I feel like this is becoming a blog post mantra: I love living under the Big Sky. And I also feel a little silly, ranting and raving about my affection for Montana’s wide open spaces. After all, I’ve been here the better part of ten years, not ten months. But like I tell Honeydew, my love affair with Glacier Park began when I was 9, long before I ever dreamed of him, and if I were the tattooing sort, I’d have tattooed “I love MT” on my back long ago. Oh wait. I actually did consider doing that, or at least getting the outline of the state on my left shoulder blade. Thank you, Laura Avery, for not allowing me to do so on that salty afternoon in Panama City Beach. You were, and are, a true friend.
If I tried to make a list of what makes living in the Treasure State good for my soul, this post would never get published. And it’s after midnight on a Monday night, and I’ve been wrestling with Quickbooks all day, and need my beauty sleep. Oh, do I ever need it, in a way I did not need it when I was 24. How, exactly, did I stay out that late and still look that good? And consider getting tattoos of states on my back and not enlist the assistance of a licensed therapist? But I digress.
When I’ve soaked up a day’s worth of sunlight and wind to alight on top of one of Glacier’s many peaks, I feel as though I am lit from within, as though a magnum of good champagne has been poured up my nose, as though a Biore pore strip has been applied to my soul, and now I am purified. There is maybe one thing better on Earth than attaining a summit. And I’ll leave that at that. But suffice it to say, I like being a speck under the Big Sky. I’ve got no business in cramped, damp, black spaces. Like caves.
In the summer days just before Howard died, he was working on Glacier’s eastern edge, as Brother Dear and I had done, down in St. Mary for the inimitable Johnson family. For the first time in five years, I was not working on Glacier’s eastern edge, but was skating through my last shifts at The Depot, home of the best prime rib in Missoula, Montana. And ahi tuna. And banana-walnut-chocolate-cream-pie. I was about to begin law school in Virginia, and so there was no time for a job in Babb that would not hit its stride until the week I was required to be starched, buttoned, blazered, and in orientation. Better to stay in Missoula and actually make some money.
I cannot tell you how many times since that summer I have wished that I’d said the hell with it, I’m going anyway.
But I did come up nearly every weekend to see my baby brother, to hike, to eat pie at Park Cafe. I slept on the sticky floor of his room, with the ants. I met his summer gal, who was well read, irreverent, and bubbled over with joie de vivre. She was not afraid to sing the 8 minutes plus “American Pie” on karaoke night, and once, when the three of us were piled in the front seat of Howard’s pickup, stuck in traffic on the Many Glacier road, trying to make it back to St. Mary in time for one-or-the-other-of-them’s shifts, she leaned her gleaming collar bones out of the passenger window in a move designed to get attention. When she had it from the 10 cars in front us, and well as the 10 cars behind, she pointed adamantly at a large chocolate brown spot on the other side of the Sherburne Reservoir. She screamed, “BEAR!” In unison, the 10 cars ahead of us screeched into the ditch, one nearly going nose first into Sherburne, and their occupants leapt outside with their cameras and binoculars. By which time we were already careening down the bumpy road, heading for an on-time clock-in for she and Howard. That bear? A beautiful glacial remnant, also known as an oversized boulder. Not ursus horribilis by a long stretch.
Seeing Howard with a woman was surprising to me. After all, I’d left home when he was 14. Now he was nearing 20, with sunkissed shoulders capable of hauling large packs 20 miles and more, with mossy green eyes that could say he-l-lo from across the room, with broad hands designed to steady the girl he was two-steppin’ with on Charlie’s sodden dance floor.
Seeing Howard’s affection for Glacier also surprised me – where Brother Dear and I had always begged Santa for hi tech sleeping bags and the latest in fleece, Howard had requested khakis, Polo shirts, and cologne. I think we were all surprised when he decided to spend his 19th summer in capilene. And Howard didn’t just enjoy living at Glacier’s entrance – he wasn’t content to watch the sunrise from his dorm window at Johnson’s, arguably one of the prettiest views of Glacier that exists. Howard immersed himself in Glacier in a way that I may never do. From all accounts, and from my own experiences in the Park that summer, he was always the first in his crew to organize the pre-and-post-shift hikes, to advocate exploring Glacier in the spooky half-light that puts shivers down my spine. He led his co-workers to lofty glacial lakes on trails that he had known since he was 5 years old and powered by Reeses cups. He bagged multiple peaks in a day with abandon. And, to get back to the subject of this post, he went caving, something I’d heard long-time summer employees sometimes did, but that I had never done. It seemed his energy never waned.
