One of the finest things about Montana is the characters it grows, an endless loop of memory for me–all of the wondrously funny people I have met here. I have met a few in other places but I don’t spend much time anywhere else, so they are mostly Montanans. The best of them drawl in rhythms much like a walking horse’s gait. The stories are quite wonderful. But they work best if there is a proper tempo and pauses at the precise times needed. It is a minor American art form, and, like the practitioners of all art forms, the best 0f them make it look and sound so very easy. Putting the rumbling, drawling voice on the page is impossible, really, but one must try. “Well, one fourth of July we was all up in Red Lodge for the rodeo, and in a saloon having a drink or ten before it started, and pore ol’ Bob took on more’n he could carry and he slid off his chair boneless as a sack a grain, and laid there with his eyes shut, which got us thinkin’…so one of the bunch got an idea and he run off and called an undertaker had a bidness there to Red Lodge and got him to open his place up. We carried Bob there and laid him out nice in a coffin in front of the chapel and we sat there fannin’ ourselves with our hats and lookin’ mournful until Bob woke up and then he sat up and saw all his friends a-sobbin’ away and then he divined where he was and he let out a beller you coulda heard in Havre and he jumped outta the coffin and run right through the plate glass door to the place and busted it to bits and as I recalled we had to put up the money to replace the door, which was five hundred bucks but nobody complained ’cause we admitted it sure was worth it…..Bob was a little sore about it so it was a good long time ‘fore I slept without one eye open, I kin tell ya…..’nother time –and that will have to wait, for another time…………..
Peter Bowen’s Montana (the Blog)
Livingston is a railroad town, always was, since it sits on the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains. The right place to make up trains to go west, which will need more power to cross the mountain passes, or go east with much less, since it is largely downhill. When I was a kid, Livingston was one of two places on the line set up to do the heavy work of rebuilding the giant locomotives–originally coal-powered steam engines and then diesel-electrics. The giant buildings with their heavy cranes and machine shops still stand, but other than a bit of work on railroad cars not much is done here any more. The railroad workers union was crushed long ago, and these days it seems the whole town lives on fly fishermen, or, when the year is bad for fly fishing, the moans all say so. For some reason the change from robust railroad town to a clot of folks peddling feathers and guided float trips seems a bit off to me, and puts me in mind of a story about the great Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins. A book needed to come out with some haste, and so a roomful of editors and other brainy folk sent for the head printer–in those days publishers had their own printing plants–who came into the room full of three-piece suits wearing his ink-stained shop apron. He was asked if it was possible to print this book with some dispatch. The printer said “yes, of course we can” and went back to his basement and his presses. Perkins looked round the table. “Why is it,”he said,”that when Mister Smith leaves we all look so ashamed of ourselves?” I am old enough to remember what Livingston was back in the late Fifties and early Sixties–a fun place where a young feller escaped from the dull and orderly drills of poor Bozeman, over the hill, could find glasses of beer in the bars, jazz, and a room at the old Murray Hotel for a buck and a half a night. If the young feller minded his manners he could have a very good time indeed, but I also knew that if I tried to order whiskey or got loud I would be drop-kicked through the doors and into the waiting clench of the Livingston cops. I loved the place and came often and slithered quietly and carefully here and there, suspecting that everyone knew what I was and where I came from, just a pissant faculty brat from over the hill. I didn’t know then any of the darker truths about the town, and the darkest for me is this: that the life expectancy for a white male in Bozeman, where I grew up was at that time seventy-two. In Livingston it was fifty-one. The railroad workers, whether in the shops or on the road itself, lived and worked in a stew of petrochemicals and a dusty air of asbestos particles, their wives washed their clothes and came down with environmental cancers, and when I came back here over twenty years ago now I was struck by how many of the old Livingston people I knew had had children die young of childhood cancers. It was a different world from the one I knew and I thought back then it was all good. But it was not. The same old story, about the true cost of industry , and back then no one seemed to care. The union didn’t–it had good jobs at good pay and with good benefits. The corporations didn’t, they were concerned with profits and shareholders. There were plenty of people who did know about it, they had to, the state government had the mortality reports. One political sort who worked for a governor thirty-odd years ago told me that the two places with such starkly low life expectancies were Livingston and the eastern Montana counties where tough cowboys used tougher pesticides and ignored all of the precautions stated as essential in handling the stuff. But there seemed to be no interest in that number, in the twenty-one years of life itself that working for the railroad cost…….
