The Wild in their Eyes


Handsome landscapes spill in every direction.  Sage and juniper burgeon among boulders.  Rivers rollick and then meander.  Dirt roads dust the view.  Jackleg fences enclose nothing but empty.  Plateaus grip tightly to disappearing snow fields.   And in a high elevation duel, the Pioneer Mountains shoulder the Pintlers to the background.

I breathe the broadness of it all, and I smile.

We’ve come to the Big Hole area, husband, mutts and me, to putter about and do lots of nothing.  In tiny Melrose, we’ve rented a Lab-friendly cabin with a propane furnace we will certainly use, even though it’s mid-May.

The sun is sparkling but the wind is blowing like a whore.  Looks can be deceiving; it’s downright cold outside.

In the early morning, we crawl up and into the hills along Canyon Creek road, a bumpy gravel path that escorts us through ranchland and into timber.  It’s rugged country, with rocks and boulders and sheer escarpments roaring upward from the ground.  We clank along, moseying over potholes and around sharp, hairpin turns.  We creep slowly, stopping when it seems right.   The dogs alternately lope ahead of the vehicle, and then re-board to ride as cargo – heads hanging out of windows, tongues dripping.

At an elevation of 8000 feet, we break through the trees and into the Vipond, a vast, empty and high plateau stretching, in a grand gesture, to all directions.  The Labs, sensing the expanse of open land unrestricted by fences, gallop like wild ponies, running far into the distance before making wide arcs and returning to us.  Not because they must, but rather because they wish.

The wild is in their eyes, and we smile.

Oh, that all dogs could feel such joy.

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Mud Season

The mud is thick outside, ankle-deep on the Forest Service road that climbs into the hills alongside my property.  The county road fronting my home is also a mess, seemingly more liquid than solid.  And the nearby creeks, filled with melt and rain, are rolling wildly with a slur of sediment and brush.

This is springtime, mud season in my Montana valley.  During this string of damp and sunless days, I consider carefully before heading outdoors.  Because I am the beloved of two Labs, I must acknowledge that where I go, eight paws will follow.  And those paws will not step carefully around puddles and they will not avoid mud sloughs or slop.  Those paws, and the bodies they propel, will hurl toward and into great coffee colored puddles and will run inside the length of roadside ditches.  The paws and the bodies and the mud and the wet become crashing cannon balls of joy, baptized by spring and anointed with exuberance.

And yet, despite the seasonal inconvenience and unavoidable mayhem, I must venture out with the dogs.  This is the agreement we have, my Labs and me.  Outside they must go, to run and to roll, to chase and to be chased, to expend the vast reservoirs of energy that build in young and healthy dogs.  In return, they provide the intangibles that fill my heart and feed my spirit – joy each day, and love that is beyond measure.

So I dress in raingear and step into rubber boots.  I place old towels in the entryway and I barricade the doggie door.  Our pre-hike preparations have become de rigueur over the years, a reality of living far from pavement and among creeks and dirt roads and pine trees.  The outside often finds its way inside, carried on boot bottoms and paw pads.

Upon our return to the house and before the dogs stampede to their food bowls, I will need to lasso Lab necks, to straddle between my knees first one mutt and then the next.  I will towel dry hairy bodies and de-mud eight paws.  Tails will surely slap to and fro, mouths will gently gnaw my forearms and there will be half-hearted escape attempts.  Despite their protestations, the dogs enjoy getting what I term “the business,” knowing full-well that all good dogs get cookies once the toweling is complete.

But first we must venture outside and into the drizzle.  We have wet roads to walk, and damp trails to hike.  The dogs need to run, and I need to smile.

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Git along, little doggies.

The muddy road home.

Yippee Ti Yi Yo
Git along little doggies


The old cowpoke tune played through my mind as I plodded for home after a late winter hike with the mutts.

In town, winter has receded into the hills, but here in the Ninemile Valley the white stuff isn’t nearly as compliant. Our hayfields and yards and pastures remain hidden under a goodly amount of snow. In this area, winter can be a recalcitrant guest, unwilling to make a graceful exit even when the party has clearly ended.

