The Story a Black Rock Told Me on a Montana Mountain

AP Photo/Matthew Brown, File

Spring comes later in the High Country of Montana. Some mountain passes won’t open until mid-June. While much of the rural U.S. already has crops planted, bounteous snows still linger on the higher mountainsides of Big Sky Country. 


And that's good because it keeps the creeks and rivers flowing longer into the hot summer for plants and trees, creatures and people down below. You get the strong sense there that some kind of unseen grand plan is running pretty much every big and little thing in life.

When I was very young, my family moved from a city to the countryside of northeast Ohio. My father grew up in the hard-rock life of early 20th-century western Canada before electricity. His morning chores included breaking ice in the wash basin. 

As my father, he worked in the city, but he was drawn back to the rural rhythms of life. Over the years, I came to understand why.

In our Ohio county, schools got out about this time, or a little earlier, so children could help plant the corn. I was leased to help a nearby farmer.

The town siren went off every weekday at noon, a simultaneous, unifying signal to everyone within miles that life was moving along as it should. Main Street was often strewn with large clumps of mud thrown off tractor tires passing through. 

The only "hardship" we had living four miles from town was a telephone party line where every call went through an operator in town. (And two old biddies who talked forever whenever I wanted to call a friend.)

One day, I asked the operator for Billy Kerr’s house. She said, “I just saw him go into the drugstore. I’ll ring over there.”

In the city, I had walked five blocks to start kindergarten. Mom took me all the way the first day, then one block less each day for the rest of the initial week. No one thought a thing about that in those days.


In the country, I took a school bus. Johnny Morris, a farmer, was the driver. He had a wooden paddle swinging on the door handle as a silent reminder he expected good behavior. He got it.

I came to appreciate walking out to the bus each winter morning. I saw all kinds of animal tracks in the snow – birds, raccoon, rabbits, deer, even a weasel once. I got a little field guide for Christmas so I could identify them.

Looking back, I realized what a pleasant sense it was to live among wild things going on about their own lives invisibly in the same neighborhood at the same time. It was good to be a small part of it.

Which is why I believe it was so easy to acclimate when I moved my family to Montana many years later. Rural Ohio looks like midtown Manhattan compared to Montana.

Montana ranks fourth in size yet 44th in population, three times the size of Ohio with less than a tenth of the population. Youth sports teams can travel 700 miles one way for a weekend of games and never leave the state. 

The sheer scale of the place and its winter weather dwarf everyone. Which creates an intense sense of community that we’re all in this beautiful place together. I was driving with the governor to a speech one bitter evening when he spotted a car on the roadside.

Survival etiquette in the genuinely wild West requires an offer of assistance. The state’s chief executive helped the young couple remove the frozen lug nuts on their flat tire.

He was late for the dinner speech. But everyone understood; they’d have done the same.


I’ve been sharing a series of Memories here the past year or so. (They are all linked below.) One of my strongest Memories from Montana involves a rock on an animal path through a forested mountainside. I’ve written about this rock before because its enduring story is so indelibly etched in my memory.

It was about this time of year, early spring. We were on a long hike through the fading remnants of white snow, now glistening in the newly-arrived warmth.

The flat rock was dark black, about the size of a very large turkey platter. A local pointed out nearby indentations in the dirt like giant footsteps, one after another, as far up the mountainside as the eye could see. All the indentations were the same size as the rock, as if it had been flipped over time after time.

We lifted the rock up. There was an immense colony of newly-awakened ants hurriedly scurrying among their tunnels making new ones and moving eggs around. As always about this time of year, the black rock had absorbed the returning sun’s heat, melting its snow cover to slowly moisten the earth beneath with warm water. A perfect synchronization and seasonal wake-up.

Turns out, many years before, far up the hillside where those indentations begin, a bear had been ambling down that path. Newly awakened and curious, the bear had flipped over the black rock, seeking a snack. Sure enough, there it was. 

She had scooped out a large handful of ants. Maybe two. Not all of them, mind you, because they’d be needed again. But enough to get her large body through part of that day of meandering. 


Her cubs had witnessed that lesson in that place.

The ants learned, too. They had moved their colony back under the large sheltering rock, maybe three feet down the mountain trail. They had all summer to rebuild the nest and their numbers, which they did, awaiting the next unscheduled but predictable visit by a large neighbor with a good memory.

This little sequence had gone on for generations of bears and ant colonies, all led by a large black rock being tumbled slowly down the mountain, year after year, one platter-sized indentation after another. And the ants followed.

Even after all the Springs since that mountainside hike, it's hard to grasp the scale of synchronized evolutionary order that controls the natural world surrounding us. If I still lived in an urban area, I could have the impression that humans are running this show.

That personal awakening to an immense surrounding universe on this earth and so very far beyond actually began a long time ago. I believe that was when I walked out to the school bus and first noticed those tiny tracks in the snow, made so silently while I slept blissfully unaware in an old, warm house just a few yards away.

The lingering memory of that lone black rock on a Montana mountainside provides yet another in a lifelong series of inklings that have sketched a vague sense of and appreciation for the grand immutable design that is only partially accessible to our understanding when we stop and think about it a moment in the endless rush of modern life.


It makes me feel very small and humble. 

Which, I've decided, is not a bad thing.

This is the 17th in an occasional series of personal Memories. Links to the others are below. I hope they trigger your own memories to share in the Comments.

The Time I Sent a Message in a Bottle Across an Ocean...And Got a Reply

As the RMS Titanic Sank, a Father Told His Little Boy, 'See You Later.' But Then...

Things My Father Said: 'Here, It's Not Loaded'

The Terrifyingly Wonderful Day I Drove an Indy Car

When I Went on Henry Kissinger's Honeymoon

When Grandma Arrived for That Holiday Visit

Practicing Journalism the Old-Fashioned Way

When Hal Holbrook Took a Day to Tutor a Teen on Art

The Night I Met Saturn That Changed My Life

High School Was Hard for Me, Until That One Evening

When Dad Died, He left a Haunting Message That Reemerged Just Now

My Father's Sly Trick About Smoking That Saved My Life

Encounters with Fame 2.0

His Name Was Edgar. Not Ed. Not Eddie. But Edgar.

My Encounters With Famous People and Someone Else

The July 4th I Saw More Fireworks Than Anyone Ever


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