Land Lesson

Taking responsibility for a missed opportunity to preserve a piece of the past in Montana.

By Gabriel Furshong

My earliest memories of wild country evoke the south hills of my hometown in Montana. Much of this land is now dotted with McMansions, but when I was a boy it was 100 percent prickly pear and ponderosa pine. The doctor who delivered me once owned 55 acres of those scrappy hills. He and his wife had a son who became my best friend. Their wealth of fallen trees, tall grass, and rocky outcrops were the ideal stage for our various portrayals of cavalrymen, runaways, and homesteaders.

His family also owned a depression-era cabin in the south hills near the banks of the Little Blackfoot River. We all knew this magical place as Connor Camp, a particularly wild place named after the cabin’s founders. Deer and elk were a regular appearance, impressively still and alert by the saltlick. Mischievous porcupine routinely took refuge in the wood shed, and snowfall in September was not uncommon. While I’m sure our parents kept a close eye on us, I recall no sense of boundaries.

When our families gathered there, we all shared a two-seater outhouse with cobwebs in the corners. We relied on an old wood-burning stove for our pancakes in the morning and lanterns for our stories at night. To this day, the only picture I’ve ever seen of my parents naked is at Connor Camp. In the photo, they’re sitting with their friends in the wood-fired hot tub that was converted from a horse trough. Shoulder to shoulder, with all their legs tangled in the middle, they look impossibly young and happy.

Long after our childhood friendship had lapsed into teenage convenience, my friend’s parents approached the city, offering to sell their land in the south hills. Almost simultaneously, they broke ground on two new homes. One was built east of town and the second at Connor Camp, along the Little Blackfoot, where I caught my first fish. 

My family’s visits to Connor Camp had grown infrequent by the time the new home was completed. When I was 22 and had recently returned home, my family was invited up for the weekend. I knew immediately when we arrived that something was missing. Growing up, the oldest building in Connor Camp had been a roadhouse that pre-dated the automobile and was once frequented by wagon drivers from Helena. In my day, the collapsed curiosity was a make-believe jail, general store, and haunted house. Where that extraordinary piece of history used to rest now stood a beautiful structure of blond logs topped by a green roof. I could hear a generator humming in back by the old outhouse.

After a tour of the new place, I escaped to the old cabin. To my delight, everything was just as I remembered. I flipped through old comic books and opened outdated board games until I heard the screen door flap open. My friend’s mother walked in, handed me a slip of paper, and said she had a favor to ask.

She and her husband sold 15 acres of their land in the south hills to the city, she explained, on the condition that it would remain open space. But the city went back on its word and plans were in motion to sell the land to developers. Printed on the slip of paper was the date and time of a public hearing on the pending sale—the one chance to beat back the bulldozers. As the door shut behind her, I stood gazing out the window at the new cabin across the pond. I crumpled up the slip of paper and threw it in the waste bin.  Later that day, I wrote a personal attack on the family in the cabin’s journal, accusing them of excess and hypocrisy. I didn’t return to Connor Camp for a long time.

Every once in a while I would look up at the south hills from the highway heading out of town. I could see the changes taking place, but I never bothered to ask how it had all happened, or whether I could help stop it. It was someone else’s mistake.

When I finally did bother to call my friend’s mother, she explained that the city, under pressure from the developer who wished to purchase the land, had decided to sell. After spending $5,000 in legal fees, the family’s lawyer dropped their case. The developer happened to be a client of the same firm, and the firm’s priority had been to follow the money. “At this point,” she admitted, “we don’t look when we drive by on the highway, and we haven’t been up the road to see what’s happened.”

Now, when I drive up the familiar road into the south hills, I climb slowly, gaping at expensive homes and long driveways. I feel more than a sense of loss. I feel ashamed. Never before have human beings so clearly recognized the devastation of their past and present behaviors on planet earth. This crisis could very easily boil down to a personal and very political blame-game, but I’ve grown weary of obsessing over the past. None of us is innocent. What has changed is the possibility of ignoring our guilt.

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