On Goat Time

The mountain goats have claimed this trail. We name it Alpine Trail No. 717 passing between a concrete microwave relay station and Mt. Aeneas. The ridge forms the first tooth in a serration of the earth stretching north and east across the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Glacier National Park and south along the parallel ridges of the Swans and Missions.IMG_5400 West is the glittering oval of Flathead Lake and on its northeast end, Kalispell, the biggest human home in the valley.

And the goats? We’ve entered their home terrain. We’re in their living room.

Coming over the crest of the mountain we run into a family. Papa goat hardly moves, looking sideways at us as if we were expected. He’s staunchly set with fur as thick as a sheep before shearing. Mama goat is jumpier, hopping up to sense our intent. The kid, an awkward one with ears like a mouse, hasn’t learned fear yet. It looks at us, then follows its father’s example of ignoring our presence by dropping to his knees and grabbing a mouthful of brown grass

The wind’s a torrent, an engine that can’t be stopped. The green blanket of forest below us pops with the lichen greens and yellows of larch and aspen. We shiver. The goats have put on their winter coat; we’ve forgotten ours. We decide to make a pass around them on the steep slope below.

We’re coming back up towards the crest of the ridge when we encounter Papa, chest squared towards us, wind puffing his glacier white coat. On the high point of land, with muscles tense above sharp hooves, he is the one in charge. This is the king of the ridge. He commands the landscape.

We concede. The family passes down the ridge; we must follow them. We’re on goat time now.

Papa is the only one inclined to move forward. Mama loves to dally and eat. Kid stays in the middle, not sure what to do, scamper up to join papa or wait for mom? If mom moves ahead of kid, he bounces into the air with a sideways flourish and jounces ahead of her as if saying, “whoa mom, don’t leave me behind!” We sit and watch and try to imagine we’re wearing fur coats.

The goats move deliberately. Balancing on cliff edges all day, they don’t need to be anywhere anytime soon.Neither do we. We’re cold, but we know our faithful Westy waits in the parking lot, stocked with a propane stove and tea.IMG_5375

I’ve tried to teach myself to move at a slower speed all day. Westy took forty-five minutes to crawl up a seven mile gravel road. But she made it. We didn’t start hiking until one o’clock. But we got to follow a family of goats down a ridge. We had the opportunity to move deliberately in this landscape.

A big black bird drops from the sky into the cirque below us like a weight, and uses the force of wind to shoot over the ridge as precisely as an arrow. The sharp mountains to the north have the taut lines and crisp contrast of a woodblock print. Mama munches on. Papa walks patiently. And kid remains aloof.

After a long hour, we pass around the goats. Papa, standing firm on the ridge, keeps his eye on us until we’re gone. We return to our human luxuries to reflect on the lessons of the day:

  • Always bring more than enough clothes for Paige
  • Goats move slow
  • Goats are not goats at all but antelopes (really!)
  • Westy loves goat time and so do we

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