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.

The Palace of Ordinary People

Chris Dombrowski

Once while hunting mule deer in Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness, I encountered what I like to call a ghost.

Late November in the snowy Front Range on a cold, still day, I cleared a stand of leafless aspen and paused to catch my breath in the dappled light. Curds of hail dropped from the sky, ticking my upturned face. From the sheer cliff up-slope, sand trickled audibly from a circular cave wide as two horse troughs and twice as deep, a stone eye weeping a very old tear. A creature could live a long time in there quite undisturbed, I thought. Suddenly, a wind rushed down-mountain, spilled over the scarp like a waterfall, and rattled the scree at my feet. Then the air went still again.

On my neck, invisible hackles rose in reptilian alert, a familiar but nonetheless quickening backcountry sensation. Deep in grizzly bear territory, I listened for a sow’s warning woof, but deduced that fear that hadn’t frozen me. Nor had the instinct to cup an ear towards the draw and listen for antler tine against tree limb. Seven miles from the trailhead and another dozen down a dirt road from a small Front Range town, the hunter in me recalled his empty chest freezer back home and urged the poet in me uphill — but it was awe that shackled me in place.

I turned north, more awe.

East: a third potent dose, this one coupled with the feral notion that another human being must have, at some point in history, ascended this ridge-spine to this precise location, regarded the circumference of his or her surroundings, and, with a wild shudder, lifted arms to the sky in amazement.  

I felt fortunate to commune with even a trace of this remaining wonder, albeit presumed, or at best perceived, on my part. “We left what we felt at what we saw,” wrote Nobel-winner Czeslaw Milosz, and for generations we Montanans have marked this unsurpassed landscape with our appreciation for it. We have planted our love for the mountains, buttes, hills, hoo-doos, canyons, draws, coulees, rivers, streams, springs, and rills in the very soil of this great state. Our experiences on public land, what someone once called “the palace of ordinary people,” have bound us to the country that we access for solitude, adventure, food, and livelihood, among myriad other reasons. 

Today, from my desk, a hundred or so miles as the crow flies from the aforementioned cave, I’ll allow that the metaphysical notion of what the Celts called a “thin place” and the Greeks called a “numen” — a sacred location — might be hard to sell in Washington these days. And so I return my attention to the physical world and the strand of spring water eked from the rocks near my feet that cold November evening. After a long quiet while, I knelt down and sipped from it.  

And now from my knees, I beg you: keep our public lands public. Do not commodify them in any way.

Chris Dombrowski and is poet and writer who lives in Missoula, Montana.

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