I have been thinking a lot about Montana and what exactly it means to me. Is the East the best of Montana? Is my favorite mountain range the Beartooths? Or does Western Montana take the cake with its vast forests and mountains? Hell if I know. What I do know, is that Norms Island is one of the most special places in the world to me and is a place you will hear me talk about again and again. In this essay I try to do it justice.
Turning off the highway, I emit a sigh of relief as if I’ve dodged a speeding bullet. The old truck that was riding my ass accelerates again, and I chuckle at the irony of his pissing and moaning, all fueled by my fancy of escaping the stresses of the road and the city it leads to. A sign reads “Norm’s Schoenthal Island,” but I don’t see it, I know where I am going and am already weaving my way through the maze of pot holes and ruts. The best route involves swerving back and forth across the road, at one point rounding a daring corner while hugging the left side, praying to avoid a collision with one of the Subaru Outbacks that frequent the place. Once around the corner my view opens up, I roll down my passenger window so Zip, my faithful lab and partner in crime, can get a head-start on taking in the sights and smells. He grins, I grin, and we both admire the ponds full of Canadian geese, mallards and other various water fowl, each of us having different thoughts about their usefulness. Zip turns back into the car letting out a whine of excitement. He walks across my lap, delivering a sloppy kiss to my cheek as he makes his way to my window, and joins me in admiring the noble cottonwood trees lining the other side of the road. I pull into the parking lot and smile, “Perfect,” I tell Zip, “we don’t have to share today.” It is early spring and the rain stopped a little over an hour ago, meaning the trails would be muddy enough to keep all but the hardiest of walkers away. Out of habit I clip a short leash onto Zip; it is a dull pink, bright red in its prime but weathered from being dragged over fallen trees and through bushes and mud. I open the door, already bracing myself as Zip clambers over me, desperate to get out into the fresh air and check the small rock statue, stained by years of dog social etiquette. I step out and take a deep breath in, smelling the moisture in the air and the sweet scent the local plants give off if in celebration of the water. “It’s a great day for a walk,” I tell Zip as I pass by, his nose pressed up against the rocks and mine embracing the sky.
I stop in the middle of the bridge that separates the parking lot and the actual island, first looking upstream at Bebe’s Channel, then down. Upstream I can see a small group of mallards, the regulars. They are endlessly swirling around an eddy in the wake of an island covered in willows toasted with orange from the sap running through their veins. Paradise. Downstream there is a great log jam, a playground only children can dream of, left by the ebbing flow of the water. I lean over the rail, dropping a few blades of grass with a mischievous smile. The local fish will rise to anything. Satisfied, I walk the rest of the way over the bridge, whistling a light but sharp note, letting Zip know that I wouldn’t mind some company. Here the trail divides into two forks, just one big loop. I always take the right path, going left just seems wrong, the whole cycle and journey ends up being a convoluted mess. Besides, Zip has already run ahead and I am not about to go against his decision. This stage of the walk is all about getting into the rhythm. Everything before has been a shock to the system, a surprise to my city-ridden mind. After this transition, this world will become the normal, and a life in the city unexpected, foreign. As it should be.
Up ahead I can see the forts, an ever changing combination of limbs and weapon-like sticks that are in constant contest between the neighborhood children and the nearby Audubon Center programs. I smile, remembering the summer afternoons, “teaching?” Ha. The kids don’t need to be taught how to play. With the helicopter parents left behind, the child behind the prodigy, behind the videogames, leaves the grasp of their mother’s hand, running, falling, laughing. I wander through the current structures, one an oversized teepee and the other a rudimentary lean-to. The entrances are all far too small for me to fit into and inside my head would be scraping the ceiling. “Hell if I care,” I tell myself, lifting off a few branches and squeezing my way into the small entrance of the tepee. Before I can fail miserably at getting comfortable, Zip rescues me, running through the entrance and urging me to get a move on. He wants to go for a swim. Getting out is much more complicated. Crawling on my hands and knees backwards to get out of the small hole, more sticks than I felt was necessary jut into my backside and head. Struggling free, I stand up and shake the various dirt and grass from my hair, likely leaving enough behind to strike up a conversation. Zip is standing at my side, panting with his tongue never quite making it fully back into his mouth. Seeing me shake free, he gives a quick high pitched bark, repaying the favor in letting me know that he was quite ready. “Well, alright then, lead on,” I say extending my hand down the trail. Zip pushes off with his back legs like a sprinter at the sound of a pistol shot, and we are on our way.
Before we get to the river, the landscape opens up from the thick embrace of the willow bushes and is replaced by an welcoming field of low bushes and staggered cottonwoods, close enough together to prevent me from seeing more than 100 feet in any direction. The cottonwoods are a host to many different signs of life; some are riddled with woodpecker holes, organized into a shotgun spread, while others have small wooden planks nailed into the trunk, providing the steps for an adventurous soul. Up in the tops of the trees are bushels of leaves, woven to the liking of the vast population of squirrels. There are small birds flitting amongst the trees; the ever present LBD, or “little brown bird,” the occasional flicker of red from a male downy woodpecker, the cackle of the 20 or so starlings, the occasional crow, and, my favorite, the lovely black-capped chickadees, singing their sweet song. “Cheeeeeesse Burger,” I sing back to them, smiling at the memories of having campers find their “families” by singing this and other tunes to each other. This whole time I have been staring at the tree tops, Zip has been keeping himself busy with the fascinating smells of deer trails leading off the main path and the low bushes and trunks that he claims with a lift of a leg. He knows not to leave me too far behind, so he runs ahead 50 feet or so until he finds something interesting; then he stops and takes his sweet time exploring every its aspect. Sometime it’s something as small and seemingly insignificant as a blade of grass. Then, when I am about 50 feet in front of him, he runs again, his collar jingling as he runs by and his tongue flapping in the wind, starting the process over again. A well-practiced system.
