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When I was a young boy, there was no greater adventure in the world than visiting my grandparents’ ranch in Eastern Montana. Among the things that made this place magical were the people who populated the area, including a kid my age named Kelly Kornaman. Kelly was a typical ranch kid…tough but shy, quiet but very easy to talk to once you got to know him. He had a perfectly round face, and a high cackling laugh that always made me laugh along with him.
I answered the door in my pajamas. The taller of the two girls standing there asked for my roommate, Sheldon.
“He didn’t come home last night,” I said.
“We know you,” the shorter one said.
“I think I served you once.”
“That’s right,” she said. “In Montana. Like a year ago.”
The three of us nodded, pleased to have cleared up that mystery.
“Would you like to come inside?” I asked.
It doesn’t surprise me that I went back to Montana Snowbowl after Peace Corps. Many of my friends and former colleagues found jobs with federal agencies or NGOs. Several studied policy or took for the Foreign Service exam. Not me. I couldn’t get into that sort of thing.
This wasn’t long after George W. Bush usurped the presidency and squandered the goodwill and sympathy of the world. These were times that the historians of the future will look back on as “The Oil Wars”—when millions of poor people died to secure a soon-to-be-obsolete resource, just as they did for spices, slaves, and religious trinkets in Dark Ages past. The government color-coded our fear and gave us a list of products to purchase accordingly. Electrical tape for yellow alert. Batteries for orange. Rolls of plastic for red. There was talk of a draft.
It’s been one year.
One year that I’ve lived in your valley along the Clark Fork river, one year that I’ve lived in the West, one year that I’ve hiked up my skirt for your hillsides.
That’s a long courtship by my standards. Usually the caveats, bad habits and dirty laundry cut into the open by now.
Instead, you continue to woo me.
You arch your back of rock, pull me into your canyon veins, and peel me naked.
Another thirty-eight miles northeast, and I come to the town of Big Sandy, which is as genuinely western as it sounds. A covered wagon sits in front of the high school – HOME OF THE PIONEERS. There is a cemetery on a hill on the edge of the settlement, and there are dirt roads through town. A columned Wells Fargo Bank stands on a corner, looking like the kind of place Butch Cassidy might have scouted out. There is a shop called the Tumbleweed Gallery and a restaurant called the Bear Paw Lodge and a bar called The Club and a hotel called, best I can determine, Hotel. Big Sandy is off the beaten tourist path, so the whole place oozes authenticity. After eating a quick lunch at a city park in the shadow of a gray grain elevator, I stop to fill up my other tank at a gas station at the corner of Route 87 and Judith Landing Road, which extends south into a swath of Montana wilderness. My atlas seems to regard it as an iffy proposition. A well-traveled white Mazda pickup with a canopy over the cab pulls into the station alongside me, and a man climbs out with a grunt and a wheeze. He looks to be in his late fifties, with a red face, a bulbous nose, bushy eyebrows, and an uncombed thicket of brown hair, fringed with white. He wears frayed jeans and a stained gray long underwear shirt, unbuttoned to reveal a thatch of white hairs poking from his chest. The man looks like he hasn’t seen a shower in weeks.
“Are you familiar with this road?” I ask, pointing southward. “Doesn’t look like too many folks use it.”
“Tell me about it. I just spent four hours hitchhiking. I saw four cars,” he grumbles. “I was canoeing on the river the past few days, and I had to go get my truck.” He climbs into the pickup, which is missing four hubcaps. “Now I’m heading down to the landing to get my canoe. You going that way?”
I hesitate and then nod. “I guess I’ll see you there.”
According to my map, it is forty-four miles to Judith Landing, where the Missouri River joins waters with the Judith River, named by William Clark for his future wife. The Corps of Discovery camped there on May 29, 1805, which is enough to convince me to follow the white pickup.
Fifteen miles later, I have passed exactly three vehicles going the other way – all of them with horse trailers – and the pavement has ended abruptly, turning to a dirt and gravel mixture that makes me thankful for the dry weather. Come to think of it, Zeus has been kind to me when I have needed him most – while weaving around Mount Rainier, during my zigzag descent into Troy, and now on this dubious trek toward the Big Muddy. Forced to slow down by the road conditions, I can no longer spot the white pickup ahead of me. It has disappeared, as if the cloud of filth it had been kicking up were some sort of magic dust.
I feel very much alone at the moment, my world consisting only of rambling ranchland and big sky. Civilization seems a hazy concept. At a public library back in Fort Benton, I had located a collection of reminiscences, written by the hardy men and women who had tried to homestead these barren lands. Now that I see the landscape for myself, I am awed by their resilience.
Big Sandy had been a cow town of long standing, but in the early twentieth century it became a homesteaders’ boomtown. Hopeful immigrants, many of them from Czechoslovakia by way of Chicago, would ride the Great Northern Railroad into Montana, unload their cargo and livestock at the depot in Big Sandy, and then fan out into the countryside. They had names like Jirsa, Tordik, Driga, Pribyl, Sevcik… and they were as short on options as they were on vowels.
Often, the men would arrive first. If the fellow was lucky, his neighbors would help him construct a sod house. If he had to wait, he might live in a hole in the ground – quite literally – until it was his turn to get a house built. Provided the family could endure long enough, they would graduate into less humble living conditions. But most didn’t last more than a few years before moving to more hospitable locales.
