Our two-lane too-fast highway pushed south in front of us, big trucks passing in a blur in an old land. We were on a July day trip between two Montana valleys, following a meandering river, the Bitterroot, big water-loving trees lining its banks. Our starting point had been in the valley where the Bitterroot flows. We were headed to a barn.
I wasn’t driving, so I looked up to the right, at the Bitterroot Mountains, their jagged peaks still sporting small remnants of last winter’s snows. Geologists believe that they were bubbled up a hundred million years ago by the never-still, colliding and scraping earth. Once up, their tops had been pushed east, grating across the warm core, stretching some rocks and pushing others so far that they broke.
Rising up toward these peaks were steep forested slopes with canyons gashed into them. The slow blunt force of glaciers had cut these canyon’s weakest rocks, revealing the remaining core of the mountains. I’d hiked in the canyons, seen and touched both stretch marks and broken edges, and collected some resilient and the broken remnants into pottery jars to remind myself of the earth’s power to test us.
Along the crest, where the clouds of winter had gathered, the snows had collected. When the snow melted, water flowed down, through the canyons, gathering power as it hurried, gathering rocks broken by erosion. These fragments flowed down with the water, joining with plants and forming soil. Water and soil have been center stage in the dramas of life in the valley below.
As we drove, we passed signs of domestication: small fenced fields, some with cattle, some with tall grasses, some baked dry, and some with standing water. Here and there white tailed deer munched on the grasses. If we had passed this way two hundred years ago, we would have seen different signs: young grass on land burned by the earlier Salish people to draw wild game to hunt.
We cruised past scattered houses among the fields, some new, others old. Some houses were tidy, but others looked cluttered, with beat-up cars and trucks, quiet farm and garden equipment, horse trailers, fence posts and assorted gray lumber. What I saw as clutter was their stash, the place where they would go if a timely work-around was needed.
As the valley floor narrowed and climbed, we went back and forth on switchbacks, past a portion of the South Nez Perce Trail (Nee-Me-Poo), climbing 4000 feet up to a pass. We watched the Bitterroot peaks recede in our rear view mirror, then drove east across high ground, dropped into Dillon, passed a proud buffalo perched on a point of land, and turned north, along the broad north-south valley of the Beaverhead River, toward our end point, a large cattle ranch and a large red barn.
Rolling brown hills ran off on the left and the right. On the right they were dry except for bull-dozed cattle tanks. In the distance were the Tobacco Root Mountains with summer clouds forming over them. On the left, the land tilted down to the river, where fields of hay were flourishing. Beyond that lay the Pioneer Mountains.
This trip was a homecoming for my wife and her family. They had lived in this area for several years in the 1950’s. During that time they became friends with a local rancher, Byron, whose family raised prize Hereford cattle. Byron’s lands once included the barn, big and round, originally built to house and train race horses through the winter. When hereford cattle replaced horses, the barn became a place for cattle sales and for local socials. It was now 100 years old. Byron was a success, a hero to many in the area and in the hereford business, having shipped twenty thousand head worldwide. His family and friends were gathering in the round barn to honor him. We went to join in the fun.
The party-goers ranged from the nineties to tiny new-borns. Many of the visitors were extended family. Some were still local, others from a ways away. (“Neeew Yoork Citee?”) Others had worked for the ranch. Still others had neighboring lands and had bought their cattle to build their herds. Most were in some part of the cattle business. Many looked like they’d just come from fields and ranges still with their cowboy hats, boots, jeans and stories about mosquitoes. They were steady in voice and in story, strong individuals and important parts of this community, eager to enjoy hearty bowls of beef stew, cornbread, and indulgent desserts.
We watched and listened as photographs were shown on a screen and Byron told stories about many of those who had gathered and about the cattle that that had been had raised, mainly the bulls, like Evan Centurian, Montana’s first $50,000 bull. He told a story of finding two such large bulls fighting in a field. He couldn’t let them damage each other. All he had was his truck, so he put the truck between the bulls, absorbing the blows from each side until they tired and went their own ways. The truck was a tool from his stash, one that could be fixed.
I am not a rancher or ranch hand, but I do respect ranchers for their achievements. The Bitterroot Valley is sometimes labelled as the “Palm Springs” of Montana due to its temperate climate. The Beaverhead ranchers live in a land that can be more severe: higher elevation, open ranges, -40 degree winter temperatures, 100+ degree summer temperatures, drought, rains that bring flash floods, predation. In between the extremes, some fit in, bend with the stress, gather from the water tables, raise crops, build herds, and create prosperity. Others work hard but break, don’t make it and are left with the jagged edges of a bankruptcy sale.
I was sleepy from lunch and my recently-repaired knee was a bit achy, so I walked out of the barn and around the grass surrounding it. I chose a rock and sat on it. At the barn entrance I could see the painting of the large bull, one of the prize bulls for which the ranch was known.
Then it was time to return to our starting point. As we drove back up into the mountains, I looked at a map of the area and noticed that not far north and east of the ranch was a point marked as Buffalo Jump State Park. I’d seen the big cattle bulls, why hadn’t i seen any buffalo?
