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Saturday, August 30, 2008

Chapter 36 - "the last miles of Michigan"

I was awakened with jarring jolts to the left and right.  Doug was following a detour that was taking him through neighborhoods with potholes and roads under construction.  Plus the sun was starting to creep its way over the horizon waking the dawn.  Plus my stomach was starting the growl with hunger.  Plus I had to pee like a racehorse.  All these factors make staying asleep impossible, or at least unhealthy.

I told Doug that I needed a rest stop something fierce, so he pulled into a gas station.  We grabbed some breakfast, which consisted of apple fritters and gas station egg-n-cheese muffins and beef jerky.  It was horrible, but you’ll eat anything when you’re starving.  I wolfed it down and took over at the wheel.  I was amazed how awake I felt after just three hours of marginal sleep.  But it didn’t very much squinting as I stared into the eastern sun for my eyes to feel heavy and irritated.  The next two hours were probably the worst two hours of travel I had on this trip.  I fought my instincts with everything that was in me--slapping myself, pinching my armpits, rubbing my eyes, sticking my head out the window, listening to talk radio, eating whatever I could get my hands on—it was grueling and I was groveling by the end of my tour of duty.

Doug took over and I slept once more, grabbing an afternoon siesta catnap.  This nap proved to energize me for the remaining 14 hours we were on the road.  We drove through some beautiful farm country.  There were also a couple Indian reservations stocked with American bald eagles all over the place.  Two flew across the road in front of me at an altitude of about 20 feet.  It was jaw-dropping-awesome.

Another fascinating stretch of land was home to one of the biggest paper making factories in the world.  Piles of logs cut into 8 ft. chunks were piled about 60 ft. and would go on for miles.  It was impressive.  I always wondered were all our paper came from and why recycling is such a big deal.  Now I know.  It takes a lot of timber to make those clean, white sheets of paper we flippantly enjoy and mindlessly waste.  I don’t know, I just really enjoy seeing new things and participating in new life experiences.  Even if it’s just a northern paper corporation.

We made our way across Wisconsin and crossed into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  I thought to myself, “Yes!  We’re finally in Michigan.  It won’t be long now!  I can’t almost taste my wife’s kiss!”  For any who isn’t aware, that’s roughly still about 10-12 hours from Lowell, MI.  I felt my heart surging with excitement because it was the middle of the afternoon on Friday and I was picturing being home by the late evening.  Was I ever in for a surprise.

It took us almost 7-8 hours to cross through the U.P. to the famous Mackinaw Bridge.  It was no longer than any other 8-hour stretch; it just felt like forever because my mind was telling me we were almost there about every 5 minutes.  Everything feels longer when you’re counting the nanoseconds.

At about 10:30pm, we crossed the Mackinaw Bridge, which was incredible even though it was blacker than the aces of spades outside.  The lights on the bridge and the reflection off the water were gorgeous.  It seemed like we were on the bridge for close to 10 minutes—it just went on and on.

Before long, Doug pulled off an exit and I took over.  He was fading fast and needed some backup.  I was so tired I was becoming delirious, but I covered it so that Doug wouldn’t be alarmed.  If I wondered if I was seeing things back in the North Dakota, I hadn’t a doubt now.  Everything from dinosaurs to doughnuts were passing in front and running along side of me as I came down the last 3-hour home stretch toward Lowell.  Not even my excitement to be home was keeping the threadbare fabric of my body/soul/spirit awake.  I was hanging by a strand.

But then I saw it, the first sign indicating how many more miles it was to Lowell.  “Lowell -  32 miles”  I felt a rush of blood to my head and through my body, giving me the adrenaline I needed to make the final push.  With every turn I recognized more of the landscape.  The familiarity that was killing me only 5 days before was filling me now.   It’s funny how familiarity can either breed “contemption” or “redemption” depending on your soul’s need.   Redemption poured over me like rain over the arid Amazon cleansing and nourishing my drowsy spirit.  There is just something Edenic about coming home.

As I made the final turn onto Parnell Avenue and then turned left into my gravel driveway, my heart seized with nervousness as I anticipated seeing my wife for the first time in 5 days.  It’s amazing that after 12 years, she still takes my breath away.  I grabbed my belongings, gave Doug a quick hug, and headed toward my front porch.  By now my heart was pounding, pulsating into my temples.  I couldn't wait to see my wife and my three little girls.

Chapter 35 - "meeting a deer"

We decided to go home a different route than we came.  I’m not sure how we came to this decision, but I never remember questioning whether it was the right one.  It was two lanes for about a thousand of the sixteen hundred miles.  But because of the lack of traffic, it has little consequence in the long run.  Except for one minor detail—deer.

I’ve seen deer along side the road grazing in the peripheral glow of the headlights before.  I’ve seen a deer get struck by a car in front of me.  I’ve even hit a deer on one occasion.  But those random and spread out experiences could not have prepared me for the glut of deer all but asking to be hit on our trip home. 

Doug drove for the first 4 hours and then I took the wheel.  By that time it was nightfall and the deer were literally everywhere.  Doug made sure to let me know that I shouldn’t go any faster than 65mph so that if one ran in front of me, I had ample time to slow down or swerve around the creature with a signed death wish.  I took heed and for about an hour, I didn’t see any crossing the road.  They stayed off to the sides doing whatever deer do as they watch cars whiz by them.

I talked myself through a strategy of what I would do should one of these majestic beasts decide to play chicken with me.  We had quite a load on the flatbed, so I knew that it wouldn’t be in our best interest to do much swerving so as to not tip over or throw our load.  I came to the executive decision that I would hit my breaks and hope for the best.  Going slower certainly gave me a better shot at avoiding a collision with one of those dumb deer.  But I knew that if one popped out at just the right time, I would have little choice but to drill it.

