I don’t know about you, but it just seems to me to be getting harder and harder to return to the city after spending time in some of the most unique country on the planet. That’s been my experience anyway. My partner, Andy, and I recently spent almost two weeks in the Northern Rockies, visiting Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks in Wyoming, and then driving yet farther north up almost to the Canadian border, and staying in Montana’s Glacier National Park.
As with so many things that transcend the ordinary limits of human experience, all our attempts at superlatives soon enough begin sounding trite and humdrum when it comes to describing such places. To say “the most beautiful” really tells us nothing; neither does “the most spectacular,” or “the biggest” or “the highest,” or even “the most forested,” whatever that means. These are places which you simply have to visit and experience on your own in order to fully understand the magic, the mystery, and the wonder of them.
We were lucky to go in early June. My fear is that by July and August even such otherwise pristine locations might begin to feel cramped and encroached upon due to larger and larger numbers of visitors. Early June, though, still feels like springtime (which it is, technically, of course, although that has become less and less pronounced in these days of global warming). Almost the whole time we were there, Glacier National Park was chilly and moody and dark and rainy, with mists rising off of Lake McDonald and clinging in miniature cloud formations to the surrounding peaks, as if the clouds, like us, were reluctant to make their depart from such power and enchantment.
It is a place filled with the magic of trees. Old growth Western Red Cedars, for example, once grew almost as big and imposing as California Redwoods. And there are a few examples still left here and there, which hearken back to those bygone days. In a mature forest, which hasn’t been ravaged by fire, or by humans, there is an enormous mixture of types of trees, everything from Rocky Mountain Junipers, to Douglas Fir, to Engelman Spruce, to Lodgepole Pine, to the Mountain Hemlock, my personal favorite. I cannot articulate why this is so, except to say that the reasons seem to be hidden in the silent depths of my unconscious mind, where words fail and feeling, emotion, and symbol reign unchallenged. There are also many Western Larch trees, the only conifers that lose their leaves (i.e. needles) in the winter. All these plants, these creatures really, these living beings, stand in places which they have carved out for themselves over the years in that endless struggle which is natural to the forest. Saplings cling to whatever ground is available, struggling to spread their limbs and catch some of the life-giving rays of the sun, while their elders do their best to monopolize the light for themselves in their own attempts to go on living and growing. Older, sicker trees lean and grow brittle. They weaken and fall in storms, leaving open space in the canopy, which the quicker and more nimble species rush to occupy.
The forest is a world of its own. The trees provide cover and a living place for countless animals who make their homes there. We, ourselves, saw many examples of moose, deer, and elk, and were even privileged to see a female moose soon after she had given birth to her young. But Glacier Park is, in a sense, a bifurcated place. It is neatly divided into two: the western and the eastern slopes of the Rockies. We stayed in the western part, which I have referred to above, with its brooding temperate rain forests. But the eastern slopes have their how unique quality, too. Less wet, and therefore less densely forested, they are nonetheless home to many tree and animal peoples. Although we were not fortunate enough to see them, there are mountain goats and bighorn sheep on the higher slopes. And the wind! The wind blows in everlastingly off the prairie. Trees are bent and oddly shaped by the constant buffeting, and in early June it is cold on these slopes, as we found when we unsuccessfully bundled up against a wind chill factor that must have hovered in the twenties.
This is the place, too, which the Blackfeet Nation now calls home. The reservation pushes up against these slopes, and extends down onto the plane of the prairies. There is a wonderful little museum in the town of Browning, Montana, not far from the park, which honors the traditional culture of the Plains Indians. There are examples there of shirts and dresses and moccasins and other items of clothing and everyday use, each decorated according to the traditions and tastes of the various tribes which called the Great Plains their home. The Blackfeet, of course, are represented, but so too are the Sioux, the Cheyenne, and the Arapaho, the Crow, the Shoshone, the Gros Ventres, as well as the Kiowa, Comanche, and Pawnee. And we were fortunate enough to get to talk with the featured artists of the museum the day we visited, an amazingly engaging and funny man by the name of Ernest Marceau. We bought one of his drawings of two Blackfeet chiefs on horseback, and he generously insisted on giving us another drawing, entitled “Trance,” which he had been working on when we enter the room where he was sitting.
We stayed in this country as long as we dared, fearing, I think, that even one day longer and we would have decided never to leave again. I remember thinking at some point afterwards that for the longest time we had not seen a newspaper, or heard a television or radio broadcast about the news of the country or the world. Nor did it surprise me, either, to realize at just about the same time that I hadn’t missed it at all. In fact, what I felt when we did once again tune in to the news was an ever-deepening disinterest in what was happening “out there.” This seemed especially to be true when it came to politics, and to the political wars in this country between left and right. As much as I consider myself a liberal, even a progressive, I found myself having little patience when it came to listening to the latest skirmish in these political battles. I discovered that I was completely unable to work up any head of steam when it came to the latest Tea Party craziness about Pres. Obama not having been born in this country, or about the most recent polling numbers, or even about the fluctuations of the stock market. I’m not saying that I won’t at some point get back into a place where these things will likely matter to me to some extent. But for the moment, even now more than a week after we’ve returned, it’s hard for me to make myself listen to the news. I will not say that it seems inconsequential; that would not be accurate, neither would it be fair, because in the end some things do matter, and some things really do affect people’s lives and the world at large.
But I think it’s going to take some time for me to fully reenter that world, by which I mean our everyday flux of politics and money and concerns over who says what, and who wins or loses. For the moment, at least in my mind, I’m still happy to be living amidst the dark, rainy forests, the sweet-smelling conifers that grow beside Lake McDonald, which stand and fall according to different rules and which have concerns all their own. What would happen if Andy and I were ever to move there, and to live permanently in such a place? Would I give up all interest in politics and world affairs and become a something of a modern hermit? If that were the case, I guess I can think of a lot worse things to be.
To be sure, the city has its benefits and its own sort of beauty, and I’ll get to the point once again where I can appreciate all that. But for now, I find that I love to lose myself wandering amidst the cool greenness of those forests, or feeling the buffeting of those bracing winds coming in off the high plains. In my mind’s eye, I see myself next to a tall slender hemlock, standing alone near a rushing stream, quiet, immobile, content just to be there and not to ask why.