The Best Place

Rick Bass showed Scott the best places, the secret places, of Montana’s remote Yaak Valley. Together, they fought to protect the wilderness.

Rick Bass
7 March 2013

1. Houma

In Houma, Louisiana, there were big gray battleships everywhere, bristling with howitzers, cannons, machine guns. They were made in Gulfport and mobile, then anchored at the mouth of the Intracoastal Waterway, awaiting dispatch, bobbing in the gulf amid the deepwater oil-field rigs, on which all the men and women of Houma worked.

It’s an old story: my friend Scott was small as a child growing up in Houma. He was not chosen for various teams. He had, for whatever reason, a tender heart and was appalled by the filth that came out of the mouths of his classmates. He imagined that there might be a better place, a place where children did not curse like sailors, a place where children could still for a little while longer inhabit the strange, wonderful, subaqueous world of childhood, with its beautiful muted melodies heard only by them and that strange and lovely shimmering light—the slow lulling dappling that seems to promise that everything that is good will stay that way forever and ever.

In Scott’s mind, he imagined that farther north kids did not swear; northern kids did not sweat as much, did not roll around in the mud as much, did not splash through the black muck of a sinking bog with every step. He imagined that northern children carried a shining light in their hearts and concerned themselves only with doing good.

When his father announced they were moving to Pittsburgh, to work in the steel mills, Scott was excited. he knew he would find peace and tranquillity in Pennsylvania. He just knew it.

2. The Steel Curtain

It was 1976, the year the Pittsburgh Steelers would go on to win the Super Bowl with mean Joe Greene, baldheaded Terry Bradshaw, the elegantly named Lynn Swann, and Franco Harris with his terrible scowl. Every man, woman, and child in Pittsburgh had bought into the ethos that it was the natural course and order of things to hit one another as hard as possible: to knock out each other’s teeth, to gouge eyes, to crack heads. Scott came to be disappointed by his dream delayed.

His cousin Rodney lived in Pittsburgh. Rodney was a seventh grader and a tough guy. Scott, in the fifth grade, had never really been introduced to his cousin but had watched him from afar and hoped that here was a potential friend and guardian, if only Scott could crack the code. One day he saw Rodney talking to the teachers—just shooting the shit with them, like a little adult— and he wanted desperately to connect and communicate. So, as Scott was riding past on his wobbly little bike, he cheerily gave Rodney the finger the way the kids back in Houma used to do.

Scott meant it only as a gesture of solidarity, but Rodney didn’t take it that way. Rodney stared at him, then took off running after him, a great blubbery bear of a boy. He couldn’t catch up with Scott, but Scott could hear him cursing and knew that at some point Rodney would catch up and that he would have to be ready.

3. The Yaak

Because time is so short, let’s skip ahead thirty-five years, to get to who Scott became in his new life, here in the Montana mountains, behind his castle walls, up in the fortress of the Yaak Valley. He became my secret sharer, my shadow, and from these lovely mountaintops—these blue hills—he and I have fought many amazing battles.

We haven’t really won any yet, but neither have we lost any. It’s been a pain in the ass, but I’m here to tell you it’s been glorious. We’ve been following our hearts, and sometimes it’s almost as if we were chosen for these battles. There is a plan. We spend our lives wondering if there is; I know that there is. Scott came here to the Yaak ten years after me, and he wanted to learn everything. He was new and raw, and I took him on hikes, showing him the best places: where the bears clawed the giant cedars; where the glacier lilies and fairy slippers first emerged in the spring; where the elk had their calves. Still haunted by his childhood dream, Scott wanted to build a new civilization. He wanted to bring in the nation’s best writers and artists to talk about the finer values of life to our hardscrabble, alcohol-fueled community, a place the ice had left so recently that the stones still seemed cold from the leave-taking. And Scott did bring the writers and artists in.

He wanted to keep things the way they were, but he couldn’t help but see places where—if he shoved hard, as if straining against a boulder to position in his stone wall—there might be room for a touch of improvement.

I had two daughters, and Scott and his wife, Sherrie, had two daughters. We moved into the future not so much side by side, but staggered. In sight of one another. He wanted to be a writer—wanted to create, to replicate perfect worlds that neatly imitated this perfect one he had found.

But sometimes I had the sense that the long-ago muck from Houma had dried around his ankles in such a way that the last residue of it might never fully wash away, no matter how robustly he postholed through the deep snow on winter ski trips, no matter how many times he bathed in the falls.

Scott fell into the Yaak River once. He was leaning out over the wooden bridge below the West Fork Falls, as if seeking a fountain of youth—and maybe, for a while, finding it. But he was wearing a heavy pack and, top heavy, he peered over a little too far and pitched forward, freefalling into space, with the shallow, stone- studded braid of the river some twenty feet below.

