Friday, May 4, 2018

Montana landforms

In following Lewis and Clark, I have no interest in re-enactment. Their journey was slow, wearying, and distinctly uncomfortable. I'm only interested in being where they were and seeing what they saw, particularly the forms of the landscape. So it was in Montana.

Despite its name, only the western third of Montana is mountainous. The rest is high plains, but it's not as flat as Kansas is reputed to be, or even than Kansas really is. It's rolling land full of dips and rises and surprising features like the one-time glacial lake spillway called the Big Sag; there's massive and often steep bluffs by the rivers; and throughout are dramatic buttes formed of volcanic rock plugs. The natives used to use these as buffalo jumps, a couple of which are preserved as state parks. And the land throughout is uniformly covered with golden dry grass.

This is the landscape that Charlie Russell specialized in painting, and you can get a good sense of it by studying his work closely. (I visited the Russell museum in Great Falls, which is behind his house.) It's a beautiful austere country, but after driving through several hundred miles of it, I have to say that, if you've seen part of it, you know what the rest looks like. I'm glad I didn't try to cram an eastern Montana loop into my week's journey.

Especially in the Blackfoot reservation in the north, the Rocky Mountains rise so abruptly from the landscape that the sight appears unreal. Even far off you can see them, looking like some kind of giant outdoor fresco wall mural.

If you follow the Missouri River upstream, as Lewis and Clark did, the river hits the mountains just past the town of Cascade. From there until near Helena, the riparian landscape is as dramatic as you could possibly wish for: huge cliffs and jagged rocks looming directly over the roiling water. But upstream from Helena, the land broadens. The mountain ranges are separated by wide gentle valleys with soggy wetlands in the middle, down which meandering streams wander, getting smaller as they branch going upstream (all of which made life difficult for L&C's men, dragging long pirogues slowly upriver), frequently shifting course (which makes life difficult for historians tracking L&C's precise route).

To my surprise, the region south of Helena, including west into the Lemhi Valley of Idaho, is of desert vegetation in many areas, sagebrush and all. No wonder the Shoshones L&C met there were frequently starving. Further north there is no desert, and there's certainly none in the most beauteous valley of all, the glacially-carved Bitterroot Valley south of Missoula. The valley here runs directly north from its tip, and in that direction Lewis and Clark traveled, always looking anxiously westward, which was the direction they wanted to go, but up that way were the highest and most jagged mountains of the region. And what's behind those mountains? More mountains! ("What do you burn apart from witches? More witches!") To this day, no road penetrates through that region. Finally, up north near the foot of the valley, L&C hit the spot where the natives had a westward mountaintop trail across today's northern Idaho, a route still so difficult that an auto road was only built in the 1960s.

L&C came through in late summer, and didn't hit an early snowfall until that westward Idaho trail, but throughout the higher elevations in April I found frequent patches of snow. These looked charming and harmless enough at a distance, but, as I found, they're perilous to walk on. In some places, the snow crust is solid enough to bear your weight, but in others your foot will suddenly crash through a foot or more of crunchy snow, landing on the slippery ice underneath. I'm glad I brought my heavy-duty shoes (even though they're so old their soles completely disintegrated under the use), and I certainly wouldn't attempt to drive a vehicle without chains through a heavy patch of this stuff.

In the far north, there'd been heavy snow but it melted. I heard there was flooding and even read a news story of a driver nearly washed away, but all I saw was lots of large ponds where I suspected ponds should not be ("As I came home / so drunk I couldn't see, oh / There I saw a pond / No pond should be there"). I guessed this because usually range fences do not pass through the middle of ponds. Fortunately I didn't hit any impassable wet spots on the unpaved roads, though as I mentioned a fair amount of mud did get on the car, especially the underside.

I'd only been to Montana once before, in childhood many years ago, and even then saw very little of these places. It was a real pleasure finally to track the slow struggle upstream, the anxious trip over the mountains, the return by an easier pass, Lewis's exploration of the Marias River in the northern plains, Clark's encounter with the Yellowstone after Sacagawea showed him the best mountain pass.

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