Saturday, 7 June 2014

Ghost Riders in the Sky 3

              ‘I could kick you for givin' him all them ideas about Montana.
               Now we're gonna suffer for the rest of our damn lives.’
                                                     Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove

I steered down the remaining ruts of the refuge, from the montane to the mundane. Just before the elk antler arch exit, an SUV flew by, throwing gravel in every direction I tried to avoid it. I got my cowboy up again, and chased him to the Mercantile, ready for the ironic and the unexpected. Unleash the hounds.
“OK.” Said the bacon fat goatee and sunglasses and punched-in Stetson driver. “I’m sorry.” I wondered what had happened to all the real bad guys, but I had to let him go. We made a pit stop, to similarly courteous signage. Please do not throw trash in the toilets- it is extremely difficult to remove.
The wagon turned south, through small Mon-taw-na towns. There was Adlee, with 58 kinds of licorice, and Evaro’s Buck Snort Bar, and Skull Church, with an honest-to-God skull where the cross should have been. Rolls of hay, like gigantic wheels of cheese, spun by. Big sky. Thick steak. Full belly. We passed the promise of a Testicle Festival, and travel plazas to nowhere. Buckshot had gone ahead, through road signs that asked perfectly logical questions, if we had planned on staying. Do you have defensible space? Further along, there was a House for Sale. The nothing around it went forever.
“What are they thinking?” Asked Robyn, correctly. That would be there for a while.
We turned off the Missoula highway across a small wooden bridge, and followed a pretty winding stream east, into a Chinese rock garden, until we didn’t, turning off, and north, and up. The gravel became coarse and sparse and gone, and the two wide ruts merged into one narrow trough of potholes. And then some. And then some it got stupid.
The name of the road should have given it away. Secret Gulch.
“I wonder what the secret is.” said Robyn, lurching and swinging around the steering wheel in thirteen distinctive kinds of gait, including one that reaches nearly eight yards per stride.
“Stay out.” I said. “Would just about cover it.” We passed a wooden shack, abandoned to all appearances, and time. An old couple emerged onto the porch. I wasn’t sure they were waving, or waving us down.
“What do they do all day?” Robyn asked. But our preoccupation with survival would soon dwarf any more trivial musings. We climbed into a tapering constriction of precipitous switchbacks, up the pine-studded rock face of a mountain, with a view of the sun on the plains in the distance, and a black void on the edge of our starboard tires. The back left one kept trying to jump to its death. We had solved the mystery of Secret Gulch. The track held no more torment.
“Are you sure this is the way?” Asked Robyn. I told her I was sure.
“We need a sign.” She said. And we got one. Road closed. Cave Gulch detour 5 mi.
“You must be joking.” I said, to no one in particular.
“Let’s turn around.” Robyn said. “While we still can.” It was usually at this point in any of our off-road adventures, that I paused, analyzed the situation carefully, and came to a completely erroneous decision.
“Remember that mushroom-picking logging road you found on Mount Arrowsmith, that turned into the trail of tears?” She asked. I was reminded. We had almost gone off the cliff. But I had learned from that experience and, most of all, I learned that this was my chance for redemption.
“Let’s keep going.” I said. “It can’t be that far now.” And it wasn’t, if you were a crow. But we were a Toyota, and our powers of flight were more modest. The switchbacks got sharper and shorter. The lurching and swinging became bouncing. If you looked out the window and up, you could almost see God, exactly like if you looked out the window and down. We turned a corner, to a Florida license plate, and a bumper sticker. Honk if you love Jesus. We loved Jesus, until he got the hell out of our way.
“Well, honey.” I said, pulling out all the stops. “If he can make it, so can we.”
“He hasn’t made it yet.” She said. “And it’s not clear where either of us are going. We need a sign.” I pointed.
“That’s a broken tree trunk.” She said. But beyond the broken tree trunk was a clearing, and in the clearing was a patchwork of old wooden shacks, and next to the clearing of old wooden shacks, was a sign. Garnet. Elevation 6000 ft.
“This better be good.” Said my one true love. This better be good, I thought.
I had researched Garnet as ‘Montana’s best preserved and least visited ghost towns.’ So it came as a complete surprise, when we pulled into a parking lot full of vehicles that looked like they had just rolled off the factory lot. Not a scratch, not a speck of dust. SUVs, 4x4s, camper vans, and RVs. Whole Asian families were getting out of RVs.
“RVs?” Said Robyn. “How did RVs get up here?” It was a question that demanded an answer, and we set off to find one, and see the ghost town, of course. In our enthusiasm, we took a short cut down to the where most of the ghosts had lived, off the main trail. We were met by a ranger at the bottom.
“You need to stay on the path.” He said. I told him we had, fortunately, straight up the mountain, and asked him how whole Asian families were emerging from RVs in the parking lot, when they should be dead.
“You came up the south face?” He asked.
“Apparently.” I said. “Didn’t everybody.” He hesitated, in breaking the good news.
“Hell, no.” He said. “Wallace Creek Road comes from north of here, up near Missoula.” I glanced over at Robyn. It wasn’t pretty.
“So how do we get to Philipsburg from here?” She asked. He hesitated, in breaking the good news.
“Whew, Philipsburg.” He said. Not an auspicious beginning. “Wow. You’ll have to go north, then east, then south.”
“Big state, Montana.” I said.
“Tall too.” He said. “You’re over a mile high.” But that was something we already knew.
Our path of pilgrimage had taken us up, into the gold rush towards truth and redemption. Some archetypes of the authentic American West weren’t cowboys and Indians, but miners and mining communities. Ophir holes and gopher holes and loafer holes. Hidden at the edge of the high desert in the Front Range, on the sheltered forest dirt floor of First Chance Creek in Granite County, was a ghost town named for the ruby-coloured semi-precious stone first mined here, until the granite gave up its secret. The yellow metal in California and Colorado had been easily extracted by placer mining, washing it out of the sand and gravel with water, until it ran out. By 1870, the miners had migrated towards the Garnet Mountains, with their rockers and sluice boxes, but most of the gold would be stubborn and hiding, in quartz veins, beyond the extracting and smelting techniques that had not yet arrived on the poor roads, which had still not arrived. The silver mines began to draw the miners, until the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1893 shut them down, and the diggers trickled back to Garnet
In 1895, Dr. Armistead Mitchell set up a stamp mill to crush the granite, and Sam Ritchey hit a rich vein of gold, at his Nancy Hanks mine, just west of town. The boom was on.
By January 1898, a thousand people lived in Garnet. There were twenty mines, four stores, three livery stables, two barbershops, a union hall, a butcher shop, a candy shop, a doctor’s office, an assay office, and a school with 41 students. Four hotels had been opened with rooms ranging from one to three dollars. The poor miners who could not afford that price could sleep in the window-less attic for a quarter. Garnet was lubricated by the liquor that flowed freely, in it’s thirteen famous saloons, and the brisk business in its bawdy houses.
But there was no Official Community Plan. Garnet was a haphazard hamlet, built by miners and entrepreneurs more eager for the riches below the ground than above it. Buildings had been hastily erected without foundations, on existing or future mining claims. They were small and easy to heat, and flammable.  Less than seven years later, it was all over. In 1912, fire destroyed half the buildings and, when WWII restricted the use of dynamite for domestic purposes, the ghosts had come to Garnet.
There were still scorch marks on some of the wooden buildings, but the surviving square-faced storefronts and boardwalks and cabins were well preserved and well kept. Robyn and I leaned on the bars of the saloons, and felt them lean back. A cracked record lay wounded on the old Victrola in a forlorn corner of one, missing a triangular arc of its music, a pizza slice of its past. The dull metal plates of gilded ghosts waited on the wooden tables in darkened dining rooms, for the no one that would ever sit in the wooden chairs, and the nothing that would ever come again, from the chipped enamel pots in the shadows.
We left past another sign on an actual road, heading north to go east, to go south.
Safety zone- no shooting. The ravages of Western pine beetle were rusting out the forests, all the way down to the purple sage.
“The winters don’t get cold enough to kill them.” Robyn said. We went by Camp Utmost, and pink rock outcroppings, slanting up on angles out of the ridge. Whatever ground level was, we were the only traffic, in the middle of, except for the river that ran through it, nowhere.
“Makes you wonder where everybody went.” I said.
The day was draining away to the west, and the race to get to Philipsburg before dark, had commenced. Helmville went by, and the empty Copper Queen Saloon. The hay bales shapes were long and flat, like the road before us. We turned onto Highway 271, too many numbers to have vehicles, a route of Black Angus and sage. Dead trees, chain-sawed to their trunks, were densely nailed with and antlers and animal skulls.
An open wedding wagon went by, decorated with pennants and garlands, pulled by two Clydesdales trimmed with blossoms. It was full of white cowboys hats and moustaches and suspenders, and dancing girls, with bows and pompoms in their hair, carrying bouquets of flowers and pink parasols.  White hats waved in the air as Robyn and I drove by.
We were sprinting against the sun, almost setting now on our right. Three ATVs were parked hard up against the front of a house, as we blew through Maxville, at warp speed.
And then, as Philipsburg announced its proximity, a blackness pulled up like a wraith behind us, and the dusk became an explosion of cobalt and carmine and purple stroboscopic white lightning. We pulled off onto the shoulder and watched, helpless, as our Vaudeville plans, evaporated in the large shadow, slowing advancing towards Robyn’s window.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Ghost Riders in the Sky 2

