This Montana Adventure Part III


My final "write" on this Montana ad-venture would be difficult. I felt compelled to report back the discoveries we had made. I had scribbled notes throughout the trip, all of which were inadvertently burned one night while starting a fire. Instead, I would have to take a piece of Montana with me, and that's exactly what I did.

We began this odyssey studying history, skills, and ourselves but I hoped we would return with awareness and understanding of what the captains (Lewis and Clark) had discovered 200 years prior. Instead of the Northwest Passage, they found the land. And by their passage though it they symbolically opened the door for us on this Montana adventure.

I still had a few days to impart our journey's greatest lesson. I told my students that a sense of history does not come only from knowledge; sometimes one is guided by intuition. We can learn by something felt in the wind, something seen in the stars, and something that calls from the wastelands to the spirit.

Our greatest discovery would be similar to that of the captains'. We found Montana in its purest form. We would hike a mountain meadow with wildflowers blooming, and across an above timberline plateau surrounded by strong bare peaks with black thunderheads gathering around them. I thought of Meriwether Lewis when he discovered the Great Falls of the Missouri River. "I wish that I might be enabled to give to the enlightened world some just idea of the truly magnificent and sublime grand object which has from the commencement of time been concealed from civilized man."

It's the land. It's always the land that is most compelling on any journey through space. Leave those boutiques, restaurants, and gift shops behind. Go beyond the pavement and run the earth through your fingers and toes.

Our camp was at the edge of the wilderness. We lived on the Armstrong/O'Hair ranch of 35,000 acres. Justin and Judy O'Hair, the co-owners of the ranch, were our hosts and would become our friends. Justin's great-great-great- grandfather, O.T. Armstrong, came from Missouri in 1876 and established the ranch.

I thought of life in La Cañada and of our comfortable community, but seldom do we think of those who came first, the ones who went through enormous hardship to build something from the land. Justin and Judy have a connection to those who settled their land; it gave them a sense of place. My students had never experienced people with such a profound connection to the earth. I knew immediately they were richer for it.

We shared dinners with them and I asked a million questions gaining intuition into their lives. Justin is an American cowboy. The cowboy is steeped in legend and heroic qualities that characterize the fiber of our nation. Through Justin and Judy, we saw honor, hard work, strength, self reliance, simplicity and freedom. It would be the wind, rain, snow, the tortured earth, drought and hunger, cold and desolation that would shape their lives. Free will, stubbornness, persistence and being quicker on the draw would sustain them.

As a kid, I grew up dreamin' of being a cowboy and loving the cowboys' ways. Didn't you? They are the last vestiges of wildness, and as much as our country changes, they remain the same. I felt a certain reassurance that this breed of individual still thrived on the hills of rural Montana, they bring us back to the simplicity of what's important.

That was our lesson! It's the land. The land is a conduit that has brought out the best from a select group of people who share a reverence and a stewardship to it. It's our story, America's story, and what draws us are the infinite possibilities of what we can be. Ridin' with Justin and Judy would be an experience of sheer pageantry, and by the barrage of questions my students asked of me, I knew they got it.

Thomas Jefferson was brilliant. He realized that the pull of the continent westward would give his fledgling nation a glimpse into the potential that lay ahead. So he sent the captains. When you know Lewis and Clark, you know America.

Our trip is almost over. I'm back in the van, heading home, scribbling my final thoughts about this trip. I struggle for words while my students sing a Toby Keith song, "Should've been a cowboy." I smile and think, well, we were all cowboys, if only for a moment, on this Montana adventure.

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