During the month of June, my mind is frequently on my father, William Lonzo Goodman. He was born on June 15, 1917, and, of course, we celebrate Father’s Day during June, occasionally on his birthdate. June is also the time when Montana mountains burst forth with wildflowers, much to my father’s delight. June was when the summer season started in earnest and Dad would pile his family in the car, head to the hills, and hike up to an alpine lake to camp for the weekends.
As I have grown older, married, and had children of my own, my father’s efforts to take his children into Montana’s backcountry have come more clearly into focus. How on earth did he do it? In the 1950s, backpacking equipment was generally old, World War II equipment. Dad would stuff his heavy canvas Duluth bag—that had a forehead strap to balance the load—with all the essentials needed for a family of four to camp out for a couple of nights. I can’t even imagine what all went in there. Nylon tents and featherweight down sleeping bags were not yet available; cooking gear was certainly not lightweight aluminum; and freeze-dried foods were not yet commercially available. Yet he did it, and he did it with relish. To tote our own personal clothing and gear, he equipped our mother and us children with two cross-armed shoulder bags that paperboys used to deliver the evening news. Each of us carried our fishing rods in our hands as we steadfastly covered the miles of relentless uphill trails.
Dad was less interested in the destination than in the journey. He was easily distracted by the attractions along the way: the mountain vistas, the roiling streams with their pools, falls, and occasion beaver dams, and the fields of yellow, pink, blue, red, and white wildflowers. We stopped frequently. We literally smelled the roses along the way, threw a line in every backwater, and drank our fill of sweet mountain water. I can still taste the clear stream running into my mouth as I positioned myself spread eagle from one bank to the other in a pushup-like performance of dipping my mouth into and out of the stream’s flow. (Those were the days before Giardia had spread worldwide and made drinking unfiltered water unsafe.)
From my earliest memories, these trips always included gathering wildflowers to take home and press between the pages of an enormous Webster’s dictionary that my grandmother had given Dad when he graduated from high school. I don’t remember what I actually did with the previous year’s pressed flowers. I probably discarded them when ready with each year’s fresh batch. Like my father, it was the process, rather than the product, that enticed me. Mom and Dad were happy to oblige me, pointing out new and unique flowers as we hiked. The one wildflower that defied my ability to properly press and dry was also my father’s favorite: bear grass.
Perhaps the problem lay in the fact that bear grass, Xerophyllum tenax, aka Helionas tenax, is a raceme, or a flower that contains a single long shoot upon which multiple flowers with short shoots emerge and bloom from the bottom up. In short, bear grass is a flower made up of many individual flowers, and its long shoot can measure from six to sixty inches, way too long for the pages of any dictionary, no matter how big the book!
Dad seemed to be drawn to all that was different in life, things that didn’t follow the usual patterns, had multiple and surprising aspects, or were idiosyncratic in their characteristics. Such is bear grass. Flowering only every five to seven years, one cannot predict a “good bear grass” year. One must climb the trails and visit the forests over and over again to arrive at just the right time during the right year to be richly rewarded with tall slender stalks of white that create a veritable carpet strewn beneath thick forests and on high meadows alike. In the right year, bear grass can go on for miles, turning dense lodgepole pine forests into fairy lands and trimming alpine lakes and streams with white fringe.
Native Americans made good use of the entire plant: the flowers, the tough, thick, and sharp-bladed grass stalks that grow to two feet long, and the fibrous rhizome roots that enable the plants to survive through forest fires. Dried and bleached, the grass was used for basket weaving and clothing, and the roots were boiled to yield infusions for hair tonics and soaps.
To see bear grass is to see my father. He told me its story over and over again, as though it were the first telling each time. He just couldn’t get over its hardiness, its utility, its will to survive the fires, its beauty, and its reluctance to show itself every year. It always surprised him when he came upon those white shag carpets, and he could not help but grin and feel lucky to be in that place at that moment, enjoying its magic.