We strive for polish–then life creeps in, smudges the words. Truthifies ’em.
I write from the heat of an urban midsummer, dry in the fount and muggy in the eyes, sapped and taxed by the living so far away from the places, people, mountains, deserts, and waters who sustain me.
There was a place, a time, a space, a world I loved and cared for, and which held me and smelt me and loved me back. Selah. It was as hot as the dirt and as cold as the waters of Slough; it smelt of bison hide and just-brushed sagebrush, and the wind before the rain. Its silences resounded with birdsong, bugling, rustling, and the tell-tale crackling of a good story-fire.
Here are some words, previously written, of love and longing for my sweet wild Yellowstone. References are dated; memories are vital. All my love. Miss you, sister Stone.
At the dusty valley bottom, between Paradise and Wonderland, there’s a town called Gardiner, Montana. Centered on the confluence of the Gardner and the Yellowstone, the town has bars with names like the Two-Bit, Rusty Rail, and Red’s Blue Goose Saloon– “The Goose,” in local vernacular, if it’s your spot and the place where your life’s great couplehood began. Here, you can still get your brew for under four dollars; the foosball’s hot, and Blake slings Blake-a-ritas–margaritas with orange juice–from behind the bar on Tuesday nights. The Goose is the kind of place that gives out diet cokes for free, whose juke box is undiscriminating, and whose rooftop sister-bar opens up to the biggest and clearest Montana sky.
Across the street from the bar, past a sagebrush flat, over green-then-golden foothills, a mountain rises high enough–just shy of 11,000 feet–to create its own weather and nudge at state boundaries. We call it Electric Peak, and my first adventure there, Augusts ago, remains the most exhilarating hike of my life.
On this day we are four: friends, Jon and Alessia, and Lycurgo, whom I don’t yet know that I love. Today I will learn how a trek across landscape becomes a walk through story, how hiking forges fast friendships, and how a body remembers.
There is prologue: the late start, the filling of Camelbaks, the drive from our Wyoming dorms into Montana, to the start of our northern ascent. There’s the early windfall, when we make it though an open Forest Service gate and gain a few hundred feet of altitude by car. There’s the early, easy movement, the breezy walking on trail through forest before the trail disappears; then we wrestle with where to pick away at the foothills, meet the pass, find the right ridgeline and scramble up scree toward the peaks.
We make it, sweaty and grinning, to the top without incident, take jumping pictures and sign our names to the register. We stay there until the sweat gets cold–then I pocket a rock, a rhomboid piece of talus-mountain, and we start to head back down.
Ten minutes later I’ll miss a step, stumble, and stare down at a sanguine leg–pants untorn, but flesh a messier story. Jon washes the wound, tapes me up, tells me it’s not that bad. He’s our best medic, so I believe him, and I take the edge off with our least-warm can of Coors. We begin again downslope, more gingerly, and I kiss the car when we get to the bottom.
We head straight to the Goose for Sunday’s one dollar Bud Lights–fresh off the mountain, unshowered and pungent, because that’s OK in Montana. Jon tells me he was lying about my missing chunk of bloody leg meat. I look again. He’s right. It’s worse than we thought–stitchable, but I have no insurance, and I’m secretly a little cavalier about good scars.
I reach into my pocket and remember that I stole a piece of mountain. I am certain that the mountain decided, in return, to steal a piece of me. I am fine with this. It feels–just.
Four years later, a different three will hike me up the mountain, and we’ll write another story. I’ll make up a ceremony when we reach the peak and will lay back down that well-traveled stone. And I won’t be sad, nor surprised, when the mountain doesn’t give me back my skin.