Early Years – Montana


Although I am a third generation native Californian, my childhood memories are anchored in Montana where my family lived from 1959-1963.


Butte, Montana – surrounded on three sides by the Continental Divide. It was miserably cold much of the time; snowing on the 4th of July three of the five years we lived there. One week the high temperature never rose above -32 degrees F; on awaking one morning the thermometer outside the window read -52. No, not including wind chill.


Winter in the mountains had its advantages; above, a section of Roosevelt Road where my friends and I would sled two miles down the mountainside. It was steep and fast; so fast, we had to lie down on our sleds as sitting upright led to spills and unintended cartwheels down the road. Parents would drive us to the crest of the hill, then turn around and drive down.  If they encountered a car coming up the hill they honked the horn. That was our signal to bail – sledding off the side of the road into the powder, hoping to avoid trees.


The “Berkeley Pit” – an open pit copper mine – was operating during those years, inexorably drawing more and more of the town into its maw. Closed in the mod-1980s, it is now a Superfund site.


Perhaps in reaction to the long periods of miserable cold, my father developed a love for family road trips. This seems odd in retrospect because his working life involved driving all over Montana and adjoining states negotiating real estate to develop new Safeway grocery stores. Nevertheless, come a thaw we piled into the car and were off. When the pavement ended, my father kept driving. Thaws turned back roads into mud, and being hauled out by a rancher and his tractor was not unknown.


There were no Interstate freeways in those years and our progress was often impeded.


Trips to Glacier Park were a favorite; here we are fishing from a small boat on Lake McDonald. The wind has come up suddenly, spinning the boat around 180 degrees. My mother wanted my father to quit fooling with the camera and help reel in the lines.


Yellowstone also was a common spot to visit; on this trip with family friends. The young man in the orange shirt grew up to write thrillers: Richard North Patterson.


Summer vacation meant two weeks at Holland Lake in the Swan Valley, reached by following seven miles of gravel/dirt road off Highway 83.


Accommodations at Holland Lake: a 14 foot travel trailer (rented) and an old-style umbrella tent. First thing on arrival was to find the ideal spot to dig and rig a latrine in the woods. Expand the picture and see my sister cooking on a Coleman white gas stove and my mother puffing away. I still have the stove. My mother, sadly, paid the price of smoking.


Being a Boy Scout in Montana meant making your own pack frame and then spending a week in the wilderness.


The happy (?) family. I find this snapshot amusing. My father set the timer, but the shutter opened before he was ready. My mother looks like she had three Manhattans, though that was not her style. I have the deer in the headlights thing going. My sister is the only one who managed to pose.


In 1963, my father quit his job and we moved back to California. I was in 9th grade, and the high school was always on the verge of losing its accreditation. My parents were worried that I, and then my sister, would not be admitted to a good college as graduates of Butte High School. I think they also had grown weary of the cold.

These years in Montana – especially the many road trips – kindled a love for the Northwest.

~ by raysparrowe on March 23, 2013.

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