GREG TOLLEFSON: Even first-generation Montanans can know the land

2011-12-01T07:00:00Z GREG TOLLEFSON: Even first-generation Montanans can know the land missoulian.com
December 01, 2011 7:00 am

Sometimes you see it in a letter to the editor on some controversial subject as a way of giving extra legitimacy to the opinions espoused by the writer.

It often shows up in political campaigns as a way of differentiating a home-grown candidate from an "outsider." Frequently we see it included in an introduction of a speaker, along with the usual summary of professional experience, educational qualifications, awards and accomplishments.

I'm referring to the emphasis we often place on someone's Montana bonafides by citing how many generations someone's family has lived and worked in Montana, as in, "He's from a fifth generation Montana ranching family."

I was thinking about this earlier this week when I had my first chance to watch the wonderful new Montana PBS production about local outfitter and wilderness advocate Smoke Elser. It's called "3 Miles An Hour," which refers to the speed of one of Smoke's pack strings making its way through the Bob Marshall Wilderness. Smoke, you see, is only a first-generation Montana outfitter, having come to Montana from Ohio in the early 60s to chase his dream.

That dream led to more than a half century of outfitting in the wilds of the Bob Marshall country, beginning before the Wilderness Act and spanning the creation of the Bob Marshall, the Great Bear, the Scapegoat and all the other wilderness areas that have since been designated in Montana. In the process, Smoke, his wife Thelma, and their family have introduced thousands of visitors to the pleasures, the beauty and the solace that wilderness provides.

Smoke has also become something of a local institution along the way, not only through his outfitting, but also through the horse-packing classes he has taught for many years. I cannot begin to count the times his name has come up in idle conversations at events around Missoula when the most unlikely folks have shared stories of their experiences in one of those classes. I have friends who wrangled for him decades ago. I know many who have taken pack trips with him.

I have never taken one of those classes, though I have often thought about it. My own wilderness travels have always been without benefit of horses, though it has often looked quite appealing toward the end of a long day on the trail with a heavy pack when I have stepped out of the track to let a pack string pass by.

I was moved by the well-told story of Smoke Elser because it was about the connection between one man and a wild place he loves. It is a story about the interaction between humans and wilderness. It is a love story about people, place and shared experience. And it is a story about why it is so essential to the human soul to protect and care for the wilderness that remains.

Toward the end, there is a scene in which Smoke looks out over one of his favorite places, Danaher Meadows in the upper South Fork of the Flathead, and he is asked what it would mean if for some reason this would be the last time he visited the place. It is an emotional moment and Smoke understandably has some difficulty responding.

I admit to tearing up a little bit, just watching it.

But, I also knew that there was a simple answer to the question.

Once someone has come to know and love a place, has followed its trails, witnessed its beauty, laughed and told stories there in the flickering light of campfires, seen the land amid storms and under starry nights, and felt it deep inside, that place is always with them, no matter where in this world they may go.

You don't have to be a fifth-generation Montanan for that to be true.

When you get a chance, watch "3 Miles An Hour." You'll be glad you did.

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