First installment of my book: A Thin Slice of Sky


A Thin Slice of Sky


Tom Burnett

Copyright 2003


This book is dedicated to my parents, Darwin and Barbara Burnett. What they have given me, and all of their posterity, is not gold, or worldly wealth, but a blessing of love, joy and health.





Chapter One: A Thin Slice of Sky                                      page 2

Chapter Two: Fun with Father                                           page 26

Chapter Three: Motherhood Undaunted                         page 36







ENVIRONS:BearCanyon- Bear Creek – Bald Mountain


HOME AND HEARTH: The First Cabin – Heating With Wood


SEASONS: Summer – Fall – Winter – Spring


EATING TO LIVE: Lunch from the Garden -BerryPicking – Beverages – A Brief Catalog of Edible Plants and Unorthodox Foods


Neighbors: Lou Jonas – Will Adams – Patron Saints


ANIMALS: Vaccinating Hogs – Pinto – Fowl






BearCanyonwasn’t our first, and certainly not our only home. Married Student stacks at Montana State College and a range-rider’s cabin nearWhitehallpreceded theBearCanyonyears. Yet our canyon home was the old “homestead”, the great adventure, the cradle in which our family formed.

We leftBearCanyonfor three winters in easternMontana, a school year inOgden,Utah, and four complete years in Deer Lodge,Montana. No member of the family considered these as anything more than temporary wanderings. Like Indians following buffalo, we knew we had to go where a livelihood could be had. The folks never sold theBearCanyonproperty and we knew we would return.

Once, when finances must have been especially precarious, Dad called us around the kitchen table for a council. He had accepted a teaching position inUtah. Should we sell the house and land? Howling like wolves, we pleadingly made known our disapproval. We threatened mutiny. We wanted a secure place of retreat if our excursion the big city didn’t work out. All through the scene, Mother patiently waited, smiling a Mona Lisa smile. She must have predicted our adamant position and the effect it would have on Dad. She might even have engineered the meeting to take this course. She was quietly pleased when the decision was so obviously against selling.

Though the Bear Canyon years were only a part of our family’s experience, they were the formative ones. In all our travels, our humble sanctuary in the mountains beckoned us to return. It was home. The other places were mere outposts, temporary assignments away from headquarters. Like mica in granite, we were part of it, and it was part of us.


Bear Creek


Bear Creek is a modest tributary of theGallatin River. The Lewis and Clark expedition crossed it almost two hundred years ago, camping near its confluence with Rocky Creek. Our narrow canyon gathers and sends forth this creek; a large river, theMissouri, receives it thirty miles to the west. Despite its small proportions, the creek and the canyon that nests it were the macro-elements of our physical world, major shaping factors.

Annually, spring run-off is a miniature flood of rusty water carrying several times the average flow, but rarely threatening our bridge or buildings. Flooding struck only once in the three decades we occupied the place. That flood pushed boulders, propelled large trees and pounded out the bridge. The creek’s banks crept to within a rod of the house. We had built barely a dozen feet above the low water level of the creek, and back from it fifty yards. Dad refused funds the government offered for rebuilding the bridge. He had built it in the first place and still enjoyed the health and stubbornness to provide his own crossing.

In the early days, the creek was used for laundry and bathing. It watered our horses and cows. In the winter, Dad axed holes in the ice to make watering holes.

The three hundred feet of creek cutting through our land was the Parks and Recreation Department. All kids ought to have such a creek to play in, to build ineffectual dams in and to explore. It was a racetrack for our version of theAmerica’s Cup. It was a foot cooler. It was a boundary for games of pursuit. The creek formed a buffer against the county road, subtly separating us from the human race plying there.

Expectant young eyes imagined fish, big ones, behind rocks and submerged trees. Only at later, less idealistic ages would we realize that fish grew to a maximum of eleven inches there, with the average being smaller. Feed simply was not that plentiful because tumbling waters were too cold and fast to allow the growth of fish food. But we did not know that and preferred to see more potential in our private fishery than really existed.

Frontier families have no access to symphonies, sonnets or galleries. But the little creek partly supplied the lack. It gave us music, a passport to the other-world of poetry and a perpetually variable visual feast.

Bald Mountain


Across the road rose the open, sage-covered mountain. Due to the steep sides of the canyon and the spruce and fir trees hemming us in like the skyscrapers of Manhattan, the south-facing mountain provided the only vista available to us. It bore no dark secrets; everything about it was exposed to view, inviting full perusal. Bears lurked behind the house in the damp forests; in front, perky deer and haughty moose roamed double-chinned, dome-faced BaldMountain.

The sun came blaring over the crest on summer mornings- not too early, for our home was squeezed into the bottom of the canyon like a speck in the bellows of an accordion. Welcome rays parted the border of fir trees cresting the top of the hill. The old trees stood like so many Indians atop a ridge in a John Wayne movie scene. Like their stern chief, the sun edged through the ranks to lead a daily charge to our encampment.

The mountain provided many landmarks, labeled, cataloged and mapped in years of juvenile exploration. The Three Sisters, towering fir trees, formed the points of an eight foot triangle. They were ideal for climbing owing to comfortable spaced, sturdy horizontal branches. From them one could spy on town and beyond into theGallatinValley.

The Big Tree, a stately old thing, stood aloof just above the point where other evergreens and aspen gave up their fight against the dry southern exposure. This granddaddy served as a rendezvous point for young hunters. We sometimes ate lunch there and agreed how to split up and reconvene. When, years later, we watched the Big Tree explode in an eight acre forest fire, we felt we were losing a friend. The ground was always dry under its expansive branches.

