Memory, Place, and a Historic Camp in the Beartooths

 

My parents’ house, which they built in 1960, was a tiny, white, Modernist tract house trimmed in green, with clean, plain lines, constructed from sturdy materials, and overall an expression of practical, affordable design. Situated at the middle of a crabgrass lot, it fronted the bucolically named Pleasant Place, one lot north of forests and marshes that on summer nights erupted in choruses of frogs. Standing on my bed and looking through the casement window screen (why were windows always placed so high on the walls of houses built in that era?), I looked out into darkness hallucinatory with lightning bugs and the Milky Way. In a recent dream, I moved back into that house decorated as it was in 1960: sleek Scandinavian-styled furniture, Fauvist and Cubist prints, the RCA Victor console stereo with its collection of LPs by Johnny Mathis, Peggy Lee, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Nate King Cole. The accretions of over 50 intervening years of my life fit comfortably, if improbably, within the dream of that tiny house.

Early in his classic exploration of the home, The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard dwells on the way the intimacy of childhood spaces persists throughout our lives, especially in our reveries. Lost in daydreams, we don’t so much inhabit the memory of our childhood home; we live instead in its absence as we once dreamed in its presence. I am inclined to agree with this, though it is the houses not lived in as a child but visited and departed with an unusual feeling of well-being that interest me now.

That tract house my young parents built and occupied as briefly as their marriage endured always seemed untidy and cramped, at first full of manias, then a long bleak period of grief. It was quite the opposite of the houses of some of the family and friends we visited. Those houses always seemed aglow with the calm light of a November afternoon just before it began to snow. Or in the oppressive humidity of an Ohio summer, those rooms remained cool and full of shadows the color of polished oak. Without exception, those houses were Craftsman houses.

The heavy front doors or foyers of those Craftsman houses opened into living rooms with large stone hearths, the many-lighted and beveled-glass windows, dark and heavily-grained woodwork, built-in cabinets with glass-paneled doors, dining rooms with large bay windows, and the sight-lines of one room opening into another, creating the illusion of spacious luxury. The walls above the wainscoting were often painted in pale green that contrasted with the dark-grained woodwork, intended to harmonize with the natural world. They were houses designed with such a deep sense of spatial balance, intimacy, and structural integrity it is hard to believe today that these were the typical homes of many working and lower middle class families in my hometown. That such houses could be purchased as kits and built quickly, often for less than $1,000, is mind-blowing.

Today, after more than a generation of shipping manufacturing jobs overseas, wage stagnation, the destruction of labor unions, and tax redistribution that transfers wealth upwards, such working- and lower middle-class families as may have originally built Craftsman houses in the 1920s are lucky to be living in trailers or suburban ticky-tacky; lucky, that is, if they aren’t living in their cars, homeless and dispossessed. Many of these same Craftsman houses now sell for as much as half a million dollars, even during the so-called Great Recession we are only now coming to the end of. At the height of its popularity, though, such architectural design was an expression of socialist idealism and respect; namely, the belief that all segments of society had access to a domestic space that, at least in its design, could nurture the souls of its inhabitants and bring them into greater harmony with the natural world.

That is a lot of wishful thinking, and it would be folly to imagine such an ahistorical reality ever existed; but as an ideal, as an aspiration, I am all for it now, and even as a child I sensed its power. In her survey of social reform aesthetics, “House and Home in the Arts and Crafts Era: Reforms for Simpler Living,” Cheryl Robertson quotes Kate Greenleaf Locke from a 1907 issue of House & Garden, “[Craftsman design] appeals to a wide circle and several classes . . . there is yet in its atmosphere a delightful flavor of Bohemianism and the liberty and originality that camp life and studio life permits.” Robertson concludes: “the bungalow combined the attributes of taste, rusticity, and economy . . . [and applied them] to the villa, farmhouse, and cottage . . . [a] democratization of domestic architecture [that is] evidenced in ‘classless’ bungalows.” That’s surely a more thoughtful idealism about how we might all occupy space, and has proven far more durable (and sane) than most contemporary, post-modern spaces. Many corporate spaces and post-war apartment blocks, by contrast, particularly those remnant examples of the aptly named Brutalism, compound error upon error and become, in the critique of Christopher Alexander, forbidding “reservoirs” of stress. Such poured concrete, bunker-like buildings seem designed to allow for the possibility of siege.

