By Max Lowe
Dew drops gathered on my eyelashes from the steam drifting slowly out of my coffee cup, freezing momentarily before evaporating with a blink in the predawn cold that hugged our darkened little family cabin. I can’t remember the first time I visited this little log home tucked into a sagebrush-filled gulch in a forgotten corner of SW Montana, as I was probably all of 1 year old or so when my parents first brought me to visit this patch of land, setting me loose to play with my brothers in the little creek that wound through whispering aspens shrouding collapsed root cellars and old haying equipment long laid to eternal rest and rust.
Homesteaded by my great great grandmother and her family, I stand on the old but sturdy porch as smoke drifts from the stove pipe above, looking up into the hills and snow-fringed peaks as the 5th generation of my family to do so. Over the years as my eyes come back around to rest on the things that I passed over before without wonder, I came to recognize this place for the unique and deep-rooted connection it brought, to the lives and experiences of those who came before me.
"Traveling across country as a hunter changes your connection with the land on an elemental and ancient level."
For all the time and steps spent traversing this valley’s many trails, cow paths, and dirt roads, the objective this morning was one of a different caliber. The last of October's golden leaves clinging to the aspens and with ice forming along the edges of Billings Creek, we drove along the old ranch grade and up into the wooded hills above the sweeping cow pastures below in search of ungulates of a wilder breed. My now eighty some-year old second cousin Robert Marchesseau had said with a distinct doggedness that he hadn't seen any elk down and around his cattle as they worked them, but they sure as heck were up there somewhere. So with that, my friend Dan Keslin and I set off up the drainage above his ranch without much of an idea of what we might find, but with the confidence that it didn't much matter.
Pushing further up into the dense pine forest than I had ever been on old overgrown roads used by miners, loggers and cowhands alike over the years, we looked intently uphill as the truck plodded along up the aged grade. When we could drive no further, we left the truck in a small still clearing and took the journey to our boots. As we donned packs and I loaded my rifle, the understanding of my interaction with this landscape changed in an instant. Traveling across country as a hunter changes your connection with the land on an elemental and ancient level. Walking silently as we could up and through the ground-fall and densely wooded cover, listening and looking with intent unlike any I had ever brought to bear on this familiar landscape drew a fresh lens to this valley, these hills creeks and woods that I had known my whole life.
"As Dan started up the hill, I fell in behind him thinking that even if we didn't find any animals, I was grateful to have this new understanding of an old world that might have otherwise remained hidden."
Gaining a rocky ridgeline and pulling my binoculars from their holster, I looked out across Grasshopper Valley. Far below a ranch truck moved slowly amidst the ant-sized black angus as the world woke up with the rising sun, and on the far tree line a small group of whitetailed deer moved from cover, grazing the stubbled hayfields of late fall. “Why had I never found my way to this vantage before?” I thought. Without the excuse of the hunt, I might have forever been blind to that which for so long sat close at hand. As Dan started up the hill, I fell in behind him thinking that even if we didn't find any animals, I was grateful to have this new understanding of an old world that might have otherwise remained hidden. As we stepped up and over a small outcropping, he motioned me into silence, and I knew that which had drawn me into this new perspective was at hand.