Just as I was mulling over a my options, a deer bounded out almost as an instantaneous fulfillment of meditational prophecy.  I carried out my previously solidified plan of action to a “t”.  I hit the brakes firmly without slamming them, offered an abridged prayer to God, and proceeded to plow into him squarely.  It was a direct hit in the dead center of the bumper sending the poor thing flailing into the air toward the ditch.  I can’t imagine that it wasn’t death upon impact given the nature of our meeting.  I am guessing that even though I hit the brakes, I probably still hit him going 55mph or so. 

I came to a stop; Doug woke from his slumber, and I skittishly put the truck in reverse to look for the victim of this hostile encounter.  Sure enough, the deer lay ever so still off the cooling pavement.  We pulled the truck off to the shoulder and got out.  We wanted to look the truck and deer over to assess the damage.  The truck sustained minor injuries, while the dear was a mangled, tangled, lifeless mess.  Thankfully, he didn’t suffer at all.  He was in deer heaven faster than you could say, “look both ways before you cross”.    Even though I’m no animal rights activist, I certainly feel sad when I see them die.  I wonder if their family is watching from a distance shedding tears and hugging each other in a nearby field.

After a couple minutes of retelling the story, we hopped in the truck and resumed our trip.  I was way more cautious and paranoid at that point, almost hallucinating about deer crossing the road even when none were around.  It’s crazy the tricks your mind plays when you’re tried, it’s dark, and you’ve just witnessed something semi-traumatic.

One good thing is that it kept me awake for almost 5 hours of good night driving giving Doug a longer stretch of sleep.  But at about 5 hours, I was dying to climb into the extended cab and get some shuteye.  We were still about 22 hours away…which felt like an eternity. 

As I laid my head down and found an in-the-ballpark comfort, I dozed off and dreamt of deer--large deer with fangs seething with bitterness.  It wasn’t the most restful sleep, but at four in the morning, you take what you can get.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Chapter 34 - "talking to a dog"

After a less that comely night of pseudo-sleep in that ramshackle of a residence, we forced ourselves out of bed and out of doors to our last day in the glorious State of Montana.  I could kind of relate to Billy Joel when he wrote the line, “I’m in a New York state of mind.”  I felt like I was in a Montana state of being.  Relaxed, almost dormant.  Sort of like my Mac in sleep mode.  Calm and strangely unwound.

We, once and for all, packed our belongings in the truck.  I left my pillow and blanket in the motel room.  It was somewhat accidental, somewhat intentional.   I know this because initially I realized I had forgotten my bedding when we were about to pull out of the parking lot.  (making it accidental)  But as I sat there musing about whether to go and get it, I couldn’t bring myself to take 35 seconds and retrieve it.  (making it intentional)  When your linens are exposes to the things mine had been the last several days, they quickly move into the realm of disposable.  When bedclothes aren’t worth more than 35 seconds of time, it’s time to let them give up the ghost, be buried in a dumpster on the outskirts of town, and hauled off to a landfill somewhere out of human sight.  I decidedly and gladly offered them up to the fabric gods that morning.  I can’t say as I struggled with the decision.

We headed through town toward the garage.  I was hoping to see the truck transformed and sitting outside ready to be swapped and driven east.  There was no red truck in the parking lot.  Maybe it’s in the garage ready to be backed out. I found myself talking to myself in my head.  When I participate in schizophrenic self-talk, this usually means my psyche has a strong inclination--maybe obsession would better describe it.  I couldn’t wait to be on the road home.  Ok, I was dying to go home.  I said it.

As we opened the door to the office, it didn’t take long to get the status of the project.  As they shared how far they had gotten and what still needed to take place, it became clear that we weren’t going anywhere for quite some time.  They were reticent to declare a time when the job would wrap up making my emotions as loose and open-ended as diarrhea.

I won’t bore you with the details of the next 9 hours, namely, because they are as boring as any 9 successive hours I’ve ever lived.  I sat around, paced around, played with knickknacks and went back and forth from the lobby to the garage about 745 times.  Time was crawling along at a snail's pace.  I was tired and restless. 

One of the best encounters in that abyss of time was an interaction with a man who stopped in with his dog.  He was indigenous to the town and a Montana lifer.  We would be talking normally as humans and he would seamlessly involve his dog in our dialogue, making it a trialogue of sorts.  I would look at the dog almost wondering if he would comment or inject a snide remark, but he just sat their looking at his deranged owner.  Fortunately the owner had learned/taught himself to talk for his dog.  It was like ventriloquism in a strange way, only with a live cross-bred mutt.  I found myself talking to the dog just to make the trialogue less awkward.  “It’s a hot one out there isn’t it, boy!”  The dog starred at me as if to say, “I’m a dog, stupid!  Don’t let my owner influence you to talk to me like I understand anything you’re saying.  I’m a dog.  I bark, poop on well manicured lawns, pee on fire hydrants and juniper shrubs, scratch back doors to get out of the rain, eat scraps from the table, and sleep away almost 22 of 24 hours each and every day.  The rest of the time I’m following around my dufuss owner who won’t stop talking to me and for me.  So If you don’t mind, talk amongst yourselves and quit involving me in your boring conversation as if I care.  I don’t.  I’m a dog.  A hairy, smelling dog.” 

Needless to say, the encounter was quite queer.  The whole time I just sat there thinking, “I’m actually talking to a guy who thinks his dog is a human.”  But it wasn’t surprising; Montana is a place that is so remote and unpopulated that talking to dogs wouldn’t be seen as out of the ordinary.  That’s part of what I was going to miss about the place.

He left and was I left alone again to manage my growing restive tension.  I would have rather watched paint dry. 

Finally, at 7:00pm that night, the truck was done and ready to go.  We packed the old truck-bed on the new flatbed and packed it with our belongings.  Everything was strapped down tightly.  We said our goodbyes and began our 32-hour trip back to Michigan.  I wasn’t looking forward to traveling through the night, but like it or not, that was our lot, and we were going to have to bite the bullet and make the best of it.

