The great floating moon was more silvery than white in the luminous blue of an early summer sky over the Tetons. Hung over and semi-heartbroken when I woke at sunup in Jackson, I'd gotten out of town in a hurry, before any true sense of my own isolation could come catch me.
It was a getaway that didn't work. Alongside Teton Lake, leaning against the fender of my yellow Toyota, studying the daylight moon, I was anxious and frightened to an almost breathless state. This moon was what was, and I was alone in its vicinity, under its gaze. Much as I wanted to love the silence and light, that white moon was an intimation of unfathomable dooms and infinities. Jack Turner, a thinking man's climbing guide, tells of lying on his back on top of the highest peak in the Tetons of a morning, and seeing flashes of white, which turned out to be pelicans circling a mile above him at some great elevation, sporting in the glory of things so far as anyone could tell; one of the prime ways of curing panics that inhabit an untethered soul: playing. Maybe, without my knowing, that morning, those pelicans were up there as I shivered and hit the road for Missoula. As the Chuang-tzu put it:. . . never consent to be one thing alone.
* * *
Outside Ketchum, Idaho, a house was built to enclose a barn. There was a run-down barn in a field, and someone with endless money built a house around that barn, including it into their living room, as decor. Locals thought it was a great joke. Others moaned about outlanders and being taken over by "Hollywood."
"Those people don't live here. They're just looking for a place to hide." We all know stories like these, mirrors in which we see the foundation story behind many of the troubles we have in the West, stories having to do with insensitivity and presumed injustice. We blame the strangers. It's a way to hypnotize and paralyze ourselves.
* * *
A tall man with an orange-stained mustache said something to the effect that nobody knew how mean winter could be until they had tried the cowboy life in Montana. He told of men riding horses and motorcycles into country bars. He said anybody tough enough to survive winter in Montana was liable to do just any damned thing they could think of.
Such stories stayed with me on my first trip to Missoula, through Spokane and the Idaho Panhandle and the miners' towns like Kellogg and Wallace (the bordellos were still open in those days). I was looking for what I took to be a genuine world to inhabit. I wanted to be someone that I could understand and stand — a romantic idea that seems commonplace in the West these days. It's a story a lot of people are acting out.
Heading over Lookout Pass I studied ranch buildings in the valley below, at the edges of timber. They looked to be remnants from the sort of medieval world I'd grown up in during the slower and simpler days before World War II when country people I knew revered good horses and killed their beef at home and gathered wild greens for the table from roadsides in summer. The northern Rockies seemed like an undiscovered land, thick with secrets no one could bother to keep. A woman I know told me about growing up in a shack on the flats west of Missoula alongside the Clark Fork River, and the way her people had dynamited fish in the fall. They'd gather the killed and floating trout and suckers from a rowboat with nets, and their family would live through the winter off fish canned in glass jars. She told me this to emphasize that she was a native, and that my catch-and-release fly-fishing world could go piss up a rope so far as she was concerned, and why she wasn't thrilled when upscale Missoula restaurants began featuring fresh salmon flown in from Seattle and Alaska. She'd eaten enough fish for a lifetime. It was an honest way of speaking by a woman who valued her origins.
Sammy Thompson's Eastgate Liquor Lounge and the Trail's End Tavern in Missoula became my social centers. Sammy was a generous man who grew up tending bars in the railroad, ranch-hand taverns along Woody Street in Missoula (they were gone when I got to town); he was a stockcar-racing, speedboat man. Showing off for a woman, running his boat hard under stars over Flathead Lake, Sam hit a drifting log and flipped. They clung to that floating speedboat until sunup. Then Sam, a skinny fellow, no meat on his bones, slid underneath. His funeral wasn't anything I wanted to know about. I felt as if someone had torn up the dance floor. Maybe the man in the moon.
But springtime alleyways were thick with blossoming clumps of purple and white lilac and people on their way to work stopped on the street to spend time talking to the mayor (they still do). We left our doors unlocked. "Them locks," somebody told me, "only keep out honest people."
So I didn't entirely despair; I tried to discover reasons for taking care, that discovering another common concern in the West these days.
* * *
One way of enlarging ourselves involves the educational comedy of hitting the road, sometimes called "The Traveling Cure," which has been a communal enterprise in the West since the fur trappers and the wagon trains, like Huck Finn gone to territory, Hemingway in Spain and Africa, Willie Nelson and cowboy beatniks heading down their lonesome highways. Such goings can be understood as ways of seeking the freedom to be whatever you can manage.
