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Prairie rattlesnake=Crotalus viridis viridis



Prairie rattlesnake

October 3, 2017

People often ask about Gunther, our dog.  He looks something like a smiling dust mop, but he is a Brussels Griffon with an underbite.  We like to take Gunther on long walks in the mountains and the prairie.  Yes we have mountains.  In fact, the state’s tallest mountain, 12,799 feet, Granite Peak, is but a few hours from here.  If you decide to climb Granite, I’d say leave your dog at home.

We took Gunther to Big Pryor Mountain instead.  Big Pryor is about the same size and roughly the same appearance as Mount Sentinel in Missoula.  P. and I got skunked the first time we tried to climb Big Pryor with our young grandchildren, Cyrus and Roland, who easily scampered to the top.  Gunther made it also, but we turned back after about three-fourths of the way.

Saturday we tried for the top of Big Pryor again and this time we made it, even having to walk through snow the last quarter mile.  We walked 1.7 miles and gained 1,200 feet.  Actually P. made it to the top and I almost made it.  I could see the top from where I turned back.  Gunther made it to the top for his second time.  He dashes about, running from P. to me and back again.  Gunther made it to the top a third and fourth and fifth time.

The weather was changing from sunny and warm to cloudy, windy, thunder & lightning, and sleet as we descended.  The road from the trailhead is dusty and soft dirt that can change to gumbo with a heavy rain.  We wasted no time heading back to Billings.  Until P. spotted the snake.

“There’s a snake!  Back up!” P. said.

I slammed the brakes, put it in reverse, and backed up.

“You’ll run over him again,” P. warned.

Soon I saw what looked like a wadded up sock on the dirt in front of the car.  I figured I had run over the snake, probably a bull snake, and it was all curled up with agony in the throes of death.

I hauled the emergency brake and walked over to the snake.  Well, it had a rattle, but the wadded up snake wasn’t moving.  I figured I could find a stick or something to tease it off the road.  I saw long stalks of grass in the field, but no sticks.  I remembered P. and I had walking sticks, so I grabbed a stick that looks like a ski pole and commenced to bother the snake.  I figured it would simply slither away like a garter snake.

But no.  It didn’t do much of anything at first.  The snake uncurled some and rattled his tail.  I could see his triangular head and the hairs on my neck stood out.

Then it leapt a couple of feet into the air toward me!  It struck at my stick several times with its mouth wide before assuming more of an “S” shape on the road, tail still buzzing.  My, I was impressed.  This prairie rattler was pissed!  I had no reason to kill or injure the snake, so I continued to try to move it off the road.

Wasn’t a very old snake, if you believe rattlers get a new rattle each time they shed their skin.  Probably just three or four segments on its rattle.  It was about 18 inches long, but fat.  Probably weighed a pound or so. The latin name for the prairie rattler is Crotalus viridis viridis.  Sounds dangerous for a snake capable of killing a person.

I thought I still needed to get the snake off the road, so I put my pole tip under it, about halfway down its length, when P. leaned on the car horn, convulsed with laughter when I danced back, flailing the walking stick, like a crazy man.

My friend Lloyd Yellowrobe said prairie rattlers move toward their dens when the weather is about to change.

Well, we saw another rattler about a dozen miles farther down the road, but this one was larger and dead, stretched straight.  I noticed a couple brass shell casings, looked like .44 magnum, near the snake’s carcass.  It still had its head and tail intact, but it had several holes in its body.  This one was nearly two feet long.


Do you believe in crystals?

Photo on 9-6-17 at 4.29 PM #3

September 25, 2017

I observed the Fall Equinox by … observing that it was happening.  Don’t call me a New Age kind of guy.  I mistrust anyone who owns a crystal; especially one who sells crystals.  I’ve crawled in many caves in our vicinity and seen the result of those who mined out the crystals by smashing the limestone in caverns.  To my mind, crystals are the result of cave vandalism.  I’ve wanted to speak out against crystals and cave mutilation for about 25 years, but until now, I haven’t had a platform.  Now I have a blog.  I recommend you start a blog if you haven’t already.  Share it on Facebook so I can follow it.

Now I forget what I was going to say.  My cousin is coming to Billings with his wife to visit us for about a week.  I’m so excited!  This afternoon I will bake two magnificent pies.  Of course, that means I must forgo other activities.  Like singing with the Billings Symphony Chorale.  I am addicted to singing with the chorale because of the magnificent conducting by Dr. S. Hart.  His first name is Steven or Stephen, I don’t remember which.  He chooses fabulous pieces to sing and he gets us to sing them magnificently.  He uses tricks on those of us who need tricks to sing well.  He urges the others to disregard the tricks and sing well without.

