On either side of the Continental Divide, certain patterns of wind, sunshine, and snowfall make life dramatically different

Story by Sammi Johnson
Like a line in the sand, the Continental Divide is what its name suggests: it divides the west side of Montana from the east side, both literally and figuratively. I grew up on the east side but live on the west. When I visit my parents (each living separately in different small towns), the sounds, smells, ways of thinking and wind coming rushing back.

Backlit by the Rocky Mountain Front, Choteau, where my Dad lives, is a true Western town in its fanfare of everything the east side has to offer: farms, ranches, pickups, dirt roads, small diners, families that span generations and routines that rinse and repeat through the decades. Dad lives a quiet, quaint, lovely life with his five mules and two horses, which he takes into the Bob Marshall Wilderness as often as he can during the summer, much like he did during his youth with his own father in California’s Sierra Mountains. He is truly living his best life. While his entire family is over here on the west side — the “dark side,” he so lovingly calls it — he can’t imagine how we live where it’s gray with so little sunshine.

But it only takes me five minutes on his small farm, with the wind taking my breath away, to remember why I left the wind-swept east side. I was raised riding horses, chasing cows and pursuing blue ribbons at the 4-H horsemanship contest. I rode bikes on dirt roads, made forts and grew up in a town with the nearest stoplight being 60 miles away.

The horses, however, now seem like the most distant part of my east side upbringing. When I’m introducing my children to my dad’s herd, I’m apprehensive and scared: their huge heads leaning over the fence, searching for a treat, with their giant nostrils flaring and sniffing me and my alien children. We stay on the horse-free side of the fence, in awe, and I’m always amazed by how much horsemanship I’ve lost — basically all of it. As a child, I used to care for, tend to and saddle my own horse and ride by myself. I learned it from my Dad, who is more comfortable with them than a herd of people.

As I turn my attention from the fantastic beasts, again I comment on the unrelenting wind. My Dad responds by telling me the week before it was so windy that it blew all the horse poop out of the pen. He’s joking. I think. It leaves me silently wondering, “Where does the poop go when the wind takes it away? Are there tiny shreds from his northerly neighbor hitting my face?”

As I leave my pleasant visit, I drive with both hands on the wheel because the wind is reporting gusts up to 60 mph, which for us west-siders is a literal tornado. After returning from one visit, I saw a headline in the Great Falls Tribune that declared, “92 mph wind gust recorded along Rocky Mountain Front.” On the west side, we shut down with anything past 30 mph. And rightly so — that’s a lot of stupid wind.

Heading home and approaching the mountains in Browning and East Glacier, with the clouds swirling angrily and apocalyptically around the peaks, I brace for what lies ahead. The wind clouds stretch overhead, leaving the divide and reaching toward the eastern plains. Cloud nerds recognize that lenticular and cirrus clouds mean approaching weather. Since I’ve taken this route many times, I know it’s guaranteed that at any point from October to May, I’ll likely meet some sort of vortex of weather between Browning and East Glacier. On this day, it was the wind, giving us a nice snow ground cover at a sustained 50 mph.

We’re grateful to reach the eye of whatever you call this, on our way west, where we know the weather will be better. Continuing on to Marias Pass and past, there is more precipitation on the road, but less or no wind. The wind switch is now turned off. Now we’re in the land of heavy stratus and cumulus clouds, precipitation and certainly less sunshine. It’s wetter, grayer and different. Behind us, the clouds are slamming into the Rocky Mountains and the wind is ripping down the eastern front, over and over again, forever.

Back at home, tucked in, I reflect on here and there, how that short distance is such a great difference — each side experiencing a separate reality. As I look out my window, settling into sleep, I see soft, fat snowflakes falling straight down and think, “This isn’t something my Dad ever sees. That wind takes his snowflakes and all the horse poop to somewhere unknown.”