Recently I spent a day hiking in the Beartooth Wilderness near my home in Billings, Montana. I chose a favorite route that begins in a canyon. The Stillwater River moves so swiftly over massive boulders that it seems to boil. This time of year it appears almost harmless because of low water, but in the spring the passage is dizzying, made more intense by the cacophony of water pounding against granite. It’s an entrance to a different kind of world from the prairie below, and the trail, bordered by a canyon wall on one side and the torrent of water on the other, is narrow with little margin for error. Above, the canyon opens into a valley and the stream grows quieter.
It was mid-week. There were only four other cars in the parking lot when I arrived and as I continued my journey up to Sioux Charlie Lake and beyond, I met four groups coming down the trail. Eventually, I knew that I was the only one around for at least a few miles on every side. I was grateful for this. The world I came from in northern Montana was sparsely populated, and I learned early to hike alone and appreciate solitude.
I stopped briefly along the way at an aspen grove where the undergrowth was thick and the white-barked trees, each a manifestation of an ancient root system below, offered contrast to the surrounding lodgepole pines that border much of the path. Later, I paused beside an Engelmann spruce, which is wide and singular compared to the colonies of aspen or the repetitive lodgepole. I put one small cone in my pocket.
After four or five miles, my turning point was a wooden bridge over the Stillwater. I stretched out on the ground to contemplate the clouds and thought of circumference. In that moment I was the pivot of the compass or Stevens’ jar, and the wilderness rose up all around. But soon the horseflies found me and drove me off, and it was getting late enough in the afternoon that heading back down the trail seemed like the best idea. Three deer, several species of butterflies, bright yellow and black caterpillars, five garter snakes, two chipmunks, and a red-shafted flicker crossed my path that day, but there were no more humans until I neared the trailhead.
I had Stevens’ The Palm at the End of the Mind in my backpack, and I intended to reread “Credences of Summer” during my journey. “Green’s green apogee” is what I remember best, but on the way down the idea of resting on rocks a few feet out into the lake or the stream seemed more appealing than opening the worn pages. The water sailed around me, sun glinting off ripples. If I turned my back to the nearest shore it seemed like I might be farther towards the middle.
Had I stayed longer and settled into a camping spot for the night, I would have read the poem there, but I was savoring the place and the distance from daily routine. When I finally returned to the poem several days later, I found, in section III, “the old man . . . / Who reads no book.” This person inhabits “the point of survey, green’s green apogee,” which the speaker later calls the “Axis of everything.” I understand why the old man doesn’t read. Crouching on a rock in the stream, I was happy to listen to the water and turn toward the oncoming rush.
When I entered the canyon, two men were fishing in the roiling water. What fish, I wondered, could think about food while plummeting over granite? And then, when I was nearly to my destination, I saw seven teenaged girls in long, royal blue, patterned skirts, white blouses, purple vests and black polka dot bandanas. They were Hutterites from a nearby colony. They wanted to know if this was grizzly country, if I had seen bear. I told them that grizzlies could be here but there were no bears on my hike. “Don’t worry. It’s beautiful. You’ll enjoy it,” I said. And then, a little farther, more young women, and more and more. Probably 25 young women, all with the same question. Did I see bear? Did they need to worry? I could tell they were excited, and I was happy for them that they had, for the first time apparently, been able to visit this place so close to where they live. I told them over and over not to worry, to enjoy their time. Finally, I met a group near the trailhead. This time two adults, a man and a woman, were with them. “There are so many of you,” I teased, “no bear would come close.”
The young women were dazzling in their deeply saturated color and large polka dots, such a vivid surprise in an already colorful world, and their voices, like the roiling water, a perfect transition out of wilderness solitude.