 

Green door and handle

Cabin door at Camp Senia.
Photo by David Axelrod.

In the summer of 2002, I visited a friend in Billings, Montana, who lived in a neighborhood like many in the American West, dating from the 1920s and full of Craftsman houses. His house, located on a narrow lot near the corner of a leafy street, was, he stipulated with proletarian pride, a “Craftsman cottage.” Inside were two bedrooms in which the original family raised five children. There were a multitude of kitchen cabinets, built-in bookcases in the half-walls between dining and living rooms, as well as wainscoting and hardwood floors. Filled with my friend’s sturdy antique furniture, it felt cozy inside despite the enormity of the Great Plains that stretched north, south, and east for a thousand miles beyond the near horizons.

During that visit, we rose early one day and drove south toward the mountains above Red Lodge. The light that July morning in the Rocky Mountains filtered down through lodgepole pines. We slowed as we passed through a cluster of structures, a pre-Great Depression “camp” below the Beartooth Plateau, where we intended to spend our day hiking. Scattered throughout the dense trees above and below the dusty road were a dozen or so tidy cabins and outbuildings apparently constructed from materials available in the surrounding forests: unpeeled pine logs, river cobbles, and mud. The dark screened windows, porches, and doorways, and the rolled green asbestos roofing, recalled an era deep in the past, the world of my grandfather’s coming of age in the Great Depression and WWII. It was a moment when our citizens briefly shared a belief in our egalitarian national destiny. Call this (again) what it is: an ahistorical claim. Nostalgia. Nevertheless, it is the lens through which I was taught to perceive my country’s ideals, if not its reality.

We passed by the camp so quickly that all I could recall was a single fastidious cabin just above the road on the passenger side. It seemed more like a playhouse than a cabin. It was so tiny that it would have allowed just enough room for a bunk, maybe a bench, and a small stove on the front porch. Whoever had spent summers living there, I imagined, spent most of their day outdoors. When these cabins were built, getting into that canyon would have required a good deal more effort than we made driving there in little more than an hour from Billings. There would not have been anything but the most rudimentary road, or more likely, a trail. These would have been very resourceful people. Whoever they were, I immediately assumed I wanted to know them.

That tiny camp in the immensity of a Montana canyon, like my friend’s cottage back in Billings, seemed an unlikely confluence of egalitarian ideals and domestic intimacy, a reservoir of calm and comradeship, at ease with the natural world into which it had been unobtrusively tucked away.

 

Daydreaming later about that cabin, I thought that I had stumbled upon something like the playhouse in Ohio that my great uncle constructed for his daughter. By the time I first stepped across its threshold, Nancy, who was older than I, had almost outgrown that playhouse built to the scale of a five-year-old girl. There was a little picket fence and gate. Lilac and Rose of Sharon shaded the screened porch, inside of which there were diminutive chairs and a settee, just the right size for a child. Surrounding the porch was a bed full of yellow iris and a border made of whitewashed cobbles. Inside, her father filled the playhouse with furniture he made: an entire kitchen, a parlor, and a tiny bedroom. Nancy seemed, like Alice in the Tenniel illustration, hunched over, a little bit overgrown for those rooms, but never mind, the sunny little kitchen with its many cabinets and cool shady parlor were enchanting. We sat and pretended to serve afternoon tea in real, though scaled to my size, porcelain cups. It seemed like what civilized people in books would do of an English afternoon. The origins of such decorum is a little mystifying, as we were not bookish and knew of no such adults who were. Perhaps we were responding to the wholesome genius of her father’s design. Out the back door of the kitchen we stepped directly into a garden full of vegetables that were surrounded by raspberry canes and a double loop, ornamental wire fence such as was ubiquitous then. That little playhouse soon fell into disrepair, as did the farm, as did Nancy’s family, her brothers in particular degenerating into the media-fueled ideologies of rural racism and resentments that are the realities that counter my stubborn ahistorical dream of socialist harmony. By now the playhouse that enchanted me is gone, and probably no one gives it much thought, its ruins buried under briars. Though, perhaps, with a bow to French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, Nancy lives in its absence now as once she dreamed in its presence? Surely it has not vanished from reveries such as I experienced during the ten years since I first lay eyes on that camp deep in the forests of south-central Montana, my whole entourage of family, friends, and houses we inhabited, accompanying me as we drove into the Beartooths.