But the warming weather and lengthening days are slowly winning, and winter is indeed fading. The south facing hillsides, bathed in sunshine, are increasingly bare. Circles beneath tree aprons are likewise clear of snow. So this morning, as I sipped my coffee and watched the day brighten, I eyed the slopes surrounding my home and I plotted. I would take the dogs and we would explore, meandering in the sunshine and walking a jagged path among the patches of bare ground. Perhaps there would be secrets to be found – antler sheds, winter kill carcasses, and maybe even a pile of fresh bear scat.

So outside we went.

After a long week spent in a subterranean, windowless office, I inhaled deeply, pulling in the bouquet of a melting season. The mushroom smell of fresh mud mingled with sweet pine and both swirled in the late morning wind. The dogs and I headed up the sloppy road, angling toward a neighbor’s hillside. Once there, we threaded our way among the trees and rocks and stumps. The Labs scattered, orbiting around me in wide arcs, tails on high alert as they abruptly moved from one scent trail to the next. We side-hilled our way upslope, moving slowly and stopping occasionally to enjoy the mountain tops, gleaming bright with snow cover. We’ve had a wallop of a winter this year, and our upper elevation snowpack is both heavy and deep.

At one point, I found an old stump, perfectly molded for my voluptuous buttocks. Lowering my winter heft into this splendidly formed sit-upon, I turned my face into the sun, closed my eyes and just listened to the prelude of springtime. Camp robbers squawked from the treetops, a red winged hawk feathered through the wind, and the dogs sloughed through patches of old snow. Quiet moments passed and then we moved forward, poking our way about with no purpose, no direction and no timetable. Eventually, we headed downhill, ducked under old fencing and made our way back to the muddy road and turned toward home.

Our foray was fruitless, and we discovered no treasures, other than the simple joy of a quiet saunter among the trees. I tucked the hike into my heart, where I know it will pay priceless dividends and prompt unconscious smiles.

Indeed, this is the best treasure of all.

Posted in March 2011 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Prepare ye the way.

This time of year, the road that rumbles past my rural Montana home is a one way ramble to nowhere. With over two feet of snow blanketing the ground, travel is restricted by the whim of our county plow operator. You can drive up the valley beyond my home for five miles – if the plow has preceded you. You’ll pass a handful of ranches before crossing the cattle guard and reaching a turnaround, marking the end of county maintenance responsibilities. This time of year, unless you’re on snow shoes, strapped into skis or astride a snow machine, you’d better stop. Drive much further and stuck you’ll surely get – like a spoon shoved into a frozen pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream. If we’ve just had a fresh snow fall, you’re in the middle of vanilla bliss. After a thaw, think mud pie.

Trail's end.

A county employee handles the plowing in the winter, and the grading when the gravel road is bare. Blades are his game and Farley is his name — and he’s both loved and cursed, depending on the condition of the road and the frequency with which you travel it.

Also, whether or not you attend Farley’s church. Really.

This time of year, I curse Farley.

Perched high above the road, Farley operates the snow plow with cold detachment. He powers the big blade with efficient speed past the few homes scattered here in the upper reaches of the valley. Piloting the bulky machine, he displays little empathy for local residents, leaving icy boulders that obliterate mailboxes and form stout barricades across driveway aprons. A slight turn of his wrist would angle the blade away from these property entrances, and enable him to sweep the snow to the opposite side of the road on his return trip down the valley. His refusal to do this is both baffling and enraging.

The love of the Lord, though, courses through Farley’s veins when he approaches properties owned by those who attend church with him. Farley slows and then adroitly veers into these driveways, lowering his blade and proceeding with surgical precision to clear snow and prepare his fellow brethren a heavenly path.

Praise Jayzus, the saved do indeed look out for each other. The rest of us are left to shovel like hell, and curse like the devil.

