A sense of place, over time, can be magic. That’s what I found recently as we followed a trail of names.

Tired of our small space next to a dusty trail, Jessie and I flew the coop. We went north, along the Bitterroot River, chasing Lewis and Clark’s path along the Bitterroot Valley, and then west along Lolo Creek, out of the valley of the Bitterroot, by billows of volcanic bubbles, wellsprings of the water in Lolo Hot Springs. Then we passed over the Bitterroot Mountains at Lolo Pass.

I organize territory by attaching labels to landmarks. “Bitter Root” was imported by French trappers to describe the widespread herb with a single flower, pink to lavender to white. The Cheyenne, the Shoshone,  the Flathead all valued the bitterroot herb and had ancient names for it. The Salish of the Bitterroot Valley had a name that dated back ten thousand years:  “hand peeled”, a simple label for the powerful herb that sustained them over the winter and that saved the lives of Lewis and Clark’s desparate party when the Salish shared it with them in 1805.

Some names are newer. “Lolo” refers to a French-Canadian fur trapper, Lawrence, whose handle may have been “Lou-Lou”. (The name Lolo wasn’t in the Lewis and Clark journals, but it has been found in another regional journal entry as early as 1810: so it’s real.) (And, for after life’s twists and turns, the Lolo Creek distillery makes some really fine local bourbon.)

Beyond the pass, we went down the west side of the mountains. We went from “menos agua” to “mas agua” (drier to wetter) (that’s my label, coming from the southwest). Ferns became more common, fed by increased flowing water. On we went, lunching at a campground near the Lochsa River (from the Salish, “It Has Salmon”).

On the way back we stopped at the Bernard DeVoto Memorial Cedar Grove, a magical place right along the road. Its red cedars, some over two thousand years old, towered 50 feet over us, shading lush thickets of ferns at their feet as Crooked Creek (use your imagination) rippled just to the west.

Who was BernardDeVoto? A hero. He was an irascible lodestar for those who value public lands as crucial to the web of life, available to all Americans, not just special interests. Judging by the political ads I’ve been enduring up in Montana, public lands are also a big deal to folks who live here. His influence is wide and deep.

DeVoto really saw himself as an eclectic, a “literary department store”, a fiery columnist for Harper’s Magazine, a historian (who hated being bothered by detail, yet his Across The Wide Missouri won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for history), a successful short story and novel writer, a poet, editor of the Lewis and Clark journals, an essayist, a sometimes teacher. In these activities he shaped the story of the modern west. (And he and his wife were also early influences on Julia Child’s career.)

This grove was one of his favorite respites for writing, especially as he edited the journals of Lewis and Clark (who likely camped nearby in 1805). His ashes were spread among the giants of this “enchanted forest”.

These are just a few of the labels given to this land. It has been labeled by many, over many years. They tell the story of the land. It is wise to heed them.

— My thanks to Jessie, 8/20/20

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