           Gus McCrae: Pretty, ain't they?
           Pea Eye Parker: I reckon
           Gus McCrae: Let's chase 'em. You want to?
           Pea Eye Parker: Shoot us one for our supper?
           Gus McCrae: No, I mean chase 'em just for the sport of it
           Pea Eye Parker: to run them off?
           Gus McCrae: You don't get the point, do you Pea? I mean chase
                                'em, because before long, there won't be any buffalo
                                left to chase.
                                                      Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove

We arrived at the Welcome to the Moiese Mercantile gas pump, plumb on unleaded empty. There were Huckleberry-shakes and Buffalo-burgers painted on the wall of the Burger ‘B’ Drive-in. A rooftop rubric cubic air conditioner whined above the pennants lining the roof slope, like the used car lot from Hell which, from the heat-stroked vehicles lining up outside for gas, it could have been. A life-sized barbwire buffalo greeted us with his legs apart, and his head and horns lowered. I got a similar reaction from the bacon fat goatee and sunglasses and punched-in Stetson, who cut his black and blue Dodge 4x4 in front of me.
What our story lacked so far was an ironic, unexpected event, which would propel the hero into a full-on punched-in black and blue conflict. I looked at Bacon Fat, and took a long, hard think. Never approach a bull from the front, a horse from the rear, or a fool from any direction. I left Robyn with the wagon in the lineup, and defused my cowboy in the Indian shop across the dust. Inside were ‘huckleberry products,’ and a refrigerator full of dead buffalo- buffalo jerky $33/lb, burger meat $10.99/lb, burger patties $11.99/lb, and buffalo stew meat and steaks for apparently no charge. I returned to refuel, and Robyn and I went inside to pay for the gas.
The antique owner behind the counter wasn’t in a talking mood, but I quizzed him anyway.
“How long does it take to drive through the Bison range?” I asked.
“Three hours.” He snorted. “On a good day.”
“Is this a good day?” I asked.
“It ain’t hot.” He said.
“We have to be in Philipsburg for the Vaudeville tonight.” I said.
“It ain’t hot.” He said, again. I wasn’t sure he was referring to the remoteness or the refreshment.
In the end we decided that we had come all the way to Montana to see buffalo.
“Let’s go see some buffalo.” Robyn said. And we drove the few hundred feet to the entrance, under the elk antler arch of the National Bison Range. Established 1908.
“Same year as the Swan River Massacre.” Said Robyn. But I was already studying the public warning. Bison are unpredictable and can be very dangerous. They appear to be slow-moving and docile but are really very agile and can run as fast as a horse. Bulls are especially dangerous during the breeding season from m d July through August. There was no ‘i’ in mid. But there would be, in Kiss your buffalo-gored ass goodbye. We bought tickets inside the kiosk. I asked the ranger how long it would take to drive it.
“Depends on how long you take.” He said, giving less than our Moiese Mercantile methuselah.
“You are about to experience the ultimate American self-drive safari.” He added. “Stay in your vehicle.” He pronounced vehicle with hard ‘h,’ and made us feel like we were entering Jurassic park.
The first part of the safari was sedate. Robyn and I climbed from open grasslands and scrub, into rutted switchbacks of tall yellow grass and sedges, punctuated by lightly wooded hills, with pines in the pubic places, and dust everywhere else. Big blue skies opened onto eroded mauve mountains, their fingers of white clay hoodoo cliffs guarding arroyos below, some still carrying the rare winding river, sleeved with green.
“Buffalo country.” I said. Robyn pointed out a pronghorn, camouflaged in the grass. The black patch on his jaw, gave him away as a male.
“Fastest land mammal in the western hemisphere.” I said. “First described for us by Lewis and Clark. Big heart and lungs, and hollow hair. They can run high speeds longer than African cheetahs, fifty-five miles per hour for a half a mile, likely because they originally evolved to outrun the American cheetah.”
“There is no American cheetah.” Said Robyn.
“There isn’t now.” I said. “And, despite the fact we call it an antelope, with thirteen distinctive kinds of gait, including one that reaches nearly eight yards per stride, it can’t jump. They’ll fly under any rancher’s fence, but can’t get over one, which is why some landowners have removed the bottom wire from their enclosures.”
“Their heads are like those of giraffes.” Robyn said.
“It’s true.” I said. “Like giraffes, their skin covers the skull, but in the pronghorn, becomes the keratinous horny sheath that sheds and regrows every year. They’re interesting in other ways as well. Unlike deer, they have a gallbladder, and are able to eat plants that are toxic to domestic livestock. They migrate every year, across the lava fields of the Craters of the Moon to the Continental Divide, over 160 miles, true marathoners of the American West. You can pretty much predict the behavior of our male friend here, who is very possessive and marks his territory with scent gland musk from the side of his head, vocalizations, and by challenging intruders. The girls are comprised of three strategic groups. Sampling females visit several males for a short time before switching to the next one, at an increasing rate, as oestrus approaches. Inciting females precipitate conflicts between males, and then mate with the winners. Quiet females remain with a single male, in an isolated area. Courting males approach with soft vocalizations, waving their head from side to side, and displaying their cheek patches, like a high school dance.”
“So, how are they doing?” Asked Robyn.
“Better than some. Not as good as others.” I said. “Originally there were twelve species of antilocaprids in North America, dropping to five when the Indians came across the Bering Land Bridge. Now there is only one. By the 1920s, there were only 13,000 pronghorns that hadn’t been shot. They’re back up to half a million, but blue tongue disease from sheep, poaching, livestock grazing, road and barrier construction, and habitat loss are killing them off again. At one point their migration corridor is down to two hundred yards wide.”
As happy as he didn’t look, the mule deer doe, in the splattered shade under the pines at the top of the rise, was miserable. Her ribs projected through the mange of what was left of her hide, her eyes were half closed to the flies, and the only thing in any way upright were her large ears, radiating heat and despair. A barbwire barrier ran behind her, through the trees. Let me be by myself in the evening breeze, Listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees, Send me off forever but I ask you please…
“I didn’t think there were supposed to be fences through here.” Robyn said.
“Death and worse happened here.” I said.
There had been over sixty million bison in North America before Columbus arrived, ranging in a big triangle all the way from Great Bear Lake in northern Canada, down to Durango and Nuevo León in Mexico, then east, almost to the Atlantic tidewater.
They had come off their ancestral lineage from water buffalo and African buffalo ten million years ago, as the Eurasian steppe bison that decorated the ancient cave paintings of Spain and Southern France. The European bison descended from steppe bison that had migrated from Asia to North America and back again, where they crossbred again with their steppe bison relatives. Some of these crossbred with the ancestors of the modern yak, and some of them crossed back over the Bering Land Bridge, to become the giant longhorn bison, which was annihilated in the megafauna Quaternary extinction. Two smaller bison subspecies eventually evolved into our North American Bison bison buffalo, about ten thousand years ago.
The Native Americans used them, but they never domesticated them. Every animal was a four-legged grocery, dry goods and  hardware store. For eight thousand years the Plains Indians dried and pulverized the meat, mixed it with berries and bone marrow, and packed it in buffalo skins. Pemmican was an order of magnitude more nutritious than fresh meat, and lasted until the next season. Tanned buffalo hides were sewn with bone buffalo needles into , moccasins and leggings, buckets and cooking vessels, shields and boats, and shelters and bedding. Bone and horns also provided spoons and spikes, drills and scalers, and knives and axes. Children slid down snowbanks on jawbones and ribs. Its hooves were made into glue, its shit was turned into heat, and its spirit was transubstantiated into religion and ritual. When the Red Man finished with a buffalo, he had used it all.
The Indians ate, dressed in, talked to, fought for, and died by the sacred buffalo. Their battles occurred over hunting territory, and the last, the one that ended the old life forever at the slaughter that was Wounded Knee, was fought in magic bulletproof shirts and a ghost dance trance.