A little research showed me that the soil and the water from the mountains that were feeding today’s cattle had once fed vast herds of buffalo. The Eurasian immigrants had crossed over the Bering land bridge into North America, two hundred thousand years ago. In the West, they found grass and water, and prospered, numbering more than twenty million just two hundred years ago. Buffalo were followed twenty thousand years ago by more Eurasians, native peoples who settled throughout the Americas. Buffalo became central to them. Hunting parties travelled long distances, through the lands of allies and enemies, building lives and cultures around the bison, prospering with food, shelter, warmth, tools, weapons, clothes, utensils, and trade goods. Native people worked hard, were resourceful, and prospered. It’s estimated that in 1491, before Columbus, there were more people in the Americas than there were in Europe.
Then things changed in these valleys. Two hundred years ago a team of thirty three Americans entered the valley in search of a path to the western ocean, the Pacific. The Corps of Discovery, led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, had been sent from St. Louis up the Missouri River by President Thomas Jefferson to find the path and lay claim to its lands for the hungry young country eager to escape its bounds much further to the east. According to the journals of Lewis and Clark, the Beaverhead was Jefferson’s River, the pathway to the Pacific. As they travelled up it with blistered feet, torn clothing, and empty stomachs, they were led through prickly pear and mosquito clouds by a native lady, Sacajawea, who had been born and raised near its headwaters, just below a pass, now called Lemhi, (see my earlier tale about my visit to the pass) on the Montana/Idaho border, then kidnapped by another people and taken east, where the Corps had been given safe harbor by the Mandan the previous winter. She agreed to guide them to her ancestral lands, the headwaters of Jefferson’s River just below the Continental Divide.
Where did the buffalo and their hunters go? People eager for their own land followed the path of the Corps and came into these valleys, bringing their Manifest Destiny, their eastern lives, their livestock, and their Army. The government wanted land for the newly-arriving so they put native people on very restricted remnants of their ancestral lands. General Sheridan(“the only good Indian is a dead Indian”) told them how to get them to go: “…make them poor by the destruction of their stock…”. Thousands of buffalo hunters came, sometimes averaging 50 kills a day, turning the ground into massive eerie graveyards filled with bones. Starvation and banishment of the buffalo peoples followed.
The Corps continued their trip. Having left the Missouri River, they needed transportation. Sacajawea’s brother, Camehwait, chief of the Akaitikka Shoshone, took them in, and traded them horses for the promise of guns (which were never delivered). Camehwait was getting ready to lead his hunters to hunt buffalo.
Then the Corps needed to get over another pass across the Continental Divide, known today as Lost Trail Pass, the one that we had crossed earlier, (their new Shoshone guide, the nearly blind Old Toby, didn’t really know the way and got them lost on the 4,000 foot climb to the pass, slowing their progress). The seasons were changing as they finally descended, leaving them exhausted, cold, and starving. This could have again been the end but for an encounter with the native Salish, near what is today called Ross Hole, at the head of the Bitterroot River and its valley. When they met, the Salish were waiting to join with Nez Perce, enroute to the buffalo country. As was their custom, the Salish took pity on the struggling strangers, judged them safe, and provided food, including bitterroot, and shelter.
From there the Corps moved north through the Bitterroot and west on the Nez Perce Trail to their goal, the Pacific. The Salish, who had lived along the Bitterroot and hunted buffalo for a millennium would suffer a fate similar to the other buffalo hunters as easterners entered the valley.
The rancher had shown us gracious hospitality and shared their prosperity. Native peoples along the path of the Corps showed them hospitality and shared their prosperity. I suppose that life has an imperative to survive and, where possible, to prosper. Native buffalo hunters did that for many centuries. Ranchers in these valleys have done it for a century and a half. Each believed that they’d been given the land. It was theirs. The stories of the peoples of these valleys have rightfully been about brave, hardworking folks overcoming hardship and severity to create and maintain life. Haven’t they also been about conquest and exclusion, written by conquerors to justify the conquest?
More eerie reminders of the conquered and their lives are kept around each valley, like the state park at the buffalo jump, celebrating the lives of native hunters. or lands to the north of the Bitterroot, where the Salish were banished and still live. In the Beaverhead, there’s a fancy restaurant named after the once-dominant buffalo. In the Bitterroot there’s a town, Victor, named after the last chief of the Bitterroot Salish. And then, in a particularly ironic twist, the name “Bitterroot” is itself a name given by the Bitterroot Salish to a plant that they found essential, its pink flowers showing where its nutritious roots hide. And in a supreme irony, these roots provided the nutrition that saved the Corps.
My wife asked me, “this was a wonderful story about a good time, why put the other stuff in there?” I answered, “because it hasn’t stopped“.
Two valleys: each to be treasured, each with prosperity, hospitality, and good times, now and in the past. A past that is also rumpled, not just what it seems. It loiters. It haunts.
**this piece is excerpted from a longer piece being prepared for publication submittal
**please contact me (vic at vicsmithphoto.com) if you are interested in reviewing it
My thanks to Jessie, Rich, Larry, and Bob for their review