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The Fourth Plateau: An Essay

Chris enjoys photographing the places he visits. He shares these photos as travel articles and also mixes them with creative writing.

Lolo Peak

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I went straight home after work today, as normal, to let my six-year-old border collie mix outside after being shut inside all day. When I stepped into the house, Darby met me like he always does, by running between my knees, twisting around one leg or the other, rising and falling, doubling back like a dragon costume in a Mardi Gras parade. He only stopped when I rubbed his back and sides. He reached up and licked my cheek just once. This is the only time he ever does that, but he never fails to do it. What I am describing, is Darby’s happy dance which he performs every day when I come home from work.

One reason he gets so excited is that he knows we are going to go outside and have some kind of adventure. You see, I travel for a living. The fact that I am not home means that I don’t have many of the responsibilities that go along with being there. I fill that time with recreational pursuits such as kayaking, hiking, camping, and fishing. Today, Darby and I were going to go morel mushroom hunting here in western Montana. Morels look something like an elongated, pointed sponge. I’ll provide a photo as well.

Lolo Creek, Montana

I believe it is still just a little too early in spring for morels. Lots of people are out looking, but few are finding any. Darby and I drove to the community of Lolo, Montana and headed west on highway twelve. After ten miles, we turned south on a National Forest road. These roads can be quite rough, and this one helped keep that impression alive. My eighteen-year-old Jeep was shaken and rattled enough to knock a few days off its already extended career.

Morels in Montana seem to like to grow where the forest burned the previous year. I don’t mean to imply there is an upside to a devastating wildfire. But it is what it is. Morels like to grow in these burned areas.

Cattle Along Lolo Creek

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I usually find a relatively level area to hunt, but today I chose to climb a narrow ravine up the side of the mountain. I searched both sides as I climbed. Eventually, I climbed the right side of the ravine and proceeded up toward a level place, like a terrace on the side of the mountain. It was a steep climb and yielded no morels. Darby and I prepared to go back down, but I looked up and saw another terrace. I talked it over with Darby, and we decided to climb again.

We found no mushrooms, but the view was improving. Again we were faced with the choice. We could go down or keep climbing to yet another terrace. At this point, it was obvious we would find no morels. It was still too cold and too early in the season. The next plateau tempted and teased us like a man might tease a kitten with a toy mouse on the end of a string. We chased the mouse to the next plateau.

Lolo Creek

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My legs burned. Darby didn’t seem to mind even a little. He bounded ahead, came back down to encourage me and darted upward again. That’s the difference between weighing sixty pounds and two hundred plus pounds.

We stood on the third terrace looking up at a fourth. It truly appeared to be the last. The view was magnificent and served to drive us upward to see the Lolo National Forest and the Bitterroot Mountains from the peak.

Spring flowers bloomed all around us as we climbed. Yellow daisies, tiny white stars, blue, and red covered the grassy slope that was now barren of trees. We had left the ponderosa pines behind. Hoofprints were everywhere as were the droppings of an elk herd that must have grazed on this hillside that very morning. Darby loped straight up. I, on the other hand, zig-zagged to reduce the steepness.

Morel Mushroom

I could hear water flowing on my left where a stream carried rainwater and snowmelt to the larger creek near my Jeep. That creek flowed toward the highway which skirted the swollen Lolo Creek. A few miles east, all streams and creeks fed the mighty Bitterroot River. Even that river eventually lost its identity as it converged with the Clark Fork River on the edge of the city of Missoula at Kelly Island.

We were now hundreds of feet, maybe even a thousand feet above where the Jeep was parked on the dirt road below. The wind was cool, the sky overcast. Lolo Peak, still capped with snow, towered above us at nearly ten thousand feet. But we had reached the peak we had chosen and the view was marvelous. Unfortunately, I had no camera, not even my phone. All around us on the sides of other mountains were the mighty ponderosa pines with their orange-red bark contrasting with the surrounding browns and greens.

Ponderosa PIne

I was exhausted. After searching one more burned area for morels, I lay down on the mountaintop and took a nap on the grass. When I woke up, the sky was darker with threatening clouds. It felt cold enough to snow. I wore only my short sleeved fly fishing shirt.

Before we began our descent, I surveyed the top of the peak. It was a good place to set up camp sometime. I’ll go back, maybe soon, and make the climb again, this time with my full backpack. It will be a slow climb which hopefully will be rewarded with a few morels for dinner.