I could critique wine here.  I am definitely a oenophile, or “wino.”  Over the years I’ve fallen into and out of love with many.  These days I favor reds from France and whites from Argentina.  A couple years ago I had the same favorites, although in the intervening years I’ve explored Australia, Spain, and Italy for reds, and California and Oregon for whites.  I don’t recommend wine for everyone, especially you lucky persons who can legally smoke pot.  I think pot is far superior to alcohol, and for some neither is far superior to getting high at all.  Currently pot is legal only as medicine in Montana.  If one were to smoke it in Montana, one would still feel like an outlaw because it is illegal under federal law, even as medicine.

I’m waiting for pot to become legal in Montana.

Best wine I’ve ever had (or drunk) was Chateau Neuf du Pape Telegraphie.  Irresistible for me, and out of my price range.

Gunther, in case you waited for news, has been naughty.  Yesterday I let him out of the backyard to walk him and he ran like a shot around the corner to an abandoned piece of pizza at the end of the block.  He listens to me when nothing else is going on.

Bull Creek Look Out

1978 Indian Mt L.O.

My friend Lloyd Yellowrobe fell at home, so now he’s in the hospital with fractured legs.  We’ve been talking about the old days when he was a kid and his parents had a lookout tower, Bull Creek L.O.  Lloyd said he thinks the name is cool.  Not in so many words.  Water was cool, he said, in the morning, when they first tapped the tank.

Lloyd said he remembers his dad had to lug a heavy communication device up the lookout ladder.  Heavy because of the batteries.  In those days dry-cell batteries were much larger than they are today.  His parents talked to Lame Deer from the tower, considerably farther than Busby, down a long dirt road.

His parents ordered food and water via radiophone from Lame Deer Forestry Department.  Workers delivered by truck to the lookout.  The regular US Forest Service doesn’t have the same jurisdiction as the BIA Forestry Department, headquartered in Lame Deer, Montana.

Ray Kresek, in his book Fire Lookouts of the Northwest, has a reasonably complete list of hundreds and hundreds of lookouts in Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon.  However, Mr. Kresek omitted the Yellowrobe’s Northern Cheyenne Bull Creek Tower.  Could be because of any of several reasons:  Reservation institutional memory tends to be short, just like the reduced life-span of Native Americans.  I’m guessing about the I.M. part, but I’m not guessing about the reduced life span of Natives.  That would be the subject of another post.  Lloyd and I talked about that.  Diabetes.  Car wrecks.  Shorter lives. Untold tragedy and sorrow.

I’ve visited two towers on the reservation and they were made of steel by the Chicago Aermotor Company, the same outfit that made many of the familiar stock-watering windmills scattered around Montana.  The Chicago A.M Co. structures were basically the same as other western fire lookout towers, only skinnier and more work for a youngster to climb.

A couple days ago Payne Yellowrobe, Lloyd’s son, phoned me with news about Lloyd’s accident that left him with a broken leg.  I’ve known Lloyd for almost 30 years, ever since we worked closely together at the Indian Health Clinic in Lame Deer in 1988 until I retired in 2005.  Well, I worked at Crow Agency for five years in there.

Anyway, Payne asked me to visit his father, so I did.  Turns out Lloyd broke both his legs and had to wait outdoors an hour and a half for his wife to return from Lame Deer.  Then Helen phoned an ambulance, his transportation to Billings, although he made a stop in Lame Deer, I’m guessing.

Lloyd and I talked about the usual things:  the old days, what we were up to now, and spiritual matters.  Specifically, Lloyd tried to make the nurse understand that the two sisters he was asking about were nuns.  He wanted the nuns to visit him while he was in the hospital.  Lloyd said he attends church regularly.

When I returned I heard a message from my own pastor, Mike Mulberry, who said a relative of Lloyd’s had asked him to get ahold of me to visit him.  Still later, his sister, Linda Brady, sent me a text requesting I visit Lloyd.  “Word gets around!” Lloyd said, with a wide grin.  Lloyd has dentures, but he wasn’t wearing him.  Made understanding him a bit more difficult.  The nurses had trouble, but I could tell they liked him.

Lloyd has given me many things over the years.  A star quilt, a Pendleton blanket, a rifle.  These are all traditional Indian gifts.  I have given Lloyd gifts also, but more importantly, I visited him.

Yellow Jackets is the foolish name of a team.


