The Yellowstone River was running brown and filling extra channels as our plane lifted out of Billings at 6 a.m. on the last Friday in May, to take us to New York City. We didn’t know if this relatively high water was caused more by snowmelt out of the mountains or more by recent mid-month rains that lifted our spirits, at least temporarily removing our concern that the central Montana plains would dry up before they greened up.
The end of May is never the best time for us to be flying away from home and garden. We’d be missing some good planting dates. We would also be missing the last weekend of Montana high school track and field meets — and especially, this year, the State Class B and Class AA meets (held concurrently in Bozeman this year, with Class A and C held in Laurel). Elizabeth and I had reason to believe that unless a blizzard or tornado blew in, fans in Bozeman were likely to see some lithe young women run very fast and set some new state records.
Turns out we were right about that, but we were going to New York for the wedding of a much beloved niece - more like a sister than a cousin to our daughter, whom we’d also get to see because she’d be a bridesmaid in the wedding.
Sometime in New York City
Family and friends of the soon-to-be newlyweds gathered in a hotel across the East River from Manhattan. From a commodious room on the roof, with a bar and a nearby kitchen with glass ceiling that could be removed in good weather, we could look across the river — which is actually not a river but an extension of Long Island Sound — and see the elegant Chrysler Building and its near neighbor to the south, the Empire State Building.
About the Empire State Building I had some new information, thanks to that week’s Billings Outpost (May 23) where a letter by local architect Ed Gulick detailed a $20 million energy efficiency retrofit of that venerable 1931 structure. It now uses 38 percent less energy than a few years ago, saving $4.4 million per year in utility costs. Payback: 4.6 years — a return on investment of 22 percent.
Save energy, save money, create jobs, reduce pollution, reduce reliance on fossil fuels. I pondered this as nightlights speckled upon the skyscrapers of Manhattan, on the span of the Queensboro Bridge, and as the tall spike atop the Empire State Building lighted up red, white and blue.
Thus far we’d traveled by car to the airport, by foot through check-in and security, by plane via Minneapolis to LaGuardia Airport, by taxi to the hotel, by subway to a pre-wedding party in Manhattan. From the hotel next day we rented bicycles (and helmets) — the old-fashioned kind of bikes with fat tires and no gears or brakes on the handle bars (you slow or stop by stepping backwards on the pedals) — and rode the bike lanes a few miles north to the Isamu Noguchi Museum: room after quiet room, then an outdoor garden replete with witty, engrossing sculptures in marble, granite, travertine and steel, combining the raw with the refined, by this Japanese-American artist, who flourished from the 1920s to the 1980s.
It was a peaceful afternoon before the evening ceremony and feast on the hotel roof, followed by thumping dee-jayed music and relentless dancing late into the night. Intermittent rains did not allow the roof to be opened to the sky.
Up the Hudson
Our next form of transportation, an Amtrak passenger train, took us north out of the city on a sunny Sunday, out into the green and forested Eastern U.S. landscape, up the wide Hudson River, so wide that the first Europeans assumed it was a lake; past the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant which one had to be happy was not the target of the people who flew fuel-laden airplanes into tall buildings in Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001.
Past the West Point military academy, river farms, river towns, past sailboats and motorboats and barges, we arrived at a place called Rhine Cliff, where our friends Michelle and Alan picked us up in their car and we drove on two-lane roads through small towns and one covered bridge to the western side of the Catskill Mountains.
Alan and Michelle are people I grew up with in Roundup. Alan is my oldest living friend, but ever since college (at Reed in Portland, then Missoula, then Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn.) he had lived with Michelle in New York City, in Manhattan then later in Bronxville, just north of the city.
All their friends, in Montana and New York, assumed they would remain city people all their lives, keep going to the theater and checking out good restaurants. All of their friends were almost as surprised as Alan and Michelle themselves when they found a house in rural Delaware County, built in the 1790s, added onto in the 1800s, preserved, renovated by earlier owners and now by themselves, and settled in.