When we round the final corner before the river, Zip forgets all self-control and sprints far out ahead of me. By the time I stroll by, he is already digging his claws in the muddy bank as he climbs out of the water. He jaunts up to me, and shakes. Most people jump back when a soaking wet dog walks up to them, but Zip knows I am not most people, at least that’s what I tell myself. I love watching him dip his head down and begin the rhythmic shifting of his fur back and forth, starting at the back of his neck and traveling down the length of his body, his tail completing a final flick as if it was a signature with the water as ink. “Feel better?” I ask, he stands there, grinning, tongue hanging out and tail wagging slightly more to the left than to the right. He is as happy as he could be. Then, as quickly as the swim started, it was over, and we were back to walking, albeit one of us now leaving a dark, splotched trail behind. We quickly round the horn of the island, the point where Bebe’s Channel splits of from the Yellowstone River, the outermost tip providing a safe haven amongst the tall willows and convoluted log jam, perfect for hiding away from the world.
As we leave Bebe’s Channel to follow the Yellowstone back, I spot the deep backwater caused by the transition between the two bodies of water. It is where Zip first learned to swim, I use the term “learned” loosely. He was just a puppy, no more than 10 pounds, and he was having the time of his life out on the island. We were determined to get him to swim, being a lab after all, it should be in his blood. So we took him down to the slow moving water and began throwing sticks out a small distance, but Zip seemed determined to spite us. He would stand at the water’s edge, lean out as far as he could and snag the stick with his teeth, not daring to get his paws wet. We tried several different tactics, even throwing the stick to the other side of the water, which Zip resolved by walking across a log to the other side, leaning over and grabbing it, and then bringing it back across the log. Frustrated, we decided to throw the stick out in the middle of the deep water, where we had not dared throw it for such a young puppy. Determined to continue his proud streak of rebellion, he walked out onto the log and leaned out again to grab the stick. This time, however, his claws skidded on the log and he fell head over heels into the water. Panic instantly set into his eyes as the top of his head became soaked, perhaps the worst punishment for any dog. Quickly though, he came to the realization that he was doing just fine, grabbed his stick and paddled his way back in. He was finished with swimming for that day, trying to show us that the water had traumatized him. But ever since he has been more than happy to go jumping in the cool river water.
My daydream is broken by the piercing call of a red-tailed hawk as it glides overhead, likely looking for squirrels. Their call is often wrongly associated with bald eagles; a powerful piercing call is much more in tune with the strength of America than the bald eagles squeaky call that sounds like a weary man collapsing onto an old metal-spring bed. From here the trail is a relatively straight shot alongside the Yellowstone, across the water there are islands full of willows and cottonwoods. The exaggerated whine of a large flock of seagulls nearly drowns out the constant exhale of the river as it flows past. On the horizon I can see the landfill, a toy-sized dump truck discarding its load with a crash that is seen before it is heard. “Lovely, isn’t it Zip?” He does not look up from the trail, seemingly unbothered by the by-products of glorious civilization. I try to take his advice, to focus on our island of solitude protected by the fierce river and looming cottonwoods. At the end of the long straight-away, the trail begins to wind its way back into the cottonwoods, one last brief exposure to enclosed nature. I am staring at my feet, bearing witness to the seams of my shoes slowly tearing apart. The nature is lost to me, my mind is too far deep in thought, lulled to a state of depth by the rhythmic folding and unfolding of the exposed flap of my boot. At times like this I can never quite tell what I am thinking, my thoughts are as fleeting as a dream. The counseling always works though. My delight at escaping the city is not the root of my walk, it is merely a side-effect. A side-effect that I am grateful for.
I am back to the point at which the trail splits, I am on the left side, the finished side. I look to the trail map set in the middle of the two. “Yep,” I say, reading the small framed information boxes, “still 1.87 miles.” I pick up a small grey pebble, rounded to perfection by some distant river, and walk to the middle of the bridge. Sometimes I loosely toss it in, other times I practice my old baseball pitch, winding up and whirling around to chuck it at second base, somewhere along the log jam. Today, I let it sit on the rail, waiting to see if it will do anything on its own. For a brief moment none of us move, Zip sticking his had between the lower railing and looking down at the water, I staring at the pebble, and the pebble sitting there, all of us waiting for something to happen. Nothing does.
Back in the car, there is a fresh set of muddy foot prints as Zip walks over the seats, settling down in my seat as he waits for me. I am looking back to the pebble, back to the bridge, back to the island, back to the red-tailed hawk still circling above. The sound of a car breaks my concentration as it creaks and rattles over the potholes. I quickly open up the car door and look at Zip. “Time to go.” He agrees and moves into the passenger seat and sits quietly, looking out the window as we hand off the baton to the fresh faces and panting tongues pulling in to park.