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Men are bathroom barbarians and there is not a female on Earth who would dispute this fact. Victims of their anatomies, they dribble and splash and produce sounds so mystifying that women on the opposite side of the door often wonder if there is an animal caged within.

And typically, there is.

When my husband steps inside the bathroom and closes the door, the explosion of sound is almost frightening. Neither the blast from a fire hose nor the concussion of ordnance can compete with the tumult of battle surrounding the rim.

According to this man, the bathroom is not a place for propriety. He asserts that whatever occurs physically within the privacy of the room is befitting the location. Decorum, he believes, is relative – and in the bathroom, non-applicable.

I beg to differ, of course.

Essential elements of some deeds regularly escape the confines of enclosed spaces. A sealed oven door, for example, cannot suppress the aroma of baking cookies.

I contend that the full effect of all bathroom activities cannot be harnessed within the walls of the room. Despite a closed door, the delicate senses of passersby can still be assaulted and the eyes of innocents can still water and sting when confronted by a bathroom blitzkrieg.

And so I plead for a modicum of dignity.

The body can be a cruel jailor, imprisoning gasses and fluids and solids despite their many protestations. When given the opportunity, these elements flee like school children at the bell – pushy and boisterous and rude, intent on being the first to reach the freedom of the outside world. And in the wake of their escape, they leave the residue of their very existence.

Which brings us full-circle: men are barbarians in the bathroom.

Weary, perhaps, of my constant lamentations, my husband has added seat lowering to his shake and zip ritual. He offers advance warning when I should steer clear of the area and he has mastered the courtesy flush. For these considerations, I am eternally grateful. We have an agreed-upon armistice, he and I, on the domestic bathroom frontline.

But at work, restroom détente has not been achieved.

My department is comprised of dank and windowless offices strung along a stark and impersonal corridor. It is a work zone filled with hard, clinical surfaces against which sounds bounce and reverberate. There has been no attempt made to decorate, soften or muffle the environment. In Feng Shui terms, the area emits Sha Chi – sharp and cold energy. By convention, individual office doors remain open and privacy is fleeting. Phone conversations, grumbling stomachs, deep sighs, the unwrapping of candy and the peeling of fragrant fruit…all individual activities are shared experiences, whether intentionally so or not.

There are two restrooms located at the end of the hallway. The walk down this gauntlet, past each individual office and to the bathrooms, is a wordless proclamation. Behind my desk, I glance up at people making the trek and despite my efforts to the contrary, I reluctantly anticipate the ruckus I know will soon commence.

I wait for the bathroom door to close. For the click of the lock.

And then…the ensuing bathroom sounds ricochet through the hard corridor like steel projectiles in a pinball machine. Coughs, grunts, commanding torrents and forceful flushes reverberate through the department. In my small office, I close my eyes and try to focus my thoughts elsewhere…to center myself in a happy place – floating upon turquoise Caribbean waters, or sliding on skis through the Montana backcountry. I try to ignore the cacophony at the end of the corridor. As the bathroom crescendo peaks and then finally quiets, I can only hope that sounds of the sink…the soap dispenser…the hand dryer…will precede the unlocking of the door and the return slog to the office.

This is not always the case, and there are some people with whom I refuse to shake hands.

Each bathroom contains a single toilet and a sink, and neither is identified as gender-specific. During my introductory trot down the corridor, this unisex arrangement caught my attention. Surely, I thought, the men used one room and women, the other – a logical and equitable arrangement befitting the professional environment.

But the toilet seat in each room was in the upright position.

I processed this disturbing visual. What of those raised seats? Perhaps because the rooms were not specifically labeled, a male worker had become disoriented? Perhaps someone had made an honest mistake?

Oh, my naiveté.

Because the male manager had decreed that the women should be “mature enough” to share bathrooms, the men watered wherever and whenever they wanted.

What crazy and obtuse universe had I entered?