Their daughter, an attorney living in Maryland one block from the border of Washington, D.C., heartily approves, and she was there for the Memorial Day weekend with her husband (also an attorney) and their 13-month-old son, along with a friend with whom she grew up in Bronxville, and her friend’s husband and their two young sons. The boys were especially interested in the pond and its life, four reclusive koi (fish) and some less elusive tadpoles and frogs.
Rural New York is not unlike rural Montana or rural Planet Earth, largely hollowed out by the sucking of resources and money and young people out of the country and into the cities. Wealthy people live in this part of the Catskills — movie actors, retired financiers, Yoko Ono — but the gap between trailer house living and walled off compounds is as profound here as in, say, Red Lodge or Whitefish or Big Sky.
Alan and Michelle don’t live in a compound. Their 18th century house stands adjacent to the road. If they wanted to, they could run a bed and breakfast. Or some kind of artist’s retreat. Up the slope behind the house is a big, a very big, old barn with an apartment formerly occupied by an artist, a woman who has just turned 90 and no longer lives there, but who filled the upstairs walls of the barn with her sculptures, paintings and constructions which our friends are keeping there for her (sometimes selling a piece at art shows they stage in the barn, sometimes buying a piece for themselves).
In upstate New York we enjoyed two sunny days in that green-green landscape, then the rains returned. We wondered if the rains had continued in Montana. We could have checked online, but the only online checking we did — besides downloading and printing up our Amtrak tickets back to the city and our boarding passes out of LaGuardia Airport — happened as we rode the rails up the Hudson. We called up the Sunday Billings Gazette to see about those fast young women at the state track meets.
Since it was Billings, the big story was how the Billings Senior girls won their fourth straight AA track and field championship.
We were thinking Christina Aragon might have challenged her older sister Danielle’s 2012 All Class state record in the 800-meter run, or maybe Heidi Lane’s 2002 All Class state record in the 1,600 (Heidi was from Great Falls C.M. Russell High School), but though Christina won both those races, with very good times, she’ll have to wait for next year, or the year after that, or the year after that (she was just a freshman).
The Billings Senior girl who did set a new All Class state record was hurdler Morgan Sulser, a junior, who covered the 100-meter hurdles in 14.11 seconds. Sulser also won the 200-meter dash, and both Sulser and Aragon placed high in other events, and were supported by teammates, including sophomore Taylor Mims, winner of the high jump.
But it was at the Class B meet that four records were set, three of them Class B records and one an All Class record. A Red Lodge pole-vaulter, Carter Theade, cleared the bar at 11 feet 3 inches to exceed that Class B record by two inches. (Theade, by the way, also won the girls’ pole vault event at the Top Ten track meet in Laurel on April 30.)
A good two days
The other three records were set — one might say, demolished — on the track by one young woman, a senior from Townsend High School named Chiara Warner. She had a good two days.
Warner as a junior was not the runner that she became in her final year of high school. Last year she placed second in the 3,200, fourth in the 1,600, and did not place (I don’t know if she ran) in the 800. A freshman from Big Fork, Makena Morley, won all three of those races in 2012, and was running very well again this year, especially in the 3,200.
State records in Montana can be set only at state track meets. At the Southern B Divisional Meet May 16 in Laurel, Elizabeth and I had watched Warner run four times around the track, in laps of 74 seconds, 74 seconds, 74 seconds, then 70 seconds, to exceed Heidi Lane’s All Class 1,600 meter time of 4:55.18 by about three seconds.
No guarantee that Warner would do this at state, but she did, and more. She ran a jaw-dropping four seconds faster than she did at the Divisional Meet, 4:48.24. And that’s the new standard for high school women, whether in Class AA, A, B or C, to aim for in Montana.
This also, of course, erased the Class B 1,600 meter record of 5:03, set in 1998 by Sabrina Monroe of Boulder, and in the 3,200 Warner also surpassed Monroe’s 1998 Class B record by more than 10 seconds, running a 10:35.85. (The All Class record in that event is 10:26, set by Kalispell’s Zoe Nelson in 2004).
In the 800, Warner decisively set a new Class B standard, beating the 2009 mark set by Bobbi Knudsen of Malta by more than four seconds, running a 2:10.52.
Until last year, that time would have broken the All Class girls’ 800 record (2:11) but Danielle Aragon of Billings Senior ran a 2:08 in the 2012 State AA meet to accomplish that.
