SuzAnne Miller

No Fireflies in Montana?

The first time I saw them, the sun had been set for about an hour and I was sitting in the hot springs listening to the water pour out of the pool and down through the meadow into a stream. A moose had gone past a while before and my friends had left before that, using the last bit of sunlight to avoid tripping in the gopher holes that riddled the trail back. I was waiting for the moon to come out, but then, as the darkness set in, pulsing green lights began to flick on and then drift off along the stream.

I felt like I was watching something no person was meant to see.

Was I imagining them? My mind kept turning back to willow wisps, those fairies that entrance a person with their lights and lead them off of cliffs in the dark. I thought maybe I was seeing the dead, or maybe some kind of older spirit. And then I remembered the fireflies I’d caught on trips to Utah in the summer as a child, and for a while I was saddened that this magic had not been magic at all. But then this was Montana, so how could they be fireflies?

I’ve asked around and have been told by an entomologist that there are no fireflies in Montana. So, as far as I can figure, there is only this one place in Montana where fireflies live. I go back there sometimes and am always a little surprised, a little awed as the sun drops behind the buttes that wall the canyon, and then from the dark beads of green light emerging along the dogwood and willow trees.

Of course, the hot spring lets this happen, but still, it makes a mind wonder: did someone stop here from somewhere down south with a jar full of fireflies? Had they kept them, flickering, hidden away or forgotten in the trunk? Did something in them notice the air turning arid? And then someone let them go here, trusting the hot springs to keep them. Or are they older than that, lingering jewels from a time when the land was warmer; the last holdout in the one place they could make it through the winter?

That they are there makes me hopeful.

I was born in Bozeman and grew up a bit outside of town. When I was in the third grade, my older brother was killed in a car crash that had a tremendous effect on my family. My parents soon divorced. I was broken, trying to grasp what death was and where it took a person. I hope that if we go anywhere, it is somewhere like this.

The Tobacco Root mountain range runs north to south along a valley, with the Spanish Peaks standing guard on the other side. From I-90 you can head south on state highway 257 at the head of the Missouri, following the Jefferson for a while.

You’ll see the Tobacco Roots ahead of you as you go. South of Three Forks a bit is a town called Harrison. The highway runs through it, no stoplight last time I was there. Watch for a sign for Pony, Montana, directing you right.

A while ago Pony was a mining town, but no more. People still hang on there . . . don’t ask me how. Anyway, as you come into Pony, turn left onto a dirt road with the sign for Potosi Hot Springs resort. A few miles down the road is a junction, stay right. You’ll cross a stream, and the aspens and cottonwoods will turn greener, the dogwood and diamondback willows will start to thicken up. Go past the resort—no fireflies there—and watch for the first campground. It’ll be on your left at the bottom of a little rise. You’ll turn and cross a small bridge, and there’s a forest service campground to your right.

Pitch a tent and then head out a bit before dark with a flashlight for the walk back. A stream goes by the campground, and if you cross it on the northern side, you’ll hit a forest service trail in the trees there. There’s a fence and a gate, and from there it’s a little under a mile walk, maybe a half mile; I’m no good at telling. The trail peters out near the hot springs and you’ll find a log fence set up to keep out the range cattle. The hot springs tend to be shallow and warm to tepid, but the fireflies seem to like it.