
Within 30 minutes of our arrival, one of the toddlers stepped backward off the porch and split her chin on its jagged wood planks. The blood soaking the neck of her white shirt and the silent, open-mouthed cry that precedes ear-piercing screaming made us all shiver in horror. Was this the first of many disasters? Everyone had brought a first-aid kit, so there were plenty of bandages and gauze, but it was hard to tell if the gash needed stitches. Stitches would mean a drive back to Columbia Falls and, perhaps, a quick end to the weekend for the little girl and her parents.
After a short while it became clear that the wound was minor, that everything was going to be okay, and after drying some toddler tears we ate dinner in the staggered fashion in which one eats dinner with kids, and then wandered back outside to enjoy the view. The little ones seemed only mildly interested in the toys we’d brought. They clambered around in the grass, finding pebbles and dirt clods which they happily swapped with one other. They squealed delightedly at insects on wildflowers and birds sailing in the breeze, softly petting tree bark as if it were an exotic textile. We watched them with an edgy casualness to make sure rocks and bugs—at least the stinging kind—didn’t enter their mouths, and that their feet didn’t tread too close to the part of the yard where the ground slopes and then plummets to the forested valley below. Within a few hours the children were rubbing their eyes and staring off into space—telltale signs.