Week 12 | Rivers and Roads | Jul 28-Aug 3

Welcome back, readers!


Sunday, July 28 | Glory, glory, I slept in until 0600! Still freezing, I dragged my cold, crotchety bones into Fleecer. Joseph came in not too long after and we talked about chainsawing, which I’ve never done. Today is the last day of projects and my last chance to get my hands on one. It feels like a quintessential ERT experience and, while I didn’t want to be too pushy about it, given how dangerous it can be, I definitely wanted to give it a try.

At the morning meeting around the thawing bonfire, our small team went over the plan for the day. Kenan asked me if I’ve ever used a chainsaw, and I tried not to physically straighten up too much on the log I was sitting on. I said I had not chainsawed before, and he made it sound like today would be the day.

We set out in our dusty caravan to chop firewood at Beaver Dam Campground, about 15 minutes from Fleecer. I learned that “swamping” is moving the logs the sawyer cuts. Our team milled around a sloping hill like ants in yellow helmets with swampers lugging logs toward the bottom of the hill and rolling them down toward the trucks. Other Members at the bottom loaded them into the beds. All the while, tips about chainsawing flew around me like the merciless flies.

After a few rotations, it was my turn to strap on some chaps. I was a nervous and I made up my mind to just do a few cuts. The safety and technique tips kept coming for 20 more minutes before I touched the blade to any wood. The information overload from Mo, Clair, Mikayla, and Kenan, was no doubt helpful, but I started to feel overwhelmed. I wanted to call it quits—it was too much to remember and I didn’t even have to do it at all, my imposter syndrome told me. Despite feeling flushed and wanting to put down the saw, I finished the orientation and, finally, took a few cuts. The lady team watching over me was very positive and congratulatory, and I was very grateful for all of them. After a handful of cuts, I said I was good and that’s all I needed. I grabbed a few wood discs to take home and make into coasters (they would eventually turn into chew toys for my dog), gave my chaps back to the professionals, and returned to my place as swamper.

After a few hours, we returned to camp where word got around that I got to chainsaw. I was grateful for other people’s interest in my time on project and the sawyers who helped me said I did a great job for my first time with a chainsaw.

I wandered around the grounds looking for a way to spend the afternoon. I joined a group of about a dozen who headed into Butte for dinner at Piken Noodle House for Logan’s birthday. We came back to find a good amount of people around the campfire. Everyone had returned from their projects, showers, shopping, etc. and there was a raucous chorus of singers and the continuous clinking of glasses and cans of libations. As cold as the night was, the warmth of the fire draw me into the throng. I looked around at the joyful faces glowing the firelight, enjoying this last evening together before graduation. In my mind, I imagined a few years in the future when not everyone stays in touch or as close as they are now, but some do, and everyone remembers this night either way.

Above the revelry, I caught sight of the stars—nay—the cosmos, sprawled and frozen in a luminary spectacle far beyond the worth we on the ground could give it.

The Milky Way was clear and cold like a stained glass window, and within minutes of staring distractedly up at the sky I saw three meteors. I had my fill of the scene and slipped off to my tent so the team could spend the rest of the night enjoying each other’s company. The music and singing carried on for what I thought would be the rest of the night.

Then, as I was drifting off to sleep, an incident went down that changed the course and tone of the rest of our time in Montana.


Monday, July 29 | I finally braved the cold around 0600 wondering what the plan was for graduation. I completely forgot last night’s incident until I saw a note markered on the white board leaning against the fridge, where the schedule was usually posted: graduation is postponed. People slowly began stirring, some who were very surprised by the change plans because they were unaware of the event. Once most folks were awake, the Leadership Team had a morning meeting. They then informed us all that there was an incident last night and plans for graduation were up in the air, but details will be shared as soon as they are known.

I didn’t know whether to pack up or not, like a number of Members, so I went for a walk with six others down the road that leads to I-15. The cool breeze kept the sun from warming us up too quickly. We saw a wrangler moving some cows around the fields, and he, a man named Tim who wore a Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt, stopped to chat with us for a bit before he and his cattle dog moo-ved on with herd and we headed back to camp.