It felt so good to be moving east.  So very good.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Chapter 33 - "Guantanamo"

Like aromatherapy, the fragrance of conversation and community started working its way into our psycho-system.  Flushing out sorrow; fleshing out meaning.  I’m telling you…community is the cure for almost anything that ails you in life.  It’s the medicinal remedy, the God-ordained vaccine injected into the underworld of the inner man.  Nothing gets to the heart faster than kinship. (a good movie comes in close 2nd)

We said our goodbyes and headed to the neighboring town where Doug’s truck was undergoing extensive remodeling.  It was supposed to be done by the following morning so that we could get on the road, homesick and homebound.  Even with the ingestion of ineffable beauty, I was missing the most beautiful thing in my life, my family.  The encounter at the bar only stirred up my desire for some of the relationships that I had left behind in Michigan.  Thoughts of getting home were starting to crowd out all other thoughts. 

As we pulled into the neighboring town, we began a search for a cheap hotel to bed down our carcasses for the night.  I was dying for a soft bed, a warm shower and quilted toilet paper.  The amenities of life that I’d gone without were beckoning.  It was late at night and my body was exhausted from the wanderlust.  My eyes were peeled for any kind of restful establishment.

But this town didn’t possess a hotel, only motels.  Little dives kept alive by dirty truckers and desperate tourists.  I’m not sure what the ratings were for these places, but I’m not sure they would have passed with half a star.  The first place we stopped was an inn with a house for an office.  There were no lights on and the signage wasn’t illuminated, so we weren’t sure it was even in business any more.  Doug dismounted from the truck and rang a doorbell.  I felt like we were knocking on the door of a random house asking them if we could rent a room for the night.  I couldn’t even look forward I was so embarrassed and unnerved by the experience.  My memory is a bit foggy, but I think someone came to the door in a nighty and told us that the only room available was a double bed.  I could think of worse scenarios to be subjected to, but they all take place in Guantanamo.  Let’s put it this way, I just wasn’t going to spoon with Doug on our last night in Montana.  Some people wouldn’t have any problem with that; I’m not one of them at this point in my life.

We declined the offer as enticing as it was and ventured down the road to the next dilapidated lodge.  There were a couple lights on in the parking lot and the office sign was flickering like you would see in any blockbuster horror film.  Doug again put his life at risk and ventured toward the front office.  Another rudely awakened slumlord came out the front door and pointed to a room at the top of a rickety deck on the second story.  There were only 2 second-story rooms and this was one of them.  At this point, I didn’t care what they were like so long as Doug and I slept in separate beds. 

We agreed to stay and grabbed our stuff out of the truck to haul up the stairs to our 1 star arrangement.  As we walked in, the odor of must and mothballs literally made my throat tighten leading to a choking reflex.  It was dank and the colors screamed late 70’s.  I was looking for cockroaches in the corners and bats in the belfry.  I’m not sure what you have to do to pass the state’s requirements to get a permit for lodging, but it must not be very stringent based on the condition of this charming chalet.  But at this point, I didn’t care, I just needed my own bed…and after about 5 seconds, I spotted it in the back corner. 

It didn’t take me more than a minute to set up camp and slip into the bathroom for a warm shower.  I was hoping they had running hot water.  As I turned the handle toward hot, I held my hand under the flow feeling for a change in temperature.  After about what seemed like a minute, I felt the first droplets of warmth.  Slowly the water became warm and eventually escalated to scalding hot!  I was naked in no time and standing under the heavenly beads of boiling H2O for what seemed like an eternity.  I stood there until the hot water ran out.  Bliss.

I dried off, wrote in my journal, watched some cable television, and fell fast asleep.  By this time my nose had adjusted to the black mold and exposed asbestos hanging from the water stained ceiling.  What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, right?  I hope so.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Chapter 32 - "bar-church"

I think I’ve made mention of this fact, but just in case you’re wondering, these bars of which I speak are not a city-slickers club, they aren’t joints filled with degenerate drunks picking fights and peeing themselves in public.  No, these are more like community hubs where husbands and wives go together to meet up with friends for a beer and a story.  There is laughter, celebration of life, applauding, hugs of friendship, invitations to dinner, inquiries into your background and family lineage…you know, a little bit of what I imagine church is supposed to be like minus the offering plate and altar call.  It’s a refuge of relationships sharing each other’s burdens and accomplishments.  Like I said, church, without the distraction of the building.

We walked into the place and were greeted with a sea of smiles and gobs of good will.  People were offering to buy drinks for us left and right wanting us to take a load off and sit down for some spirited convo’.   I’m a conversationalist by nature, so this was just my kind of environment.  We were fortunate enough to sit with a rancher who owned only God knows how much land—something to the tune of a hundred and some odd thousand acres—and countless cattle.  He and his wife were in there 80’s, but no worse for the wear based on the way they carried themselves in this setting.  They were telling stories like the craft of storytelling was the only mode of transferring news.  It was a glorious thing to see people gather around each other and listen attentively as someone cleared their throat and started the next story. 

The aforementioned 80-year-old rancher, who is nothing less than legendary in this small town, did a whole lot of the talking.   He had a permanent smile on his face and he filled in almost every slot that would normally be occupied by a clever noun with the word “sonsabitches”.   Whether he was describing fence posts or pig roasts or wedding toasts, that was his ubiquitous pronoun.   I got so that I just took the liberty to insert my own discretionary filler pronoun.  It was literary fun.

The bar we were at had pictures of this guy with his brothers pushing cattle with horses back in the 1930’s…thousands of them at a time.  The hats, the spurs, the ropes, the boots, the chaps…he was the land’s legend and this town’s pride and joy.  You could tell he loved his life and his wife.  He spoke so highly of her and his family.  He had a special affection for his community and for the people that crammed into that saloon that evening.  He listened to Doug as he shared about selling his property and his eyes became thin with hurt.  He told Doug that he hated seeing the land go to “do-gooders” and “tree-huggers”.  People who had money but very little emotional currency-connection.  People who saw the land only for investment purposes, but didn’t care about its hallowed history.  People who never mingled with the lowlife locals and could give a rat’s rear about the state of Montana or the current state of the idyllic village of Augusta.  These are the people that are snatching up land…and they aren’t viewed too fondly.  They were unaffectionately referred to as “sonsabitches” by this legend.  I sort of got his point.

