Atop a prominent limestone cliff jutting out of a steep mountainside on the northern reaches of the Valley of the Yellowstone there is a tightly knit cairn of neatly placed, stacked and fitted stones, born of the very mountain they rise from. The cairn sits upon the highest point of the most massive precipice rising from a series of such escarpments that comprise a white and gray band of ancient sea floor cemented now into fossil rich stone. How this human construct came to be on this barren, wild, and wind swept, weather-top of Montana is a story I wish to share.
When I was 14, I came to live here in this valley they call Paradise. Young, and new to the region my boundaries and those of my brother and friends were what we made them to be. Peering up from our home, this particular cliff was over 1,100 feet above and a good couple miles in distance from where we lay our heads at night.
Aside from the journey to get to the cliff involving a steep and arduous hike over loose shale, ravines and an unforgiving incline slope, during the summer months one was sure to encounter many rattle snakes traversing the south facing slopes, warming themselves. On our best day – I killed myself 9 rattlesnakes with a .22 Ruger Revolver, some with snake shot, some with solids. There was even an occasion when we took a 5+ foot, fat rattle snake off the slopes and barbecued it, yes it tastes like chicken. As youths we grew quite brazen in our assaults against these venomous serpents, while at the same time growing in admiration of their camouflage, speed and most brilliantly engineered rattles. The collection of their musical tail-ends grew with each summer passing.
The first trip to this particular cliff was treated like an expedition. There was if I remember 4 of us in the party on the days excursion. We stuffed some food into small packs, loaded a few firearms, filled a round canteen with water and set off in the early hours of the day. The sun had already risen above the Absaroka Mountains, with the heat building its tempo on the south facing slopes. Arid and dry, the hill side was sparely littered with Junipers, Limber Pines (Pinus flexilis), wild native grasses, and a few scattered sage brush, all of them blended into an incense ones nose is happy to drink.
Crossing the creek, a small gurgling brook, weaving through Cottonwood trees, we arrived at the foot of the mountain hosting our destination point – the cliff. From the moment I arrived in this territory, it seemed to call, “Come climb upon me young boys! Sit upon me and look out at what you might see from here if you dare!” We were obliged to accept the challenge with adventure in our hearts. With sun beating upon our backs, the humming drone of grasshoppers in our ears, we weaved through the deep grasses of the riparian bottom to the primary slopes, the first rises up out of the valley bottom.
Each boot step forward was above the last, an uphill march, with the soil growing dryer and more arid quickly as we left the cool, moist creek bottom. The grasses became more pale, shorter, thirsty for rain. Smaller rock faces jutted out here and there, with fields of scree and rough boulders that had tumbled from up high littered about on the soft gold bluffs. Trekking along, we weaved through coulees, plotting a route upward towards the one cliff we had our eyes on. Sucking in hot air, our legs burned with the continuous climb. Passing the canteen, we quenched our thirst with what is up here, the rarest commodity, one we even imagined a man would give wealth for under certain circumstances.
Buzzzzzz Buzzzzzzzzzz tchch tch tch tch tch…….. The signature war cry of a Rattle Snake was something we were indeed familiar with. Erupting from the grass, coiled in a striking spring a rattler sat, hesitating and choosing who and how it would strike with its dosage of ill poison. I drew my pistol as the party of youths scattered to give the serpent distance and allow me a shot. Raising the revolver, I drew the single action Ruger’s hammer back and placed the sights on the snakes head, slowly squeezing the trigger, “CRACK”. The snake flopped backwards and began writhing. Jumping on the head with the heal of a boot, I drew a blade and cut the venom dispensing head from the demon, tossing it into the grasses below. With the body still writhing (they say they won’t stop until the sun sets) we removed the rattle, 11 rattles long if I remember correctly, not bad. Energized with the excitement, we pressed on.
The mountain sides steepness increased, as well as the proliferation of rocks and scree fields. Stepping on the loose plates of gray, chalky stone sounded as if one was trudging through a room of loose and broken pottery. The unstable tablets, many containing prehistoric, fossilized sea creatures, often gave way, forcing the unfortunate member whose footing was lost to have to regain his efforts to make up for lost progress, even place forward a hand for quick support, resulting in a cut or abrasion on the sharp surfaces of limestone.
At the base of the sequence of rock bastions the problem arose of finding a route up, and through these parapets. Walking along the foot of these silent monolithic over-watchers, we came to a cleft offering a steep, rock strewn path on the western side of the mightiest cliff. Within this crevice the air was cooler, holding a different odor as cool air emanated from the sunless stone walls and overhanging trees above us. Here my brother, now ahead found two weathered and gray antlers, dropped from a Mule Deer buck seasons ago, likely during a stumbling venture the ungulate made through this very passage.
Hoisting ourselves up a small, manageable ledge we reached the final slopes of the largest rock face. Projecting outward to the sky, the area on top of this cliff was no larger than a small room, with each side of three, dropping 80 plus vertical feet to the rocks below. We sat, carefully, making slow and calculated moves on top of this silent, treacherous position.