Last summer was the most wretched I recall here in Montana, and my memory goes back to the Fifties. No rain, and unusual heat–over 90 more days than not–and a fug of smoke that made everyone hoarse and peevish. Well over a million acres of forest and grassland burned here, well over a million and a half in Idaho, and we get their smoke. Singers couldn’t sing, drivers cursed other drivers more than usual, and down the Paradise Valley a fire began when the bucket on a little Bobcat front-end and backhoe machine struck a spark when it hit a rock. When it is this dry a horse’s shoe can ignite the grass, or the sun shining through a bottle. The fire roared up Pine Creek, and took four houses. Many others were saved by the rural firefighters, and the people who lived on the east side of the valley nearest the blaze were forced to leave their homes, often with only a few minutes warning. No lives were lost, but there was a lot of sorrow for lost forests and houses and the priceless things people accumulate in a lifetime. After the fire was spent people got a bit more aggressive about keeping burnable materials a good distance from their houses, some of which were built in dense forests, which is a bit like having your home on a bonfire, already laid and ready. Montana is very dry at best, and would be a desert if it were not for the mountains and the winter, which accumulates water when it is cold and releases water when it warms up. And it is warming up. Our forests are in bad shape for a number or reasons which I won’t bother with here–the political fights–but more importantly the warming climate allows pine bark beetles to have two reproductive cycles in a year rather than one. So the trees they favor are dying, their vascular systems cut by the tunneling insects. The forests in the mountains now have a red blush which is getting more visible day by day–conifers dying, standing, dry, their needles filled with combustible chemicals. It won’t take much. Last summer wildfires tore through some suburbs of Colorado Springs, Colorado, and looking at the films I had to wonder why anyone would be foolish enough to build where they had, in the foothills of the high mountains–good for up and down drafts–and why they had tree species in plantings that actually need fire to live. The Paradise Valley has more people in it than I like, which matters not a whit, but in other areas near larger towns like Bozeman people have built homes back in the trees, which unfortunately are lodgepole pine, which has to burn to seed. Lodgepole lives about a hundred years before dying of old age, and though many people know of the terrible fires of 1910 which burned northern Idaho and western Montana, fewer know that in 1911 much of the forest over here, in south-central Montana, burned. Of course the lodgepole loved that and came right up, and, well, you do the math. The people who have built back in those forests are independent cusses and they have narrow little roads, dirt, and overhead power lines, and when the fire comes they won’t be able to get out and they won’t have any electricity to pump water on their homes with. Which may not matter, since they will likely all die. Zoning and building codes for many of Montana’s people is Tyrannous Guvverment Intrusinations and they howl they will defend their sacred liberties with their God-Given Constitutional Guns. Mostly gas, but it does tend to discourage sensible public policies on all sorts of matters.And it is hard to find building inspectors who want to go in there and make useful suggestions. God, I love this place and the people in it. Most of them anyway. We all make our lives up, pretty much, and Montanans have wonderful fantasies in the matter of How Things Ought to Be. (Don’t get me started on cowboys.) But it has rained and rained and rained this year, so, not so many worries, but there are other years coming which may not be so nice…..
