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Hold on the universe

One family’s push to continue a common journey

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Gazing up at the clouds spread thick along the Rocky Mountain Front, I can feel my insides twisting into a knot. It’s not fear that’s nagging at me but disappointment. A few short days earlier Ear Mountain had cut the sky like a blade, its crisp outline beckoning us. Now the peak has disappeared behind a vast white curtain that continues to creep across the range, foot by foot. Somewhere up there is my family’s ancestral hold on the universe, a mountain we’ve long admired, and decided we must climb. This hump of jagged rock and jack pine we’re standing on now is as close as we’ll come this summer.

“I’m telling you, that butte to the north has to be this point here,” I say, jabbing a finger at the map. “It’s the only spot that makes any sense.”

I’ve been going back and forth with my dad, Erik, for almost half an hour about where on the map we are. We’ve got our bearings: the jeep track we followed up over Yeager Flats, the ridges feeding off the mountains in front of us. Not that our exact location matters much now. There’s no sense trying to bushwhack dense aspen and pine only to get lost in that ever-lowering cloud ceiling. We’re just trying to save face, trying to convince ourselves we could make it if we tried.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
  • Alex Sakariassen

“No, I think we’re standing right here,” he says, lining up the compass. “But then what the hell is that tall point in front of us? Thom, what’s our elevation right now?”

My cousin, Thom Baustian, visiting from Des Moines, digs through a pack for the GPS. He informs us that we’re around 6,100 feet, far short of Ear Mountain’s 8,580-foot summit. Elevation is the last piece of the puzzle, and we conclude that Dad is in fact right about where we are. Thom’s wife, Beth, and my 15-year-old cousin, Maggie Luthin, from Pennsylvania, snap photos and take in the view of prairie to the east. We rummage for granola bars and sit on the rocks, our faces long from fatigue or disappointment, hard to tell which.

“Well, the mountain’s beaten us again,” Dad says. We chuckle. We remember our first attempt to summit Ear Mountain with my sister Emily, a few years before, a trip cut short by an impassable cliff face. ºOnly two members of our tangled clan have ever made it to the top: me, and Maggie’s father, Bill Luthin. It’s been a wistful dream to reach the summit as a group to stand, two generations side by side, overlooking our collective home.

I’m on another mission today, though. At the bottom of my pack is a small tartan container with the last of my maternal grandmother’s ashes. The summer after she died, in 2004, we spread most of her to the wind from a butte overlooking the Front. My mom, Amy, felt that a part of her should mingle with my grandfather atop Ear Mountain. He lived the bulk of his life in its shadow, and his ashes were spread upon it after his death. Grandma had lived with him in sight of Ear Mountain as well, in a modest home on the Teton River we call The Barn. I spent all my summers as a kid marveling at Ear Mountain’s odd southward slant. In my earliest years I thought it was called Our Mountain.

“Nothing to do but go back,” Dad says. The rest of us have been silent, not wanting to admit it.

“Sorry guys,” I say. I don’t know why I feel like it’s my fault.

“Don’t be sorry,” Beth says, smiling. “You can’t control the weather.”

For our sakes, and for Grandma’s, I wish I could. Instead her ashes will return to the Barn and wait, like the rest of us, for another year.

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