Centennial Valley, Montana

My father died recently, May 9, 2016. Three months and two days ago, an interesting fact only because I’ve been here long enough that I couldn’t tell you what day of the week it is. “Here” is the Centennial Valley of Montana. The environmental education center that is hosting me makes up what is left of the town of Lakeview. It sits tucked in a pocket of the Centennial and Gravelly Mountains, and the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge sprawls out before it.  

My dad knew I had applied for this residency and when I found out I was accepted, I decided to proclaim the trip would be done in his name. The truth is, I didn’t really need the distraction of this trip. I have felt generally at peace over his death since I watched it happen. Or maybe I just decided it was easier to feel that way. How do you honor someone? I didn’t grow up in a culture with rituals, my father would have scoffed at the idea. In my family the need to make meaningful proclamations was strictly reserved for holidays and special occasions, translated through greeting cards and gifts.

But the need to do something- to commemorate, to acknowledge him thoughtfully, still seemed necessary. It’s impossible not to have thoughts of him here- how much he would like sitting on the porch, waving to the occasional passerby that comes down the dirt road that runs through town. Or finding signs of him in things- realizing the pencil I’d brought along must have been his because it’s been sharpened with a knife blade, not a pencil sharpener, and reads “Beronio Lumber”. He would not feel as intimidated as I do about the prospect of getting to know this place, he would feel perfectly at home.

Childhood memories with my dad usually involve an auto journey of some kind- taking the truck down unfamiliar roads just to see what’s there, or driving old logging roads looking for train trestles. So it seems appropriate that most of my time here has been spent driving around the dirt roads that travel around the Centennial Valley. The main road that runs through the valley forms a 70 plus mile portion of the Continental Divide Trail. It follows an old stagecoach line that ran from Monida to West Yellowstone, dropping visitors at the entrance to the newly opened Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first National Park, established 1872. 

Where Gush the Geysers: Yellowstone National Park, 1899. Image in care of Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University

The road runs just north of the Montana-Idaho border, from Monida Pass to Henry's Lake, where it meets Interstate 20 near the Wyoming border. The landscape likely looks much like it did when the first tourists traveled it. The Centennial Valley is part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the only intact ecosystem in the lower 48. It's 385,000 acres provide a critical high elevation corridor for a variety of wildlife including wolves and bears. The valley's wetland-riparian area is home for over 260 species of birds. In 1935, when the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge was established, it was believed fewer than 70 trumpeter swans were known to exist worldwide, half of them lived here. A handful of ranches operate around the valley, many of which manage their grazing through conservation easements meant to preserve the ecosystem while maintaining local ranching traditions.

Monida & Yellowstone Stage Co. stagecoach, circa 1910

Haynes Guide to Yellowstone National Park, 1916

Monida, Montana. By Frank J. Haynes, 1898. Image in care of Montana Historical Society

Frank J. Haynes served as Yellowstone National Park's official photographer for over 30 years, establishing a studio at Mammoth Hot Springs in 1884. His postcard views and guidebooks helped spur travel to the park from around the world. His son Jack carried the business on into the 1960's. In 1898 Frank created the Monida & Yellowstone Stage Company, serving travelers arriving at Monida via the Union Pacific Railroad. The coaches were named after Yellowstone attractions, there was "Old Faithful" and "Giantess". Their most popular driver went by the name "Geyser Bob". Secretary of State for Wyoming Fenimore Chatterton writes in The State of Wyoming: An Official Publication Containing Reliable Information Concerning the Resources of the State (1904): "The Union Pacific and its branch, the Oregon Short Line, bring the traveler to Monida, a station on the boundary of Montana and Idaho. Here he exchanges the Pullman for the modern Concord coach, which the Monida and Yellowstone Stage Company has in readiness for him. Although a day's ride from the boundary of the park, a tourist is seldom found who cares to forget that first day's coaching. The invigorating air, the ever-changing view of mountain and lake, good horses, a good driver and good means at every station, combine to drive into the background the cares of his workaday life." Today the trip from Monida to West Yellowstone takes about 3 hours, but I imagine the air is just as invigorating now as it was then. 

Monida, Montana

I think about these early trip takers as I drive the dirt road east out of Monida towards Lakeview. I haven't seen another person during the thirty miles in between. As more efficient means of travel became available, the stagecoach line went out of use. What used to be a busy stopover with a hotel, bars, cafes, a post office etc., the town of Lakeview now consists of the headquarters for the Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, and the Taft-Nicholson Environmental Humanities Education Center, operated by the University of Utah. The population of Monida today is 2. 

Can you make things meaningful through sheer will or effort? Maybe, but it feels it should be unnecessary if you’re living life right. This is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, which I suppose helps spur thoughts regarding the meaning of life and death. Also, finding meaning is easy here because living here is hard. Weather here is extreme and unpredictable. There are grizzly bears. After a lightning storm took out my cabins water pump, requiring me to fetch water from a spring down the road several miles, I was certainly gaining an appreciation for what had brought me here. But I am my father's daughter, and I didn't think about it too much. Rituals are important, they spur the attention required to commemorate someone.  Joseph Campbell says they "put the mind in accord with the body, and the way of life in accord with the way nature dictates.” Intentionally living in accordance with nature offers harmony in the acceptance of death, and our memorials give us a path to follow. But mostly, my dad is simply a part of me, and a large part of why I like these kinds of places. He is why I wanted to come here, and that has more to do with his life than with his death.

Explore more Centennial Valley...

Lakeview, Montana