We celebrated my eighth birthday on the day of a pack race. The competition was a convivial affair put on by the Sweet Grass County Chamber of Commerce. To win the glory and the prize, a rifle valued at $500, the entrants had to ride across seven miles of rough country, leading horses or mules loaded with three 50-pound sacks of horse pellets, known as “cake,” and a dozen raw eggs. Contestants were allowed to keep both the cake and eggs after the race ended, but time penalties were levied for every broken shell.
The course edged around the valley that held our vacation cabin. Situated at the edge of the Beartooths, a range that saws across southern Montana, the place was made for scenic calendars. Shining flecks of fools’ gold stud the rocks. Flowers grow thick enough to paint hillsides. The mountains draw so close the morning sun comes late, even at midsummer. Some of the peaks have no names. Some may never have been climbed.
The air always smells better there, sweetened by waist-deep grasses, sharpened by weather that gathers in minutes and bursts out of drainages, pelting the ground with hail or throwing lightning around. My parents never took the mountains lightly, but we were kids; what did we know? All we saw was the green, so different from our house on the brittle-dry plains, where everything bears thorns.
I didn’t expect a party, not one with other kids. The crowd I went to school with favored makeup and designer jeans. I sported a coonskin cap all summer long. In the mountains, I would slip away from my family, ducking beneath quaking aspen and three hundred year old Douglas firs until I reached the stream where I was building a shelter out of driftwood in the half-articulated hope that I could one day move in, escaping everything and everyone that haunted me.
I’d guess that my mother built the cabin from a similar impulse. In the mountains, it was easy to pretend that we were surrounded by wilderness, somewhere with no history but the stories each of us would write.
So I was happy enough to have my birthday at the cabin, and was even willing to spend part of the day watching the race. I was less pleased to include my grandparents, up from Denver for the week. Children did not hold their interest for long, and their attention, when it came, always slightly alarmed me. They belonged firmly to the generation that sipped dry cocktails and danced every weekend, that sent their kids outside to roam in Darwinian packs while the women cleaned in nylons and heels and the men drove the car to work. They were all legs and shadows, tall strangers in doorways.
Mom fixed steaks for dinner, and cake made from a Betty Crocker mix, smothered as always with chocolate frosting. Afterward, I opened a few presents. The best was a plush My Little Pony the size of a cat, with a lurid turquoise hide and a mane and tail the color of a Pepto-Bismol bottle. It was resplendent.
I had to leave my new stuffed horse behind when we piled into a truck and lurched up the rutted road. Clouds of dust billowed from the tires and hung suspended in the air, tracing our passage.
We planned to watch the race from a way station in the course, near a cluster of buildings known as Clark’s cabins. They sit on top of the bench that rises above our place, near the flank of one of the highest mountains. The story was that the cabins had originally belonged to a family of homesteaders. God knows what they grew up there; it’s too high, dry, and cold for most crops. Whatever it was, the woman undoubtedly had the worst of it, which isn’t feminism talking but plain truth. If there was planting or harvesting or branding or calving, she’d be in on that, plus meals and clothes and water and wood and the brutal round of chores that never really got done because the same dishes stared at you the next morning, just as dirty, the stove just as cold, the water edged with ice. The husband would take a pack train down to Big Timber or Livingston, days away, to sell or buy stock or lay in supplies. The wife, who had no doubt grown up in a town surrounded by people, stayed at home on the plateau with no one around except for an endless swarm of children, and wind that keened or blustered or breathed or wailed but never stopped. People said the kids were so wild that they rode bareback naked, though as someone who had been on her share of horses, I was skeptical of the naked part. But something must have gotten to their mother, because she seized a knife one day—or was it an ax?—and went after them. One of them grabbed the baby and they fled.
We met one of the old homesteader kids once when he (now an old man) came to the valley to look around. He told us that he always walked to school, rather than ride, since one section of the route was so steep that “you could beat a horse up it.” I knew the hill, sheer enough that you could reach out and touch the sod while standing upright. It was friable ground that broke and shifted underfoot. He and his brothers attended just for the three months of summer, traveling miles each way to sit in a one-room schoolhouse with other ranch kids as unruly as they. Mom told us afterwards that she nearly asked him about the crazy woman, realizing only later that she might’ve been his mother.
Once the pickup disgorged us, my grandmother settled into a seat on the jackleg fence. She was a little fuzzy from the hooch she’d stashed in her suitcase, though nothing like how she would’ve been in Denver. Her voice, always husky from the cigarettes, was even thicker, and her throat must have burned, eaten away by the gin she drank straight, in a highball glass filled to the brim and camouflaged with a tinge of orange juice. Everybody drank back then, or everybody they ran with, though not everybody drank surreptitiously all day until they were someone else, someplace else, entirely.
