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.