Postcards from the ledge

I’m sitting in the kitchenette of a Great Northern Railroad caboose-car-come-hotel room in Essex, Mont.

Within arms reach are two framed color photographs of wolves and one of a bald eagle, the spirit animal of the United States of America (by the by, Ben Franklin voted for the turkey.) My lady and I are indulging in a little recuperation after a few days camping in the backcountry of Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. I’ve never seen the West at all, and I’ve certainly never seen it like this.

Battered as I am by hiking around these hills with everything my sense of comfort requires strapped to our backs, I’m also greatly renewed. Leaving roads and gas stations, phones and pharmacies, and the stifling clutter of opinion at the gates of the wilderness will do a body good. The hallways of heaven have communicating corridors on this planet, and the continental divide in northern Montana is one of them.

Here, then, are some observations written this morning by a lake, submitted for your approval:

Red Eagle Lake. Glacier National Park. Morning time.

A life lived on the slide-rule of skepticism can be painfully tedious. As such, I am relieved to check “Moose” off of my list of “Animals That Are Very Probably Real — Awaiting Confirmation.” They live and walk among us. There is a giant bull moose wading in the lake not 30 feet in front of us, periodically bowing his head into the water, coming up with another maw full of pond scum along with what must be 40 gallons of water that cascades off his giant velvety rack …

He’s looking at us again. He’s enormous. My rational mind assures me he is totally indifferent to our presence at his breakfast table, and is probably bored to moose tears by us. My adrenal glands, however, are convinced he is completely, irreversibly pissed off, stark mad and preparing to attack. Joan says we’ll be fine.

Behind him, the serrated peaks of Red Eagle Mountain might, at the slightest movement, cut the blue fabric of the sky and allow the contents of outer space to fall through the tear. A handful of drowsy, unsuspecting stars and that half wagon wheel of a moon would come tumbling across the snowfield of the mountain peak, down the red cliffs and gray gravel slopes, and drop into the calm and freezing lake with the unceremonious sound of a bunch of marbles and one broken dinner plate thrown into a dish sink. Maybe that would pique this moose’s interest. Likely not.

I feel like my senses have been under-prepared to recognize all of this, and I must scale it all down to understand it. This landscape looks like a diorama, and I expect that I could reach out in front of me and pluck a Douglas fir from the landscape 2 miles away as easily as I might a tiny toothpick pine from the crumbly green Styrofoam of a model train set.

The four-hour hike to Red Eagle Lake took us through a valley that was completely burnt up in 2006. Some alchemy of fire and forest has rendered the still-standing dead wood of these trees smooth as glass to the touch, and iridescent as though they’d been hit with three or four coats of good metallic spray paint. Charred firs, aspens and pines move in the wind as an enormous throng of pilgrims swaying in collective prayer. Their windsong sounds like a squeezebox, or screaming in the distance. This may sound eery and unpleasant, but nothing could be further from the truth. The effect is Mystery, its cause is Beauty.

The denuded landscape has allowed sunlight to flood the forest floor, and the result is a cascade of new herbaceous plant life whose seeds have been biding their time in the soil since the last fire event, waiting patiently for a chance. The patchwork of grasses and wildflowers is staggeringly beautiful and simple. Waves of pink, yellow, green, clay, brown, orange and purple have filled the vacuum left by the fire, and have replaced the cool shade of trees with color. Mother Nature, it seems, knows nothing of clashing color schemes.

The smell of this place is what soap and floor wax are trying for.


Wish you were here,