I first noticed the light in early June. It was the gloaming, that period of waning light between sunset and darkness. Around here the gloaming can last up to an hour in June . An hour of enchantment and fairy dust. The light appeared over the canyon between the Paradise valley and Livingston. On the west, the Wineglass. A lump of a mountain named after the v shaped gullies on its north side. On the east, the western most tip of the Absoroka Mountains. A gap created, presumably, by the Yellowstone river whittling away at the rock. Or not.
The light, or lights, were red, green and a pale yellow in the shape of a triangle. It just hovered there in the dusk. It was hard to tell from 25 miles away if it was actually over the canyon, but that’s what it looked like. I was on the porch of a house provided for employees of the guest ranch I had been hired on to as a sous chef. It was a dream come true. Although I later found out I had some help being hired provided by my sister, I was still looking down one of the most beautiful mountain valleys I had ever seen, or will ever see.
The call came on a dreary winter day. I got the job. My girlfriend and I had talked about moving to Montana and now that was going to happen. I was working a dreary job at the Holiday Inn in Decatur Illinois slinging hash for equally dreary guests. It was institutional cooking at its finest, or worst. Rubbery prime rib with powdered au jus on a black plate with an over done baked potato and succulent frozen broccoli. That sort of thing. But now, I was going to cook at an exclusive guest ranch in Montana! An adventure lay before us and I couldn’t wait to get on with it.
The day finally came to leave Illinois. It was mid April. We said our goodbyes and headed west.
Welcome to Montana, the sign read. A feeling arose in me that I would only come to understand later. I was home, except that I had only been here a couple of times before. Once with a traveling bar band. I was too tired and burned out from the road to give Montana much thought except to get to the next gig. And again when my sister paid for a trip out to see the sights. I was enchanted by this place on that trip.
Two and a half days of hard travel through the upper Midwest and then the high plains of south Dakota and there it was. Welcome to Montana.
We landed in Livingston and decided to spend our first night there. It was early spring in Montana. The trees were still bare. The grass was green and the bushes showed a hint of new growth. I was supposed to show up at the ranch the next morning.
Route 89 follows the Yellowstone river through the narrow canyon separating Livingston from the Paradise valley. Sunshine is a rare commodity here as the mountains on either side see to it that the sun only shines in there for a few hours of the day. I emerged from the canyon into one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen. Paradise valley in the morning. The snow covered Absaroka Mts. (pronounced Absorkie by the locals) on the left and the rolling foothills of the Gallatin range on the right. To call it wondrous would be dereliction of adjectival duty. Something else is required but I’m not sure what that might be.
The valley floor is dotted with ranches and agriculture and the occasional trophy home. Some seven miles at it widest point, and 30 miles long, the Paradise valley glistened in the morning sun. The snow covered peaks of the Absarokas were awash in the burnt yellow of the morning sun. Emmigrant peak, the highest mountain in the valley, was ablaze, towering over the nearby peaks like a boy scout leader over his eager troops.
That day was orientation day for new employees at the ranch. I arrived at the Tom Minor road and took a right up into the Tom Minor basin. Tom Minor Basin is a notch in the Gallatin mountains tumbling down into the valley created by the stream that meanders its way to the Yellowstone from high in the mountains. The scene was like something out of Hollywood complete with soaring “western” movie music. A herd of elk leaped over a fence to my right and bound across the dirt road in front of me. There must have 20 or so, mostly cows. It was the first time I had ever laid eyes on an elk. They looked tasty. And big. I later found out just how big and just how tasty elk are, but that’s another story.
Spring in the Rockies is a time of mud. There were few guests at first and the kitchen staff was still practicing the routine. The mud oozed into the receiving area requiring constant cleanup. The mud was everywhere. Mud followed everyone everywhere they went. I suggested we serve mud pies. Mud, mud, mud. And then one day it dried up. And stayed dry for the rest of the summer save the occasional shower.
I was staying at the employee house that June evening instead of our apartment in Livingston because the next day was my day to cook breakfast from the chuck wagon. I had to be at the ranch at 5:oo to load up and head out into the mountains. The chuck wagon was pulled by two giant Percherons and we followed on horseback. It was my favorite job at the ranch, not withstanding the early hour. The guests met us at the rendezvous point and I whipped up bacon and eggs and flapjacks. There were muffins made the day before. We dined in an Aspen grove watching elk up on a ledge peer down at us with cautious indifference. It was what breakfast in heaven must be like.
I noticed the lights that evening . They stood guard over the canyon. I was enjoying the long evening, marveling at the scene in front of me. I wondered if I was looking at the light from a microwave tower in the Bangtails or something in the hills above Livingston. I looked for a source that whole summer and came up with nothing. There were no towers in the hills or beyond within sight of that porch.
The lights were there when we were coming back from an evening fishing trip into Yankee Jim canyon, the cut between the Paradise valley and Gardner. The cook and I were into the “gonzo” phase of fly fishing that summer. We fished whenever we could. The Yankee Jim canyon is where the Yellowstone river cuts through the mountains at the southern most point of the valley. The river narrows and deepens there. The current is swift and it makes for some challenging fishing. The moon was full that evening. It rose up perfectly between the canyon walls. A big, orange ball of a moon hovering in the misty dusk of the canyon. The fish were biting and we were fishing by moonlight. I wondered if I would suddenly wake up, disappointed that it was all just a dream.
The lights were there for my evening trip home all summer, never moving from their place in the canyon. Driving north toward Livingston, I wondered if the light was a UFO or an optical illusion. The mountains are good at optical illusions. Just when you think you’re seeing one thing it turns out to be something else. But these were constant all summer long. I pointed them out to my co workers and nobody seemed all that interested. Maybe they were there just for me, I speculated. Maybe they were a sign for someone else and I was eavesdropping on a private conversation. Maybe they were just lights with no origin I could find. I don’t know. But they disappeared in early September. The ranch was a month away from closing down for winter. The summer was coming to an end and so did the lights.
It was a summer I will never forget. Maybe those lights were a beacon. A sort of star of Bethlehem, the light at the end of the tunnel. The porch light of home.