CLAY JENKINSON: Driving The Yellowstone River Valley At The Time Of The Solstice

I was out in western Montana helping my mother get her wee Thoreavian cabin ready for the summer. We had a couple of sweet days together. She is 85 years old, still strong and autonomous, but just beginning to exhibit signs of elderliness. It bothers me to see her in even modest decline. I’m sure it bothers her much more.

Not so far east of Billings. A pitiful image of what I saw on my drive.
Not so far east of Billings. A pitiful image of what I saw on my drive.

The cabin is just two miles from the northeast gate at Yellowstone National Park. It is precisely the sort of modest cabin — droll, humble, beautiful in its simplicity — that I most admire.

Yesterday, I had to hurtle back to the center of North Dakota. I could not afford to linger. So I drove from Cooke City to Belfry, then on to Laurel, where I picked up Interstate 90 and the clearest possible path home. I stopped only in Billings, to take care of a few emails, and then in Miles City, to purchase fuel.

The Yellowstone, the Yellowstone, oh my, the Yellowstone.
The Yellowstone, the Yellowstone, oh my, the Yellowstone.

Sometimes, I listened to news talk shows on satellite radio. Sometimes I just breathed in the silence of Montana. Sometimes, I drove with the windows open. More often, I closed the windows so that I could think. I have a lot on my mind these days.

You would never think that I-94/I-90, a four-lane interstate highway designed to follow the path of least resistance across the fourth-largest state, would be beautiful, but it is. In fact, it must be one of the most beautiful highways anywhere on Earth.

Not far west of the North Dakota border you intersect the great Yellowstone River and follow it upstream all the way to Bozeman. Sometimes, it is on the north side of the freeway, sometimes the south side. Whenever I crossed the river, my heart leaped a little. It’s that great a river.

Sometimes, it runs right along the highway. Often enough, it snakes its way to the far side of its wide valley. The Yellowstone, essentially the longest undammed river in America, starts in Yellowstone National Park and disembogues into the Missouri southwest of Williston, N.D.

The Yellowstone valley is not just beautiful. It is achingly, heartbreakingly beautiful. If you stopped the car every time there was something you just had to photograph, you’d crawl along at about 15 miles per hour, on average. In eastern Montana, the river is the bluest blue you can imagine as it runs through tawny grasslands and a few pine ridges. At times, as in the photograph above, it has carved sandstone cliffs, some continuous for miles, others broken into buttes, bluffs, and breaks.

Most people deride eastern Montana as dullsville, flyover country, bland, boring, interminable. In my view, they are just wrong. They have been conditioned to think a beautiful landscape means the Grand Tetons or Glacier National Park or the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Those places are stunning in their dramatic, in some sense overstated, way.

The Great Plains are an acquired taste, but they are a taste worth taking the time to acquire. They are more subtle than Yosemite, more empty than the Great Smoky Mountains. The sky is endless. You find yourself saying, “It really is big sky country,” and then feeling a little embarrassed to succumb to a state government marketing slogan. Something about the endlessness of the plains, so much land used for so little, the human footprint so light and even tender, the sense of being swallowed up by the earth and the grass, provides a sense of satisfaction I have never experienced elsewhere, even at the summit of the Maroon Bells Wilderness south of Aspen, Colo., or on the rim of the Grand Canyon.

You have to let the Great Plains in to fall in love with their subtleties. If your world is Starbucks, the print edition of the New York Times and Whole Foods, you probably aren’t going to find the plains sufficiently satisfying. The Plains towns are basic, clunky, red and redneck. It’s country music country. Limbaugh country. It’s patriotism on your sleeve country. It’s now largely Trump country.

But however much you may object to some things about this place — and I object to dozens, some of them fundamental — it has a magical authenticity.

These are the folks you want to be around at the apocalypse or the crash. These are folks so full of unheralded integrity that their word and handshake are their bond. They are magnificent in a crisis. They work hard, play by the rules, pay their full share of taxes (grumblingly), don’t expect amenities from government, and they are rooted in the earth, the sky, and the wind. They have character.

Many ARE characters. They are egalitarian in the most democratic sense. They don’t care what you wear, where you went to college (or if you did) or how big your house is. They may be edgy about the Other in the abstract, but they are almost unbelievably respectful and friendly to individuals of any stamp from anywhere on Earth at any time.

They are unhappy with where the country is headed, but the unhappiness runs less deep than you might expect. They hate being treated like rubes and yokels by the urban, suburban, exurban; the national media; the elites. They recognize that their economic prospects have been sliding for the last two decades and that the great initiatives that America undertakes (its wars, its massive construction projects) are paid for disproportionately by them both in dollars and in lives, and they resent that they are largely forgotten Americans, or worse.

And yet when the person most condescending toward them and their style runs out of gas or has a flat tire, they will provide all the help s/he needs, and make no more than a couple of wry statements.

Whenever I spend time out in the heartland of the Great Plains I cheer up about America, about life, even about my life.

Yesterday, as I glided along in my smart(ass) car that keeps me in my lane and slows me down if I get too close to the semi-trailer truck in front of me, I found myself gazing out at Montana for whole hours at a time. I have driven that road at least 50 times in my life. I cannot remember any journey across the Yellowstone Valley of Montana that has not been so beautiful that I remarked on it for days afterward. I love that drive in summer or winter, on the windiest day in human history, or when the ground blizzard makes you grip the wheel for hundreds of miles.

But yesterday, it was as beautiful as I have ever seen it. The light was perfect. The light is always good. But yesterday, it was pure in a way I have never seen before. It was soft June light, not garish July and August light, or “winter around the corner” September light.

The cottonwood leaves are still unscarred by the aridity that is coming. The clouds were not the cotton ball cumulous so common to early summer or the lowering gray clouds that should bring a thunderstorm but don’t. The clouds were wind-wisped into the gentlest and least threatening elongations. The temperature outside the car was 74 degrees, which is as close to perfection as possible anywhere on earth. Whenever the broken prairies started to seem too familiar, I passed through a brief rise of the plains, and pine trees dotted the summits of the grass.

It was so beautiful I wanted to cry. It was so beautiful I wanted to be with the person most important to me in life. It was so beautiful I wanted to have $25,000 of camera equipment, a drone and a day 10 times longer to try to capture the quality of the light. The photo I have placed above reminds me of the magnificence I experience, but I can tell you honestly that it doesn’t more than 10 percent capture yesterday afternoon and evening. It’s a paradox.

I would give anything to have been able to take 100 photographs worthy of the eastern Montana on the last day of June 2017. And at the same time, I am glad that no photograph can capture the full essence of the Great Plains. I do and DO NOT want my best experiences mediated.

No photograph can capture the breeze, the commercial airplane’s intermittent hum from 35,000 feet. No photograph can capture the temperature and the loneliness and the fullness and the sense of wonder and the recognition that this place is so profoundly undervalued even by the people who live and work here.

At Miles City, when I stopped for gas, two teenagers in the RV next to me were raging at their father for stopping under the metal canopy of the gas station because it had cut off their viewing of the movie “The Titanic.”

As I crossed over the state line into North Dakota, and the sun set behind me, I sincerely wondered whether I would ever see Montana so beautiful again in my lifetime.

I think the answer is yes.

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