This fortification of lightly colored, sedimentary stone, rising up above the tallest Firs, prominently positioned, set apart from the others in this band of high altitude rock work is visible from over 50 miles away, perhaps further if you include peaks set deep into distant wilderness jutting up from behind closer summits. Below his outward face, the earth falls off steeply to the valley below, tumbling down in a pouring cascade of grass and sparse timber. The bones or marrow of this monument, is rough, wind-licked gray stone, painted with orange lichens. Topping off the roof of this weathered citadel is a variety of soft, short cropped mosses, and a few scattered tufts of stubby Prairie Junegrass fighting for nutrients and moisture on the limited real estate.
Weathered, appearing wise and aged, this prominence is a beaten, wind swept, and tortured sentinel standing watch for millenniums over his domain. Silent, stoic, un-moving, unchanged with time he stands guard. To the west is the Gallatin range, the east the Absarokas, south you see the Yellowstone river spill from the canyon called Yankee Jim and cut its way through the flat green plain below.
This was the first of hundreds of such journeys made to this place. Each trip offered feelings of elation with the view taken in as if it were the first time setting eyes upon the magical vista of the expansive valley, twisting silver band of river, Absaroka Mountains topped with snow, and expansive sky. Late in the day typically after a rain, there is a richness in color from the hills as shadows grow deep and long, with the western sunlight shooting across the valley from over the top of the Gallatins. Each tree stands out as its own, each blade of grass seems visible and set apart at this hour. The air is clear, clean and still. Oh to sit upon this place after a storm in the Spring!
Over the years, I would take friends, family and visitors to this special place, each time enjoying the look of amazement on their face as they accomplished the undertaking, absorbing the wild panorama. This was a view for eagles.
Summer, Fall, Winter or Spring, all seasons offered differing perspectives from this most spiritual place. Yes, spiritual. I am convinced, the Crow or Apsáalooke natives who’s home this was for centuries as well as the native peoples before them often sat upon this prominence to meditate, or communicate with their Great Spirit.
On several occasions, I made solo trips to this cliff, watching as horrendous maelstroms rolled into the valley, ushering in darkness, winds and driving sleet or snow. Seated as a spectator to the storms slamming upon it while i sat alone in a swirl of gray, cold mist, clouds would rip passed the stone perch, howling through the pines. The world was distant, small, insignificant from this position. Problems, worries, concerns about life or the future would bend through the prism of insight this outlook cultivated in the human mind. A connection is made on this place, a connection to origins, rawness, nature, the elements. You feel it here, a calmness yet at the same time an energy. It is a place to meditate, a place for prayer and introspection.
Time passed, visits were logged into my subconscious passport of trips made to this world when a friend of mine in less than desired physical condition, although young, asked for me to help him prepare for the US Marine Corps. boot camp. I agreed. I told him he would meet me at my house, early every morning, and we would run, hike, trek to this cliff, crank out push-ups and attempt to destroy our bodies in order to improve them.
Daily, weekly, we pushed through the endeavor of reaching this cliff so high above. At this time, my parents had agreed to sell the land below, and would be moving, while I older and just graduating college, would be leaving for a career elsewhere, far from here. I felt an immense pain, as though I was being torn from the womb of hills that had for so many years raised me, nurtured me. Being torn from the bosom of this wild is a pain I still carry today.
On what would be one of my last trips to this place I wished to leave a marker, a promise of return perhaps. In the ancient days a cairn marked a place or a pile of rocks served as a biblical promise or remembrance. Something in me wished to do such here.
While sitting on this cliff, looking out on the wilderness front, the jagged peaks of the Absaroka Beartooths, and velvet green valley floor under a canopy of pastel blue, I asked my friend if he would help me erect a cairn. He agreed. I selected a flat location, solid, bare stone, near the very front of the precipice, pushing outward into the sky and carried the first of several large stones to make the foundation of the monument. Using skills acquired while working with a mason, I carefully locked stones into tightly fitted positions, progressively decreasing their sizes as it rose. My friend continued to scour about collecting stones for me to fit and place. Testing the structure for rigidity and stability we rocked it and jostled it, placing small wedges of rock amidst any voids or areas needing further support.
On completion, we beheld a 3-4 foot cairn, solid and robustly built to withstand time and most importantly, hurricane force wind. The two of us contemplated its meaning and presence here. We were quiet.
My friend left for the Marines shortly after this. He rode in on the invasion of Iraq, a monumental foreign policy blunder of human ignorance and destruction. It is there he was stricken with PTSD, and is now a lost soul, whereabouts unknown in the United States, a living casualty of state sponsored violence.
I have returned to the cairn only twice since it was built. It stands there to this day, visible from a nearby road, as well as of all things Google Earth, where each year I see its shadow cast in updated satellite imagery. Perched upon the cliff, the cairn sits idly, silent, gazing out upon the world below.
The promise to return to that place will be kept – whether I ever have a home among those hills again is yet to be known. My hope is that others may one day find this place – honoring it with their own peace, their own contemplation of things.
Should you find yourself there, I ask you to let the cairn remain, perhaps adding pebble or stone to its formation, say a prayer, look out upon the world, breathe, drink in the air, and be there on that place for that moment in time.