Antelopes and Elk and Bears, Oh My


Last week my friend Fr. Pete took my son and I out after dinner for a drive into the hills behind Big Sandy, Montana approaching the Bear Paw Mountains.  We had our binoculars in hand looking for elk and antelope and white tail deer.  Happily saw all three!

As we wove our way back down the gravel road, sunset was fast approaching, and the sky was a glorious palette of pinks and blues.  Once his house was in sight, Fr Pete offered to let me out of the truck to walk the rest of the way home.  I jumped at the chance.  Who wouldn’t? But then he backtracked, “Oh you don’t want to get out here.  It’s too far.”  I couldn’t imagine what he was talking about.  I am an avid walker.  I had my good walking boots on.  He drove for several minutes more.  The house was basically right in front of us at this point. 

I said, “You can let me out here.” 

“Uhh, you know we are still a good distance away, right?”

“Fr. Pete, I can almost touch your house from here.”

Gravel crunching beneath the tires as he continued to slowly roll forward, he said, “Well, okay, if you really want to.”

I did. I hopped out.

“Beware the bear and mountain lion,” he said.

 I knew he was joking… at least half joking.  But really, it wasn’t like I was far from the house. And then I watched the taillights of his car grow smaller and smaller. 

Turns out I am not a great estimator of distance when faced with a vast horizon. 

Two miles later, now immersed in darkness, I finally walked through the door.  He was sitting at the kitchen window looking out on the road having allowed me to enjoy my folly, but also (I’m thinking) making sure I didn’t get eaten along the way.

I know that every time I look into the rearview mirror, it warns me that objects are nearer than they appear, but the warning I most need is the opposite: the objects in front of you are farther away than they look.

My friend David from the United Methodist Foundation tells me, “That will preach,” and I realize he’s right. On oh so many fronts. Christianity seems to me to be about 90% hope, 9% irrational optimism (yes, there is a difference), and 1% Simeon’s Canticle – i.e. “My eyes have seen the glory. Now, Lord, let me go to sleep.”  Fortunately, that 1% is pretty powerful stuff.  But still, let’s be honest:  there are so many things in life that take longer, require more perseverance than one anticipates.  We walk for days, years, sometimes lifetimes trusting someone is waiting with the porchlight still on.

This was, alas, not the only Montana adventure I had this past week that kept me looking over my shoulder the whole time.  I just returned yesterday from two days at an old ranch somewhere about 25 miles from nowhere.  I know we got off the state highway at Wolf Creek, but I cannot tell you what direction we headed from there.  Just that it was further and further out into the green grassy hills until we reached the end of the road at the Rittel homestead from the 1830’s. 

Because I was the out-of-town facilitator at this event, they gave me the honor of staying in the Homestead Cabin—a tiny log cabin about 250 feet from the bunkhouse where the others were staying.  Sweet and old. Not even a lock on the door.  No, not even one of those little hooks you find on a bathroom stall.  Nothing. 

This seems like it would be a most gracious gesture on behalf of the group, except that right before departing for the evening, the great-great grandson of the original homesteader gave us a tour of his family’s collectibles—things they’d found on the land going back 15,000 years.  It included a sandstone rock from 1881 that a man named Joe had etched with his last will and testament after being attacked by a grizzly bear.  Gun snapped in two, ribs broken, and half a leg missing, he left a few words for whoever might go searching for him. 

This launched all the Montanans in the room into telling their own stories of near misses with grizzlies (which for some reason they just affectionately refer to as “grizz”), including the sighting of one at the ranch a week earlier. 

It was like being at camp as a kid when the teen camp counselors tell you ghost stories around the campfire and then send you off to your tents to go to bed…. Except that there was no one else in my tent and “grizzes” are real.  And Joe got eaten by one.  And I spent the night with a box fan and the one chair in my cabin blocking the door. Not that either of these objects would stop Grizz from coming into my cabin, but at least I would hear the fan crash to the floor before I became a tasty morsel and everyone surely wants to have a moment before they know they are about to die.

Did I mention that there was no phone service or wifi out there?  And that the wind was blowing at a steady 30 mph so that the tree behind my homestead cabin scraped against the back wall all night so that it sounded like Grizz was instead tearing down the wall rather than coming through my unlocked door?  No? Those are just two more little details to add to the story.

My friend Darren who long served as the chancellor of the diocese here tells me that this, too, “will preach.”  But then the longer we thought about it last night at the bar, the more we just laughed and the more we realized that really there is no moral to this story at all. It is just a good story of someone from the city traipsing across a state full of adventures just waiting to happen.  My eyes have seen the glory. Now, Lord, let me go to sleep.


A fun article to check out:\   Thanks to Heidi Schlumpf of NCR for an engaging interview! I loved the chance to get to think aloud about Redeeming Power in light of our current political situation.