A friend of mine likes to say she finds god at the top of a mountain. I keep my expectations a bit lower and hope to discover a nice view, or perhaps simply catch my breath. It's not that I don't discover those few sacred moments of clarity on a peak, or some sanctified peace of mind at the end of a trail—I do, honestly. It's just that getting there can sometimes be such a body-beating hassle I end up more light-headed than enlightened. All I want is the visual payoff.
That's the only thing I can think on a foul-weathered trek through the edges of the Elkhorn Mountains. Clouds and misty rain blind any promised vista, and the muddy terrain makes it seem like every two steps forward slide me one step back. After a two-hour slog, I reach the top of a small ridge that supposedly overlooks the winding Boulder River and, on a clear day, puts the 9,415-foot Crow Peak into view. But all I see is gray. Defeated, I rest for a few minutes and head back down. Any sense of accomplishment, I tell myself, will have to come in the form of a comfortable bed and cold beer at day's end. God is in a rain delay.
Considering my mission, the missed view doesn't constitute a total loss. The goal is more about recovery than recreation, about healing rather than hikes. This part of southwestern Montana, on a stretch between Butte and Helena that's surrounded by the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, is known as a place of rehabilitation. American Indians reportedly referred to it as Peace Valley, a sort of old-world Switzerland that invited tribes to gather, rest and temporarily put differences aside. Mineral baths in Boulder provided therapeutic waters to the native people, and continue to cater to the sick and sore to this day. Radon mines in nearby Basin offer a more radical method of treatment: according to believers, hours of exposure to the odorless gas can cure anything from asthma to arthritis. I'm hoping my tangible aches and pains will disappear in this valley after a brief visit. Any lingering disappointment from the hike is a different story.