ODDLY ENOUGH, words figure prominently among the souvenirs I brought back from a recent short visit to Montana. It all began when we stopped at our very first overlook on the Yellowstone River. Staring down at the whitewater, my friend remembered being at a similar spot maybe 50 years ago and hearing his father say, "Look at the rabbits in the river."
Why is it that the mind of a child is not programmed to ask for a clarification at a moment like that? Why not just say, "What do you mean, Dad? I don't see any rabbits." It brought back the times in my own childhood when my parents would play records and I'd wait for Eartha Kitt to croon the line, "He bought me the Black Sea for my swimming poooool," and wonder whether every pool needed a "black C" and what it was.
Whatever the reason for this juvenile inhibition, I'll never hear the word "rapids" quite the same since my trip to Big Sky country. Or the word "shed."
It was in the general store at Emigrant that I learned the Montana meaning of that second word. We'd stopped for a Sunday morning cup of coffee. Browsing among the ammo and fisherman's flies and fluorescent orange sweatshirts for hunters, I discovered that an elk call is a gadget useful for calling, stopping, locating, or calming your prey, while an elk shed is not a habitation but a thing. They had some right there in the store, on special for $135, or $250 a set. Hint: Before he shed them, the elk wore these showy fixtures on his head.
Emigrant is a mere speck of a town, across the river from a postcard-perfect mountain of the same name. One card I bought at the general store, published by Big Sky Magic Enterprises, of Helmville, captures the sweep of the country not only in the picture on the front but also in this panoramic sentence on the back:
"Emigrant Peak presides over an awesome assembly of major-league mountains north of Yellowstone National Park known as the Absaroka Range, and is one of the ranking reasons why the Gardiner-to-Livingston portion of the Yellowstone River's trail across Montana is known as Paradise Valley."
We drove all the way down the valley to Gardiner, where the Roosevelt Arch marks the original railway entrance to Yellowstone Park. It's a high, rough-hewn, gray stone arch on the very edge of town, named for TR, the West-loving New Yorker who laid the cornerstone and was president at the time of its dedication in 1903.
We had lunch at the comfortably shabby Town Café, where the décor features antlers and skulls, a huge two-man miner's pan, and a pair of antique skis. The back of the menu offers "a little bit of Gardiner's history." The narrative dwells on the town's mining days, in the 1860s, when it had 200 people and 21 saloons. Grammatical quibbles notwithstanding, I rate this pair of sentences high for atmosphere:
"Being there was no sawmill, it was entirely tent houses with a few log shacks. It was lively during the summer months and dormant under the snow of the long winter months."
My prize find, though, came on the roadside historic marker at Emigrant Gulch on U.S. Highway 89.
I daresay I'm not the only editor who collects misuses of the word "literally" (as in: When I told my mom I'd pierced my tongue, she literally flew off the handle). It's easy sport, but amusing if diction happens to be your bag--and it heightens your appreciation for that rarity, an apt deployment of the word. Here's my Montana specimen of the latter, embedded in another fine sample of clean, landscape-conscious, weather-conscious western prose:
Emigrants arrived in this gulch on August 28, 1864. Three of them explored the upper and more inaccessible portion of the gulch and struck good pay. A mining boom followed. When cold weather froze the slurries the miners moved down to the valley, built cabins, and "Yellowstone City" began its brief career.
Provisions were scarce that winter. Flour sold for $28 per 96 pound sack, while smoking tobacco was literally worth its weight in gold.
The strike was not a fabulous one, but snug stakes rewarded many of the pioneers for their energy and hardship.
We crossed into Wyoming and made it all the way down through Yellowstone that afternoon, in time to take in the Grand Tetons at dusk. That movie-star-glamorous range, its profile sharp against the evening sky, dripped "purple mountains' majesty."
As we stood there gazing at the Tetons across Jenny Lake, my friend evoked another childhood misunderstanding and another patriotic anthem. He said he wished we could stay there to see them "by the donzerly light."