We talked and talked.  I told him where I came from and he was particularly interested in my All-American college soccer days.  He asked about my family and the conversation fluidly flowed back and forth, one subject cracking open another rabbit hole to be explored. 

I was pounding down root beers like a champ getting drunk on western tradition and small town conversation.  I’ve found that I don’t need alcohol to get drunk.  I’m buzzin’ any time I get a picture of heaven on earth.  I’m high when people will sit still in a conversation, ask questions, listen actively, without give off vibes like they need to on their way.  Most of the time in conversation I feel as though I’m in a chess match with a little timer forcing me to move every 15 seconds else I’m penalized.  There’s this unspoken timer than makes you feel like you have to be fast, funny and fine-tuned or people lose interest and check out mid-sentence.  Not in Montana…there’s no place to go, nothing else to do but sit there for as long as it takes for you to spit out what’s on your heart.  I like that.

Sometimes you have to go to a bar to see the church.

Chapter 31 - "the funeral of finality"

There are few things more powerful than men when they cry.  I’m not speaking of basket cases or nutcases who shed a tear while watching Sense and Sensibility, I’m talking about men who function with delicate strength that aren’t afraid to break down over something truly admirable.  This is quite beautiful.

We pulled away from the cabin in silence.  Stone silence.  The only sound was the hum of the diesel engine making the dashboard buzz like there was a quarter caught in the ashtray.  It was a reverent epoch of time passing in slow motion.  I would glance over at Doug sheepishly, curious as to his reaction to this unnatural abortion.  I could tell he was being racked inside, questioning this decision to sell this piece of hallowed ground and yet knowing that it must be done. 

As we coasted down the first hill and wove our way through the valleys, the silence was deafening.  I felt like I wanted to say something, but everything that came to the tip of my tongue seemed out of place, like a tit on a boar, as my grandpa used to say.  So I held my tongue as well as my breath.

We came to the entrance to his property, a homemade gateway constructed of huge logs.  It arched over the entrance just like you’d see on any old western movie bearing the name OLIN proudly as a custom mark of ownership.  I imagined the whole thing being torn down in the days to come when the new owner came in with his bulldozers and brownnosers to modify and modernize the joint (can you tell I’m not just a little bitter at this man I’ve never met).  I imagined all the unique attributes being discarded like a buggered tissue.  My heart was feeling the weight of it all as well, but nothing like the torture Dough was experiencing.  His was akin to emotional crucifixion.

He climbed out of the truck to close the gate behind us, once and for all.  I tried to keep my eyes looking ahead, but occasionally I was looking in the rearview mirror to catch a glimpse of Doug.  He was leaning against the weathered timber gate…the one that he made with his own two hands.  The one that for years welcomed he and his family to West as with open arms.  The one that stood as an iconic symbol of his ownership.  He lingered there for a few minutes before turning toward the truck.

As he climbed in the front seat, his suppressed emotions broke loose like a dam opened in the spring.  He wept for the love of this land.  He moaned like a man mourning the death of loved one.  He buried his aged face into his callused hands and shed tears like a little boy that scrapped his knee riding his bike.  It was painful to watch; it was beautiful to be a part of.  I cherished those moments and felt a sense of honor in sharing that event with Doug.  I placed my hand on his shoulder and entered into his sorrow the best I could as a man who had only made love to this property for three days.  Imagine feeling a oneness for decades of your life and then being rent in two.  This is what I witnessed as I laid my hand on his shoulder and cried with him.  I said nothing so as to honor the gravity of this occasion.

When he regained composure and wiped his eyes to recover vision, he ground the gears into first and pulled the clutch leaving behind his beloved cabin and the land it represented.  Tears continued to pour down his face dripping off his chin like a leaky Sears faucet.   He broke the silence by saying something about how painful it was to do this, how much it broke his heart.  I nodded as he continued venting at what can only be described as funereal.  As a pastor, my bedside manners have been honed over the years and I knew to zip my lip and let him talk about yesteryears and the memories that were surfacing in his heart like an allergic rash.  He talked for the next 20 minutes trying to explain out loud the logic of this decision.  I think he needed to hear himself talk through his rationale for selling the property again.  I’d heard it before, but it was critical that we mull over it again for peace of mind and strength of heart.

We headed to Augusta one last time to hang with the locals at the saloon.  He wanted to take me there to introduce me to the local ranchers who convene there to tell stories to each other, old ones and new ones.

Doug needed this; it was going to be cathartic and therapeutic for his besieged soul.  He needed a beer; I needed a root beer.  Any questions?

Chapter 30 - "the fish whisperer"

With the role-playing going on in my head, I could just about feel my heart beating in my throat.  Seriously.  There were times when I felt transported into the mid-1800’s with the weight of the world resting on my boney shoulders.  I heard the famished screams of my children dying for sustenance, relying on my rod and reel to fill their now, bloating bellies.

It must have been my third or fourth cast before I felt my first nibble—its was more like a tiny tug.  Because of my jaded perspective toward fishing, I wrote it off as a typical snag on a river rock.  I couldn’t bring myself to believe that fish were really in this river quite yet.  I would believe it when I saw it.

I’m not sure how many casts it took until I felt my line tighten and my pole bend over like a palm tree in a hurricane, but it couldn’t have been more than ten.  I still was fighting off a knee-jerk expectation of pulling in an old man’s leather boot.  It was simply impossible for my psyche to believe that I had a fish on the other end of my line.  But it wasn’t long before my denial was eclipsed with delight as I fought this wild wiggler to shore.  I was panicked that I would lose it just as I was landing it.  The guys kept telling me to keep tension on the line, something about fish knowing how to free themselves from the hook given a second to do so.  So I obsessed with making sure I didn’t let that fish have a smidgen of slack to work his mercurial magic.

