Even 200 years into the modern American West, it’s easy, especially for newcomers to this landscape, to feel as if the grand open spaces are a blank canvas. It can seem, standing on a hillside of sagebrush and grass, as if nothing has ever existed but the ceaseless wind and sky.
In other parts of the country, and the world, the past is present, in ancient stone structures and centuries-old communities. By comparison, vast tracts of the West seem untrammeled, especially in the springtime when the snow has melted, leaving its particularly soggy mark on the grasses and naked soil. You can watch the imprint of your own shoe fill slowly with the shallowest film of water and, when you do, it seems no shoe can ever have stepped there before.
It’s a seductive idea, that yours are the first sentient eyes to see this landscape, that your story will be its first, and that your imprint will be the one to endure.
The fact that this myth, which I sometimes find myself cherishing, isn’t true is what makes the West so intriguing. So much of the context to our modern lives is subtle, easy to miss. Yet the obscurity of the past does offer a special kind of freedom and solitude in which you can immerse yourself. You can add your own footsteps to ancient trails.
A few years ago, I found myself asking Al Wiseman, a Choteau-area Chippewa and a local historian, about the route used by a band of Indians a century ago who had come back south on foot after the U.S. Army rounded them up and shipped them by rail to Canada. (Another story involves an old Chippewa guy who told me about how he jogged the same route to get to a dance some 60 years ago, where he met his wife.) Wiseman told me details of that old path along the edge of the mountains. He knew its nearby stretches and even marked sections of it with small boulders.
In the pre-dawn hours one early July day, my brother Todd and I jogged away from his small car, parked on a wind-battered slope on the Sun River Wildlife Management Area. We intended to test the trail from there to the South Fork of the Teton River, some 30 miles or so to the north.
We jumped an irrigation ditch and continued down a hill and over a fence. We stumbled across the knee-deep Sun River, numbingly cold and fast. To our left the mountains rose abruptly, almost like a wall. To our right, the land was rough, with long, pine-covered ridges. At times, we followed a pair of wagon ruts. Other times it was a single broad track. We passed the scattered logs of disintegrated cabins and clumps of still-thriving irises. My map indicated a burial ground, which I couldn’t find. We reached a canyon called Deep Creek (the water itself was ankle deep). We paused to fill our bottles with water, filtered through a small hand-pumped purifier.
Later, the going was easy, and it seemed we had the trail nailed. Then, for the better part of an hour, we forced our way through a dense forest of jack pines. In the middle, Todd hollered about all the houses. “What houses?” I asked. Then I realized we had run into a former settlement with remnants of about seven homes. I was standing in the middle of one. It was mid-afternoon, and we had covered more than 20 miles as the crow flies.
The final 10 miles to the Teton River took us across miserable, flood-irrigated fields and a network of broad ditches separated by short, painful hills. Dirt ruts materialized at our feet, leading us to the river and the second car. I collapsed and went into younger brother mode. Todd cooked pasta with pesto and tuna fish over a tiny camp stove. I ate.
A few days later a funny thing happened. I saw distant lumps of mountains on the horizon and, surprising myself, said aloud, “I could run there.” I was alone in the car driving home. It made me laugh—my own silly bravado.
At home, sometimes, I think of those weather-beaten boards I had stepped over without noticing, and about the other places, old homesteads maybe, where irises, those tough and resourceful flowers, were all that remained.
Those homesteads couldn’t have been much more than 100 years old. The shallow wagon ruts and foot paths date much further back. With such small signals of the past, it’s no wonder we retain our blunt sense of illimitable openness. The light touch on the land amounts to a gift, an easy chance for us to hold for ourselves a persistent illusion about the possibility here of new beginnings.
Yet our mountainous and rugged landscape isn’t empty, it just feels that way. As the homogenizing forces of mass-market culture sweep across our broad and empty spaces, let’s do what we can to maintain that sense of openness.