Last week, highballing eastward out of Lincoln, Montana, I saw a compact car far up ahead, aimed the wrong direction, and askew on the opposite shoulder. I could see some figures around the vehicle—nothing clearly—but the odd configuration immediately triggered my inner street cop and everything about what I was seeing screamed one word: hinky.
I don’t know why I would suspect an ambush here, in the dead center of nowhere, on the settled and civilized frontier, but my hackles were up.
It is a tactical axiom that hesitation kills, and so as we continued eastbound from the Great Divide I instinctively reached for my pistol. And as further proof that honed instincts die hard I began rehearsing for a couple of scenarios: a flag-down on a false pretense and subsequent ambush, a rolling gunfight with methheads or highwaymen, or perhaps both. I could not say what, precisely, but that is something we train for without relent, isn’t it–the unknown and the unknowable. We have to move inside the OODA Loop, faster than the enemy, and so I gripped my pistol high up on the tang, ready to fire through the door or the window at the most immediate threat, and drifted slightly right toward my shoulder of the road.
I was pushing 75—one of the great remaining freedoms of Montana being the ubiquitous 80 mph speed limit—constrained only by the lazy curvatures of a highway descending from a mountain pass. Beyond, the great rolling expanse of the northern plains beckoned and overhead the sky was opening up–this was the first stretch of road since leaving Sisters some 10 hours earlier that the rain had relented. But it was well on into the afternoon and the light was in my favor, and as we approached I began to see more clearly what was happening.
It was this: two men, clearly natives, were having a fistfight.
Another tactical maxim is that speed is security, and so I gave the truck more fuel.
We shot past them. They continued fighting without pause, without the slightest hint of awareness of any world beyond their own. In the mirror I saw one of them go staggering down in the middle of the highway, on his back, and watched the other leap on him in a kind of cartoon pounce.
Out of the kill zone, I let up on the throttle and watched them with no small level of interest: two figures on a mountain highway, at the base of the dark timber and the continental divide, locked in insouciant and intensely personal combat.
The purpose of our mission was to attend my step-son’s hard earned graduation from Montana State University, Northern, in Havre, Montana. That’s pronounced with a soft a. Havre, The Jewel of the Hi-Line, is a series of large tractor dealerships, a Taco John’s, and a sprinkling of agricultural insurance companies. It was settled by Frenchmen. Naming the town involved fisticuffs, arrests, and no shortage of threats until five reasonable men selected by a questionable ballot were able to agree on Havre, after Le Havre, in France. It was formerly Blackfeet, Assiniboine, and Cree country.
The wind blows every day. Winters are unspeakably bad.
The University is a gem and reminded me of my own undergraduate days at the University of Nevada before Reno became a suburb of Vallejo, California. Red brick, a tidy campus, excellent professors, and a football stadium smaller than most high school stadiums in Texas. At MSU Northern they wrestle. Banners in the gymnasium declare they have been thrice National Champions in the oldest of Olympic sports. This made me happy because I am a wrestler and the sport became the foundation of my world view. When you lose, there is no one else to blame.
The commencement ceremony was short and to the point. It was a small class of graduates and full of natives. Native graduates decorated their headboards with beadwork and feathers and a Blackfeet man wore a full ceremonial headdress. The women decorated their gowns with bands of bright cloth at the hem. All of them wore moccasins with elaborate beadwork. In the row in front of us, the native women had made a bouquet of bills creased into flowers to give to their sister, mother, and auntie, who was graduating with a Masters Degree in education. When natives received their diplomas native women throughout the gym gave a shrill tremolo that sent chills corkscrewing down my spine. The woman sitting next to me, Roxanne Bighorn, was Lakota. Her husband was receiving his degree in education. He had always been a farmer. She gave a tremolo for all of the native graduates and loudest for her husband. Next to her was her father in law, but I didn’t catch his name. They live out toward Fort Peck and raise wheat, wheat germ, and peas. She received her degree from MSU Northern in Business Technology, which was the same degree my stepson was receiving. She sang for him too, which made me proud.