As I imagined it, Camp Senia (whose name I found on a map of the Beartooths) became a place where it was still possible to live as we dream.  

 

East elevation of the Main Residence at Camp Senia

East elevation of the Main Residence at Camp Senia.
Photo by David Axelrod.

Returning to Camp Senia accompanied by my wife in June of 2011, circumstances forced me to admit that what I remembered about the camp was little more than fantasy. As she drove us up the West Fork of Rock Creek, I wondered if perhaps I had not forgotten where exactly I visited a decade earlier. She asked if anything looked familiar. I could not be sure. Everything had changed.

For one, the canyon had burned. Mile after mile we wound through bare, scorched tree trunks that climbed steeply from the creek bottom to the ridges. When we came suddenly upon the cabins, it was as though I never saw that place before. The tiny cabin above the road was there, but not the same. It no longer stood in soft green kinnickinik and ground pine, dappled by the golden light of my forested summer reveries. Rather, it sat there in the stark, flat, wide-awake glare of a shadowless noon. Few living trees remained. The forest floor had been reduced to just a few rough sedges, shrubs, and bare mineral soil. The tiny cabin stood next to a larger cabin I did not recall.

A knot of people, too, stood along the road talking together below that larger cabin. Several of them helped a very elderly man into the passenger seat of a pickup truck. Here was another surprise: people!

Somehow, I failed to imagine anyone actually living in Camp Senia. This was a complication. Though we had spent the morning in the county historical archives reading about the construction of the camp and the ownership of the cabins, the reality of their continued occupation obviously had not sunk in. Suddenly overcome by shyness, we waved awkwardly and drove by to the trailhead at the end of the road, where we sat and wondered, a little absurdly, what to do.

That the canyon had burned came as little surprise really.

Lodgepole pine is ubiquitous throughout the American West. The scent of its hot pitch is one of the familiar forest scents of summer. But lodgepole also has a brief fire cycle, burning roughly once during a human lifetime. The tree’s reproductive cycle evolved to accommodate itself to fire ecology, requiring fire to open its cones and drop its seeds to a forest floor where competition has been reduced, literally, to ashes. Fire suppression, though, resulted in a common phenomenon: dense stands of lodgepole that have accumulated huge fuel loads on the forest floor, increasing the likelihood of catastrophic fires that burn hotter than they may otherwise have burned if chronically fire-prone areas had been left to burn without intervention.

On July 26, 2008, a wildfire whose origin was never verified swept down the West Fork of Rock Creek Canyon and through Camp Senia. The Cascade Fire, as it was officially known, spread quickly to over 10,000 acres and resulted in the emergency evacuation of the entire area. As the fire approached, residents had little time to vacillate over what to take with them. One summer resident remembered the awful sound of the fast-approaching fire to a reporter for the Billings Gazette. He described it “as a low, throaty roar” that haunted him even more than the sight of flames crowning in the trees.

The effort in the 1980s to create a Camp Senia Historic District and add the cabins to the National Register of Historic Places likely paid off in this instance, as firefighters worked fast to soak the camp in fire retardant foam and save the cabins and outbuildings from the oncoming flames. Only two cabins and a few smaller structures were destroyed, which seems miraculous, given the density of the forest and the dry available fuels.

“Well,” my wife finally said as we sat at the trailhead, “what do you want to do?”

It had been my idea, after all, to drive 700 miles to see these cabins; surely this was no time to behave shyly about intruding on these people’s privacy. We drove back to the camp, parked, got out, and walked over to the knot of people who were now saying goodbye to the elderly man in the pickup truck, whose younger relatives were driving him back to Billings. I walked over to them and asked, “Would it be bad form to walk down through the camp and look at the cabins?”

