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Autumn On Windy Pass

Sunday Nov. 1st, 2015

More than almost any other state, Montana is a place that brings distinctive visual images to mind. Most of those connotations are ridiculously flattering, and justifiably so – but a few of them are a bit more perverse, and are enough to send prospective Treasure State immigrants fleeing. A good number of those latter stereotypes, of course, relate to Montana weather.

Over and over again, Montanans repeat the old aphorisms about the lousy seasons we supposedly have up here. We remind everyone that we live in a state that has nine months of winter and three months of road construction (or three months of bad skiing), and a lot of us believe it ourselves … but really, of all the Montana stereotypes this one is among the furthest from the truth. It’s true that we have long winters, and that springtime here is almost nonexistent, but those three months of road construction and bad skiing totally make up for it. No one can argue that.

But then there’s autumn, the season that the stereotype always overlooks. We almost never point to the fact that autumn in Montana is invariably glorious, with crisp, sunlit days, amazing colors, and a refreshing dearth of tourists. In many ways it’s the best of the seasons up here, and this month we’re right in the middle of it.  For everyone who loves our state, it’s the perfect time to get out, and in October most of us didn’t do that nearly often enough.

For me, the best part about October is that it’s almost the last chance to get up into the really high country with a pair of hiking boots, instead of a pair of snowshoes. I do that every chance I can in the fall, grateful that our corner of Montana is graced with many high-altitude destinations for an autumn hike. There’s no destination more lovely than the Gallatins, and an autumn afternoon spent wandering the Gallatin Crest is the perfect way to disprove Montana’s two-season stereotype.

I did that not long ago on an impossibly bright fall day, tossing the dog in the Subaru and heading slowly south up the Gallatin Canyon, a blissfully serene drive this time of year. The old logging road up Portal Creek was as washboarded as always, but there wasn’t another soul to be seen … just the ecstatic face of my dog in the rear-view mirror, showing a mood that just about mirrored mine. The trailhead parking lot was empty, and I knew that the dog and I would probably have Windy Pass to ourselves. Good.

I imagine there aren’t too many people who would consider the start of the Windy Pass hike one of their favorites, but the trail really has a fair amount to recommend it. There’s a diverse forest ecosystem, occasional hints of the views to come, and squirrels for the dog to chase … and despite the exertion, an ever-increasing sense of peace as the road slips farther away. It’s all a reminder of why we live where we do, and what autumn in the Montana mountains has to offer us.

For me, that feeling of peace continues until I reach the turnoff for the little Forest Service cabin, and the hillside cover of the forest starts to slip away. The trail thins after that, and the high mountain meadows appear and grow more dramatic, and there’s a palpable sense of freedom and exhilaration to the place. My dog senses it very strongly, and being a dog he starts to run. I’m the opposite, though, and I slow down, wanting more time to absorb it all.

I was a little surprised the first time I made it to Windy Pass, because it doesn’t meet the preconceived notion of a “pass” at all – there’s no narrow saddle to slip through, no frantic, scree-covered switchbacks to traverse. Instead, there are just more and more of those top-of-the-world meadows, continuing on forever. It’s a different feeling, reaching a “pass” like this one; there’s less of a sense of conquest, and more a sense of wonder. It’s a reminder of how vast and detailed the natural world is, how the scale of it all is so much broader than our own.

The high meadows of the Gallatins are a powerful reminder of the diversity of our seasons, too, and especially the autumn. Visiting Windy Pass in June provides a classic Montana summer scene: still a little snow, lots and lots of green, thin carpets of wildflowers. That feeling of exhilaration again, brought about by nature’s dramatic annual rebirth. (And for me, though I hate to admit it, an almost palpable sense that the Von Trapp Family Singers are about to arrive on scene.)

It’s very different in the overlooked season of October, though. The mountain seems quieter, and the color palette is diverse but far more muted. The Von Trapp Singers are long gone. The feeling of exhilaration at the top is still there, but there’s a different sense to it. The vibrant burst of summer is over, and in autumn the mountain feels like it’s waiting. My dog will keep running around, but when I visit a place like Windy Pass in autumn I feel like I’m waiting, too. Waiting for the season to change, partly, but also waiting in a profound appreciation of the quiet that marks the end of the summer.

I have an acquaintance who works at a fire lookout tower in the northern Rockies, a job that more than any other instills an understanding of the change of seasons and the quiet of an autumn mountaintop. He talks of the value in having a place where one can escape a world that is so often chaotic and crazy and noisy and unkind. “Up here,” he says, “it’s just the wind … it’s just the wind.”

On Windy Pass in October, when it’s just me and the dog and the meadow’s namesake wind, I understand that perfectly. I’m grateful for the season that so many Montanans ignore, and I’m grateful for the Gallatins, too.     

Mark Hufstetler is a historian by profession, fire lookout watcher in the summer, and a volunteer with the Sierra Club.