Sleep Therapy

MooJee and I are hunkered down inside a cluster of granite boulders on the west side of the Bridgers, high above the Gallatin Valley. I doze with my head against a rock, chasing the sleep that eluded me last night. MooJee wakes me with a little whine. She points her black Labrador nose to the sky, sniffing toward the rain pelting Three Forks, 35 miles away. Time to get moving. I stand up and stretch a bit before picking up my scuffed blue backpack and sliding the straps over my shoulders. We scramble back down to the trail and trot quickly to the place where it forks off toward the mouth of Bridger Canyon.

After putting some distance between us and the exposed rim of rock above, I stop to pull on my rain gear. As the sky darkens I hurry on, glancing around for a sheltered spot. I yell at MooJee to stop chasing squirrels and come on. When the rain starts to pelt us with fat drops, we duck under a big Western larch where a spread of branches is our huge, leaky, green umbrella. When I turn my head, the hair poking out of the back of my black baseball cap sticks to the tree and I have to reach up to rip it away from the pitchy trunk. I remember reading that Flathead Indians chewed larch pitch like gum and scrape a fingernail across a lump and put it into my mouth. It tastes a little like sour honey. I won’t be giving up my wintergreen-flavored Orbit.

The storm ends in about ten minutes and the sun shoots spears of yellow through the trees. I sit down in front of a cluster of aspen trees at the edge of the meadow to write a flower list in my small spiral-bound notebook. Soon, I feel sleepy again and lay back into the bright green grasses, resting my head on my backpack.

Two red-tailed hawks glide in a wide circle above the meadow. I tell MooJee to lie down and we hold very still. The hawks’ lunches must be scampering through the grass. They circle as I watch. Then, one of the hawks wheels and plunges to the ground and shoots back up into the sky with a squirming rodent in its talons. The second hawk spirals up, leans to the south and glides off. Suddenly, a third hawk dives from the top of a towering pine tree and body-slams the hunter. The first hawk’s talons open in surprise and the victim drops, flailing and twisting, back toward the flower-studded meadow. The attacking hawk swoops, steals the rodent, and then disappears over the trees. What a show! Better than watching the nature channel.

We start back down the trail—the home stretch. Almost immediately, from the branches of a lodgepole pine tree, another red squirrel has MooJee’s rapt attention. The squirrel is probably scolding me for not sharing the raisins and dog biscuits in my backpack. I consider coaxing the squirrel in for a bite, but remember that human contact with wild animals doesn’t usually go well and should probably be avoided. Still, whenever I hear reports of animals that are trapped, tranquilized, and removed from suburbs, I can’t help sympathizing with the critter: Where is it supposed to live and hunt for food now that its home is criss-crossed with roads, houses, driveways, garages, and outbuildings? The whole situation is a dilemma. People need places to live too, but our population explosion is putting a big squeeze on animals. Finally though, leaving some places as they are is starting to make economic sense as we search wild places for something we can’t quite define.

When I can see my car, I slide my backpack off my shoulders and fumble around in it, looking for my keys as MooJee and I walk into the parking lot at the trailhead. I pull my hiking boots off, peel my socks out over my sweaty toes with their chipped orange polish, and toss them inside. I lean against the car, enjoying the cool breeze on my bare feet and watching MooJee sniff a row of fence posts, one by one. The mountain—with its trees, hawks, squirrels, and wildflowers—looms silently above us.

It’s risky up there, especially alone. One wrong step can snap an ankle miles away from help, raingear is essential in every season, and I’ve just tromped boldly through black bear territory. But I’d rather watch where I’m putting my feet, study the sky for weather updates, and sing on the trail than spend time in the gym plodding mindlessly over the smooth black surface of a treadmill or peddling a bike that doesn’t move. Some days I do that—when I can’t get out here—and instead of staring at the row of televisions mounted on the gym wall, I close my eyes and run a little mountain movie in my head.

Today I made time for the real thing. During the drive home, I feel exercised and exorcized, emptied out after hours of climbing and walking and thinking. I’ll sleep well tonight.