“Those cabins are on public property,” a woman about our age said. “You’re free to walk here wherever you wish. It’s yours after all.” What she said was not entirely true, the cabins were most certainly not ours, but she was in earnest. There was not an ounce of irony or guile in what she said. And as no one there contradicted her, one might assume they, too, agreed with this assessment. When we explained our reason for visiting the camp, the woman formally introduced herself and offered a guided walking tour.

 

Main Residence porch

French doors and handmade furniture on the porch of the Main Residence at Camp Senia.
Photo by David Axelrod.

The camp was conceived by a young couple, Alfred Croonquist, son of a Swedish merchant in nearby Red Lodge, and Senia Pollari, “a sturdy young woman from Finland,” as her daughter, Senia Croonquist Hart, remembered her in a speech about the camp, delivered to the so-called Yellowstone Corral of Westerners in 1984. Soon after her parents married in 1914, they began “exploring the nearby canyons for a likely place for their dream occupation—that of taking care of ‘dudes’ who wished to experience the beauty of the high country.”

Of the two, young Al would have known something of what lay at the core of the dream. He had hiked the mountains between Red Lodge and Yellowstone Park throughout his childhood. Today, this area remains largely a wilderness of high mountain ranges, steep and forested river canyons, and broad park-like grasslands that are still home to all of North America’s major wild predators—grizzly bear, grey wolf, and mountain lion. His daughter makes a point that her young father always went into the backcountry “with his parents’ permission. The only question they asked was ‘Which way are you going, Al?’” Such insouciance might strike some of us today as a criminal form of parental neglect, though we might assume his parents shared the popular notions about the backcountry as an ideal place for a young man to learn his own physical and psychological measure. Contemporary adventures by better known figures such as Eric Sevareid or William O. Douglas would bear this out: young men were permitted a great deal of latitude in testing their mettle in wilderness. Already by the age of 19, Al Croonquist had worked as a fishing guide in that vast and rugged territory southwest of Red Lodge.

If Senia Pollari fully shared the belief that running a dude ranch was a “dream occupation,” we can only wonder. Perhaps she did. After all, she too grew up in the shadow of the Beartooth Mountains into which families ventured along primitive roads and trails to fish, hunt, gather, and otherwise recreate. It was also a progressive era when suffragettes demanded not just the vote but equal pay for equal work. A growing sense of confidence and pride were the consequence of new found liberty. In 1916, Montana elected the first woman to Congress, a progressive Republican, Jeanette Rankin. Men, however, built the camp, and Senia, after whom the camp is named, was the first cook “in the early years when the stove was set in a large canvas tent.” This suggests a somewhat less dream-like arrangement according to well-defined gender roles. The difficult conditions under which she did the cooking are easily imagined.

Once Senia no longer cooked for the work crews or dudes, the hiring of a cook became the topic of a local vaudeville musical comedy, the playbill of which still exists: “Wanted, a Cook, a musical love story of Camp Senia.” Or rather, the keeping of a hired cook in the kitchen became a significant topic of local hilarity. The play takes place, not coincidentally, in late afternoon, by which time dudes would have developed a large appetite. The Dramatis Personae suggests not so much a classless society as one in which different classes are thrown together, perhaps a little awkwardly. Among the characters are Croon Alquist (proprietor), Button (a wrangler), Bobbie Van Bibber (runaway tourist), Mildred Millionbucks (another runaway), Mrs. De Puster Jones Smyth (grass widow), and the apparently volatile Irish cook, Mrs. Bridget O’Flanigan Washington, played ably by Mr. Carl J. Matthews, who didn’t get a singing number. The familiar conflict between these stock characters from Eastern social classes trying to survive the conditions of their summer holiday in the egalitarian Eden of the West strongly suggest that the frustrations of the tourist service economy had already become fodder for local eye-rolling. That the year-round residents of Red Lodge sympathized with the trying conditions under which Senia Pollari and her successors in the kitchen labored reminds us, at least, that this was perhaps a “dream occupation” with stipulations.