Bathroom sharing, for women, has little to do with maturity. It is about tolerance. It’s about learning to grimace in silence as we lower toilet seats. It’s about side-stepping the yellow dribbles on the tile floor and pre-flushing the bowl. It’s about mastering, by necessity, the squat-and-hover technique. For while men may believe their aim is flawless, ask any woman. Men can write their names in the snow, but they cannot hit the donut hole.

Eventually, the women learned the location of a more remote bathroom…this one signed as a proper ladies room. We were thrilled by the more obscure setting, which offered blissful privacy and quietude. Through a closed door and at the end of an abandoned foyer, this restroom was rarely used and became the favored destination.

Until the reverse-flush episode.

I was not the victim of this plumbing nightmare, and I give thanks for this snippet of fortuitous timing. The female co-worker who flushed, but did not duck, went home for the remainder of the day.

Like the cavalry, maintenance arrived, and did important things with large wrenches. After much cursing and sweating, the clanging ended. The plumbers stood, hoisted their workpants up and into place, and announced that flushing could resume.

We looked at the maintenance cadre, at the offending toilet, and then at each other. Unconvinced, our hesitancy spoke volumes. Soundly spooked, we reluctantly abandoned both our private bathroom and our dreams of personal dignity. As time passed, we discussed the episode in hushed and horrified tones. We searched for bathroom privacy in the adjacent building of the organization, but found nothing. We considered the gas station down the street. We attempted a minor revolution and posted one of the unisex bathrooms with a LADIES sign, which the manager promptly snatched, ripped and tossed.

Eventually, we simply reduced our fluid intake. The ladies avoided both coffee and the water cooler. We survived the workday in a semi-dehydrated state. We adjusted and we endured and we tolerated.

Because we are women.

We give birth in rice paddies and we share bathrooms with barbarians.

Posted in January 2011 | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Nobody beats the Whiz.

Hippyk is feeling slightly ill at the moment.

It’s little wonder, really, since I’ve consumed nothing but slop for the past week. I’ve fallen off the healthy eating wagon with a solid thud, and I’m paying the price. I have one additional day of sludge consumption, and then I return to organic greens, abundant veggies and fruits, Alaskan salmon and wild Montana game meats. Believe it or not, I’m no sugar freak and I rare buy junk food.

Which is why I am so completely horrified by my behavior this past week.

My employer sent me across the country to Philadelphia where I promptly caved to the temptation of Philly cheesesteak. With Cheez Whiz.

And you gotta have the Whiz.

For an entire week, I tried to withstand the cheesesteak Kavorka and failed miserably, day after day. My final whimper of defeat occurred in the Denver airport on my way home where, during a lengthy layover, I succumbed yet again to cheesesteak. I was lured into the Steak Escape in the B concourse food court by a tantalizingly visual menu depicting cheesesteak nirvana. Unfortunately, this final sandwich was a horror of gummy bread, grainy steak and – gasp – no Whiz!

Still – and this is the private disgrace I cannot escape – I ate the thing in its entirety. It filled my belly with the warm comfort of fast food goo. It was most assuredly no Philly cheesesteak, not by a long shot. Yet I continued to chew, bite after bite, until all seven inches were gone and only a pathetic dusting of crumbs littered my shirt.

Unfortunately, this humiliating fall into the abyss of culinary shame will continue through tomorrow. I have a serious football game to watch, and I plan to slide my munificence into a pair of roomy sweat pants and settle in front of the TV. I’ll enjoy my favorite white trash meal while my beloved Packers prance about in their tight uniforms and slap buttocks in the manly way that only beefy, house-sized athletes can. While the team runs and throws and tackles and sweats, I will dip a succession of Ruffles potato chips into a bowl of Chunky clam chowder, and wash the swill down my gullet with cold milk. I dearly love this chip ‘n chowda combo, which became my go-to meal during an era of unfortunate poverty, and it continues to entice me almost thirty years later.

Once my Packers win that football game, I plan to awaken from this lengthy carb coma. For we are what we eat, and while I may be a Cheesehead, Hippyk is not a cheesesteak.

Posted in January 2011 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Home. Alone.

