I've always loved living in remote places. This is an essay I wrote about one such place I lived around 25 years ago, with my then-wife Gena.
UP ON THE HI-LINE, MONTANA
The country house advertised in the newspaper turned out to be an old hired hand’s shack, a small gray stucco affair shaped like a barn. Weeds choked the yard and swallows’ nests lined the eaves, but the place had a big kitchen and a closet we could turn into a pantry. It offered free natural gas, fresh spring water, space for a garden, and a view of the Bear Paw Mountains crowning the southern horizon.
We moved in one dark night to the eerie cries of the cat living in the basement.
Though the place was more “country” than we’d expected, my wife and I were giddy with the prospect of starting a life together beyond the confines of the city. A few months earlier we were unmarried and trapped in the heart of Tucson, Arizona—poor graduate students teaching freshman composition for poverty pay and pounding out our master’s theses in a tiny, dark apartment with only an asthmatic swamp cooler to quell the desert heat.
Tired of the city, of the smell of scorched asphalt and of the perpetual batch of ungraded essays piled on the kitchen table, we plotted our escape on a big map taped to the wall. We were looking for the calmest, remotest place we could find. In August, we polished our theses, completed a six-week tour of summer school duty, loaded my pickup, Gena’s car, and a small U-Haul trailer, and climbed the map to the Hi-Line in Montana, where cool autumn breezes wafted over the stubble fields with the smell of wheat chaff.
Montana’s Hi-Line is the area lying north of the Missouri River and just this side of Canada—“the middle of nowhere” to most travelers passing through on their way to Glacier National Park. It hugs Highway 2 as well as the Burlington Northern tracks. High, rolling wheat country broken by small mountain ranges, it lacks the glamour and drama of the Rockies, which is why the Saabs and Four-Runners haven’t overrun the dirty, battered ranch trucks, and the Spandex and Birkenstock crowd hasn’t moved in with its gourmet coffee shops and New Age bookstores.
Which is why we settled here and I got a job teaching at the community college on the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation.
Not long after we’d moved in, a shaggy, burr-laden collie appeared in the yard, drinking from the leaky water hydrant. We figured he was a drop-off or had strayed from a nearby ranch, though no one claimed him and in time the crooked white stripe down his forehead became a permanent fixture under my pickup in the yard. Ol’ Shep we called him, and he led the way on every hike, a proud scout introducing us greenhorns to his native coulees and ravines that creased the prairie and to the creek curling through the distant breaks.
That first year it snowed before Halloween. One morning at dawn I sat by an upstairs window with a mug of coffee and the humming space heart, watching the cattle in the pasture gathered and waiting for the farmer, Hanson, to bring hay. Above them, the snow-covered mountains pinkened with first light.
The reservation lies in the heart of those mountains, and when I drove into them later that morning, plowing through drifts, the snow was deeper, the air bluer, the quiet even more dense. Wood smoke plumed from the clapboard shacks and webbed in the valleys between pine-covered ridges.
It was the smoke of pine and aspen gleaned from the drainages surrounding Mount Baldy. In the brush along the creek, an old man dusted snow from a sweat lodge and tended the fire where several stones heated. I remembered those seasonless Tucson years I woke mornings to the roar of traffic and the smell of car exhaust, and walked to school, sweating and tight with city nerves.
All winter, Chinooks blew the snow off between storms, but that spring the mountains around Upper Bear Paw Lake were dusted with what the Indians call the Going-Home Snow. I stood hip-deep in the black, numbing water, casting nymphs to cutthroat trout while noisy squadrons of Canada geese practiced liftoffs and landings nearby, and Chippewa-Crees preparing for their annual sun dance sang in the picnic shelter across the lake.
In May, our neighbor rototilled a garden for us, and our landlord worked in several tractor loads of manure from his feedlot. Gena and I planted Early Girl tomatoes and nearly everything else we thought would have a chance in these climes. We spent our mornings sipping coffee and pulling mallow before the sun became unbearable and the wind picked up. Mid-summer, the Early Girls resembled shrubs, the sunflowers grew heads the size of dinner plates, and the pumpkins climbed the barbed wire fence to hide in the pasture.
Wild berries were abundant in the country we hiked each day, so in July we scoured the ravines and coulees for juneberries and raspberries. When the chokecherries came ripe in September and we’d finished canning and freezing our garden harvest, we hiked in the mountains bright with turning aspens, filling milk cartons with the bitter chokecherries and with rosehips we dried for tea.
The ridges Ol’ Shep and I hiked above Miner’s Gulch were thick with mule deer, and we came upon elk scat in the tufts of sage above the timberline. Along the creek closer to home the chokecherries were even more plentiful than in the mountains. Gena and I filled several buckets and steamed up the kitchen making syrup and jelly. I brewed chokecherry wine, as well, and we used it to wash down venison and grouse on cold winter nights when the raw wind howled off the Bear Paws and across the stubble fields.
Midway through our third year on the Hi-Line now, we occasionally long for the bookstores and restaurants of a city, but we’re not going anywhere. Here, the deer outnumber the people and the water’s sweet. The pantry’s stocked and the freezer’s full. The land teems with new, little discoveries we need only hike the nearest draw to make.
A few days ago, for instance, I came upon the fox that lives in the coulee, sound asleep in the sun atop a haystack. Without discussing it at length or even thinking about it much, we’ve decided to stay.
[Update: Gena and I remained on the Hi-Line for two more years. Then we moved to Minnesota where we lived a similar life on our own farm for seven more years, raising Shep’s and Miss Stella’s two pups, Buck and Thor, and a passel of chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys. We moved to Colorado in 2002 and were divorced in 2007. We remain friends. Recently, I moved back to Minnesota with my rescue dog and best friend, Sydney.]