‘There ain't never a horse that couldn't be rode...
there ain't never a rider that couldn't be throwed.’
Frank James Cooper was born in Helena, Montana in 1901, of English parents. His mother sent him back to a grammar school in Bedfordshire when he was nine. He returned to ‘shovelling manure at forty below’ on his father’s ranch, until his parents moved to Los Angeles. Deciding that he would ‘rather starve where it was warm, than to starve and freeze too,’ Frank followed them. He failed as a sign salesman, and eventually got a job stunt riding as a cowboy extra at a movie studio, for ten bucks a day plus a box lunch. One of the casting directors noticed him, renamed him after her home town in Indiana, and made him a star in his first sound picture, The Virginian, in 1929. How was I to know she was a lady? She was with you, wasn’t she?
In 1953, the year I was born, he won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as Marshal Will Kane in High Noon. John Wayne accepted it for him. He was sick with an ulcer. Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway. In 1961, he received an honorary Oscar. An emotional Jimmy Stewart accepted it for him. He was sick with cancer and, when he died a month later, a German newspaper noted that Gary Cooper was ‘the symbol of trust, confidence and protection.’
I wandered into Chee’s sporting goods store, fully unprepared for the salesman in the hunting room, who was loaded for bear. The room was huge, dimly lit by overhead chandeliers and wall sconce incandescences, and crowded with so many dead species of fur and feather, that double the number may have filled the ark. A grizzly bear stood up behind a counter, mountain goats and raptors near the roof, and heads of the dismembered ungulates filled the spaces in between. Firearms and ammunition and other merchandise of murder were illuminated by spotlights or accompanied by multimedia displays, offerings in the temple of taxidermy.
“Where’ ya from?” He asked.
“Vancouver Island.” I said.
“I used to be a guide there.” He said.
“Really.” I said.
“Yep.” He said. “Shot a lot of bears in your back yard.” I was sick with disgust. Hunting for food I was an self-acknowledged hypocrite about. Robyn and I had friends that hunted, and gave us meat, in return for our silence. But to simply exterminate a noble sentient creature in the wild, for the same cheap visceral thrill that had come out of the windows of the trains in the Old West, was deplorable.
“Anything grab you?” He asked.
“Hemingway.” I said.
“Good man.” He said. “Good hunter.”
“You know his work?” I asked.
“Nope.” He said. “What do you suggest?” You have two ways of leaving this establishment, my friend. Immediately or dead.
“Farewell to Arms.” I said. He squirmed like a worm in hot ashes. “Gary Cooper played the lead in the 1932 film adaptation. He was a friend of Hemingway’s. They used to hunt and ski at Sun Valley together.”
“Good man.” He said. “He was from here.”
“When I was a kid, I had a pet rattlesnake.” I said. “I was fond of it, but I wouldn’t turn my back on it.” Now turn around and head for the door. Keep movin’ and don’t do anything sudden with your hands.
There were different kinds of books, and records and discs, at Vargo’s Books and Jazz. The owner was reading one of them, and listening to Miles Davis at the same time. No one else was there.
“You’ve got a perfect life.” I said, on the way out. He smile, and pointed at the sign, in one of the local book sections. Montana- The Last Best Place.
I met Robyn and the end of Main Street, as we had arranged. I asked if she had bought anything. She shook her head.
“You find anything?” She asked. I shook my head as well.
“Let’s go check in.” She said. And we walked to the wagon.
The bed and breakfast I had booked was an old mansion of one of the first brewers in Bozeman. We found it out near the lone grain elevator and the railroad tracks at the edge of town.
I had written the owners and asked if it was possible to have a room with a minimal amount of train noise. I had read the reviews and the recurrent remarks about locomotives in the middle of the night.
Chris wrote back to tell me that very few people found the train noise excessive, and some even found it hypnotically soporific. I let it lie. A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.
Out near Lehrkind’s old derelict brewery, we pulled along the sidewalk, beyond which stood a three-story Queen Anne manor, two wings of brick facade panelled with two shades of green, and railings of the same colour, with white balustrades and scalloped scrollwork. The dentates were red, and some were green.
Verandas hugged the front two sides of the angled mansion. Out of the intersection grew an octagonal shingle-peaked cupola, with a top set of diamond lattice windows. Half-curtains hung from them all. There was a spire on top, a couple of small gargoyles at the roof edges, where you wouldn’t have expected them, and creepers on all the surface sunlight they could find, where you would have expected them. An arabesque balcony hung off in the space to our right.
The lawns hadn’t been mown for awhile. A short walk took us up the California porch stairway. There was a radiant yellow sun inset in the triangular Palladian, above. Potted plants, in various states of vigour, squeezed the veranda shade.
The doorbell, beside the handwritten sign requiring us to remove our shoes, brought no response, even through we were long past the check-in time. We finally found him in the carriage house changing beds, and he became the second interesting part of the experience. Very imprudent to make your presence known in unsettled country.