North of Missoula, where Highway 93 crests along the southern boundary of the National Buffalo Range, you are witness to the vast weave of rock walls that are the Mission Mountains hanging like a curtain on the eastern horizon. In October, the mountains are dusted with snow while hayfields in the valley below remain green even if the willows and cottonwood along Post Creek are turning red. That's how it was when I saw it in 1969, my first autumn in Montana. I thought of it as a paradise where a man might make a life if he had any sense.
But the Flathead Valley hasn't quite been a white man's paradise for the taking. It's the heart of the 1.25 million acre Flathead Indian Reservation, governed by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, a sovereign nation inside the United States. History has been ferociously sad and unjust for Native American people, but on the Flathead Reservation the tribes are taking charge of their future with what looks to be a good ration of fairness, common sense, and restraint.
On Good Friday a gang of us visited the brick cathedral in the reservation town of St. Ignatius, at the foot of the Missions. Native people chanted the liturgy in Salish and carried a wooden approximation of Christ around to outdoor fires marking the Stations of the Cross. We didn't believe in their prayers; we wondered if they did; and we stopped going, maybe because we were unsettled by the fact that we saw our religious situation reflected in the mirror of theirs.
* * *
Jim Crumley leased a cabin near Polebridge, just across the North Fork of the Flathead River from Glacier Park. Jim was working on a novel, but often he was on his motorcycle, into the curves, he said, and he had company. In June we drove the Going-to-the-Sun Highway across the mountainous spine of Glacier just before it was closed by a summer snowstorm.
The interior of Glacier is an empire of crystalline lakes beneath knife-edged precipitous cirque walls of rock carved over millennia by glaciers, of hanging ice fields and waterfalls and dark gorges cut by rushing waters. On that afternoon in June, reefs of misty clouds hung below us against the evergreen slopes. Our chatter turned silent. The honking world had been transformed by natural and evolving beauties; it had gone distant from anything we ordinarily experienced. Yet it was absolutely recognizable, if forgotten and intricate. It was as if we were recalling a place where we played as children.
Later that summer we walked in. In scrubby timber off the trail to Bowman's Lake, flecked with shadows and sunlight, I stepped from one to another platter-shaped and luridly colored mushroom, crushing them. It was like walking on stones across water. Then I killed a grouse with a stone's throw (we cooked it primitively, impaled on a green branch along with trout). That night we got stoned, having traded part of our catch to some fellows down the lake who'd forgotten their food but remembered to bring a grocery sack stuffed with smoking materials, and we sipped shots from one of our bottles of whiskey and talked about the chance of venturing into willows along the creek, in search of trout but encountering a grizzly. We were at least aware enough to wonder if this was the way Hemingway thought — the short happy life — and laughed and laughed and laughed. Later I woke to behold moonlight in a wash across the stillness of the lake. What if this, I thought, was the last thing you ever saw? In the morning we stayed out of the willows, trolling open water along the edge of the lake from a makeshift raft held together by baling wire and an old pair of suspenders.
On a warm summer night a few years later, Mary Pat Mahoney was dragged from a campground tent in a Glacier Park; she was killed and partially eaten. She was a friend, but I was consumed with anger more than sorrow and wondered why. I would wake in the night and think of revenge. And I was finally moved to write a story called "We Are Not in This Together." Before the writing was done I had to admit that the best revenge was going on with your days — peacefulness while pursuing your own chances. There's a Native American Bear Mother story in which a woman is stolen away from her people to live with a bear. She gives birth to twins who are half human and half bear. The Bear Husband is killed by the woman's brothers, but her sons, because they are willing to recognize the sacredness of bears, become great hunters. The moral complexities of that story are a way traditional people acknowledge kinship with animals, which are often thought of as making us the gift of their lives so that we may survive. It is a story of death and renewal, vanishing and coming back from a winter of hibernation (enactments of sacred return may have been the earliest religious story), and of our irrevocable connection to the interwoven rhythms of nature.
Stories hold us together, in ourselves, and with one another. We use them to reimagine ourselves, the most necessary art. In the Bob Marshall Wilderness with Annick Smith I stood beside horses amid plumes of bear grass below a high rocky escarpment along the Continental Divide that is called the Chinese Wall. Our guide told of rutting elk sounding off for one another in autumn, when the larch have turned golden and their needles have fallen. Experts say there are more elk up there than when Lewis and Clark made their way along the Missouri, just east, in 1805. We vowed to return, not to hunt, intent on being witness, but we've never gone again. The possibility is like money in the bank.