The commencement speech was given by an out of touch octogenarian Montana legislator who sells tractors and implements in Great Falls when he isn’t selling his vote to the highest bidder in Helena. He was 25 years off message even in northern Montana, but I admired the courage of his convictions. The damage done by the valorization of victimhood is probably most pronounced on university campuses and he was railing against it. He had me there. He lost me when he began stumping for an investment firm claiming 12% annual returns but the larger takeaway remains valuable. Don’t be a victim. Just please stop. And please stop telling me about all of your traumas. Go climb a rope.
Outside the gymnasium the wind was blowing. It was also raining. The sky was made of pewter. But inside they saved the best for last, an honor song performed by a group of Assiniboine and Cree men from the Rocky Boy reservation where a sign at the entrance—45 miles from Havre–promises that anyone can buy “native fireworks” any time of year inside a ruined tin shack leaning over to near collapse beside the highway. I removed my hat for the honor song as I had done for the posting of the colors and for the commencement prayer.
Roxanne Bighorn poked me in the arm when they were done. She said, “Thank you.” I said: “Yes ma’am.”
The Upstairs Bathroom
No visit to Great Falls would be complete without visiting the Charlie Russell Museum. Aside from the great satisfaction of seeing my stepson graduate—his road has been strewn with challenges that he has overcome in spectacular fashion—this was second on the list of mission objectives. So we went. For the day. Because it takes a day. It probably takes more, but we gave it what we had.
My greatest takeaway from the National Gallery in Washington D.C. was how impressive it is to stand in front of paintings you have seen in books and photos your entire life, and to absorb the true majesty without artifice. Standing before a Georgia O’Keefe, or Dali’s Melting Watches, may be something like getting punched by a prize-fighter. Taking that blow to the face may be the only way to understand and appreciate the true strength and skill of a professional. And so it was standing before a gallery of original Russells. Ian Tyson, and our own Jim Cornelius, sing beautifully of Charlie’s gift for capturing light, and the truth is in the work. Mesmerizing. Seductive. Knee-bending.
And to see paintings you have enjoyed since childhood displayed in front of you does something else, it warps both time and space. It is an instant infusion of the theory of relativity, where gravity bends both light and time, a kind of frisson at once extremely liberating and terribly confining.
The museum also had a display of Edward Curtis photographs, mostly of Blackfeet people, lining the walls of one wing. Curtis has been maligned by purists but they can go hang. He did the world a favor and made images that cannot be reproduced. Ever.
Outside and next door are Charlie’s house and studio. We toured both without escort, a thing that will probably change in our lifetimes. Thieves abound. Idiots are in abundance. But for our day it was just us, wandering in Charlie’s home, downstairs and up, guided by the signs. And it was upstairs where a small sign spoke of Charlie’s final day, where he awakened unable to breathe in the nearby bedroom, and stumbled into the bathroom while Nancy ran for help. And where he died.
Of course you try to think it back, to see it unfold. The house, so well preserved, almost requires that of you, and so you do. You take a deep breath. You open the mind’s eye. Knowing what happened in a place, precisely where you are standing, changes your ability to appreciate it. And so it suddenly personalizes, materializes, becomes a living thing. You imagine Charlie on the floor, just there, and wonder about your own death some day. What that day will look like. You beg the Great Spirit to spare your own wife the horror of that thing.
Please God, do not burden her with that thing, that terrifying, helpless, soul-splitting agony.
Mother’s Day at the Montana Club
There are buskers in downtown Great Falls, even in the wind. One morning we braved the prevailing gale for a short walk from our hotel—The Arvon—over to Traci’s. Buskers here and there. Traffic over the Missouri River bridges at 9th and 15th Streets. It wasn’t cold and I was grateful for that, but when you opened your mouth to talk the wind would whip up suddenly and carry the words down the street like an ill-fitting hat.
The line at Traci’s was considerable given the time of day. Worth it. I don’t generally wait in lines after traveling the world twice on US Navy warships, where waiting in line for chow happens thrice daily. For hours at a time. It ruins a guy for standing in lines. But we did here and it was worth it because at Traci’s they just go ahead and feed you some great chow and a lot of it. More than a person should eat who isn’t facing imminent privation.
On Mother’s Day we showed up early to The Montana Club, which is across the river from downtown, and across the street from an oil refinery. The air smells like the air in Santa Barbara, like petroleum, as if the breeze itself were a byproduct. In Santa Barbara it’s a natural thing, seepage from the channel, in Great Falls it’s off-gassing from the plant. Fuel costs the same in Great Falls as it does everywhere else.
