A girl, and a place... on the Scenic Route
A few miles east of Trout Creek, Montana, White Pine Cemetery lies draped across a little, green hillock on the south side of the road. Lilacs bloom at the crest of the rise and rows of granite and marble markers lay on the land as if they grew there, which maybe they did, in a sense. It is a green and quiet place, open all around to the mountains on both sides of the river, the Cabinets on the north, Bitterroots on the south, stretching out of sight east and west. Montana’s sky is as big there as it is anywhere west of the Continental Divide.
The first time I stopped at White Pine Cemetery was at least ten years ago, and on that visit, I came upon the resting place of a girl named Montana. Montana is laid beside her papa, I would guess. They share the same last name. He outlived her by five years, and I wonder if he might have died of a broken heart, having lost his daughter.
Montana was 12 when they put her in the ground, and I catch myself mourning her, though I don’t know much about her; just that she grew up at Trout Creek and died a few years before I was born. Her dad was just 55 when he left his wife to live 17 years by herself. She is buried on the other side of him, the sunset side, downstream.
The headstones are matching gray marble, and each has the name of the dead, the years of their birth and dying and a saying carved into it. Montana’s says, “The rose still grows beyond the wall;” her father’s, “Till we meet again;” and her mother’s, “Together again … music in heaven.”
Down the road a ways, a driveway turns up the hill to the second bench above the river, to an old farm set between those same mountain ranges I can see sitting beside Montana’s resting place at White Pine.
Narcissus are in bloom along the top of the hill at the picnic ground and at the edge of the yard north of the old folks’ house. They are gone now, too, two and three decades each, and what they have done is not so evident any more. Some of their buildings are missing and the fences that used to divide the known world into imaginary kingdoms for their grandkids are gone.
The front yard (Or was it the back? We could never agree.) is growing up to hemlock and grand fir in the shade of the house he built for them out of larch and cedar fire-killed and left standing in 1910. A sweetbrier stands thorny guard beside a near-dead old elm they brought as a whip from Kansas in 1917, but in the northwest corner of the yard, two other trees the old folks planted still flourish: a huge old spruce and a black walnut. A yellow cherry blooms at the southwest corner of the house and the ancient orchard still manages to blossom and bear a little every year.
When my father was new here, and not liking it much, he took a walk one cold winter night with the old man who built the house up the hill, his father-in-law. The two of them hauled a half-ton of grain up that road to the second bench above the river, 200 pounds at a time, on a sled, after the pickup wouldn’t make it up the hill on the icy road. At one point, the two of them stopped to “blow,” out in the lane that ran from the top of the hill to the barn. It was a blue-black, cold-ass February night and every star God made for our quadrant of the sky was sparkling in the void. Standing there, that night, Dad came to his Montana conversion. As he told it, he looked up and thought to himself, “Hell, this ain’t so bad.”
And, it’s still not. Never am I so content as when I look through the windshield of my pickup and see the home range rise into view, those same mountains I looked at through the narcissus in the front yard of the house up the hill when I was more comfortable on all fours than on my hind legs.
I visited Montana at White Pine today, and tonight, I took a walk around that old house up the hill, then wandered home to the spot my folks lived, where I live still. Venus burns in the sky, and the moon is just beginning to turn his face to us. If Venus sights through the horns of the moon tonight, she’ll find Mars, and I always wondered what would happen when Venus found Mars.
Maybe I’ll stay up and watch, as I have watched the sky of this place for all of my life. It was sighting along the edge of the roof of that house up the hill at the direction of the man that built it that I first found the North Star, and in the living room of that house, we watched the first man step onto the moon, thirty short years ago.
When you live somewhere forty-plus years, it becomes part of you and you become part of it, like the markers following the curve of the land at White Pine, where the girl Montana lies.
I mourn Montana for her promise unfulfilled, and because I never knew her, and I wonder. Would she be moved off somewhere else, or here, with family all around her, grown into this place? I guess that’s how she is now, when I stop and think about it.
I wonder who she would be by now, if she wasn’t asleep at White Pine. If she was anything like the place she was named for, she would be beautiful and a little wild, and she would love the sky.