                        The whole world is coming
                        A nation is coming, a nation is coming,
                        The Eagle has brought the message to the tribe,
                        The father says so, the father says so,
                        Over the whole earth they are coming,
                        The buffalo are coming, the buffalo are coming.
The Native Americans used them, but they never domesticated them. They have a ‘wild and ungovernable temper,’ weigh over a ton apiece, and can jump six feet vertically (unlike the pronghorn) and charge at forty miles an hour when agitated. At that speed, their hump, which they use as a snowplow in the winter, is a lethal weapon, and their horns, which face forward, can destroy almost anything in their path, including most fencing systems, including most razor wire.
Before the arrival of the horse 1600, the only way the Indians could kill bison, was to deceive them, into running off cliffs, like unsuspecting lemmings. They worshipped the rare white buffalo, as a sacred colour.  Then came white soldiers and settlers, and their cattle, and guns, and railroads, and the Great Slaughter. The Indians watched, horrified, as the iron horses on iron spikes, sprayed lead bullets out of every train window, leaving trails of tens of thousands of one ton animals, and blood and salt, with every passing. Dingdingdingdingdingding…
The white men called it ‘sport.’ Piles of buffalo bones, fertilizer instead of food, soared skyward.

                             ‘The buffaloes I, the buffaloes I
                              I make the buffaloes march around
                              I am related to the buffaloes, the buffaloes.’
                                                                                 Sioux Proverb

The US Army held a campaign in the late 1800s to exterminate bison, as a way to control tribes that depended on them. In the two years between 1872-1874, white hunters killed over three and half million. The winds of the continent were rotten with the stench of their extermination, ordered by General Sheridan as ‘the only way to bring lasting peace and allow civilization to advance.’
Domesticated cattle contributed tuberculosis and brucellosis and other bovine diseases to their path towards extinction. The same germs, guns, and steel, that Jared Diamond had identified as the cause of the deaths of nearly all the original American human inhabitants, were the cause of the deaths of nearly all the original American buffalo as well.
The future came wearing cow leather shoes and machine-woven pants. Buffalo were in the way of the cow-catchers, interrupting trains, knocking over telegraph poles, stampeding crops, eating grass. Where never was heard, was heard McDonald’s.
At one point in the 1800s, the number of bison had declined to as low as 541 animals. Well-meaning ranchers, in an effort to bring them back, polluted the remnant gene pool with cattle, producing cattleos and beefalos, and other horrendous hybrids. Only the females of the first generation are fertile. According to mitochondrial DNA analysis, which can only track maternal lineage, there now may be as few as 12,000 pure bison left in the world. You don't get the point, do you Pea? I mean chase 'em, because before long, there won't be any buffalo left TO chase.
We stopped in what shadowy shelter we could find, from the vertical glare of the midday sun, for the remains of the vegetarian strudel, leftover from the most beautiful small town in America. The heat was merciless, and Robyn and I were the only source of sympathy and water, for miles.
Our wagon continued higher into the ether, emerging over a montane landscape of yellow haze and purple sage. A patchwork valley lay below, quilted trapezoids of lichen green and ashen grey, with thin ribbons of dark green pine forest along the river, between us and the Bitterroot Mountains on the other side of the horizon.
“They’re named after the flower.” Said Robyn. “And the roots that the Indians ate, when the buffalo disappeared.” We had been in the National Bison Range for over two hours, and had yet to see a single buffalo.
“Maybe they’re hiding.” She said. “Or sleeping somewhere.”
“Maybe” I said. “They usually graze for a couple of hours, rest and cud chew for awhile, move to a new location, and then do it all over again. They cover about two miles a day, depending on the vegetation, water, bugs, and whether they’re rutting or not.” We began singing, to encourage their appearance. Oh, give me a home. Where the buffalo roam, where the skies are not cloudy all day, where never is heard a discouraging word…
But we were getting discouraged. Nothing, it seemed, could entice them to show themselves. I began to wonder if the National Bison Range wasn’t the National Bison Rip-off. I began cursing.
“There’s no #@! bison in these stinkin’ hills. I’ve seen more buffalo at the ranch down the road from our place on the island.” I said. “Just because you hang a sign on a pine post…” And then they came.
They came at first as brown and bearded and humped and horned silhouettes against the sun dazzle and dust, in single file across the path in front of our wagon. They came as the sixty million would have come, heads down, tails up, hammering the ground with their hooves, and substance, and significance.  The males came with their shaggy penises almost touching the ground, red eyes fixed on their females. They came like before they had become mascots and coins and seals and flags and logos, and other symbols, before their heads appeared on the walls of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Richard and Carolyn’s office, or a dozen other legislatures or city halls or universities or sports team locker rooms or military bases, or the US Department of the Interior. They came like they had created the first thoroughfares of America, and they had, in seasonal migrations between feeding grounds and salt licks, following watersheds and ridge lines to avoid the lower summer muck and winter snowdrifts. Their hornings had shaped the genes of pines and cedars, in the wounded aromatic emissions that repelled the voracious insect swarms of the autumn. The trails of their hooves were followed by the Indians, into hunting grounds and warrior paths, traced by explorers and pioneers, paving the way for the railroads to the Pacific. It was the buffalo that mapped the course of the rail beds through the Cumberland Gap, and across the Ohio and Wabash Rivers. And the railways repaid them, through the windows.
A large bull paused in front of us, and fell and rolled laterally and forward, into a small depression in the dust, leaving his scent in the wallow. And then he rose, unlike so many of his ancestors, and moved. Oh, how he moved. Into the sunny slopes of long ago.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Ghost Riders in the Sky 1


