By Travis Ehrenstrom

For The Bulletin

Everything is Now

I am a spirit floating in the wind,

Through the airwaves and edges.

Think of the magpies quiet haunting tune.

Can you hear her? She’s singing just for you.

I carved the mission mountains with my hand,

and the valleys below them.

I wish they still spoke their ancient names,

We were younger and living off the land.

Deep into the life of the energy,

That runs through all of everything,

Right now.

Everything is now.

Everything is now.

I am the cattails dancing in the waves,

and breathing their movements.

See all of the medicine that winter makes,

It is frozen in the backbone of the earth.

Deep into the life of the energy,

That runs through all of everything,

Right now.

Everything is now.

Everything is now.

Each time I travel to Montana, I’m always astonished by the state slogan’s accuracy. While I know it’s part brilliant marketing strategy, I can’t shake the feeling that the sky truly is bigger in Montana than anywhere else in America, especially when the skies bring late afternoon thunder and lightning to the high country.

My wife, Courtney, born and partly raised in northeast Montana, provides validation of this belief for me as I mention it yet again.

Montana is a state of immense natural beauty, and we were fortunate enough to spend nearly a month exploring a few of its many wonders. We sang along with Chris Whitley as his tune, “Big Sky Country” played almost incessantly. We sang through Lewis and Clark State Caverns and the expansive Flathead Lake Valley. We sang while driving the strenuous roads of Glacier National Park.

In the late 1800s, historian Frederick Jackson Turner published his acclaimed “Frontier Thesis.” Turner’s thesis greatly expanded the belief that the American Dream was a dish best served on the frontier and in the wilderness. In it, Turner writes, “American democracy was born of no theorist’s dream; it was not carried in the Susan Constant to Virginia, nor in the Mayflower to Plymouth. It came out of the American forest, and it gained new strength each time it touched a new frontier.”

Around 1920, Turner’s thesis was used as a marketing strategy for the Great Northern Railroad’s wilderness excursions to Montana’s Glacier National Park. The campaign centered around the idea that the wealthy East Coast Elite should “Explore America First” before spending their precious American dollar abroad. In large part, the strategy was a resounding success and many of the chalets built near the turn of the century still house many of Glacier’s 3 million annual visitors.

Americans struggled to coexist with the natural world during their early travels to these wild areas. This era in park history is often known as Jellystone due to the feeding of bears and attempted domestication of nature’s most revered carnivores. One might argue that humanity still has a ways to go when visiting these natural places as the west side of the park has suffered two horrific wildfires in as many years, both introduced by human hands.

Glacier National Park’s chalets are themed in the style of a Swiss lodge and employees wear their finest lederhosen while tending to guests. Keeping with the motif, Courtney and I enjoyed a post-hike beer and pretzel one afternoon and got to know some of the staff.

Much like our exploration, a small population of adventurers utilizes these seasonal lodge jobs to see America’s true beauty. Our hostess, proudly hailing from Maine, spent the last three summers serving thirsty patrons at Crater Lake lodge and Timberline Lodge in Oregon.

This spirit of Americanism in the wilderness is very much alive and well today in Montana. I couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of national pride as we gazed out at the craggy shale peaks which surround Swift Current Lake at Many Glacier. The peaks here reflect mirrored images in calm waters and provide a sense of exaltation. Questions abound. How could one be so lucky to experience this view even once in their lifetime? Could there be a greater dose of freedom than a still mountain lake and a predawn rendezvous with a hungry black bear and her cub?

As with all great things, a darker side emerges. The towns that border the east of Glacier paint a slightly dimmer portrait of the westward expansion that led to the incorporation of the National Park. Driving through the Blackfeet Reservation you’re quickly reminded of the sordid history that this country has with the native population to this land. Many of the towns that border the park are stricken by poverty. The most jarring juxtaposition was the views from the town of Browning looking east to the park. The outskirts of the town are scattered with rundown mobile homes that offer picturesque views of the parks eastern edge.

Fortunately, both the tribe and the park are working to preserve the history of the tribes culture. Ten percent of Blackfeet residents have knowledge of their native language, and the park lists all landmarks with their proper ancient place names as well as their new Anglo-American counterparts.

A traditional native legend I heard on our travels through the park area of Two Medicine inspired “Everything is Now.” It is said that the glaciers in northern Montana were formed by an ancient medicine man who made glaciers to combat the power of the sun. For years now the sun has reigned supreme over the earth, but the glaciers that lie within “the backbone of the world,” a term for the continental divide, serve as a reminder that the medicine of winter still exists and one day will overtake the sun.

As I gazed across the seemingly infinite waters of Two Medicine Lake, it came to me that the distance between myself and the mountains on the opposite shore must be filled with these spirits and stories. The absence of physical matter in the air does not mean that there isn’t anything there, and it’s precisely that void and the spirits that live within it that best reflects my love for Montana.