I was spastic/ecstatic as I reeled this water dweller to the river’s edge.  My nostrils were flaring, I was giggling like a schoolgirl, my buddies were hooting in the background, I was hyperventilating with a joy on steroids.  It was epic.   The fish flopped around for a while trying to get used to something other than liquid oxygen.  I waited patiently for him/her to settle down before I grabbed him/her (I don’t know how to tell fish apart from each other due to their confusing sexual similarities) by the mouth and held him/her high in the air as a timeless trophy of triumph.  I squealed and wheezed and sniggered with a shotgun giggle that is actually quite embarrassing to look back upon.  Many moments of my life are laced with a less-than-masculine responses uncharacteristic to my normal patterns of behavior.  I would almost argue that unless you are taken to the borders of emotional emasculation, you aren’t living close enough to the edge and are woefully taking up too much space on this planet.  But maybe this is just to justify my girly responses to certain situations.

Guss gave me a pat on the back, we took and picture and he proceeded to take a branch and craft a makeshift stringer to keep the fish fresh and perky.  I let him whittle and pare this wild branch while I baited my hook and eagerly resumed my posture on the shoreline as a master angler.  There’s something about getting that first catch under your belt that unleashes the relaxed confidence of a horse whisperer.  I felt like I became a fish whisperer in the last 5 minutes and I think the fish could feel this sort of repose.  “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” – Proverbs  And I thought I was a fisherman now, so I was…and the fish knew it.  They gave themselves over to my power and prowess willingly from that time forward.

I caught two more brown trout in the next 14 minutes bringing the count up to 3, plenty enough for my mock family back at the cabin (in my head) and for the real, live gentlemen who actually were fishing with me that day.  What made this fishing expedition all the more satisfying was that Guss didn’t catch one fish the whole 30 minutes we were out, I did all the catching.   I don’t know if he was purposely letting me feel like I was the breadwinner--like a dad letting his son beat him at checkers--but I’m not letting my mind go there.  That would completely change how this whole event would go down in the annals of our family antiquity. 

We put the fish on the rough, but ready stringer forged by the hands of the Montana Mountain-man himself, Guss, carried them like luggage to the truck, hauled them across the wild prairie to the secluded cabin, stoked a blazing fire in the wood stove, melted butter as batter in the frying pans and proudly fried those fish for dinner that evening.  I can’t begin to describe the celestial taste of fresh caught trout cooked in the wild country, but accept my wordlessness as testament in itself.  Sometimes words only get in the way of moments like these. 

As we smacked our lips and licked the butter off our plates, we starting picking up the cabin and packing Doug’s possessions into the truck.  Eating fish around the wood stove would be the last shared moment on Doug’s soon-to-be-sold property.  Somehow, it seemed like the perfect last communion with the cabin.  A holy hush started settling upon us as we grabbed the last of our luggage and locked the door behind us. 

It was a solemn moment for Doug.  I gave him his space as he walked around and had his last moments with the land that he had come to love so dearly.  I climbed in the truck and left him to himself.  I was tearing up as I watched his heart being torn apart from this cabin that he worked so hard to build. 

The moments that followed were as holy as any I’ve experienced in my whole life.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Kami has her own blog!!!

hey...another intermission to alert you to a very important announcement.

My daughter, Kami, has her own blog!!!

You can check it out at: www.kamiholdridge.blogspot.com

I'm very proud of her...she is quite the writer for a 9 yr. old.

Read and weep!

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Chapter 29 - "I'm a role-playa'"

Worms.  We needed worms.  And there was only one place to get them.  The General Store.   The same place where I was loaned a perfectly shredded pair of long johns.  The same place we shopped for stew, soft baked cookies and coffee.  The same place that you would go to if you wanted anything from handguns to handsoap.  Anything from leather chaps to topographical maps.  Canned beans to Wrangler jeans.  This place is like no other.  A wonderland of gadgets and widgets, knickknacks and flapjacks, memorabilia and paraphernalia.  Its unique culture is ineffable.

But we needed worms, and my friends at the local General Store did not disappoint.  We asked for two dozen, and two dozen we received.  At the check out line, somehow we started talking about the spiking prices of grain and the owner of the store unexpectedly let a concealed cat out of a proverbial bag.  He informed us that he had 20,000 dollars of grain left over from last year.  The clincher was that last year it was only worth about 3, 000 dollars.  You could see the “I’m-a-little-kid-in-a-candy-shop” smile fill his wrinkled face.  Almost like he had outwitted the crop market by his own sheer prophetic instinct.  Really, he just got lucky.  Either way, whether by luck or by pluck, he was a holly jolly old man eager to cash in on his ingenious procrastination.

I grabbed the Styrofoam cup holding our slimy, squirmy fishing enticements and headed out the door to the borrowed Chevy truck.  Guss was already in his truck poised to lead us to the serious angler’s nirvana.  We put the nose of our truck up the butt of his, and followed him about 25 minutes to this obscure section of the Sun River.  It was a location the Indians used to run Buffalo off of cliffs in order to harvest their furry coat and lean meat.  Thousands of buffalo would mindlessly be driven off a 70 foot cliff down into a stony gorge that served as a slaughterhouse and a graveyard all in one.  It was in this shallow canyon that the river deepened and created dark holes/homes for hearty brown trout wanting to be caught by neophytes like myself.  The water was ice cold and aqua green because of the spring algae being stirred up by the melted winter’s snowfall. 

The section of river we were fishing was tucked in a serpentine ravine surrounded by red rock face and desert-like brush growing out of the side of shale-layered cliffs.  It was romantically gorgeous too-good-to-be-true moment in my life that I will never forget.  There were moments when the beauty would so overwhelm me that I would catch myself in a zoned meditation staring off into the blurry cross-eyed distance, entranced…enchanted.  I would snap back into reality, or whatever you call it.  I wonder which is the deeper reality, or the deeper magic as C.S. Lewis calls it.