Darby, Morel Hound

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Not having a camera can be a good thing, sometimes. We are forced to look, to take it all in, to mentally preserve the beauty. When I go back, I’ll be sure to have a way to visually record the climb and view. But for now, picture in your own mind, mountain peak after mountain peak, some topped with trees, others so high, only snow and rock survive. See the grassy slopes where bighorn sheep might graze or elk. It would even be a good place to spot a black bear with her newborn cubs playing on the hillside.

When was the last time a human being stood where I was standing? I like to think it’s been years, and that the naked hillside has been traversed by hooves and paws only. This is the proper way for a man to observe nature. He does not invade it, trample it, abuse it or even use it at a time like this. He is part of it and is not the focal point of the scene. Man is the central figure in the timeline landscape of nature, only in his own mind.

Comments

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on July 08, 2018:

Lawrence and Shauna, I'm going back and catching up on comments I failed to answer. I read both of yours shortly after you left them...probably on my phone while I was at work. Thank you both for your constant support.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on June 15, 2018:

This is a very contemplative piece, Chris. Without technology at your hands, the majesty of Nature lends itself to reflection and awe.

I was hoping you'd find some morels on the fourth plateau, but I think you found something more valuable: appreciation for undisturbed wildlife habitat.

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on June 05, 2018:

Chris

I got the chance to visit Montana about thirty years ago, it was amazing to see.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on June 04, 2018:

Lawrence, thanks for joining me on this little excursion into the wilderness. I'll keep posting hubs like this for as long as I am blessed to live and work in the great State of Montana.

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on June 04, 2018:

Chris

Wonderful descriptions here, it seemed like I was climbing with you.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on May 17, 2018:

I love the hills close up and distant. This nature experience you describe is invigorating, peaceful and mysterious. Thank you for sharing.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on May 13, 2018:

manatita, your observations would be in keeping with my childhood: ponies, teepees in the woods, homemade bows and arrows.

The creek is Lolo. I misspelled it on the video but have changed it. In a few weeks it will be back to being a relatively small, quiet creek after the snow melts in the mountains.

Thank you for your Mothers' Day thoughts regarding Sandy. Much appreciated.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on May 13, 2018:

Doris, thanks for reading. I will get some photos of this location next time I venture up to the top. It has to be soon so I can get all the flowers as well as the other scenery.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on May 13, 2018:

Bill, I get so wrapped up in seeing and doing that I haven't looked into the history. I'm sure that would yield some good writing material.

Chris Mills (author) from Traverse City, MI on May 13, 2018:

Ann, whenever I think of photography and nature, I think of a movie I saw about a family being on vacation. They arrived at the Grand Canyon. The father jumped out of the motorhome and shot video. They were in such a hurry, he told the family to stay inside and they would watch it later.

manatita44 from london on May 13, 2018:

You write like a Red Indian and seem to share the same Spirit. Who knows what we were? My black friend in America was told by Guruji that he was an Englishman in his last incarnation, and had swam the English Channel three times! Naturally, he looked him up. The swimmer had the same first name.

The scenes are beautiful and you seem to have an interesting relationship with the dog.

LILO creek's flowing waters are majestic and powerful. Remembering your wife on Mothering Sunday. Have a great day!

Doris James MizBejabbers from Beautiful South on May 11, 2018:

"A picture is worth a thousand words," (attributed to somebody) but the real thing is priceless (my addition). That sounds like a day well spent, just man and his best friend. Your description is beautiful. It took me back to my visit to the Rockies in Colorado. I've never been to Montana but hopefully I can make it someday. Thanks for a great description and beautiful photos.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on May 11, 2018:

I know Lolo Creek well. There's some great history of the west associated with that Creek...great place to hunt for mushrooms or just stand in awe of nature.

Ann Carr from SW England on May 11, 2018:

Excellent article, Chris. I particularly like your observations in the last two paragraphs. We all need to stop to look at nature, to think about our surroundings and so on, rather than treat them as a photographic commodity. Our interaction with nature is important for us to value it, to feel its effect on us, to respect it. Bravo for reminding us all of this!

Great pics too! Darby looks just like a labrador/collie mix I once had; she was full of beans like yours and even grinned! I enjoyed this very much.

Ann