Driving through this treeless expanse, all dry grass and dust, I find myself trying to envision what it must have been like to have been Frank Baldik, hauling water three-fourths of a mile in barrels after discovering that the water in the well he had dug near his homestead was alkali. Or John Cikrit, mining his own coal for his furnace and making the full-day trip into town only two or three times a year, returning with hundreds of pounds of flour and sugar and coffee beans. Or Julia Fisher, carrying water from a reservoir for a bath night every Saturday, straining out the bugs, heating it on a wood stove, pouring it into a tub, and then using it again the next morning to scrub floors.
In the midst of the tales of desolation, I found a poem, written in 1929, by a local named Nellie McLean. It read, in part:
We built our humble cabin.
A place wherein to dwell.
But of the loads of suffering
Only ourselves can tell.
Twenty-three miles into my route, I come upon a leaning cabin atop a gentle knoll, long abandoned by the looks of it. The white pickup is parked in front of it. I stop the Aspect in the middle of the road and walk toward the cabin, camera in hand, figuring my fellow traveler had much the same idea. Instead, I find him sitting behind his steering wheel, smoking pot out of an old Busch beer can.
“I thought I’d just stop and pack a bowl,” he grins, looking like a red jack-o’-lantern.
I wave him off and offer a handshake instead. “I’m Brad.”
He sets down the homemade bong. “Name’s Dan,” he replies, and he decides to join me in poking around the old homestead.
“Be careful of rattlesnakes,” he warns, as we make our way through the tall grass. “There’s a lot of ’em in Montana.” Not ten seconds later, a tiny white rabbit pops out from hiding. Dan jumps three feet in the air; I jump even higher.
On tiptoes, we peer into the spaces where the windows should be – they look like empty eye sockets. In what used to be the kitchen, the walls are discolored and peeling. An ancient-looking stove sits in the center of the room, as if it were left behind in the midst of a move. A decrepit ironing board leans against a wall. In the bedroom, half of a flaking wooden chair sits next to a rusted bed frame beneath a mattress that looks as if it has exploded.
Dan is saying something, surmising what kind of animals have been at the mattress, but I am lost in thought, wondering if any homesteader would have endured daily sufferings if he had been told it would all lead to this.
Three miles later, Dan and his pickup having once again sped ahead of me, I am surprised to encounter an actual intersection – an east-west dirt path oddly named Five Corner Road. One mile more, and a YIELD sign rises from the roadside, which is a bit like finding a crossing guard at the Bonneville Salt Flats. It is so full of bullet holes that only the L and D remain. Next to it, a small green street sign: ILIAD LOOP.
This stretch of nothing in the middle of nowhere is Iliad, Montana. There is an explanation for the name. Apparently, a woman named Virginia Donnell and her husband Ade homesteaded in the area in around 1915. Virginia also ran the post office, such as it was, and, according to the history book, “she was a religious lady and named the post office after the book called Iliad.”
It seems a banal recollection, but I find it to be an intriguing statement, surely unintentionally so. The account categorizes Homer’s epics as religious texts when really religion itself might be described as a subset of mythology. As mythologist Hans Bellamy once put it, “Religion is fossil mythology; mythology is fossil history.”
Another mythologist, Carlos Parada, has compared ancient mythology to an egg that once contained “about all that was needed for life.” History, philosophy, religion, creativity, cultural biases… all were contained in mythological tales. Then, sometime around Homer’s era, the egg broke. Its contents oozed into separate fields, and it was impossible to recombine the elements into a single entity ever again.
Just as I am thinking how glad I am to have nothing but unobstructed space around me, if only so that I may ponder these abstractions free of distraction, I notice fencing along both sides of the road. The wide open landscape and the furious winds have turned it into a barbed-wire metaphor: The place where tumbleweeds go to die. There are hundreds of them stacked in piles against the fence like convicts gripping the bars of their prison cells. A mile later comes evidence that this may also be a place where dreams die. A collection of abandoned structures sits among the windblown grass – an old house, a corral, a barn, the unmistakable outline of an outhouse leaning at a precarious angle. It is a haunting site and a rather beautiful one.
But there is life here deep inside Choteau County. Just down the road, I come upon four magnificent horses, two chestnut and two black, hanging their heads over the fence, staring at me, their manes dancing in the breeze. A couple of miles later, I find the other end of the Iliad Loop and several large, rusted mailboxes bearing the names of families possibly descended from the Czech originals – Drga, Handel, Silvan. An abandoned car – an AMC Eagle with a “Veterans of Foreign Wars” bumper sticker – decorates the roadside, a tumbleweed wedged against one of its wheels. Prairie dogs have carved out a home four feet behind its rear bumper.
I push on, and soon the ranchland begins to roughen into badlands. The land rises into modest hills, which soon become angular ridges. The road gouges a trail. I spot a lone tree, about one hundred yards to my left, its barren branches reaching at all angles, and I realize it may be the first I have seen in about forty miles. I suspect it could tell its own stories. And then a herd of cows, their ears tagged, roaming through the sagebrush, one of them inexplicably and obliviously on the wrong side of the fence.
Finally, Judith Landing and another glimpse of the fabled Missouri, only this time it is burbling between majestic limestone formations.