Before the young couple could fully realize their dream, however, the First World War intruded. The stigmatic Al was forced to return from his forest revery to run the family business in Red Lodge, while his 20/20-vision brother served abroad. After the First World War, the young Croonquists returned to the forest and completed the first building, the Main Lodge, in 1919. For ten years, until the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression, the Croonquists catered to a mostly Eastern clientele, as many as 40 dudes at a time. With a wink of good humor directed at the tony set they hoped would frequent the camp, they called this 25-foot by 35-foot log cabin “The Lobby.” During the following decade, the Croonquists and their similarly minded friends built the 18 cabins and assorted outbuildings in what is familiar to us today as Western Rustic Style, a rural corollary of the popular Craftsman design then at the height of its popularity.

An early promotional pamphlet, Away to the West: To a Dude Camp Vacation in the Rocky Mountains, says, with perhaps a little too obvious transparency, that dudes would pay “$25.00 a week, $100.00 a month, and $2.00 transportation each way from Red Lodge.” Apparently there was no sliding scale for extended stays. Though the camp thrived, its success apparently was short-lived. After the Crash, “All standing reservations for Camp Senia, where most guests returned year after year, were cancelled for the summer of 1930.” Between 1929 and 1938, the camp reincorporated under different business structures, was rented out as a geological base camp over several more summers, and finally was purchased by the Camp Senia Corporation, which persists to this day, and maintains the cabins as summer homes. The camp was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.

 

Cooler and marsh

The cooler at Camp Senia.
Photo by David Axelrod

Our guide, as voluble as she was affectless, led the way down the hill along Senia Creek. As a result of the record winter snow pack and a cold, wet, prolonged spring, the creek had overflowed its banks, flooding the gated road that bisects the camp. Debris had washed down, and rushing water from the creek gouged out the roadbed. Several cabins experienced minor flooding before she and the others had managed in the dark to divert the water back into the creek.

For the next two hours, she led us from one cabin to the next. The cabins are scattered on both sides of the old Camp Senia Road, which intersects the main West Fork Road below to the east and above the camp to the west. Most of the cabins, though, are clustered along 680 feet of property between the road and the West Fork of Rock Creek. They are connected by stone-lined paths.

We soon arrived at the Lobby, the center of the camp, which once served as a gathering area, camp store, and reading room. Though its conventional saddle-notched corner timbering is a familiar characteristic of log cabin design, it differs from the remainder of the camp in that the Lobby walls are constructed entirely of logs; the other cabins are constructed of both cobbles and logs. Below the Lobby stood a small building similar to the first I saw that time I passed through the camp. The cabin that captivated me for the past decade, though, was no cabin at all. Rather, it turns out to be one of several coolers scattered about Camp Senia. A simple but ingenious design, the lower walls of this small rectangular building are constructed of uncoursed native stone, that is, irregular river cobbles. The walls and flooring are built over a small stream that flows into and out of the structure at 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The upper portion of its walls are screened for air circulation. It was a reliable, simple, one might even say “green” form of refrigeration that once was in common use there. Admittedly, it is a gleeful fact that the first glimpse of the camp I had, which provoked such a wave of nostalgia that I have ridden this far, was of neither cabin nor playhouse, but the place where they kept the eggs, milk, meat, and chilled the beer for dudes.

Just below the Lobby, we crossed to an island in the creek and then to the south shore on two newly constructed bridges. On the south side of the creek, we were technically no longer in the historic district. But here on a low hillside above the camp were two cabins, side-by-side, contemporary with the others below, owned now by an elderly woman. The cabins, under a sign constructed of fire-salvaged materials and reading Trail’s End, are small and simple, with several structural features typical of the rustic style: decorative bracings under the porches and windowboxes that incorporate burled tree limbs as an organic accent. What impressed us though were the handmade rustic benches, tables, and brooms, all fashioned from materials close at hand. Many other building materials were by necessity carried into the camp from Red Lodge, but in this particular instance, and often throughout the camp, too, we encountered the aesthetic assumptions of Arts and Crafts movement and its socialist progenitor William Morris’ preference for material of native wood and stone, of simple furniture made in situ, and translated here into a style typical throughout the rural American West and our national parks.