My grandmother, or B.B., as she had us call her (so as not to seem old), had been born into one of the first families of Denver. A generation or two past the frontier days, that meant, in addition to gowns and society papers, rides above tree line where lightning descended in blue balls from an irate sky, and (in B.B.’s case, at least) shooting out the streetlights with a .22 when they troubled her mother’s sleep. A contradiction in a society of contradictions, her life was defined by what it wasn’t. A debutant without wealth, a bohemian captured by bourgeois concerns, an artist with no outlet, she tried to wrestle my mother into bobby socks and cotillion steps, my mother who wore jeans and found dogs and horses better company than nearly all people. They did not get along, especially when my mother refused to overlook her drinking. At the dinner table, Mom would point out the dropped threads of conversation, her mother’s strange humming, her looping, disjointed speech. In return, B.B. would lay into Mom with a surgeon’s skill, peeling back the skin with exquisite delicacy. When Mom reached college, my grandfather suggested that she stop coming home.
B.B. loved our cabin, though. She and my mother built a kind of truce there, riding across meadows in grass so high it brushed their stirrups, scanning for wildlife and attentive to the animals beneath them. They were always a little easier together after those rides. Maybe it was the way you can lose yourself in the synergy of motion. Maybe it was just that the cabin always felt like a place apart, where life’s rules slackened.
I bring my own children there every year or two. I would like to show them the beaver ponds where my sister and I floated on rubber rafts, the vernal pools where we caught frogs, the hillside, hoary with cascades of beard lichen, where I would sit and think, but those places are gone.
The year before my son was born, lightning struck a stand of lodgepole pine a few days’ ride into the mountains. No one lives that far in, and there are no roads, so the Forest Service decided to let it burn. It was hot that summer, with humidity levels in the single digits. When the wind picked up, the front came roaring down the drainage. People covered the old cabins with foil but by then there were rotating smoke columns 30,000 feet high that generated their own lightning. The whole valley would’ve burned but for a freak shift in the wind that pushed the flames back onto themselves.
Even so, it’s a different place now from the one I knew. The fire swallowed the pools and the forest they grew in, leaving endless gleaming charcoal trunks. Bark beetles have invaded what didn’t burn, and the river has flexed, changing course.
I shouldn’t mourn. Much of the West evolved in symbiosis with fire. Lodgepole cones are sealed with resin that must be seared away before they can release their seeds, ensuring that the new generation grows only from the ashes of the old.
The dense pine stands that once cloaked whole hillsides have given way to aspen the same age as my son. Each summer my husband and I mark their growth by our own bodies: knee, waist, shoulder. Now they are above our heads. When my children think of these mountains, they will not remember the creaking dim conifer forests, but billowing leaves, their green brilliant against the old, charred trunks. But aspen are just the first step in the ecological succession; quick growing, quickly crowded out. My grandchildren or great-grandchildren will see something different: Douglas fir, or lodgepole again, readying itself for fire.
For now, my kids regard the burn scars and the frog-rich muck of the river bottom with equal solemnity. This year we spooked the local mules by setting off firecrackers. Later, I knocked a stick against the one my daughter held, describing to her the art of fencing, teaching her how to fight.
We start our hikes in the same place the race began. The contestants were given five minutes to bring up their animals and another ten to load them with the cargo. The route ran up a long, steep ridge—one I always feared tumbling off if my horse put a foot wrong—over the plateau, and down an even steeper grade into the next drainage. When they reached Clark’s cabins, the packers had to stop for a vet check, unsaddling the horses and mules and waiting until the beasts’ heart rates returned to an acceptable threshold.
No one took the contestants’ pulses as they heaved fifty-pound sacks of crumbling cake to the ground—but gently, so as not to crack the eggs—and slipped the saddles off, panting as the vet ran the stethoscope over the animals’ chests.
B.B. watched the medical equipment flash in the sunlight. She had been to the doctor, received her warning, but she couldn’t conceive of how she would go about quitting. In just over a year, she would be dead.
One after another, the contestants struggled into view. The horses were breathing hard, sweat darkening their tack. The saddle leathers were so slicked by use that you could no longer see the flowers and curlicues tooled into their sides.
We watched the bags, so hastily packed below, swing off for inspection: the weight of cake, the occasional resilience of eggs. The examination, a frenzy of reloading, and they disappeared beyond the rise.
The wind murmured to itself. My grandfather made some acerbic comment—his humor was always barbed—and my sister, the artist, admired the patterns the lather made across the horses’ hides. As the beasts strained forward, ears pinned, nostrils flared, I thought of my new plush pony, with its bright columnar immobile legs. And none of us thought much at all about the woman who had cried there, or screamed, or sworn as the wind blew and her children grew around her into people she did not recognize, into Westerners. You don’t dwell much on these stories around here.
Erin Ruble’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Green Mountains Review, Midway Journal, Tahoma Literary Review, The Tishman Review, and elsewhere. A native of Montana, she now lives in Vermont with her husband and children. You can find her at erinruble.wordpress.com.