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More of Montana

photos by CJ Carter

I’ve lived in Montana, more or less, for five years now. I’ve loved it and hated it, left and come back- always I come back. I’ve seen a fair bit of it, and whether I’m getting personal with the geology or just passing through, I like to think I’m building a pretty good idea of what this place is about. 

But then there’s always a new bend in the road.

It was the first day of the year, and we drove and drove, passing by ranches and grain silos, stranded-looking cows and battered-looking signs. Just a few hours in a new direction and we found wide horizons and small towns; it was amazing how quickly our music began to sound out of place.

After a while we climbed a pass in search of snow, but we coasted down the other side, still filling couloirs with our imaginations. The terrain was there; the deep pow of our dreams, unfortunately, was not.

Somewhat desperate, we framed a summit with the windshield and decided to get there, pulling over next to some sort of warehouse just outside the town of Neihart, home of Bob’s, the only source of food after 7PM for 45 miles around. A sign outside read “smile dammit, we have wifi!” (but further investigation revealed that they didn’t really.)

Clad in our silly, colorful plastic boots and softshell clothing, we unloaded not haybales or machinery but skis, those subtle, strange, joyous planks, from the back of a car that was otherwise useless by local standards in that it simply could not haul any kind of trailer. As truck after gristled truck rumbled by, I clicked the tab of my toepiece up, grabbed my poles and tried to shake the feeling of opposing realities.

Yet the edge was never far away as we skinned through what was likely someone’s backyard- an old mining road had once been cut into the slope, and the occasional tailing pile punctuated sunsoaked woods. On a ridge at the end of the road we found a deep hole in the hillside and an old cabin, battered yet sturdy; this was not the pristine backcountry environment I’ve gotten used to enjoying. This was once someone’s life.

We climbed on, searching for a summit as the snow thinned and the trees began to look more and more tortured. The wind howled as the sun began to sink, illuminating the low clouds and bathing the prairie in pink. We reached a top, took a breath, ate some licorice and soaked up the view. Then we turned around. 

To say the least, it was a sharky descent from the ridge; the snow was sun crusted, wind buffeted, and shallow. Rocks lurked everywhere, sometimes throwing sparks off our skis in the failing light, and we found that the road, which had been a pleasure to skin up, had became a nice crusty luge for the way down. The snow had an alarming habit of pitching skis and bodies forcefully towards the woods at the slightest chance, so we became very aggressive snow-plowers.

And it was just as our thighs began screaming their loudest that it ended- the luge terminated abruptly, depositing us unceremoniously in a dirty snowbank on the side of the highway. I can only imagine how our headlamps must have looked from the inside of one of those gristled trucks, winking and bobbing our way back into town.

Sometimes simply passing through a space is enough to earn a little perspective, but other times you have to leave the road, gain some altitude, and have an honest look around, in whatever way you know how. Sometimes you don’t see much, and sometimes the return trip’s pretty crappy, but somehow it’s still, weirdly, worth it.

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