Remember when you first felt freedom? Whether freedom is frightening or thrilling, people usually have a “first freedom” story. We realized we get to make choices about our lives, vote, leave on a plane by ourselves for the first time, walk through the door on our own apartment or house.
I felt my first taste of footloose freedom in the wildlife areas of Eastern Washington. Hiking through LT Murray, I followed game trails and jeep roads past hunting camps empty since the previous fall. I camped where ever I wanted, not in a numbered, reserved site. This is nothing like Western Washington, where piles of branches cut off social paths, signs point the way, and you are reminded to stay on the trail-always!
To be fair, the impact of too many feet on wet ground is the reason for these restrictions. The dry side of the state has firmer ground and fewer lug sole boots treading the trail.
But confinement to a path creates a strange geometric mindset. You hike to a point and back, and hopefully the point has a view, a meadow, or a lake. If you’re lucky, you are on a loop so that you can go in a circle. Signs may point the way. Mountaineering gives some freedom, but you’re probably following a documented route, whether it’s drawn on a map or downloaded on a phone. There is little loneliness to be found: lines form on some hiking trails and volcano hikes.
You don’t just wander here.
So I felt like a refugee from a land of rules on my first trip to American Prairie Reserve. I waited to go there until there was an online reservation system to ensure a campsite. I made sure I had my America the Beautiful public lands pass for Charles Russell Wildlife Refuge.
And then I found out about public access in Montana. Campground full? There is dispersed camping on public lands, with a few guidelines to keep things clean for others. A ranger stopped to ask if I was okay when I was walking the road with a pack, not to check my pass. He thought maybe I left behind a car with a flat. He gave me his map and told me I didn’t have to walk the road and jeep tracks. If I wandered back in the hills, I could see lots of grouse, he said.
Montana felt like freedom writ large.
My first hike on Box Elder crossing was an exercise in removing training wheels. I stayed on the dirt two track for a way, then saw the smooth black face of a hill with golden grass catching the sun. Bison trails went that way. I followed their tracks across the creek and up the hill, and found another hill and another. A potpourri of rocks poked up from the dirt, inviting examination, sometimes on hands and kness. I sat on that hill and looked across the prairie landscape and realized I could keep wandering for days.
In May, I made three trips across Box Elder Creek, one to trek across to Reynolds Road, one to just wander, and another to field sketch. I followed bison trails and wandered off the jeep track. A couple snakes scolded me from the grass. I tiptoed around the bison bulls but couldn’t avoid scaring the cows. I found rocks and eggs and bugs.
Later in my trip, I met a friendly birding couple in the coin laundromat at Malta. They told me their freedom story. They lived in Texas, and had just purchased a home that would be their last. Then they visited friends in Montana. When they realized how much freedom there is in Montana compared to Texas, they sold the house without ever having slept a night in it, moved to Missoula, and never turned back.
Sure, wandering around the prairie means you’re watching for snakes. Bad weather can sweep in when you’re out in the open. You need enough water because it doesn’t stream off the mountains like home. But you are free to roam, relax, and explore. When you live in a place like my home- or Texas, apparently, you remember that.