Loving Life in Montana
Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student Essays
A Publication of San Joaquin Delta College
Loving Life in Montana
One hundred and fifty miles of nothing. Nothing except the rolling, honey-brown fields that seemingly go on forever. Occasionally, a herd of antelope glance up chewing, only slightly disturbed as you speed by. The mountains tease you as a backdrop to these miles upon monotonous miles of emptiness. Only the asphalt corners and the row of endless telephone poles, lined up like toy soldiers, remind you there is civilization here after all. Without warning, you see a speck of something in the arched hills, far away from the strip of road. As you get closer, you realize that it is a dilapidated dwelling, possibly more than one hundred years old. The realization dawns that someone lived here long ago in the middle of this vast kingdom of nothingness. At that moment, something happens to change your outlook. No longer do you view this area as a vast wasteland; you realize it was once home to a family struggling to survive.
Next stop, Augusta, Montana -- The Sun River Canyon Lodge, to be precise. An adventurous and exciting job prospect awaits. You are soon to be employed at a hunting lodge in the middle of nowhere with the love of your life: horses. Here you will be catering to urban cowboys while working and living with authentic ones. Ahead, a weather-beaten sign reads "Augusta, Montana -- 5 miles." Thank God, you're almost there. Now, Augusta is one of those towns that you would miss completely if you were only to blink your eyes. Heading into town, you see two or three modest houses and a combination gas station/mechanic's shop on the right. Fully expecting to see Goober Pyle out in front, you slow to the posted 25 miles per hour. On the left, a row of structures stand so close together that they give an illusion of being attached. The first bar, a barber shop, and some rundown apartments come next. I specify first bar because this tiny town has three. Two or three dirt drives disappear between the buildings, and more unpretentious homes lie out in back with several vehicles up on blocks nearby. On the right sits a large general store that also serves as the area post office. Two middle-aged ranchers lean against a rusted Ford pickup, chewing the fat. Assuming that the sole store in town would have a place to freshen up, you step inside the barn-like building. As you leave, you ask the clerk for more specific directions to the lodge.
And you thought you were almost there! You have learned from the store clerk that the lodge is another 27 miles west, on gravel. Not gravel of the pea-sized variety, but rather like huge walnuts and golf balls. Repetitive pounding on the undercarriage of the car is the only music you can hear on your way out to no-man's land. The mountains you could previously see from 100 miles away have been riding alongside you for several miles now. The peaks loom ominously above as you follow the store-keep's directions, sharp west, out of town. The road is a flat, twisting ribbon of dust. In the distance you can see an occasional cloud, but the producer of this dust storm is out of sight around several corners.
Finally, a sign ahead! At the base of the mountains, a newly manufactured "rustic" sign boasting "Sun Canyon Lodge," points down the canyon. The walls of the chasm look amazingly close together and you slow to a crawl, craning your neck to behold the mountains reaching up to the sky all around you. On the edge of the road up ahead, you see what you believe to be sheep, or possibly cows. You approach cautiously and find that they are indeed sheep . . . bighorn sheep. They are grazing between the base of the mountains and the dirt road you travel on, the curled horns atop their heads resembling a king's crown. These beautiful and majestic creatures look up nonchalantly and watch you pass. Uninterested, they return to their task, chewing in lackadaisical form. Ahead, you see several small, wooden cabins, and the end of the road in front of you. The circular drive passes in front of the lodge owner's main home. The house is enchanting, a large log cabin with a wide porch, complete with hitching post, running the length of the front. An imposing stone chimney spews smoke which permeates your senses. Standing proudly in the center of the circular drive is a rustic wagon filled with beautifully blooming, spring flowers. Wooden barrels and authentic wagon wheels decorate the interior spaces of the lodge perimeters. To the left is another huge log cabin which, you later learn, is the bar and restaurant. This is not one of these fancy dude ranches; this is a common family running a rustic hunting lodge. For them, this is not only a livelihood, it is a lifestyle.
You find the lodge owners are wonderful, down-to-earth people, with two young children ages seven and ten. The father and son, donning grimy, tan cowboy hats, are just leaving for the horse corral. As you sit for a tempting cup of coffee with the lady of the house, you discuss the job duties that will soon become your responsibility. It seems that you will be a jack-of-all-trades here. Cooking, cleaning cabins, bartending, and serving are to be your lot in life for the next year. You couldn't be more excited. The sleeping quarters are to be an old bunk house that you will share with a wrangler and a packer. As yet, you don't even truly know what the function of a wrangler or a packer is, but it seems harmless enough. The outhouse is around the back. Room, board and $800 per month will be your salary.
You have the entire weekend to investigate. After getting settled in the humble quarters, you wander around the ranch. The horse corrals and tack rooms are out in back of the main house. Thirty-six horses and mules will soon become your best friends. Immediately, your senses come alive. The pungent aromas of the stalls and the distinctive scent of the leather tack, while offensive to some, bring an almost forgotten memory to life. Your eager eyes never stop taking in the scenery. After being introduced to the horses and the crew, you continue your investigation of the kitchen and lodge area. The cabins will be filled to capacity by late tomorrow for the first spring hunt. That first night, sleep eludes you due to the anticipation and excitement of the new day ahead.
Morning at the lodge begins as the sun rises at the very end of the canyon. The end of the wagon seems the optimal spot to watch the fireball appear, the warm coffee mug taking the morning chill from your hands. The first low whinny comes from the corral as day breaks. The horses are not part of the duties but provide a pleasurable pastime. Soon it is time to wrangle the horses for the first hunt of the season. Unforgettable is that first morning when you mount your stallion and prepare to find the other thirty or so horses that have been let loose on these 2000 acres. Your bunkmate, the wrangler, leads the way up the hoof-worn trail. The watering-hole -- a favored gathering spot for the herd -- is visible from high atop one of the knolls. To your left, a huge grove of aspens stands, and the wrangler identifies this as a hiding place for the horses. True to his word, we find half of them standing perfectly still in the middle of the thicket. On the other side of the aspens, in yet another meadow, patches of snow still settle in the gullies. As you continue down the trail, great pines hover over you, towering like skyscrapers against the clouds. Looking out over an ocean of acreage, you draw a deep breath. You feel your mouth agape at the rays of the morning sun spreading its fingers across these hundreds of acres of nothingness -- the same flat, barren land. Looking at it from above, you imagine the Native American tribes, running the buffalo off the end of the very bluff you stand on. The wrangler has to snap you out of your reverie. Amazingly, you are feeling a certain envy of the horses, knowing that they will soon be striding through the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area. Equally jealous are you of the urban cowboys who will soon witness the same experience that you have. Undoubtedly, they will marvel in each and every blade of grass. Every rock, bird, and animal will affect the hunters in the same way. All of the wonders of nature will be laid out before them as they ride away from the lodge, their horses packed, guns and cameras loaded.
Amazing, this Big Sky Country. Abundantly rich with all the glorious wonders of the world. You realize, then, that you cannot just look with your eyes and pass judgment on something new. You will never again look at a tree, a river or an animal without appreciation. It is a marvel to see all that is alive and living in this "empty" land. The new respect and gratitude that you feel for mother earth will spill over the sides of your heart like the banks of a swollen river, and you'll be loving life in Montana.