The Montana of My Dreams

I wasn’t quite sure what I expected in 1992 when I drove to Montana to take a job as a reporter in Hamilton

By Rob Breeding

I wasn’t quite sure what I expected in 1992 when I drove to Montana to take a job as a reporter in Hamilton. But the other day I read “Dale Burk’s Montana,” and realized that’s exactly what I had in mind.

The Montana Burk described was gone by the time I arrived in the Treasure State, however, a river long since carried to sea. But reading his tribute to the state he so passionately loves reminded me of my own expectations in the discombobulating time after I left Southern California and started over in the Bitterroot, Montana’s banana belt of fresh starts.

Burk is a writer, publisher and owner of Stoneydale Press Publishing Co. in Stevensville. His reporting for the Missoulian in the 1970s, revealing Forest Service plans to turn much of western Montana into a tree farm, is legendary. He was deservingly inducted into the Montana Outdoor Hall of Fame in 2018.

Burk gave me a copy of “Montana” a few years ago, the last time I was in Stevi. He has since published a memoir, “A Brush with a Wild Thing or Two,” as well as “A Wild Land Ethic: The Story of Wilderness in Montana,” a collection of essays from some of Montana’s fiercest wilderness advocates.

I’ll read them in short order, especially if these stay-at-home orders linger.

Burk published “Montana” in 2002, but the essay dates back to 1980 when it first went to print in a different book also titled “Montana,” in that case illustrated by the photography of Russell Lamb.

The “updated” version sports Burk’s own photography. Together, his words and images peer back at a land before time, to the Montana in the imagination of expatriated Californians such as myself, and in the memories of third-generation Montanans, a demographic of which Burk is an honored member.

Even in 2002 “Montana” was a bit retro. Burk’s wonderful photography decorates the pages with anglers, hunters and cowboys wearing time appropriate, Army surplus chic. There’s nary a swatch of brightly colored synthetic fabric anywhere.

One image perfectly captures the old-school vibe: an angler, his spinning rod strained parabolically by a trout, wears a T-shirt, gray fishing vest and blue jeans soaked to the knees as he wades the Middle Fork Flathead River.

Students of photographic technology will appreciate Burk’s work in all its unsaturated, natural glory. For decades, Fujichrome Velvia film, and more recently, digitally enhanced images, have trained modern eyes to expect cloyingly synthetic colors rarely found in the wild. Not here.

But it’s the writing — authentic and unadorned of gratuitous self awareness and hipster irony — that takes me straight back to the summer day I saw Montana for the first time. I was driving north on Highway 93, down the Bitterroot through Sula and Darby. By the time I reached Hamilton I already knew “Dale Burk’s Montana” was gone.

That was before I even knew of Dale Burk, much less read his book.

I had my own way of knowing, however. I’d long imagined living somewhere with enough space that I could start hunting pheasants right off the back porch. But even then, it was apparent the ranchettes of the Bitterroot had overrun such dreams.

That earlier, pre-ranchette Montana lives on mostly in books, or east of the divide. But there’s another “Dale Burk’s Montana” still shimmering with its own natural vibrancy. It’s the mountains that weren’t clear cut, the rivers we can still access, the wildlife that remains plentiful, even if we have to drive somewhere to hunt.

Maybe the Montana of those pages had already packed its things and left by 1992. Even so, we’re still blessed with the Montana that Burk, and his fellow stewards in another, crucial era, left for us all.

And that’s even lovelier than this magical, time-shifting book.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.