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A Yankee Notebook

July 8, 2013


McALLISTER, MT – I can never arrive in Bozeman and walk into the airport terminal without feeling an almost irresistible urge to burst into Kenny Rogers’ “You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me, Lucille.” The terminal is cowboy modern: plate glass, laminated roof timbers and posts, stone pilasters and floor. Here and there lounge men in cowboy clothes – sort of Johnny Cash with bling: blue or black denim; big silver belt buckles embossed with western motifs, boots with low walking heels, and big hats with what my old boss in Texas years ago used to call, derisively, a “King Ranch Roll.” (He wore a high-crowned straw hat, cooler in the Texas heat, and claimed that the stylish rolled brim, letting the sun strike the cheeks, guaranteed skin cancer on the “joles” in later life.) I try not to stare at these declarations of identity, and determine quickly that any open discussions of progressive trends in American society will be out of place in this setting.

The cowboys are, however, outnumbered in the terminal by fly fishermen, dozens of them. You can spot them easily, too, by their safari or Buzz-Off shirts with half a dozen pockets, and their rod cases. There’s a fairly well-defined social order here, too, exactly like what you experience as various expensive cars pull up to the valet parking at a country club dance. The tyros carry the original metal or hard plastic cases the rods came in, with the name of the maker – Orvis, Winston, Sage – proudly displayed. Good rods, the best; but so déclassé to proclaim it. Plus, the lovely cases sometimes get pretty banged up in transit.

Their social superiors have purchased “travel rods” that break down into fairly short segments and, nowadays, don’t compromise performance. They then purchase expensive rod-carrying luggage that slides easily into the overhead bin and sometimes matches their other bags. But they’re outclassed by far more experienced travelers, who make their own traveling cases out of PVC tubing with a screw cap at one end and the return address from their mailing labels taped to the outside. In the East, people usually ask if I’m carrying architectural prints; in the West, they know. If an especially credulous-looking person asks me, I tell her it’s a giant Cuban cigar.

The main problem with writing about traveling is that the writer often demonstrates perfectly the old story about the six blind men describing an elephant: As each of them touches a different part of the creature’s unusual anatomy, he comes up with a different answer: snake, rope, tree trunk. Who could see Montana in one week, especially when four days of it are spent floating down a river in a drift boat and looking mostly at the water for buggy and fishy activity? Nobody. Still, I’ve picked up quite a bit by talking to almost everybody I’ve encountered, looking out the truck window as Baird and I have traveled, asking questions, and reading bumper stickers and yard signs.

Yesterday morning we towed Baird’s Coleman camper trailer home from the river. On a long downhill on I-15 we passed the state capital, Helena. The dome of the Capitol stuck up from the surrounding city. I was surprised that, in a state whose motto is “Oro y Plata,” the dome wasn’t gilded, like New Hampshire’s and Vermont’s. Instead, just a dull gray. That state motto was chosen by a committee back in the 1860s, and reflects Montana’s origins as a source of precious metals. The committee considered the Spanish classier than just “Gold and Silver.”

The state bird is the western meadowlark, but I’ve yet to see one. Instead, magpies are everywhere, scrounging for anything edible. The other evening, after Baird had put the rubbish from under the camper sink into a pair of plastic shopping bags, I took them outside and laid them in the bed of the truck, hoping nothing would discover them. Dumb move. A little after four in the morning, half-asleep in the half-light, I half-heard a rough crawking about six feet from my open window. Baird heard it better than I did, went outside, and put the bags inside the truck. In the afternoon, sitting at the picnic table, we watched the magpies eyeing us, wondering if we were good for a couple of potato chips with onion dip.

In the afternoon Baird’s wife, Nancy, drove us over a pass through Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. We came out in the valley of the Ruby River and headed upstream to Virginia City, on Alder Gulch. Around 1860 gold was almost accidentally discovered in a rich placer deposit here by some prospectors trying to avoid an encounter with local native Americans. A boom town sprang up almost overnight. During the early ‘60s the miners, ignoring the war going on in the East, netted out about $10 million in gold each year, and became ever more mechanized.

Today, the ruins of a floating gold dredge rust amid miles of barren gravel spoil banks and mine tailings beside the creek. It’s fascinating to reflect on the activity that once enlivened the town, now diminished to about 190 year-round residents. But, to quote its own advertisements, the town has been frozen in time: old saloons and general stores, stagecoach rides, gift shops. It has the frantic, glamorous air of Lake Placid or Freeport, Maine, which also live for and by tourism.

We’ll be off to the airport in about an hour. With a good connection in Newark, and if I don’t tangle with a moose between Burlington and Montpelier, I should be home in Vermont by midnight. I’ll take with me the image of a tan-colored coyote scooting under a barb-wire fence, across the road at a dead run, and under the fence on the far side. In the field he’d come from, a small herd of pronghorns, mostly does and fawns, was feeding there. The boss of the herd, a sturdy buck, had spotted the predator and chased him away. Now he stood guard at the fence, intently watching the coyote disappear a quarter-mile away. I wished him and his lady friends a good year in the shadow of the lovely Rocky Mountains. I’m going back to the Greens.

Photo by Willem lange