Migratory Notions and Desert Solidarity

By CLAY SPRINGMEYER

A few weeks ago I stood under a clogged sky swirling with nearly two hundred thousand snow geese. I traveled with the University of Montana Wilderness Institute’s Wilderness and Civilization program to Freezout Lake, near Choteau, MT, on the east side of the Rockies.

We watched the geese ebb and flow, a kaleidoscope of black wing tips and white bodies on their migratory route back to Canada, Russia, and the arctic. As many as three hundred thousand geese take a layover at Freezout Lake to feed on the nearby Anheuser Busch barley fields before flying, sometimes for three weeks straight, the rest of their journey northward.

We arrived on a Saturday afternoon in late March, and the sky was full of the honking white creatures. The sound of two hundred thousand snow geese trumpeting is a cacophony only comparable to a 6th grade band concert or a massive alien invasion. The only distinction between the other two being, surprisingly, that the music of the goose choir is actually enjoyable.

On a more serious note, it is moments like these, where my sense of human importance is humbled: we are not the most abundant species on this planet by any means, we are simply the most invasive, dominant, and innovative.

The night we arrived the temperature dropped, and there was a massive goose exodus. That is to say, things got chilly, so the geese picked up their feathers and took off for warmer scenery. Laying in the dark of my tent and comfortably wrapped in my father’s old down sleeping bag, I could hear the flapping of hundreds of thousands of wings beating the night air as the snow geese followed their migratory instincts.

This spring break, I felt a similar urge pulling me south. Not wanting to spend another snowy spring break in Missoula, I stuffed my Osprey pack with sesame sticks, trail mix, and chocolate, and headed for Moab, UT — Edward Abbey country.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my backpacking journeys, it’s that things rarely go exactly according to plan. That’s part of what makes it fun. The group I traveled with had a plan to explore the Dark Canyon Wilderness area, embedded in the Manti-LaSal National Forest in south east Utah. We bought our topo maps of the area, knew where we would find water, where we would camp, and where we would explore.

Thirty miles up a winding mountain road into the Bureau of Land Management Monticello District, at about 9,000 feet (about 5,800 feet higher than Missoula) our plan was halted by a steep road covered in snow, ice, and mud. We abandoned our original plan and with evening approaching, picked a random road and rolled down it until we found a place to hole up for the night.

After a delicious meal of noodles served in a Thai-peanut sauce, I curled into my bag and was about to drift off into sleep when I heard something that made my heart drop:

“I locked my keys in the car,” said Rose, “with all my gear in it.” Not just her gear, but also the gear of the two men that drove up with her.

Damn.

We woke up to fat snowflakes dumping on our tents and tried to figure out the best way to break into Rose’s car, when a fortuitous encounter with a group of ATVers changed our predicament. I ran out to the road to catch them before they passed us and told them our situation. One of them quickly offered to notify the Sheriff as soon as he got service on his phone. Later that day, a locksmith drove all the way up to our location from Monticello, a good two hour drive, and retrieved the key for a cool $200. Thank you, nameless ATV guy, wherever you are.

While we waited for help to arrive, we sat by the fire under a tarp and collected the snow melt from the top of the tarp in pots and pans so we’d have water for our hike into the desert. The thing about drinking snow you’ve melted by a fire pit is that it tastes like liquid smoke, an acquired taste.

A few of us found mountain lion tracks in the fresh snow and spent some time tracking them while we waited. Eventually the tracks lead to a point by the side of the road where it was obvious the cat had been sitting and watching the road like a hungry teenager might watch a food conveyer belt at an all you can eat Chinese buffet. This makes me wonder how many mountain lions watched our party as we made our way through the desert, a thought that makes my skin crawl a little.

The desert is a hostile and beautiful place. Everything that lives there has a certain grittiness about it, from the twisted bark of ancient junipers to the spiny cactus, the armored scorpions to the hairy tarantulas. The sun scorches the sweeping sandstone vistas in the day, while it reaches near or below freezing temperatures in the night.

And the wind! There was not a night I spent in the desert where the wind wasn’t whipping sand and violently buffeting our tent, whose zipper conveniently decided to stop working.

I woke up in the middle of the night with sand in my mouth, the walls of the tent shaking as if under the duress of an earthquake. All I could do was laugh and remember that I was in the desert, and hope that scorpions hadn’t discovered the crack in our tent door.

The Martian landscape gave me an appreciation for any life that managed to survive in that area. I would stoop and stare at the green bumpy skin of a cactus, or the black lichen – cryptobiotic soil – that covers around 70 percent of the exposed ground, a life form whose fossils date back 3.5 billion years.

We scrambled up and down dried up river beds carved out of sandstone, ancient ponderosa pines lining their banks, in search of water and for exploration’s sake. When we did find water, it was in tiny green and scummy pools that had sat stewing in the desert sun for who knows how long. Two cycles of our water purifiers made this scummy water taste a thousand times better than the smoky water we had gained from snow melt, though.

When we would discover these ponds, we would fill up a three gallon plastic container and take turns lugging it around the canyons with us. This container, both our saving grace and biggest inconvenience, was affectionately nicknamed “Sumo-baby.”

Backpacking is an exercise of survival, a full immersion into a landscape, and an exploration of the Self. I always come out of the woods with a little better understanding of what makes me tick, as well as a stronger sense of connection to the world around me.

I don’t want to romanticize my week in the desert like Thoreau or Emerson might have tried to: it is a harsh environment with an awe inspiring landscape, full of dangerous animals and elements that will kill you if you’re not smart about what you’re doing. That being said, it is for those very reasons that I appreciate the desert.

The thought of a mountain lion at my back or a rattlesnake under the rock just ahead makes me feel alive and focused; engaged. More often than not I find myself lost in the concrete jungles of our cities, just floating along, not really awake.

Walk at green, stop at red. Stopping and going and stopping again. In the desert, or even in the woods outside of Missoula, this mode of alertness becomes obsolete as you become a part of the landscape.

I’ve been home in Missoula for two days now, back among the luxuries of refrigeration, running water, and electricity, and today there is some construction happening down the block. There is a small notice hanging on our doorknob informing us that our water will be turned off from 9 to 5 today, something I would normally consider a large inconvenience, however in light of my recent journey spent scouring the desert for any grimy water I could find, eight hours without running water at the lift of a handle hardly seems worth a complaint.

I would like to encourage any and all of my readers to leave a comment with some of their memorable outdoor experiences, as discussions are always more interesting than monologues.  Thanks for reading, be good to each other, go exploring, and stay hydrated.

~CLS

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A little about me: I escape the city as often as possible to go on random outdoor excursions. I enjoy standing in the middle of bridges for extended periods of time. I love reading. I love dogs. I also love making music, dancing, potlucks, pretending to be a zombie on Halloween, gardening, running on trails, cooking with garlic, copious amount of hot sauce, falling leaves in autumn, and drinking black coffee. I also love writing, and feel fortunate to offer my weekly perspective as a college student to the Make it Missoula collective.