Ear Mountain between Bynum and Choteau, the anchor for all the Guthrie books
Yesterday I drove to Choteau for the funeral of Marion Trexler Brandvold, born in 1912 and a lifelong resident of Bynum, Montana. She was from the remnant 19th century, the same as Bob Scriver, born in Browning in 1914. This is the song she specifically requested for her funeral, first I print the lyrics and then give the url for a YouTube performance.
There once lived an Indian maid,
A shy little prairie maid,
Who sang all day a love song gay,
As on the plains she'd while away the day.
She loved a warrior bold,
This shy little maid of old,
But brave and gay he rode one day
To battle far away.
Now the moon shines tonight on pretty Red Wing,
The breeze is sighing, the night bird's crying,
For afar 'neath his star her brave is sleeping,
While Red Wing's weeping her heart away.
Her girlhood was in those sentimental Edwardian years. Forces of life were simpler, but maybe consequences were more drastic. Marion grew up on a ranch about six miles west of Bynum where the “school bus” was a spring wagon that looked like a buckboard except for having leaf springs on the undercarriage, a necessity for terrain like the East Slope. In winter the wheels of a spring wagon could be replaced with runners for snow.
Marion did well in school, but when she was a teen, her mother took her back East to the ancestral home in Cincinnati to learn to be a “lady.” The school there would not accept her credits from the Bynum and Choteau systems, so her “workaround” was qualifying as a telegrapher, the internet of the time. Her idea of a “lady” was rather influenced by the music hall. She became a dancer and shared the stage with Fred Astaire, Buddy Ebson, Gene Kelly and Valentino. Her stage name (and rodeo name when she did trick riding) was “Delores Montana.” When one went into her shop, it was Delores Montana who took your hands in yours, looked into your face, and made you want to buy something.
I first met her in the early Sixties, a dicey time for her after her first husband, Trexler, had died and trouble back east had detained John Brandvold who became her second husband. One of the key features of her summer shop in Choteau was a complete skeleton found on the prairie with an arrow stuck in his bones. Needing money, she advertised it for sale, and Bob was thinking of buying it. (We ended up with a plastic version from a biology supply company.)
We went down after work, and talked by twilight, earlier than tourist season, in the cold unlit anteroom of her home in Bynum among buckets of stones, no doubt including the famous dino baby bones, still in eggs, that led to nests and the realization that Maiasaurus fed her babies as a bird would, bringing them berries. David, who became a paleontologist and now runs the Two Medicine Dinosaur Center, was a boy of seven or so, standing in the shadows with a bummer lamb. Bob and Trexler had had one of those rooster rival relationships, each a grandiose narcissist in today’s jargon, making a living along the traces of the Old North Trail that ran down the east side of the Rockies.
Marion and Trex shared a great love of horses and combined that with rambling the hills in search of semi-precious stones. The shop was my main source for “iniskum,” the baculite fossils segmented into little pieces that look something like buffalo, so became a mainstay of Blackfeet Bundle iconography.
Geodes, stones with crystal hearts
When I set out for Choteau this time, I had forgotten major reconstruction is underway on Highway 89, originally used by spring wagon traffic and now being prepared to handle major industrial loads in case of an oil strike, which may well turn out to be a fantasy. Sometimes called the National Park Highway, U.S. 89 links seven national parks across the Mountain West. In addition, fourteen other national park areas are also reachable from this backbone of the Rockies. It’s a feeder for the Al-Can highway that provided overland access to Alaska and made the Scriver Taxidermy Studio a practicality since so many hunters traveled it.
89 looks deceptively easy on a map. A sign at the junction with highway 44, which runs through Valier, advises motorcyclists to find another route. Nevertheless I was met by a band of full-leather warriors wearing WWII helmets, heading north but lagging a bit behind the pilot car over the tricky combination of gumbo and gravel.
The infrastructure of the terrain is completely rebuilt and for me seeing that compensated for the slow going, because of what I had learned about such things while at the City of Portland. One place had been so treacherous -- very sharp turn at the top of a steep descent that curved back on itself -- that it was marked by a flashing light. Over the years when traveling in bad weather It nearly took me off the road several times. Now that whole entire hill/coulee is flattened, drained by huge ditches filled with sharp-edged white boulders unlikely to roll. Such major landscape change, as drastic as the topping of mountains back east in coal country, disturbs no towns nor many fields -- just miles of rolling pasture leading up into the East Slope Rockies. No trees, few ranch houses.
The original corridor was constructed in the 1930's and is being redone now to meet current requirements or possibly certain future traffic. Work began on the north end, because road conditions are worse there. The reconstruction includes: realignment, gravel, asphalt, bridges, guardrails and recoverable slopes. MDT officials say "recoverable slopes" (the euphemism for the place with the flashing light) are a key component to preventing accidents. Crews from Scarsella Brothers of Kent, Washington, won the assignment to flatten and widen that steep and twisting section of roadway snaking through the Rocky Mountain foothills. They are using Blackfeet flaggers trained at BCC. The major engineering components of this $6.8 million project have been completed, but crews still need to pave and seal the roadway.
Prairie can glow like a geode.
It will take the whole summer to stabilize the surface and pave it. Then the RV vacationers from Iowa will be less terrorized. In the meantime, I was rather grateful for the flagger wait, because the whole scene was swept with the kind of glowing jewel colors of grass and sky where sunlight seemed to be coming up through the land instead of spilling across it.
Very little defeated Marion and her small tribe in Bynum, though making a living was always tough, the weather could be paralyzing, and occasional struggles over things like water rights could throw the future into question. But Marion was wily and resourceful as a cow-cutting horse, a rodeo event at which she excelled. She coped with the inflation of Bynum from fifty to several hundred people, and then it’s deflation to the little crossroads it is now, fighting to keep its post office. A potluck picnic in the town park this Sunday will no doubt be the occasion for many stories, but I’m betting that the real skinny will be divulged at Katy’s Wildlife Saloon across the highway. With a little liquid help, someone might even sing “Red Wing.”
Katy's is now J.D.'s.
Marion married at fifteen, returned with Trex to Bynum, and never wanted to be anyplace else. It was a humble life on one hand and on the other as grandiose as anyone could want, contributing to the world-wide scientific grasp of life on the planet, and yet the days were ordinary, arguing with the Peebles folks about which side of the fence a stone bone was originally nestled in the tall grass. Then suing major universities over more fossils. (She won.)
The present Rock Shop
In later years she was plagued by a bad hip, but I enjoy the idea of her reaching the Pearly Gates, tap-dancing up that flight of stairs to St. Peter and holding out both hands to engage him in a few Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers twirls up and down the steps -- almost as much as I enjoy remembering standing in the cold twilight of the shop among the buckets of fossils, resting a hand on the head of her dog while she and Bob gossiped about the Thirties when the first version of Highway 89 was just being improvised along the traces of the Old North Trail, not as old as Maiasaurus, not even as old as the drag marks of travois, but only a little younger than the ruts made by spring wagons.
The fossil bed on Egg Mountain