Sunday, April 29, 2012

Spots of Time on Spots of the Map

"I also became the river by knowing how it was made."- Norman Maclean
      Now every good Montanan knows that Norman Maclean was full of unforgettable quotes. We've all seen the movie, and hopefully more have read both his books. But of all the gold nuggets Maclean gave us, his most overlooked and perhaps meaningful sentence stresses the intertwined relationship between geography and history.
      We must never separate a location on the map, from the events that have occurred there in the past. In present day America our young people (and our old), are geographically decrepit. Ever since 1983, when University of Miami Geography Professor, David Helgren, gave his senior geography students a pop quiz on basic world geography which they failed miserably, it's been clear. (Half couldn't locate Chicago) Helgren shared the results with his colleagues, who shared with the media, and Helgren was canned. Numerous studies since this have verified that American students are cartographically clueless.
       Geography is important for a multitude of reasons, and we can work to fix present day ignorance. We must require students to display geographic knowledge, we need to spend more time on geography, but more importantly, we need to make geography interesting.  One way to do this, is to never speak in strictly geographic terms. To far too many people, geography is reduced to uninteresting questions. "What is the capitol of....."
       Whenever teaching about a place, always incorporate the most meaningful past events that have happened there. Extend to multiple levels. Describe a location not only by its position on the graticule, but also present events and their relationship with modern history. Go back to prehistory, and even geologic history. Help students learn by relationship.
     Take Maclean's example. To someone who didn't know where they were or what had happened there, the river is just water flowing downhill. But to Maclean it was geologic history and the "Earth's Great Flood". It was Hydrology, snowmelt from the western side of the Continental Divide. It was economics, logging camps and dude ranches. It was personal history, fish he'd caught with people he loved.
     Often I play a game with myself. A geographic historical 10 x 10... Where are you? What happened there ten years ago? How about one hundred, one thousand, one hundred thousand, and so on. Any number works.
     So this weekend when I climbed the hills above Belmont Creek, above the Big Blackfoot, I wasn't thinking only about elk antlers on the ground.  I thought about the great Montana story teller Howard Copenhaver, and the hunting yarns he's told that take place there. I am sitting with Norman Maclean, 80 years ago. He wrote about it: "On the Big Blackfoot River above the mouth of Belmont Creek the banks are fringed by large Ponderosa pines. In the slanting sun of late afternoon the shadows of great branches reached from across the river, and the trees took the river in their arms. The shadows continued up the bank, until they included us." These Ponderosa are still there, and you can go sit under them too. I look northwest into the drainage of the West Fork of Gold Creek, where 250 years ago Native Americans summered, escaping the heat and mosquitoes. The grove of old growth trees where they camped are still there. I daydream back 12,000 years, to ice sheets a mile thick, right on top of where I am sitting. In my head I create the place 600 million years ago, where migrating inland seas laid sediment down, stacking it over and over again, creating the belt rock that make up this mountain and the stone I am sitting on. Prior to that, I am back in time 2 billion years, imagining this mountain gone. I am in an ancient sea filled with cyanobacteria, photoshynthesizing, creating the oxygen we all breathe, billions of years later.
     All of this from a rock on a hill without a name. Geography isn't just maps. It's what the map represents, it's what the map was, it's before the map. By knowing a place you become it. And it works anywhere you are.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Your Own Little Known, Seldom Visited

      Montana has some of the most scenic, recognizable destinations in the world. At one point or another, every Montanan should make a trip to Glacier National Park, Yellowstone, or the Rocky Mountain Front. We've all seen the post cards of the The White Cliffs of the Missouri, or the Sleeping Giant. Symbols of Montana.  And though all are beautiful and unique, they aren't the places that aggregate into what I think of when I visualize what Montana is to me.
     Significant inquiry into the process of how a space becomes a place has been trending in the fields of Geography and Sociology. Of course things like recognition, nicknames, and accessibility, all factor in to how a space becomes a place, and gains meaning to social groups. But one of the great things about Montana is that we needn't recycle the same old places that have held meaning to the past or the masses. It can be far more personal. The amount of "places" in Montana can increase exponentially, and no one will ever know, because nearly anywhere in Montana can become a place of significance to you.
      The places of Montana to me, are that miserable, brush covered side of Bonner Mountain that was stripped of timber twenty years ago. It's Buffalo Wallow, northeast of Roy, Montana. Where solitude unmatched by any location in the western half of the state can be found 9 months out of the year. Or the Boulder Cutoff Road, where a trip from Boulder, Montana to Bozeman can either be fifteen minutes shorter, or an hour longer, or a long damn walk, depending the disposition of that day's gumbo. There is a hill at 8,000 ft. ASL, near Clancy, Montana, and on a clear night with little moon, you have a panorama of light reflections of Helena, Great Falls, Butte, and Bozeman, illuminating the atmospheric ether of one third of the entire state. 
      Surely you all have them. What I am saying is you can have more. Take a space and bring into being, a place. Pick an obscure spot on the map and go for it. You may as well stop for a beer in that seedy, small town bar. Get your rig stuck in the hills with someone you love, and walk for a day and a half before being delivered from isolation. Climb a nameless mountain in a nameless range. 
      The country is big, the people are few, and though the map may look complete, this is only superficial. The claims to "place" on the form of Montana, will be perpetually incomplete. Take advantage while your here.


