Montana has a long tradition of listening to and respecting — revering — its writers and the state’s literary tradition. In an unprecedented show of unity, more than forty of Montana’s best writers have gathered, in rapid response fashion, to write original essays and testimonials advocating for the protection of our public lands, and endorsing Democratic House of Representatives candidate Rob Quist’s position on this (literally) most common ground of issues. Please vote on May 25.

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A Creek of Our Own

Allen Morris Jones

This is a very short essay on an enormous topic. And it starts in Bozeman, Montana. Where I live with my wife and six-year-old son. Growing by almost 4 percent a year, Bozeman sits cupped by mountains, at a distance but still close enough to be felt. Veined through with creeks and trellised with hiking trails, they are the reason most of us live here.

I’m an avid hiker and hunter, but also father to a six-year-old little boy. He’s just now emerging from that netherworld of too big for the backpack but not big enough for a long hike. For the last couple of years, when I’ve said, “Let’s go for a hike,” what I’ve really meant is, “Let’s go for a stroll.” Usually with snacks.

We’ve topped out on the saddle below Sacajawea Peak in the Bridgers. We’ve camped at tree line in the Tobacco Roots. But mostly we’ve flirted around the edges of the Gallatin National Forest. Lots of sticks bounced rhythmically off of tree trunks, lots of stones pried up from creek sand and tossed into the current with the most satisfying of plops. We’ve seen ospreys pulling fish from lakes. We’ve seen river otters and elk and more waterfowl than you can count.

What’s most remarkable, however, is what we have not seen. Barbed wire fences across trailheads. “No trespassing” signs. We haven’t had to dodge outraged landowners. We’ve not felt furtive, or put upon. We have felt at home.

My son is devoted to his comic books, as I was. Defensive of his leisure time. Maybe a little resentful when we ask him to go for a hike. But then he blooms into it. During the course of a morning in the woods, he becomes happier. More carefree. Chattier. I’ve seen it time and again.

The history of our national forests is a story of how things can, against all odds, occasionally go right in politics. Everyone can hike these trails, regardless of ethnicity, income, education, language, or politics. Us, me, you, them. They have been our guaranteed inheritance as American citizens. In today’s poisonous political context, I find it to be a cheering affirmation of larger cultural values. We are a place, and a people, who acknowledge that yes, this is something we need, something we value. Everyone deserves this.

To hike even ten, fifteen minutes up one of Bozeman’s trails, far enough to leave the traffic noise behind, is to gain a perspective that has nothing to do with altitude. It is to find the valve on pressures that maybe you didn’t know were building. Ten minutes into the woods, you can be consoled by the syllables of streams, by the sound of wind through pines. You can be pleasantly diminished by the realization that, grand scheme of things, it’s not all about you. The bones of the world are fleshed heavy with ongoing narratives, and most of them not of our making. You can come to the woods, or not. Things will proceed.

Like most of us, I’ve taken it for granted.

Until recently.

Until last year’s Republican platform included this language: “Congress shall immediately pass universal legislation providing a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to the states.” The reasonable corollary, the expectation, being that the states will then sell them on the private market. 

The umbrage I feel at this. The very personal insult. The outrage on behalf of my son.

Who the hell do these people think they are? To take this away from us.

The rejoinder, of course, is that the platform doesn’t speak to these lands. It’s other lands. Lands that nobody wants, maybe; or that make less sense to maintain. But here’s the thing: Whatever rationalization is being used to initiate the swindle of those lands can just as easily be used to target these lands. And having gotten away with it once, they will certainly try to do it again, and again, and again. Until there’s nothing left.

Until one of the things that define us as Americans, that allow us to say, without irony, that we live in a free country, will have gone the way of the passenger pigeon.

It’s April, as I write this. And from my window, I can see snow falling over the Gallatins to the south. Nice to see moisture this time of year. Midsummer, that snowpack will still be feeding the Gallatin River. The water we drink.

April, and we’re three months into the presidency of a man whom I despise so thoroughly that I can’t write his name, can’t listen to his voice on the radio. That his transparent, self-serving con job could have been swallowed wholesale by so many of my fellow voters has represented a tectonic shift in my view of our country. Dishes rattled, chandeliers swayed, and everything in the world moved a few inches to one side. This isn’t quite the country that I had believed it to be. Racism and misogyny aren’t as despised as I had hoped; gaudy cynicism more prevalent than I had feared.

Make America great again? As a start, how about keeping it great. Keeping public lands in the hands of the public. Where my son might eventually take one of his kids up into the woods, far from the sound of traffic, to pry stones up from the sand and plop them into the creek. A creek that they will own, along with the rest of our country. All of us.

Even the bastards who want to take it away from him.

Allen Morris Jones is the publisher of Bangtail Press and author, most recently, of the novel A Bloom of Bones.