I just returned from a time on the East Coast, in Boston, and it has taken me a few days to recover from it. Boston is a fine city, thick with culture and loud with wonderful music, but it is also crowded and noisy and most of the streets are paved cowpaths one car wide, down which traffic speeds. It is tangled and hard to navigate for a hick like me and I grew frantic with time, and not much time at that. Life is very fast-paced now, and it still seems impossible to me that I can reach the information I want so easily with the computer and the Internet. Change accelerates daily, it seems. I don’t much like it. I never did. Every extended stay in a city has proved disastrous for me, and that is all that I have to say about that. It is a big world and billions of people seem to like living together in close and intimate proximity but I prefer places I might see a coyote. They come through the property I live on, rather regularly, looking for that favorite coyote snack, a nice fat house cat. They eat small dogs as well, and drift back out to their dens. I like coyotes. They are rascals and thieves and engagingly clever. Long ago I saw one robbing a bumblebee nest. The coyote backed up to the nest, waving its tail which the bees attacked, and then the coyote turned slowly, and the bees went on attacking its tail, and the coyote gobbled up the larva and honey and then trotted away, leaving the poor bees utterly robbed. All attempts to exterminate them have failed. Coyotes den in New York’s Central Park. They like suburbs. They adapt very well and very quickly. All very well and good and I salute their strong character and cleverness, and so far as I go, they may eat Boston and everything in it. Me, I do not adapt very well. At all, not to put too fine a point on it. Folks these days make too much a virtue of adaptability, which seems to mean tolerating outrageous invasions of their privacy and lives. Out here, in the little town I live in, things move more slowly. I won’t get run over by a bread truck. I can get up and go down with my dog to see what the neighbors, like the coyotes, were up to last night. They use the same paths every night and leave paw prints. But very quietly. I like the coyotes, who are excellent neighbors…. It is cool and rainy today, and about this time each year the curlews come, and glow rich caramel and yellow in the misting rain….
Last summer was the most miserable I recall, ever. Dry and much hotter–a day or two over 90 degrees is usual, weeks of that are not. The mountains I can see from my window are red, a blush of beetle-killed trees. There will be fire and there should be fire, it is the engine of renewal here, but the smoke is irritating and people lose their houses and the customary order of their lives in minutes. Last year a fire began at Pine Creek down in the Paradise Valley. Wholly accidental, a spark from the bucket of a little Bobcat digging machine, made by steel on rock. Not much, but in moments it was moving too fast to squelch. A good friend was give fifteen minutes to leave her house and all she had. She took her cat and the hard drive from her computer. The fire was kept away by the firefighters, though other homes were lost, and in time she could return and go on. She wept over the lilacs, perhaps a century old. They were charred and damaged and so had to be cut and taken away, but the rootstocks were well established and this year new growth has shot out of the ground, and in a year or two will be as tall as what was lost. We hope for mushrooms. I was in the Blackfoot Valley in 2000, and huge fires burned to the north of me, in the Bob Marshall Wilderness. At night the red glow went across half the horizon, giant trees exploded and the trunks tumbled through the air for hundreds of yards, starting fires if there was fuel to burn. The next year the seral forest erupted and the rodent population exploded and predators thrived so that driving on a paved highway I casually glanced at what I thought at first was a dog and then my brain worked a bit better and I found myself staring at a large wolverine, a creature I have never seen in the wild and many who spend years in the backcountry live long and die without seeing one. Today though it is raining and cool and several more such days are ahead, and we hope for rain now and again this summer. Two years ago it rained and it rained and it rained well into July, so much rain that the Yellowstone River was not “fishable” until the first week of August. (“Fishable” is a river suitable for ferrying dudes down, so they may catch trout which they release which is thought more sporting, but I wonder about that, since an animal dies once and torturing them to death does not seem to my mind to have much moral glow about it.). Livingston now depends for a good portion of its yearly take on fly fishermen, and wails when they do not come. I fish in the winter here since I loathe crowds, and what I hope for now is right after the cool wet weather we get some hot sunny days because that will bring up the morel mushrooms, which may be dried to preserve them and which are one of the choicest mushrooms of all. They come up where the forest fires raged, sometimes in great quantities, and and one very good year I had perhaps a bushel of dried mushrooms to give to friends and hints that this was greatly appreciated do tend to rise to a crescendo at this time of year. They really do not want to be forgotten. Some try bribery but so far the cheap bastards haven’t offered anywhere enough. I sometimes hunt mushrooms with Doctor Shroom, a deranged poet and a songwriter of marvelous and scurrilous lyrics. He is insomniac and so ceaselessly walks the land in search of mushrooms and in hope of exhausting himself enough to get a night’s sleep. His knowledge of mushroom patches is extensive and I am a shameless mooch. …and so in the hope of rain…..
( I have had inquiries about new Du Pre’ books as books, those obsolete things made of paper and ink–and indeed there are two new Du Pre’ novels, though not so new now since I wrote them years ago. So far no print publisher has been interested or if they are the attached conditions are too odious. Anyway, yes, there are more…..)
