A Corner of Montana


Photo: The Swan Range bordering the Bob Marshall Wilderness, early autumn. ©2009 John N. Maclean
Commencement Address, University of Montana Western
Dillon, Montana: May 9, 2009
John N. Maclean


Good afternoon and welcome to the sunny world of adult responsibility. The economy you're about to join is the most prosperous in human history and America is its epicenter. With your new degree as an entrance pass, you will find ready employment at a job you can love in a location of your choice. Soon you will buy a three-bedroom home on a quiet street and start making contributions to a 401K, which will grow at a reliable 11 percent a year. Eventually, you will have a safe and secure retirement. And you know that most of what I've just said is a big fat lie.

Yes, things in the real world are awful right now. The U.S. economy won't be the extraordinary engine for wealth that it has been over the last half-century for a long time to come, if ever again. National politics remain disturbingly divisive and have become alarmingly expensive. The threats to national security won't be brushed away with skillful rhetoric. You're not going to have an easy time of it.

I don't have an easy task ahead of me, either. My challenge as speaker here today is twofold: first, to acknowledge a few self-evident truths like the ones above, and second, to offer you encouragement and a bit of guidance to meet the challenge. As we both face our troubles we share an advantage: we have Montana, or at least a corner of it.

Maclean Fishing Camp

When I was a boy, spending summers at the log cabin my grandfather, the Rev. John Norman Maclean, built by hand on Seeley Lake near Missoula nearly a century ago, the state of Montana had the aura of a mythological kingdom. It was the place where a Big Sky hung over a land of scorching summers and endless winters. It nearly killed Lewis and Clark.

In the years since their voyage of discovery, Montana was sparsely populated by cowboys, miners, and loggers who for decades barely outnumbered the grizzly bears and Indians. It was a place where F. Scott Fitzgerald, in one of his too-many stories about the glamorized rich, imagined there to be a mountain made of "a diamond as big as the Ritz."

There were rumors of great trout streams, but in those days almost nobody fished them, excepting a few natives like my family. We weren't cowboys, but we returned from the Midwest to Montana each year and fished great waters. My father, Norman Maclean, had left the state to become an English professor at the University of Chicago, after he was refused a high school teaching certificate because he lacked sufficient education credits.

Norman Maclean teaching Shakespeare

When you leave behind the things you love the most, you don't stop loving them, of course. Instead, they burrow down inside you and take on deeper colors and contours -- until you can look back, if you're lucky, and see from a far horizon their true meaning for the first time.

My dad grew up in Missoula, a timber town where cowboys were called "ranch hands" and where along the nearby Clark Fork River Indians still pitched their tipis in the summer. My family history has become fairly well known ever since Robert Redford made my dad's book, A River Runs through It, into what Montana fishing guides call "The Movie." Together, book and film helped transform Montana from "Outback" to "Destination Spa," which is a mixed blessing -- unless you're a fishing guide.

If my father had stayed in Montana, A River Runs through It would be a different book, if it was a book at all. Who knows if he could have extracted the soul of the place if he had lived his entire life out here, in the midst of an overpowering landscape.

Missoula in 1942

Driving out from Chicago to Montana in those long-ago days, without air conditioning and on narrow state highways, made you realize why the Black Hills are sacred to the Indians. After crossing the Plains, the sight of those cool, forested peaks, low as they are, is balm to the spirit. We usually arrived in Montana in time to celebrate Independence Day, when as often as not it snowed. Once at Seeley Lake we took off our shoes and stayed put: My father insisted that his children grow up with calloused feet like Indians and so my sister Jean and I spent our summers as shoeless as gypsies. We didn't have the means to go touring the West, but what we lacked in mobility we made up for in love of the land: We had our corner of Montana.

One of my uncles had a Chevy pickup we called Old Faithful, and we would pile into it for family picnics. Everyone had to climb out at river fords to help push the truck across, and as the day progressed the crossings became wetter and jollier, thanks to a wash tub filled with ice and beer. At night we inched home over bad roads, singing songs to the stars, and we kids took naps on mattresses in the back of Old Faithful. We fished the Big Blackfoot River, waited for August for Seeley Lake to warm up enough for swimming, and used kerosene lanterns for light. A local man carved blocks of ice from the lake in winter, hauled them with a horse-drawn sledge, and buried them in six feet of sawdust in our ice house. On Sunday evenings the neighbors would gather around our fireplace for a trout dinner before they headed back to town. Story telling was the main entertainment, and my father played the professor, telling his own tales and calling on others to tell theirs.