Where the rivers flow
People of European ancestry have lived a lot longer in New York than in Montana, of course. Just down the road from Alan and Michelle’s is a cemetery containing graves of soldiers not only back to the Revolutionary War, but back to the preceding conflict, which the English called the French and Indian War.
Michelle and Alan are bemused that on Memorial Day, in that old cemetery, U.S. flags are placed on the graves off all soldiers except those in the French and Indian War. Why? The U.S. did not yet exist. What flag would we use?
We did not walk into that cemetery — which I mildly regret — though we drove by it several times on our way to somewhere else. (One of those elsewheres was Cooperstown, named after the family of the author James Fennimore Cooper, but perhaps more famous as the site of the Baseball Hall of Fame.) Wherever we toured I kept asking what is the name of this stream and where does it flow.
New York City actually keeps buying pristine forests or abandoned farms in upstate New York in order to preserve the integrity of the city’s watershed. And the integrity of the watershed is also why the countryside is filled with signs that say FRACK with a line crossing out the word.
“Frack,” as Montanans know thanks to the Bakken Oil Field “play” in Eastern Montana and in North Dakota, refers to hydraulic fracturing: drill deep down to strata containing oil, force water and not-widely-revealed chemicals down the pipes to jar loose that oil and bring it to the surface.
In Pennsylvania and elsewhere , what drillers are jarring loose — or want to jar loose — is natural gas, but one huge problem is that polluted or degraded or depleted drinking water frequently accompanies fracking. New York state is conflicted about whether to allow any fracking at all.
My immediate questions, however, dealt with surface waters.
To keep me quiet, Alan produced an atlas. Delaware County, N.Y., is bigger than Rhode Island, and it is not only an important part of the watershed for New York City, but two rivers appear to rise there, the Delaware and the Susquehanna. Our hosts know they live in the Susquehanna drainage, and know when they cross an often subtle divide into one or the other, but I know very little about the geography in this region. Both rivers flow basically south. Do they both empty into Chesapeake Bay?
The Susquehanna does. The Delaware, however, forms that squiggly border between New Jersey and Pennsylvania then flows into Delaware Bay. You cannot know how satisfying it is for me to learn such basic things — and tell everyone about them!
The rains of late May
Alan and Michelle drove us back to the Hudson River, but this time farther north, to Albany. There the four of us met Kye and Ron, two friends of ours — former Montanans — who now live and farm in Vermont, and who drove three hours to have lunch and a visit. (It isn’t only Montanans who drive long distances for amusement, although come to think of it, all six or us are still some form of Montanan.)
Alan and Michelle later reported a horrendous rainstorm on their way back home — five inches in one hour. Their electricity at home was out for a time. But our trip on Amtrak back down the Hudson was calm, our flight back the next day uneventful.
Coming into Billings, the Yellowstone River still looked to be running high and brown. When we arrived at our home in Roundup, we immediately checked our backyard rain gauge. After seven dry seasons, stretching back to the end of the record Musselshell River flood of May-June 2011, we had been delighted whenever a mere 1/10th of an inch materialized, which it did between May 4 and May 6. Then came those mid-month rains, which left us with 3.2 inches, for the month, when we left for New York. What would we find?
We found a rain gauge holding 3.9 inches of rain, then the last two days of May the heavens bequeathed us another 1.9 inches to bring us to nine inches in May.
Two days later, on June 2, a big booming thunderstorm and cloudburst poured another inch and 6/10ths into our rain gauge. Think of it! One more incident equal to that and we’ll have achieved our yearly average precipitation of 12 inches in less than one month.
Whatever “average” means in this time of shifting climate and accelerating weather extremes. In this land of extremes, a drought could set in tomorrow.
In his Outpost letter about the Empire State Building, Ed Gulick said such an energy conserving retrofit “out-competes almost anything in the stock market, and it’s far less risky.”
He said: “Energy efficiency is probably the best investment that can be made.”
Investing in water efficiency may be more difficult, more complex, less dependent on technology and more beholden to nature. But, at the very least, we ought to refuse to waste, refuse to degrade, and strive to conserve our water.