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Fires Still Make Me Jumpy


Near Lolo Springs

When I came down close to Red Lodge, I stopped short at Parkside Campground in the Gallatin National Forest. While I made out the reservation slip, the host, who was from Cut n' Shoot, Texas, and proud of it, made sure I understood there were no campfires allowed. I paused, and allowed back as how that didn't please me, and where could I camp and have a fire?

"Not in Montana," he said.

Driving down into Red Lodge, I immediately saw why. On the west side of the highway, the whole side of a mountain had been burned off. Nothing but black snags, all the way to the top. I stopped and looked up at that slanting stretch of rocky ground. Not too bad. You could get up there in a couple of hours. But what if you had a growling fire snaking up behind you, and behind it a 30 mph wind? You better not hesitate.

Smokejumpers are a bunch of damn fools. That said, you've got to admire their balls.

I saw my first working fires on the way to Bozeman. Tall plumes of smoke rose on the north side of the interstate, both at Big Timber and near Livingston. Bozeman was clear, and I spent the night there. From Butte all the was into Missoula, though, the haze got thicker and thicker. First the blue sky disappeared, then the sun, then the farther mountains. Finally the traffic got hard to make out, in the near distance, and my throat was beginning to get scratchy.

I stopped for gas in Missoula at 6 pm. The guy next to me had Montana plates. I asked him where I had to go to get away from the smoke. He grinned.

"South," he said.

"What about Flathead Lake?"

"My mom lives up there. She came down day before yesterday, and said it was ten times worse up there."

Great. Maybe I could drive clear up to Canada.

"Canada's got their own fire. You don't want to drive in the smoke after dark. Too many scared deer on the road."

Great again. I looked on the map. Maybe 20 miles south on 12, there was a place called Lolo Hot Springs. If I'm gonna asphyxiate, it might as well be in a spa.

On the way down, I passed a big encampment of firefighters in a field along the road. Past that, I gradually began to see a little blue sky, and then a campground on the left.

Tomorrow I'll get an early start. I'll check out the springs since I'm almost there, and then back to Missoula and Flathead Lake. My neighbors here say they were at the Lake this morning, and it was clear and beautiful. Apparently the winds are completely unpredictable. If Flathead Lake turns out to be invisible, then on to Kalispell, and Canada, and on and on and on until either light or smoke gives out.

That's why this house has wheels.

Bob, who is some pissed at Mother Nature.

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