I cross into Montana and head west, drawn by the allure of Headwaters State Park, about 30 miles west of Bozeman, Montana. The second-longest river in North America begins here, tucked into a wetland east of the Rocky Mountain divide. Every river begins differently. The Missouri’s alpha is actually the confluence of two rivers, the Jefferson and the Madison. A third, the Gallatin, joins in just downstream.
To know how a river begins has always been a fascination of mine. It seems fitting, as I crawl closer to the Continental Divide and bring my journey to an end, that I would find this beginning. The landscape around the three converging rivers is beginning, too. Grasses and sedges are still winter-dry. Bare-branched willows brush the riparian with russet wonder. From a distance, cottonwood branches hold no more than a vague fur of tight buds.
Everywhere, I see the russet tones – the paleness of dried blood, an expectant iron-oxide. The river stones, rounded by water and glacial movements long ago, offer up constant reminders of the richness embedded in death and renewal.
The weather reports are ominous: snow expected across the pass from Butte to Missoula. I hunker down in a campground that is barely open, waiting for a weather window. No running water. No electric hookup. But I have a turtle shell, a propane heater, some good books, and a willingness. I walk in a cold, misting rain for part of a morning, taking stock of the pause before a riotous spring begins. A pack of sandhill cranes mark the early morning with their throaty calls. The water burbles gently along through the headwaters plain, marking its way.
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