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“I doubt the practical sense of claiming kinship to a mountain, but sometimes it seems to me that Ear Mountain and I are on a common journey, made relatives by times and vicissitudes. Of course its life will outlast mine, but I’d rather it missed me than that I grieved for it.”
My grandfather A.B. Guthrie Jr.—known to my family as Bud—penned those words in the late 1970s, summing up the feeling that drew his eyes time and again to Ear Mountain. Six months after his birth, in 1901, Bud came to the Choteau area with his parents and sister. A childhood in Choteau meant long days fishing and hiking on the fringes of the Bob Marshall Wilderness—long before it was named as such—and Bud developed a strong bond to the landscape. It became an inspiration for his writing, sometimes a setting, and the bond brought him back after a journalism career in Lexington, Kentucky. It was a connection that bled onto every page of his work, from The Big Sky to a little-known series of western mysteries he composed later in life. The Front was home for him, and Ear Mountain its hearth.
I don’t remember Bud well. I was five when he passed away in the spring of ’91, and while we continue to maintain the Barn as he and Grandma did, my memories of him there are hazy. One does stand out: The sight of Ear Mountain through the twin picture windows in his loft study, where he’d sit me on his lap before a typewriter and let my fingers hammer the keys. That view is a respite I retreat to as often as possible now, a place where my connection to both my grandfather and his beloved Front feels strongest. Grandma never called it Ear Mountain that I can remember. It was always “Buddy’s Mountain.”
Thom, Beth, Maggie, Emily, my parents—there’s a silent acknowledgment these days that we have inherited Bud’s connection with Ear Mountain. Thom and Beth were still just high-school sweethearts when they first came to the Barn together. Mom and Bill knew happy childhood days here with Grandma and Bud, and brought the significant others that would become their spouses for visits. My folks were married in the Barn’s sun room, and in the decades that followed, the youngest of us spent summers building forts or fishing the Teton for rainbow and cutthroat. Our lives have unfolded in Ear Mountain’s shadow, making it a part of the family.
Ear Mountain lies 30 miles, give or take, west of the small ranching burg of Choteau. Few peaks of the Front Range illustrate more dramatically where the American plains end and the Rockies begin. The cliffs of Ear Mountain rise suddenly from a mass of rolling green foothills and jumbled scree, sparking in the hearts of locals a special attachment to that word Western authors so commonly employ: place. Ear Mountain is perhaps the most widely recognized peak on the Front, and a name not easily forgotten, even if its origins have been. One theory is that mountain men of the 19th century fur trade called the peak Elephant Ear.
The story leads one to wonder if those trappers ever laid eyes on an elephant. Ear Mountain bears little resemblance to an elephant’s ear, or any ear for that matter.
Ear Mountain is a tipped triangular slab with its topmost vertex pointing almost due north and its low-slung base facing south. The shape changes as one cruises through perspectives along the Front, but for my family, the truest view is that seen from the banks of the Teton River four miles east, by the Barn.
Uncle Bill was the first of us to reach the summit. In 1981 he launched a haphazard trek up Rierdon Gulch on the Teton’s South Fork, only to find himself and his crew two drainages too far west. He made the mountain’s backside by dusk and had to bivouac on Ear’s flat, slanted top. Mom remembers seeing their flashlights shining on the summit that night, visible from the Barn, miles away. Her own attempt, years later, up and around the mountain’s southern flank, was halted by one of the sudden lightning storms all too common along the Front.
Bud made it next, in a way, though he’d never really cared to see the top. He told a reporter with the Helena Independent Record in 1985, “I just want to look at it. I suppose you could call Ear Mountain a kind of a talisman.” After his death in 1991, a family friend flew Grandma and Bill over the peak to spread Bud’s ashes. Bill later delivered a tribute during Bud’s memorial service in Choteau: “To the west are the mountains that were the backbone of his work. In that range, one peak stands out: Ear Mountain. In its shadow he lived his life and wrote his books. He called Ear Mountain his hold on the universe. It holds him now.”