The Pintlers… these were dark, humorless mountains with the temperament of a Scottish highlander, prideful and dour. Forests clung tenaciously to the crumbled mountainsides. Their needles gave off a hint of gray, rather than a vibrant green, as if they had absorbed the muted colors of the land itself. No fancy, hifalutin’ geysers or wind-sculpted pinnacles will ye find here, no sir. Just good, formidable mountains, tucked away in the underpopulated reaches of southwest Montana.
This morning I had gone seeking a high-elevation plateau in the Pintlers called Goat Flat – an oasis of flat, dry, treeless land amid a wilderness full of forests, cliffs and marshland. The trail here was so infrequently traveled that even the fragile tundra failed to show evidence of human footsteps. Instead, sporadic posts sticking out of rock piles marked the Continental Divide Trail.
It was a land of curious features. There were mysterious patches within the meadow where frost and thaw cycles had created even, furrowed lines of pushed-up pebbles. One could almost picture a host of mountain elves, tilling the earth to harvest a crop of wildflowers. Today the parrots-beak flowers were in full bloom, their small, white towers dusting the tundra and filling the air with the fresh scent of delayed springtime energy.
Goat Flat was not entirely treeless, although it was hard to see how the undersized alpine larch qualified as an actual tree. Walking in their vicinity gave one the illusion of a giant’s perspective, which, I suppose, fit with the fairyland ambiance of the alpine plateau. Commonly known as tamarack, the stunted trees looked rough and scraggly from a distance, but when in their midst, the supple branches would swish past with the gentlest of touches. The needles were surprisingly soft, perhaps because tamaracks are one of the few evergreens that shed their needles in the fall and grow them back every spring. I found myself looking for navigational excuses to walk through tamarack thickets, just to experience the unexpectedly peaceful sensation of twigs gliding across exposed skin.
At the upper edge of the tundra, a line of white butterflies flitted above the patch of wildflowers where I was resting. There were a dozen at least, flying in inexplicable formation, playing a fast-paced game of Follow The Leader that puzzled me immensely. I had never seen butterflies behaving like an over-caffeinated flock of geese, so I studied their maneuvers until the wind picked up and the curious specimens took their game to a more sheltered location.
My explorations took me from the even ground of Goat Flat to a narrow ridgetop, where I became aware of a weird ecological effect. The ridge seemed to be the dividing line between pink and black rock, except the black color on the north side was actually a coating of lichen, flecked with bits of green lichen for ornamentation. The shade on the northern slopes must keep these lichens from drying out. Scrape all these rocks clean, and you’d get a mountain range with a much sunnier complexion. But it would no longer seem quite so grimly Scottish.