In mid-August, we spent the better part of a week in the Big Sky country of north central Montana. The place we visit each summer is a cattle ranch tucked into the rolling low mountains of the Bear’s Paw range. We stay in one of three lone houses grouped along Eagle Creek, twenty miles by gravel road from the nearest town, a whistle-stop whose population has dwindled over the past decade. It’s a place of few people and few cars beneath a quantity of sky, clear and fine in late summer, that provides an arena for the sounds of magpies singing and the wind weaving through long-needled pines, of crickets at twilight and coyote pups yipping to the stars after dark.
I try to run every day we’re there. My route is the same: I head out the drive to the main gravel road and north into the mountains - a mile to the volcanic outcropping we call Red Rock and beyond along a slow climb as far as I feel like going, then an easy downhill jog on the way back. One day I scared a big red-tailed hawk from a stand of aspen. The bird soared, circled and disappeared. As I returned, the same bird keened at me from a safer perch.
This is the kind of place where it’s easy to lose touch with the world and one’s regular life. There is so much silence in between the soughing of the wind and the twittering of birds. This is a land whose definition lies along the edges of hills and ridges, some bare and bone-dry, others dark and bristled with pines. In the evening as the light fades to the west, the silhouettes of single trees sharpen to a point of painful beauty.
Clouds are events, singular in appearance and character, subjects on a canvas of wide blue. One night as we walked after dinner, I pivoted to view the sky. It changed character in every direction: to the south stood dark clouds and gray sheaths of rain; the west was blanketed in lumpy gray; to the north, a blaze of open sunlight, and to the east lay a quiet space, a pale blue window framed in bright cumulus. I looked through it and felt something rare and nearly foreign to me, these days: hope. As if that window opened to a lighter land of unsullied promise and moral clarity. I realized how burdened I must feel most of the time, anxious about the state of the earth and suffused in a wash of ineffectuality.
In these far reaches of the country, global warming seems like a story. At the Ranch, they burn their garbage and drive large vehicles. There is no recycling and no local produce at the store in town. Yet life steps lightly. With so few people scattered amid miles and miles of mountains and rangeland, the human footprint is narrow.
Sometimes I feel so ashamed of our nation’s habits that I long to move to a progressive country that has its political and environmental head on straight. Short of doing this, maybe I’d simply move to the Ranch and there live as frugally as Yeats or Thoreau. I would hang my laundry in the fine dry air, conduct great campaigns for change from the cockpit of my laptop and flourish from the expansion of my psyche into the space and silence all around.