“We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. for it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures a part of the geography of hope.” Wallace Stegner
Compared to Old Faithful and the hot springs of Yellowstone, the Northern Range is an area of understated beauty. The open range allows one to see for miles: Electric Peak and the Gallatin Range to the west, Sheep and Monitor Peaks in the Absaroka Mountains to the North, and fields and fields of grasses and sagebrush. Landmarks like these make it safe to wander off trail, comfortable in the knowledge that the mountains will guide you home.
Fred and I wandered Mt. Everts a few weeks ago. We shuttled the trucks and took off cross country. We wandered glaciated ridges, came across a grouse in a stand of Douglas Fir, listened to bugling elk, and gave a wide berth to a lone bull bison.
A meandering hike off trail is to discover new views of familiar places. It is to see much loved landscapes with new eyes. We climbed new ridges, wandered new paths, and followed new game trails until we came out on a trail that was an old friend.
Sunday a group of us hiked off main trails. We descended down valleys, crossed streams and climbed hillsides of sagebrush. We saw the largest herd of elk I’ve ever seen—perhaps 200. We listened to surround sound bugling. Over and over, as we sat on a hillside snacking and lunching, the bull elk bugled their desire. We paused chewing and grinned at every bugle. Bear scat, while not plentiful, was not uncommon. We saw their leavings filled with seeds and grasses, and followed bear tracks in and out of trees and meadows. Following a drainage, we looked up and saw three wolves climbing uphill with relaxed power. A black and two greys. I envision what we saw today and grin, still awed. Seeing a wolf away from the road, while hiking in the backcountry is beyond value.
Tuesday three of us hiked off trail once again, beginning in heavy clouds and ending with sun and wind. We meandered along a combination of old human and wildlife trails. Again we heard and saw elk. A few bison forced us to climb up and around before we could continue on our way. We stopped at a small lake and sat on rocks munching snacks. By now the salamanders we saw last May are buried in the mud, Mountain Bluebirds have flown south, and flowers have gone to seed. The cinnamon black bear that wandered the rocks last May is ending his eating frenzy and getting ready to hibernate for the winter. Fresh elk tracks led us up and down, through sagebrush and through aspen groves. Crossing streams shrunken now after a dry summer, all sending their waters down to the Yellowstone River, heard rushing in the distance. We have done these routes before but each time is different. Each time we see something new or different, or even just nothing that takes our breath away… but it is all good, this back yard of ours.
In my life I have lived in two places. Michigan and Montana. Grand Rapids and Gardiner. While the initials may be the same, the places are very different. Both have beauty. Both contain people I know and love. In Michigan I meet friends for breakfast. In Montana friends meet for a day-long hike or ski. I am understood here. Accepted for what I do rather than what I own or how I keep my house. Not everyone here in Gardiner hikes or skis. But everyone seems to value wildness.
Though you can find wild places in Michigan, the essence of Montana is wildness. It is this wildness that attracts me, and is why I call Montana home.
“The farther one gets into the wilderness, the greater is the attraction of its lonely freedom.” Theodore Roosevelt