Rocky Mountain High

I am sitting in my room at a Hampton Inn in Helena, Montana. Helena is not your typical destination for either business or pleasure, particularly at the end of October. Perhaps this is because Helena (like most of Montana) can be a challenge to even get to, since it seems too remote from most of the rest of the lower forty-eight.

To get to Helena by air usually requires transferring planes in Salt Lake City. Salt Lake City is one of the more spectacular airports to fly into. When flying in from the east it means descending rather sharply over some very craggy and often snowy jagged mountains. The Great Salt Lake is impossible to miss since you usually fly right over it from the north. With so many mountains in the way, pilots must turn one hundred and eighty degrees before landing from the south. Book a window seat.

You reach Helena via Concourse E, a busy hub full of commuter jets. These are the kinds of jets that require most passengers to stoop while standing in the cabin. If you do not you risk head injury. Montana is about an hour from Salt Lake City by air. A night flight to Helena reveals little but an inky blackness outside the window. Then Helena appears like an oasis of light.

I am here until Friday. I expected Helena to be a bit detached from the real world. I expected (shudder) dial up access to the Internet, if that was even available. My fears were unfounded. The Hampton Inn here has high-speed internet access, as do most of the hotels in the city. You will find most of the chains here that appear elsewhere.

Montana is “Big Sky Country”. You certainly get that sense when visiting Helena. For those of us who live on the East Coast, Montana seems almost pristine. If Helena were Northern Virginia, its surrounding real estate would quickly be turned into numerous, ugly and poorly planned subdivisions. For now Helena seems to have achieved some balance between the needs of a growing population and the palpable feeling of wildness that is here.

Montana is a state of big vistas. Its grandeur is impossible to miss. Montana feels limitless. Its relative remoteness, something of a hindrance in the past, is also its biggest asset. For now the growth of cities like Helena, the state capital, seems modest compared to the frenetic growth where I live. Yet it is still worrisome, even if cities like Helena are proactively purchasing land to ensure its most pristine areas are never encroached on by development. Happily, the federal government does its part. Large parts of this part of the state are part of national forests.

My reason for being here on business starts tomorrow. Today was my chance to experience the natural wonder of Montana. Since 2003 when my family and I peeked into Montana from Yellowstone National Park, I have been intrigued by Montana. I remain no less enamored now with a closer exposure. Wendy, a fellow USGS employee, flew in a day early to experience Montana with me. Dave, one of my employees who work out here, acted as our guide to natural wonder. This meant hiking.

I love hiking but I am out of practice. Dave took us up many a winding, steeply ascending gravel road to the end of a trail that begins in a city park eight miles away. For four and a half hours, we hiked over many a meadow, and scaled two peaks, including Mount Helena itself. Hiking in November in Montana can be chancy. Precipitation was expected, but we also had to deal with howling winds that threatened to toss us down the side of the mountain. The temperatures began in the low 30s and gradually ascended into the forties. Precipitation did arrive, first as flurries, which was followed by periods of spattering rain, often mixed with sunshine.

This climb turned out to be a bit too ambitious for me. Even with good hiking shoes, this was a challenging hike, with the descents proving more painful to my legs than the ascents. My legs and feet were up to the challenge, but just barely. Descending Mount Helena was particularly difficult. My right legs felt like gelatin. There was no lack of dangerous gravel, treacherous slopes and large, sharp rocks to make the hiking challenging.

Yet the views were spectacular. There is little that can compare with such a direct experience with nature. While I am now popping ibuprofen to deal with the inflammation in my leg, I do not begrudge the pain. I am just grateful I had the time and the experience to get my own Rocky Mountain High.

The rest of my week will be full of business. It is unlikely that I will get to experience too much more of Montana’s natural side. Nevertheless, I hope for at least one clear night before I leave. I want the opportunity to drive my rental car out of the city to a very dark spot, turn off the lights, and revel in the tapestry of the stars in a way that is impossible out east. In Montana, nature is impossible to wholly escape. It is a shame that in so many other parts of the country, it is hard to feel its majesty.

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