The ash is snowflakes. The skyline obscured by smoke like fog. I take a drink from the public water fountain, metal tarnished white with calcium. I sit by the cement dock. Watch murky water approach and retreat. A meadowlark hobbles through the parking lot. Three sparrows edge the sky. My sister-in-law silently packs out our raft. Sandwiches, beer. I spin my polyester sunhat in my hands. Set my sunglasses on my head.
An old silver motorboat floats down the river. Man, woman, dog, fishing poles. Beneath the water sea grass swirls in unending graceful loops. Fish settle and swim. Beyond the bridge, brigades of bandy-legged blue herons lope through shallows. I’m shore bound in leather boots.
Somewhere not too far from here hundreds of acres are on fire. Beyond the mountains, plains, river. I’m weaving my hair into braids. Thinking of bison chased over cliffs, twisting in shocked piles, voices blaring in fear. Thinking of aquifers gone dry, species disappeared, the life of the West. Thinking of sleeping under stars, of snakes in the coals, of hard, dreamless nights. Thinking of great quarries filled with poison. One hundred white geese floating, then sinking.
Here in the untamed West, where we let vices blossom, bludgeon beauty, bear brutality, then sleep quiet and unseen under golden mountains, golden moon. Here where small towns are built on bones and dreams. Here the bear lumbers, the coyote creeps, the bison circles in man-made pens. Here I tie my hair. I step into the raft. I pop a beer. And I float.
This year, Montana felt both heavy and light. The smoke impressed upon me the sadness of the history of the West, where so many died in their last ditch attempt to either survive or find fortune. Where indigenous Americans were uprooted and repressed. Where native species were blotted out. How the ego of the encroaching White Man changed the landscape and culture.
And yet, Montana remains pristine, expansive, breathtaking. When smoke isn’t omnipresent, sun and moonlight paint the plains and mountains in every color of gold, amethyst, copper. Sapphire rivers sparkle. The beauty makes my eyes water. Sunrise and sunset are events not to be missed, each one some sky god’s master work.
I hiked to the top of Mt. Ascension, lay along a rocky river beach, drank coffee overlooking the city (more like town) of Helena. I played dominoes with my husbands family for hours, eating mint ice cream straight from the tub. I made huckleberry pie. I plunged into hot & cold springs. I watched the mountains unravel before my eyes as Logan drove us through the landscape.
Isn’t that just how it goes? Beauty and sadness commingle to create something achingly lovely. Like a flower dropping its petals onto the street.