Chasing Down The Muse: Taking spring break in Montana

The forest’s silence as I walk along the road prevails over all. I am following deer tracks at the edge, and the silence is broken only by the rushing water of Bear Creek and the crunch of icy snow beneath my feet. On this mid-morning walk I have seen little of life other than one lone robin. Perhaps the robin, too, is confused by the wintry weather this week. Didn’t I just write recently of the advent of spring in all its glory? Well, not everywhere.

We arrived in Montana expecting spring would be here as well. Winter seems to have returned to the Bitterroot Valley just in time for our arrival. We are visiting friends John and Bonnie McKenna for a week and were looking forward to budding spring foliage among other things. Guess this is a not so gentle reminder that the “default” position always goes to nature.

The mountains surrounding Bitterroot Valley are covered with snow. Stately pines here on the western side have caught and held the night’s snowfall. Multi-hued willows are crusted with white along the way. Yet, much of this will be gone by afternoon. Spring is at least trying to show its fresh face.

This week here in the valley may not have held much in the way of springtime, but it has nevertheless been a rich and rewarding experience. “From Sula to Missoula,” as Bonnie says — well, we have seen quite a bit.


The drive north from Laguna took us the better part of two days. All of Utah was caught in a severe winter storm as we passed through. Driving at night seemed unwise. So, after a night spent in Ogden, we entered the south end of the Bitterroot Valley coming out of Lost Trail Pass in the daylight. Burned-out forests and open stretches of farmland greeted us.

Arriving at the south end of Victor, we turned off the highway to wend our way across country to Bear Creek Trail where the McKennas live. Eyes alert for signposts, I caught the swoop of a bald eagle off to my left as we turned on Red Crow Road. We stopped to watch as it landed near a carcass in the field. What a beautiful and welcoming sight!

Since then we have seen much more and learned many things. We’ve seen prong-horned antelope, llamas, mountain goats, falcons, robins, magpies, flickers, deer, elk, wild geese and turkeys, and myriad cows, horses and sheep. We visited a sheep ranch where the owner, Joan Contraman, has a passion for all things “sheep.” From assisting in the birthing of the lambs and bottle feeding many of them to creating beautiful colored wools for wholesale to spinning yarns and making her own creations, she does it all. We spent a fascinating couple of hours with her learning about the process from start to finish.

Other highlights included a “hellbilly” concert at Missoula’s downtown Wilma Theater featuring Hank Williams III and Assjack. Eardrums vibrating, we left the theater afterward grinning and chattering about the event as we walked the five blocks to the car in the frigid cold. I couldn’t help thinking that none of this was like home, and I felt a little like Dorothy in Oz.


We’ve stood at the edge of the Big Hole Battleground where so many soldiers and Nez Perce Indians — men, women and children — died in 1877. Standing in the silence of the wind-swept, snow covered space, there was a felt sadness that some things can never be made right.

As I write this on our last full day here, I am touched by all that the week has held and reminded that it is good to get out of what we “know.”

It is said that travel broadens and that is so true. While I love where I live and enjoy its many opportunities for doing what I want to do, there is so much more. This week has refreshed me and fed body, mind and spirit.

The week in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana has been a wonderful experience and I have learned much. I have climbed fences to photograph “that perfect tree,” avoiding cow plop and jumping small streams to do so. I have been titillated by all things “sheep” thanks to Joan. I’ve spent hours enthralled by all that is “hellbilly” in the company of vast numbers of Missoula’s young people. I’ve stood in spots where history has taken place and walked in the wild. Just because it wasn’t spring-like doesn’t mean it wasn’t quite a spring break.

CHERRIL DOTY embraces the mystery and magic of all that is life. She can be reached at 714-745-9973 or by e-mail at