By Hannah Johansen GUEST COLUMNIST
My first “magic moment” in the Gallatin Canyon was when Big Sky was still a “twinkle” in Chet Huntley’s eyes. My husband and I were driving to West Yellowstone to find work. It was late April 1967. We stopped at the confluence of the West Fork and the Gallatin River and had a picnic in the snow. Awe-struck by the beauty of Lone Mountain, I had a strange premonition: “I am going to live here someday.”
Fast forward five years, and here I was, working as a flag girl during the construction of the road up to Mountain Village. We were part of a hearty breed that answered the call to come to the mountains and help build a ski resort. The workers had no choice but to commute from neighboring communities or to live in campers, tents, teepees, or a couple old homestead cabins that were still standing. Buck’s T4, the Corral, Hunters Inn (now the Riverhouse) and Karst (destroyed by fire … twice!) were the existing watering holes along the route from Bozeman to Yellowstone National Park. These bars became our gathering places … I called them our living rooms. Mike Scholz at Buck’s T-4 and Steve Wilkins at Karst became our “bankers.” Every Friday night there was free food and thousands of dollars in cash available for workers to cash their weekly paychecks. Needless to say, much of that cash was traded back in for liquid refreshments.
Word got out that I was the flag girl who knew shorthand! By then, Chet had retired from NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report to pursue his passion to build a resort in Montana where “city people” could come to enjoy nature; and create a tourist industry for his home state.
I’ll never forget my first day as Chet’s private secretary. It was early fall, 1973. I lived with my husband and two young children in a two-room cabin and a teepee that served as our bedroom. Wood was our only source of fuel and oil lamps our only source of light. There was no running water, so we had our twice-weekly sweat lodge ritual. After the heat permeated and the sweat poured out of our bodies, we soaped up with Dr. Bronner’s and dipped ourselves in the rushing cold water of the Gallatin River—and I’m talking winter too!
I was nervous about smelling like smoke from our wood-burning stove, but also excited when I rang Chet and his wife Tippy’s door bell. I remember looking back over Meadow Village, somehow knowing that my life was going to change once someone opened the door. And it did. Chet greeted me with his congenial smile. When he found out I was born and bred in Montana, we were instant pals. Unfortunately, Chet had been diagnosed with lung cancer. It took his life on March 22, 1974.
Chet wrote a piece called “Lament” that he never sent to the broadcasting company, but gave it to me for safe keeping. While reading “Lament,” I learned that Chet had great sadness about the Vietnam War, about the political division in our country, about the civil rights struggles. Moving back to Montana was his solace. He sincerely believed that the power of the mountains and forests provided soul-healing opportunities for all that experienced it.
I feel so blessed to have shared this poignant time in Chet’s life. As I take my early morning walk down to Ousel Falls, I often wonder what Chet would think of how Big Sky has evolved, almost 50 years later. On the trail, I often encounter the enthusiastic delight on visiting childrens’ faces—they are going to see a waterfall! Grandparents and parents, teenagers, dogs, old-timers slowly strolling hand-in-hand. I feel Chet’s essence behind my shoulder. What would he be thinking?
Yes … with this he would be pleased. Thank you, Chet Huntley, for your vision.
Hannah Johansen grew up in Great Falls, Montana, and moved to Big Sky in 1972. She started Big Sky’s first massage studio in 1981 and continues to offer massage and yoga instruction through Alpenglow Traveling Spa. She spends several months a year in the Himalayas where she helps support artisans in areas that are affected by economic, geological, and political unrest. She brings back hand-loomed cashmere shawls, antique Tibetan jewelry, as well as hand-crafted goods made by women’s cooperatives, which she sells at farmers markets, private home shows in Big Sky, and Fair Trade shows throughout the western U.S.