A new schedule was posted and our departure meeting for Elkhorn, MT, was now 1530. That left me enough time to jump in with Jason and Diana and head into town for laundry and lunch. A few exits away from where we wanted to pull into town our back passenger tire blew out. When I saw “blew,” I really mean we were looking at a gash as long as my hand on the tire. The jack in the truck wasn’t working, but with the help of a friendly highway worker who lent us his jack, socket wrench, and WD-40, we put on the spare and continued on our way. It was the third tire our trucks had blown this week (the other two were on the same truck), and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

Butte’s famous laundromat/tanning salon/cafe that other ERT Members raved about was closed, so we went to another, less exciting one near a Pita Pit, where we grabbed some lunch. Kenan met us at the laundromat to grab the blown tire and take it to Walmart to get a replacement. Once our laundry was done, we met Kenan and waited for the mechanics to replace and rotate the back tires. All in all, it ended up being a hectic trip, but Diana, Jason and I enjoyed ourselves nonetheless.

By the time we got on the road back to Fleecer, it was just after 1530 and rain clouds were moving in on all sides of the valley. I remembered that I left one side of my rain fly open and Fleecer was shrouded in a grey curtain of rain. In a quick turnaround, we packed up our tents and joined the rest of the team for the drive from Fleecer to Elkhorn by way of MT-43 and MT-278 through Big Hole Valley. It was one of the most beautiful drives I’ve ever taken. The pointed peaks waited under rain shadow, like they have for a millennia, on the perimeter of the valley holding the winding Big Hole River. I didn’t know how far west we were  until I realized that Idaho lay on the other side of the mountain peaks to the west.

Where we ended up I believe is meant to be a surprise, so here’s where I leave you hanging!


Tuesday, July 30 | We pick up again at the dispersing of the team the next morning. We were given the time to be back at Fleecer, everyone divided up among the trucks to make the most of our free time before heading back to camp. I hopped in a truck that stopped at Crystal Park, where people can dig up crystals straight from the ground . . .

. . . drove the Pioneer Mountain Scenic Byway . . .

. . . and explored the Coolidge ghost town.

Back at Fleecer, we finally had a place and time for Graduation. Our massive caravan of green pickup trucks and hoopty vans climbed Mount Fleecer until the treeline gave way to a meadow overlooking the Pioneer Mountains flanking the valley below, cut down the middle by the Big Hole River.

On the way up, I thought about my time with ERT so far. It’s been a quick 2-ish months, and I’ve tried my best to earn this trip. More than digging holes and hauling logs, it was conversations and laughs that helped me find my place, the Members being so kind to bring me into the fold, telling me, “You’re one of us!” Montana was a treasure to me before this trip, and now it means even more memories and lovely people. At the crest of the pine line, Bruce expressed his deep and humble pride in what Y25 accomplished this year. It was clear how much he appreciated the hard work and personal growth that transpired since last September. 

As his speech wore on, Bruce showered his accolades upon the Members as dark scud clouds stretched over our heads, seeming to reach toward the valley below, and the light from thunderbolts flitted across the grey overhang. When a full-on downpour was nothing short of imminent, Bruce put his spiel on hold just in time for us to scramble back to the trucks. No sooner had the truck doors closed that the first drops pecked at the windshields, and we were chased down by a thunderstorm that pelted the cabs and beds with dime-sized hail. As the caravan lumbered through the cold and slushy descent, the rain shower amplified the scent of the pines that once again cleared away some more deep-down cobwebs in my lungs that I didn’t even know I needed to take care of. I wanted to bottle up the fragrance—like a fresh Christmas tree’s perfume on the first day it comes into your house—and take it home. The lower elevations harbored less hail and brought more rain, but by the time we reached Fleecer, the sun was out and a faint rainbow hung in the rain shadow hiding the mountains across the valley opposite of where we had just enjoyed the previous vista.

After a short regroup, we carried on with the Graduation traditions, which I will keep secret so it’s still a surprise for Y26. However, I will share that there was a moment when I was recognized by my supervisor in front of everyone as part of the team. Having offered my VISTA position to 3 people before I accepted, the search to fill the last puzzle piece had been a waiting game and, “We waited for the right person.”

