Montana Headwall » Head Lines & Features

Hold on the universe

One family’s push to continue a common journey

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“Well, this is a lot of fun,” Thom said as we climbed over a log next to a stream. “Anyone know where we are?”

“Ho, bear,” I shouted, not wanting to admit I was lost. “Hey, bear. Go away, bear.”

Maggie picked up the chant. Emily followed suit. With little else to lift our spirits, we put the words to music.

“Okay, this looks pretty familiar,” I said as we crested a particularly tiring rise. A trail appeared around a bend. We passed a wide clearing. The jeep trail materialized before us. By the time we reached the car, we’d overshot dinner by an hour. We vowed that next time we’d ask for better directions.

That’s the task I was charged with early this summer, as we discussed on Facebook what Fourth of July weekday would work best for another try. I’d hoped to line up an actual guide to take us, ideally someone like Jenny who knew the route well. I had to settle for directions and tips from several sources. On July 5, the night before our trek, I dug out the old quadrangle map and drove to a neighbor’s house up the road. Several of us bent over the map, tracing the jeep track across Yeager Flats to a stream crossing. There, I was told, the route peeled off through the aspen and up one of the ridgelines.

Montana Headwall. Outdoor adventure under the Big Sky.
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“Where exactly do we turn west?” I asked.

“Oh, you just follow your intuition,” said Dave Carr, a longtime friend of Grandma and Bud. “It’ll just feel right.”

I’d gotten similar directions from Jenny over the phone a little earlier. She’d said to leave the jeep track “when it makes sense to” and simply go up. “When you cross the fence going north-south,” she added, “you’ll know you’re going the right way.”

None of this instilled much confidence. Still, I’d been told the northern approach was easier, and I felt that with a map, compass and clear line of sight up each ridge, I could get us to our destination. The next morning, we awoke to clouds on the horizon.

“Amy, we’re heading back down.”

Thom is holding his phone above his head. My mom, seated comfortably back at the Barn, is on the other end. Apparently cell reception has finally come to the Front, a fact I’m regarding as a travesty. Thom puts Mom on speaker.

“Did you make it already?” she asks. There’s a teasing tone to her voice. We’ve only been gone three hours, and it takes at least four to reach the summit.

“No. The clouds are too thick. We’re heading back.”

“Yeah, we figured. We can’t even see the mountains from here.” It’s my sister’s voice now. They’re clearly having a bit of a laugh at our expense.

“How about we meet you back at the car for lunch?”

“See you there.”

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Thom hangs up and tosses his phone back in his bag. I continue munching on a granola bar, fuming a little.

The hike back down proves largely uneventful aside from the cloud ceiling’s continuing descent. If we continued to climb, lack of visibility would merely add to the danger. I’ve flirted with foggy mountaintops before. I reassure the group with some authority that we’re making the right call.

“Next year,” Thom says, “why don’t we hire a helicopter to take us up?”

I can’t help thinking, as we plod back down the jeep track, that Bud had more sense than us in ignoring the call of Ear Mountain’s summit. Somehow the family’s common journey with that peak has gone from looking up to climbing up. Perhaps it’s how we seek to console the mountain in whatever grief it might feel for Bud and Grandma’s passing. Perhaps it’s how we’ve decided to deal with our own grief, to gaze down on the world with our ghosts instead of gazing powerlessly up at them.

In 1986, the year I was born, Bud wrote a final poetic ode to Ear Mountain. It became the title piece in his single chapbook of poetry, Four Miles From Ear Mountain. It goes like this:

Ear Mountain stands four miles away,
crow-flight, from our house.
No day passes but I gaze on it
as my father did when I was young.
I see him looking out the window west,
his eyes fixed and his body still.
Restive, he found peace there perhaps,
or in it some continuation of himself,
some promise of foreverness.
I did not know his thoughts,
nor am I clear about my own
as its lift invites my eye,
and somehow I am part of it,
a mortal partner to eternity.

I only wish I’d brought a copy to read in the shadow of those clouds.

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