On the Ash of Memories

I was perusing Facebook last night as I am wont to do at times and came across a post published by the Glacier National Park Facebook page reporting that the Sperry Chalet had been lost due to the march of the Sprague wildfire in the mountains of Glacier National Park. It is well into wildfire season in Montana at this time (see a current status update here) and according to the report from the park services the Sprague fire engulfed the building the evening of August 31st at around 6PM despite the best efforts of a team of fire fighters.

The Sperry Chalet was a lodge built in 1913 by two high ranking executives of the Great Northern Railway. Constructed largely of stone and other  local materials it sat at an elevation of 6500 feet in the rugged and mountainous backcountry of the Western end of Glacier National Park on Gunsight mountain. The lodge had sat overlooking Lake McDonald and the Whitefish mountain range for over a hundred years. Open to the public in 1914, it had been a common lodging destination for those looking for a place to stay while exploring the trails which lead deeper into the rugged backcountry of the park.

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The Sperry Chalet in Glacier National Park, Montana

I was born in Montana and though I did not live there for any considerable amount of time it is a land that I have always felt, in the depths of my soul, a very deep connection to. I spent many summers  in my youth visiting my grandparents with whom I spent countless hours hiking in various areas across the wilderness of Western Montana. The region of Western Montana where the great rolling hills of the plains on the Eastern side of the state give way to the rugged terrain of the Rocky Mountains is, as far as I am concerned, some of the most breathtaking country in the world. It is a powerful landscape full of an overwhelming, heartbreaking kind of beauty which commands reverence and respect. If the power of this place is not respected it is fully capable of killing you. It is a place where, for those who can see and hear its teachings, it is all the more impossible to forget the place of men before the wild gods of the earth. The presence of the great mountains, the glorious thunder over the rolling hills, the wolves of the mountain forests and the great grizzly bear all preach the transcendent glory of the inhuman and the smallness of man before the earth.

Rocky Mountain Front, Montana
The Rocky Mountain front in the Birch Creek region of Montana. The previous territory of the Siksikaitsitapi, the Blackfoot peoples.

When I was much younger I made the hike to the chalet with my grandparents. I was about ten years old at the time and we hiked the 7 miles in from Lake McDonald to spend the night amid the beautiful backcountry of Glacier before we returned back down the mountain the next day. It was an indescribably rich and beautiful place. I remember the beautiful sunset and sunrise amidst the subalpine forests, and meadowy hills coated in wildflowers and bear grass, the abundant wildlife and powerful presence of the distant and not-so-distant mountains. The chalet was in some way tied to these memories of that great place and I admit that I did feel a creeping sadness at the thought of the chalet no longer being there. In such a place it is easier to dwell in the presence of the gods and that such a place existed for communion with that divine glory that moves through all things was one of the more noble achievements of men.

But this sadness was only transient. My thoughts soon wandered from the chalet, that noble but fore-defeated attempt of men to dwell in the glory of the gods, to the great fires and that grand landscape which my younger self beheld so many years ago. I thought of the life of the great forests, of the elk and the wolves and the great bear, of the flower-strewn meadows, of the eternity of those snow-capped peaks. Before the grand life of that great landscape, a place which has over the course of eternity come to know the destruction of those great fires as part and parcel of the life of the whole, there is no longer a place for any lasting sadness over the loss of one stone dwelling of one small creature before those ancient flames. As noble a construction as it may have been, as with all the workings of men it must yield before the great and incomprehensible movements of that suprahuman splendor, and this is as it should be. So let the noble fires make ash of my memories, it is the way of things. The old chalet has returned to the great power whence it came and the yearly festival  of fire repeats the steps of its ancient dance as it has done for countless ages. Perhaps now the stone and wood of that old place are happy to feel once again the heat of that ancient fire on their old bones, come to take them back to the source. We should be glad for their homecoming.

My thoughts wander now to the words of the American poet Robinson Jeffers, from his poem The Answer, wherein he describes a frame of reference which situates the source of our meaning outside the limited domain of the human being. It speaks of a frame of reference outside our transient struggles, outside our passing pleasures, outside our petty dreams and self-fashioned idols, it describes a meaning, a love, and a reverence immersed in the grand beauty of the whole rather than the myopic realm of man. “…the greatest beauty is / Organic wholeness, the wholeness of life and things, the divine beauty of the universe. Love that, not man / Apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions, or drown in despair when his days darken.”, he says.

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