September 9, 2017

Today I got visited by Dirk Lee, graphic artist extraordinaire, who always was a strong supporter of my efforts to publish a small magazine, The Portable Wall.  Dirk was in town for his 50th high school reunion at Billings Senior High.  I tried to tempt him with beer and food, but he remained steadfast.  He is staying with his brother.  Throughout our visit, Gunther seemed listless.  (See accompanying photograph.)  Turns out Gunther and I walked past a yellow jacket nest in a hole near the sidewalk a couple doors down.  I had seen the yellow jacket nest before, and I had designs on possibly caving in the dirt around the hole’s margins.  I don’t like yellow jackets.  I think it highly ironic that the local college basketball team are the “yellow jackets.”

Anyway, this morning as Gunther and I walked out on the morning poo run, we paused at the yellow jacket hole in the ground to observe the busy pests flying into and out of the hole.  Now, what if I kick dirt into the hole? I wondered.  What if I clog the hole up with dirt?  Will the yellow jackets then die?  I hoped.  I hoped.

I hoped in vain.   I tried to kick some dirt into the hole but the dirt around the hole was hard, sun-baked clay.  I wonder if I’ll get away with this? I wondered.  I put my foot over the hole and succeeded in blocking all of the insects from entering or exiting the hole.  I left my foot there for perhaps five seconds, before withdrawing it and turning to walk down the sidewalk.

I noticed an insect flying about my head.  Was it a yellow jacket? I wondered.  Yes!  I realized.  It was a yellow jacket come to sting me.  I started batting at the insect and running down the walk.  Ouch!  I realized I had been stung by one.  I walked again.  I enjoyed the sensation of having been stung as I walked to the corner of the block.  Gunther was in obvious distress, gnawing at places on his arm and his back.

Gunther had been stung too, I concluded, so I gave him a dose of tranquilizer the vet had prescribed for his airplane rides.

I had that bee sting on my neck (still bothers me, as I write) but I had a chore to do at the store.  On the way back I bought some insect killer, called “Sevin.”  I understand yellow jackets track the powder into their nests and kill their fellows.  I returned home from my chore, uncorked the “Sevin,” and sprinkled it into the yellow jacket hole.   I showed my work to Dirk Lee, who was only mildly impressed.  If at all.


This handsome man is Dirk Lee, long time Missoulian, graphic artist extraordinaire.

Miles of dirt roads to Ekalaka


Medicine Rock State Park

August 19, 2017

Todd flew back to Duluth Friday, so Sus drove the boys Saturday from Billings to Bismarck, before continuing to Minnesota.  P. and I followed them in our car to Baker, Montana, via Miles City, Ekalaka, and Medicine Rocks State Park.  We ended up driving 10 hours, lots of it on dusty roads, but the trip was worth it.  I recommend the fine hospitality in Miles City and Ekalaka.

In Miles City we lunched at the “Hole in the Wall Bar & Family Dining,” where a generous waitress gave us directions for a shortcut via dirt road to Ekalaka.  After a great drive through Eastern Montana we toured the Carter County Museum and saw a newly (this year) assembled T-Rex.  The curator had recently moved from New Jersey to Ekalaka.  She said a dinosaur “Shindig” event in July had more than 800 people attend.  This in a town with population of just 300, she said.

The C.C. Museum had the usual stuff of rural Montana museums:  military weapons and memorabilia, a spinning wheel, a switchboard from an old telephone exchange.  You know.  Old collections.  Pistols and rifles.  (The docent had just donated a Heidelberg Windmill letterpress to a woman in Bozeman.)

Setting this museum apart was the dinosaur exhibit.  I think one would have to visit the big museums in the east to view such a collection of dinosaur bones.  Not just dinosaurs.  Mammoths, fish, crustaceans, many fossils.

Everyone had a long drive ahead, so we cut short the museum visit before visiting the Medicine Rocks State Park a dozen paved miles north from Ekalaka.  The medicine rocks are sandstone, perhaps 50 feet high, some of them, and 10-15 feet in diameter.  Weathering over the last millions of years have left them in fantastic shapes with holes, divots, pockmarks, domes, and natural bridges.

At Baker Sus noted that Cyrus’ soccer ball must have been left back at the “Hole in the Wall Family Dining.”  Therefore, P. and I stopped in on the way home.  The same generous waitress produced the ball, but also Roland’s sweatshirt, and she asked about our dirt road driving experience, which was a true adventure, albeit many hours of dust.

Made my day!

Pryor Mountain Camp


This is what I look like with a toothache.

August 17, 2017

Camping in Pryor Mtns on federal land is legal everywhere except the Big Ice Cave picnic area.  I had phoned the District Ranger who said there were no fire restrictions.  Actually, I spoke to a nice young lady who advised us to have a good time.