   Woodrow F. Call: Why not go up to Montana? It's a cattleman's
                                paradise to hear Jake tell it.
    Gus McCrae: Sounds like a damn wilderness if you ask me. And we're
                         a shade old to start fightin' Indians all over again, don't
                         you think?
    Woodrow F. Call: I wanna do it, Gus. I wanna see that country, before
                               the bankers and  lawyers all git it.
                                                                        Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove

Lead. We did get an early start next morning, but not a well-rested one. The castle lights had been on all night outside our window, the plumbing had made weird castle noises, the concrete castle floors had been cold, the toilet paper too far away from the bog and, downstairs in the open kitchen, Babylon boy had been playing happy landings with the ceramic plates and the granite countertops. Aaargh. The scream that came out of the downstairs bathroom, from the young girl I surprised on opening the door, could have been prevented, if she had locked it. Goodbye, Talus Rock.
The road took us down, past several garage sales signs. There were others. First Church Christ. Accepting new patients- same day appointments. Beyond Hope Resort.
“I haven’t been down this street.” Robyn said.
“You have now.” I said, turning onto the causeway north.
Another long Great Northern train came out of nowhere, and bore down on us, before diverting into the sky.
“He’s going over.” Said Robyn. And three locomotives and their iron horses sailed over the bridge above us. Our own path rose into the mountains, and through another warning. Game Crossing.
“You game?” Asked Robyn.
“Better to be a has-been than a never-was.” I said. And all the mountainous magnificence of Lake Pend Oreille emerged through the pines on our right. After a few miles, we came to a pullout, with a teepee, and a marker.
“The Upper Pend d’Oreilles camped here before it was paved.” I said. “Thirty to forty teepees every summer. They caught big three-foot squawfish and built willow frames, to smoke them on. They made cedar baskets, and filled them with huckleberries collected off the mountain trails. Stallions and mares and new foals were pastured down there on the bottom, because their horses could eat the rush hay when it was green.”
“Where did they come from?” Robyn asked.
“Originally from British Columbia.” I said. “Before they were pushed onto the Flathead Reservation in Montana. They made their clothing from rabbit pelts and deer hides, embellished with dyes and beads and porcupine quills, and traded buffalo hides for other things they could use. Their weapons and tools were made of flint, shaped by rocks. In the winter they lived in lodges constructed from cattails, woven into ‘tule mats’ which were attached to a branch frame, to form huts. That’s why they called themselves the Ql̓ispé, the Camas People (after the wild hyacinth bulbs which provided the carbs in their diet), which we anglicized to Kalispel.”
“What did their French name mean?” asked Robyn.
“Pend d’Oreille meant ‘hanging from ears,’ a reference to the large shell earrings they wore. There are a lot of French names where we’re going. Coeur d’Alene means ‘lonely heart,’ Chief Joseph’s Nez Percés over yonder had ‘pierced noses,’ and the Grands Tetons reminded the early French trappers of large breasts.
“The French seemed to have had an obsession with anatomy.” Robyn said.
“Mais, bien sûr.” I said. “As you’d expect.”
“Whatever happened to the Indians here?” Asked Robyn.
“There was this little matter of the Swan River Massacre in 1908.” I said.
“As you’d expect.” Said Robyn.
“As you’d expect.” I said.
Lake Pend Oreille ran into the Pend Oreille River, which ran into Spirit Lake. Past the Squeeze Inn, we encountered other subtle signs of Idaho receding, and Montana approaching. Full Gospel Fellowship. Cash for guns. Do not even think about it.
The only traffic consisted of four vehicles, three of which were stuck together. The RV dragging the half-ton truck with the three-wheel ATV in its bed, tailgated a old Ford pickup, whose driver had a straw hat and a strand in his mouth, and wasn’t in any hurry to face the morning.
“He should have washed his face before he got on the highway.” I said. Robyn blew past them, hell-bent for Mon-taw-na. The pines turned to aspens and birch, and the road grew uneven, and narrow.
“God, a corner.” She said, taking her first of many. The kind of rocks she always spoke about loading in the back for her garden began to mock her from beyond the gravel. She asked why the fences had disappeared.
“They have guns instead.” I said. There were animals, real and imaginary- wild turkeys and deer, and a fake owl.
“Go back.” I said. “I want a photo.” But there was no stopping her.
“You have those deer in your garden.” She said. “Get over it.”
“OK.” I said. “No problem. I’ll just dwell on it all day.” But I didn’t, because our Wagon Days had just crossed the inflection point. Welcome to Montana.
Thompson Falls, named after our one-eyed stargazing Canadian mapmaker, had the Hotel Black Bear, the Mangy Moose, the Mother Lode Casino, and the Rex Theatre. More shows coming soon. It was Robyn’s turn to want to stop.
“You can see rivers, or you can see shops.” I said. We kept going. Watch for bighorn sheep ahead… Welcome to Wild Horse Plains…Dew Duck Inn…Congregation of God... Welcome to Paradise. Among the signs were roadside grave markers.
A long train of three locomotives, and graffiti on every boxcar, pulled ahead of us. Dingdingdingdingdingding…
Robyn and I entered the Flathead Indian Reservation. It was dry, and treeless, and hot.
“So this is where they forced them to move.” Said Robyn.
“Long way from huckleberry pie.” I said. The road tasted of blood and salt.
It led to Dixon, and a parade. The firetruck, and a rust and gunmetal pickup, with a missing grille and punched-in bumper and buffalo skull hood ornament, blocked the route. A red and white Dodge Ram 250 rolled by, with bald tires, saddle and stirrups and sombrero on the cab roof, and shy young Indian kids and a commemorative banner, hanging off the back and sides. Douglas Morigeau 1951-2012. I Drive Your Truck.
The Mission Valley Honor Guard marched by the ICE and Miller High Life signs of the Dixon Bar, wearing white gloves and belts, red cravats and shoulder braids, and blue pants and baseball caps or berets, the bald eagles on their white shirts clutching two American flags each.
A half-ton bed of spherical white and peach and tan and green-striped orbs- cantaloupe and honeydew and cassava and watermelon, was honor-guarded by a bald old man, with a potbelly and a cane. Dixon Melons.
Old wooden pallets lay strewn in front of the derelict and abandoned square western storefront, which looked like it had been constructed out of old wooden pallets. New and Used. Two rusted gas pumps spoke of fuel challenges in Dixon. I asked the brown man next to me.
“There’s a gas pump about five miles up the road, at the Mercantile in Moiese.” He said. He pronounced it moy-EESE, where I had always imagined it as MOY-zee, but he had the reservation where I had made the mistake.
Back on Vancouver Island, we often treated natives from further north. One day a patient of a buddy of mine arrived in town, and offered to take him out to dinner. He asked is there were any good restaurants. My friend suggested a place called Montana’s. Which was about where the silence began.
“Montana’s.” He said. “That’s a cowboy place. I’m an Indian.”
But here, in a place called Montana, the Indians wore moustaches and sunglasses and boots and chaps and cowboy hats, and lived in long dry grass, and second-hand trailers. The cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man or take unfair advantage.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