Guss gave me a 5-minute crash course workshop in trout fishing and then put a pole in my hand.  I stood there with the pole in my hand half doubting whether I was ready yet to cast my line in and provoke these gloriously intelligent fish into biting my bluff.  I watched him cast a few times, put the worm on exactly like he showed me, and then performed my first cast. 

To quickly contextualize this moment, you must know that I’ve been invited to fish on several occasions with promises of innumerable fish being caught only to spend countless hours essentially “watching paint dry” in disappointed boredom.  I’ve often wondered if I’m beleaguered under a fishing curse and have cautioned inviting parties to be forewarned of my historical effect on fishing expeditions.  Forewarned is forearmed, so they say.

So this fishing trip, though promising a hearty catch, was being attacked by my psyche something fierce.  Even so, I decided to up the ante by imagining myself in the olden days, as my daughter refers to them, needing to catch fish in order to feed my starving family back at the homestead.  It was this role-playing that intensified the experience causing my heart to race with a self-imposed expectation that if I didn’t catch anything, my family would die the death of starvation.  I felt my masculinity kick into overdrive, and my pulse quickened under the weight of that mock-responsibility I imagined upon myself.

I can’t believe I just let it out that I’m an in-the-closet role-playa’.

I just found it adds a shimmer to an already pretty good shine.

Chapter 28 - "smalltown smalltalk"

Unbeknownst to me, the place where Doug’s truck was getting a facelift, rather, a buttlift, (since it is, technically the bed of the truck having extensive cosmetic surgery) was an airplane hanger/welding pole barn/helicopter storage/heavy equipment repair garage/whatever-you-could-imagine-having-to-do-with-raw-steel epicenter. 

We walked into the lobby and were greeted with hugs and handshakes and high-fives.  Doug had a history with the owners of this operation and they started swapping old stories and inquiring about each other’s relatives.  After about 25 minutes of hospitable conversation, we moved to the garage to talk to the mechanics about the truck and the installation of the heavy flatbed. 

There were a couple of Indians, a couple of callus-covered Montana lifers indigenous to that region, and a few family members hired on to keep things in the family.  It seemed like a relaxed place to work for the most part, even though the type of work was labor-intensive and quite specialized.  We stood around and talked for a couple hours about everything from oil-drilling to the dying Montana economy to helicopter crop dusting.  I didn’t have much to contribute to the conversation, but I was enjoying the backdrop quite nicely…it was a welcomed change of pace from the conversationalist my life back home expects me to be.  The role reversal was refreshing.

Eventually, our stomachs were growling like guard dogs.  We decided to appease them by hitting a local diner in town.  We swapped trucks with the owner and made our way into the heart of the quaint village.  It didn’t take long to find a greasy spoon.  And before you could say, “Jack Black” we were scarfing down the classic American lunch…a cheeseburger, some fries, a pickle and a coke.  I think I chewed, but I was hungry enough that it wouldn’t surprise me if someone told me I missed that step in my zeal.  I was nothing short of ravenous.

We made small talk with a waitress just before scooting out the door and returning to the garage.  After about another hour of chewing the fat with the guys who would be working on the truck, we decided to push off and head back to the cabin.  We had talked to one of Doug’s friends, Guss, about taking us fishing. 

Guss was a 65 years old Augusta local who took tourists on Elk hunts, trout excursions and various expeditions into the dangerous terrain of the inner Rockies.  He also has had several of his pictures published in National Geographic putting him a select league of photographers.  There are stories of him lowering himself in a basket over a rock face in the dark of night next to an eagle’s nest just to get a one in a million picture of eaglets being fed by their hunting parents at the break of dawn.  He has a genuine love for the land and the creatures that inhabit it.  He is a nature purist, often going out of his way to make sure his interactions with creation are unadulterated and honorable.  He’s a deeply devout naturalist and prides himself in treating Montana land with reverence.  Like never before, I’m all about that environmental conscientiousness.  There is something Edenic about this sort of care for creation.   I resonate with that kind of heart.

Upon returning to Augusta, we found Guss and talked about the idea of fishing.  I could tell by the way his eye’s lit up that we were in for a good time.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Chapter 27 - "big gulps of life"

We set off down a remote road slinking along the base of the Rockies heading north.  It looked as if no one had traversed on it for years, making it all the more exciting.  It followed along side the man-made canal that stretched for countless miles carrying much needed water to the open plains for summer irrigation.  It wasn’t as extraordinary as the Great Wall of China for sure, but it was a human feat, nonetheless, that moved you to pay homage to the years of dedicated and well-executed labor.   Though the channels were dry, it wouldn’t be long before they would be filled with life-giving water for millions of acres of farmland.  Without this critical commodity, farming would be limited to a small slice of land along the foothills of the fertile mountains.

As we slowly made our way down this gravel road, I kept my eyes peeled for any signs of wild sheep.  As I’ve said before, deer were as bountiful as evergreens, so I was forming a familiarity that bred contempt for those creatures.  But my heart was poised to catch a vision of those rare and glorious keepers of the crags.  It wasn’t 15 minutes into our trip before Doug eyed a younger lamb balancing himself effortlessly on a thin ledge.   We stopped and got out of the truck to take a picture.  When we opened our doors, he hopped from one rock to another trying to distance himself from us.  After several bounds, he came to a stop and stared at us as still as a statue.  As I was taking several pictures, I noticed in my peripheral a bunch of white blotches off to my right.  There was a moment of movement that caught my eye or I wouldn’t have detected them.  It was a flock of them looking at us with the staid eyes of a watchmen warrior. 

They were huge, much larger than I imagined them to be in real life.  The males were sporting their ram horns with pride and poise.  The females were much smaller and noticeably shyer than their virile counterparts.  Everything inside of me wanted to count to 3 and then run toward them with shouts of barbarian aggression wondering what would happen.  Part of me imagined them being quite timid, fleeing recklessly into the bush, while another part of me wondered if the unusually large ones would snicker and then charge me with a “sheepish” grin on there face reveling in the opportunity to “rock me like a hurricane”.  It’s funny what you imagine inside your head as you’re taking in life with big gulps.

