I wrote this blog a year ago about a good place, and yesterday my dog Otter and I revisited that place.
The story is perhaps apocryphal: our neighbor Bill approached John Watson, who at one time owed this entire mountain meadow and had been parceling it out twenty or forty acres at a time until all he had left was a quarter section perched on the highest rim of the meadow. Bill owned the land adjoining Watson's quarter section and wanted to expand his own private Ponderosa.
When asked if he was inclined to sell the land, Watson scratched his chin and hiked his cowboy hat back on his head so that he had an unimpeded view of the ridge in question. "Waal," he drawled, Montana rancher style -- although Watson never got within ten feet of a cow: he married into the spread after a storied career as the original Marlboro Man. "I kinda hate to part with that piece o' land. My two favorite dogs are buried up there."
Bill -- confused: "But there are four graves on that ridge."
"Oh yeah, the in-laws are up there, too."
The in-laws -- or the dogs -- chose a spectacular site for their final resting place. The cemetery sits on the crown of a lightly wooded knoll with a heart stopping view down Suce Creek to Paradise Valley and the Yellowstone River. To the left, the dark, jagged canyon of Deep Creek is presided over by Mount Delano, which bears an eerie resemblance to Franklin Roosevelt in profile.
When my dogs were younger, we would hike to the cemetery in the cool of almost every evening. The view commands hundreds of miles of sky -- the proverbial big sky of Montana -- and more often than not we'd observe natural fireworks somewhere along the length of the southern and western boundaries. No matter how flamboyant the surrounding sky, the cemetery always seemed peaceful, as if an overarching high kept the worst of the weather at bay. From the line of four modest headstones -- two professionally carved granite and the other pair lovingly chiseled by hand -- we could see no roads or buildings, and hear virtually no unnatural noises. We'd encountered bear up there occasionally, deer or elk, and once a great grey owl.
The hike up to the cemetery is over a mile and straight up, almost a thousand feet above our cabin. It's a heart-pounder but I've always enjoyed it, as does Trooper, my younger dog -- but then, Trooper enjoys absolutely everything he does. On the other hand, my older dog Otter is more reticent, reserved, less likely to show pleasure or joy. For Otter, the trip up to the cemetery isn't just a hike: she seems to have some kind of spiritual connection with that place.
I know: this is a dog I'm talking about. I get nervous when people open up about their own spiritual connections, much less imply that a dog could have any kind of spirituality whatsoever. But dogs have been shown to perceive things that people are not aware of: some can smell disease or impending seizures. So -- to me at least -- it doesn't seem unreasonable to assume that Otter the dog is capable of sensing something at the cemetery -- an odor maybe or an ultrasonic wave -- that she feels an attraction to, or maybe gives her pleasure. Or maybe -- like me -- she just admires the view. For whatever reason, the cemetery has become Otter's favorite place in the world, a place she is always eager to visit and loathe to leave, a place where she has never been unhappy or upset.
When she was young, Otter was the most athletic animal I've ever lived with. Both of her parents were field trial champions and it showed in Otter's body: it was lean, long, muscular, and lithe. When I trained for marathons Otter would match me stride for stride: sixteen, eighteen miles. In the mountains, she was blessed with the ability to find a route through the gnarliest tangle of rocks and timber: I started letting her lead when I realized that she read terrain far better than I did. But the years have not been kind to Otter: most of the vertebrae in her backbone are now bridged and almost completely fused, crippling her rear movements. The muscles in her back legs, once thick and strong like a horse's rump, have atrophied until she's as skinny as a third world street cur.
But she's got heart. Every evening when we leave for our walk, she trots out toward the cemetery, only to be called back: I don't want her to suffer on a too strenuous or too hot hike. I want her next trip to the cemetery -- possibly the last she takes under her own power -- to be an enjoyable experience for her, and a savored memory.
Last evening at six the sky clouded: a few rumbles of thunder in the south. Radar indicated nothing: no strong storms in the area. The thick gray mat of clouds lowered the temperature and the approaching front freshened the wind. I looked at Otter: she appeared strong, confident, eager. "Want to go for a walk?" I whispered.
Watson eventually did sell his last quarter section of land: finances have a way of trumping sentiment. The larger piece -- 120 acres -- was bought by an ad exec from Billings. He's trapped it out with all of the excesses of a model vacation ranch: a huge, over-comfortable log lodge with several satellite guest cabins, an observation tower, a corral, and the requisite twelve foot log entry gate frame to mark the beginning of his driveway. He's got a prime view there, looking almost straight down into Deep Creek Canyon and the Absaroka/Beartooth Wilderness. The land has been turned into a trophy ranch, but he's built it on the flat around a curve of the mountain so despite its opulence it's virtually invisible until you are almost on it.
The forty that holds the cemetery is now owned by a guy from New York. I met him a few years back: he seemed nice enough but he had absolutely no connection to the land or the area. He'd discovered the property on the internet and bought it sight unseen.
The photo that probably swayed him was of the saddle, a grassy, wild flower strewn swale that straddles the ridge and could have been the location for the opening scene in "The Sound of Music." The guy from New York fell in love with a picture of the view from the saddle, he then bought the saddle and of course he built on the saddle, a two story monstrosity that can be seen from miles away and sneers at Frank Lloyd Wright's dictum that buildings should exist in harmony with their surroundings.
Fortunately, we will see none of the new construction from the cemetery. As we begin the steepest part of the climb --up from the saddle to the knoll -- the clouds open up. The wind is so strong that the rain doesn't fall: it sweeps. The drops are icy but light: not a storm by any stretch of the term. I'm first to the top, Trooper at my heels. I plunk down on "the rock," a three foot chunk of pink granite that someone -- Watson's wife? -- must have hauled down from the Beartooth Plateau. Trooper prances, chesting into me, licking my face: he's missed the daily visits to this place also. I realize that I lost track of Otter during the lung-draining climb up. In a panic, I glance around: at first she's nowhere in sight.
I finally locate her behind one of the midget doug firs that have sprouted up here since the larger limber pines were wiped out by bark beetles. Otter lies with her head up, alert, facing into the rain, eyes partially closed as if in ecstasy, nose raised to the wind. She's positioned herself between the two dog graves: Beloved Tanny and My Edie. Ignoring me, ignoring Trooper, Otter seems conscious only of this place and restoring her connection to it, a connection that no other being will ever duplicate or comprehend.
Otter was at the cemetery last night when the sky cleared at dusk and alpenglow lit the heavily wooded canyon of Deep Creek. She was there later, when the waxing moon swept slowly across the star-speckled sky, and the first rays of morning sun gilded the snow on Emigrant Peak, tracing the shadow of the Absarokas across Paradise Valley and the mist-defined snake of the Yellowstone River. Otter will be there in snow and wind and rain, protected by the low branches of the bushy Douglas fir tree between Beloved Tanny and My Edie. It is a good place for her to be.
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources