Archive for July, 2008

Jul 22 2008

Once Upon A Time, I Met Joe “Montana”

     This article was written by John D. Williams for Great Outdoor Blessings 


   It was in the early summer of 2008 on a Saturday afternoon in Lowndes County, Mississippi that I explained a technical problem I had with my motorhome parked on a beautiful campsite on the water’s edge of Lake Lowndes.  The gentleman I talked with told me that the fellow across the way from him could help me.  The only problem was he had just driven off in his truck.  I was told that I could not miss him because he was a slim gentleman walking around with the help of a walking cane due to bad knees.  He was a distinguished man with snow-white hair.  The characteristic that immediately gave him away was those suspenders he wore everyday to keep his pants up.  I was told that he was one of the nicest and friendliest men I would ever meet.  I found it to be true the next afternoon when I met Joe “Montana” for the very first time.  


   The more I talked to Joe the more I knew he was a unique individual although he was retired and was a “full-timer” in his motorhome.  Joe is twelve years older than me but we share one thing in common.  Joe and I have a genuine love for the great state of Montana.  Joe told me that his love for Montana began when he was a very young lad.  He had always dreamed of living on an isolated mountain in a cabin in the mountains of Montana…not Wyoming…not Idaho…but the mountains of Montana.  My heart longs for Montana just as Joe had a love for Montana.  One day I want to live in Montana and wait for my journey to Heaven.  For Christians, life on this earth is only a part of the journey to our eternal home with God.  I want to live in Montana until I am called home just as Joe lived in Montana for about four years before returning to the south in 2003.

   I talked to Joe just this morning.  He was on his way into town to get a haircut.  Joe didn’t want a massacre with his hair during this session but said that he was receiving a lot of remarks from his wife Shirley about his long curly white hair.  I told Joe his hair looked just fine after all, the blood running through him was that of a Montana mountain man and not of a Mississippi boy who had returned to his home state to possibly finish his years left on this earth.  He later sent me an e-mail saying that he canceled his haircut and didn’t want to cut it.

   Joe retired from the timber business years ago.  He lived his dream of that cabin on a mountain in the Bitterroot Range near the Continental Divide outside of Conner, Montana.  He and Shirley bought their cabin there in 1999.  Their view from their home was that of Shook Mountain and trees, and trees, and more trees.  Oddly Joe said he never saw bears on his place but there was an abundance of wildlife surrounding his home.  Joe, the lover of wildlife and the Great Outdoors spoke of wolves, whitetail and mule deer, moose, elk, wild turkeys, and mountain lions exploring on his property.   Joe was not a hunter.  He loved the creatures and he loved their surroundings.  The moose was his favorite.

   Joe lived only three miles from the Bitterroot River but fished the Big Hole River on the east side of the Continental Divide near Wisdom, MT nearly thirty miles away.  His favorite fishing spot was near the “Big Hole Battlefield” area.  I can see Joe now with that fly-rod in his hand as he makes the perfect cast and that beautiful rainbow tries to destroy the fly that Joe has so carefully placed at the edge of the rocks with only the first cast.  That snow-white hair of Joe’s is very bright in the crisp Montana sun as it is high above the Bitterroot River.  Oh, the water in the river is fresh and clear and is cool as it flows near the Continental Divide.  Joe is doing what he loves to do and where he loves to do it, in the Great Outdoors of Montana.



 Tragedy Strikes Great Outdoors Blessings that Surrounded Joe


   Joe’s neighbor, Dewayne and his wife Paula lived about a quarter mile south across Blind Draw.  Cap and Sharon lived down in the hollow a quarter mile southwest of Joe and Shirley.  Just down the road from Dewayne, a young guy with long black hair and beard named Jody lived under a blue tarp. Then there was Cliff and his two boys who lived close by.  These were true mountain people, “as good as gold” Shirley told me.    The mountain home that my friends Joe “Montana” and Shirley loved so dearly was off of Dickson Creek Road about eight miles from Conner, MT. 

   The early morning sunrise on August 6, 2000 would become a day of heartbreak for them.  According to Michael Moore of the Missoulian News  a significant fire caused by lightning strikes was burning in Gilbert Creek south of Dickson Creek, along with a string of spot fires in Spade Creek. Joe and Shirley’s “mountain people” friends in the area had been alerted to potential danger, but a dozen or so remained in Dickson Creek. Joe stayed behind on their property while Shirley was back in Mississippi checking on her elderly mother.  Joe had called Shirley and told her she really needed to come back home because the fires were getting worse.  After picking Shirley up at the airport they decided they should leave because there was a chance that the fires would rage over their only way out and down the mountain.  By mid afternoon, the temperature was 92 degrees, the humidity was very low and the wind was coming up.  With winds blowing at more than 20 mph, the southern end of the Bitterroot Valley erupted in flame, as fires scorched homes and property in the Laird, Dickson, Spade and Beam creek drainages, Blind Draw and along the U.S. Highway 93 corridor.