Given the immigration patterns of eastern and south-central Montana, one of the likely vernacular influences would have been Finnish. According to the National Register of Historic Places application materials for Camp Senia, the Croonquists in fact hired a “crew of carpenters and masons from Red Lodge who . . . were mostly Finns.” The narrative of the cabins’ architectural significance goes on, however, to point out that, “the buildings do not embody the characteristics of traditional Finnish vernacular architecture,” which prefers hewn to unhewn logs. Although Finnish and Western Rustic Style share the feature of “saddle-notched corner timbering used at Camp Senia . . . the battering of the sawn log ends” is not a Finnish style; rather, it is something more often associated with the American Craftsman style, in which battered foundations (sloping backward and upward from the ground), tapered porch supports, and pedestals are all common.

Still, it is worth a moment’s aside to remember that the Arts and Crafts movement was ubiquitous throughout northern Europe, as well as in Canada and the United States. No less so in Finland, where, for example, the 19th century Finnish artist Axel Gallén built Kallela, his rural home and studio that blends Arts and Craft values with vernacular Finnish design. The logs of his cabin, which were cut and shaped by rural craftsmen, are hewn. One might, therefore, reasonably assume that the Finnish carpenters working for the Croonquists were no less exposed to the aesthetic assumptions of the Arts and Crafts movement and the expression of its aesthetic assumptions in the construction of nearby national parks. And it is no coincidence that among the members of the Croonquists building crew was one M.I. Tuttle, who “worked on the crews building a number of log cabins in Yellowstone National Park and Estes Park in Colorado,” and who would have been familiar then with the popular style that guided the building of these parks. Linda Flint McClelland points out in her exhaustive study, Building the National Parks: Historic Landscape Design and Construction:

By the 1920s, when National Park Service landscape engineers were working out a program of landscape design for national parks, there existed a well-established philosophy for park design drawn from the practices and precedents in landscape architecture and architecture. . . . These trends merged most emphatically in the Arts and Crafts tradition spurred by California’s development of the [Craftsman] bungalow.

Guesthouse

A guesthouse at Camp Senia.
Photo by David Axelrod.

During my first visits as a child to national parks, parkways, and national forest campgrounds in the East, this architecture made a lasting impression with its massive, durable, and monumental scale that in effect mirrored America’s natural beauty. Thanks to my grandfather, I associated its origins with a time of national crisis during the Great Depression, and because he regaled me with tales of that time, such Craftsman architecture underwritten by the U.S. government came to represent a time of egalitarian values, national accord, and common purpose. That period of his youth lives in my imagination almost as clearly as if I had experienced it myself. And it is precisely the same architecture, on a much more modest scale, that we encounter throughout Camp Senia.

From Trail’s End we looked back across the creek at the entire camp. Prominent just above the creek to our right stood the Croonquist’s “Second Residence.” This is a particularly striking cabin, and an ultimate expression of the aesthetic assumptions the Croonquists and their associates brought into the forest. The Second Residence was constructed in 1927; that is, at the height of the camp’s popularity, two years before the Crash. It looks out at the West Fork of Rock Creek, and across the creek at the rock slides on the north face of the 12,500-foot Silver Run Peak. Like most of the other cabins, its construction is of uncoursed native stone and lodgepole pine on the exterior walls. The official description of the cabin reads: “The corner detailing of the stone walls is of particular interest in that the stone protrudes at right angles beneath the butt ends of the logs, extending the angle of the battered log ends to the ground.” Two symmetrically placed seven-foot by 11-foot gabled porches extend to the south, that is, perpendicular to the east-west axis of the main gabled roof. One of these shelters a single Dutch door painted a faded shade of bright green. There are burled wood handles on the Dutch door that opens into the kitchen. The other porch is distinguished by 12-light double doors—extravagant, perhaps, given the rustic qualities of the architecture, but lovely, too—that looked into the living room. Between the gabled porches are two nine-light casement windows. A large exterior native stone chimney dominates the east elevation of the cabin. The overall impression is one of balance and harmony. But it is the porch with double doors that drew our attention. The exposed logs and bent and burled trim, as well as the handmade rustic settee constructed of bent wood and woven wood fiber, represent the interpenetration of the interior and exterior, the made and the natural, the domestic and the wild—one of the aesthetic goals of Arts and Crafts style adopted from traditional Japanese design. It is precisely this achievement that is absent from many Modernist spaces, an absence we have grown so accustom to, we are not even aware of such harmonies as exist in Camp Senia. The Croonquist’s “dream” is a reminder that the soul-deadening, alienating tendencies of contemporary built environments are not fate but choices.