Annick and I walked in four or five miles to Wall Lake in British Columbia, just out of Waterton Park, at the foot of a curving, vertical wall of stone with midsummer ice at the top. The next morning we saw a wolverine — a creature that's been almost exterminated from the tame world. It resembled a reddish dark badger, implacable, untamable, and almost feverish in the quick absolute way it foraged on a gravel bar near the water. It was there, then aware of us, and gone. I never expect to see another wolverine. That encounter will have to stay with me, and I hope it will; it was good for my soul to encounter a creature so unavailable to our agendas, to see that such a way of going at life was still possible.
Memories move in our brains like small fires, electricity that in fact flows through us, like blood. We are inescapably part of every lighting storm, mushroom, and bear, grizzly or not, wedded as can be, like trout in the stream of what is.
* * *
It was a tradition. On Sunday mornings in mid-June, wild roses blooming along the fence lines through the meadows, we'd drive upstream along the Big Blackfoot River (which was not the river filmed in A River Runs Through It, even though it's the river in which Norman Maclean's brother Paul did his magical fishing). East beyond the Continental Divide we were into the rolling glaciated country along the Rockies Front, short-grass prairies reaching east for a thousand miles.
We were heading for the rodeo in the village of Augusta, among cottonwood along the Sun River. We drank in the darkness of taverns, walked three or four hundred yards through light and shadows under the trees to the rodeo, in the sunlight, while country music played on the public-address system. Men and women unloaded roping horses from aluminum trailers, and we ate hot dogs and bought beer to load our cooler and made our way to seats near the chutes, where the bellowing and stink and cursing and laughter and flying mud and snot and the odor of piss were thick around us. World-class riders landed airplanes out in the meadows, came out of the chutes on their bucking horses or bulls, then flew off to make some other show that night, maybe the one in Cody, Wyoming. We took to it like a day at the circus.
The old ways become picturesque and commoditized. Bull riders and team ropers and cowboy poets are understood as entertainers just as we were taken to be tourists, with pockets full of money, willing to buy, but at the same time seriously condescending to the locals. All around, it's a recipe for misunderstanding that colors a lot of transactions in the West.
What many of us were looking for, as I understood it, is connection to the resolute life before the invention of incessant irony. A friend called it, "the real world, an actual time." Before, perhaps, our affairs went virtual. But rodeo is not a good place to look. The cowhand world, when it goes public, despite bloody noses, is pretty much a media -invention — the sort of thing we so often see — glitz and images. "The bigger the hat," a bowlegged fellow said to me, grinning and shaking his head and spitting snoose, "the smaller the ranch."
The way I like to travel these days is through distance and its towns with no destination. Richard Hugo, a survivor of multiple dislocations who helped many of us in the West define our lives, was the poet laureate of such going. Dick came from Seattle at the age of forty to teach at the University of Montana. After his wife left, Dick was alone, as he understood it, with too much time on his hands and with his automobiles, Buick convertibles, in which he would run the territories with the top down on sunny days, good jazz on the radio, looking for a town where he could spend an evening in the tavern talking to strangers, hoping for thoughts that would trigger a poem. The last stanza of his "Driving Montana" is one of our defining texts in the northern Rockies:
Tomorrow will open again, the sky wide
as the mouth of a wild girl, friable
clouds you lose yourself to. You are lost
in miles of land without people, without
one fear of being found. . . .
North of Augusta, at a property owned by the Nature Conservancy, a wildlands fen just below the Rockies Front where the grizzlies still come out on the plains as they did before the white men came, at a place called the Pine Butte Swamp, local people held a gathering in honor of the novel-ist Bud Guthrie in October of 1993. Bud was very old, clearly dying. He was a man who devoted much of his last energies to the preservation of what remnants of the natural world remained in the country where he had mostly lived. Men and women Guthrie had lived among for decades spoke quietly to the particularities of their friendships, and then we drove out along the Teton River, into country Bud wrote about, in The Big Sky, as a ruined paradise. In 1830, an old trapper in that book says, "Gone, by God, and naught to care savin' some of us who seen 'er new."
"God, she was purty onc't," that man said. It still is. We didn't know what we had missed. Perhaps the country is tracked and roaded, but it was not, so far as we could see, entirely spoiled. Bud's storytelling helped us see it not as ruined but layered with histories. Stories helped us under-stand what had happened in that long Montana valley where the October snow blows down from the mountains through the twilight, and stories helped us live with fragilities as we watched Bud and his friends take stock and breathe the joys of fellowship for close to the last time in the Choteau country that afternoon. We understood that our turn was coming, sooner than might be hoped, and that we ought to prepare, if such preparations are possible.