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Hell Across Montana

                        "Now she's gone to Hell for keeps." 

     This sentiment was expressed to Frank Bird Linderman by an old trapper, disgusted by Montana's admission into statehood in 1889.   Though his feelings were produced by the sense of loss that came with a passing frontier, when we look at Montana in terms of toponyms, he couldn't have been more right. For this geographic flight of Montana's underworld, no place is more suitable as a starting point than Hell Gate Canyon. A crack in the earth separating the Sapphire and Rattlesnake Mountains, where the bones of ambushed Indians lay bleached for hundreds  of years, found and named by the first whites to enter the Missoula Valley. 
     From here we turn south, up one of the most scenic valleys in Montana. Along the way we come to Jim Hell Rock overlooking the ancient East Fork of the Bitterroot River. 
     Following the river to its source, we cross the Sapphire Divide and drop down into the Big Hole Valley, where a band of sleeping indians were ambushed, and women and children experienced Hell on earth. 
     Heading up the Big Hole, over its divide and into the Beaverhead  drainage, we head upriver to the southern fringes of the Bitteroot Range, also known as the Centennial Mountains, to Mount Jefferson. On the eastern slope of Mount Jefferson is Brower's Spring. The spring drains into the Western flank of the mountain and so begins Hell Roaring Creek, the ultimate beginning of the mighty Missouri, from which the water heads to the Gulf of Mexico. 
     Further west, over the Madison Plateau, where the ultimate tale of survival was told, sits Colter's Hell, and all the brimstone that goes with it. 
     Taking a north bearing out of Yellowstone Park we are greeted by the Devil's Slide, a layered vertical wall of limestone and quartzite on the eastern face of the Gallatin Range. The central divide of these mountains is called  The Devil's Backbone, which is fitting. 
     After the valley opens up we turn east and travel alongside the longest undammed river in the contiguous U.S. If we travel far enough, we'll make it to Glendive, where the badlands of Montana's largest state park, Makoshika Park, dominate our view to the south. A 19th century American General once said that badlands looked like, "Hell with the fire out". He was right.
      At this point we are getting dangerously close to North Dakota, which no Montanan wants, so we turn northwest. Over dry windswept prairies we amble until we arrive at Jordan, Montana. Here, the Hell Creek formation holds one of the worlds greatest fossil beds, where mudstone and sandstone preserve a bygone burial ground over 60 million years old.
      Let's keep heading west, over grasslands and prairie, where homesteaders and cattlemen came for the good life. But as Joseph Kinsey Howard made clear, "Rain is all Hell needs", and most of them were gone before it ever came.  
       Further west we are finally back in the mountains, at Devil Creek, on the northern edge of the Great Bear Wilderness. If from here we head southeast, through three wilderness areas and across Highway 200, all the way to the northern block of the Boulder Batholith, we might find ourselves in one of my favorite gulches, at Go Devil Creek. The mountains are littered with boulders the size of houses, in between which the  old growth Ponderosa stretch for sunlight. 
     Nearing the end of our circut we head northwest, back towards Missoula, following the Little Blackfoot and Clark Fork Rivers, nearly always against the southern wall of  the heavily mined Garnet Range, the heart of which is dominated by Devil Mountain. A lonely, seldom visited rock obscured by the timber. Finally we are back through Hell Gate Canyon, where Hell Gate Winds blow.
     If heaven were a place that actually existed, I doubt I'd hesitate to trade residency there for any number of spots on the map of Montana. But it is worthwhile to remember, that for many of the occupants of yesteryear, Montana has had its fair share of eternal damnation. The Geography of today reminds us.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

No Montucky For Montana

      My post today is entirely based on a pet peeve of mine that for some reason, drives me nuts: the ever increasing use of the utterly un-clever word, "Montucky".  It is imperative that we stop referring to our great state as "Montucky". It is disgraceful to incorporate any mention of Kentucky, or any other state for that matter, into the name of our finest state in the union. It is Montana, a derivation from the latin word "montanus", meaning land of the mountains or a mountainous region, and cannot be improved.  Not only is Montana superior to Kentucky, or any other state, in every way that matters. It is a beautiful and tried and true name. "Montana". It rolls off the tongue, feels right, and means something. We could remove the first syllable of  quite a few states and replace it with "Mont" and it would be just as meaningless. Montconsin? Montifornia? Montinois? No, No, and No. Stop. It's perfect.