“For centuries, highways had been deceiving us. We were like that queen who determined to move among her subjects so that she might learn for herself whether or not they rejoiced in her reign. Her courtiers took advantage of her innocence to garland the road she traveled and set dancers in her path. Led forward of their halter, she saw nothing of her kingdom and could not know that over the countryside the famished were cursing her.
Even so have we been making our way along the winding roads. Road avoid the barren lands, the rocks, the sands. They shape themselves to man’s needs and run from stream to stream. They lead the farmer from his barns to his wheatfields, receive at the thresholds of stables the sleepy cattle and pour them forth at dawn into meadows of alfalfa. They join village to village, for between villages marriages are made.
And even when a road hazards its way over the desert, you will see it make a thousand detours to take its pleasure at the oases. Thus, led astray by the divagations of roads, as by other indulgent fictions, having in the course of our travels skirted so many well-watered lands, so many orchards, so many meadows, we have from the beginning of time embellished the picture of our prison. We have elected to believe that our planet was merciful and fruitful.”
-Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Wind, Sand, and Stars Familiarity is a danger. Friday evening I left home knowing where I would park and how long it would take to get there, and left the trailhead in the late daylight 24 hours before the solstice knowing, to within five minutes, how long I’d walk before camp. The most unexpected thing about the next morning was being woken up, very early and yet still in the light, by a snowshoe hare hopping slowly over gravel 10 feet from my ears. I told the hare it was fortunate I had left all shotguns at home before turning over and sleeping for another hour.
The miles that day were dusty, full of hardpacked dirt and gravel which poked me through my thin, old shoes. I sweated as the sun rose, broken barely every hour by small high clouds moving slowly. I stopped at choice streams to rinse my head, soak my hat and bandana, and fill and drink my bottle from water I did not care to treat for safety. My goal for the day was not short, and in spite of however many trips in the past five years still mistook one butte for another and though I was three miles closer. And for all that the walking still felt effortless. On days like that one I could hike for the rest of my life and hardly need to eat again. That night I floated, fished, floated, fished some more, dragged two trout up into the rocks and partially decapitated them with a rock, for dinner, and kept floating. Every bend, wave, run, and pink-red cobble was memory trickling up my legs like spiders. I camped in a new spot, but only new because I’d floated past it last year, twice, with the idea that it’d get good early morning light and had a long flat gravel bar with plenty of firewood. I gutted fish with a rescue knife, wrapped them in foil, drenched them in salt and oil, and listened the the flesh crackle and smelled the skin burn under the influence of cottonwood and pine sticks, baked crisp and clean, burning under snows, floods, and the long late spring sun.
Twelve hours later I was 10 miles downriver, huddled in the lee of a limestone pinnacle reached via a waist deep wade, trying to keep the shadow my rod away from trout 15 feet deep when another packrafter came past.
“How far is the take out?”
And she was gone.
I casted for another few minutes, my too light streamer impotent against the current and against fish hiding deep from the chilly morning, before a hasty wade and stuffing everything back into my pack. Hurried paddling revealed the take out two big bends further, and the packrafter standing on cobbles still getting her gear in order.
J works for the Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation, and this is the first time she’s traveled from one side of the place to another, starting south at the North Fork Blackfoot trailhead five days ago with her friend. She’s a paddler but rented this packraft, and is in proper awe of seeing the most brilliant boat in action for the first time. We make the few miles back to the cars in short minutes, chatting all the while, and I’m so thankful for this pure conduit back to my own beginner’s mind that I don’t want to leave, even when the beers are empty and we’re standing around the parking lot with flies covering our legs and the bouquet of horse shit heavy in the air. The sentence I cut off the head of Saint-Ex’s first paragraph is “The airplane has unveiled for us the true face of the earth.” I have no doubt he was correct, but that did not contribute to the sense of decorum which was the only thing holding me back from mooning the five Piper Cubs which buzzed the South Fork in formation, 200 feet up, mid-Saturday afternoon.
It’s a joy that the South Fork of the Flathead exists, and it’s a small miracle the road stops at the N Fork Blackfoot and Meadow Creek and that Mr. Marshall and those less famous were able to have it designated a primitive area, back before Wilderness existed in law. There’s nothing separating this valley from many others, like the main Blackfoot, Swan, or North Fork, nearby, other than that this one is more beautiful, doesn’t have a road up it, and has never been logged. The most accessible revelation from my first trip down this river five years ago was that this was in fact what a never-logged western Montana landscape looks like, and while I’ve learned many more things since then that thought has grown no less precious.
I will always go back.