The Most Beautiful Town in America 3

            ‘If you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is stop diggin’.’
                                                                                            Cowboy Proverb

The holes in American Old West dentistry were deep and dreadful.  Like three feet into a wolf. Dental trauma was an everyday part of life. In an era of poor nutrition and worse chewing tobacco, there were few toothbrushes, and plenty of pebbles in the food. Good preventative care didn’t exist. There were no x-rays, so there was no way to see into the jaw. Western dentists had no electricity. The only way to inspect the mouth was during the day, with mirrors to direct sunlight into the back of the throat. There was no anesthetic and, although ether and nitrous oxide and morphine had been introduced back East, no Wild West dentist would have met their acquaintance. And few Wild West dentists had real qualifications. Most were barbers or blacksmiths, or shingle charlatans. To the cowboy with a problem, it didn’t much matter. Abscesses, broken teeth, wisdom teeth, and jaw infections caused such intense pain that people took any chance to get relief. Tooth problems couldn’t wait. Luckily for me, in the most beautiful small town in America, after my fish taco lunch, I didn’t have to.
The most famous Old West dentist had been John Henry ‘Doc’ Holliday who, on March 1, 1872, at the age of 20, had met the requirements for the degree of Doctor from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery.
Doc Holliday was 5 feet 10 inches tall, and weighed about 160 pounds.  He died of tuberculosis, at the age of 36. His last words, for a man of such distinction, were rather unremarkable. Damn this is funny.
His friend, Wyatt Earp, who had once seen him place a ten thousand dollar bet on a single card, described him well.

   ‘Doc was a dentist, not a lawman or an assassin, whom necessity had
   made a gambler; a gentleman whom disease had made a frontier
   vagabond; a philosopher whom life had made a caustic wit; a long lean,
   ash-blond fellow nearly dead with consumption, and at the same time
   the most skillful gambler and the nerviest, speediest, deadliest man
   with a six-gun that I ever knew.’

My Sandpoint dentist, back in the grove on Ontario Street, was 5 feet 10 inches tall, and weighed about 160 pounds. He had ash-blond hair. But he was dressed in a blue jumpsuit, like a pilot, and wore sunglasses, like I had just caught him on the ski fields on Schweitzer Mountain, above the town.
“Damn this is funny.” He said, looking at the x-rays his technician had just handed him. He had introduced himself as Bob, seemed quite comfortable calling me by my nickname, and didn’t flinch from the smell of fish and habañeros. He pronounced roots as ‘ruts.’
“Well, Wink.” He said. “A long time ago, someone cut two of the ruts off this back molar, and now you’ve chipped out a chunk of what was left.” My life flashed before my eyes, and my VISA card branded my backside, inside the wallet in my back pocket. I prayed for rain. Never ask a barber if you need a haircut.
Water began to circle around in the porcelain sink next to me, swirling like water round a stone. Chief Joseph spoke to me directly. For a short time we lived quietly. But this could not last. White men had found gold in the mountains around the land of winding water.
“Luckily for you, the tooth is still structurally intact.” Said Bob. “I wouldn’t crack nuts with those ruts, but it should be OK. I’m just going to grind the sharp bits off, so it doesn’t cause you any problems. This won’t hurt, because the other guy killed the nerve when he cut off your ruts.” The muzak played Handel, and I gave thanks. He was done in a few minutes and, with a flourish, ushered me out of my chair, like a barber would have done.
“How much do I owe you, Bob?” I asked, my back pocket still scorching my butt a bit. He waved me towards the plump and pleasant receptionist, and goodbye, like Doc Holliday would have done. Why should I obtain by force that which I can obtain by cheating?
“She’ll take care of you.” He said.
Robyn had been waiting patiently. She joined me at the counter.
“That’ll be forty dollars.” Said the receptionist. My VISA card danced with joy. Doc Holliday’s cousin had been Margaret Mitchell, who had written Gone With the Wind. And so were we.
“I know where the shops are.” Said Robyn. We headed downtown. Big colourful murals decorated the most beautiful small town in America. Welcome to Sandpoint. The themes were trees with elaborate rut structures, and sun and clouds, and local activities like logging and skiing and cycling and hiking and farming and stump ranching and hunting and fishing and the Kalispel Sand Place Indians. There were narrow brick alleys held together with graffiti and puddles and power lines. Flower boxes of begonias and geraniums lined the shops. The Art Deco theatre marquis, across from the second-hand bookstore advertised a choice of two features. Romantics Anonymous French Comedy, and The Hunt for the Pend Oreille Paddler. The Sand Creek mall deserted itself, as the rain came down.
A small statue outside commemorated David Thompson, the greatest land geographer who’d ever lived. He had come out from England in 1784, at the age of 14, committed to a seven year apprenticeship in the remote northern Hudson Bay Company fort of Churchill, copying the personal papers of explorer Samuel Hearne. It was here he lost his left eye. Thompson became a fur trader and, in 1797, joined the North West Company, to survey the Canada-U.S. boundary along the water routes from Lake Superior, to my hometown on Lake of the Woods. A decade later he had crossed the Rockies and mapped the Columbia basin, establishing the first trading posts in Montana and Idaho. In response to John Jacob Astor’s plan to send a ship around Cape Horn, to establish his fur trading posts of Fort Okanagan and Fort Astor, Thompson was recruited to navigate the full length of the Columbia River, passing The Dalles barrier with less difficulty than Lewis and Clark, and claiming the country for Great Britain. George Simpson’s disappointment with the loss of everything below the 49th Parallel, would have nothing to do with the intrepid efforts that David Thompson had applied. Despite a career of mapping almost four million square kilometres of North America, a fifth of the continent, Thompson would die in Montreal in 1857, at the age of 86, his accomplishments forgotten, his reputation among the First Nations as Koo-Koo-Sintm, The Stargazer, fading into one-eyed obscurity. There were few Canadian contributions to the American West that were as farsighted and visionary.
The sun broke back through the clouds, and Robyn and I took a long walk along the Pend Oreille shoreline, looking back at the lakefront resort decks, full of diners and wedding celebrants. As we drove across the causeway, the adjacent railroad bridge produced three Northern Pacific locomotives, pulling a hundred cars of momentum, and the long reflected resonant blasts of horn, bouncing wounded herds of history, behind us.
Robyn and I waited under the moose muzzle and antlers over the fireplace in the bar, until they could seat us on outside on the deck, overlooking the lake. A peregrine falcon soared above our sunset through the pines, the Cobb salad, and the vegetarian strudel.
It was another wedding venue in Sandpoint, and a group of adjoining tables was celebrating. The bride’s family was celebrating. The groom seemed less committed, and his children were busy with the condiments, salting and peppering their new family’s drinks, when no one was looking. We left, as the sun hit the horizon.
Back at Talus Rock, we made arrangements with Elsa to leave early next morning.
“There’s yogurt in the fridge.” She said. “Where are you heading?”
“Mon-taw-na.” Said Robyn. Elsa looked puzzled.
“Montana.” I said. The puzzlement subsided.
“Have a nice trip.” She said.
On September 8, 2004, the leader of Aryan Nations, Richard Girnt Butler, died in his Idaho home, from heart failure. Kate Smith sang God Bless America, in the background. Just before his one last sweet terminal event, Butler and his traveling companion, porn star Bianca Trump, famous for her explicit interracial sex scenes, had been arrested on an outstanding forgery warrant. Wilderness and war, and love and loss.
Out in the vast great room, was the other traveler, bluetooth talking to his laptop. He paused long enough to wave goodnight. I asked him where he was from.
“New York.” He said.
“Why?” I said.
“That’s where I get my nuclear energy.” He said.
I didn’t tell him how close he was to Forever and Ever.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

