I was visiting Choteau, Mont., with my friend, Bill, when a cheery checkout clerk said, "I bet you're here for the geese." Our blank looks confirmed our out-of-towner status. "Snow geese," she said. "They're migrating north again now."
She told us how plump Arctic birds gather by the thousands in the wheat fields near her home. She'll get up at dawn, she said, and stand at her kitchen window. And then she'll watch a handful of geese rise and circle, honking all the while, until more and more birds join them. Goose by goose, they spool upwards like cotton candy on a twirling stick, a beating tornado of white feathers, golden light and honking encouragement.
"Oh, the sound!" she exclaimed.
"The first time I ever saw them," she said, "it was like a million diamonds in the sky. We stood there for the longest time before we figured out it was birds."
That was enough description for us. Armed with cameras and vague directions -- "outside Fairfield, maybe near Freezeout Lake" -- we headed into the endless golden prairie of northwestern Montana, where largely unfenced wheat fields are broken only by rivers called the Sun, the Teton and the Missouri, and by the curve of the Earth itself.
Behind us a loomed a sudden thrust of mountains, the Front Range, where rock cliffs fracture the prairie. Our silver car flew past flooded frozen plain, evening thunderclouds pressing in from every horizon. The first pond held more swans than we'd ever seen before, but we continued to the gravel turnoff and an icy blue expanse -- and no geese.
Then a high cry. In the distance, thin lines, wide, undulating Vs. From tangled skeins, woven white and spiraling, the lines grew into sheets of geese, wave after wave, hundreds of them honking, burbling, wheeling, clamoring, so close I could see their eyes. They washed over us and away like a half-caught wild breath, quick and timeless at once. Afterwards I stood in the middle of the road, my camera dangling from its strap, caught between worlds. I hadn't taken a single picture. You hear about passenger pigeons and bison "plentiful as grains of sand," darkening the sky or the plain. Now we had had a taste of this.
Every spring, tens of thousands of snow geese migrate north from their wintering grounds in the Southern United States to breeding grounds in the Arctic tundra, an annual roundtrip of 5,000 miles. Small towns all over the West are fortunate to get a taste of this thrilling migration. The Choteau geese fly mainly from the Southwest and West Coast. They stop to rest in the area's vast wheat fields, and to glean leavings from the previous fall's harvest.
I flagged down a muddy pickup before it rolled away. The driver was weathered, middle-aged, with button-snap striped shirt and a palpable sense of calm. I asked, "Can you tell us where they're going?" No introduction seemed necessary, no further explanation. "The wheat fields east of town," he replied, his wife nodding, exuding the same comfortable peace.
Bill and I headed east, generally, as the country road bent in right angles over undulating hills, washboard and gravel. We never agree on directions, my friend and I; he reads his maps upside down. Between us, we ended up somewhere out there, someplace we could never find again at a T in the road, on the verge of lost. We didn't see it at first. Then, straight ahead, pale wheat stubble as the sun drew low and the sudden clamor and abundance of irrepressible migrating life, fields of snow geese.
I stepped from the car and the white rippled. Two steps closer and a thousand birds rose in a wall, a chorus, wings and cries deafening, beautiful, heart breaking. They swirled back around, directly over me, a blizzard of birds, a boiling, spilling vein.
We watched the muted waterfall pour towards earth in the distance, then rise again, spurred by a dark coyote racing against the white backdrop. Sun set and still we watched, flock after flock like distant lightning storms against a blackened, pink-edged sky.
Back at the hotel the manager said, "Oh, yeah, the birds. I grew up here and every year the birds come through. It's just a part of it all."
Joanne Wilke is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org) in Paonia, Colorado. She writes in Bozeman, Montana.