Backcountry Bisons: Julie Riddle, The Solace of Stones

With our new Virtually Bison Books tours, you can explore Western Literature from your home or on the road. Backcountry Bisons is the newest tour featuring an array of memoirs that bring the reader into the Western environments that the authors explored, hiked, or connected with in an inspiring way.

Below author Julie Riddle reminisces about her family’s log cabin located in northwestern Montana and how it has stood the test of time in nature. Julie Riddle is the author of The Solace of Stones: Finding a Way through Wilderness (Bison Books, 2016), which is featured in the Backcountry Bisons virtual tour. Her essay, “Shadow Animals,” from her memoir, appeared in The Georgia Review and received a Special Mention in The Pushcart Prize XXXIX: Best of the Small Presses. She is the craft-essay editor for Brevity and the creative-nonfiction editor for Rock & Sling. She works as senior development writer at Whitworth University and is editor of Whitworth Today magazine.

Shifting Currents

“The forest… always so full of revival and farewell.” —Michael Ondaatje, Divisadero
“We come and go, but the land is always here.” —Willa Cather, O Pioneers!

My family’s log house under construction, July 1979, near the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness in northwestern Montana.

My parents sold their log house and twenty-one acres of land in 1998. They had lived on the forested property in northwestern Montana for nearly twenty-one years; it had been my home for eleven years, plus four college summers. I had thought my parents would never leave the land and the home they had invested so much of themselves in. I thought that, like me, they were so emotionally tied to the place that they would want to spend their lives there. After I was grown and had left home, I thought I would be able to return whenever I wanted—the stream and rocky beach beckoning to come explore the changes the seasons had wrought, the house my family had built embracing my arrival. My childhood stake to place pinning me to solid ground.

The log house sold to an attorney couple from California who planned to use it as their third vacation residence. My childhood home had become a “trophy cabin,” a preexisting version of the large, shining new homes, some more like lodges, that had begun springing up in the area, owned by out-of-staters and uninhabited all but two or three weeks a year. The log house’s new owners gated the driveway, posted a No Trespassing sign, and hired a caretaker who lived upstream. When I visited my parents at their new house and felt emotionally strong enough—or heartsick enough—to return to my childhood home, I would call the caretaker and ask his permission to stop by the property. I would slip past the gate, walk the long driveway, step onto the front porch, cup my hands around my eyes, and peer into the blank dining-room window, searching for familiar shapes inside the dark house. The ache in my chest would turn acute and gathering tears would begin to fall. My tears were those of mourning: my bone-deep attachment to place had fractured and could not be restored.

The land itself began fracturing the year before my parents put the house up for sale, when beavers dropped a massive cottonwood into Lake Creek. The lodged tree altered the flow of the stream’s current; the diverted water washed out a bank near the house and began eroding the clay banks of the lagoon where I used to swim every summer. My parents submitted an application and detailed plan to the Lincoln Conservation District to install large stones along the bank to prevent further erosion. The district approved the project, which would cost an estimated fifteen thousand dollars.

My parents identified the erosion issue and repair plan in their house-sale documents; no prospective buyers raised concerns or even mentioned it. When the new owners moved in, they did not address the problem. Before long, three larch trees that had anchored a bank collapsed, and the stream continued to chew into the land, winnowing the wide field beside the house to a narrow strip. When a section of the driveway collapsed, the owners had a new driveway bulldozed through the trees higher up on the hillside. That driveway eventually collapsed, too, snapping the power and phone lines to the house. The cost to fix the problem swelled to more than $200,000. Even now, nothing has been done.

During my most recent visit with my parents, Dad and I drove down Chase Cutoff Road and parked at the foot of the log house’s original driveway. We skirted the wide metal gate and walked up the incline, the unused ground soft beneath our feet, weeds clotting the old tread paths. Halfway uphill the driveway dissolved into slumps of clay banks that undulated down to the stream, the banks pocked with pools of gray, seeping water. Collapsed trees, water-beaten and sun-bleached, their ripped-out roots exposed, cluttered the lagoon, giving my childhood playground the appearance of having been touched by a hurricane.

From where Dad and I stood I could see the log house’s north and east sides and a hint of the front-deck rail. The rich, deep red of the metal roof my father had installed by himself, securing the last sheet by lantern light just hours before winter’s first snow, had turned chalky and was streaked with rust. Dad’s voice broke through my long-range examination. “A recent insurance inspection showed the basement’s filled with mold and the floorboards are rotting,” he said. “A corner of the foundation is sinking.”

At this news I remained unmoved. I usually cried when I visited the log house. But perhaps my tears were stayed due to the distance the collapsed driveway forced me to keep. I could not approach the house, like I used to, and see the foundation, now sinking. I could not, as I had noted on earlier visits, see the eaves and window trim warped and spotted black, or the weathered log walls stained with bird droppings. I could not step on the rusted cattle guard embedded in the front porch, the hollow steel bars twanging underfoot, or press my palm to the tongue-and-groove front door my father had built with dowel rods and custom iron hinges, whose sliding deadbolt woke my mother one night many years before. I could not peek through the narrow window beside the front door, frosted with a scene of mountains and a full moon that my parents had sketched and sandblasted onto the glass.

Perhaps I did not cry because I could not witness the neglect up close or trace my parents’ lost craftsmanship. Or perhaps I did not cry because the passage of years has fostered gratitude. Long ago I thought my parents would stand forever, on the front porch of the log house, waving and welcoming me home. The house is decaying and the land is reclaiming itself, as though they had never been touched by strong hands or loved by hopeful hearts. My parents remain, smaller somehow, and slowed, but still standing. There will be time enough for tears.

4 thoughts on “Backcountry Bisons: Julie Riddle, The Solace of Stones

  1. How sad, but common, a story. Absentee owners of a trophy home that’s gone neglected. The pain is ours, the guilt is their’s. Do they have a conscience? I grew up in a small California village that has been become a ghost town by absentee owners of second and third homes. In these terrible times, where do we go from here? Where do we start? Ray A. March

  2. I appreciate your response, Ray. Absentee owners certainly impact both the physical landscape and the culture of a place. There are no quick or clear answers, but I appreciate Scott Russell Sanders’ perspective in his essay collection “Staying Put: Making a Home in a Restless World.” All my best to you. –Julie Riddle

      1. Hi Ray,

        Thanks so much for sharing my UNP piece on your Facebook page – I appreciate that! I’m not having success finding Ray A. March on Facebook, for some reason. I’ll keep trying.

        All my best,

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