 

Camp Senia’s purpose, like most ventures in the United States, was to make money, specifically from the tourist trade. Tourism in the American West is so pervasive today that it is simply taken for granted. That tourism was an expression of a peculiarly American idealism before it became the garish practice we have grown accustom to, is not something most of us give much consideration. That the history of the idea is rather more compelling than a crass economic opportunity probably doesn’t occur to us at all.

The American encounter with wild nature from the Transcendentalism of Emerson and Thoreau to the rugged ordeals endured by John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt to the rucksack revolution of Beat Generation dharma bums to the present promises the idealistic seeker a more robust spiritual and physical health. It is a familiar American trope. In wilderness, we still believe, is not only the preservation of man, but also a soul’s purifying encounter with life uncorrupted by modernity.

Early in the 20th century, trains brought city dwellers to the West, to Billings for example, and on up to Red Lodge along the spur line, then by horse cart or horseback into the Beartooth Mountains, where they could spend a month in the restorative environs of Camp Senia. Unlike city life with its supposed inauthenticity and dissipations, visitors to Camp Senia would discover that in the Montana wilderness there existed an egalitarian society where, “There Are No Conventionalities… Old Clothes and Outing Togs Are the Rule[.]”

Corner detail

Corner detail of a cabin at Camp Senia.
Photo by David Axelrod.

Camp Senia’s registration as a national historical district states that if it was not the Ur-type of western tourist destination, then it was at the very least “the earliest property to be developed in the Beartooth Mountains for the express purpose of operating a dude ranch and fishing camp for tourists.” The document continues, pointing out that tourism of this sort “was a rather novel idea in 1917 when construction began.” This is either quaint or ironic, coming well after the fact of the camp’s origins, and perhaps it is both; that is, it knowingly voices not only the differences, but similarities between the American West of the Roaring Twenties and our own era, which is characterized by steroidal “vacation cabins” whose scale is cathedral-like and whose ostentation is pure egotism, a vulgar insult to the beauty of the landscape and evidence of the end of any egalitarian American dream.

The 1920s were certainly characterized by their own excesses, as is our era of boom and bust. But at the risk of expressing nostalgia for the modest scale, intimacy, and aesthetic loveliness of the cabins in Camp Senia, these are qualities of being in the world—modesty, intimacy, loveliness—ubiquitous then but largely foreign to us today. The camp is full of vernacular examples of the same Arts and Crafts movement in architecture and design that reached the height of its popularity and influence at precisely the moment the Croonquists went into the forests along the West Fork of Rock Creek and began building their dream camp. As with the cult of wilderness that developed in the early 20th century, and that Roderick Nash discusses in depth in his seminal Wilderness and the American Mind, so too with architectural design: Camp Senia is not so much an innovation as it is an expression of our longing for a timeless, idealistic, spiritual, and humane way of living at domestic ease in nature.

Bachelard well understood our desire “to know ourselves in time, when all we know is a sequence of fixations in the spaces of the being’s stability.” Those fixed spaces “suspend” time, so that the self doesn’t “melt away,” but experiences the accretions of permanence and continuity in a place. In the intimate spaces where time suspends, we make contact with a depth of presence that resists nature’s obliteration of being. “In its countless alveoli,” Bachelard writes, “space contains compressed time. That is what space is for.”