It was here, at the confluence of the rivers, that myth and history intersected as well. In 1855, fifty years after the Corps of Discovery’s arrival, twenty-five-year-old American geologist Ferdinand Vandiveer Hayden uncovered the first dinosaur remains in the Western Hemisphere. When the last continental ice sheet retreated nearly twenty thousand years ago, it exposed broad expanses of fossil-bearing rock in eastern Montana, and Hayden’s party came across what was later determined to be a small collection of fossilized dinosaur teeth. In recent years, an outfit called the Judith River Dinosaur Institute has made equally dramatic discoveries in the area, including one brachylophosaurus considered by many to be the world’s best-preserved dinosaur.
Hayden’s big find occurred barely a dozen years after the term “Dinosauria” was even invented – by a fellow named Richard Owen, who combined a couple of Greek words that roughly translated to “terrible lizard,” although most dinosaurs were neither. But this was not the first misinterpretation of the prehistoric beasts. Today’s dinosaurs, in a manner of speaking, are yesterday’s dragons.
Nearly every culture has dragons as part of its mythology. Apollo, Hercules, Perseus… all were said to have slain dragons. In Norse mythology, there are tales of the dragons Nidhogg and Farnir. The Egyptians told stories of Apep; the Aztecs spoke of Quetzalcoatl; the Huron Indians feared Angont. As late as the early seventeenth century, the uncharted regions in various maps of the world would include drawings of dragonlike creatures – representations of the unknown, yet a concept based in reality. Like the basis of all mythology, dragons were merely history misconstrued and made vivid. In fact, dinosaur bones may be the most obvious example of how mythology is fossilized history. After all, humans are pattern-seekers and storytellers. So when the ancients happened upon buried bones suggesting creatures of uncommon stature, they sought explanation for such fossil evidence and found it in fantastical stories.
But it could be that mythology allows us a glimpse into prehistory, preserving a lost past – much like this protected stretch of the Missouri River. There is a recent and remarkable illustration of this notion. It concerns a legend of long standing in the South Seas. Myths regarding the Indonesian island of Flores, about 350 miles west of Bali, told of a shy and diminutive race of people who would accept gourds of food from the Floresians and then return to their limestone caves. “South Seas leprechauns” is how they have been described, and folktales suggested that they survived on the island as recently as five hundred years ago.
In an evolutionary sense, there is some logic to the tales. On islands without big predators, undersized individuals don’t have to fight off attackers and are more likely to survive on limited resources, so large mammals tend to evolve toward smaller sizes. Still, most scientists dismissed the myths as fanciful legends – until 2004, when a team of paleoanthropologists discovered seven tiny adult skeletons in a cave on Flores. The oldest dated back 95,000 years; the most recent was from 13,000 years ago. One adult female skeleton was nearly intact – and no more than three feet tall. The scientists nicknamed her the Hobbit.
So in some cases myths may be defined as misinterpretations of phenomena, a naïve effort to replace the fear of the unknown with a satisfactory explanation, but they cannot be dismissed as mere fantasy. There is likely a kernel of truth in there, but this truth is hidden beneath layers of sentiment, transformed over the millenia in the telling and retelling and by the psycho-social biases of the tellers themselves. In this way, mythological tales are much like the traditional telephone game in which every time a word or phrase is passed on, it moves farther from its original construct. As much as mythology is a manifestation of the human psyche, if you strip away the emotional stratum of myths, you often can find historical reality – causes, origins, seminal events.
So it is with The Iliad and Troy. In the early 1870s, German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann used Homer’s epic as his guide and found the ancient city called Hisarlik in western Turkey, which has been widely accepted as the probable location of the legendary fortified city. Interestingly, he found layers there, too – about nine levels of ruins, indicating nine different versions of Troy over the years – nine historical truths discovered through one largely fictional piece of mythology.
I suppose the point is this: Mythology is history obscured. But we can’t escape our history, even subconsciously, no matter how hard we try.
One of the heroic elements of the Corps of Discovery is the fact that the expedition pointed itself toward a cartographic void. The region west of the Mississippi River was essentially a blank space on a brand new map. Naturally, many in the early nineteenth century filled it with myth – rumors, for instance, about a race of red-headed Indians who stalked prehistoric beasts roaming the countryside.
One suspects the explorers may not have been much disappointed. Meriwether Lewis arrived in the vicinity of Judith Landing to find “scenes of visionary enchantment.” One hundred ninety-nine years and 354 days later, I find instead my fellow traveler Dan.
“I got nothing to hide,” says Dan, as we settle on each side of a picnic table a few dozen yards from the river. At one time, Judith Landing was a bustling community. There was a hotel here, a saloon, a blacksmith shop. But now it is merely a three-acre mini-campground, and it is just the two of us here, although a couple of park rangers make sporadic appearances. They seem to regard Dan with suspicion.
I point to his license plate. “Do you live in North Dakota?”
He rubs his bloodshot eyes and looks skyward, as if he were Oedipus being asked to solve the riddle of the Sphinx. “That’s a tough one. I don’t really live anyplace. The two toughest questions to answer are ‘Where do you live?’ and ‘What do you do?’ For the past year, I’ve been in North Dakota. Before that, Seattle… It’s pretty interesting, because you’re talkin’ to someone who’s been doing this all my life. All my life! People ask me what I do, and I say, ‘I don’t know. It just comes to me.’”
