I 've hiked from Goat Haunt Ranger Station at Waterton Lakes up to the Highline Trail and down a 20-mile section of the Rocky Mountain spine, the Crown of the Continent, to arrive at Logan Pass sun-stricken, nauseous, dehydrated and delirious. Butuntil much laterI didn't feel I'd really climbed a mountain, not like anything you'd want to sing about.
That early-'70s Highline hike felt inconclusive, in terms of conquest. My sister had a summer job as a Glacier National Park naturalist, but she was as new to backpacking as I, both of us plains dwellers during all our tender years. We were impressed with ourselves, but also scared. Park grizzlies had fatally mauled two young women in recent history. Every distant boulder on the treeless path looked like a predator.
We hoped we looked intimidating, burdened as we were with 50-pound packs. What did we have in there? We'd researched backpacking, we'd read books. Testament to our seriousness, we wore enormous boots. But after two days of hiking, we were under-nourished. Our freeze-dried food stayed that way because we couldn't coax a flame from our nifty stove gadget. Our so-called blow-up air mattresses blew. We had lemon drops to stave off thirst, but it would have been better if we'd had water. We wore no sunscreen or hats. (We'd only skimmed those books.) We tried to beg food at Granite Park Chalet and all they gave us was an Almond Joy. That didn't mix well with the red wine we later drank to toast our twilight descent to Hugh Black's bar and restaurant in St. Mary, courtesy of a hitchhiked ride from the last car of the day topping Logan Pass. The next morning found me throwing up under a tree back in Canada, while my sister hobbled down a nature trail giving her spiel about wildflowers to the day's first gaggle of tourists.
We weren't experienced trekkers because the mountains of our childhood had been kept at a distance. From Cut Bank you could see the Sweetgrass Hills across flat prairie to the east, the Rocky Mountain Front across flat prairie to the west, Chief Mountain jutting up north, a little separate from the rest. They stayed there on the horizon, part earth, part sky, touchstones and Telstars, punctuating the valley floor. They added interest to the backdrop of the everyday and served as symbols of aspiration. Our dad rode his horse to the Sweetgrass Hills as a boy, but his stories highlighted the going; the saddling up and heading out, the faster ride home. The drama of life could encompass lower elevations: Climbing summits wasn't key to life's thrill.
Years later, I lived for a spell in Ronan. I have to confess that the Mission Mountains bothered me. Had I not changed at all? I'd ventured away from Montana, to graduate school, to the other side of the world to learn Chinese, only to return again to small-town life, gazing off at potential destinations instead of embracing them.
In fact, it was simpler than that. They were just too close. My feng shui was all fouled up. Those mountains formed a big stone wall blocking my view. I felt faintly challenged, but mostly hemmed in. They were in my face.
When I moved to the lower Rattlesnake in Missoula I thought Mount Jumbo would drive me crazy. I still think that on the endless gray days, but usually a little mind trick helps me stay in place. I simply move the Continental Divide 150 miles west and pretend that it runs down Jumbo's back. I am a small mammalian something or other, maybe a mouse, tucked in next to this sleepy circus animal. On the other side there's a waiting expanse of wind, cold sun, and mile-long shadows.
I didn't climb higher than the "L" for the first 15 years of my Rattlesnake residency. Bears roam up there, that's a fact. But mainly I just didn't want to achieve the peak and see more mountains. Then one spring day I continued on to the top. The serviceberry bushes were in full flower and everyone in town was at work or in school. Why not?
It was mildly arduous. There were switchbacks. I hadn't brought any water. The whole hike, from front door to back porch, only took two hours, but I was impressed with myself. I felt a mini-epiphany, having to do with my current career path, which was inspired by children now, my own. I'd suspended ambition for a while. I'd put the question of destiny on hold. At the grassy crest, I saw more mountains. But there also was a "Sound of Music" moment. I actually did sing, I forget what. I sang for joy and to ward off bears. Predators and possibility. Just the ongoing drama of life, I thought, as I descended through backyards to dinner.