Fencing the Sky

I suspect that men are going along this way for the last time, and I for one don’t want to waste the trip

Robert Traver–Anatomy of a Fisherman

My difficulties with fences began some years ago, a delicate transmutation arising from problems I had and still have with gates. Either my hands get scratched from trying to latch the ragged compilations of weathered tree limbs and barbed wire that block passage to some exotic fishing water or I pinch my fingers in the workings of the newer hook-type mechanism or I become inextricably tangled in the wire while crossing through. And with the certainty of an eastern-horizon sunrise, I find myself on the wrong sides of these gates after closing them. Coming or going, it doesn’t matter. The Suburban is always beyond the gate waiting for me to figure things out.

When I turned fifty crossing fences turned into a struggle. I’m in fairly good shape, not too much overweight, and manage to totter around with a modest degree of authority, but now I cannot get over, under or through a fence, particularly barbed wire ones, without some sort of mishap. All of the shirts I wear fishing or bird hunting are torn along the shoulders and back. My sweaters have loops pulled from their tight knitting large enough to hold ice axes, and my waders leak, doing little more now than visually announce that I’m about to chase some fish.

One time along the Shields River I became entangled while stooping and grunting through some wire that silently guarded a delightful stretch of prime water. Frustrated – I could hear trout splashing after caddis less than 30 feet away- I jerked free only to have the tip guide of my fly rod hook on a rusty barb. Jerking the rod sharply I lost my footing, the rod separating at mid section. I slid to the bottom of the embankment with line humming off the reel as though I’d hooked a five-pound brown. Nothing serious came of this calamity. I lost a few minutes of my life during regrouping. The tip guide was bent into a narrow oval and my torn shirt was now more torn. I was dusty and bedraggled, but that’s how I wind up looking after fishing anyway. I went on to have a pleasant day catching a few browns, but that incident was the beginning of my firm dislike for fences and an beginning of an awareness concerning our obsession with closing land in, delineating, and not so tacitly stating that, a given piece of property that is owned is now longer a part of what’s left of free range in the West.

We’re all obsessed with possession. Relationships between the sexes are often defined by the scars of these emotional turf wars. That’s to be expected. We’re a flawed species. And purchasing a piece of land is overt possession, but controlling this land is absurd. Yeah, I understand that if someone pays the bucks they can do what they want with the acreage. Cattle must be managed. And riffraff such as myself needs to be kept at bay. A dwindling few ranchers still allow access to their land if a person politely asks and remembers to thank them with a Christmas bottle of rye whiskey or such. But the whole ownership thing is out of control on the high plains. Orange spray-painted fence posts by the millions, “Keep Out” signs swaying in the wind and “No hunting or fishing. No trespassing” warnings. How a person can do the former two without committing the latter is a mystery. This variation seems a case of restating the obvious. If you can’t pass, you logically can’t fish or hunt.

And I love the entrances to many of the newer ranches or ranchettes, the ones marked by a pair of enormous Ponderosa pine trunks topped by an equally large trunk across the top. And dangling below the top brace in clear examples of human hauteur are signs that dance to the tune of “Smith’s Ponderosa” or “Jones’s Wild West Retreat” or, my personal favorite, “Wall Street Retreat.” Thankfully the plains Indians never adopted this insecure form of territorialism. Visions of “Plenty Coups’ Palace” or “Dull Knife’s Estancia” come shakily to mind.

All of this makes sense to me. Let’s all hem in the land and its spirit with miles of barbed wire and then announce to the world who exactly is responsible for this self-absorbed mayhem. Like we own the good country in the long term. Recent wildfires in Montana and now California say otherwise, as do drought, earthquake and the inevitable ice age. I’ve never been a wannabe Indian. Not my style, and quite sensibly on the tribes’ part, they don’t want me, but whatever happened to respecting the land that can never be truly owned? What about honoring and submitting to the long-running buzz that is the electric spirit of the West?

Sure fencing one’s property ensures at least the illusion of privacy and security. We can all drive down our private, dusty lanes, sit on the front porch and arrogantly say while sipping some expensive single malt, “I’ve got mine. You can’t have it. I’m really living now.” The mentality that made us great hideously guts the essence of open space.

Up until a few years ago I couldn’t imagine what Montana or the Dakotas would have been like 150 years ago. A land of no fences, few people and a vastness filled with wild animals that rivaled Africa’s now ravaged Serengeti. For the past several years I’ve been drifting up to the far north of the Yukon and Northwest Territories with increasing frequency while researching a book. When I first drove through the hundreds of miles of uncut boreal forest and crossed rivers like the Mackenzie that are more than a mile wide and 40 feet deep, when I saw thousands of woodland bison grazing by the dirt roads that are called highways up there, I was blown away. To finally experience such an immense wealth of wilderness, an area many times the size of Montana, with so few signs of people was staggering. To catch countless grayling of several pounds from one small stretch of river was stunning. One day last June as I cruised up to the First Nations Dene De Cho settlement of Pedzah Ki, I watched the Mackenzie flow, not flow but power, its way north to above the Arctic Circle and finally into the Beaufort Sea. The Canyon Range, then the Mackenzie Range, then other mountains rolled away to the west for hundreds of miles. Moose ghosted through stands of dwarf birch. Black bears were all over the place feeding on the green, rich grasses of a short, intense summer. Through binoculars I sighted grizzlies wandering the slopes of the McConnell Range. Fifty miles to the south, Nahanni Butte shimmered silvery blue. For days I saw only a few settlements of maybe 100 people each. No phone or electric lines. No fences. The difference in the energy, in the feel, of this land was palpable. The countryside sizzled and seemed to flicker with a light that is not seen by the eyes. This must have been what the Big Sky felt like a couple of centuries past. Montana is home in my heart, but the North in its, for now, untamed radiance owns my soul.

Experiencing all of this up north made me see that we don’t improve things for ourselves or, more importantly, for the good country when we attempt to stamp our designs of control on the landscape. Instead we cut out the heart of the place and in the process slice away chunks of ourselves. In a few years my children will be off to college and I’m going to move out of Livingston and back into the empty, open spaces. I’d like to believe that I’ll tear down all of the fences on whatever place I find, but knowing myself, I doubt it. I want my piece of paradise just like anyone else.

Last October while returning from another day fishing on the Shields I crossed several fences on the way back to the Suburban. Angus cattle were casually grazing on the last of the year’s good grass. As is normal these days, I fought with a fence near the highway. When I finally passed through I looked up and saw a lone cow standing on the road-side of the fence. Cattle do this. They always want what they see on the other side, then decide that they really need to return to their original side of the obstruction. The animal was pushing against the barbed wire trying to rejoin its herd. The cow bawled in its frustration. A large gash ran along its flank. Blood from the wound glistened in the sunlight. I turned away, unlocked the back doors of the rig and started to put away my gear. I looked down at my right hand. A long scratch ran from the base of the little finger to the wrist. There was a good deal of blood that, too, glistened in the light.

JOHN HOLT has been called the Hunter Thompson of Montana. He is the author of numerous books, including the gripping novel Hunted, and Coyote Nowhere: In Search of America’s Lost Frontier. He lives in Livingston, Montana and can be reached at: jholt@msn.net