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.

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