Sam MB will be guest blogging at BCC for a time. He is an aspiring cultural critic with an addiction to alpine environments.
My childhood in Helena, Montana seems to me now like a water-damaged album of sepia photographs. There is a large-boned boy, his face blotted out below bright red bangs, demonstrating the finer points of cigarette smoking. There I am driving our swollen Ford station wagon into the neighbor’s Corvette, my eyes level with the steering column. Later I see his toddler son in diapers raising a Budweiser can in a salute that fascinated and horrified me. Here my brothers and I are delivering an advertising circular named The Adit in the icy quiet of Helena before dawn.
Most of all, though, I remember living in the shadow of mighty Mount Helena. This 10,000 foot peak towered over the depressed capital of Big Sky country. My father, living out dashed dreams of military service through the Boy Scouts of America, often urged us along the miles of trail that traversed the mountain’s craggy sides. I always paused in mystified awe when we passed Devil’s Kitchen, a deeply split rock buttress that stretched for hundreds of near-vertical feet. The black alcoves of the Kitchen seemed to harbor dark spirits, proof of Satan’s parasitism on the beauty of creation. I often wondered whether the volcanic ash that covered us in 1980 had arisen from Devil’s Kitchen. No other explanation, even the suggestion that Mount St. Helens was located in Washington, could account for the inch of gray ash that covered our entire town.
Mountains are the pages of the album to which my memories are attached. They defined my identity as a boy from the Rockies, an association so strong it recently drew me back from urban life in the Northeast. In Helena for the first time in 25 years this Fall, I made a surprising discovery. Mount Helena is an attractive and impressive hill with a band of yellow limestone cliffs near its 5,468 foot summit. Devil’s Kitchen is a cleft in the rock perhaps twenty feet high and ten feet deep, strewn with graffiti, cigarette butts, and shards of beer glass. Bacchus maybe, Satan no.
With the unforgiving presentism that academic psychologists believe is hard-wired, I grumbled for a time at the ludicrous misconceptions of an eight-year-old Montanan. Still, I continued up the 1906 Trail, what is left of a grand project to reforest the sides of the recently burned mountain. I paused to touch the trunks of the trees, to feel with my fingertips the rock both smooth and rough, to taste the hint of pine oils in the air as it flowed into my lungs. The valley rested peaceful and long a thousand feet below me. The cliff bands stand weather-beaten but persistent, unwilling to yield to the incessant pressures of wind and rain and sun. My anger at lost vastness gave way to tender affection for this newly familiar mountain.
Mount Helena has been a great gift to me. As tempting as it is, I am not inclined to erase its prior beauty from my current perspective, projecting backwards my adult sense of scale and grandeur. I prefer to allow it to play different roles for me at different times of my life. Without its childhood majesty I would not have understood myself as I do now. I want my children, while they are young enough to be affected, to have their lives filled with a sense of geologic vastness. I will be happy for them to return as adults to a richer and more complex image, but I want them to have had the awe-filled pleasure of a child’s encounter with eternity. I thank God for this mighty mountain of youth and for its current worn but defiant mien.