The Most Beautiful Town in America 2

                Boss Spearman: It's a pretty day for making things right.
                Charley Waite: Well, enjoy it, 'cause once it starts, it's gonna
                                          be messy like nothing you ever seen.
                                                      Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove

Of the three dentist offices in Sandpoint, two were closed. Our last chance lived in a refurbished old house across the tracks, in a grove of mature trees, on Ontario Street. The door opened inward, to a small empty waiting room with a fish tank, a stack of Outdoor magazines, and the sound of an angry drill, back behind the counter.
The receptionist was plump and pleasant, as you would have expected in any Norman Rockwell experience.
“May I help you?” She offered, and I took her up on it. The short version about the clunk falling out of the hole didn’t move her much, but the additional historical features of forlorn foreigners searching for the Old West in the most beautiful town in America, eventually seemed to work.
“He’s the only dentist working today.” She said. “And he’s very busy. Could you come back?” We could come back. I asked if she knew a good place for lunch.
“Y’all like Mexican?” She asked. We all liked Mexican.
“There’s a place called Joel’s.” She said. “They make a mean fish taco.” Nothing like the smell of fish and habañeros to endear you to a strange dentist.
Robyn and I headed downtown to Joel’s, and got in line. The only road signs were divine and devotional. Tortas… Tostadas… Tacos… Quesadillas… Burritos…
A big black home-built car, half Bugatti, half Cadillac, with parabolic headlamps, grille horns, spring fenders, protruding pipes, and a Bentley hood ornament, pulled up to the curb, so confused by its many architectural influences, that Robyn let out her breath in a low whistle.
“Next.” Shouted the massive Mamita behind the counter. We ordered the fish tacos.
“Ju are bery lucky.” She said. “Ju got the last two.” But she was very lucky too.
In August of 1888, a twenty-nine year old author and civil servant named Theodore Roosevelt, writing a book he called The Winning of the West, left his New York home and came through Sandpoint, on a caribou-hunting trip. He was heading for the Wild Horse Trail, which went north to the gold fields of British Columbia, the ones that had resulted in the Fraser Canyon War, thirty years earlier. Teddy found a cluster of wooden buildings along either side of the Northern Pacific railroad track, more than half of which were saloons and gambling houses. Of all the men drinking that night, Roosevelt was the one to miss out on a bed in the only lodging house. Someone rented him a shack without telling the owner, who surprised him by returning in the night. It was so dark it was like three feet into a wolf.
A hundred years later, the wolf and the darkness returned to Sandpoint. California computer millionaires, Carl Story and Vincent Bertollini, crossed the bridge ‘for its clean air, beautiful scenery, quiet life style, recreation, lack of crowds, low cost of living, low violent crime, but above all, more than 98 percent of North Idaho's population is of the Adamic White Aryan people.’ They rode motorcycles and left big tips, and plotted to establish an ‘Aryan homeland.’ They weren’t the first white supremacists to set up shop around Sandpoint. In 1973, the leader of Aryan Nations, Richard Girnt Butler, a former senior Lockheed aeronautical engineer who held patents for tubeless tire repair, moved from California to Hayden Lake, a suburb of Coeur d'Alene, 30 miles down the road from Sandpoint. His 20-acre compound was the epicentre of a global network of neo-Nazis. They held an annual parade, organized ‘Aryan Nations World Congresses,’ were implicated in plots to overthrow the US government, and often blanketed the surrounding communities with fliers and mass mailings of racist hate. The goal was the establishment of a whites-only ‘national racist state’ that would include Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, and Washington.
Story and Bertollini brought new money and bigoted enthusiasm to the cause, and a higher level of computer-savvy sophistication to the promotional advertising. Their group, the ‘11th Hour Remnant Messenger,’ spent ten dollars for each 6x3 foot poster of ‘Adam’s Pure Blood Seedline,’ which they mailed out to nine thousand Idaho addresses in September of 1998. The following year they sent out an additional three mailings, Who are the real hate mongers?, The Seven Year Tribulation of Daniel and Revelation, and, my personal favourite, The Wannabe's That Want To Be and Shall Never Be: -- SATAN'S JEWS!
You can pretty much guess the content. Let me see if I can get this right:
Jews are Satan’s Chosen People, out to dominate God’s people, the Christians. Like blacks, orientals, and other races, Jews do not have souls. Satanic Jews control Hollywood movie production, radio, television, newspapers, Congress and churches. They want to ‘mix the white race with other peoples by encouraging multiculturalism, immigration, and relocation of these other peoples to North Idaho,’ and advocate Separatist bashing and belittling the Aryan to deceive the vast majority of Adamic White Aryan people. WWII was the result of a Jewish plot to destroy whites, and the masterstroke was getting the Japs to attack Pearl Harbor. America, dominated by Satan's Jews, had become ‘the great whore’ described in Revelation 19.  
How does this devious Jewish conspiracy work?  Human Rights Task Forces report to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which reports to ADL, which reports to B'nai B'rith, which, together with the US government, answers to the United Nations, overseen by the New World Order which, in turn, reports to Satan’s One World Order, Jewry ­­Communism, Enslavement of Planet Earth.
And the ‘final’ solution (my quotes)? The new ‘Mystery Babylon,’ New York City, will be ‘nuked and burn Forever and Ever.’ World War III will result in the migration of the White race from America to Israel. The War of All Wars! between the White race and the Jewish, Satanic non-race will lead to Armageddon, or World War IV, resulting in the victory of the White race and the unending reign of Jesus Christ over his White people. And they all lived happily ever after.
Vincent Bertollini even ran for mayor of Sandpoint as a write-in candidate, listing his qualifications as 30 years of High Technology Corporate Executive Management experience, his unquestionable fiscal policies, and his fairness and honesty in business dealings. His 16-point platform consisted of a declaration that Christian prayer will be restored at all Public Meetings and daily in the Sandpoint School system, and a promise that Diversity and Multi-Culturalism will be challenged at every front as being wrong and not in the interests of the citizens of Sandpoint. He lost.
Meanwhile, the white boys were busy making a racial hero of Richard Butler. They produced a video called My Side of the Story, which opened with the American flag superimposed on photos of bald eagles, the Lincoln Memorial, and a Little League baseball game. Kate Smith sang God Bless America, in the background, until the patriotic montage faded into a tour of the Aryan Nations chapel.
But God’s people were so busy going after the Satanic Jews, they missed the two Indians that had snuck up behind them. Jason and Victoria Keenan had been harassed at gunpoint by some of the seedier seedlings of their Adamic adherents. The lawsuit they filed won a combined civil judgement of $6.3 million from Richard Butler and the Aryan Nations members who had attacked them. The 2001 ruling bankrupted the organization and forced them to give up their Hayden Lake property, and disband. Bertollini bought Butler a new house, but there was one last sweet terminal event that would postpone the nuking of New York indefinitely.
“How did ju like jor tacos?” Asked Mamita.
We liked them fine.

