WEEK NINE: TIL THE COWS COME HOME

The sign on the barbed wire fence read:

WARNING!

LIVE AMMUNITION AND EXPLOSIVES

DO NOT HANDLE OR REMOVE

MT ARMY NATIONAL GUARD

Beyond the fence lay a field strewn with evenly distributed scraps of rusted metal among numerous cow patties, as if an aircraft had detonated in midair. I stepped carefully. Perhaps if I lingered long enough, some unfortunate bovine would trod on the wrong patch of Montana grass and I could get some charred steaks out of it. No explosions occurred during my hike, however. The slopes of Deer Lodge Mountain, far from any major settlements, were refreshingly silent. I could only hear the clicking of grasshoppers as they flew from sagebrush to sagebrush, and the sound of my own blood pounding within my veins.



On this sunny September morning, strong winds had temporarily shifted the forest fire smoke away from the streets of Anaconda. The whole community took a moment to open their windows and collectively breathe. So did I, in a sense. I took advantage of the haze-free air to set aside my house restoration projects and drive towards the Flint Range, north of the city. I had my sights set on Mount Powell, the highest peak in the range. If heavy storms didn’t douse the fires consuming the Pacific Northwest soon, this might end up being my only chance to get a mountaintop view in the Rockies for a long time.

The path to Powell went through Deer Lodge Mountain, accessible across public land if you weren’t discouraged by the signs and barbed wire fences. Bombing by the Montana National Guard ceased here in 1970 when the National Forest Service became tired of putting out the resulting forest fires. Also, after fifteen years and a twenty percent “dud” rate, the unexploded ordnance had begun to pile up. I didn’t find any rockets along my route, but I did discover a complete elk skeleton lying in a soft bed of grouseberry plants beneath the lodgepole pines. The skull bore an enormous, sweeping curve of antlers, and I considered bringing the trophy back to my Anaconda home, but I was still renovating and decided it was too early to begin collecting ornaments. Besides, the skull was so heavy and bulky that I probably would have doubled my travel time trying to weave my way around the tightly-spaced trunks of the lodgepole forest.


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