A few miles back, as I was snapping photos of the horses, I experienced the highlight of my day when I was nearly knocked senseless by a bouncing tumbleweed. As Dan’s tale unfolds, I realize that might perfectly describe my random encounter with him. Here I am, traveling alone cross-country, yet between the two of us I am very much the fixed object. Dan is a beer-drinking, pot-smoking tumbleweed. He was born in Bottineau, North Dakota, about a dozen miles south of the Canadian border. Nearly six decades later, he is sitting in a self-inflicted fog along the Big Muddy. Everything in between begins to sound equally cloudy.
“I think our mothers are the ones we gotta watch out for. They’re the ones who steer us in a direction,” he begins. “My mother was a very controlling, dominating person. She used to say, ‘Your father fought in World War II so that you could be free. Get out there and see what’s going on in the world.’ Then I became a hitchhiking hippie and Mom would say, ‘Your ribs are showing! Stay home for a while!’ She just died a couple of months ago and… boy it’s tough to think of anything good to say about her.”
Since the heroic archetype is someone who undergoes a dramatic transformation and returns with a lesson learned, Joseph Campbell claimed that motherhood could even be construed as a heroic act. I would very much agree, but I base this conclusion primarily on the efforts of my own mom, about whom it’s tough to think of anything bad to say. Yes, she can be as subtle as a flashing neon sign. But really, Oedipus aside, what hero doesn’t adore his mom?
Meanwhile, Dan is still trying to dredge up some compliments about his. “She cooked good. She never beat me or anything like that. But boy oh boy… You think of a mother as a person who’s supposed to nurture you and help you along, but she was a troublemaking, conniving person.” He stops himself, sits up, belches.
“Still, I loved her right to the very end, goddammit.”
After an uncomfortable pause, I steer him back to the road. “So you were a hitchhiker…”
“Yeah, I spent seven years hitchhiking in my twenties. I would sleep anywhere. If I didn’t have a tent, I would sleep under a bridge. And then one day, I walked out of a bathroom, and I was going across the parking lot, and I totally freaked out because I didn’t know where I was. I had no clue. I didn’t know what city. I didn’t know what state. I didn’t know what highway… Then I decided to stop.”
Stop, as in not really. There was a chimney sweep business in Seattle, dirtbike trips to Baja, a few months in Hawaii…
“The soil there was so fertile. It was like ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ kind of shit. So I thought, godammit I sure would like to grow somethin’. So I went to Seattle, hopped a freight train to North Dakota and bought an eighty-acre farm. I cleaned up my act. I didn’t smoke pot…” He pauses and shakes his head vigorously. “No, wait… I must be stoned to say that. I stopped drinking. That’s what it was. But I was horny. And I couldn’t get a date because I wasn’t hanging out in the bars. So I started a dating service. They would write me, and I would give them a code number, and they would enclose money. Did it for about six years, and then I met this woman who was a bitch from hell…”
Somehow, his face grew even redder. “She was a pathological liar – I mean, literally. She and I had gotten into an argument over her kids because I thought she was neglecting them. And anyway, she turned me in to the police for growing pot on my farm. I lost my farm and went to prison for a year – North Dakota State Penitentiary.”
He reaches into a bag and removes a small black case, keeping his hand on top of it. “When I had my farm, one day I’m sitting on my porch, sampling my product,” he says, making a toking motion with his free hand, “and I’m looking around at some goddamn gophers. They’re tearing up my garden, and I figured I oughta start farming the fucking gophers. I went out and blasted away about twenty of ’em, and I started experimenting with them – you know, tanning the hides, doin’ stuff with the tails, shit like that. I couldn’t really come up with anything. So when I got out of prison, I ended up in Seattle again, and I started experimenting with one of the hides again, and I ruined it. The only thing left was the damn feet. So I made a pair of earrings out of the feet.”
There are times throughout this conversation when I wonder where reality stops and Dan’s THC-fueled imagination begins. But he opens the black case to reveal some two dozen earrings, each consisting of a tiny gopher’s paw. I would have been no more surprised if he had revealed to me a belt made of Minotaur hide.
“Pretty clever,” I mutter, but I can’t help myself, “and creepy at the same time.”
He grins. “I sold nine thousand pairs of ’em. I was a traveling gopher-foot salesman for a few years.”
“Who buys them?”
“Oh, just about anybody. Grandma and Grandpa would look at ’em and say, ‘By golly, I used to hunt gophers as a kid.’ And other people will say, ‘My God, that’s disgusting! How much are they?’ One guy on an Amtrak train said to me, ‘Oh, fishing lures, huh?’ I said, ‘Yep.’ He said, ‘You catch trout with them?’ I said, ‘Bass, too.’ He was drunker’n I was. Anyway, I had a distributor who would buy about two thousand pairs a year, and that would give me a trip to Mexico ever year.”
“What’d you do in Mexico?”
He slaps his forehead. “Oh fuck, we haven’t even touched on Mexico! I spent every winter there for ten years. What did I do there? Well, I didn’t go to jail. That’s important – for a life like mine. And I didn’t shed any blood. That’s important, too. It really is.” He shrugs. “I did different things. A couple of years, I got a boat and did the tourism thing – go to a bar, get drunk, and hustle people out of the bar… ‘Hey , wanna go fishing tomorrow?’ And for a couple of years, I was a treasure hunter. I invested in about five thousand bucks worth of treasure hunting equipment, diggin’ big holes…”
“Find anything?” And as soon as I ask it, I wish I hadn’t.
Dan laughs so hard he nearly falls off his bench. “Does it look like I found anything?” He looks around him, mockingly. “Where is that damn treasure anyway?”