Montana was very new, at least white-settled Montana was, and almost all the people who had come early on had come after the railroad came in. And that was in the 1880’s, and in the late fifties some of those folks were still around, not many, and others who seemed ancient to a ten-or twelve-year-old boy were very much around, and had been since before the First World War. My father and many of his colleagues had been in the services during the Second World War, which had ended the year that I was born, but the First World War was as remote in time to me as the Civil War or, for that matter, Agincourt. (Time is new to a twelve-year-old and very hard to measure, and now I just wonder where all those damn decades went.)
Merrill Burlingame, the historian, had come to teach at Montana State in 1920, and then there was Doctor Caroline McGill, who had come in 1910, and she was a quite amazing woman. She was a physician with a large practice, a power in the state, the owner of a dude ranch, a horsewoman of great skill, and I wish to the heavens I had just fastened my teeth into her ankle and hung close. But to a boy, she was just a formidable old woman who dressed in an ancient style and for whom I had no measure. I do now. I met her in the Quonset hut on Eighth Avenue, which led up to the campus from Main Street. She, and Merrill Burlingame and some others including my mother had somehow gotten a small museum going. I spent a great deal of time there. It was not noble public service, I seem to remember a growing number of old buffalo rifles–many people had these dreadful relics in their attics or tack rooms–lever-action rifles with long octagonal barrels—and I suppose I was more or less wondering how I could swipe one. The possibility of one being given to me for good and faithful service was absurd. For openers, my parents did not like guns, at all, and some antique cannon like a .45-120 was not easy to conceal. The shells for the rifle were seven inches long and hard to find. Ah well, noble public service……
Merrill Burlingame addressed a luncheon attended by local businessmen and when he totted up the take after his plea for money he found some generous soul had given one quarter and that was the entire contribution. He was still sore about it forty years later. But the museum was well begun. Doc McGill was there often, and our family from time to time were guests at her dude ranch–real guests, since my father’s income from his professorship was not enough to cover what the place would have cost– and I began to piece together Doc McGill’s amazing story.
She had been born in Missouri, went to the University of Missouri, and was denied entry into their medical school, even though her grades were perfect she was, after all, a woman, and of course that would not do…..so she took a PhD in Physiology. Then she got a scholarship to study in Europe, and she went for a couple of years, sending back over a thousand postcards as her journal of her time there. She was accepted at the Medical School of the Johns Hopkins University, finished the four-year course in two, but was not allowed to march in the graduation parade, even though she was first in her class. She was a woman and a delicate male ego would have popped with each step of her dainty foot. She got on a train, and sent a postcard to the folks back home in Lebanon, Missouri. “I am going to Butte, Montana, aren’t I smart?” it said.
Butte, Montana was a huge mining camp, many of the miners were immigrants, and the real Labor Wars were dead ahead. Butte’s history, had I but one sentence to describe it, can be found in the number of the local miner’s union. WFM/UMWA Local # 1. She treated the miners and their families. Proud people, they paid her with heirlooms they had brought from the old country. China and clocks and the like. She kept them as a trust. She knew and supported artists. She seems to have known everybody in the state. A friend of mine from an old Montana family says that he knew she was the most powerful single person in eastern Montana and when he went to Missoula to go to college he found that she was the single most powerful person there, too.
She died in 1959, and the little museum is now The Museum of the Rockies.
And I remember her as being quite beautiful, with fine features and clear, shrewd blue eyes, and though she seemed to like people well enough, she was never fooled by them. I committed some heinous act at her ranch and was brought before her to apologize. She knew I was adopted. “So,”she said sweetly to my mother,”have you thought of taking him back for a refund?” And her eyes twinkled merrily…..
Last year was rather awful for the summer and well into the fall. There were a lot of fires and the smoke was thick and there was heat, many days one after another when the temperature was ninety or more, which I don’t recall much of here in Montana. A day or two now and again, but not months of heat, and no rain at all, which does happen. The newspapers say there is a “water deficit” by which I suppose they mean a drought. The water table is below normal. I have wondered how normal was calculated and have yet to hear a useful explanation. There seems to be a witless conspiracy to replace perfectly good words with precise meanings with others not so well found. Drought is replaced by “water deficit” and the silly “impacts” seems to replace “effects” and neither improves much of anything.
