July 15, 2015
South and east of Malta, Montana, a line of wind-worn hills pushes up from the prairie. When my grandmother, Emma Hought Berg, told stories of homesteading on the high prairie 30 miles outside of Malta from 1915-1919, these same Larb Hills figured prominently in them.
Emma was not your typical pioneer, but she did have the requisite love of adventure. When her older brother, Ed, wrote to her that land was opening up for homesteading in Montana, and would she like to meet him out there and get adjoining homesteads, she said without hesitation, “Sure, I’ll go!”
The fifth of fifteen children growing up on a small Minnesota farm, she was used to making do with little. So, after the long train ride from Minneapolis to Malta in the late spring of 1915, she wasn’t daunted by the day and a half wagon ride out onto the barren prairie where her quarter section lay. Nor was she disappointed in the 8×10 clapboard shack that Ed had built for her.
The only things she insisted on bringing were every pair of size 3 shoes she had bought while working as a milliner in Minneapolis, and her full-length mirror.
That mirror became something of a conversation piece among the homesteaders. Emma said that from time to time, hunters and trappers (“mountain men” she called them) would come down from the Larb Hills and stop at her or Ed’s place for water, a meal, or a bit of conversation on their way into Malta.
One time one of those trappers stopped at her door for the first time. Emma invited him in and he spent the next two hours staring at himself in her mirror.
The Larb Hills is also where Emma first learned to drive a car. Ed and another friend took Emma with them on a drive on the roadless prairie. “Let’s go to the Larb Hills,” they said.
“Sure, I’ll go!” Emma agreed. Ten miles out on the prairie, the two men stopped and got out of the car.
“You drive back,” they told Emma.
“But I don’t know how to drive a car,” she insisted.
“You’ll figure it out,” the men assured her as they walked away.
She did figure it out, and got home about the same time the men took to walk it.
Today we rode past the Larb Hills on my last ride with the BTUSFMS Northern Tier team. The day was filled with poignancy for me, both because it brought a close to my two-week adventure with this band of fellow travelers, and also because it closed one of the circles in Emma’s life with a circle in mine.
This sojourn of riding my bike a thousand miles from Minneapolis to Malta has been a gift beyond measure. Besides the sheer joy of riding, I got to spend time with an amazing group of people, met strangers along the way who extended unsolicited generosity and kindness to us, and saw the vast dimensions of our land with an intimacy that only comes when traveling 15 mph on a bicycle.
Thank you to every team member, every stranger, every MS sufferer and care provider who were part of this journey with me. My heart breaks open when I think of what we can become if we slow down, pay attention, and live as if we are carrying a priceless gift.
Because we are, you know…