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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.

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