Exactly like history, stories accumulate and drive us toward being what we are. In places they come together and congregate, for instance at the Great Falls of the Missouri, seventy some miles east of the Rockies Front, where the river drops over a series of shelves, flowing out onto the plains. The Missouri was the interior waterway to the West, as much a northwest passage as existed, a route of travel that connected the northern Rockies to St. Louis, New Orleans, the Atlantic, and civilizations like France and England.
On June 13, 1805, Meriwether Lewis sat by the falls and wrote that they were "the grandest sight I ever beheld." A grizzly chased Lewis into the river the next day, and the expedition spent a month making an 18-mile portage around the falls in country thick with prickly pear cactus, but danger and difficulties were not the message. The journals kept by Lewis and Clark are among our defining documents in America, like Leaves of Grass and Lincoln's address at Gettysburg. They tell us to go toward possibility.
Upstream from the falls, in the 1880s, a visionary named Paris Gibson laid out a community he called Great Falls. He planted thousands of oak and elm trees on avenues staked across the prairies and hired men to go out at dawn and water them from wagonloads of barrels filled out of the Missouri. Charlie Russell set up his log-cabin studio on one of those avenues. These days it's a district of aging rich-man houses shaded by those enormous trees.
In 1887 the Great Northern Railroad arrived; Black Eagle, the first of four hydroelectric dams situated at the falls, was completed in 1891; the Anaconda Company began setting up their first copper-reduction plant shortly thereafter. Great Falls is a place where western economic dreams worked out, at least for a while.
I stood atop the Ulm Pishkun, a cliff just north of the Missouri, a dozen miles west of Great Falls, where native tribesmen once drove stampeding bison to their death (it was a way of hunting). The abandoned brick smokestack over the old Anaconda Company refinery towered into a clear morning. Off west I could see snowy peaks of the "shining mountains" on the Rockies Front, looking just as they did when Lewis and Clark saw them. Here, I thought, a history of dreams in this part of the world. But not all of that story, not by a long shot.
The dryland-farming country that locals call the "Golden Triangle," strips of fallow ground and wheat that run over the plains to the horizon, and on, begins north of Great Falls. Distances between the towns clustered at the foot of towering grain elevators on the "highline" along the Great Northern tracks were dictated by concerns about getting crops to market. This is the land of windbreaks beside white-painted farmsteads, enormous four-wheel-drive diesel tractors and millionaires with cash-flow problems (a viable wheat farm on the plains is worth a million anyway). On the plains we find ourselves wondering about the rewards of freedom that led people to stick it out through the blistering summers and blizzard winters, raising children on places where the nearest doctor was maybe fifty snow-drifted miles away — for details read Judy Blunt's Breaking Clean. The isolation is hardest to deal with, even for today's people, who can afford all the electronic connection to reality there is. Sometimes you need to get on into downtown, in person.
In Richard Ford's story "Communist," a young man, recalling an afternoon spent hunting geese on one of the lakes that fill depressions left by glaciers, says, ". . . I looked toward the Highwood Mountains twenty miles away, half in snow and half dark blue at the bottom. I could see the little town of Floweree then, looking shabby and dimly lighted in the distance. A red bar sign shone. A car moved slowly away from the scattered buildings."
He hears geese on the lake, thousands, before he sees them, a clamoring ". . . that made your chest rise and your shoulders tighten with expectancy. It was a sound that made you feel separate from it and everything else, as if you were of no importance in the grand scheme of things."
That feeling of separation can overwhelm you. Life often seems to go on in ways not connected to the doings of the so-called "Great World." Ambitious young people leave early and never go home for more than a few days at Christmas. Many of the people who stay develop a deep mistrust of anything beyond their emotional horizon. It is a way of being dysfunctional.
James Welch was a Blackfeet/Gros Ventre writer who did some of his growing up near the Milk River beyond Harlem. In his first novel, Winter in the Blood, he took on those feelings and showed us a young man finding his way beyond them into the rhythms involved in connecting to his people and himself amid such distances. It is a supremely useful book for people in the northern West — both Native Americans and whites. Any life, anywhere we see, can be rewarding, if we allow, if we have imagination enough.
"Some people," the young man says in Winter in the Blood, "will never know how pleasant it is to be distant in a clean rain, the driving rain of a summer storm. It's not like you'd expect, nothing like you'd expect." Maybe it's all in learning to see the splendor of what is, what you have.