   By late afternoon, after the backburnhad been intentionally set by the U.S. Forest Service on the Trinity Ranch near the mouth of Spade Creek, the narrow river canyon and its side drainages raged with fire.  The backburn was an effort to protect some homes on the riverside flats between the highway and the foothills, the Forest Service said at the time.  Residents were out of their homes by that time, but homes and property suffered as the Gilbert, Spade and backburn fires roared through the canyons.  Joe and Shirley said that one of the hardest things was not knowing if they would ever see their friends again.  Finally, late in the evening about 10:00 PM on August the 8th of 2000 they heard from Dewayne and Paula.  They had survived.  Their home did not.  Joe and Shirley’s home survived as did Cap and Sharon’s home. 

   Shirley recalls that “they closed Hwy.93 for several days and wouldn’t let anybody through because of the thick smoke and downed trees that were still burning.”  “Finally we got to go back and words can’t describe what we saw.  It was like going to a dark, gray lifeless other world.  All the beauty was gone; nothing but smouldering ashes, big holes in the ground where trees were uprooted by the tornado-like force of the fire.”  Shirley continues by saying “when we got up to the house it was hard to believe that our house was almost like we left it.  The big American flag hanging at our front door was smoked up.  We hurt for our neighbors Dewayne and Paula.  They had worked so hard for years building that house and it was finally finished.  They were so proud of it.  Everything they had burned; even their snowmobile had melted.”  Joe and Shirley cleaned up their home as best they could.  They tried to get Dewayne and Paula to stay with them but they refused.  They pitched a tent in the front yard of Joe’s home.  It took about two weeks of cleaning and getting things in order.  Joe, Shirley, and “Boo Boo” finally left the house for Dewayne and Paula to live in.  They lived there until the spring as Dewayne slowly built the home back room by room.  To this day they talk with Dewayne and Paula and Cap and Sharon regularly.  They have all remained friends since the summer of 2000.

   The picture below was taken by John McColgan on August 6, 2000 as two elk take refuge in the East Fork of the Bitterroot River as flames consume a hillside near Joe’s home. 



   I took the picture below almost 10 years later (April 2010) from the same spot on the bridge at the East Fork of the Bitterroot River near Sula, MT.  Look at the difference ten years will make.  When you examine it closley, destruction is still so evident.


East Fork of the Bitterroot River




   This satellite picture covers Joe’s area taken on August 8, 2000



   After it was all said and done, it was a sad ending to a tragic story.  Joe and Shirley were blessed.  God had spared their lives and had spared their Montana mountain home that Joe had dreamed of as a little boy.  Destruction in the Bitterroot Valley topped $54 million.  Joe’s loss of God’s Great Outdoor Blessings surrounding his home was priceless.  Joe to this day is still saddened by the loss of the wildlife and the trees and the fresh mountain air surrounding his home.  The home still stood but destruction to the environment was extreme.  His cabin on the mountain that he loved had received heavy smoke damage.  With Joe being in the timber business, he knew of the total devastation to that part of the Bitterroot Valley. Joe knew that it would be generations before the trees and wildlife would return as it was before the fires.   Joe later explained to me that when they went back up the mountain to see if their property had survived he jumped on his 4-wheeler in pursuit of his favorite cow moose and her calf.  Joe’s heart was breaking as he came upon them in the burned out forest behind his home.  The cow was lying down along with her calf standing by her side.  Joe could not get close to them but he did notice that the cow had a big burn on her side.  Hair was burned but Joe did not think damage had been done to her hide.  Her calf was fine.  The cow moose had protected her calf from the horrific flames.  God provided a means to spare them.  Still, Joe’s heart was broken as he looked around at all of the destruction.

   Joe and about one hundred others lost their battle in the U.S. Court with the Forest Service.  The young lad, born in Brooksville, Mississippi with dreams of living his life in the mountains of Montana sold what was left of his property and came back home to Mississippi.  Theypurchased acreage in Oktibbeha County, Mississippi, nothing to compare to the beauty and magnificent “Big Sky” of Montana.  They have also purchased several motorhomes throughout the years and have done extensive traveling in the years past.  They live and travel with their precious and feisty twelve-year old dog “Boo Boo”.  Joe is quick to share pictures of the summer of 2005 when he, Shirley, and “Boo Boo” traveled throughout Alaska.  This was a very happy time in Joe’s life.  He and Shirley enjoyed three months in Alaska but Joe’s heart belonged in the Bitterroot Mountain Range of Montana.  Joe will never lose his love for the “Big Sky” over Montana.

   Joe’s long-term goals?  I don’t know if Joe really knows what he wants to do with the rest of his life.  He speaks of buying a couple of acres outside of Florence, Alabama and building another home in the Great Outdoors of North Alabama.  Will he ever be happy there?  Yes, I think he and his beloved Shirley will be able to call it home.  I know that Joe wants to make one more trip back to Montana before his life’s journey ends outside of Florence, AL.  Joe’s heart aches for a return to Montana one day.  My prayer for Joe and Shirley is that God will allow them to do just that.   God blessed me the day I met Joe “Montana” once upon a time.


 Joe and his beautiful wife Shirley         My favorite picture of Joe \      Rita, John, Joe \

***Information for this article was from interviews with Joe and Shirley.  Reference material was taken from “Montana on Fire!  Summer of 2000”  Montana Magazine and Text by Michael Moore.

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