“What the fuck?” Matt gasped, staring at the top of Mt. Sentinel. We were no more than twenty minutes into our hike. Other than a softball diamond, Matt hardly leaves the pavement when out of doors. It’s safe to say that this was his first time he’d been forced to confront the proportions of a mountain. Mt Sentinel’s summit likely appeared no taller than San Francisco’s skyline to him, when in fact it rises nearly 2,000-feet above Missoula, Montana. Such misjudgment is a common occurrence for the hiker who’s ignored the horizontal distance needed to gain a ridge or summit. This was one such occasion for one of my most dependable of best friends.
I always treat this particular urban hike like a workout, my headphones blaring while I time myself to scale its heights. No matter how I felt at the bottom—hungover, stressed, a little depressed—I’ll feel better at its top with the entire city splayed before me like a map on a kitchen table. No matter where I am in forty years, I’ll always cherish Mt. Sentinel, a most dependable and consistent source of catharsis I could ever ask for.
Matt had flown in for an early-November weekend. He’d booked the flight and said when he’d arrive without consulting me. I picked him up from the airport, and he was shocked by the sight of my long hair. We immediately drove to the Rhino for a late afternoon’s worth of drinking and catching up.
We wanted to sweat out our hangovers—clear our minds of the general irrational toll we’d imposed on ourselves after a night of carousing downtown Missoula. A hike was also something to do that day other than more drinking, a past time that’s already tricky to subvert in this town, let alone when a best friend is visiting.
We started at my usual, inconspicuous trailhead. We were taking the hardest route I know of—straight up. From the start, Matt, a born competitor, took off like a pissed off mule. Somewhat in shape, he was ready for a workout. Ahead of me he went. I was somewhat confused by his aggression. Though he was exceptional at whichever sport he played, his talents were always chalked up to gifted hand-eye coordination, never to speed, endurance, or, frankly, motivation.
After a few lengthy switchbacks brought us to a junction, Matt clearly wondered what the hell I had gotten him into. This gave rise to his gasping “What the fuck?” I told him he’d better take it easy, as we were probably only about an eighth of the way. He made a quick glance at the peak. “Shit.”
It’s worth noting just how serious Matt’s hangover was. The night before, we’d hit my usual stops with a few of my friends. Only Matt and I were left over by the time we entered the Badlander at 1am. Here, I got to watch the spectacle that is piss-drunk Matt. He proceeded to carve a ten-by-ten-square-foot box for himself smack in the middle of a crowded dance floor. The theme that evening was 90’s hip hop. Aggressive, nonsensical arm movements and hand signals were his ammo, which, along with an unsynchronized relay of 2pac lyrics, signaled for everyone to get out the way. It’s not as if people had formed the space for him to watch and cheer him on; he made it for himself, jumping and sliding between the parameters, not even trying to collaborate with a girl. He’d completely forgotten who he was but was entirely himself at once. It was his moment, and I stood on the periphery, drink in my hand, holding a genuine smile that periodically broke into laughter as I watched. Eventually, I swigged down the rest of the double whiskey-soda I’d reluctantly accepted from him upon entry and joined. “That was it!” he yelled on our walk home. I was hardly amused by now. “That was all me!”; “WHAT!” he yelled… to the river. “You don’t get it!” he said… to me.
Matt didn’t seem to get much of anything the following morning, though, when he couldn’t recall the inside of the Badlander as we drove by, on our way to breakfast.
From the first junction, I opted to move us from the gradual switchbacks and hike along an obsolete wired fence line. This section of trail daunts in its steep, heart-thumping ascent. I was too amused by Matt’s struggle to take it easy on him. We carried on, with him trailing from there on. The peak disappeared behind our immediate rise. Matt threw a tantrum as the trail leveled off and the peak came back into sight, as he’d thought we were about to summit.
We continued to trudge forth along a narrow trail through the steep high grass fields leading into the grove of trees at the top.
After a lengthy series of steep to very steep intervals, we started to round the outside of the tree grove. During a short break, Matt took it upon himself to lie on his back and moan. The air was crisp and golden from the late afternoon sun. I took in the view and explained that we were almost there. “Shut up,” he groaned. One of his arms shielded his eyes from the light. It’s fifty yards, I explained. No response. Knowing his habits almost as well as my own, I was afraid he’d fall asleep.
“I could land a baseball up there!”
“Shut up,” he said. “There’s now way. I’m going back down.” I dug my toe into his side. “Stop it… stop… fuck off…” I kept nudging him until he belly-rolled over, lifted his chin to look at the summit only to collapse his face into the dirt.
“Fiiiiiine!” He suddenly leaped to his feet and walked ahead of me, fast, getting it over with.
From atop, I unzipped my bag and handed him a beer. The endorphins, the exertion, and dehydration all combined for a buzz off of one thick IPA. I took in the view. Fog was quickly settling in and I knew our sweat would freeze if we didn’t keep moving. Matt’s elation was evident. I pointed out the Bitterroot Mountains in the south, Lolo Peak announcing their start. That’s Blue Mountain, I said, and pointed out the Clark Fork, which bisected the northern cityscape, explaining to him that it’s an artery of the mighty Colombia. The Rattlesnake Wilderness loomed in the north. “Matt, five valleys converge at Missoula…”
“Mark,” he had cut me off, “you do you, but let’s get off of this mountain.”
Matt didn’t have much to spare for the natural scenery that’s kept me in Montana. I understood. I was just happy to have squeezed a good hike in with a longtime best friend. That he was willing to visit was satisfying enough; that he did this hike—a memory we’ll always share.
Following his visit, he wrote me a nice email, explaining he had never climbed a mountain before. He was grateful to have done so. Recently, he brought up the excursion in a quarantine-virtual meeting. “We’ll have to do that again next time you visit, man!” I said, hoping he’d return the enthusiasm.
“Hell no… Fuck no!” he said. “I’m never hiking another mountain with you again!”