I’m usually pleased as punch to find myself alone. I am my own best company, and there are few people with whom I’d rather be. If that sounds ostentatious, so be it. I like myself and when I am in my own fine company, I’m never bored.

I can, in fact, sit in an empty room and be totally fine. I’ve tried this numerous times and have never been disappointed. Time passes quickly. My mind wanders and I think about many varied and trivial things, and while none of these constitutes an epiphany, the incredible flow and flavor of the minutia keeps me awake and alert.

In the empty room, I look up. Cracks in the ceiling spider in a million directions and remind me of tire spokes and my thoughts turn to bicycling and travel and where would I like to go and how will I fund the trip?

My tongue traces the contour of my teeth and then I’m in the dentist’s office, a little shop of horrors, and I’m recalling how much I sweat when they scrape and clean the plaque I’ve accumulated, and what about the assistant who saw me dripping and said, quite pointedly, “I didn’t realize it was so hot in here.”

I wish I could bottle and sell my thoughts, but first I’d have to find customers who like themselves as much as I like me, and who value my thoughts for the jewels that they are.

My current alone, though, is one that I don’t particularly savor. I am not only without man, I am also without beast. The two hairy Labs who find me endlessly entertaining are at the kennel. I delivered them just this afternoon, and there they’ll remain for five days until my husband returns home and retrieves them. We have separate travel obligations, he and I, and the mutts are temporary orphans.

My flight leaves in the morning, which means I have an evening without two curs sprawled on the couch, or lounging on the floor near the woodstove. I am missing two wet noses to pull when I walk past, and minus four eyes tracing my every movement.

But I’m fine, you see, because I have me. And me is very good company.

Posted in January 2011 | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Negative Temps, Positive Karma

Sometimes the Ninemile Valley, my Montana sweet spot, grabs me by the shoulders and gives me a solid shake.

“Wake up!” she shouts.  “Look around!”

On this first day of 2011, I did just that.

McCormick Peak, my backyard sentry.

An icy-blue sky welcomed the new year and with the thermometer registering -3 degrees, we had to get outside.  A gleaming white day with a recent, brilliant snowfall beckoned us like a siren we couldn’t resist.  The dogs leapt and pranced as I layered and bundled.  With tails wagging wildly, slapping and bruising my shins, I hurried into my boots and jacket and mittens.  We tumbled out of the backdoor and off the deck and into the snow. 

Welcome, 2011!

That first deep breath was like a gulp of ice water…fresh and crisp and sharp.  We opted for the main road, snow packed and clear and bright with sunshine.  A winter meander, I knew, would bring good karma for the coming months.  On this quiet and frigid day, only an occasional truck passed.  We ambled up valley, drinking in the winter landscape and examining fresh tracks in the snow.

It never gets old, living in rural Montana.  Weather and subtle light and seasons weave with trees and mountains, reminding Ninemile residents that our quota of luck ran out the day we moved to the valley.  The rest is simply a bonus, which is how I feel each day I wake and look out the window.

Ninemile Creek, the valley namesake.

Posted in January 2011 | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Send condolences. I’m hired.

I loved being unemployed, and I don’t feel guilty saying that, either.

 Those wonderful ten months, that endless array of empty days and luxurious naps, those quiet and uninterrupted afternoons, they were an interlude of bliss. The sudden departure from the frenetic pace of the working world was like leaving a loud and crowded holiday house party, and stepping outside into the muffled silence of a night time snowfall, the stillness a balm to ears ringing from clinking glasses, loud conversation and background music.

I had ten months of joy, a palliative interlude during which my life slowed, my needs lessened and my heart soared. Here in my rural valley, far removed from office din, I embraced the joy of nothingness.

My ego loosened its grip, and I recognized that having a professional identity was less important than the freedom to amble at will, and sprawl on a whim. I dressed in old fleece pants and sweatshirts with dinner stains, and I wore these items for days on end. Who cared? Who saw?