I suppose I deserve it. “What else did you do?” His face reddens again. “For a couple years, I fell in love with this Texas oil heiress, a very, very wealthy woman who was living in Mexico. It was a fuckin’ nightmare.” Dan says “fuckin’” with a drunken slur, so that it sounds almost Yiddish. “She was an awful person, and I would have gotten away from her if she had been just a normal person. But she was very wealthy, and the greed made me want to stick around. I liked the Jeep. I liked the lifestyle. I was her boy toy. I liked the sex, too. She was a total alcoholic.” He smirks, suddenly realizing he has stepped in a steaming pile of hypocrisy. “I mean, I’m a drunk. But she was a fuckin’ alcoholic, man. That lady passed out every fuckin’ night by nine o’clock. A total goddamn drunk, a mean fuckin’ Texas loud-mouth fuckin’ rich bitch.” He literally spits this last part out.“My whole life has been full of stories, Brad,” Dan continues. “But I’ve never been shot, and I’ve never shot at anybody. Of course, I’ve been shot at a lot of times…” He straightens his shoulders. “I don’t rob. I don’t cheat. I don’t steal. I might tell a few tales, but I don’t lie…”
Those tales continue for a better part of an hour, stories about how he brought a rock to a knife fight with a biker, how he hitched a ride with a fellow who happened to be driving a stolen car, how he sat in jail for a week after a case of mistaken identity, how he has been arrested “more times than I can remember,” usually for public intoxication and disturbing the peace.
“Another time was for statutory rape,” he says. “I didn’t know she was that age! She was fifteen or sixteen, but I was like nineteen!”
This sparks another synaptic segue, and Dan whispers conspiratorially, “I’ll tell you another side of me that you probably didn’t realize.” He pauses for dramatic effect. “I’ve become a sex addict. When I hitchhiked and traveled, there was always a woman at the end of the fuckin’ line somewhere. It seemed like I had a string of women all along the United States – Seattle, North Dakota, Omaha, Texas. And then when I got too old and stopped hitchhiking and all that kind of shit, then the Internet came along…”
He raises his voice. “Aw, fuck! I’m an internet predator! I am… an internet… fuckin’… predator!” He looks at me, and perhaps he notices that that the color has suddenly drained from my face. Where are those park rangers anyway?
“I’m fifty cyber years old. That means I don’t get any older on the Internet. But I’m not a pedophile. Christ, if I fucked a twenty-five-year-old, I’d feel like a pedophile. Forty is probably the bottom limit for me. When I’m on the road, I go to libraries, Internet cafés, that sort of thing. Hell, it was a problem for me to take three days off to canoe the river. Really!”
When Odysseus returned to Ithaca, he told his swineherd, “There is no worse life for a man than to tramp it.”
But could Homer have possibly imagined this version of the modern-day tramp, on the road and online?
Then again, Odysseus had his libido issues, too.
Dan points a finger at me. “I have more sex than you do. I’ll guarantee you that.”
“I’m sure you do,” I reply, deciding that humor is the best means of deflection. “I’m married.”
Dan nods his head toward the Missouri, a faraway look in his scarlet-streaked eyes. “It moves nice.” And then, “Would you like to go for a little paddle?”
“I don’t know,” A thousand thoughts scull through my skull. “Upstream?”
“Well, I don’t think we should go downstream. It’s too easy,” he says. “Yeah, let’s go upstream for a ways.”
And here is the proverbial head-versus-heart dilemma. The cautious thinker in me is saying: Don’t you dare. You don’t know this guy. He’s stoned. He has a temper. He’s been behind bars more often than most bartenders. He knows you’re alone. And you are so deep in the middle of nowhere that even the vultures won’t hear your cries for help.
But the devil on my other shoulder is whispering: Lewis and Clark. Will I ever again have another opportunity to paddle the Missouri? Is it not fate to receive such an offer almost precisely two centuries after the Corps of Discovery did the very same thing at the very same spot?
“Is it safe?” I ask, basically thinking out loud.
He tilts his head at me. “Can you swim?”
Moments later, he hands me a paddle and tosses me a lifejacket. Then, as I’m climbing into the bow of his canoe, pushing aside some filthy clothes and a couple of beer cans, he cautions me, “No matter what you do, don’t turn around and look at me because we’ll tip over. That’s what happened to me and my friend, Ned.”
He says it again. “Don’t turn around and look at me.”
He says it a third time. “Really, don’t look at me.”
And as he does so, my mind is talking to me, too, saying, “You are about to die.”
I pride myself on my judgment of character. I can usually tell within moments of meeting someone where the relationship is going. Maybe it is because I observe for a living. Perhaps it is a talent developed through years of extrapolating insight from brief peeks into peoples’ lives. Whatever the reason, I am usually right. And in Hobo Dan, as I came to think of him, I perceive a harmlessness, even a glimmer of goodness.
But for a split-second, I think perhaps I am wrong. Dead wrong. I picture myself turning around in the canoe just in time to gasp at my last earthly sight – Dan swinging his paddle like a baseball bat, aiming for the back of my head. I envision a headline a few weeks hence: Man’s Body Washes Up in Bismarck: Reported Missing in Montana. I imagine Dan trading in his beat-up pickup for a shiny new Winnebago Aspect.
“All right,” I hear myself croak, “let’s do it.”
The plan was to paddle a few hundred yards upstream and then float back down to the landing, after which I would climb out of the canoe and revel in my pitiable approximation of Meriwether Lewis.