Did he know that he would soon die? I sometimes wonder.
At some point during Summer 2004, Howard and friends explored the Poia (“Poy-ya”) Caves, above Poia Lake, in the Many Glacier area. To enter these caves, you have to bushwhack straight up for about 20 minutes from the lake, which is itself a little over 6 miles from the Many Glacier road. There’s Howard at the entrance:
Then you get down on your belly and slither into a narrow opening in the Earth’s surface. Like a snake. I abhor snakes. This slithering goes on for quite a while, and you might feel like your sins have caught up with you at last, and that the ceiling of the cave is definitely going to smash in your skull, and that a mountain lion denned up in the cave is going to enjoy sucking the marrow out of your broken bones. It is horrible. Then, finally, you reach the main cavern. You can stand up in there. You might consider never leaving that cavern, if only to avoid ever crawling on your belly, fear shredding your stomach lining, again. I believe that most of the cavern’s arms are dead ends, but there is one, the one that people go into the Poia caves to find, that takes you through the heart of the mountain. Howard found it:
As you traverse this artery, with its ombre shades of brown and gray, you straddle a stream filled with rushing water so cold you can’t believe there aren’t slivers of ice floating in it, and so clear that it seems deeper than it actually is. The water’s depth is ever more heightened by the thrumming of water somewhere above you – it is loud enough to make you yell at your companions, to keep them in sight, because you can’t hear them, nor they you. That pounding is the heartbeat of this mountain, and it is strong. It grows louder as you go deeper into the cave. After an hour or so, depending on your speed and rate of hyperventilation, you arrive in another large cavern, at least fifty feet high, from which this throbbing originates. You discover that a waterfall gushes from the mountain’s high center. It is otherworldly beautiful.
And you sit there with your companions (for only Honeydew would be so self-confident and/or foolish as to explore the Poia caves by himself – which he did, one summer he worked trails for the Park) and there are few words. Even if you are a verbose English major, there is little to say. It is very primal, to sit on a cold, wet rock in the center of a mountain, to watch the water gush from the ceiling above you, from what source you do not know. The air is thick with metaphor. Someone suggests turning off your head lamps, and you do, and you know that the last time you were in a dark this deep you were in your mother’s womb, hearing a similar liquid heartbeat.
And then it is time to turn around, to return to the light, to the Big Sky.
These pictures are all of Howard. But about three weeks before I married Honeydew, the urge to do something Howard would be proud of, while I was still officially A Stone, weighed heavily upon me. And so Brother Dear, Pseudo-Sister, and I journeyed to Poia.
I am claustrophobic. I love my Big Sky. I cannot to this day believe that I ever slithered into that cave, much less that I did not throw up, or black out. Especially when we saw the dead mountain lion denned up in one of the cave’s many nooks.
But the chance to walk in Howard’s footsteps powered me through. That, and the unfailing love Brother Dear and Pseudo-Sister showed me during that day. Pseudo-Sister is solid gold. Her kindness and strength on this day that stretched my limits did not surprise me. Brother Dear, I love him deeply, but rarely have I seen him exhibit the patience that he gave me on the day we entered the Poia Caves.
And I did get to walk in Howard’s footsteps, quite literally:
Do you like my circa-1991 gaiters?
Brother Dear, Pseudo-Sister, and I made it to the mountain’s core, heard the ancient chanted metaphors of the glacial stream, drank in the primordial beauty of the pitch black waterfall that will never get to show off its sparkle under the Big Sky’s light. I know Howard was with us. But I tell y’all what, it will take nothing short of Howard’s specter flat out asking for me to get back into that slit of the Earth again.
Or at best, not until at least next summer.
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