Before it’s too late, a paean to a remnant of pine and rimrock

Just north

Cal Cumin

Cal Cumin writes of a magical little place just north of Billings, an island of pine and rimrock.

There’s a place north of the Heights—maybe the latter is called North Billings now—that is the last bastion of prairie rimrocks and pines, an outlander piece of land. About a half mile west of the Roundup Road, the area has remained off-track, probably because of its location in the middle of someone’s active horse pasture.

I’ve always thought it would be a great place for a homesite if other homes could be kept away, and even dreamed of purchasing it somehow and placing it in a non-development conservation easement—except for my house, of course.

Its only drawback is that the southern viewshed is the rapidly encroaching suburbs of the Heights, separated only by the Sindelar Shorthorn Ranch. The ranch will eventually disappear as land values escalate.

The island of pine and rock has no access other than to park along Highway 87 somewhere and walk across the open space, feeling exposed to the possible ire of the unknown landowner and the eyes of the heavy traffic on that Redneck Highway.

But one recent day of summer, wearing Tevas, a sun shirt and shorts and keeping an eye out for rattlesnakes, I do just that. It is my birthday and a present to myself. There’s a whole mile-square subdivision of one-acre lots being carved into the prairie immediately north of the place, and I want to explore the small island of pine and rock before it is swallowed by new residents.

I’m a prairie dweller and a prairie lover and to wander in among such places of pine and hoodoo is to walk in the cathedrals of God. It’s a sanctuary for fly catchers and goat suckers, magpies and mourning doves, meadowlarks and prairie sparrows. The beautiful cry of a red tail hawk echoes above me.

In the swales the sun is hot and air still while on the rises the sweat-cooling wind moves musically through the ponderosa and jack pine. The grasses, as on the flatlands, are golden crisp, the ground a fine dust that, at the end of day, will be in the corners of my eyes.

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The motionless profile of a cottontail’s head against the sky on a small rim above me is worth a photograph. This small rabbit, near the very bottom of the local food chain, is abundant in the area, a good signature for the health of the wildlife residents here—and a meal promise to me when times harden. Gnawed pine trunks signal the presence of the bashful porcupine, cloven pointed tracks that of the deer.

Absáaloke oral history has the Crows of old seeking visions here, and I find a dim petroglyph on hard, south-facing sandstone, almost totally vandalized by at least 30 bullet holes. Other than this destruction, it is still clean here without the litter that is the evidence of man.

A small, old, white deer skull sits staring westward alongside a cattle path between the upper and lower rock areas, a sentinel of time, perhaps for time. A hoodoo stands mute testament to the continuous and ancient wind that still defines this land, and a broad, flat expanse of pure stone floor edged with the long needles of the ponderosa is all that remains of a sea millions of years in the past.

A chickadee flits up, talking one of its many tongues that I am too dumb to understand. They have talked to me before, and although I know not their speech I can grasp their attitude. Once, their rapid staccato ire, directed at me for something I wasn’t appreciating or doing properly, reminded me of paratroop sergeant long ago.

My cell phone chirps. I brought it with me for the ease of using its camera, but now it reaches up through the time warp here to touch me with Verizon. I smile. It’s my daughter. I tell her I’m doing a birthday hike on the prairie. She understands.

Walking close to the base of one of the two rows of rimrock is to go where the small ones travel. The fine sand that blows in or erodes from the rock above displays the tracks of everything from bobcat and snake to ant lions and deer mice. I like to walk such places in winter when the Montana cold is tempered by the heat sink of deep sandstone, and such pathways are usually bare of snow. It’s then a good place to sit in the watery sunshine out of the winter wind and nap a few daydreams.

Although I think I can hear the anguish of the breaking prairie to the north where the heavy machines are carving roads and I can see the cars and trucks on the Redneck Highway to the east, here it is quiet, and one has to still to listen for the wind carrying the bird melodies. I realize that this is what “recreation” means or is supposed to mean—the re-creation of one’s soul.

To the west of the outcropping of this small prairie island the scattered trees and sandstone give way to the vast, undulating, lion-colored prairie, where the skunkbrush sumac that accompanies the scattered remains of small sand rims will soon turn brilliant red like Christmas decorations in autumn.

The summer birds will take their melodies to warmer places, and the magpies and ravens will mock them and man and will be here when we are long gone, leaving only the desolation of everything we created and touched.