Those who particularly love the Pryors ask us regular people not to drive around looking for a campsite.  P. and I had driven up a couple times in the last couple weeks to scout things out.  We found a much used (and loved) primitive site in a couple acre stand of lodgepole pine some distance from the main road, yet near enough to walk to the road to play stickball with lodgepole pinecones pitched to Todd and Sus’ preteen boys.  If they hit the cone to a distant place a fielder could take a cone from her pocket and throw the runner out.  The boys did all the batting, Todd did the pitching, Sus and I did the fielding.  Our Brussels Griffon, Gunther, did the chasing.  He had an excellent time, judging from his body language.  P. preferred to cheer us on.  Until I got tired and joined her.

We spent a chilly night, the six of us, crammed into a Kelty® four-person tent.  I had a toothache and nobody brought any medicine, except the wine, which I drank copiously.  There were seven of us in the tent, counting Gunther.  Most said they slept poorly, but after Cyrus read to us, everyone was quiet.

It was dark.  The slight breeze was cold, me trying to pee in the wee hours against a tree.

Todd gave up his place in the tent early, asleep about 10 feet away.  He was the last to sleep and the last to rise.

We ate hotdogs and hamburgers for supper and farina for breakfast.  Then we packed up for a day of hiking.  Cyrus and Roland wanted to scale Big Pryor Mountain, a trail up a couple thousand feet of more than a dozen switchbacks.  P. and I lagged behind and, losing courage, started back down perhaps 500 feet from the top.  (P. felt nauseated, I had that toothache, the excuse I used.)  The real reason: I was tired.  Gunther, ever the optimistic one, scampered to the top with the youthful Struckman-Gaunt contingent.  They investigated Crater Ice Cave at the top and the boys managed to climb out of the cave through the crater.  Crater I.C. has two entrances, one to the side.  Sus took photos.

Back down, Gunther crawled under a car for shade after drinking water and eating a carrot, a favorite snack.

We checked the fireplace where we camped to make sure the fire was completely out.  It was.  Then we returned the way we came, on Sage Creek Road.

In Bridger we stopped at the Arcade Bar, Grill, and Ice Cream Parlor for cones.  Cyrus had a root beer float.  Gunther had a drink of water.

The boys wanted to play at the park when we returned home.  I was too tired to unpack the car.  I was five minutes late calling the dentist’s office that closed at five.  P. still felt ill.  Heather and Olivia Struckman arrived in the night.  They simply let themselves in and went to bed.  This morning Cyrus made Finnish pancakes.

Today my toothache was much less and P. felt well enough for a trip to the fair with the irrepressible youth.  Last time I looked all the camp gear was in the garage.

In search of Buddy


A person my mother called “Buddy” was a sort of faceless presence to me, a five-year-old, at bedtime with my mother perched on the edge of the bed to help me say my prayers.  Buddy was a mystery, but mother said he was an amy man.  A good one.  A first class private in the army who left for the war but did not return.  I was willing to leave his story untold because Buddy’s story had been eclipsed by a more compelling one.  After all, my father had recently gone — died of cancer — and he would not return either.  Both of these losses were significant for mother, but only the loss of my father made me weep in the darkness before I fell asleep.  I was merely fascinated with army men like Buddy.  That was to change, albeit many years later.

I have sought to “find” both men throughout my life and I ended up writing about them.  My way was collecting the information, organizing it.  Seeking the information I lacked.

I felt a deep connection with my father years later, after having turned 21 years old, when I was alone in a jail cell in Millington, Tennessee.  My father’s written words came to me and frightened me.  I feared his life, perhaps even some important mother’s love, had been wasted on me.  In the darkness of jail, disembodied voices taunted me like those of Otis Penty’s in my father’s story, “Night of the Pig.”  I feared I had entered a black country without a story to tell.

Ultimately I got out of jail and learned how to tell a story in the black country of Tennessee.  I wrote a biography of my father who was a writer and left reams of material for me to sift through, organize, and carefully read.

I never did finish learning about Buddy, who it turned out, was my mother’s little brother, the one who mysteriously vanished in the war.

Unlike father, I never did meet Buddy.  I didn’t even know his proper name for many years.  Buddy died four years before I was born.  Oh, the army said he died, but they started out telling my grandparents that he had gone missing in action.  I learned about Buddy from small clues, bits of information that my cousins and I sorted through in the dead of night when we stayed at our grandparent’s house on the edge of Kalispell, Montana.  We played with a Boy Scout flashlight, canteen, and photography equipment Buddy had left behind him.  Buddy left traces of his high school career:  some clothing, a rifle, his junior year annual.  He left a shotgun shell collection and a lot of fishing tackle.  We cousins found a photograph of him with an army unit.  We could tell which one was Buddy because someone had circled his head with a pencil and you could see the indentation if you looked at the picture at the correct angle.