My first time across the Porcupine Creek bridge

onporcupine

** With our time here on Porcupine drawing to a close, I got to reflecting again the other day on the very first time I crossed the Porcupine Creek bridge on the Ingomar-Cohagen Road — over 20 years ago.  I shared the story of that fateful bridge-crossing via Facebook post a couple years ago, in my pre-blogging days, and I thought it would be fun to re-post it on prairiemom.me today.  Enjoy! **

 

I remember well the first time I traveled this long road that leads to the VX. I was probably 12 and I think it was the day after Thanksgiving. I know my big sister Sue was home on break from medical school.

Late in the afternoon, likely after hours of riding feedlot pens, Dad decided it was the perfect day for a family outing: a trip north to pick up a PV cow strayed far from home.  He already had running the ranch’s red, single-cab, stock-rack-outfitted 1977 Ford pickup.  Plenty of room in back for a lost cow and plenty of room in front for four Arviks.

Between Mom and Dad’s home at the PV and the lost cow stretched 35 miles of dirt road (these days a lot of that road is graveled). Getting stuck in the gumbo wasn’t a concern, though — the ground was froze hard with a skiff of snow on top.

Nobody can sail a pickup over a dirt road the way Harold Arvik can. Ever fearful of an accident, Mom offered her usual corrections from the passenger side as we drove north.  Darkness fell not long after we left the ranch, so I would guess the time of takeoff at 3:30 or 4:00. Leaving the lights of the Yellowstone Valley behind, we saw not another dwelling for 26 miles, until we reached that precious hardpan oasis just a ways past the bridge crossing Froze-to-Death Creek:  Ingomar and its flagship establishment, the Jersey Lilly.  Dad promised a stop for a pot of beans at the Lil on our way back home, but first the cow had to be retrieved.

The first 26 miles of the trip, the getting-to-Ingomar, had taken us through familiar country we traveled often, as a good portion of the road stretched through PV summer grazing.  But leaving Ingomar headed north toward Porcupine Creek, we Arviks were in unfamiliar territory. In fact, the very matter of the cow being north of Ingomar at all was a mystery, as she’d had to cross Highway 12 to get there; the PV had no land north of 12 until this year (2014).

Though the country north of Ingomar was unfamiliar to us that day, the view was similar to what we’d already seen: an oscillating sheet of frozen tundra gleamed in moonlight beyond the headlights. No trees, little sagebrush, only the general sense that there might be hills on the horizon. The occasional bridge spanned the occasional deep and dry creekbed.  No vehicles, no lanes, no lights indicating distant industry… only rabbit tracks zigzagging through the unbroken snow just ahead of the rumbling old stock rack.

If I remember correctly, the road conditions worsened as we neared Frank Labree’s ranch about 14 miles out of Ingomar on the Cohagen Road. I’m not sure why — if freezing rain was falling or if the county road there had been bladed to a high shine — but the road became increasingly slick. We could see a light shining at Labree’s humble cow camp (our destination) when we came upon the narrow bridge leading across Big Porcupine Creek.

If you’ve ever driven slick roads, you know the feeling of lining your outfit up so it’s as straight and centered as possible when you mount the bridge… and then just clenching every part of your body as the vehicle skates safely to the other side.

And the old Ford did just that. We held our breaths as we passed safely over that bridge.  Barely visible out the windows were the flimsy wooden guard rails and, again, a foreboding sense of the oblivion beyond the guard rail — a drop into the nothingness that is the fast and deep, etched-out-by-angry-spring-floods Eastern Montana creekbed we call Porcupine.

It was after the bridge that the trouble started. The old Ford skipped off the bridge, then skidded up the next small rise in the road, but just barely, and found itself perpendicular to the road at the top.  It lurched forward through the barbed wire fence on the driver’s side; there was the screech of rusty barbs on chipped red paint.  We were still near enough the bridge that the bank of the deep creekbed was just beyond the fence.  Our vehicle slid to the very edge of the creek and came to an (almost) complete stop. We teetered there for a moment, suspended in time, the front tires yearning to do the right thing but pulled upon heavily by the temptation to do the wrong thing.  There was actually time to think about bailing out of the pickup. And then, with a groan, the red stock rack plummeted nose-first into the dry creekbed below.

And there she stayed. There would be no driving out of this mess, as the pickup was literally balanced on its nose and wedged into a crevice.

We clambered out of the cab, relieved to be out and having suffered only minor head bumps.  (When you have four people wedged into a single cab, you’ve got built-in restraint and padding both.)  There was nothing to do but walk to that light shining at Labree’s camp, and knowing what I know now, I can say it was less than a mile to walk.

We knocked on the door a sheepish crew. Dad talked Labree into using his tractor to pull the pickup across the creek. Thankfully Mrs. Labree had just finished making a batch of nut goodies in their cozy and dim kitchen, so there was something for me to eat as the fellers loaded the cow in the dark.  The old red Ford was none worse for the wear, and we Arviks drove back home through the dark, the weight of the cow anchoring the stock rack as we chased rabbits all the 35 miles.  I believe the Jersey Lilly was closed by the time we made it back to Ingomar, and Mom was very disappointed that Sue had missed a planned date with her soon-to-be fiancé.

Now that my husband and I are here at the VX, living on the banks of the Porcupine, the old Labree place is our closest neighbor, just three miles south. And I have yet to cross that bridge and not think about the moonlit journey four Arviks took 20 years ago.

© Tami Blake

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