For years, I’ve wanted to write about Cottonwood Canyon, a strangely beautiful high-desert hideaway about 15 miles south of Bridger.
I never did, though, because I had considered it as somehow belonging to my good friend, Tim Arneson, who first showed it to me more than 30 years ago. I suppose Cottonwood Canyon is his forever now. His children scattered his ashes there in October.
I wasn’t there for that ceremony, but I went back to Cottonwood on the first weekend of November, with my brother and two of my daughters and one daughter’s boyfriend. I thought I should write about Cottonwood Canyon now as a way of memorializing Arn, as many of us called him. And by reconnecting with what was Arn’s spiritual home, I thought I might be more able to convey some faint notion of what he was like and how he lived in the world.
I must have met Arn on my first day as a student at the University of Montana, winter quarter 1974. He lived across the hall from me in that venerable old dump of a dorm, Duniway Hall.
Friendships formed at the age of 18 tend to be intense anyway, when one is on fire with new ideas, an explosive sense of freedom and the impression that one has just embarked on what is sure to be a very long adventure. With Arn that intensity never dimmed.
Some of the best memories of my life are of sitting up with Arn and talking until 3 or 4 in the morning, our feet propped on the windowsill of his dorm room or mine, fueled by bottles of Lucky Lager and a tin of Bugler tobacco.
His thoughts never followed the furrows the rest of us were familiar with. All his ideas seemed to come from books we’d never heard of, experiences we couldn’t imagine, depths we couldn’t fathom. His thoughts were all fresh, and I don’t think I ever heard him utter a cliché.
He quit college after hardly more than a year, too restless for a classroom, too wild to be led. But he dove into what interested him. Once, when he was living in the kitchen of a two-room apartment I was renting in a boarding house, he developed a passion for Carl Jung, particularly his works on archetypes. Since Arn wasn’t going to school, he kept having me check out new volumes in a set of Jung’s complete works at the UM library. I think he read most of them.
In terms of education, I’d guess Arn put those several months to better use than I did.
No matter how much he learned, though, there was so much that Arn never knew. His ignorance of what we now call pop culture was almost complete. I seem to recall that he had been a gymnast at Billings West High School, but I don’t think he knew the rules of any organized sport, nor the rules of a single card game. He didn’t know one joke.
On one occasion he started criticizing President Ronald Reagan, saying how much he detested him. That was nothing unusual in my circle of friends, but in the course of his rant Arn made it clear that he thought Reagan was a Democrat. When I pointed out that, ahem, Reagan was in fact a Republican, he just gave me a funny look, as if wondering why I thought such trivial distinctions mattered.
He wasn’t haughty about it, but he ignored such trivia because there were so many important matters that demanded his attention. He was a gifted artist who was always drawing or painting or carving. My favorite piece by him, which he sold years ago, was a deep-relief sculpture carved into a length of cottonwood. It showed a deer bedded down beneath a sandstone overhang. Off to the side, hidden behind a juniper tree, was a crouching mountain lion. I’m sure it was inspired by Cottonwood Canyon.
Speaking of cottonwood, he once made his own sitar out of that material, carving the long neck and hollowing out the body from one piece of wood, and then puzzling out how to make the raised frets and the sympathetic strings that ran beneath the main strings. How in the hell did he learn out how to make a sitar? He looked at photos of sitars in a book and just figured it out. I’m sure it wasn’t the best sitar in the world, and Arn hardly mastered the playing of it, but it was a sitar, by God, and it sounded as ethereal and magical as Arn had hoped it would sound.
He was also a fine writer, always working on some poem or story. He once wrote a poem about a small adventure he and another friend and I were involved in, chiefly memorable for including too much cheap wine. But Arn’s words transcended the smallness of the occasion. My favorite part was this: “We are three jesters/bold, without scruples./Sane enough to stand against the cyclone gesticulations of this/madhouse world.”
He was of this world but not entirely in it. More than anyone else I have known well, he was alert for messages from the unseen world, and when Arn talked about a particular raven that often visited him at his place outside of Belfry, it seemed the most natural thing in the world.
I always felt so pedestrian and prosaic around him, but only with him did I have experiences that were, if not quite spiritual, at least on the border of the inexplicable.
