It slid into the Deer Lodge Valley, like twilight come too soon. When the storm first crossed the horizon I was up on the National Forest, rattling the four-wheeler along a rough two-track road that climbed through a series of meadows toward the Continental Divide.
Around here, summer storms are mostly predictable. This particular weather system had been touted for days on the radio. I heard about it in the morning on N.P.R., and then later, at lunch, on the country station. The deejays talked numbers: Eighty percent chance of lightning, twenty percent chance of rain.
I listened to the broadcasts, and I watched the world go still and quiet this morning. People talk about the calm before the storm, but this was more than calm: The Deer Lodge valley, which is normally a case study in aridity, filled up with strange, clammy air. A new haze spread through the sky, higher and whiter than the forest fire smoke that had been smudging the mountains for weeks. The weather was weird, in the archaic, darker sense of that word. I don’t know precisely what prehistoric chord was resonating in my gut, but something about the sky began to wear on me. No matter where I went, the air seemed bad. It felt stale, as though I were in a shopping mall or on an airplane instead of working on a ranch under Montana’s vast sky.
I began to wish for the storm—for rain, thunder and gusting wind. When nothing came I decided to look for respite in the high country. I loaded the four-wheeler with fifty-pound blocks of salt, told my dog, Tick, to jump up on the back, and roared uphill.
Dry Cottonwood Road heads east from the barn. It follows the twists and turns of Dry Cottonwood Creek—roughly at first, and then more precisely as stream and thoroughfare are jammed together in a steep canyon. As the gradient increased, the four-wheeler bounced over a series of deep ruts in the surface of the road.
Dry Cottonwood was the sort of drainage that remembers a hard spring rain. In almost every steep spot, the coarse granitic sand of the road had washed away and sloughed downhill into huge, fan-shaped piles. In more than a few places, these deltas reached the creek and choked it up with silt.
Out of the canyon and into the forest. I turned south at the junction, leaving the creek behind to contour around a hill toward the center of the Sand Hollow Pasture. What we call Sand Hollow is a six square mile chunk of the Beaverhead-Deer Lodge National Forest. It’s one of four massive pastures that make up the Dry Cottonwood Creek Grazing Allotment, which we share with three other ranches.
I spend a lot of time up here, certainly more than the other permitees, and probably more than the rider we hire to look after the cattle. I chase cows away from the delicate areas around creeks and set out salt to draw them toward the high, grassy parks on the south faces of these hills.
Today, I drove up to a stock tank at a place that we call Barrel Springs. The cattle were loitering there, standing indolently by the tank with mouthfuls of cud. I let Tick off the four-wheeler and supervised as he rousted out the cows and calves. Working together, we moved them up an old, steep set of wheel ruts toward fresh pasture.
We didn’t have to go far. A half-mile’s climb brought us to untouched grass. I settled the cattle there, dropped a couple blocks of salt, and called my dog. I paused at the top of the meadow, looked west and caught my first glimpse of thunderheads.
In these mountains there are two ways to react to the arrival of a storm: The first option is to hit the gas, pare your chores down to the bare essentials, and make a run for shelter. The second is to resign yourself to the possibility of lightning and a thorough, icy soaking, and watch the spectacle unfold.
I chose the latter course, and sat on a stump while the clouds swept in. As they darkened the irrigated fields and the ribbon-line of the river it seemed to me that the storm was some kind of harbinger, a hint of what was in store for the Deer Lodge Valley.
This is a landscape on the brink of drastic, sweeping changes. Sometimes, as in the case of the Superfund Cleanup along the Clark Fork River, the change will be planned and gradual. Sometimes, as in this forest full of close-set, beetle-killed trees, it will be sudden, violent and uncontrollable as fire.
From where I sat on the mountain, it was clear that this place had arrived at the tipping point: The Deer Lodge Valley was surrounded on all sides by dying lodgepole pines and bisected by a poisoned river. With the storm sliding across the sky, the valley looked like a ship in a huge wave’s shadow. It seemed inevitable that the wave would break, and soon. As I started the four-wheeler and headed downhill I thought: What matters now is how well we manage to ride it out.
Bryce Andrews is the Ranchlands Program Manager for the Clark Fork Coalition, the "Voice of the River." More information can be found at www.clarkfork.org.