At the mountain’s crown, behind the fir trees at the scalp line, snaked the trace of an abandoned logging road. Beyond this road another drainage began: Stinger Creek. The formidable terrain rebuked hikers. Moose inhabited the bottoms, but to shoot them, a hunter had to negotiate deadfall timber tangled enough to make WWII barbed wire defenses look harmless.

Two hundred yards from our place, at the bottom ofBaldMountain, two cabins languished in the advanced states of their lives. They may be the oldest structures inBearCanyon. As explorers and cosmologists are prone to name peaks and galaxies, in a stupendous effort at creativity we named the cabins Number One and Number Two. Number One had a porch of rotting planks from which we peered in to see a tousled mattress and not much else. Number Two, a hundred yards up an overgrown trail, had two out-buildings and a grinding wheel. Of the two, it showed more evidence of a woman’s touch; a line for drying clothes and an addition for storage at the back.

BaldMountain, a pleasure to view, was not lightly tackled. Even to reach the Three Sisters, a mere fourth of the way up, one had to muster significant resolve. The slopes with the dark forests behind the house suited walkers more. This difference madeBaldMountainlonelier for visitors. One day I went to the vicinity of the Big Tree to pray. I knew that I would not be disturbed, though the house was close enough that I could hear dogs bark, cars pass and hoods slam. We mostly viewed the dome from the bottom as tourists do theEmpireStateBuildingwhen the elevators are out of order, with admiration, but little inclination to climb the stairs.



Home and Hearth

The First Cabin


Dad and Mother bought twenty timbered acres inBearCanyonas he neared the end of his college training. They immediately erected shelter. The outside dimensions were twenty by fifteen feet. Eight-by-eights set at the corners and in the middle bore the roof’s load. The roof pitched slightly, shedding water at the back. Rough two-by-fours framed between the main posts. Concrete was too expensive so we did without a foundation. The floor consisted of plywood sheets nailed to studs placed on edge. A few weeks after the sheeting was put down, Dad laid some thick brown linoleum from a demolished Army barracks. This was superior to the plywood because it could be mopped. It may have served, before the barracks, in a battle ship.

The preschool children were exceedingly helpful during the construction of the first cabin. We played with anything that presented itself. A refrigerator standing beside the stud wall begged to be used as a “house.” Everyone else was house-raising; why shouldn’t we? Quickly we placed dibs on what we considered the choices compartments, ground level rack, mezzanine rack, or penthouse rack. As we climbed into our cramped new lodgings, the big, white appliance tumbled on it face, evicting the squatters without due process.

We wailed and whimpered as Mother whisked us down to the creek. It was “running water” in the most primitive sense. It now served as first aid bay, a place to wash cuts and expose any real damage. In years to come we would resort to the creek as a place to heal a harried soul. Constantly changing, gurgling and splashing, its kindly patter calmed tired nerves and weary hearts.

Friends from the church came to help build the first cabin. The Boy Scout troop came one evening to help insulate. Mostly they gawked about, surprised that people actually planned to live in such a dwelling. The first bridge was a log. Crossing the creek on this log, one of the church ladies lost her glasses. Several men pawing around in the stones and clear water failed to recover them.

A few weeks into construction, and prior to completing the insulation and siding, we entertained a visitor. This uninvited guest called late one summer evening. It was fully dark. Dad was due back from town at about this hour. Mother was in bed. Like sausages on a skillet, my sisters and I slept on the floor, side by side on a mat. Attracted by a ham hanging above the cook stove, a bear entered the framed doorway and proceeded in that direction. Mother shrieked with a volume meant to be heard at our neighbor’s, two hundred yards distant. This alarmed the poor bear greatly. His paw had set the ham swinging, but he reconsidered and beat a hasty retreat. Dad complained to Mother after hearing about the incident, “You probably scared him so that he’ll never come back.” Dad finished the siding immediately after this visit. The hung blanket acting as a door was soon replaced by a plank door suitable as a deterrent to unannounced visitors of the animal kingdom.

Toilet facilities were out back. Bathing was out front, first in the creek and later in a fifteen-gallon galvanized tub. Since the creek was icy cold, even in summertime, the interval between baths was only somewhat less than that between full solar eclipses. The galvanized tub was a fine advance over the creek, but heating water on the cast iron cook stove was tedious. As a result, bathing was usually reserved for Saturday nights. We vied for first bath. The water became soapy and scummy as successive people used it. Two kids could be washed at once, so the selected twosome went first. The left over kid got second washing. By the time three kids were done, fresh water was ready for the parents who bathed and toweled under cover of darkness.

Though it was not spacious, the cabin served our needs. No one is known to have frozen to death there. Dim light radiated from a couple of bulbs dangling at the ends of cords, defying the Uniform Building Code. Curtains divided the space into quadrants.

Later this cabin was used for storage and a kid hangout. It was here five sobbing kids read to each other the closing pages of Where the Red Fern Grows. Now it is merely a memory, a ghost at the end of the sidewalk. The First Cabin is the picture that comes to mind when I sing one of our family folk classics, “Little Green Valley.”


I see a candlelight

Down in the LittleGreenValley

Where morning glory vines

Are twinin’ ‘round the door.


Oh, how I wish I were back again,

Down in the LittleGreenValley,

That’s where my homesick heart

Would trouble me no more.


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