People talk of the weather so they can talk about something when they wish to talk. For most of my life the weather has been something that came on and there was not much to do about it and so one complained or approved or felt thankful for the better sort. It hadn’t much spread to it. Not any more. Weather is very politically fraught these days. In Montana, our wondrous Legislature passed a resolution stating that “global warming is good for business.” Last summer’s heat was taken by some as final proof of the End of Days unless……something. Outlaw internal combustion engines, the burning of coal, the use of charcoal fires to cook food on, whatever. This is not going to end well, of course, but there isn’t much to be done about it. Humans are a very successful species and they won’t be the first to eat themselves out of house and home. So it goes.
But here, so far so good, but I hope that the year does not bring abundant fires and smoke and heat. I like living here because it is usually pleasant. Clouds of smoke and walls of flame and days spent coughing and nights spent blowing the hot air out of home are not as much fun as I would like to have. It has gotten warm enough so beetles have killed a dismaying percentage of our forests, and then the great fires of 1910 and 1911 meant a bloom of lodgepole pine–their seeds don’t open unless the cones are fired–and lodgepole pine lives around a century and then the trees die of old age. I have seen writings that state that the entire Rocky Mountain chain’s forests burnt altogether in the middle of the fourteenth century. It could happen again.
Last year a large number of ill-sited homes in many places burned, and the seas took other houses that were built in places that perhaps should not have been built upon ever. My parents lived for decades in the little California college town of Chico, which was built upon topsoil twenty feet deep. Nearby are scablands, useless for agriculture, which would serve for building a town on just fine, thank you. But that didn’t happen and it won’t.
So here I am, hoping for a cool and rainy summer, not so much rain it spoils the fishing, like most people here. We will get what we get, though, and complain if we do not like it. We are a bunch of damned fools and always have been, and never able to make sensible decisions about much of anything. The small questions baffle us and the larger ones offer vast disasters which we seem always to set in train.
So, I do believe I shall go fishing, and later, since it is a nice day, I shall set some hardwood charcoal alight and grill some burgers, and after that play some music and then go to sleep……
We arrived from Colorado in August of 1955, having passed through Yellowstone Park on the way. We went, of course, to Old Faithful, which had a couple sets of those cheap green bleachers remote schools have in their gyms and an appalling amount of litter. Even at ten, I was aware that good manners were rare. And so I had a few days for important matters such as fishing before trudging off to the Longfellow School to serve my time. I had grown up in a house filled with books and a father who loved mathematics because at least they were certain, and I sat in a resentful, bored stupor which come to think on it I still had at the University of Michigan years later, with some notable exceptions for wonderful professors who taught…..ah, well.
Winter came and in December the temperature sank to forty below. The exhaust from the house furnace went straight up in a tight column to a pale sky. My mother heard of a course for small bored boys taught by a man who lived a couple blocks away. “You can learn how to tie trout flies,”she said. That was the most interesting thing I had heard since we had moved here. Off I went, and all I had was a little red bench vise, a toy, really, and a bit of curiosity. I don’t recall the teacher or much else from that first class, but I will never forget and can see it yet the magic of a hackle being wrapped. A rather ordinary chicken feather from a rooster’s neck cape was stripped of fluff, tied by the butt of the center quill to the shank of the hook, and then it was wrapped round. And there was a magnificent ruff, which looked vaguely like those ridiculous things men wore round their necks in the time of the first Queen Elizabeth. It was a magical moment, right up there with the spider who had the underwater home.
Ever after I have been tying trout flies. It is soothing in the winter, and they make much appreciated gifts. I even tied commercially for a while, but concluded I could much more profitably take on a job at McDonald’s. I used the flies that I tied and I sold flies to older fishermen, usually colleagues of my father at Montana State College. It was a lot of fun. I used trout flies in some rivers and seasons, and I used lures or bait in others. I still do. I like fishing, don’t much care how I go about it.
