Fighting the wind on a Montana camping trip

by Jeremy N. Smith

My wife does not like the wind. I know this because she says so.

"I hate the wind!" Crissie hollers, doing her best to be heard above it.

It's late June, 7 p.m., the first night of a three-day float down the Marias River in northern Montana, 40-some miles from the Canadian border. We woke today at dawn, 5:30 a.m., in a campground where we met a kind local, who shuttled us 50 minutes to our put-in. Traveling 10 miles down the river took 11 hours. Now we've spent the past 60 minutes pinning and re-pinning the first three corners of our tent.

"Hold your end down," I say, but the gale flattening chest-high reeds around us erases my words. "Down," I bellow, pointing. "I'll come around and stake it."

Crissie, kneeling, nods. She squats wide-legged on the tent floor, anchoring it to the dirt and sandy ground 50 feet from shore. Five yards behind us, branches on a stand of cottonwood trees flutter maniacally. The tree trunks creak and moan.

I scurry toward Crissie, pointed metal post in hand. Her weight shifts to secure the northwest corner flap. "Now!" I say, leaping.

Too late. The second we move, the other three corners fly up and flap away, stakes and all.

Again.

"Ow!" Crissie says. Her face, slapped hard by dirt, sand, poles and canvas, scrunches into a tight protective grimace. "Here. Take them." She pulls tent pieces from her body like magnets from a fridge, and passes them one by one to me. "I can't take one more minute," Crissie says. "I'm leaving."

Leaving? Crissie taught canoe classes and led expeditions at an outdoor camp. She's run a triathlon, worked as a lifeguard, and graduated from courses in wilderness first aid. By comparison, I faint from direct exposure to the sun and can barely operate our self-inflating bed pads. Those who know us would have predicted that if anyone had to be rescued this trip, it would be me, by my wife.

Nevertheless, she now trudges back toward the beach, her black windbreaker puffy with unbroken gusts, her brown curly hair flying high as if she's being electrocuted.

"OK!" I say cheerily. "Take a break! I'll work on it!"

We tend to think of wind power as a gentle, gradual force -- more erosion than explosion. But erosion created the Grand Canyon, and for the effects of wind I now feel a similar sense of awe. In her poetic personal history, From the Marias River to the North Pole, Bonnie Buckley Maldonado chronicles four generations of Westerners terrorized by the constant gales in this very area "blowing through their draughty house." Her great-grandfather, a local postmaster and subcollector of customs, retreated to the road. His wife, having no such escape, fell sick "from the wind," as he put it. Even death was no escape: The same air currents scattered funeral ashes. "The bones are swirled, one by one, / beneath the Northern Lights," Maldonado writes.

Another hour passes. With one hand, I hold down my baseball cap; with the other, I wrangle tent poles. My sunglasses fly off. My T-shirt lifts. I bend over, and the wind gives me a wedgie. Taking a break, I try to eat tortilla chips, but they are whisked away from the bag faster than a genie's blink. Afterward, I lean straight into the bare air and do not fall down. What blows against me tonight is invisible, endless, and all-encompassing -- closer to a deity than to any earthly element. "Wind and weather permitting," Laura Ingalls Wilder quotes her father saying instead of "God willing" in By the Shores of Silver Lake. A century after social welfare programs and technological progress have improved other hardships of prairie life -- its poverty, drought, isolation and exhaustion -- this ceaseless wind refuses to concede. It may be turbined. It will not be dammed.

At last I get the tent up. The trick, I realize, is to root it within the trees, checking first, of course, for any risk of falling branches. Later on, I find Crissie beside the canoe, crouched in a fetal ball. She holds her ears shut to stop the weather's incessant whisper. "Hon?" I touch her shoulder and recall Chicago-born Rose, the protagonist of Thomas Savage's classic psychological thriller, The Power of the Dog, set in 1920s rural Montana. "My, but there's so much wind here," Rose says. "But I hardly hear it now." Her husband proves less resilient. Hounded by "cold, dry," "howling," "everlasting," "mean" winds as well as inner demons, he commits suicide before the end of chapter two.

Crissie stands, squinting. "Let's eat, " she says.

Enduring, ultimately, means accepting nature, not overcoming it. Together, we sail; alone, we drown. Crissie and I position our mouths between the prevailing air currents and a stack of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Seconds later, we fall asleep. I dream of ancient maps, the ones in whose corners great clouds with mouths blow ships across the globe.

Jeremy N. Smith is the author of Growing a Garden City (Skyhorse Publishing).

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