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I almost missed the trailhead because the sign was so much bigger than I was looking for. I’m used to wooden signboards, cut on a router in a forest service shop, that point plainly to gravel lots– this one was plasic with computerized “Old West” graphics and it gestured grandly toward a broad expanse of blacktop. It wasn’t “rustic” but a flashy version of rusticity, a promise to the paying type of visitor that says we are here to accommodate your idea of Montana in a comfortable and modern way. The reason for the difference is this. Most trailheads sit on public land. This one belonged to the commercial interests busily processing the west fork of the Gallatin River into a year-round resort.

We were the only ones there. But it was Monday morning, and a constant stream of cement trucks and out-of-state contractors rushed by through a gate to the Spanish Peaks Mountain Club (named after a nearby wilderness). I parked the car, and found myself facing a long row of identical signs. Each of them said “No Overnight Parking. Violators will be towed at owner’s expense.” This came as a complete surprise. I was carrying a twenty-dollar receipt for a one night stay at a forest service cabin ten miles up the trail. To approach it any other way would require ten minutes of backtracking in the car and an extra four miles of walking along closed roads. I walked a loop around the lot searching for the phone number that could grant us permission.

“All I’m finding is mention of something called the Big Sky Community Corporation,” I told Jen. “There’s no number to call.”
“Community Corporation? That’s an oxymoron,” she said with a dry laugh.

Indeed. Big Sky, a “cesus-defined place,” has pursued as much as possible a culture of the anarcho-capitalist sort, foregoing oversight and regulation in favor of the bottom-line of profit. Even if corporation cancels out the idea of community in my mind, the words may very well have be inseparable, if not synonymous, in the presiding world-view where we were trying to start our hike.

We decided to ignore the signs and continue with our plan. The idea of backtracking to the other trail wasn’t particularly objectionable, but the idea of a trailhead where you couldn’t park overnight was—those historic trails provide access to the broader trail system of the Madison Range. But ever since the west fork became choked up with development, starting with the foundation of Big Sky resort in 1969, all but two of the trails have been swallowed by private fancy. The last two trails still open to the public are made to obey frivolous covenants before entering what is still public land. I realized that I was stubbornly resolved not to move the car. For one thing, I felt relatively safe because it was late April, off-season for any kind of tourism. But I also wanted to challenge the signs—challenge them to do that incredibly dick move (Jen’s words) of towing someone’s car out of a trailhead.

The trail started out six feet wide. There was log cribbing on the downhill side, the upslope maintained by great boulders stacked by an excavator. Spacious, level and smooth, made of crushed and graded gravel. Benches popped up every couple hundred feet and the distance to Ouzel Falls was ticked off in tenths of a mile. After we passed the falls (.3 miles), however, we were on our own. An unsigned junction popped up that wasn’t on our map. First we tried the right fork, but in a half-mile realized it wasn’t going the way it was supposed to. We backtracked to the left fork, which joined a logging road and then forked again. We turned right, navigating now by geography rather than trail cues, and soon that trail faded to nothing. A road as big as a highway curled in just below us. We popped out onto the shoulder from behind the landscaped portal to a sub-division, under the glassy stares of vacant trophy homes, and began hoofing it up the pavement feeling like criminals; every sign made it more and more clear we weren’t supposed to be there. I worried a security vehicle would roll up on us—somebody completely uninterested in discussing trail directions. I told Jen we were about to get shot by the ex-Secret Service guards advertised by the Yellowstone Club. It was a joke I knew wasn’t funny.

As I walked on in confusion I got all worked up thinking about money and land. I decided that the Big Sky business interests were doing a terrible job interpreting what was beautiful and unique about the area. But this wasn’t an oversight of their business model—rather, a fundamental part of it. The ideal Montana tourist will never get what they want. They will only be lured on with sleek advertising and seductive views, and always steered away from the raw material of the place, believing that as long as they keep paying they will be getting the closest possible thing to satisfaction. Our economy is not founded on solving problems; it is sustained by creating dependency. The idea of a vibrant outdoor world that is free and accessible to all is the greatest threat to corporations like the Yellowstone Club and its $300,000 entrance fee: giving the people what they need is to become obsolete. Such developers do not introduce people to the freedom of the natural world—they enslave people to their emptied and parcelled-out version of it.

Eventually we found a trail crossed the road so we followed it. It turned out to be the right one; rerouted since my map was updated. It took us dropping and climbing in and out of drainages along old logging grades. We postholed through an uninintuitive trail corridor that sat just feet beneath the shoulders of paved driveways to second homes, and we got lost as the trail disappeared into the disturbances of new construction debris. Fly around the ridges that surrounded us on Google earth and you see long snaking roads that terminate in expanses of regeneration– ridiculously large houses back there with ponds and pools and hot tubs. It was a frustrating juxtaposition of natural and social consequences: the going would have been much easier if we didn’t have to worry about getting caught walking the roads, therefore—unlike most walks in the woods—the difficulties of travel seemed unnaturally imposed. It took hours of putting snowshoes on and taking them back off. We knew we were finally entering Yellowstone Club land when a large and colorful sign halted us. It was printed in a font I’d call Tombstone: “Wanted” Poster, and informed us that because we were adjacent to a shooting range it was not safe to venture off-trail. I looked around, wondering where this range could possibly be, before continuing on.

“I will say,” I told Jen, “that Yellowstone Club sign was friendlier than I expected. Usually they leave a sour taste in my mouth.”
“Well, we don’t know there’s a shooting range,” she said. “All we know is that if we leave the trail they can shoot us.”
That made more sense. The richest person in the world owns property there.

We still had miles to go before we finally reached forest that wasn’t obviously disturbed by logging or development. Then, tracks of pine marten and hare began to tentatively criss-cross the trail. The snow softened so that my steps punched deep and came up heavily and I started to feel worn down. We didn’t get to the cabin until about 5. It was satisfyingly decrepit; the perfect size for two people and mostly hidden in the snow even on this year of low snowpack. (A log book entry revealed the snow was twice as deep this time last year.) I spent most of the evening collecting enough firewood to get the place warm and cook our meals.

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Because I felt thrashed from the haul in it was hard to enjoy the cabin as much as I should have. Direct sun streamed in from a west-facing window until a quarter to 8. I read a little from a pulpy Zane Grey novel I’d found, and then I read graffiti on the interior logs dating back to 1931. (Sample from 1957: “Snowed here August 7.” Sample from 2009: “We got stoned!”) I found my supervisor’s signature from 1995—just a tiny scribble on a rafter that it would shock him to realize is now twenty years old.

My clearest memories are the two times I had to get up in the night to pee. The first time was around one-thirty. The waxing quarter moon was dipping toward the west and the great alpine basin of Second Yellowmule was washed in a milky glow. Only a handful of stars pushed through the strength of moonlight.

At ten to five I was out again, the moon was gone, the starlight crisp, and a small arc of night sky was just beginning to pink with daybreak to the east. It may have been about twenty degrees out, so I was able to stand there and stare out toward the silent and breathless horizons and believe, for a moment, that if I was god I wouldn’t change a thing.

The beauty of such trips is not that everything is lovely and gentle and makes you feel-good. It’s that you suffer and work on pushing through and fixing what you can, and as you keep going and going and doing it long enough, you eventually break through to a flickering intimation that what you are doing makes sense and is important and is as good as anything else you could be doing.

Yesterday we had a great walk out along First Yellowmule. As we neared the trailhead we remembered the possibility that the car was towed, and that we’d have to hitchhike to god knows where to get it back. But we were both feeling good enough that we chatted on, and didn’t mention it, and when we climbed the last hill, the car was still there.

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