I guided a little but concluded that if, fifteen minutes into the float, I was thinking about harvesting the client’s organs for transplant or mink food I probably should think of doing something else. I liked the fishing well enough, and had the luck to live in a place with great trout waters everywhere about. Long ago, when I was a young feller, there were a few fishermen about. I could go to the Madison and see perhaps four other people in a day……and then…..Industrial Fly Fishing came along and now all summer the ludicrous guideboats, prow against stern, parade down the rivers. Mackenzie riverboats, often enough, designed for the big coastal rivers and steelhead fishing, and now used here. They are so noisy it is rather like hunting deer at the head of a marching band. The favored rods are stiff, so one may cast long distances, which has nothing at all to do with fishing, at least here. The visiting fishermen pretty much wear silly costumes–shirts with suncapes and embroidered flies on the pockets. Some wear their many-pocketed vests to restaurants. Christ, some wear their waders……but they do spend a lot of money, and Livingston depends for much of its income on them.
I need not expatiate on the opinions held by the residents here on the “tourons and fishdips” who come. Like any resort economy or occupied country the invaders are not loved.
But I do recall the hackle spun about the hook’s shank and the days alone on the river and never mind what it became.
We lived in a small two-bedroom house on Grand Street, a few minutes walk from the campus. Langohrs nursery was the other direction, and they had a pond which held the water for irrigating their flowers and trees and shrubs which served for the trackless Amazon and so forth, when a kid could pole a small and sodden raft around or, as a friend did one day, pour the gasoline in the handy can for the lawnmower on the water. The culprit tried to get me to throw a match after the spreading rainbow stain but I was too wary even then. So he did and there was a whoosh and sudden flame and his eyebrows and the front half of his hair burned away. I pointed out that he might not have tossed the match from the end of the little dock. Shore would have done as well. He was too busy blinking and sorting explanations for his peculiar appearance to pay much attention.
The water was diverted from a little creek that meandered through the meadows south of town, deep soil accumulated in the holds of the beaver dams that once had been here in some numbers. William Clark and his men tried to cross the gathered waters at dusk, on the return trip from the Pacific, and between the mosquitoes and the deep ponds it was unpleasant enough for him to recall it years later as one of the worst times of the trip. The little creek had cut down into the old pond beds, and ancient beaver dams were visible in the walls cut by the stream. The bark of the sticks used by the beavers had turned orange, and all the dams were in the shape of a V inverted, the top sticks flat and jiggery. The beavers were wiped out by trappers, but the dams held for decades, and when Bozeman’s first settlers came in from the west–Oregon–to grow crops to sell to the miners in Alder Gulch, they pulled the dams down and turned the black soil, rich as soon as it got some air.
The little creek was a spring creek and thick with scuds, freshwater shrimp, and brook trout fed well and had pink flesh, mark of the crustaceans. Most trout are about as flavorful as a wedge of newspaper, but these small fish were good. There was no limit back then but a vague “twenty pounds” and I soon learned how to catch as many fish as any friend wanted to cook. I had a long pole, a few feet of line, a hook with a split shot right on top of it, and a piece of worm. I dabbed this through the holes, standing back enough so I could not see the stream or the fish see me, and flipped out fish on to the meadow grass. Twenty out of one hole the size of a pool table wasn’t unusual, and all of them were fat and bright- colored. The creek itself was beautiful, the water weeds swaying in the currents so gracefully, the fish hiding in them, easy to see if one looked for a bright orange pectoral fin amid the dark pulsating green.
At a pond in my mother’s hometown of Pierre, South Dakota, I saw a spider run down a cattail and into the water. I sped back to my grandparent’s house and made up a tube with some clear cellophane taped to one end. I went back to the cattail where I had seen the spider and poked the tube in the water and there the creature was, in a little bell-shaped spider house. The spider was scraping bubbles of air off its body, to add to the air at the top of the bell. It was wonderful and marvelous then and it still is to me. So I made a larger one and explored the creek as well as I could. There were great numbers of fish, amazing for such small waters, and no matter how many I took–a hundred was not unusual–it never seemed to make any difference whatever to their numbers hiding in the weeds.
Now it is a ‘burb, houses here and there, cheek by jowl clear to the mountains, and the creek is still there but doesn’t look healthy, and it actually doesn’t make me all that sad, since my time there was a long time ago now, and do have that. The past is past and people need houses to live in, and if there are more people in Bozeman now, there are fewer in eastern Montana, and the fish are much better eating.