Day 2: It Begins
I have to say I really like the bathroom. The slate walls and glass-box showers are fine, but what sets me at ease is the picture-window view of the resort’s ubiquitous ponderosa pines, their roots blanketed by the year’s last snow, and over the horizon, the loaded grandeur of a nearby mountain range. According to Larry Lipson, one of the owners, the bathroom is “big enough to put a horse in.” He is not being figurative.
“This could be our last meal together,” we tell each other over breakfast before commencing our snowmobile appointment. The morning grub is exceptional: a grilled vanilla huckleberry coffee cake topped with caramelized bananas and finished with preserved huckleberries alongside fresh eggs and slabs of flaky ham.
Over at the Wilderness Outpost Center, a nice young man named Jake Hansen dresses us in warm overcoats and snapson helmets and safety goggles. Asked what’s it like to pilot a snowmobile, he says, “It’s somewhere between riding a bike and driving a car.” Since I can do neither, I let E. take the first turn at the throttle. “Okay, if you start to tip over,” Hansen tells us, “you want to just slide off the vehicle. You don’t want to stick your leg out.” The sleek machine starts to tremble beneath us. We promptly tip over. I stick my leg out. Several tries later, all four limbs miraculously still attached to my torso, we are slowly rumbling uphill, my safety glasses fogging up with fear as every bump sends us jolting into the frozen air, our lips coated with fresh snow. We ascend 4,000 feet. As the pines flash past us, falling away into a white abyss, I try to focus on the unimpeachable beauty of the mountain range through which we are hurtling, a beauty this environmentally un-kosher machine is probably destroying, but instead the particulars of the snowmobile “Fatality Summary” present themselves. “Victim…went off a steep embankment [like the one just to our left]…and struck several trees.” Victim “went airborne 20–30 feet into a [pine?] tree.” And taken from another snowmobile advisory website: “Many [emphasis mine] cases of decapitation have occurred.”
Several hours and just as many lorazepam pills later, I start to feel better. I’ve been in dangerous parts of the world before, have been threatened with large knives and kidnapping, and I’ve found that sooner or later my body gets tired of the constant exposure to stress and a surprisingly blissful feeling descends. Decapitation? Sure. Anything to relax. We pull into the well-preserved and oddly bucolic Garnet ghost town, a collection of timber cabins that, according to our guide, at the turn of the last century housed 1,000 miners, 13 bars, and one very busy jail. Surrounded by the hypnotically simple architecture and the remnants of our country’s over-the-top frontier history, we snack on Paws Up gourmet turkey sandwiches and shiver in the midday cold.
After lunch, it’s my turn to drive.
The last time I operated a motor vehicle was as a college sophomore, a cross-country trip that nearly ended when an Oldsmobile I was driving collided with one of Alabama’s Shoney’s franchises. This time around, after a few errant swipes at a snowbank, I begin to warm to the machine beneath me. It becomes evident that the snowmobile operates on the same principle as the American economy—you’ve got to rev it up something crazy, or the whole thing will just stall and flip over. The faster you go, the easier it gets, the more you’ll think you’re in control. Soon we’re floating along the mountain ridges within a noxious cloud of gas, beneath us the sharp outlines of an endless constellation of trees, above us a sky so frighteningly clear and blue that it feels like a riff on eternity. And for a brief moment, I allow myself to actually enjoy the ride.
Back in our Big Timber cabin with the CNN blaring and the Wi-Fi pumping, I pick up my copy of the indispensable 1,160-page Montana anthology The Last Best Place; along with Big Sky Country, this is one of the state’s favorite nicknames. The owners of Paws Up, the Lipson family, have riled the heck out of the state’s governor and residents by trying to trademark “The Last Best Place” (they also own the trademarks to “The Last Best Bed” and “The Last Best Beef”). The legal fight continues, and hasn’t exactly made them popular in these parts, but no matter: we settle into the Last Best Hot Tub (trademark pending?) on our front porch and let the soft late-winter snow coat our tired faces.