Up Alkali Creek: Good-bye to a special place


Cal Cumin

Up the Alkali Creek drainage, an area familiar to Cal Cumin since his boyhood.

The artist stepped back to study the imprint of her hands on the grainy sandstone surface above her head. She was satisfied and added nothing else. The red berry dye reflected her slender hands well. As she had lifted her fingers, she trailed them slightly upward, elongating each finger—reflecting the radiation outward of her personal power. She thought the simplicity elegant. Daubing additional pigment to provide a deep, dark, uniform coloration, she watched the dye seep well into the porous sandstone as it dried.

“What does it mean, Mother?” her young son of six seasons asked. She didn’t answer him. Smiling, she merely said, “Do you like it?”

She hadn’t planned to paint her hands on the smooth stone, consciously at least. Her husband was working a short distance away and higher in the sandstone cliffs that bordered the north side of this small, peaceful drainage. He was the recognized artist of the band of family and friends that made up the camp. His drawings were more complex—of the horse and the turtle and the shield-like symbol for the four forces always at work in the lives of the plains nomads: fire, wind, water, and the sun.

She took her son’s hand and returned to their nearby tepee, joining her sister in grinding the dark-red chokecherries in with the dried buffalo meat. It was a pleasant summer in the plains of what would someday be a place called Montana, just north of a city that would be called Billings, in a small drainage that would be called Alkali Creek. White men, the future nemesis of the young woman’s culture, were still thousands of miles to the east and several generations in her people’s future.

Sitting as still as I could on the red sandstone ledge in the shadow of a ponderosa pine, I watched two young coyotes amble down the small coulee below me. They seemed intent on getting someplace instead of paying proper attention to their surroundings. I hoped they’d develop a better sense of the dangers of their world, or they wouldn’t make it in that tough and dangerous niche in which coyotes survive between modern man and the rapidly receding natural environment.

Seeing a coyote made my journey here complete. The mule deer, marmot, chipmunks, jackrabbit and the many prairie birds are all part of its sense of place, but it is the aura of the tough, wily, maligned coyote and the simple rock pictographs that massage an itch in my city soul.

I have been sojourning here for years. When I was a boy, I spent some summers with my grandparents who had built a small log home on Alkali Creek farther downstream. I’ve retained a sense of ownership in the ambling streambed, although most of the beautiful valley is now filled with homes, schools and roadway.

Driving on the paved road extending up the canyon from the busiest street in the state, fleeting memories tick by like an odometer—where I carved my initials deep in platform rock, where it had taken a long time to kill a porcupine with a bow and arrow, where Linda (the great love of my early youth) and I raced our horses.

I try not to think of when I vandalized sandstone. I don’t kill anything anymore, not even spiders, and Linda married someone else. I had never had time to say good-bye to the lower canyon where all the homes are; they just seemed to be there one aware day. The basic structure of the small canyon remains the same, however—sandstone cliffs, the soft undulation of drainage and hills, and most of the pines, skunkbrush sumac, and the great expanse of sky. In some future millennium, maybe it will return.

I watch from a seclusion of rock and fallen tree the quiet valley below me. The canyon’s south slope is shrouded in monochrome shadow. A small herd of mule deer leisurely graze a half mile away, their dark gray shapes blend into the shaded hillside. It is then I first notice the uniform shape of a roofline on the far edge of the valley.

Apparently started in the spring, it confronts my senses with a distant barking of dog and the sharp rap of hammers. I know now why the animals seem scarce on this visit. It is the beginning of an end for this small remaining part of the Alkali Creek drainage—and probably the small hands as well.

A fourth-generation Montanan, grandson of a cowboy who loved pinto horses, and great-grandson of a 1st Cavalryman, Cal Cumin graduated from Cal-State Fullerton and lives near Shepherd with his two Dachshunds, Mooki and Spike. He is also the author of a work of history, “The Sword Bearer Incident,” due out next month.

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