Wallace Stegner spent his boyhood in the Cypress Hills on the border between Montana and Saskatchewan. In The Big Rock Candy Mountain he writes, "They could stand quietly in the door and watch the good rain come, the front of it like a wall and the wind ahead of it stirring up dust, until it reached them and drenched the bare packed earth of the yard, and the ground smoked under its feet, and darkened, and ran with little streams. . . ." The good rain: a reason for loving this world. On those plains, so many miles east of the shining mountains, we are in what can be thought of as "The Land of Little Kingdoms," with nothing but territory between them — Hutterite colonies, and cowboy towns like Miles City, and homesteader towns like Ryegate. You can drive from Ryegate to the Snowy Mountains, windy country where a settlement boom came before World War I, and pass abandoned homesteads, one after another. Houses and barns lean with the wind, shingles blown away. This is the land of ICBM silos. This country has been talked about as "Buffalo Commons," a preserve devoted to biodiversity if not for the few endlessly stubborn settlers who remain.
After driving those prairies for hours, Annick and I walked into a motel in Jordan, Montana, a town of about 600 souls south of the reservoir backed up behind the Fort Peck Dam. "Are you," the clerk asked, "paleontologists?" Jordan, it turns out, is where bone hunters headquarter when they're searching clay-bank-badlands washes above the Missouri for another skeleton of Tyrannosaurus rex. Out there we are continually reminded of infinities.
Militia crusaders, some years back, holed up in the vicinity of Jordan. Locals wished they'd go away, but tolerated them. Settlers on the plains have a long history of political extremism. No one gets too excited so long as there's no serious trouble. Radicalism in that part of the world started with the Nonpartisan League in North Dakota — -farmers calling for state-owned banks and grain elevators. In 1918 the Nonpartisan League set up a newspaper called Pro-ducers News in Plentywood, in the northeastern corner of Montana. After 1920 many of the maybe 3,000 voters in Sheridan County were Communists; they ran the county for a few years. By 1930 about 500 citizens were still voting the straight Communist Party ticket. It was another attempt at organizing an economic and spiritual kingdom: where enterprises attempted to create a man-made paradise on earth, a try at making the world go your way — one of our oldest, most honorable traditions in America.
But maybe the plains were already a paradise. We see movie herds of bison running in the otherwise sappy Dances with Wolves, and can't articulate reasons why we are so moved. By the 1890s the buffalo were mostly gone from the plains. The Crow warrior Two Leggings said, "Nothing happened after that. We just lived. . . . There is nothing more to tell."
To try understanding what it was like to come upriver on the Missouri in the 1830s and 1840s, study the art of George Catlin and Karl Bodmer, who were there, and look into Catlin journals and Audubon's Missouri River Journals. Read contemporary accounts in Ian Frazier's Great Plains and Merrill Gilfillan's Magpie Rising and Barry Lopez's Winter Count. If you should go there in the summertime, driving west through bright fields of sunflowers in North Dakota, travel with those books and go slow. You will find yourself in touch with glories that can break your heart; loss, as we know, is always part of love.
* * *
The story of John Colter's several hundred mile wintertime walk into the environs of Yellowstone is one more of our defining legends in the West. The autumn and winter of 1807-08, through country no known white man had yet seen, Colter went from Fort Lisa, at the junction of the Big Horn River and the Yellowstone, down to Jackson Hole and the far side of the Tetons, and back through what would be Yellowstone Park. I want to think he was running on wisdom, and not simple courage; I want to think his isolation was something he accepted as a version of what we always have. I like to think Colter loved his chance to be where he was. Yellowstone in winter, seven thousand seven hundred feet in elevation at the lake, where the nighttime lows are thirty and forty below, the snows a dozen feet in depth, and the hot sulfur springs boil up, the grass still green beside them, down in a warm enclosure with drifted snowbanks rising high above your head. Think of spring, bison wandering through the mist near the steaming river where the trumpeter swans glide on glassy ponds. Colter had been with Lewis and Clark as they climbed the long grade to Lemhi Pass, on the Continental Divide, imagining that the beginnings of the great River Columbia, an easy route to the Pacific, might lie just on the other side. Instead they saw the long run of blue mountains across what is now central Idaho, range after range. John Colter knew there was no easy way out. I like to think he might have studied a full daylight moon over the Tetons, as I did a hundred and eighty years later, and felt he was as close to the sweet center of things as he would ever need to be, and thus privileged.
Copyright 2007 by William Kittredge. Reprinted from The Next Rodeo with permission of Graywolf Press.