That summer when I first visited Camp Senia, I painted the walls of the living and dining rooms of our own little Craftsman bungalow “Italian Rose,” as the paint chip read, a color that reminded us of the sandstone in parts of Arches National Park. We had not considered the intimate way the room would glow on winter nights, lit by a floor lamp. Nor could we have predicted the eagerness with which we would hurry home at dusk to sit and read in that calm, warm room. We realized only later that the color we sought out every evening is perhaps the color of the light that shines in the womb, where human awareness flickers awake.

Bachelard’s exuberant claim that, “childhood is certainly greater than reality,” seems to bear this out. It was, after all, “compressed time” of childhood that I glimpsed in the drive-by with my friend, wakened memories of rooms, even natal memories, that enchanted me long ago, and drew me back inevitably to Camp Senia a decade later. I had stumbled onto an unlikely portal into the alveoli of the past.

Also in the vernacular architecture of Camp Senia there exists a humanely scaled solution to the alienating forces of industrial society that the Arts and Crafts movement and American Craftsman style reacted against. Like Romanticism’s reaction to similar stresses over a century earlier, Camp Senia situates itself in an older idea about nature and its hygienic spiritual qualities, an encounter with which may result, as a prospectus for the camp claimed, in “the literal recreation of any town-wearied member of the Fraternity-of-the-Out-Doors.” This may strike us today as half-baked balderdash, though it is still very much the stuff of advertising, amateur poetry, and nature blogs. Nevertheless, in Camp Senia we find ourselves face to face with human “intimacy in immensity,” as Bachelard calls it, an aesthetic revery that continues to assert its progressive and humane prerogatives, emphasizing health, harmony, and happiness, and if not in a classless society, then in one where classes share common ground, that is, a hardy regard and respect for their shared responsibility and higher purposes. One can only wish.

Later, thinking about that sense of inclusion that our guide offered when we introduced ourselves in Camp Senia, I was reminded of the usually unsung final stanza of “This Land Is Your Land,” which is probably truer to past and present reality than to revery:

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

Stonework detail

Stonework detail at a Camp Senia cabin.
Photo by David Axelrod.

Woody Gutherie expresses here the longing, and, because it is largely opposed by the status quo, the tension that is fundamental to American society. Certainly the Occupy Wall Street movement expressed a similar contrariety to the disparities in wealth that a generation of economic policy has encouraged. The Craftsman movement, too, tried to find an all-encompassing aesthetic expression of that same longing. But the concentration of power among feudal-minded state capitalists has long opposed such egalitarian stirrings.

In an op-ed that appeared in The New York Times several years ago, Timothy Egan, too, expressed this similar egalitarian pride that used to seem more common in the rural American West than it is today. “Not long after I was old enough to cast my first vote,” Egan wrote, and he could just as well have been expressing the experiences of hundreds of thousands of similar young people like myself in the 1970s and before,

I realized that with American citizenship came a birthright to my summer home. . . . We owned it—lake, mountain and forest, meadow, desert and shore. Public land . . . my summer home—which I share with 310 million fellow Americans.

Rereading the entire article today, I feel unaccountably patriotic, teary-eyed even, dreaming of a more egalitarian America I want to believe in more now than ever, as extremists in our political class seem determined to play ideological chicken with national calamity.

The woman who reminded me of all this, our generous guide through Camp Senia, it turned out, was Canadian by birth. Of course she suspected none of what she provoked in the instant she spoke to reassure us of our welcome there in the mountains of south-central Montana.

 

 

David Axelrod is the author most recently of Folly, and What Next, Old Knife? both from Lost Horse Press. He is the editor of basalt and director of the Eastern Oregon University Low Residency MFA.

Header photo, toe-out with stone fireplace at Camp Senia, Beartooth Mountains, Montana, by David Axelrod.

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One Response

  1. Robert Stubblefield

    This essay manages to effectively examine and articulate those feelings we have for “magical” spaces, and the interiors and exteriors that sing to us as no others do. Indeed, this piece is an inspiration, and a challenge, as Axelrod concisely and eloquently writes, “a reminder that the soul-deadening, alienating tendencies of contemporary built environments are not fate but choices.”

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