The Summer Creek

The Summer Creek

What I miss about Montana in that achy, deep-in-the-bones way, is summer. Specifically the summer days spent alone by the creek on our property.

I was lucky to have an 80-acre backyard in Western Montana, nestled at the feet of the Bitterroot Mountains. My grandparents bought the ranch in the 50s, and we moved in when I was twelve, after my grandfather passed and my grandmother moved to town for easier care.

It used to be a working ranch, complete with a barn, granary, chicken coop, and more. As the years rolled by, it’s undergone a decline, which is the dignified way of saying the barn’s more likely to house hantavirus than horses at this point, and all the other out-buildings look like they’re collapsing into a bramble-ridden black hole.
The fences began falling down, and knapweed crept in. There were aspen trees, but they began to die when the local district’s irrigation ditch fell into disrepair and no one had the interest or money to overhaul it.

One constant, through years wet or dry, was Canyon Creek.

Canyon Creek isn’t majestic, but it’s also not small enough that you could cross it by accident. Even an average creek in western Montana is a precious place, both a resource and a sanctuary. Slow bends by the bank where the water is cool and dark, hinting at young fish; narrow rapids clattering over pebbles; a few deep pools behind dams of piled stones (when you’re a kid in Montana, of course you build dams) or fallen logs that were swept downstream before wedging against some narrow turn in the creek bed with a sandy bottom.

I spent hours walking the creek from one end of the property to the other, where it joined up with the Bitterroot River flowing north (which is why we would go down, not up, to Missoula; we knew north is a direction, not a measure of verticality). 

You think a lot about nothing at all when you stare at a creek, which, in the spirit of Winnie the Pooh, is sometimes the very best something to think about. Sitting on a sun-bleached log, tossing stones that hit the water – “glunk” – you feel everything slow down. 

I liked thinking about nothing, whether I was 12, 16, 18, or 25. I was good at thinking about nothing. Painfully shy, I got excellent grades and earned a black belt. It was never enough, and I burned out on both, first with Tae Kwon Do and then with academics. Logically, I should have pursued a Master’s after getting my B.A. in English, but I just didn’t. 

The water was always a place where I felt whole. 

I loved the rush of water over stones, wind through the trees, and the wheeling flights of red-tailed hawks in the blue sky above the canyon. 

But life carries you along, and sometimes you have to think about something. College, moving to California, falling in love, a family, what’s happening back at the ranch.  It’s been years since I sat alone beneath pine trees on the bank of Canyon Creek, pretty much as long as it’s been since I’ve been back to Hamilton in the summer. I just … haven’t gone back.


These days, the world is older, shabbier in many ways, unless it’s always been this way and I’ve just been reading the news more, or staying on Twitter for too long.

But the world also holds my daughter. 

Watching her grow, explore, learning to question the world and her experiences is startling, but she’s a braver, more adventurous soul than I ever was. When she wants to lead the way on a hike, for instance, she’ll push her parents out of the way in a gentle but firm manner. She hangs upside down from slack lines and climbing domes. 

She needs encouragement. 

During the shelter-in-place, during the distance learning, I’ve already seen her lack confidence in spelling and math, needing assurance, melting down when she gets a question wrong. But I’ve also seen her grow in love and spirit, studying Tae Kwon Do, expressing herself.

She says there are two bad things in this world: Coronavirus and Trump, and she’s not wrong. (Oh, please, Trump supporters, do come at me.)

She’s talking with such heartfelt sincerity about questions no six year old should have to talk about. “Will I ever see my friends in person again? Will I ever go to school again?” But she also says, “I love spending this time with you guys.”

Do those words sound fake? Well, she’s paying attention to what her parents are saying. Kids are sharp; they hear, they know what to say. The kids will be all right.

She and her peers are going through a … I don’t even know how to describe it to make it make sense from the perspective of a six year old. Halfway through her 1st Grade year, suddenly she only sees her beloved teacher on Zoom, or maybe randomly through a window. She’s having to grow up and get used to some invisible trauma. You can’t fix it. I can’t fix it, and I’m her Daddy. How do you answer that? I’m still the guy who wishes he could be sitting by a creek all day, not worrying about a thing. 

The first few weeks at home were a vacation for her. She was happy, trying new books and watching various Facebook Live programs about wildlife, music etc. 

But it’s set in now, the understanding that things won’t be the same for a long time. She cried, “I’m going to miss the 1st Grade Graduation concert!” 

She’s been in a two year K-1 combined class program, where every year a first grader mentors a kinder. She took that seriously and was looking forward to the ceremony where she (a bear) would pass the torch to her cub. And that’s been taken away. 

But somehow, she still smiles, she laughs, she finds joy in new books, or playing hide and seek, tumbling upside down on her swing, inventing new filibusters to avoid going to sleep or eating dinner. 

So what does she need? 

In part, she needs the water. She loves nature, and dirt, and animals, and water, and all that earthy stuff you can stick your hands in. Girls dig science. Girls dig the water. 

On a Sunday afternoon, we hauled ourselves out of the house,  thanks to my wife, bound for a hike at the Putah Creek Preserve near Davis. 

Inertia weighs heavily on me these days, when I would love to curl up with a book. But I’m so glad we went. And if a picture is worth a thousand words, the picture below tells you why that hike was so important.

After meticulously avoiding poison oak and – even more assiduously – unmasked humans, we found a backwater, a small beach, the golden water clear and calm. My daughter yelped with excitement to see a mature trout swimming out from the shadows of the bank, searching for food, and was equally happy to see water skeeters skimming the waves, to study the concentric rings formed by the splash of a single stone, to catch lizards basking in the sun at the trail’s edge and a jackrabbit among the rose bushes on our way home.

If I can keep giving her these moments, I’ll have done my job.

Some years, creeks run dry. Lots of fire, drought, you name it. But the water always comes back. And with it, the fish swimming in and out of shadows, water skeeters skating the ripples, a dragonfly, a lizard darting for cover on the bank. These empty places will still be here when no human is around to notice them. I want my daughter to know that, if nothing else. We will not be the end of all peace.

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