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The Hawk's Nest

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Over-the-hill-itis in Montana's Swan Valley

Well it looks like my sixty-first Thanksgiving and holiday season is upon us so it is time for that list of stuff  I’m thankful for. First on the list is the fact that making lists is really boring, keeping a lot of folks from writing them; for that I’m thankful.

That pretty much takes care of my list for the year.

Another thing that happens each year at this time is birthdays for both my wife and I; for that I’m thankful.

Each year we try to go someplace just for us, someplace we both want to visit. This year we took a long weekend to the Swan Valley in Montana. Several years ago I rode my bicycle through there but Linda had never seen it. I was able to show her another beautiful place and that is always fun.

While there, a low heavy ceiling of clouds held the sun at bay and kept cleaning the area with rains. Much of the time the cover hid the jagged peaks on each side of the valley, making the few breaks that exposed the seven- to nearly ten-thousand-foot mountains, which create the high horizon for both the sunrise and the sunset, even more dazzling.  

Our plan had been to do several day hikes up the draws and over the hills at the foot of the mountains. However, we decided warm and dry was a better idea for this trip and let the Toyota do the hiking on Forest Service and logging roads for us. Still, we managed some close looks at the rock, the glacial-scraped faces of the peaks several hundred feet high. The pines, firs and larches cannot get a grip on many of the cliffs yet the gouges in them left by the ice age provides excellent habitat for the forest just below.

It was in these narrow, nearly vertical-sided gorges that our track had been carved as we ascended to nearly five thousand feet. Even in the late fall, white water cascaded through the canyon floor below us.

When there were breaks in the haze, we had expansive views of snow-covered monoliths guarding the basin below. Moisture-laden fog clung to the sides, showing only the tops of the trees, giving the woods a gauzy sense of mystery. On the bottoms it lay like rumpled angora blankets giving a softness to the severe, dramatic geography of the area. I think, at the risk of sounding like a list, I can say I’m quite thankful for the mystery of the seasons that change continually yet no season is repeated. Each year the mystery is renewed.  

When Linda and I get out in situations like this, whether in the car or walking, we both get stricken by a syndrome we can’t control. It has several names: often called over-the-hill-itis, or around-the-bend-itis. Some people who aren’t real familiar with the condition may call it “too curious for your own good” or just “lack of common sense.” Whatever you want to call it we get a serious case of it and for that I’m thankful.

Early afternoon we had checked with some locals and read some maps and knew we were coming to a fork in the road. Our intention was to turn right and head on down the loop we were on toward the highway. When we arrived at the fork it was quite plain, well marked and confirmed right was the direction we needed to take. Then Linda looked up to the left and saw a trail crossing a snow covered meadow just below the tree line; for that I’m thankful.

“I wonder if this road goes up there?” At that moment there was no curing either one of us as we headed left up the grade into the fog in search of a fix.

Coming out of the fog we were looking west to the Mission Mountains.Between was Swan Valley and somewhere down there under the mist was the cabin we called home for the trip.  

Due to the grade we were climbing each tire had to scramble for grip. One slipped, another would get a hold, so we moved forward and up slipping, gripping and grabbing over the red dirt earth until just before we started into snow when the earth turned gray. Another mystery we could not explain.  

As the tree line neared the snow was tickling the underside of the SUV, but we continued to slip, grab, slide and grip to new horizons. Someone said (I really don’t know who but we both heard it) “Did we bring tire chains?” I wasn’t sure if they were still on board, left from last year, or not. This encouraged a decision to stop and make a lunch; looking to see if we had chains filtered into my consciousness also.  So at a switchback we stopped for a bite and a look.

We had driven into a deep gorge reaching easterly close to the Bob Marshall Wilderness. On the other side of the chasm was a rock wall disfigured by chutes where avalanches had smoothed the surface and crashed down into the forests below taking everything in their path. In each one a white ribbon of water, tumbling and surging, dropped through them, allowing for the only sound we heard there that day.

We ate while appreciating where we were, then walked up the road a short distance. The sun was not visible but we knew it would be dropping behind the western wall of the Missions soon, taking any light we had with it. We both still had a nearly irresistible urge to travel on but with incredible self discipline and the confirmation there were no chains we overcame over-the-hill-itis and started down. I guess I’m thankful for that, but hope to get back up there again soon.

So after spending most of the day on back roads, in and out of the rain, passing incredible vistas and feeling the fall mountain air of a new winter as it approached, we were given yet another reason to be thankful.

That’s my list for this year. I promise not to tire you with another one until next year and for that, you can be thankful.

Happy Holidays from the Hawk’s Nest.  

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Author info

Ernie Hawks Ernie Hawks is a former theater director who has branched into the creative fields of writing and photography. He lives in a cabin in Athol with his lovely wife Linda, and feeds the birds in his spare time.

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