          'Conflict follows wrongdoing as surely as flies follow the herd.'
                                                                                           Doc Holiday

Monday, 2 June 2014

The Most Beautiful Town in America 1

                                            “America is hard to see.”
                                                         Robert Frost

Mercury. On the morning we left Richard and Carolyn, buffalo steaks fell off the menu. It happened while I was brushing my teeth. The toothpaste made a sound it should’t have made, on the way into the sink.
I usually associate the onomatopoeia of ‘clunk’ with substances much harder than toothpaste and, in this particular instance, the laws of nature held. I opened my mouth and angled the light so as to illuminate the great hole where the clunk used to be. It was so dark it was like three feet into a wolf.
“Well, that’s the trip down the drain.” Said Robyn.
“There’s still huckleberry pie.” I said. “We’ll find a dentist in Idaho.” I looked over at Richard. He had that ‘you-should-go-before-something-else-breaks’ look.
Robyn and I fired up the wagon, and each other’s enthusiasm, and headed south to the Laurier crossing. But we were almost out of gas, and missed the last chance to fill up, before the frontier loomed up too large too soon.
Our eagerness jumped the red light at the border booth.
“You’re supposed to wait until it turns green.” Said the sunglasses. I looked around for bloodhounds.
“Purpose of your visit to the You-knighted States?” He asked. I almost shared my need for a dentist.
“Were searching for the American West.” I said. I watched a frown begin to form.
“I want to see Mon-taw-na.” Robyn added, in her Kiwi accent. The frown subsided.
“Y’all enjoy your visit.” He said.
“How far to the next gas station?” I asked.
“The Indians have a place about ten miles along.” He said, and waved us through.
Wow, I thought. Not a minute into the Wild West, and we were already on our way to meet our first Indians.
It wasn’t quite the cultural experience I had imagined. There was a flat metal sculpture of a band member in the landscaping, and the gas was definitely cheaper than what the cowboys would be offering elsewhere. We pulled up beside Tribal Trails pump No. 5, to a sign of unanticipated discrimination. Canadian credit cards please pay inside. I had to leave my card with the nice lady at the till. Robyn asked me what that was all about.
“Apparently we need a reservation.” I said. But almost everything else went as planned, except for a brief moment of hesitation I had, outside the washroom doors. It took me a minute to figure out if I was a sma?m?im or a sqel'ql'tmixw, until the pictures helped me understand that I was the one with the turkey tail.
“Is there anything else we can help you with today?” Asked the nice lady at the till. “We kill our own chickens.” We were good for dead chickens, and I thanked her for her concern.
“Have a nice trip, Mr. Winkler.” She said. And she was sincere. And I fell in love with Americans all over again. Unlike the ‘what’s in it for me’ attitude of Canadian service, I always had a feeling that, in the States, when they told you to have a nice day, they meant it as a benediction, and not an order.
The scenery got wonderful as well. Our wagon followed the grand curves of a primitive road, under pines and hanging moss, beside the slow rapids sparkle of the Kettle River. A black railway ribbon kept pace, strobe-like through the branches, on the left. The only road signs were divine and devotional. The key to Heaven is shaped like a cross.
The reason for this only became gradually apparent. Beyond the melons and antiques, every homestead was having an permanent impermanent yard sale, every highway was up for adoption, and every county shop would leave you guessing. We crossed the Columbia River, and a large bulldog on a water tank. If it’s grouchy, feed it. George Simpson hadn’t worried for no reason. The serene had turned to shabby, and depressing.
“Rough around the edges.” Robyn said. The Country Hills Rental Community had been vacated, the mini-storages had been maximized, the transience had become intransigent, the transients had become transitory, and the hole where my tooth used to be had become transcendental.
We entered Chewelah, A Place for all Seasons, and parked across from the park, next to the God fearing Brothers Auto Sales. Anyone who angers you conquers you.
“Hell of a way to sell an automobile.” I said. There was a lovely market set up in the park. It was an oasis, like Washington parks should be. We wandered around the stalls of garden vegetables and knickknacks, and over a bridge with a metal wagon wheel, painted green. On the other side was a verdigris bronze helmet, on a verdigris M-16, on a verdigris pair of boots. In memory of all veterans of all wars.
“Wilderness and war, and love and loss.” I said. “The Sacred Land. We’re on the right track.”
I drove the wagon onto the short cut Flowery Trail into the mountains, to Usk, through the pine beetle brown boneyard of the Colville National Forest, to Colville. This community supports our troops. Robyn asked me if I knew where I was going.
“Today I’m wingin’ it.” I said. “Tomorrow I know where we’re going.”
“Who gave you the day off?” She asked, as she would.
We came down off the eastern side of the mountains, across a small plain and river crossing, and through a small settlement to the other side. Kick ass America- Remember?
According to the map we had crossed into Idaho.
“No welcome?” Robyn asked.
“Maybe they don’t want us here.” I said. But then they gave us a sign. Welcome to Idaho.
“That’s it?” Asked Robyn. “Where are we headed anyway?”
“We’re going to the most beautiful town in America.” I said. “Two years ago both USA Today and Rand McNally named it the country’s ‘Most Beautiful Small Town.”
Our path drew an asymptote along Lake Pend Oreille, one of the nation’s deepest and the state’s largest, forty-three miles long, in a basin surrounded by the Selkirk, the Cabinet, and the Bitterroot ranges.
The wagon took a hard left across the railroad tracks and up in the hills just south of town.
“We must be staying up here.” Said Robyn.
“Yup.” I said, and swerved off the road, onto a driveway that curved around to a huge citadel, so confused by its many architectural influences, that Robyn let out her breath in a low whistle.
“Looks like they ran out of block.” She said. It was like a small stone village in Umbria, with Spanish ironwork and West Coast cedar post and beam, and Scottish castle and Austrian chalet and Tibetan monastery. Some of the drywall had escaped to the exterior. The front door was a carved masterpiece. I rang the gong. The carved masterpiece opened to a statuesque blonde of no less resplendence.
“Welcome to Talus Rock.” She said. “I’m Rebecca.” I bet she was. She motioned us inside, and inside gave nothing away to the outside. Open plan hardwood floor to copper ceiling windows, punctuated with old growth fir beams and creations in stained glass, river rock fireplaces with horseshoes and Moose antlers, and a loud echo of opulence and fuck-you money, that reverberated up and beyond the three-story curvilinear staircase.
“This is Elsa, my assistant.” Rebecca said, sweeping her hand open to another vision of long flowing black hair and doll’s eyes and estrogenic lips. The bimbosity pyrotechnics went highbeam. Rebecca showed us to our room, the ‘Rio,’ although the elk antler on the bedside table, the East Indian elephant painting over the bed, and the Transylvanian feel to the bathroom, suggested more Babel than Brazil. She asked if we had any questions.
“Whose your dentist?” I asked. She gave me a quizzical look.
“Seriously, Rebecca.” I said. “I need a dentist.” We returned downstairs and she found us three potential leads to explore, and a recommendation for dinner afterwards.
“You simply must go to 41 South.” She said. “I’ll make you reservations, for seven.”
And Robyn and I left, to see America’s most beautiful small town.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Come Hell or High Water 4

