The cottonwood leaves, like teenagers, can’t sleep. They rattle nervously and drop to the ground or simply hang in the breeze waiting for someone to blow through and lift them away.
Jupiter still lights the twilight with her constancy, bright against dark robed trees. The moon keeps low, almost hiding. I pause to take a photograph of the campfire. Behind me in the darkness, an elk skull sits in a tree, a memento mori placed by a previous visitor to this Forest Service cabin.
Tonight we are high up in the Big Belt Mountains, on the Helena National Forest, between the Missouri and Smith Rivers. A range crisscrossed with roads, we hear trucks slowly make their way higher throughout the night: late-arriving hunters moving towards a dark camp and a few hours sleep before first light and opening day.
In the morning, we ride these roads, not like road hunters in trucks loaded with ATVs and game carts, but on our mountain bikes. It’s an odd choice for an opening day outing. All eight of us pushing up the hills, burning fat not fuel. Little Henry, age three, wrapped in blankets in a Burley, bounces along behind his mother.
Where the road narrows, a truck pulls over to let Ruth and I pass. The truck window is open. I pump past and offer a thanks. The driver grunts, never taking his gaze off the road ahead. No doubt he views us as lycra-clad pansy liberals awash in a sea of testosterone-laced mechanized hunting.
But venison sausage is in our pasta sauce tonight and future hunts and plans pop up in our talk. And while we’re not clad in lycra, neither do we don blaze orange and camouflage.
This is the weekend we had and we took it. The skull hanging in the conifer speaks its truth even if we rarely listen.
Later, on top of Hogback Mountain, we climb the fire lookout and look out over the wide Missouri, down to Canyon Ferry, and across to the Elkhorns. I spot a tarp down the hill aways. A campsite but the tarp is blowing loose. It looks wrong. I walk closer. The site has an eery feel. It’s abandoned. Two tarps. Whoever it was cut down trees and had begun building a barricade around the site, then strung the perimeter with fishing line and discarded soda cans. Paranoia run wild. There is a rusting pitchfork stuck in the ground in the middle of circle, five or so large knives stuck at odd angles, food strewn everywhere but completely undisturbed by animals. The food is intact. The potatoes not yet gone to seed.
I walk into the center of the camp. On the ground is a bottle of unopened ketchup, an unopened tallboy of Miller Lite lies in a fire ring. The tent lilts to its starboard but clearly something heavy is holding it down. I tell Grace and Ruth to stay where they are. I move to open it. I keep thinking I’d smell it if it was a body. The door doesn’t move easily but eventually gives. I find only a pile of wet wool blankets. I am both relieved and disappointed.
We make note of the location and agree to call the Forest Service on Monday. That night, back around a fire, Grace conjures a murder story for us. I listen and stare into the darkness towards the skull, red streaks and sparks break free and rise towards Jupiter.
Henry, our youngest traveler, explores the ridge on Hogback Mountain. Helena National Forest.
Disappearing into the wonder of Refrigerator Canyon.
Grace (deep in the back) explores geologic time.
The abandoned campsite: