From Bison and Wild Horses Toward Portland

From Theodore to portland 118

Spence here:  Travelling through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the town of Ashland, WI, was not to be missed. It is the town of my mother’s and aunt’s birth, where they grew up and ultimately where my mother met and married my father–home to the Ore Dockers of Ashland and the Lumberjacks and Lumberjills of Northland College. Perhaps this is not so important to some, but for me it is of utmost importance, as a reference for part of my beginnings.  So much so, I really wish we would have had more time to stay and look around.  Tomfoolery was in order, however, in Bayfield, WI, at “Big Top Chatauqua” with my aunt and uncle. (Happy Anniversary!) I need to spend more time with these amazingly energetic people than I have been able to over the years.  The Swedes and the Fins really know how to vacation!  More generosity was thrown upon us like royalty by my family, as we made our slow way west.

Perhaps it was all the recent goodbyes, or the fact that we were leaving the Great Lakes Basin, not to be seen again for who-knows-how-long, but it was hard not to suck up the depressive energy of sprawl that is most of North Dakota along the I-94 corridor.  When one realizes that most of a motels’ inhabitants are living there full time, it is not an uplifting experience. The state in general has so much more to offer than the gas station at Valley City, thankfully. We were on a course to the southern unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. We landed at the park with ample time to set up a beautiful camp on the Little Missouri River. How many others had set up camp in that very spot? Over how many years? The abundant wildlife we witnessed, in no less than one hour of being there was thrilling–bison, rattlesnakes, wild horses, prairie dog towns, crazy flying ants–even blooming cactus–and a treat of rain. The bands of the “Makoshika” (land that is bad) were displayed in blues (bentonite clay), dark brown (from a swampy wet era), black (lignite coal), red (when the coal caught fire and burned for decades) and finally light brown (recent earthy layer).

The Helena National Forest (Aspen Grove Campground) turned out to be one of my favorite places, on our way up to Glacier National Park. The rolling hills turned to deep forest, slanted rock and gushing creeks. Exhaustion was starting to creep in, however and I was not having the miles of dirt road we had to venture to get there because of construction. Once these peaks and valleys were traversed, we ended up having a lovely campfire, watching the sky fall, and a quiet place to sleep. Thank you Aspen Trees.

A tour around the east side of Flathead Lake excited me for what more lakes and mountains were to come. But sadly, Billy and I confessed our exhaustion levels to one another outside the Apgar Visitor Center upon arriving in Glacier. We decided not to explore the back country on this trip, but make it a reconnaissance mission. A rocky drive instead, up to Bowman Lake on Glacier National Park’s west side was rewarded with amazing views, yet the campground partiers, mosquitoes and deer flies trumped our hopes of a peaceful camp. My fantasies about living on private property on the border of Glacier actually were fed on this bumpy road, however, and I wondered aloud happily how no one would be able to get in or out of the area in a heavy snow year! The beauty of Glacier National Park surpassed what my tender memory held (I had visited Glacier in my youth) but it was different than in those years…I remember my dad stepping in glacial mud, as we played on the edge of a glacier near Logan’s Pass in t-shirts and shorts. This time, the glaciers were becoming extinct. Our shuttle driver lamented about how anyone denying climate change must be sitting in an office somewhere with a window overlooking new condos.

Missoula, MT held a place in my heart, albeit it was made up of pictures I saw on the internet.  The actual city was cool enough, but sprawled for miles, surrounded by dry brown bear hills. I admit, I was hoping for something smaller, as my quest to find a liberal, quaint, small town to live out my days has been part of my road west. I didn’t mind the “tomb-like” atmosphere of the Tamarack Brewing Company pub, since their amber is one of the best I have ever tasted!  But I felt again like maybe a “city” of woods and creeks with a population of two humans and a plethora of other species sounded the best of all.

