On the Rocky Mountain Front in Montana the Great Plains meet the mountains without the buffer of foothills. It is the only place in the Northern Rockies where grizzly bears in search of food come out of the mountains and onto the plains, always to the consternation of local livestock producers. The Front is also a place of blistering-hailstorm summers, and ferocious winters of blasting blizzards and Chinooks. The small towns of Choteau, Augusta, Bynum, Dupuyer and Browning are scattered along the hundred miles of the Front like a sprinkling of pebbles on hard ground. In between the towns are sprawling cattle ranches and wheat farms, and north of Choteau the remote and austere outpost of the Kingsbury Hutterite Colony. It is the Last Best Place in an increasingly diminished Last Best Place, and for most of his long life was home to Alfred Bertram Guthrie, Jr. (1901-1991), author and fierce conservationist.
Like other homegrown regionalist writers (Wallace Stegner and Ivan Doig come to mind), A.B. “Bud” Guthrie was acutely conscious of the steady transition from the pastoral to the developed in the West. From Indians and mountain men, to ranchers, farmers and the small town boosters who have historically labored to sell the West to the highest bidder, Guthrie chronicled them all. If he were alive today, he would be writing about Hollywood hobby ranchers, trendy homesteaders and yuppie fly fishermen. Not that he would like it. He lived ninety years and with a pitiless gaze saw the West change mostly for the worst, and then died a curmudgeon.
A.B. Guthrie has his aficionados, but is otherwise not read much nowadays. He is primarily known for The Big Sky (1947), the classic American novel of the 1830s Rocky Mountain fur trade. Its three-word title is synonymous with Montana, and has been recently used as a catch phrase by posses of real estate brokers bent on selling the state down the river to agricultural decline and subdivision sprawl. Guthrie followed up The Big Sky with the Pulitzer Prize winning The Way West (1950), about the Oregon Trail era. His dozen books of fiction and nonfiction amount to history of the Rocky Mountain Front: 1830-1960. He tried his hand at screenwriting, and his greatest success in that realm came with his adaptation of Jack Schaefer’s Shane (1953), which earned him a nomination for an Academy Award.
Guthrie’s knowledge of his milieu was formidable. He spent an idyllic youth wandering the woods and fields around Choteau, and fishing the rushing and blue-holed Teton River (now summer-drained for irrigation) in front of the mountains. This turned him into a lifelong conservationist, with a special regard for Ursus Arctos Horribilis, the grizzly bear, which he called “the living, snorting, incarnation of the wildness and grandeur of America”. The great bear figures prominently in one of his last books, 1988’s Big Sky, Fair Land: The Environmental Essays of A.B. Guthrie, Jr.
The author’s public stance concerning the grizzly and its future put him at odds with the Choteau ranching community, including his own son A.B. “Bert” Guthrie, Jr. , a sheep rancher. As grizzlies recovered in the Northern Rockies starting in the early 1980s, stockmen regularly lost cattle and sheep to bears on the Front. Guthrie stood up for the grizzly in the face of much criticism from local Choteau “hotheads.” All this caused many of his neighbors to stop speaking to him, and continued to strain relations with his son Bert, who once said — in effect — that the two of them got on well except when the subject was grizzlies. As for his hometown, the author’s view is best summed up in his 1965 autobiography, The Blue Hen’s Chick: Choteau was “a cluster of churches and bars and gossip”.
From “The Barn,” his cabin on the Front near Ear Mountain, Guthrie could envision the primeval West. The mountain stars in a number of his books, especially The Big Sky. In the novel, the mountain man Boone Caudill gazes longingly upon it, and through Caudill’s actions, Guthrie gives us his view of what’s happened to the American West:
“A man always kills the thing he loves.”
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