My aunt Ann was coming out to visit. She had always been my favorite aunt. Her imagination was vivid, and she really knew how to play, even though she was fifteen years older than I. As if summer wasn’t already enough of a pre-school overload for me, there would now be an overabundance of girl things to do. This was going to be an extra special treat.
Summer for me was a wild romp through the mountains of south-western Montana. Almost every year contained those six weeks of passionate playtime, surrounded by endless cow pastures and college students who thought I was a cute kid. It was also six weeks without T.V., but I never noticed. The reason for this unadulterated and often unsupervised experiment in childhood was that my dad taught at a field station in the Tobacco Root mountains, and the family came along. I really didn’t know what he did exactly. I just knew that he was a teacher, the students called him the Limestone Cowboy, he tromped around outside all day, and sometimes graded papers. Us kids could, in turn, sell rocks we found on the hill behind the lab, and peddle Kool-Aid to the students after a hard day in the field.
The nearest town was listed as having 32 people, but these citizens didn’t actually live in the town proper. They were ranchers who were scattered about the out-laying areas and up into the mountains themselves. The town was called Cardwell, and the post office, general store, and gas station were conveniently close - in the same building. Maxine the postmaster sat on her stool behind the counter, and gave my brother the stamp collector illegal postmarks from the town.
I usually passed my time running around in those endless cow pastures, out behind our trailers, negotiating sage brush and cow pies, or playing with my extensive collection of Barbie dolls. My brother went around making the sort of trouble that boys make, such as pushing little sisters into creeks and general teasing and badgering. Mom spent her time doing crafts and relaxing. She also had the fun job of keeping Jim and I from severely hurting each other. Ann’s visit was a very exciting addition to an already pleasant routine.
I loved Ann. I was five years old, and she seemed to be perfect. She drew pictures that really looked like what they were supposed to be, loved horses and pretty things, and liked to do my hair with colorful yarn ribbons. She would pick flowers with me, and admire my Barbies. She was almost a better kid than I was.
The morning she was supposed to get in, we drove the one and one half hours to Bozeman, and picked her up at the two-terminal airport. One and a half hours is an eternity in the life of an antsy five year old, and I’m sure that my excitement and anticipation contributed to making me one of the most charming little chatterboxes around. I would imagine that I annoyed my parents with all sorts of trivia, perhaps adding in a song or two as I gazed out the window at the scenery speeding by, wondering if we would ever get there.
The plane landed, Ann walked into the airport, and everyone had their chance to say “hi.” The whole ride home consisted of boring grown-up questions such as “How was your flight?,” and “How is college?” By the time another agonizing ninety minute ride was over, and we were back at the camp.
I wanted Ann to dive immediately into playland. But it wasn’t to be. She had to rest Maybe she was an adult after all; they sleep all the time.
The next morning, I woke earlier as usual, as kids often do when they are overly excited about something. It was better than Christmas. Well, almost better than Christmas. I went out into the small living room as quietly as possible, because that was where Ann was sleeping, and made as much noise as possible. I ate the cookies that dad always left for me, dragged the chairs over the cheap linoleum floor, and banged the cabinet doors. Ann, to my horror, woke up. Mom woke up also, and I found out that Dad was actually in camp grading. Wonderful. Everyone would be home to show me a good time. All I had to do was sit back, be cute, and let them do their best to make me happy.
The day was mine. My father arrived and he, Ann, my brother and I planned to trek all the way across the river to Rattlesnake Butte. A hike! Off we went, I in my embroidered Toughskins, striped knit shirt, and blue children’s hiking boots, was ready to go. We left the trailer and headed down the newly-tarred dirt road, over the South Boulder River, and back up the other side to the mountain, a distance of about a quarter of a mile. Rattlesnake Butte was really not a mountain, it was only a small foothill of a foothill in the Tobacco Roots, covered with brush and outcrops of jagged rock. It was tiny.
It was surrounded by the beginnings of the actual mountain range, which made it look even smaller. The only thing which made it remarkable and lent it its exotic movie-western name was that one of the teacher’s dogs was bitten by a rattlesnake on top of it.
But I was five. Almost everything was bigger than me. A whole hill was huge. And the distance traveled was practically an odyssey, complete with obstacles meant to trip up the unsuspecting wanderer. A system of metal bars two inches wide and four inches apart familiar to anyone in the west blocked our passage to the promised land of adventure: a cattle guard. My father’s Super 8 movie camera caught, in visual proof, my brother actually being nice to me. We were attempting to cross this cattle guard when I hesitated. A better name for these contraptions would be “childrenguards.” Jim went ahead and showed me how easy it was, and returned to take my hand to guide me over the treacherous thing. Once I was safely on the other side, he went across and back just one more time to prove to me that he needed no help. Rattlesnake Butte now loomed over us. We went through the gate into the empty cow pasture over to the slope and began our hike.
It was all easy at first. We went slowly, Ann and I picking flowers as we went, Dad following with the camera, and Jim, once again, running ahead to show us how easy it all was. Then Dad dropped a bombshell. He had to go back to the camp to grade more papers. I suddenly had the choice to stay and go on with Ann and Jim, or to go back with my Dad. It might seem like this would have been an easy choice to make, but I loved my daddy, and if he was leaving, I felt I should, too. After standing on the hill with my dad below me and Ann above me, looking back and forth at both of them, and jumping up and down while shaking my hands, I decided to stay and continue the trip.
We reached the top of Rattlesnake Butte and began to explore. I had been up there many times before, but Ann made it seem like a completely different place. The small pine trees, large rocks, and sagebrush became a hideout for the good guys.
We were being chased by a group of nasty robbers. They were after us because we knew too much. We had witnessed their last heist, and were determined to turn them in. We perched ourselves behind some rocks near the edge of the hill, and looked down upon the dirt road. We were worried-it seemed like we couldn’t be missed, and these guys were ruthless. They would show no mercy, so what if we were kids.
A lone car appeared. It came around the corner on our left, around the hill, a cloud of dust following it. They were driving fast. Was it the robbers? I felt my heart speed up, and a lump grew in my throat. The car passed without incident. Ann held her breath through it all, trying to be brave. I couldn’t handle it. I could never handle fear. I had to go to the bathroom. I retired to the bushes for a short amount of time while Jim and Ann held down the fort. As I returned, another car approached. I was advised to duck, which I did. The car went by. Ann was sure it was the bad guys, she remembered the car. It passed out of sight up the valley.
“Listen,” she said, “They didn’t see us.” She was whispering, even though the only thing there was to hear in this wilderness was a bird, maybe a cow. Her ponytails were almost quivering with fear, “It will be a while before they realize that we aren’t up there. The road ends five miles up. If we make a run for it now, we should be able to make it home before they come back.” Admiration almost poured out of my eyes. She was fearless. She was pretty. She was smart. She didn’t condescend. Ann knew everything. We took one last peek at the road, looked at each other for reassurance - Jim informing us that there was really nothing to worry about, , and made a break for it. We tore down the side of the hill, through a herd of wandering cattle who didn’t even realize what peril we were in, and took off down the road.
We didn’t stop until we reaches our trailer.
“I think we made it,” Ann said, “Let’s eat lunch.”
We went inside. The robbers never found us. Ann was so smart, and she had her priorities straight. Food before fear.