Instead, I come away feeling more like Jerry Lewis.
I am certainly an adequate canoeist. I have paddled through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in northern Minnesota. I have canoed the Russian River in California and the Brule River in Wisconsin. Hell, I used to teach canoeing at summer camp. But – and this is a statement with many implications – I have never paddled upstream. The Missouri River moves a lot faster than it looks.
Almost immediately, we find ourselves a couple hundred feet downriver. We try paddling hard for several strokes, but we have only drifted further downstream. Dan doesn’t seem much bothered by it. Then again, he is in a state of mind where he isn’t much bothered by anything. Meanwhile, I nearly panic. My paranoia no longer focuses on thoughts of dying; instead, I have visions of drifting helplessly to the next landing some ten miles downstream, arriving just in time for the sun to go down, leaving me to share a sleeping bag with Hobo Dan, his head resting against my shoulder, his beer-fueled snores echoing in my ear. Then my imagination has me spending the following day hitchhiking in vain, wandering under a searing sun like the ill-fated astronauts in Capricorn One, stumbling toward mirages, grabbing at hallucinations.
So now I paddle twice as hard, and I implore Dan to do the same. We dig at the water like a couple of prospectors who sniff a strike. We maneuver toward the riverbank where the currents are slower, and, inch by inch, we move forward, finally making it back to the landing. I place my paddle on my lap, bow my head, and chuckle.
“Well, that was fun…”
But I swallow the sentence. Because I look up to discover that Dan has steered us back to the middle of the river. So we do it all over again.
“I have traveled all over the world,” Odysseus reports toward the end of The Odyssey, “and this is what I have come to.”
When we finally return to the picnic bench, I hear shades of this in a monologue from Dan, as he seems to be in a reflective mood. “I could have been a responsible human being. I could have been a breadwinner. But I’m still doing the same thing I was doing when I was twenty-one years old. …” he says, letting his voice trail off. And then he starts again, aiming a finger at me. “When you get old, you’ll have grandkids and security and family and insurance and all that sort of thing. Now that I’m old… I have a better tent.”
Campbell figured the hero as a sort of progressive force – “the champion not of things become but of things becoming; the dragon to be slain by him is precisely the monster of the status quo.” Transformation is at the heart of the heroic journey, but the adventure is incomplete until the hero’s return, which Campbell suggested may be the most difficult task of all: “The returning hero, to complete his adventure, must survive the impact of the world.”
Meriwether Lewis returned as the quintessential American hero, and two centuries later he is all but canonized. But he couldn’t cope with the impact of the world, the transition from adventure to ordinariness and, as newly appointed governor of the Louisiana Territory, numbing bureaucracy. He became an alcoholic and an opium addict. Only three years after his triumphant return, at the age of thirty-five, he killed himself.
“Regrets,” Campbell wrote, “are illuminations come too late.”
On the other hand, Hobo Dan – addicted to his lifestyle, as he puts it – has simply refused to heed the call to return at all. Dan is convinced that his autonomy represents a grand heroic adventure, and as I chat with him I can’t help but think of the classic children’s story Fish Is Fish by Leo Lionni, which I have read to my boys. It is the story of a pond, where a minnow and a tadpole get along swimmingly until they realize the differences between them – specifically when the tadpole sprouts legs. Having achieved froghood, he heads off to explore the world and returns with gleeful stories of land-based wonders. Naturally, the fish is envious and curious. So one day he flops himself onto land, realizing too late that he wasn’t meant for the air up there. Fortunately, his old friend happens upon him and nudges him back into the pond.
The story is about friendship and self-awareness, but to me it is also a tale about aspirations. Some people are fueled by ambition. They long to be princes. Others crave freedom. They just want to be frogs.
“I’m not homeless.” Dan says with a wink. “I’m an outdoorsman.”
He is also a product of his past, as we all are. Everything is prologue – as history was to mythology, as dinosaur bones were to dragon tales, as the Corps of Discovery was to Manifest Destiny, as the homesteaders of Iliad were to the sprawling ranches, as The Iliad is to The Odyssey. Even The Odyssey itself is primarily prologue. Homer enters the story at the tail end of Odysseus’ wanderings, revealing some of the most famous encounters in literature – from the one-eyed Cyclops to six-headed Scylla – merely in a few lines of flashback revealed through the protagonist’s storytelling. Odysseus has been gone for nearly two decades; The Odyssey takes place over the course of only about forty days. But the book is really about a new chapter in its protagonist’s life.
The lesson may be that while a man is a product of the myriad forces that formed him – his ancestry, his achievements, his fears, his regrets, his battles, his buried skeletons, his mother – the measure of him is where he paddles from there. Are we anchored to our past? Do we turn our personal histories into self-styled mythologies? Do we start to believe them?
It is time for me to move on. Dan accompanies me to the Aspect. We shake hands, and I climb behind the wheel. As I begin to drive away, Dan motions for me to roll down my window.
“You know what?” he says, holding a canoe paddle like a banner. “I like to think of myself as the last free man.”
I rumble over the Missouri and onto another uncertain stretch of highway, musing that we all make our own legends.
It’s the cliché metaphor of the last century: The light at the end of the tunnel.
Maybe the guy who hammered and dynamited the railway path through the mountain knew just what it meant.
August 29, 2009
The barefoot summer is nearly over.