I decided to just stand there and leave them be.  A good choice as I think back upon that memory.  As we stared each other down, eventually the sheep began to graze and move about the rock face precipice with graceful equilibrium.  It’s funny to think that the same God who put the instinct in me to push a diesel truck up a slight incline, put the innate capability in these sheep to scamper about on this rock face like it was community playground.  Their death-defying movements almost made me nervous and yet they looked to be right at home being one misstep away from a broken neck.  It’s awesome really.

As we continued north we spooked up an eagle perched upon the lip of it’s nest.  As it flew away, its wingspan was that of a small prop plane catching wind right before lifting off the hardened clay runway.  It only had to flap it’s wings a few times before it soared with the cross wind.  Eagles don’t soar like any other bird I’ve ever seen.  Turkey buzzards, vultures, and hawks are like farm team third stringers compared to the modish elegance and humble strength of the eagle in flight.  I was hoping to see one up close and by the time I lifted off we were only 20 feet from it’s nest.  Yet another ineffaceable moment etched into my heart’s journal.  I was beginning to worry that I would become callused to the miraculous if I kept having these “pinch me” experiences without enough time passing between them.

After about a half and hour, we moved out of the foothills and into cattle country.  I’ve never seen so many cows.  Countless cattle on boundless land.  We snaked our way around property lines until we finally made it to our destination.  It took us a little over an hour, when if we would have taken the straight shot, we could have been there in 20 minutes.  But the long way proved to be the best way, it typically is.  As we pulled into the mechanic garage/airport hanger, I was looking forward to meeting some new characters in this story that was unfolding. 

This day was only just beginning to get good.

Chapter 26 - "stuck truck"

I about popped a blood vessel in my forehead pushing the truck out of the driveway.  Granted, I had help from my buddy, but we were in over our heads with this one.  Fortunately, when God wove us together as humans, he equipped us with some mechanism that is triggered in emergency situations that gives us the strength of Popeye on spinach.  I’m no anatomist, but it’s quite fascinating to possess a body that has that sort of dormant gear that kicks in under duress.  Unnatural.

We finally got the truck pushed out of the driveway as far as our feeble legs could go.  It was time to get on the backside of the truck and push it over the hill.  Mind you, the hill we were pushing it down was filled with rodent holes, monolithic boulders, and ruts deeper than an average ditch.  So we weren’t out of the woods even if the jump-start-idea was realized.  It was fathomable that the truck would fall apart somewhere between the hilltop, the hilldrop and the hillstop…in fact, I was almost expecting it knowing the lay of the land.  But desperation makes you do asinine stuff, so we tapped into the last of our energy reserves and as I pushed my brains out, Doug hopped into the pickup, closed the door, and prepared for what can only be described as an off-roading purist’s dream drop. 

As I gave my final shove and stood back to watch the moments to follow, I gauged the trajectory of the vehicle and wondered whether that would be the last time I ever saw Doug alive.  The truck was bouncing off the ground picking up speed with every second.  I could tell that he was trying to pop the clutch every now and then because blue smoke was billowing out of the tailpipe.  While he was doing that, he was dodging prairie-dog holes and 8-ton boulders making his mission dicey to say the least.  It was clear that the engine was reticent to fire and the closer he got to the bottom of the hill, the more my heart started to race with fear.  It was a cornucopia of different fears all squeezed together.  A fear of Doug’s looming death eclipsed with a fear of my impeding survival trip across the wild West in search of life shrouded by a fear of my own ignorance due to my lack of experience in anything even remotely close to danger. 

But my fear was replaced with euphoria when I heard the engine fire and rev as Doug finally recovered power steering and veered left toward the driveway leading up to the cabin.  He raced the engine to ensure that it wouldn’t stall leaving us dejected in the fetal position next to a rat’s nest of forming sagebrush.  As the truck made its way back up to where I was standing, my legs began to give way to the shock that was wearing off.  In a moment, they turned to a dense form of jelly leaving me dizzy and queasy concurrently.  I felt as though I would collapse in a heap of weakness if I didn’t get a drink of water or a shot of steroids from a local physician.  The meshing of excitement and exhaustion was the stuff of adventure periodicals.

Needless to say, we kept the truck running as we packed it up to have a flatbed makeover that afternoon.  I was excited because we were going to take the long way through the mountains via a one-lane dirt road.  This dirt road was notorious for giving tourists an up close and personal peek at some wild mountain sheep…you know, the ones with those big coiled horns that are used to fight off other males wanting to have relations with their wooly women.  I couldn’t wait to see them with my own eyes.  As one form of adrenaline was wearing off, another one was kicking in right behind it.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Chapter 25 - "Into the Wild"

It was a long night of sleep…or rather; it was another long night of no sleep.  But at some point, sleep becomes superfluous.  It felt like my body was refueling through other artificial supplementation.  Just as I was starting to feel my body getting so tired that I couldn’t help but sleep, the dawn was upon us inviting us into a new day.  My brain was telling my body to get out of bed and go to the bathroom, but after crossing a certain threshold of sleep deprivation, peeing yourself doesn’t seem all that out of the question if it means laying in bed for another 15 minutes.  I just lay there wondering if my need for sleep could overcome the pain of suppressed urine.  Sleep won.

On this morning, we were slated to take Doug’s truck over to a welder who was going to replace his factory bed with a flatbed.   Something about it being more conducive for his excavation business back home.  Our plan was to take his truck over there and leave it overnight.  The owner of that shop was gracious enough to let Doug take his beat down Chevy until his truck was finished.  That was our plan.

But life doesn’t always go according to plan.  Ok, it rarely goes according to our meticulous plans.  And this morning was no exception.  As we started packing the things into the back of the truck for the 45-minute trip to the neighboring town, Doug hoped in to start the truck.  He turned it over and for some unknown reason it just wouldn’t fire.  He tried and tried to no avail.