As graduation concludes, I suddenly felt the most alone since leaving St. Louis. I was puzzled at this, especially following my restoration of faith in humanity evoked by graduation. This feeling reminded me of when I was first learning to dance bachata and salsa. After a night out with friends at Club Viva in St. Louis’s Central West End, I felt inspired to put in the time to improve. I looked up choreography, took some lessons, practiced, and even had a little fun with a guy who ended up being my husband. I thought I knew enough to look like I knew what I was doing—or, at least, like I wasn’t a total beginner. Next time at Club Viva, I thought I packed my confidence along with my heels. Then, looking around at the dancers, I instantly felt discouraged. How can I ever be as good as them, when some of them look like they’ve been dancing for years? I wondered how I could ever have such an impact on this organization as some of the decorated Members, especially as the only person having not done ERT. 

Imposter syndrome made itself a home in my mind for the remainder is the evening, though certainly not as a result of any actions by anyone here. I focused my energies on cozying up for my last night outside and organizing for the pack out tmrw. Yet again, Montana, I leave you full of precious memories and brain twisters. With this Big Sky seems to also come Big Questions, Big Decisions, and Big Reflections, and I both love and hate it.

My camp light faded with the last of the mountain sunset and light raindrops ticked atop my rain fly as people belted from the cabin living room,

Rivers and roads, rivers and roads, rivers til I meet you.


Wednesday, July 30 | One last time, at sunrise I emerged from my winter-crisp cocoon to scrounge together some breakfast, collect all my extraneous items, and pack up. But, catching this last sunset made it a little more worth it.

We had our last meeting as a whole team; half of us were staying for a few more weeks, and some people were leaving right upon their return, so it was the last time most of us would be together. I busied myself with loading any gear I could find to keep myself moving while people hugged and said some final goodbyes. I was grateful to have been sought by some to get a hug, too. Nonetheless, I jumped into Growler as soon as we go the “go” to send a team ahead to Walmart to get food for the road.

We left for Rapid City, SD, around 1030. With only a few hours of mountain views left in this trip, I savored each passing range. The unabashed midday sun washed out  the distant peaks.

I wondered, as I often do, what the landscape looked like before the separated highways, lonely ranches, cattle clusters, wheat fields, power lines, and valley towns.

A blowout 30 miles west of Hardin, MT, left us to discover two stripped lug nuts and no way to replace the tire. Some of us hopped in Vanna to continue on while two Members stayed back to wait for AAA. Rolling 11 deep in a van whose A/C worked only on the downhills was not exactly ideal, especially not after I realized my headphones were in my other bag back in Growler. Clouds thickened as we neared the Wyoming border, and for hours we wound through dramatic clouds, impressive lightning, and heavy downpours. 

We stopped in Gillette, WY, around the time we originally planned to arrive in Rapid City—with two hours to go. We got caught in a particularly electric storm with non-stop lightning and deluges that made for treacherous driving. The A/C gave out and the cabin was quickly overcome with the smell of junk food, old sweat, and wet gear. We finally arrived at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Rapid City around 2230, where I quickly retreated to a small Sunday school classroom to sleep.


Thursday, August 1 | It was a nice change to sleep under a roof and over a level surface again. We mobilized early and got on the road again, eastbound, by 0730. On the way out of Rapid City, I saw a sign pointing to Mount Rushmore only 30 miles south. The drive was uneventful (thankfully), and I was happy to be back in a vehicle with A/C. I even managed to get a nap in between our lunch stop in Mitchell, SD, and Sioux City, IA.

Over the course of the day, I heard various opinions about the incident from last week. It’s clear that I will need to pay attention to behavioral red flags and use those social work skills to help identify pressure points between Members in hopes of mitigating human blowouts.

Our last pit stop for the day was Mission Valley, back through the flooded fields along the Nebraska and Missouri border, an on to Green Valley Baptist Church in St. Joseph, MO. We stayed in a parish office where all the guys had to sleep in the central meeting room while the ladies set up in the numerous offices on the other side of the hallway. I had a room to myself, where I fell asleep reading all the Creationist posters on the walls. One more night, then I’ll be back in my own bed.


Friday, August 2 | After such a long trip, all I can say is that we got back to HQ around 1330, unloaded and cleaned the trucks, and dispersed for the weekend.


I hope you enjoyed reading about my Montana experience! It feels pretty long ago now, but writing it has been therapeutic for me nonetheless. This is the longest post I’ll have for awhile, so thanks for hanging in there and reading!

Ellen

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