Prairie Memories by Gary Heintz: Wisdom, Montana
My cousin Tom began his career with the U.S. Forest Service in Wisdom, Montana in the late 1970s, and we planned a June trip to spend some time with him. My only previous exposure to Wisdom had been from the local winter weather report that listed Wisdom, which sits on the Continental Divide, as the coldest place in the nation with great regularity.
The plan was for Tom and me to spend a day horseback, riding high into the timber, enjoying the scenery and hopefully seeing some elk migrating up the mountain for summer grazing. Tom warned me that our chances of spotting elk would be slim, but we would give it a shot.
The afternoon we arrived at Wisdom, we almost missed it. It consisted of the ranger station, a few homes, barns and corrals, and a small general store. After settling in, Tom and I walked down to look at the horses we were going to use the next day. They were standing quietly in the shade of the horse barn, and barely noticed us climb over the fence. Tom walked up to a bay gelding, and turned him sideways so I could see him. The horse’s face and neck, all the way to his shoulder, were literally covered with mosquitos! You could not see any of the bay’s hide through the thick layer of insects. Every horse in the pen was in the same condition. The amazing thing was the horses didn’t seem stressed at all by the biting that was happening. Tom said because of the altitude and short growing season, the alfalfa crops were irrigated and that provided a perfect breeding ground for the insects. The horses build up an immunity to the bites from the time they are colts. I asked Tom how people managed with so many mosquitos around. He smiled and walked me to the little general store. The first thing you saw when you walked in the door was a ten foot long wall, eight foot high, covered with a display of all the various forms of Cutter mosquito spray. Tom said he made regular trips to that store, stocking up on Cutter sprays before he headed out to work each Monday.
Our day began early, with the temperature in the low 40s. Our horses were small in comparison to the quarter horses I was used to, and I joked with Tom about having to ride this pony. He stressed the qualities of our mounts, surefooted, raised in the mountains, acclimated to the altitude, and pretty much bomb-proof. I nodded in agreement but in my mind I wasn’t convinced. It didn’t take long to realize the little horse was the real deal, setting a constant pace up the mountainside, hardly ever breaking a sweat or breathing hard. We didn’t have to go very high to be able to look out across the valley at the beauty of southwestern Montana. It truly is ”Big Sky” country. By afternoon we were above the timberline, and after stopping to eat and spend time glassing the view, we started circling back in the direction of Wisdom. By this time I had fallen in love with the little mare I was riding. Just as Tom had warned, we had not seen any elk.
We reached the corral as the sun was touching the mountain ridge to the west, and after tending to the horses we climbed into Tom’s pickup to head back to his place. Pulling into his driveway, a few head of elk loped across the road in front of us. Tom stopped the pickup, we looked at one another and started laughing. One of my goals in coming to Montana was to see elk, just didn’t know I would see them in Tom’s front yard.
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