Look, I don't wish to wallow in nostalgia, but today there are times when you almost have to push the guide boats aside to get a fishing line onto the Blackfoot River. Summers and Seeley Lake are both warmer, and swimming in the lake with the jet skis and powerboats can be nearly suicidal. Rural electrification brought lights with switches, a refrigerator, and a telephone, for what they're worth -- and they're worth something.

Maclean Cabin, 2008

I go to the cabin now mostly in the off season, early or late, when the country still has that magic feel to it, as though creation just happened: Around this time of year, sandhill cranes strut the marshes on stilt-like legs and utter prehistoric croaks; eagles and osprey and the few remaining loons keep watch on open water; and our aged, resident grizzly bear, the one we don't tell the tourists about, makes a round of the closed campgrounds with a tracking device around his neck.

We almost lost the cabin a few summers back when the Jocko Lakes Fire threatened the town of Seeley Lake and the cabins along the lake shore: every computer model of the fire showed it taking the town and most of the cabins. But the fire, being a creature of the wild and not of cyberspace, went its own way: cabins and town survived. I told our local District Ranger early in the season, when the temperature was hitting 100 degrees day after day in Missoula, that if a big fire threatened the cabin to let the place go. The cabin was built from logs cut nearby and was meant always to be part of the woods.

This past summer one of my granddaughters became the fifth generation of the family to stay at the cabin -- and the Forest Service and U.S. Congress raised the lease fee on the cabin site, which is National Forest land, by nearly 400 percent -- a level that may cost us the place. That's a lousy way to lose a cabin: I'd rather it had burned.

Montana has been the touchstone of my family's life. It made my grandfather, the Rev. Maclean, a larger-than-life frontier figure who bound together a pioneer community, and not incidentally helped inspire my father to produce great literature. My father mined the state for his stories, from the Battle of the Little Bighorn to Mann Gulch to tales of the Big Blackfoot River.

Norman Maclean, Seeley Lake canoe

When I finished 30 years as a Washington correspondent and editor with The Chicago Tribune, I came back to Montana to start a second career writing non-fiction books: I'm now working on my fourth. The hero of my first book, Fire on the Mountain, was Don Mackey, who was killed on the South Canyon Fire on Storm King Mountain in 1994 in Colorado, in circumstances hauntingly similar to the Mann Gulch Fire of 1949 that my dad wrote about in his second book, Young Men and Fire.

The Mackey family lives to this day in the Bitterroot Valley south of Missoula at the mouth of Blodgett Canyon -- the same canyon through which the main character travels in my dad's autobiographical story, The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky.

That's a tortured path and a lot of generational mileage, but my family has survived hard times and we're still going. How then do people make it over the rough spots, which are the lot of every generation? If you're from Montana, you start by knowing how to cut your own wood -- and that the phrase "running water" can mean you, running to the lake with a bucket to get some.

Creativity thrives on hardship. Complacent times breed arrogance and greed: a lot of what is wrong today, I believe, comes from a culture where the people running the show do not know how to make a damn thing worth making. They can slice and dice mortgages, but they cannot build a house, let alone a cabin by hand.

Jessie Burns, high school yearbook, courtesy Jim Hepworth

To paraphrase but not improve upon Saint Paul, there are three things that endure: work, family, and faith.


Maclean family, 1911

My father began writing A River Runs through It when he was 70 years old, an age that marks the end of the normal life span, after a time of personal turmoil and trouble. He could not believe that he would die without being allowed to complete his tribute to family love, a tale of darkness as well as light. His faith was rewarded; he finished the book. It overcame long odds even to be published, and then was recognized in his lifetime as classic literature.

Bud Moore, the great Forest Ranger from the Bitterroot Mountains and a longtime family friend, is the grand old man of my corner of Montana. Now in his 90s, he lives in a log cabin he built himself in the foothills of the glacier-capped Mission Mountains and from there offers encouragement and guidance to incomers.

"There are times out here when you may starve a bit," he once told me. "But you'll always have this," and with a wave of his hand he took in the Mission glaciers to the west, and the Bob Marshall Wilderness to the east, with the Swan Valley in between.

If you make a life of work, family, and faith, starving a bit along the way won't seem so bad. And as graduates of the University of Montana Western, you'll always have your corner of Montana.
NOTE: Jessie Burns high school yearbook
image courtesy Jim Hepworth.