When the snow piled on the driveway and decks, it was no matter. Shoveling and clearing paths took time, and I had plenty of it. I stopped mid-task to throw snowballs for the dogs. I swooped huge shovel-loads of snow skyward, and smiled as my tall Lab leapt into the graceful shower of shimmering white. When treacherous conditions plagued the highways and commuting was deemed horrific, I simply lowered myself into the couch with a delicious book. The woodstove popped and snapped, and the dogs snored at my feet.

But now it’s all changed. I stumbled onto a job with wonderful prospects, fine benefits, good pay. Bi-weekly paychecks are auto-deposited into my account. I’m purposefully contributing to my 401k. I’m behind a desk and tapping a keyboard, behaving appropriately and observing office politics.

And yet there’s no joy in Mudville. I pine away for my old life, whiling away the days dressed in a slovenly manner my mother would find disappointing. I miss the freedom, the slowness, the bliss.

I’d enjoy condolences, but I expect none. The world worships the gainfully employed, and that I now am.

Posted in December 2010 | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Goodbyes and Hillsides

I’d been in a comatose nap, stretched on the downstairs sofa with one dog curled at my feet and the other flopped atop me like a giant, hairy quilt.  It was a dark and cold evening in late October, and the valley outside my home was quiet.  Inside, the corner woodstove popped and cracked and tossed flickers of firelight around the room. 

There was a hard rap on the outside door.

I remember rubbing the back of my hand across my mouth.  I’d been drooling, which I sometimes do during dreams.

We tumbled off the couch, the dogs and me, all legs and paws and growls.  When I opened the door we found a neighbor standing on the porch.

“Sorry to bother you,” Doug said, “but I saw your light.” 

Doug and his wife live a few miles up the road in a comfortable home perched on a wooded slope.   They grew up in the valley together and had the pleasure of a hardscrabble childhood with the luxury of not knowing any better.  They had millions of acres of forest and creeks to explore and a youth filled with adventures that today’s kids have replaced with video games.

“I thought you should know,” he continued.  “Ruben died today.”

Ruben is Doug’s father-in-law, Tammy’s dad, Patty’s husband and Button’s master. 

We have a repertoire of daily hiking routes that wind across hillsides, down draws and along overgrown logging roads.  Piecing together a menagerie of routes gives us a variety of options when we exercise the dogs.  Over the years we’ve ended our forays into the woods along a well traveled deer trail that leads down a gentle slope to a salt lick behind Ruben’s woodshed.  The woodshed contains the outhouse and is a quick hop from Ruben’s hand-built log cabin.  The cabin, directly across the Forest Service road from our property, is Ruben’s escape from his home – which is in the small town fifteen miles distant.

It’s been a year now since he died on a steep hillside in the sunshine of a brilliant October day.  While four-wheeling with a friend, he lost control of the ATV and slid downhill amid avalanching scree.   I think if he could have chosen his death, he wouldn’t have died any differently. 

Our daily downhill.

 I think of him when I cross through his property with the dogs.  Sometimes I sit on his hillside, looking down at the log buildings and the rusted mining and woodcutting implements that fill the pockets of his land.  I see game trails cutting seams through the grass,  countour lines in the earth.  Sometimes I close my eyes, stand in place and simply listen.  I know what I expect to hear, and the sounds are familiar.  The pine trees swish in the wind, rustling like silk petticoats.  Birds chatter with an intensity that clearly says they mean to be heard.  A squirrel dashes up a tree, clicking the tree bark as it scurries away from one of the dogs.  The creek courses through the valley, heading toward the bigger waters of the Clark Fork River.  An old pickup clatters down the dirt road.  This forest is content and its sounds are comfortable, and I wonder if Ruben is somehow here, carried perhaps on a glint of sunlight or on the breezes that swirl among the branches and then reach down to dift among the fallen leaves.  Is he here, on this hillside and among his handiwork below?

I like to believe that he is. 

And I like to believe that I’ll be here, walking these familiar trails, even when I’m gone.

Ruben's handiwork.

Posted in November 2010 | Tagged , , , , , ,