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Letter from Elk City: Into snow and sunflowers

By Staff | Jun 17, 2009

At 6,855 feet, Calispell Peak in the Selkirk Range was coated with white, even in late spring. EDN photo by Michael Tidemann

ELK CITY, Ore. – Leaving the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, I picked up Interstate 90 just east of Billings. From then on, I made great time.

Even though it’s interstate, I-90 in Montana gives some nice views. I made such good time that I thought I would make it from Belle Fourche, S.D., to Spokane, Wash., by nightfall, and could probably have done that, had it not been for the heavens opening with a cloudburst west of Butte, Mont. It wasn’t a rain. It wasn’t even a downpour. It was as though a huge waterfall had suddenly appeared, and heavy rains continued.

It was at Drummond, Mont., where I decided to turn in for the night. While I carried camping gear, I wasn’t much in the mood for pitching a tent in the rain, so I pulled in at a motel where I had stayed two years before.

Drummond, which bills itself as the “Home of the Bullshippers,” is indeed a slice from the old West. In late May snowcaps surrounded the town.

After a good night’s sleep, I had a good breakfast at the Wagon Wheel cafe. If you’ve ever had a Western breakfast, you have a pretty good idea of what it includes – eggs, hashbrowns, link sausage, and always sourdough bread. The cafes out west always put on a good spread so you’re good for a full day’s driving by nightfall.

Mentzer’s “used cow lot” in Drummond, Mont., is one of the reasons the town proclaims itself as “Home of the Bullshippers.” EDN photo by Michael Tidemann

Even though it was late May, I drove into the snow at Lookout Pass. At just 4,725 feet, a relatively low elevation, the ski area at Lookout still had enough snow so a person could have made a good downhill run. The Northwest gets so much snow that the early summer snowline starts at just 4,000 feet in a lot of places. All that snow so late in the year reminded me of when I lived in Lead, S.D., and would drive up the back road of Terry Peak after a late-April snow and take a surreptitious run down the mountain while a friend met me at the bottom. If I had had my skis and a friend along on this trip, I would have done it again.

Early that afternoon I arrived at my sister and brother-in-law’s home in Spokane. They had been spending time at their cabin along the Idaho border, and came back to their house to meet me. We immediately packed up and headed back up to their cabin for a few days.

After a good hour’s drive over interstate, two-laners, and Forest Service roads, we finally arrived at their cabin. I had been there a couple years before, but what really struck me this time was a field of sunflowers just below their cabin. The hillside was covered with them.

I looked at the sunflowers then my sister and we both choked up. Last December our mother had passed away. For weeks, my sister waited at our mother’s bedside at the hospice as she lay dying of cancer. As Mother lay there, breath labored, we prayed for her to die. “This is the hardest work I’ve ever done,” Karen said.

We were playing music the night Mother finally passed on. As the bagpipes played and the clock turned to midnight, our beloved Mother went to sleep one last time.

In the memorial folder at her funeral, we included a poem that Mother had published in an anthology. The poem was about a sunflower God had created and how much peace it gave her.

And now, here, well over a thousand miles from where Mother had passed into the other world, there were sunflowers growing – hundreds of them.

“They were never here before,” Karen said.

“You know who planted them, don’t you?” I said.

“Of course.”

After breakfast I hiked up the spine of the mountain ridge.There, off to the northwest, sunflowers flowed down the mountain with Calispell Peak in the Selkirk Range in the distance, covered in a downy veil of white.

I thought then of how our mother had visited this same place years before and of the many times that she talked about it, of how lovely it was and how she would like to come here again. Well, apparently she had.

“Good work, Mom,” I thought to myself.

Yes, it was very good work indeed.