As I sit here watching the rain fall off of the newly budding trees, smiling at the finches perched on the corner of the feeder as they try to avoid the drip off the edges, I am grateful. Grateful for the rain first, for in the mountains it is snowing and snowfall in the mountains is always a good thing. Snow keeps drought at bay and fires from becoming too threatening in the summer. I don’t doubt we will see fire this summer; it’s been a pattern lately and a tad overdue, according to Forest Service biologists, who remind us fire is in keeping with Mother Nature’s own unique methods of landscaping. Of course, landscaping varies depending upon whether or not you dwell in the rain shadow or not.
We who live on the west side are pansies. We are total wimpoids. Our Spring arrives weeks earlier, it is greener here, we can raise peaches, walnut trees if you are gifted, and grow cherries. We don’t usually get strong winds or terrible sub-zero blizzards, 15 feet high snowdrifts, or cloudbursts, flash floods, golf ball sized hail, weeks of 90 -100 degrees ~~ (swarms of locusts, pestilence, giant frogs raining down.) Still, both of my parents were raised in Eastern Montana, I’ve heard the stories. There is one about how my Grandpa hauled two girls, who lived on a neighboring homestead, out of a ravine during a whiteout blizzard. “He just had an uncanny feeling that he should drive back and check that ravine. And there those two girls were huddled together, half-frozen, covered in snow. It’s a wonder he saw them.” Or the time my Dad was a kid and a cloudburst came up without warning. He was down at the creek when the sky opened up in torrents of rain. ” I looked up and there was a wall of water coming down the gully taller than I was.” And those are the true stories my family relates. The story I do hear from my Aunts a lot, stop me if you’ve heard this one, about how they had to walk to school two miles each day — uphill…. both ways.
As we wandered around Freezeout Lake last weekend, on the eastern slopes of the Rockies, I kept thinking how remote the mountains feel on the prairie. (Actually, that area is considered the foothills to the mountains.) Here at home the mountains are on our doorstep, a mile or so up the road. The east side mountains are distant enough from most towns that in the summer they shimmer in the sun’s glare during the intense heat of August. Are they truly there or just majestic aberrations? As the whitecaps of snow on the peaks recede during the summer so do their contrasting outlines. Perhaps it is the wind on the east side blowing everyone and everything around so that a person can never get a clear focal fix on any one object? As we walked down the service road at the bird refuge leaning into the wind I felt nearly absorbed by the strength of it. All my senses were surrounded by wind. It was not a cold wind but it still seemed powerfully unpredictable, ready at any moment to snatch the breath right out of me. Ready to shift out of the north without a warning and bring a storm. And no exaggeration, most of the trees which do manage to survive this harsh place have a definite lean to their growth. The cottonwoods and the scrub pines: they grow with the push of wind. Perhaps the residents here acquire that tell-tale lean as well? I admire the Indian tribes who survived in this climate, especially the Blackfoot. I would conjecture that they would find any excuse to slip over the passes and raid other tribes – just to get away from the omnipresent wind which howled at their footsteps everywhere they went. I envision the warriors hunkered down atop a ridge, inexplicably uneasy in the calm of the other side; adjusting slowly to the idea of an existence without a blowing gale. I’m sure they were sorely tempted to stay put. But they are people of the rock, wind and mountains; some Blackfoot still remain today near their ancestors.
One cannot ignore the beauty, raw and powerful. There is no denying the wide contrast in climate. You have to love this place to live here. Our oldest son was born not far away and I remember the years we spent here when he was a baby. I recognize a familiar voice in the wind. This is the same wind which sung to me as a child in my Grandmother’s wheat fields near Hysham. While my family checked on crops, I often spent the time hunting agates in the dry-land furrows. It is the same voice which speaks here at Freezeout near the Front. If you allow it for a moment, the wind will cover you in a restless blanket. If you stand very still, allowing the song to drift towards you of a thousand calling geese, amplified or dispersed by the ebb and rise of the wind; if you let yourself be captured by the famous blue, big sky overhead or humbled by the vast, open space, then I guarantee you will be transported into awe. Awe is simply the prerequisite for joy. A joy of standing within inspiration – a place where your eyes can see no definite end to the horizon. The land calls wild, the geese call wild, the strong mountains in the distance call wild. This is the prayer of the wind.