We showed up early because we expected a crowd. We were right. There had been a bird nest over the front door to the Montana Club but in the opening hubbub, not nearly as violent as a Black Friday crush at Walmart, it crashed to the ground and was promptly stomped. An old man in front me said, “Well, at least you know what they are feeding you in here.” He meant it as a joke and I did laugh. But there had been eggs in the nest and the yolks were a smear on the concrete. That image stays with me.
Our server was a young lady with asthma, which I only know because she was wearing a red wristband that said ASTHMA, a kind of first-alert bracelet I presume. She was kind and talkative and 100 lbs overweight. I imagined any number of terrifying incidents of asthma in her life. Unable to breathe. Simply desperate for air. Like Charlie. The people who came in the Montana Club were dressed up to celebrate mothers. Men took their hats off at the table. Ladies wore dresses. It wasn’t a church crowd, even if it was a Sunday, because services were happening as we were eating.
It was just old America.
And it felt good. It felt so good I even ate my orange slices, which I never do.
My stepson gave my wife a silver necklace in the shape of mountain peaks. It was a wonderful gift and told me that many things have changed inside of him. I was proud of him for that, and for many reasons. I was more proud for my wife who has endured, as mothers do.
She still hasn’t taken it off.
There is a sign in Ft. Benton, Montana, suggesting that Ft. Benton may have been one of the most wild of the wild west towns of the age. It probably was. It is hard to imagine now, in this placid town with pleasant walking bridges across the Missouri and the incredibly resplendent Grand Union Hotel, the 50 or more steamboats stacked up in the channel, whorehouses, whiskey drunk traders and Indians, and ignorant soldiers from the Fort. And who can imagine what else. What jumped out at me on this particular sign was the assertion that one Madame Moustache went riverside with a pistol to prevent the offloading of a steamboat full of pestilence. It had particular resonance in our own enduring age of pestilence, but I doubt that face-diapers and mandates played any part in her thinking. A whorehouse with pestilent whores is not a great business model.
The oldest standing building in Montana is the blockhouse at Ft. Benton. The rest of the Fort has been rebuilt, and it does something swell for those of us who live in that weird kaleidoscope where history meets the present and the possible.
By 1865 the fur trade in Fort Benton was dead. In front of the fort now they have a replica fur press, where hides were squeezed into smaller packages. There is also a cannon, last fired at the battle of Antietam.
I still think I’m Sam Shepard. I’m not, but 30 years ago I picked up something he was putting down and he wrote his last book in the paralyzing throes of ALS and called it Spy of the First Person. That’s brass balls and manliness right up to the bitter and humiliating end. And if you’ve seen his portrayal of Chuck Yeager you know he was born to the role. Motel Chronicles. Cruising Paradise. Day Out of Days. Great Dream of Heaven. Far North. Silent Tongue. States of Shock. I could go on with a long list of excellence. We find our muses where we find them. We are chosen by a lodge society. We endure the initiations. We have our visions and build our medicine. Then we slap on the warpaint, dress our horses for war, and hit the trail.
And the Mighty Goddamn Missouri just keeps on rolling on, now full of strange fish the old Blackfeet never saw in their entire lives. Or even imagined existed. Except the paddlefish, that bizarre dinosaur, which they knew about.
I decided to pull into a scenic turnout south of Ft. Benton because it promised photographs and people who carry a camera hear a constantly nagging voice that everything they are looking at deserves a photograph. That voice isn’t wrong but like a rude houseguest sometimes it won’t stop talking. When the light is good it gets downright abusive.
We pulled in. Far to the east the Highwood Mountains were holding snow. The pewter skies had broken up into an armada of swiftly moving clouds whose shadows raced each other on the ground. Below the promontory the Missouri sluiced through a long bend. It was impossible not to imagine a party of Blackfeet watering their horses here, fringe and feathers turning on the breeze.
I climbed down the hill a bit and took photographs. Changed lenses. Took some more. Then I walked back up to the promontory. There was a man there talking to my wife and stepson, and perusing the historic markers cemented into the earth. I recognized him.
