Monday, 16 June 2014
The Last Best Place 1
‘I’m in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect,
recognition, even some affection. But with Montana it is love. And it’s
difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.’
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley
Neon. The way Calamity Jane came, to get to Virginia City, had been a dangerous gamble. The country in between was wild as a corncrib rat. The trail that was evolving to take her there, would open up the rest of the Old West and, finally and truly, link Jane up to General George Armstrong Custer, through a blazing radiance. Red Cloud.
Breakfast in bed was mandatory at the Sacajawea Hotel in Three Forks. The front desk woke us early, to find out why we hadn’t filled in our official Breakfast in Bed Special Choices form the evening before. As we had been instructed, when we had checked in. We explained our preference for coming downstairs to eat in the dining room, and nothing further had been said.
But that, if it happened, was incorrect, and we had been expected to fill in our form. We told the desk that we still wanted to come downstairs for breakfast and, with some reluctance, agreed to, on the condition that I give her what would have been our Breakfast in Bed Special Choices.
Imagine out surprise, therefore, when not ten minutes later, our Breakfast in Bed Special Choices arrived by themselves. We told the young lady who delivered them that we had been granted special dispensation to eat them in the restaurant. She looked at us quizzically, and withdrew back downstairs. We followed at a safe distance. If you’re sitting at the counter leave your hat on, but if you’re sitting at the table take it off.
It hadn’t been worth the effort.
On our way out, we asked how to get to Bozeman?
“Go down Main Street.” She said. “Turn right.”
Which took us unto into a land of haystacks and wild sunflowers, and black birds with long tails, and blue stripes around their necks.
We followed the Sunflowers to the Madison Buffalo Jump, surrounded by mesas and cactus and sage, and scorching heat. No one was there to collect the five-dollar entrance fee. No one was there to collect the buffalo either, but when there had been, it must have been something to watch. It would have been impossible to distinguish the bison from the Indian impostors in their midst, the ones that panicked the herd into jumping off the cliff, without getting trampled in the stampede. It was a long way down.
The sunflowers took us to Bozeman. We passed an Indian girl, dream-catcher hanging from her mirror. And a billboard. Life... a beautiful choice.
The Museum of the Rockies was, according to our Montana guide, a ‘must see’ destination. But Jack Horner’s dinosaurs were mostly fibreglass casts (the real ones had gone off to the Smithsonian mothership), the outer space exhibit a century ahead of where our heads were at, the winter squash in the outdoor pioneer homestead had been eaten by deer, and the buffalo on the top floor was made of telephone cord and bicycle tires and electric guitars and fire extinguishers. The Indian exhibit was full of screaming white kids. I wondered why progress looked so much like destruction.
I had discovered that my old camera’s memory card was full, and back down on Main Street, Jeff and Logan, who found the secret of reformatting it. They recommended the Bacchus Pub for lunch.
“My wife wants to go shopping.” I said to the waitress. “What have you got that’s fast?”
“Do you want healthy or unhealthy?”
We had one of each. I had the best Reuben in the world, with a Big Sky Moose drool. Robyn had a falafel, with a Madison River Salmon Fly Honey Rye draft. A motorcycle roared by, no helmet, and a red bandana covering his face. Decades earlier, Robert Pirsig, a professor of English composition and rhetoric here at Montana State, had written the definitive guidebook on Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It had forced the first step, on my trip around the world.
The waitress returned to inquire after our health. Robyn said she might need a bath.
“Really ready to go shopping, huh?” She said. They both left me alone with the bill.
I wandered down the main drag, looking at the signs of progress.
Sorry, We’re open… Odyssey… John Bozeman Bistro Steaks Seafood…Robyn and I had heard of the place, but it was a Monday, and closed. We would be eating elsewhere.
I passed under the neon buffalo of Ted’s Montana Grill, media mogul Ted Turner’s steak restaurant. Ted, together with his friend, Tim Blixseth, had built the elite Yellowstone Club, a nearby ski and golf resort for some of the wealthiest people in the country. Dressed up like a million dollar trouper, Trying hard to look like Gary Cooper (super duper). Come let's mix where Rockefellers walk with sticks.
Or umbrellas in their mitts, Puttin’ on the Ritz. It was in bankruptcy because of the recession, and the seventy year old gas line that ran down Main Street, to the Montana Trails Gallery.
At 8:15 on the morning of the 9th of March 2009, an explosion ripped a hole in the heart of downtown Bozeman, levelling five historic buildings that contained thriving businesses, and damaging several more. The director of the gallery, Tara Bowman, was killed. Dozens of plate glass windows were blown out, along with the hopes for a resurgent downtown. The discovery of three more gas leaks didn’t help. Ted got off easier than Tim’s son, who was issued an` arrest warrant for defaulting on a loan he had taken for another elite mega development planned on the edge of town.
Before there had been an edge, in 1863, John M. Bozeman opened a new northern trail through the Gallatin Valley, to the goldfields of Virginia City. A year later he founded his town… standing right in the gate of the mountains ready to swallow up all tenderfeet that would reach the territory from the east, with their golden fleeces to be taken care of.
Any of the fly rods and reels in The Bozeman Angler would have fleeced more gold than I had. A River Runs Through It. William Clark would have likely used less expensive gear here in July 1806, at his camp near the mouth of the Kelly canyon.
The old woman staring at the clutter in her antique shop barely looked up.
“That’s quite a collection you have.” I said.
“Yeah.” She said. “I’m just looking it over to see if I can commit any of it to memory.” One of the murals off Main Street portrayed an Indian chief overlooking a stagecoach, and a train in a valley of flowers. A river ran through it.
Further along, I was mesmerized by the life-sized standing white stallion twirling on the marquis outside the Gallatin Masonic Lodge, horse whispering of secrets from the same symbol, on the graves of boot hill in Virginia City, and other Old West tombstones we would find. Something happens to a man when he gets on a horse, in a country where he can ride forever. One of the men who rode the path of pilgrimage to authenticity had attended Gallatin Valley High School in Bozeman.
“Authenticity.” I said. “The American West was The Sacred Land- the gold
rush towards truth.”
“What’s the truth?” He asked.
“The achievement of redemption.” I said.
“How do you get that?” He asked.
“By living the authentic life, by living in Nature, and by facing death with
dignity and courage.”
“Sounds very existential.” Said Carolyn.
“That’s where the truth lives.” I said.