The state lines of Montana are evident not by its welcome sign, but its distinctively wide valleys surrounded by dramatic mountain ranges which encompass you much like a bowl.
There is the feeling of being somehow protected, as though nothing exists beyond the walls of the valley and life persists in a quiet state.
The stretch along the Madison River is nothing short of idyllic. Within moments of leaving semi-arid Wyoming and crowds encircling Old Faithful geyser, we were in the still stretches of Montana—the hills are dotted with cabin-style homes and then long bouts of silent landscape.
The mountains sternly cut into big sky country like shadows. It appears a Swiss alp refuge in the northern Rockies and yet, this water— so bright and blue—is called Quake Lake, short for Earthquake Lake.
In 1959, an earthquake which measured 7.5 on the Richter scale caused an 80-million ton landslide, which formed a dam on the Madison River, and thus this lake. In a single day, an entirely new terrain was created and 28 lives were lost.
The area’s beauty turns eerie as its utmost dominance is palpable.
The wide patch of brown visible in the picture above had once been blanketed in evergreens like the neighboring hillsides. It’s what has been left behind from the landslide which took place right there in that spot, in which part of a mountain slipped away at 100 miles per hour. Just across the narrow stretch of river is the visitor’s center and museum of the quake, built amidst its rocks and rubble. It’s an ominous thing to pass in our diminutive existence as we rounded the bend where horror is all but forgotten, and we crossed into the next bowl, surrounded by a new set of mountains locked in the illusion of safety once again.
For miles we drove through wide golden valleys walled by snow capped sierras. We were headed to a farm in Sheridan; population: 642; horses on the property: 2.
Had it been earlier in the season, we certainly would have taken the opportunity to check out some of the ranch stays in Montana, where you often get your own mount for the week — if you’re interested in a ride and relax vacation in Montana, we did find a few options which look great that are open in the summer months — check out this source: Montana Dude Ranchers’ Association.
We traveled through the vales and the occasional main street—including these historic streets—until we arrived to our bucolic abode in Sheridan just in time for a trip to the store and sunset.
Morning came and before I’d even had my first sip of coffee, Andrew went out with our hosts (a retired firefighter originally from San Diego and his son) plus another rancher, to save a deer. Apparently two bucks had gotten into it and were intertwined. The foursome brought water to the surviving stag and separated him from the already deceased one he’d been stuck to for what may have been several days.
After this act of kindness in the wild, it was not even 9:30am, but with my jeans and Barbour on, and Andrew having given an earful of my love for horses and years of being a rider myself before college to our hosts, I got to hop on the family’s chestnut Larry.
It was still early on Sunday and the day’s adventure awaited in the surrounding hills.
By way of ATV, my first ride on such nonetheless, we rode up a mountain side passing a serene creek and peaking through the forest brush for hiding wolves, moose and grizzlies until we reached an abandoned mine.
Parts of the mine, presumably for gold ore but it’s uncertain, were completely intact. While abandoned some time in the 1940s, Caterpillars remained bright yellow and the apparent office maintained its floral wallpaper and mid-century modern desk and chair, while all the windows had blown out.
The main building near to the mine shaft was mostly in shambles, the insulation and roofing largely spread around the premises as though violently repositioned by winds.
Like schoolchildren and the schoolchildren before us, we explored freely. And suddenly, there was thud. Smack. Boom. “What’s that?” we whispered to each other, frozen in our steps.
Thankfully it was not a grizzly bear, or there may not be this post you’re reading, but rather the wind blowing a fallen piece of the tin roof in the wind.
And so, we breathed more easily again, partaking a Three Musketeers bar and swapping stories on music and mystery. There are quite a few paranormal tales I learned about the Ruby Valley that day. Shrouded in excitement, we journeyed back down to the valley.
And I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed with this sense of liberation and presence. People from all over the world come to Montana. The Madison River is where a few notable figures including David Letterman and Ted Turner come to their ranch.
Why should it be that Montana and her tranquil state be such a moving platform? In the protective basin of big sky country, your place on Earth is all the more sensible, part of this moment in this time and you’re transcended to believe that there is no one person that is better or more capable and suddenly, there’s the feeling of empowerment. Is it the motivation to leave the calm that drives ambition or the comfort in knowing that somewhere, right now, everything is at peace and safe from the wild world we live in?
On our travels through Montana, we met people that showed up for a week and years have passed by like some tucked away Shangri La. Like in James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, do you tell the High Lama you accept near immortality in a topic hideaway or do you choose the world outside.