He was Roxanne Bighorn’s father in law, the man sitting next to us at the graduation. I said I thought I had seen him down at Ft. Benton, reading the signs there too. It was him. He said “I recognized your hat,” with a broad smile. We fell into a friendly conversation, about history, about the country. I mentioned I would have liked to have lived a bit in the old days. He said “Not me. I like turning a switch and having light. I like that propane heat.” He was more political than I am and forecasting doom. Jimmy Carter redux, combines that cost over a million dollars, perpetual drought, grasshoppers, Mexicans, wheat that may cost $42 a bushel come fall—up from $5. His name was Ray Smith and he told us he was a relative of Sitting Bull. When he said that I believed him. The jawline was unmistakable. He was wearing sunglasses but from the lenses down he was Sitting Bull. His father’s grandmother was a sister to the holy man, he said. Smith, he said, came from a relative named Doc Smith, who rode with Teddy Blue Abbott. “He’s in the book,” he said. He said he wanted to live in Florida so he could eat more seafood. He’d been to Silverton, Oregon, he said. Once.
When we shook hands he didn’t have a hand at all. It was a bear paw.
The Great Falls
We wanted to see the falls. They aren’t there anymore. There are dams. At Ryan Dam, where Lewis and Clark began their 19 mile, three week portage, there is a lovely park on an island in the river. You get there on a cable bridge that sways more than it ought to. People spill out of their cars wearing flip flops and basketball shorts. Little kids fall down and cry in the gravel. A dog wraps itself around a woman’s ankles on a leash as she discovers Little Pipsy isn’t allowed in the park.
Across the bridge a short hike brings you face to face with what used to be the falls. Ducks and geese live there. A dribble of water runs down the face of the dam. Lewis saw mist rising out of a crack in the ground he thought at first was smoke. And then he could hear them. And then he knew they were fucked. Clark measured the falls with a sextant. He was less than half a foot off of the official measurement with modern tools. They camped 200 yards downstream. There is no evidence of them at all.
We drove to Morony Dam, downstream. There are no falls here either, anymore. Together the two dams power as many as 90k homes. There are pelicans at Morony Dam and I watched them for a while, taking photographs. The wildness is gone out of the place, carried downriver to some other place. It has been painted safety orange with warnings about this hazard or that. “If you hear eight whistle blasts immediately evacuate,” says one sign. I wonder what to do if you hear just six whistle blasts. Or two. What if they meant to blow eight whistle blasts but the whistle blaster broke after the first one. Together with my tribe we decide that one whistle blast will be enough for us to sprint for higher ground. In one of the photographs I took there is a strange orb hovering in the frame. It is not a bird. It is not an airplane. I really don’t know what the hell it is.
An American Prayer
Our trip to the far north began in the rain. It rained through Oregon, Washington, Idaho, across the northern Rockies and well into Montana. In some places it rained hard enough to obscure the road entirely. North of Lake Coeur d’Alene it rained hard enough I thought briefly of pulling over to wait it out.
The bartender at the Grand Union in Ft. Benton was the wife of a wheat farmer. The winter wheat, she said, was looking good, but when we departed she asked us to pray for rain.
I said I would, and I meant it.
This country—and I mean everything west of the 100th Meridian, needs the rain, every drop of it. In his excellent book Mortality, Christopher Hitchens wrote: “The man who prays is the one who thinks that god has arranged matters all wrong, but who also thinks that he can instruct god how to put them right.” I’m not sure he’s got the spirit of prayer quite right, but he was dying and was never short on cynicism–even before his cells revolted. If I pray for a child suffering from cancer the plea isn’t selfish, or an instruction, it’s an ask, and from where I sit asking for help is a sign of humility rather than arrogance.
I find these days I am full of prayers. Something about the northern plains seems to have teased them out of me. Maybe it was the space, or the light, or the river, or the wind reaching into the corners of my imagination and animating something dormant in my soul. Maybe it was just the street buskers in Great Falls, strumming a prayer with their lyrics carried by the wind into the naked treetops. But I have them, and I offer them in the four directions. Sometimes in writing. Sometimes in photographs. Once, in a feature film. And sometimes in a mere whisper aimed at the changing sky.
I find myself praying all the time.
Maybe you have some prayers of your own. I hope you give them wings.
A drop of rain that falls into the Missouri River at Great Falls will travel 5267 miles into the Gulf of Mexico. You can trace that route here: https://river-runner.samlearner.com.