My soles are dirty, maybe permanently so; they are also thick and somewhat wiser than they were when this summer began 2,714 miles east of here.
There are certain things one learns (or doesn’t learn) when driving the highway between New York and Montana.
It’s late, 12:30-late, and I’m just now pulling into the parking lot of Hubbard’s Ponderosa Lodge in Missoula. The toll of a thousand straight miles on the road won’t register for a while yet: I’m still carrying a charge.
“Hi. I’d like a room—two nights, one person.”
I’m traveling by myself, my preference from the age of five, a time when my version of a solo vacation was putting Mom and Dad thirty feet at my back, all but forgetting them as I crouched low, sifting through frosted sea glass and limpet shells with glossy, purplish undersides—alone on the beach with a green plastic bucket and an active imagination.
Front desk: “I’m sorry, but we’re actually booked solid through the weekend.”
I stare, confused. It’s the middle of September, and I’m in Montana. It simply hadn’t occurred to me to make a reservation beforehand. “Oh man. Really nothing?”
“Yeah, ‘fraid not. Maybe you haven’t heard, but it’s the big game tomorrow night. Hate to say it, but you’ll be lucky to get a room anywhere in the city.”
Ah, the big game. Sure. Of course.
I thank the attendant and drive down the road to my second try: Campus Inn. Again, no go. Two more hotels and I’ve reached the bottom of a sticky note lined with recommendations from a Missoula-born co-worker. Out of leads and just shy of resigning myself to a dicey stay in the backseat of my Honda, I decide to give it one last shot, pulling into the no-frills Mountain Valley Inn.
They’ll have me.
A half hour later I’m stretched out on a double bed, looking up at a popcorn ceiling and half-listening as a local news reporter covers the latest in a string of nasty brush fires. My calves feel cool against the starchy comforter, and I can’t believe that I’m here: far from Seattle, in a place where nobody knows me, in a room that I might easily never have known existed.
I sleep late into the morning, waking at ten o’clock to the sounds of construction workers outside my window. My eyes feel dry and a little achy, and I realize I’d fallen asleep with my contacts in, teeth un-brushed, yesterday’s clothes on. The same reporter is still talking about brush fires.
Once outside, I head east on Broadway, steps later turning off at Higgins Street—according to my co-worker, Downtown Missoula’s most energetic thoroughfare. Her description was apt. I wander in and out of art galleries, antique shops, and gear stores serving outdoor adventure seekers lured by the dips and crests of the Rockies.
I stop at a cheery bakery for a slice of peanut butter pie, which I enjoy under a noon sun, my back pressed up against the edge of a picnic table overlooking a tree-canopied nature trail. Several cyclists and a pair of joggers pass by, their low chatter overlapping the song of a carousel turning circles across the way.
I wander back inside, returning my plate and fork to the counter amid a bustling brunch scene. Thanking the college-aged kid behind the counter, I see myself in her place: hair pulled back at the sides, logo-imprinted apron, a pleasant espresso buzz lifting me through the afternoon. I’d take my lunch break outside, maybe at that same picnic table. Hmm, perhaps following my stint peddling organic veggies at the farmer’s market up the road, and after my apprenticeship with the cobbler back on Front Street. Really, I hate to prioritize. In my head, I could just as easily be doing one over the other, with each pursuit delivering the same degree of satisfaction.
Because I am alone here, this kind of posturing—the harmless, romantic kind—is fairly seamless. With nothing or no one to pull me back into my life, there isn’t the distraction, and the reinvention is cleaner than it would be if I were at home, or if I were away from home with someone else.
I’m sitting on a bench facing a paved walkway that cuts through the lovely, neoclassical University of Montana campus. I’ve got a book open—a Paul Auster novel—but I’m only half-absorbing what I’m reading, too aroused by reality to plunge into one of Auster’s twisting narratives. Although it’s a Saturday, there are still plenty of people around, and it’s the students I notice, heavy backpacks curling their shoulders forward, dingy flip-flops audibly scraping the cement as they pass by my bench. With my cracked book and my casual clothes, I look like them; there’s nothing to suggest that I’m not, say, pushing through the required reading for English 301, nothing to expose me for the UW alum that I am. I blend perfectly.
I make my way to the base of the “M” trail, named for the gigantic Times New Roman letter consisting of white stone and resting three-quarters of a mile up the west side of Mount Sentinel. Said the co-worker, the steep hike up is a not-to-be-missed event, affording exceptional views of the Missoula Valley.
As a distance runner, I’m in good shape. But after eleven switchbacks and a 620-foot elevation gain, I’m ready for a rest.
I catch my breath among a handful of people gathered at the perimeter of the alphabet’s thirteenth letter, stretching my legs as I survey the peaceful vista below: gray cityscape broken up by thick, deep-green parcels of fir trees, split in two by the inky Clark Fork River, ringed by mountains cased in golden-brown brush. Even busy Interstate 90, stretching across the north end of the city, imparts a certain tranquility.
Narrowing my focus, I try to locate my bench. I think I’ve picked out the row of campus buildings situated behind it, but assuming I’ve picked right, a few prosperous maples are obstructing my view. This gets me thinking about everything else I can’t see from here: students napping on the lawn, garage sales in progress, potholes in the roads, the entire east side of this mountain… Part of me is disappointed to have to admit to missing so much, but most of me appreciates the mystery, likes thinking about the infinite scenarios.