What else to do but go with it? He gave himself over to the falling, leaned even farther forward, astronaut-in-the-forest now, and allowed himself, despite no acrobatic training, to rotate two full times—his life depended on it. Then, as he was cartwheeling, he grabbed the rushing-by leafy fronds of a green alder and held on for dearest life. The alder bowed all the way down with him, as if spring-loaded, leaves shredding as he plunged toward the stones, but the green living whip of it slowed him down with each microsecond he hung in there.

He could feel the miracle happening, and in the end it was perfect. As gently as a ballerina on a bungee, the c-shaped arc of the alder lowered him onto a dry stone mid-river—the shower of those green sunlit leaves still drifting down atop him as if in a parade. A hermit thrush called somewhere in the old forest. Scott looked around. No audience, only God.

What to do?—what else to do?—but gently, daintily, release the whipcord of his salvation to spring wildly back up into the canopy with a whistling sound. More leaves tumbled slowly and landed in the trickling shallows before spinning lazily downstream, while Scott stood there balanced on his rock, young and strong and damned lucky. And saved, for now.

The harsh children in Houma and the ruffians in Pittsburgh were nothing compared to what Scott found up here in Yaak Valley. Everyone, or almost everyone—save for me and a couple of others—was anti-government, anti-wilderness, anti- peace, anti-flowers. It was the era of the Oklahoma city bombing and Waco and the shootout at Ruby Ridge, just across the border in Idaho, and also the federal building attack in Spokane a few hours away. It was a strange, twenty-year segment of our nation’s history, like a dark blemish in a long strand of DNA.

I have to confess something now: it was my stories about the beauty of this place that pulled Scott west. Just as I had done, he and his girlfriend left their old life and drifted here. But I’d arrived without a road map; I’d just set out one summer on the longest day of the year. He, on the other hand, had had a road map. I’d led him into paradise. The old Atlantis was long submerged, yet here was a place where the foundation could be built anew. Even here, a billion years ago, there had once been an ocean, but it was long gone now, and we ran and played in the mountains as if it had never been, or as if we had left the swampland and entered a dream.

Like me, Scott became an environmental activist. He went down to the bars in the long summer evenings, and the loggers didn’t like that he liked me. He was always getting in fights, defending my good name and my goals—wilderness designation in the Yaak—while I stayed home with my family, grilling asparagus, grinding home-made ice cream, and working on pretty little stories. For that, our paths diverged ever so slightly.

He kept going to the bars. He loved to socialize, loved the idea of community, even one that fought. He was scrawny but never lost a fight. They say his punch was like being kicked by a mule. People had no idea where the strength, the fierceness, came from.

They hated him. They hated his ebullience, his irrepressible joy, his creativity. He had such a genius for creating a civilization hewn into the rough mountains. He helped orchestrate a parade of giant puppets through the heart of the little town—dragons and lumberjacks, a swaying Yaak Ness monster, a winged angel—and he started a native-plant-restoration company, planting seedlings and stitching back together much of the natural beauty that had been taken away.

He spent a lot of time digging in the ground and he spent a lot of time in the nearby city of Libby. you might have heard of Libby—hundreds dead, thousands sick from an invisibility in the air, nano-fine asbestos fibers swirling, the toxic legacy of W.R. Grace. The tumors started out in Scott’s hip and lungs, spread to his spine. For a while, he was able to keep up with the ones on his lungs by having them cut or frozen off.

Back when he first got sick, he and I took our daughters to a recreational park in north Idaho called Silverwood, a junior-league Disneyland kind of place, with roller coasters, log rides, waterslides. He was uncomfortable—he’d already had a big grapefruit chunk of bone taken out of his pelvis—but was not yet in steady, deep pain. Eco-warriors and woods savages from the Yaak, we were silly to spend a summer day at such a place, with its sunblock, frozen slushies, water cannons, flip-flops, and hokey fiddle theme-park music. Yet it was as full and wonderful a long summer day as I can remember.

We went on all the thrill rides and screamed, laughing, all the way down. At one point, standing in line, he said that he sure wanted to be around long enough for the basics—to see his girls graduate from high school, then college, then get married, etc. You always bargain, I guess. We start out so boldly, owning everything, and then—at the peak—we want to hold on to what we have and keep it all just the way it is. If my memory serves me correctly, we went there on the longest day of the year.

I did not invite Scott to this place—to paradise—but still he came here as if bidden by me. For him, I opened the gates, shared and showed him the best places, the secret places. I cannot tell you how wholly he threw himself into the valley, wanting to experience it all, as if trying to make up for lost time. As if Houma and Pittsburgh had not been part of the world’s plan, but a waste, a loss, a sickness—one he had gotten over.

He helped me pack out a huge cow elk one Halloween, beneath a full moon. We got lost, burdened beneath our meat-laden backpacks, each of which weighed over 150 pounds. We hiked down the steep mountain from far in the backcountry— the wayback of the wayback—and found ourselves down in a phantasmagoric cedar jungle, a series of holes and ravines where we kept losing our balance and falling down into earth-scented tree wells so deep that we couldn’t get back out without each other’s help. Sinking beneath our great bounty.

