Magpie Gulch is a narrow, twisty road in Montana that leads to the top of the world. Well, it feels like the top of the world. To show off my favorite state to friends Tom and Janet I drove by Canyon Ferry Lake and into the Big Belt Mountain Range.
In some places the road looks as if a vintage phone cord was stretched out and wrapped around the mountains. At times you see a fair stretch ahead, other times you only see the next curve. If you avoid the occasional potholes, have good shocks, and are only 5’2″, your head won’t bounce off the roof.
The barely-fits-two-vehicles road was hacked into the mountainside so what rises above you is artistically decorated with rocks and wildflowers, what treacherously slopes below is decorated likewise. Occasional relief from white-knuckle driving comes when the road scratches across a plain.
Canopied above the rugged terrain is a bright blue sky, usually fluffed with white clouds. When the Lord created the land now called the United States, He flung the majority of the sky above one favorite spot, Montana, and distributed the meager leftovers over the other states, hence the Big Sky nickname.
It was exciting to anticipate and experience the beauty around the next corner.
A few tips for a successful journey:
My mantra for exploring Montana is never let your gas tank fall below half-empty or your bladder fill above half-full. Bring water, because as my Dad has reminded me all my life, “It’s almost a desert here.” Since Magpie Gulch is in the Helena National Forest, we were required to bring a shovel, bucket, and axe.
Recognize Passenger Peril
The driver isn’t the only one who experiences the perils of a mountain excursion, the passengers feel a unique vulnerability because they’re not in control.
I ten-and-twoed the steering wheel while watching for animals, potholes, oncoming traffic, weak edges, falling rocks, and ruts. I didn’t notice that my friends from the flat-as-a-piece-of-paper state of North Dakota occasionally gripped the sides of their seats and quietly bit back the gasps our mothers made when we had our learner’s permits. I was looking forward, they were looking down. Way down. Way, way, way down. I didn’t experience the scary cliff side until we turned around and headed for home.
It’s the same when our life journey includes a death, health challenge, financial crisis, or a broken relationship. Yes, the ultimate test is for us, but others share in our traumas. Keep to the path, but sympathize with those in the passenger seat.
Stop for Beauty
In an act of self-preservation, I kept my eyes on the road, not the scenery. We frequently pulled over and parked on the mountain side of the road, leaving enough room, on the cliff side, of course, for another vehicle.
No matter how ugly your life feels, act in self-preservation and refresh your soul with the Creator’s beauty. Go outside. Breathe deeply. Touch petals. Listen to insects. It won’t take much to rejuvenate your emotional and spiritual stamina.
During a wrinkle-causing trauma our family experienced, I was inside for four days in a row. One afternoon I simply stood on the front porch for about fifteen minutes and breathed the damp cedar air.
It was enough. I was ready to go back into the fray.
Friends Add Joy in the Journey
Though visions of falling off the cliff occasionally plummeted through our minds, we had a blast. Janet and I were best friends in high school; Tom and Janet married right out of high school. We have a no-secrets kind of heart history. We talked, laughed, joked, and pointed out sights to one another. We blazed the trail in anticipation of the mountaintop view we would experience together.
It’s easy to turn away from people during hard times. Don’t. Seek out a few people you can trust. The companionship of true friends can add joy to your journey.
Not All Complete the Journey Together
Montana has a 50 year old tradition of marking road fatalities with a white crosses. This tribute to Bonnie Sue Heller on Magpie Gulch struck our hearts. Although we didn’t know her, we grieved her death. The American Legion says the crosses “stimulate reverence, sorrow, sympathy, curiosity, and caution.” I’ve grown up seeing them dotting the Montana roads, but they still jumpstart my heart.
The crosses are surrounded by an aura of grief and loss.
Not all that start life’s journey with us finish with us. Our Langdon High School class of 1982 has already lost too many classmates, several in the past few years. My classmate and friend, Kari, although I almost killed her once, passed away at thirty-six, leaving behind a husband and four kids. Parents outlive their kids. Grandparents outlive grandchildren. When you walk through a graveyard you will notice there is no guarantee of a long life. But all lives were for a purpose. As we struggle to live without them, we must use their deaths as inspiration for how we live.
Take Time to Refresh
There’s a Brainard family tradition I love. Our feet need to go into any water we see. Especially a mountain crick. Yeah, that’s how you pronounce it. Even if it’s melted snow and turns our toes purple, we have to stop, enjoy the sight and sounds, and wade for a few minutes.
It’s the perfect Chill Pill.
Once you relax, what happens next may surprise you.
Janet turned around and took this shot…
…then printed it on canvas. These are available for order if you email her through her website. You can even add your own verse or favorite quote. (Print will look closer to the original, the one above is a cell phone shot taken from Facebook.) (Janet Schill Photography)
Refresh yourself with activities you love.
Along the journey take time to look back and reflect.
Where you’ve been is just as important as where you’re going.
We don’t always celebrate our accomplishments, especially when focusing on present problems or future goals.
Marvel at the path the Lord has guided you through. Feel good about ways you’ve served and helped. Cheer yourself on.
We were rewarded for enduring the drive and making it to the mountaintop.
Are you on a white-knuckled journey, barely able to see the road ahead of you? We start adulting with the Happily-Ever-After glimmering on the far horizon. Delays, roadblocks, and setbacks forced us to accept the reality of life. It is hard. We don’t saunter up to the HEA and grab it, we choose and earn it.
But, just keep going.
I promise, something beautiful is just around the next corner.