                  ‘We'll drink to good health for them that have it coming.’
                                                            Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove

I kept trying to tell myself I had it coming. Most of my physical health, up until now, had been of the mental variety. Claude Bernard had called it homeostasis, in an era when it had been solely defined by the acquisition of an adequate caloric intake, and the avoidance of occupational hazards, pestilence, and death. Life had been for living, and not rationed into trendy quanta of aerobic torment. I had been an adherent of Epicurus, with a highly cultivated aesthetic appreciation for visceral indulgence. One of the rewards for my somatic and political incorrectness would now seem to be a fragile weakness of my colonic wall, which would henceforth be prone to blowing bubbles, sometimes skyward.
As we caught up, in the shade of the pavilion on the dock, I knew that Richard felt my pain, but he didn’t have to make quite that much noise, as he opened each new can of Kokanee lager. Carolyn and Robyn were mind-melded on the next bench over, and the two youngest boys, Graham and Trevor, were splashing around the gazebo, with their girlfriends.
They had certainly grown since we last saw them, and in just the directions we imagined. Kyle, left behind in Fort Langley, was the thin quiet cerebral one. Graham, the middle boy, more muscular but still wiry, had a head for business. His girlfriend was gunning for a law degree, and MBA, and ‘a lot of money.’ The youngest was the sleeper. Trevor was a big boy. Like me, he enjoyed his food. I remember a visit many years earlier, when Robyn asked him if he’d like to try some special dip she made.
“I’ll try it.” Said Trev. “And if I like it, I’ll have a lot.” Carolyn and Richard’s sons had the entire waterfront covered. And, for that matter, so did Carolyn and Richard. Both were within counting distance of retirement that, for members of the Force, Luke, meant a very comfortable landing indeed. They planned to eventually sell the house in Fort Langley, and move to Christina Lake. I asked about the neighbour, still sweeping the rocks. She had turned up her radio.
“That’s Crazy Colleen.” Said Carolyn. “She was put on the planet to ensure that we don’t enjoy ourselves too much.” Colleen was a chain-smoker with a vascular dementia, whose only purpose in life was to police the activities of the adjacent law enforcement family. We told them of the illegitimate development that had gone up next to us, and the evil triad that were spoiling the wild tranquility of the neighbourhood. Money flows to beauty and then attracts more money, pushing out everything that does not fit.
“Small minds are driven by greed and envy and contempt.” Said Richard. “And sometimes the karma works too slow.”
Carolyn served up several meters of teriyaki pork tenderloin for dinner. I told Richard he needed a Portuguese Douro to match it, but he didn’t have one, and I wouldn’t have been able to partake, if he had.
“Why are you doing this trip, Wink?” He asked, between bites.
“Its a path of pilgrimage. “ I said.
“To where?” He asked.
“Not so much to where.” I said. “As to what.”
“To what?” He asked.
“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.
“So, what does that have to do with the American West?” Asked Richard.
“All the main characters lived there.” I said. “The cowboys and Indians, outlaws and lawmen, miners and loggers, firefighters, railroad workers and wagon drivers, mothers and prostitutes, were all archetypes of authenticity. The cowboys I used to watch on the Paramount theatre screen Westerns were the embodiment of quiet dignity, grace under pressure and courage under fire.”
“What’s so specially authentic about achieving redemption in that place?” Asked Carolyn.
“Nature.” I said. “Earth, wind, fire and water- big sky and sagebrush, mountains and rivers, buffalo and dinosaur bones, grizzly bears and cougars, wolves and coyotes, cattle and horses.”
“I still don’t get it.” Richard said. “What was so special about the American West that made living authentic in Nature, that didn’t exist elsewhere.”
“It may have existed elsewhere.” I said. “But facing death there was transcendent.”
“You might get your chance.” Said Richard. “You sure you’re well enough to go?”
“The best thing you can do for death is ride off from it.” I said, and we had dessert.
The next morning Richard took us around the lake in the ski boat, pointing out who lived where, and what had or would happen to them. There were fishing shacks and a cottage with a tree growing right through its roof, and newer mansions where trees and cottages should have been. There were recurring themes of lottery winners and sports team managers and divorces.
“There’s still gold fever in this part of the West.” I said. In the early afternoon we took a walk through the creek bed, along a row of metal wagon wheels, painted green. Robyn went for a waterski later in the day.
Just after dark, we gathered on the deck, full moon on the lake.
“How does your story end?” Asked Carolyn
“In tragedy.” I said. “Like all authentic lives.”
“Where does the tragedy happen?” Richard asked.
“In Idaho.” I said. “In Ketchum. On the Wood River.”
“Hemingway?” Asked Carolyn. “You’re going to end a book about the American West with Hemingway?”
“That’s where the real West ended, Carolyn.” I said. “Not with an iron spike in a railway bed, but with two shotgun shells in a front entrance foyer. Hemingway was the last true son of The Sacred Land. His themes were wilderness and war, and love and loss. He was all about hunting and fishing, bullfighting and death, water and alcohol, and warriors and patriotism. Nature was his religion. His mountains extended to Spain and Africa and Switzerland, his rivers to streams in Michigan. He had a ‘Hotel Montana’ in both The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
“Wait just a minute. His own parents disavowed his writing as ‘filth.’” Said Carolyn. “He was an alcoholic racist, a homophobe, and an emasculated misogynist.”
“And his books were burned in Berlin in 1933, as ‘a monument of modern decadence.’” I added. “But he was the final hard-boiled egg of the American West. Nature is where men are without women: men fish; men hunt; men find redemption.”
“Do you think leaving your wife to find your brains all over the front entrance of your house is facing death with dignity and courage?” Carolyn asked.
“Hemingway was the end of the West.” I said. “I never claimed that he lived up to its ideal.”
“So why are you so determined to make this trip?” Richard asked. “With your rotten guts, and massive bush fires and possible flooding to come. Hell, you can’t even have a beer for another two weeks, if you even get that lucky.”
“Well.” I said. “There are a couple of things I can still have.”
“Like what?” He asked.
“Buffalo steaks.” I said. “And huckleberry pie.”