Blood soaked our backs, leaking through the packs and advertising us to bears and lions, but we passed through that valley of darkness undisturbed. They say you can’t recall pain and I think that’s mostly true, but I also remember how our hips burned, toting that load, trudging through forests so dark that not even the reflected light from the October full moon could make it down through the canopy to land softly upon us.

The opponents of the wilderness up here were not kind to Scott; they were not kind to me. When the woods near my house caught on fire, the politically charged fire department would not come to service the call. When an undetonated pipe bomb fell out from beneath a Forest Service truck, they said I had put it there. They set Scott’s truck on fire, and there were of course occasional death threats. We carried pistols under our seats, kept shotguns by our doors. It was not a healthy time but we came through the other side. Now we have a wilderness bill introduced in congress and, perhaps as important, we have a finer civilization, a community where people no longer believe it’s a communist threat to have a local farmers’ market or a conservation education program in the elementary school or poetry readings and music festivals, but instead view such things as the joys of life.

The project closest to Scott’s heart was a community radio station. Untypically, his first dream was small. he envisioned a pirate radio station that would operate out of the back of the saloon or from a mobile unit on his truck and would broadcast all sorts of pro-wilderness messages, maddening his opponents and wearing them down psychologically. Into the thick fog of the Yaak, the word wilderness would fall again and again like snow upon the valley, day and night, blanketing it softly.

But then it was like he grew up or something. He went all traditional—got a 501-c-3, wrote and secured grants, applied for licenses and permits, and finally started broadcasting from just across the state line, over in Idaho. A big-time public radio station with local progressive reporting, alternative music, and community service, it was a steady and continuous voice promoting nothing but good things, nothing but tolerance and hope, and slowly, steadily, it helped secure the community, the frightened little mountaintop civilization he had stumbled into. Scott didn’t single-handedly dream the civilization’s new architecture or build its framework and foundation, but almost. With the ocean waters still so far away—a thousand miles away, and thousands of feet below—how can such a civilization go under? Such a civilization can never go under.

4. Above

This is how it went after Scott gave the big guy—his own cousin— the finger and made his getaway: the next day, after Scott’s father and uncle had gone off to the mill, his cousin knocked on the door. How Scott must have dreaded the wait, waiting on that knock.

I’ll tell him now what we told the girls at Silverwood: don’t be frightened. It’s natural to be afraid, but don’t be. The path has been traveled before and is safe on the other side. The ride’s rails from here to there are well worn and maintained. For all its thrill and terror, it is a safe ride. Those of us who are still standing in line, waiting, will turn away, for a while, when the park closes.

I wish I could give Scott one more green day in the Yaak, up in the fortress of his making—a light south breeze up on Mt. Henry, with the green world resting below him. If I had ten or twenty thousand dollars or whatever it would cost, I’d rent a private jet and whisk him and his hospice provider and family out here for another look, another long summer day. How would that day differ from any of ours, the bundle we still hold, you and I, in our wealth and in the moment? Is not each and every day irreplaceable and valuable beyond compare or accounting? How often we forget.

After he leaves us—and he is leaving us—we intend to push on without him for maybe another forty years or so. It is an old hope but I have pretty good faith that I will see him again, that we will be up on a mountain again, a mountain much like the ones he has worked so tirelessly to protect here below.

Are we below?

And can we fight in heaven? I used to hope not, but with Scott moving out ahead of us, I don’t think now that I’d mind it too much.

What is our responsibility? What is our culpability, our complicity, in the lives of those around us, particularly those we love? In every first breath there is the template of destiny; the seed of all stories contains the preview of the end. Now I, who helped lead Scott, find myself behind him on the trail. Forty years behind, I hope, but following and tying up loose ends, helping finish what we started, and—who knows—maybe starting some new things.

I believe the ground will be firm beneath him. I do not think there will be any more sinking. I think he has found the secure place that was made for him, a very long time ago. It gives me a chill to think that I helped make his path for him, even in some small way, and from here on out I know I will feel as if I am doing the work for two. You can’t shake a shadow, a secret sharer, like Scott. And who would want to? In a sense he is leaving, but in the more real sense he can never leave, will never leave. The sea can come in over the mountains and the town, but some things, surely, can never go away.

I feel bad, feel guilty, for having told him about this place and bringing him here, but I’m glad he got to see it. Sometimes I wonder if there is another who feels the same way about each of us. Surely we are not alone with this feeling.


Rick Bass

Rick Bass lives with his family in Yaak and Missoula, Montana, where he has long been active in efforts to protect the last roadless lands in one of the wildest landscapes in the northern Rockies. His latest novel is 2009’s Nashville Chrome, which looks at the music business and the destructiveness of fame; 2012 saw the release of three nonfiction works by Bass: The Black Rhinos of Namibia, A Thousand Deer, and In My Home There Is No More Sorrow.