Emerging darkly from the petrified air, a wooden plaque carved onto Smokey The Bear warned fire danger was “extremely dry, extremely high.” No campfires, no grills, no cigarettes, no huckleberries under the desiccating pines of Northwestern Montana. Grandma had texted (expertly, with many emojii) “we can’t see our mountains!” The drive up highway 83 this year, approaching our mountain refuge, was brimming with smoke. Flowing downwind from blazes in Idaho and Washington, the roil blotted out Montana’s Big Sky, tainted the Sun and Moon with toxic orange, and sent Glacier Park road-to-the-sunners scrambling back to the drawing board, travel guides and gas station free attraction brochure stands.
I remarked how strikingly eerie the conditions rendered that familiar roadway and forest. All the years we traveled this path seemed, in contrast, to be disinvolved by the tense smoke vignettes now framing each treasured landmark along our way. In the final two miles of the approach, highway 83 straightens suddenly dividing the timber, and the road’s horizon is flanked by rows of sentinel-like pines, creating a “gateway” effect. Now dramatized by the haze, the alpine gate reflected oblivion, passing into a fog of nothing or blindness.
As a child, our family year revolved around this place of “Fjellhytte,” Norwegian for “mountain home.” Through upheavals and the changes of growing up, the one annual constant was our two-day pilgrimage to this heirloom refuge tucked between the Mission and the Swan ranges of the Rocky Mountains. We hiked esoteric trails, bushwacked at times. We caught our limit of fish and ate them same-day, savoring the eyes and cheeks. We hunted huckleberries, thimbleberries, gooseberries, and Bigfork cherries. We counted hummingbirds, deer, turkeys, bats, elk, and told stories of bears, mountain lions, and other impossible monsters in the woods.
As a nearly-thirty-but-still-kind-of-kid, the illusion of gravity has run its course. Our tight yearly circle has broken – journeys to the mountain retreat became sporadic, and the ritual has come to nostalgia, more ephemeral, more imbued with a distinct quality of transition. In the smog of 110 wildfires, there is a new illusion, a premonition of distortion, the turning of a page. Change is omnipresent – it’s in the developments on the highway, the brittle cracking of the yard, the weak dribble of our creek, and in the aging faces of my family, my own face.
Maybe the trees held onto our words, somehow recorded in their rings the traces our younger selves. This summer of smoke we might have reached out to grasp them, sublimated, freed from scorched bark in the air around us. There will be a season of blowing away, unbound, in the inevitable turning-over tide of time, which consumes everything.