We popped the hood and tried spraying everything from hairspray to lighter fluid into the carburetor to trick it into thinking it was ok.  Futile.  We let it sit for 15 minutes thinking it could be flooded.  We waited in vain.  With every attempt to start the truck, the battery was slowly dying.  Doug was visibly disturbed.  I was feeling my heart tightening with the onset of preliminary panic.  Nothing was working. 

Here we were 9 miles from the nearest cabin and 20 miles from town with no telephone, no alternate means of transportation, and insufficient clothing to walk across the prairie against 45 mile an hour wind (though my holey long johns served the best they could as valiant windbreakers).  It was beginning to look like I was going to be taking Doug’s handgun and heading out across the plains looking for human life to help us in our time of dire need.   I had just finished reading the book, Into the Wild, so a picture of Christopher McCandless frozen solid in the Alaskan wilderness was filling my suburban mind.  I have to tell you that for the first time in my life, I felt a flight or fight instinct kick in, and it was all over hiking 9 miles across the prairie in search for rescue.  It showed me how tame and spineless I really am, though I do own a scooter and daily brave the harrowing highways of Michigan with the pluck of William Wallace.  Other than that, my life is quite domesticated; it requires little to no risk to survive.  I didn’t know that until I sat there mentally preparing myself to head out into the unknown with a little stick and a survival sack hanging off the end of it.

Just when we thought we had exhausted all options, Doug wondered out loud whether we could push the truck over the hill hoping the jump-start it.  This seemed unlikely because we would have to push the truck backwards out of the fenced-in area up a slight incline.  I’m not God’s gift of muscle to the world, and Doug, though more build than I, is well beyond his prime at the ripe age of 62.  But when your life depends on it, it’s amazing what the body can perform under pressure.  Adrenaline was starting to course through my veins as I envisioned myself as one of those muscle bound professionals on the ESPN Strong Man's Competition pushing Greyhound buses or lifting large Redwood trees above their heads for no apparent reason.  I could feel certain caverns of my masculinity coming to life for the first time.  I was being born again as a man.

We opened the doors, turned the wheels so that we headed for the opening in the fence, and grabbed a hold of whatever provided the best grip leading to the best traction against the odds.  On the count of three we pushed and pulled and yanked and yelled and twisted and turned.  Every muscle in our bodies tightened and torqued with a violence that only the West calls out of a man.  My body quivered and shook in a borderline shock.  I couldn’t believe this was happening. 

Chapter 24 - "mannawood"

After we had our fill of the wild, we made our way back to the truck.  Our stomachs were telling us that it was chow time and we needed to collect firewood down by the river before the sun set behind the mountain range. 

Our firewood was dead driftwood carried from deep within the Rockies left high on the rivers edge from the burgeoning waters of the early spring thaw.  This driftwood is almost white, debarked and naturally kilned by the mix of prairie wind and summer sunshine.   Collecting firewood felt like we were harvesting manna left delicately by God.  It lay there on the ground perfectly prepared for a woodstove, dry and broken into 12-16 inch pieces by the violent current smashing them into stubborn rocks acting as sledge hammers.  It wouldn’t take but 10 minutes to have the truck full of flawless firewood.  Manna, indeed!

We decided that after we collected our one and only source of energy that evening, we would try our hand at fishing.  We didn’t have the best equipment and we certainly didn’t know what areas of the river were teeming with hungry fish dying for a tasty metal fishing lure.  But if you know anything about a rookie’s crapshoot, you know that the possibility of luck can make you do some pretty outlandish things.   So we casted into the fast moving water hoping to hook a trout for dinner. 

I know less than nothing about fishing, and even less than that about fishing fresh, cold, western rivers with a spinner for brown trout.  I do, however, know enough to know that you don’t just take a worm and a bobber out there and expect to catch anything more than flack from seasoned fisherman and a good cold.  But I was banking on humanistic luck or otherworldly providence…it just felt like something that God would make happen just so that he could laugh really hard if nothing else.

After about 30 minutes my hands were so cold I couldn’t even feel the reel anymore, and when it came time to pull weeds off my lure, I lost the nerve endings necessary to perform such a task.  I would end up hooking my own finger and not feeling it.  The only thing that let me know that I hooked my own digit was the blood flowing down my wrist.  So I opted to pack up the pole and call it a day.  Doug was making his way to the truck as well, so I guess this wasn’t going to be the day for a “fish story”.  Dang.

We made our way back to the cabin and stoked the stove.  It took an hour for my hands to thaw, and along the way to that thawing there were moments of sharp stinging and throbbing pain that made me want to cry out as with the pangs of childbirth, not that I know what that sort of thing feels like.

We cooked some food and ate next to a lamp in the dark.  The sunset left behind a reddish hue glowing along the edges of the mountain range.  There is something so surreal about watching the day die off leaving you with no option but to go to bed.  We didn’t have much lamp oil, so we couldn’t afford to deplete that.  At roughly 9:30pm we climbed into bed and lay there listening the howling wind whistling just outside the rattling windows.  I couldn’t sleep even though I was well beyond Webster’s definition of “tired”.  I just lay there rehearsing the events of the day, reliving the ones that I didn’t want to end.  I also wondered about the days to come.  Time was going fast and slow all at the same time.  Every moment lingered leaving indelible impressions that would never be forgotten.  And yet moments were whisking by like blurry yellow lines on a two-lane road telling you that you’re free to pass that slowpoke in front of you.  I remember trying to count those blurry yellow lines when I was a kid.  My face was pressed up against the cold glass window as my eyes darted back and forth trying to keep up.  My eye muscles would hurt after a while because they weren’t made to do that.  I would fall behind after about 14 if dad was going faster than 60mph.

It felt like I couldn’t keep up with all that I was experiencing, and yet it felt like I was living in slow motion just the same.  It’s this sort of phenomenon that lets you know you’re living.