Chris had been a biologist, a Yellowstone park ranger, before he and his partner, now a politically correct euphemistic way of degenderizing relationships, bought the mansion. He thought well of himself, and clearly loved the idea of witty repartee with daily new faces, but you could tell the less savoury elements of running a stagecoach inn were taking their toll. He had become increasingly introverted with each new less-than-erudite experience. I’m not sure his partner was pitching in his share. At two o’clock in the morning Chris had been required to drive out to the airport to pick up patrons that had flown in on a red-eye. His original guest suggestions had evolved into paramilitary ranger rules, and he spoke to you like he was willing to listen only so long, before deciding that any further investment would be a waste of his time. He took our money quickly. I’d like to buy him for what he’s worth, and sell him for what he thinks he is.
The interior was packed with the period it was built in. Chris showed us a vintage music box, with a large rotating tin wheel, as big and fierce as the rotary saw blade in Philipsburg, punctured with holes at radial intervals. He inserted it into its position, along a row of metal tines, inside its large Victorian wooden cabinet. He cranked the winding mechanism, and a calliope of harmonious tintinnabulation rang out and echoed through the manor.
“I’ve upgraded you to the Audubon Suite.” He said. “In the tower. Near the trains.” And then he chuckled. We asked him where to eat. He told us of the Montana Ale Works, just down the street.
“I always send my guests there.” He said. “Try the ribs.” We left just before dusk. Two barbwire bear cubs and a shears-snipped sheet metal beehive on a tree stood like a tiny tin taxidermy take-off of Chee’s, off the crooked sidewalk to our right. The sun was fading. It was as typical an American neighbourhood as you could find anywhere that romance was still more important than reality. The shrubbery encroached over the crumbling sidewalk, a message from the homeowners to keep on moving. American flags cast late afternoon shadows, on the front of the houses. There were mailboxes and gates and dogs, and people on porches, horse whispering quietly.
It was longer that we had been told. There was that uniquely American restaurant phenomenon, a lineup to get in. The difference between a lineup and a queue is that, in a lineup, competitive forces are still at work. It's very stars and stripes.
Our waiter seemed happy to see us, and interested in our trip. He was particularly enthusiastic about Yellowstone, and gave us a list of activities that would have lasted a month. I asked how crowded the park got in September. I knew American national parks were more congested than those in Canada. It was a simple ratio of volume to area. But I had read that, in the month we were visiting, there would be almost three-quarters of a million tourists. I wrote the park service, to ask if the most remote site in the park, the one that didn't take reservations, would be a sure thing or a gamble when we came through. The response was not reassuring. May not be a problem, as long as you're there by 9 am. I booked us a bed and breakfast, all the way out the other side of Yellowstone, from Wyoming back into Montana. The proprietress in Gardiner was just as encouraging as Mr. Ranger. You may have to share the bathroom.
“It's not crowded at all.” The waiter said. And he told us about his secret swimming hole on the Yellowstone River, just a few miles down the road from from our Gardiner Bed and Breakfast.
“You’ll love it.” He said.
Robyn ordered the calamari. I had told her we were a long way from water. It tasted like it had just been caught. I had the ribs.
"Paradise Valley." The waiter said. The same Indian Valley of the Flowers whose invasion produced Red Cloud's War, and closed the Bozeman Trail. But in 1866, Nelson Story, a Virginia City gold miner turned cattleman, braved the hostile trail to successfully drive a thousand head of longhorn into Paradise Valley. He had eluded the US Army, who had tried to turn him back, to protect the drive from hostile Indians.
Story's sizeable ranchlands in the Paradise and Gallatin Valleys were ultimately and ironically donated to the establishment of Montana State University, and the contribution, in its Museum of the Rockies, to the cultural history of an entire people. It was some kind of shrine to the Indians whose land he had primed for invasion, a taxidermy temple of the toppled.
The ribs were to die for. Robyn had vanilla crème brûlée for dessert. "Hard to believe this used to the canned peas capital of the world." The waiter said. Indeed.
We arrived back at the mansion at twilight. It was a sunset just like the others we had seen in big sky. Against the silhouettes of the Bridger Mountains and big pines and telephone poles along the railroad tracks, and the last shadows on the brewery’s big grain elevator, were laminations of sunflowers, and lamentations of gray clouds and orange and red flames. It was the loneliest sunset in the world. Red Cloud.
We turned in, after our baths, under the thick down comforter of the high-back tiger oak bed, surrounded by overstuffed chairs, antique rugs, stained-glass lamps, a leather trunk, and an ornate writing desk, on a protected upper floor with a view of the entire horizon.
Shadowy profiles rolled across the edge of the cobalt sky.
The trains came at intervals through the night. Sometimes it was so quiet you could hear daylight comin.’ I had the wildest dream. All night. Evocative. Dingdingdingdingdingding…