I wander away from the M, the earth dry and un-giving beneath my dusty shoes, bleached grasses and rampant weeds distinguishing Mount Sentinel from the lushness below. With the aid of my hotel map, I pick out Hellgate Canyon and Mount Jumbo to the north, the Bitterroot range to the south. The air feels raw and decisive as it enters my lungs.
I’d like to stay longer, maybe take a short nap myself, but the sun’s descent is well-underway, and it’s more than a light breeze that’s raising the hair on my arms. I’m hungry, too, and the granola bar I’d tucked into my bag isn’t going to cut it. It’s time to head.
Back on the precipitous trail, I find that it’s easier, going down, to maintain a sort of restrained jog than it is a steady walk. Certainly more forgiving where my knees are concerned. This in mind, I make my way along the zigzagging path, passing several people moving in each direction. Periodically I get a little ahead of myself, inadvertently picking up the pace and slipping into a near-run. When this happens, I simply make the necessary adjustments and push on.
Halfway to the bottom my track record takes a hit. Reacting to a surprise dip in the trail, my foot falls an extra inch, connecting with the dirt at the same time my pack, stuffed full with books and magazines, jumps up against my back. This repositioning throws me off and suddenly I’m airborne, for a split second flying parallel to the slope before the weight of my load pulls me to the ground—hard. Of course, given the surface gradient, the excitement’s only just begun. I bump and skid headfirst down the trail—my hands, elbows, and knees bearing the brunt of my stupidity—and it isn’t until seconds later that my pack, now hanging for the most part off my right shoulder, slows me to a halt.
“Oh my gosh, are you okay?”
The voice comes from above, from a switchback or two up, and as I struggle to right myself, it merges into a chorus of several voices, maybe four or five. But I seem to be trapped, confined in an awkward, crumpled, downward-facing position by this ridiculous ten-ton backpack of mine.
Panic sets in; the skin on my face and arms is suddenly burning, and not from pain. As hot, fast, embarrassed tears run over the rims of my eyes, I flash back to a mortifying experience: Sixth-grade biology class. I’m tipped back in my chair, my forearm resting on the table behind which Joe C., object of my crush, sits with an adorable smirk on his face. We’re definitely flirting, exchanging juvenile quips about our nerdy teacher, when Cute Stuff takes it a step further, without warning yanking the table in his direction. I follow my chair to the floor, partially catching myself with my hands as I/we strike bottom. It feels like whole minutes pass before I’m able to effectively rise up from that piece of dumb orange plastic, my head low, eyes prickly, as I take my seat for a second time. Pain is not on my radar.
This time is different, of course. No one around me is laughing; more importantly, they don’t know me in real life. Consequently, my initial embarrassment loses potency, and as I wiggle my shoulders a last, vigorous time, finally losing the hated backpack, what I’m left with is coarse pain, pain that alters the nature of my tears, pain that is very much on my radar.
I stand up fast, wincing. Instinctively I move to brush off my jeans, jeans that I notice have sprouted a hole in the right knee. Though my eyes are still watery and unfocused, I can see the bright red of my blood where it’s flush against my skin, the darker red where it’s begun seeping into the sides of the torn fabric. I see my skin, puffy and pale, almost white from the impact.
“Oh yeah, yeah, I’m fine, I’m fine.”
“Are you sure? You took quite a fall there.”
I force a smile, something smart-alecky occurring to me. Oh, silly man, as if these bloodied palms of mine weren’t proof enough! I’m fine—fine as fuck!
“Nah, just some scrapes. I’m sure I can find some Band-Aids somewhere on campus,” I say, addressing the group of four—one couple, two singles—that had loosely assembled nearby. My palms have become pincushions, smarting with each new wave of insertions. My throat feels tight. I want them to leave.
“Well alright. Take care of yourself.”
Take care of yourself. As I turn and start walking, the words of the nice man, the sincere well-wisher, turn over in my head, and the tears in my eyes cease to be motivated by pain alone. Take care of yourself, because there is no one else, no go-to person at your side in case something should happen, in the event that something goes wrong.
The campus spreads wide below, visible from end to end. Ticket-holders have begun filling the white-lit stadium, their energy roving upward. Around them, the day is on its last legs, the sky glowing fuchsia as the sun drops steadily toward the horizon.
I am sharply afraid, disoriented and whimpering like that five-year-old on the beach suddenly scared to find she’s wandered beyond the place from which her parents are visible. Reflexively, I unzip the front pocket of my pack, reaching in for my phone, anticipating my boyfriend’s mild voice…
I don’t call, though, deciding instead to wait until I’m secure on flat ground, wounds addressed, wits gathered. There’s something else going on, too: from within, an appeal for a few additional minutes of solitude.
And without trying, I am systematically relaxing, conscious of my breath slowing, my throat loosening, my eyes gaining focus. I’m still worked-up, my body hasn’t stopped hurting (I’m limping slightly), but it’s my hurting body that is driving the intensity of my experience, authenticating my one-woman journey, the spectacle that preceded it ensuring that I don’t completely fade into the background. Reflecting now, I don’t think I ever wanted to fade completely.
Back at home and in the weeks that follow, I’ll have to explain the scrapes, several times. But the story will never come out as I want it to, lacking the emotional breadth that endears it to me. Writing it all down will be slightly more effective, but the truest way to tell it will be to graze the skin on my knees, or my elbows, which will bring it all back. At once frustrating and satisfying, I will be the only one around to hear.