Just as he was my first good friend in Montana, he was also my first guide to Eastern Montana. His parents lived in Billings in the mid-1970s, at the end of Vigilante Trail, and the first time I ever actually visited Billings, as opposed to passing through, it was in his company. His relationship with the city was ambivalent, I guess you’d say, but he introduced me to the best parts of it—the Rims and the Yellowstone River.
Not long after my first visit to Billings, his parents moved down to a place about a mile north of Belfry on the banks of the Clarks Fork River, and Arn, with his growing family, would live down there in what was basically a roomy cabin for many years off and on. It was while living down there, I think, that he discovered Cottonwood Canyon and then showed it to me.
Cottonwood Canyon is a few miles south of the Valley of the Chiefs, also known as Weatherman Draw, on Cottonwood Road. Valley of the Chiefs is famous for its pictographs, and it’s a good place to hike, but its natural charms can’t compete with those of Cottonwood Canyon.
I don’t think Cottonwood Canyon has any pictographs. If it did, Arn would have found them. He had an eye for that sort of thing, and for finding arrowheads. On one of my early trips to Cottonwood Canyon he told me there were scorpions up there. I had no idea there were such creatures in Montana, but a few minutes later, Arn flipped up a small slab of sandstone just off the trail and sure enough, a little scorpion went scampering out from under it.
Why did he choose that rock, just then? Don’t ask me.
From the road, you’d never guess how spectacular Cottonwood Canyon is. A few small hills come together at the foot of the canyon, and only after clearing them do you begin to get a sense of what lies ahead. There is a trail that parallels a tiny stream, a spring that comes trickling out of a hillside about a third of the way up the canyon.
Arn always said it was the only steady source of water in that whole string of canyons bordering Cottonwood Road, making it a natural gathering spot for animals and for the Indians who hunted them, which is why Arn always had one eye cocked for arrowheads.
A little above where the spring emerges, it’s best to enter the dry watercourse to continue uphill. And about there is when the canyon turns spectacular. It doesn’t rain much in that country, but when it does the water comes rushing hard, sculpting the sandstone into all kinds of odd shapes and creating numerous indentations and deep bowls in the rock.
The wind does as much renovating as the water. It’s usually blowing in the canyon, sometimes quite hard, and you can almost hear the sandstone being scoured away. Parts of the canyon might remind you of Medicine Rocks State Park near Ekalaka, but much of it is more likely to put you in mind of Arizona or New Mexico.
Most of the trees are gnarly old junipers, some of them ancient and showing only a few patches of green on their extensive branches. There is an abundance of yucca and prickly pear cactus.
Arn always knew where we were in the canyon, where to cut over to keep going toward the top. My topographical memory was always a great deal shakier than his. On our outing in early-November, the most recent of at least several dozen, I managed to get us into two box canyons, requiring much backtracking.
All told, the main canyon branches into four or five distinct smaller draws. If you stay to the left on the way up (as far as I remember, which doesn’t mean much), you will reach the top, but only after going a considerable distance out of your way.
If you keep to the right, good luck figuring out which draw takes you to the top. At one point on our recent visit, floundering up a box canyon, I espied a long-dead pine tree leaning against a canyon wall. The memories came flooding back. Twenty years ago, I had been trapped in the same spot and climbed up that tree to exit the box canyon. Twenty years on, I didn’t think I should be climbing it.
Several members of our party had things they had to do back in Billings, so we never did make it all the way to the top. It really didn’t matter, since the hiking’s the thing and we’d already been treated to so much beauty and so many phantasmagorical rock formations. But still, I can’t wait to go back and go to the top again.
It’s one of the best spots in Montana up there. You can see forever in every direction, it seems, and except for a few roads and a building or two, the emptiness reaches out in every direction. In the distance are the Beartooth, Pryor and Bighorn mountains, with rolling, terraced hills bordering vast valleys. It’s one of the best places I know to imagine what this part of the world looked like when it was covered by an inland sea.
I had been planning to give better directions to Cottonwood Canyon, but my daughters talked me out of it, for Arn’s sake and for our own. We figured people most likely to appreciate and respect it will find it anyway.
It has been my favorite spot in Montana for more than half my life. Now, in addition to all its other charms and associations, it holds the ashes of my good friend. If there is nothing beyond the moment when the fire goes out, he is in the best possible place. If there is some journey beyond, what better place to have begun it?