A precious outing, even with a bum leg


Cal Cumin

The canyon was filled with mature ponderosa pine, juniper and sandstone cliffs.

If it weren’t for a pinched nerve making my right leg unreliable, I probably would be wearing a silly grin, one of just pure happiness that I get when I’m doing something I really enjoy. Today it’s returning to a small pine and sandstone canyon to get some photographs needed for an article I wanted to complete.

Late November and it’s 70 degrees, sunny, and with little wind. It doesn’t get much better in Montana. I’d parked my old Toyota truck in the borrow ditch next to what just looks like a large, sagebrush-covered piece of flat prairie. The ditch should be called “dump” rather than “borrow” as assholes use these rural roads for disposal of everything from animal carcasses to old tires. Near my truck is not one but two loads of branches and wood chips, and there seemed to be more beer bottles than the last time I visited.

The fence is neglected and I can step through, getting only one barbed wire snag in the back of my hoody. A Black Angus bull is staring at me as I hobble along, and I pick up a piece of ancient fence post and carry it like a rifle; never know what goes on in a damn bull’s head.

The sun reflects off small stones scattered along the trail I’m following. Picking one up, it is smooth and thoroughly polished by some unknown process, usually about an inch in diameter and slim, like a lozenge.

When I was younger I developed the theory that such polished stones were gizzard stones from ancient reptiles. Still works for me until I learn different. Makes them more interesting. I don’t resist the urge to pocket several, not knowing what I will do with them at home, but like horse chestnuts, I can’t resist massaging them.

I finally reach the end of the flat land and a canyon drops away below me, filled with mature ponderosa pine, juniper and sandstone cliffs. The roots of long-dead monarchs protrude from seams in the cliffs with the carcass of the ancient giants rotting slowly into the sandy earth nearby.

In the bottom of the small valley there is still water sparkling in the sunlight, making me wish I had such a stream somewhere. I would fence at least a portion of it off from the destruction caused by cattle and nurture the wetlands that would blossom with all the traditional riparian species, maybe even invite a beaver or two. As it is now, the pockets of water I see are in the deep, muddy hoofprints of cows.

I proceed slowly down the steep hillside; my right leg definitely doesn’t work unless I keep it straight. After one particularly loud groan, I see a large, dark mulie glide silently away in front of me, definitely worth a smile.

I also don’t see other human footprints in the fine sandstone dirt, just those of deer and cattle. I know that there are a lot of other prints of the smaller animals, the mice, marmots, pack rats and such that I can see better under the overhang of cliff where soft soil stays dry in south-facing shelter. This is old homestead country and I know I’m not the first to be here, but it’s always nice not see recent waffle stompers in my path.

That illusion of relative solitude vanishes when I encounter survey posts and the track of the four-wheeler the surveyor used. The posts weren’t here the last time I was, and I realize that what I’m seeing is a really large footprint—that of the suburbs, voraciously stepping out from the nearby city.

It’s midday but the shadows of early winter are long in front of me as I turn back toward my truck. The arc of the moon will be higher than this winter sun. Tomorrow is the full super moon of 69 years ago. It would be wonderful to photograph it here in this magic little canyon silhouetted against tall pines and cliffs, coming up from the east, the direction this small drainage leads to the Yellowstone.

However, trying to maneuver in darkness would be a disaster with a bum leg. I’ll have to settle for photographs from my prairie porch, maybe Photoshop them later with pines and cliff.

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