Onto Lolo Pass and a wonderful hot springs soak.  The Jerry Johnson hot springs became my new favorite. But why name it after Jerry Johnson? And who is Jerry Johnson?  I still have not found out. We soaked for a few hours and talked to an old amazing hot springs care-taker. I could see Billy and I doing that in our old age. In fact, the whole corridor down the Lochsa River was just enchanting. I learned about two trails I would love to have the honor of hiking, The Nez Perce Historic Trail and the Lolo Pass Trail. Placards on the highway told a snipet of history about the amazing peoples, the Nez Perce Indians, (as the French called them, but also known as Nimiipuu), but their sad stories and the not-so-amazing Lewis and Clark exploits.  One information booth told of a time when Lewis’ horse had fallen down the steep  cliffs. A quote from Lewis remarked the tough terrain and miserable winter weather was at fault for almost killing his horse, not the overwhelming burden of cargo the horse was carrying (his wooden trunk and writing desk!) We decided to skip staying at the Lewis and Clark State Park in Washington later that day and drive directly to my best friend’s house in Portland. Hurrah!

When we try to pick anything out by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.

– John Muir

Billy here. Spence’s dad gave us a book to read upon our departure called Coyote Warrior: One Man, Three Tribes and the Trial That Forged a Nation. It follows the history of the Garrison Dam of North Dakota and the three tribes whose ancestral home was destroyed by it in the 1950s. Before this dam flooded their villages, these tribes, also home to Buffalo Bird Woman, were one of few the remaining intact self-sustaining indigenous cultures in the United States. We found ourselves driving just south of this very place and stayed a night at the Wagon Wheel Inn in Valley City. That night I dreamed of a girl in a raincoat who was my child. She was hung, killed and turned to stone. The local merchant tried to sell the stone of what remained of her back to me. I cried out in grief and woke up suddenly.

We then camped a night in Theodore Roosevelt National Park along the Little Missouri River. There the bison, wild horses, rattlesnakes and rainbows came out to greet us. The arid scrub was alive with ants and nighthawks, wildflowers and grasses of all kinds. It is hard to believe that the petrified wood here was from redwoods, date and palm trees. It is somehow comforting to know that this feeling of devastation in recent centuries is just a tiny blip in earth time: that if the entire earth’s age was reduced to 24 hours, recorded human history would merely be the last few seconds. But with our loss of connection to the languages that tie us to our land is our loss of the land itself. Along with the extinction rates of species on the planet increasing 1,000 fold since humans arrived, also is the observation that nearly half of all languages could disappear with the dying elders by the end of the 21st century. And yet, here there are still robust wild horses of all colors living on the grassland.

We drove across Montana into the northern Rockies to see Glacier National Park, home to pristine glacial lakes and icy blue creeks. We hiked to Avalanche Lake in a wonderful summer rainstorm. There the granite peaks towered above us like gods. But I was struck by the lack of snow. The placards of the park had more sobering news: in the beginning of the park’s history there were 150 glaciers and now there are only 25 left. It is estimated that they will be all melted in a mere six years.

As we left Montana on our way to our new home in Portland, Oregon, we drove through Lolo Pass and soaked in hot springs at dawn in the Sawtooth Mountains. There in the spring, watching deer literally bounding through the meadow in the first beams of morning, I wondered, what does it mean to be human really? Aren’t we just an expression of nature, like a lichen taking hold on a rock or a virus? But how do we remember to remember this, that we are intricately woven into the blood vessels of the planet, every day, all of us, in the smallest thoughts and actions we make?

One thought on “From Bison and Wild Horses Toward Portland

  1. Hello Spence and Billy! Thanks for the wonderful trip down memory lane. I was born and raised in Montana and Glacier Park is definitely my favorite place

    . Yes, it has changed dramatically from the time when I grew up. In some ways it’s too sad for me to revisit now. Glad to hear you are back in Portland. Send along your address or email when you get established. Back to work at Peoples, Spence?

    Love to you both,


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