West of the Divide

For nearly half of my life I have lived in either North Dakota or South Dakota. In both states the Missouri River is a huge geographical feature. There is a cultural shift at the river as well. Dakota people speak of east river and west river with their distinctions. West river is largely ranching property. East river is more farming with corn and soybeans. East river is more urban with folks who are a bit more forma. West river is more rural and more casual. West river folks wave at strangers. East river folks are less likely to do so. Those of use who live west river have a bias about east river folks. We think that flatlands don’t know how to drive in the hills. They are afraid of the edge of the road, they slow way down for a simple curve. They cross over the center line way too much for our comfort. I’ve never lived east river, but I’m sure they have stories and tales to tell about us.

In Montana, where i grew up, however, the principal dividing feature is the continental divide. One of the stories that was told in my Montana history class is that when the surveyors came to measure the state, they mistakenly thought that the continental divide ran along the top of the Lemhi Pass, and so the state line between Montana and Idaho was drawn there. Later they found out that the continental divide was a long ways east of that point, but the boundaries were already set. In reality, there is no way that the Montana territory would have ceded Butte, which is west of the divide and which at the time of statehood was one of the richest mining regions in the world. Whatever the truth of the story, the state has this huge line of mountains with high passes running from north to south and dividing the state in roughly two thirds east of the divide and one third on the western side.

Growing up on the east slope, we had our own jokes about the folks who lived on the other side of the high passes. We had family who lived west of the divide and we went over the mountains a lot, so I know the names of all of the high passes and the roads are familiar to me.

Yesterday we crossed the Bozeman pass and then over the continental divide at Pipestone Pass, just east of Butte. We continued on to St. Regis, where we camped for the night in a beautiful pine forest with the Clarks Fork River rushing by. The river is high as there is still snow in the high country and each rainfall adds to the flow. Later in the summer the river will clear up and you will be able to see the fish, but right now it is just a rush of water, heading towards the Pacific.

The mountains are absolutely gorgeous with their snow-covered peaks. Sometimes they emerge from the clouds with the sun shining on the tops and put on a real display for us folks below.

We are taking our time with the drive, not wanting to rush too much.

Generalizations about culture and place are often not accurate. At least if you comment about trends, you run the risk of not understanding individuals. However, there is something about this particular cluster of mountains that has long attracted certain types of people. Before European settlers arrived, the indigenous people of the region that is now western Montana and northern Idaho were independent, self-sufficient people. They knew how to endure harsh and long winters and live off of the abundant game. They were superb trackers who found their way in the dense forests and hunted the abundant game. They were fierce warriors who defended their territory and families. The American explorers, Lewis and Clark, were nearly stymied by the mountain crossings required to reach the west coast. They tried the Lemhi pass, but what is now the Salmon-Challis wilderness area proved too confusing for them to find a way. They came back into the Bitterroot valley and turned north toward the region of present-day Missoula and followed roughly the route now taken by Interstate 90. There they finally met members of the Lemhi Shoshone tribe. Sacagawea, who was only 16 years old at the time and who had been with the expedition since their first winter in Mandan, had already had an exciting life, being taken to live with the Mandans in North Dakota before meeting up with Toussaint Charbonneau, member of the expedition. There in the mountains on what is now the Montana-Idaho border she was reunited with her people. Being able to speak their language, she was able to negotiate the necessary help for the survival of the expedition and the guides to help they make their way west to the Columbia river basin that led them to the coast.

The waves of immigrants that followed over the next couple of centuries were strong and independent people. Fir traders arrived and learned to live and trade with the native people. They were followed by miners and loggers and a few hearty ranchers who extracted wealth from the land. The incredible beauty of the land was not missed by those who came and those who settled. There is more to the story and there was conflict with the indigenous people as well as opportunities for cooperation.

bear and sign
In the last half of the 20th century the region attracted survivalists who were trying to get away from the pressures of urban living. After the Watts riots and the subsequent reform of the Los Angeles Police Department, many former law enforcement officers relocated to North Idaho where they intentionally distanced themselves from the pressures of urban living. North Idaho is distant and separated from the state capitol in Boise. It is a good place for those who don’t want much contact with governmental authority.

Now the land has increased in value and the region is the playground of very wealthy individuals, who have cabins near ski resorts and summer recreation areas. The people are very diverse. But there is a unique character to the folks who live here and a bit of standoffishness that is typical of the region. You don’t want to make the mistake of picking huckleberries in someone’s territory. They are likely to defend it fiercely.

This part of the world has never been my home, but I certainly love to visit it. The mountains are spectacular and the forests are incredible. As a traveler on my way through I have it a lot easier than the members of the Corps of Discovery, but I remember their stories as I journey.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!