If you approach Big Timber, Montana from the east, you get your first glimpse of the Crazy Mountains about 15 miles out. The Crazies are one of several isolated ranges east of the main Rocky Mountains that span Montana from north to south. The Crazies are dramatic. A relatively small range, they span about 40 miles from the Yellowstone River on the south to the Musselshell River on the north. They cover less territory than the Black Hills of South Dakota. But they rise much higher. Crazy Peak, the highest, is 11,214 feet above sea level. That is about 7,000 feet above the surrounding plains. They are rocky and craggy and when I was a kid, there were a few smaller glaciers, so they always had a snow-capped appearance. These days the snow all melts off by mid to late July, but right now there is quite a bit of snow and they appear to be blue and white against the background of the sky and clouds.
Perhaps nothing says “home” to me the way the Crazies do. We spent quite a bit of time in our “other” mountains, what is now the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness area, south of town. But we also knew the Crazies. We hiked and hunted there for deer and elk. The Crazies are also home to mountain goats and black bears.
The name of the mountains is the subject of many legends, the veracity of which cannot be fully checked. When I was growing up, the local story was that they were originally called the “Crazy Woman Mountains” after a woman who became lost there and became mentally unstable. I suspect that it is more likely that the name really comes from a mistranslation of the Crow name for the mountains. The Crow language is difficult for non natives to pronounce. They got their English name from European settlers who didn’t quite understand their own name for themselves, Apsáalooke. It is likely that the reference was to a smaller black bird and not the larger crows, but that is also a matter of interpretation. These days, most tribal members, even native speakers, are comfortable with the name, Crow.
They call the mountains Awaxaawapìa Pìa, which is more accurately translated “ominous mountains.” Translation was a problem all across the United States. In North Dakota Spirit Lake became “Devil’s Lake.” In Wyoming, Bear’s Home became “Devil’s Tower.” There was no devil or evil spirit in Lakota tradition, only trickster animals, insects and spirits that could change form.
I, however, have know the mountains as the Crazy Mountains all of my life. It gives me a great deal of peace just to see them and I enjoy looking at them from town every time I visit. Our house in town had a good view of the mountains, but you had to go outside to see it. We didn’t have any second-story windows in that direction. Our summer place was down next to the river and also didn’t have a view of the mountains. Still, we always knew that they were there and a short walk to the top of the hill was all it took for them to unfold in all of their glory.
One of the topics of conversation between my sister and I, as is the case in every visit, is the process of how to care for our summer place. It is the only real estate we own in the home town. It is held in trust of our parents’ surviving children and two of us are named trustees. The trust has no money to provide for taxes and insurance and maintenance, so my sister and I have a small limited liability corporation that manages the property. The property is rented on occasion for weddings and family reunions and campers sometimes stay at the place. With limited bathroom facilities, it can’t be used by large groups and with the potential spread of coronavirus, we are not hosting any groups this year. That means no income, a situation we could not sustain for more than a couple of years. So we talk and worry and suspect that the time will come when we will be forced to sell the place.
For now, my sister takes good care of things and it s a lovely place to visit. It is her home and she keeps things looking lovely and welcoming.
I took a walk down to the river last evening and enjoyed the sound of the water rolling over the rocks. The Boulder River flows into the Yellowstone about two miles downstream from our place, so it is starting to spread out a little. The pace of the river is still fast enough to move around the rocks from which it gets its name.
A rock-strewn river and a set of ominous mountains are the frame of my growing up years. Both are so familiar to me that although I have not lived here for 50 years, it still feels like home.
Perhaps returning to my roots is a good way to begin retirement. They say that the stories you tell the most vary the most from historical accuracy. In the telling the stories grow and change until they have moved away from objective truth. Nonetheless, my stories of this part of the world have great power for me. I can remember the days when they drove the sheep right through town and cowboys didn’t go into the sheepherder bar and sheepherders didn’t go into the cowboy bar. I can remember seeing a bobcat in town and the occasional bear that would make a visit. A moose stopping by for a while wasn’t all that rare of an occurrence, either. I can remember the old timers and the feel of sitting in our little church and looking up at the preacher in his black robe. I can remember Sunday School picnics and school field day and the kids in my class. I can remember fishing the river and hunting the mountains.
Somehow all of those things contributed to who I am today. And one of the jobs of this phase of my life is to pull all of those pieces back together into an integrated puzzle. My return home is a bit of a pilgrimage to launch this thing we call retirement.